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

Good interview of Michael Joyce at The Literary Platform. (

MJ: The main opportunities, as the above suggests, are collaborative; the main challenges are, as always, finding an audience in the midst of the maelstrom of seemingly ubiquitous, often ridiculous,  work spewed forth by media conglomerates, would-be prospects for media conglomerate buy-outs, and such. The question is to find the living tissue, the live wires, and connect them.

(Why is an interview with Michael Joyce headed with a photo of Amaranth Borsuk?)

Nov 14 24 2014

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

National Book Award nominee, featuring a front-cover blurb by Erin Morgenstern, author of the estimable The Night Circus.

This is the story of the end of civilization and what came after. It’s a pandemic flu, but that’s not the point: the point is the people who keep going, and where they go.

Planetary romance is the a problem for all Armageddons; if civilization becomes the central character of the story, then the story becomes simple a pathetic deathbed scene or, if life marches on, a hospital melodrama. Here, Mandel uses avant-garde fragmentation to straightforward and evocative narrative effect: frequent time shift and changing points of view leave us in little doubt with regard to the Great Questions of whether civilization is saved and whether everyone is wiped out, and this leaves us space to build a moving novel of small achievements and small (but pressing) desires amidst the universal wreckage.

Randi Harper (@freebsdgirl) has been getting death threats.

A staggering number of men that I know and respect have spoken to me privately, apologizing because they didn’t know this was happening. I’ve related those conversations to other women, and they were shocked. They didn’t understand how men could not see these problems.

When I was a doctoral candidate in chemistry, about half of my fellow candidates were women. A little less than half – we weren’t there yet, but we were getting close.

When I was getting started in Hypertext research, about half of the top researchers were women. A little less than half – we weren’t there yet, but clearly many of the top people in the field were women. Two of the first three Hypertext program chairs were women, and program chair was the seat of power. Another of that crew has since been president of the ACM and has been knighted.

Throughout my career, my perception has been that about half my colleagues were women. A little less than 50%, perhaps, but we were still getting there. I don’t teach and I don’t spend time in universities, but naturally I do try to know the top grad students and best young scholars in my field, and it’s been clear throughout that more than half have been women.

It’s also clear that I’ve been fooled by a statistical illusion. Enrollments in physical sciences are roughly what they were, enrollments in medical school have remained roughly the same, but the proportion of women in computer science is way down. I’m not seeing this because I’m not seeing a sample: the average student doesn’t come to my attention. I’m only likely to notice the best – the ones who not only publish papers as students, but the ones who publish good papers as students, the ones who are already near the top of the field before they leave school.

And I had no idea of the venom that could be directed – not just by crazed zealots but by supposedly neutral and sensible Wikipedians – against women in computing generally, and specifically against one particular woman who may once have romanced a reporter. She’s an adult, she can have dinner with whomever she likes. But the Wikipedia pictures and headlines must name her and shame her (Allegations Against ___), and we must discuss at endless length, over and over, just what she might have done and whether anyone anywhere has said that it was wrong, because a campaign of GamerGate supporters is ever-vigilant for any way to condemn her and women like her, which is to say women in computing.

And then, an editor – a Wikimedia admin! – writes about this specific woman that:

I know other other allegations exist but will not state what those on WP are because that would be a BLP violation at the current time.

and

We need to be aware that there are other things the proGg side would like WP to say but we are nowhere close to having any sources

Holy McCarthy! In my view, no one can honorably assist an enterprise that condones this.

So, yes, GamerGate has been an eye opener.

A reminder of why I won't be missing Wikipedia.

AVONO: And this [225] could possibly constitute slander.

ME:

I wrote there that Christina Sommers is

A prominent right-wing supporter of

The Gamergate Conspiracy. I said

It there and on this page I here

Repeat those words and hurl defiance at

Your feet. And WTF?

AVONO: I would advise Markbernstein to immediately retract that statement.

ME:

That she is prominent is clear: she has

A wiki page, so she is notable.

That she’s right-wing may lack some nuance, but

You know, she is employed By AEI,

A famous think tank, right wing as they come.

Regarding her support of Gamergate,

I do agree the case is tenuous

And oft before I’ve urged she be removed

From Gamergate’s own page, but there my pleas

Have been rejected ’cause her photo shows

That some young woman somewhere does support

Some aspect of this sad and tawdry plot.

AVONO: Oh. I’m German: I thought “right-wing” meant “Fascist.” It must be a cultural thing. Never mind.

ME:

Dude!

Meanwhile, some of the Gamergate folk have figured out who’s behind the nefarious Wikipedia account MarkBernstein, perhaps because it says so on my (former) Wikipedia home page, or perhaps by using the Google. Either way, my twitter feed and mailbox this morning will doubtless bring some special joys. As you see here, I haven’t been up to looking.

A Wikipedia admin is trying to help whitewash the GamerGate article, which is currently critical of the effort to threaten women in the video game industry with rape and murder. He argues (with respect to the Vivian James cartoon) that

one static image cannot readily imply rape

This will probably surprise my readers who are art historians or semioticians, as well as the shades of Picasso, Goya, Rubens, Bernini, and plenty of others.

Besides, he says, the underlying meme was just a “locker room joke.”

Meanwhile, another editor (whose screen name is Japanese) was denounced yesterday as “Shlomo Sheckelstein” and instructed to go back to editing articles about Israeli homosexuals. On 8chan, they’re talk about that editor sitting in his room and counting his “Jew gold.”

What a charming bunch of volunteers! In Wikipedia, I guess you can accomplish great things with the aid of a rogue administrator. How in pursuit of The Wiki Way did we come to this?

Tell me again about the wisdom of crowds, and how the net routes around damage, and how this will end well? It’s been a lousy week: I need a bubbe meisse.

This War Of Mine, a new game game by Grzegorz Miechowski. examines war from the viewpoint of the people caught in the middle. It’s set in a world like WW2 Warsaw, a half-ruined city in which desperate civilians scramble for food, shelter, for anything that can help them manage a few more days.

This War Of Mine

This might have been a simple romp or a power fantasy, but it’s not. You start in a house with three guys, each with distinct personality and talents. New helpers can arrive with their own talents, and those talents are realistically useful or otherwise. I’ve had a mathematician and a high school principal – splendid folks and good company, but these are not the skills we chiefly need right now. Choices have consequences and the consequences are deep: you can steal stuff, but it makes you feel pretty awful; you can hide from the armed gangs who are threatening people who have nothing to do with you, but you’ll always wonder if there was something you should have done.

Onboarding is not this game’s strength. To preserve the morality of the game, it’s hard to save your progress, to back up and erase your mistakes. That’s perhaps the right answer, but it makes things less fun.

Perhaps that’s part of the point.

Revolution 60 by Brianna Wu is an intriguing hyperfiction performed as an animated film. A tactical team of four (very talented) operatives have been called in to deal with a hijacked space station, working in the service of a AI overseer. Holiday, the player character, is a motorcycle-riding combat specialist. She’s teamed with Valentina, advised by tech-savvy Amelia, managed by a manipulative suit named Minuete, and opposed by a conspiracy we don’t understand.

Revolution 60

A good time is had by all.

In formal terms, this is a fairly conventional branching hypertext in which decisions accrete tendencies or stats, and the accumulated stats ultimately determine the ending. That this works at all rests on two piers. First, we’ve got a team of four women whose interactions with each other are complexly nuanced, and the stats play nicely into shifting professional alliances and attitudes. Should Holiday behave “professionally” or should she let her violent roguishness show? Should Holiday flatter management, or should she align herself with her technically-adept peer? These are not melodramatic morality tales, but intriguing choices with consequences, taking us back to the question at the beginning of literary hypertext, “Do you want to hear about it?and the opportunity to answer, “No.”

Second, we’re not simply telling a gender-switched story (as in Hunger Games, which is to say Robin Hood) or a familiar quest tale that happens to have a female protagonist: we’re actually exploring (fairly) real depictions of office behavior in contemporary business culture, extended to an epic stage. When push comes to shove, should you support your manager, who claims to have special knowledge, or the new girl from MIT, who claims to have a different kind of special knowledge? In the last analysis, you’re unlikely to achieve an ideal fantasy outcome: what shortfalls can you accept? And whom will you sacrifice to get where you want to be?

I’m not sure this is entirely successful as a game or a sustainable model for hyperfiction. But it doesn’t have to be: it’s $4 and it takes a couple of hours. (There’s plenty of replay value – hypertexts demand rereading – so no worries there.) Enjoy it for what it is, and look forward to the next adventure.

Nov 14 17 2014

In Real Life

by Jen Wang and Cory Doctorow

A suburban teenage girl goes online, joins a Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game, and discovers that there’s a big and complicated world out there. Before she’s finished, she’s a key figure in a new Chinese labor movement. A power fantasy for a new age, but a good time is had by all.

Amid much Gamergate foolishness swirling at Wikipedia and elsewhere, I’ve been thinking of ways to re/mediate Gamergate.

When you have a hammer, everything problem looks like a nail. When you have narratology, every problem looks like a plot device.

But seriously: one problem here is narrative: the conflict concerns who is to be the protagonist of this melodrama. And if that were the only conflict – if this were all a game without consequences – that would be dandy.

But what if it weren’t a melodrama? How about a nice Shakespearean comedy: Much Ado About Games, with Zoe Quinn as Hero and Brianna Wu as Beatrice? Or, after A Day At The Races and A Night At The Opera we could have A Midnight At 8chan. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Gamergate PR operation has always been worthy of the Three Stooges with the Marx Brothers thrown in for good measure.

Or how about music theater? I can see a big, serious musical here, something like Oklahoma! or – better – Carousel. As I recall, Carousel has two choruses: New England villagers and Carnival Workers. We could have two choruses too: a chorus of feminist game developers and a chorus of “gamers”.

Stonecutters cut it on stone

Woodpeckers peck it on wood

There's nothin' so bad for a studio as

A gamer who thinks he's good!

It won’t stand up to scrutiny, of course, but what’s the use of wondering? And I like the potential for a gender-switched Soliloquy:

Like a tree she'll grow with her head held high

And her feet planted firm on the ground

And you won't see nobody dare to try to mansplain or toss her around!

As you see, I’m in a rotten mood, but This War Of Mine, a new game game by Grzegorz Miechowski about surviving as a refugee in a place that might be Warsaw in World War 2 promises a light little change of pace.

Nov 14 16 2014

Parties

One of the things I disliked about my early work in picosecond photoacoustic spectroscopy was that, when strangers asked me “what do you do?”, there was no good answer. Either you were self-deprecating, which is a bore, or you try to explain to people, which is annoying, or you oversimplify, which is pretentious. Or you try to find a polite way to say “you wouldn’t understand,” but there is no such way, and so you mutter to yourself that “they aren’t going to understand” and it’s usually true but nobody’s better off.

Nowadays I make software for writers and researchers, software that helps people write articles and books, manage research, plan departments, make investments, design new stuff. But I find that people increasingly assume that all software pretty much exists already and that working on it now is like ditch digging or assembly line work, work that nobody would do unless they had no choice at all. Anyway, all software comes with your computer, except perhaps for those 99¢ app things we don’t let the kids buy.

Maybe I need to find better parties.

Brent Simmons builds the case against else – specifically, the awkwardness of commenting out the else{} clause without fouling up your brackets.

There’s a deeper case we should mention: radical simplification of conditionals. In the old days, nested conditionals were a dime a dozen, and we all learned to build (and debug) trees of if statements nested three our four deep.

We don’t do that anymore.

In fact, lots of people argue that a conditional is too complex if (a) either clause has more than one line, or (b) it has an else{} clause at all. Instead of an else clause:

if(mill()) { 
 drill); } 
else { 
 fill(); }  

we now write a guard:

if (mill()) {
 drill();
 return; }
fill();

Or, if you should never drill if milling fails, move the test to drill()

bool drill() {
 if (!mill()) return false;
  drillSelf();
 return true;
 }

And now you’ve got a simpler guard:

if (!drill()) return;
fill();

In this view, else is a mild code smell.

by Robert A. Caro

Volume IV of this masterful series covers Johnson’s failed campaign for the presidential nomination in 1960, the many miseries of his vice presidency, and the sudden, terrible transition to the presidency that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that forever transformed the country. Caro’s sources are manifold and his methods scrupulous, which often lands him with a technical problem: there’s so much evidence, and that evidence is so good and so various, that is becomes a challenge to remember why we are reviewing this evidence in the first place. The result is sometimes repetitious, but the story bears repeating.

Nov 14 10 2014

Fame

This is Phil Fish: a case study in internet celebrity. Twenty minutes long, but outstanding craft and a thoughtful argument.

In the GamerGate/RequiresHate/Trolling muddle, I’ve finally learned how to block people in Twitter. This is a good thing to know, as it helps one’s inner light. I’m taking a Twitter Vacation anyway, but blocking helps.

In drafting Bad Faith, I needed at one point to paraphrase a Twitter message from a distinguished colleague whom I had blocked – someone who has accomplished a lot (I don’t recall that we’ve met) and with whom I’d like to have amicably professional relations despite this disagreement. So I googled her twitter handle and mine, figuring that I’d find the tweet in question, check it, and no problem.

Except I got a small hunk of the timeline, and a little ways upstream, after I’d blocked, there was a tweet about race that I’d very much rather not have seen. It was very mild, as things go; Requires Hate would laugh at it as a useless and pitiful thing. And as soon as I saw it, I started telling myself stories: “it might not concern you at all”, “yeah, it’s probably another argument entirely,” “angry people say stuff they don’t mean,” “maybe it’s not quite beyond the pale,” “maybe there’s some prior history.”

Memo for files: never, ever, peer under stones from which you’ve undertaken to avert your gaze.

Stacey Mason, too, is about ready to abandon hope. She offers a general guide on how to argue responsibly.

After months now of particularly draining online discussions conducted in bad faith I find myself lately ready to give up on the Internet.

Meanwhile, I gather some people were baffled by my remarks about knowledge hoarding.

If you know a lead reference that I should know, great: tell me what it is, and give me some idea of how to approach it.… It’s the basic obligation of the scientist: if you know something a colleague needs to know, you succinctly direct your colleague in the right direction.

In school, we learn lessons about deportment and manners and ethics, about sharing your toys and using your fork and doing your own work. As we approach questions of professional ethics and behavior, the instruction becomes more subtle. Some people ignore the lesson at each stage, of course, but I think sometimes people simply don’t receive the required instruction.

I raised a similar question a few years ago about conferences. When you attend a conference, I was taught that any other attendee is entitled to a share of your courteous attention; even (and perhaps especially) young people, students, unattractive people, and people who are unlikely to be of any immediate use to you. Lots of folks thought this absurd and weren’t shy of saying so.

In the sciences, you must never run around shouting, “I know something you don’t know, and I’m not going to tell you!” This is always bad manners, and if you persist it’s also a crime. The whole enterprise of science — that is, Science as an institution — rests on dissemination of knowledge: if you know that someone is making an error, believing a falsehood, or overlooking a vital facet of their problem, you cannot sit there silently. You can’t ignore it because it’s politically inconvenient, or because you like the other person, or because they’ll be angry with you. (If you’re not sure, that’s a gray area, but one must never pretend to be unsure.)

The needs of the proverbial Engineer are a litmus test here. If Professor Jane is making a mistake and you know it and remain silent, and someone designs a bridge that collapses because they relied on Prof. Jane’s result, you are greatly to blame. That you could not have expected this to relate to a bridge is no excuse, nor is the failure of bridges to have been invented when you failed to mention the error. The victims – your victims – will not excuse you because you didn’t actually know someone would someday build that bridge.

There’s also the milder but still stringent claim that the shared pursuit of knowledge imposes. Chaucer famously pins this in his 13th century Professor:

And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.

The point here is not that teaching is a pleasant hobby or a remunerative and comfortable way to earn a nice salary; the point is that getting and sharing knowledge is reciprocal. Everything depends on this: if you have people hoarding knowledge, they aren’t scientists and they aren’t colleagues. They’re mystic wizards in their tower, the allies of myth and superstition and, for all the fun we have with tales of swords and sorcery, they’re always the Enemy.

This obligation is not universal, though I believe the world would be improved were it more broadly felt. We exempt artists because, often, they cannot share what they know. If you ask a chemist, “how did you make that cyclooctatetraene,” she can and should tell you, but we understand that asking Scott Prior, “How did you make Nanny and Rose?” or ask Jo Walton “how did you make Among Others?” the answer is bound to be very partial and inadequate. We also accept that in some walks of life, untruths, exaggerations, and deceptions are more or less acceptable. Politics ain’t beanbag, but when we’re doing research, these are crimes.

And, of course there are limits: life is short, people are busy. A reference or citation to the pertinent work is sufficient, and requires only seconds. If you cannot think of a reference — not even a lead reference — then you don’t know what you claim you know.

If you can provide a reference, and won’t? That’s a misdemeanor. It’s not a terrible crime, precisely, because you can remedy it so easily. And it’s the sort of lapse where your friends can (and should) rush in, covering your lapse and repairing your fault. “I think — correct me if I’m wrong — Mark is thinking of that paper from Chicago, by Perkins and Snodgrass. Or something like that.”

It happens. I’ve probably done it too. But it’s not something to be proud of.

I’ve received a certain amount of email on anonymity and trolls. People have written lots of articles and a few papers — hell, I did a keynote almost a decade ago and I didn’t start the fire — and while a number of correspondents sent interesting discussions of edge cases and boundary conditions, for which much thanks, there’s nothing resembling a persuasive counter-argument in my inbox, much left a disproof. And at this point I’ve heard from some pretty impressive scholars.)

Nov 14 8 2014

Responsibilities

Some people on Twitter were upset by my piece on Trolls, concerned that I was unfamiliar with the literature. Unfortunately, the literature on the topic is broad and shallow: there’s a lot to read, and a great deal of it is very poor.

There is every likelihood that I have overlooked some critical research. I’ve read a ton of Web Science, a good deal of Wiki research, and a lot of the early Weblog research; this topic has been discussed in all of these. I’m familiar with the Hypertext Research literature, which touches this as well. I've been program chair for ACM WebSci and ACM WikiSym and twice for ACM Hypertext, for which I’ve typically read all the accepted papers and the rejects. I’ve read a fair bit by people who don’t publish in these places: Corey Doctorow is one obvious contributor.

But important material pertinent to the topic can appear in all sorts of places I’d miss anything that appeared in law reviews, philosophical monographs, or cryptography workshops. Aaron, whose birthday would have been today, might well have written something important on the topic and stashed it in a white paper in the backroom of some obscure Harvard site. That happens.

Consider: a decent respect to the opinions of mankind. If you know a lead reference that I should know, great: tell me what it is, and give me some idea of how to approach it. Over the years, I’ve done this hundreds of times — perhaps thousands of times. Sometimes the person asking is a famous writer or a distinguished professor, and sometimes they’re a graduate student, and sometimes they’re 14 years old and have an idea for a novel they want to publish and can you help them? It’s the basic obligation of the scientist: if you know something a colleague needs to know, you succinctly direct your colleague in the right direction.

Standing on the Twitter corner and shouting "You’re ignorant but I’m busy” betrays the principles of collegiality and of Science.


Sources for Trolls?

Partly, I’m rehashing my 2005 Blogtalk Downunder argument and adding a specific straw man proposal because otherwise it’s just handwringing. After GamerGate and RequiresHate, the time for handwringing is past.

Partly, I’ve thought long and hard about Stacey Mason’s GamerGate responses, temperate and otherwise. Don’t dismiss these as superficial castings of plagues on both houses: Mason’s arguments are deeper and more courageous than they first appear.

Partly, it’s What I Learned At Swarthmore. You had to be there, but if you weren’t, you might start with the work of Jane Addams and her circle, and reflect on Quaker leadership of Abolition.

Partly, it’s Emerson’s Self-Reliance mediated through Roosevelt’s Fear God and Take Your Own Part and Mamet’s True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor: “Stand up, speak out, and stay out of school.”

Also: a small mountain of Web Science papers on coordination of revolutionary movements (and their suppression) in Egypt, Syria, Libya, China, and elsewhere; Tilmann Altenberg’s intriguing but (in my opinion) wrong-headed study of Jorn Barger; and a good deal of Wikipedia policy discussion with pseudonymous colleagues, some of whom are knowledgeable and thoughtful. And let’s also remember Jorn Barger, Kali Tal, Nirelan, Devorguilla, Director, and all the other skilled trolls I’ve met.


Anonymous internet publication should be legal, safe, and rare.

“Morbus Iff” asserts out that doxxing can break anonymity. We now know, as we did not when I wrote in 2005, that a persistent anonymous identity can potentially be revealed through its social graph, allowing even an honest escrow to be circumvented. I bet this can be addressed, even for persistent identities, by keeping your own friends away from your pseudonym, but I’m not sure we need persistent identities. If the pseudonym is short-lived or seldom used, I can’t see how doxxing is feasible without evading escrow.

It may be necessary in some circumstances to stand anonymously athwart history and yell “Stop!”, but if you need to make it a lifestyle, it may be that you’re doing it wrong.


My foundation here is responsibility. The problem with trolls is that they are irresponsible: they can do great damage, yet suffer no consequences. That this is wrong is a proposition on which most (though not all) of us can agree. That this is inexpedient is now, I think, unmistakably clear. A troll has single-handedly torn a swath through SF/F, one that will take years to repair and which as irrevocably damaged the lives of many artists. A small group of trolls has tied gaming in knots and is causing untold harm.

This has got to stop.

Nov 14 7 2014

Trolls

Laura J. Mixon has written a monumental study of one specific troll who has plagued the SF/F writing community for years, a study remarkable for its depth and thoroughness and titled A Report on Damage Done by One Individual Under Several Names. One writer, chiefly known as “Requires Hate” but frequently blogging under other names, has waged a bitter net war against writers she despises, writers who she thinks are racist, sexist, colonialist, and worse. Her denunciations were violent and bitter, prolonged, and intemperate; she wished people ill, she wished them dead, she followed them to other forums and across Twitter. She wrote to conventions to convince them to disinvite speakers, and wrote to publishers to shame them for publishing racist and sexist work. She reduced many writers to tears and inspired at least one suicide attempt.

Kathryn Cramer touched on this:

Over the past five years, women with established careers in the science fiction field have been treated like they are cheap, plentiful, and easily replaced; disposable as light bulbs. And this treatment has come mostly at the hands of other women.

Interestingly, it is now clear that most of the targets of Requires Hate were young women of color.


This chronicle of intemperate and unrelenting attacks, aimed at driving people out of their chosen field, will remind readers of GamerGate. If you’ve been in New Media for a long time, you’ll also remember trolls who wrecked our early communities: Jorn Barger’s demolition of alt.hypertext (and so much else), and Kali Tal’s destruction of the TechnoCulture list.


It’s not that hard to fix this.

  1. Anonymous writing should be the exception, not the norm. Write under your own name. Require people writing on your site to write under their own names.
  2. When people write anonymously, a link to their real name should be held in escrow. That escrow may be secure – I think it can even be secure against law enforcement – but it should not be inconsequential. There should be several competing registrars, as with internet domains.
  3. Registrars may offer a variety of disclosure policies. One might be, “Your identity will remain as secret as we can make it.” Another might be, “Your identity will remain secret until and unless we have reason to believe that your life, or the life of another person, is in danger and disclosing your identity could be of material benefit.” You might be permitted to nominate a delegate with a limited power to authorize disclosure. (I know of a blogger whose weblog has a locked post, with instructions to the ISP to release that file if they are kidnapped or murdered.)
  4. I suggest that your first pseudonym have nominal cost, the next costs US$1000, and the next after that costs $10,000. So, even if you have a sock puppet or two, you’ll treat them responsibly.
  5. Children are entitled to their first pseudonym on their 13th birthday, and can receive a free replacement on turning 18 (or 21). Childrens’ pseudonym’s have the same privacy as adult pseudonyms, but can be identified as belonging to a minor.

But we also need to understand that the bitter steel of righteous wrath must not be deployed casually. People should have denounced Requires Hate ten years ago; it's one thing to be against racism but it's quite another to be unkind, and while some of Requires Hate’s points may have been worth considering, nobody ever thought they were meant kindly.

Just as, while one can sympathize in principle with the threat perceived by #GamerGate, it’s obvious that the expression was contemptible.

Trolls

Up with this we cannot put. And it’s not just semi-literate redneck ravings. It used to be just fine for Faulkner to write this:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances…

But of course, what Faulkner was saying here in 1948 is that there was this wonderful moment when you could own people, and when the fight to own people had not yet been lost – when it might still be won. He’s looking back to the moment when the entire South was a safe space for men of a certain kind, and for a time when “every Southern boy fourteen years old” did not include black boys of any age.


Speaking of Brianna Wu, her Revolution 60 is an interesting (and well-written) hypertext fiction.


The best thing you can do for your weblog, web site, tumblr, or social media page is to disable comments. I said that in 2005, and it’s still true.

by Stephen King

The contemporary school story ends with the dissolution of the school, and Stephen King here kicks off a remarkable career with the loving demolition of the school, the schoolchildren, and an entire town. It’s a direct and straightforward book, a simple book really; I wonder whether anyone knew, holding the manuscript back in 1973, what a sensation this would become.

At last, I’ve come to the end of Season 3 and the end of High School. And, once more, the school story ends – as the contemporary school story does – not (only) with graduation but also with the dissolution of the school.

Oct 14 30 2014

How To Roast

by Michael Ruhlman

Conventional food writing assumes that, aside from “serious” cooks, people simply want cooking to be fast, easy, and (if possible) nutritious. Take-out food is ideal fast and easy and could be nutritious: why cook? Lots of people don’t cook much: Ruhlman wants to change that.

What Ruhlman argues in his superb Twenty is that even serious cooking isn’t terribly hard or mysterious. There are a bundle of techniques — Ruhlman counts twenty — to master, and a bundle of ingredients one might acquire from your market. Match those ingredients with the techniques and you’re pretty well set.

Another way to put this is: you don’t need recipes. The core techniques give a dish a basic structure; once you've got that structure, you can do just about anything. This has also been Sally Schneider’s indispensable message: once you’ve got a general idea, you can do wonders with variations. For example, vinaigrette+anchovy+garlic+cheese makes a caesar salad, a bagna cauda, a stuffed artichoke, or a tasty roast mackerel.

Twenty is a dandy book, but it’s a big brick, and people who Don’t Cook don’t need another big brick. How To Roast takes one technique, gives people permission to try it, and shows a small spectrum of variations. You’ve got roast chicken, roast beef, roast cauliflower, roast peaches. You can roast in a roasting pan, you can roast in a skillet, you can roast on your charcoal grill. You can even roast in butter in your Le Creuset, which is as close as you can get to not roasting at all, but it’s poêlé and transgressive so let’s give it a try. (Ruhlman doesn’t talk about it, but you can roast in your toaster oven, too.)

One thing that set the wonderful Making Of A Chef apart, and that distinguishes the very best of Ruhlman’s food writing, is his flair for character, for Erica whose roux caught fire and for angry fellow-student Adam, the working man who hopes someday to open a restaurant/gallery/performance space. There’s not enough scope for character here in How To Roast, or for drama, other than the shadowy partner with whom we can enjoy an hour’s frolic while the chicken roasts. That’s fine, but there’s space for more.

Roast chicken is a very interesting dish, when you come to think about it, in the controversy about home cooking.

  • Given an oven and the simplest bones of knowing what to do, it’s hard to really foul up a roast chicken.
  • Even the simplest of techniques and very mediocre execution will leave you with a dish that’s pretty good, especially if you're accustomed to frozen food.
  • All the likely failures are obvious. (Not done? You didn't use your thermometer. Put it back. Burnt? You entirely forgot the roast was cooking. Bland? More salt — and you can fix that right now at the table.)
  • There’s enough scope for Doing It Right that you can add some variation and you can improve. It’s quite possible to make really good roast chicken. Aside from not making silly mistakes, there’s using a better bird, using a much better bird, brining, basting, rubbing with dry southwestern spices, smoking, stuffing with lemon, making pan gravy, maybe sauce supreme: right there you’ve got two months of roast chicken of the week without repeating yourself.

One thing that I do miss is that, along with the 20 techniques (and of course the modest number of Ratios – an early Ruhlman systematization), there are a modest number of basic structures and symmetries that compose kitchen idioms. A French sauce, for example, is flavored water, flavored fat, and acid: veal stock+shallots sautéed in pan dripping+mustard is sauce Robert; egg yolk+ olive oil + lemon is mayonnaise; vanilla-infused milk+egg yolks+sugar is crême anglais, and you get the acid from the fruit in your dessert.

But it’s not just fancy stuff.

  • What is dinner? A protein, a starch, and a vegetable. Get them all, and everyone will recognize this as a proper meal. Leave one out, and the kids might complain.
  • What is a sandwich? I always thought it was two slices of bread with something in between, but now that you mention it, a sandwich crucially has a sauce between the bread and the payload. The exceptions are easy to work out: peanut butter and jelly (two sauces, one of which acts as the payload), or hot pastrami (a payload with enough spicy fat to provide a built-in sauce). Otherwise, you need the condiment. Salami and mustard on rye is a nice sandwich; a slice of salami between two slices of bread is a crying shame. Someone should have explained this to me before I turned fifty, but there you are.
  • What is a dinner party? A table for eight, with drinks, an appetizer, a dinner plate, and dessert. You can add a salad and no one will complain. I tend to add a course between the appetizer and the dinner plate – they do this routinely in Italy and they do it in every Victorian novel. I started doing this because I misunderstood a book by Susan Goin about menus, but it works because it introduces a little tension in the dinner (what’s he doing?) without frightening the audience (well, at least we won’t go hungry). A second dessert is another fun trick – ridiculous and festive.

There are a bunch of these structures and strictures for each style of eating. McGee covers some of these issues, and Ruhlman’s Ratio looks at others, but there’s still plenty to do. I’d love to see more.

But How To Roast is a terrific little book. It’s friendly, approachable, and it will give your oven a pleasant workout.