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 Kathy Sierra

Badass is the logical culmination of the contemporary business book: a PowerPoint deck on paper. It’s a good deck; Sierra is first and foremost a speaker.

Sierra’s insight here – and it’s a important – is that the whole point of technology marketing is to make users awesome, which means giving them tools to do great stuff, leading them toward using those tools well, and then getting out of the way. This is music to my ears, of course, since Tinderbox users are pretty much the definition of “badass” and “awesome” and each day’s Tinderbox support queue tends to be filled with a remarkable array of talented writers, journalists, scientists, and scholars. (Lots of musicians, too: I’m honestly not sure why.)

One insightful example explores camera documentation. On the one hand, manufacturers tend to explain how to use this camera. But purchasers don’t care about that. They want to know how to take great pictures – better pictures than they could take with their old camera. That’s a useful framing for lots of technical marketing problems, and a very intriguing guide to improving sales, support, and training.

The later sections of the book discuss strategies for help users become “badass” before they give up and abandon your product. Many of the strategies are heuristically sound, but Sierra presents them as necessary cognitive truths. This leads to an unfortunate rhetoric where we’re consistently cajoling or deceiving our user’s brain in order to help the user; instead of making users awesome, we’re manipulating them for their own good. Sierra embraces the weirdness heartily and underlines it on page after page with a series of brain icons – for example, a brain with a faucet symbolizes “distraction”.

Actual cognitive arguments – arguments about how the brain actually accomplishes something – require more than intuitive plausibility and an experiment or two. We just don’t understand brains very well, they often work in ways that aren’t intuitively obvious, and it turns out that we’re not particularly good at thinking about our thinking. In a talk, this hand-waving might be more effective, but paper provides leisure to poke holes. In the end, we aren’t trying to solve the problem of the mind right now, we’re just trying to sell some stuff! The conclusion much of this reaches is the desirability of focusing training on skills and concepts that are immediately necessary and clearly rewarding; that conclusion doesn’t need any cognitive science at all.

Nonetheless, the original observation is sound and significant. We aren’t playing silly psychological games to get customers to engage with the brand or to splurge on in-app purchases. We’re helping smart and capable people to do good and important work, one step at a time.

Apr 15 20 2015

Dashboard

My imaginary thriller proceeds, and with it I’m building some Tinderbox infrastructure to keep an eye on how the trip is shaping up.

Dashboard

The raw character map is easy enough to put together in any diagramming program, but here we’re using Tinderbox agents and rules to keep a running total of our expenses as we add them. Tinderbox is also handling currency conversions; these expenses are entered variously in dollars, euros, pounds sterling, and Swiss francs.

You could do this in a spreadsheet, sure, but where in the spreadsheet are you going to put your character notes, much less our internal memos?

Meanwhile, we’ve gone from Paris to Dijon, on to Zürich, down to Torino, and now we’ve dashed off to London for the weekend conference of our (fictitious) open source competitors. It’s nice to be spending an imaginary company’s notional revenues!

by Stacey D'Erasmo

The story of a rock-and-roll comeback, nicely written and filled with convincing detail. D’Erasmo does a masterful job of using small asides to good effect and has a nice feel for quickly sketching distinct places in the midst of a band tour where we’re constantly moving to a new city. What really works here is the world building: Anna Brundage is a convincing minor star and D’Erasmo does a terrific job of sketching the contours of a career, the small triumph of the first-album Whale, the disastrous Bang Bang tour – as well as a performance gone wrong in Hamburg, a rained-out music festival in Latvia, and the crucial distinction between flings with men you’ve scarcely met (which, on tour, is basically everyone you could possibly have a fling with) and sleeping with fans (which, on tour, is pathetic).

Before setting off on this last best chance, the Wonderland tour, Anna had been teaching shop at a private school in Manhattan; whenever failure looms, it manifests as the specter of a hundred little girls with hammers.

Apr 15 19 2015

Too Many Books?

Tim Parks:

At present, for example, it’s hard not to feel that we are in an era of massive overproduction. Just when we were already overwhelmed with paper books, often setting them aside after only a few pages in anxious search of something more satisfying, along came the Internet and the e-book so that, wonderfully, we now have access to hundreds of thousands of contemporary novels and poems.

Note to the copy editor of the NY Review of Books:

True, in the early 1300s, with the establishment of the first partially mechanized paper mills in Italy, a more generous supply of paper began to circulate and the number of people able to write rapidly increased.

Did the number of writers increase rapidly? Or does the increase relate to how many people could write hurriedly, swiftly, and in a rush?

I’m toying with an odd fiction project that, if all goes well, will generate some useful background material for Tinderbox 6.3 while perhaps being interesting (or amusing) for its own sake.

It’s going to be a quick and dirty thriller. To get things rolling, I need to lay down the bones of the conspiracy our protagonist will eventually discover, a conspiracy that’s going to ruin her April. That means keeping the players straight.

Planning A Conspiracy

Nothing very profound here; it's just a quick sketch. Usually, I just keep a list of the characters in outline view for fast reference, but here we’ve got to manage all sorts of shadowy and undisclosed relationships (and at least one double agent).

Green people work for us; light green people are contractors. Red people work, perhaps indirectly, for the bad guys; at this point, I know less about the Opposition than I do about our hero. That’s one reason for this exercise.

Of course, lots of brainstorming, “mind mapping,” or diagramming tools could do this well enough. What’s nice here is that we can seamlessly extend this to add background to characters, change their associates, perhaps use some rules to keep all this organized.

Apr 15 17 2015

Tinderbox 6.2

Tinderbox 6.2

Tinderbox 6.2 is now out.

So what I particularly like is that, even as a trivial user, things are just getting better and better.— E. P.James, Tinderbox Forum

by John Green

So I dug right down to the bottom of my soul

To see how an ice cream felt…

Another book that every teenage girl you know has read, The Fault In Our Stars seems to be a story of two kids with cancer, but it's deeply interested in the the interaction between life and the stories we tell about it.

A boy and a girl meet cute at a 12-step group for childhood cancer – itself a nicely-observed absurdity – and, one thing leading to another, they soon find themselves sharing an intense passion for a little-known novel about a kid with cancer. That novel ends abruptly and no sequel has appeared; our star-crossed readers accept that the protagonist succumbed suddenly but they want very much to know what happened to The Mother, whether her Boyfriend was good or bad, and what became of her pet hamster Sisyphus. They get in touch with the author, but he won’t commit the answers to writing. He might tell, if only we were in Amsterdam. So, two very sick kids need to get to Amsterdam.

This is done quite well. Of course, you don’t need to address these questions through the eyes of a 15-year-old with terminal lung cancer and her first boyfriend, but that’s part of the point: plot happens.

So, much of the book is an interesting concurrence to David Mamet’s attack on Method Acting: you don’t need to deeply understand the character’s background, because the character is a character and has no background. Nothing that’s not on the page exists; that’s all you know and if you need to know more than that, you’re screwed. (And you’re screwed in any case, thanks to the whole mortality thing.)

I think the book, like the internal story, might to have ended right there. Instead, Green resolves everything with a maudlin coda that shows us what we’ve already been told, and which tends to recast the literary concerns as a distracting subplot in the middle of a sentimental tale of illness.

Apr 15 9 2015

Telegraph Avenue

by Michael Chabon

Chabon’s wonderful Wonder Boys was an insightful tour of a Midwestern writing program, exploring the essential nuttiness of a profession that works by imagining unlikely and impossible things. Here, we replace the seminar and the publishing house with blaxploitation movies, midwifery, and used records in the deteriorating heart of Oakland, California. I suspect this novel is in dialog with High Fidelity, but I don’t understand either jazz or rock well enough to follow along. It was famously said of Mozart that he wrote wonderfully but with too many notes; Chabon does amazing things with ease but here again there might be a few too many characters engaged in just a little too much incident: I’m not entirely sure we absolutely required the blimp. Still, a terrific example of stringing together a lot of wild stuff to craft something not only plausible but wise.

Apr 15 8 2015

Good Writing

A lot of harm is done by the notion of “good writing.”

Right now, I’m reviewing a big pile of papers for Web Science 2015. Many of these are dull and clumsy. The authors are not dull and clumsy – at least, the notional authors, the professors I know; many of the words are set down by students, no doubt, and so few people actually pay attention to the research literature that I suppose it can seem pointless to revise the text when, after all, one could be writing the next paper instead.

A lot of this writing is bad because it’s too careful: it adheres to tired formulae, it makes no particular claims, it takes no risks. The papers seem to know that no one will pay much attention, to aspire chiefly to avoid being noticed and culled as tall poppies.


On the flight home from a ghastly Chicago trip I started The Fault In Our Stars, another book that every teenage girl has read but I have not. It’s an interesting contrast to Rainey Royal and Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue: the sentences are not terribly interesting, the imagery is not remarkably original. Nothing much happens and nobody wants anything very much, and yet somehow it’s a page-turner.

In light of all the storming fulmination over “fun” in SF, I think this needs some reflection.


I've dusted off the hyperfiction project and plan to propel it forward in the next few days. When we left our young heroes at the end of November, we’d just arrived at the end of the story – the dissolution of the school. I thought we would end as the first shots were fired across those ancient, grassy lawns, but perhaps we do need to see what happens next.

by Dylan Landis

A fascinating study of three teenage girls in Manhattan in the 1970s, centered on Rainey Royal: beautiful, obdurate, inconsistent daughter of a jazz musician whose father’s townhouse is filled with his boyfriend Gordy (who sneaks into Rainey’s room in the middle of every night to tuck her in), with her father’s jazz acolytes, and with the absence of Rainey’s mother who decamped several years ago for an ashram. Rainey spends her afternoons (and often her schooldays) in art museums; eventually, she will become an artist who pieces together the possessions of the dead. Her friends are Tina (who often tucks in Rainey’s father – a fact we know though Rainey tries hard not to) and Leah, whom the other girls bully, who lives for science and whose adult life will revolve around lab rats.

At Sea Lions of Wikipedia, I’ve been officially dubbed, “the #2 man on the Sea Lion Troupe’s Most Unwanted List, WikiCriminal MarkBernstein.” But much to the chagrin of my Gamergate fans, my recent sanctions for being interviewed by Think Progress making funny faces at the sea lions has been overturned because (wait for it)

Although the block was proper and the unblock wasn’t, the topic ban this block was enforcing has been vacated so re-blocking doesn’t seem to accomplish much

But Gamergate has had a marked success elsewhere: they block-voted in the science fiction Hugo Award ballots to nominate lots of right-wing military science fiction and to exclude the dread Pirate Roberts social justice warriors. Hilarity has ensued, naturally, with the non-Gamergate nominees declining the honor and an open campaign for the “no award” option.

Notably absent from this year’s Hugo ballot will be William Gibson’s The Peripheral and Emily St.John Mandel’s Station Eleven. An SF book is nominated for a National Book Award, and it can’t be considered for a Hugo? A discussion could be had about Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, though that trilogy’s strongest book turned out to have been its second volume, The Magician King. But we’re going to be talking instead about No Award: thanks, guys!

by Jo Baker

We begin before dawn, drawing pails of water for the laundry, in this account of Pride and Prejudice below stairs and the secret life of the Bennet household.

Sarah, glancing up, hands stuffed into her armpits, her breath clouding the air, dreamed of the wild places beyond the horizon where it was already fully light, and how when her day was over, the sun would be shining on other places still, on the Barbadoes and Antigua and Jamaica where the dark men worked half-naked, and on the Americas where the Indians wore almost no clothes at all, and where there was consequently very little in the way of laundry.

This could so easily slip into feeble melodrama or a lecture on the evils of the colonial past, but Baker always keeps half an eye on the outer world and her full attention on the inner life of the people down below stairs, people to whom Lizzie Bennet is just one more small, dim and uncaring burden among many.

Mar 15 31 2015

Teams

Time begins on opening day, which is Sunday night.

For a very long time, I’ve been curious about the differences between major league teams beyond their personnel. Are there significant differences between how different teams approach the game? Are there reasons why the Cubs are so frequently bad, the Rays so often good, and the Orioles so frequently disappointing?

One of the few consistently sensible discussions of this is unfolding at Baseball Prospectus, whose team is crafting a series on Every Team’s “Moneyball” — the hypothetical edge that each team apparently pursues. For example, Atlanta drafts shortstops. Well, everyone drafts shortstops, because it’s the position that requires the greatest talent: every future major-leaguer who is right-handed starts out as the shortstop and cleanup hitter of his neighborhood team. But the Braves emphasize players who can stick at shortstop; that’s interesting. The Diamondbacks emphasize independent leagues. The Pirates emphasize Korea. Interesting.

InfamousThoughtlessCarelessReckless

but it still must be said that his inflammatory and erroneous description of the situation is what caused all this nonsense in the first place. – Jimbo Wales, Wikipedia Chairman Emeritus

Select Commentary: The GuardianGawkerPandoDailyThe Mary SueWil WheatonDer Standardde VolkskrantDr. Clare HooperP. Z. MyersFayerWayerThink ProgressStacey MasonThe VergeHeise Der Verdieping TrouwProf. David MillardWired.deKIRO-FM Seattle (starts at 10:00) ❧ TechNewsWorldWashington PostPrismaticSocialText Neues DeutschlandViceEuropa (Madrid)El Fichero BustDaily OrangeOverlandArCompanyThink Progress

Good cause: App Camp For Girls. (Donations to Wikipedia are counter-productive. Give instead to a charity that assists women in computing, or victims of online harassment, not to punish Wikipedia but to repair the damage. App Camp For Girls has already raised $1200 from former Wikipedia donors; do tell them why you’re giving.)

Mar 15 30 2015

Wiki Weather

Wiki weather has been strangely unsettled in recent days. Last week, a heated argument over hidden comments in an information boxes at Sir Laurence Olivier — you couldn’t make this stuff up! — led to a tempest, an Arbcom filing, many angry words, and the forced resignation of administrator Dreadstar.

On his way out the door, Dreadstar lifted my own topic ban. He had every right to do this, since it was his mistake in the first place. He also lifted a block which depended on the ban, which quite possibly exceeded his authority. I have expressed the opinion that this block was also an error, but it might not have been his error to fix. You will not hear me complain.

Some commentators conjectured that, having found himself on the unaccustomed end of the +5 Mop of Blocking, Dreadstar sought at last to clean things up and restore everything to its proper place before he left. Others suppose that, in fury at his bad treatment by Wikipedia, he removed sanctions against the dread Mark Bernstein in the hope that hilarity and trouble would ensue. It may be the case that we cannot know the true state of affairs, as we do not choose to make windows into men’s souls.

One result was a formal Arbcom motion that cites as evidence against Dreadstar my own complaint at being called a “motherfucker” by a Wikipedia official in response to my perfectly sensible query. That’s cute because it turns out that Wikipedia has a catch-22 that prohibits admins from sending out abusive emails, but also prohibits anyone from reporting that they have done so, except privately to Arbcom — and this just happened to drop right into Arbcom’s lap and voila! there the handy evidence happened to be, because I didn’t know any better.

Arbcom has not expressed their gratitude.

<hr>

So having at least a furlough, I thought it would be churlish not to do something useful. So I trekked over for a look at the biography of Martin Fowler, author of the influential book on Refactoring. This is far, far from GamerGate, and the proper disposition of object methods does not appear to be a gender-related controversy. What could possibly go wrong?

Diderot’s Darling Dingbats! Edit war! Some anonymous account has appeared – what a coincidence! – eager to fight over whether the influential status of Refactoring is contentious. Also, is Refactoring important to Agile practices, or only to Test Driven Development? So now we’re pulling out references and piling up citations for stuff that everyone knows, because some fellow wants to waste a lot of our time, or perhaps wants to settle some score or other. Or perhaps it’s just one of my banned and blocked GamerGate pals using an anonymous account to burn theory people’s time and effort.

I can’t wait to hear what Sea Lions Of Wikipedia makes of this.

Exploring fringes of software aesthetics, I’ve been reading up on things that are not quite beautiful. I came across this in a book review by Adam Kirsch in next month’s Atlantic:

Niceness without goodness is cuteness.

This makes a certain sense; it explains, for example, why a toddler can easily be cute but is seldom beautiful. “Goodness” here is not a moral judgment, or not just a moral judgment: an horse with a hat might be cute, but a beautiful horse is a horse doing what horses do – running gracefully through a meadow, say.

How would this work with software?

We look at a clever Perl one-liner, decipher it’s meaning, and exclaim “Nice!” But one-liners seldom do much good: even when they do something useful, it’s probably better to use a few lines to explain what you intend. Perl one-liners are cute.

Gratuitous user interface polish does little or no actual good; it’s an expense, and it seldom produces much benefit. Often, this year’s marvel may be actively pernicious in a minute or two: remember Cordovan leather backgrounds? Gratuitous polish is cute.

Under the hood, it’s entirely possible to use language features in strange and esoteric ways. You can be make C++ feel like a functional language. You can make C++ feel like Smalltalk. You can write little interpreters in C++ and do the real work in your own variant of LISP. Sometimes, this is elegant; often, it’s merely playing cute.

Games and fictions sometimes drop the mask (or the fourth wall) to attempt an arch and knowing address to the player. We’re in the middle of a complex and challenging city simulation, and suddenly notice that the factories all have silly names and make silly products, or have in-joke references to industry insiders. Archness in games and fiction is cute.

Almost all codewerk is cute.

Brent Simmons hit this nail on the head when he wrote about the problems of splitting classes that are too large and do too much into smaller, more focused objects. If you do this intelligently, you get better code. If you get carried away, you get a basket of bunny classes. Bunny classes are cute.

A fresh and funny study at Sea Lions Of Wikipedia of the wisdom of extending Gamergate sanctions to all gender-related disputes and controversies, plus anyone involved in gender-related disputes and controversies.

So you see, Sea Lion fans, if it’s a Bad Thing that happens largely to women — like Campus Rape and domestic violence — it’s automatically controversial!

There’s no chance that this will work; it can’t be supported rationally and it can’t be administered sanely. As far as I can make out, the plan is to ban trouble-makers (like me) left and right until everything is calm and civil, a plan excused because Gamergate is not terribly important in the great scheme of things.

The problem for Wikipedia is that gender-related issues and controversies are important. Wikipedia stumbles badly on many of them, in part because so much editing is performed by factions, cliques and trolls, and in part because so many Wikipedia editors just aren’t interested in gender beyond looking at pictures of pretty women who have misplaced their clothes.

Mar 15 25 2015

Unbecoming

by Rebecca Scherm

Pullman’s wonderful trilogy of His Dark Materials is the story of Lyra, a heroine who is a superlative liar. This stark, realistic novel is the story of a heroine who steals. She begins at an early age; her family is awful and so, without our noticing it, she steals herself a new family. She’s very good: people actually are touched by her appreciation of their stuff, so touched they sometimes thank her for caring enough to take things. She winds up in Paris, broke and unhappy, working as an expert restorer and dreading the day when her husband gets out of prison and comes to ask her for the life she stole.

Mar 15 20 2015

Flying Trapeze

This has to be a first: over at Wikipedia, some guy want them to throw the book at me because … wait for it … I use too many links! (He’s also very angry because I asked Arbcom whether Campus Rape falls under Gamergate discretionary sanctions, when he thinks it’s obvious that it does. Okay.)

Now, lots of referees over the years have muttered to themselves that Bernstein uses an awful pile of footnotes and references a terrible lot of the research literature. Patterns of Hypertext has 76 references, Criticism has 93 – a lot for a 10-page paper. Still: if you need the references (or want a reading list), these can be useful. If you don’t, they do little enough harm. (Designing A New Media Economy has but 32 references, but it’s also got 18 footnotes, many of them fairly extensive.)

Let’s face it: links are perfect for this. If you want to gist or already know the area, skip the link. If you want more information, follow it. If you skip the link, fine — just don’t blame me for withholding information.

(I think the guy who’s complaining doesn’t understand that Google never indexes Wikipedia’s back-of-the-house, and imagines that I’m getting tons of traffic and page rank from Wikipedia. In fact, I’ve probably sent Arbcom a lot more traffic than they’ve sent me!)

Speaking of crowds, a hilarious new site, SeaLionsOfWikipedia.com, skewers the current Gamergate brawl. Here’s the latest installment: Sea Lion VOLLEYBRAWL, Part Three! Of Mops and Sticks. It’s very inside baseball, but clever jokes like the “+5 Mop of Banning” really help after an immersion in Wikipedia’s often-insufferable self-importance — especially when I’ve been responding with bombast and not alliterative verse. I don’t know who writes this site, but they’re funny and they really do understand Wikipedia’s back alleys.


Update! That was fast: if I’m reading this correctly, an actual Arbcom clerk has seriously proposed to topic-ban me from my own weblog and to place my Wikipedia user page under Gamergate Discretionary Sanctions. Because ethics? Cake on a rake!

(Meanwhile, if I’d only linked to Foucault, Haraway, and Butler, I might have saved Arbcom from the 4-credit course on Feminism in the Postmodern Era.)

March 17 begins at the Gamergate Talk page, as many do, with the arrival of a fresh new editor. Galestar joined Wikipedia in 2009 and last edited 14 months ago. Today, he’s here to fix a problem: the Gamergate page says "misogynistic," that’s an opinion, and Galestar announces "I will be removing these adjectives as per WS:RSOPINION" .

Galestar doesn't have much editing experience and he might be excused for being rusty after 14 months away, but no: he’s got policy at his fingertips in virtually his first post. Discussion follows -- 2500 hundred words of discussion in this section alone.

This topic – the use of “misogynistic” – is not new. According to my informal survey of the million-word archives, it was discussed before on: Feb 24, Feb 11, Jan 27, Jan 25, Jan 22, Jan 9-11, Dec 22, Nov 24, Nov 13, Nov 2, Oct 27, Oct 12, Sep 19, Sep 16, Sep 11, and Sep 6. As here, the discussion is often launched by a new or zombie account; often, this account knows a ton about WikiLawyering but pretends to be unaware of all the prior discussions.

This is not the only recurrent topic. It’s just one of a half-dozen arguments which can never be settled because zombie accounts return to restart them every two weeks. This isn’t their favorite topic: those involve the sex lives of Gamergate victims. But it’s today’s topic, so away we go.

This is against Wikipedia policy, obviously. But that doesn’t matter because Wikipedia policy effectively prohibits any complaint about this kind of collusive editing. Anyone who complains – even through an indirect allusion to the existence of the phenomenon, is promptly punished. These accounts are not fresh new editors; they’re personae cultivated by Gamergate for a purpose, built from the compost of abandoned and zombie user accounts. But everyone else must pretend that brand-new editors arrive every two weeks, armed with a fresh knowledge of WikiLaw and jargon, determined to changes the consensus. Wikipedia: the encyclopedia any manilla folder on the closet shelf can edit™.