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

Feb 18 7 2018

Adrian Miles

Terrible news that Adrian Miles, the brilliant Australian scholar of film and new media, died suddenly yesterday while bicycling in the countryside. In hypertext and new media circles, Miles is best known for his brilliant insight that the hypertext link functions as a cinematic cut. “While Michael Joyce once, rather famously, commented that ‘hypertext is the word's revenge on TV’,” Miles wrote, “I'd like to suggest that hypertext is in fact cinema's revenge on the word.” His 2001 paper on “Hypertext Structure as the Event of Connection,” which won the third Ted Nelson Award, is one of the great hypertext papers of all time. It springs from a remarkable insight:

Links generate what I’d like to characterise as an ‘anxiety’ within hypertext. This anxiety is evident in relation to writer’s and their use of hypertext, a reader’s ability to derive pleasure from reading hypertext, and is present in most theories of hypertext and linking which seek to provide rules for the application, role, or relevance of links in hypertext.

Miles’s anxiety does much to explain the subsequent technical, rhetorical, and political history of hypertext writing. An early proponent of Web video and a tireless advocate of personal expression — even and especially by students — on the Web, Miles coined the term vlog and did much to popularize the practice.

As a critic, he was a bold and a generous reader, always focused on the work without much care for the writer’s fame or following, and always placing the work ahead of the theory. No one was better at finding common sense in the airy realms of critical theory; I’ll never forget his application, one warm afternoon in Melbourne, of Bataille’s construction of excess to the biological roles of the nest of the Bowerbird and the tail of the Superb Lyrebird.

Feb 18 3 2018

Since We Fell

by Dennis Lehane

This skillful, puzzling, deceptive book about deceptive people starts with a clever feint. We’re trying to locate our absent father. Mother never wanted us to know anything about him, but she’s gone now. The clues are scarce. We hire a private investigator, but even the expert urges us to give up. The story, it turns out, has nothing at all to do with our missing father, but we’re going to see a lot of that shamus.

by Antony Beevor

What’s hard to imagine about the aftermath of the Occupation, and what Beevor captures wonderfully, is the extent to which everything seems to have been improvised at the last minute. Everyone was terrified that they’d be accused of collaborating; everyone who stayed, after all, had in some sense collaborated. No one knew whether the Occupation would be replaced by a new Allied Occupation or by something else — and if the latter, whether something else would be a new republic or the old one.

Someday, Trump will be gone. It makes sense to think about how we can restore our damaged land.

The other fascinating argument this close look at Paris after the war makes is that these years were necessarily a response to the failure that became Vichy, and that the response itself was a failure. Rather than address the legacy of the war, France (after some years of toying with Communism and related dithering) chose to adopt a comforting myth, and to adhere to that myth until it collapsed in the wake of 1968. Beevor thinks 1968, too, was a failure. Most people do. But 1968 transformed the way way think; the triumph of rock and irony, the rise of postmodernism, liberation theology are all built on the foundation of 1968.

1968 gave us, in the end, the collapse of the Iron Curtain. It also gave us truthiness and Trump. We’re still living in the ruins.

Fragile Tests (ultra-wonkish)

An importance part of Tinderbox development is a fairly big suite of tests that run all the time. Right now, there are 1,297 tests, and they’re run many times a day. Tests can’t check everything, but they do check lots of things, and let me know when something comes unstuck. I seldom let a test fail for more than a few minutes.

A fragile test is a test that sometimes passes but occasionally fails. That’s a very bad thing. Most of the fragile tests are fragile for well-understood reasons; for example, there are a couple of tests for time intervals that fail just before or just after we switch to daylight savings time. Those could be fixed, of course, but it’s just simpler to leave myself a note.

Tests that involve multiple cores at the same time can be fragile because you never know exactly how many cores will be available, or when one of them might be interrupted. Any sign of fragility is an asynchronous test is almost surely a serious failure.

Sometimes, though, a test is fragile without rhyme or reason. Here’s one saga.

Tinderbox’s has a bunch of kibitzers that help keep the map view neat. For example, the Top Alignment Kibbitzer keep an eye out for notes whose tops are nearly aligned; if you move a note so its top is almost but not quite aligned with its neighbor, the Top Alignment Kibbitzer will align it. There are a whole bunch of kibbitzers, and they're not hard to test: you put down a note, you move a second notes so the kibbitzer in question should wake up, and you see if the kibbitzer does in fact wake up and check that it does the right thing. You also test that other kibbitzers don't wake up at inappropriate moments and start shoving things around for no good reason.

We’ve got about 40 of these tests, and one of those tests has been fragile for months. It tests the Top Adornment Spacing Kibbitzer, an advisor that tries to move notes that are near the top of an adornment a consistent distance from the top edge. This would fail about once a week, without rhyme or reason. Only the top adornment spacing test failed; the test for the Left Adornment Spacing Kibbitzer never gave any trouble. What was wrong?

The problem, it turns out, was a bad C++ copy constructor for LayoutInfo objects — the objects that keep track of layout details in the map view. LayoutInfo has a ton of instance variables — it’s really just a bundle of data and nothing else. One of those details is the size of the text for drawing the title.

Now, the title of an adornment is drawn at the top of the adornment, and it's handy to have the Top Adornment Spacing Kibbitzer try to reserve the top area of the adornment for the title. That’s reasonable! But, somehow or other, the text size got dropped from the copy constructor, and the Kibbitzer happens to use the copy constructor when it’s trying to decide whether to wake the kibbitzer. The test expects the text size to be zero, and usually it actually was zero, but once in a while you'd get a garbage value and the kibbitzer would fail to fire because the adornment was drawing the title in billion point Helvetica. The baseline is somewhere beneath the basement, and the kibbitzer goes back to sleep because there's no way this can be anything it can fix.

Lessons:

  • Fragile tests are fragile for a reason.
  • C++ copy constructors are tricky critters.

I was in my freshman-year dorm room. It was late, probably approaching midnight. I was working through nucleophilic aromatic substitution in Morrison and Boyd when one of the sophomore women in the triple across the hall shouted, cheerily but quite loudly:

I don’t have time to have sex: I’ve got Biochemistry!

“Yep,” I nodded to myself as I cheerfully turned back to organic chemistry. “That pretty much sums up this place.” David Mamet once referred to his alma mater as “sex camp”; Swarthmore was Liberal Arts camp where sex replaced archery and canoeing.

The best part of Lev Grossman’s book trilogy The Magicians is a subplot in which magic — the wonders of Harry Potter and Narnia — is seen from the outside as a sort of miraculous heroin rush, an infusion of power and force that makes everything wondrous. Grossman’s world has a college for magic — Brakebills — but magic is studied with even greater intensity and desperation in a network of dingy, underground safe houses populated by addicts, criminals, perverts, demons, and other rejects who won’t, or can’t, give up the dream.

The television adaptation (SYFY/Netflix) takes this metaphor and extends it vastly, turning it into an extended study of five young New Yorkers and their reaction to higher education and all that entails. We have, for example, Kady, a tough girl from the Bronx who is as smart and accomplished as anybody, and if she’s had to do some things she’s not proud of, if she’s had to commit some crimes, even, it was only what she had to do to save her mother and to survive. The school, on the other hand, sees a character defect, and out she goes.

Or, take Penny. In the books, he’s Ron Weasley with the serial numbers filed off, and he exists to show us that the Potter-Weasley friendship is an illusion: in realist mode, those boys would have always hated each other. In the adaptation, Penny is South Asian, aloof and always watching from the outside; he’s cool because he’s always his own spectator. He sees the faculty clearly, and sees that to them he’s just another part of another class, and next year there’s be yet another class so, for them, there’s little point in opening their eyes. He knows the teachers are wrong.

Margo is Manhattan: rude, greedy, arrogant, destructive, and indomitably effective. Elliot’s the tormented, talented aesthete who moved to New York from some comfortable hellhole in the Midwest. Alice’s parents are academics who probably met at Columbia (or possibly CUNY), now teach in the Berkshires, read all the best child-rearing books and never had time to figure Alice out. The hero, Quentin Coldwater, is just a shlump who does well in school; he means well but seldom has any clear idea of what to do or how to act.

Then there’s Julia, who was Quentin’s girl next door, who was always just a little better than Quentin at school and at life. But when they apply to grad school, she inexplicably fails the Brakebills entrance exam. Once Julia knows that magic is real and Brakebills exists, her fallback school (Yale) is worthless, and Julia dives into the world of safe houses to learn what Higher Education denied her. She dreams, endlessly, that someday the Dean will recognize that they made a mistake and will welcome her to grad school after all.

All these people are deeply, deeply enmeshed in the study of magic. It consumes them — in one case, literally. It defines their life. It’s totally grad school. Grad school problems are all over the place: Elliot, for example, lands a really good job (High King) before graduation, and trying to finish his thesis while holding down the job of his dreams is tearing him apart.

When it’s just you and the molecule and it’s not going well, the world can be a very bleak place.

Uniquely, the series captures the way this can be so differently true while winding up with the same driving obsession. Quentin loves magic; fair enough. Margo loves its power. Elliot adores beauty and detests unnecessary work; for him, magic is the best way to a really good Amatriciana and an even better wine to pair it with. And Julia: Julia just has to know stuff: how it works, how to do it, and what’s behind the curtain.

Race, gender, class: it’s all there, but we don’t need it for differentiation and, even if we weren’t divided by them, we still wouldn’t be on the same page. Yet to the greater world, they’re all this tiny cadre: esoteric, incomprehensible, privileged and interchangeable.

Jan 18 17 2018

iMac Pro

The new iMac Pro builds Tinderbox from scratch in 30sec — about 6x my trusty MacBook Pro 15. In other respects, it’s just fast, but for compiling and running code, it’s blazing. The biggest performance leap I’ve seen in a long time, and worth the inconvenience of losing portability.

The keyboard is driving me nuts, but we’ll sort that out eventually.

by Lev Grossman

An early book by the author of The Magicians, this thriller thrusts a timid and rather bored young Wall Street broker into the race to locate a mysterious ancient book. There’s an immersive video game in the mix, too — one that seems peculiarly tailored to the pursuit of this tome, and there’s an icy but beautiful young scholar, a beguiling duchess, and a rent-controlled Manhattan apartment. A castle, too. What’s not here, unfortunately, is the wonderful mix of street grit and wonder that occasionally illuminates The Magicians; too often, this is just an American Possession without the scholarship.