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

Dec 16 4 2016

Flesh and Bone

Oh, my.

This eight-hour film – it’s a film, not a series – builds to a single, inevitable, final word. This is the story of an artist who is called upon to create the one piece for which she has been made, by an unspeakable history, completely unsuitable. A few shots and a few scenes are held painfully long, but almost everything of importance is told elliptically and with concision.

It begins with a long, long shot in which a silent girl escapes Pittsburgh before dawn and takes that old familiar bus trip that ends with her NYC audition.

It all ends with a long, long shot in which she refuses to speak, and then – at last – says one word.

No.

Daphne, Polyxena, and a long conversation

A correspondent got me to thinking about the long literary discussion and Those Trojan Girls.

The Trojan Women, you’ll remember, concerns the aftermath of the Trojan War. Specifically, what’s going to happen to the widows and daughters of Troy’s vanquished heroes? They will, of course, now be divided up as slaves and servants of the victorious Greeks.

In Seneca’s version (~54CE), Queen Hecuba’s youngest daughter is allotted to Achilles. The allotment of slaves to Achilles had previously caused a bit of trouble and unhappiness: that’s the Illiad. We are not going to stir that up again, nor sir, not even though Achilles is dead. So Polyxena will be executed on Achilles grave. It is the very definition of pathetic.

I think this can also be read as a response to the male gaze in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (<17/18 CE). There, Daphne carelessly or thoughtlessly lets herself be seen undressed, and in the end must turn herself into a tree. Daphne is the original blonde horror victim to which Buffy The Vampire Slayer responds. But Seneca is emphatic to note that Polyxena takes care, even as the priests sacrifice her, to make sure that her clothes remain demurely arranged; as a teenager she comprehends the male gaze and as an independent, strong feminist she takes steps, even in this most extreme of situations, to hold it together.

This isn’t what happens to my Polyxena in Those Trojan Girls, but I’d not thought about this particular bit of literary repartee before.

An Amazon original series, and a fascinating contrast to another Amazon original, Mozart In The Jungle.

Mozart is supposed to be about music, but it’s really about life and the arts. At Web Science 2013, Cory Doctorow said that no one should work in the arts unless they must; that, pretty much, is the argument in Mozart. Mozart has a lot of empathy for people who don’t have that choice.

Flesh and Bone (I've seen only the first episodes) is supposed to be about dance, but it’s really about damage, about bodies and the way things go wrong. Its characters make sacrifices, but those sacrifices are to their compulsions and their fears, not to their art. Lots of the damage isn’t a choice or a sacrifice. Everyone, it seems, is more or less damaged.

It’s not exactly pleasant. The dramatic premise of the first season, apparently, places a vulnerable and sympathetic dancer into precisely the situation with which she cannot hope to cope, having been cast into a ballet about a subject she dreads under the direction of teachers who cannot fathom the difficulty. The teachers, in turn, are former dancers with physical and emotional scars accrued over decades; they cannot imagine what pain this girl could possibly possess that could equal theirs.

The whole thing balances precariously. Make this much less horrible and you're trivializing sexual trauma, abuse, and pain. Make it any more horrible and you’re appealing to sadists.

by James Shapiro

A fascinating and detailed look at the politics of 1606 and how they impacted Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and King Lear. In 1606, James I was trying to get Parliament to agree to uniting England and Scotland. It was a tough sell, and that echoes through all three plays. Ben Jonson did a costly, elaborate court masque to help sell it; that didn’t really work, either, but “the throne she sat on” echoes down through centuries in which masques have been forgotten. It’s fascinating how many topical references from 1606 we can trace in the plays.

What Gamergate should have taught us about the 'alt-right' (Matt Lees, The Guardian) Thanks, Clare Hooper!

The similarities between Gamergate and the far-right online movement, the “alt-right”, are huge, startling and in no way a coincidence. After all, the culture war that began in games now has a senior representative in The White House. As a founder member and former executive chair of Brietbart News, Steve Bannon had a hand in creating media monster Milo Yiannopoulos, who built his fame and Twitter following by supporting and cheerleading Gamergate. This hashtag was the canary in the coalmine, and we ignored it.

Yep. And Wikipedia continues to pursue appeasement.

Nov 16 28 2016

Winter’s Bone

by Daniel Woodrell

What a lovely book! This is the source, of course, of the superb movie that made Jennifer Lawrence a star. The book is even better; taut, lyrical, efficient. Rhee Dolly is sixteen. Her Mom is crazy, her two little brothers are too young to care for themselves, and her dad, a meth cook, has vanished after pledging their house as collateral for bail. She has a week to find him and, while nearly everyone in this forgotten corner of the Ozarks is some sort of relative, ancient family disputes mean that every hand is against her.

by Anthony Trollope

Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium and Gatherum, is no longer the Whig leader or the Prime Minister. After the first chapter, he is no longer the husband of Glencora, the center of his universe and the axis around which these stories revolve. His eldest boy has been thrown out of Oxford and has entered Parliament as a Conservative. His daughter wants to marry a many who is entirely unsuitable, and this has led him into a quarrel with his late wife’s closest friend.

Note to Amazon: how does someone search for "a real, actual edition of this important Victorian classic, rather than a fly-by-night print-to-order rehash of the Project Gutenberg scan? Some readers might conceivably spring for a decent hardcover set, were there one to be found among the frauds and scams.

Nov 16 26 2016

Soho Sins

by Richard Vine

A clever mystery that hangs neatly on a realistic postmodern peg. Amanda Oliver has been murdered, and her husband, software tycoon and art collector Philip Oliver, has confessed. The problem is that Philip is suffering from early-onset dementia, and while he sincerely believes he did murder his wife, he’s awfully fuzzy on the details. Philip’s life is messy – he had a daughter by wife #1, was divorcing wife #2, and has already proposed to wife #3. Fortunately, Philip’s art dealer has an unexpected flair for detection.

Writing a chapter for the next edition of The Tinderbox Way, I needed a bunch of fictitious names to fill a sample list of imaginary campaign supporters. My original plan was to sit down and invent names. I’ve done this before, but it can be tough work.

  • John Smith and Samantha Adams will only get you so far.
  • It’s hard, and potentially embarrassing, to distinguish an imaginary name that just popped into your head from the name of an actually famous person you’ve scarcely heard of.
  • When I make lists of names, I can’t help playing games. I was thinking of a town populated by minor characters from Trollope. Who wouldn’t want to canvass Mr. And Mrs. Grex? But this, too, takes time, and doesn’t greatly contribute to understanding Tinderbox.

So, I fired up the Scrivener Names Generator, and was pleased to find that it now generates batches of names with one click. Click! 116 names, instantly, in a nice list. Copy, paste into Tinderbox. Explode. In no time at all, we’ve got 116 people, plausible names, and a nice balance of gender and ethnicity. Here’s the first ten:

  • Arturo Ellison
  • Shannon Everton
  • Hiro Gooch
  • Hideo Lee
  • Maria Cohen
  • Lee Hasek
  • Katsumi Wileman
  • Gina March
  • Lynette Fraser
  • Courtney Wiltshire

This is not bad. “Maria Cohen” struck me as unlikely, but no one named “Mark Bernstein” is going to tell you it’s impossible. In fact, there are plenty of Maria Cohens in LinkedIn. I didn’t know that my candidate’s voter pool had quite this many Japanese-Americans, but local campaigns are like that. (Other people in my voter pool include Poppy Wimsey, Angelica van Doren, Susumu Shepard, and Josie Neruda; this town reads a lot of classics.)

Impressive example of the easy interoperability we so easily overlook.

Speaking of laying down the law, the correct way to cook a Thanksgiving turkey is to roast it on a charcoal grill.

Take the turkey out of the refrigerator after breakfast. If you purchased a frozen turkey, you made a mistake. Unlike the Cubs, you’ll have to wait for next year for redemption, but with luck no one will find out. If the turkey is still frozen, you are in a lot of trouble, boychik, and I can’t really help you, but a sinkful of water might.

Leave the turkey out on the counter to warm up to room temperature. Remove the packet of giblets and stuff; they’re useful for gravy. Stuff the cavity with one onion (quartered), one apple (quartered), and one orange (unpeeled and quartered). Do not fill the turkey with bread stuffing: it might not cause food poisoning, but it will cause your guests to debate medical questions and that’s not something you need, this year of all years.

If you are East of the Mississippi, light the charcoal at half-time in the Detroit game. If you are in the Central Time Zone, light it at the same time: you eat earlier. (If you’re in the Central Time Zone and not in Illinois, our national calamity is all your fault and you can eat turkey and crow whenever the hell you feel like it.) On the West coast, you'll have to figure out the time yourself; I’ve only done this once out West.

Use a charcoal chimney to light your fire. Avoid lighter fluid. If you don’t have a charcoal chimney, the old advice called for a coffee can but who has canned coffee these days? You’re in trouble. Do your best: stand up, speak out, and take your own part.

Arrange the coals on both sides, leaving the middle free for a broiler pan. You know those tinfoil pans they sell at the supermarket? This is the only acceptable use for those pans. Go to town. Put some water in the pan. Put the grill on, then put the turkey on the grill above the pan. Put the lid on the grill. Watch the game.

Add a little charcoal from time to time. The turkey should be done around the time the Dallas game ceases to be interesting. An instant-read digital thermometer will tell you when it’s time to take the turkey off the grill. The little plastic popup from the grocery store might tell you, but I wouldn’t rely on it and neither should you. If you believe in little plastic popups, you probably believed in the pussy-grabber and deserve a dry and tasteless turkey anyway.

Admire the turkey. Let the turkey rest for half an hour. Relax: the Dallas game tends to get slightly interesting around this time, though nothing will come of it. That turkey weighs a ton, remember, and it’s rock solid; it’s not going to get cold.

I had occasion to check the spelling of “copacetic” yesterday, because the server that hosts the Tinderbox Backstage program got fouled up and everything was far, far from copacetic. The spelling turned out to be perfectly in order, though I wondered whether the word has anything to do with acetic acid, which derives from a Latin word for vinegar.

It turns out that “copacetic” has been something Americans say since 1910 or so. It’s a new word, but it’s not that unusual. Everyone on my 9th grade knew it. Still, nobody knows where it came from, and beyond fairly confident dismissals of folk etymologies from Hebrew, Italian, and Cajun French.

Speaking of etymologies and 9th grade, back then our crowd was much taken with “Sumer Is Icumen In”.

Bullock starteth,

bucke farteth

That last line was fun for 9th grade and seems to carry us back to a simpler, earthier time. But seriously: it’s one thing to spend a lot of time chasing bucks, but if you’re close enough to know whether the buck farteth or not, that buck must be drunk. And do bucks particularly relish beans in early summer?

Something has got to distract one from watching Ubuntu installations while checking Twitter for the latest outrages against law and propriety. We are not copacetic.

Wikipedia likes to make lists, both explicit lists (Kentucky Derby Winners, American Pornographic Actresses, My Little Pony Episodes) and implicit lists that are retrievable by category. Readers may recall, for example, the brouhaha that arose not long ago when Wikipedia decided to remove all the women from American Novelists and move them to the American Women Novelists.

This sort of tom-foolery strikes most observers as innocent nerdishness, but it might have its darker side.

The alt-right fascisti – who, remember, will control the US government starting next month – have realized that Wikipedia categories are the perfect vehicle for making a comprehensive database listing every notable American Jew. One result of this ongoing effort is continuous Wikipedia debate (for example, here) concerning whether one individual or another is a Jew under the definition of the Nuremberg Race Laws.

Nov 16 20 2016

Twelve Recipes

by Cal Peternell

A very interesting book, originally recommended by Michael Ruhlman, whose superb Twenty this echoes. Notionally, Cal Peternell provides twelve general recipes with two things in mind:

  • To show how easily and rapidly one can go from not cooking to cooking quite well.
  • To show how readily and broadly a recipe can be varied, once you understand the idea behind the recipe rather than simply repeating the specified steps.

The first chapter, for example, is “toast” and runs from plain toast properly done through salad croutons, gratin topping, and more. The second, “beans,” points out that there’s really pretty much one way to make beans: you soak them, you cook them in water with some aromatics, and then you eat them alone or with something else. That takes you from pasta e fagioli to refritos, from lentil dahl to Boston baked beans. I don’t much like beans myself, and that chapter alone has led me to place two orders with the redoubtable Rancho Gordo.

Nov 16 18 2016

Livia Lone

by Barry Eisler

A very strange new mystery, in which the protagonist, Livia Lone, is a beautiful, sympathetic, and competent Seattle cop who is also a serial murderer. She has good reason, or at least good rationalizations, for these killings; the victims are rapists and sex traffickers, and Livia – born in Thailand and sold by her parents – has reason to despise these men. It's also her sex kink.

In the wake of the Trump election, we might want to think twice about righteous murderers seeking vengeance for past crimes.

Introduction to Tinderbox Six: a video by Scott Zeoli. (Updated version)

Introduction to Tinderbox 6 from Stephen Zeoli on Vimeo.

Benoit Landry, who uses the Wikipedia alias “Salvidrim!” and who is the first announced candidate for Wikipedia’s powerful arbitration committee, launched his candidacy with an attack on yours truly. Landry has previously expressed support for the notorious Gamergater whose screen name reflects his love for the sweet, sweet song of Nazi dive bombers, and who likes to call me “Reichstag.” Why that name, do you (((suppose)))?

Landry argued that my resistance to using Wikipedia for harassment is just as bad as the harassment. Just in case you’re keeping score at home, some of the harassment I opposed included:

  • Using Wikipedia talk pages to publicize the accusation that a software marketer was a prostitute.
  • Attempting to endanger a member of the US Congress who was investigating Gamergate harassment by summoning a SWAT teams to her home.
  • Extortion.
  • Informing a software developer on her Wikipedia page that she would shortly be deceased.
  • Continuing efforts to use Wikipedia to publicize and discuss the sexual history of that developer.
  • Using Wikipedia to excuse implicit and explicit rape threats and anti-Semitic dog whistles, seeking both to spread them as widely as possible and to gaslight intended victims.

There is, of course, no comparison between the petty vitriol that Gamergate and their many Wikipedia supporters have directed at me and the horrific harassment they have directed at the women who have been their chief targets – women who have lost jobs and been forced from their homes.

One the one hand we have rape and murder, on the other, stern censure. Clearly: both sides are equally bad!

Update: Benoit Landry has now withdrawn his accusation. He writes on Twitter:

I apologize for characterizing the abrasiveness of your attitude and the excessive volume of your voice as “harassment.”

If Wikipedia administrators like Mr. Landry had succeeded in stopping the use of Wikipedia to threaten and smear Gamergate victims at any point in the past two years, abrasiveness would be unnecessary. Their failure to stem that flood might be attributed either to incapacity, to indifference, or to quiet support; perhaps Mr. Landry may take a moment from his campaign to enlighten us on this count.

With regard to excessive volume, I confess that it can be hard to gauge the correct volume to adopt with Wikipedia, when Wikipedia is being used to threaten one’s colleagues with rape and murder. Especially when people keep sending one gas chamber pictures.

Polls open in the US in a few short hours. I'm with her.

Interactive Fiction critic Em Short discusses “Small Scale Structures in Choose Your Own Adventure,” a discussion that applies to all sorts of hypertext fiction in which the reader’s choices affect the story. (In Those Trojan Girls and most other hypertexts in the literary tradition, most choices affect how the story is told: Troy is destined to fall and no on can change that, but amid the wreckage every one has their own story.)

Short’s patterns are fascinating and useful. I wrote a piece about patterns back in the 90s (and another about patterns in spatial hypertext in 2011), and these are terrific, insightful elaborations on what I called split/join and tangle. I especially like the Chapter One Sorting Hat – which Stuart Moulthrop invented for Victory Garden even before the sorting hat had been created – and its end-of-story mirror image, which Em Short calls the Endgame Time Cave.

Also pertinent: Adam Gopnick discusses the recent spate of interesting novels based on the plots of Shakespearean plays. He points out the obvious point that no one talks about: why are we so interested in the plots of these plays when we have no reason to think Shakespeare himself was?

As the “ordinary poet” of a working company of players, he sought plots under deadline pressure rather than after some long, deliberate meditation on how to turn fiction into drama. “What have you got for us this month, Will?” the players asked him, and, thinking quickly, he’d say, “I thought I’d do something with the weird Italian story I mentioned, the one with the Jew and the contest.” “Italy again? All right. End of the month then?” These were not the slow-cooked stories and intricately intertextual fables of the modern art novel.

What Gopnick overlooks is the energy generated by the friction of a new account rubbing against our memory of the underlying story. Mysteries work because we know where they’re going, but we can’t quite see how on earth we can possibly get there. A retelling like Vinegar Girl gets energy by touching Shakespeare and then flying away so we nearly forget we’re somewhere in The Taming of the Shrew. I think we’re very interested in narrative energy right now, and so the energy of the twice-told tale is worth exploring.

Nov 16 4 2016

The Trojan Wall

The Trojan Wall

Those Trojan Girls has a big cast. We start out with the big cast we inherit from Euripides and Seneca, and then we’ve got their classmates, teachers, police, resistance fighters, coaches, cooks, street kids, and two maids in love. Of course, most of the kids have a family back home, and since there’s a war on, lots of those families have urgent stories.

There was a lot to keep track of.

I can’t imagining tackling this without Tinderbox. For this project, my use of Tinderbox was (wait for it!) really simple: a note for each character and containers for categories of characters. Family members start as text notes inside the character notes but sometimes expand. (I was too slow to expand jottings about minor characters into full-fledged notes, and that caused confusion later.)

I also kept a Tinderbox map of the campus handy, which put a brake on the proclivity of Kenmire Hall to wander from one side of campus to another.

The Trojan Wall

There’s a limit to how much work you want to put into this kind of infrastructure; one day you’re assembling notes on the backstory and before you know it you’ve got ten years of backstory, no novel, and you’re Henry Darger. Still, it’s good to write stuff down.

Outside Tinderbox, I also found it hard to keep everyone straight. At one point, I wrote entire scenes where I called Brianna something else, and Sofia kept becoming “Sophia.” Eventually, I threw together a few sketches and stuck them to the edge of my bookcase.

Nov 16 3 2016

Who Goes Trump?

In 1941. Dorothy Thompson wrote “Who Goes Nazi?” for Harper’s.

It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis.

We’re there again. James Kirchick: Who Goes Trump?

The amount of racism, foul misogyny, and anti-Semitism we all see in social media these days is breathtaking. The Republican nominee is certainly a cheat and a boastful sexual predator; he may also be a rapist and he might be an agent of a hostile foreign power. He cannot express himself. He has no policy. Shadowy police agencies small and large flock to his banner, and the Republican congressional leadership has already vowed to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of any other election result.

Those Trojan Girls

Those Trojan Girls is an exciting new hypertext fiction. It’s available now, for macOS, at an introductory price of $14.95 – a $10 discount.

Cassandra used to be really popular. Three years ago she went totally goth, but for her classmates, goth is over. Nobody has time for that shit. Cassie stands (in torn jeans) athwart the road of history shouting “Stop!” and she is right – but there are good and necessary reasons she’s wrong, too.

Those Trojan Girls is meant to be fun, but it’s not a game. It does have a princess who requires rescue, but she’s rescued at the beginning by a black limousine that will either drive her to an undisclosed location or, if things don’t work out, take her straight to prison. Before she leaves, she explains things to Polly Xena, the head girl of her boarding school.

Wake up, Polly. That’s why it’s called a revolution. It’s supposed to make your head spin. Or roll. The new lot have started a war. Daddy has a visit from prime minister, and Katie says ‘Run.’ I’m running. Next month, you can tell me what an ass I’ve been. I’m not the smartest horse, but I’m well trained.

The problem isn’t saving the princess: the problem is the wreckage she will leave. A 21st-century School Story, based on The Trojan Women.