MarkBernstein.org
Apr 02 29 2002

Sweet

In a bad week, I'm taking a pleasure in Iru, a lovely display font from T26. It's drawn with a simple joy. It's at once familiar and new. It has a great Y and a nifty X, which makes it handy for a hypertext publisher like me.

If you read the Scandinavian Web design portal k10k, you're already familiar with the exuberant enthusiasms of its writers. Sites they like are smooth and sweet. They're filled with pixellated goodness. They're tasty. They're happy.

Hypertext begins with Ted Nelson's white book with a clenched fist and the motto: You Can And Must Understand Computers Now. Computer For The People! We used to worry about fitting the computer in the basement, and what we'd do to help people who didn't have a basement. Now, we agonize over whether we can bother upgrading our browser or agonize that we weren't born knowing Flash and Tinderbox and PHP.

Enough. Let's stop worrying and get back to making (and enjoying) great stuff.

As a rule of thumb, you can sniff out the bad hypertext criticism from a distance. It's sour, bitter, and petty. The bad criticism is filled with talk about the death of disciplines, with gloating over the end of careers, with jealousy over the very idea of someone having to pay $20 for a wonderful hypertext, with venom and bitterness and bile.

The good critics remember that we're part of a wonderful new beginning, and they're happy. They're even happy when they don't much like the hypertext at hand. The good critics learn from hypertexts they don't immediately like. They want to learn, they want to share the lesson with us, and they are happy doing it.

Apr 02 26 2002

On Criticism

Greco is angry because so much hypertext criticism is small-minded and inept. It's also unreadable. It doesn't have to be.

Let's look at Ebert, taking on a terrible challenge: reviewing a mediocre movie that readers expect to be mediocre. What can you say about The Scorpion King?

"Of all the special effects in the movie, the most impressive are the ones that keep the breasts of the many nubile maidens covered to within one centimeter of the PG-13 guidelines. Hu, a beautiful woman who looks as if she is trying to remember the good things her agent told her would happen if she took this role, has especially clever long, flowing hair, which cascades down over her breasts instead of up over her head, even when she is descending a waterfall.

Did I enjoy this movie? Yeah, I did, although not quite enough to recommend it...

This isn't showy, but he makes a point about craft, and another point about the limits of craft, and we have fun reading it. Compare this to Scott Rettberg in EBR:

A hypertext novel, with its simple links, might map metaphorically to a relatively simple instrument, such as a flute or a guitar, while a VRML MOO complete with programmed AI avatars might map to something more along the lines of a pipe organ. Symphonies will be written, but before they are realized both writers and readers will need to figure out how to work with the many new instruments at hand.

Rettberg is reaching higher, and his horn won't hit the note. Ebert shows humor and sympathy to an actress caught in an difficult place and awkward costume, Rettberg is busy fluting his metaphor. Whether "mapping" is an apt metaphor or not, it's hard to care as much about it as we care for Ebert's actress. Is a pipe organ a complex instrument, compared to a guitar? In terms of polyphonicity, or difficulty of performance, or subtlety of repertoire, or what? What's the obsolete VRML doing here? After all those conditional verbs, who knows?

Rettberg can do better than this; look at his fiction. But this is one of the better parts of the essay. Elsewhere, he stumbles (as writers do) and his editors at EBR don't take the trouble to save him. For extra credit, listen to this muddled nostalgia for the good old school days of his youth which (since Mr. Rettberg is still in school) must have been more recent than he wants you to think.

Back in the day when William Gillespie and I were enrolled in David Foster Wallace's M.A. fiction writing workshop at Illinois State University, which at the time was chock-full of eager young postmodernists striving to subvert the work of their forbears, our discussion often circled back to the ideas - not to familiar workshop dictums about showing vs. telling - but to the problem of "showing off," and in the process "telling off" the reader. When we youngsters utilized techniques such as nonlinear narrative, disruptive shifts of discourse style mid-story, radical deconstruction of givens of traditional storytelling such as plot, character, and setting etc., Wallace usually reacted in a surprisingly negative, surprisingly conservative way....

Dave Winer has often been sympathetic to Microsoft, but Bill Gates' testimony and the ensuing corporate spin was the last straw.

"Oh geez, what could be worse than users running software that doesn't come from Microsoft. All hell would break loose. Can't have any of that. Wow. Some day these guys are going to want to talk to developers again. I can't imagine how they'll explain this to us. Oh we didn't mean your software. Unmitigated arrogance. Incorrigible monopolist.

Apr 02 24 2002

Directories

Congratulations to ELO, which has been awarded another $50,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to work on its directory of electronic literature.

Last week, Eastgate's main Web site served 43,377 pages. As best I can determine, the hypertexts and systems we publish -- about 40 in all -- received two referrals from the directory. That's at least 0.005% of our traffic!

Great rainy-day reading: a vast collection of Top Ten Lists at The Guardian. Christopher Hart on "classic erotic", Sarah Waters on "Victorian novels", Simon Schama on "popular History", and many, many more.

Ebert gets it exactly right when he says,

The would-be lovers in "Kissing Jessica Stein" are not having sex, exactly, because of Jessica's skittish approach to the subject, but if they did, it would be a leisure activity like going to the movies. If it really meant anything to either one of them--if it meant as much as it does to the mother--the comedy would be more difficult, or in a different key. We can laugh because nothing really counts for anything. That's all right. But if Jessica Stein ever really gets kissed, it'll be another story.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this likable little movie is how easily it leads us through things that recently would have been titanic. It really views sex as a choice: nobody here would think of calling it the love that dare not speak its name because nobody thinks it's a big deal. Jessica Stein, her family, her friends and colleagues -- everyone (except her lover) is Jewish -- the movie is filled with closely observed, nuanced, varied profiles of American Jews. Again, the film treats this as no big deal. We've come a long way from The Little Foxes and Annie Hall.

Apr 02 23 2002

Bash

Diane Greco shows how easy it is to write hypertext criticism these days:

  1. Bash George P. Landow
  2. Bash Eastgate
  3. Blow your horn; don't bother to read or understand writers who don't buy you drinks
  4. Drop names

Greco's furious. It's about time someone got angry. It's about time we all got angry.

I've been quiet about this for the last year or two, expecting that talent (and there's plenty of talent in this field) would drive out or educate the foolishness. Instead, the foolishness and thuggery are driving out the talent. Enough: let's clean these stables.

In the LA Times, staff writer Susan Salter Reynolds writes about "Opening the Book on Literature's Future".

The fact checking is abysmal and shocking. In alluding to the canon of early literary hypertexts, for example, she writes:

These include William Gibson's "xanadu," a story that disintegrated bit by bit over a six-month period, and Michael Joyce's "Aftermath," the first electronic literary book with hypertext links.

The Gibson work was "Agrippa: A Book of the Dead". "Xanadu", of course, is Ted Nelson's vision for a docuverse. Joyce's was "afternoon, a story". Good grief.

Apr 02 21 2002

K10K Returns

K10K, the leading European Web Design portal, has returned from an extended hiatus.

The new K10K design is more colorful than the old monochrome, but the aesthetic remains the same. K10K combines Northern European and Japanese design sensibilities in an interesting and often unique mixture. The return of K10K may signal the end of Internet Winter, the season of post-bubble despair.

Damon Knight, science fiction writer and anthologist, died last week. SFSite has a remarkably good bibliographic database.

I bought Jeff Noon's Pixel Juice a couple of years ago, looking for airplane reading. I thought it was fun, quirky, my own private discovery until Diane Greco blogged his Guardian essay and JeffNoon.com.

Weblog clusters make reading a social activity that moves beyond the people you happen to see all the time. My reading pages provoke some fascinating correspondence, often with authors I wouldn't otherwise have met. I like to know what Diane is reading. Doug Miller is talking about starting a reading log, too.

Dave Rogers (Times Shadow, April 18, no permalink) writes that:

"If you wanted to make a splash with a novel idea, you'd want to do it on the Mac where there are fewer competitors, the customers are more savvy and there is a vibrant community that will spread the word about your product. I'd like to point to Tinderbox as an example...

I hope he's right.

Apr 02 18 2002

Tinderbox 1.0.1

Tinderbox 1.0.1 is out. It's a free upgrade that fixes a variety of small problems and inconveniences.

Doug Miller writes that "Tinderbox has become completely indispensable to me."

Not only are nearly the entire contents of my brain stored in Tinderbox now, but I'm using it for all my blogging. I use it as a news aggregator to find interesting things to read and blog, and I write all my blog entries with it, too. A quick text export, and I import the entry into MySQL via a web form and the post is done."

Notice how Miller uses lots of tools, all working together. Information comes from Web sites all over the place. Tinderbox reads and arranges their syndicated headlines, helping to filter the information Miller most wants to see. Other parts of Tinderbox help pull the information together; once written, stories are integrated into his existing database-backed workflow.

Tinderbox appeared on Macintosh first. We're working on the Windows version -- I get personal mail about Tinderbox for Windows every day. Here's today's:

"This is just to let you know that I am getting desperate with my PC laptop and am considering making the move to Mac just because of Tinderbox. I have been talking about it was [....] and [.....], and I am sooooo jealous. The Mac people should give you a huge amount of money just for tempting us all."

(I currently have four computers on my desk. Hope is a Macintosh I use for email and for writing. Patience is a Macintosh laptop I use for development (because it's faster than Hope). Faith is a Windows development machine. And the Treo is a PalmOS computer I'm using to explore how Tinderbox and Storyspace might fit into the handheld world. Serious computer people need several machines; computers are much less costly than time.)

Apr 02 16 2002

Reading again

June Lester takes on the question of reading on screens (see "Web Writing"), arguing that "most of us don't read onscreen, we scan". Of course, people scan on paper, too! Her interesting note on ergonomics highlights another important aspect of reading on screens: people may tolerate unreasonable discomfort in their workspace if the discomfort arises incrementally or has always been there.

I worked for years on a 14" monitor, graduating to a 17" display only last year. The monitor was adequate when new. Over the years, the monitor grew worse and worse, and the state of the art grew better and better. But the change was gradual; only when the monitor threatened to break completely did I declare, "This is intolerable!"

by John Lusk and Kyle Harrison

Lusk and Harrison left Wharton with their MBA's, the plans for a computer mouse that looks like a golf club head, and just enough capital to launch a novelty gift business. This lively, likable account of the first two years of MouseDrivers serves as a strange postscript to the dotcom era. Lusk and Harrison are acutely aware that Mouse Drivers is not a dotcom, that their enterprise is froth at the rim of the internet cauldron. They take some pride in this; they have a business model, they make money, they manufacture things people want. But, in the end, the whole idea is predicated on the dotcom bubble, as is the ease with which they raise their capital, the assurance with which they launch their business, and the willingness they seem to have felt throughout to envision the failure of the whole thing. A very welcome antidote to CEO-porn, the unfounded adulation and (more recently) ridicule that pervades so much popular writing about business.

Ravi Shankar covers last week's ELO meeting in Poets and Writers.

Apr 02 14 2002

Web writing

In Design for Community, Derek Powazek takes on a popular myth of web writing, the belief that people don't read on screen.

People love to read on screens. If we didn't like it, why would we all spend so much time reading email?

People don't care about reading comfort. They care about payoff. Look at your newspaper: chances are, your paper uses a typeface designed to save paper. Times Roman isn't legible. It's compact. Newspapers are exquisitely sensitive to circulation figures, and through much of their history were extremely competitive; if people wanted legibility more than a few extra pages, the newspapers would have changed their fonts ages ago. Even upscale papers (like the Times) prefer to squeeze information rather than to raise their prices slightly.

Jill Walker says links are the currency of the Web, and Google seems to agree.

"Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money." -- Mamet

Personally, I think audience is the currency of the Web, and links are they way we get an audience. After all, a kroner is a kroner wherever it is, while a link from a serious and widely-read weblog is worth more than a link from (say) a geocities home page that's been untouched since 1998.

Apr 02 11 2002

Library Cats

A directory of library cats in the US, past, present, and sculptural. (Thanks, Dave Winer)

The day had been long, frustrating, and difficult long before 7:30, when Linda and I arrived at the Blacksmith's House to hear Bonnie Friedman read from her new book, The Thief Of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy. Bonnie's an old friend of a friend, and while I confess I haven't read the book yet, I'm confident I'll like it. Her first book, Writing Past Dark, is a wonderful look at the writer's constant companions: fear and envy.

The reading was sold out.

Who has heard of such a thing? A sold out book reading? Bonnie's a fine writer, but she's not Lauren Bacall or John Grisham, and this is non-controversial nonfiction. Go figure.

But, it turns out that we have standby tickets for the ART production of Robert William Sherwood's Absolution, which starts in fifteen minutes. We rush over to the Hasty Pudding. We take our seats. I'm not hoping for much from the play, especially since my monumentally foul mood is not well suited to drama, and I've had too much drama lately.

It's wonderful. Lovely writing, reminiscent of Mamet but not imitative. Superb directing. Benjamin Evett, whom Linda and I have seen in productions spanning five or six years, has a scene that's a revelation, acting that makes you sit up and say, "I didn't know he could do that!" while they're changing the set. And it's an interesting play, too, about three men, once high school kids, who did (or may have done) something very bad when they were very young. I think I know where we're going but I'm not sure, and I'm enjoying the trip.

Then, the stage manager comes out and says that there's been an accident, and the show can't go on: one of the actors got hit on the head backstage. Everyone troops out; the stage manager offers to tell people how the play turns out if they want to come upstage.

As he head for Herrell's, Linda wonders whether all the ice cream will have been removed from Boston. That kind of night.

Esther Dyson has a nice (and widely-read) piece on weblog reports at conferences -- including weblog debates undertaken while a presentation is under way.

"In some sense, the power of the conference moderator is reduced. Bloggers can add their own value ... and they can relay their version from inside the tent to those outside the tent and out of the organizer's control. "

Weblog reports after conferences have become terribly important as well. Nobody else seems to be writing about last weekend's ELO meeting, but a simultaneous conference in Oslo is being talked about by Torill, Jill, Anders, and probably others. This tends to convince me that the conference I attended didn't really happen, that the real meeting was elsewhere.

There was much talk at the Electronic Literature Organization's "State of the Arts" conference about obsolescence. This word, I think, was used indiscriminately to represent two different anxieties.

First, people worry that electronic art they create (or teach, or enjoy) will be lost as systems change. This fear is, I think, exaggerated and misplaced. If readers and scholars care about a work, it will survive because it will be ported, translated, and preserved. afternoon, a story is already the oldest consumer software on the market; keeping it (and the rest of the Storyspace canon) fresh and current has demonstrably not exceeded the (very modest) resources that Eastgate commands.

If a work has no readers, it may easily be lost forever, whether it is written in granite or bits. Yes, a few paper works went ignored for generations and, like Beowulf, were miraculously salvaged. We don't know -- we cannot know -- what wasn't salvaged. It seems unlikely that posterity will have time to sort through the detritus of our literature, electronic or otherwise, to hunt for ignored gems. Unless we tell them what's good, they'll never find it in the junk.

The other obsolescence on people's minds is the knowledge that the passage of time will tarnish the bright, shiny newness of their work. Like schoolchildren, some media professors scoff at the idea that old art can speak to us. Yes, the surface of old art will tarnish -- it will acquire dings and dents and a patina of unintended meanings deposited by the years and by our remembered experiences. So what?

The unforgettable film you saw, that unforgettable night with your first lover: that movie is not the same today. It cannot be, because you cannot be. But if it is a good movie, even this does not matter.

Why are we so worried about obsolescence? Why aren't we enjoying the moment, the first flush of all the wonderful new hypertext all around us? Are we so old and tired that we cannot rouse ourselves to engage new art for fear that someday, perhaps. the affair will end?

Peter Merholz takes exception to the conventional Information Architecture approach, grounded in library science, that treats "content" as an external force to be reconciled with business context and user needs. "A failing of current web site practice," he writes, "is that we treat existing content as a 'given' to be shoveled to users via the web site."

Apr 02 9 2002

ELO state

At the ELO "State of the Arts" meeting last week, I took part in a short panel on "Tools for Cross-Fertilization and Interactivity".

Pacific Fertility CenterOne problem with the state of our art is that we don't understand our own jargon. I've been working in the field for years, I build hypertext tools professionally, and I have no idea what "cross-fertilization" means here. We've got a jumble of popular products (Night Kitchen, Storyspace), research prototypes (RED, from PARC), and artists who make software (Bill Seaman, UCLA) on stage, but we don't know what we're really expected to be talking about. Neither does the audience. This leaves everyone feeling uneasy, edgy, unhappy.

Moderator Cathy Marshall asked a great question: what agenda does your system have? The agenda for Storyspace, I think, is links -- lots of links. Everything is deeply intertwingled. The agenda for Tinderbox is putting ideas together in new ways with agents, maps, and templates. The agenda for my talk at ELO was an old message that electronic artists need, I think, to hear once more: You can and must understand computers now.

No software package is as difficult as Dante.

ELO might have been my last trip with Patience, the Macintosh "Wall Street" Powerbook that has been my travel companion since Hypertext '99. Every line of Storyspace II and Tinderbox was written on Patience.

It's time for a faster machine. But the black Powerbook series was a wonderful design, and for three years, when I've been hacking (as I am tonight at LAX) in public, I've been happy to have the distinctive machine, the machine that Willow Rosenberg uses. (Willow bought an IceBook last year)

Apr 02 8 2002

ELO performance

The best part of the ELO conference, much like the best of last year's Digital Arts and Culture, was the chance to see hypertext writers and electronic poets perform their work.

Writers write, and writing is usually best appreciated alone, in comfort, and in your own time. But hypertext reading can be tricky. Some hypertexts need to be approached with care and deliberation, others are best breezed through wit and humor. Knowing how the author imagines the reader's voice and pace can help us get a handle on an difficult work.

Performance also lets us step away from a work. We have to approach it fresh, because we're not in control. It was good, then, to hear Caitlin Fisher read her award-winning hypertext, These Waves Of Girls, and to let her choose the links and imagine the voices, let her decide what to dwell on and what to skip over. She reads well (not everyone does: authors are not always skilled actors), and as she reads the critics and controversies fall away, leaving us the work's gentle pleasures and charms.

One of the subtle costs of Big Awards is that they may shine too bright a light on subjects best viewed at dawn or dusk. Some work may be easier to meet when it's dressed in jeans and old flannel instead of an evening gown; if we rely on awards for our introduction to new work, we might miss small delights.

Travel writer Carl Franz has moved his Copper Canyon Notebook to Tinderbox.

Apr 02 7 2002

Canon A40

Coming home from Singapore, I broke the pivot of my Nikon Coolpix. On the way to the ELO meeting, I picked up the new Canon A40 as a stopgap, knock-about camera. It's inexpensive, small, and flexible. Some things I like about it:

  • it powers up more quickly than my Nikon
  • it has flexible semi-auto settings, including good white balance
  • it has 2M pixels and costs $300
  • it seems to get better battery life than the Nikon
  • it lets you adjust the noise/speed tradeoff all the way to ASA-equiv 400, which is great for conferences

I do miss the Nikon pivot.

Apr 02 4 2002

Minima

Magazine Minima: a journal of microfiction and Flash imagery.

In an intriguing discussion of Henry Jenkins' work on games, Torill Mortensen observes that games have always been about learning. She worries, though, that today's games are less educational than they ought to be:

The modern problem is that children's play has been colonised by commercial interests, and split from the adult tasks....We are reducing the playfulness and the pleasure of being adults, limiting our playing to the spheres where children should not be involved: competitions or sexual games...

Nothing can be colonized, I think, by commercial interests: if we have learnt nothing else from Marx, we should by now have learned that economics are everywhere, always. You can't get outside the economy, because there is no outside.

(The notion that childrens' games aren't sexual was, I thought, an American fantasy, part of the puritan streak that makes our attorney general want to put clothes on neoclassical statues. But perhaps its also a peculiar American fantasy that Scandinavians know better.)

You should be; handing out bad patents is destroying progress in research. Now, US Patent Office has issued a patent for a faster-than-light transmitter. It makes plants grow faster, too. What are they thinking? Thanks Doc Searls.

The US has a tradition of fine sports writing, born of the era when a slew of beat writers had to compete every day for every possible newspaper reader. "How long does it take you to write a column?", someone once asked Red Smith. "As long as I've got." was the inevitable comeback. The newspapers aren't the force they once were (though Peter Gammons started there, and he can write when he wants). Roger Angell is still the grand poet of the sport. But writers grow into the job: listen to stat-head Bill James:

But the true story of baseball in the 1950's is not a story about greedy men who betrayed the trust of loyal rooters and brought the golden age of sport crashing down as they foraged for even greener pastures. It is a story about fear and urban decay, about a panic-stricken industry scrambling for survival. It is a story about old ballparks that had come to symbolize the rotting neighborhoods in which they rested, and were smashed apart so that something new and full of promise could be put in their place. We know now that this was a mistake, and we wish now that they had saved the old ballparks. But we must also hope that history will have compassion in surveying our mistakes, and for that reason we must try not to judge to harshly the mistakes of the generation before us.

This appears on page 241 of a book that runs to 924 pages. It also appears in the first version of this book, but that's unusual: almost everything here is new. Preserving something this good is just good sense. James isn't stuffy, or fussy, and he isn't a poet. He simply writes damn well, and finds something interesting to say about hundreds and hundreds of men who played the game.

Bruno is a daily web comic, created by illustrator Chris Baldwin. (Baldwin also did the characters for my "Where Are The Hypertexts?", as well as the Storyspace development cat). Recently, Baldwin has added a simple web journal to the Bruno page as a sort of pendant, a personal note from the artist.

Genre bending is at the heart of the Web.

June Lester's Afterhours is made with Tinderbox.

"I have an eclectic collection of interests in education, mathematics, design, art, and other subjects, and I'm sure I'll write about most of them eventually, especially about how they play themselves out online."

Yet another new Tinderbox site: Tellef Kvifte's Nutcracker/Nøtteside page. Every month, this bilingual site presents a picture and challenges readers to identify what the picture could possibly represent. From the Institute for Music and Theater at the University of Oslo.