May 06 1 2006

A pause?

I may be offline for the rest of the week. Linda's excellent niece is getting married, and the invitations say nothing about net access. See you soon.

Why is a snark a snark? Do you serve it with greens? It's a useful expression, but if this is a snark, then what would a boojum be? “If it once becomes dark there's no chance of a Snark -- We have hardly a minute to waste!'”

Kathy Sierra and Merlin Mann write about the problems of keeping up -- not with the Joneses, but with your stack of reading.

There's an opportunity for all of us to help our users (or start a business around helping people reduce the info overload/pressure-to-keep-up stress most of us feel). In the meantime, take a deep breath and repeat after me, 'I will never keep up. Keeping up is a myth.' And if it makes you feel any better, add, 'John isn't keeping up either.'

Babbit's Revenge? (a snark)
This is interesting. I've written before about my own unmanageable reading stack.

"I have two more of these piles of books at home, and another pile at work. And there are lots of books I've been planning to read, wanting to read, that I've promised to read, that aren't even on the stack. I've got weeks and weeks of hypertexts, too. Some of these (like the Simon Schama) have been simmering for months. Others (Tournament of Shadows) joined the pile because of The Current Situation. It's a big, big pile. And it ought to be bigger.

How does anyone keep up with this? I know, I know: it's a sophomoric question. But it's a real problem for me, and I'm always falling farther behind. Triage seems out of the question; what now?

But is shrugging and saying "It's too hard" an answer? Between the newspapers and must-read Web sites (Josh Marshall, Juan Cole), I'm spending an hour a day on political and military issues over which I have negligible influence. Is that wise? But we're fighting a war which no one can really explain, and appear to be sliding toward presidential tyranny in which the rule of law only runs at the pleasure of the executive. Can we sit around and say, "that's not my department?" If we do, will we someday have to testify that "we didn't know"?

Why keep up?

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near

You do what you can, and it's never enough, and that's the way it should be. Being too comfortable in not knowing what you don't know is the defining trait of pointy-haired managers, politicians, princes and priests.

I think, today, that a broad, generous, and liberal understanding is a very difficult thing for which to reach, but that difficulty doesn't mean we should be comfortable in the embrace of not knowing. "Though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run."

Dan Bricklin has some interesting notes on an application that helps track symptoms.

This reminds me of Alwin Hawkins' tutorial on using Tinderbox to track his new diabetes treatment (formatting of the tutorial is broken, but it's legible and Alwin can probably fix it....)

by H. G. Wells

Out of print and forgotten, this volume collects lectures and articles Wells wrote to describe his project for a universal networked encyclopedia. Wells has many of the key elements of the Memex and the Web, including an interesting emphasis on the importance of transclusion that anticipates Ted Nelson. He envisions the encyclopedia as the work of an open, international scholarly cooperative with a distributed infrastructure and networked management -- Wikipedia, in essence, with a sounder institutional basis and more elaborate editorial structure. Wells also foresees obstacles, such as intellectual property laws, fanatics and zealots (especially in matters that touch on religion), and storage capacity that would go on to bedevil information science for the rest of the 20th century.

Wells misses electronics, as everyone did. He does observe that reference and support material could be stored on microfilm, copies to microfiches on demand, and mailed to customers on demand; while this might have been cumbersome, it would place the tools in the hands of families of modest means. Bush's Memex was always destined to be reserved for captains of industry and his computer was a behemoth of such great cost that it would require a vast staff to keep the machine occupied and productive around the clock.

Rescued from oblivion by Michael Buckland, this interesting little volume is not difficult to locate through the Web via the used-book consortia such a aLibris and AbeBooks that the realization of Wells' vision have made practical.

Apr 06 30 2006

Bricklin's Law

Dave Winer writes about the utter futility of geekness, in which he reiterates Dan Bricklin's emphasis on the importance of generosity of spirit in software design.

Instead of making you feel bad for "only" doing 99%, a well designed system makes you feel good for doing 1%. ... Another design criteria for a type of successful system [is] Guiltlessness. No only should people just need to do what's best for them when they help others, they need to not need to always do it.

Guiltlessness, beauty, continuous incremental advantage, depth: maybe we're getting somewhere with software aesthetics after all. Meanwhile, GoJobby has a useful rant about the limited place of beauty in good Web design, or why 'bad' graphic design seems so popular. (Skip the mostly useless comments)

As a side note, note that Winer is careful to use "geekness" and not the insulting "geekiness". Winer's word, which is comparatively rare, describes the things that 'geeks' have in common, their common nature. As Winer says, geeks (like other artists) spend too much time talking ineffectually about ways to make money. The more common "geekyness", on the other hand, refers to the geeky things that those unfortunate geeks enjoy: it's a term of abuse. Use it with great care unless you yourself are a very technical person indeed.

It's like telling Jewish jokes, an ancient and important art which requires the teller to possess either extraordinary tact, wit, and grace, or (lacking that) a Jewish mother.

Be very careful, too of the diminutive noun, "techie". When used by a manager, it's a fighting word. Don't do it.

by Patrick O'Brian

Banks, a wealthy young man, found little to amuse him at Harrow, Eton, and Oxford save botany. He did throw himself into botany, though, and when the opportunity arose he sailed with Cook's pioneering little expedition to the South Seas, discovering and cataloging and ultimately returning to the thanks of the Admiralty, the admiration of King George III, and the presidency of The Royal Society. An unusually amiable, intelligent, and generous man, Banks never learned to spell or to use punctuation but knew and corresponded with every important scientist and naturalist of the age.

O'Brian was the author of the wonderful Aubrey-Maturin novels in which Banks himself plays a minor role, but Banks is clearly a model for Maturin and O'Brian's inimitable voice and unique ability to capture the passion and excitement of research, explaining just enough but never quite as much as lesser writers would, makes this biography delightful and memorable.

An exceptionally thorough and thoughtful history of games, with an emphasis on the business and economy of games, by Greg Costikyan: "The Revolution Began On Paper" in The Escapist. (Interesting Web design, too)

Apr 06 27 2006



There's a big special on Tinderbox right now at Eastgate. It's just $149. And you can save $10 on upgrades, too.

This weekend only.

Don't forget Tinderbox Weekend in Boston next month, May 13-14. Last call for early registration (which saves you $50).

A big topic at Tinderbox Weekend Chicago turned out to be adornments.

I remember when spatial hypertext and hypertext maps were pretty much lab curiosities, but now we need to talk about how to use them effectively to get work done, and to do it right now.

Kathryn Cramer will be talking about information and serious blogging at Tinderbox Weekend Boston, sent along this screen shot from a new Tinderbox project.

She's studying some apparently-interlocking organizations and connections. It's a classical journalism problem: who is connected, and how are they involved? The key point is that this is not a presentation or a visual explanation -- it's a working document that emerged naturally in the course of an afternoon. Cramer isn't (yet) explaining this to you with charts and diagrams, she's just organizing her notes, but this sort of malleable map lets her express tenative and imprecise relationships as they seem to emerge from the evidence.

From H. G. Wells' lecture on Brain Organization of the Modern World, October and November 1937.

This Encyclopedia organization need not be concentrated now in one place; it might have the form of a network. It would centralize mentally but perhaps not physically. Quite possibly it might to a large extent be duplicated. It is its files and its conference rooms which would the the core of its being, the essential Encyclopedia. It would constitute the material beginning of a real World Brain.
....In a few score years there will be thousands of workers at this business of ordering and digesting information where you now have one.

I took a minute to tweak the nouveau style sheet for this page. (You might need to reload the page to see the changes). Nouveau seems to be a little more robust in the face of buggy browsers; I might switch the other styles to be based on something like Nouveau in the next spring cleaning.

Cathy Marshall discusses R. W. Apple, Calvin Trillin, and the boss's lunch en route to discovering the Southern Foodways Symposium. October 19-22, Oxford, Mississippi.

What would they think if an entire delegation of hypertext researchers and bloggers showed up? It sounds great. Papers on "Parsing a Moon Pie" and "We Didn't Know From Fatback: Southern Jewish Perspectives on Barbecue".

From an earlier post:

Nor did I get 500K advances on my physics problem sets, even when I stopped copying Jeff Klein's homework. I did, however, make it all the way up to a "B" third term sophomore year (quantum mechanics).

Lisa Firke came back from Tinderbox Weekend Chicago and launched into a long-delayed task: moving her old weblog posts from TypePad to Tinderbox. She's got a detailed description of the process:

I had been leery of this process, but found that XML is a godlike form for moving stuff from one place to another....

A Conjecture: Our resurgent interest in food does not stem from green consciousness or medicine or food TV. We're interested in cooking because we're cooking more, and because we're now coming to understand cooking. We have a feel for ingredients (thanks, Alice!). We're open to trying techniques from peasants and pros, because it's all just dinner (thanks, Julia!).

Knowing a little more about cooking teaches us more about eating. Eating new foods teaches us more about cooking. And the habit of thinking about what we're eating and how we're cooking improves our food and (I hope) ourselves.

Adrian Miles discovers Cathy Marshall's weblog:

Cathy is the hypertext elf. A computer scientist who can write with an élan that is, well, wonderful, and of course makes cool things...

Cathy, in turn, has a wonderful trip to Manhattan post:

My lumpy briefcase and I are back from Manhattan, having survived several embarrassing celebrity sightings, an overwhelming (and beautiful) six course dinner in a kaiseki-style Japanese restaurant, two American Airlines snack boxes, the apparent death of the whole concept of 'boutique hotel,' amazing insect-like swarms of tourists stirred by the first warm week of spring, and the usual taxi hi-jinx. In some sense, it was a typical trip to Manhattan, especially when one uses a 50lb briefcase as ballast and is wearing high heels with less aplomb and dignity than a 6'2 transvestite teetering dangerously down the Castro Street hill.

She stayed at the Paramount; when I walked into the Paramount last year, the lobby was filled with dark-suited Japanese businessmen and gorgeously-informal young French couples and I said to myself, 'This lobby is far too hip for me.'

Suggestion for further study: We've talked a lot about the cheese sandwich post (3 | 2 | 1). Other families of weblog posts could bear with scrutiny as well: now what we understand the way skilled bloggers find many uses for the cheese sandwich, we might learn a lot by studying some other families. The trip to Manhattan (or Paris, or London -- cf. Dick Whittington) would be a good starting place.

Cookbooks have tended to be long lists of recipes. They're essentially lists of formulas and procedures, loosely organized by category: appetizers, fish, meat, poultry, vegetables, desserts.

Why don't we have more systematic cookbooks? Why not organize a cookbook by cooking method? Grill, saute, bake, braise, poach. Once you have an idea of what you're doing on your grill, for example, you'll do better at grilling everything. (It's really important, for example, to understand the difference between grilling, where high heat is everything, and barbecue, which needs a low fire and plenty of time.)

The success of Cook's is one sign of the interest in systematic cookbooks. Another is EGullet's successful "Culinary Institute" forum -- long discussion forum threads that explore one style or technique in great depth. A braising lab, for example, encouraged the participants to work together through a curriculum of braising projects, exploring techniques and alternatives while keeping other factore fixed.

A compendium of Roger Ebert's writing on Robert Altman. Cool.

Ebert's colleague Jim Emerson offers a list of 101 102 films people really should see. Lists are pernicious, but the underlying idea of an informal canon or curriculum makes sense. And it's important to see, as well, that it's a big canon -- big enough that Emerson forgot Apocalypse Now! and had to expand the list. (People seem to be having fun with the 'how many have you seen' meme: my rough count is 77)

Guy Kawasaki writes about weblog marketing -- about launching and building traffic for your weblog.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Kawasaki's essay is to discover how much marketing his new weblog matters to him, how engaged he is in building audience. It's not obvious that this should be so. He doesn't really need the pulpit: he's got one in his work, and he's got another in his books. I The money traffic brings can't really be decisive; there's always another deal to make, a keynote to give, a client to advise.

Why does Kawasaki care so much about marketing his blog? Perhaps because marketing is what he does. He markets it well, because the work is its own reward. Good for him.

We've got a little project that makes sense for a print-on-demand service like So I thought I'd give it a try.

It's a nice Web site. The pricing model is fine, the workflow is good. The site has subtle css bugs that make is approximately unusable with Safari, because critical buttons are drawn beyond the edge of the window. (You wouldn't know these buttons existed unless someone told you)

A rule of Web service design: If your layout is going to break in some browsers, you're better off if it breaks badly. The most insidious layout error is one where everything looks all right, and isn't. Worst case: on ecommerce layout where everything is fine except the BUY NOW! button is absent.

The problem is, simply, that they aren't sure what input their workflow accepts, and what it doesn't. The idea is simple: you give them a pdf, they give you a book -- much like iPhoto. But iPhoto knows what it's going to accept. Lulu is trapped by the idiosyncrasies of print drivers, which (apparently) can't deal with some 'bad' pdf that certain programs generate.

Nobody really seems to know just what is 'bad' about this bad pdf, so there's a lot of magic and superstition. Quark is bad. Apple's Pages is bad. In fact, anything touched by a Macintosh might by bad. Or maybe not.

They have good tech support consultants. I spent hours on this yesterday, to no avail. It's been expensive for Eastgate, expensive for Lulu, and we still don't really know what (if anything) is wrong with the pdf, what sort of pdf would not have this wrongness, or how to move forward.

I have a more experience at this than lots of people, and I'm a lot more facile with my computers than the target audience of the service. And, for once, I'm doing something that should be simple and undemanding.

Hint to Lulu management: in the era of the Macintosh Mini, there's no reason not to buy some Macs for your tech support people. You're in business; you've got to give your people the tools they need.

From a lecture by H. G. Wells on The World Encyclopedia to the Royal Institution of Great Britain, November 20, 1936

The day when an energetic journalist could gather together a few star contributors and a miscellany of compilers of very uneven quality to scribble him special articles, often tainted with propaganda and past. The modern World Encyclopedia should consist of selections, extracts, quotations, very carefully assembled with the approval of outstanding authorities in each subject, carefully collated and edited and critically presented.

[The World Encyclopedia] would give the specialist just that contact with the world at large which at present is merely caricatured by more or less elementary class-teaching, amateurish examination work and college administration. In my dream of a World Encyclopedia, I have a feeling that part of the scheme would be the replacement of the latter group of professional activities, the college business, tutoring, normal lecturing work and so on, by a new set of activities.... the watching brief to prevent the corruption of the popular mind. He will be redeemed from oddity, from shy preciousness and practical futility.

Our job may rather be to secure the use of copyrights, and induce leading exponents of this or that field of science or criticism to cooperate in the selection, condensation, expansion, or simplification of what they have already said so well.

Tinderbox Day Chicago went very well -- lots of interesting talk, tons of energy. Gordon Meyer did a nice little talk on the many ways he's used Tinderbox over the years for technical documentation. I survived a new Introduction To Tinderbox segment designed to emphasize research. This was a special challenge: I try to avoid teaching the introduction because I'm so familiar with Tinderbox. But things seem to have gone well.

Lots of new additions to The Tinderbox Way. There will be even more additions for Tinderbox Weekend Boston, May 13-14.

As we were leaving the Drake with our carry-on bags, a couple of white-gloved bellmen were standing by the grand staircase. One offered to help us with our bags.

"We're fine!", I said cheerfully. It's a carry-on, after all; we're going to be carrying the thing to Boston, we can carry it to the door. I'm thinking, "I don't want to make extra work, I don't want to negotiate a tip, I'm not so old and feeble that I can't safely manage this little suitcase."

"I have to go down there anyway," he says, taking my bag and Linda's and leading the way.

This was nicely done. Don't Make Me Think is not, I think, a very good motto for design, but it's a very good motto for offering gratuitous service. And gratuitous service (which includes cheerfulness) is one of the ways a hotel can distinguish itself from all the other hotels in the neighborhood.

In general, people at really good hotels seem really happy, and people at really bad hotels seem miserable, sullen, harried, or terrified. You can understand the dynamics of the general rule: good hotels probably pay better, have more reasonable managers and better workloads. Some of the boutique hotels like Cathy's Paramount and the Rex in San Francisco, I think, get extra good cheer from esprit de corps and from attitude -- and maybe also from a sense that individual contributions matter.

by Antony Griffiths

I had never learned the difference between an etching and an engraving, and this delightful and intelligent discussion of the history and art-history of reproduced images was refreshing and instructive. Griffiths has no time for collecting and he cheerfully tweaks collectors as autograph hounds and as victims of a fad that ended in 1929. Instead, he's simply interested in the image itself, how it is made and how it works aesthetically.

Apr 06 22 2006

Bright Lights

Walked down Michigan Avenue with Michael Druzinsky last night to hear the Chicago Symphony play Rouse's Rapture, Pictures at an Exhibition and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto (soloist Joshua Bell). The Mussorgsky featured multimedia visuals by Richard Cahan: it's an idea, I suppose, but it seems to me Mussorgsky is about the idea of Russia, and maybe about the idea of France, and dancing images of Chicagoland seem beside the point.

Still, it was a wonderful night of music. And then, walking back, we talked about tonality and its possible future, and then stopped in to hear Judy Roberts and Greg Fishman at the Intercontinental. Wound up talking with them about music theory and Boston Red Sox Haiku until all hours -- or mostly all.

I'm off to the Windy city for Tinderbox Day!

Tinderbox Day Chicago

I recently argued that, when we assume Usability is the core of software goodness, we're adopting a specific style and aesthetic in preference to other possible styles and aesthetics.

Louis Sullivan was an important modern architect, father of the skyscraper, and the stern theoretician who wrote that "form follows function." When you see a glass and steel tower, you're seeing Sullivan.

Here's a bit of one of his buildings, a Chicago department store:


Now this isn't abberant, or early; it's as idiomatically Sullivan as the haystacks are Monet. And it's not hypocrisy or inconsistency, either. Sullivan wants you to see the window, and he wants you to see the surface of the building, and he wants you to see that the building is at once lavish and ingenious -- that a lot of care has been spent in planning this store for you. It's not just a lot of expensive off-the-rack wood veneer and carpet -- superficial cruise-ship luxury. It's the real thing.

And it's designed to be seen again and again. Not to demand your attention like a Times Square sign or the Palmolive beacon, but to reward the attention you pay it.

There's not much in those ten heuristics that notices such care. When we come to big games, though -- software that wants us to spend hours and days with it, software that wants to create a new world for us -- we need this.

And in a lot of software, we want it.

Extra credit: We spend several days, at least, learning to operate a car. We spend longer, learning to operate the basics of algebra and calculus. We spend a few years achieving basic competence in fields like medicine, or gas fitting, or theatrical lighting. Why do we expect all our software to be mastered within an hour or two?

Apr 06 18 2006

Usability, Alas

Torill Mortensen cites an explanation from Melidda Federoff's thesis on heuristics and usability guidelines for the creation and evaluation of fun in video games.

Why Bother with Heuristics?

Usability heuristics are identified usability principles that trained evaluators use to assess the goodness of software design. This particular usability evaluation method is rather quick and inexpensive, usually requiring three to five evaluators each spending one to two hours to do two passes through an interface while producing a list of heuristic violations (Nielsen, 1994). Heuristics also provide a clear understanding of the principles with which a design is built.

Oh, dear.

First thing first: would you rather have a software design that is usable (by 3-5 novices who are spending an hour or two toting up "violations"), or would you like a software design that has some other properties, such as:

  • computing correct results?
  • providing those results on time?
  • providing those results reliably?
  • providing results efficiently and with minimum labor expense?
  • allowing prompt adaptation to changing needs and requirements?
Usability, Alas
Frank Lloyd Wright, Window,
Art Institute of Chicago

Software design is not a matter of avoiding gotcha's. Sure, it's nice to minimize training costs by making it easy for novices to use a system, but training is merely one kind of cost.

In addition, consider how Nielsen's justly-famous Ten Usability Heuristics assert that one particular aesthetic approach is universally valid and preferred to all others. Usability values Minimalism, functionalism, and the reflection of function in form. There's no place here, for example, for Ruskin's elements of the Gothic:

  • Savageness
  • Changefulness
  • Naturalism
  • Grotesqueness
  • Rigidity
  • Redundance

Now, it's possible that Danish Modern really is better than anything else. I've argued elsewhere, in fact, that one of our chief failings is that we lack the old Bauhaus confidence to choose a position and argue for its true potential.

The ultimate end of all creative activity is the Web site!

But this needs to be argued, not assumed. It's particularly dubious for software, because software aesthetics is so poorly understood that many consider the whole idea an oxymoron.

When we turn to games, I think it needs to be argued with still greater skill, because it's easy to see why Romantic or Gothic or Realist aesthetics might prove quite suitable for designing and understanding games.

For extra credit: Take Nielsen's 'Ten Usability Heuristics' and apply them to your favorite school of painting -- e.g. French Impressionism. For extra-extra credit, apply them to Abstract Expressionism. Or, for that matter, apply them to film noir, or to the films of Robert Altman.

Paolo Valdemarin observes that there are a lot of weblogs out there and asks, who is reading them?

My bet is that the vast majority of these blogs are read by their authors' friends. We read blogs because they are a good way to keep track of people we care for. I don't think that this huge number of blogs is competing with mainstream media in terms of credibility.

I think this understates and misinterprets the influence of weblogs: people will often believe their friends and those whom they personally respect in preference to mainstream media or official pronouncements. 18th century mainstream media believed in the divine right of kings; 1776 and 1789 had other ideas. Mainstream media in Occupied Europe said, "Obey the government and don't buy black-market food", and we all know how that worked out. Mainstream media told us in the Vietnam era that losing Saigon would lead to the triumph of communism throughout Southeast Asia if not the world. We listened to the media, and then we listened to Abby and Reverend Coffin and to Pete Seeger who said that we'd be lucky to get out of the Big Muddy with the old fool dead and gone, and we changed the world.

near Glenorchie, NZ

Now that you mention it, we seem to be mighty damp again, and the water is rising.

Matt Mullenweg (WordPress) writes that "the feed validator is dead to me."

The managers of the RSS feed validator are proponents of the competing ATOM standard. They feel RSS is inferior and poorly defined, and their attitude is probably perceptible in the validator, its messages, and its frequent changes.

In truth, end-users and Web designers probably needn't care about validators at all. In practice, validators reject lots of things that are "wrong but acceptable" -- like keeping up with highway traffic even though everyone is moving at or above the speed limit. Validators also tend to reject some things that are debatable, customs more honored in the breach than the observance.

This is neither religion nor ethics. If the standard says, "do this" and the software people actually use says, "I expect that", would you prefer that your Web page or feed be right, or would you prefer that it work?

Apr 06 17 2006


Cathy Marshall discusses her surprisingly numerous houseplants.

I didn't want houseplants. They'd all die if I went out to buy an LA Times and didn't come home for a few months. Too much trouble.

J. Nathan Matias begins an interesting discussion, describing an application of Tinderbox for managing and maintaining a php-drived ecommerce site.

Tinderbox is terrific for keeping track of product data -- especially when products and prices change often. Because Tinderbox is so versatile at formatting exported data, you can then format the information in a package that's easy for your server to process.

Matias, I understand, is available for consulting and Tinderbox training...

Apr 06 16 2006

Dinner Notes

Marketing on Easter is a delight; there are fewer cars on the road and fewer cars at Wilson's Farms, and the Red Sox are playing a good game against the youthful Mariners. For some reason, everyone is grocery shopping with small children.

  • Saffron chicken
  • Spring onion and fresh peas (from Sunday Suppers at Luques)
  • Brown scones (also from Sunday Suppers, but from a different Sunday)
  • Apple terrine with calvados (from some weblog this week; I thought it was via megnut, but apparently I was wrong)

I tried to remember the last time I'd made peas. I think they fell out of my vocabulary sometime in grad school. It might be worth getting reacquainted.

The chicken, marinated in saffron-infused olive oil, thyme, and lemon zest and then sauteed, was very good. The saffron gets top billing and is important to appearance, but it's the lemon zest that really does the trick.

Apr 06 15 2006

Orpheus X

In the course of her intake interview in Rinde Eckert's brillian Orpheus X, Eurydice says that she's a writer, a poet. Persephone says that's good -- that poets (unlike novelists) do well here.

Narrative junkies
Don't do well in Hades.

Other viewers of this premier production noted that line, too (Variety | Boston Phoenix | Weekly Dig ). Orpheus here is a rock star, a serious, hard-working, thoughtful artist who is on the way to a party, sends his people ahead so he can make a more dramatic entrance, and who hails a cab with tragic results.

The piece sits precisely on the border between installation and theater, between tableaux and new media and drama. Highly recommended.

Apr 06 14 2006

Aosept shortage

My wife wears contacts, which for many years she has cleaned with a CIBA product called Aosept.

For some reason, there seems to be a nation-wide (or global?) shortage of this stuff. How come?

Lilia Efimova presents a two-part post on weblog studies (1 | 2), in which she emphasizes the distinction between blogging artifacts and blogging practices. Do you study the artifacts -- posts, links, comments? Or the many things people to to create those artifacts?

Efimova suggests the distinction is between archaeology (studying artifacts) and ethnography (studying practices). This is interesting, but (unfortunately) it's a bad analogy. Archaeologists study artifacts because the artifacts are the best available or only evidence. You can't interview or observe a Clovis hunter or a Cluniac monk: there aren't any. Archaeologists are interested in the way people lived; the study of artifacts is a way to find out.

But weblogs aren't simply artifactual clues that could help us learn what their writers were doing. Weblogs are created artifacts, intended to be seen and read and used. A decent respect for the weblog and its creator requires us to look, first, at the artifact. Someone worked hard to make this and wanted us (or someone ) to see it or use it. It's a weblog, not a midden or a sherd.

We're interested in Pepys and Darwin and Anne Frank for reasons beyond what they paid for ink and how their efforts integrated into the economy.

One interesting question comes to mind about weblog ethnography: when do people write? The journal and diary have long been associated with evening, an activity at least notionally connected with day's end. I've noticed, though, that blogging is frequently a morning task. Does this matter? How?

Apr 06 13 2006

Small World

Peter Merholz's partner volunteers at an animal rescue group, and just happens to run into Ben and Mena Trott, who are adopting a puppy.

Hypertext researcher (and pop culture critic) Cathy Marshall has a new weblog. Yay!

The fingers were pointing at him: Mr. Bush apparently authorized that leak we've been hearing about for so long. That classified leak. That Plame Blame Game, which could become a Dr. Seuss classic if Dr. Seuss were still alive and if he switched from writing about Star-Bellied Sneetches to writing about, say, Scooter Libby, who probably doesn't have a star on his belly. Or if he does, I don't want to know.

A new discovery from last night is Eliezer Lorne Segal's wonderful version of the four question, from Uncle Eli's Special For Kids Most Fun Ever Under The Tablle Passover Haggadah.  Thanks, Ed and Estha!

Why is it only on Passover night
We never know how to do anything right?
We don't eat our meals in the regular ways,
The ways that we do on all other days.
`Cause on all other nights we may eat
All kinds of wonderful good bready treats,
Like big purple pizza that tastes like a pickle,
Crumbly crackers and pink pumpernickel....

USMC Ssgt Daniel Brown, returning from eight months in Iraq, was found to have gunpowder residue on his boots by airport sniffers. Now, he's on the terrorist watch list. via Talk Left 

At least they don't have guys in jungle camouflage standing around with automatic weapons anymore. Just what were they planning to do with those machine guns, anyway? Think about it.

The journals of Sir Joseph Banks, the young naturalist who sailed with Cook in 1768 toward Tahiti, New Zealand, and Botany Bay, has been transcribed online.

December 1769

24.Land in sight, an Island or rather several small ones most probably 3 Kings, so that it was conjecturd that we had Passd the Cape which had so long troubled us. Calm most of the Day: myself in a boat shooting in which I had good success, killing cheifly several Gannets or Solan Geese so like Europaean ones that they are hardly distinguishable from them. As it was the humour of the ship to keep Christmas in the old fashiond way it was resolvd of them to make a Goose pye for tomorrows dinner.

25. Christmas day: Our Goose pye was eat with great approbation and in the Evening all hands were as Drunk as our forefathers usd to be upon the like occasion.

26. This morn all heads achd with yesterdays debauch. Wind has been Easterly these 3 or 4 days so we have not got at all nearer the Island than we were.

You don't know what will turn out to matter. You've got to write it all down, and share the best parts, and hope what you write and what you share turn out to be what people will eventually need and want. This is Kawasaki's point about the way, sometimes, you make the blog and sometimes the blog makes you. Nothing much happened on these days, because the wind kept the ship from going where they wanted to go. And Banks seems to have been in a bad mood, since his journal entries for the previous days are unusually terse. Still, we see lots of fun things that it's good to know. For example:

  • Banks, educated at Harrow, Eton, and Oxford, and one of the leading scientists of his generation, couldn't spell.
  • The first goal is to collect specimens and to describe new species. But if the specimens happen to be good to eat, that's nice, too.
  • Sailing in confined waters and tricky winds, off an uncharted coast, was not considered a reason to prevent all hands from drinking. "As drunk as our forefathers" is an interesting expression as well.

Most of all, though Banks has little or nothing of consequence to report, he finds something to post to his weblog. Consistent updates help keep the narrative moving.

I'm not wild about its emphasis on reading books on schedule, but 52 Books, 52 Weeks is an interesting book blog that's rich in graphic novels and short story collections.

37 Signals describes the overblown rhetoric people often use when writing for support, or to request new software features.

Every feature that’s missing is essential, a must-have, and the fact that it’s missing is killing someone. Yet the #1 thing that people like about our software is how simple it is.

People expect that they'll be ignored unless they shout.

That meme that, in software, it's basically all about marketing gets another nay-sayer. Joel Spolsky reminds us that Microsoft's marketing has never been particularly good; he says the key factor is protecting your creative, technical staff from the abrasive details of the air conditioning delivery contracts.

Dave Winer blogs Ted Nelson:

The reporter said that Nelson was really weird and kind of rude. I took exception to this. Nelson is a visionary, and a teacher, in many ways it's his passion that's the fabric of the web. If he hadn't written his seminal book in the 70s, I wonder if the web would exist today. Later, I thought, how strange, we want visionaries, we need them, but we want them to fit some impossible concept of humanity. Someone should have passion without being too passionate. I wonder if people have really thought this through. I'm willing to cut a guy like Nelson almost infinite slack, because I so totally appreciate what he has done for us, and for me.

....In every generation there are at most two or three people as influential as Nelson was to people of my generation.

Guy Kawasaki reports on ten things he learned from his first hundred days of blogging. Interesting and (somewhat) unexpected observations:

  • Kawasaki says that "blogging technology is a piece of cake", but he's still spending a lot of effort and cred getting people to help him out with various TypePad plug-ins. Many these would be very easy indeed in a client-side tool like Tinderbox; the hard thing isn't generating link targets and tables of contents for Guy Kawasaki, the hard thing is generating the for everybody.

Scott Johnson has an interesting, anecdotal note about the difficulties of planning and executing agile software that has to be shared by everybody, right away.

  • Guy finds that thin skins correlate with weblog popularity. My guess is that the two are actually uncorrelated, but we're so accustomed to the thick skins that old-school journalists necessarily acquire that we expect bloggers to act like hard-bitten newsroom veterans.
  • "It's hard to make much money blogging," he writes. Of course, Kawasaki is a venture capitalist; your definition of "much money" might vary.

I've never worked with a good knife, I don't really understand what the fuss is about, and I've never learned to maintain knives.My kitchen knife isn't particularly good, I've been doing a good deal of chopping of late, and Spring is coming.


I asked the nice people at Chef Knives To Go what I should buy, and they told me they really like their Global G-2. It arrived last night, with its own sharpening system (because Japanese knives have unusual steel that requires wet whetstones).

Good hardware can make a real difference. Time to upgrade.

Larry Davidson asks, "Can this really be true?"

George W. Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover who has no Jews in his cabinet at all and has appointed no Jews to the Federal bench.— Professor Sherman L. Cohn, Georgetown University Law Center

Joshua Porter has a useful discussion on the dangers of superficial design criticism on the Web. He's particularly critical of fixation on surface visual qualities like color palette, and obsession with validation at the cost of utility.

Apr 06 10 2006

Ask not

Kathryn Cramer lays out specific and realistic steps that the net community (that means you) can take to head off the nuclear confrontation brewing in Iran:

  1. Help improve Google Earth coverage of Iran, "so a housewife in Pleasantville or Tokyo can look at and speculate about the purpose of suspicious looking ventilation shafts. Having such imagery publicly available will also slow down our own warmongers when they realize that that same housewife can do damage assessments on areas they might choose to nuke.
  2. Find ways to bypass the Iranian net censorship apparatus. Free flow of information could help avert a war, and if war comes it will help save civilians.
  3. Throw together open source, free translation tools too and from Farsi.
Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

Instead of wringing her hands over the evident foolishness of the Bush administration, Cramer proposes several specific things we can do now to help make war less probable and to save people should war come anyway.

It might not turn out that way, but Kathryn's modest proposal has an outside chance of being a historic post. Get out your scrapbooks.

Sunday was a good day to make some stock. Linda was feeling a little run-down, and the supermarket had a special on Australian rack of lamb. Why not?

  • Watercress soup
  • Rack of lamp, crusted with Pommery mustard and panko
  • Potatoes dauphinoise
  • Strawberries and cream

What really sold the lamb was its simple sauce, which I want to jot down here so I'll know where to find it when my sauces find themselves adrift in the doldrums.

We start by deglazing the pan we used to sear the lamb with a cup of leftover red wine, reducing by half over high heat.

The recipe (Bourdain) wants two cups of strong lamb stock. Who has strong lamb stock lying around? What I had was a lot of weak (because only half-cooked) veal stock. I took 2.5c of it, got a lamb bone from the freezer, and simmered for an hour with a bay leaf and a little carmelized carrot, celery, and onion. Strain into the sauce, reduce until it coats a spoon, hold. When the lamb is finished, reheat the sauce, whisk in 1T of butter, and you're done.

My cat swiped the link and hid it somewhere, but yesterday I was reading about a claim in Seth Godin's Google talk to the effect that engineering gets you in the game, after which software marketing is what counts.

Can brilliant marketing beat superior engineering? If you meet someone who advocates this, I think you may have just met a sales consultant who wants to sell you a bridge.

Occasionally a slightly superior engineering solution loses to a product that has better marketing. Almost invariably, though, the engineering advantages in these cases are slight and the marketing differences huge. Betamax may have been better than VHS, but it took an engineer to see the difference. Dvorak may have been better than QWERTY -- lots of keyboards might be better than QWERTY -- but not sufficiently better to defray the retraining costs. (Voice recognition will do the trick, once it's about as accurate as a stenographer)

Let's face it: some car ads are a little better than others, but all car marketing is pretty much the same these days. The winners are the cars people want, not the campaigns people enjoy.

If you believe that marketing beats engineering, talk to some of the Madison avenue folks who tried to defend the railroads and the steamships against air travel.

by Charles Stross

Stross dusts off the core conceit of Zelazny's Amber, the dream at the core of adult realist fantasy: you wake up one day to discover that, yes! You really are special! In fact you're a very important person indeed in a parallel universe. Here in Boston you might be a just-fired business writer for a right-wing Web site; over there, you're a missing duchess. And in fact you fit right in, because all the Best Families from over there have been sending their kids to our universe for Ivy League educations -- a sort of a grand tour -- before they return to their fantastic, feudal responsibilities.

Stross wanted to write a really long story, of which this is the first installment. It has Stross's customary wit and flair.

by Michael Buckland

Emanuel Goldberg (1881-1970) was a Russian Jew who earned his doctorate in Chemistry under Wilhelm Ostwald and went on to do very important work in engineering and photography -- including key developments in photochemistry, in the design of the Contax camera, the microdot, the microfiche, and the search engine. His work on a "statistical engine" in the 1930's anticipates (and is in some ways superior to) Vannevar Bush's Memex: astonishingly, he successfully built a prototype and used it in his daily correspondence in running Zeiss-Ikon. Kidnapped and cheated of his position by the Nazi's in the 1930's, he fled to Paris and then to Palestine. Though he lived to see others take the credit and the profits of his inventions, he was by no means forgotten: he received honorary doctorates, medals, the Israel prize, and personal letters from Ben-Gurion.

Apr 06 7 2006


Joshua Micah Marshall:

It's not too soon to start calling this for what it is: the Bush administration's creeping monarchism.... The underlying idea is not so much that the president is above the law as that he is the law. He embodies it, you might say, even embodies the state itself. And thus what he does can't be illegal. What he does is simply the state cogitating and defending itself.

I've cut back on politics here, in part because there's so much good political and news writing in other weblogs. Quietly, the web has already transformed journalism, just as the 37 Signals ebook is going to mark a watershed moment in technical publishing.

Big things are happening, right now. Watch.

Another great reason to write in Tinderbox: instant weblog search! As I write here, I have powerful, instant, incremental search over years of archives. Regular expressions, too.

I begin to type, and before I finish a word I get a list of notes. I can select them, open them, link to them. I can do anything with the search results I can do with the same notes in an outline or map.

Blog Search

Lots of people are thinking about weblog design. What belongs in a weblog or a personal information page? Kathryn Cramer has a long and interesting discussion of the problem. She says she's tired of writing on a roll of paper towels.

When there are sudden changes of circumstance -- such as for a few hours having the best site on the planet concerning the NOLA levee breaks -- I down want to mess around with CSS.

The problem here, I think, is that it's easy to build incredibly messy stylesheets with lots of ad hoc styles. Conversely, it's tricky to plan and execute a design where you have lots of modules, and lots of links, and to make all the parts work together visually while retaining visual distinctness.

I think it can be done, though, if you clean your style sheets. Refactoring is crucial. Don't set the font family in ten differently places if you can set it once. Don't set the colors in ten places if you can set them once.

Kiwi weblog designer Rachel Cunliffe has an interesting series on her new design scheme, in which she reserves one column for business blogging and another for informal notes and personal observations.

Apr 06 6 2006

Emanuel Goldberg

If you're interested in hypertext and new media, Emanuel Goldberg (1881-1970) is a name you are going to be hearing a lot about. Michael Buckland has just published a biography of this now-obscure German industrial leader that seems bound to rewrite the prehistory of hypertext.

Bush's Microfilm Rapid Selector may not have been plagiarism. Goldberg's English and German papers on the Statistical Macghine had been prominently published, and reference to it and to the microfilm rapid selector of Merle C. Gould can be found in documents that were known to have been distributed to Bush in 1938. However, Bush might not have read them or might not have recognized them for what they were.

I keep lists of movies I see and books I read. Meg Hourihan (one of the original Blogger developers) thinks about keeping lists of the best dishes she eats.

I don't pay that much attention to what I eat during the course of the year. I have my "Best Dishes Ever" list, but I don't take notes so a lot of stuff just remains in my memory as, "Wow, that was good" with "that" being whatever I vaguely recall from the meal. I wonder, is it too late to have a New Year's resolution to pay more attention to what I eat for the long term? Record it so that I can recall it in a year-end list? Or maybe just record things here more often? Hmm..

Meryl read my sermon on the need for ABOUT pages and asked:

So help me out here. Where is YOUR 'about' page?

Touché. But my about page is here, on my home page. The left sidebar has

  • my name
  • my job
  • my calendar
  • some things I've written

Lots of other stuff, too. I think this is the natural use of the weblog sidebar, that your personal information page can easily hold both your weblog and your core information in the same place.

Weblog comments are a bad idea. They invite spam, they invite flame wars, and they encourage juvenile point-scoring at the expense of sensible debate. If your readers have something to say, they should say it on their own weblogs (and you usually ought to link to them, despite your disagreement).

Peter Merholz and Adrian Miles have each discontinued comments this week.

I stumbled across a nice post about Tinderbox (and flattering comments on this blog) from Nathan Baron. (Nice WordPress template, too)

I've been playing around with a piece of software called Tinderbox.  Tinderbox is simply amazing.  It allows you to mind map, outline, rearrange ideas and present information visually.  It is software that I have been waiting for my entire life.  It thinks like I do.

As I'm sure you already know, the clearest sign that someone is really, really intelligent is that they agree with you. (Vera Ganley is really bright, too!) And so, having found Mr. Baron's weblog to be very intelligent indeed, I wanted to know more about the fellow.

But his weblog has no "About" page. I only know the author's name because it's in his URL.

This isn't uncommon. I've written about this before. Lots of people skip the "about" page, or leave it empty, not wanting to boast or call attention to themselves.

It's not boasting to introduce yourself. Your readers need some context. Are you running a company, or teaching in a university, or raising children, or breeding camels? Are you a student in Omaha or Osaka or Östersund?

by John Carey

Recommended by Hornby in The Believer, this refreshingly direct book can restore your faith in argument about the arts. Carey demolishes a host of common assumptions about the arts, and absolutely skewers efforts since Hegel to show that mass art is inferior to fine art. Does art make us better? No: terrible people make terrific connoisseurs, and very good collections have been amassed by some very bad people.

Then, having demonstrated how generations of writers (Plato, Hegel, Winterson) made fools of themselves trying to show how art is good, Carey brilliantly argues something even harder: that literature is the most powerful and most expressive of the arts. Literature, unlike dance, painting, or theater, can reflect upon and satirize itself; it can do things well that the other arts struggle to do at all.

Apr 06 4 2006

Tinderbox 3.0.6

Tinderbox 3.0.6

Tinderbox 3.0.6 is now available for download.

It's a nice little update. We fixed a glitch in the zoom-in animation in Tinderbox maps that caused lots of cosmetic headaches for some users, added a nice new command to bring all your Tinderbox windows to the front, and improved some HTML export elements. No big news, but well worth grabbing! (There's a very small fix in Flint, too.)

When people use Tinderbox to make Web pages and weblogs, they usually let Tinderbox assemble the page from lots of individual little notes. That lets each bundle of notes do one thing, and gives Tinderbox lots of opportunity to lend you a hand in keeping things organized.

For example, each of the calendar items in my upcoming talks list (top left of the main page) is a note. Each book I've purchased is a note; Tinderbox keeps them sorted by acquisition date and only displays the last 45 days. When I read the book, I write some comments and drag the note to the reviews page; the reviews page automatically timestamps the review and adds the book to the big lists of authors and titles. Each post is a note, naturally.

Rafe Needleman discusses the power of pluggable modules like this in Breaking The Page over at Esther Dyson's Release 1.0 . (Peter Merholz used to call this "building Web pages with Lego™ blocks")

I've got a headache generating pdf's from a Word document. I need the pdf for printing at or a similar print-on-demand service.

If you're a guru, I could use a hand. Might turn into a small consulting gig over the next 3 weeks. iChat, or email me.

Update: Better now, thanks. Word was breaking my pdf into several chunks, for reasons that seemed completely mysterious. Copying and pasting into a fresh template, and fixing page size throughout, seem to fix things.


Nice new stuff from the Eastgate tools page today includes a nice little watercolor travel kit and some solid sketchbooks that will stand up to washes (and hard travel).

Why watercolor? Because we found Barbara Stecher's Sketchbooking earlier this year. It's a nice introduction to travel sketching and note-taking for people who don't draw.


I find sketching a great way to focus when I'm in meetings, lectures, or simply waiting, and this book (published by the DeCordova Museum and so not very well known) is a nice, intelligent way to relax and get the sketchbook off the shelf.

Stecher likes to start in pencil, switch to pen, and then add a little bit of watercolor later. When you get home, drop the sketchbook on your scanner, push a button, and you've got a jpg ready for Tinderbox, email, iPhoto, or for your next presentation.

Apr 06 2 2006


A warning sign in Haast, NZ

Narrative is everywhere. Notice, for example, this charmingly non-standard warning sign: in order to decode it, you must reconstruct a story. The danger is not "look out for falling bicyclists" (as in the similar 'falling rocks" warning); you have to think things through, and all the requisite clues are nicely presented.

Time begins tonight, with the opening of the US baseball season.

Last night, I threw together two nice, thick, grilled rib-eye steaks with my second attempt at béarnaise. The first attempt went smoothly until it hit a very rough spot; I tried to hold the sauce over very low heat, it curdled, and my repair attempts made things worse. This went better, and finishing the rib-eye's in the oven got them just about perfectly medium rare. (They might have rested for a few minutes longer, though)

Salt-roasted baby sweet potatoes were good, too. Probably the last of the season; two of the potatoes had already gone bad.

by Curtis Sittenfeld

I think that everything, or at least part of everything that happened to me, started with the Roman architecture mixup.

That's the start of Curtis Sittenfeld's wonderful Prep. It's a singular, graceful, and intelligent book, a fine portrait of growing up that doesn't have the answers and that is suffused with generous affection for characters good and bad. Prep is not about coming of age, though it is (in part) about growing up; it's a nice change to have a book about kids that isn't only about their sexuality. Sittenfeld's kids change gradually, almost imperceptibly, as they go about the all-important business of organizing their cliques and performing their rituals and working up the courage to speak to one another. Change is observed as much in Fiona Lee's classmates as in the protagonist herself; first-year roomate and lifetime social climber Dede

She was a follower, literally a follower -- I often saw her scurrying behind two or three other girls. The strenousness of her efforts made me feel embarrassed for her.

grows (in the shadows of the book, for Fiona and Dede never have interest in each other) just as much as Fiona, and more slow. The first consciously Iowa-seminar novel I've read and enjoyed, I think, since Mona In The Promised Land, and this book is both bigger and more sustained.