MarkBernstein.org

In Tinderbox, a note can have a prototype. That means "this note is just like its prototype, except when I've told you it's different." For example, the prototype of this note happens to be "ProtoPost" -- the prototypical weblog post.

The latest experiment in the Map view adds a little "file tab" above the selected note. If the not has a prototype, it's shown in the tab, and you can click on the tab to change the prototype.

A fresh Tinderbox map experiment

An Tinderbox expert sent email to ask, "Why?"

When I'm taking notes at a conference, I'm usually making fresh notes at a furious clip. I use a few basic prototypes:

  • people
  • events
  • ideas
  • questions and issues
  • emerging themes
  • Tinderbox ideas

But I never know what the next note will be. Tinderbox guesses that the next note is probably going to be the same sort of thing as the last note; this is often helpful but it's also often wrong. So, as I'm taking notes, I'm often forgetting to pick the prototype and then going back to fix it.

Now, I can fix it right there in the map or outline.

by Robert Harris

It is 1964. Europe is united, and from London to Moscow, from Oslo to Rome, you can use the same currency — the Reichsmark. The world is not entirely peaceful — terrorist bombings disturb even the great European capital of Berlin, inspired by the remains of the Soviet resistance in Siberia. The U.S. and Germany have been fighting a cold war for twenty years, but President Kennedy has just announced a call for détente that has been warmly greeted by the 75-year-old Führer. Nobody knows what happened to the Jews, but they're assumed to have been resettled somewhere on the Russian frontier. Nobody asks.

And then, one night, a police dispatcher gets the duty roster mixed up and, when the body of a rich old bureaucrat washes up in the Havel, the wrong inspector is summoned to the scene and the world begins to unravel.

This skillfully-wrought book is great fun, but it is also instructive on two counts. It came to my attention because Nick Horny mentioned it in his column in The Believer; Harris is Hornby's brother-in-law but Hornby mentioned that Harris has a knack for conveying historical information without stopping for buckets of exposition. After all, people in 1964 Berlin don't stop to talk about what happened on the Eastern Front in 1943: everybody knows about the war. Finding ways to explain to the reader what everyone knows is the special challenge of the historical novel, and Harris does a wonderful job here, varying his technique and approach so you never know when new vistas are about to open.

Second, this is a very neat formal experiment. The mystery, after all, is not a puzzle: the point of the mystery is that the world has been damaged — a crime has been committed — and the hero works to restore the damaged world to health. And here, of course, the world has been damaged: even in Nazi Berlin, it's not nice to find bureaucrats knocked on the head and thrown in the river. But restoring the world to the status quo can’t be the goal, either; you can't go home again, and when the police inspector learns about the provenance of the socks he used to wear in his U-boat, he doesn't want to go home.

Phil Grey has a stunning portfolio of Will Self's Writing Room, its walls covered by thousands of sticky notes. Thanks, John Stephan!

George Landow mentioned the Czech painter František Kupka the other day.

Memo: The HTML entity for the diacritic mark in his first name is š

His early paintings are wonderfully strange.

Kupka
František Kupka, Admiration (detail), Museum of Modern Art, New York.

From The American Scholar, in a passage to which Susan Cheever alludes in American Bloomsbury .

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.

Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul. Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.

Emerson is here unjust to people who undertake the hard and unglamorous toil that the fields of literature sometimes require. We need restorers of readings and glossaries and scholiasts: if the text is corrupt, we cannot go further.

But this is also a very important point: it is easy to worship the form of the book to the neglect of its spirit. This is especially true of the false opposition so often raised between books and computers. Barring an unusual debility, to say that, "I love books, I admire fine writing, but I could never read on a computer" is, quite literally, absurd.

After Abu Ghraib, you would think that the U.S. Army would be keeping a careful eye on its jailors in Iraq.

Lt. Col. William Steele, who commands the 451st Military Police Detachment Unit at Camp Cropper, has been detained on a variety of charges, including improper sexual relations with the daughter of one of his prisoners. (TalkLeft currently has the wrong name and rank, but I read it there first).

If you cmd-opt-drag a reference from Bookends into a Tinderbox document, you'll get a note that contains a link to that citation in Bookends. Pressing the ViewInBrowser button will open Bookends automatically and select that reference.

Apr 07 25 2007

Thugs

An idiotic group of eighty students Norco High School in Norco, California went to Mike Daisey's (wonderful) performance of his monologue, Invincible Summer, at the American Repertory Theater. One fellow, apparently a chaperone accompanying the group, poured water all over Dalsey's original manuscript.

Mike Dalsey blogs the incident, which was captured (superbly) on video because Dalsey tapes all his performances, which are extensively improvised. John Hodgman blogs it as well. Gareth at DailyKos correctly argues that this is a fresh sign that we are slipping toward Fascism — that children are being taught to behave as thugs.

The school when contacted had no immediate comment.

We were sitting outside an Italian café on the river Cam, watching the punts and drinking a very nice Primitivo, and someone noticed that the headline of the Guardian spoke of American plans for a wall surrounding the Sunni district of Adhamiya in Baghdad.

“That sure worked well in Berlin!”, one of us observed.

When did Americans become people who build ghettos? Aren't we the folks who tear them down?

The walls are supposed to protect the people inside them from truck bombs. But they won't help them with the mortar attacks; they'll make the residents sitting ducks. They won't help them get to work. And, if gunmen capture the entrance to the enclave, or the gunmen are the police, they can kidnap or kill whoever they want, because no one can get out.

Someone asked me at Tinderbox Weekend, why I talk about politics more often here than I used to. Do I? Perhaps it's a sign of the times.

Department of Etymology

Say why is everything either at sixes or at sevens?

Why not at nines? Or elevenses? I'm sure you could look it up. But where?

Tinderbox Weekend Cambridge
view from the Tinderbox
weekend window, © Chris
Vertongen
Chris Vertongen has a lovely album of photographs from last week's Tinderbox Weekend Cambridge.

It was a remarkable weekend, perhaps the best Tinderbox Weekend yet. As usual, the highlight was the opportunity to learn about new and exciting Tinderbox tasks. Robert Brook (who has an interestingly hypertextual weblog) looked at Tinderbox and the information needs of Parliament. Fionnbar Lenihan took us on a tour of using Tinderbox to navigate the bureaucratic tangles of forensic psychiatry, particular trying to pull together the important facts and ideas from vast mountains of paperwork. Janet Salaff and Arent Greve showed us fascinating work, analyzing interviews with Hong Kong emigrants who were looking for (or thinking about) jobs. J. Nathan Matias demonstrated his stunning Tinderbox experiments in stretchtext and Web-readable maps. And there was lots more.

Tinderbox Weekend Cambridge

This fine fellow followed me into the building on Sunday morning, and later walked into the seminar room to make sure we were comporting ourselves properly. He's rumoured to be from Magdalene but to prefer the fare (and the scratchable walls) in the Fisher building of St. Johns.

Tinderbox Weekend Cambridge
view from my guest room, overlooking the New Court

Many thanks to St. John's, and to the Committee of the Samuel Butler Room, for making this weekend possible.

Driving to the office this morning, I was listening to Bach on my iPod and musing on the 80-CD set of the Complete Works I saw during Tinderbox Weekend in a Cambridge shop window across from Queens. That brought to mind the posters for interesting concerts that were affixed to church fences all over Cambridge, and led me to wonder: how can casual listeners in the US possibly learn about music they might like?

How, for example, could you find out about Jesu Meine Freude (BWV 227) if you listen to Bach the way I listen to Springsteen, say, or U2 — a few minutes here and there?

Years ago, record stores sold classical music and people actually visited record stores. Years ago, there were stations that played a wide range of classical music. And in some European cities — in Paris, say, or Cambridge — you see lots of posters advertising small performances of chamber and choral works in small halls and churches. But there's very little like that in Boston, and what do you do if you live in Tallahassee or Houston? Radio stations now have very tight playlists, so you hear plenty of Brandenburg concerti but you can go a long, long time before you'll hear a Baroque motet.

What you do, of course, is listen to recordings. But how do you find the recordings — how do you know that Bach wrote motets, or that you like motets — if you never hear them in concerts or on the radio or on the street?

Apr 07 23 2007

Bit Literacy

by Mark Hurst

The central tenet of Mark Hurst's book is the belief that the key to happiness and personal effectiveness is an empty e-mail inbox. I find this remarkable. Why does my inbox matter at all? And why is it more important than a clean desk, or a neatly-made bed, or a shiny sink? The extraordinary weight he attaches to the inbox lies, I think, in a particular emotional significance with which he invests incoming messages; to Hurst, each unfiled email represents a nagging reminder of promises unmet and obligations unfulfilled.

To me, each email message is an email message, signifying nothing in particular beyond what it says. (An unread email, like a ringing telephone, is another thing entirely, of course. It might say anything. It might carry wonderful news, or it might announce a crisis that must be dealt with at once. Whatever it is, if the message can be read it cannot be ignored.)

So, the core lesson of the book addresses a concern that simply isn't mine and that lies, I think, in Hurst’s past rather than in any essential quality of email. Is it wrong to be so emphatic over the desirability of the well-scrubbed inbox? It is not. I have, for example, no difficulty leaving a dirty dish in the sink overnight. I know people who couldn’t do that, who would never be able to sleep with the guilty knowledge of that unwashed dish. I think my attitude is perfectly defensible, I am happy to confess that it's probably better to wash the dishes, and I think we all can agree that it's all personality, not morality.

Hurst has good ideas about ToDo lists, often closely related to David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Hurst does believe every ToDo should have a date, and I have argued elsewhere that it's best to keep ToDo's off your calendar. Some details in late chapters are dubious — a weird diatribe against Word files for storing too much information, for example, is simply an expression of distrust for Microsoft which might well be justified but which is not properly argued. Occasional details are not quite right: treating AAC as an Apple-inspired DRM conspiracy is simply a mistake, and arguing for ASCII as an open alternative to Word files is silly. (The underlying idea that business people would benefit from calling of the typography arms race in internal reports and presentations by limiting everyone to plain Unicode text is attractive and is probably what Hurst really means, but it's not what he says.) Little here will be very new to people who are comfortable with computers, and the book seems unlikely to fall into the hands of people who aren’t.

Still, I found two very useful ideas in the book. First, Hurst urges everybody to grab a keyboard accelerator — he calls them "bit levers" — to save typing. That makes sense to me, although I had never tried one. I grabbed TextExpander right away. Second, the book makes an interesting if tangentially-argued case for giving an email account to your software applications, so you could send or forward them email that they could then process on their own. I like the idea of being able to email my Tinderbox planning document or my marketing plan.

Two intriguing ideas in a slender readable book makes a good experience, even though they're probably not the ideas that the author had in mind.

A Phillipino weblog "Bloody Blue Prince" writes nice things (in a post titled Aristahin Po Kami) about something I wrote. I'd forgotten this passage; reading it, I thought "that's kind of nice, and I agree with it" before I thought "oh, yes, that's me."

Don’t worry about those who disagree with you, and don’t take bad reviews to heart. The world is filled with caring and kindness, but thoughtless cruelty can and does cloud every writer’s spirit from time to time. Ideas matter, but name-calling doesn’t, and petulant critics wrap tomorrow’s virtual fish.

So, here I am in England. I am full of no sleep, no lunch, and my computer bag is full of no Powerbook video to VGA dongles.

And the University is blocking everything but port 80, so I can't email for help.

I'm sharing for now with the excellent folks at audiotranscription.de. But, if you're coming to Tinderbox Weekend and can throw a dongle in your bag, I'd appreciate it.

Update: People brought the dongles. Thank you! Thank you! We had one left over. If it's yours, let me know and we'll send it along. Email me.

Apr 07 15 2007

Packing

I'm madly packing and prepping for CAQDAS and for Tinderbox Weekend Cambridge. I think we probably have a couple of seats left for Tinderbox Weekend, if you'd like to join us next Saturday and Sunday.

Posting may be spare for a bit.

by David Mamet

I had a mixed reaction to Mamet’s new Bambi vs Godzilla, at least on first reading. But, as I read I kept a list of films that Mamet mentioned that I thought I ought to see. Here it is:

  • Dodsworth
  • The Lady Eve
  • One of Our Aircraft Is Missing
  • Zulu
  • I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
  • The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
  • Shadow of a Doubt
  • In Which We Serve

It's an interesting list of movies that Mamet loves and that I've never seen. (I've probably see The Lady Eve on television, but it was a very long time ago). And all but one (One of Our Aircraft Is Missing) are available from Netflix.

Now, this represents a couple of months of Thursday Night Movies. And of course people will keep making more movies, and people do keep telling me about other movies I need to see, and I already have 40 movies in my queue. So it will be a while. That’s the point of lists and queues: it's a long season, and you've got to trust it.


Update: The president of a major Web firm writes to say, "what do you mean you HAVEN'T SEEN SHADOW OF A DOUBT!! My wife, who doesn't read my weblog, says "You saw The Lady Eve on New Years Eve, 2002.” And yes, there it is, the first movie under 2003 in this weblog. Who knew?

Apr 07 13 2007

Banana Fish

Last night after work, I had a small problem. Earlier in the week, I'd stopped by the wine store, and they were tasting this interesting white Bordeaux (Chateaux Villa Bel-Air Graves 2002) that has tons of oak and malolactic fermentation and was only $12. So I grabbed some.

This wine may be impeccably French, but it could drop by Veronica Mars' for lunch with the girls and nobody would know that it was an exchange student. But what do I know?

Except when I got to the cash register, the wine actually was $21. Oh well. I got a couple of bottles anyway. We'd had half a bottle on Wednesday, so I wanted to cook something that would go well with the remaining half.

Also, since preparations for CAQDAS and Tinderbox Weekend UK are in full swing, it was already late. So I needed something that was fast, easy, could be made with ingredients on hand.

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter a baking disk.
  • Strew the baking disk with a diced shallot.
  • Slice mushrooms to cover the shallots. (Next time, I might dice them for a quick and dirty duxelles. But slicing is fine). Don't skimp; plenty of mushrooms.
  • Split a banana. Lay bananas across the mushrooms.
  • Layer some fish filets on the bananas. (I used tilapia)
  • Split a vanilla bean, scrap out the seeds with a sharp knife, and rub on the fish. Then sliver the beans and nestle amongst the mushrooms.
  • Add a little wine. I didn't want to use that lovely Graves for cooking, so I grabbed 1/4c of madiera and a little vermouth. Season the fish with salt and pepper.
  • Cover with some lightly-buttered parchement. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Serve. (I reduced the sauce first, but you don't have to)

You say, “Banana?” I got the idea from the cook on the Amazon trip, who used either banana or plantain in a fish braise. Which? Couldn't find out. I tried banana, since it was handy; if the answer was really “plantain”, I figured the banana would tell me. It held up surprisingly well to 25 minutes in the oven; when finished, it was sweet and roasted and savory but not mushy.

You say, “Vanilla?” That idea came from Catalina, in Sydney. But it coordinates with the Amazon spirit of the thing.

What was missing? It needs a chewy green. Maybe kale? Or baby bok choi? But good!

Apr 07 12 2007

Sarifiya Bridge

This morning, a truck bomber destroyed the Sarafiya Bridge in Baghdad.

Any way you look at it, this is very bad news. Bridges are very expensive to (re)build. It takes months or years. In the meantime, people will have a harder time getting around Baghdad. Tanks and armored personnel carriers will have fewer routes, which means they'll be easier to ambush. It will be harder to get to Mustansiriya University, which wikipedia says was founded in 1233 and bombed in January 2007 and bombed again in February, and which Sunni groups want to close in order to purge Shiite militias that patrol the campus.

While I was composing this, someone exploded a bomb in the cafeteria of the Iraqi parliament. This sure is going well....

by Patricia Marx

This book has an earnest good humor, it's consistently likable, it’s funny and winning and welcome to drop by for drinks. Some of the gags work beautifully, especially a wonderful, tight eulogy an old school friend delivers for her late (and nearly-ex) husband. Some don’t quite work. It happens. And the book (like its narrator) sometimes makes the same mistakes over and over. Who's perfect?

A few months ago, I saw The Onion Cellar at the ART, a play/cabaret/performance written by and centered on The Dresden Dolls. I wrote that

It's exactly the sort of thing I love to see ART do. Amanda Palmer seems to be immensely talented, and I can easily see the ART triumvirate wondering if they could catch lightning in a bottle. It's not quite there, because it's not quite a play. But it's fascinating and new, and you've got to take your shots.

Now, thanks to a Blogger syndication bug, I've stumbled across the playwright/performer’s own reaction to the work, which (we learn) blew up in rehearsal. She asks herself, "Why did Amanda ignore all the red flags waving in her face when she still had time to fix the problem?" She plans to watch Dancer in the Dark and Million Dollar Baby. She writes, "2 shows down. 38 shows left."

Malaysian blogger YTSL offers an interesting comment on the eclipsed literary reputation of R. F. Delderfield, author of To Serve Them All My Days. Delderfield was, for example, a contemporary of Orwell, and was probably better known; today, he is nearly forgotten.

Sam Jordison speculates in his Guardian weblog that this might be the fate of many writers who now seem destined for immortality.

Apr 07 11 2007

Framing

Pianist Joyce Hatto recorded more than 120 CDs before her death at age 77 last year. It now turns out that most or all of her CDs are, in fact, copies of recordings by other people. Denis Dutton reports in the NY Times.

In a rapturous review of Ms. Hatto’s playing of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, one critic said of the orchestra musicians: “It doesn’t matter who they are, their playing is tight and hot.” Actually, it did matter, since they have turned out to be the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, performing with the formidable Yefim Bronfman. Her version of the Brahms Second Concerto is Vladimir Ashkenazy’s, with the Vienna Philharmonic under Bernard Haitink laboring in the name of René Köhler.

What’s interesting here, of course, is that Hatto’s recordings generally were better known under her name than in under the name of the actual recording artist. It’s not pure marketing in the usual sense: Hatto was an ailing recluse who gave no concerts and seldom if ever gave interviews or made appearances. But the framing story of her body of work and of her illness-driven dedication to solitary performance helped make all her music sound better.

Normally, Tinderbox notes appear appear in map view with their title; to read the text, you open the text window. What would happen, though, if we also showed some of the text?

A Tinderbox Map Experiment
Part of this weblog as seen in an experimental Tinderbox view

In this version, you see the text if the note is large, and just the title if the note is small. Performance seems adequate. (The text is unstyled to keep the map view snappy)

Opinions? Email me.

Update: Wow. Lots of opinions. Tons of email. We've pushed out a special, thrill-seeker's so people can kick the tires themselves.

Apr 07 10 2007

Finished

In Bit Literacy , Mark Hurst advocated letting going of the bits so that you can clean out your email inbox and your todo list.

It's a great feeling to leave the office on a Friday afternoon, knowing that the weekend is starting and both the e-mail inbox and the todo list are empty: you're done.

Compare Buffy, The Vampire Slayer (in Jane Espenson’s After Life,episode 6.3)

I was happy. Wherever I ... was ... I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time ... didn't mean anything ... nothing had form ... but I was still me, you know? And I was warm ... and I was loved ... and I was finished.

No comment.

A new blogger nicknamed “trinx” has no About page but does have a lovely post today about hypertext, enlightenment, and the Web.

Some background serendipity: When I started to read Mark Bernstein’s hypertext article, I quickly realized that I needed some context, so I Googled him. The story he blogged about most recently on his personal webpage, markbernstein.org, was one I had read myself in the Washington Post on Sunday, and had already told several people about because it was so amazing.... What Bernstein blogged about before that was the second book by Rory Stewart, whose first book, The Places In Between, I read and loved pretty recently. I believe Bernstein and/or his colleagues at Eastgate Systems might have had something to do with the first hypertext I ever saw, an amazing collection of linked stories and graphics on Macintosh HD floppies that I sent away for after finding a mail-away card in a Mac magazine in 1990.

Trinx finds Patterns of Hypertext tough going. It is. A better starting point might be Hypertext Gardens, or one of the Lecture Notes.

I think Trinx most likely read Deena Larsen's Marble Springs. If so, he or she will really enjoy Larsen’s collection of hypertext stories, Samplers: Nine Vicious Little Hypertexts.

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten invites Joshua Bell, the famed violinist, to spend a morning in a Washington D.C. subway station. He plays the chaconne from the Bach Partita No. 2 in D minor. He plays Schubert’s Ave Maria. He plays Massenet. Almost nobody stops to hear him.

The Post’s Web piece includes video excerpts from the 43-minute tapes, letting you see for yourself exactly what happened. This kind of drill-down opportunity is wonderful: the promise of Web journalism fulfilled.

"It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington," Furukawa says. "Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn't do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?"

When it was over, Furukawa introduced herself to Bell, and tossed in a twenty. Not counting that -- it was tainted by recognition -- the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people gave pennies.

"Actually," Bell said with a laugh, "that's not so bad, considering. That's 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn't have to pay an agent."

by Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart, an ex-foreign service officer turned travel writer, was called back into Her Majesty’s service in 2003 to serve as Deputy Governor of Iraq’s Maysan province. He candidly confesses to all his lack of qualifications for the job, and then pitches in with enthusiasm, good will, and guarded optimism, seeking to do what he can to improve Iraq and to hand a better province back to Iraqi government. This is the tale of the Green Zone years from outside; Stewart works with Iraqis while his masters deal in theories and PowerPoint presentations, and Stewart faces bullets and grenades while headquarters accepts daft Italian reports that everything is quiet.

I stopped in Savenor's to get a chicken. Lately, Michael Ruhlman has convinced me that roast chicken needs to be brined, and that’s enough of a production that I’d rather get a really good chicken.

So I pulled into the 15-minute parking space in front, and left with a chicken, two huge lamb shanks, an artisan sausage, and a hanger steak.

As I handed over the contents of my wallet, the cashier mentioned that this was also her favorite steak. “Do you grill it?” I asked. “Or pan-sear it?” She broils it, after marinating it in oil and vinegar and Italian spices.

Now, this didn’t grab me at first, but I could use a different rub and I have a big pile of Penzey’s Italian Herbs that I bought in a delusionary fit and seldom use. So, I rubbed the hanger steak all over with kosher salt, fresh pepper, sugar, and ground ancho chile, and then coated it with lots of the dried herbs. Onto the grill! I'm not completely sure that the herbs helped the flavor, but they made the kitchen smell wonderful.

Memo: buying the grill on the Wolf range was a big win.

  • cream of asparagus soup (improvised from some aging chicken stock, some aging asparagus (Linda and I both bought aspargus and we hadn’t even used up what we already had on hand), an onion, some roasted garlic, cup of white wine, and finished with a half cup of cream and some parsley)
  • hanger steak
  • gratin of fennel, onion, and potatoes
  • salad

We had a bottle of a cheap red Bordeaux chosen at random from a pile of cheap young Bordeaux at Fresh Pond (2005 Chateau Tour De Pic, and very drinkable it was), and a sip of one of Dr. Loosen’s lovely dessert Rieslings for dessert.

Miranda July built a Web site for her new book, No One Belongs Here More Than You, using unconventional Web design tools: the top of her refrigerator and her stove. Thanks, Seth Godin!

by David Mamet

A fine writer, a fine director, and my favorite prose stylist: David Mamet is a treasure. This is his second book this year. I expected to dislike The Wicked Child. I did. I expected to like Bambi vs. Godzilla, and it was indeed a very pleasant way to spend an evening or two. Much of what Mamet says here, he has already covered; this book's essay on "The Jew in Hollywood" is not, I think, quite as good as "The Jew For Export" in Mamet's Make-Believe Town. Mamet's denunciation of that personification of greed and perfidy, the producer, is more complete here than in his On Directing Film, but not necessarily to greater effect. His observations on acting will be familiar to readers of True and False. What’s really best here are the most gritty and technical discussions, a pean to craft workers on the set, an exploration of artifice in film making and the eternal question: how did they get the cat to do that?

by Simon Winchester

William Smith (1769-1839), a self-educated man from Oxfordshire who was an enthusiastic collector of rocks and fossils, played a critical role in the development of modern geography. Smith was probably the first to fully grasp the underlying idea of stratigraphy — specifically that, since rock beds are seldom precisely parallel to the surface, you can learn about strata by moving across the surface as well as by digging beneath it. This idea led to his monumental map of 1815, the first large-scale geological map.

Smith was never a rich man and much of his career was plagued by debt and disappointment. But he travelled very widely and did not live meanly; his London house for many years was not far from Sir Joseph Banks, the great botanist, and Banks helped bail Smith out of his (ultimately-intolerable) financial morass.

Winchester is a lively and intelligent writer, and this is a fine and enjoyable volume. He pays, I think, too little attention to the intellectual climate of Smith’s time; Winchester often reminds us of the impending contest between the Church and Darwin, but doesn't mention the specter of civil war, Glorious Revolution, and French Terror that led Smith’s contemporaries to be so very, very reluctant to open windows into men’s souls and thus opened the door to science.

If ever a book asked to be lavishly illustrated, this one did, and Winchester’s vivid descriptions don’t entirely make up for the absent pictures. Smith built his ideas on visual evidence: the way stones looked, the way fossils in this stone looked a lot like fossils in that stone. Smith's geology was all about sands and soils and rocks, about driving around and seeing what was on (and in) the ground. It's all still there, and it would be nice to capture more of it in visual form.

Martin Fowler (Refactoring) writes a thoughtful discussion of Net Nastiness.

This isn't just about blogs. It's also about mailing lists, newsgroups, forums, IRC channels, anywhere where people hang out and exchange their views. (And yes I'm implying parallels in the "real world" too. This issue is hardly new. Just look at some pamphlets from the 17th and 18th centuries.)

I think that Boston recently witnessed an instructive answer to net nastiness, when Kerry Healey, the recent Republican candidate for governor, was disinvited to the advisory board of the American Repertory Theater .

During a contentious March 19 meeting to consider Healey's appointment, several members of the ART's 40-member board criticized the Republican nominee's unsuccessful campaign last fall, calling it mean-spirited and condemning a controversial television ad that highlighted Deval Patrick's advocacy for a convicted rapist.

The point here is not that she lost the election, but the way she lost it — and the sense that Rove-ian nastiness should carry consequences.

On the Web, you should be free to be nasty — and willing to accept the opprobrium that nastiness calls down on you.

Julia Flanders sends word that the first issue of the Digital Humanities Quarterly is now available online. The journal has some very interesting essays, ranging from reviews of Willard McCarty's Humanities Computing to a discussion of "Encoding for Endangered Tibetan Texts".

Jeff Howard contributes an essay of "Interpretative Quests in Theory and Pedagogy", discussing a course on quests that included an exercise in constructing a quest game. He concludes that

The study of quests offers a possible bridge between games and narratives that can help us to progress beyond the divisive ludology versus narratology debate without losing sight of the venerable, implied questions about interpretative freedom, imagination, and the human search for meaning that made this debate so fierce in the first place.

This line of argument assumes that the quest theme really matters to role-playing and MMORPG games, but the more experience I have with City of Heroes the less convinced I am that anyone is playing much attention to the quests.

  • If the quests mattered, the developers would doubtless take care in writing and plotting them. They don't, either in City of Heroes or elsewhere. Occasionally you'll encounter clean, functional prose and even a stab at characterization, but trite formulas are far more common. Contrast the visual detail, which is filled with richly textured allusions to places real and imagined.
  • If the quests mattered, serious players would pursue them. In City of Heroes, if you want to find a grizzled veteran player, you're at least as likely to meet them at a callow level 3 hero in Atlas Park as in the outer, high-level reaches of the game world.
  • Players love to experiment with new power sets and novel strategies. For example, I'm finding it strangely fascinating to work as a healer with incompetent pickup teams, helping immature and bumbling heroes.
  • Quests in games tend not to align with their literary counterparts, despite our ritual citation of Odyssey and Joseph Campbell. We have plenty of American War Games, but in none of them do we see much evidence of the central conflict of the American War Movie, which is almost always between hero and commander. From The Naked and the Dead to Run Silent, Run Deep, or From Here To Eternity to Patton, from Catch 22 to M*A*S*H, we're always fighting the Old Man or the rear echelon or HQ. In games, our Odysseys have no Penelope, our Arthur's have no Jennifer, and our Tamino has no particular use for a Papageno or a Sarastro. Games seldom follow their obvious and natural models. Why not? Surely not because game designers are all immature or unschooled or inept.
Apr 07 4 2007

Citiscape

Whether in Novo Airão or Manaus or even in Belem, the street in Brazil has a distinctive color and energy that is very different from the streets of North America or Europe or Asia. This seems true on a quiet corner of isolated Novo Airão

Citiscape

or the docks of Manaus

Citiscape

At Belem, we had lunch at Lá Em Casa, Paulo Martins' famed headquarters for the cuisine of Para. (Thanks to Bryan Sadowski for the tip: do have I terrific readers or what?!) I had a lovely crab soup, rich with peppery greens, followed by an inspired cordilheira of seven kinds of Amazon fish, each prepared distinctly, on two lovely plates. The highlight was probably a lovely stew of a sweet, chewy shrimp steeped in a yellow vinegar citrus broth with electric cress, a lip-numbing spinachy green.

Citiscape
Electronics in Novo Airão

The last night on the river, we'd tied up on a sandbar in midstream and the crew spent a couple of hours offloading chairs and tables and building firepits and assembling incredible, extravagant centerpieces from whatever vegetation came to hand and machete. The cook dug a firepit, cut some brush, and made a wonderful wood grill. Luis the naturalist made capirinhas as we waited and watched the churrasco cook. Huge pork ribs. Several kinds of fish, piraraçu for one, wrapped in foil and herbs. A lovely ham-and-sausage salad. Manioc with everything. And, of course, the last of the champagne.

Citiscape

Some Web businesses come to rely on search engine traffic to provide a steady and profitable stream of visitors. This is especially true of small sites that make a living from taking traffic from search engines and showing them search engine ads.

The catch: one day, your page rank might change and -- suddenly -- there goes your revenue.

Pro blog consultant Jon Buscall (of Jontus Media) urges businesses to run a weblog alongside their regular Web site to insure a regular readership that is not completely dependent in flow from search engines. The same weblog can be crucial for protecting your reputation:

A well-judged weblog, with quality content would be an excellent way of tackling online crap written about you. Rather than trying to deal with the boo-boys who use the net to savage people, companies and products left right and centre, a weblog would allow you to tell your side of the story and more importantly show, over time, how you are. There's nothing better than being judged on the quality of what you say (or blog) in public.

This is the opposite of the conventional wisdom that warns teachers and scholars that weblogs might damage their employment prospects. A solid web presence is a bulwark against online bullies and detractors.

Nice thoughts on the art of weblogs (and the shortcomings of ICT and Online Learing sites) from Normal Coutts: Applications, Blogging and Creativity.

Apr 07 3 2007

Frugivore

Here's a fish from the Manaus fish market. It's a fresh-water fish -- a river fish. They catch lots of these. They're big (and delicious) fish.

Frugivore

We had a steak of one of these fish, baked on a bed of herbs and banana (or plaintain?) and basted with stock. It has the sweetness of monkfish and the texture of New England cod.

Apparently, these are frugivores: they make a living from finding fruits that fall into the river! Mangos, papayas, cocoa. Lots of fruits — here's a sign from the Manaus market.

Frugivore

Every morning on the river, it seemed, we had a different new fruit juice for breakfast, and later celebrated yet another amazing bit of wildlife with ever more exotic mimosas. There are lots more fish as well.

Frugivore

The market is right at the riverfront, on a busy road lined with tiny stalls selling boat passage up and down the river. It's exactly the way Peter Fleming describes it: boats coming, boats leaving (Sai Hoje!) but nobody knowing exactly when.

Frugivore

What should you do if your weblog or Web community blows up? How should you respond if you find scary posts on your site, as various people did in the Kathy Sierra flap?

First: stop the damage. If people have posted scary things, pull them down. If people have said things they know to be untrue, pull them down. If people have said things you know to be untrue, rebut them. Do what you can do, quickly and ethically, to stem the problem.

Second: clean up the mess. In the Kathy Sierra case, the concrete problem was that Sierra felt unsafe because the postings could be interpreted as credible threats. The sensible response: try to ensure her safety.

Sierra was worried that one or two bloggers might be planning to assault her. That's frightening, but not irreparable. Every day, reporters for Western news outlets work in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, and they don't just suspect -- they know -- that people wish them harm. Not just one or two reckless amateurs, but thousands of highly trained and skilled professionals. They employ guards to address the problem. There are plenty of security specialists available.

Third: fix what you can fix, apologize for what you can’t. Bad things sometimes happen. In broad terms, bad things break down into two classes: things that can be fixed or replaced, and things that can’t. Prompt action to fix what can be fixed shows that you are doing what can be done. But some things can't be undone: if you woke someone up in the middle of the night, all you can really do is say you're sorry.

Fourth: move the focus on things and ideas, not people. Where the entire meankids site seems to have veered off the rails, in my opinion, is its emphasis on making fun of people. Hint: any comment about the appearance of an internet pundit, developer, designer, politician, or investor is a red flag.

Today marks the tenth anniversary of Dave Winer's pioneering weblog, scripting.com .

Winer writes of the site that

It helped bootstrap the blogging world. The earliest weblogs were patterned after this site. The software [Manilla/Radio Userlanjd] that was used to build those blogs came from Scripting News.

Scripting News was crucially important in the development of blogs because it harnessed enthusiasm and a quirky individuality of voice to a serious purpose. Other early protoblogs tended to be serious but voiceless, or expressive and unserious. Indeed, it was the transgressive frivolity of Justin Hall's personal diary that made links.net so compelling: there was no percentage for Justin in telling us all this — you knew (even if he didn't) that his girlfriends were going to be weirded out and there would be hell to pay — but the candor and good writing and the impending train wrecks were strangely appealing.

But Winer was something else: a serious and important developer, someone with a seat at the software industry's top table, devoting very serious resources to spreading information through this new medium.

Happy Birthday.