May 13 21 2013

Winter King

by Thomas Penn

Henry VII barely won his throne, beating Richard III by the narrowest of margins after a life chiefly on the run. He was determined that no man would repeat his accomplishment, and he was anxious never to lack money again, and in the process of securing these goals he established the Tudor dynasty and stabilized England after a century of tumult. Richard III had been a knight of the late middle ages who died calling for a fresh charger, but Henry Tudor was an early modern bureaucrat who meticulously reviewed every account and checked every detail. On the road, after Prince Henry managed to mislay a gold chain, the royal jewel-house keeper noted grimly, that “the king knoweth of it.”

That nobody especially liked him, save for what he could give, seems not to have bothered the king. Or perhaps it did: in later years, his progresses were interrupted by frequent breaks for solitary time spent alone or, at any rate, out of the spotlight. He did his best to govern without Parliament, and largely succeeded. He paid close attention to security, and in the end his closest relationships were with his security detail.

This biography of Henry VII has been widely praised everywhere, from The Guardian (which you would expect) to the Wall Street Journal (which you would not). It’s a very fine book, and will become the definitive biography of this important and neglected era. It is is not, to be honest, very much fun, but neither was Henry.

Apr 12 29 2012


I improvised some birthday oatmeal cookies for the dancer’s birthday. Starting with the Momofuku Milk Bar recipe:

  • 1 stick butter at room temperature
  • 80g brown sugar
  • 50g sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 80g flour
  • 120g rolled oats
  • 1/4 t baking powder
  • pinch baking soda
  • 3/4 t salt

This makes a nice, sweet, salty cookie. Since it’s a birthday cookie, I added a big handful of dried cherries and a small handful of pistachios. (Don’t go overboard on the nuts). Cream the sugar and the butter, then beat in the egg yolks, then add the rest until everything comes together.350° for 15min.

Apr 12 27 2012


by Veronica Roth

In YA Dystopian future Chicago, everyone is a member of a faction. There are five factions: Amity, Dauntless, Erudite, Abnegation, or Candor. If you aren’t part of a faction, you are cast out. Parents raise their kids in the manner of their own faction, but sixteen-year olds are free to choose the faction that suits them best. And when Beatrice Prior has to choose, she revolts at the prospect of a lifetime of Abnegation and takes the sudden, dangerous plunge into Dauntless.

One of the book’s problems begins with the lapsed parallelism of the faction names. Dauntless and Erudite are adjectives. Amity, Abnegation, and Candor are nouns. This leads to all sorts of minor awkwardness. The book must have been workshopped many times at Northwestern, where Roth began it as a creative writing student; I can’t understand why everyone didn’t harp on this.

Our rite of passage is immediately followed by an excellent boot camp story as our heroine (and many others) are tested for induction into Dauntless. The effect is heightened by the cultural differences among the recruits, with Abnegation vs. Candor filling the role usually played by the Micks and the Dagos in WWII bootcamp. Plus, in this girl’s army, you can have a crush on your drill instructor.

One detail annoys me. Here, as in The Hunger Games, the protagonist says she is 16 and is obviously younger. The roots of this story lie in Percival, in the mystic journey and the puberty rite. It’s a bat mitzvah, a kina'alda. The world does not lack for sixteen-year old girls: go out and look at a few, and then tell me that girl is Tris Prior. The target audience is YA; they know how their 16-year old friends look, and they know when they’re being lied to.

But these are quibbles. This is not a profound book. It’s not a book of ideas, though in other hands the premise would bear it. It’s a confection, but a delightful one.

Apr 12 26 2012



I wanted to try an exercise from Sullivan’s A System Of Architectural Ornament, just to see how a quick sketch on my laptop would feel. I think perhaps there really is something to Spuybroek’s sense of the digital nature of the Gothic.

by Mo Hayder

Two long-estranged sisters find themselves in interlocked novels: one in a police procedural, the other a thriller. A caper threatens to break out. One problem for the plot, it seems to me, is that it assumes a senior British detective today would think that her having worked for a few months in a strip club, fifteen or twenty years ago, would be a terrible secret, that if her colleagues knew, that would end her career.

But, suspending disbelief, this formal experiment in mystery fiction has real depth and imagination and a remarkable conclusion.

Objective C is a fine language, but I miss some idioms from C++. (Yes, I could be using Objective C++; let’s leave that aside for a moment.)

One common idiom in C++ uses object lifetime to control resource allocation. For exampe, we might write:

StGraphicState saved(cg);
...set up coordinates
...set up a funny clip region scary things

The constructor for StGraphicState does a CGContextSaveGState and the destructor restores it. That means:

  • You can’t accidentally forget the restore
  • A premature return doesn’t need to remember to do the restore
  • Even if something throws an exception, the restore will get called

The idiom neatly encapsulates a host of balanced actions where we need to set up, open, allocate, or lock something here and want to be sure to tear down, close, release, or unlock it when we’re done. It makes the programmer’s intention clear in one place, declaring that the lifetime of the balanced action is the current scope.

As far as I can tell, Objective C has no real equivalent. (We don’t throw a lot of exceptions in Objective C, but the first two issues are very real.)

With ARC, it seems you could almost do this.

StGraphicState *saved=
  [[StGraphicsState alloc] initWithContext: cg];
...set up coordinates
...set up a funny clip region scary things

But, as I read the fine print, this might not work. saved is guaranteed to be destroyed eventually, so we’ll eventually do the restore. According to the fine print, the compiler is free to destroy saved at any point after its last use. So, if you don’t refer to saved after declaring it, the compiler could save your state and then restore it right away.

You could work around this in various ways:

StGraphicState *saved= [[StGraphicsState alloc] initWithContext: cg];
...set up coordinates
...set up a funny clip region scary things
[saved self];

but then you have to remember to refer to saved at the end of the scope and worry about the cleverness of the optimizing compiler – and the whole point of the idiom is to avoid having to remember.

Is there an alternative idiom?

The underlying concept comes, as I recall, from InterLISP, and probably came to C++ via Common Lisp. I don’t remember seeing the idiom in Smalltalk-80, but that’s a long time ago for me.

Update: Much email and Twitterage to suggest block wrappers that take a block and do the setup and restore themselves, Chris Deveraux, for example, suggests

WithSavedState( ^(CGContextRef cg){

where WithSavedState takes a block as its argument. It then does the setup, runs the block and then does the teardown. . I'm still not entirely happy, but it makes sense.

We draw a lot of boxes and arrows in computer science and information architecture. European computer science is especially fond of them. And of course they're central to the Tinderbox map view.

But should we rely on boxes? How about some curves?

Boxes and Arrows

I tried to get some interest in foliated, art nouveau maps at IVICA a few years ago. I’ve not seen much uptake, but perhaps that was too much to expect; making this happen will take a lot of work and would probably be a risky platform for a doctoral dissertation. (It sure could put someone one the map, though!)

I’m not entirely happy with this sketch. In fact, I’m not happy at all. The curves aren’t right, and we need other ways to represent anti-links and contingent links. How do we represent typed links without too much clutter? And this does nothing to help matters when you have lots of tangled links, which I think is something we ought to encourage.

But there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to be plucked around here.

I have a bunch of research topics gathering dust. Most would be suitable for a dissertation or thesis. All should be publishable.

When I was a graduate student, I used to spend hours looking for ideas that might generate a publishable scientific discovery. Everywhere one turned, either someone had been there before or you needed a ton of new equipment.

Now, I’ve got ideas lying all over the office. That was chemistry and this is the margins of computer science and the humanities. Perhaps I was completely clueless back then, perhaps everyone else has always seen these topics lying around.

Anyone interested? What’s the best things to do with them?

A friend wrote, in passing, an image of writerly success: an agent, a slot in The New Yorker, a six figure contract from FSG.

I hear this a lot. And because these things seem almost impossible to attain, I hear more and more dreams of splendid parties. People – thoughtful people – have somehow convinced themselves that social events are the very center of literary life today, even if those other things seem out of reach.

But let’s get serious. Suppose you’re a tech writer. Does a “a head hunter, a guest column in a magazine, and a salaried job” seem the essence of bliss? With or without the party?

Discussing our recent ban on the phrase “electronic literature,” a correspondent asked, “what would we call it instead?”

How about: the way we write now.

Or, simply, writing.

Apr 12 19 2012

Battle Royale

by Koushum Takami

Often cited as an inspiration or precedent for The Hunger Games, this Japanese dystopian novel, by sharing the underlying premise, gives a wonderful illustration of the importance of competent execution in even the most favorable circumstances.

Battle Royale gets off to a fast start. Forty eight middle school kids are being bussed on an outing. Suddenly, they all feel sleepy. They wake up and find themselves in The Program: they will leave the classroom at three minute intervals. Each student will be given a different weapon. They will kill each other; the survivor gets to go home.

Everything goes wrong here. Where The Hunger Games is often hamstrung by its relentless focus on the hero’s point of view, Battle Royale flits wherever it likes, reducing its pacing to mush punctuated by body counts.

Yuji Oniki’s over-literal translation does the book no service at all; all the students come out with the same slightly-accented voice, and while this might be what the author put on the page it is surely not what he wanted to do. In an afterward, he says Shogo’s dialog is patterned after Hawk in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser mysteries. Now this is an incongruous image – I’m not sure that any Japanese middle school kid could really sound a lot like Hawk — but I’d think Hawk would be just about the easiest character to pastiche you could ask for. I’ve read every line Hawk spoke, and the idea never crossed my mind.

There’s almost no description, either. I had to ask Japanese speakers to figure out what “middle school” might be in the original because, for hundreds of pages, I couldn’t figure out whether these forty-eight students were meant to be in eighth grade or twelfth. Since writer and translator are both living and can (presumably) talk, it might have been prudent to add a bit of description to the translation’s description of the action. Some of the dialogue, I think, represents polite or even formal discourse between boys and girls on their very best behavior. The Japanese reader knows the gestures that accompany these words, but the American reader could use some help.

Swarthmoron and CO that I am, in The Hunger Games I was always keeping my eye out for pacifism. Here, almost half the class opts immediately for some variant of pacifist rejection, ranging from the immediate suicide of two lovers to a variety of more-or-less doomed rebellions. None are interesting: the lovers leap over their cliff without evoking a sigh, the rebels flourish and fail in a chaos of happenstance.

The book assumes that boys and girls are completely different and hints that a separatist society – girls without boys – might be more tenable than risking contact. At any rate, accidental contact with a boy leads to universal disaster, which makes the boy a little sad. But since he had no role in the disaster and has a girl to protect (because his pal, now dead, had a secret crush on her), the disaster doesn’t mean much to him or anything to us. The book is deeply, casually sexist to no particular point, and would be deeply immoral if we cared enough about these kids to make them matter. The Hunger Games does itself a favor in avoiding firearms; Battle Royale spenda too much time comparing Lugers to Uzis and not enough letting the poor kids look their victim in the eye.

Yglesias also likes An Economist Gets Lunch. His explanation for why restaurants decline is wrong, although Tyler Cowen’s explanation is also wrong.

First: part of the delight of food is novelty. A tasty dish that is also completely unexpected, or that is (at any rate) a very rare experience, will always seem more exciting than something we have all the time. That’s one reason why people in the 18th and 19th century went nuts for things – oranges, pineapples, sugar plums – that makes kids shrug today. If you have one orange a year, then that orange makes a wonderful Christmas gift. If you pick up a bag of oranges every week, it’s no big deal. The orange is not worse, but it seems to have declined.

Second: cooking, like all performance, tends to decline because it is very difficult to recognize small changes that make things worse. Restaurant life is always about small adjustments. This piece of meat is a little lean. Today’s peppers are on the spicy side. The customers today all seem to be in a somber mood; maybe it’s the rain? Stuff changes all the time. Against this background, it can be especially difficult to notice small lapses and shortcuts that make dishes just a little bit worse. Besides, after a few years, you’ve plated that duck confit thousands and thousands of times, and lots of people find it much harder to care as much about the ten-thousandth crêpe as they did about the tenth.

Third: the reward curve flattens out. In week three of a restaurant’s existence, it’s a bundle of potential. Anything can happen: the next person through the door might be a reviewer, or a publicist, or someone who’ll tell dozens of trendy friends to visit. Everything still hangs in the balance. After thirteen years, you are who you are; everyone in town thinks they know what you do. Crucially, you still exist: you have a business. That wasn’t necessarily assured back in week three. This fact is independent of your dependence on regular customers, and the effect is as pronounced in high-end chain restaurants that cater to tourists and conventioneers as in neighborhood joints.

Yglesias attributes decline to the conservatism of regular patrons. That’s a factor, but regulars can also help because they have a longer baseline. You see that sole meuniere ten times a day, but a regular might see it very eight weeks or so. If the guy on sautée is starting to scrimp on the spices, the regular has a better chance of noticing.

In my experience, incremental deterioration is usually decisive in restaurants. You see the same thing in other kinds of performance. It’s not invariable or inevitable, though. Some disciplines –musicians in symphony orchestras – are largely dedicated to training people to resist this decline. The traditional training of physicians was aimed at avoiding the related deterioration in performance when you are tired, distracted, and everyone is losing their head and running in circles, but this also helped doctors pay due attention to their hundredth appendectomy.

And it can be done in restaurants. Rick Bayless does it, somehow: Frontera has been around for ages, it’s thoughtful, and it’s still good. We had another nifty meal at Avec last night, and Avec’s got all the warning signs Tyler Cowens points to: a space that’s almost all bar, filled with attractive young people even on Monday night. Those chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates are still terrific.The design of Next is, I think, another response; Next won’t grow stale because it’s always about six weeks old.

Apr 12 13 2012


“As all craft moves toward design, all labor must move toward robotics.” – Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things

I’ve got an elementary headache with XCode 4.

Suppose I sit down and say, “Get me the files for CeresMapDrawingPolicy!” Back in the old days of XCode 3, this was easy enough:

  1. Select the project at the top of the group tree
  2. Type a few letters (case-insensitive!) in the search area
  3. You’re done

Since Tinderbox involves about 1900 files, it’s important to make this fast and easy,

Currently, I’m doing this with blind typing in the Project Navigator. This is bad because

  • You have to keep all groups open all the time, which defeats the utility of groups
  • Blind typing is case-sensitive
  • Mistakes fail silently
  • You need to do a lot of typing because CeresMapDrawingPolicy and CeresMapOutlinePolicy are different files in different places

There’s got to be a much better way to do this. Suggestions? Email me.

Update: That was fast. Matt Hanlon recommends Open Files Quickly (⌘-shift-O ). Helge Gudmundsen recommends Code Pilot.

I’m finding the first chapter of Spuybroek’s The Sympathy Of Things absolutely fascinating. It explores “The Digital Nature of the Gothic,” connecting the artistic impulse behind fan vaults and foliated stonework to the craft of new media. Ruskin’s characteristics of the Gothic – savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity, and redundance — apply with great force to the nature of the digital.

It’s tons of fun, believe it or not. It’s not easy to follow Spuybroek’s argument, which twists through spandrels and ogees and technical issues of vaulting long before we get to technical issues of the digital. I think I see how the gothic nature illuminates Storyspace-style hypertext in new and powerful ways. It’s worth a little architectural research to find out.

It will be interesting to see how NeoVictorian artisanal programming looks in the light of Gothic Revival architecture. There’s certainly an interesting point to be made about the use of new tools and finishes to achieve things to which (we think) ancient artists aspired. To accompany this, we might want to set up an iPod playlist with Respighi’s Ancient Airs, Vaughan Williams’ fantasias on Greensleeves and Thomas Tallis, a Mendelssohn oratorio, and Ormandy’s orchestral transcriptions of Bach.

Tyler Cowen in The Atlantic proposes six rules for dining out. Some are familiar and self-evident, but others are clever. Cowen thinks Thai food is declining in the US but suggests you try Thai restaurants at motels:

If the restaurant is attached to the motel, its proprietors are likely not paying extra rent for the space. A Thai family may already own the motel, and may be operating this business on the side, in which case the owners won’t have to cover high rents by appealing to large numbers of customers or by cutting corners. Odds are you’ll get fairly authentic Thai food at low prices.

by Edmund de Waal

A British ceramicist inherits a collection of Japanese netsuke from his beloved uncle Iggy, an old man named Ignatz who has lived for many years in Japan. Intrigued, he gradually uncovers the story of their family, the Ephrussi, who emerged from Odessa in the 19th century to become one of the world’s leading banks, rivaling the Rothschilds for wealth, for influence, and for inciting the envy and hatred of the Nazis. A fascinating book that carefully avoids nostalgia and that is always thinking about the role of objects in life, a history that only a singularly thoughtful potter could have written.

by Nathan Englander

A nifty collection of stories about a nifty assortment of Jews. The title story is a wonderful postmodern reprise on Raymond Carver, but the gem is “Sister Hills,” a long tale with great ambitions. First, it’s a sympathetic portrait of West Bank settlers, which is a very difficult thing to pull off without cheating and Englander is too good to cheat. That would be more than enough, but to this Englander adds a wonderful twist: we’re recapitulating the problem of The Merchant of Venice but this time it’s entirely among Jews and is to be settled under the big old olive tree in the defendant’s back yard by a court of three hastily assembled rabbis who sit on lawn furniture they brought tied to the roof of their car. They already know what they will decide, and why, and perhaps they are not wrong, but there was one thing they had forgotten.

Ever since McLuhan became a rock star, people have been fantasizing about a post-textual world. That dream underpins lots of shallow hype. That fear inspires stuff like Reading At Risk. It is deeply unserious because there is an entire catalog of indispensable topics about which we can talk in no other way. Yes, paintings and music and film are eloquent, but if you need a law or a contract, a design for a bridge that won’t fall down, the square root of 17, or an explanation for the Diels-Alder reaction, you’d better write it down. James Bridle, book futurist, gets this right:

We are witnessing a profound assault on book publishing and literature, on the text itself—not from ebooks, which publishers are slowly, painfully coming around to after a long resistance, or the internet, which is after all entirely made of text—but from applications, “enhanced” books and reductive notions of literary experience. As I’ve written about before, in the context of advertising, publishers’ reactions to new technologies betray a profound lack of confidence in the text itself. We are being distracted by shiny things.

Then, unfortunately, he veers off the tracks. “Text lasts.” he continues, though of course it doesn’t always last. And then, “It is not dependent on technology: it is what we make technology out of.” If sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then familiar technology is indistinguishable to a book futurist: it is so familiar he cannot see it. Of course, the codex book is technology, just like my computer, and I’m using both of them right now to make newer technology. Good grief.

Those tactile, haptic joys the screen denies,

The paperback’s materiality,

These simply were the way things always stood,

The nature of the world, and no technology

Had ever altered books, or ever would.

Bridle takes a swipe at hypertext fiction but seems to think it has something to do with “media-rich CDs,” conflating Expanded Books with hyperfiction. He concludes by observing that “more and more is published with less and less context,” where by “context” he means the conventional symbols of the publisher’s care: author bios, flap copy, indexes. But all this apparatus is a technology (for which see Anne Blair’s Too Much To Read and Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote) and it’s not going anywhere unless readers send it away. Nor can anyone who reads thoughtfully on an iPad fail to notice all sorts of new context; a dictionary at your fingertips is nice, Google as a fact-checker is nicer. And if someone mentions a painting, or a sculpture, or an aria, or an Elizabethan sonnet, the odds are very good that you can find a decent copy in seconds.

That’s context.