May 15 2 2015


A-Rod got his 660th, tying Willie Mays. No one seems all that excited.

I remember when Aaron broke Ruth’s record. That was a big deal, in part because Ruth’s record had stood for so long, in part because Ruth was the greatest player in history. Aaron wasn’t the greatest player, though he was great.

Then Bonds broke Aaron’s record, to much hissing. The catch here is simply that you can argue that Bonds was the greatest hitter in history. Because of steroids, and because he hasn’t been easy to get along with, no one really wants to make the argument. But the argument’s there in the record book: you could look it up.

And now here’s A-Rod, passing the Say-Hey Kid. It ought to be a good time, a time to look back to the Polo Grounds and the Vic Mertz catch and 660. That’s a lot of homers!

I think we really need to stop obsessing with pills. We accept all sorts of other kinds of sports medicine. We accept cheating: no one ever accused Ty Cobb of playing fair, and we’re not ignoring his records. It’s a game.

Apr 15 30 2015



I’ve been working on a new Treemap View for Tinderbox. Here’s an example:

Click here for full size

What we have here is a section of a Tinderbox note file that contains lots of expense reports from a fictional business trip. Each expense is a box. The area of each box is proportional to the expenditure, scaled logarithmically. The color of each box is proportional to the number of words used to justify the expense to Accounting.

We’ve got more the fifty notes on view view here – more than we could get onscreen with a outline – and a nice mix of hierarchical structure, visualization, and clarity. Big documents reveal some interesting structure, too; here’s my weblog:


There’s a good deal of work remaining to do, but it’s shaping up nicely.

Adam Gopnik:

Writing is turning time into language, and all good writers have an elaborate, fetishistic relationship to their working hours. Writers talking about time are like painters talking about unprimed canvas and pigments. (Nor is there anything philistine about writers talking money. Inside the ballroom at the PEN banquet, it’s all freedom and dignity; outside, it’s all advances.)

by Mary Miller

An eerily modern Pilgrim’s Progress in which a plain 15-year-old girl is dragged along on a family car trip, starting from their sourly-sweet Alabama home and heading for Oakland, California where, in five days, the Rapture will commence. Dad has lost his job, though the two girls aren’t supposed to know that. Mom has pretty much lost whatever affection she had for Dad, though the two girl’s aren’t supposed to know that, either. Elise, seventeen and beautiful, is pregnant, though Mom and Dad aren’t supposed to know that. And the narrator, Jess Metcalf, has pretty much concluded that it’s all a crock: beauty, true love, goodness, Jesus, fast food, all of it. She learns a lot on the road, but never loses a certain clarity of vision.

Why hadn’t he texted me? I hoped he didn’t think I was just some girl who had given him a handjob in the back of his van. I was, of course, but I couldn’t think of myself that way, and couldn’t think of him thinking of me that way, either.

Then again, fast food is pretty good.

Outlining With Tinderbox

A deep introduction by Steve Zeoli.

I was going to end this overview by saying that Tinderbox is not the world’s best Mac outliner. But I’ve changed my mind. I think it is the best, when you consider all it has to offer.
Apr 15 27 2015


I finally saw “42,” which has been overpriced on Amazon and unavailable on Netflix.

It’s not much of a movie, but the ballpark sets are amazing. You look at the batter digging in for the pitch and, yes, it’s the Polo Grounds! OK: I think that may have been a matte painting, and center field was out of focus – but then, center field at the Polo Grounds was so deep it would have been out of focus. Shibe Park was really impressive. (Oddly enough, I don’t recall any pictures of Ebbets offhand.)

Oddly enough, they didn’t use anything from the Major League stadium in which Jackie Robinson played in 1947 and which still exists – Wrigley Field. Sure, it’s changed, but it’s changed a lot less than the Polo Grounds.

by Kathy Sierra

Badass is the logical culmination of the contemporary business book: a PowerPoint deck on paper. It’s a good deck; Sierra is first and foremost a speaker.

Sierra’s insight here – and it’s a important – is that the whole point of technology marketing is to make users awesome, which means giving them tools to do great stuff, leading them toward using those tools well, and then getting out of the way. This is music to my ears, of course, since Tinderbox users are pretty much the definition of “badass” and “awesome” and each day’s Tinderbox support queue tends to be filled with a remarkable array of talented writers, journalists, scientists, and scholars. (Lots of musicians, too: I’m honestly not sure why.)

One insightful example explores camera documentation. On the one hand, manufacturers tend to explain how to use this camera. But purchasers don’t care about that. They want to know how to take great pictures – better pictures than they could take with their old camera. That’s a useful framing for lots of technical marketing problems, and a very intriguing guide to improving sales, support, and training.

The later sections of the book discuss strategies for help users become “badass” before they give up and abandon your product. Many of the strategies are heuristically sound, but Sierra presents them as necessary cognitive truths. This leads to an unfortunate rhetoric where we’re consistently cajoling or deceiving our user’s brain in order to help the user; instead of making users awesome, we’re manipulating them for their own good. Sierra embraces the weirdness heartily and underlines it on page after page with a series of brain icons – for example, a brain with a faucet symbolizes “distraction”.

Actual cognitive arguments – arguments about how the brain actually accomplishes something – require more than intuitive plausibility and an experiment or two. We just don’t understand brains very well, they often work in ways that aren’t intuitively obvious, and it turns out that we’re not particularly good at thinking about our thinking. In a talk, this hand-waving might be more effective, but paper provides leisure to poke holes. In the end, we aren’t trying to solve the problem of the mind right now, we’re just trying to sell some stuff! The conclusion much of this reaches is the desirability of focusing training on skills and concepts that are immediately necessary and clearly rewarding; that conclusion doesn’t need any cognitive science at all.

Nonetheless, the original observation is sound and significant. We aren’t playing silly psychological games to get customers to engage with the brand or to splurge on in-app purchases. We’re helping smart and capable people to do good and important work, one step at a time.

Apr 15 20 2015


My imaginary thriller proceeds, and with it I’m building some Tinderbox infrastructure to keep an eye on how the trip is shaping up.


The raw character map is easy enough to put together in any diagramming program, but here we’re using Tinderbox agents and rules to keep a running total of our expenses as we add them. Tinderbox is also handling currency conversions; these expenses are entered variously in dollars, euros, pounds sterling, and Swiss francs.

You could do this in a spreadsheet, sure, but where in the spreadsheet are you going to put your character notes, much less our internal memos?

Meanwhile, we’ve gone from Paris to Dijon, on to Zürich, down to Torino, and now we’ve dashed off to London for the weekend conference of our (fictitious) open source competitors. It’s nice to be spending an imaginary company’s notional revenues!

by Stacey D'Erasmo

The story of a rock-and-roll comeback, nicely written and filled with convincing detail. D’Erasmo does a masterful job of using small asides to good effect and has a nice feel for quickly sketching distinct places in the midst of a band tour where we’re constantly moving to a new city. What really works here is the world building: Anna Brundage is a convincing minor star and D’Erasmo does a terrific job of sketching the contours of a career, the small triumph of the first-album Whale, the disastrous Bang Bang tour – as well as a performance gone wrong in Hamburg, a rained-out music festival in Latvia, and the crucial distinction between flings with men you’ve scarcely met (which, on tour, is basically everyone you could possibly have a fling with) and sleeping with fans (which, on tour, is pathetic).

Before setting off on this last best chance, the Wonderland tour, Anna had been teaching shop at a private school in Manhattan; whenever failure looms, it manifests as the specter of a hundred little girls with hammers.

Apr 15 19 2015

Too Many Books?

Tim Parks:

At present, for example, it’s hard not to feel that we are in an era of massive overproduction. Just when we were already overwhelmed with paper books, often setting them aside after only a few pages in anxious search of something more satisfying, along came the Internet and the e-book so that, wonderfully, we now have access to hundreds of thousands of contemporary novels and poems.

Note to the copy editor of the NY Review of Books:

True, in the early 1300s, with the establishment of the first partially mechanized paper mills in Italy, a more generous supply of paper began to circulate and the number of people able to write rapidly increased.

Did the number of writers increase rapidly? Or does the increase relate to how many people could write hurriedly, swiftly, and in a rush?

I’m toying with an odd fiction project that, if all goes well, will generate some useful background material for Tinderbox 6.3 while perhaps being interesting (or amusing) for its own sake.

It’s going to be a quick and dirty thriller. To get things rolling, I need to lay down the bones of the conspiracy our protagonist will eventually discover, a conspiracy that’s going to ruin her April. That means keeping the players straight.

Planning A Conspiracy

Nothing very profound here; it's just a quick sketch. Usually, I just keep a list of the characters in outline view for fast reference, but here we’ve got to manage all sorts of shadowy and undisclosed relationships (and at least one double agent).

Green people work for us; light green people are contractors. Red people work, perhaps indirectly, for the bad guys; at this point, I know less about the Opposition than I do about our hero. That’s one reason for this exercise.

Of course, lots of brainstorming, “mind mapping,” or diagramming tools could do this well enough. What’s nice here is that we can seamlessly extend this to add background to characters, change their associates, perhaps use some rules to keep all this organized.

Apr 15 17 2015

Tinderbox 6.2

Tinderbox 6.2

Tinderbox 6.2 is now out.

So what I particularly like is that, even as a trivial user, things are just getting better and better.— E. P.James, Tinderbox Forum

by John Green

So I dug right down to the bottom of my soul

To see how an ice cream felt…

Another book that every teenage girl you know has read, The Fault In Our Stars seems to be a story of two kids with cancer, but it's deeply interested in the the interaction between life and the stories we tell about it.

A boy and a girl meet cute at a 12-step group for childhood cancer – itself a nicely-observed absurdity – and, one thing leading to another, they soon find themselves sharing an intense passion for a little-known novel about a kid with cancer. That novel ends abruptly and no sequel has appeared; our star-crossed readers accept that the protagonist succumbed suddenly but they want very much to know what happened to The Mother, whether her Boyfriend was good or bad, and what became of her pet hamster Sisyphus. They get in touch with the author, but he won’t commit the answers to writing. He might tell, if only we were in Amsterdam. So, two very sick kids need to get to Amsterdam.

This is done quite well. Of course, you don’t need to address these questions through the eyes of a 15-year-old with terminal lung cancer and her first boyfriend, but that’s part of the point: plot happens.

So, much of the book is an interesting concurrence to David Mamet’s attack on Method Acting: you don’t need to deeply understand the character’s background, because the character is a character and has no background. Nothing that’s not on the page exists; that’s all you know and if you need to know more than that, you’re screwed. (And you’re screwed in any case, thanks to the whole mortality thing.)

I think the book, like the internal story, might to have ended right there. Instead, Green resolves everything with a maudlin coda that shows us what we’ve already been told, and which tends to recast the literary concerns as a distracting subplot in the middle of a sentimental tale of illness.

Apr 15 9 2015

Telegraph Avenue

by Michael Chabon

Chabon’s wonderful Wonder Boys was an insightful tour of a Midwestern writing program, exploring the essential nuttiness of a profession that works by imagining unlikely and impossible things. Here, we replace the seminar and the publishing house with blaxploitation movies, midwifery, and used records in the deteriorating heart of Oakland, California. I suspect this novel is in dialog with High Fidelity, but I don’t understand either jazz or rock well enough to follow along. It was famously said of Mozart that he wrote wonderfully but with too many notes; Chabon does amazing things with ease but here again there might be a few too many characters engaged in just a little too much incident: I’m not entirely sure we absolutely required the blimp. Still, a terrific example of stringing together a lot of wild stuff to craft something not only plausible but wise.

Apr 15 8 2015

Good Writing

A lot of harm is done by the notion of “good writing.”

Right now, I’m reviewing a big pile of papers for Web Science 2015. Many of these are dull and clumsy. The authors are not dull and clumsy – at least, the notional authors, the professors I know; many of the words are set down by students, no doubt, and so few people actually pay attention to the research literature that I suppose it can seem pointless to revise the text when, after all, one could be writing the next paper instead.

A lot of this writing is bad because it’s too careful: it adheres to tired formulae, it makes no particular claims, it takes no risks. The papers seem to know that no one will pay much attention, to aspire chiefly to avoid being noticed and culled as tall poppies.

On the flight home from a ghastly Chicago trip I started The Fault In Our Stars, another book that every teenage girl has read but I have not. It’s an interesting contrast to Rainey Royal and Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue: the sentences are not terribly interesting, the imagery is not remarkably original. Nothing much happens and nobody wants anything very much, and yet somehow it’s a page-turner.

In light of all the storming fulmination over “fun” in SF, I think this needs some reflection.

I've dusted off the hyperfiction project and plan to propel it forward in the next few days. When we left our young heroes at the end of November, we’d just arrived at the end of the story – the dissolution of the school. I thought we would end as the first shots were fired across those ancient, grassy lawns, but perhaps we do need to see what happens next.

by Dylan Landis

A fascinating study of three teenage girls in Manhattan in the 1970s, centered on Rainey Royal: beautiful, obdurate, inconsistent daughter of a jazz musician whose father’s townhouse is filled with his boyfriend Gordy (who sneaks into Rainey’s room in the middle of every night to tuck her in), with her father’s jazz acolytes, and with the absence of Rainey’s mother who decamped several years ago for an ashram. Rainey spends her afternoons (and often her schooldays) in art museums; eventually, she will become an artist who pieces together the possessions of the dead. Her friends are Tina (who often tucks in Rainey’s father – a fact we know though Rainey tries hard not to) and Leah, whom the other girls bully, who lives for science and whose adult life will revolve around lab rats.

At Sea Lions of Wikipedia, I’ve been officially dubbed, “the #2 man on the Sea Lion Troupe’s Most Unwanted List, WikiCriminal MarkBernstein.” But much to the chagrin of my Gamergate fans, my recent sanctions for being interviewed by Think Progress making funny faces at the sea lions has been overturned because (wait for it)

Although the block was proper and the unblock wasn’t, the topic ban this block was enforcing has been vacated so re-blocking doesn’t seem to accomplish much

But Gamergate has had a marked success elsewhere: they block-voted in the science fiction Hugo Award ballots to nominate lots of right-wing military science fiction and to exclude the dread Pirate Roberts social justice warriors. Hilarity has ensued, naturally, with the non-Gamergate nominees declining the honor and an open campaign for the “no award” option.

Notably absent from this year’s Hugo ballot will be William Gibson’s The Peripheral and Emily St.John Mandel’s Station Eleven. An SF book is nominated for a National Book Award, and it can’t be considered for a Hugo? A discussion could be had about Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, though that trilogy’s strongest book turned out to have been its second volume, The Magician King. But we’re going to be talking instead about No Award: thanks, guys!

by Jo Baker

We begin before dawn, drawing pails of water for the laundry, in this account of Pride and Prejudice below stairs and the secret life of the Bennet household.

Sarah, glancing up, hands stuffed into her armpits, her breath clouding the air, dreamed of the wild places beyond the horizon where it was already fully light, and how when her day was over, the sun would be shining on other places still, on the Barbadoes and Antigua and Jamaica where the dark men worked half-naked, and on the Americas where the Indians wore almost no clothes at all, and where there was consequently very little in the way of laundry.

This could so easily slip into feeble melodrama or a lecture on the evils of the colonial past, but Baker always keeps half an eye on the outer world and her full attention on the inner life of the people down below stairs, people to whom Lizzie Bennet is just one more small, dim and uncaring burden among many.