Aug 07 30 2007

Examined Life

There's a lot of talk about email these days, on the Web and everywhere else. The trigger seems to have been Merlin Mann's sermon at Google on “Inbox Zero", a topic on which he's written before and that is also dear to Mark Hurst and others.

The point is that we want to consider and examine things we do all the time. The unconsidered life, etc. Good stuff.

When I was small, we used to go to lots of art museums and galleries. This was OK, but I confess I never really saw the point. Science museums, sure: everyone needs to know this stuff, and there are lots of buttons to press. Natural history: ok. You need to know about lions and tigers and bears, not to mention mummies and stuff. You might run into one someday. But what exactly is the point of learning this much about painting?

Then, at DuPont, I started to lean a bit about drawing. And, later, a touch of watercolor. Suddenly, it made more sense to look at pictures, because these people were struggling with the sort of problems that kept puzzling me. Not just the abstruse, deep problems, either: Renoir, for example, has trouble with anatomy. And everyone in watercolors has trouble with blue-green, because there just isn't a transparent cerulean blue. And so, galleries and museums are a big conversation: how can we do this?

A lot of contemporary art is a conversation that still flies over my head. I spent an afternoon at Mass MOCA last week, and half the time I just didn't have a clue.

That's the point of the email conversation. We all do this. We all learned our habits and customs somehow. Can we do it all, better?

Extra credit: what is the purpose of music? Should we make space in our work for new music? For new serious music? For popular music, even if it's not yet popular with us?

Aug 07 29 2007

Peace Corps II

Last night, Linda suggested that it's high time for a new Peace Corps.

What we need, it seems, is a bunch of talented and experienced people to go where they need some talent and experience, to fix things that need fixing — especially things the Republicans have broken. The electricity if Iraq, for example.

How come they don't have a little scoreboard on page 3 of the newspaper each day: hours of electricity in Baghdad yesterday: 3.6? It's not a big secret: everyone in Baghdad knows the answer. Why are we listening to talking heads when we have the crucial data? And, if you can't fix the electricity, why are you telling us that everything is fine?

The original Peace Corps was a fine idea for using the energy and talent of a numerous generation of young people. OK: they aren't so young these days, but they're still numerous. Maybe it's time to ask 'em to step up to the plate again.

Update: Of course, the Peace Corps is still around: my point is that JFK's Peace Corps was about using our surplus of 20-somethings to benefit the world, and now the surplus is a bit older. Besides, it's time for the grownups to come back and try to clean up the mess that Rove and Bush have made.

I do find some Peace Corps blogs. Here's a directory. And there's a wiki.

Via Torill Mortensen, the New York Times reports on cormorants. Though apparently new arrivals to New York Harbor, cororants aren't especially rare in New England, where they're almost always to be found drying their wings on coastal rocks throughout the summer. (Cormorants are fairly primitive birds and lack the oil glands that provide waterproofing for ducks and geese. So, after a fishing trip, a cormorant has to get out of the water and dry off in the sun before its feathers are comfortably dry and flight-ready.)

Aug 07 28 2007

Four Freedoms

Driving back from Rochester, we stopped in Stockbridge at the Norman Rockwell Museum. They have a small room there, devoted to his paintings of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms.

Freedom of speech.

Freedom of worship.

Freedom from want.

Freedom from fear.

I remember when Rockwell was trite, when these paintings were safe, homespun homilies. But that time now seems as distant as do Rockwell's country grandmothers bringing out the huge roasted turkey to the Thanksgiving family table.

Rockwell didn't like his Freedom from Fear much. He thought it was too obvious and, at the same time, too forced — sleeping kids, protected parents, the assurance that the grim headlines of bombing and terror reported terrible events overseas. Nowadays, of course, our government clearly wants us to be afraid: quiet, complacent, and frightened.

Homeland security.

Four Freedoms

Update: Peter Merholz sends this WPA-sponsored mural from San Francisco's Rincon Center.

Four Freedoms

Painted by Anton Refrigier, the mural provoked the Trial of the Rincon Annex Murals when Republicans denounced the work as an attempt to convert post office patrons to communism.

Blue Renga chimes into the ongoing discussion of hypertext, interactive fiction, and tragedy. (Confidential to Mr. Blue: I believe you forgot your own About page)

Jack Baty from Fusionary reviews Tinderbox 4.

"I'll just go ahead and say it, Tinderbox is the most useful app on my Mac. Period"

A clever idea for Tinderbox 4: use Tinderbox 4 to mark up design sketches of Web sites.

We begin my making an image of the proposed design, either with Paparazzi or simply a screen capture. Paste the image into Tinderbox as an image adornment, serving as the background of a map view. Now, you can add notes (with handy shapes) to raise specific suggestion in context. Color can signal the type of the problem, and font or border can identify who identified the issue. The Tinderbox document can easily circulate throughout the design group, through several iterations.

Tinderbox 4: Design Annotation

Thanks to Lisa Firke.

Poet Philippe Bootz offers a large, hierarchically-structured survey of electronic literature, Les Basiques. It looks, at first glance, to be a good, extensive survey of hypertext fiction and poetry, adopting a largely orthodox point of view. Bootz emphasizes French literature and electronic poetry somewhat more prominently than I might, but that's natural: he's French, he's writing in French, and he's a poet.

There are gaps, to be sure, as there inevitably must be in such a broad survey. Bootz appears to overlook Patchwork Girl, for instance, and Ed Falco's A Dream With Demons, among prose work that I would expect would appeal to him. There seems to be nothing of Deena Larsen's poetry, especially the pioneering Marble Springs. The edge case between poetry, prose, and something new, it seems to me, is Mary Kim Arnold's "Lust", which leads to work like Judd Morrissey's My Name Is Captain, Captain (with Lori Talley) and The Jew's Daughter. Some details might be investigated further; Mark Amerika's Grammatron is an important work, but I'm not entirely sure it was la première fiction sur Internet.

I may be mistaken in this; I've not had time to read extensively and my French is extremely poor. Bootz's essay, though, seems exceptionally approachable, even for a reader with my feeble reading knowledge.   

An anonymous blogger named "Tiny Cat Pants" — I'm sure I know her but I can't quite put my finger on a name or a face — has an amusing note about her old passion for hypertext and its current state. She recalls that

Back when I was in undergrad, a million years ago, I took a class from my favorite professor probably called something like “Women & writing” where we read a lot of feminist theory and then wrote stories in Storyspace, which was this (oh, look, still is) medium for kind of doing what we do here on the internet, but before the internet was convenient to use.

She recalls writing a master's thesis, deciding whether node/link hypertext — "collaboration between your choosing (since you put the links in) and their choosing (since they chose which ones to follow)" — was actually nonlinear reading or something else.

Still, it’s funny to me to think that thirteen years ago or so, my favorite professor had to spend a whole day teaching us about linking, getting us to let go of the idea that what follows from something you’ve just read has to logically fit.  Or that you would only follow at the end.

We still know too little about links.

Emily Short replies to my notes on IF and Tragedy in "What Would James Bond Do?"

She's right: she caught me shuffling genre and dealing from the bottom of the deck. Ulysses and Bond aren't tragic heroes, and I was subtly shifting your focus to the hero protagonist of romance and fable. A fair cop!

But it's not quite that simple: a character placed in a hopeless situation is neither tragic or dramatic. A crucial point is that the hero must have options. We can see the options, and we can see how the hero cannot see them. But if you are the hero, it's hard to see and to be blind at once. (Not impossible, I grant you, and I agree that there's good work in IF on this. See also early criticism from Joyce and, especially, Terry Harpold on contours and "turning away" in hypertext narrative, respectively.)

A counter-argument might be Long Day's Journey Into Night. Not a tragedy, but an interesting case. Could you approach Long Day's Journey as an interactive fiction? Who would serve as the point of view character? Surely not the maid, Cathleen. But anyone else could easily put things off the rails in all sorts of ways: Search the house; Call a doctor; Murder the vile old man in the library with the poker; Check into a hotel. How could you allow them agency and still prevent them from undertaking an action that leads somewhere we can't go. I'm confident you can do Long Day's Journey as a hypertext: the play itself is very nearly a hypertext, especially the final act with its buckets of intertextuality.

Merlin Mann has a nice tip for removing information-free entries from your address book — entries that have neither an email address nor a phone number nor an IM nor an address. He had 82. I had 24, and I was expecting to find I had none.

Kathryn Cramer points out that, while people seem focused on anonymous wikipedia revisions submitted by corporate PR flacks, a far greater problem are the powerful, anonymous, and (largely) secret fraternity of admins who arbitrate disputes and decide what will and won't remain in Wikipedia.

Regular readers may be glad to know that Eastgate's wikipedia entry, recently tagged for deletion by an admin who thought Eastgate wasn't sufficiently notable, will stay in Wikipedia. The discussants included several distinguished professors, hypertext editors, and writers who thought Eastgate notable, and a gun collector who didn't. The judge, magisterially, decided that the weight of the evidence favored "keep", thoug he sternly warned that criticism of the individual admins would result in perpetrator being permanently banned from wikipedia.

The judge, according to his wikipedia profile, will begin 12th grade next month.

Anyone use Tinderbox to keep track of recipes? Plan menus? I'd like to know. Head on over to the Tinderbox forum and let's talk about it.

Juan Cole sums up this morning's important op-ed in the New York Times by Buddhika Jayamaha, Wesley D. Smith, Jeremy Roebuck, Omar Mora, Edward Sandmeier, Yance T. Gray and Jeremy A. Murphy, all enlisted soldiers who have recently served in Iraq.

In a thoughtful, analytically precise, and informed essay, they lament the pie in the sky thinking in Washington, admit that 'hearts and minds' are not being won and are unlikely to be, and decry contradictory US policies trying to please everyone that end up alienating everyone. They point to the massive number of Iraqis displaced abroad and the similar number internally displaced, to the lack of electricity, services, potable water, and above all security. They highlight how unreliable they find the Iraqi military, which they think penetrated at the street level by Shiite militiamen and their supporters.

Juan Cole's Informed Comment is the most consistent source of daily information on Iraq that I have found. Unlike U.S. newspapers, Cole does not forget to watch the continuing, slow-moving issues like electricity, sewage, and kidnapping; these may not seem as urgent on any given day as Bush's latest Rose Garden promises but they obviously have a tremendous influence on the opinions of people in Iraq. And, in the end, their opinion will be decisive.

From the op-ed:

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

Similarly, Sunnis, who have been underrepresented in the new Iraqi armed forces, now find themselves forming militias, sometimes with our tacit support. Sunnis recognize that the best guarantee they may have against Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated government is to form their own armed bands. We arm them to aid in our fight against Al Qaeda.

However, while creating proxies is essential in winning a counterinsurgency, it requires that the proxies are loyal to the center that we claim to support. Armed Sunni tribes have indeed become effective surrogates, but the enduring question is where their loyalties would lie in our absence. The Iraqi government finds itself working at cross purposes with us on this issue because it is justifiably fearful that Sunni militias will turn on it should the Americans leave.

Last night's menu wasn't stellar, but it sure reflects the time of year.

  • Romaine, anchovy/garlic/parmesan dressing
  • Carrot and cilantro soup: We have lots of carrots; they weren't harmed by the hailstorm that clobbered the farm three weeks ago. I sautéed a large spanish onion until lightly colored, and then added several handfuls of roughly cut carrots and a small, quartered potato. More sauteeing, then I ladled in enough chicken stock to cover and cooked another fifteen minutes or so. Throw in a handful of cilantro leaves, puree in the blender, and add some salt and some lime juice. Reheat, garnish with some chopped cilantro, serve. Next time, I'll add a little honey.
  • Grilled ribeye, with roast carrots and roast potatoes
  • Tomatoes, mozarella, and fresh basic, drizzled with the good balsamic vinegar

This week's episode of The Talk Show, with Daring Fireball (John Gruber) and Hivelogic (Dan Benjamin), is brought to you in part by Tinderbox.

It's pretty clear that John and Dan didn't know quite where to begin with Tinderbox, but I like where they wound up. If you're designing a business, or planning a manual, or building a help system, or designing a new product, Tinderbox can help keep track of all the things you might need to remember, and all the relationships you need to stay connected.

Mike Lee's story, How I Became a Programmer, is not the standard narrative of desire, school, and a job.

Aside from my Japanese heritage, things I inherited from my father include my looks, my Y chromosome, my handwriting, my fascination with computers, and my size. After the divorce, when I was in second grade, my mother and my redneck stepfather saw to it that I was continually and severely punished for all of these things.

All, that is, except for my size. That didn't manifest itself until much later in life, and it's not obvious I get that from my father. Aside from having to know my mother's family are all rail thin, you have to stop and think about what the selective breeding of a warrior class does to a person's capacity for growth.

If my parents had ever fed me it might have become an issue. As it was, I was among the shortest kids in my school until I turned 16. That was when I got a job and started eating. Now I'm 6'3" and weigh 300 pounds. My step-father was a career alcoholic and would be pushing 70, so he's probably dead. Certainly it's better for all involved if I continue to believe that.

What Lee's journey doesn't quite make clear, though, is how nebulous our conception of "programmer" has become. He's not a computer scientist, but then again, how often do we have occasion to analyze an algorithm? He's not what we used to call a coder, either: those jobs, where they exist, have fallen below minimum wage and been exported to other continents. He writes a lot about learning APIs: of his first WWDC, he recalls that

Student day kicked my ass. I couldn't keep up with the example project, which was using NSTableView with bindings. It took me all night in my hotel room to finally get it working. The presentations, including Wil Shipley's now famous talk, were simultaneously inspiring and discouraging.

My feeling is the Lee's "programmer" is what we used to call a designer.

by Robert Brustein

Twenty six short essays or letters explore how one might learn to act — and think about acting — and the trials and challenges of a life in the theater. This collection might be best viewed as a response to David Mamet's True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor; Brustein and Mamet clearly respect and value each other, but they appreciate very different aspects of the theater and Mamet's abjuration to "Stand up, speak out, and stay out of school" is anathema to Brustein.

Just offstage, a third party to the dialogue is Lee Strasberg or Stella Adler, proponents the The Method, which Mamet views as a delusive infringement into the playwright's special domain and about which Brustein is deeply ambivalent, treasuring the psychological depth of many Method-influenced performances but mistrusting the dangers of amateur psychology and the perils of identification.

The book is also interesting for its portrayal of an experienced teacher looking back on a career of students. Uniquely here, non-professionals may feel they know the teacher (as an artistic director and a critic) and we also know a number of his students (Christopher Durang, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Cherry Jones).

Of special interest is Brustein's impassioned insistence that criticism should work in the service of art instead of alternating between amusing ridicule (to sell newspapers) and and empty praise (to sell tickets). Brustein describes a a variety of attempts to deflect criticism, instead, into the pursuit of artistic truth. All failed.

Emily Short writes a long and thoughtful discussion of hypertext fiction, sculptural hypertext, and their relationship to interactive fiction. She prefers IF to hypertext fiction, but her judgment and taste are broad enough to appreciate what hypertext writes like Michael Joyce are trying to do.

The post concludes with the first sensible response to my (2001) argument, My Friend Hamlet, of which I am aware.

Bernstein writes:

Even if we could experience Hamlet on the holodeck [referring to Janet Murray’s image of fully interactive literature], it wouldn’t work. Tragedy requires that characters be blind (as we ourselves, at times, are blind); if you let a sane and sensible reader into the room, everything is bound to collapse. (47)

…and that’s true, but it doesn’t observe the player/protagonist separation that we have often talked about in the IF community. Nick Montfort has written about how the protagonist’s character often emerges from what the game doesn’t allow the player to do (see his article in Second Person). When we keep in mind that a sane reader/player can manipulate and guide a blind/misguided protagonist, the problem seems less paradoxical.

I don’t quite accept the Aristotelian formulation that tragic characters must have a tragic flaw — at least, Aristotle’s description of tragedy is as often wrong as right, when we hold actual Greek plays up to it, and I don’t find that it works any more consistently as a guide to more recent literature — but we might amend the tragic flaw to “a tragic limitation”: some inability to see the truth, some lack of self-control, some fatal inclination, which makes the hero less than a god, and traps him into the story as it happens. This might be juster to the Greek than the traditional translation anyway: hamartia is a missing of the mark in archery, the slipping of a foot on a dangerous slope. Ethically, it is an unintentional crime, a manslaughter rather than a murder, as well as (in the New Testament) a sin.

Well done! But we can't travel too far down this road: if our story is about the hero's hamartia and its consequences, we're already on the border of comedy (Some Like It Hot) or, if we must end unhappily, melodrama (The Winslow Boy) and fable (Saul, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Babylon 5). But this is fine work: a reasoned response, actual examples and counter-examples, real criticism of real hypertexts.

I wasn't actually talking about ate and hamartia, or not only about them: there's a simple logistical contradiction that lies at the heart of IF. You're the hero. You're in a tight spot. Things seem hopeless.

>What do you do?

Well, what would you do? What would James Bond do, or wily Ulysses? They'd do something brilliant, totally unexpected, something nobody would have thought of. They'd do the one perfect thing that only they could do to get out of this tight spot.

So, you rack your brains. And you come up with something incredibly clever, unexpected, and far-fetched. Something perfect! But I'm just a writer, not a hero: have I thought of your incredibly clever strategem? If I have, you're deflated: it's not heroic after all, it was just a puzzle and you've supplied the correct answer. A tough puzzle, maybe, but (obviously) the author was here before you.

And if I have not been here before, the game's going to say, "I don't understand." So, heads you lose, and tails you lose.

Emily Short will be on a Hypertext '07 Panel on Hypertext Tragedy with J. Nathan Matias, N. J. Lowe, and Dave Millard. This panel alone might be worth booking a flight to Manchester next month, September 10-12.

If you're taking your iPhone on a trip, be sure to turn off automatic email checking. Jon Henshaw writes:

Stasia Holdren, our VP of Business Development and our Google AdWords guru, recently taught a one-day AdWords seminar in Vancouver, Canada. Although the city is relatively close to Seattle and is a larger metropolitan city, she was technically on an International roaming connection. She was mindful of that and only made calls from her phone when she had to. Unfortunately, her iPhone had other ideas. Since her phone was set to check email every few minutes, she was charged giant roaming fees for every new connection made, along with the time and data of each connection. She racked up a $600 bill from AT&T in just two days, and that was in Canada!


A new collection (essay? show?) from photographer Richard Chase on The Simple Pleasure of Movement.

There's a lot of unease about Web standards in the air. Zeldman points out that, whatever is wrong, it's not really a crisis. Molly Holzschlag replies.

by C. T. Funkhouser

Just received, Chris Funkhouser's intriguing Prehistoric Digital Poetry . It covers 1959-1995; it's strange to have played a small role in something people call prehistoric.

Anja Rau sends sympathies on the late Wiki nonsense.

Is there no one in the wikipedia circuit who can whip up a page or two about literary hypertext, personal content management and food-blogs?
Aug 07 15 2007

Hail in August

The nice thing about our weekly box of fresh organic vegetables from The Farm School is the connection to the crops and the changing seasons.

Well, there's a downside. Who knew? A thunderstorm in August. A freak of nature. A small area gets pounded with hail. Hail? In August.

So, the tomatoes are toast, the mesclun's a mess, the beans (already mysteriously failing to thrive) are beat. Carrots: no problem. We're still going to get carrots, potatoes, turnips. They're going to see what they can plant right away.

It must be tough on the Farm School students. Of course, much worse if you were counting on that crop to feed you through the winter...

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Matt Kirschenbaum writes about Hamlet.doc? Literature in a Digital Age. He's not interested in literature so much as literary studies: the study of the process through which literature emerged. What did the author do, and when?

There is therefore no natural state for electronic text on a computer. Often we're attracted to its perceived fluidity and flexibility, but that is an outcome of a particular way of modeling a document, not the inherent properties of the medium — as anyone who has ever tried to edit a file for which they lack appropriate permissions will know, as suddenly all that malleable text becomes maddeningly resolute and unyielding.

PingMe lets you schedule email reminders (or SMS your mobile phone) for the future. Nice feature: reply to the email with a note such as

2 weeks

and you'll get another reminder in two weeks.

At Eastgate, we try to have real people answer the phone. It pays dividends.

Aug 07 13 2007

More Wikipedia

At 7:33pm, Marbaehr created a little wikipedia page about Tinderbox. At 7:34 pm, Jauerback tagged it for speedy deletion, because it didn't assert the importance or significance of its subject strongly enough. (Of course, if it did this, someone could object that it's advertising, or non-neutral, or something like that). As 7:50, Marbaehr figured out how to put the "hold on!" tag on the deletion. There were ten edits within the hour.

I wonder if those wikipedians have time to read Catch-22 ? It's certain that you can't expect busy and sane adults to keep up with such a fierce and dedicated patrol. (Funny, though, how there's no one-minute response patrol protecting wikipedia from pages that tell us the blood type and measurements of minor Japanese porn actress, New Mexican burger franchises, forgotten computer games from 1985, pinup artists who didn't quite make it, the metropolis of Liberal, Kansas , and the politics of the town of Aberdeen (where, I'm told, there is many a bonnie Jean). I have no quarrel with Virginia State Route 895 which runs from Bensley to Varina, and nobody else seems to, either, nor with Megumi Kudo (professional wrestler, retired ten years ago), or Garfield Goose, a puppet on a Chicago kid's TV show fifty years ago.

That's all, folks!

Tinderbox is a lot more flexible at HTML export than Storyspace 2.5 — Storyspace will catch up someday — but artspace designer Christian Hubert gets a lot of mileage from Storyspace in the Writings section of his portfolio site.

A lot of people went to the C4 conference last weekend. I didn't get the memo. Grumble.

Alex Payne has a report.

The practice of using silly nicknames or "handles" in social software was inherited, I think, from the CB radio fad of the 1970's. Radio operators didn't want to use their real names, especially when the purpose of the radio was often to evade local traffic enforcement efforts. Distinctive monikers are easier to remember than cryptic call signs.

This was fine for helping truckers avoid Smoky, but it is pernicious in weblog comments and forums. Names remind everyone that they are addressing people, not hunting scalps in some sort of a silly game. And names remind us that people have real expertise, real work, and real accomplishments — though some of them, to be sure, sit in bed all day and troll the net looking for a good fight.

It's easy to assume that Parkaboy is an idiotic kid or a sockpuppet. It's just as likely that he's a distinguished professor or an insightful professional. We are used to knowing people, and to being reminded that people are people; handles make people less human and discourse less humane.

Some people worry about privacy. But, if you're making a public statement, it's a public statement; if you're not willing to be responsible for your words, I think you generally should hold your peace. Exceptions need to be made, of course, for people who have important things to say, things we need to hear but which they dare not say without protection; in these special circumstances, a shield of anonymity makes sense.

Some gun collector who somehow got himself appointed a legal intern at Wikipedia has decided that Eastgate isn't notable enough for a wikipedia page.

Here's the Eastgate page. And here's the deletion discussion.

I'm not notable enough to have a Wikipedia page, which the program chair of last year's WikiSym thought was rather amusing when he introduced my opening keynote. I do think that Storyspace and Tinderbox might have Wikipedia entries. But I understand how busy the wikipedia editors are. So many porn stars and handguns, so little time.

Wikipedia is, of course, doomed. But there are any wikipedians who'd like to fix the article, or raise my opinion of Wikipedia, you know where it is and you know how to Email me.

Other than that, see you at Wikisym.

Boris Gordon observes that spreadsheets make a nice tool for quickly sketching out a schematic structure for a new Tinderbox project. In Numbers or Excel, Gordon makes a small table that represents the kind of information he wants to collect. Then, he drags the table into Tinderbox, and lets Tinderbox make the attributes and construct a prototype.

It's a clever way to use a spreadsheet as a database design tool.

I'm working on a design for a fresh Web site, a submarine project that might be interesting but that might never surface. As a placeholder, many designers like to insert some dummy text where real copy will someday go.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Integer molestie pellentesque odio. Vivamus mi enim, lobortis eget

In Tinderbox, I can just stick a few lines or paragraphs of Lorem Ipsum or whatever into a note, /boilerplate/lorem. And then I make a macro, so I can write:


and get a chunk of dummy text wherever I want.

This is faster than typing nonsense. This also means that I don't have piles of dummy text lying around the file, because inevitably you're going to miss one of those dummy passages. In fact, an agent that looks for the lorem macro might make a good end-of-project checklist.

Hypertext pioneer Rosermary Simpson has a tight deadline and might need a hand mastering Second Life and Croquet.

So, if you're a dab hand at Croquet in the virtual world, and would be willing to lend advice during the next few days by email or perhaps phone/IM, please drop her an email.

Tinderbox 4: progress bar2

In Tinderbox 4, you can set the pattern of a note to be bar(50). That gives you a note that's 50% Color and 50% Color2. This can make a handy indicator, perhaps to reflect the status of a project. (Another pattern, vbar(50), makes the bar advance from the bottom toward the top of the note)

The pattern can refer to one of the note's attributes:


Indeed, the pattern can refer to an entire expression:


The Tinderbox site has a page about new features in the Tinderbox 4 map view.

Cathy tagged me for 8 random facts.

I've not played much with this sort of meme, but Cathy is much smarter than I about having fun with media. I once thought she was pulling my leg about the joys of narrative on the Weather Channel, but she was right. So, sure, I'll play.

But not just now.

Tinderbox 4: Spreadsheets
Apple's new spreadsheet program, Numbers, provides a bunch of templates. One of them is a Travel Planner — a great example of the sort of wildly non-spreadsheet tasks that people tend to attempt in spreadsheets.

(People used to do this because word processors were so bad at managing tables. But Pages is pretty good with tables. So, it's a silly template, except that people will want to use Numbers to do this, and so maybe it's not silly.)

Anyway, it's great to know that you can just copy a table in Numbers and paste it into Tinderbox 4 and everything just works. The top row of labels maps onto a list of attributes. New attributes are created when appropriate, and old attributes are used when that makes sense. Each row becomes a note. Sweet.

We've been talking about one of the new Tinderbox 4 tutorials that shows how to send email from Tinderbox. This was originally conceived as chiefly an example — everyone understands what sending email entails — where "email" was a placeholder for "updating out special proprietary database application from Tinderbox."

But, actually, email is interesting. Here are some notes from Dr. Jonathan Leavitt:

Subject: I suppose this is pretty good!

At least when I'm at BZ's (and presumably at home) I can type lots of notes in Tinderbox and email them just by dragging them to the green box. But why do this from Tbox rather than doing it from Mac Mail?

  1. More versatility in note processing before I send the message out.
  2. Sent messages are already kept in Tinderbox and can be reorganized, whereas email has to be manually imported into Tinderbox note by note, titles written, etc.
  3. Using prototypes, I can set up key attributes, keywords, collections, and all that.
  4. Which makes me want to learn more about the Tinderbox 4.0 collections feature.
  5. I can email key tbox notes for reading when Tinderbox is closed, even on the iPhone.
  6. I can excerpt text from Tinderbox notes to other notes (dragging or exploding) and email the excerpts..
  7. I can specifically prepare Tinderbox-to-iPhone notes for reading when the laptop is put away.
  8. I can further edit notes like this one in Mail and then re-import it by dragging into tbox.

Another good reason: lots of Web services have email interfaces. This will only get bigger, because email is ideal for pushing information to read-mostly termini. That includes mobile devices, where reading is easier and also more common than composition, and also includes many kinds of low-intensity recipients, who need to see your message but probably won't need to respond.

by Harlan Coben

A lovely matryoshka of a thriller. One afternoon, a New Jersey housewife picks up some pictures at the photomat and finds an old picture in the middle of her snapshots — a picture of a group of college kids, one of whom might be her husband. Later, the husband takes a look at the picture, steps out for some sort of errand, and never comes home. A complicated time is had by all.

I grabbed this after reading Eric Konigsberg's appreciation, “Paperback Writer”, in The Atlantic, and I wasn't disappointed. Coben has a true gift for plot twists, but that isn't the point here: in fact, the best plot twist is expended on a red herring. This thriller is about the wheels within wheels, and I don't know that it's ever been done better.

I did notice one irritation: when Coben wants to avoid descriptive folderol, he talks about "one of those Starbucks debit cards" or "one of those black signs" or "one of those massive outdoor malls", "one of those upscale hair salons", "one of those gray speakerphones". Robert Parker, also concerned with getting back to the dialog and facing the same problem, just uses brand names and familiar locations as a convenient shorthand. Here, it's a tic, and like an undone button it's distracting once you notice it.

Marbleized Journals

Eastgate has a bunch of these 6x9 travel journals. They're made in Tuscany, with hand-crafted marbleized paper. They artist who makes these floats the oil colors in a basin of water and then pulls a single image, so every cover is unique.

These covers are bonded to light but strong boards, making a lovely 320-page blank book filled with creamy, acid-free pages. They're $49.

Eastgate could use a hand with a minor PHP headache. Familiarity with FastTemplate and PHP4 strongly preferred. Some money is available. Email me.

When you want to export information from Tinderbox to HTML, or XML, or OPML, or whatnot, you make a sample file or template that explains what the exported document should look like, adding placeholders such as ^text and ^text to show where the information from your notes should go.

Most of the time, you only need to remember a handful of these placeholders. But occasionally you might need to get fancy, and so Tinderbox gives you lots of special-purpose placeholders. (The new manual for Tinderbox 4 does a nice job of keeping track of them)

Before Tinderbox 4, you sometimes also used export templates in queries and actions. In Tinderbox 4, though, there are lots of new capabilities in actions. So you don't need to fiddle with export template unless you're, well, exporting.

In fact, there's a nifty new placeholder in export templates that lets you forget almost all those special-purpose placeholders.


^Value evaluates an action expression and exports the value. So, ^value($WordCount) exports the note's word count, and ^value($Name) exports the note's name. You can do calculations if you need to: ^value(1.15*$Price(parent)) exports the price of the note's container after a 15% markup.

Conversely, the function exportedString(what,template) lets an action apply an export template to a note and store the result in any string attribute.

^Value is nearly the universal placeholder; you can forget now most of what you know about Tinderbox export templates and concentrate on all the interesting new actions.

Aug 07 8 2007


In the aftermath of his failed third-party candidacy of 1912, a furious Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Amos Pinchot

When I spoke of the Progressive Party as having a lunatic fringe, I specifically had you in mind.

Roger Ebert might have been thinking of this letter himself when we wrote to refute Jonathan Rozenbaum's Scenes from an Overrated Career and to defend Ingmar Bergman.

I have long known and admired the Chicago Reader’s film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, but his New York Times op-ed attack on Ingmar Bergman (“Scenes from an Overrated Career,” 8/4/07) is a bizarre departure from his usual sanity.

Ebert is usually cheerful and unflappable, even when heaping scorn on bad movies. And I can see why: Rozenbaum's piece isn't an argument, it's a pile of mud and stones and snow splattered against the wall. Bergman must be bad because he isn't box-office. Then Bergman is bad because he's too accessible in his handling of actresses. He's too blonde and white. He's like George Cukor and John Ford. Or he's too obscure. Woody Allen liked Bergman, or vice versa. The constraints of an op ed are rigorous, but this seems entirely unfair to Bergman.

There's no point in urging Bergman to use fewer Swedish actors. Not now. What good can it do?

At the end of the new tutorial on Email and Twitter from Tinderbox, there's a note about a simple trick: we can make an adornment Twitter the title of any note you drop on it. Here's the OnAdd action:

result=runCommand("curl -d 'status="+$Name+"' -u tinderboxer:eastgate")

This is, at first glance, a forbidding piece of command-line stuff. Command lines are like that! (It should all be one line, of course) What it does, simply, is it sends a message of note ...

to a special URL at Twitter. Twitter gets the message, and then relays the message to your friends. Voila.

Tinderbox 4: Twitter
Twittering from a Tinderbox document

You don't need us to do this: you could have figured it out yourself from Twitter's examples. (The new runCommand function in Tinderbox 4.0 does make this a lot easier than it used to be.) It doesn't have to be Twitter; you can use this sort of hook to connect to all sorts of Web services — including new ones we don't know about yet.

It's a lot of home runs.

I think the focus on steroids is misplaced. Yes, maybe Bonds has taken sterioids and maybe steroids helped. It's certain he's benefited from lots of knowledge about medicine and training that wasn't available to Cobb and Ruth. Maybe steroids are "cheating", sure. But we were just talking about Ty Cobb. Come on!

What is new about Barry is not that he might use steroids. What's new is that he's a very good ballplayer — you could make a case that he's the best ballplayer, ever — who we just don't like. He's the son of another great ballplayer, and we didn't really like Bobby Bonds, either. And we knew that dislike was all about race and racial politics, and it wasn't entirely our fault: Bobby didn't want us to like him. (See also Allen, Dick)

And so, Barry always knew he didn't care if we loved him. And he wasn't going to let it bother him.

Yes, Barry Bonds has played in a hitter's era. So did Ruth, Mays, Williams, and Aaron.

Yes, things are different now. But it's all changing, always. Pitchers in the 1950's or the 1970's burnt out their elbows throwing little league curveballs or in 150-pitch college outings. Tearing a ligament used to be career-ending: now you get Tommy John surgery in high school. I remember when nobody had heard of a rotator cuff.

My sense is that Barry wanted to be adored, and he felt cheated when he wasn't. Bobby grew up with that and wasn't going to buy into that game: he never much cared about those folks in the stands, and they always knew it.

Aug 07 7 2007

Seeing Perseids

Via Diane Greco : How To View the Perseid Meteor Showers.

At the Tinderbox Wiki, Rosemary Simpson discusses Context Persistence in Tinderbox — remembering where something was, even after you've moved it someplace else.

by C. K. Rowling

The kids are all right. I didn't want to wait until 2011 to know, though of course we always knew. It's not painless, but you knew it wouldn't be. You-Know-Who won't rule the world; you knew that.

There are buckets of exposition, some of it awkwardly late. And I'm uneasy about those goblins. I'm not a fan of hiding the nasty parts of our fairy stories; our ancestors told some weird stories and believed some bad things, and that's part of our big story too. I don’t see the point of straying into this troubled terrain.

The Battle of Hogwarts is magnificent, capped by the unforgettable image of a platoon of school desks rushing down the hall to some disputed barricade.

Earl Moore writes a detailed discussion in Meandering Passage on Tinderbox: My Blogging Factory.

His first point is one too seldom mentioned when we talk about weblogs: the place you need the computer to help isn't in designing the page or serving it. We need help with the hard part of blogging: writing. Moore uses WordPress for his weblog. What he needed, and built with Tinderbox, was a tool to keep track of what he was researching, what he was writing, and what he was blogging:

  • It needed to show a progression of the process.
  • It needed to be visual using colors, grouping and locations so as to convey at a glance the current status of any items.
  • It had to be simple.
  • It had to be efficient.  There should be enough automation to make it easier to use then not.

Moore literally builds an idea factory, with adornments for Receiving, Manufacturing, Packing, and Shipping. New ideas and links go to the adornment labeled "Receiving", which adds some metadata to mark status and timestamps. When it's time to start an article, the parts are dragged into the Manuifacturing Department. Finished articles go to Packing — Moore, a manufacturing veteran, calls it "pre-staging" — where they are held for at least 24 hours, giving time for editorial review and second thoughts. Then, on to Shipping and the queue for posting to the Web.

Tinderbox's spatial mapping and color coding help make relationships clear without getting in the way of the unpredictable process of research and writing. Small assistants are easy to add as well; for example, Moore wants to add an agent to the Packing Department that will set an alarm if an article has been waiting for more than 24 hours. "I like," Moore concludes, "that Tinderbox encourages you to think about your data, and provides the tools to let you look at it your way."

Tinderbox 4 offers advanced users some remarkable new levels of flexibility.

From time to time, people have suggested we replace Tinderbox's text editor with something simpler, like Markdown or Textile. So, instead of choosing bold from the style menu, you'd write **bold**.

Now, if you'd like to use a different markup language, you can!

Normally, when you want Tinderbox to export the text of a note, you use the markup element ^text to say, "convert the text to HTML and put it here." But, suppose you don't want to use the built-on converter. Instead, you'd like to use (say) Markdown. Easy enough! The new markup element is just:

^value(runCommand("perl ~/",$Text)

This says: "I want you to export the value of running the Markdown command, using $Text as its input." Rather use Textile? Just use a different command. Want to use normal editing on some kinds of notes and Markdown on others? Just choose a prototype, and inherit the template and its export command from the prototype.

This also means that you could use easily Markdown for some kinds of notes — PackingLists and Requistions, say — but not for other kinds of notes.

Markdown for Tinderbox took about 10 minutes from download to done. More to the point, you only have to do things like this once. But it's nice to know you can do it, if you need to.

The Radiant Thought mind-mapping weblog has some nice words to say about Tinderbox 4.

Incredible updates in this latest major revision of what I consider the best visual mapping tool on the planet. I still believe that this program alone is enough of a reason to buy a Mac.
Tinderbox 4: Containers

Here's a Tinderbox 4 container, seen in a Tinderbox map. The container has some subtle improvements, perhaps worth a brief comment.

  1. You can see more detail inside the container. Notes in the container are drawn larger, and with more information, than in previous versions. (The InteriorScale factor is an attribute, so you can adjust it for different kinds of containers to meet your needs)
  2. The prototype tab appears beneath the container, and tells you what kind of prototype the container uses. Right-click the prototype tab for a menu of alternative prototypes. No prototypes in your document? No prototype tab.
  3. The link widget (bottom center) is prettier, and easier to grab.
  4. The handling of gradient patterns is new, and (I think) nicer, than in previous versions.

All of this is UI detailing. I think we all tend to talk too much about details of fit and finish, because these are so easy to explain and everyone's an expert. In general, pixel tweaking doesn't get much work done.

The point here, really, is to find ways to help people make lighter, quieter maps that remain clear and meaningful. By encouraging gentle contrasts and mild gradients, Tinderbox 4 helps make maps more meaningful through small changes. And, when you really need to emphasize something, subtler maps make the occasional bright red alert really stand up and shout.

Tinderbox 4: Containers
A Tinderbox document for planning and project management from Prof. Peg Syverson, director of CWRL at the University of Texas, Austin
Tinderbox 4: Shapes

Tinderbox 4 lets you choose different shapes for your notes.

Better still, you don't have to choose: the shape can be chosen, automatically, to reflect what kind of note you're making. Or agents can set the shape to highlight especially interesting or urgent notes.

The repertoire of shapes remains limited — if you want to make a diagram, use a diagram too: using the right tool for the job is a big part of The Tinderbox Way. But shape gives you yet another dimension

by J. K. Rowling

Lately, I've found it satisfactory to skip the Harry Potter books and wait for the detailed and faithfully-rendered movies. I particularly enjoyed the recent film of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and I realized on leaving the theater that my policy has a flaw: I won't know How It Turns Out until sometime in 2011.

That seems a long time to wait, even if it does require interrupting a heavy summer reading list for an extra 1200 pages of light fiction. And so, Eric Sink on the Business of Software and N. J. Lowe's wonderful The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative stay on the stack while I revisit Hagrid and Hogwarts.

There's nothing I can tell you that you don't already know about this book. Rowling's writing is clean and direct, her world-building superb, her plotting amiable. This book is afflicted with buckets of exposition. Its famously Sad Ending doesn't quite serve to hide the fact that it doesn't really do much to advance the plot. The kids used to have some interior life, but now that the boys and girls are snogging in the corridors we dare not inquire too closely what they're thinking.

But never mind: the Hogwarts Express is such fun.

Wild Sasquatch Attack:

This amazing tool just upgraded to version 4.0: outliner, database, blogging/publishing tool, way-of-life.

See also the blog of Tinderbox's creator to get an idea of the amount and quality of thought invested in the product, as well as surprisingly wide-ranging ruminations on other topics.

Doug Miller:

a serious update. Get it while it's hot.

Mac Net Journal:

lots of new goodies

genau das richtige Programm (Exactly the right program)
Tinderbox 4: Badges

Tinderbox 4 adds badges in maps and outlines. Badges are small symbols or icons can be used to distinguish special notes or to add a new visualization dimension. Tinderbox comes with a portfolio of fifty nice icons: "calendar", "home", "people", "camera", "database" and so forth.

You can select badges with contextual menus. Badges can be inherited from prototypes, and they can be chosen automatically by agents, actions, or rules. So, instead of just flagging notes, you have a rich vocabulary of flags that you can add yourself or that Tinderbox can add for you.

This is why we emphasize that Tinderbox is a personal content assistant. Automate the tasks you want Tinderbox to handle, or do things yourself: it's up to you.

You can even redefine the visual symbols — or add new badges — by dropping .icns files in ~/Library/Application Support/Tinderbox/badges.

I think this could be a nice opportunity for icon developers to reach a new and appreciative audience.

Badges add (literally) a new dimension for visualizing relationships among notes. Just as important, you don't have to choose every badge; I expect that most of the time, people will let badges be set by agents or inherited from prototypes.

In my weblog, agents turn weblog posts bold if they lack outbound links, reminding me to add connections to the archives. Color reflects prototype — whether notes are books or posts or schedule entries or paintings. Badges will help clean this up, making it easier to remember what is what. But I wouldn't take the time to do this if it meant more work for me — especially not if it means reviewing all 3,921 notes in the weblog! Fortunately, the agents and prototypes can handle this for me. It's their job; I have other things to do.

Aug 07 1 2007

Tinderbox 4.0

Tinderbox 4.0 is now available.

Tinderbox 4 is a major update with more than 100 new features and improvements. Everything is better: maps, outlines, charts, agents, rules. Everything.

I'll have a lot to say about Tinderbox 4 in the coming days, along with a number of examples and practical tips.

For starters, you might enjoy:

The Tinderbox manual has been extensively revised and improved, and there's a new Tinderbox Forum to supplement the wiki.

Get Well Soon wishes to Tinderbox wiki watcher Mark Anderson, who was struck by a car whilst bicycling yesterday.