Dec 05 31 2005


I've got 11 quarts of veal stock starting to simmer. It's time to....stock up!

I've got a clean new 500G hard drive ticking away, making fresh copies of office files from a clean slate. Sooner or later, you will have a disk failure. It's time to...back up!

Dec 05 30 2005

Notes 2005

I made about 642 notes here in 2005. That's up from 434 in 2005, and 428 in 2003. The same agent that checks the total says that this year's weblog contains about 92,000 words, up from 59,000 last year.

And that's a surprise to me: I hadn't realized I'd changed my weblog writing habits significantly. (The average post remained at about 135 words.)

If you write things down, you can find out what you've been doing. You might need to know.

Speaking of humane interfaces, Yahoo maps and Google maps would be much easier for mere humans to use if you could construct a YPoint or a GPoint, respectively, from a geocoder.

All you'd have to do, after all, is write a new constructor that would encapsulate the geocode parsing, and give you a default location if the address lookup fails.

Yes, I could use a regular geocoder and parse the XML; that's what I'd do if I were building a site. But I'm not building a site: I'm extended Flint, a wizard or assistant that shows people how to do things. Easier would be nice.

What am I missing?

by Charles Stross

On a primitive planet resembling the worst of Eastern Europe in the Soviet era, a rain of telephones falls from the sky. They're the first gift of the festival, a star-traveling race of information omnivores. Many gifts follow: the economy is shattered. The long-awaited revolution arrives. Things are terrific for the workers, and less terrific back at the capitol.

High adventure and top-drawer science fiction: the perfect companion for a long airplane trip.

Tinderbox agents can be useful for complex and sophisticated tasks, but some of the most useful agents can be set up in seconds.

You'll recall that we created a few prototypes to represent different kinds of notes -- notes about people, notes about dates, notes about packing. For example, for trips that are already scheduled, I always have at least one note giving the dates of the trip. Unscheduled treks, such as notes about places I want to go but for which I have no immediate plans, don't have any Date notes.

I can easily set up an agent to gather all these Date notes in one list.

Travel Notes: Using Agents

While I'm at it, I can have the agent sort the notes by date, too. Instantly, I've got a high-level itinerary.

Travel Notes: Using Agents

by Tim Parks

An interesting experiment gone wrong, this slender volume sets out to explore the Medici Bank as a business case study. Parks adopts a brisk, informally modern style; most of the book is written in present tense, and there's a good deal of ironic commentary. This keeps the book moving, but sometimes tends to confound the author's voice with the subject's.

The advantage of writing history in the present tense is, I suppose, flexibility in verb tenses. Perhaps avoiding the past perfect might appeal to the marketing department. The cost, though, is that there's no longer any way for the historian to describe how we know what happened, or what we don't quite know, or where the uncertainties and controversies lie. Everything is happening right now.

Much of Parks' attention focuses, naturally, on the personalities of the Medici leaders, especially Cosimo and Lorenzo. Their employees appear, chiefly, only when they become rivals; their competitors appear chiefly when they are about to be attacked or assassinated. This is, perhaps, a case study where a degree of CEO porn might be justified; the characters of the Medici leaders did matter, and their personal inclinations -- especially Lorenzo's taste in literature and painting -- had lasting consequences. But business is business, and if Lorenzo The Magnificent wasn't very interested in banking, neither is this volume.

In a book about early international banking, published as a business book, we never see a balance sheet or an income statement. Did the Medici have them? We don't know. We read a little about the underlying problem of early European banking: since usury was forbidden by the church, banks couldn't offer interest-bearing accounts or conventional mortgages and instead had to offer different financial products such as factoring accounts receivable and international transfers. But we don't hear nearly enough about these products and their fates, nor about the changing economic climate of the continent. When the Medici banks closed, was this a business failure or simply a change in investment strategy, a redeployment of assets from the fading markets of Bruges and Taranto to the growth industry of the counter-reformation?

Gus Mueller, author of VoodooPad, writes a report on three years of building a small Macintosh software business.

One thing he misses -- or at least doesn't mention -- is that the software business is seasonal: sales decline in the summer. The effect can be swamped by other factors -- good news, major releases, hard work -- but it's real and significant.

In year one, Mueller got a huge publicity gift in July, which masked the summer slowdown, and figured the ramp-up year end carried good news about his product. Year two, spring comes, and with the approach of summer Mueller senses a product in decline. Maybe the falling sales were due to delays in releasing the product, but they might be the season, too. It's possible that neither the uptrend nor the downtrend said much about the product: the uptrend wasn't a sign that the product was good, nor was the subsequent downtrend a sign that the product had gotten stale.

You can always find an explanation for sales trends, but it's hard to know whether your explanation is right.

New Year Journals

The new year is coming, and Eastgate has some great offers on journals -- and even better offers on bundles of paper journals and Tinderbox.


Jolyon Patten writes:

I don't know whether others are using it thus, but Tinderbox is absolutely the business for screenwriting. Predictably enough, perhaps, containers for Cast, Locations, Scenes etc are very useful, but using the map view with adornments is superb/unbeatable for mapping out the dramatic pacing and tensions within particular sections or acts of the overall piece. And being able to shuffle scenes around visually in map view is very helpful. Agents are great to collect scenes in which particular characters appear.... As usual with Tinderbox stuff, it's pretty difficult to think of anything that could do a similar job.

Tinderbox is also very useful for keeping visually to the fore whether a scene is short or long -- you just make the container bigger or smaller... [This] gives you a sense of the changing rhythms in a piece as you go along. FInd that there is too much action in too short a space? Bring the pace down a notch or two.

Dec 05 27 2005


by George MacDonald Fraser

The villain of Tom Brown's Schooldays (and so the original Malfoy), having been sent home for getting drunk, gets an unexpectedly early start on adult life. He's a thoroughgoing scoundrel, as he himself will be the first to tell you, and so he goes from strength to strength. On rare occasions, he has a moment of weakness and does a good thing, and for these failures the moral universe punishes him severely, but character and his intrinsic terribleness win out in the end. The first in a long, literate series.

Dec 05 25 2005

Dinner Report

The gigot de sept heures (seven hour leg of lamb) did turn out, after all. The lamb is baked in a slow oven, inside a dutch oven filled with fresh vegetables and aromatics and a little white wine, and then sealed with a bread dough grout. The seal wasn't perfect. On further thought, the seal can't be perfect, because if it were you'd build up lots of pressure and your dutch oven would explode. But seven hours lamb turned into six hours of anxiety lest it turn out to be a charred crisp.

Dinner Report

There wasn't much liquid left after seven hours, but there was some -- enough to keep the meat moist and very, very tender. There's a ton of garlic in this recipe, and everything blended nicely with a bottle of Vacqueryas.

The lemon pie worked well, too.

Dinner Report

If you skip the rasberry coulis, or if you have a blender, the lemon pie qualifies as dorm food -- a dish you can make in a dormitory kitchen. (If you can cook in a dorm, you can cook anywhere) All this pie requires is squeezing some lemons, beating the juice with some sugar, eggs, and cream, pouring it into a baked pie crust (I confess! I confess! I used the refrigerated, rolled-up supermarket pie crust because Cooks' said it was OK. I had permission!) and popping it into the oven. The coulis is just frozen raspberries, a little sugar, a little lemon juice, and a shot of lingonberry liqueur.

We also made a big batch of Linda's glögg!

Dec 05 24 2005


It's a long weekend: time to cook. But I'm not quite in the right mind set for lots of prep. Current plan for tonight:

  • gigot de sept heures
  • tartiflette
  • celery root and apple puree
  • lemon tart

I'm nervous about the seven hour lamb, which I've wanted to learn to make since trying it in Paris at Wadja. There's only the two of us, so I'm making a small half leg of lamb -- a good thing, since that's all my dutch oven will hold. But will the seven hour cooking time need to be shortened for the smaller lamb? You can't check, because the whole thing is hermetically sealed with a dough crust in order to keep steam from leaking out.

I backed off the heat from 300°F to 275°F, but I can't imagine it'll make much difference; surely, this is going it equilibrate over seven hours! When Adam Gopnick tried it, he forgot that he was cooking in Paris and set his oven to 300°C; that didn't end well. Nothing ventured...

End-of-year cleanup continues. Today, I added the agent that gathers all the books I read in calendar 2005. (I need an agent because the individual book pages are organized by season: Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer.)

The agent tells me I read 55 books this year, compared with 58 last year and 60 in 2003. Better, it gathers them all to reunite in one big virtual bedside pile, the better to think back upon a year of reading. (Tinderbox does the counting for me, so if I finish The Medici Money this week, the count will be updated automatically)

  • Skeleton Man
  • Iron Sunrise
  • Agent Of Change
  • The Undressed Art
  • Watch Your Mouth
  • Medici Money
  • Almost French
  • By Order Of The President
  • Les Halles Cookbook
  • Refactoring To Patterns
  • O Chip e o Caleidoscópio
  • Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells
  • Specimen Days
  • Flashman
  • The Gastronomical Me
  • Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd)
  • Singularity Sky
  • Great Movies II
  • Lost Worlds
  • Song for Eloise
  • By The Light of the Study Lamp
  • Faithful
  • The Ornament of the World
  • Working Effectively With Legacy Code
  • The Complete New Yorker
  • The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • Beyond Bullet Points
  • The Rabbi's Cat
  • Pal Joey
  • March
  • Cabala
  • Stable Strategies
  • Robert Frost
  • The Quarry
  • Blue at the Mizzen
  • The Polysyllabic Spree
  • The Bear Went Over The Mountain
  • On Food and Cooking
  • The Knight
  • 1776
  • Da Vinci Code
  • Antwerp
  • On Beauty
  • Conflict of Honors
  • Locked Rooms
  • Fingersmith
  • Mind Game
  • Middlesex
  • Drawing from Life
  • Ruby in the Smoke
  • Year's Best SF 10
  • The Perfectionist
  • Soul of a Chef
  • Don't Make Me Think
  • Never Let Me Go

This is one reason it's a good idea to have two notebooks -- a paper book that's always available, and a permanent journal (or Tinderbox) in which you can keep, preserve, and analyze everything. Reading and using your journal is as important as keeping it.

A reference book I wanted to write about shows up in this list. So does a book in Portuguese, a language that is Greek to me; it happens to include a translation of one of my essays and so I blogged it. This isn't rocket science: every aspect of your journal need not be exactly right. There will be no test afterward.

My Netflix queue has 45 things in it; last year around this time, it had 49.

The queue is a great idea. I can add movies to the queue whenever I read about a movie and decide I want to see it. Often, I'll read about it before it's released on DVD; the queue will remember.

The problem is, simply, that it would take 18 months for me to exhaust the queue. In practice, movies show up in the mail of which I've never heard. Today, it was Tully. What's this? Ebert liked it; maybe that's how it wound up on the list. Beats me.

A better solution would be to make a note about why I'm adding the movie. "Ebert liked it", or "Jennifer Jason Leigh", or "early Altman". I could put the note in Netflix, if they added the feature. Or I could just write it in my Tinderbox daybook.

Does Netflix have an API? It might be handy if we could write a Tinderbox macro that would let you request a movie from Tinderbox.

Connecting to web services is one of the things we've been learning to do better as part of Flint -- the new Tinderbox weblog assistant. Flint is currently in thrill-seeker's release; one user just wrote to say that 'Flint is absolutely brilliant! I didn't actually get much sleep last night, as I was plugging away and experimenting with it 'til the sun came up.'

A year ago, I wrote about using my Tinderbox notes to keep track of how many movies I'd seen.

I remembered this because I have a Tinderbox agent that automatically looks for a substantial post from roughly a year ago, and reminds me to glance at it occasionally. That's one of the nice things about hypertext.

This year, I've seen 34 movies -- the list will grow to 36 or 37 before the end of the year. That's a few more than usual, which surprises me.

  • 2005: 36 (estd)
  • 2004: 29
  • 2003: 32
  • 2002: 37

Last year, I pointed out that a rough estimate of random fluctuations in movie watching would be sqrt(average movies/year), so I'd been seeing about 33 +/- 6 movies a year. And so I did.

Douglas Johnston reviews Tinderbox as a Writer's Tool.

In all the various applications I’ve tried, both commercial and Open Source, I haven’t come across one that’s quite so attuned to the way I play with ideas and write text. I’m not sure if I think like Tinderbox, or Tinderbox thinks like me, but I know it’s an environment which encourages creativity without distraction, and yet feels wholly comfortable to use.

We advertise on Johnston's He'd like us to advertise on his blog, too. (We have small ads in lots of weblogs and a few print magazines) We've been doing a bunch of weblog advertising, lately. Want a piece of the action? Email

Dave Liebreich had a vexing Tinderbox problem, and blogs about the experience. He's a fairly new user, and was modifying Ryan Holcomb's new, improved GTD template, and suddenly his agents stopped finding things.

The scenario makes me cringe. The GTD templates are elaborate -- much more complicated than the most complex applications we envisioned when planning Tinderbox. Liebreich's changes made them even more complicated -- including a very clever coding trick that I myself didn't know!

It turned out that there was a syntax error in one of Liebreich's agents. Currently, Tinderbox fails silently -- the agents simply don't do anything.

This is a sensible fallback procedure: an agent with an invalid search never finds anything. If the agent system gets into trouble, it just stops searching until you fix it. Once the trouble is fixed, things just start up again.

The alternative, familiar to programmers everywhere, is an error message. We've tried hard to avoid error messages in Tinderbox:

  • There's no obvious place to write the error message
  • In practice, error messages are difficult to write and notoriously unhelpful to read. Either the message is too broad (often making it useless) or too specific (and therefore sometimes misleading) .

As Liebriech recounts in his story, we're planning to take another look at the "no error messages" resolution; perhaps it's a good intention that just can't work in the world we know.

Dec 05 20 2005

On Criticism

In Monday's talk in Brussels, I tried to build on my late-2003 lecture (H2TPM, Paris) on software aesthetics. Back then, I tried to list things we value -- and things we should value -- in software, and explored what software could learn from literary hypertext. This time, I asked why we don't seem to be learning -- specifically, why it seems that all our software is bad.

Have you noticed how deeply flawed we seem to consider all our software? The best software, if you listen to what people tell you, is invisible: software that always works, consistently does what its told, software that doesn't make you think. It's as if the only painters we admired were painting walls.

I fumbled one section of the talk when I improvised an excursion on brush-marks in software. I tried to say that we're all tied up in surface and in polish, in making software appear perfectly seamless and clothed in radiant brushed metal draperies. Someday, maybe we'll be able to remember that software is made, it's an artifact, that it naturally carries the equivalent of chisel marks or brush strokes and that these are not flaws.

Memo: interesting position. Quite possibly worth pursuing. But way too much for an improvised intermezzo.

Intimidated by an audience of philosophers of science, I fumbled the best question, which asked how software aesthetics relate to the aesthetics of physical science. My initial impression is that this was a difficult question. It's not -- not right now, anyway. Scientists know when they're wrong, and can feel reasonably confident that they're right. I don't think software creators are ever very confident that they're right. We're better off than novelists or politicians, but on the whole it's a lot easier for chemists (and cooks) to know when the theory is properly cooked.

A very strange, challenging, and possibly brilliant movie about a 13-year-old who wants a baby. The protagonist is played by a bunch of different actors. One of the thirteen year olds, if I'm reading the credits right, is Jennifer Jason Leigh. I watched the scene twice, and I think it's almost, just possibly, true. (Update: It is true: she pulls off an extended scene in which she plays a girl a third her age.) Lots of good performances.

I'm about to bail out on my 'rating' system; not only is it too coarse, but there's just no way I'm able to decide whether this is a nice little movie with a clever trick -- Memento, say -- or a great little movie -- Manhattan, or Fried Green Tomatoes. I'll know in a couple of years whether I want to see it again, but I don't see a good way to judge that now. Fortunately, I can sit on the fence.

Update: David Golding responds. The solution might be to create a two-dimensional glyph -- shape plus color, maybe. More information might be better.

by Steve Krug

Krug's central point is, essentially, the argument for scrupulous copy editing; by removing every distraction from the reader's path, we have done everything in our power to respect the reader's time and to facilitate understanding.

It is difficult (but necessary) to argue with the common sense of this proposition. It is true that saving unnecessary steps, avoiding unintentional ambiguity, and omitting needless words will make a web page a little more clear and might prevent some misunderstandings. The result, all things being equal, might be a few extra sales and a little extra good will.

But all things are not equal, and Krug's underlying premise -- that Web users prefer not to think about what they're seeing or doing, that they don't want to read or reflect -- is simply mistaken. People love to read Web pages. They do it every day. The growth of weblogs is driven completely by reading: most web logs are nearly pure text. Some of the most widely-read blogs use off-the-rack page designs. Others use designs chosen for the extreme ugliness: Matt Drudge's influence, surely, is unconnected with design.

In any case, the goal of a Web site must ultimately be, quite simply, to make people think. Even simple sales sites aspire not simply to gain an order, but rather to gain a customer -- and to change the customer so they'll become an even better customer.

The Bauhaus Manifesto claimed that

Das Endziel aller bildnerischen Tätigkeit ist der Bau!

The ultimate aim of all creative activity is the building!

Gropius was an architect and the Bauhaus was working to reintegrate fine art, the building crafts, and engineering in an era of brick and glass. We no longer work exclusively in physical media; making stuff is no longer what artists necessarily do, and reintegrating art and science -- putting graphic design and code and software and writing and photography and management together -- is closer to the spirit of the age than designing better factories and kitchens.

The ultimate aim of all creative activity is now the website, and the aspiration of a website is simply the aspiration of all art: to make us think.

Update: reaction from Johndan Johnson-Eilola.

by Carolyn Keane

When Linda was a little girl, she read the 30-odd volume series of Dana Girl mysteries, which were written and marketed for little girls. Some she read at the library, some she bought with her allowance. The library's moved and updated and now we live far from there, and while she was off at Swarthmore and Harvard, someone figured she was too big for children's books.

Last year, I surprised her with a full set of serviceable reading copies. (Check out the cover of volume one: teenage plumage has changed a bit since 1935)

This is something that would be expensive or arduous before the Internet, and now is comparatively straightforward. I couldn't find a dealer interested in selling me reading copies, but it wasn't difficult to piece together a set through Amazon and aLibris and Abebooks. I actually preferred to find solid copies with names or bookplates; it's fun to wonder who these girls turned out to be.

It's great to have a good packing list, but it's important to check the list. You've got to write things down, but sometimes you also need to read them again.

Of course, we could instantly print the packing list. But that list is formatted for the screen; if we start printing it, we'll be tempted to make it look better on the page.

If we want it to look good on the page, a nice approach turns out to be HTML Export. That's right -- we export the packing list to HTML, even though we have no intention of putting it one the Web. HTML is a good text format, and CSS stylesheets give us good control over how out lists look on the page. Set up some simple templates, press preview, and here's what we get in Safari.

Travel Notes: Checking It Twice

I confess I got a little carried away here, and wasted about 45 minutes tinkering with styles to get it just right. A little extra space between categories, a nice header, flexible scaling in case I need a wallet-size version of the checklist. Your mileage will vary (and you can probably make it look good in much less time.

Nice side effects:

  • The list is a standard HTML microformat, so you can import it into all sorts of programs
  • You should have no trouble, for example, getting your list on your PDA, or emailing it
  • Your Tinderbox note isn't mixed up with print formatting

We've been talking a lot about long-range planning. Let's look at improving some short-range matters: making sure we bring what we need on each trip, without wasted time or unnecessary anxiety. What we need, of course, is a packing list.

To begin, I make a BIG list of everything I might want to take along on the kinds of trips I usually take. This is the prototype packing list, and it's just a typical prototype.

Now, when I want to plan what should be packed for a specific trip, I just make a new packing list, based on the prototype. It starts out with the same text as the prototype list -- everything I'm likely to need.

Travel Notes: Making A List

I won't need everything on every trip, of course. I can quickly delete the items I don't want to pack, and add the extraordinary things I'll want to bring only on this trip.

As I revise the list, I may discover things I want to add to the prototype packing list, so they'll be on the next packing list I make. That only takes a moment. It's another example of incremental formalization in Tinderbox; I don't have to worry about getting the prototype exactly right, because I can always change it later.

What could be easier? I just double-click on the trip, tell Tinderbox I want a packing list, and I'm all set.

Because I'm feeling very lazy today, I added a rule to the packing list prototype: if(Name=untitled){Name="pack list";Width=2;}. Now, I don't even need to name the packing lists -- Tinderbox will name it automatically. If I do give the packing list a name -- if, for example, I make separate packing lists for Linda and for me -- Tinderbox respects it.

Tinderbox Weekend Spring 2006

It's time to start planning Tinderbox Weekend 2006!

If you've got ideas for topics, or a project you'd like to present, want Tinderbox Weekend in your corner of the world, or just want to lend a hand, please let me know.

Lawrie Hunter writes a nice, long interview with me in the latest issue of Information Design Journal + Document Design (vol. 13, number 3, pp. 229-237). Here's the full table of contents.

Blogtalk Reloaded It's time to think about papers for Blogtalk Reloaded in Vienna. The conference is in Vienna, October 2-3; proposals are due April 1st, and the call for papers says they'll have three tracks -- academic, developer, and practitioner reports.

They might have travel funds, too!

Novelist Rosina Lippi (who also writes as Sara Donati) lists the ten things she most adores about her Macintosh. Tinderbox is #3, right behind iTunes:

It's the only graphical note taking tool that has ever worked for me. Also, the icon is fuuugly but the innards of the thing do what I need, so really, I have to just get over the icon thing.

In our Travel Planning Notes, we've been making some prototypes for People, Lodging, Food, Museums, and trip Dates. All these prototypes are gathered together in one corner of the document, which makes them easy to find and which serves as a handy legend to help us (or our assistants) remember that those notes with the gold borders are hotel reservations.

We can customize Tinderbox in a few seconds to make this legend even smarter.

Smart Adornments

We simply add an action to the adornment underneath the prototypes: IsPrototype=true; Now, any note we create here will automatically be set up to be a prototype. Tinderbox "knows" you're using this part of the map to collect prototypes, and recognizes that if you add a new note here, you're probably intending for it to be a prototype.

We didn't expect, when we designed Tinderbox, that you'd use adornments to do this. We didn't expect, for that matter, that this is something you'd want to do. You don't have to send us a feature request, and you don't have to hire anyone to do custom programming. Just do it, and you're done. Change your mind? You can modify the action, or remove it, just as quickly.

by Zadie Smith

This brilliant portrait of a complex American family richly deserved its place on the Booker Prize short list. Howard Belsey is a British art historian who has spent his career in American universities and who is married to a black Floridian, Kiki. Their three kids range from sensitive, born-again Jerome to crusader Zora to the youngest, hip-hop wannabe homeboy Levi. Every character has a strong voice and a specific dialect, making this a distinctly American novel in the old sense while leaving the story fresh and new. Nicely plotted, and assembled with care and craft. Absolutely superb.

One exceptional accomplishment of On Beauty is that it presents a varied university community in which ideas are part of everyone's lives, and people live and talk about ideas. Howard Belsey is a pomo, post-colonial art historian; he married a black girl from Florida.That black girl once thought she might grow up to be Malcolm X's personal assistant and wound up as an Ivy League mother; in times of personal crisis she imagines herself keynoting a major conference of mothers. Belsey's rival, Sir Monty Kipps, is an academic conservative media star from Trinidad, and his family always dines together; the Belsey's rush in and out, the Belsey's argue, the Kipps clan have respectful intellectual breakfasts where nothing is given away.

I checked the Amazon reader reviews of On Beauty out of curiosity, and what a small-minded bunch they are. Setting aside the inevitable me-too's and "I got bored's", a surprising number of readers complain about Smith's handling of dialect. The whole point is that each member of the family speaks their own British-American-African creole. Howard's the son of a London butcher, did his doctoral work at Oxford and has taught at a variety of American universities. His wife Kiki can do Ivy League irony when she wants, and when she's angry she gets all Floridian. Levi started speaking Brooklyn at 13, and wants to hang out with the Haitian peddlers who are, he thinks, authentically black. Everyone is inventing a dialect: that's the point.

Based on a Sally Schneider (How can she be remaindered? Is there no justice in the world?) recipe, this worked much better than I'd expected.

You start with a chicken (Empire Kosher in this case, educated free-range might be just as good). Salt, pepper, and then dredge in corn meal. Brown aggressively in 2T hot olive oil. Remove to plate.

Now, chop all the shallots you have on hand. The recipe calls for 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons, but that's got to be a bluff. Doesn't matter how much, just LOTS of shallots, right? Throw them into the remaining oil on moderate heat, cover for a few minutes, then uncover and turn up the heat and saute them until brown.

Add 3/4c sherry (if drier than amantillado, which my cheap amantillado was, add 1T honey). Boil a couple of minutes, reduce it by half. Add 1/4c sherry vinegar. (I used up my 1/4c of sherry vinegar already, and my strawberry vinegar from Salzburg and my apple balsamic from Vienna are too precious, so I figured pear vinegar would do, and it did, very well). Boil a couple of minutes. Add the legs and thighs, cover, cook 7 minutes. Add the rest of the chicken, cook 20 minutes.


Follow with Bourdain's Alsatian Apple Tarte, which works just fine with mass-produced Pillsbury pie crust. The excellent is the enemy of the good.

by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer eds

Every year, Kathryn and David send us a bundle of the best science fiction short stories and novellas. It's a fixture of the calendar, like Aunt Hazel's noodle kugel and Grandma's Ceil's chopped liver -- the recipe against which all future dishes of chopped liver are measured throughout the extended family.

This year's plate has some tasty bits. James Patrick Kelley's "The Dark Side Of Town" is a fresh look at drugs and games. Neal Asher's "Strood" has a ton of fun in store for readers who know what "To Serve Mankind" means, and of course that includes everyone all the way down to Dawn Summers. "Sergeant Chip" (Bradley Denton) is a nice Haldeman-seque war story about an augmented dog. And Steve Tomasula's "The Risk Taking Gene As expressed By Some Asian Subjects" takes the old genre of grad student stories (see H.G. Wells) in new and unexpectedly genetic directions.

Off to one side of my document, I've set aside a small space for some prototypes.

Travel Notes: Prototypes

A prototype is simply an example or a base case, a kind of stationery. Now that I have a prototype for People, I can quickly make a new note that's all set for recording notes about a person. The new note will look like notes about people, and it will have the key attributes that People have, and it can even include some boilerplate text to remind me things I should jot down right away.

Of course, I can change all of this for any particular person. And, if I decide later that I'd rather have a different color for notes about people, or want to add a new key attribute for their IM service or their mobile phone, I can make that change in one place and have it instantly update all the relevant notes.

I like to collect all the prototypes in a new document in their own neighborhood, forming a handy Legend to help me remember the various map colors mean.

At the ART, and very well worth seeing, is an arduous but fascinating production of Three Sisters, directed by Krystian Lupa. This is 1901 Chekhov informed by Brecht and Beckett; it makes you wonder what dinner with Checkov and Mamet might be like.

No one in the house means what they say: at least, what they say has little to do with the words they speak. They have nothing to say to each other, and they speak elliptically and at cross purposes when they can speak at all.

The cost of this approach -- at least on the blizzard-night performance we attended -- is that the play runs very, very long. It's not an energetic evening; in this production, pacing is irrelevant. Thoughtful, intriguing, a performance to be savored for years.

Three Sisters

I just stumbled across a fun poster for my lecture on Software Aesthetics at Vrije Universiteit Brussel on December 19.

I'm planning to talk about criticism. What would good software be like? And, why doesn't anyone write about good software? Wanting to not think was a wrong turn.

by J. Percy Smith, ed.

Shaw and Wells knew each other well, debated each other in private and public and print for decades, and were merciless to each other in their correspondence.

What is most striking about these letters -- recommended as essential reading in The Believer by Ray Bradbury -- is that the friendship survived the brutal pounding these letters represent. That they are nicely written, erudite, wise, and topical goes without saying: this is Shaw, and that is H.G. Wells, and what did you expect? That these two men could continue to speak to each other, dine together, and correspond during such bitter disagreements and in the face of such casually tactless spites (Shaw never missing an opportunity to pontificate, and one gathers that Wells seldom turned down a woman) says much for the liberal mind.

When Linda's old job vanished along with the company she was working for, we had a late dinner of champagne and coquilles St. Jacques.

Starting on a new contract, we switched theme to côte de boeuf (Hilltop, unusually, had some of these -- and some veal bones!) with a sauce of shallots, sherry, brown veal stock, demi-glace, and a little roux, and an Australian cabernet.

A kitchen observation: you haven't really been in the weeds, I think, until you have a pear-onion chutney on burner one, butternut squash soup on burner two, a pot of daube provençal on burner three, a couple of flatbreads rising on the counter, and the chocolate tarte crust baking in the over, and the New York Times sends an email that starts


How was your weekend?

There's a new batch of Haverkamps' Criminal Law Flashcards. He's got the flash card trick down, now, and Tinderbox is now working smoothly for the task.

Once again, I used Tinderbox, this time without getting caught up in being so fancy. Files (very simple export templates, all flashcards, and Tinderbox file) are all here.

Tinderbox was a wonderful data entry tool for all of this. Now that I know the basics of exporting, I had the export templates done in 15 minutes of tinkering.

A few months back, we spent the afternoon in Providence, browsing a very impressively juried craft show with the Landows. They bought a terrific table, and I made contact with a Rhode Island bindery that crafts some terrific clothbound journals.

Rag and Bone

Eastgate has a selection. 9x6", sewn, with a matching ribbon bookmark sewn into the binding and 100% acid-free paper. Most are covered in silk -- embroidered Shantung shown here is much coveted around the office -- but I particularly like the Portuguese cork. Great prices, too.

Tomorrow, December 9, is Eastgate's birthday. 23!

Dec 05 7 2005

Stretch Text

Also in the new Tekka: Ian Lyons presents new media works textStretcher and cellPoetics, with an introduction by George P. Landow.

One of the most important distinguishing characteristics of stretchtext follows from this manner of operation: Stretchtext does not fragment the text. Instead, it retains the text on the screen that gives context to an anchor formed by word or phrase even after it has been activated. Stretching the text provides a more immediate perceptual incorporation of the linked-to text with the text from which the link originates. In effect, text becomes context as new text is added; or rather, the previously present text remains as new text appears and serves as its context.

It's interesting to see stretch text come back into fashion. See also Fagerjord's stretch-paper. The first stretch text renaissance was led by Peter J. Brown at the University of Kent.

It's quite common to find that lots of notes have some common elements. People, for example, tend to have addresses and phone numbers. Indeed, it's a good thing to remember to jot down contact information now, because you're going to need it later.

Travel Notes: Add Some Attributes

To help things along, I've added a few attributes to my travel planning notes. An attributes is simply a nook in which I might save some information. I added email, address, and phone -- and made these Key Attributes for Mom so they show up clearly at the top the window.

Of course, I could simply put the information in the text:

Phone: 312 555-1212

That's fine, too. But adding attributes I know I'm going to need gives me some new options:

  • I can easily search for missing information. Whose phone number do I need to look up? Do I have email addresses for everyone I'm supposed to meet on my upcoming trip?
  • I can sort lists by the value of any attribute. Sorting by phone number, for instance, might help me figure out which people are in the same part of town.
  • I can use Key Attributes to define simple "forms" that remind me of information I mean to record. Whenever I add a new note about a Person, for example, I'll see empty lines for URL, email, phone, and address.

Adding an extra attribute doesn't cost very much, either in memory or in performance. But long lists of attributes are tiresome, and we want to keep things simple. Don't go overboard and add dozens of attributes; wait until you're reasonably sure they'll be useful.

Dec 05 6 2005

New, Blue.

New, Blue.

A nifty, new X750 space pen has just arrived at Eastgate.

SpacePenX750B Space Pen
Metallic blue Fisher X750B Space Pen: $30.00

You can always remove it later.

The key to success in a project like these travel planning notes is continuous incremental advantage. Each bit of work spent on the project needs to make your work better -- faster, smoother, more accurate, more creative, less stressful.

We've only just started building travel notes, but already they're better than the best we'd expect from other technologies.

  • Trying to remember it all is the reason we got started on this in the first place. You can't do it. (If you can do it, and it doesn't cause you stress, you're probably not reading this topic)
  • Lots of little bits of paper is a non-starter. The yellow stickies and backs of envelopes and legal pads cause clutter, and they don't really help you find what you need.
  • One Big Text File is probably the most competitive technology. We've got all the advantages -- ease of adding information, lightning-fast search for finding things, easy printing when you need a note on paper. But we've also got spatial hypertext for brainstorming, color coding, and links -- and we're just getting started.
  • Databases have a big impedance mismatch; we need to design the data model (and get the right data model) before we can even begin populating the database. With a database, we'd still be getting started.
  • Outliners share some of the problems with databases and have most of the limitations of one big text file. We need to know how to organize the file right away. We can't know this yet. So we end up dithering, or we end up with One Big Text File in an outliner.

We can deal with some subtle knowledge representation issues that might otherwise give us fits. My mom lives in Chicago, so that's easy. What if your mom lives in Fargo in the summer, but always spends the winter in Dallas with Aunt Jane? Easy enough in Tinderbox: make an alias, drag it to Dallas, and put it right next to Aunt Jane.

Travel Notes: Continuous Incremental Advantage
Thanks to aliases -- shown here by italics -- the same note (not a copy) can be in two places.

Jeff Shell has a long, detailed, and important essay on Tinderbox, Planning, and Getting Things Done. He'd been using the "Kinkless GTD" system and ran into various points of friction, but found Ryan Holcomb's templates released him to work more effectively.

"So this is all really cool. It's a hierarchical active database. The agents, prototypes, and ability to tweak 'OnAdd' actions bring the active parts without need for heavy scripting - just learning the query language.... Tinderbox is very much focused on maintaining projects, notes, and plans, and has many different ways of viewing and interacting with your data. And today, two weeks after finally purchasing it, I finally used one of its most powerful features: map view.

In map view, you work with visual representations of notes, appearing as boxes with the title displayed. You can add extra adornments (items only seen in map view) to group items together in a non-containment way. You can resize notes and drop other notes inside them to turn those notes into children. And perhaps most importantly, you can easily create links between items in this view. While I'm not a fan of hardcore mind-mapping, I do like the basic concepts. And sometimes it just helps to think visually. With Tinderbox, you can have many different windows open on the same data. So today, I opened one of my projects up into a map view window and started re-thinking what needed to be done in order to get things moving. I'd avoided the map view up until now, even though there's a note in Holcomb's document that says it's great for brainstorming. And boy did that prove right.

Continuing the games theme in the new TEKKA, I have a hypertext on Rise of Nations that asks, among other things, why we don't take a closer look at losing computer games. After all, that's what we generally do.

In the end, you cannot win. Nobody gets out of here alive.

For over a decade, a cadre of academic enthusiasts have been hailing computer games as the natural next step in new media. They dismiss the literary achievements of hypertext fiction as transitional moments en route to a mythical holodeck that will immerse you deep in the action. The computer game industry, which some grant proposal writers believe to be "bigger than film", has been seen as a savior, reconciling popular taste to an electronic art world that has grown esoteric and inaccessible. Interactive Fiction fan Nick Montfort was merely the least tactful member of the chorus when he set out to write a premature obituary for electronic literature: "Cybertext", he said, "killed the hypertext star".

Oddly, one of the least-discussed questions of computer games has been their end. What happens at the end of the game, and why? Why do games end as they do?

Dec 05 5 2005

TEKKA: New Games

In the new TEKKA, David Fristrom has a terrific survey of a the new Eurogame -- specifically, a look at games that are about Competition without Conflict. Can we get beyond total war, without winding up in CandyLand?

In the last decade or so, there has been a real renaissance of board game design. Led by European, and particularly German, designers and publishers, this new wave of games has put an emphasis on elegant, innovative designs combined with good graphics. The games are generally easy to learn to play in a reasonably short time, yet present real strategic challenges as well as the opportunity for social interaction. While this style of games can be traced back to earlier examples, especially in the games designed by Sid Sackson in the 1960s and 70s, the phenomenon reached critical mass in the 1990s, as the games found a worldwide audience and revitalized the board game hobby.

One sign of the intellectual maturity of Eurogames, contrasted with the computer games to which New Media people tend to point, is that they are crafted by people.

One of the most popular recent games to be based on trading - indeed, the most popular and widely known of the recent wave of games - is The Settlers of Catan, designed by Klaus Teuber.
One such mechanism, which can be called 'loosely coupled actions' appears in the game Puerto Rico, designed by Andreas Seyfarth; Puerto Rico is one of the most highly regarded of the new crop of games.
One way designers have avoided conflict between players is by putting them all on the same side in a cooperative game (which under our strict definition makes it no longer a game). Perhaps the best example of this approach is The Lord of the Rings game designed by Reiner Knizia.

The emphasis on competition without confrontation is, I think, social: if you're playing games to have fun and also to meet attractive, intelligent and wonderful people like yourself, the whole thing is more likely to work out if you're not required to spend the evening in conflict with the Object Of Desire. There will be plenty of time for that, later. Willingness to face genre limitations, accept them, and address them is a sign of artistic maturity.

Before we get much further with the Travel Planning Notes structure, it's time to go ahead and make notes. It's sometimes tempting to make elaborately automated documents when you ought to be simply making some notes. Don't get tied up in infrastructure: go ahead and start making notes. Write it down.

Travel Notes: Write It Down

What should we note down? Everything we don't want to forget! The (proposed) dates for the trip. The people I'm hoping to see. Places I'd like to visit. Things I want to do. Things I need to get done.

I've started a simple color coding scheme here. Red things are people. Green things are dates. I don't know this will be useful, at this point, but it helps focus my thinking and suggests new ways to organize and analyze.

It's usually preferable to make lots of small notes instead of a few long ones. Small notes are easier to locate. Because they are tightly focused, small notes make more sense as link destinations. By sticking to one point, short notes are easier to update when things change; if someone is going to be in Hong Kong when I'm in Chicago, I can move them to the next Chicago trip.

Has anyone mentioned that Me and You and Everyone We Know is perhaps the first feature film to be about the digital art world? (Ebert)

It's about a lot of things -- movies about art always are -- but you can read this complex (and fine) film as an extended discussion of digital media and its discontents. We've got a curator, of course, and a video artist. The video artist, Christine, is played by Miranda July, the film's writer and director. We've got chat rooms (done much better here than in Closer) where people describe what they want, although it turns out that the 7-year-old isn't the only participant in the chat who has no idea what he's talking about. We've got disintermediation, including hamburger wrappers in art installation. We've got re-mediation in spades, ranging from lewd suggestions pasted in the window to a framed bird portrait hidden in a tree to a portrait of me and you and everyone we know, executed in periods and semi-colons.

In the Sunday New York Times, James Fallows looks at Mac Programs That Come With Thinking Caps On.

Next is Tinderbox, which is easily, if incompletely, described as a way to show visual or graphic connections among facts or ideas. You enter basic bits of information - quotes, themes for a presentation, items mentioned at a meeting, characters for a story or screenplay - and create the desired links or hierarchies among them. The programs' powerful "agents" can automatically create such links as well. You can include pictures, diagrams, and other data. Then you can easily switch among varied views of the material: straight text, outline, flow chart and so on.

The program's underlying concept is that even when you are dealing only with words, different spatial arrangements can lead to different thoughts and emphases. . . . Tinderbox seems to offer an even wider range of variations beneath a deceptively simple exterior.

Travel Notes: Making Spaces
(click to enlarge)

When starting a new project like this Travel Notes repository, some people dive in and add lots of data.

Others like to build the perfect structure first, with plenty of apparatus and automation. (Merlin Mann had some choice words for the application of this tactic to personal productivity at last month's Tinderbox Weekend!)

We'll begin, instead, by sketching out some very preliminary ideas, using Adornments to set aside space for some notes we want to take.

  • The blue adornments on the left side are meta spaces -- notes about these notes. I've got a meta space for features I want to add, and another one for topics I want to discuss, and yet another area for observations about the project. Another meta space will hold some prototypes.
  • The lavender adornments represent places. Some of these are trips I've planned; those have a thin violet border and white titles. Others represent trips I'm considering -- travel I expect I'll need to undertake, trips I'd like to plan if I can find the time; those have a ticker, lighter border and blue titles.

Adornments are a lightweight organizers. They organize space and describe intentions, but they represent a very slight commitment. Not sure where something fits? You can place it at the edge of an adornment, or just outside an adornment, or astride two adornments.

This is an example of spatial hypertext -- using proximity to represent a weak connection. It's also an example of the limitations of outliners: if you don't know how things need to be organized, you can't get started with the organization.

It's possible we'll revise this scheme, and revamp the map according to date. Or we might organize by region instead of place. Some other organizing principle might emerge. I don't know what I'm doing yet: the principle of least commitment advises me to sketch a simple and easily-changed organizing system and get on with the work.

We could be even simpler: why organize at all? I might try to rely completely on search. That's the idea behind One Big Text File, and also the idea behind similarity-seeking tools. I want some organization because it helps remind me what I want to think about: for example, it's good to start thinking about travel you'd like to undertake as well as travel your business and family require. If you know what you'd like, you can work for it: you don't want to wake up and realize you never saw the pyramids because you didn't have an urgent business reason for going.

Tekka 9!

A fresh issue of Tekka is now on line!

The new issue has a bunch of important pieces.

  • David Fristrom discusses Eurogames and competition without conflict
  • I take a look at the importance of losing in computer games
  • Frank Tansey uses Tinderbox to tame his filing problems (this was a hit at Tinderbox Weekend)
  • George P. Landow introduces two exciting stretchtext poems by Ian Lyon.

Plus book and new media reviews by Anders Fagerjord, Anja Ray, and Gregg Beatty.

Need a subscription or a renewal?

Annual subscription $50

You can always remove it later.

Last night, I had to start some duck confit and Linda had a late-running photography class, so for a late dinner I threw together a nice garlic soup.

Start with 4c of chicken stock (I used a box of low-salt stock from the store, since I was out of home made). Peel the cloves from three heads of garlic. Add 7 sprigs of thyme, 4 sage leaves, and a few black peppercorns. Simmer for 45 minutes.

Discard the herbs. Toss the garlic and some stock in the food processor, puree, and return to the stock. Wait for Linda to get home, finish confit, watch movie.

Reheat the soup. Toss in a few bits of parma ham if you have it: I didn't, but I did have a little bit of Niman Ranch salami lying around, and it was great. Add a handful of pasta bits (I used strozzapreti). When it gets to simmer nicely, poach a couple of eggs right in the soup. Simmer until they're done, spoon into bowls, swirl in a dollop of crème fraîche if you've got it. Enjoy.

I find that Roger Ebert usually dashes straight to the crucial point of a film, but I think perhaps he's slightly astray with Pawel Pawlikowski's My Summer of Love. It's a very good movie -- I think everyone agrees with that. And Ebert is exactly right about the pacing:

The movie is sweet and languid when the girls are together... Pawel Pawlikowski, the director and co-writer (with Michael Wynne), wisely allows then time to seem to flow, instead of pushing it.

And he's right that, despite appearances, this is not about anyone's discovery of sexual identity.

The title of 'My Summer of Love' gives away two games at once: That she will fall in love, and that autumn will come.

This is not the story of two girls in love, and it's not Fucking Amål, and it seems incidental that the two girls are two girls.

But it's not: you couldn't remake it as boy meets girl, the way you could make a straight It Happened On Night, or a gay Some Like It Hot. This is a story that only works the way it's told; what seems incidental is unexpectedly essential.

Ebert's review sets up the expectation that it's all about the ending. It is, yes, and yet it isn't: there isn't a real twist. Not only has everything in the denoument has been established, it's been so well established that the surprise isn't surprising until the story over and you realize how that wasn't what you expected but it's what you should have expected.

My Summer Of Love
Dec 05 1 2005


"Clare42" over at LiveJournal wants one of Eastgate's Florentine notebooks.

Me too.

Clare, by the way, has a nifty mix of diary blog and chat blog -- the social blogs that are primarily about maintaining connections within a circle. Both are quite different from vow blogs, or topical blogs, or news blogs. It seems to me that it's time for some genre analysis of weblogs. I bet someone has done a great taxonomy. But who?

A few days back, I asked about eating near Heathrow. I asked for two reasons.

First, I'm going to be there in a couple of weeks. Much depends on dinner. Thanks for all the great advice. (Consensus: don't try. Get on the Heathrow Express, and eat near Paddington or Notting Hill Gate.)

Second, notes about travel plans are a fascinating note-taking problem. Travel notes have four important purposes:

  • Planning. I know we're arriving late and departing early. We sought to eat. London is a great metropolis; why waste a night if we can spend it to good effect?
  • Doing. It's always good to know what your plans were, because they're bound to change. Having a rigid schedule is good, but being able to drill down to find the plans you'd considered and rejected can be vital when your schedule comes unglued, or when an unexpected opportunity comes along.
  • Telling. Sharing stuff you know is now easy, and it creates a casual web of knowledge. Esther Dyson has long been one of the best tech journalists around; she famously knows more about hotel swimming pools around the world than just about anyone, because she travels a lot and cares about swimming pools. It used to be hard to share information like this; the casual web makes it easy.
  • Returning. You might pass this way again; you need to remember where it was that you had those wonderful muffins. After trying a tasty dish, I'll often say, "I'm going to make this!" and then I often forget to try.

You've got to write it down, because you're going to need it.

Let's start a series of notes about travel notes. I'll begin by making a new Tinderbox document and adding these notes about why travel notes matter. For good measure, I'll also drag into it some of the email I received about dining at Heathrow. I'll drop a distinctive color scheme on the document as well, so I'll know I'm working on my travel notes.

I'll also make a new agent in this web log to collect notes about TravelNotes, and let it export a page. And I'll make another agent that takes the top items off that page and makes them into a dedicated RSS feed. With Tinderbox, this took me about 5 minutes from start to end.

Serial startup founder Scott Johnson, whose latest is Feedster, has a great discussion of Evhead's advice for startups.