Dec 09 30 2009

Edgy Software

Robert Brook discusses edgy software — especially Frontier, Tinderbox, Thingamy, and HyperCard. (I’m having a surprisingly hard time, though, figuring out what Thingamy is...)

An interesting Tinderbox Forum thread is discussing Tinderbox as a Knowledge Repository, with an emphasis on course development. Here’s Jean Goodwin (Iowa State):

I've really enjoyed course development using Tinderbox.  The first time or two I teach (or overhaul) a course, I tend to just archive all the notes from the previous semester and start all over again.  But once I've taught something enough for it to have stabilized into predictable units, I tend to keep last time's notes & organization, and just modify it incrementally.

Save the date!

Tinderbox Weekend Boston
13-14 March 2010

The emphasis this time will be law, journalism, and public policy. Got an idea? Let’s talk. Email me.

The iPod transmitter in my car went up in smoke, and while I figure out how to replace it I’ve fallen back on the radio. It’s no longer safe to listen to politics on the road, so the alternatives are music and sports.

Music is hard as well, because one of Boston’s excellent PBS outlets “saved” WCRB, Boston’s very mediocre classical music station, and so absolved itself from the need to carry classical music. Instead of a bad classical station and a part-time classical station, we have a bad classical station that shows some glimmers of improvement. They continue to play isolated movements of symphonies and concerti, which is deplorable, and even to cut off movements in mid-stream, which is worse.

Announcers use the time between pieces to tell us how they enjoy the composition or the performance. When they do so, they seldom if ever mention something specific: it’s always a purely personal and emotional response.

And then we come to sports radio, where suddenly we have two major Boston outlets. The old one is bad, the new one is only slightly better. Both dwell endlessly and rumours and feed the specious idea that professional atheletes are just like high school players, only better -- that they need to be inspired and disciplined in exactly the way the pundit (or the caller) experienced back in JV.

And, weirdly, it’s as if these guys don’t know what they’re talking about. They do: I once read an account of a job interview for one of these positions, and the first handshake for the out-of-town sports anchor was a list of ten hard Boston sports history questions.

Last week, for example, I sat through twenty minutes of belly-aching over how the Yankees were bound to outbid the Red Sox for Joe Mauer, the Twins’ phenomenal young catcher, when Mauer becomes a free agent next year. At no point in this repetitious rant did the host mention any of the following facts — all of which, surely, he knows better than I, and all of which seem very pertinent.

  • The Yankees have a catcher. In 2011, he’ll turn 40. He’ll still have one, maybe two years left on his contract. He’s getting near the end, but he might still have real value; the Yankees played Joe Girardi a lot when Posada was young so his total games caught is not terribly high.
  • The Yankees have Jesus Montero at AAA, a 21-year-old catcher who is arguably the top prospect in baseball.
  • Montero’s primary weakness is defense, leading some to speculate that he’d best spend a lot of time at 1B while he learns the tools of ignorance. But playing first and batting third for the Yankees through 2016 we have Mark Teixeira.
  • After Montero, BP says the Yankees have at least three other solid prospects at catcher: Austin Romine, Gary Sanchez, and J. R. Murphy. Catching right now is a very rare commodity; these chips could be cashed in to change the whole picture.
  • There exist some other teams. Since Mauer is probably the best catcher in baseball, arguably the best player in baseball, and will be a 27 year-old free agent, some of the other teams might want him. Now that catchers are expected to start 120 games or less, just about every team could use one or two good catchers; this might also increase the value of an old but low-mileage catcher like Posada.
  • Mauer is actually too good to play catcher. Catchers wear out; it’s impossible for a catcher to avoid injuries and knee problems. Normally, a catcher who can hit and field is worth playing, but with a catcher who hits and fields this well you’re wasting a year or two of all-star play by putting him at catcher. In any case, catchers only play 120 games, and you want an MVP to play 150. So Mauer won’t really be a 27-year-old catcher; he’ll be a 27-year-old third-baseman or left fielder, or perhaps a first baseman. The Yankees have a Teixeira at 1B through 2016 and a A-Rod at 3B through 2018; neither is going anywhere and neither is going to sit for anyone, not in New York. (Every at bat that A-Rod misses is one more at bat with Bonds as all-time home run champ; the day that A-Rod hits #762 cannot come too soon for the league.)

This is stuff that a sports pundit could tell people. It’s not obscure or secret, but if you don’t happen to read the right story, you wouldn’t know. I simply happened to stumble across Kevin Goldstein’s BP story (sorry, paywall) the same day. But sportscasters are paid to know this stuff; why note talk sense, at least part of the time?

And don't get me started on steroids. How is it that getting a cortisone shot is good, and getting your tendon stapled to your bloody sock is good, and little cheats to get an edge — blocking the plate, phantom tags, hard slides, judicious spitters — are good, but taking some over-the-counter diet supplement that isn’t against the rules is, by sports talk rules, a ghastly moral failure?

Dec 09 26 2009


It seems to me that the following recipe is in season:

When a single, isolated criminal claims to be acting for, with, or in support of Al Qaeda:
  1. Stop everything; give him as much attention as you possibly can.
  2. If practical, emphasize the incredible dangers he poses even after his arrest and which threaten any jail, prison, or state in which he happens to be confined.
  3. If possible, torture him sufficiently to ensure that he can never be tried in court.
  4. Immediately add additional, highly-visible and inconvenient security theater to demonstrate that Something Is Being Done. Spare no expense.
  5. Ignore the thousands of dollars of costs for additional screening, and the millions of dollars of lost waiting time, missed flights, and cancelled trips.
  6. Insist that these costs be suffered by all international travelers, everywhere. This group, after all, includes most of the economic and political decision-makers in the world.
  7. Be sure, as they take off their shoes and see their perfume confiscated and have their retinas scanned, that they know these restrictions and costs are imposed by a US government in which they have no voice, which has not asked their leave, and is unlikely to thank them.

Readers will recognize this as that difficult old classic, the recipe for How To Lose To Terrorists, originally served in Algeria and Indo-China, though arguably based on 18th century cookbooks from Lexington and Concord.

A post from the early months of this blog, back in 2001, found when retweeted.

By Philip Chapman Bell.

incipit gestis Rudolphi rangifer tarandus

Hwaet, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor –

naefde thaet nieten unsciende naesthyrlas!
Glitenode and gladode godlice nosgrisele.
Tha hofberendas mid huscwordum hine gehifogodon;
nolden tha geneatas Hrodulf naeftig
to gomene hraniscum geador aetsomne.
Tha in Cristesmaesseaefne stormigum clommum,
Halga Claus thaet gemunde to him mathelode:
Neahfreond nihteage nosubeorhtende!
Min hroden hraedwaen gelaed thu, Hrodulf!
Tha gelufodon hira laddeor tha lyftflogan — waes glaednes and gliwdream; hornede sum gegieddode:
Hwaet, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor,
Brad springth thin blaed: breme eart thu!

Here begin the deeds of Rudolph, Tundra-Wanderer

Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer —
That beast didn't have unshiny nostrils!
The goodly nose-cartilage glittered and glowed.
The hoof-bearers taunted him with proud words;
The comrades wouldn't allow wretched Hrodulf
To join the reindeer games.
Then, on Christmas Eve bound in storms
Santa Claus remembered that, spoke formally to him:
'Dear night-sighted friend, nose-bright one!
You, Hrodulf, shall lead my adorned rapid-wagon!'
Then the sky-flyers praised their lead deer --
There was gladness and music; one of the horned ones sang
'Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer,
Your fame spreads broadly, you are renowned!'

Dec 09 22 2009

Brook Blogs

Parliamentary IT-guy Robert Brook has been NotBlogging for years:

I’ve recently claimed that I’ve never really had a weblog, as it’s properly known.

He's considering a reformed practice closer to blogging, without comments. A thoughtful example of weblog criticism.

Mark Anderson discusses the making of the Tinderbox Afghanistan COIN diagram. He calls these diagrams “catnip for generals and admirals.”

It’s a great tutorial on using a host of new Tinderbox 5 features – smart adornments, checkboxes, display expressions, columns – to get work done quickly.


Dec 09 18 2009

Dr. Noe

Congratulations to Dr. Prof. Noelani Arista on the successful defense of her dissertation Outrage and Silence: Encountering History in Early Nineteenth-Century Hawai'i !

Marvelling at the arcane Afghanistan COIN diagram, we half-jokingly remarked that “these guys need Tinderbox”.


Mark Anderson took looked at the problem and channeled his inner staff officer.

Click for full size

It's a complicated diagram, and there’s no escaping the complexity unless, through analysis and reflection, planners discover ways to simplify the plan. But some things simply are complicated; coping with that complexity when it cannot be avoided is important. (Trying to reduce complexity that cannot be reduced was a frequent blunder of the last administration: see Katrina and the first months of the Iraq reconstruction for examples).

The important thing here is that one can revise the map; moving things around won’t foul up everything, and adding annotations or support data is simply a matter of selecting a note and opening its text window.

Translucent notes, a new Tinderbox 5 feature, work nicely here. One problem with the original think-tank diagram is that some labels completely obscure important information, which Mark Anderson captures here with the label “??”.

Mark Anderson reports that the chart took about 5 hours in all, though much of the time was consumed by obscurities in the original. You can grab a copy at the Tinderbox Public File Exchange.

At eLit Camp, we talked a bit about the difference between IF and hypertext fiction.

If you squint enough, IF really is hypertext: interlinked passages, read with a computer. You follow links by typing special words, I follow links by clicking; let’s call the whole thing off.

Still, I sense there’s a real difference here. J. Nathan Matias touched on it in passing when he said, "argumentation is hard for IF." I think that’s right: IF can do a lot, but it seems to me that it would be quite challenging to explain carbocation rearrangements through IF, or to explain why you believe the HMAS Canberra was or was not torpedoed on August 9, 1942. Yet these are things we can do with hypertext, and so we may agree that IF and hypertext differ in a meaningful way, that there are some things that one can do fluently and the other can achieve only with difficulty.

Trying to refresh my sense of the potential of modern IF, I grabbed Walker and Silhouette, an interactive fiction by C.E.J. Pacian which Emily Short review at Play This Thing .

Walker & Silhouette is designed to be friendly to novice players, and in particular to get around some of the challenges of parser-based IF: instead of requiring the player to type full commands, it provides keywords that can be typed in or (on interpreters that support hyperlinks) just clicked on. Selecting a keyword means having the protagonist do whatever he (or she -- you play both characters during the game) thinks is the most reasonable action applying to that object at the moment.

Short likes the work, writing that "It's fun, adventurous, and not too hard; it feels like enjoyable fluff while you're playing, but after you're done you may find it leaves more of an impression than you expected." It seemed like a good place to start.

But I’m stuck. I’m prisoner in a police station, I’m left alone with my file and a desk of folders and a pneumatic tube which has a bunch of keys I can press, and pressing those keys is probably part of the solution for advancing the plot and getting on to the next part. But I can't quite figure out which key to press.

And, while the writing is terrific by the standard of video games, it’s not always as taut or as precise as the story’s short passagework seems to require. When we first encounter the Mindflower Asylum, we’re told that

Mindflower used to be a medieval gaol where murderers and debtors rubbed shoulders.

But gaols aren’t particularly medieval, and imprisoning debtors is more George or Victoria than Henry II. Inside the gaol, our heroine is confined in a padded cell, suspended upside down in a straitjacket.

The Year In Media Corrections. Not to be missed.

Bear sighting: An item in the National Briefing in Sunday’s Section A said a bear wandered into a grocery story in Hayward, Wis., on Friday and headed for the beer cooler. It was Thursday. – Los Angeles Times

Also, a runner-up for translation error of the year:

Welcome to Wales, a headline attempted to say in yesterday’s piece about the Ashes series opening in Cardiff (Croeso y Cymru: a top catch for Cardiff, page 9). That should have been Croeso i Gymru. What our version meant was Welcome the Wales. – The Times

The winner for translation managed to confused the literal and colloquial meanings of the German schwanz (cf. schmuck) in a story about a Legoland giraffe.

Just received a review copy of Going Rouge , an anthology by Richard Kim and Betsy Reed that bears the telling subtitle, “An American Nightmare”. Much amusement to be had.

The outpouring of Tinderbox comments at Cult Of Mac is extraordinary — not only for supportiveness, but also intelligence. Here’s Russ Lipton:

I have been using personal computer software since 1979; hypertext software nearly that long; Tinderbox since version 1.0.

It is the most interesting software product ever designed. It may be the only interesting software product ever designed. In a just world, Mark Bernstein would be on the cover of Wired magazine. Maybe even Rolling Stone.

Objectively, Tinderbox is probably worth $495. I wish Eastgate would sell it for $49.50 because I think it’s criminal that so few Mac users have given it a shot.

Alas, I think I could foresee the actual result.

Within a few months, 25,000 copies would be sold; more if Tinderbox were included in one of those bundling promotions. About 24,000 users would become so frustrated with Tinderbox’s originality that they would decide it was a terrible product and was CERTAINLY not worth spending fifty bucks on. The hit to Tinderbox’s reputation would be permanent.

Of the other 1,000, maybe 200 or 300 would stick with it long enough to be blown away.

Worse, it would be impossible for Eastgate ever to raise the price of Tinderbox again.

I’m kidding, but not by much.

And, no, I’m not implying for a second that Tinderbox users are especially bright (though it may fall out that this has been so) or that the ‘25,000′ would be flat-out wrong.

Rather, Tinderbox shatters the paradigm of software to-date, whether open source or proprietary. Vendors spoon-feed product to their ‘users’ (and here that word should be seen in all its ugliness) precisely so that the latter will not discover the unexpected, but only reinforce the automated execution of stuff they already understand.

Big surprise (not) that perfectly competent people in their fields view ‘computing’ as an exercise in being patronized and therefore judge anything that moves outside that metaphor to be ‘bad’ … and wisely in most cases.

When a product comes along that doesn’t patronize them, I hardly blame them for failing to recognize the possibility that Tinderbox might be the exception to the marketing lie about computers being our thinking tools.

So, I repeat: Tinderbox is the most interesting software product ever designed.

Tinderbox was great when it was version one, if pathetically immature relative to version 5.0. So how good is version 5.0?

Wicked good.

And yet …..

I’m going to be really irritated if Mark doesn’t continue evolving Tinderbox into his nineties. I hope to be marveling at version 15.0 in my nineties alongside him.

My maps will be very, very, very large visually then …. but I won’t care.

Some links for eLitCampers:

At eLit Camp yesterday, John Timmons have a terrific introduction to Inform 7, showing how to write with it, and in it.

As far as I can see, we still don't fully understand how interactive fiction (IF) relates to hypertext fiction. Sure, there are the surface differences — following links is not precisely the same as typing commands. But I think there are other, formal differences.

Differences like the limitations of stretchtext – limitations that are easy enough to remove once you understand them, but that needed to be understood and articulated. Otherwise, we’re wandering around in a maze of twisty little passages of software, bumping into the walls. And, while that’s plenty of fun and sometimes gives rise to good art, I’m not sure it’s the best way to spend our time.

Also fantastic yesterday — well, everything. But especially Landow’s talk on real and vitual cities.

I work in the visual arts, so I have nothing against glitz and images. But… — George P. Landow

And Bill Bly reminded us all of Michael Joyce and “the wave of returns.”

Dec 09 12 2009


Terrific opening sessions at eLitCamp (Twitter #eLitCamp). Bill Bly on We Descend volume II. Landow on “what is an archive?”

Plus technical anecdotes from people who have been there. Memories of bugs past, software mishaps we now understand but that once seemed arcane, echoes among stories, visits to Food and Books.

Tinderbox 5: Smart Adornments

I was mostly kidding when I wrote about PA Consulting’s planning chart for the Afghan counter-insurgency effort,

These guys need Tinderbox!
Tinderbox 5: Smart Adornments

But Mark Anderson took up the challenge. It’s a tough challenge, because the chart isn’t all that good: the big labels, for example, obscure some items that happen to lie beneath them. But if you really wanted to study, annotate, and revise a complex graph like this, Tinderbox might let you use it for things besides pretty pictures.

Anderson’s first step was simply to get all these notes into the system and get them in roughly the right place. Smart Adornments work well for this. The “Popular Support” adornment automatically gathers (and color codes) the pertinent items. The “Narcotics” adornment gathers its own items. This sort of automation lets you rough out complex data sets more quickly and more gracefully.

Tinderbox 5: Smart Adornments

At a later point, we can adjust the labels to make this look as a poster. But the point isn’t to make an impressive chart; the point is to promote understanding and, even more important, to get the details right. One can see how Tinderbox might actually help.

At Sardi’s

It’s the morning after Tinderbox 5. Some fresh comments and clippings from Giles Turnbull’s article on Tinderbox 5 at Cult of Mac.

Tinderbox 5 is wicked fast. That seems to be the headlining feature, but I hope folks don’t miss some of the other big ticket items like checkboxes, columns, and what seem like hundreds of minor, useful improvements. Tinderbox has been my go-to software for years, and it keeps getting better. -- Jack Baty
It’s $229. No, that’s not a typo. $229. Ludicrous! -- Tim

People who need to cut through dissertation-level or professional research, large-scale litigation, etc. don’t mind paying for this level of power. It’s overkill for most people, but that’s fine… it’s a professional tool.

I can only think of one other tool on either Windows or the Mac that has anywhere near the depth of Tinderbox. There are plenty of tools that don’t do a fraction of what Tinderbox does ... and cost substantially more. — Alan Yeung

"Tinderbox cost twice as much as MS word because it can do twice as much as MS word. There is no other software that can organize thoughts spatially without making you conform to a system beforehand, export those thoughts in html, opml, or xml, do automatically do exactly what you tell it to do in the process.

I can tell Tinderbox, “automatically update all pertinent information to exactly how I want it, and it will.” Wouldn’t you pay more if MS Word could automatically gather all of the sentences from your notes and put them in the correct order? This is just ONE of the things Tinderbox can do.-- "Eric"

It’s the closest software has ever come to mirroring my thought processes. It’s also the deepest and most elegant outliner and mind-mapper available, and although intimidating at first, it is also very easy to use for simpler matters. It’s potential complexity only serves to increase its flexibility. If you think it, Tinderbox can represent it, and the software eventually becomes a kind of second brain.

I’ve used it every day for about two years–with heavy usage, of course, the price seems more reasonable. It may or may not be worth it for you, of course, but you shouldn’t rule it out automatically. — Steve Stein

Dec 09 10 2009

Tinderbox 5

Tinderbox 5

Tinderbox 5 is now available. It’s the biggest update we’ve ever done. Here is the overview. (And here is Mark Anderson’s invaluable aTbRef for Tinderbox 5..)

It’s a big step. Tinderbox 5 is fast. Maps, charts, and outlines all get a terrific boost. There are lots of developments: more than 150 release notes, and literally thousands of improvements you’ll enjoy but won’t see.

I’ll be talking a lot in the coming days about the many, many changes in Tinderbox 5. But, first, I really need some sleep.

Speaking of timelines...

Adrian Miles is starting a new Tinderbox writing project.

I want to develop some ideas. It is informal, blog like, writing but I don’t want the serial structure of a blog. It will be closer to what Mark calls a Fagerjordian structure for precisely the reasons he outlines. There’s a lot of good stuff in my blog, but I never find it, read it, see it. Hardly anyone else does either. This is not a problem of categories or tags. If I use lots of tags then I still can’t find stuff, because the tags are either too specific so I have to scratch and peck through too many, or I only use a few and then it becames a case of trawling through hundreds of entries. And that’s describing me trying to find stuff so how would anyone else? This is probably a generic problem with blogs. They’re great for reflection, for serialised content production and distribution, but they aren’t so good at being a usable archive.

A chart of the US DOD plans for Afghanistan.

These guys need Tinderbox!

People are talking about Tinderbox timelines again. If you're interested in time lines, have a nice temporal visualization you’d like to share (or publicize), or have some time data you’d like to explore in Tinderbox, Email me.

Michael Ruhlman makes a home video about cooking paté a choux. (This, by the way, is a very good thing and tasty thing for you to do.)

Notice that good video is hard. We see from this example that it’s hard even if (a) you’re an experienced and excellent public speaker, (b) you’ve been on TV a lot, so you know what you’re doing, (c) your wife is a pro photographer, and (d) you’re right in the center of your comfort zone, and doing another take will cost you $5.

I really love the new typography of the Web site, incidentally, which extends nicely into the embedded video.

I’m not wild about the urge to try to reduce everything to TV. But some things are best communicated by watching. What should the dough look like? When you “stir vigorously”, does this mean “not langorously”? Or does it mean “beat the living daylights out of it?”

I just exchanged email with a Tinderbox user who’s been working with the program for years and years, and hadn’t realized that you can make a note by double-clicking where you want the note to be. Perhaps we need more video after all.


Losing one’s home was a problem in 2009. Losing one’s job was a problem in 2009. Checking a website to see who liked one’s joke does not even make the top 1,000,000 problems of 2009.

We’re polishing Tinderbox 5. It’s been a lot of work. A lot.

What is a day off, anyway?



Here’s the way it is: we have a real chance of getting a serious cap and trade program in place within a year or two. We have no chance of getting a carbon tax for the foreseeable future. It’s just destructive to denounce the program we can actually get — a program that won’t be perfect, won’t be enough, but can be made increasingly effective over time — in favor of something that can’t possibly happen in time to avoid disaster.
Dec 09 3 2009

Black Screen

Over Thanksgiving weekend, a little-known security company published a vague report about a Microsoft security patch that, reportedly, sometimes cause “black screen of death”. Monday, the tech press picked it up, got Microsoft to say “we’re investigating it”, and reported the investigation. Then Microsoft turned up nothing, and the tech press reported the denial. Typical Windows story.

Problem is: there was no problem. There was nothing wrong, nothing to investigate, nothing to deny. Nothing was wrong.

Our tech press is both corrupt and silly, forever chasing the expected narrative without understanding, or even trying to understand, the underlying technology. The costs to everyone are frightening.

by Toby Barlow

A terrific novel, written in blank verse, about life as a werewolf on the Los Angeles streets. Barlow asks, “What is a man?” His answer is not John Wayne’s. Barlow asks as well, “What is a dog? And why do dogs do what they do?” These dogs can be men whenever they like, and can become dogs as they please. There’s a prosperous law firm where they guys knock off work, pile into a big SUV stocked with beer and steaks, drive out into the desert, and go for a run. There’s a pack of dogs that descends on nickel-and-dime meth labs. Something is wrong at the dog pound. And then there’s Buster, who thinks of himself Lark, top dog of a top pack, who disguises himself as a lapdog to escape from a tense situation on his way to world domination, and who finds being a nice lady’s pet is pretty damn good.