Dec 15 28 2015


by Jonathan Franzen

A fascinating, contemporary Dickensian braided novel, replete with symbolic character names: Purity Tyler, Andreas Wolf, and Tom Aberant. They’re all very serious, very young, and deeply interested in being right – in being pure. When we meet Purity – who people call Pip – she’s trying to break up her roommate’s marriage, for the best of motives. Andreas Wolf lives in a Berlin church basement under the shadow of the Stasi; he counsels girls and takes them to bed until he meets one who is supremely pretty and who can’t sleep with him because she has an evil stepfather. Later, Wolf becomes an internet rock star and world-famous reformer. Aberant is a journalist who falls hard for Wolf and who knows where the bodies are buried. Purity is huge, convoluted, sometimes schematic, and often hammers home and countersets observations of annoying people that might have been less annoying to the reader if they had been touched on more lightly. Still, an intriguing group portrait with an entertaining look at the absurdity of life in the GDR.

Wikipedia has a page about Ruggero Santilli, an Italian physicist who had a Harvard post-doc in the 1970s but then drifted into fringy theories about alternatives to quantum mechanics and to General Relativity. In their current incarnation, these involve a secret method for converting sewage to a “HHO magnecules,” an alternate form of water that can be used as fuel.

From time to time, Santilli and his backers (who may all be Santilli -- it’s complicated, but some of Santilli’s collaborators and backers may be imaginary) argue to extend the Wikipedia page. They’re charming folks. Here’s a sample from yesterday.

I am a stockholder of magnegas(dot)com who has lost millions of dollars because of the “fringe” dubbing and other misrepresentations of our NASDAQ traded technology by the Jewish controller of Santilli's article, such as Arthur Rubin, David Eppstein, Mark Bernstein and others. Our investigative agency has uncovered that the same Jews… (7 bullet points and 550 words follow)

You’d think this is exceptional: in 60-odd years, I don’t think I’d ever seen or heard this sort of thing outside history books. At Wikipedia, it’s not – at least not if you’re in the sights of the Gamergate/Mens’ Rights/Fox News crowd who are such avid and influential Wikipedians.

The throwaway account that wrote this screed has been blocked, and the screed itself expunged, but of course this charming fellow will be back tomorrow with a new account, and this page -- like to many others -- will continue to attract cranks.

Wikipedia’s outgoing arbitration committee likes to imagine that editing disputes are inconsequential. For example, one arbitrator has this to say about some recent topic bans about agricultural chemicals.

As my colleagues have said, don't test the boundaries, just show self-control and spend time editing other project areas, demonstrating that you can edit productively and non-contentiously.

Sweet reasonableness is nice.

Then again, some of the editors in this area are very likely professional spin doctors, employed by the makers and users of toxic chemicals, or by people who want to sell real-estate near toxic waste.

Getting science right matters in a way that getting the episode list of some Japanese children’s cartoons doesn’t. Here, lightly edited, is some email I received from one Wikipedia editor:

I'm up because i could not sleep. I ate the birthday cake of a young man who is not here because he died from PCBs poisoning last year. 

This man should have been here, but instead it was the mourning of a community, parents with no son.... lovers with no lover... sisters with no brother. 

This man ate too much of the fat of the land, the animals who eat the fish who eat the benthic insects who ate the poison that is in the mud, put there by GE and made by Monsanto, and yet here we have…a seriously useful source being excluded because it has a "point of view" – meaning that they give a shit when people poison rivers and human beings.

This young man is not here because of a conscious, well-documented series of actions. This is not a marginal conspiracy theory. This is a well-documented historical event that is being excluded from an article simply for ideology's sake.

I am writing tonight with the fingers of a dead man whose birthday was last night and who was not there to celebrate it.  Instead it was a mournful celebration of family and community missing this man.  And some jerk in Australia is allowed to block properly-documented knowledge from a reliable source for all of humankind, just because the ArbCom is made up of people of a clueless or hostile nature. i don't understand how this can be.

Burning the midnight logs in the wood stove in the Berkshires, feeling the ghost of the departed.

I don’t know a hell of a lot about the pollution of the Hudson River Basin, or about polychlorinated biphenyls. I do know, though, that if you’re going to write about these subjects, you do need to know. You can’t sit back and try to judge whether this guy sounds really nice or that advocate has a nifty suit. You’ve got to look at the evidence.

My quixotic campaign for a seat on Wikipedia’s arbitration committee has ended. I lost, of course, but great thanks to the 582 voters who supported me. One of the two incumbents running for reelection lost, too, and a half-dozen incumbents chose not to run for reelection; they ought to have resigned after the shameful Gamergate fiasco, but late is better than never.

by Mary Beard

Even the uprising of Boudicca in Britain in 60CE fits this pattern. Boudicca, or Buduica (we do not know exactly how to spell her name, but neither, presumably, did she) …

The hardcover edition weighs in at 536 pages plus end matter, yet reviewers consistently praise this history as concise. They have a point: the book often feels compressed. For example, we move directly from Augustus to Caligula, with scarcely a word for Tiberius. Earlier, Marius appears only as a minor pendant to Sulla’s revolution. Beard’s relaxed and accessible style gives the concise account a good deal of momentum, to be sure, but I’m not entirely sure I understand how a book this large can seem so small.

A quiet premise of this treatment is that the Romans anticipated modernity in a way not often noted. We all know that Roman towns had one-way streets and Roman bars had three shelves of liquor with the best stuff on the top shelf, but Beard makes the implicit argument that the End Of History has happened before, and that it essentially ended (or was paused) from Augustus through Septimius Severus. The first half of the book is History – a story of arms and men that ends in the Augustan settlement. After that, in Beard’s view our sources become gossipy because gossip was all there was. Beard doesn’t work to recover the political program or ideological goals behind Caligula’s quarrel with the military or Nero’s populism; she doesn’t really think there’s a story there at all. History was over, and only calamity would start it up again.

I think I first covered this period with Thomas Mitchell reading H. H. Scullard, and I’m tempted now to reread Scullard for comparison. Or perhaps to get Gibbon off the office shelf. Oh dear.

Dec 15 9 2015

Storyspace 3

Storyspace 3

Storyspace 3, a tool for reading and writing hypertext stories, is now available for OS X Mavericks and El Capitan. The writing environment that inspired the first generation of serious hypertext returns in a fresh new implementation. Upgrades from any previous edition of Storyspace are currently just $77.

Storyspace 3

In retrospect, the crucial and distinctive feature of Storyspace was the plain link. The Web has accustomed us to links as blue underlined text, links attached to specific words and phrases, and Storyspace has text links too. In addition, though, Storyspace offers plain links that will be followed when the reader (a) presses [Return] or (b) clicks anywhere that doesn’t have a text link.

Crucially, a note may offer several plain links, each of which can impose specific conditions allowing that link to be followed. Traditional Storyspace guard fields are fully supported, but Storyspace 3 gives you lots more flexibility for choosing when a link can be followed. The link can require that the reader has already seen some other page


or that the characters Howard has some money


or that the reader hasn’t already visited the link’s destination.


In addition, writing spaces themselves may impose $Requirements that must be satisfied before they can be visited, and special eager or shark links can fire automatically whenever a ready tries to visit their source. If you try to get into the theater without a ticket, a shark link can redirect you to the line at the box office.

Storyspace 3

I’m pulling together some notes about hypertext narrative for creative nonfiction – especially journalism and memoir. Who has taught this subject? What are the suggested readings? Kolb, Greco, Rod Coover, and Landow, of course. Who else?

A simple Google search doesn’t yield much, and a a lot of it points to the usual suspects. More suggestions? Don’t be shy. Email me.

Apropos the above, I read McPhee’s 1972 “The Search For Marvin Gardens,” which hangs a tour of then-decaying Atlantic City on the peg of a bunch of Monopoly games. It’s amazing how well this piece has aged; boom has come, bust has come, casinos came and went, and the 1% make Monopoly even more useful now than it was forty years back. I love the way that Jail becomes a pivot for the whole piece, and the way the writer’s voice asserts itself in both threads – the games (in which he’s a player)‚ and the tour of the crumbling city (in which he’s supposedly asking everyone – the man in the street, the hotel clerk, the cabbie – how to find Marvin Gardens. No one knows.

I came here in the first place to see what I’d written about John McPhee’s 2013 essay on Structure in nonfiction, which is obviously pertinent to Tinderbox and Storyspace. It turns out, as far as I can see, that I forgot to write anything about it. Go read it; it’s terrific.

Dec 15 3 2015

Old Times

You’ve got to like the place Mary Beard chooses as a starting point for her history of Rome: 8 November of 63 BCE, the date of Cicero’s first oration against Cataline. This leaps right into the midst of things with a vengeance, and we start with the Roman whom, for better or worse, we know best. Presently, no doubt, we’ll head back toward Romulus.

Then again, you can’t beat Gibbon for getting right down to things:

In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period (A.D. 98-180) of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.
Dec 15 1 2015


Tinderbox 6.4 and Storyspace 3.0 are both out. For a limited time, the all-new Storyspace (which runs on OS X Mavericks and El Capitan) comes with a free preview edition eBook of Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative, with over 200 pages of discussion and writing exercises for fiction and nonfiction.

Tinderbox 6.4 adds word clouds (and lots else). I’ve not been completely happy with the traditional Tinderbox word cloud, so I’ve been playing with new visualizations. Here’s the word cloud for my experimental fiction about Hill Academy after the revolution, which is distantly modeled on The Trojan Women.


Now, I’ve been skeptical of these word clouds for some time; they look good and people like them, but are they useful? But this is an interesting result: the most common word in the story seems to be “know.”

I didn’t know that, and I wouldn’t have guessed. But it’s set in a boarding school where terrible things are happening, a school where nobody knows what the next disaster will be in a country where disaster is only to be expected.