Brady Kiesling, a career US diplomat and an old college friend, just resigned from the US Foreign Service. (Google News) Brady's letter of resignation to Colin Powell said that "Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America's most potent weapon of both offence and defence since the days of Woodrow Wilson,"

Philosopher David Kolb (Socrates in the Labyrinth) has written a thorough, thoughtful, and devastating response to Henning Ziegler's When Hypertext Became Uncool.

Ziegler promises to give socio-political reasons for the phenomenon of rapid attraction and then rejection of utopian hypertext dreams. His essay does not actually give such an analysis except for general incantations about contradictions and the relation of freedom and constraint.

Kolb's rebuttal is gentle, scholarly, very generous, and conclusive.

If Kolb's response is gently reasoned, Greco's is full of energy and richly-merited anger.

If these so-called critics didn't have early hypertext theorists and practitioners to belittle, they'd have they'd have nothing to write about, because they're not interested in anything but making little scenes with themselves in the starring role.

Jill got a free copy of the new American Book Review in lieu of being paid for her writing. They were handing out piles of them at AWP yesterday, but I left mine on the plane. So, I've only seen the introduction in which guest editor Scott Rettberg tries to pretend that hypertext before his own work now "seems charmingly anachronistic". Interestingly, ABR couldn't find time to review what might well be the year's most important new media title, My Name is Captain, Captain. Now that the former ELO director has a job teaching new media studies, new media studies has become the new salvation:

And, perhaps most importantly for the longterm health of the new media art forms, New Media Studies is finding nests within universities in the US and around the world.

I'm sure this makes the folks been teaching the subject year in, year out, for five, ten, even fifteen years -- Kaplan (Cornell/Texas/Baltimore), Landow (Brown), Bolter (USC/Georgia Tech), Hayles (UCLA), Joyce (Vassar), Moulthrop (Yale/Texas/GA Tech/Baltimore) , Aarseth (Bergen), Clement (Paris 8), Murray (MIT/GA Tech), Douglas (NYU/Brunel/Florida), Bly (NYU/Fordham), Miles (RMIT), and I hate to think who I'm forgetting-- feel great.

Feb 03 26 2003

Let it snow

I'm in Washington, DC, at internet cafe number two. (Internet cafe number one had a big banner about high speed wireless, but unfortunately they didn't actually have the high speed wireless -- or a net connection at all. I learned this after I ordered the muffin and large latte.)

Fortunately, I was able to get the wireless up at cafe number two. That means I've been able to do business, check with the office, update two weblogs, improve a detail on the Tekka page design, and check the weather forecast for tomorrow's drive to Baltimore. (The driving looks very bad indeed. But I'll be giving a talk and Tinderbox demo at AWP: the show must go on.)

I rarely spend time in cafes. It's interesting that people are using this cafe the way Europeans do. There's a guy in a fashionable suit; he's been reading USA today in the corner for an hour., There's a couple of serious guys talking business on the sofa; they've been here longer. People aren't here for a quick cup, they're here to stay. (I'm the only one using a computer)

That's interesting. Coffee shops used to be this way: read Damon Runyan. Cafes in Europe work this way; the American tourist guides always explain that, no, it's not necessary to always be ordering another cup of coffee or something, you don't have to leave as soon as you've had your last sip. So this is a revival of old patterns. Or perhaps it's just the difference between the North and the South.

Update: Kellan Elliott-McCrea reminds me that there's good café right near home.

Feb 03 24 2003

Dont Do This

One of the odder Tekka departments is titled "Don't Do This". This week, that seems extraneous -- we've had lots of examples of what not to do! But seriously folks....

The business press has fallen into a nasty habit over the past decade of assuming that failure results from idiocy, that winners are smart and losers in business are fools. This is false: there are more ways to fail than to succeed. It's also unhelpful; since you and I are not idiots or knaves, the business press doesn't help us learn from other people's disasters.

The user interface/human factors community has the same bad habit. It's not enough to identify a design flaw, you have to hold it up to ridicule. What dolt designed that?! Occasionally, bad designs get built out of stupidity, but often there's something else to learn.

Hence, Don't Do This. Short notes about things that didn't quite work, and where they might have gone wrong. In this installment, for example, Anja Rau looks at an all-night German television show that set out to spotlight multimedia. It sure sounded cool. What went wrong?

Diane Greco writes an eloquent and sensible response to the recent rash of pseudo-scholarly silliness about hypertext, cool, and the military industrial complex (Feb 24 entry, no permalink).

Ziegler is also weirdly obsessed with something called "cool," a word which he thinks applied to hypertext at some point.

I assure you, it did not. In 1992, a "hypertext reading" at Brown University meant four students sitting around a Mac Classic in a closet in a basement of the engineering building while Michael Joyce read from the screen. The room was cramped, dim, and smelled like mold. It would be the grossest distortion to say this scene was cool .

Greco can write -- thank goodness somebody here knows how the play this game! And she bars no holds:

ELO gave away $20K plus untold organizational resources in an effort to create e-lit celebs , or a reliable mechanism (a prize) for producing them, to no avail. In 2001, as the post-award silence resounded, hypertext's critics cried louder, hoping someone out there was listening. Nobody was, except the original hypertext stalwarts who now found themselves targets of abuse. The old flap over at EBR veered from an obscure, bellicose argument about semiotics to pompous, misinformed name-dropping cleverly concealed as scholarship. There was more misinformed bellicosity over at Dichtung-Digital . The criticism, if you can call it that, was especially boring. It definitely was not "cool".

But, you know, those four students listening to Michael Joyce in the moldy basement closet, that really was cool. The future of writing still lies on the screen, links are the key to a new literature, and that moldy old closet is going to be the envy of future generations of scholars and writers who will wish they could've been there too. Maybe that's what's really eating Jerz and Ziegler and all the rest.

Feb 03 22 2003

Against Cool

Anja Rau weighs in on the this week's hypertext crit silliness,  especially Henning Zielger's "When Hypertext Became Uncool".

When did academics like Mr. Ziegler start to worry about being cool? Did he hang out with the popular kids in high school, and does he now long to regain that feeling of being pretty and special as he walks down the hall of the JFK Institute in Berlin? Is he afraid the other kids will make fun of him if he's not cool?

Where I come from, scholars don't care about being cool: they care about being right.

Ziegler describes Storyspace as an extension of the American military-industrial complex, and casts Moulthrop as its instrument. Stuart Moulthrop?! This is, literally, idiotic.

Where do grad schools find these people, anyway?

The conceit of Tom Ehrenfeld's The Startup Garden -- running a startup as a path to personal growth -- is fascinating. I can certainly testifty that running a small business presents character challenges, and challenge promotes growth. Someone blogged this enthusiastically (but I can't find the post now), I rushed out and amazoned it. There's some good work here.

But much of the book is devoted to the familiar litany of how to write business plans and why cash flow matters, and too little to the book's singular topic. There's no mention, either, of the dark side -- people who lose their way in a startup and wind up alone and friendless, or scarred and embittered, or who embrace dishonesty and deceit. It's not the inevitable, or even the usual, outcome of starting a business, but it happens; it would be good to acknowledge the dangers, and even better to explore how to avoid them. I'd like, too, some thoughts on the small things in the garden; everything in Ehrenfeld is aimed at laying out the flowerbeds and rose trellises, planning the garden paths and the broad vistas. I'd like to hear more about the weeding and hoeing the startup garden -- not as instrumental activities but as ends in themselves.

A new (to me!) weblog from Matt Kirschenbaum, a longtime student of hypertext who now teaches at Maryland. Especially interesting: Kirschenbaum's comments on Michael Lesk's trip report on Computer Science in the Humanities. (Thanks, Jill!)

Feb 03 21 2003


I've recently read two separate accounts of the history of hypertext (here and here). Neither is particularly accurate, original, or insightful, but they share one odd characteristic: they leave Douglas Engelbart out of the story entirely. The genealogy of the Web, in these narratives, runs from Bush to Nelson to Berners-Lee.

Warning: in my opinion, both these articles misunderstand Bush's Memex, which each describes poorly but at some length. Bush's article is readily available and, like many popular science articles, is easy to read. There's a good book about Memex by Kahn and Nyce, which neither author appears to have consulted, and MIT hosted a symposium on Memex a few years ago whose proceedings would also be useful. I have long been skeptical of the true extent of the influence of Bush's essay, and this question awaits the work of a dedicated scholar capable of analyzing sources. I should also mention that Author #1 apparently misunderstands the genesis of Storyspace, while Author #2 misreads Landow to hilarious effect. Proceed at your own risk.

To omit Engelbart is strange, because not long ago it seemed likely that the forgotten progenitor would be Nelson, not Engelbart. It used to be Nelson who was left out of abbreviated accounts or dismissed as a visionary.

At the first hypertext conference, it was clear that the hypertext community was divided in two groups, the Nelsonites and the Engelbarters. (I was a Nelsonian; Engelbart's work was new to me but very exciting) Over the dinner when I first met (if memory serves) Randy Trigg, Cathy Marshall, and Polle Zellweger, I actually asked the PARC crew "are you Nelson or Engelbart?", and the question seemed perfectly natural. One reason the Hypertext Conference was important was that it provided a meeting ground; lots of people coming out of these two traditions had never met. Reading the early literature, you can see traces of this divide, chiefly in attitude toward hierarchy. Engelbart's work embraced hierarchy and outlining, Nelson's battle-cry was "Everything is intertwingled!"

In the early 1990's, outliners and stretchtext systems like Guide seemed the wave of the future, and increasing formality appeared to be the natural direction for hypertext. At the same time, Nelson's utopian insistence on the viability of Xanadu seemed an embarrassment and his liberatory rhetoric was a hard sell to corporate buyers. Engelbart (who had aerospace connections) and Bush (with an impeccable defense department heritage) seemed to overshadow Nelson entirely, and Nelson's followers felt the need to remind audiences of his role at every opportunity.

As it turned out, Xanadu wasn't utopian; one year we woke up and, there (more or less) it was. Over the course of the 90's, moreover, the pendulum swung against formality. Outliners disappeared into presentation systems, and then Microsoft killed the software category by giving away PowerPoint and outliners were nearly forgotten. The Engelbarter/Nelsonian split, which was social and geographic, was soon resolved. If it was remembered at all, it was seen (incorrectly) as a prelude to the battle of the engineers and the literati.

Just at the moment when Engelbart falls out of these histories, as it happens, the pendulum is swinging back toward Engelbart-style systems. Tinderbox and Radio Userland, for example, are each strongly influenced by Engelbart. Tinderbox, with its semi-formal attribute structure and template transclusion, echoes Aquanet and SEPIA, and its rhetoric sometimes recalls NLS/Augment. Radio, like Augment, is all about outlines -- and OPML may the first outliner since Augment to support outlines that cross machines and file systems. (Gopher did this too; it might be interesting to look at Gopher again....)

Engelbart also gave what is generally considered to be the best demo in the history of computing.

Feb 03 20 2003


An optimistic, but plausible, view of how we could take back the Internet from Aaron Swartz: the wireless future.

On the other hand, it seems just as likely that in another few years, they'll make unlicensed wireless operation a felony, claiming it necessary to prevent international terrorists from conspiring to undermine The American Way.

Still, it might work, and the world would be better if it did. The Republicans, the phone companies, the military, and the media companies will all be against us. Can we win? Maybe....

Talking Points Memo, my favorite source of political news, has a rave review of my favorite living classicist's new book: Libraries in the Ancient World, by Lionel Casson.

Reading Casson, or Russell Meiggs' Roman Ostia, or Conrad Russell's Crisis of Parliaments, is a fine antidote to the sloppy stuff that people have been offering up on hypertext and weblog theory lately. On days like today, when the hypertext scholarship is especially dismal, I miss rigor and precision.

Heartily recommended by Linda's philosophy professor, this is a mixture of a professional autobiography of the longtime music director of an important American musical training program and a critique of art funding in American music. The memoir is interesting, if not particularly well written. The discussion of art policy is frustrating.. (In Books)

In honor of Valentine's Day, Lincoln's Birthday, and Washington's Birthday, Eastgate offered special prices on Tinderbox and Tekka this weekend. And, thanks to two feet of snow, the opportunity has been extended for a day or two. If you'd like to try Tinderbox, now is the time. And you can test-drive Tekka for six months for just $19.95.

Reviewing a program is sometimes like trying to review an entire museum or an entire city. There's too much to consider properly, and so you're left with consumer reportage, a shallow judgment about the value of the whole mishmash.

Tekka is going to attempt a different approach. We don't care about what to buy; we're interested in the ideas. That means software critics don't need to make sweeping overviews of an entire program, but can think about specific features or ponder the implications of what the software is trying to achieve.

In the pilot issue, I take a brief look at the aspirations of Painter, a graphic editing program that competes with Photoshop. We don't care whether you ought to buy Painter or Photoshop: if you need them, buy both! (Should you buy Shakespeare or Wilde? Milton, or malt?)

What's most interesting about Painter is its loving recreation of natural media -- oil paint that smears and blends, watercolor that drips and soaks into the paper, pastel so chalky you can feel it scratching against coarse paper. Often, this kind of artificial simulation of honest material proves tawdry, leading to wood-grain vinyl and Disney Main Streets. In software, though, is lets us think about paint and paper in a new way, letting us free ourselves selectively from familiar constraints of gravity, diffusion, and chemistry than confine the art materials we normally buy or make.

Feb 03 15 2003

Tekka: Fonts

One of the interesting things we'd like to do in Tekka is a regular font department, a feature that will explore a promising new font. Perhaps we'll find a way to get copies to our subscribers at a nice discount, too. We start with a lovely screen font named Beryll, from the Swedish foundry Timberwolf.

The long-awaited issue of JODI on Hypertext Criticism, edited by Susana Tosca and Jill Walker, is out at last,

Those who are familiar with hypertext rarely discuss specific works, and when they do, it is often cursorily and without any evaluation or discussion of specific points in the work. In this special issue of JoDI we wish to contribute to this area by publishing criticism of specific works and discussions about the state of hypertext criticism.

"Open source software" has become a religious topic, unsuitable for discussion over dinner, and it's been a long time since I've seen much intelligent writing on the subject. David Stultz recently left Microsoft after some years as its point-man in this arena, and his Advice to Microsoft regarding commodity software is superb. (Years ago, Guy Kawasaki published his Apple resignation letter. This one is even better)

Feb 03 12 2003

eNarrative 5

The cast for eNarrative 5 is starting to shape up. You might be surprised. Lots more to come, too.

Meg Hourihan's first food column won't appear until Tekka #2, but that doesn't keep Victor Jalencas from blogging it! He's got a tasty variation on Bricklin's photo weblog idea.

Aaron Johnson was at the Winerfest, too. He thinks "Tekka looks like it could be worth a subscription." Dan Bricklin was there, too, with his new Sony digital camera, and took lots of pictures.

One of Winer's comments was the remarkable way in which Net News Wire has taken off. (Net News Wire went version 1.0 yesterday -- congratulations, Brent!) It's not obvious that a pure RSS aggregator like this would gain traction, and it's very interesting to see how popular it's become.

Feb 03 11 2003

Winer in Boston

Dave Winer held a nifty East-coast weblog confab at his new Harvard digs last night. Lots of intriguing ideas about weblog technology.

Dave suggested that the RSS wars are settled, that RSS is settling down enough that it's stabilized (though not quite standardized). I wonder, though, whether the adoption of permissive "we'll read any RSS flavor" attitudes are papering over a new and bigger divide.

On one hand, some people want to use syndication for syndication -- for including headlines from one site on another site's page. But the success of NetNewsWire, Radio Userland, and a bunch of other RSS readers have made RSS an alternative format for writing weblogs -- not just a way of finding interesting Web pages but a replacement for Web pages. The purposes are diverging so far, so fast, that the underlying model is bound to get scuffed in the process.

For example, how long should the description of an item be? Is the description a headline? Should it encompass an entire weblog post, or just a few words?

Aaron Swartz is the first to 'blog Tekka, with a long and thoughtful appreciation:

They're intelligent and innovative looks at modern technology, drawing from classical sources in other fields. Tekka sounds like it will be quite fun to read. . . . Tekka starts from the assumption that the reader is smart and interested, if not knowledgable about every subject. Doing this makes for great reading.

Aaron is wrong on a couple of details. He doesn't owe his column to personal friendship. He got it because he's one of the world experts on RSS, RDF, and related technology on the all-important border between syndication and the semantic Web, because he's got strong and unusual opinions about such sacred cows as XML, and because he's a promising writer. I'd figured all this out from reading and correspondence some time before I found out he's also extraordinarily young.

And Tekka's not "my" magazine, official or otherwise. I'm the publisher, Anja Rau's the editor, Eastgate's the sponsor.

My main piece for the pilot issue of Tekka is My Friend, Hamlet. It's a simple argument about immersive fictions and the popular illusion that interactive fiction aspires to become something like the Star Trek Holodeck, a notion first popularized by the early VR crowd and then enshrined in Janet Murray's fine book, Hamlet On The Holodeck .

People think it would be really cool if you could be the hero of a play or movie, if you could be immersed in the action. Back at Hypertext 2001, I showed that this leads to a host of contradictions and incongruities: even if we could have Hamlet on the holodeck, it wouldn't work. Let someone sane and sensible into a tragedy -- someone like you -- and the whole thing collapses.

It's a shame that the people who think games are the future of fiction have ignored this problem for two long years. (Comedy has the same problem. We're left, perhaps, with romance and melodrama -- if everything else comes together.)

Update: Scott Johnson likes the argument.

Feb 03 10 2003

Tekka: live!

The first issue of Tekka is now online. Subscribers received their login information this morning. You can subscribe today.

From time to time, I'll be writing here about interesting articles and ideas from the pilot issue. I hope you'll subscribe, of course. Everyone can read the beginning of each Tekka article. And we're looking at some new technology that would let bloggers (like me) give you temporary access to Tekka features they discuss.

The most important thing about Tekka is that, at last, we have a place to read and write seriously about enjoying new media. From my "Publishers' Note" for the pilot issue:

The technical press seems to be obsessed with money: great software is whatever sells ad space and trade show booths. The remnants of the old new economy produce chiefly press releases. The first artistically-successful hypertexts are almost 15 years old (and still very much in print), and they've inspired an impressive array of books, essays, articles, and dissertations, but a generation of talented young scholars finds itself with no place to publish. Criticism has stalled, and critical standards are dismal.

We're bored now.

We're seizing this moment, inauspicious as it may seem, to launch Tekka, a new Web magazine about enjoying new media and creating beautiful software. Tekka is serious reading, for serious readers. No kid stuff, no management fluff

Feb 03 8 2003

Strange Victory

A brilliant and important book, intended for the instruction of intelligence analysts but also lively, readable, and superbly argued.

Everything you learned in school about the Fall of France in May, 1940 is wrong. In Books...

Feb 03 7 2003

Lab Work

From time to time, I remember that I'm a certified chemist. On the occasional cold winter night, I even miss the lab. When that happens, I cook. (When it doesn't, I cook anyway. Eating is good)

Right now, we're about to rebuild our kitchen -- a good thing, since our current kitchen is the worst I've had since grad school. As of last Saturday (Delmonico steak on a bed of gorgonzola onions, with rosti potatoes and broccoli) our kitchen has been without a dishwasher. I learned to hate washing glassware roughly three years before I learned what a garlic clove was.

Today, Tekka food writer Meg Hourihan's favorite cookbook, The Vegetarian Bistro, arrived. I tried the broccoli au sauce roquefort, I need to learn to judge when broccoli is done; I was way behind the pitch on Saturday and way out in front today. The home-roasted cashews in the recipe were a win; verdict is out on the overall effect.

Talk about the flavor of the crackling of the pork,
Nothing could have been so strong
As the glorious effluvium that filled our house
When the gorgonzola cheese went wrong.

Megnut's favorite cookbook is out of print, but Amazon quickly and inexpensively found me a pristine copy from a bookseller in Traverse City, Michigan. Traverse City is not on my beaten path, and I'm no vegetarian; that's why Amazon's venture into used-book matchmaking may be one of the watersheds in the history of literature.

The snow started drifting down this morning, as expected. It kept drifting down, though, which wasn't expected, and even snow-savvy Boston was slipping and sliding in the slush.

But next week is going to be a busy time here at Eastgate. A Tinderbox update, version 1.2.3, is going to roll out early next week. Nothing earth-shattering, but lots of little improvements and and enhancements, and lots of work under the hood to support Tinderbox for Windows.

Also coming up next week is the pilot issue of Tekka, our new subscription magazine about enjoying new media and beautiful software. Subscribers will be receiving their personal access kit soon; you can go ahead and signup for access from Day 1.

We're also putting together the program for eNarrative 5 this May in Boston. We'll be talking about Tinderbox, Flash, weblogs, art, and everything digital. It's part of the Boston Cyberarts Festival, a big event that happens every two years and is one of the few times that the museum world and the digital literature get in touch.

Who needs sleep?

Feb 03 5 2003

The Register

Winding up a favorable report card on new developments in MacOS X, Register reporter Andrew Orlowski singles out three new applications -- Tinderbox, Spring, and Net News Wire -- that help OS X regain "some real forward momentum."

A pair of new Airport Extreme base stations arrived at Eastgate, giving us good wireless throughout the office. Nifty.

Feb 03 4 2003


Jill/txt had to move to a new server at the Univeritetet i Bergen.

This sort of thing happens to academics all the time. They switch departments or schools, or their school hires a new administrator, and poof! all the websites are kaput.

I wonder: would it be useful if Eastgate (or Tekka) put together a weblog hosting service? We'd set up a box with a lot of bandwidth in a colocation facility, and small weblogs like this could happily live together.

If you know Web cookies, HTTP headers, and perl, and could spare a couple of minutes, I've got a mystery involving Apple's new Safari browser. Want to help? Email .

At Eastgate, we've been having a terrible time lately with some aging equipment. Our database system has trouble talking with printers. Printers periodically vanish from the network. Printers suddenly get slow. Backups fail overnight, but run when we watch.

We're in the midst of ripping out lots of old networking equipment and replacing old computers. But it looks like most of the problems arose from a single, $50 ethernet switch. Replacing the switch fixed all sorts of woes. But what can go wrong with a switch?

Feb 03 1 2003


NASA's home page, 3 pm EST, February 1, 2003. When all about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you.

Gilmor: "Obviously we need to find out what went wrong, if we can, before sending the shuttles back up. But I fear this accident (assuming that's what it is, as is almost surely the case) will instead be a justification for paralysis -- a halt to U.S. space exploration when the proper response is to redouble humanity's push into the frontier. It has never been more critical, given the terrestrial threats, to get the species off the planet and to find new resources for those who remain. "