Mar 05 1 2005

Who Knew

In the Globe, Carolyn Johnson has a long, detailed story on a squabble over the history of the Woodward-Hoffman rules -- one of the most important innovations in modern chemistry.

The weird thing about this historical quarrel -- which broke out while my back was turned -- is that history of science always used happen in history. I've met all these people. The historic events in dispute happened years before I wandered in and out of those halls, but it's an odd sensation to read a historical account about people you used to bump into all the time.

I very nearly went to Cornell to work for Hoffman; my college roommate did work for Hoffman. Woodward's labs were downstairs on the way to the library. Corey was across the building. Von Doering was already emeritus, but he was charming and engaging at parties and receptions.

'It is very strange,' said William von Eggers Doering, an 87-year-old professor emeritus in Harvard's chemistry department who was Woodward's friend. ''But, on the other hand, the personalities that go with distinguished basic scientific achievement really vary all over the lot. . . . If a scientist is any good at all, you just have to accept the nonsense that goes with it.'
Who Knew

Has anyone noticed that the newish Mac Mini seems to be out of stock everywhere, in every configuration? I'm surprised that there hasn't been more comment on this. Manufacturing problem, or huge success? Hmmm.

Feb 05 27 2005

Hotel Moose

Philip Werner's a tech industry VP, so he travels a lot. He's got a blog of hotel reviews.

This is a great idea. Esther Dyson used to do reviews of hotel swimming pools -- half lark, half serious. But seriously, good data on actual hotels is hard to come by.

A lot of us need to go places now and then. You're headed to San Francisco: where do you stay? (I used to like the St. Francis for the lobby bar, but they've ruined that. But unless you've been there lately, how would you know?)

Epinions and such try to aggregate reviews, but aggregation inspires the sort of idiocy that makes VersionTracker such a wasteland. Review blogs have a name, and they have a voice; if you're a crank or a kid or you've got an axe to grind, you can hide it in one review but not in a dozen.

Word arrives, via Winer and Kottke, that Jef Raskin died yesterday (Wikipedia) (Guardian interview)

Raskin's chief intersection with hypertext research was his Hypertext '87 paper, "The Hype in Hypertext: A Critique". I haven't read this in years, and I never thought much of it as a paper. But he was there first with that particular bit of wordplay, which any number of pundits have subsequently believed to be a sign of their own special cleverness. At the time, I thought it a cheap shot, a mixture of stock academic revisionism with a strangely ad hominem attack on Ted Nelson. But, looking back, it took some guts and some skill to deliver to an audience that was obviously inclined to be hostile, and which had given Ted a standing ovation just hours before.

In 1977, Nelson's Computer Lib resonated brilliantly with the spirit of the time. In 1987, Reagan was president and Nelson's liberation was a decade out of fashion and way too far left. The search for a more respectable foundation made sense at the time.

Raskin clamored to be recognized as the true father of the Macintosh, a claim that never was terribly interesting and which Steve Jobs has since rendered irrelevant. Raskin suggested that he had the ideas, while Jobs got the credit. I think it's safe now to say that the core ideas were very much in the air, that Jobs' triumphant return to Apple has amply demonstrated that Jobs is not an empty suit. A lot of the credit belongs to the people who wrote the code and designed the icons and the documentation and the marketing.

The point was not the credit, anyway, or should not have been. Raskin had a personal vision of an new, integrated user interface. For decades, there he was -- the Canon Cat, the Information Appliance, the humane interface. All his work was clearly aspiring to go somewhere new, but they never quite managed to make clear where they wanted to go or what we needed to get them there. He was never quite able to explain what he wanted.

I wish we'd all figured it out.

Great Lettuce Head offers an exceptionally thoughtful observation on educational technology. Often, people think that inviting, easy-for-novices software is essential for teaching -- software that tells you what to do, software that shows you what's next. Steve (?Ersinghaus -- another of those blogs where it's not clear who is who) disagrees:

The question for educational technology is not color, ease of use, or usability; the question is how does the system augment practice? How does it make the job more interesting, flexible, creative, and meaningful?
When you open up Flash or Storyspace, you're met with an empty stage. Both environments wait for you to do something. Both programs want you to think big and rough them up a little. Eportfolio presents a series of fields for plug in, like an old style workbook, at once dull, and employs very little planning archicture, no agents, or search capability. It's not really a development software package that ask for much work other than to plug in and respond in fields to questions that will become redundant very soon....This is the key. Storyspace, Feedemon and Premier act as brilliant case studies in tools oriented for human use.

This distinction, between software that tells you what to do, and software that waits for you to do something, represents a very important divide -- a divide that's in the end more important than that related religious quarrel, Windows vs. Macintosh.

A brilliant little trick of Apple's new Pages is the way it opens with a blank page that's already filled with placeholder images and greeked text -- a blank page that's not blank. Brilliant.

We've moved out of the temporary kitchen. The new kitchen is online. July 4 to February 26. A lot of meals on hotplates.

The hotplates weren't as bad as you'd think. We ate out less than we usually do. They do a decent job, really, if you give them time to get hot. All things considered.


The opening dinner started with a simple asparagus soup. Then we had Sandre's duck confit, nestled in a bed of red pepper coulis, together with glazed celery root with onions, grapes, and toasted pecans. The celery root is straight out of the Jan/Feb issue of Cooks (thanks Meryl!), and works surprisingly well.

We had a bottle of d'Arenberg Stump Jump (2003) with the duck. Nice wine.

Feb 05 26 2005


I've got the new hearing aids. They cost a fortune. They've got tons of settings, but you have to take them back to the audiologist and get them programmed (through the smallest ribbon cables I've ever seen).

They're much too expensive, but it's a seller's market. It's nice to hear more.

Interesting bit of fieldwork on installation: each device is calibrated in situ. They put a little microphone inside your ear canal. They put another on your collar. They plunk a speaker on the table, and play harmonic-rich square waves at you. Result: the computer can sort out actual gain and frequency response curves, right in the ear, under actual operating conditions, without calibrating the microphones and using Radio Shack speakers for the sound source.

Clever engineering.

L. A. Banks set out to incorporate Buffy into the vampire mythos, the consensual natural history of vampires that writers all share. Everyone knows that vampires have fangs, everyone knows Dracula, and now everyone knows about slayers. Here, the slayer is almost 21, she's a black rock star, she's got an entourage of guardians, and we've got all sorts of interesting opportunities to explore race and inner-city violence as communal vampirism.

This book is such a mess than you wonder what St. Martin's was thinking. After combat and chases and brooding foreshadowing, it climaxes in.... exposition! Buckets and pools of exposition! The exposition solves nothing and resolves nothing. It's delivered by characters ex machina de profundis that trot onto the stage only to deliver the exposition. Nobody goes, nobody comes, nothing ever changes.

I'm very uneasy about the title. The Huntress's nemesis, a New Orleans master vampire named Fallon Nuit, calls his circle of followers "The Minion". This makes no sense -- minion is not a collective noun. Could L. A. Banks possibly mean us to read it as minyan ? I hate to think that's what Banks intended, and since she's capable of writing about "The Knights Of Templar," you know that precision of language is not her strong point. The rest of the mythos is strongly Christian -- crucifixes really work, swearing will summon dark forces, and unbelief is explicitly cited as a strategy of the dark forces.

The book, if it's about anything, is about trying to build a metaphor for the conflict between elements in African-America street culture, conflict between guys in the street and the womenfolk in the church. In the context of race and religion, this is too close for comfort. It should have been caught, if accidental, or excised if not.

There are a few places you just can't go these days -- mythos elements so dark that you can't use them for stunts. High school coaches that turn the swim team into monsters? Sure. School cafeteria cooks brandishing huge knives? Go for it! But blood libel -- suggesting that the Jews are vampires? You do not want to go there, you do not want to visit that neighborhood after dark.

Thomas Hammer has translated my Ten Tips for Writing the Living Web into Norwegian.

You never know what you'll find on the Web.

Graceful, honest, and intelligent stories about young women. In "The Smoothest Way is Full Of Stones" -- the title is a Yiddish proverb -- a Brooklyn girl who is sent to live with her Orthodox cousins while her mother convalesces. Her cousin finds a dirty book, hidden by an Orthodox boy, and this becomes their infinitely-divisive shared secret. It's a wonderful story.

So is the meeting of a fat young artist and her supermodel cousin in "When She Is Old And I Am Famous", a story in which the title says everything that needs to be said, but the saying of it is so elegant we are delighted to watch everything gradually unfold. (amazon )

Jeffrey Radcliffe gives us a close look at his bug tracking system, which is based on Tinderbox. He uses outlines and maps together to very good effect.

One nice detail is the way low-priority features automatically fade.

Scott Price has a new, detailed trip report on Tinderbox Weekend.

An impressive event in its subtleties. It was a friendly, intimate conference (a tricky thing to manage) of people from divergent professions and with divergent interests and experience. The sessions were quick, accessible, and friendly; as with any good conference, in between were breaks and meals full of banter, advice, and questions... though because Tinderbox is used in so many ways, the conversations here seemed to wander further afield to accomodate personal issues from different walks of life. At the end, we left with a weekend's worth of things to think about and a CD full of files to dissect-- real life examples and works from the presenters and attendees.

When you are in the kitchen, and you've got four or six burners going, and you need more garlic for the entree and you forgot to chop the onion for the peas, the peppers need a good shake and the pies need to be taken out of the ovenright now, when the pasta water is boiling over and you just dropped the julienned carrots on the floor -- when you're alone, in short, and everyone about you is losing their heads -- then they say you are "in the weeds".

Where are the weeds? And where does this term originate? Let me know.

Update: One correspondent suggests that it's derived fromwidows weeds, which in turn comes from an archaic use of weed as habitual attire (cf. a nun's habit). Another proposes that the usage comes from fishing, where the stream banks can easily foul your line.

More updates: Additional suggestions: (a) when your mise is not en place, you will be up to your ears in little tasks that need to be done. (b) In golf, if you're not in the fairway and not even in the rough, you're in the weeds.

A Tinderbox Weekend attendee blogs a short trip report, followed by a detailed look at the engineering of the chocolate truffle.

Ted Goranson continues his unparalleled review of outliners with a look at Task Management and Outlining. In aggregate, Goranson's ATPO series may the deepest and most thorough review article ever written about application software.

Eastgate's now selling a nifty littly table-top tripod, the Ultrapod II.

A tripod gives your camera the chance to be patient and take the time it needs to make a better picture.

At Blogwalk Chicago, I noticed that AKMA was using a desktop tripod to good effect. If you want to take visual notes at a meeting or conferences, you need to use whatever light happens to be available. (Please, don't go popping off your flashbulbs in the auditorium or lecture hall: it doesn't help and it annoys the fish) A nifty feature of the Ultrapod II is that it comes with a velcro strap, ready to wind around any convenient post or railing. The world is your platform.

The tripods, the Tinderbox cards, the journals, the Moleskines -- all of it fits together as a family of tools for information farming.

Nick is writing a story about seeing your own name in someone else's weblog.

Feedster tells me that Daniel Pellón says:

El artículo de Mark repartía consejos para escribir insuflando vida en las sedes.

Sedes? My high-school Spanish just dropped the ball -- I'm translating by the seat of my pants, yes, but that can't be right. But, looking back at HypertextNow and Writing The Living Web, Pellón argues

Desde este punto de vista el tiempo no se ha acelerado tanto y nuestras prácticas siguen muchas de sus rutinas.

(Pellón's weblog, comunisfera, is one of the very few weblogs that use green effectively.)

Actually, I think weblogging has changed a lot since 2002. We have more blogs. We have comments (unfortunately, in my opinion). We have flickr and feedster and technorati linking blogs together. We have political blogs with tremendous influence. Some of us have Tinderbox.

But the old lessons still sound good. Write tight. Make good friends. Choose good enemies. Use your archives. Be sexy. Relax!

We're moving into the new kitchen. Not that it's done, but we have to clear out the temporary kitchen.

First meal in the new place. Fennel-roasted mahi-mahi. Peperonata. Garlic mashed potatoes. Grilled asparagus. A bottle of Peter Lehman "The Barossa" Shiraz.

But the #$@#$@$ grill doesn't work. It worked yesterday, when we tested it. Today, it goes click. Damn.

I had a kitchen where the burners didn't work. That was nine months of cooking on hotplates ago. And this comes just after three weeks of hard disk headaches. I am unreasonably, absurdly, irreconcilably miserable.

A whole raft of updates just arrived at Anja Rau's Flickwerk, with a sensitive reading of (of all things) Finding Neverland.

Tinderbox 1.0 shipped three years ago today. The next day, I wrote "Now, it's yours."

'In Hawaii for a conference, I took advantage of the jet lag to watch the sun rise while writing the code that adjusts links when you add or delete text. "It's much harder to concentrate in on a tropical beach than you'd think

Typographica picks the best new fonts of 2004. I think I want Versa, NeoSans, and Amira...

I installed iLife yesterday and thought I'd give iPhoto another chance. It found 4289 photos lying about. And I'm always complaining that I don't take enough pictures.

4289 photos
Sculpture, Canyon Road, Santa Fe

We've refreshed the design of HypertextNOW, a series of essays about hypertext in the late '90s. There weren't blogs back then, and HypertextNOW wasn't a precisely a blog, but it's something similar. And, of course, its an ancestor of TEKKA.

The original design was planned for a time when 640-pixel screens were the best you could hope for -- and some people didn't have that.

I think HypertextNOW has aged well. Returning to these old pieces, I was surprised how much remains interesting and topical today. It's about 35,000 words in all. Excuse some construction debris on the floor. I hope you'll find the new design more legible.

Jeffrey Radcliffe has some nice comments about Tinderbox Weekend.

Doug Miller's use of Rules (new in Tinderbox 2.4) is going to make my life that much better. Still, the highlight for me was what happened in the cracks between presentations; chats during breaks and and meals with fellow Tinderboxers. A++++ would Weekend again, and all that jazz.

Doug Miller has a wonderful trip report on the weekend, a real must-read.

The Eastgate team really needs to be commended in how they put these things together. It's tough to pull off small, intimate conferences multiple times per year, but they seem to do it.

It's nice that he talks about Barbara Bean, our office manager, whose domain is in the basement and who does a ton of work behind the scenes to make these weekends go smoothly, and Rosemary Simpson, the Tinderbox wiki gardener.

A wonderful and moving tribute to LISP, beautifully sung by Julia Ecklar: Eternal Flame (mp3), and burning up the wires today:

And when I watch the lightning
Burn unbelievers to a crisp,
I know God had six days to work
So he wrote it all in LISP.

Yes, God had a deadline
So he wrote it all in LISP.
Feb 05 16 2005

My Old Man

by Amy Sohn

A fine, funny little book about a young rabbinical student who, visiting a hospital, discovers that she's not cut out to be a rabbi.

As I went down into the lobby and out into the spring sun, I wondered two things: what a rabbinical school dropout could do possibly next, and how I was going to tell my parents.

That, plus a nice sense of place (the place being the modern Brooklyn of supermoms and dotcom hipsters), pretty much sums up the book. Much later, when Rachel Block and Hank Powell, a Famous Old Writer she's trying to sleep with are playing tennis with Richard, Rachel's dad and his very young lover, things get predictably weird:

"Are you all right?" But there was a glint in his eye like he cared more about the point than his own daughter's welfare.

"She's fine!" Powell said. "Let's keep going."

"You're amazing, Richard," Liz said, skipping toward him and planting a soul kiss on his mouth.

"Could you cut it out?" I said.

"You're just bitter we're winning," Liz said.

"I'm just bitter you're fucking my father!" I said. One of the middle-aged guys on the next court looked over with a raised eyebrow.

"This could be a reality show," Powell said.

The first and the final chapters are exceptionally strong.

Alwin Hawkins immersed his Powerbook in coffee shortly before his excellent Tinderbox Weekend talk. It survived unhurt.

He's a lot too modest about the talk, too.

Weblogging not just good for you. If you let them, people can learn from you through your blog via sharing knowledge, links, and skills that you possess.

Alwin's experience, and my recent escapade with a bad Powerbook disk, have led me to change my backup goals. For the past couple of years, the goal has been not to loose anything we can't afford to replace -- insurance. Now, at least for the laptops, the goal is more stringent: if a laptop breaks at a bad time, we want to be able to go down to the store, buy a replacement, and clone the old one right away.

It's surprising how inexpensive the new goal seems to be.

Jon Buscall's blog is now a writing blog, in Diane Greco's sense of the term. He's 20,000 words into his third novel.

But today was one of those days when I found everything about writing was difficult. I couldn’t get my head in gear, my eyes kept closing and I felt decidedly unhappy about the story in front of me. A quick trip to the store, a cup of Blue Java and a different desk made all the difference. Instead of trying to continue writing in a linear fashion, chapter by chapter, I just decided to write the chapters I had in my head at that moment. I shifted from my desk to the sofa, from my iMac to my PowerBook and from Mellel to Tinderbox. Bingo !

Alwin Hawkins blogs the trip.

Photos on flickr tag TinderboxWeekend.

Highlight of Tinderbox dinner; the conversation, of course, assisted by a really interesting Peter Lehman Estate Shiraz "The Barossa"....

  • Alwin Hawkins: "Tinderbox is a chef's knife". Nice point. A common theme throughout the first day was the experience of missing large chunks of Tinderbox because people didn't expect more. Doug Miller remembers that it was months before he realized there was anything beyond the Map View.
  • Elin Sjursen's introduction to basic Tinderbox always keeps people amused and amazed. The revelation last time oy was Cleanup, which lots of people had (oddly) never tried. This time, dragging text from a Web browser into Tinderbox was the show stopper. "Do that again!" As always, the story gets people going, too.
  • We've got a great mix of really interesting people. Lots of different fields!
  • Doug Miller offers yet another reason that Tinderbox's power to analyze what you're doing will pay unexpected rewards: Tinderbox makes it easy to tell your manager (or your spouse) just what you did today.
  • The new features in Tinderbox 2.4 work nicely. And I got through the whole day using Tinderbox 2.4b3, with no problems.
  • Doug Miller improvised a great cliffhanger: an agent whose name constantly reflects the number of things it's found. Example: Urgent Tasks: 9. Lots of experienced users couldn't see how to do this -- and I confess I hadn't done it myself. It's useful -- and easy! He'll give the answer tomorrow.
  • A tripod really does improve the quality of my pictures, especially cutting down hopeless blurs I usually make during the talks.

Notes From Tinderbox Weekend

Feb 05 11 2005

A Big Wave

Lisa Firke sends a big wave to Tinderbox Weekend.

I have fond memories of the first TinderWeekend--such fun. I hope you all have a wonderful get-together and come away with loads of goodies and ideas to share with the TinderWorld at large.

Alwin Hawkins writes that:

I'm up 'way early, too excited to sleep. Bags are packed, and I'm ready to head for Tinderbox Weekend in Boston where I'll get talk about some of my favorite things - weblogs, health care, and Tinderbox.

Here at the office, we're printing name badges and polishing presentations. We're excited too! You can join us for another Tinderbox Weekend this April in Paris.

The shipping gnomes have been good to us, too. The new shipment of TEKKA lanyards arrived in the nick of time. So did a box of Storyboard Moleskines. And we have a brand-new shipment of the best miniature tripods for digital cameras we were able to find. I'll tell you about those as soon as I get a spare minute.

8PM Saturday night, at Casablanca.

Please email me, so we can give the restaurant a good count. It's a busy night.

I'm shopping for a new hearing aid.

It turns out that modern hearing aids have a lot of computing power -- and cost about as much as a computer. If you know what to buy and have a tip, let me know!

Good news: Apple fixed the Tinderbook and sent it right back. Oner week, door to door.

Bad news: The paperwork said they'd put an 80G Toshiba in the machine, which is the right part. But they actually put a 60G Hitachi in the machine, which is the wrong part. It's smaller, and slower. So, gotta do it all again.

Odd news: The replacement disk came with the current iLife suite, but the obsolete MacOS 10.3.4 installed. This means that lots of applications hang on launch. That's not good customer experience, obviously. Worse, the less knowledgeable the customer, the messier and more expensive it'll be to fix.

Management query: Grabbing the wrong part happens, though it makes you worry that the more expensive parts are falling off the back of a truck down there in Memphis. But I'm having trouble imagining why you'd load up replacement disks with mutually incompatible software versions. Slapping new drives into machines has got to be one of the most common things they do at the repair depot, and I would expect that software loadup would be essentially automatic.

This is an easy system to engineer right, but the fault can be hard to detect from the outside: the service guy is in Memphis, the call center is Somewhere Else, and the support costs for the bad install get charged against one budget while the premature disk failure is charged to another. One bad tech, or a good tech who was handed a bad disk, could cause thousands of dollars of support calls. It'd be easy to see the problem in advance, but could be a real headache to sort out if you're just a manager wondering why call volumes are up a tick.

A very interesting aspect of this fine little movie is that it's inherently a film. It's hard to see it working in any other medium, but not for the usual reasons. (Ebert } Netflix)| rotten tomatoes)

When I Will Be Loved

It wouldn't be hard to stage: almost all the action takes place in Vera's (Neve Campbell) New York loft apartment. But, though the story is classic Mamet territory, the dialogue isn't where things happen here. Vera is wonderful but wonderfully opaque. She doesn't say much, and nobody knows what she's thinking. Campbell's performance needs closeups, and also needs James Toback's knack of composing a shot at greater distance than you'd normally expect, isolating the character in the environment. Plus, you need the Bach. You couldn't do this onstage.

Vera's sympathetic, lovable opacity would be hard to do in prose, too. Not impossible, perhaps, but very difficult. Nobody in this story has an interior life. Well, perhaps the 69-year-old Italian media mogul whose indecent proposal is the dramatic hinge has an interior life, but nobody wants to know about it, least of all him.

The IMDB page has lots of comments, almost all idiotic. The tendency of open, electronic media to make intelligent people sound like pretentious preteens is a phenomenon that demands serious study.

If spammers make money by spamming products nobody could conceivably want, wouldn't you suppose they could make even more money selling stuff that someone might want?

For example, there's a big MLM industry built around household supplies -- cleansers, cosmetics, quack medicines, stuff like that. These might not be great propositions. But I bet you can imagine buying better soap or a new vitamin, while it's hard to believe anyone bites on the Nigerian spam.

Suppose you lost your job and you had to go out today and get a job in sales. Which would you choose: the sort of things spammers sell, or something like used cars or hair brushes?

Why haven't ads for marginal products driven out the spam for products only an idiot would buy?

Congratulations, Førsteamanuensis Fagerjord!

Let's have a Tinderbox and weblog dinner in Cambridge this Saturday night, February 12.

We're working on restaurant arrangements. Everyone's welcome to join us for dinner, even if you aren't coming to Tinderbox weekend! If you're interested, please let us know right away so we can tell the restaurant who is coming.

Project Planning Card
This Tinbderbox card is handy for planning events -- from Tinderbox Weekends to TEKKA releases to getting research papers written for conferences.

It's not meant to replace your calendar. Instead, it's a flexible pad for plotting calendar constraints. If you know something needs to be done on November 15, this lets you work out where the lead times and advance dates fall. When do things need to go to the printer? When do deposit checks need to be cut?

Again, the planning grid is small. You don't want to be tempted to put too much detail here; you've got a calendar and a Tinderbox for that!

Back in graduate school, I started to call this time of year the Season When Software Gets Written. The nights are long, football is over, baseball isn't close. (Back then, I usually coded with sports or films in the background, and the long nights mattered because I had to run my laser at night, and in the summer months you ran out of darkness too soon)

This season there's plenty of software to write!

Looking over the CDs for Tinderbox Weekend Boston -- which is this Saturday and Sunday -- I see lots of interesting new stuff. Barry Webster has a nice demo of building a Tinderbox calendar. We've got Richard Chamberlain's task list. Doug Miller has some fascinating new things, including a demonstration of Tinderbox as a desktop Wiki.

You can still come: the new airfares make last-minute travel much more sensible. You can get here from San Francisco or LA for $280, Atlanta for $225, Philadelphia for $100 .

And, if you can't possibly make it, you can join us in Paris -- or get the handouts and sample files. Here's the scoop.

Why are we interested in things like Tinderbox cards? Douglas Johnston rejects the usual suspects. It's not portability: a treo is more portable than a bunch of 3x5 cards. It's not fear of technology: I like tech, and so do you. It's not cost.

Johnston's candidate is intimacy. He starts out at the Bolter test (reading in the bathtub), which is a misstep, but then he gets it right:

Pick up a nice little leather-bound journal, grab a smoothly-writing pen, and all of a sudden, things become sensual.

I'd suggest that other factors are transparency, immediacy, and reliability. Most of the time, a solid XML tool like Tinderbox delivers these just fine, but when you're on the run in Rome or you're stuck in Sheboygan, the physicality of ink and paper is reassuring -- and, when you're stuck or on the run, this kind of primal, direct assurance is what you need.

Presentation Card

Here's another Tinderbox Card: a presentation card. It's the first of several related cards.

The core problem with lots of PowerPoint-style presentations is not that PowerPoint is bad. The core problem is that people write what they have to say on the slide, and then they put the slide on the screen, and then they look at the screen and read you what they wrote.

This is what we used to do in 4th grade, and it was boring then. Plus, we've all got plenty of baggage left over from 4th grade, and so invoking grade-school rituals is probably not a very sound rhetorical strategy.

I pay special attention to this in my talks because (a) I have a poor speaking voice, (b) I use lots of hand-waving and American colloquialisms, mixed with (c) lots of technical terms, drawn from computer science and from literary criticism. The amazingly-talented people who do simultaneous translation at scholarly and cultural events have been known to weep when my airplane lands.

What you want to do, if you can manage it, is to tell two stories in every talk. Let the slides carry one story on their own, while you tell a different (but relevant) story. This increases the chance that the audience will hear something new or interesting. Even if they don't it gives them something to think about during your talk, and two ideas, juxtaposed, can create a third.

If you do this with simultaneous translation, warn the poor translator and suggest they stick with you and ignore the slides. Lots of people have enough English to work through the headlines on the slides, and with modern tools your slides should be visually rich anyway.

Computer people put too many words on their slides. The Tinderbox presentation cards are designed to remind you that the impact of the screen needs to come from a few vivid words and from visual impact and variety.

(PowerPoint is pretty bad, because it's so rigid. But even if everyone were using Tinderbox presentations, reading your slides would be a big problem)

The Patriots are world champions of American Football. (Interesting expression, that.)

Again. Three times in four years.

This kind of dominance is very unusual in football. The league is designed for parity, trying to ensure that every team has a shot (almost) every year. The schedule is so short (16 games) that pure chance plays a big role. Even the shape of the ball is designed to thwart dominance; footballs are football-shaped because that way you get crazy bounces.

The odd thing about the Pats is that nobody is sure why they're winning. That's very odd. The Bears, in the 1940's, were dominant because they invented a formation that nobody knew how to defend; until people figured out what to do about the formation, those Bears won by ridiculous margins. The old Packers had an offensive line that was stronger than anyone's defense. The Niners were a little like both -- they had a scheme that nobody could defend, and they had players nobody could match, and so until people figured out the scheme and the players got old, the Niners were hot.

But what, exactly, is it that the Patriots do so well? People try to fit them into the usual mold, but this leads to silly positions like "Tom Brady is the most talented quarterback in history", which just doesn't square with what we see.

My guess: the Patriot coaches have developed a really good methodology for identifying exactly what individual players can and cannot do, and they are exceptionally good at not asking players to do things they can't. Football's an emotional game, and it's also a chancy game: a lot of the time, you can get away with a bad play or a bad player, and this leads lots of teams into fooling themselves. Either they reach too far -- which gives you mistakes and ruins the player's confidence -- or they are too timid -- which leaves talent and opportunity on the bench.

The Patriots don't do this. When their star quarterback gets hurt, they redo the offense so a mediocre (but smart) quarterback can use his intelligence without worrying about making difficult passes. After a year or two, he's got some practice and everyone is expecting easy passes; now, they let him throw upfield. When their starting cornerbacks both get hurt, they cobble together some way to manage with spare parts. Meanwhile, they get little bonuses from odd bits of talent -- a linebacker who can catch becomes a red zone receiver you can't jam at the line, and an aging receiver with experience becomes an emergency nickel back.

How would you prove or disprove this conjecture? This is a fundamental methodological problem that crops up all over the place, and it maps nicely onto a frequent problem in new media too. We have tools we can use to measure things like "Corey Dillon is the fastest back in the league" (he's not), or "Tom Brady has a better arm than Joe Montana" (he doesn't). But how do we prove or disprove things like:

  • The Patriots win because they don't ask players to do what they cannot, but they do ask players to do what they can -- even if you wouldn't expect it
  • Apple's renaissance is due to the return of Steve Jobs
  • 90% of Flash is bad
  • Consistent Web navigation and minimalist page design yield the most effective sales sites
  • Comments are a corrosive force that tend to destroy general-interest weblogs, but links are almost always beneficial

It's easy to argue and adduce examples, but how do we build rigorous arguments that opponents can't casually demolish?

I had been looking forward to King Arthur.

It's an interesting idea. For more than a century, we've had a suspicion that, under all the myth and legend and medieval romance, there might lie a hint of a historical Arthur, standing just at the edge between the end of antiquity and the darkness. Antoine Fuqua tried to film a realistic 5th century brotherhood of horsemen who begin by defending an addled Rome from her enemies and who end, after many betrayals, defending freedom and the idea of Britain (against, among others, the invaliding English).

It could have worked. It should have worked. They even managed to give Guinevere a weapon, not to mention plausible battle armor. Good for them.

But the screenplay misses almost everything it should hit, and the film is cut for idiots who need to see everything, three times, in slow motion.

The one good moment is when Guinevere and Lancelot are in bed -- it's the first time, she's never looked at Arthur -- and suddenly there's a violent knock at the door. It's Gawain. And here it is: totally unexpected, completely unmistakable, we're about to have the real story of the moment that launches a national epic -- and the screenwriter drops the ball in the end zone. Nothing happens. Nothing.

I'm not even certain they knew what they had.

Feb 05 4 2005

Blog Card

Blog Card
Here's a Tinderbox Card you won't find at your local stationery store. It's a blog card.

It's got a space for a headline, and a space for notes on the post. If you want pictures, it's got guidelines to remind you where pictures might fit. The actual lines I'm using are too light to see here, so I punched up the colors a bit.

The blog card should also be handy for jotting down quick notes about Web design, or even page design in a pinch. And it's also handy for planning presentations -- a theme to which we'll return.

Want your own sample deck of Tinderbox cards? Email to get on the information list. They won't be free, but they won't be terribly expensive, either....

Jill, newly annointed Head Of Department, is blogging the percentage of her time she spends on administration, teaching, and research.

She's basing this on eight hour days. (He tried to remember winter eight hour work days. "As if it were yesterday", he said, not signifying one way or another)

Best comment -- so good, it almost justifies comments (which nonetheless remain the fastest and most reliable way to wreck your blog): "Just wondering where agonizing over boyfriend, clothes & names goes? admin., teaching, research or none? -- Mum"

Feb 05 3 2005

UnPop Music

Michael Druzinsky, a composer, sends along a link to an interesting review by Martin Kettle in The Guardian that explores why classical music's history, which spans hundreds of years, suddenly ended fifty years ago. (Turnadot premiered in 1924; since then, no opera has lasted in the repertoire. Aaron Copland and Olivier Messiaen died in the 90's, Shostakovitch and Britten have been dead 30 years.)

The audience that mattered to modernists (even the many who saw themselves as socialists) ceased to be the general public and increasingly became other composers and the intellectual, often university-based, establishment that claimed to validate the new music, not least through its influence over state patronage. Any failure of the music to become popular was ascribed not to the composer's lack of communication but the public's lack of understanding.

Anja Rau, on reading a critique of net art in Die Zeit, worries that too many of today's hyperfictiions "are children of their time: self-reflective, plotless, formal."

But, much as I hate to say this, there's some truth here. Where's the hyperfiction that's really keeling me over? There's Donna Leishman's phd-project, Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw. There is Of Day, of Night, forthcoming from Eastgate Systems. But i haven't been thrilled or provoked into thought lately. And that's especially true for computer games.

New Zealand truffle farmer Gareth Renowden has a new blog, On The Farm. It's made with Tinderbox.

Peg (the amazingly charming truffle hound) had her last truffle-hunting gig of the year this morning ...

Anyaka from Sydney (Professor Angela Thomas in real life) has been keeping a journal since she was 13, and she longs for one of Eastgate's journals from Florence:

So even though I have a blog, I still have my secret hand written journals, the latest one tucked away in my bedside table. My secrets? I cannot tell!

But I looooove this gorgeous Italian leather journal with hand-made amalfi pages and I WANT it!

Richard Chamberlain contributes a detailed and lavishly illustrated tutorial on using Tinderbox to set up a personal Task List.

Chamberlain's task list runs on your computer, so it's always available and always fast. It generates HTML views, so you can check your task list from any computer. it's got agents to keep it smart and personal. It generates an RSS feed. And you can customize it in all sorts of dimensions.

Lots of pictures and QuickTime movies show you exactly what to do, and set a new standard in Tinderbox demos.

Space Pens
You've got Tinderbox for your notes, but if you're on the move a lot, you also need a reliable way to capture ideas and tasks when Tinderbox isn't handy. When you're taxiing to the runway, or sketching in a cafe, or caught in traffic -- you need a way to jot down that crucial note.

Whether you use a Moleskine or a Pocket Briefcase, you also need a pen. And people kept telling us at Eastgate about the Fisher Space Pen. It folds up tiny, but expands to full size. It writes anywhere. It's reliable, refillable, and you don't need to treat it with kid gloves.

Especially while Eastgate's offering some nifty hard-to-find models (some with PDA nibs on back end) at really special prices.

Avalon (the 2001 film by Mamoru Oshii, not the 1990 Barry Levinson film) is perhaps the one game movie I've seen that has something important to say about immersive games. (netflix)


It's the story of Ash, a VR gamer in a post-apocalyptic Eastern Bloc country. It nods to lots of old, familiar forces -- the drive to be the best player, the desire to find the hidden level at any cost, the allure of a virtual world that is better than reality. These are familiar to game theory, Oshii shows them nicely, but they aren't the point.

Very, very quietly, Oshii shows a hint of a game world that can create deep emotional resonances beyond the excitement of flow, the musical groove of the pinball wizard. It's not about social software -- Ash is a loner in a software environment that demands collaboration. It's not about sex; Ash is sexy in the real world but covered in a body-armor chador in the game.

Avalon shows us how games could be about recognition and humanity, about the sense of the uncanny -- of meeting something familiar and human that you've never quite seen before, of seeing something you see all the time transformed into a completely different kind of signifier. Games could do this -- they haven't, but they could. It'd be worth trying.

(I think it was George Landow who put me onto this. Avalon really should be the talk of the game theory world.)

Avalon is also interesting as a comic; the pictures move, yes, but it's conceived and written as a combination of text and image, not as a film. The filmmakers are Japanese, the actors speak Polish, and the film was made for Hong Kong: nobody is really supposed to hear the dialog and so almost everything needs to be carried in the sound effects or pure visuals.

Is the dark-haired woman with a streak of gray an allusion? I notice it shows up in Nowhere Girl as well, a very different comic with a sometimes-similar approach to art direction. Did I miss a cultural moment or something?

Tinderbox Cards
Waiting for the plane to taxi to the O'Hare runway, I was thinking about the best tools for Tinderbox when Tinderbox isn't handy. Tools for getting ideas now, before you forget them. Before you start worrying about remembering them.

The point is to write stuff down and then to put it in your Tinderbox. By writing it down, you can move on to the next idea or the next task. You'll copy them to your Tinderbox file when you reach 10,000 feet, or when you're back at the office.

Tinderbox Cards

For starters, the cards need to fit into a pocket, or a pocket briefcase, or wherever you like to carry stuff. If the card is sitting on the shelf at the office, it's no good.

Next, we need a checkbox to say, "I've added this to my Tinderbox system." Easy enough! I've put a faint Tinderbox icon inside the box, just as a reminder to use it.

While we're at it, every card has a space for a few key attributes -- the metadata that Tinderbox helps you add to each note. It's just a reminder; Tinderbox adds the essential metadata automatically, but Tinderbox also makes it easy to remind yourself to add metadata you'll really want to have. The point is that adding key attributes needs to be easy and absolutely guilt-free.

We'll need a bunch of cards. This is just the first. Grids are great for graphs, sure, but they're also terrific for plans, schedules, PERT charts. Grids are nice for sketching, too -- especially if (like me) you're not naturally good at proportions.

Want your own sample deck of Tinderbox cards? Email to get on the information list. They won't be free, but they won't be terribly expensive, either....