MarkBernstein.org
Feb 07 28 2007

Garage Band?

When Apple added GarageBand to iLife a few years ago, I was intrigued by the argument that lots of people would want to make music themselves, if only the obstacles to getting started weren’t so overwhelming.

Has that worked out at all? Do people noodle with Garage Band? What do people do?

It seems to me that this is a very interesting new media story. Also, current new media scholarship seems wildly biased toward whatever is most popular and profitable in plain sight of old media. So we hear about whatever game is conspicuous in the US or Japan, but seldom hear about Korea. We hear about popular clips on YouTube, but seldom hear much about movies of the grandkids. I bet the Cute Little Kids are a lot bigger influence on new media than the ins and outs of DRM.....

Feb 07 27 2007

State of Denial

by Bob Woodward

The court history of the American expedition to Iraq. Woodward had unequalled access to the upper echelons of the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department, and so provides a fascinating exploration of tensions and conflicts within the administration, and between the upper echelons in Washington and their representatives in Iraq. To a considerable extent, this volume is an indictment of Donald Rumsfeld, whose machinations and weaknesses Woodward finds to be primarily responsible for the debacle. Woodward depicts Condoleeza Rice as an overmatched simpleton, and Colin Powell as a team player who was systematically deceived and duped by his peers and his president. Woodward's access to Bush diminished as the rosy glow of post-9/11 adulation faded and as Iraq began to unravel, but clearly Woodward finds Bush inattentive and easily manipulated, first by Saudi Prince Bandar and then by Rumsfeld and his neoconservative dream. Throughout, Cheney looms as a specter whose role and influence was largely unknown, a silent presence at meetings who was rumoured to wield great influence but whose actions even Woodward cannot actually detect.

The corridors of power in this story are less interesting than the world inhabited by those who tried to change Iraq. In future years, I suspect, we’ll show decreasing interest in these feeble, narrow, and ultimately powerless men and women at the top. But they did exercise something like control, and it seems certain that any of them could have prevented the disaster had they been able to summon the right mix of eloquence and courage at the critical moment.

Feb 07 25 2007

Hanlon

Matt Hanlon discusses writing tools, including Tinderbox. "I use the map view, more than anything, to organize my novels..."

Feb 07 22 2007

Fiasco

by Thomas E. Ricks

The definitive early history of the Americans in Iraq. Fiasco lacks the richly circumstantial, lyrical detail of Imperial Life in the Emerald City and the intellectual depth of Packer's The Assassins’ Gate, but for comprehensive historical narrative — who was there, what they wanted to do, and what went wrong — Ricks is superb.

by Roy Blount, Jr.

Adam Gopnick praised this memorable and witty tale of a season with the 1973 Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that would shortly become a dynasty but that was, in 1973, about three bricks shy of a load. I've always enjoyed Blount on Wait Wait! Don’t Tell Me! and I needed some sort of break from Iraq.

What’s especially interesting about Blount's season is that he winds up feeling about football like a player. It’s a job. A lot hangs in the balance, but it’s a dirty, messy, uncomfortable chore. It turns out it was a dangerous job as well; just thirty years later, a shocking number of these young athletes are dead.

Asked how he feels after a loss, coach Noll replies:

"It hasn't changed. I still feel with my hands." Sometimes, you had to hand it to Noll.

Gordon Meyer has just redesigned Usable Help. The new design makes extensive use of Tinderbox, and Meyer’s Notes on the Usable Help Refresh will make fascinating reading for many Tinderbox users.

His approach to experimental information architecture is particularly instructive:

Here's where Tinderbox as a content management system shone. I rebuilt the whole site dozens of times as I worked on it. Hundreds of posts, tens of thousands of words, all reflowed into the new design in a matter of seconds. I could literally, with hardly any investment of time, see how a design change would look across the whole site.

If you'd like a hand choosing good color combinations for your Tinderbox maps, you might enjoy Shades, a custom color picker that extends the built-in pickers.

Feb 07 19 2007

The New System

A hilarious sketch of a 5th century Scandinavian help desk. Thanks, Meryl!

So, you can’t open it?
No, it's just been lying there.

Rating movies is silly but it's also good fun. I don’t write much about the movies I see (see left column of the main page), but it's nice to offer a quick opinion.

Weblogs need a different rating scale from that used by newspaper critics. The newspaper is going to review everything that gets released, and so the critic is going to watch a lot of obscure and idiotic movies you’ll never see. When planning your own viewing, you have time to be selective — and you’re not likely to watch nearly as many films as, say, Roger Ebert.

Here's my current thinking:

  • Great: one of the best movies ever made
    • Apocalypse Now, Some Like It Hot
  • One of the very best movies of its kind ever made, or a nearly great movie
    • Mullholland Drive, Tootsie
  • A fine movie, well worth seeing, or an essential movie for people who are interested in this kind of movie.
    • Run Silent, Run Deep; Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

by John Brady Kiesling

In college, I ran a D&D campaign. D&D was very new — you had to send off to Lake Geneva for the books, you basically had to know Gary Gygax to get them — and Swarthmore was a terrific place for it: lots of intensity and tons of scholarly talent looking for an outlet.

One of the better warriors was Brady Kiesling, who became the diplomat who famously resigned over the Bushites fervent pursuit of war.

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.

His new book, Diplomacy Lessons: lessons for an unloved superpower , seems to be doing very nicely. It’s a memoir of Brady's foreign service career, which seems entirely wrong because I'm way too young to know people who are ready to write memoirs. Stuff happens.

Kiesling is at pains to disabuse us of what you might call the heroic vision of negotiation, of the shuttle diplomat who finds the formula for Peace. There isn’t a solution to negotiations among nations over intractable disputes: that’s why they call them nations. And the disputes themselves are often unglamorous.

My second tour in Athens coincided with the successful completion of two decadelong negotiations. The more satisfactory concerned the embassy parking lot.

I've avoided making Iraq a weblog topic page here, thiinking of The Forsyte Saga's timid old Uncle Timothy, the retired publisher living in Belgravia with his aged sisters and his money safely invested in 3% consols who, after things blew up in the Crimea, put up maps in the drawing room. With lots of colored pins.

But there's been a lot of Iraq lately, and if you glance at the Books Bought list right now you’ll see it's likely that more is coming.

  • State of Denial (Woodward)
  • The Assasins’ Gate (Packer)
  • Prince of the Marshes (Stewart)
  • Chain of Command (Hersh)
  • The Situation and the Story (Gornick)
  • Fiasco (Ricks)
  • Imperial Life in the Emerald City (Chandrasekaran)

Of course, this is going to be remembered as the great issue of the time.

Closer to home, I’m writing a chapter on the way the limitations of print culture has led our leadership to depend on executive summaries and PowerPoint presentations, and to a bastard postmodernism faith that, since text is contingent, you can reshape the world just by really believing in what you're doing.

Of course, since it's all in Tinderbox I can easily go back and tag relevant posts. An agent could search for Iraq and Baghdad and Bush, gather and sort and tag. It took a couple of minutes to do that. Then i used the agent to tag things by hand, omitting some minor notes and adding some — especially What Ended — that the agent missed.

Conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center show the government's deep concern for the American soldier. Dana Priest and Anne Hull report in the Washington Post:

Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.

This is the world of Building 18, not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss. But the old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House, has housed hundreds of maimed soldiers recuperating from injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Halliburton announced its dividend.

Buffy and Serenity writer Jane Espenson explores options for breaking up and working out stories with whiteboards, notecards, and other expedients.

For years and years I worked on shows with whiteboards in the writers' rooms. But recently I've found myself in rooms with corkboards and cards. And I have to say I'm starting to get it. The ability to move scenes around effortlessly... well, say, that's not bad.

Sounds like a great Tinderbox application.

Feb 07 15 2007

Electric News

How much electricity is available these days in Baghdad? How about Najaf, or Samarra, or Basra?

It's clear that security matters a lot, but it's also clear that the disappearance of electricity played a very significant rôle in turning many Iraqis against the Occupation. Unlike security questions, moreover, electricity is easy to measure. Is the power on? Does it stay on? Do the elevators and the street lights and the refrigerators function properly? Or not?

I read a lot of news about Iraq every day, including at least one dedicated weblog, and I really have no idea what the power situation is right now, or what (if anything) is being done or planned.

Update: Brookings publishes a Iraq Indicators Index, updated every Monday and Thursday, which includes electricity statistics. Thanks, Mark Paul.

Valentine’s Day brought snow and ice and dinner at home, which turned out accidentally to be all about onions.

We started with the new issue of Cook's and its potato-garlic soup. Leeks, gently cooked in butter. Sauteed garlic. Braised heads of garlic, simmered for an hour in home-made chicken stock (itself made with yellow onion), and then extruded and whipped to a paste.

Followed by fennel-grilled branzini, and then by a heart-of-palm salad. And topped off with Nancy’s Camembert, and My Neighbor Totoro.

A quick note on the hypertextuality of The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788)

After the murder of Alexander Serverus, and the elevation of Maximin, no emperor could think himself safe upon the throne, and every barbarian peasant of the frontier might aspire to that august, but dangerous, station.

First, though the passage drips with foreboding — we’ve passed a line, we’re heading for the disaster — it’s also very funny. "August, but dangerous": that’s terrific.

More to the point, the parallel, periodic parentheticals that make passages like this so recognizably Gibbon function as little stretchtexts, inviting the reader to skip over and back, to insert detail gradually into the emerging picture. It’s a style of rhetoric that runs through Madison and Lincoln, but it also embodies a theory of history, of how things happen. Not through the activities of great individuals nor through the soundless working of great forces, but through the simultaneous collisions of many forces, great and small, pushing together and pulling apart and gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, drifting with majestic slowness and gradual violence to some great, but unexpected, end.

Press coverage of weblogs centers on the posts and on the audience: what's written, and how many people read?

One terrific rôle of the weblog is that it's a rich personal placeholder, an easily-located place where others may find a reflection of your work and interests. This has already proved invaluable twice today, and it’s still too early for breakfast.

  • Weblogs help locate the some of the best people in nearly any field. Some of them have weblogs. Others are discussed in weblogs. In well-known and well established areas, this is merely convenient, but in new fields (where there may be lots of cranks and where there hasn't been time for people to publish and receive reviews and recognition) it’s invaluable.
  • Weblogs let experts find you. Better still, weblogs let them discover that you need stuff that they happen to know. This gives scholars terrific leverage: it’s nice to put new ideas in a journal where hundreds of your colleagues can find them, and it’s nice to publish them in a weblog that thousands of people read, but you can’t beat the efficiency of sending the idea directly to the worker who needs it. And in this case it’s just as good to give as to receive.

All this occurs off the page, outside the window. It’s almost invisible, but I think it’s terribly important to the way our blogosphere actually works.

From Sydney's Australian Catholic University, Michael Griffith is leading an interesting and active online seminar on Blogging To Enhance Learning Experiences from February 12-25.

The Hypertext '07 conference is sponsoring a student research competition. It's open to artists and writers as well as computer scientists. Submit your hypertext art, and you could win a $500 sponsorship.

Hypertext '07 will also feature a reading room which will display hypertext fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and installations. The reading room will also offer a prize for the best hypertext submitted.

The student research competition is sponsored by Microsoft, and the reading room is sponsored by Eastgate. That's an interesting sentence, when you think about it.

I was talking the other day to Cheshire, the hypertext cat who prowls the halls here at Eastgate.

Cheshire!, I said.

Well, yes. She stretched out on the sunny windowsill, looking at the squirrels in the tree. Why don't you let me do some more stretch text?

How about some dialog? A lot of our critics think hypertext is all confusing, or all hooptedoodle.

Dialog is a lot of work, said Cheshire, stretching full-length in the warm winter sun. And stretchtext makes it hard to get any hypertextuality inside a conversation.

"Hmm...."

No?, the cat muttered. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Will no one rid me of these preoposterous arguments? Will no one bring me some sushi? By the way, Bernstein, you're an idiot.

OK. I'll grant that allusion and quotation can break the linearity of dialog. But does stretchtext really help? Or does it just give the reader more opportunities to skim over the lyrical hooptedoodle, which might be the real reason we're doing all this work.

No, you're not an idiot about stretchtext and dialog. You're leaving a method public when it could be private. See — I'll show you. Pair programming!

Cheshire!, I I said.

Feb 07 10 2007

Britannicus

At the ART, Robert Woodruff's farewell production rescues Racine’s cobwebbed tragedy and finds, if not a fresh classic, an extraordinarily interesting and exciting play. Don’t miss this production if you’re in Boston; well worth a drive if you’re in New England.

Britannicus
American Repertory Theater

Has anyone observed how Bush and Nero will occupy roughly similar places in the history of their empires? Both were born to be courtiers, sons and nephews of power, and both were thrust unexpectedly into power as a dynastic improvisation. Neither seems to have wanted office terribly; Nero would much rather have been an artist. Both secured their popularity by launching massive programs to root out religious terrorists. Neither worked very hard at leading the country. Both surrounded themselves closely with a circle of personal and family advisors who did most of the work and who sheltered the boss from dull details. Each relied on an experienced and popular military expert — Sextus Afranius Burrus and Colin Powell — who eventually came into conflict with the family cronies and was then sacrificed.

One difference, of course, is that Nero gets extraordinarily bad press because his policies opposed the aristocracy and the aristocrats wrote the books, while Bush has been extraordinarily friendly to the aristocracy in an age when the populares do the writing. And while Bush’s psychological issues with his family may be the stuff of great drama — and Colin Powell’s career-ending UN speech is certainly the stuff of tragedy — the Julio-Claudian family was special. Imagine the Kennedy's, Bush’s, and Hilton’s all rolled up into one.

Does anyone else remember MacBird?

Feb 07 9 2007

Iraq

I'm interested, as you know, in tools that help people gather and organize and understand lots of information. Tools like Tinderbox, of course, but other tools too. Even PowerPoint and BBEdit and Word.

In the last few years, a lot of people from the US have been doing a lot gathering and organizing and understanding in Iraq. Not always successfully, obviously. But there's been a lot of work. I'd like to know more about it. Not the top-level politics, but the details of policy and administration and planning and intelligence. What tools were used? How well did they work? Could better tools have helped?

If you know about this — whether from working in the Green Zone or from studying it or reporting on it — I'd like to hear from you. Email me. or call me, OK?

Feb 07 7 2007

Book Season

My phone is ringing this week with calls from Tinderbox people who are starting new books. I'm sketching one, too. The response to The Tinderbox Way has been simply overwhelming, and I find that indeed the book on paper is not everything I wanted, or at least not everything I have to say. Zadie Smith has a nice essay on literary reach in The Guardian:

Something got in the way, something almost impossible to articulate. For example, when it came to fashioning the character of the corrupt Hispanic government economist, Maria Gomez, who is so vital to Clive's central theme of corruption within American identity politics, he found he needed something more than simply "the right words" or "knowledge about economists". Maria Gomez effectively proves his point about the deflated American dream, but in other, ineffable, ways she seems not quite to convince as he'd hoped. He found it hard to get into her silk blouse, her pencil skirt - even harder to get under her skin. And then, later, trying to describe her marriage, he discovered that he wanted to write cleverly and aphoristically about "Marriage" with a capital M far more than he wanted to describe Maria's particular marriage, which, thinking of his own marriage, seemed suddenly a monumentally complex task, particularly if his own wife, Karina, was going to read it. And there are a million other little examples ... flaws that are not simply flaws of language or design, but rather flaws of ... what? Him? This thought bothers him for a moment. And then another, far darker thought comes. Is it possible that if he were only the reader, and not the writer, of this novel, he would think it a failure?

So, I'm spending a good part of the day helping people to get their book notes launched, and another part musing about how to use Tinderbox to think about a book about the natural history of links. At the very least, it’s leading to some interesting reading, from Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco to Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence .

But there are lots of interesting angles to explore — not at displacement activities to delay getting down to work, but preparing the field and making sure that the imminent battle is worth the effort. For starter’s, there's a space I think of as The Wall, a place to tack reminders and precautions. When Michael Ruhlman wrote The Making of a Chef, he had a quotation from his uncle on the wall:

Art in the service of the potato.

A good place to start.

Book Season
A Tinderbox map of some references helps plan research, reveals gaps, and can suggest what needs to be done first. An infinite whiteboiard can be a handy thing.

A much-buzzed video by Michael Wesch gives a 4-minute crash course in new media theory. See also Brian Kim Stefens' the dreamlife of letters (click on the orange square).

Adrian Miles, back from Amsterdam, compares Storyspace writing spaces and dynamic links ("guard fields") with a new, experimental video tool called the Korsakow Engine.

This deserves a whole separate conversation because what I find deeply fascinating with this engine, which is basically a system for adding keywords at time points to videos and using these keywords (which boolean rules) to determine which videos are available next), is that its deep structure is identical or nearly so, to Storyspace. I asked Florian about this, and he didn’t know about Storyspace, so it was like convergent development (a bit like convergent evolution). This was the case not only in how Storyspace uses guard fields on links to help manage and produce constrained structures but also in the way that Storyspace operates on the level of nodes where each node becomes a minimal unit in the Storyspace environment. Thalhofer talks about SNU’s - Smallest Narrative Units, and uses this to help others to understand the sort of granularity that is required in these environments (granularity and so on are the ways I describe this).

Larry Davidson has a nice run-down on wikipedia strengths and weaknesses.

Jorge Arango suggests that there is no one deliverable that constitutes the Holy Grail of Information Architecture. But Tinderbox, he thinks, might be a big help.

Deliverables in IA are always a challenge, and I suspect that Chris is right: one size does not fit all.

However, that doesn’t mean that there is no use in trying to make the documentation process more organic and efficient. I’ve long suspected that the missing link in our quest for this particular grail is the amazing Tinderbox: a freeform outliner that is also a mapping tool that also spits out HTML. I’ve used it to produce site mockups before, and it seems taylor-made for IA documentation.

Feb 07 4 2007

Abroad

by Paul Fussell

Paul Fussell takes long, literate journeys with Waugh, Lawrence, Orwell, Hemingway, Isherwood, Norman Douglas, Robert Byron, Peter Fleming, and a cast of thousands of inkeepers, touts, customs officials, and other impediments to travel. His topic is not simply traveling or the peculiar imperatives of the travel book, that strange composite fiction that lies somewhere South of the book of essays and North of the novel. Fussell’s true interest instead lies in what we should do and how we should behave — an interest he acquired with special urgency under the instruction of German artillery in the winter of 1944-5 — and his prophet is the Robert Byron who proposed a special prize for those who could travel while reading three significant new books each week, with an additional £1000 for those who would additionally undertake to drink a bottle of wine each night.

The roesti potatoes in the new Cook’s are fine.

Linda woke up with a cold, so I shredded a couple of Yukon Gold's in the Cuisinart, rinsed them well in cold water, and squeezed them hard in paper towels to extract lots of moisture. Dusted them with a little cornstarch, some salt, and some fresh pepper. Fried them in butter in a small non-stick skillet, about 8 minutes per side. Topped with a fried egg and two strips of Niman Ranch bacon. Feel better, Linda!

Last night was a vegetable bagna cauda, with lots of garlic, lots of nice white anchovies, lots of slow simmering. Par-cooked and then sauteed fennel, baby bok choy, radishes (who knew you could cook radishes?), broccoli. Served over escarole and endive, with a little bit of leftover chardonnay.

Picking up the vegetables, I found that Savenor’s had no baby fennel but did have some UDSA prime short ribs. So, I think a carbonnade flamande or something of that ilk is in the offing.

by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

In her final column, Molly Ivins urged readers to resist the proposed escalation in Iraq and singled out this fine volume as a key lesson.

Anyone who wants to talk knowledgably about our Iraq misadventure should pick up Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone." It's like reading a horror novel. You just want to put your face down and moan: How could we have let this happen? How could we have been so stupid?

Chandrasekaran builds this fine study from casually interlinked snippets and scenes of life in the Green Zone of occupied Iraq. He talks with Garner and Bremer , with earnest young Republicans who volunteered to show Iraq the way, with neocon administrators and Halliburton contractors and injured soldiers. He talks with translators and power engineers. He lets the fools condemn themselves.

Ideologues and hacks rushed into Iraq without a clue and without a plan, save for grand visions and insatiable greed. Billions of dollars vanished into the desert night — two billion dollars in US currency, flown in from New York just six days before then end of occupation, seem to have vanished without a trace. While contractors trucked in gasoline from Kuwait and Fruit Loops from Battle Creek, nobody paid nearly enough attention to the fact that the power was still out, the lines at the gas stations were miles long, and the police were unable or unwilling to protect anyone or to enforce any law. Through it all, the press conferences continued to recite tales of progress in Iraq and to deplore media negativity, while the occupation authorities lined up their next job with the Bush reelection campaign or with Republican lobbyists and think tanks.

Chandrasekaran is convinced they meant well and did what they could. But they knew very little, and they thought they knew everything, and no one gave nearly enough thought to what might go wrong, not even after things had gone to hell.

The Tinderbook’s hard drive is in bad shape. I spent a few hours on Friday moving things from my backup to a spare laptop, but for now I'm limping along. Breakage is possible, and delay likely.

Have you backed up this week?

The blogosphere has recently been buzzing over the advantages and problems of Snap.com previews -- the popup thumbnails of Web pages that many people are adding to their weblogs. Some people dismiss them angrily as unwanted and obstructive folderol. Others think they're keen. Hilarity ensues.

What has been missing from the discussion, I think, is an understanding of what Snap's previews are trying to do. Though the developers may not have been thinking in these terms, Snap previews have a clear history in hypertext thought; understanding the history helps understand what they're trying to do and why people react to them as they do.

The original call for link previews came from Ben Shneiderman, originally in a paper from the mid-1980's and later in Hypertext Hands On! (I can't seem to find the reference today; if you happen to know it, Email me. please.)

Some ad company tapes up a few homemade LCD displays to advertise a cartoon show. Boston police see one stuck to a freeway girder. Hilarity and wrath ensue.

That guy in the cave is happy
And somewhere in a cave, a cadre of radical zealots can toast their success: five years later and they've transformed everyday life in the land of their enemy, and done it without getting a single improvised explosive device as far as customs.

There used to be an adjective of praise: "manly". Here's Robert Byron asking an Afghan official for an internal passport:

But we consoled ourselves, during our stay in Persia, by the consideration thatg we should soon be in Afghanistan, and should thus escape from a parcel of vain and hysterical women to an erect and manly people, immune from ridiculous alarms, and happy to accord that liberty to strangers which they justly demand for themselves.

Yes, this is sexist and out of date, but "vain, hysterical, ridiculous alarms" is pretty good.

Martin Spernau upgrades Tinderbox, and wonders what took him so long.

Ok, I shall now save and make a full export. If you read this, all went well :)

Update: Ohm uhm. Now that was easy. Zero changes, all still working as before. Almost disappointing in it's uneventfulness. We are so used to fixing minor and major upgrade hassles... it's almost a downer if it JUST WORKS.

The stretchtext examples don’t work if you read this weblog in most news readers — especially not if you read them in a river-of-news style reader. They depend on CSS and javascript, and newsreaders won't know about javascript and probably won’t use our styles.

I suspect this is intractable, and that it represents a long-term limit on the utility of newsreaders. News readers are great for headlines and snippets, but they won't completely replace the browser.