Jeremy Yuille has an interesting post about using Tinderbox to introduce new subjects.

David Bosman is happy about the improved support for different languages.

Je crois l’avoir déjà dit : Tinderbox est l’application qui se rapproche le plus de la feuille de papier en terme de simplicité et de liberté de prise de notes.

In her remarks for Future Of Digital Studies yesterday, Janet Murray proposed that we should try to avoid mystification of the digital, and that in our digital works we should not savor confusion.

That’s worth thinking about.

Mystifying the digital is almost always wrong. There’s nothing special about binary – whether we use two letters (1 and 0) or 26 doesn’t change what we say. Sure, there are edge cases; digital art has spent 30 years exploring them and they’re well understood. The essence of the digital is often inessential.

We do sometimes want to confuse the reader for a time. Confusion builds suspense. Confusion can estrange the reader, giving us a chance to make the familiar new. Confusion can break down assumptions and prejudices.

And sometimes, when we discuss difficult and complex things, we are bound to be confused. It’s a confusing world.

But we’ve been writing hypertext for a while now; there’s probably no need to confuse people in new ways simply because we can. And while we might savor a bit of confusion now and then, it’s probably not a good habit.

The University of Florida has an impressive teleconference facility at their Digital Worlds Institute, which facilitated two sessions that brought colleagues from Upsala to Singapore to join the rest of the conference. It was fun. The technological failure was essentially complete: most of the comments were incomprehensible and most of the video feeds fell into strange, grotesque patterns. Michael Joyce said something eloquent about poetry falling from the sky in the wake of 9/11 but his words were lost in the network like tears in the rain.

A conference with English professors can be challenging because English professors expect to read their papers. Physical and computer scientists, on the other hand, are taught not to do so, and apologize when they must. The literary custom seems wasteful – it might be faster to simply print and read the papers – but it does encourage the English Professors to pack their papers densely. Much of this conference, I felt I myself holding onto the talk with both hands and wanting the occasional instant replay.

Despite the technical vexations, there were lots of interesting ideas.

Amid bunch of very interesting lectures at Future of Digital Studies, I’m particularly intrigued by yesterday’s talk on “Digital Literature and the Modernist Problem” from David J. Bolter (Georgia Tech) Maria Engberg ( Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden). They distinguish two concerns of the avant-garde — formal, and political — and tease these out in a subtle and (I think) useful way. It's already shifting my understand, for example, about essentialist skeptics like Laura Miller and Sven Birkerts and (in his Golden Age lecture) Robert Coover. A sign of a good talk is that it convinces you on subjects the speaker’s didn’t directly discuss.

Dirty Hands

One of my concluding points here at The Future Of Digital Studies was that, from time to time, the critic needs to plunge into the mess of the work. This means broad reading, if only to provide experience to inform the work at hand. (This is another reason I'm skeptical of Joe Tabbi’s intriguing proposal to rest new media criticism in the hands of large numbers of undergraduates and to rely on the wisdom of crowds: will undergraduates have sufficient breadth?) And it means enjoying the work, not merely examining it; I think at times we all forget why we do what we do.

But sometimes the critic also needs to pick up the construction tools and make things, even if those things aren't very good and won’t ever be seen by anyone else. I’m a very bad weekend painter, for example, but a few hours with a brush taught me things about what painters do (and what pigments want) that would be hard to learn from catalogs and monographs. Yes, that means constantly learning new tools and techniques. That, too, should be something we enjoy.

There's a very nice post today, by the way, from Brent Simmons about performance optimizations and Net News Wire. This sounds like the sort of topic a new media critic need not know, the dull and difficult engineering you hope to delegate to a student or a crew specialist. But Simmons very nicely walks through the sort of high-level thinking on which performance depends and shows why some things that might seem easy (like discarding stale news items) can turn out to require months of effort.

Janet Reid, Literary Agent, comes across my 2001 Singapore Lecture. Unusually good comments.

Felix Dencker looks at building characters for novels or screenplays in Tinderbox: Charakter-Perspektiven Visuell Darsellen Mit Tinderbox. (in German, but with good images)

Character and Tinderbox
Future of Digital Studies: A Lot To Read
Lewis Wickes Hine. Library of Congress

Here’s a factory picture from the early twentieth century. Its title is long, but repays attention:

A “Reader” in cigar factory, Tampa, Fla. He reads books and newspapers at top of his voice all day long. This is all the education many of these workers receive. He is paid by them and they select what he shall read.

This was a common practice in the workplace in the 19th and early 20th century. And it’s a good idea, because we all have too much that we ought to read. I wonder how the workers determined what should be read. Did they have campaigns for Dickens or Galsworthy, or Gompers and Debs? Did a few workers annoy their colleagues by advocating “more science” or “another story about Africa”?

All this was wiped out be radio and Musak, of course. It was good while it lasted.

But this communal reading also hides the most important fact in the economy of the book: books are numerous. There’s a lot to read, because it’s not terribly expensive to make a book. If you want to make a movie or build a factory, you need lots of money and lots of help. To make a book, you need a year or two of hard work, some dozens or hundreds of readers, and a way to find a few thousand dollars.

You can’t have feature films about lemurs or Javascript heresies, but there’s no problem writing (or finding) books about them.

It is too easily forgotten, amid the copyright wars, how Google has already changed scholarship.

For my Hypertext 2010 submission this year (titled “Criticism”), I’ve been keeping Pope’s On Criticism by my desk. Yesterday at lunch, I turned at random to one of his Satires (To Augustus), which makes fun reading about Kids Today.

Now times are changed, and one poetic itch
Has seized the Court and City, Poor and Rich;
Sons, sires, and grandsires, all will wear the bays;
Our wives read Milton, and our daughters plays;
To theatres and to rehearsals throng,
And all our grace at table is a song.

This is good; substitute World of Warcraft for Milton and you could use this in the Living section of today’s newspaper. A little later (ll. 185-6) we’re talking about knowing what you’re doing:

Who builds a bridge that never drove a pile?
(Should Ripley venture, all the world would smile),
But those who cannot write, and those who can,
All rhyme, and scrawl, and scribble, to a man.

The editor of my edition (A. L. Burt, Publisher, nd) supplies a helpful gloss on Ripley:

Ripley was a celebrated architect of the time, and was employed by Sir Robert Walpole. He build the beautiful house in Houghton Park, Beds., now in ruins, but still showing what it was.

I’m a sucker for romantic ruins and this was lunch, so I said, "I bet Google will have a picture of this Houghton Park ruin today!" And a little Googling does find a very nice Houghton Hall which (a) was built for Walpole, (b) was designed by Ripley, but (c) is certainly no ruin today. I spent some time trying to learn how it fell into ruins and was restored, without success.

It turns out that there is a ruinous Houghton, Houghton House, which may have influenced Bunyan. This is (a) in Bedfordshire, (b) ruinous, but (c) unconnected with either Walpole or Ripley. It does, however, have many flickr images. It is still showing what it was. It’s very likely that this is what the footnote’s author had in mind, and that the annotation is simply wrong.

Googling and Flickring
Houghton House. Photo: ©Edward Badley

I did this at lunch, on a lark, without leaving my desk. I didn’t need to do this, and I certainly know a lot less about Pope, Ripley, and his time than did the editor. But the Web gives us now a very real advantage, not least in making it harder for tour guides to make the sights we’re seeing even grander than they are.

by Dorothy L. Sayers

The first Lord Peter mystery, revisited after many years, is surprisingly good. This is far from the flights of Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night, but it’s a taut and well-crafted mystery. All of Sayers, really, is on display here, from her chaste adoration for Lord Peter to her embarrassing (but, I think, mostly harmless) anti-Semitism. There's nothing here in any case that a quick dip in Walton’s Farthing won’t wash off. I’d forgotten that the Dowager Duchess, one of Sayer’s finest characters, has a nice role here.

I'll be speaking at the First International Congress on Web Studies in Toluca Mexico, March 3-5.

Sorry about the short notice!

If you’re in the area and you’d like to get together — or if you happen to know what I should eat while there – Email me.

by Robert Darnton

An intriguing collection of essays by the brilliant social historian who became Harvard’s librarian. Darnton oversaw Harvard’s confrontation with Google Books, but he is no technophobe and is, in fact, planning an ambitious interactive history of the early book trade. Indeed, his plans are an indispensible credential, showing that he's not merely obstructing technology but actively striving to push it toward more useful channels.

As a nod to his planned historical hypertext,(and perhaps to blogging) the essays in this book are anti-chronological, moving from speculations on Google and the future of scholarship back toward the early history of printing and bookselling. The historical chapters are stronger because they are fresher; our Google anxieties have already been extensively aired, and Darnton’s ambitious hypertext, for all its promise, is still unrealized. From its description here, it’s not entirely clear that the contribution to hypertext (as opposed to its contribution to History) will eclipse the pioneering historical work of Landow and Ayers and Rosenzweig.

But I found myself strangely eager to see how book smuggling actually operated to get Voltaire into the hands of Montpellier readers, and we have lots to learn from (and about) the early book trade.

Feb 10 20 2010

Pancake Mix

CIA Instructor Bob Del Grosso is not happy with cooking frauds, nor with Marc Bittman’s minimalist cooking in the NY Times, whom he calls a minimalist of skill. The problem, he says, starts from a media environment that appoints arbitrary, untrained people as arbiters of cooking; since many of their readers are even less competent, who knows or care that their technique is wrong?

I’ve always been skeptical of technique for getting started. When I was learning metal machining – a skill I had to pick up in graduate school in order to build some instrumentation we couldn’t find money to buy – I was the despair of Heine, Harvard’s infinitely patient machine shop instructor. Heine wanted me to learn to hand file a perfect cube; I wanted to get down to using the Bridgeport and the lathe and to crank out the mounts I needed. Same thing in the kitchen: the Culinary School master wants you to saute correctly, and maybe you just want dinner.

But your interests can align. Take pancakes.

Pancake Mix
This morning’s buttermilk pancakes, right out of Ruhlman’s Ratio for iPhone.

A few years ago, I was buying pancake mixes at Whole Foods, because my experience of making pancakes from Joy Of Cooking had been (a) it was fussy to get all the bits and pieces, and (b) the pancakes didn't always come out. So I’d pay $5 for organic mixes and it just worked.

And that’s a lot better than toaster waffles! Nothing much wrong with good pancake mixes. It’s just one thing: you don't need them. And it’s not that fussy.

The trick: get all the ingredients. Put them on the table. All of them. Take them out of the pantry, and line them up. Flour, milk, eggs. baking powder, salt, sugar. (Want nuts? Blueberries? Honey? Vanilla? Grab them too)

Grab two bowls. Get a skillet or a griddle; it goes on the range. Get a whisk for a fork. Get a spoon or a ladle -- a 2oz ladle if you have it.

Now you’re cooking. That's the whole trick: get everything lined up, and now everything falls into place. The rest is just ratios – and for pancakes the ratio is wildly forgiving: basically 3/4c flour, 3/4c milk, 1t baking powder, and 1 egg for two people. You can use buttermilk and add some baking soda too. You can use a little more flour or a little less milk. You can replace some of the flour with cornmeal or whole wheat or rye. You can add some butter.

You can go crazy and separate the eggs and beat the egg whites fluffy. The orthodox technique says, blend the liquids in one bowl and the flour in another, then add them, and that’s fine – but if you just throw it all in one bowl, that’ll work too.

You can’t go wrong. No throwing the first one away, no blunders, no disasters, no drama. It takes five minutes. You can do it on a workday.

The key technique: put it all on the table first. In French, this is mise en place. You need to do it.

Once you’ve mastered the pancake, maybe you don’t need to do it this way. You can grab stuff on the fly. Fine. Until then: get it all out.

Heard on Twitter:

“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see –
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency. –Emily Dickinson

Via Shuna Fish Lydon (whose monkey bread sounds great! ), a Valentine menu that’s a speech act:

  • Broken vinaigrette
  • Pasta Puttanesca (“Whore style”)
  • Bitter Salad with Broken Artichoke Hearts
  • Cold Shoulder of Pork
  • Coffee and cigarettes
Future of Digital Studies

Next week, I’m off to the University of Florida for The Future Of Digital Studies. This program is absolutely terrific; Mauro Carassai, a graduate student at Florida, has managed to assemble what’s probably the strongest cast of the past five years – a very impressive accomplishment.

I’m going to be speaking about NeoVictorian New Media and the problem of criticism; more about that presently.

by Louis Menand

Louis Menand got involved with Harvard’s latest attempt to craft a core curriculum, and this engaging book is the result. Menand explores the intellectual foundations of curricula and disciplines, and carefully shows how disciplinarity helps and mars the university. Most interesting, perhaps, are his insights into the prehistory of the American university and the key role a few institutions and a handful of college presidents played in creating the familiar landscape of departments, degrees, and professional schools. The core problem of the humanities, he argues, is that they have become very good at training ABD’s, the all-but-dissertation cadre of inexpensive teaching assistants, adjuncts, and composition instructors on which contemporary American colleges rely.

In McSweeney’s, Wajahat Ali has a fine article with a long title: "Could it be that the best chance to save a young family from foreclosure is a 28-year-old Pakistani American Playright-slash-Attorney who learned bankruptcy law on the Internet? Wells Fargo, you never knew what hit you.” Thanks, Roger Ebert.

(Editorial note to McSweeney’s: “playwright” usually has a ‘w’.)

In reality, "my law office" was actually my friend's office, which he'd lent to me so that I could meet these clients. The classy jacket had been purchased at a clearance sale in an outlet store at the Great Mall in Milpitas. The gel was the last remnant of a decaying and potentially expired bottle I'd probably had since college but never found the opportunity to use. The suitcase was a gift from my relatives in Pakistan—who, much like the rest of my family, were thoroughly shocked that I had passed the bar exam and become a licensed attorney. My business cards had been printed for free by Vistaprint, and despite having a professional front side featuring my name in bold letters and the words ATTORNEY AT LAW, the back side glared BUSINESS CARDS ARE FREE AT WWW.VISTAPRINT.COM!

Game over. I was doomed.

by Terry Eagleton

I grabbed this terrific volume after asking around about what I most urgently needed to read to understand modern criticism. It is, when you come right down to it, more about philosophy than criticism. I sometimes felt I was back at Swarthmore, trying to keep up with Richie Schuldenfrei. Great fun, for some values of fun.

Feb 10 18 2010

Big Red Dinner

Had a nifty anniversary celebration at T. W. Food, a small Cambridge storefront that does a really fine job. The night we devoted to big (and offbeat) red wines.

Nifty house-cured charcuterie (with truly fine merguez), paired with a Uruguayan Tannat (of all things): Domaine Monte de Luz 2008. A smoked pork loin with a 2007 Cahors. Artisanal Cantal with Marietta Cellars, “Old Vine Red #50”, a Zinfandel. And Cabernet Cake (nice!) with a Dow’s 2004 LBV Port.

Chris Jones has a terrific profile of Roger Ebert in Esquire.

Aside: Esquire’s page design is awful. It reeks of low-budget ad-raddled porn. Yes, I too have a fondness for lots of sidebars, but this is simply too much – especially because in today’s world, a page that’ topped and tailed with banners, with a left sidebar and a dual right sidebar, reeks of link farming, of a shady enterprise trying to cash in by selling dozens of garbage ads. And this used to be a proud magazine.

I dabble in Vampire Live!, a Storm8 iPhone game. It is, to be frank, a lousy game, which is to say that I’m a level 62 vampire and I’m still waiting for a game to break out. No competition, no narrative, just enough new stuff to try to keep me stopping by occasionally.

But life intrudes. In this case, Ambrosia, who is one of the 94 members of my "clan" — a low-level vampire with whom I’ve had almost nothing to do — broke her arm. Turns out she’s an actress, or maybe a stunt person; she was in a swordfight, her arm broke, she went to the hospital. All in the day’s work.

Except it turns out she broke her arm because she has bone cancer, and so very suddenly she’s a very unhappy camper. And, suddenly, a bunch of vampires from all over the world (one mentioned that they’re from the Vatican – stick that in your pipe and smoke it) are trying to think of useful things to say. Someone else in the clan had a nasty cancer scare last year a couple of months back. Someone’s a nurse. Someone else had a childhood stroke. And everyone can say, “there, there.”

There’s a terrible discord between the interface (140 character texting, names like “Bast” and “NurseVamp” and Skittles) and the events (arguments with her mother over surgery, the Mayo clinic, outcome statistics, whether it’s all worth it.) And of course in the Internet no one knows anything.

But it’s a moving, unfolding narrative. And, interestingly, it’s emergent and collaborative. These things never work in fiction; people try them all the time, they always peter out incoherently. This is incoherent but that’s what you expect. We’re playing a game, and if it’s ultra-casual and has a lot of chat, that’s probably just fine from a hospital bed.

Feb 10 14 2010


Last Valentine’s day, we had a lovely tasting menu at No. 9 Park. It wound up as the second best meal of the year, but no shame in that. At the time, I wrote that

There was a very fine duck trio (breast, confit, sausage), but it was upstaged by an amazing pinot noir. I don’t recall ever having that feeling before.

I managed to get three bottles of that Pinot Noir, and we had one of them tonight for our meta-anniversary. Lovely wine. (Hirsch Vineyards, The Bohan Dillon Pinot Noir 2007)

  • “cowboy steak”, teriyaki marinade, grilled
  • risotto Milanese
  • Boston lettuce, white balsamic vinaigrette
  • Ruhlman’s dinner rolls
  • Clotilde’s caramel chocolate torte

That tart is nice. It's simple, too: a blind-baked crust, a layer of caramel, and a layer of ganache. Piece of cake, bjt lovely.

Feb 10 12 2010


John Gruber notices a fascinating Web phenomenon.

Mike Metanson wrote a nice essay about Facebook’s business strategy and published it on a fairly popular Web site. Google noticed the article, and indexed it. Since the headline is about Facebook wanting to be the one true login, one place that Google lists the article is “Facebook login”.

The comments of this page are now filled with users who, one after the other, googled “facebook login” in order to log into Facebook. That’s how they use the Web; the Google and assume that the first listing is what they want. When they see this article, they don’t say,

Oops! This is an article about logging into Facebook! I’m in the wrong place!

No indeed. They assume that this is some strange new Facebook design, and they don't like it one bit.

please give me back the old facebook login this is crazy.................(Nancy Morgan)
I was just learning,why would you mess it up? (Richard Gordon)
I am not happy!!!,I was starting to feel comfortable with it now I am all confuse How do I sign in? (Victoria Pichardo)

This goes on and on and on. There are hundreds of these. Occasionally, someone will say, "No, folks; you’re in the wrong place. The line is over there!"


Brian Gregory of uses Tinderbox to explore how hospitals can save money by better scheduling of operating rooms.

I had a brief, but interesting conversation with a CMO of a large hospital recently.  To his credit, he’s trying to make a dysfunctional hospital run better.  We talked about the OR, and how the hospital is effectively paying the surgeons to show up 10 minutes early to start cases.
Tinderbox for Operational Planning
Click for actual size

In a forum thread on Maps and Information Analysis and Presentation, Stacey Mason launches an exploration of Tinderbox for gathering information from several sources, keeping track of who said what, and presenting that information to a meeting or class.

Tinderbox Map Thread

Diane Greco sends some wonderful advice to a writer.

Much moved today by the writer and scientist Eliza Blair's birthday post. At 25, Blair has already published award-winning science fiction while pursuing a dream to go to the moon.

Terrific and true and prettyful.

Amazon and Macmillan are a sideshow. If you miss it, don't worry: there will be another one just like it next month, or next week, or next year. I'm pretty sure it's safe to ignore, in favor of the other mysteries that are clamoring for your attention. Only you know what they are – and people like me are out here, enthusiastically anticipating your new work.

I’m sparked.

Dan Phiffer introduces his new weblog with a brilliant exploration of The Second Post, examining the second post in weblogs through history. A genre is born: technocrit at its best. (Thanks, Daring Fireball!)

Feb 10 6 2010

Deep Thought

Why, when a mail server runs amok, does it happen in the middle of the night?

Feb 10 5 2010

Rocket Science

Eliza Blair (“Friends In Need”) is 25 today. She wants to be a writer. She wants to be a rocket scientist. The eBook mess makes writing uncertain, and cancellation of the new American moon program (a cynical Bush ploy, announcing a big space program and leaving the bill unpaid) leaves her other career stalled behind thousands of unemployed rocket scientists with more experience.

This affects me deeply. Not just because I've aspired to someday work for NASA since I was four years old, though let's observe a moment of silence for four-year-old Eliza's sobs of rage, but because it has the effect of dumping a few thousand rocket engineers on the market starting this summer, quite possibly clogging the employment pipeline for years to come and making it that much more difficult for me to find anyone, even the military, to pay for my grad school education. (Everything revolves around me, remember?) It's also crushing the hopes and dreams of many of those engineers, but who cares about them - they already got to live the dream, at least for a little while. >.> Jerks.
Feb 10 2 2010


Reaction to the iPad announcement has been perplexing. Some people look into the iPad and see their hopes. Some people see their fears. Some people see money.

What we don’t see, interestingly, is the traditional scenario for the tablet computer: on the job, walking around, held like a clipboard. That’s what people have always assumed the tablet would be. It’s not.

Perhaps it’s a tricorder, the original Star Trek fashion accessory. I’m only half kidding here.

The tricorder was invented because, in 1966, television executives thought it looked strange for a young woman to be walking around without a purse, and so they needed to give Yeoman Rand something with a shoulder strap. We’re going to have the reverse problem: what are you going to do with the iPad when you just want to put it down for a moment?

In new installment in Tinderbox Chronicles, publisher Steve Zeoli uses Tinderbox to explore his company’s offerings.

I work for a small, nonprofit publisher of books about sexual abuse. For a recent meeting, I wanted to create a visual representation of our catalog of titles, showing how old our books are by the type of book. The first step was grabbing title, ISBN, price, author and other information on each of our publications which I already had in a spreadsheet on my work PC...