Notes from January, 2002. Latest notes

Bill Seitz is working to integrate web logs and ZWiki.

Wiki, like Tinderbox, lends itself to complex structure -- to expressing ideas as relationships between pages. Conventional weblogs, on the other hand, are long scrolls. The interesting parts of a Wiki are usually the margins, the edges where active writing takes place. The interesting parts of a weblog are the most recent entries. Seitz (like Abbe) is working to reconcile these forces.

One of the most important things Tinderbox can contribute to a weblog is memory: a way of conserving facts and ideas do they can be used again. Weblog archives aren't very good at this; who cares about old news? Even weblog categories don't help much: categories shift over time, but once a post is assigned a category it's likely to stay there forever. Tinderbox, by making it easy to organize archives automatically (and to adjust those categories by adding agents) opens up new opportunities. I think it's a new way of looking at information architecture: organized, organic growth, not classification.

Want an example? I just collected a page of notes with photos from Singapore. It wasn't a category I planned in advance. It took no time. I made a Tinderbox agent that:

  • Looks at all my notes from mid-December 2001 to mid-January 2002
  • Keeps only notes with pictures
  • Sort them by date
  • Puts them on a page

Agents let you build topical collections whenever you want; Tinderbox also makes it pleasant to design custom collections by hand: just drag aliases of the items you want into a container, or stamp them with a QuickStamp, and you're done.

Jan 02 31 2002


Jim McGee observes that the humility of the humble web journal can be a useful antidote to occasional Knowledge Management arrogance.

KM has become the organizational busybody, talking about what everyone else ought to be doing for their own good. Few of the people taling about KM seem to have any KM problems of their own, just ideas about what somebody else ought to do. There's an ugly control streak buried just beneath the surface of most of what I've seen recently about KM.

The January issue of Harvard Business Review leads off with a case study (by Nicholas G. Carr) of Bob's Meltdown, in which an old-line operations guy loses his temper with a staff puke. It's a sign of the moment that the dweeb's title is "VP, Knowledge Management".

Two more catalogs of information about Web journals: Lark Farm's Weblog Madness, and John Abbe's notes about Wiki's and weblogs: the WikiWeblogPIM page and an essay on Wikis and weblogs.

Laura Holder writes that the McCarty exhibit is well worth a visit, and her weblog has some snapshots of the gallery. (Keep scrolling; you'll see the pictures eventually)

Holder peppers her weblog with random candids of New York life. Also interesting is ziboy, a Beijing web log that's entirely photographic.

Jan 02 30 2002

Grace Note

A nice Barthelme moment in Charlie Bennett's emerging journal. "Yesterday morning, a young woman (twenty years old) asked me a question as we lounged in her bed...."

It's always fun to see your writing in a language you can't read. This month in Denmark's Standart, "Den litterære hypertekst og dens kritikere", written with Diane Greco and translated by Rasmus Blok. And, coming soon, "Padrões do hipertexto" and "Jardins prazeirosos" in Lucia Leão's Interlab: labirintos do pensamento comtemporäneo from Iluminuras in São Paulo.

(Software challenge of the day: Tinderbox d26 didn't export those Portuguese vowels correctly. Fixed now!)

The complete guide to web logs. Lots of interesting links. Nicely designed, too.

Jan 02 29 2002


US Atty. General John Ashcroft has ordered $8000 draperies to cover up the exposed breast of Justice in his office building.

What Ashcroft probably doesn't know is why Justice bares one breast. It's not erotic or aesthetic: it's a sign that she has work to do. Just as, in contemporary dress, you might roll up your sleeves, Greek women would adjust their tunics for freedom of movement and to prevent the whole thing from coming undone.

It's not surprising that Bush's attorney general is embarassed at the thought of Justice's hard work.

Jan 02 28 2002


Schoolblogs: a metablog about Web journals in education. Lots of interesting links! (We may need to add a section on Web journals in education to eNarrative 4...)

The January 28 New Yorker offers a lovely drawing (on page 18) by Marlene McCarty, an artist of extraordinary power who draws stunning studies of girls who murdered their mothers. (On occasion, McCarty does depart from her chosen theme: sometimes she draws girls who were tortured and killed by their mothers). The drawings are huge, intense, and magically real, saturated with light, so that the girls are literally transparent.

Somehow, McCarty escapes all sorts of road hazards: no Arbus-like flatness, no Alma-Tadema pseudo-saints, no Cindy-Shermanesque quotations. It is interesting how McCarty's theme park of beautiful young murderers provides an occasion, an excuse, for art. I've only seen three of her drawings, and then only in small reproductions (a shame: many of the originals are huge), but none seem really to be about violence, any more Victorian martyrdoms are about Catholic sainthood.

I'm almost tempted to run down to New York to see these at the American Fine Arts and the Keenan. Anyone know more about McCarty?

Congratulations to the New England Patriots, an American Football team headed for the championship game. This is extraordinary because the Patriots are not a very good team -- at least, nobody thought they were until they ran off a string of victories under the leadership of a replacement quarterback who was not expected to have much promise. This might be a story of how experts can be wrong. It might also be a story of how very ordinary people can, on rare occasions, be extraordinary.

It's that kind of movie.

Jan 02 27 2002


Today is Eastgate's 19th annual meeting.

Lance Knobel points out that Web journals serve the same function as the old commonplace book, where people in the 18th and 19th century copies out passages they wanted to remember. (Before libraries, good bookstores, and amazon, making notes was terribly important; if you didn't copy something down, you might never see it again)

It's a wonderful image, connecting web logs to the age of Jefferson and helping to dispell the popular image of the web journal as self-indulgence. Thanks, Steve Vore.

Vore has a nifty, informative web log, but really needs to add a little information about who he is. It's a genre convention, and so I found its absence jarring; besides, when you write about management, readers like to know what you manage!

The Case Against Knowledge Management (Business 2.0)

"A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard," said Herman Melville's Ishmael; when it came to learning my job, circulating correspondence was mine. Reading my superiors' letters opened a window into how they conducted business with the world outside; I aped things more experienced colleagues did, and saw how they handled tricky situations...

I've been thinking about HTML export templates for Tinderbox -- the bundles of files that define how Tinderbox shares your notes. For example, there's a Tinderbox template that defines the overall look of this page, and another template the defines the way each note is placed.

Notice that I've added the day of the week. This tests a fix for Adrian's bug: weekdays were wrong. Developers don't always realize that it's not Tuesday!

The Simple Web Log template in the beta kit seems to help people get started, but I can imagine lots of other things we might do. Different designs -- straight-laced and avant-garde. Different approaches to permalinks. Automatic categories. What else?

Australian digital storyteller Jon Delacour has a nice Web journal.

Merholz wanders all over the weblog landscape today, but raises an interesting point in a comment: we hear a lot about web writers, but what do we know about weblog readers? Lots of people read -- far more than write -- even on sites like epinions that are mostly about writing.

The key is that we want to learn how it's going to turn out. Whether the question is Kaycee's illness or someone's new product or someone else's love life, we want to know what happens.

Mae's kid sister.
No man had kissed her.
Excitement made her wild-eyed:
She was so thrilled to be there
She could have died!
She was quite pretty
And she looked older.
She only knew
What had been told her.

I'd never heard of Joseph Moncure March's The Wild Party until I stumbled across an excerpt in Singapore while checking a reference. It's a book-length poem, published in 1928, that captures Jazz-age noir weirdly, wonderfully. Spiegelman illustrated it in '94. It's quite a ride.

And she liked her lovers violent, and vicious:
Queenie was sexually ambitious.
Now you know.
A fascinating woman, as they go.

You shouldn't miss this. There's a lot not to like: casual racism, anti-semitism, perhaps homophobia. No worse, I think, than Dorothy Sayers, and with the same excuse. The poem is too long. Occasionally it gets out of control, as when Mae turns into a limerick.

But the book is filled with wonderfully curdled moments.

Jan 02 25 2002

Zeldman's Rule

"Never announce before the fact that you will be too busy to update your personal site. Doing so encourages readers to stop visiting. Instead, if you’ve missed a day or two, apologize with a simple note." -- Jeff Zeldman. (No permalink)

Good point. This is one of the few pieces of concrete guidance I've seen for serious Web journal writers. Know about other? Tell me!

Razorfish's Victor Lombardi (Noise Between Stations) likes Tinderbox's new name, and ponders whether he wants Tinderbox or a WIKI:

Tinderbox could be my IA wet dream, fulfilling every organizational scheme through linking, keywords, facets, categories, agents, etc. Wiki would be a pure organic approach, letting the structure grow and change over time .... Tinderbox would challenge me and provide a platform for IA experimentation, Wiki would be fast and lightweight.

Why not use both? Tinderbox does lots of things that server-side tools like Wiki and Blogger cannot. Wiki gives you interesting ways to collaborate. Tinderbox is fast and responsive and makes sure your data is yours; it's the right choice when you're writing at work or at home. Wiki and Blogger live on the server; your colleagues and collaborators can always use them from their hotel room or Internet cafe.

We are the space robots: we are here to protect you from the terrible secret of space. (Thanks, Liz Klastrup!)

The interesting thing about this flash cartoon is the way its humor rests almost entirely on pacing and detailing. There's some crude work and pointless repetition, but just when you think the animators have run out of ideas, something new pops up. Deeply silly, but worth a look.

Popularity contests haven't done much for personal web sites; we should have realized something was wrong when won big award one week and discontinued her site the next. Awards also lead to bad feelings and ill will; nobody wants to lose a popularity contest.

But Fairvue's awards are unusually thoughtful, with well-chosen categories that are actually interesting. Things like "best merchandise": tchochkes are an important community-making tool. What was the year's weblog meme: Kaycee, or tourist guy?

Jan 02 24 2002


Joel Spolsky argues that rewriting software is always a bad idea, and in his latest essay gives an eloquent description of how refactoring let him rewrite his company's flagship product without starting from scratch.

When Eastgate started to plan Storyspace II for Macintosh, we did precisely what Spolsky argues a company should never, ever do: we started from scratch. That was, in the end, the right strategy. But Storyspace I was an unusually old program: some of our Storyspace titles are probably the oldest continuously-available consumer software in the world.

Refactoring is one of the most important software concepts of the decade.

Ceres will soon have a new name: Tinderbox. Tinderbox is a personal content management assistant that helps you make notes, analyze them, and share them over the Web. This site is made with Tinderbox.

We're crossing the T's and dotting the I's.It won't be long!

The center pivot on my Nikon Coolpix digital camera came loose on the road back from Asia. Is it a total loss? Anyone know how to fix it? Email if you know. Thanks.

If you're looking for a fantastic narrative environment, a synthetic world filled with complex story, skip DisneyHK and deserted islands and take a look at Shwe Dagon.

At sunset, this vast hilltop complex in Yangon (Rangoon) is literally incredible, a synthetic faery world of gold, sunfire, brass, and tacky LCD halos. There's a story around every corner: myths, mendicants, tour guides practicing their English, relatives of army officials praying for promotion.

We're planning details of the 2-day Storyspace summit in Boston this March. The Web site is live today; go register!

Here's a lovely Thai pomelo salad, spicy and fragrant, chili-hot and citrus-sweet.

Hypertext writers (including the keepers of web logs) need to balance lots of flavors. It's a tough medium for pounding out a single theme; mixing sweet and hot can help.

Irina Aristarkhova oversees the new Cyberarts Studio at NUS, which just opened. It's a big open room, lined with lots of brand-new Macintosh workstations, scanners, electric pianos, and a wonderful little stage for informal talks. (I did a Storyspace 2 demo there on my last day in Singapore, then ran out the door to catch a plane home with minutes to spare)

It's interesting that Prof. Aristarkhova is primarily interested in visual art, not literature or graphic design. There's an interesting space to explore here, both in terms of art and audience, and in the media economy. It will be very interesting to see what new works emerge from this studio, both from its artists-in-residence and from students.

Baby corn in Singapore is much tastier (and seemingly much fresher) than the baby corn available in the US. This seems odd; is maize grown outside the Americas? I've never see baby asparagus before.

Singapore groceries were great fun. I took this shot while preparing my fantasia on Mee Siam: I added fish balls for good measure, and because I wasn't going to get a chance to have famous West Coast fish balls if I didn't sieze the moment.

Other memorable kitchen moments included The Complete Chicken, the exploding Wok heater, the emergency spaghetti sauce with Thai peppers, and "what do you do with a dragon fruit, anyway"?

Jan 02 18 2002


Singapore's Changi airport is clean, efficient, and fast. It has free wireless internet access; if you don't have a wireless card, they'll lend you one.

Just a few hours away, the Yangon (Rangoon) airport has sliding glass doors, each with a soldier who opens and closes the door since the motors don't work. Officials copy down all the information on your passport, in longhand, in big books. Men wear longhis instead of trousers.

An hour away, in Thandwe's airport, a signal flag on the control tower tells pilots when the controller has gone home for the night. Around Thandwe, quieter forms of transport are more popular.

Jan 02 9 2002


Today, I finally tried the famous Char Kway Teoh at the Arts Canteen. Very, very tasty; meat and vegetables and two kinds of noodles, swiftly fried in a HUGE (and very hot) wok. The sauce is sweet, with just enough chilis for bite; a plate costs S$1.80 (about US$1). It goes very nicely with the fresh Kalamansi lime juice, incidentally.

Of another Char Kway Teoh stall, Makansutra says, "It's only good if the man is frying. If the lady is frying, go wait until the man comes back." Scale matters, small is beautiful.

I'm not looking forward to returning to two slices of pizza and a coke. Changes may be necessary.

Here's a White-throated Kingfisher that was flycatching near our apartment. Making a living as a flycatcher in Singapore in January seems like a tough proposition. Despite downpours, there's not much standing water and not too many insects.

The exuberance of many of the birds (even the ubiquitous mynahs, an alien species nearly as intrusive as the rock dove but much nicer) and the flowers and palms and all the rest are impressive. Flower beds appear overnight at the university, and in a few days they're part of the landscape.

The new iMac looks great. It's clever marketing, too; again, Apple lets small business people and shopkeepers brand themselves and promote Apple simultaneously. A few months after the original iMac appeared, I must have seen a dozen iMacs on antique art gallery tables up and down Santa Fe's Canyon Road.

Jan 02 8 2002


Time-out this morning to pause from writing a review paper on Storyspace 1 and attend a lecture and demonstration of tea appreciation at Yixing Xuan Teahouse. I adore fine Chinese teapots, and it's good to know how to use them properly. (They're unglazed and porous; you pour hot water inside and outside and you never was them with soap: you want to build up a layer of tea oils inside)

Lou Filliger, an old friend and accomplished pianist, has started a music site. He's embarking on a complete Well Tempered Clavier, and you'll also find some Chopin and Scriabin.

This is a wonderful extension of Bricklin's concept of Web Photo Journals -- sharing media among friends and interested people. It happens that Lou is a very fine pianist, so you'll like his Bach. But, even if he weren't, I remember his 6th-grade Rhapsody In Blue, so I'd enjoy hearing what he's doing now anyway. On the Web, you can publish for me and I can publish for you.

Jan 02 7 2002

Hawker Centers

Hawker centers and food courts are ubiquitous in Singapore. There's even a handy guide called MakanSutra to the best fast food stands. The variety of food, and its quality, is remarkable.

European restaurants arose from health clinics, places where you'd be sent for physick and a special diet. The American food mall came, I think, very recently (was Boston's Quincy Market the first?), and seems to be a real estate play as much as anything else. I'm not sure whether the hawker center is merely an improvisation, a place to situate a more regulated street-life, or something else entirely.

A holding company sent out lots of warning letters this week, claiming that they own a patent covering all modern metadata formats. This includes the simple RSS syndication format we (and everyone else) use to share headlines between web sites.

I've only glanced at the claims, and I'm not much of an expert on either law or metadata, but the patent is written in esoterically amateur language that seems tantamount to gibberish. I doubt if anyone knows what this patent is trying to say. Of course, if a judge somewhere happens to think it means something, the patent can be enforced for a few more years. But this seems unlikely to happen; there's a lot of prior art lying around in the early AI literature, and even more (I'm told) in the database world.

Meanwhile, the holding company can use the threat of lawsuits to make people pay fees to avoid lawsuits. The lawsuits won't succeed, but would be expensive and bothersome to defend; it's tempting to just pay the money. This is an abusive of the public trust, verging on a protection racket.

Dave Winer contributes a thoughtful, intriguing essay on strategies for rebuilding a software industry blighted by predatory monopolies, insane patents, and exploitation. Winer argues that software innovators sometimes need competition -- that giving away technology or sharing standards can help build software ecologies where customers use your software and your competitor's software.

I've been reading oral histories of Chinese entrepreneurs in Singapore -- immigrants who started as stevedores, saved to buy a coffee stand, and wound up running a global manufacturing enterprise. Many of these ventures were funded by their bosses, who provided capital for key employees to leave and start new businesses, sometimes direct competitors. The end result was a complex pattern of trust and mutual reliance that made it possible for the business community to support itself in bad times and to move quickly in good times.

The university where I'm working this month began, in part, at a mahjong club one night when one of these immigrants opined that it would be a Good Idea if there were a Chinese university and not merely an English one. "Everyone contributed, some more, some less."

Another lesson from these entrepreneurs: good business relations are built on knowledge, skill, competence, and hard work. This isn't just for managers, or even for employees, but also applies to a firm's vendors and its customers. A good business requires good customers; a business that serves lazy, ignorant customers won't thrive. In software, we made a blunder in spreading the canard that everything should (or can) be easy, friendly, idiot-proof. Software should be as simple as possible -- and no simpler. It's time we expected people to learn how to use their computers.

Diane Greco, who rarely writes ill of anyone, denounces "the latest thuggery about cybertext at EBR."

Then, Anja Rau weighs in on the responsibilities of the hypertext critic, doing a nice job of showing how van Looy's 23 charges against We Descend amount to little more than a general dislike of the author's prose style and language.

It's worth noting, too, that the reviewer gets upset about font size, something he could easily have corrected himself. It's a little like complaining that an 18th-century book is bad because the typeface is old-fashioned and you were sitting in an uncomfortable chair when you read it.

Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.

Jan 02 3 2002


Tiffin at Raffles, Singapore's historic hotel, was delightful. Lots of interesting curries and curious salads, waiters bringing fresh nan whenever you run short, and a lamb chop worthy of Galsworthy. Expensive for Singapore, but no worse than our favorite Melrose fish place.

I'm fond of visiting hotels where fiction once took place. Raffles. The St. Francis. The Del Coronado. The Mamounia. People come, people go, nothing ever happens.

Jill Walker savages van Looy's overwrought critique of We Descend.

A review should take a work seriously and consider it on its own terms. That doesn't mean not being critical. I'm happy for a reviewer to decide that the work's premises are flawed, or that it doesn't fulfil what it's trying to do.

That's the key point: reviewers need to do the work. Sitting back and inventing fun wisecracks is easy work, and it produces something that looks like a review. But something that looks like criticism, but isn't, is actively harmful: it crowds out good criticism, debases discussion, and replaces serious scholarship with cheap thrills.

It's easy, when a critic gets worked up, to go overboard and lose perspective. Writers reaching for an unfamiliar voice (and I suppose van Looy is trying to do Dorothy Parker, not his usual mode, in a second language -- quite a challenge!) can stumble. I've done it lots. That's why editors matter, and shouldn't be scared to do their work.

In Books, the first novel in Pramoedya's Buru Quartet. This graceful tale of colonial treachery is deceptively engaging, a story that keeps moving even when nothing much is happening.

Adrian Miles has a lovely, long piece on Patrick O'Brian's 20 wonderful Aubrey/Maturin novels. (I just finished The Commodore). Of O'Brian's devotion to the mysterious but lovely languages of 19th century naval and medical practice, Miles writes

I find this detail fascinating, exotic, exhiliarating, and somewhere or somehow expressing a fidelity to a vision (of manners as a mode of appropriate and reasonable conduct) that is mirrored by the novels themselves.

One obstacle to enjoying these wonderful books is the challenge of taking them seriously -- seriously enough not to dismiss them as juvenile because they're historical and sometimes dramatic. This ties, I think, to Jill Walker's frustration with "pompous twits" who are unable to enjoy Tolkien because they think they oughtn't.

Shippey, in Author of The Century, asks an interesting question: why, precisely, is Tolkien's reputation so difference from James Joyce's?

Paul Fussell (in a review of Herman Wouk) speculated that the 20th century would be remembered for its historical fiction, not for the modern novel.

In "What Cybertext Theory Can't Do", Kate Hayles presents a graceful reply to Markku Eskilinen's "Cybertext Theory and Literary Studies: A User Manual."

As a follower of Aarseth, Eskelinen is more dogmatic and ideological than the theorist he has adopted (a well-known phenomenon observed with Marxists who are more dogmatic than Marx, Freudians who are more doctrinaire than Freud, Derridians who are more inflexible and less subtle than Derrida, etc.). Ironically Eskelinin is quick to claim other disciplines want to "colonize" cybertext, while engaging in a rhetoric that in its ideological excesses is as imperialistic as anything I have read in recent years.

It seems to me that the only things worth reading in EBR these days are rebuttals and corrections. Is this a sensible way to work?