Jan 07 31 2007

Verizon At Last

Yesterday, they called to warn us that they were going to repair our Verizon DSL line. That was considerate. The line went down: good, now they’d fix the intermittent problems.

An hour later, still down. OK.

Another hour. Still down. Our escalation supervisor has left for the day. I walk the tree again, to get another supervisor. She explains, in the end, that it might take 48 hours for Verizon to complete all the paperwork necessary to reconnect our service.

What are we expected to do in the meantime? She suggests we open a dial-up account.

Hilarity ensues, with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Up this morning. Third service tech arrives — and the first one who did not try to pretend that the problem must lie in our local network. New copper for us.

Memo to Verizon: you've really got a lot of work to do, but underneath all the customer service blunders and ignorance and finger-pointing, you've clearly got a support organization that wants to believe that all problems can be traced to bad connections or corroded wires. This isn’t a telegraph; other things sometimes go wrong in computer networks. But it’s all knowable: you can check the IP addresses, you can check the packets. Lots of people I spoke to in this sorry episode went straight from continuity testing to voodoo.

One more thing: if you've got an angry business customer on the line, it’s probably a bad idea to address them by their first name. We’re not pals.

So far, so good. We’ll see if it lasts.

...and so Gracenote slipped out of the noisy party and all her parents' boring friends (especially Carl, the guy who kept looking at her but pretended not to) and walked out to be beach. She was tired of the 3 and tired of the beach house and the long, dreary days of sun. It was dark on the beach and cloudy but still much too hot. She took off her t-shirt and tried to remember winter.

The beach was 5 .

This is fiction, of course — just playing with stretchtext. Although stretchtext has been of particular interest in literary hypertext recently — Anne Mangen’s paper on fluid narratives comes to mind — I believe stretchtext poses special obstacles for narrative because it is so inexorably linear. Incoherence, like hypertext disorientation, is scary to contemplate but seldom frightening in the wild; it's hard to confuse people. And even if you do confuse them, they’ll tell you they understand, or that the problem is just a momentary lapse of attention. I think I do like Bray’s approach to annotative stretchtext for information on companies like Verizon home page, VZ, Yahoo, Google News, Technorati,, where stretchtext is a way to add multi-headed links to Web browsers.

A hypertextual challenge: begin each weblog post in mid-sentence. Write tomorrow’s post so to will lead into today’s — even though tomorrow’s post will be on a different subject. The posts should also read properly when read chronologically in the archives.

Jan 07 30 2007

Let's stretch

Nate Matias's Tinderbox Stretchtext Writing System is terrific and has lots of features. But how might we use stretchtext in everyday hypertexts, like this one?

Let's make a Tinderbox macro. For example, I often like to quote things like this:

TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.

When I'm writing, I don’t want to worry about formatting — and over the years, the way formatting works keeps changing. So, I just use a Tinderbox macro

^do(quote,'Terence, this is stupid stuff...')

and the macro remembers whether we're using <blockquote> or <div class="quotation"> or whatever, this year.

So, how might stretchtext work? I think we’ll want three arguments:

  • a tag or id number, so the pieces of the stretchtext will know how to find each other. We could probably generate it automatically, but let's just invent it for now.
  • the label that appears when the text is unstretched.
  • the text that appears when the label is clicked

So, we'll say

^do(stretch,poem,Pretty friendship,'tis to rhyme/Your friends to death before their time.)

and we'll have a nice little stretchtext element to remind us of Shropshire Lad’s poem .

Right now, what is the best Javascript reference for people who already know (a bunch of) programming languages? Email me.; I'll pass along the consensus.

Three of the top four Google hits for stretchtext currently point to Tinderbox projects. That’s interesting, because Tinderbox isn't particularly about stretchtext. But it's a popular tool for people who are interested in serious hypertext, and stretchtext is interesting to the same people.

And it’s really easy to build nice export support for stretch text (or other nifty Web tricks and widgets) in Tinderbox.

After these, there’s an interesting Hypertext '05 paper by Tor Brekke Skøtskift on using stretchtext in a mystery story. (I think mystery is going to be especially challenging for hypertext, but it’s always worth trying again.)

Jan 07 29 2007


Skate of The Web (Antonio Vantaggiato) wrote a very nice review of this weblog. Thanks!

Frank Shaw reflects on the problem and concludes that 'we are seeing in slow motion is the disintegration of Wikipedia as an authoritative source, at least for wide swaths of topics.' This is too harsh. First, Wikipedia’s authority has always been hotly contested. Second, Wikipedia is terrific for lots of uncontentious corners. As Diane Greco points out, the Vietnam War is still being fought on Wikipedia and that page is unlikely to reach consensus or achieve stability.

But if you want to know when Lord Acton wrote, or check exactly when Galileo died, Wikipedia is remarkable good. That’s not everything, but it's a lot.

Wikipedia has strengths. It’s useful. We shouldn’t expect it to be take on tasks for which it is poorly suited, tasks like contemporary biography. And its internal regulatory systems needs to be repaired, lest it be owned by an anonymous bureaucracy of axe-grinding children. This can all be fixed.

A further problem raised by the wiki biography controversy is the construction of the wiki police force. Wikipedia, like other wikis, confronts a constant stream of spam and vandalism. To repair the damage, Wikipedia relies on a corps of dedicated, and mostly-anonymous volunteers.

That’s a problem. Volunteer police forces are proverbially dangerous. Police forces in which officers are protected by anonymous pseudonyms are equally proverbial. In the guise of enforcing the rules, all sorts of scores may be settled and vendettas waged. It’s very difficult for anyone to distinguish a legitimate rule enforcement from capricious score-settling or from trolling.

Wikipedia tries to ameliorate the situation by rewarding frequent editors. That discourages the casual troublemaker, but encourages the dedicated nutcase, the busybody, and the Grundy. Someone who has made 30,000 wikipedia edits might be a world-class scholar and font of wisdom, but they might equally be a sad, lonely little local tyrant whose days would otherwise be empty.

The first, obvious step is accountability. For starters, a real name. At some point, we are going to need more: a domain, and address, and a footprint on the Web so we can see clearly who the police are and what they are doing.

A further step is to require that rule enforcement actions need to be taken by people who are demonstrably disinterested in the dispute. If you dislike A. B.. Clump for some reason, you can try to add critical comments to his page or attempt to delete his accomplishments. But if you have done or advocated either of these things, you should not be involved in deciding whether Clump’s page is NPOV or or AUTO or should be deleted.

Kathryn Cramer proposes that ISFDB take back author biographies from Wikipedia.

After a brief experience with Wikipdia, its editors strike me as a pack of officious trolls whose main concern is to make sure that you don't actually know the people you are writing about. The science fiction field doesn't work that way. I know hundreds (maybe over a thousand) science fiction writers, editors, and fans. Many, many of them could be described as my 'associates.' Am I connected to most members of the professional science fiction community in some way? You bet.

Where is wikipedia best? The most effective articles share some common properties:

  • Of potential interest to a wide audience
  • Of vital interest to very few
  • Impersonal

A wikipedia article on cycloctatetraene (one of my old friends) is likely to be good. Lots of people might be interested in cyclooctatetraene. Nobody cares terrible about it. Nobody loves or hates it. (I have a sneaking, nostalgic affection for it, but that’s just my and my COT).

A wikipedia article on a controversial, living person is almost bound to be a combat zone. Dave Winer, for example, is sometimes controversial; his article is currently subject to deletion (!) because some anonymous enemy thinks the inventor of RSS and outline pioneer is not notable. The discussion page alone has hundreds of edits. Juan Cole's page has been the subject of a continuing revert war. Harlan Ellison (of course) has an edit war. Ted Nelson, inventor of hypertext, has no edit war (and almost no article). Most of Tony Judt's article is devoted to his opinions on Israel, and his work as a historian is covered in three or four sentences. Mel Gibson’s article is locked

Wikipedia biography is doomed, at least for living people. People who are passionately admired by some and detested by others are going to generate revert wars and nonsense. People who don’t, won’t — but nobody will notice.

One solution would be to avoid biographical entries of living persons. Another might be to limit those entries very strictly to a set of specific, objective, and enumerated facts: birth, relations, affiliations, publications, offices, and honors.

Update:Tom Hoffman, Getting Beyond 'Wikipedia Good!' Kathryn Cramer revises and extends her remarks, concluding that 'The elite of the Wikipedia editors, entrusted with special powers by Wales et al. act as a form of secret police, and of course the fighting is so vicious because the stakes are so low. Truth is not the point. The point is control.'

Update 2: Paul Montgomery is launching Tinfinger, an electronic Who's Who that takes on the problems of contemporary biography head on.

Jan 07 25 2007


Verizon finally sent a service tech to check our DSL line.

He tried to tell me that our wireless network can't handle the full capacity of our DSL line. In reality, I believe the wireless has roughly 32 times the capacity — 25,000Kbs vs 768Kbs.

I've spent hours and hours, trying to get our intermittent DSL failures fixed. It would help a lot if (a) I could reach support people quickly, (b) the support people were reasonably knowledgeable, (c) the support people did not so consistently tend to assert that the problem must necessarily be in our equipment, or imaginary, or fixed.

This is a business account. We pay a substantial premium for it, because we require businesslike service. Taking the business offline and working through a single PC until we can replicate the problem is not a reasonable option.

But the time-wasting drudgery is what really annoys me. The phone trees, followed by long and tedious scripts, followed by impractical (but mandatory) diagnostic procedures. The long spells of music on hold. The remarkable badness of the music they play.

After the tech left, everything was fine for a few hours, and then the speed went through the floor again. A new tech is supposed to come today.

My hunch is that the problem is at the other end of the wire. The pattern of the problem feels a lot like the bad old days of dialup, when the ISP had a faulty modem in the rack.

Tech support is hard. I discovered an Interesting Thing yesterday from a support call. The caller was a student on deadline, and there are few animals in nature more urgent. The reporter on deadline is nothing to it.

Anyway, the caller was getting a message from Windows when he tried to install his hypertext.

16-bit MS-DOS Subsystem...The system file is not suitable for running MS-DOS and Microsoft Windows applications

We'd heard this one a few times before, we’d never been able to replicate it, and we regarded it as a real head-scratcher. It turns out the explanation is simple — you’ve got malware! Fortunately, it's easy to fix, the student was happy, and we learned something.

John Stephan is using Tinderbox to plan his new kitchen.

The top-level map starts with a schematic diagram of the space. What will go where? What needs power? What fits?

Kitchen Planning I

Closer up, one section of the map is meta space for annotations and procedural notes. Here, for example, is a legend.

Kitchen Planning I

An important part of planning is simply detail — progressively refining the plan until you’re confident it won’t blow up. Here's a closeup of one section, already refined until we know where things will be stored.

Kitchen Planning I

by Herbert Butterfield

One striking aspect of this classic essay from 1931 is its confidence in Progress, even though its author is clearly not among her admirers. Butterfield argues against a family of related historical fallacies that arise from searching the past to justify and glorify the present. If our concept of History is to study the Reformation for seeds of freedom, liberty, and modernity, then we are naturally led to admire the winners and deplore the losers, to cheer on revolutions (as long as they were successful) and to have no sympathy with conservatives who fought for defensive or delaying causes.

Sitting amidst the debris of Thatcher, Reagan, and Bush, we see the failures of Whig history are not necessarily Whiggish or liberal. A great deal of neoconservative thought, for example, suffers from Butterfield's malady. Whatever leads to the desirable aspects of the present validates the policies that won: Bush was right to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power and, if he were, things would be worse than they are. When Macauley wrote that "the history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement," this was the rhetoric of the moderate left. Somehow, its valence has changed; today, this is the Morning In America voice of the right. Presentism has moved from validating progress and science to supporting mysticism and nostalgia for an imagined past.

by John Hodgman

A compendium of imaginary expertise and almanac to a slightly off-kilter America with 51 states, too many hoboes, and quite enough eels to go around.

Hodgman is the comic talent behind the current Apple "Hello, I'm a Mac, and I'm a PC" ad campaign. It's a brilliant set of ads, at once vicious and good natured. The well-produced audiobook has much the same spirit but lacks the venomous purpose. It's pleasantly amusing, but perhaps it lacks direction.

I am convinced that I've heard several of the Dresden Dolls songs elsewhere. But, as far as I can tell, they're not covers, and they're too new and the band is too obscure for me to have heard them covered. (I don't hear much new music). But surely I've heard The Jeep Song before. And Delilah. And the music of Mandy Goes to Med School sure rings a bell.

Is this an illusion? Deja vu all over again? How would you find out?

American Football is very popular in the US. It’s a very complicated game; every play involves 22 players, and almost every player has a crucial role in every play.

I know there's a lot I'm missing when I watch a game. For example:

  • How do you figure our where the linebackers are lining up? Should you figure out where the linebackers are?
  • Is it worth trying to keep an eye on blocking schemes? When?
  • Is it worth paying attention to backs in motion? When? Why?
  • Who plays a lot of Tampa-2? Why do they? How do you tell?
  • What are the distinctive philosophies of those organizations that have philosophies? For example, it seems to me that the Bears have been dedicated to the proposition that quarterbacks matter less than people think, and that they've followed this belief from Bobby Douglas to Rex Grossman....

There must be Web sites that carefully dissect games, teams, and schemes. Where are they? (This, incidentally, is one place where hypermedia should easily outshine paper. If the site doesn't exist, it's a slam dunk winner for an intelligent coach who can write a bit.)

Update: Football Outsiders is a good resource, though it's organized like a magazine. Thanks, Ed! Thanks Tom Hoffman!

When making stock, you want to skim. When skimming, do you want to remove the bits of floating onion and other vegetables?

  • Of course not! You're extracting their delicious flavor.
  • Yes, skim them! They're floating because they no longer have any flavor to extract. Away with them!

If you know the answer, Email me. . My stock will thank you.

In American football, teams select among a variety of defensive schemes. Some are better against the pass, others are better against the run. Each has its own tendencies

Political systems work the same way: you never know exactly what will happen, but each system seems designed to be good at some things even if it might have trouble with others. And that's what makes the current administration so strange.

"I don’t think he understands the world,” Mr. Rockefeller said. “I don’t think he’s particularly curious about the world. I don’t think he reads like he says he does.”

He added, “Every time he’s read something he tells you about it, I think.”

It’s not as if we haven’t seen important leaders like this before. Domitian, perhaps. Commodus. Henry VI. In fact, the U.S. was founded in reaction to one: George III. Men who probably didn’t especially want the power, men who would probably have been happier living in a nice quiet house in country. And so the Americans design a Republic because, while the people might elect a demagogue or a scoundrel, you wouldn’t expect them to elect gentle idiots who just don’t know anything or care much.

It’s like Washington and Madison put eight men in the box and offense ran right up the middle and still, somehow, couldn’t be stopped.

One of the best papers at Hypertext '06 was Dave Millard's study of Web 2.0 (pdf), which concluded that Web 2.0 was pretty much about the original concerns of the hypertext research community.

Tim Bray's on linking starts from the other end of the journey — the end that asks "should I like to Wikpedia, or to the official site, or to the news site, or where?" — and winds up in just about the same place, back with the Halasz 7.

So here’s what I’d like: a way to write multi-ended links with simple indirection, and a reasonable way for users to display them in whatever browser they’re using. Fortunately, I have a nice link-rich testbed here at ongoing, with software I control, and the era of GreaseMonkey and AJAX, who needs to wait for the browser builders?

He has a particularly good point about multiheaded links:

every financial Web site in the world is full of multi-ended links: every time they mention a company they’ll typically link to its share price, some analysis, and previous articles...

Multiheaded links were the specialty of a pre-Web hypertext system called Trellis, back in the day. It may well be time to revisit them.

In the meantime, Bray has a good point about Another Layer of Indirection. If you're linking to something and you can't decide which resource you want to site or whether that resource will last, make a small page (or widget) what lists all the resources. Link to that page.

  • If something moves, you can change it in one place. You don't have to hunt all the bad links.
  • If you later want to add a resource, you can add it to the link page. If something goes sour, you can replace bad resources with better ones.

Additional pages cost almost nothing. You can display them in popups or AJAX widgets; they don't need to take lots of your time or your reader's. Personal content management assistants like Tinderbox should make it easy to make and organize them.

Exercise for the reader: show us exactly how this would work in Tinderbox. Email me.. Get famous.

Updates: Stefan Keydel writes to suggest using stretchtext to disclose the details of the multi-ended link.

by Marisha Pessl

Blue van Meer is sixteen, preternaturally smart, and her professorial father "always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it." She figured she'd be seventy before she was ready, but life intervened and here she is, sitting in he freshman dorm room in Harvard Yard, setting pen to paper.

I took a deep breath. At the top of the page, I wrote in my neatest handwriting, “Curriculum.’ and then, “Required Reading.”

That was always how Dad began.

Each of the thirty six chapters is aptly named for a Great Book. A schematic of the climax is brilliant in itself: "Good Country People" (O'Connor), The Trial (Kafka), Paradise Lost (Milton), The Secret Garden (Burnett), and Metamorphoses (Ovid). This is the second wonderful novel of Senior Year in a year (see Sittenfield, Prep ) and it's wonderful. A special delight for the bookish and a novel of the moment, this one is not to be missed and not to be put off.

Jan 07 19 2007


Photographer Richard Chase has a terrific weblog. Today, it's about Frankie.

I was rarely sure who was going to show up at my studio when we were scheduled to get together. Frankie can be more than withdrawn. During our first several sessions, there were times when she was so unresponsive even to casual conversation that I had to wonder if she was alright. And when she became present again, she was be defensive, manipulating, and angry -- or shy, unsure and easily embarrassed. It took some getting used to, but I like roller coasters and very quickly among those many mood swings I found someone who became one of my most cherished subjects. She never came to the studio as anyone but herself, and she always let what her life at the moment was come through. It's not possible for me, as a person or as a photographer, to ask for more.

Read the entire essay, and be sure to click on the images. Chase makes huge prints; the tiny Web thumbnails don’t give you a clue.

OREGON LITERARY REVIEW, an online literary magazine, actively seeks hypertext fiction of any length. The review is at . Submission guidelines here. Deadline for summer issue is May 15, 2007. For more information contact editor Charles Deemer (email).

One of my graphics apps has been misbehaving lately when I use certain fonts. I just upgraded my copy of Font Doctor, and it found a bunch of small problems — bad files, duplicate fonts — that seem to have cleared up the problem.

There's going to be a Hypertext '07. It'll be in Manchester, England, which is one of the easiest (and least expensive) places to which to fly. It's in September. Eastgate and Microsoft are corporate sponsors.

I’m program chair for an independent track on Hypertext Culture and Communication: art, literature, phillosophy, and the hypertext tools to support them.

Papers and hypertexts are due on May 7, 2007.

Hot glass looks like cold glass. This is one of the things they drilled into us in school, over those long afternoons of lab exercise.

I say it to myself all the time in the kitchen. I have little red sleeves that go over skillet handles as soon as the skillets come out of the oven. I have six or seven oven mitts floating around the place. I recite the words: hot glass looks like cold glass.

It didn't keep me from grabbing a skillet of (rather good) russian banana fingerling potatoes, halved, browned in a little oil, and then baked in dark stock and lime juice with a little shallot and lots of fresh thyme.

My picture of lab chemistry was doubly warped. First, I spent a summer in a hospital lab during high school, so I had the routine manipulations down cold before we ever got to them in school. It's like cooking: if you want to learn to use a pipette, do fifty serum creatinine a day for a week or two. You can get a start by watching the professor's demo and working through a three hour lab, but a week or two of production builds reflexes and gives you a chance to see things go wrong.

The other distortion, of course, is that the lab chemistry they taught us in school was a bad compromise between the last decade's needs and the current era's practices, further compromised because it's hard to provide decent instrumentation for thirty high school kids or forty college students, most of whom thought themselves to be ticking off the course in route to medical school.

By the time I started, the age of blowing your own chemical glassware were over. At least I never had to learn to use a beam balance — those lovely precision instruments you still see in museums and display cases, all oak, glass, and brass. Still, they taught us the rudiments, and that all-important lesson: hot glass looks like cold glass.

Jan 07 18 2007

The Bridge

Gary Reighn designed a home theater based on the bridge of J. T. Kirk’s Starship Enterprise. Better yet, he did it on budget, and designed a Web site about the process.

Jan 07 16 2007

Using Sets

A Tom Sawyer project on the Tinderbox Wiki: Using Sets to manage all the things you want to do.

It’s nice to surprise a reporter.

Merlin Mann was interviewing Patrick Woolsey, COO of BareBones, on the floor at MacWorld Expo (video here) for MacBreak. They're talking about Yojimbo, which Patrick calls "a digital junk drawer — a place to store all that stuff that, otherwise, is going to accumulate on your desktop."

About half way through, Woolsey mentioned that Yojimbo now comes with each copy of Tinderbox.

Woolsey: Something else that’s very cool that I'm not sure that you maybe haven’t heard about yet, is that Tinderbox is now bundled with Yojimbo.

Mann: You are kidding me! Wow! ... This is like the Yalta conference for my favorite nerd apps! Tinderbox is a wonderful application. How do you describe Tinderbox? It's almost like exposing a database for data objects you can move around.

Woolsey: It's really an ultimately flexible way to store an manipulate any sort of textual information.

The look on Merlin’s face was wonderful. This is how you want reporters to look when they hear about your product!

Tinderbox ☙ Yojimbo: Wow!
Merlin Mann(left) interviews Patrick Woolsey about Yojimbo and Tinderbox, MacWorld 2007

Giles Turnbull for O'Reilly asks, "Why does a hugely powerful text/database environment like Tinderbox need something like Yojimbo alongside it? What’s the benefit for Tinderbox users?"

The point of the bundle is that Yojimbo is designed to make importing information very easy indeed. The idea is that it’s so easy to import stuff, you don’t need to stop and think about the process, you just do it.

It was only after the game was over that we realized that this had been a historic game.

Someone on WBCN asked whether, from this day forward, the people of San Diego would talk about Troy Bleeping Brown the way a generation of Red Sox fans have said "Bucky Fucking Dent."

And, when you think about it, this was about all you can ask for in football. It wasn’t the Super Bowl, but the Super Bowl never is. It can’t be, really, because football at its best is played just outside the boundaries of athletic control, by men who know their limits and who are trying to do just a little bit more than they can, knowing that they can’t do it but that they must. Super Bowl teams almost always think themselves champions, so most of the game is played with care and caution, seeking small advantage by avoiding terrible blunder.

And so the best games are often earlier in the playoffs or in the regular season, games of consequence but games where at least one team is filled with doubt, The Patriots weren’t the best team, but in football there are ways for a somewhat inferior team to beat a superior opponent. It doesn’t happen often (as it does in baseball, where true excellence only emerges over the course of a weeks of play), and it doesn’t happen at random (as it seems to do, sometimes, in basketball). But it can be made to happen, sometimes, with skill and luck.

Usually, the solution for a weak team is to create one unexpected strength that the opponent can’t match. The only way for a weak team to create a strength is to create a weakness somewhere else, and then to find a way to patch the weakness. This is what football is about, at least as I (very imperfectly) understand it. For some reason, it’s seldom what the announcers and the talk show pundits discuss.

The two defining weaknesses of this Patriot team have been their receivers — they lost a bunch of pretty-good receivers last year and replaced them with cheap spare parts — and their defensive secondary, which is adequate when healthy but which has been spectacularly unhealthy for much of the past two years and has in consequence been a remarkable juggling act of novices, has-beens, and improvisations. One of those improvisations (mostly for last year) was using aging receiver Troy Brown as an extra cornerback. He’s not a great cornerback, but sometimes he’s been better than the alternatives.

And so, at the end of the game, Brady throws a floater on a hopeless fourth-and-five, the ball is intercepted, and the game is over. But the intended receiver was Troy Brown, who has spent two years playing part-time cornerback, which means for the past two years he has been practicing for this one moment, the split second when he could be exactly the right talent in exactly the right place, ready to strip the ball and to force the fumble that won the game. For that one moment, Troy Brown was exactly the right player with exactly the right preparation. Jerry Rice in his youth wouldn’t have helped. Steve Largent. Lance Alworth. Crazylegs Hirsch. Not even Troy Brown in his prime would have helped. For that one moment, you needed this Troy Brown.

And, there he was.

Jan 07 14 2007

The Dante Club

by Matthew Pearl

Writers of historical mysteries need to accept that some people walk. They don’t run, they don’t dash over the frozen Charles in the middle of winter, pursuing nefarious suspects. They don’t throw punches. They seldom raise their voice.

Matthew Pearl’s mystery, in which Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., James Russell Lowell, and J. T. ("Ticknor and") Fields jointly translate Dante and catch a serial killer, must necessarily endure buckets of exposition. These were famously expository fellows. It was an expository era. Pearl draws them well — Holmes and Longellow brilliantly — and accepts that a lot of the action is going to come in drawing rooms and studies and hired cabs. He even contrives a nifty plot obstacle — an outbreak of horse distemper — to show us how effortlessly he can hide the seams if he chooses.

It's not necessary to mar these well-drawn characters by forcing them into physical action. There’s plenty of excitement in the struggle for the soul of Harvard and the American intellect, so there’s no urgent need for fisticuffs.

I 'read' this as an audiobook, but accidentally purchased the abridged version. Back when audiobooks came on cassette, abridgments were common and, in my experience, were done with care. In this case, the scars are too clear to overlook.

You learn a lot of valuable lessons from your Mom and Dad, but one they taught me — and which I am sorry to say I neglected yesterday — is to look stuff up.

I should have known something was wrong when I spelled Krups three different ways in the same paragraph yesterday. But my spelling is always lousy. (So was my Mom’s, and she was a newspaper editor.)

Krups, the manufacturer of small appliances like my coffee maker, has nothing at all to do with Krupp, steel-maker, arms merchant, and employer of slave labor. I distinctly remember being told as a boy about Krupp and our household appliances. My parents were just mixed up.

Which is no excuse. Thanks to Niko Papastefanou for straightening me out.

Nobody offered a defense of Ford.

Jan 07 13 2007


The deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, Cully Stimson, believes that anyone George Bush has ordered to be imprisoned at Guantanamo must be guilty, and that loyal Americans should boycott any law firms that work on their behalf.

The Wall Street Journal thinks the boycott is a dandy idea.

I just wrote about how hard it is to get new customers, and and how much harder it is to get old customers. The Republican Party is going to remember these stunts for generations.

Put it this way: we just replaced our coffeemaker, which occasionally spilled hot coffee grounds all over the counter. Our neighbors were discarding theirs, having bought a new Keurig like the one we have at Eastgate, so we thought we’d try their castoff. It was free. But I hesitated, because it was made by Krupp‘s, and We Don’t Buy Stuff From Krupps. Is it OK to use a Krupp coffeepot that would otherwise be thrown away?

Update: I'm completely wrong. The coffeepot is fine. Here's why.

We don’t buy Fords, either; I don’t think any member of my (very) extended family has bought a Ford in seventy years.

And I suppose that’s how we’ll look back at the Bush years.

Jan 07 12 2007


Lilly Tomlin used to do skit about the phone company, back before the breakup. "We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.”

Our DSL goes out, periodically. Restarting the modem usually fixes the problem. Sometimes, you need to do that twice. Sometimes, you have to wait ten minutes and recite Matthew Arnold poetry to the modem. Sometimes, it gets better.

Yesterday it was bad in the morning; usually, it gets tired in the afternoon. I thought it was better this morning, but it wasn’t. So I called....the phone company.

You know how this goes.

But in the end, here I am with a DSL supervisor and a repair dispatcher on the same line, and the repair dispatcher droned this dreary monotone repetition that they can’t do anything until it happens again. And maybe its our router. Or our computers are 'broken'. And everything in a whiny, bored, finger-pointing monotone.

It was so bad the supervisor disconnected her and apologized to me.

But you know, the breakup was in 1982. I'm talking to one of the Baby Bells, 25 years later. You could work there an entire career and never have known one day when you didn’t have to care because you were the phone company.

To avoid a $100 service call, Verizon is practically begging me to go down the street to CableVision. It must cost them much more than $100 to get a customer; it costs them a lot more than $100 to get on old customer.

Let's look at another nifty thing you can do in Tinderbox 3.6. This time, we're going to use AutoFetchCommand to plug into a Web service.

Lots of companies use UPS to ship packages. If you got to their Web site, you can sign up for a free "developer key" that gives you access to their tracking system. You send them a little hunk of XML that contains:

  • Your account name
  • Your password
  • Your developer key
  • The tracking number you're interested in

The UPS server sends back a hunk of XML that tells you what it knows about the package. So, in Tinderbox, we have a user attribute for the UPS tracking number and we write a little script (I used ruby) to talk to UPS. Here's the business end, after I've assembled the little XML package to send to UPS:

# assemble the input xml
command="curl -s -d \'"+input+"\'";;
status= XPath.first(doc,"//Status/StatusType/Description")
if (!status)
puts status.to_a

This is lousy ruby style. I don't really know ruby. You can do loads better. It's just an example.

Anyway, now we can add TrackingNumber and DeliveryStatus attributes to our notes about UPS parcels, and give them an AutoFetchCommand like this:

DeliveryStatus=`ruby ~/Documents/Work/UPS/ups.rb $TrackingNumber

And now the DeliveryStatus will be automatically updated over the net. Agents can give you up-to-the-minute lists of all the packages that have not been delivered. All sorts of nice new things are possible: even easy.

Tom Webster has an interesting note on using Tinderbox for keeping track of market research focus groups . The challenge is not simply crunching the data; in practice, life can come between the researcher and the information. "Three months, 13 cities, three continents....": not only do you need to analyze and organize a lot of information, you need to get things done in the time and workspace you have — in airports and hotels and in moments between meetings. Webster describes the problem as having to "take five hundred cocktail napkins and turn them into a ten-page article."

One of the projects I did over the past few months was a coast-to-coast qualitative research project for a large public broadcasting concern, which spanned over two months in more cities than you can count on one hand. In this project, we did focus groups in several representative cities, then packaged all the data up to draw some conclusions about media usage, lifestyles and consumer behavior.

The day this project ended I had to drive to Georgia for another client, then fly off to London to give a presentation. As a result, I had very little time to go back over the data (or watch the films of the groups over and over) to distill my thoughts and draw conclusions to deliver my analysis within a reasonable time frame. Tinderbox was immensely helpful here, serving as both my "institutional memory" for both client and project, and as a remarkably efficient way to create, group and identify clusters of notes--and people--to get to the insights that the groups had to offer.

In Tinderbox, it's easy to AutoFetch something from the Web and stuff it into a note. This helps workgroups, classes, and small teams to keep things organized and in sync.

But what if you want to coordinate specific values? For example, the current version of Tinderbox changes from time to time. Today, it's Tinderbox 3.6.1. But next month, the latest version will probably be something else. But any Tinderbox document can find the version at a known URL:

Some other note, in some other Tinderbox document, needs to know what the current version is. Easy! It can use a rule to get the latest version and store it locally. We put the address of the data in the URL attribute, and then add a simple rule:

Version=`curl $URL

This isn't a polished solution -- there's no error handling if, for example, you happen to be on an airplane and Tinderbox can't get the version. But you get the idea.

This is just one of the cool new things you can do in Tinderbox 3.6....

Jan 07 8 2007


Another Susan Goin recipe, this spring onion tart is baked on a sheet of (frozen) puff pastry, covered with a layer of ricotta and egg, and then layers with lots of gruyere, sauteed spring onions, red onions, thyme, and cubes of wild boar bacon.

It was really too rich for an entree, but it will make a nice appetizer next time.


An Australian friend asks,

I've noticed the number of books that you're reviewing on your site: you seem to be reading a book every few days, and yet you're still doing things like shipping Tinderbox 3.6: are you a very fast reader, or do you have some other trick?

I'm not a fast reader. In fact, I'm slower than average. Much slower than my wife, certainly, over whose shoulder I cannot read for more than a page or two.

I was wandering through the bookstore after today’s Patriots win and thinking that I need to read more. There are so many interesting new books....

It's not terribly surprising that I read slowly. After all, I spent four years in remedial reading. (I don't think I'm the first Parkerite to write that June Atchinson deserved a great many medals. From our little remedial reading program, as far as I can remember, everyone finished high school, only one person didn't graduate from a good college — he's better-read than I but lhe lost all patience with school — and I think we wound up with at least one M.D. and one Ph.D. out of a class of about ten.)

At Readercon in the summer, I meet people who really do read a lot. The worst, though, are the pros, the acquisition editors. I think some of them read so much at work that they have almost no time left for any other reading. Be careful when you wish for your dream job.

Mostly, I read in the late evening after dinner, and a little in the morning before the newspaper claims me. (Lately, I'm reading more Web politics and less of the Globe.) For a while, I read over lunch, but now I lunch less — and tend to read TLS, NYRB, and Wired when I do. I'm reduced to reading The New Yorker while cooking dinner. There's never enough time.

I used to read while waiting for the compiler; in fact, I went through pretty much all of Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II while recompiling Storyspace, Fontina, and Link Apprentice. Compilers are faster, now, and we have more email.

Kathryn Cramer blogs the bankruptcy of Advanced Marketing Group, "a major book distributor (and owner of Publishers Group West), went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, taking with it a big chunk of US publishing's Christmas receipts."

The distribtors are much bigger businesses than the publishers and the big box club stores are in turn much bigger businesses than the distributors.

Does ANYONE at Costco or Sam's Club care that they are and have been forcing the entire publishing industry to do business with crooks? It would appear that the answer is no: that's how Costco keeps its prices down.  Business as usual is business with crooks.

Meanwhile, perhaps the best we can hope for the Christmas publishing revenues is that they are having a nice holiday in the Cayman Islands.

Boy, does book publishing have channel problems! Software publishing has a channel problem, too.

Update: many small publishers will go under, because the bankruptcy ties up their 4Q06 revenues. GalleyCat writes:

C.E. Petit at Scrivener's Error provides a necessary legal perspective on the bankruptcy - and the news is not very good at all for small and mid-sized publishers. "Small and mid-sized publishers of fiction are...going to have some serious cashflow problems that will [hit them] twice: Once in delayed and diminished cashflow, and once more because their books simply won't be sold until they change their distribution. And that's going to go through to authors, too."

Blog categories fall apart because they’re incidental. A post doesn’t exist in order to be categorized.

In the heat of the moment, we forget to put some posts in the right category. We forget to put some posts in any category at all. We can't decide which categories to choose — and so everything ends up turning miscellaneous.

Or, we say, "I'll sort these out later.” We all know how that turns out!

The answer, I think, is simple:

  • let the blog do a lot of the categorizing for you
  • make it easy to remind yourself what you want to revisit
  • avoid premature commitment

Scott Johnson is doing something similar for photography at Ookles. Nobody is as thorough about labeling and tagging their snapshots as they ought to be. But Ookles can deploy some good state-of-the-art face recognition: it can tell that this is a picture of Suzy and that's a picture of Terrence. So, it goes ahead and tags things for you. (And, I'm sure, there will be some handy way to tell it that, 'No, that's not Suzy, it's her long lost twin sister Suw! Who knew?!')

Tinderbox 3.6 introduces sets, which make it really easy to let agents assign things to categories for you. Agents search for notes that meet some criteria, such as "notes that are inside my archives, published in the last three years, and that mention Roger Ebert, David Mamet, or Louis Menand". Now, we can let agents automatically add and remove tags:


Adornments and containers can add and remove tags, too. Put something there, and it automatically gets metadata. Your pile of finished tasks can automatically add Complete and remove ToDo from the note's tags.

All this extends Tinderbox's role as a spreadsheet of ideas, and makes it much easier to keep categories alive and reasonable consistent. There will always be edge cases: this post mentions Mamet but it's not really about the theater, just as Suw isn’t really Suzy but merely looks like her. But getting things roughly right is much better than giving up.

I expect this is especially important for high-volume pro bloggers. Good, focussed categories are good ad targets, so they should be good revenue enhancers. But you don't have a stable of tame indexers categorizing every bit of gossip of about The Valley or the next Apple gizmo! If an occasional post is indexed somewhat fancifully, the readers and advertisers will soon forgive you. But everyone has archives, and we all should use our archives to greater effect.

William Cole is excited by the new Tinderbox 3.6.0, and describes how adding ^inboundTextLinks to his weblog export template might bring better traffic to his archives.

Jan 07 5 2007

Under the Radar?

Dave Winer is looking for companies for Under The Radar. Interestingly, two categories of interest are

1. Organize - Tasks, Database, Project, Notes, Bookmarks


7. Personalize - Desktop, Calendar, personal organizers


Jan 07 4 2007

Tinderbox 3.6

Tinderbox 3.6 is now available! Here's what's new.

  • Set attributes (tags, and more)
  • Spreadhseet import
  • Yojimbo is included free with new orders and upgrades
  • Richer agent queries and actions
  • Exciting new ways to interact with outside programs and Web services
  • Richer stamps for qualitative analysis

I'll be talking more about Tinderbox 3.6.0 in the coming days and weeks, obviously. In the meantime, go grab your copy.

Of Day, Of Night

The new issue of Cambridge University's Gown has a fine review of Megan Heyward's Of Day, Of Night. Rose Hepworth writes that Of Day, Of Night is a

reassuring, faith-restoring new media [work] in which the reader is no longer a casualty in the crossfire between a compelling narrative and interactivity. Megan Heyward brings about a harmonious coexistence, which is skillfully braided together.

Hepworth does a lovely job of exploring the way Of Day, Of Night relates to Shelley Jackson's hypertext, Patchwork Girl. Both hypertexts are concerned with the difference between the reader's choices, the writer's choices, and the character's choices. Both gain narrative intensity from the contrast. But Hepworth observes that

Whereas Jackson's text and protagonist draw strength from the visibility of their seams, it is the seamless nature of Heyward's text that beckons and bewitches.

I think that "seamless" is not precisely right here. Cinema can be seamless, but I think interaction necessarily exposes articulation. But Jackson revels in exposing the stitches, while Heyward's joinery is careful and fine: you can see her dovetails and enjoy them, but they are tightly pegged, sanded, and polished.

Navigating the world of Megan Heyward's of day, of night is to experience the succulent, polyphylectic language of new media writing at its beautiful, poetic, and compelling best.
Jan 07 3 2007


by Robert Harris

A fascinating political thriller, based on the rise of Cicero to the consulship in 63 B.C. Harris manages to capture the characteristic rhythm of Cicero's sentences, their many clauses, their frequent appositions, but never bogs down in tiresome pedantry. His Cicero is, I suspect, rather more pleasant and entertaining than the man.

As Hornby observed in The Believer, Harris has a knack for avoiding anachronistic exposition. Historical fiction writers tend to have characters explain things that nobody would talk about, because everyone (in their time, or their world) already knows. Harris almost never does this. (At one point he does give way and lets a character remind us who Tiberius Gracchus was and what happened to him, but even Homer nods.) His Romans are always Romans, but they never stop to think about how Rome is ancient or explain things for 21st-century witnesses. Remarkably little needs to be explained, anyway.

Though Harris is at some pains not to underline this, the struggle to preserve the Roman constitution against Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar bears a startling similarity to the struggle to preserve American civil liberties. When Pompey erects beacon stations along busy river roads, supposedly to provide warning against pirate raids but actually as security theater to show worried voters that something was being done, the specter of contemporary airport searches and subway announcements is impossible to suppress.

J. Nathan Matias has built a fascinating php viewer that lets you see Tinderbox maps in your web browser. Here's an example.

Over in the peekhole, there's a new note on making multi-column lists in Tinderbox 3.6, and how we added the functionality needed to support this even though we're very late in the release process.

Jan 07 1 2007


Dave Rogers unpacks some heated discussion of Digital Rights Management (DRM). He begins,

DRM is a nuisance, but so is inaccuracy.

and concludes

The fact is, my enjoyment of music is much more convenient today, DRM and all, than it ever was before. Would I prefer files that I could manipulate without going through an occasional hassle? Sure. But let's keep some perspective here. I've bought more music through the iTMS in the last few years than I have in the previous two decades. And I've been listening to and enjoying more music since the advent of iTunes and the iPod than at any other time in my life.

Somehow, I suspect there are more pressing problems in the world than a lack of convenience. But there you go.

Friday, I went to the ART. I'm a subscriber, I just show up and they do whatever they do. Right now, they're doing The Onion Cellar, which is all about The Dresden Dolls, who are all about punk cabaret. It was pretty good.

Now, punk cabaret isn't on my radar. In fact, I kind of missed punk, and grunge, and pretty much everything in pop music for the last year or twenty. Some people don't read; I don't do that much music anymore. But Saturday morning, I was thinking about the play and some of the songs.

coin operated boy
he may not be real
experienced with girls
but i know he feels
like a boy should feel
isnt that the point
that is why i want a
coin operated boy

Cathy Marshall went to have lunch "at an unnamed Silicon Valley company – not the one where the cafeteria is free, but another one, one you've probably never heard of ." To get a visitor's pass, they wanted her to sign a non-disclosure. Hilarity ensues, with a detour to Christmas in Los Angeles and the world-famous Sea Sprite motel, where one visitor is awoken in the middle of the night because his wife has noticed an anomaly:

So the first night we were there, I closed the sliding glass door and pulled down the latch, thinking it was locked. At 2 am I wake up to my wife yelling at me that someone is in bed with me. I look down and there is an asian [sic] girl, about 25 laying next to me dry heaving, or at least I thought she was dry heaving.

Any suspicion that Marshall is practicing the craft of fiction here is easily dispelled. You can look it up. The fact that you can look it up has strange and deep implications.

XKCD, a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language, takes on YouTube comments. Thanks, Bill Humphries. 

Has anyone noticed that the bitter posturing so common in comments and review sites becomes swift-boating in politics? Take a rumor, spice liberally with attitude, and shout it from every cybernetic housetop until the rumor itself is news, and then let that news shape the 'perception'. Whether you're out to get some high school rival or John Kerry, all you need is a band of talented trolls, some money, plenty of open forums, and an audience.