Feb 11 2 2011

Rich eBooks

People continue to rediscover multimedia -- especially the integration of video and print. I remain unconvinced. Film is important. Reading is important. The two are very different, and simply mixing them together does not always lead to success.

One clear exception, of course, are books that teach manual skills, such as sports instruction or bread baking. Michael Ruhlman’s new Bread Baking Basics is, in essence, a slender but richly-illustrated book about making simple bread. There’s no video here, but the excellent photography suffices for almost everything; I think video might help for shaping the dough into boules and baguettes.

There’s some sensible use of computation – adaptive hypertext, really – in recipes that scale themselves to different batch sizes. In other contexts that might be a bit silly, but I’ve noticed in reactions to Ruhlman’s Ratio that a fair number of Ruhlman’s readers cannot abide anything that reminds them of arithmetic.

Also of interest, John Gruber goes wild over a demo of ebook/video integration with exceptionally good detailing.

The tech Twitterverse went deranged yesterday over reports that Apple might have changed a policy that might force Amazon and Apple to negotiate a deal over the Kindle app. No one knows anything, and the subsequent Apple announcement was opaque. Keep calm and make stuff.

Jan 11 31 2011


I managed to nick a fingertip on my mandoline, yesterday. I was slicing potatoes for a gratin, and got sloppy. Only a little sloppy – barely a scratch. I was kicking myself for coming so close to doing something classically stupid.

Too close, it turns out, and now I’m trying to write two articles – both on deadline – and revise a manual while nursing a very tender fingertip.

This must be a common injury for food writers! If you know the secret (beyond the obvious rule of not being stupid enough to cut yourself), please Email me..

Jan 11 28 2011


PW editor Rose Fox offers advice to writers.

Read widely. Write endlessly. Do your research. Proofread twice. Make your deadlines.

Nothing astonishing, but well worth reading.

Jan 11 27 2011

Among Others

by Jo Walton

A brilliant and realistic fantasy novel set in late 20th-century Wales, where young Morwenna Phelps has recently lost her identical twin sister, her name, her ability to walk without a limp, and perhaps her family. In the wreckage of what might be seen as an automobile accident (but might also be a titanic magical duel), she is sent off with a father she scarcely knows to an English boarding school where she is the Barbarian Outsider. There, she does not care that she is not loved, so long as she is feared.

As she always has, Mor takes refuge in books. She tells us all about them. The cruelties of school girls and school dinners don’t matter nearly as much as her discovery of James Tiptree, Jr.’s secret.

Jo Walton dexterously explores a fresh formulation of magic, one that admits the possibility of magic all around us while not contradicting our common experiences or turning the protagonist into the Chosen One. Morwenna has already saved the world. She was crippled, her twin sister Morganna died. That’s past. This is what happens later.

Among Others portrays its characters through the books they were reading in the fall of 1979, and by how they talk about those books. In the process, Walton builds a stirring case for the role and use of science fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy. This is a book for people who read, people who go to ReaderCon, people who know why Donaldson is not Tolkien, why Asimov’s lack of style does not really matter, why so many of us could love Chip Delaney and also Roger Zelazny, Ursula Le Guin and also Larry Niven.

(Warning: the inside flap copy contains a borderline spoiler. Don’t read it.)

Several crucial scenes take place in meetings of a public library’s Tuesday night science fiction club. Gaining access to this meeting was no small task, requiring letters, permission slips, and a spell; the meeting serves, formally, as the Hero’s Last Sanctuary, this book’s pause at Minas Tirith before the march to Pelennor. This is a book that’s going to be discussed at many such meetings for many years.

Jan 11 26 2011

Note Taking

It gets off to a slow start, but Ann Blair’s Note Taking as an Art of Transmission is a fascinating look at the history of taking notes.

Professional readers like Gabriel Harvey were hired to select the most interesting parts of a book according to precise instructions, for the use of high-ranking officials. Bequests of personal notes were explicitly included in wills and even fought over in cases of disputed legacy. 5The notes of highly regarded scholars were especially valued: I surmise that the sons and nephews who inherited them and pursued learned careers of their own may have put these notes to good use in their own work; there were even attempts made to purchase such notes.

Thanks to John Verity for the lead.

Jan 11 25 2011

Chilly Scenes

I’ve become a great fan of Andrew Sullivan’s View From Your Window Contest. Every Saturday, he posts a picture taken from somebody’s window. People look at the picture and try to figure out exactly where it is. The following Tuesday, he posts the best answers.

Here's this week’s:

Chilly Scenes

I’ve given up actually playing the game; instead, I play what ought to be a simpler game: how close will people get this week? The possible categories, from experience, are:

  • right country, but wrong town
  • right town, but not exactly the right neighborhood
  • right neighborhood, but not quite the exact address
  • exact address
  • exact location (e.g. “middle window of the third floor”)

Even here, I'm often wildly wrong. Take this week’s picture: there’s nothing to much to see! Two wintry roads. A shoreline. Snow. Some distant hills. A hint of an estuary. There’s not a whole lot of building here, so it might not even be the sort of place that has addresses. Could be Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Could be somewhere on Lake Erie. Could be somewhere in Norway, if there’s anywhere that’s flat enough. Wouldn’t Iorek Byrnison of Svalbard look at home here? Surely, there’s just not enough data here to get the exact location.

Wrong. Not only did someone figure out the exact address, lots of people did. Several got the exact window – and sent in a photograph of the building with the window circled.

Jan 11 24 2011


Over the weekend, I baked a big loaf of challah – a half-batch of the Marlene Newell’s nifty recipe posted at Michael Ruhlman’s customary abode.

I halved everything except the vanilla, of which I accidentally measured a full dose of double-strength extract.

It tastes great, anyway.

Jan 11 23 2011


One of the interesting snippets at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture reads:

Did You Know?

In 1965, Satchel Paige pitched three no-hitter innings at the age of 57.

This is a nice illustration of why editing (and museum curation) is so difficult, for this short sentence – while basically correct – appears to contain three errors.

  1. “No-hitter” is a noun. The adjectival form is “no-hit.” This is the minor mistake that first caught my eye.
  2. There is some uncertainty, it seems, about the date of Paige’s birth. The consensus appears to be 7 July 1906, so Paige would have been 59, not 57.
  3. They weren’t no-hit innings; Carl Yastrzemski hit a double in the first.

You could also object that this was not the accomplishment for which Paige most ought to be remembered; pitching for the pennant-winning Indians in 1948 (and getting substantial Rookie Of The Year support at age 42) is more impressive, and of course the Negro League legends are off the charts.

Back in June, the ELO threw a conference and party for Robert Coover, who has done tremendously important work for literary hypertext . I attended, hoping for a reconciliation with some of the ELO crowd. That did not happen, unfortunately. Shortly afterward, I wrote some notes about that conference (which was called “Archive and Innovate”) and put those notes in a special bin where I leave volatile notes to cool.

This conference is now forgotten. But, sorting out the dustheaps to prepare for some new weblog projects, I couldn’t quite see my way to burying these notes.

  • It was great to see Bob Coover once more in full demo mode, leading us through the Hypertext Hotel again. It’s a fascinating work, and nowadays many of those students are themselves famous writers.
  • It was fun, too, to see the Hotel in Storyspace I for Windows. In principle, it might have been safer to use a more recent Storyspace -- or Tinderbox! – for the demo, but everything went well. This particular copy probably left Eastgate World Headquarters in the fall of 1997. Astonishing that it works as well as it does.
  • For twenty years, if you’ve had a problem with Storyspace or wanted to read a good hypertext or needed help to find a reference to a hypertext paper you couldn’t quite remember, we’ve been a phone call away. Try doing that with Intermedia, or Guide, or NoteCards, or Xanadu, or Director.
  • That Châteauneuf-du-Pape was memorable.
  • Parties and readings and book tours matter a lot in ELO circles. I've never understood this. I think the Postmodern Dinner and the Black & White Ball mattered, and the rest of these literary parties are froth. And I’m not completely sure about Capote’s Party.
  • These English professors have remarkable faith in the wisdom of crowds for refining critical categories. This faith seems strangely placed. If crowd-sourced categories are so good, who needs English Professors? What we want from a critic is exceptional insight: we want to see why the work that everyone adores is really dross, and things that nobody pays any attention to are really important. (As it happened, those crowds that were going to crowd-source haven’t materialized, anyway.)
  • These are people who discuss replication of hegemonic relations over breakfast and who can toss off a pint of Said and and a sidecar of Foucault while juggling Lacan, Sontag and Cixous . Yet they assume that crowd-sourcing won’t repeat the categorical delusions of, say, 1930’s Europe.
  • To say this is to invite derision, and worse.
  • The English professors also have a charming faith in open source as a repository of virtue, and some still think that universal standardization — everyone writing with the Official Approved Standard Tool — would make the art world richer. They’re advocates of beaux-arts new media – or would be if such a thing existed – while pretending to despise the salon and its masters. These are revolutionaries who long for state-subsidized art based on state-subsidized and state-approved software.
  • At one point, I was rushing downstairs to the loo alongside the most promising of young European new media critics. She knew I was deeply upset about the paper that had just been presented. “It’s not personal!” she reassured me. But that’s precisely the point: it’s not personal at all, it’s about doing the work and getting the facts right.
  • It seems to be deeply unfashionable to care about doing the work and getting the facts right.

That unfashionability upset me deeply, until Readercon reminded me that, in other circles, scholarship can still find a home, and that some scholars do understake difficult work without much hope of grants, tenure, an audience or a job, simply because the work needs to be done.

Jan 11 18 2011

iCal Fun

How do popular applications talk to iCal or BusyCal or Google Calendar? Specifically, what’s the best way to put a new event onto your calendar? The API seems remarkably well hidden. Email me.

by Sarah Smith

Two twice-haunted children meet in the park. Law Walker is biracial, his father is an angry and wildly successful Harvard historian, his mother is an angry and wildly successful preservationist, and he’s haunted by their expectations, their demands, and by the weight that history and society heaps on the shoulders of a black boy of whom much is expected. Katey Mullens has a simpler lot; recently orphaned, she sees ghosts and is haunted by the fear that she’s going mad. Naturally, they fall in love, and inevitably their love finds expression in a hopeless school project – saving the derelict Pinebank mansion from city planners.

The book is complicated by the fact that Pinebank and the crusade to save it were real, the principal actors in that struggle feature prominently in its pages, and so this Victorian-revival Gothic novel cannot have a proper villain. Smith finds an ingenious solution to the problem and executes it so well that most readers won’t notice the unexpected genre shift.

Both Law and Katey subscribe to the conviction that the experience and memory of slavery is the heart of the American experience. And they are right. But Black folk are not alone in saying, “we were slaves” or in gathering to tell the tell:

Still in all, every night we does the tell, so that we 'member who we was and where we came from... but most of all we 'members the man that finded us, him that came the salvage. And we lights the city, not just for him, but for all of them that are still out there.

Or, for that matter:

Debout, les damnés de la terre
Debout, les forçats de la faim.

So many voices of the past need such careful attention here that occasionally John and Katey find themselves aswim in pools of exposition. This is realistic, too – high school kids philosophize like there’s no tomorrow, and Smith has a remarkable flair for carrying thoughtfully nuanced ideas into a lively plot – but perhaps some episodes carry more exposition than they can quite lift without straining. The book’s YA point of view tends to flatten the characters of parents who might otherwise lend a hand with the ideas as well as obstructing desire. The YA label may also explain why Katey’s very plausible suicidal ideas – or at least acceptance of imminent death or insanity – are not explored very deeply. Smith is already courageously exploring a topic so sensitive that it is almost unmentionable, and asking her to undertake a second within the compass of a small book and in the crumbling walls of this tottering house might have invited wholesale collapse.

by John Crowley

I admired the craft, but I fear that I misunderstood the book. This broad portrait of Life At Home during the Second World War weaves together with great skill a vast cast and disparate stories. Crowley’s writing calls little attention to itself, but within its tightly controlled span are deployed all the latest weapons: multiple points of view, tense shift, cinematic scenes that nod to Coover, first person plural straight out of Then We Came To The End. I see why Crowley is so widely admired. But each character here is carefully kept at a distance by age, deformity – two midgets and a cripple are at the center of the story – dishonesty or worse, and few of them seem to care very deeply about more than getting by. If they cared more deeply or more consistently, that might tear the story out of shape, but surely avoiding a natural plot is as artificial as imposing thrills where they would not naturally belong. These are the Tales of Our Fathers, or more often our mothers, told in a way that lets us kids keep our place and our distance.

John Gruber nails an important dynamic in the business of commercial blog networks. He responds to a strangely-argued post at Newsweek by Dan Lyons about how the Verizon iPhone is doomed with the conclusion"

I can’t decide whether Lyons is really this wrong, or if The Daily Beast makes its writers post eye-rollingly contrarian stuff like this just to get links.

This dynamic explains why so much business writing in the US is so incredibly bad, why pundits consistently make wrong (and self-interested) predictions, the predictions turn out to be nonsense, and the same people are then trotted out with the same ideas in the next round of articles. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, as long as you get lots of attention and inspire lots of comments and start a good flame war. That gets lots of page views and sells lots of ads.

I suspect, though, that those page views and those ads are actually defrauding the advertisers, that flame war participants are not really prospects. Eventually, advertisers may catch on.

On the other hand, Google has been tricked into showing ads recently on some splog farms-- the sort of page you stumble onto when you mistype a URL and that shows you nothing but Google ads. We'd never buy ads on a site like that! But, astonishingly, those ads are working; somehow, they are reaching people who actually want to buy a sophisticated tool for analyzing and sharing notes.

It's a confusing world.

Jan 11 13 2011


Photographer Richard Chase blogs a new series of uncanny symmetric portraits and some wonderful b/w images.


by Peter Turchi

These meditations on an extended metaphor juxtapose a fascinating collection of maps with an equally fascinating assortment of literature: Dante, Calvino, Nabokov, Borges, Woolf. Turchi seldom allows maps to play a role much beyond metaphor, either in composition or in analysis, and metafictional studies like Moretti’s map of where Parisian Objects Of Desire lived, and where their writers lived, play less role in his imagination than Stevenson’s original sketchmap of Treasure Island. The book’s limited application to my immediate interests in spatial hypertext, alas, left it languishing half-read on my nightstand for nearly five years: bought 29 January 2006 and finished 12 January 2011. That’s an injustice to a fine book whose main failing is that it wasn’t quite the book I had in mind.

by Cherie Priest

Set in the same world as Boneshaker, this novel follows the journey of nurse Mercy Lynch from the wards of a Richmond hospital to distant Seattle. Her father, who abandoned his family when she was young, has been stricken, and once she decides she must go, nothing will stand in her way. Obstacles are plentiful: the Civil War has been raging unabated for twenty years and grows more terrible every day as technological progress fails to break the stalemate in the trenches; we have airships and armored trains and steampunk mecha tanks, but we have nothing close to peace. In the far West, a legion of Mexican soldiers has disappeared, and strange rumors of the walking dead are beginning to be heard. Mercy is a strong, competent, foul-mouthed young woman with iron nerves and a fierce determination to win through.

I am not convinced the zombies are strictly necessary, either here or in Boneshaker. Much of the book involves combat between trains, recalling Buster Keaton’s The General, and that’s a terrific idea, though I'm not sure the tactics used are ideal. I do wish Priest was not again opposing a Strong Heroine to an Evil Engineer. But I had a hell of a good time.

James Fallows asks, what would civility in political discourse look like? He receives many subtle and intriguing answers.

I propose that we could again have a civil discourse by applying one simple rule: expect the truth. If we punished politicians who knowingly said things that were false, that they didn’t mean, that they knew were not really true, the whole right-wing noise machine would collapse.

Examples of alternate history:

  • After Sarah Palin went off-message with “death panels,” commentators pointed out that she was incorrect and she knew it. Few thenceforth paid any attention to her. “Refudiate” never became a word, and no one ever thought accountability for violent Republican rhetoric was a “blood libel”.
  • After Joe Wilson got carried away at the State of the Union address and shouted “You lie!” his shocked neighbors recoiled. “I understand how he must feel,” a senior Republican statesman told reporters later that night. “He’s a promising young man, he feels deeply, he got carried away. Maybe he was unwell. I hate to see a fellow like Joe Wilson throw his career away like that, and I hope one of our Think Tanks will find him a good position.” Of course, Wilson resigned from the House the next morning, and after a year of rest and meditation, joined the faculty of the Spartanburg Community College.
  • Plummeting ratings relegated Russ Limbaugh and Michael Savage to a streaming internet outlets. “They were great entertainers,” a media historian later wrote, “but once the public understood that feminists weren’t national socialists and that Democrats were not communists, and that the Her Majesty’s Government really has no idea who Mr. Savage is much less a plan to persecute him, there was really no audience left.”

It was once possible for politicians to avoid outright lies. Look again, for example, at Lincoln’s Cooper Union address. This was a campaign speech, and a highly partisan speech. It denounces Lincoln’s opponents and ridicules their position, yet it says nothing that is not true. In one section that finds echoes this morning, Lincoln answers Southern accusations that anti-slavery rhetoric encouraged insurrectionists like John Brown.

You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves. We deny it; and what is your proof? Harper's Ferry! John Brown!! John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper's Ferry enterprise. If any member of our party is guilty in that matter, you know it or you do not know it. If you do know it, you are inexcusable for not designating the man and proving the fact. If you do not know it, you are inexcusable for asserting it, and especially for persisting in the assertion after you have tried and failed to make the proof. You need to be told that persisting in a charge which one does not know to be true, is simply malicious slander.

“Inexcusable” is the word we need now. It was inexcusable to conjure up mirages of death panels. It was inexcusable to pretend that the president is not a citizen. It was inexcusable to talk of “second amendment remedies” for grievances like insurance rates or the rights of gay people to marry.

You can see where yesterday’s attempted assassination is leading. Sporadic right-wing violence. Then, more violence – perhaps plausibly blamed on both sides, like Haymarket was, like the Freedom Riders were. Blood in the streets. And then, it gets bad. Here’s what happens:

It’s the future. There's a girl. She’s 17. She’s run away from her Idaho home because she has arranged for an illegal abortion.

The police are on her trail. Like many states, Idaho has enacted strict laws against capital abortion and illegal contraception.

She’s made her way, through a network of secret sympathizers, to the home of a Berkley computer science professor, whose husband is the head of the California AFSC and whose aunt is a popular ex-governor. They reassure her; she's safe now. She’s in California. Calls are placed. Strings are pulled. Neighbors are notified.

(Perhaps the girl is 30 and an underground gynecologist whose cover has been blown. The rest of the story is the same.)

Idaho police issue an arrest warrant. The Alameda County Sheriff sends a reply: “Nuts!” Within hours, for the first time in history, everyone knows who the sheriff of Alameda County is.

Two Idaho patrol officers fly down to SFO. They are surprised to be met by several uniformed San Francisco cops who speed them through TSA inspections, lock their luggage in the truck of their cruiser, and escort the Idaho cops to the Santa Rita Jail where they are held on conspiracy charges. A Federal judge throws that out. Reviving a legal precedent that had been forgotten since 2008, the D.A. rebooks the police officers on suspicion of being enemy combatants.

By now, the case of the babykiller is headline news throughout the country. No one can back down; after generations of compromise, it has come to this. California, with one voice, says, "This girl shall not die!" Idaho says, “Obey the Constitution.”

And then the governor of Idaho, in consultation with the new Republican president, orders a detachment of the Idaho National Guard, led by MP's from Mountain Home AFB, to go to California and ensure that the laws of the United States are carried out. On Interstate 85, the California-Nevada border runs just a few miles north of Floriston. On that stretch of highway, Idaho finds the road blocked by California State Police.

A few minutes later, a hand-held antitank weapon slams into a USAF armored personnel carrier, and it all starts to go to hell.

This is where we’re heading, and Tucson just took us a big step down that road. It starts with isolated political violence, and then organized little riots, and then counter-riots and show trials and John Brown’s body. How can we stop? Pleas for tolerance and goodwill and bipartisanship are nice, but the tea partiers will not be tolerant, and the fundamentalists cannot.

We have been here before. We need another great compromise. And perhaps we can have one.

Let’s make a deal. The left gives up on gun regulation. Any adult can carry any personal weapon they want to carry and can afford. No registration, no onerous restrictions, no special taxation. We draw the line in two places: private individuals cannot possess crew-served weapons or any other weapon system they cannot carry, and private individuals cannot own weapons restricted by treaty – that is, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons – of whatever size.

The right gives up on sex regulation. Consenting adults can do whatever they like. Medical and pharmaceutical measures to support these activities, including contraception and abortion, will not be restricted by law. No onerous restrictions, no special taxation. We draw the line in two places: legal authorities may regulate sexual activity by minors, but only to protect the interests of individual minors, and we accept a law against incest.

This compromise is possible. The left can give up on gun control; there is much to do, there are other fish to fry, and neither peace nor justice are impossible in the presence of firearms. The right can give up on sex control, on the same terms that an earlier generation gave up on alcohol control: everybody is doing it, and law enforcement had turned out to be the wrong tool for this fight.

(The opposite compromise – we ban guns and abortions – is not possible because many of those who care deeply about abortions care just as deeply about contraception, fornication, and perversion, and there’s no bright line this side of Margaret Atwood. Why guns? Guns are what the left can sacrifice. The right might wish it could undo civil rights, but that’s impossible. The right might wish it could get rid of social security and mandatory health insurance, but my guess is they don’t really want to win these fights.)

This compromise is desirable because it could give us an extra couple of generations to reach a consensus or a reconciliation. US politics would, with sex and guns off the table, look normal. We could campaign again on issues of finance and health care and taxation, and actually mean what we say. We could punish liars in politics because it would no longer be necessary for everyone to lie about sex, or for that matter about how happy they are that they other fellow also has a gun.

It would take Daniel Webster to sell the deal at this point, because the headlines will always be grabbed by the Tucson Terrorists and their ilk. But this is the moment. If we drift much longer, we’re going to have an entire culture of sexual zealots who will stop at nothing to save souls and to whom blood and suffering are the necessary steps toward prophecy; letting them keep their guns will reassure them that Obama will not personally pry them from their fingers. And if the economy goes sour and we get President Palin, the right will figure that they've won on guns and there's no need to compromise anything. And there won’t be, until that APC explodes on Interstate 80.

by Sir E. Llewellyn Woodward

Recommended as a general history of the Victorian era, this delightful volume takes a very broad view without generalization or loss of detail. This is by no means a small book at 702 pages, yet Woodward maintains throughout an air of breathless concision, a sensation that there is no time to waste on inessentials.

Jill Rettberg joins us in wanting to read more new work.

I always mean to read more electronic literature. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to write about at least one piece of e-lit each week on my blog. I’m not intending lengthy in-depth analyses or reviews, just little blog posts about my immediate responses to the work.
Jan 11 6 2011

Stefan Sture

Stefan Sture reviews Tinderbox in his blog Paregon:

På overflaten er det et enkelt program, som også er enkelt å bruke, men det har masse kraft under sin enkle overflate.

Google’s translator does a nice job on this:

On the surface it is a simple program, which is also easy to use, but it has plenty of power under its simple surface.

Automatic translation has ludicrous failures, such as a Chinese airport sign reading “Please wait outside the flour-rice noodle” (please stand behind the 1m line). It’s easy to forget how good automatic translators can be.

Jeff Abbott, whose Trust Me is sitting near the top of my stack of Books To Be Read, writes about a writer’s todo list (#22: move series bible from Word to Tinderbox ) and about starting a reader’s journal.

I’m thinking of starting a reading journal, where I list each book I read and a few thoughts about the book and the craftsmanship in it, maybe with a few quotes. I might keep this in a digital form (such as a Word document, or in Tinderbox) or I might just devote an entire notebook to it, maybe a page to each book. I could imagine recording what I particularly admired about the book, favorite lines, prompts to myself (look at how well Character A was developed, notice the structure used in the finale, that worked well. . ) and so on. I don’t think this would take much time to maintain and would pay big writerly dividends.

I’ve kept a sort of reading journal here for the past nine years. Here, for example, is my reading for 2010. I find this useful in a variety of ways, and I often turn to these notes to recall something I half remember. It should be useful, too, for planning one’s future reading and balancing competing needs and interests. But, instead of thinking things through, I find I still tend to flit aimlessly from title to title without much long-range thought or planning.