Jul 02 31 2002


A few minutes after I posted a note about hypertext in film, Aaron Swartz blogged it, suggesting that "Mark Bernstein...soaks up more media than anyone I know."

I don't think that's true. I'm not especially immersed in books and films and hypertexts. But you know what I'm reading and seeing, because I mention it. I usually don't mention books and movies very prominently, but the lists of titles grows over time and gradually paints an interesting picture of the passing seasons.

This brings up a useful point about weblog writing: the distinction between foreground and background. The foreground of a weblog needs to matter. The first rule of weblog writing is, after all, write for a reason. The foreground needs a narrative arc; if you don't supply a narrative, the reader will discover one for you. You need to write the foreground with passion and energy, lest your weblog become a passive filter or (worse) the annals of your personal idiosyncrasies.

But weblogs also have backgrounds -- material scattered in the margins, placed behind the main figures and hinted at in the weblog's negative space. My list of movies is an example: I don't know much about film, I don't make film, I don't study it. But, if you're interested, my film list is there for you. So are my book notes. It's raw data; if you can find value in it, that's great, and if you can't, it's not in the way.

Background material forms part of the weblog gift economy. Blogrolls, gift lists, book notes, music links -- none of these are compelling in isolation, but together the form a base for clustering, community, and consensus.

Many advertising-supported sites use DoubleClick cookies to track your web viewing. Rebecca Blood recently mentioned that, should rumors of DoubleClick's sale to another company be true, the sale might change DoubleClick's privacy policy for data already gathered.

You can easily opt-out by visiting this page and getting a "no tracking for me!" cookie.

Jul 02 30 2002

Usable Help

What makes help usable? And when do you use it? A new weblog, made with Tinderbox, from Gordon Meyer: Usable Help.

Half-jokingly, at Hypertext 02 I suggested a Hypertext Conference film festival. The movies I had in mind were:

  • Memento
  • Sliding Doors
  • Run Lola Run

Today, I saw two more that we could add to the list:

  • Mulholland, Drive
  • Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

All five are fine movies, all help explain hypertext aesthetics, and all are deeply interesting narratives.

Readers have sent in their own nominees. We could have quite a festival!

  • Timecode (Eric Scheid)
  • Rashomon
  • Courage Under Fire
  • Blind Chance (Liz Klastrup)
  • Last Year in Marienbad (Liz Klastrup
  • The Saragossa Manuscript (Christian Crumlish)
  • Waking Life (Christian Crumlish)
  • Possible Worlds (Jamie Blustein)

Hypertext fiction could learn something from these films, too.

Ebert makes a lovely, tangential point about Mulholland. "One of the scenes also contains the funniest example of pure logic in the history of sex scenes."

Alwin Hawkins has a lovely new Tinderbox site online. It seems that Alwin always something interesting to say, either about work (Hawins is a cardiac nurse) or about tech, or sometimes about getting through the day.

I believe he's also the first to take advantage of the easy integration between Tinderbox and iTools. Since Tinderbox talks to Jim Whitehead's WebDAV, and iTools is a WebDAV server, you can save your Tinderbox site to the server just like storing it in a local folder.

Jul 02 24 2002

Fast computers

The difference between Jill's early iBook and the shiny new Tinderbook: her big Tinderbox file loads 37 seconds on her computer, and in 15 seconds on mine. It's a small difference, but it can matters.

The big surprise here is that Tinderbox can load big files as quickly as it does. That doesn't keep people from wishing it were even faster. Remember when Victory Garden took five minutes to start up?

There's a lot of interesting work ongoing at the Weblog Kitchen, at the intersection of hypertext theory, knowledge management, and information architecture. A lot of the foundation-laying seems to be a matter of defining terms and finding leads to core technologies -- including some I should know well, and don't.

Jul 02 23 2002


My review of The Weblog Handbook set off a minor brouhaha at blogroots. Thirty three comments and counting. The author discusses the review in her own weblog as well.

In the days before mice and menus, computer programs were controlled through vast array of keyboard shortcuts. To learn to use a program, you memorized that ctrl-C meant "stop", and esc-E meant edit, and "ctrl-meta-B is an unassigned key (doo-dah, doo-dah)". Naturally, this was a pain in the neck, and also raised a huge barrier to changing from one program to another.

Then, out of the blue, came Richard Stallman's EMACS editor. EMACS was extensible and configurable, and you could assign and reassign keys however you wanted. If you were used to using the old TECO editor, you could make EMACS act like TECO. If you were used to VI, EMACS could to that. If you'd been using your own home-grown editor for years and wanted to go on using the same commands you were used to, you could teach EMACS to act like your trusty old companion.

This is one of the all-time great software design papers.

A new MacOS X utility, LaunchBar, extends this idea in a new and exciting direction. The underlying idea is simple: people have so much stuff on their hard disks today that finding things through the Finder or Explorer or by searching is getting to be a bore. Instead, you type some sort of abbreviation for the item you have in mind -- and LaunchBar tries to guess what you mean. It shows you the guesses, you choose the one you meant, and LaunchBar remembers it for next time.

LaunchBar starts by compiling a list of things you're likely to want -- applications on your disk, URLs in your bookmarks file, email addresses in your address book. When you start typing, it cleverly thinks of all the conceivable things you might mean, and shows you a list of its guesses. When you choose one, it does the sensible thing (launches a program, makes a new email message, goes to the URL), and it remembers your abbreviation. So, I can use "TBX" to launch Tinderbox, and you can user "Tinder", and someone else can just use "T", or "box".

My review of The Weblog Handbook, by Rebecca Blood, appears in HypertextNOW.

Tragedy tells us that our weblogs are the playthings of the Gods, subject to the whims of fate and fortune. Comedy promises that our weblogs can succeed through hard work, struggle, and good fortune. Melodrama warns us that there are bad people and evil forces in the world, and that only through courage and determination can our weblogs overcome their malignity. And Romance assures us that, though weblogs fail everywhere, our weblog will prosper because we, ourselves, are wonderful.

Rebecca Blood's The Weblog Handbook is an inexorably romantic guide to building and cultivating a weblog.

Dan Bricklin notices that, where you used to see lots of people walking around with radios and CD players, now you see people with cellphones. "The preoccupation of business models with broad-based one-to-many ignores the realities of our lives."

Notice how many of Apple's summer initiatives mesh with Bricklin's point. iTunes and Rendezvous, if I understand them, offer a way to keep playing sharing music with your friends while Hollywood bashes its head against Napster and its kin. The new iPod talks to them, and also remembers your contacts. The address book lets lots of programs know your friends. iCal lets you share calendars. iSync talks to your cell phone. And, if they're going to make a case for .mac, it's gotta be for sharing files. So it's all about sharing, many to many, routing around the obstacles.

One of those obstacles is going to be Ashcroft's "Operation Tips", a plan to recruit mail carriers, meter readers, and plumbers to snoop on "suspicious" behavior they happen to see while in your home. The Boston Globe calls this a vile idea.

A fascinating interview with Razorfish information architect Victor Lombardi explores the way Tinderbox lets you keep track of information you need, even when you don't yet know why you need it or where it belongs. "I organize information for a living", Lombardi explains. "[Tinderbox] has so many ways of organizing things, I like being able to slice and dice the information in so many different ways."

Also of interest in the interview is a screen shot of the Tinderbox file behind Lombardi's weblog, Noise Between Stations.

The Tinderbox Forum has a very interesting discussion about the ways people use Tinderbox, asking "How many Tinderbox documents do you use". Do people prefer small, targetted collections of notes? Or would they rather keep everything in one big notebook?

People have been studying spatial hypertext for several years, but this is perhaps our first chance to study a wide variety of people using a spatial hypertext system in such varied roles. Fascinating!

James Lileks makes a good point about realism and morality in game universes.

In “Wolfenstein,” every room you enter has Nazis. You never enter a room full of startled film editors piecing together an anti-Jew screed, family men who’ve been incrementally co-opted by three years of occupation. You never find that room.

Like Lileks, I'd be eager to play "A Violin Player in Occupied Paris." (Thanks, Liz Klastrup)

Jul 02 15 2002


Opening today: an open, collaborative weblog (a la MetaFilter) about the work of Buffy creator Joss Whedon.By Caroline van Osten de Boer, Thanks, Derek.

It will be interesting to see whether the Rule of Esoteric Interests can defeat the Graffiti Effect here. It appears that esoteric community sites can resist graffiti and flame wars longer than general-interest sites, in part because participants are more consciously united. Where do we go from here? Will it all end in hugs and puppies? Stay tuned.

Last weekend, I sat in on a planning session for a summer institute on Intersitial Arts -- work (especially literary work) that leaps over or defies genre boundaries.

A book is a "magical realist Victorian biography in the guise of a mystery novel." A painting is "symbolist Renaissance surrealism." Music performed on sitar and digeridoo is "Afro-Celtic-punk." What all these different art forms have in common is their resistance to easy definition, to niche-labeling by either marketers or critics. -- Endicott Studio

The interstitials suffer first, they think, from lousy marketing: people don't know where to put their work, or on which shelf customers who want it should look. Then again, they suffer from critics who are too dense to see the interstices, or too focused to see the opportunities. Lazy editors make things worse, of course, by tolerating and even encouraging bad criticism.

Jul 02 14 2002

Weblog Handbook

I'm reading Rebecca Blood's new Weblog Handbook. So is Dave Winer. He didn't like it much.

Blood wants to emphasize that weblogs are easy. To emphasize this, she tries to deemphasize the details of specific programs and ends up arguing that software doesn't matter. That's not going to appeal to Winer, who makes weblog software, and who felt himself slighted in an earlier Blood essay. It also leaves Blood in an awkward place: if weblogs are easy, who needs a handbook?

The real difference between Blood and Winer is a deep-seated and widespread rift among computer writers. Blood thinks software is about selecting a product: you go to the store and choose based on price, performance, and color. Winer thinks software is about crafting an idea: you learn everything you can, you gather up your tools, and you try to build something better.

Youpi Key is a simple, free, and elegant little macro tool for MacOS X. It lets you attach commands for any application (or combination) to your own keyboard shortcut or to a menu, or run them at arbitrary times of the day, or whenever you start or stop. People have already used this to extend Tinderbox-browser integration in remarkable ways.

Watson, from Karelia software, packages web services brilliantly.

Watson is a stand-alone application that talks to specific, useful Web site. It knows how those Web sites work, and provides a very efficient way to work with them. This makes it MUCH faster than using a Web browser.

Need to track a package? Watson knows exactly where to go for all the major parcel services, gives you a place to type the tracking number, and shows you the result. Need to check a zip code? Watson does the same thing for the post office. Want to know what movies are in your neighborhood? Watson will check.

Phone numbers, exchange rates, stock prices, baseball scores: Watson fetches it, formats it neatly, and gives you just the information you're looking for,

Weatherpop puts the 5-day weather forecast at your fingertips. Automatically updated through the net, and occupying a handful of pixels on your menu bar.

Aaron Swartz draws a clever distinction between "fried" sites -- sites built with server-side tools like Blogger or Vignette that custom-assemble each Web page for each reader, and "baked" sites -- sites built with tools like Tinderbox or MoveableType that anticipate what pages will be needed and build them in advance.

Frying is flexible and lets you add lots of garnishes easily -- personalized greetings, for example, need to be fried. Baked sites are easier to serve, with better performance and a better fit to the nature of the Web.

Swartz thinks that the key to baking is tracking dependencies -- figuring out what pages need to be freshly prepared when you make a change. That's really an implementation detail; if you're a fast baker, you can just bake the site fresh every day. (Tinderbox actually does track dependencies very cleverly, but doesn't make a fuss. It behaves just like it updates everything all the time, and is such a speedy baker that it never needs to think ahead.)

One of the most interesting questions, as Aaron observes, is preparing a tasty Web meal that combines baking and frying. In the simplest case, you might add a fried garnish to a baked site, like Jill Walker's use of Tagboard or Victor Lombardi's new SnorComments; in both cases, baking gives the writers good organizing tools (via Tinderbox) and crispy fried garnishes add flavor later. A more complex case is the Tinderbox-Wiki connection in Weblog Kitchen, where a deep-fried Wiki is swept daily into Tinderbox, edited and rebaked, and then sent back to the fry-shop.

Scott Johnson says that software has too many bugs, that people want more reliable software. But do they? We all say we want bug-free software, but our behavior is generally inconsistent with this belief.

Engineering is about trade-offs. Software engineers constantly adjust to conflicting priorities:

  • make it more reliable
  • make it do more
  • make it less expensive
  • deliver it sooner

People say they hate bugs, but in reality they'd rather have the software now, thank you very much, If one company ships ground-breaking but buggy software today, and their competitor decides to spend a few more months testing, it is quite possible that the competitor can take forever to finish testing -- they'll never catch up, (Johnson also complains of feature bloat. But Joel Spolsky points out that, while people generally only use a few features, everyone uses different features. If you try to get by with fewer features, you start leaving out things like Word Count and end up annoying everybody.)

We turned on the Tinderbox Forum, a simple community site, on Friday afternoon with negligible fanfare. Even though people have to sign up to participate, it's already busy. Interesting!

Jul 02 9 2002

Finding The Time

The new Weblog Kitchen wiki is busy, with an interesting discussion about Finding The Time. Peter Lindberg reminds us that writers write:

I am a father of a five-month-old, who started blogging when she was one month old, and somehow, I find lots of time to write here and there. I have found that it is important for me to have an hour or two in the morning, before everybody wakes up, when I can sit by myself and write something.

New interview, in the July 5 Washington Post, on ebooks. Linton Weeks shares my skepticism for simulations of paper; we need real hypertexts, not distribution-schemes for best-sellers and TV Guide.

Drop Drawers, a Macintosh utility, adds unobtrusive "drawers" at the edge of your screen that can hold aliases, bookmarks, and all sorts of other things.

Jul 02 7 2002

Mango Cilantro

One of my favorite summer concoctions is really easy to make.

Take a handful of fresh cilantro and toss it in the Cuisanart with a handful of walnuts, pecans, or whatever nut is handy. Chop fine, and spread on a plate.

Get a small bowl of good, not-too-hot mango chutney.

Grill some sausages. Spicy is good; the fresh, spicy chicken and turkey sausages from the Cambridge Museum of Fruits and Vegetables are fine, and I like kielbasa.

Take a bit of sausage on a fork or skewer. Dip it in the mango chutney. Then dip it in the crunchy cilantro. Eat. Repeat.

My cookbook claims this was a 19th-century Milwaukee tavern food. Surely this is madness -- mango chutney in Milwaukee? Or is this a typical northern-European dish?

Jul 02 6 2002


Newest project: the Weblog Kitchen. It's a collaborative site, powered by Wiki and Tinderbox, dedicated to serious thinking about weblog and hypertext theory? How do weblogs work? How do we make them better?

Stop by and lend a hand!

Tinderbox has made David Rogers take a fresh look at the way he writes. "It was my experience in using Tinderbox," he writes, "that has prompted my interest in trying to do things a new, and hopefully better way. I want to try to add a little structure and organization, not only to the things I write, but the way I write. Tinderbox and the outliner in Radio suggest ways I might be able to accomplish this."

That's why we forge the tools.

Diane Greco writes about Eastgate's new title, My Name Is Captain, Captain:

I love this piece. It's a beautiful series of poems that appear, for the most part, one line at a time as you mouse across the screen. Lots of great visuals -- very spare, intelligent, nothing superfluous. And language to die for.

Happy July 4th! And, amidst the flag-waving and hoopla, remember why we call ourselves the last, best hope.

The fact that Apache comes built-in with OS X is very nice. It's been a huge help in testing web applications! Now, I'd like to use it for an intranet, here behind the firewall, just for a local use.

But people are going to get sick of typing ! What I need, presumably, is to set up a local DNS server. Anyone done this? Want occasional consulting gigs as Eastgate network specialist? Email .

Anja reminds me that Jill asked about PhD rituals. One of the most amusing things about US PhDs is that they wear gowns from a time about twice as old as the country. At Harvard, the gowns are pink. It's great marketing; if you're at an academic ceremony in the US, you can spot Harvard pinks and Yale blues a mile away. Stuff like this makes more sense at Montpellier or Kassel or Oxford, where they've been doing this a long time, but I'm a sucker for non-military pageantry.

People in the US do sometimes fail their defenses -- meaning (usually) that they're sent back for a rewrite. I made it through, much to my surprise, and had a lot of champagne in the laser lab, followed by a nice dinner with Linda.

The best part of graduating, I think, was the moment when they actually read The Words to the School of Arts and Sciences. We artists and scientists got a huge (and unexpected) cheer from our neighbors, the about-to-graduate doctors and lawyers and MBAs; it was the last time the scholars would take precedence, we all knew, and the acknowledgement was special.

It was a nice moment; my last years of grad school weren't pretty.

Financial blogger Elizabeth Spiers speculates about the end of the "blog bubble." This is, I think, a classic case of fighting the last war; these days, it seems Wall Street sees tulips and bubbles everywhere.

If we know anything about the Internet, we know that people want to write. Sometimes they get tired of writing (and what's really bothering Spiers is just writer's block), and sometimes they can't write, but people will continue to write about matters that matter to them, and they'll continue to do it on the Net.