MarkBernstein.org

For real criticism of real hypertexts, we turn from Birkerts to Anja Rau. She's looking again at new media play in the interface, from Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse to Spanish blood drive ads.

In the Boston Globe, Sven Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies) tries to explain why literary blogging won't save our literary culture.

Ive been trying to make my peace with [literary Web sites] -- and to decide once and for all if they represent an advance, a retreat, or simply the declaration of an emerging new order against which there is no point in kicking.

As newspapers cut back on book reviews, Birkerts deplores the shift of literary discussion to electronic forms. As has always been the case for Birkerts, there's something about the screen of the computer that prevents him from paying attention.

I've discovered what the more digitally progressive of my peers have known for years: that it is alarmingly easy to slide into a slipstream, or, better, go rollicking in a snake-bed of sites and posts, where each twist of text catches hold of another's tail, the whole progress and regress morphing into a no-exit situation that has to be something new under the sun.

Well, yes: it's alarmingly easy — just as a schoolchild might argue that it's alarmingly easy to get bored reading an big old book when the sun is shining and everyone is going to play baseball down at the park. Or, just as the proverbial stock broker might argue that it's alarmingly easy to fall asleep, especially since nobody can be expected to keep all these authors straight: the country is going to the dogs and something should be done and I'll have another whiskey and soda!"

Reading requires attention. Birkerts can't bring himself to pay attention to what's on the screen; he gets distracted by the links. Everyone goes through this; it's part of learning to read hypertext, which means, part of learning to read.

This time, Birkerts longs for the declining influence of "the self-constituted group of those who have made it their purpose to do so. Arbiters, critics . . . reviewers." Self-constituted! Bloggers might be self-constituted, but newspaper reviewers are hired help, hand-chosen by the lords of the press. You might get lucky, and have, say, Mr. Hearst for your boss. You might get Lord Beaverbook. A bunch of new people are about to enjoy the literary patronage of Mr. Murdoch: good luck with that.

To write of newspaper folk as "self constituted" suggests that Birkerts, gray haired as he says he is becoming, never managed to spend much time in a news room or a newspaper bar. Those guys and gals were working stiffs, they were fierce defenders of labor, and they knew which side they were on. Birkerts feels "deep impulses of solidarity" for some forlorn picketers responding to cuts in the book reviews at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but Birkerts has a short list of influential book sections.

  • The New York Times
  • The Boston Globe (now a local subsidiary of the New York Times)
  • The Los Angeles Times (torn by cuts and believed to be in deep trouble)
  • The Tribune (up for sale)
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (huh?)

The absences are haunting: San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington. I don't understand why Birkerts doesn't mention the NYBR or the TLS — both of which seem to me to be far closer to the center of literary discussion than any US newspaper other than the Times.

Birkerts dislikes what he perceives as "a more idiosyncratic, off-the-cuff style, a kind of 'I've been thinking . . .' approach." How about E. B. White? Hell, the entire Talk of the Town! It's hard to get more hierarchical than Ruskin on art criticism, but Mornings In Florence affects the same style.

Birkerts says he wants to "keep alive the possibility of shared discourse," but he isn't interested in listening. To listen would require attention, and his attention keeps wandering off under the influence of all those tempting links. It's not the link's fault, anymore than it's the sunshine that keeps our young scholar staring out the window toward that sunny ballpark.

Charles Miller has a nice explanation of the exact meaning of some terms that software engineers use all the time, but which also have less-precise, everyday meaning.

  • Impossible
  • Unfeasible
  • Non-trivial
  • Very Hard
  • Hard

Speaking casually, a "very hard" problem is one that you can't solve off the top of your head, a problem that would require some work. But in software engineering, a "very hard" problem is one that you can't quite prove has no solution, but you can prove that, if you solved it, you'd also have solved some other problems that have resisted attack by thousands of engineers for decades, despite the promise of incredible fame and wealth to whoever came up with the answer.

So, yes, "very hard" means something specific and special.

I've had my iPhone for about a month. Following Dave Winer and others, it's time to take stock.

It's a beautiful appliance. Everyone seems to agree. It feels good in the hand. It's the right size. Its screen is superb — so good, in fact, that I think it's likely to push people toward higher-resolution laptop displays.

My guess for the future: a subminiature Mac laptop with a high resolution display and Flash memory instead of a hard disk, which means it could have a battery that can handle any flight on the new ultra-long-range Boeing without a recharge.

The software package is polished, elegant, and simple. The only thing that's worse on the iPhone than on the Treo is the To Do list. But these days, I just email tasks to my Tinderbox projects file; that's even better than the Treo.

The marketing lead-up and rollout was a thing of beauty, superbly executed.

The problem: it's an information appliance. It's a superb information appliance, it's the realization of a long dream in the tech community, but the flaw in that dream is that appliances are limited tools, not the limitless dream machines we call computers.

And it's a phone, too!

by John Ruskin

This little book was meant to be carried in the hand, along with a guidebook, by British travelers in Florence. I'm musing on a book chapter about the hypertextuality of travel writing — the way the travel book links to other books, to sidebars and lists and maps, and to artifacts and locations. This one is an early, and fascinating, example of the species. Ruskin moves neatly from instructing his readers on the quality of 14th century sculpture to the vacuity of dinner parties abroad where everyone talks sentimentally of Italy and exchanges the latest news from London and New York.

Jul 07 24 2007

Referees

Though the impact has been relatively muted so far, the coming indictment of NBA ref Tim Donaghy for fixing games is going to change the sports world tremendously.

For years, I've wanted to meet a veteran sports reporter socially, just to ask whether they thought the games were on the level. Now we pretty much know what has long been suspected: some of the games are rigged. (For example, someone made a list of the games that Donaghy worked last year, where the over/under spread moved more than 1.5 points. That's ten games: the over covered in all ten. Ouch.)

My point is: whatever happens, the story gets bigger. If Donaghy fingers other refs or players, it gets bigger. If he doesn't, people will analyze every minute of every game and they'll find every discrepancy — and every hint of cooperation with other refs. And that makes the story bigger. If Donaghy is convicted, the story gets bigger. If he isn’t, there will always be a suspicion that the fix was in, that a wealthy league and wealthy owners secured an acquittal.

Bad news for Pete Rose.

Bad news any teams wanting to move to Las Vegas.

And, in the end, very bad news for sports.

Game designers can't win. Let me show you why.

Take any game that depicts people. Let's suppose, without loss of generality, it depicts people in armor. It might be medieval plate. it might be space suits, it might be cutouts for paper dolls. All equivalent for our purposes.

Now, does the game designer provide different armor for female characters? Here's your unbeatable strategy guide:

  • If female characters have gendered armor, you can always point out that this is clearly an intent to appeal to the baser desires of 14-year-old boys and male game designers.
  • If the female characters don't have gendered armor, then the designers are conspiring to render women invisible, or positioning them as feebler variants of the male base model.
  • If there aren't female characters, see the previous item
  • If there are only or primarily female characters, observe that the developers have created a sheltered, sequestered space in which women may play, having been put in their place and thus disempowered.

It appears to me that this strategy will defeat any game developer you may encounter in your adventures, irrespective of your level. (For details of the moves, see the extensive academic literature on Lara Croft’s breasts.)

Why does this work? Not because game developers are Bad People. Not because game critics are Better and More Enlightened than profit-hungry game companies. Not because software developers are immature. It works because game characters are not characters.

Despite lots of work and lots of promotion, game characters are, literally, stereotypes: one or two visible attributes and a scrap of mannered dialog. There's just no space for more — or, at any rate, few game designers have found a way to build real character into a playable game. One reason, simply, is that flow is inimical to empathy: if you're fully absorbed in tactical overdrive, where can you find bandwidth for nuanced character?

That, I think, explains why City of Heroes has such remarkably rich art direction — the New Venice of Founders Falls, the strange Dutch (German?) town of Croatoa, the post-apocalyptic Faultline — but can't seem to find a bad guy you'd cross the street to avoid. The villains are cardboard: neo-Nazis (with no imagery and no ideology), Mafiosi (with no ethnic ties), Bloods and Crips (renamed and deracinated), and generic Space Aliens.

Thanks to the ever-insightful Jill for sparking this.

Jul 07 23 2007

Product

I hate leftovers. One of the big lessons I've learned lately is how to avoid leftovers by batches making intermediate products. Yesterday's dinner is a leftover, but tasty stocks and sauces are just ingredients — special ingredients at that.

So, for lunch today, I had a sandwich of saucisson sec, sliced thin on multi-grain bread, with some burnt-onion-and-cilantro relish from last night's grillage (striped bass, grilled summer squash) and topped with a bit of sauce from Saturday's patatas bravas.

Tasty sandwich.

Addressing A Problem

In Mail.app, you can easily add a correspondent to your address book. That's nice, because it's a fast way to whitelist someone, to say, “I know them, so their stuff isn’t spam.”

But, Mail.app doesn't seem to know when someone is already in my address book. If I use this freely, I wind up with lots of extra address carda for the same person: George's phone numbers, George's email address, George's cell phone, George's other email address, George's iPhone email.

There's got to be a simple way to say, "these two cards are the same person: please consolidate them.” Or something like that. This must happen to people all the time. What’s the trick I'm missing? Email me.

It's easy! Card menu: Merge Selected Cards. Thanks Mark Paul!

Roger Ebert constructs an interesting debate (technically a Fisking, but constructed as dialog) with Clive Barker on whether games can aspire to art.

Ebert is deeply skeptical of any art form in which the narrative is malleable.

Barker: "I think that Roger Ebert's problem is that he thinks you can't have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written 'Romeo and Juliet' as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn't taken the damn poison. If only he'd have gotten there quicker."

Ebert: He is right again about me. I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist. Would "Romeo and Juliet" have been better with a different ending? Rewritten versions of the play were actually produced with happy endings. "King Lear" was also subjected to rewrites; it's such a downer. At this point, taste comes into play. Which version of "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare's or Barker's, is superior, deeper, more moving, more "artistic"?

This is walking right up to the argument I call My Friend, Hamlet: if we let allow a sane, sensible reader a modicum of free will and agency in the tragic universe, everything collapses. Everyone knows what Romeo and Juliet need: someone needs to have an urgent, frank talk with their mothers. Everyone knows what Hamlet needs: he needs to get drunk, he needs to get laid, and he needs to go back to school. He's supposed to be in school, time is on his side, and it will all work out splendidly in a few years. Everyone knows this: no one can say it.

A cautionary note appears, however, when Ebert starts talking about alternative Shakespeare and different endings. It can be done, and it's not necessarily tasteless: Jakob Gordin's Konig Lir is an ornament of the early Yiddish theater and a play of immense influence, and it seems to me that for Arthur Miller and David Mamet and Tony Kushner, you're looking back more to Gordin than to Shakespeare.

There's plenty of range available for wonderful art in which some aspects of narrative and presentation are malleable. Malleability, after all, is what performance offers us. But the particular range of malleability that games offer us seems strangely limited.

A very interesting work in this vein which I haven't yet had time to see properly is the new hypervideo, HBO Voyeur.

Jul 07 20 2007

Get Well Soon

Get Well Soon wishes go to Cathy Marshall.

Joel Spolsky agrees that comments, especially anonymous comments, are bad for blogs.

When a blog allows comments right below the writer's post, what you get is a bunch of interesting ideas, carefully constructed, followed by a long spew of noise, filth, and anonymous rubbish that nobody ... nobody ... would say out loud if they had to take ownership of their words. Look at this innocent post on a real estate blog. By comment #6 you're already seeing complete noise. By #13 you have someone cursing and saying "go kill yourself." On a real estate blog. #18 and #23 have launched into a middle eastern nuclear conflageration which continues for 100 posts.

At DIYPlanner, an interesting and lively discussion of Tinderbox as a note-taking tool with special attention to learning to get the most from Tinderbox.

Infinitely tweakable, and extraordinarily powerful, its capabilities can take a long time to explore.

Richard Chase has a wonderful interview, with photography,with Delphine, a working girl, who discusses business strategy and mentoring. Fascinating and highly recommended, are are Chase's recent studies of dancers.

. There's a sense of the mysterious and of sisterhood that draws them -- they see a kind of family thing going on. It's not that way at all, but it's what they need to see, so they do. And there's the flattery of being sexually attractive that builds all kinds of illusions, and then there's the money. With so much money coming in right now, there's no need to think about tomorrow -- and very few of them do.

by Stephen Lekson

What was Chaco, anyway? This challenging collection of specialist essays offers many answers, but they suggest the emergence in the last few decades of a remarkable new consensus: the end of Chaco was not a drought or a migration or a transfer of power amongst peer polities. It was a revolution.

What are the Pueblos? One thing we has seemed certain about the Southwest since Coronado: this is not Mesoamerica. There are hints of similarities and influence: ritual use of Macaws, turquoise, and cotton, and urban concentrations that, in the Southwest, are spectacular for their massive masonry if not their population.

The First American Revolt?

Mesoamerica is step pyramids and kingly priests, ballcourts and bells and conquests. The Pueblos frown on hierarchy, deplore violence, and don't play ball. Pueblos have Kachinas and clowns, not terrible serpents or Huitzilopochtli. There was a fashion on the 80's for suggesting that Chaco was, or was influenced by, a Mesoamerican trading outpost of some sort, but the in time that fell out of favor.

The new synthesis begins with a realization that we can recover some, admittedly slight and imperfect, hints of the ideological situation from mute material remains. Lekson's wildly brilliant Chaco Meridian plays a role. And now, from field surveys and close examination of familiar sites and their surroundings, come a set of remarkable proposals.

Kivas in modern pueblos are ceremonial. Lekson argues that small round rooms at Chaco aren't yet ceremonial: they're residences. To be precise, they're palaces, built with great formality in the Old Official Style. So we don't have vast apartment buildings surrounding a few ceremonial kivas in the courtyard: we have a few prestige residences in the courtyard, built underground (because that's the way it was done in the old times) into raised platforms and towers, so you have underground palaces that everyone can see. And, behind them, we have — what? A storehouse? A ceremonial backdrop? What?

My own wild idea: there's a section of the oldest part of Bonito that was used for elite burials. Nearby rooms had collections of valuable and esoteric objects. It's a very visible place, but with controlled access, at the center of what was for centuries the chief pilgrimage or tourist destination of the region. Could it have been a museum?

There seems to have been a vast, circular amphitheater between Bonito and Chetro Ketl. Archaeologists always assumed it was a space, a gap between whatever these two great buildings were. It now looks like this was a vast public performance space with engineered acoustics, a perfect circle that just touched Bonito, just touches Chetro Ketl, and just touches the wash.

There were platform mounds. There were enigmatic ritual roads, far too long and too broad and much too straight to every repay the effort of their construction. There seems to have been a ballcourt: the Chetro Ketl field would have made, it turns out, a very bad cornfield but an excellent raised platform for ball games. (It's also possible that this was something else, perhaps a set of ponds for industrial production of frogs. The prehistoric Southwest is like that: maybe a sports stadium, maybe a factory for frog legs.)

And there were pyramids. Pyramids! Two of them, built by modifying and refacing natural hills, with long, broad ritual stairways ascending to McElmo structures on their top.

In short, Chaco looks, suddenly, very Mesoamerican. And then, at its end, something happened. Something big, and fast. To the South, centuries of Mimbres decorated ceramics come to a sudden end: instead of sacred pots decorated with animals and ritually buried when they wore out, people started to paint their pots black. The entire Chaco region seems to have been abandoned.

Chaco broke up, or moved. Kachinas appeared. Kingly priests and terrible, high-stakes games become cautionary tales told in winter. We aren't like that, the stories say, we don't do things like that, and we never, ever, use such symbols.

It does sound like a revolution.

Stein et al., in their article, make interesting reference to oral traditions preserved by Navaho hataali about Chaco and 'The Gambler'. If we read Chaco's end as a revolution or ideological rejection, and if there's still a memory of those events, they would have been fresher in 1680. It might be interesting to see what hints might be sifted from surviving rhetoric of the Pueblo revolt, or the 1700 sack of Awatovi.

Jul 07 16 2007

On Chesil Beach

by Ian McEwan

The most talked-about story of unfortunate sex since the summer of Portnoy.

Two newlyweds, one night, a tightly compressed and uncomfortable story: it's a formula for an intensely memorable quick read. This isn’t about sex, though you wouldn't know that from what you hear. McEwan's interest is not so much the question of sex, but rather the matter of seriousness; the difficulty his lovers face is not so much their terrible inexperience but their incapacity for understanding what to take seriously, and when to shrug, or laugh, or simply wait.

Jul 07 15 2007

Spanning Sync

One thing I've wanted for ages is a good way to have online calendars that could be open to viewing and editing by other people at Eastgate. We don't have terribly demanding calendar needs, so this should be easy.

It's not.

Spanning Sync

I'm trying Spanning Sync to sync my iCal calendars with Google calendars. This would be great, because then my iPhone would sync to one of my laptops, my Macs all already sync their calendars through .Mac, and now some of those calendars would also sync with Google. Selected Google calendars could be open to viewing and editing by staff members.

So far, I'm pretty sure there's a bug somewhere that fouls up repeating events. So, I'm not syncing that calendar. Everything else seems to work OK.

When syncing doesn't work, today's software gives you no real hint of what's going wrong, which end of the pipe is to blame, or just what it’s doing. And if I can’t figure it out, how are pointy-haired managers and their secretaries supposed to cope?

On one of my Macintoshes, the Network "drive" in Finder shows the other Macs in the office, along with some other stuff (the network Library, for example)

On the Macintosh right next to it, the Network "drive" shows "My Network", along with some other stuff. The other Macs are inside "My Network".

Same version of the operating system. Same network. What's different? Everything works fine, but I'd like to understand what the difference is. Email me..

I like Mozart. I ration my Mozart fairly tightly, though, because music wears out. I listened to the horn concerti too much in high school, for example, and now I can't. (It's better, I tell myself, than blowing out your knee in high school)

But a chance remark in On Chesil Beach revealed that I didn't know the string quintets at all: you're obviously supposed to know that Florence, waiting to be deflowered, is hearing the querulous cello from the first movement of the D Major quintet (K. 593). But I didn't have a clue.

A couple of minutes with iTunes was all it took. What a break! For heaven's sake, how long has this been going on?

Jakob, being Jakob, stirred up a hornet's nest with an essay recommended that experts avoid blogging. Jill looks askance, and Scoble is fighting mad.

The problem here isn't the recommendation, or Nielsen's trademark of over-generalizing in order to Make Good Enemies. The problem is that Nielsen is talking about a formal model of expert blogging, and that model is almost certainly wrong.

Nielsen posits a population of 1000 topical bloggers whose ability and expertise are normally distributed.

Let's assume that a given writer's posting quality is normally distributed, with a mean representing that person's level of expertise and a standard deviation 3 times as large as the SD for expertise among people. I don't know what the actual number is, so this is just a rough estimate. But it's reasonable to assume that posting quality is more variable than expertise for several reasons:

  • Sometimes people toss off a posting in a minute. Other times they spend hours.
  • Sometimes a writer happens to know a lot about the topic at hand, possibly because they've just spent several months working on that exact problem. Other times people know nothing--which doesn't keep them from voicing their opinions :-)
  • Sometimes people are lucky and get a blinding insight. Other times they post more out of duty than anything else.

For some reason or other, Nielsen runs a simulation of this model to discover that the very best blogger sometimes posts things that are below average. There's no need to do a simulation; the statistical problem can surely be solved in closed form. But we can do well enough on the back of an envelope.

  1. Of expert's ten posts, we know that (about) 4 are likely to be a standard deviation wide of expert's expected mean.
  2. That means two are likely to be a standard deviation worse.
  3. Since the standard deviation of post quality is three times the standard deviation of expertise translates to three standard deviations worse in terms of base expertise.
  4. So, if the world's top expert is three standard deviations better than the average pundit, one of those ten posts is likely to fall somewhere around average.

So, sure, if these are the rules, your expert (who is maybe three standard deviations better than average) is going to look very, very average in one post out of ten.

The factor of three is arbitrary. It's plucked out of thin air. And I don't believe it: writers are not this inconsistent in other fields. Newspaper reporters working on deadline face similar pressures: did that mean Red Smith or Peter Gammons went to print about three times a month with a story that was below average -- not their average, but the average for all sportswriters? Not all Hemingway is equally good, but the worst of Hemingway's seven novels (To Have and Have Not) is surely better than the average novel of 1937.

Expertise doesn't work this way. You don't hire an expert for a single reason, any more than the Red Sox hire "a ballplayer". Sometimes you need one judgment, but it's got to be the best possible judgment — just as sometimes you need to have a slugger on the bench who can pinch-hit for your wiry shortstop in the bottom of the ninth with a man on third and one out. Sometimes you need reliable, consistent good sense, just as sometimes you need a utility infielder. Sometimes, you need a chance at an astonishing, industry-changing insight. Sometimes, you need the contacts. Sometimes, you want the expert to tell you what everyone else knows. And sometimes you want a fourth for golf.

For many definitions of expertise, you want to demonstrate consistency, breadth, and awareness. Blogs are good for that.

Nielsen's definition of expertise is pernicious. He writes:

We can measure expertise as some combination of intelligence, education, experience, correct methodology, professionalism (say, avoiding profanities and politics), and willingness to be frank.

Nearly every clause in this catalog is mistaken. I don’t care if my expert is well educated or intelligent, any more than I care that they are good looking: experts are supposed to provide the best possible answer to questions within the ambit of their expertise. If a reluctance to be frank impedes giving me the best possible answer, the expert is stealing from his employer.

And while interjecting politics where it doesn't belong is unprofessional, we all live in the world. Sometimes, an expert needs to answer the question: which side are you on? Sometimes, not to answer is a very bad answer.

Nielsen’s model entirely overlooks consistent excellence. We don’t subscribe to an expert's weblog because of occasional flashes of brilliance or hilarity. We subscribe because, day in and day out, the expert tells us what we need to know. Digg and Reddit will find the spectacular post-of-the-moment whenever we like; expertise is for keeping us informed all the time.

Nielsen's argument rests on a rhetorical convention: he redefines weblog to mean "a bad weblog" and contrasts his own practice with a straw man. Nielsen's alert box is a weblog; it merely happens to have posts that run a little long, and he writes a little less frequently, than is typical of some other bloggers. The crux of Nielsen's essay is the contention that

Blog postings will always be commodity content: there's a limit to the value you can provide with a short comment.

Instead, Nielsen urges people to write well and at suitable length. But that’s obviously what any writer — including weblog writers — should do. And it’s what they do today. Sometimes, demonstrating your expertise requires an extended argument. Sometimes, a sentence or two will do the job nicely. Sometimes, you just need an equation.

by David Weinberger

I'm sorry, but no. Everything is not miscellaneous. This intriguing, lively, and useful book is also, I believe, mistaken.

Weinberger seizes a good and interesting idea at the outset. Organizing physical objects — arranging books in a library — is very difficult because each book can only be in one place. Arranging a physical index like a card catalog is easier than arranging a bookcase, because cross-references let us build alternative hierarchies of subject, author, title. Better yet, we can skip the hierarchy and jump to a faceted classification system in which each axis of classification is independent and coequal.

Besides, it's easier to move physical proxies like notecards than to move the objects themselves. But building an index to an index — a database or a Web — gives us even more flexibility and makes reorganization much easier. Because the database is virtual, we need not limit cross references for fear that we'll run out of drawers.

First year computer science majors know all this, and knowingly repeat to each other: 'the answer to all problems is another layer of indirection.'

This book, especially its early chapters, is a useful corrective for some of the more exuberant fantasies of information architecture and for some naive interpretations of the Semantic Web. Weinberger sets off at interesting place and commences with a valuable contribution. Multiple organizations are better than a single, bad organization. Simple search is better than a bad organization. Letting people muddle through, discovering whatever ad hoc structure they can manage to find, is better than trying to teach them all an arbitrary and peculiar scheme.

But does this mean that everything is miscellaneous? Or does it simply mean that a miscellaneous structure is better than a bad one? A math student, facing a problem set that seems baffling, might conclude that "everything is too hard", but that student's frustration does not prove that mathematics is vain.

Everything is Miscellaneous is so thoroughly popularized and simplified that subtle and perplexing questions — where does meaning really reside in a hypertext? can formal notations usefully represent knowledge? what are categories, anyway? — are described and dismissed in grade school vocabulary. We are given a bare minimum of references, and most of those defend the facts in the author's mundane examples without giving much insight into the extensive debates and controversies that underpin the ideas.

For example, RDF triples are introduced with a vague wave of the hand, and dismissed with an even vaguer allusion to the advantages of fuzzy sets. Microformats appear briefly, are praised for miscellaneousness, and vanish. Conceptual clustering is trotted out to rescue our metadata from arbitrary categories, is lauded for being open in some way to data mining in the tagosphere, and nothing more is heard of it. The treatment of hypertextual structure and the construction of textual meaning is trivial, and there's no hint in the text of the rich discussions and violent disagreements it has inspired. We seldom see real examples or discuss actual methods; it's all "Capri, Italy and capri pants."

In the end, the conclusion — “Everything is miscellaneous” — seems calculated to please managers who are too lazy or too distracted to actually master their business. If everything is miscellaneous, what would mastery mean? Instead of coming to conclusions, we can assure managers that no conclusion is possible, that the only wise course is to throw everything into a heap and let the customers sort it out.

That might work for retail. I'm a peddler, too. But there's a big part of the world where the right and wrong answers are not simply what today's customer happens to imagine they believe, and in that part of the world, I think, everything is not really miscellaneous. When your control loop is unstable and your distillation column runs away, that's not miscellaneous. When your job shop scheduling breaks down so your people are changing paint colors every five minutes and your customers can't get the machines they ordered, that's not miscellaneous. Some things are arbitrary. Some things are matters of linguistic or social convention. That doesn't mean everything is arbitrary or conventional; "everything is intertwingled" means that the structure is complicated, not that it doesn't (sometimes) exist.

Of course, Weinberger knows this. He's a philosopher; these controversies and perplexities are where he lives. But here it's all simplified and popularized.

Some things are related, other are not. It's all hard to understand, but the height of the mountain does not make the climb inconceivable.

Tinderbox has hooks to the command line that let you do some very interesting things — building connections to outside Web sites and services, to programs and files on your computer, to email. Most people don't need this, but it's nice to have it when you do need it.

Now, lots of Mac OS X mavens are comfortable with the command line. Some live in Terminal. But, to plenty of people, the command line is a new and undiscovered country.

Back in the day, the natural starting point was Kernighan and Plauger's classic, Software Tools . This is a fine and important book, and a true classic of tech writing, but it's also 30 years old. It's not very Mac-centric, obviously.

What's the best entrée to the world of command line? Email me. and I'll pass along the recommendations.

Update: Jolyon Patten recommends Unix Power Tools by Shelley Powers, Jerry Peek, et al.

it seems to me that Mac-type people would only be delving into the command line once they know they need (or want) to do something that the easy GUI front end won't let them do, and hence they would benefit from the book's non-simplistic, but logical layout. And everything is cross-referenced so well that it's easy to string bits and pieces of a larger solution together.

...The book is also rather funny, in a rather laconic, understated way. Oddly, perhaps, I think it would be one of my Desert Island books.

Gordon Meyer recommends Dave Taylor's Learning Unix for Mac OS X Tiger .

I think this is the best Unix book for Mac OS X

Russ Urquhart likes Jepson and Rothman’s Mac OS X for Unix Geeks

Jul 07 8 2007

Whiskey Lamb

BlogHui founder Lynsey Gedye sent a note regarding the Whiskey Chicken.

The chicken sounds utterly divine, but I felt I should just slip you a note to say that my mother (at 90 is still driving her car and running her business - including recently telling the bank what they could do and taking her business to another company) always uses a whisky - um - rinse(?) over lamb. A good lash of scotch painted over lamb does away with that sheep-iness and assists with the enrichment of the gravy. Any old scotch will do - I can remember coming home from overseas to find Mum had used up the cooking whisky and had moved smoothly into my 'secret' single malt collection. See? It's ok for men to weep.

The usual rosemary and garlic are all part of the joy - and the tradition here is to serve the lamb with mint sauce, which is good; but not as good as my sister's sacred apple jelly with rosemary. Cold lamb on fresh bread and the rosemary apple jelly... divine. Now I would joyfully share the jelly recipe with you if I had ever been trusted with it in the first instance, but sadly, there appears to be more tests to go - did I mention sacred? Our family takes food disturbingly seriously.

I adapted this to a lamb casserole that's cooking right now: a half-leg, browned in a bit of oil and nestled in a Dutch Oven with mushrooms, baby turnips from our farm box, twenty cloves of garlic, and a bit of thyme and rosemary. I deglazed the browning pan with 2oz of scotch and washed the browned lamb with it, and then added a cup of dry white wine to the pot. It's tightly sealed and stewing in a very moderate oven.

  • warmed goat cheese with farm greens, baby radishes, peaches, peppery parmesan crisps; mustard vinaigrette.
  • lamb, seared, washed in whiskey, and roasted in Dutch oven over garlic, baby turnips, and mushrooms
  • carmelized Vidalia onions
  • lemon cilantro jam

The lamb was wonderful, and the jam — one lemon, sliced lengthwise into eights, seeded, and tossed into the Cuisinart with a handful of cilantro, 2T olive oil, 1/8c sugar, 1/2t salt, was a revelation. Terrific with roasted meat. Who knew?

Jake van Slatt's Steampunk Workshop explores ways to make exquisite steampunk equipment like this lovely LCD monitor. ac.

Steampunk Workshop
Jul 07 7 2007

The Vor Game

by Lois McMaster Bujold

A pleasant, predictable, and largely unobjectionable space opera in the Hornblower tradition. Ensign Miles graduates from the Academy, receives an unpopular assignment that proves even more unpleasant than he expected, is assigned to Intelligence, and then ends up at the very center of an unexpected space battle. A good time is had by his friends, his enemies enjoy themselves rather less. The neocon militarism that sometimes leaks into recent American space opera (and to which current British space opera reacts) is not much in evidence here, beyond the familiar longing for feudalism that generically suffuses space opera.

But Bujold's space operas were warmly praised that morning a few weeks ago that we spent at the sunny breakfast table, once again discussing books with old college friends (now Professors and Commissioners and leaders of Foundations). Very warmly praised: I wonder whether I picked up the wrong volume, or part of the wrong series....

Welcome to Ollie Kottke (July 3, 7lb. 2 oz.), and congratulations to happy parents Kottke and Megnut.

Jul 07 6 2007

Whiskey Chicken

Last night's Independence Day chicken (yes, a day late) was slowly cooked for about 90 minutes over charcoal, and glazed with about 3/4c bourbon mixed with 1/2c maple syrup, 3/4c brown sugar, and a generous pinch of cayenne. Served with beet greens of chard from this week's farm package.

Tasty!

Eastgate is looking for a Quark XPress aide — an advisor who can answer occasional Quark-related questions. On the whole, these are likely to be fairly easy questions, but you never know. There will be a modest

Things we'd like — these are preferences, not requirements:

  • Experience with Quark 7 for MacOS X (mostly)
  • Availability in US business hours (it's OK if you're a European who works in the evening, or an Asian who keeps early hours)
  • Available by IM, phone, or email

If this sounds like you, Email me.. or iChat EastgateSystems.

Update: position filled!

Jul 07 5 2007

Cass McNutt

Cass McNutt of the Vantage Group has been gazing at Tinderbox with longing. While waiting for Tinderwin, he read The Tinderbox Way. That led him to purchase a used Mac G4 as a stopgap.

Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Software is the creator of the app, and I've been following his blog for some time (My two-sentence review: Thoughtful, well-reasoned, and "civilized". He sometimes uses words about food that I have to look up to understand. ). His book The Tinderbox Way is marvelous read, articulating many of the thoughts and inherent design tensions involved in architecting such a tool. I actually bought the book before I ever saw the software first-hand.

At any rate, the short version of this story is that I finally broke down and spent a couple hundred bucks for an old Mac G4 so I could check out Tinderbox personally.

A useful (and nicely-designed) article from Apple discusses a variety of issues in Web design for the iPhone. What's notable here are the things you aren't urged to do:

  • no separate sites for mobile devices
  • few or no extensions or special tags

But small-screen devices are different: their screen is smaller. You've got to be prepared.

One thing I misinterpreted is the meaning of double-tap, which zooms into a big page. I assumed it was literally a magnifier, but it's not: it looks for a block that encloses what you tapped, zooms in so that block's width matches the screen, and then adjusts the type scaling to make the type look good. This is (fairly) simple to implement and works remarkable well; I assumed, for example, that I'd need to redesign this page or to create a variant that matches the 320 pixel size of the iPhone screen. I don't; the scaling just works.

What you need to avoid, it turns out, is bad typography: excessively-long lines of text can't scale. They look too small on the screen, and you need to squint and pan and scan. An ironic culprit: Pogue's Awsome iPhone Period-Typing Shortcut in the Missing Manual site, which lets body text span nearly the entire width of the page. Guideline: you don't want more than 50 or so characters on a line, and this page (in a default Safari window) is about twice as long as it should be.

Eastgate's having a Tinderbox sale for July 4. You know what to do.

The iPhone screen is gorgeous, but it only has 320x480 gorgeous pixels. Now, that used to be plenty for everyone, and now it's in your pocket. And panning works very well. SO does turning the iPhone sideways to get a landscape-mode screen.

But it's bound to be nice when you zoom and things Just Fit. So, look for Web designers to rediscover column modules in the neighborhood of 480 and 320 pixels. And look out for the html viewport <meta tag.

A lot of short-term reaction to iPhone is just emotion. People who want it to succeed find reasons to think it's working. People who don't, find other reasons. Ho hum.

If you actually watch what is happening on the ground and in the device, though, you'll see lots of interesting things. Notice, in the side-by-side comparision of Apple and AT&T retail experience, how Apple's curious decision to build retail stores has changed the company. Apple handles customers quickly, efficiently, and has attractive young people cheering the customers and high-fiving them out the door. AT&T lines move slowly, and their retail people are sour, short-sighted, off-message. It might have been worth building the stores for image and culture after all, even if they hadn't turned out to make tons of money.

Lots of snazzy Web applications — 37 Signals’ Backpack and Basecamp come to mind — do a lot with hover effects. You point to an item, and hidden controls appear that let you expand it, or delete it, or edit it.

I don't think that works well (or maybe at all) with iPhone, because in a touch interface it's hard (impossible?) to hover without clicking. Prediction: this will, in short order, transform a bunch of Web 2.0 interfaces.

On the other hand, Jon Gruber was probably the first to observe that, since iPhone decided to avoid copy and paste entirely, email is the iPhone’s clipboard. That’s very good news for Web 2.0 services, since it’s easy to write interfaces that receive email (many already do) and so sensible things with them.