Aug 09 5 2009

Ancient History

A tech support question came in today on RapidFile, an early in-memory database system on which Eastgate consulted in the early 1980's and which as ultimately published by Ashton-Tate. Blast from the past.

There’s a good page about RapidFile on Ward’s Wiki, which credits the program for introducing the now-familiar standard menu bar sequence. If that’s true (and I’m very skeptical), I wrote the first standard menu bar.

The Ward’s Wiki author also singles out the help system for praise. I was very proud of that system, and it’s still miles ahead of what we use today. The help system knew (a) that you'd pressed the HELP key, (b) what the program was doing, and (c) what your last dozen commands were. All this went into a rule-based system that could be fairly clever about helping people who had the wrong user model of the program. If they keep pressing SAVE but there’s nothing to save, you can offer special help. (Unlike Clippy and “it looks like you’re making a list,” we never interrupted the forlorn user and we just offered a shortcut to our clever guess, so if we guessed wrong we didn’t make things worse.)

Forgotten Bookmarks: a clever weblog of things left behind in books, written by a used bookseller. Here, for example, is an old book by a Catherine Marshall who is not our usual Catherine Marshall, nor even her customary namesake.

Jessica Rubart and J. Nathan Matias publish a set of useful notes about using Tinderbox to manage collaborative design meetings, especially for Scrum and related agile methodologies.

Jul 09 31 2009


Apple currently owns more than 90% of the market share for personal computers that cost over $1000. That’s astonishing.

Remember when Apple was doomed?

John Gruber is at his best with a thoughtful assessment of Microsoft, how it found itself in its current predicament, and just what sort of predicament it’s in.

And in mobile software, the fastest-growing segment of the computer industry, Microsoft’s platform is both inferior and unpopular. Their plan to address this is to change its name.

I'm planning a series of notes — probably to run through August — on using Tinderbox maps to gather, analyze, and organize evidence. I think the working example will be legal, but obviously this applies to a host of disciplines — journalism, history, social work, some kinds of medicine — and is also interesting to fiction writers, dramatists, and designers.

If you’ve got questions about this sort of Tinderbox application — or, better yet, if you’ve got examples or screenshots that might be relevant — I’d love to hear from you. Email me.

Tinderbox and Noguchi Shelving
Noguchi shelving in Tinderbox. The most-recently used item is always on top; Tinderbox handles the color-coding automagically.

Loryn Jenkins adapts ideas from the Noguchi Filing System for use in his Tinderbox Career Daybook. The underlying idea is simple: instead of trying to remember where you put each item, just keep items a shelf. Every time you use something, it goes at the left end. Every time you add something, it goes at the left end. You never put things back; everything goes at the left end. Want to find something? Start at the left end.

This can work surprisingly well for complex assortments of things — articles to read, emails you receive, books in your office. It’s most useful, naturally, for collections of things that contain lots of different items without much internal structure. Take my desk...

Tinderbox gives you great fallbacks, too, for finding things quickly by searching for keywords, or using agents to locate them based on tag clouds or properties. And Tinderbox can automatically handle tagging, sorting, and color coding.

One of my journals, the one I call my Career Daybook, has developed into a real hybrid: a professional networking logbook beside nascent inventions and innovation descriptions with ideas for blogging and research and development projects flowing into my blog-writing and archiving system. (Whew!)

Michael Becker, who writes about newspapers in the new era, likes my point about newspaper staffing.

Stewart Mader agrees, writing that “lean and content-focused sounds like a move in the right direction.” This sounds great, and it’s something that some news organization might attempt, but you can’t get there by starting with an existing newspaper. Why not? Because you already own a hundred trucks and a printing plant, not to mention places to park and load a hundred trucks. That costs money, you’ve got loans against those trucks and mortgages on the parking lot and the loading dock. You can’t just say, “we’re not going to do this anymore.” The banks won’t let you abandon the trucks, the mortgage still needs to be paid, and you’ve got contracts with the truck drivers.

Via Design Is Kinky, some excellent notebook sketches by designer Bryce Wymer.

Looking at Notebooks

by Robert Harris

The author of Imperium, Pompeii, and Fatherland visits the present in this thriller, a portrait of the ghost-writer to a former Prime Minister who is, unmistakably, Tony Blair. Oddly, while Harris’s historical novels seldom subvert history to the needs of the story, in this book atmospherics sometimes trump realism. The ghost-writer flies (business-class) to meet his new client, who is living in a billionaire’s compound on Martha’s Vineyard. But no one meets him at Logan; he’s told to catch the bus to Wood’s Hole, the ferry to the Vineyard, and a cab from the ferry. This does a nifty job of Isolating The Hero, sure, but does it make sense? Of course not: they’d have called a limo service.

Occasional false notes — the casual rudeness of a politician’s wife, the cheap artwork in a billionaire’s beach house, the klaxon call of a wood pigeon in the dune scrub of Martha’s Vineyard — are small irritations. Hornby thought this an angry book, but the anger at the Prime Minister is nicely restrained. The women surrounding him – his wife Ruth and his chief advisor Amerlia Bly – are the subject of a deeper and more corrosive anger.

Eva Thury, who “has a black belt in mythology”, has an exceptionally sensible look at hypertext fiction in Stone age memes: Google my codex.

The trouble with hypertext, though, is that it makes readers nervous. You start to read the story and then you have to make choices: are you getting the ‘real story’?... Hypertext makes you aware of the choices a reader makes, it lays bare the artifice of the medium, and that can annoy the uninitiated.

Despite the nervousness, Thury concludes that “these days media are educating us to appreciate more complexity, and to be willing to spend more time exploring a story.” This is exactly right; readers (and film viewers) are more attentive and more sophisticated than ever before.

by Laurie R. King

Mary Russell and her husband, Sherlock Holmes, return to their Sussex cottage after an adventurous and exhausting year abroad. They find Mrs. Hudson, of course, but also an unexpected visitor: the brilliant and troubled surrealist painter Damian Adler, son of the late Irene Adler whom Holmes once knew. This diverting volume is, I think, the first half of a longer work. Though it leaves much unresolved and many loose ends untied, it’s a fine way to spend a few evenings.

Kyle Baxter has a nice review of the entire Newpaper Economy discussion.

The standards and customs of newspaper journalism were not dictated by some grand, divine bargain with the Public Interest. They were shaped by the economics of production and distribution.

If you need to print a big-city newspaper every day, using 20th century technology, you’re going to have big, expensive printing presses — and lots of people to operate and maintain those presses. You’re going to have lots of people delivering the paper to stores, to street corners, to news stands, to houses — and you’re going to have fleets of trucks (or, before 1945, horse-carts) to carry those them. That’s all sunk cost: you have to buy the machinery and pay the delivery people, whatever else you do. Good paper or bad, big paper or small, the horses have to be fed.

That means you need investors and bank loans. That means your competition will be limited, because not everyone can have investors and bank loans. It means you can spend lots of making your product a little bit better; you’ve already paid so big an ante to get in the game that a little extra investment doesn’t change the economics much.

And, of course, it means you have lots of eyes on the product. Publishers, editors, investors, bankers – everyone has an opinion, and everyone thinks they are a stakeholder.

Media that require large production and distribution costs always skew toward terrific production values and conservative, cautious, consensus work. Newspapers, big magazines, network news, Hollywood: they’re all shaped by the economics of investment.

Conversely, media that don’t incur big production and distribution costs can be quirky and individual, the unedited voice of a person. You don’t need much capital to publish a book; in practice, it has generally required only two people: the author, and one acquiring editor at a major publishing house. It’s easy to show a painting: you need an artist and a gallery. That means you can risk more in books and in painting. You can leave the brushmarks on the canvas; as long as your publisher or your gallery doesn’t mind. Uou can try all sorts of things that the conventional wisdom considers sloppy, or strange, or crazy.

Blogging, of course, only requires one person. You don’t need a banker, you don’t need an acquiring editor, you don’t need a gallery. To be crazy is not necessarily a disadvantage for a blogger.

In between, you’ve got a spectrum of options. Drama requires more than a couple of people, but you only need one theater, a script, and some actors. Cinema requires a theater in every town. So, off-Broadway you have less polish than Broadway, and New York remains more free to experiment than Hollywood. Music’s all over the place, from the one-man band by the quick-lunch stand who plays real good for free to the big city symphony orchestras and stadium tours. On the street, you get quirks; at symphony hall, you get polish.

Take two news organizations, one designed for newspapers and one designed for the Web. They will be different, because the Team Newspaper is built around the capital requirements of the bank loans that pay for the presses and the trucks. Team Web isn’t. Team Newspaper checks everything, then check again: not because they are “professionals” or because it is holy writ, but because the editors and publishers and investors and the bank are always watching. It’s their paper. Not theirs alone — we’re all grownups, we know there are multiple stakeholders — but if you’re going to annoy one of the people at the top table, you’d better be right. Drudge can annoy who he likes, because he doesn’t need investors.

Gruber is right; a lot of the newspaper staff is not editorial. But that’s all starts with production: getting the paper out. Simply lopping off the production staff is unlikely to be the answer, because the whole enterprise was built around production. Besides, you’ve got equipment and real estate and debt and contracts, all structured around production and distribution; you can’t just walk away because it’s collateral. In addition, there’s a history problem: newspapers historically exploited pressmen and deliverymen, the employees eventually got a decent deal, and now nobody is going to trust the company if it tries to fire all the pressmen and delivery men. The newspapers have been trying to do that for a hundred years: it’s called breaking the union. So, sure, there are big non-editorial staffs, but that’s what newspapers are.

John Gruber has a thoughtful argument on why newspaper efforts to charge for the news are probably doomed. I agree with his conclusion, but his diagnosis of the problem with newspapers is wrong.

Old-school news companies aren’t like that — the editorial staff makes up only a fraction of the total head count at major newspaper and magazine companies. The question these companies should be asking is, “How do we keep reporting and publishing good content?” Instead, though, they’re asking “How do we keep making enough money to support our existing management and advertising divisions?” It’s dinosaurs and mammals.

And it’s not really surprising that they’re failing to evolve. The decision-makers — the executives sitting atop large non-editorial management bureaucracies — are exactly the people who need to go if newspapers are going to remain profitable.

The heavy staffing of traditional newspapers was not the fault of management bureaucracy. It was the fault of technology and distribution.


I remember visiting the Chicago Sun Times/Daily News building as a kid, where my best friend’s dad was a columnist. The place was huge! But it wasn't filled with middle managers; it was filled with compositors and pressmen and ad sales clerks. You didn’t just need someone to mark up the HTML; you had to cast the letters in lead type. And, if you needed to make a change, someone had to go take the plates off the press, melt them down, cast new plates, and start the press up again.

Keep in mind, too, the problems of doing business without computers. Every little transaction generates paper, and that paper needs to be reliably filed and quickly retrieved. Every transaction: two bucks for the delivery boy, the rent for the Paris office, the fee for the department store ads. Every paycheck had to be computed and written out by hand, in duplicate. Even in the 70’s, the fax machine was so new and faxes were so slow that Peter Gammons was able to write the story of a lifetime faster than the fax machine could send it.

If anything, the newsroom of old was notably short on bureaucracy. That was the whole point of the news room: you had a huge open office in which dozens of people worked because all those dozens of people reported to one editor. Some of those dozens would turn out to be idiots, some of them would be crazy, plenty of them were drunks, and all of them were prone to be unmanageable. Even so, there are remarkably few layers of bureaucracy.


If you’re going to be a big daily paper in the early or mid-20th century, you’re going to need to run a big printing facility. That means you’ve got huge production costs, and lots of people who set up, run, and maintain the presses. You’ve got to staff them for the worst case, too; that means you need enough maintenance people on hand that, when the worst possible breakdown happens at the worst possible time, you still get the paper on the street.

Plus, you’ve got a fleet of trucks to deliver the paper to retailers, because you can’t just sell the thing on your doorstep. Before you had trucks, you had horses and wagons. Lots of horses, and lots of wagons, and lots of teamsters to drive them. Those horses got a raw deal; the teamsters did, too, and eventually they drove a hard bargain. Newspapers are living with the consequences of that bargain, but it’s worth remembering how badly those early drivers, and their horses, were treated.

This puts the newspapers into the same bind as the movie business. If you’ve got to support a theater in every town in the country, that’s a lot of mortgages to pay. If you’ve got to run the largest printing operation in town, and the largest cartage operation in town, as a side-effect of your real business, then spending an extra dollar or two on editorial has no significant effect on the bottom line. You add writers, and editors, and bureaus, because their cost is small relative to your presses and your delivery trucks – and if you have a Paris bureau and the other paper doesn’t, then someday you might outsell the other paper big time.

This is the core dynamic of the 20th century newspaper. Why did columnists make so much money? Because they recruited readers, and because it wasn’t much money compared to the rest of the operation. Why did they have rewrite boys and typists and gofers? Because lots of newspaper reporters were still barely educated – reporting was a job for people with a high school education – and you needed someone to fix the spelling. (“Never let them know you can type,” my mother’s first editor told her.) Why fix the spelling? Because a bunch of readers have gone to college, and the advertisers badly want those readers. Fact checking? Same story. Why did newspapers have crime reporters and book reporters and theater reporters and society reporters, not just in New York but in Detroit and Denver and Des Moines? Because those columns sold a few papers, sometimes they attracted an advertiser, and the extra pair of hands came cheap.

Newspapers aren’t bloated bureaucracies because they have antiquated management. They’re heavily staffed because they are built for a different technology and a different distribution system. The old economy made them strong in some areas, and vulnerable in others. The new economics will change their structure. But it’s not simply a matter of antique management; it’s the result of that press in the basement and all those trucks out back.

In part 4 in a stellar series on Tinderbox Collaboration, J. Nathan Matias explores patterns of collaboration, when not to use online collaboration, and more nuts and bolts of sharing Tinderbox documents among teams.

Instapaper’s Marco Arment recites a litany of iPhone app developer woes, and sums them up with an important observation: “Apple thinks this is good enough.”

It’s not just a business model problem; it’s a potential disaster for mobile software innovation. To sell software for the iPhone, you have to get Apple’s approval. The approval process turns out to be a mess, and this – much more than the 30% overhead – threatens to wreck the marketplace. If you can’t predict whether Apple will let you sell your software, you can’t invest in making good software.

My overview:

  • The dominant platform offers thousands of choices, but only when authorized through a single source.
  • The dominant price point is so low that the penalty for selling garbage is slight.
  • Authorization is always slow and often capricious.
  • The age-rating system is obviously doomed, since noisy groups assert that almost every aspect of existence is unsuitable for children.
  • The result is that most applications are barely-functional junk, and star applications are often little more than slight papering-over of the built-in APIs or of familiar genres.

The last two featured games I bought — the only games I purchased by browsing, as opposed to personal recommendations from Web celebs — were crap. I’ll probably stop buying stuff from the app store unless someone like Gruber or PeterMe extolls it.

That’s a disaster for software innovation. And the last, best hope for an alternate mobile platform.

But I’ve still got an iPhone in my pocket.

Jul 09 17 2009


I play in a fairly intense, 21-year-old fantasy baseball league, named after Gettysburg Eddie Plank. It used to be run by Bill James Fantasy Baseball, and when that collapsed the league picked up and went independent.

There are 15 teams, made up of 28 real baseball players. You have to field someone at every position, you need 5 starters and 4 relievers, and you can carry three additional players and eight reserves who don’t play but can replace injured or slumping teammates.

Everything your players do, pretty much, gives you points. You get 2.5 points for every hit. An extra point for each run scored, and each run batted in. Your pitchers get a point for every out. It's all remarkably well balanced; the highest-pointing player in the game is almost always either (a) the consensus MVP, or (b) the guy who people say, “this fellow would have been the MVP if writers were smarter.”

Last year, I lost the wild card (to AEI VP Henry Olsen) by 3.5 points out of something like 8000. That is, literally, the value of one more inning pitched by your middle reliever, or one extra hit and a walk. Even for the game of inches, that’s absurdly close.

This year, at the all-star break, I was trailing Henry’s Washington Monuments by 5.25 points. A day later, and I’m 18 points up.

It’s hard to understand how a game with this much noise (I have Manny Ramirez in LF; who counts on their left fielder to take a 50-game vacation?) could generate results this tightly clustered.

Jul 09 16 2009


I love to see Tinderbox in colophons. Here’s Jason Butler’s new Web service, Serendeputy (which "learns what you like and don’t like’ and then “lovingly compules a list of news items and blogs for you.”

Tinderbox is an amazing product, one I've bought and upgraded continuously since 2002. It's hard to explain, but I use it for all my high-level thinking and planning. Author Mark Bernstein's thinking on NeoVictorian Computing also influenced a bit of what I'm trying to do here with Serendeputy.

Here’s another colophon, at Million Dollar

Mark Anderson was meeting with a client, planning a new database interface for the new season’s launch. Together, they threw together a light and fast Tinderbox map to capture ideas and, just as important, to elucidate dependencies among the ideas they were considering.

Tinderbox: Maps and the Client
Click here for full scale

This is not a presentation graphic prepared for a meeting; these are meeting notes that emerge naturally from discussions. When technical issues raise training problems, that can be captured right away. When the Experience Design team wants a programming solution to a nagging problem, that, too, can be captured.

It’s easy to adjust the frame. Issues aren’t required to fit the agenda, and you don’t need to shoehorn everything into fixed categories. Categories have power; they may easily determine who is responsible for a task, who pays for it, who evaluates it. If you’re not ready to answer those questions, the map lets you capture what you know without making commitments you don’t want to honor.

Everybody can play. Throw the emerging map up on a screen. Everyone can see what’s being captured, and what isn’t. Anyone can point to things that seem to be out of place, or missing.

PeterMe observes (Do People Ever Tire of Being Wrong?)that pundits can get attention by making wildly inaccurate and contentious predictions — the iPhone is doomed, Up is uncommercial, etc — and that there seem to be no consequences for having been wrong.

Morbus Iff contemplates (I think) writing some fresh hypertext fiction.

Susan Gibb's short hypertext Snakes And Snails is spooky.

Drunken Boat 10 has new electronic work by Steve Ersinghaus, Scott Rettberg, Jessica Pressman, Anthony Cornicello, and Young Hae Hchang Heavy Industries.

Jul 09 12 2009


Cathy Marshall: part 2 of a dazzling pair on roommates.

I was seeing a much older man, N., at the time. He lived around the corner in a larger, more modern, apartment building with his wife. He had talked me into renting the studio apartment; he was even with me when I first looked at it on impulse. I was living in the back of my car, an orange Opel station wagon crammed full of most of my earthly possessions, save four heavy boxes of vinyl records. Those would warp in the October heat if I kept them in the back of my car.

Doctors and lawyers practice a profession. Journalists have a job.

What is a profession? One crucial mark of a profession is that the profession itself determines the criteria for admitting new people into the profession, and for expelling undesired people from the profession.

No individual can make you a physician or a surgeon. No individual can make you a lawyer — or protect you from disbarment once your colleagues have judged you unfit to practice law. But Rupert Murdoch or Fred Hiatt can make you a journalist tomorrow, by signing a paycheck. Paycheck in hand, you remain a journalist. You may win or lose the respect of your colleagues; you’ll still be a journalist.

If you write for Mr. Murdoch, he may ask your editor to nominate you for a Pulitzer prize, or not. Though you wrote with the tongues of men and angels, if your piece appeared in the Examiner and Mr. Hearst said “no”, you could not receive a Pulitzer. And, though you transgress every rule of the book, demonstrating your incompetence and ineptitude in every line, while the paper employs you, you remain a journalist.

There’s nothing wrong with having a job. My mother wrote for Mr. Hearst. My dad was a physician. When they married, she was better known, and better paid. But it’s a job, not a profession.

Jul 09 11 2009



Making bread used to be a Big Deal that I did every year or two. Then I read Ratio.

First, get a digital scale. ($35 from amazon) . You don’t need to have one, but it makes life much easier.

Put your bowl on the scale: press a button to zero it. Add 20 oz. of flour. (I throw in a cup of whole wheat; it makes Linda happier) No sifting, no fussing. Linda, watching me, said “You could maybe use just a little care when you measure!” But I don’t need to: the scale tells me when I’ve got 20 ounces.

Then, push the button again to zero the scale. Pour in 12 ounces of water. You don’t need to measure; I use a measuring cup for old time’s sake.

Then, throw in a couple of teaspoons of salt, a teaspoon of yeast. Or a whole packet of yeast — doesn’t matter. I squirt in some honey. Mix well. (Don’t break your wooden spoon, like I did; the splinters are nasty. Use the spoon until it gets too thick, then user your hands. Takes two minutes, tops.)

Let it rise for a while. Couple of hours? Sure. Last one, I let it go overnight and it was fine. Punch it down, form it into a ball, put it into an oiled dutch oven. Let it rise some more. Then pop it into a 450° oven — covered for 30 minutes, uncovered for 20 minutes. You’ve got a nice loaf of bread.

J. Nathan Matias posts part 3 of his excellent series on Tinderbox and version control. Everything you need to allow an entire team to work on one shared Tinderbox document .

Jul 09 10 2009


Speaking of flames, Noah Wardrip-Fruin is pretty unhappy with me.

Ages ago, I jotted a weblog response to the claim that literary hypertext was boring.

Literary hypertext is boring, in exactly the way James Joyce and Samuel Beckett and all the rest of those dusty old moderns and postmoderns are boring. Who would read them for pleasure? Who would read them at all?

I suppose the most disturbing aspect of the whole thing is Bob Stein's "attaboy". Stein and I have disagreed on lots of things over the years, technical and artistic. He's said in public that some of the titles I published were "arty", and I've said that some of the titles he published were a bit too fond of visual gimmicks. But I've never denied the tremendous contribution and importance of Voyager, or the fine design of Night Kitchen. And I've never before thought him opposed to the hard work of thinking and reading.

And I don't really think it now. C'mon guys: this is a pose, right? A tactic? A bit of positioning, just in case Mr. Ashkenas is poised to become a competitor?

Can't we leave the yahoo anti-intellectual pose to the gamerz?

The vexing things here are:

  • I was trying to provoke – I replied on the other weblog, not here. The hastily-written comment hits all the essential points of the ritual demand for satisfaction. But it didn’t work.
  • One reason I failed is that Diane Greco followed up a few hours later with a terrific post, asking “but why in the world are we still talking like this about hypertext?"
  • The carefully-calibrated “gamerz” to which Noah takes such umbrage was, in my mind, meant to separate unthinking consumers of entertainment from others (like Noah) interested in games, people I’d generally call "game designers" and "game critics". I might call the author of Expressive Processing and editor of The New Media Reader and three additional anthologies many things, but “yahoo anti-intellectual” isn’t one of them.

But it all ends well (I hope) because the underlying discussion of which this weblog dialog was a part made it clear to me that some of the confusion about literary hypertext among the critics arises simply because they haven’t read the right things. Hence, our new collection of classic and original writing about Reading Hypertext.

Jul 09 9 2009


XHTML2, a standard-building project planning a successor to XHTML, has been cancelled.

Jeffrey Zeldman, a noted Web designer and editor of A List Apart, blogged the news: XHTML DOA WTF. Mark Pilgrim, a Google employee and noted Web curmudgeon, gloated and ridiculed XHTML — and Zeldman.

This is the header
That nobody sees
’Cause they see the namespace
That doesn’t do squat
When we parse the slashes
That end the tags
That live in the house
That Jeffrey built.

(The poem goes on and on like that.) Zeldman A commenter (whom I, among others, mistook to be Zeldman but is someone else entirely) responded:

You are a very small child in the world of men. And nobody will change your diaper. Rot in hell.

Zeldman denounced the Pilgrim piece in his weblog: In Defense of Web Developers.

None of this throws much light onto the standards process or the underlying technical issues. But I think there are some useful lessons here for one of my Ten Tips (an essay of mine that Zeldman published and that has, surprisingly, gone on to be reprinted in textbooks and widely read): Choose Good Enemies.

  • If you wish to shed light on a debate, reply to a weblog post on your own weblog.
  • If you wish to enrage, comment on your opponent’s weblog.
  • Power imbalance, whether real or perceived, entices writers to escalate. Pilgrim’s a technician, Zeldman a designer. Pilgrim works for Google, Zeldman runs Happy Cog. Pilgrim has (I assume) a fairly secure job; Zeldman is running a design shop in the midst of the worst downturn the ad industry has seen in our lifetime.
  • Zeldman and Pilgrim don’t escalate by degrees; on entering into this quarrel, they reached directly for the big guns.

This dustup adds special interest to Rudolf Ammann’s intriguing Hypertext 2009 paper on Jorn Barger, the NewsPage Network, and the Emergence of the Weblog Community. Many observers (including myself) had credited the early blogroll of Cameron Barrett with giving weblogs a sense of community; Ammann argues convincingly that the Barrett’s early list depends on Barger’s, and that therefore Barger is the key figure in the invention of the community that we call the blogosphere.

That’s a surprise. Barrett was the sort of guy who comes to mind when you think of “community builder”. Barger was an angry troll. Barrett seemed to have lots of friends and went to lots of conferences; Barger was famously a loner. Barrett often seemed steeped in personal and professional success, while Barger was suffused with a venomous anger at Yale, at Roger Schank (who, long ago, was briefly his graduate school supervisor), at academic computer science, at everyone who crossed his path. Barrett used to seek out new people to publicize; Barger didn’t. Lots of early bloggers were fun to listen to in person, fun to be around – PeterMe, Molly, Megnut, EvHead, jill/txt, the baby squirrels. Lots of them started companies with their pals. Dave Winer could be rough if you got athwart his hawse, but he was in general a nice guy who always seemed to want to get a lot of bright people around a big table with plenty of food. I know only one Web celebrity (KiaMennie) who actually met Barger, and until Amman’s talk I had never met anyone who was confident in pronouncing his name. So, it’s surprising that Barger seems to have played this central role.

I find Ammann’s evidence pretty convincing. I understand this paper is the start of a larger work, and that’s good news. As it stands, it leaves a few obvious questions open. This is not a flaw – a ten-page conference paper can’t answer everything. But there is a lot we’d like to know.

  1. Barger seems an unlikely, even preposterous, candidate to build a community. This begs for analysis and explanation.
  2. If Barger played a central role in the history of the weblog, how much of that history is tinged with, or influenced by, the fact that he is unhinged. He is a notorious anti-Semite; his weblog’s tagline is “judaism is racism is incompatible with democracy”. Other opinions are nearly as bizarre. Overt anti-Semitism after 1945 sits outside the boundaries of civilized discourse in a way that arguments over XML parsing or software business models, however passionate, do not; it's literally a third rail, and I don’t think any open anti-Semite has led a community that wasn’t overtly crazy since the war. (Sure, Nixon – but he didn’t say this stuff on the record or in public.) How did these opinions affect the coalescence of the blogosphere?
  3. Several other early bloggers were technically talented people who had already built significant systems or published notable books and articles. Barger’s CV has a blog and one obscure paper about Joyce. What does this mean?
  4. Who makes a good historical analogy to Barger? If you take Ezra Pound, remove the poetry, the criticism, the editorial work, and the circle of literary expatriates. do you wind up with Barger?
  5. Working in the other direction, who has been most influenced by Barger. Matt Drudge, surely. Who else?

In posting this, I am not pursuing Rule 5: Find Good Enemies. I haven’t heard from Jorn since April 1995, did not expect to hear from him again, and had mentioned him only three times (1, 2, 3) among the 4,934 notes in the weblog. Ammann’s paper is good. It raises a lot of questions, as good papers do. I find it a curious starting point, but it will be interesting to see where the work goes.

Note: an earlier version of this post attributed to Zeldman a comment which was not, in fact, his. While other discussions had led me to think the attribution not only correct by widely understood to be so, I should have checked. A good lesson.

Update: Dave Winer replies.

by Jodi Picoult

Anna is 13. Her big sister has leukemia; all her life, Anna has given her sister umbilical blood, bone marrow, stem cells, platelets.

Now her sister needs a kidney, and Anna wants to say, “no”. The ensuing drama, a legal thriller crossed with a romance, is engaging, and (narrowly) avoids the merely sentimental. In particular, Picoult makes sure we see Anna’s adolescent selfishness, immaturity, and weakness while never making her unlovable. (Picoult is less generous to Jesse, the brother who rounds out the family). The book’s ending is contrived but not unsatisfactory, because its contrivance reminds us that sometimes things simply happen. But by insisting that every character be uncertain, tentative, loving and lost, Picoult ultimately filters out all the ideas from the book; we have five points of view but they are all equally and equivalently muddled.

Michael Pershin sends word of two hypertext fictions in Russian:

My Russian isn’t up to this anymore, if it ever was. But I'd be interested in hearing opinions, either for publication or in confidence, if yours is.

Lilia Efimova has a thoughtful discussion of some issues from Hypertext 2009.

Here are the slides from my Hypertext 2009 paper, On Hypertext Narrative. (The paper is here)

Jul 09 6 2009


Barolo lives up to its billing, and its billing is considerable. Lovely town. High hill. Tried to find renowned restaurant located in fields. Fields were (obviously) at the bottom of the hill, basking in warmth and sun. So were we. But restaurant was not to be found, so we walked back up the hill and ate at a very pleasant spot near the post office. Polenta and mushrooms (chanterelles, I think, very tasty) followed by a beef braised in barolo (somewhat too lean for best effect, but the best parts were very fine). Dinner in camp: mushroom risotto and more terrific wine. Deluge provides amusement but only trifling dampness.


Breezed through Pisa en route back to Piedmonte. Tried to score terrific pizza, compromised on adequate. The trip went 0-2 on pizza; it was that kind of movie.

Pisa's tower and Duomo and baptistery all far more impressive than you'd expect. Will require much additional inspection on subsequent journey.

Camping in Piedmont turns out far from onerous, as camper is equipped with everything necessary to civilization. Wine cellar, a glass rack, dual iPhone chargers, and a tent that erects itself as soon as you take it from the bag. (Packing the tent, on the other hand, required seven attempts, much poring over the documentation, and the assistance of a team of French bicyclists.)

Parked 3km outside of San Gimignano, in blazing sun. (Got ticketed anyway.) Walked up large hill to hill town. Impressive. Walked up largest tower in hill town. Also impressive. Had perfectly fine risotto for lunch. Pretty impressive. It's that sort of town.

Dinner involved truffled pasta (delightful), chianti classico (also delightful), and

Two charming (and very fine) wine tastings — one in a lovely store (with a lovelier restaurany) in an industrial park outside of Vinci, the other at Tenuta de Capezzana, a delightful hilltop hamelt near Carmignano.. The archeological museum (in a Medici villa) at S. Artimino was closed in the afternoon, but intriguing. So was the walled 13th century town (in which every street appears to be the street of either 5 or 15 martyrs), above the tiny abbey church of St. Martino in Campo, which has 12th and 14th century improvements to a 10th century structure.

Villas and Bottles

Tons of fun. Dinner, terrific wine, grappa.

Up hours past midnight last night, drinking vino bianco and limoncello in our garden in Tuscany.

I like the sound of that.