Hypertext pioneer Jan Walker has a photography show in Gloucester, MA.

I’m was out of veal stock, and I was hungry. So Savenor’s sold me some really nice veal bones, and I made a nice batch of dark veal stock. That took most of yesterday. I also made dinner:

  • roast chicken
  • string beans
  • cream biscuits
  • green goddess salad

After dinner, we whipped up some strawberry ice cream for tomorrow. Like the demi-glace for which the veal stock is destined, the strawberry ice cream has several intermediate components:

  • crème anglaise, made from half-and-half, sugar, and egg yolk
  • heavy cream
  • sliced and macerated strawberries

This was already complicated, because it turns out that eGullet has an extensive and scholarly discussion of strawberry ice cream. This will tell you everything you need to know about strawberry ice cream, except how to make it. It turns out that there are many different schools of strawberry ice cream constructions. Some like to base it on a custard, others use only cream, and some think everyone is barking up a wrong tree and strawberry sorbet is the answer.

Everything went off swimmingly, right up until the ice cream started to freeze. Then, it seemed like the ice cream machine might perhaps be a little bit full. We watched. It was a bit full. Yes, some ice creams was spilling onto the rim. That was not a problem. Some was dripping over the side. That, well, a small waste is not a disaster. Quite a bit seems to be spilling. That is why we have counters that are easy to clean.

The night of the strawberry ice cream explosion. One for the books.

Today: more veal stock, roux, espagnole. Pistachio brittle. A grilled beef tenderloin. And plenty of Web design.

Note: The recipe for pistachio brittle in Alinea, p. 89, gives the wrong final temperature. Fortunately, Carol Blymire got it right. She suggested smoking the pistachios, so I did; we'll see how it turns out.

I need to write a hypertext story, just to have an example to use in testing a new concept. This should be easy enough; it’s a short and simple story.

It’s not strictly necessary that it be a good story. But if I’m going to write the thing, it seems sensible to write it well.

It’s not going very well.

What’s vexing is that there’s shockingly little to read about writing a good hypertext narrative, or fixing one that’s lost its way. It seems there’s an entire literary organization devoted to the notion that hypertext narrative is too easy to be interesting, but I only know a couple of dozen writers who know how to do it.

There’s some help in Reading Hypertext. But not as much as I would like: after all, it’s a book about reading.

This should not be so difficult.

Jul 10 30 2010


Following up on the mushroom pappardelle I made last week, I sautéed some mushrooms to go with dinner the other night using the same technique: very hot pan, very hot oil, don't move the mushrooms.

I learned to cook vegetables from Joyce Chen’s book, so my default procedure is to stir fry in a hot pan, starting with garlic and onion, then adding vegetables, keeping everything moving, and concluding with sauce. This procedure runs against the grain: you let the mushrooms sit, and you add the garlic last.

But it works great, developing plenty of fond and browning the mushrooms beautifully without burning them or drying them out.

Kevin Guilfoile opens one of his father’s old baseball books and finds a surprise.

Jul 10 29 2010

Bob Stein

A conversation with Bob Stein (Voyager Expanded Books, Night Kitchen) on the early history of the future of the book. (Press the "+" sign; the interface is somewhat curious.)

Stein and I have met only a handful of times. That’s strange, when you think about it: we’ve both been working and thinking about making things that are better than books for decades. He’s more interested in design, in how things look. I’m more interested in structure and sequence, in links. He’s a radical whose vision of the electronic page is deeply conservative in the best (and now almost-forgotten) sense of the word. I’m a liberal whose would gladly send the page to the wall if we could get something better, because people need something better if we’re to have any hope of saving the world. And they need it now.

Asked about why he has devoted so much energy to creating tools for making ebooks, Stein answers:

I was telling a programmer today that if I have one regret it’s that I never learned to program. And I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve wanted these tools.

This strikes me as an odd thing to regret. Learning to program isn’t like learning to be a ballet dancer or a major league second baseman. At worst, it requires a bit of study and practice. (Learning to be a terrific programmer might — perhaps — be another kettle of fish. But even then I’m not entirely sure. And you don’t need to be a terrific programmer to build stuff, just as you don’t need to a terrific driver to run down to the grocery.) If you’re forty years old, you’re never going to learn to hit a fastball, but there’s no reason you can’t pick up Ruby or Objective C or whatever you like. And Stein is by no means shy of hard work or daunting challenges.

If you think you want to learn to program, do it.

When people write papers about New Media and The Web, they often cite Vannevar Bush's 1945 article in The Atlantic,As We May Think”. We had a 65th anniversary panel about the paper at Hypertext 2010, at which I was the designated heretic.

My position is that Bush’s paper is essentially a popular science article. It gets some things right, some wrong. It’s cavalier about its sources – especially the very important work of Emanuel Goldberg, which Bush knew and which was entirely forgotten by everyone in the field for fifty years before Michael Buckland rediscovered it.

We can point to other precursors, too. H. G. Wells, for example, wrote The World Brain before the War and tried hard to fund a foundation that would manage an open-source microfilm encyclopedia of the world’s knowledge. But the really astonishing prediction is not Bush’s but Murray Leinster’s 1946 short story, “A Logic Name Joe”. Some of the things Leinster gets right:

  • Web terminals will be appliances found in every home – not vast machines serviced by an army of girls armed with typewriters.
  • Everyone will have one; is is not only scholars and scientists who need the world’s literature at their fingertips.
  • The computational logic in the home will be substantial. Server farms — Leinster calls them “tanks”, will be large but comparatively simple.
  • One of the first things that kids will ask their computers to tell them about is sex.
  • One of the first things that adults will ask their computers to tell them about is fraud.
  • When adults find out what the kids want to know, they will react hysterically.
  • Fixing computers is a lousy and ill-paying job, even though doing it well is technically complex and extremely demanding. In practice, this means you seldom repair computers; if your computer acts strangely, you swap it for a new one.
  • Wanting to serve mankind is nice, but providing service requires a very deep understanding of social systems.

Why do we talk all the time about [Bush 45] and not about [Wells 39] or [Leinster 46]? What many now forget is hypertext’s roots in the 1960’s and the 1970’s, and the memory of those roots in the 1980’s. The key years of hypertext research coincided with the Reagan presidency, and the field’s origins (a book with a clenched fist on the cover and the slogan “You Can And Must Understand Computers Now”) and dreams (a free and universal library) then seemed uncomfortably close to the old New Left. Bush had immaculate establishment credentials — a Boston Brahmin whose career trajectory ran from MIT to FDR to Carnegie. Bush ran military research; whatever he was, he was no hippie.

Question: Bush lived in Belmont MA, down the road from Eastgate. Anyone know exactly where? Is there a plaque? Email me.
Jul 10 27 2010

Tab Candy

Tab Candy is an interesting Firefox project, a spatial hypertext system for managing browser tabs. A lot like Web Squirrel with thumbnails, and (of course) reminiscent of Tinderbox.

I like their collections, though they're probably better suited for managing dozens of tabs rather than hundreds of notes.

From Ruskin’s The true and the beautiful in nature, art, morals, and religion, Volume 2:

Now in order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed : They must be fit for it: They must not do too much of it : and they must have a sense of success in it—not a doubtful sense, such as needs some testimony of other people for its confirmation, but a sure sense, or rather knowledge, that so much work has been done well, and fruitfully done, whatever the world may say or think about it. So that in order that a man may be happy, it is necessary that he should not only be capable of his work, but a good judge of his work.

by Howard Waldrop and Jake Saunders

Recommended at DailyKos (of all places!), this post-apocalyptic war adventure from 1974 pits a unit of Israeli mercenary armor (in the service of what’s left of the US Army) against the Texas Rebellion. We have an odd mix of science fiction and fun here; we're thinking seriously about some things (like women in combat) and just having fun with others (let’s get some WWII armor out of the museum! Let’s sail a cruiser into Dallas!) The world is in terrible shape after Britain started a nuclear and biological war against South Africa, but while there’s no longer a functional Coke bottler in North America we’ve still got the logistical capacity to keep an awful lot of armor (and tactical lasers) in the field.

It’s odd to see the cover of an old book which looks to 1999 as the distant future. And it’s interesting to see how the image of The Israeli has changed since the 1970’s. These Israelis are secular, socially liberal, undoubtedly vote Labor, and mostly are looking to start over in a new land that’s less crowded than home. The rebels, on the other hand, are divided between the Good Enemy (who believe in states rights) and the Sons of the Alamo (SA), who torture prisoners and deserve what they get. Reminiscent of Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, this is a guilty confection.

Jul 10 26 2010


A Hamburger Today: serious food blogging.

One nice piece of detailing about the film versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire: the office of the magazine Millenium, for which Mikael Blomkvist works, looks and sounds right. It’s odd how rarely films get this right, especially for small businesses.

Jul 10 25 2010


Alex Rushmer liked the madeleines at St. John even more than I did. So he made them himself.

So did I.

Amazon talked me into buying a miniature Madeleine tin, which is really too small. The cooking time needs to be scaled back a minute or two.

But they were might tasty.

by John Buchan

It is 1916. Major Richard Hannay and his fellow officer Sandy Arbuthnot are relaxing over breakfast at a big Hampshire country house, convalescing after some nasty scrapes at Loos and expecting presently to receive a battalion or perhaps a staff post. What arrives instead is a mission that leads them across the map of Europe, through wartime Germany and Austria to Istanbul and beyond. Their mission is to discover the source of unsettled rumblings of an Islamic revival and to prevent that revival from raising the Middle East against the Allies. A classic adventure yarn, well worth a fresh visit.

Jul 10 24 2010

More CSS

I’m adjusting the style sheets again, trying to improve the main page on small screens. Let me know what breaks.

Another workday dinner for nine. Constraints: not too much salt, not too many courses.

  • Modernist green goddess salad (farm cucumbers, romaine, and avocado with a dressing based on a homemade mayonnaise with a cup of pureed watercress) (Goin)
  • Clotilde’s yellow zucchini tarte fine, with summer squash from the farm. (I used sheep’s yogurt in the crust, just for fun)
  • homemade pappardelle with crimini mushrooms (Keller/Ruhlman)
  • leg of lamb a sept heures. (The six-year old sous chef greatly enjoyed removing the bread caulk from the dutch oven!) (Bourdain)
    • pepperonata (Keller/Ruhlman)
    • baked ricotta with lots of thyme (Goin)
  • rhubarb sorbet with brown-sugar ginger brittle (Meryl)

I started out with a plan for simplicity, and then managed — bit by bit, and without noticing — to make everything a high-wire act. The salad sounded good, but I only realized that it involved a home-made mayonnaise about fifteen minutes before the guests were to arrive. “Say a prayer for me to the Mayonnaise Spirit!” I called to Linda.

The pappardelle are easy (and they’re from Ad Hoc, which is fun). So, I said, why not make the pasta myself! I figured I could do the pasta a night ahead. As it turns out, I did not understand pasta properly when I started this double batch, and quickly had a double batch of useless and sticky dough. I kneaded again, and rolled it all through the machine again, and it was better — but it was not right. One more time, and I thought, “By George! The rain in Spain does fall mainly in the plain!” Not all the little rolls of noodles actually unrolled themselves in the boiling water, but it was pretty good, considering.

Then there’s the seven-hour lamb. The thing about Bourdain’s approach: the Dutch over is caulked with bread dough, so no steam is going to escape. The bad thing: it’s caulked with bread dough, so you have no idea what’s happening until it’s time to serve. Another bad thing: remembering after it’s caulked that you failed to add the twenty cloves of garlic. I think I got away with it anyhow.

I’d never tried to bake ricotta before, either. So, basically, every course could have turned out to be inedible. This isn’t a disaster in itself, but if two courses decided to go south at once, I would have been in bad shape. Omelets?

A Locative Compendium

At Eastgate, we’re interested right now in locative narrative — stories for mobile devices that are meant to be read or heard in specific places. Stacey Mason and I have put together an informal compendium:

as a repository of interesting projects, examples, and current research. Additions? Corrections? (We’d welcome syllabuses and course assignments too!) Email me.

by Nick Hornby

There was much talk at LeanCamp about launching the minimum viable product: the smallest and simplest offering that could possibly succeed in the marketplace. This is the business-side refactoring of the Agile Programming adage that one should build the simplest thing that could possibly work instead of designing things to work beautifully under all anticipated conditions.

This works in programming practice because, in reality, you never do manage to anticipate everything. In consequence, you try very hard to prepare for every foreseeable eventuality, but your system still breaks down sometimes because there is always something you didn’t expect. Meanwhile, you’re paying for defenses against things you worried about, but that may never actually happen.

Nick Hornby eloquently states the contrary argument in Juliet, Naked. Ten years ago, Tucker Crowe made a landmark album called Juliet, one of the great achievements of rock. In its wake, he lost it, lost everything, and retired. Now, his record label has released the demo tapes for Juliet, the first versions of each song performed by the artist unaccompanied; the characters think of this bare-bones version as Juliet Naked. At first it seems fresh and exciting, but on reflection it's just incomplete, unfinished, half-baked.

Sometimes, if you aim for the minimum viable product, you aim too low.

Jul 10 21 2010

Medium Raw

by Anthony Bourdain

A collection of essays by a chef who, old and broke, found himself launched by an angry and unexpectedly-successful book into the world of celebrity. In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain adopts a frankly misogynistic, homophobic tone that plausibly reflects the hard-working men who populated his kitchens. In these essays, where we are often writing about the pleasures of Hanoi cuisine, St. Barts parties, or Per Se, the same tone becomes schtick. Bourdain’s topic in many of these essays seems to be Bad Lifestyles, but since he take great pains to deny any claim to wisdom, their point is not entirely clear. An essay that deplores tasting menus, especially Alinea’s, because they're too elaborate and attention-grabbing is in terrible taste, for Bourdain is here projecting the esoteric afflictions of the food celebrity (oh no! Not another rich delicacy!) onto his readers.

But there’s a terrific look at true skill in “My Aim Is True,” a New Yorker-style profile of the guy who cuts up fish at Le Bernardin. This is classic Bourdain territory, showing us art where we never thought to look. And the closing chapter, recounting what has happened to everyone else in Kitchen Confidential, redeems the whole volume with gentle and generous spirit.

Jul 10 19 2010

Siren Shapes

I recently had occasion to glance once more at Michael Joyce’s 1988 essay, “Siren Shapes”, originally published in Academic Computing. It’s remarkable.

Twenty years have past, and most of our writing on the subject is substantially less well informed.

Digitaler Zettelkasten: Tote Unterhosen, Informationsfluten, Büchernarren undNetznavigatoren by Gunnar Sohn. He views Tinderbox as the intellectual descendant of the card catalog notes of sociologist Niklas Luhmann.

Jul 10 17 2010

Fruit Dinner

A small dinner party. Constraints: work night, very hot weather (we don’t have air conditioning), no pork, shellfish, or pineapple, no oven[1].

  • tomato sorbet, lemon sorbet, tomato tartare, mint [2]
  • roasted peach soup, garnished with pancetta and fried arugula [3]
  • lamb sausage, cilantro, mango chutney
  • grilled homemade flatbread
  • home-cured pastrami [4]
  • tea-smoked duck breast, confit duck leg, mesclun salad
  • dessert soup: pecan cream and pear purée [5]
  • home-made vanilla ice cream with cherry sauce

There’s a lot of fruit here, both overtly and in the shape of surprising quantities of lemon and lime in the marinades, dressings, and sauces. We drank beer and lots of a nice vinho verde.And here are the notes:

  1. I still love the Wolf, but the oven stopped ovenning about a week ago. I used to use the oven two or three times a year, but now I’m completely hobbled. With expected temperatures in the 90s, grilling made lots of sense.
  2. The tomato sorbet was a hit. I made it the night before, and it might be better to prepare it instead the same day; there’s not really enough sugar for the sorbet to be stable. The sorbet had lots of tomato flavor and made a nice contrast with the tartare. It’s easy to make if you have an ice cream gizmo. (Our new Cuisinart is simple and works very well).
  3. The roasted peach soup used 3C of duck broth, which means we used the entire duck.
  4. I cured a hunk of flunken for the pastrami, a cut usually used in pot roast. It was lean — perhaps leaner than I myself prefer — but very tender and tasty. I suspect most people aren’t wild about fattier cuts, and in any case this was already a very rich dinner on a very warm night.
  5. I substituted pecans for walnuts, and ground them much too fine; getting the soup to be liquid was tricky. Rather than add extra cream (I was out), I added extra poaching liquid from the pears. It was still too thick to filter off the nuts, which made it reminiscent of nut butter. But a shot glass of the stuff was kind of fun.
Jul 10 16 2010


It’s the day after I wrote about criticism and mentioned the ELO Directory. And suddenly Patchwork Girl and Cultures In Webs are gone.


I'm sure it’s just a coincidental and purely technical error.

But if you want to learn about Patchwork Girl or Cultures In Webs , or even want to read these wonderful hypertexts, you can find us at the usual place. We’re here in person, on the Web, by email, post, and telephone, eager to talk hypertext. Just as we’ve been, day in and day out, for decades.

Robert Silverberg recalls that it’s always been exceptionally rare to make a living from writing science fiction.

When I broke into the business 55 years ago you could count the number of full-time science fiction writers who could pay the rent and eat regular meals on the fingers of one oddly proportioned hand. Poul Anderson, Gordy Dickson, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur Clarke, Robert Sheckley, maybe Jack Vance, and….well, who else? Jack Williamson? Perhaps he had begun teaching by then. Asimov was still a college professor who wrote s-f on the side. Ted Cogswell was a professor also. So was James Gunn. Phil Dick was a full-timer, but lived at the poverty level. Sturgeon didn’t do much better. Del Rey dabbled in editing and occasional agenting. Harry Harrison did editing work, wrote comics, whatnot. Leiber was an editor for Science Digest. Jim Blish wrote p-r stuff for the tobacco institute. Cyril Kornbluth worked for a wire service. Fred Pohl edited and agented. Alfred Bester wrote for the slicks and TV.I’m not sure what Phil Klass did for a living — he wasn’t teaching yet — but he couldn’t have lived on the proceeds of what he wrote. Kuttner and Moore — I don’t know; they did venture somewhat into television and mystery novels.Leigh Brackett was a part-time Hollywood writer and her husband Edmond Hamilton earned most of his living writing comic books. Mack Reynolds and Fred Brown had fled to Mexico, where a dime went as far as a dollar did here.

The Southern story has, at its core, a secret that should never have been revealed. That secret is slavery. (Sometimes, the secret seems to be adultery or incest or brutality, but it all goes back to slavery.)

The hidden core of the New England story is the haunting memory of Europe, filled with violence and hatred and the certain knowledge that nothing will ever change here.

The Western story – the genre, yes, but also Hammet and Chandler and Angels In America – hides the terrible knowledge that, in the end, you will stand alone.

In the Midwestern story, we learn that the City is not the bright and shining wonder it seemed when we arrived (for the Midwestern story — Sister Carrie or The Wizard of Oz, Horatio Alger or First Foundation — always begins with arrival), and that in its very corruptness we see our reflection.

Thanks to the Readercon panel on “New England As The Home of Unheimlich” for the explaining the Southern and New England stories. They aren’t responsible for the others.

Rose Fox at Publisher’s Weekly writes a useful notes about Being the Bearer of Sad Tidings.

I would always rather praise than deride; I never forget that authors and publishers read our reviews, and I don’t enjoy telling people that something they’ve worked on for months or years is awful. This may sound odd coming from someone who’s very firmly on the record about the ethical importance of negative reviews.

A careful critic can compress lots of information, insight, and judgment into a very short review. At Readercon, Fox praised Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter . Let’s look at the Publisher’s Weekly capsule.

In this tour de force from bestseller Straub (In the Night Room), four high school friends in 1966 Madison, Wis.--Hootie Bly, Dilly Olson, Jason Boatman, and Lee Truax--fall under the spell of charismatic “wandering guru” Spencer Mallon. During an occult ceremony in which Mallon attempts to break through to a higher reality, something goes horribly awry leaving one participant dead. Decades later, Lee’s writer husband interviews the quartet to find out what happened. In Roshomon-like fashion, each relates a slightly different account of the trauma they experienced. Straub masterfully shows how the disappointments, downturns, and failed promise of the four friends’ lives may have stemmed from this youthful experience, and suggests, by extension, that the malignant evil they helped unleash into the world has tainted all hope ever since. Brilliant in its orchestration and provocative in its speculations, this novel ranks as one of the finest tales of modern horror.

This weighs in at 153 words. It has to be short; there are lots of books to review, and there are never sufficient trees (or ad pages) to say everything we might like. In this small space, the anonymous critic

  • provides sufficient plot summary to let us talk about the book, while taking care not to detract from its impact.
  • explains the writer’s technical approach.
  • identifies what the writer seems to be attempting.
  • judges whether the book meets its goals and directs our attention to how those goals are met.

OK, an editor at PW can’t spell Rashomon, and didn’t check. These things happen, but nobody will be confused. The point is that the reviewer has got our attention and has told us, quickly, what we need to know. And it’s not only, or primarily, buying advice; what we most need to know is why this work was made and why it matters.

Here’s the ELO’s Patricia Tomaszek on The Unknown:

‘The Unknown’ is a collaborative hypertext novel written on the World Wide Web during the turn of the millennium. It is a text about a book tour that takes on the excesses of a rock tour. The work is notorious for breaking the ‘comedy barrier’ in electronic literature, replacing the pretentious modernism and self-consciousness of previous hypertext works with a pretentious postmodernism and self-absorption that is more satirical in nature. The Unknown includes several sections or ‘lines’ of content including a sickeningly decadent hypertext novel, metafiction, documentary material, correspondence, art projects, documentation of live readings, a press kit, and more.

The $47,870 Directory’s entry is even tighter than PW, at 102 words. We start with a plot summary, tell a joke (at the work’s expense), and then have more plot summary.

Is The Unknown notorious for breaking the comedy barrier? I’ve read rather a lot of hypertext criticism, and I just wrote a review article about it. I had not heard of “the comedy barrier” before I read this review. If you Google

hypertext “comedy barrier”

you get one hit — the directory review. Substitute "electronic literature" for “hypertext”, same result. Can you be notorious for breaking something that nobody has heard of?

I’m not sure whether “comedy” is used here as a genre or a euphemism for funny. How confident are we that there wasn’t any funny hypertext before 1998? For that matter, is The Unknown funny? I’ve got Gerald’s Party on my desk today; it’s a nifty book, and I think it might have influenced The Unknown, but I’m not sure funniness is its central characteristic. See Kerouac, rinse, and repeat with Hunter S. Thompson while drinking a shot of Ken Kesey.

It’s not quite clear, either, whether the reviewer actually intends to say that The Unknown is “sickeningly decadent”, “pretentious”, and self-absorbed, or whether she is ironically echoing the work’s own self-mockery. And what we don’t see here is any very clear indication of what the writers were trying to do, or just how they went about it. There’s a ton of writing about The Unknown — journalism, criticism, a couple of MA theses, book chapters — but you wouldn’t know that from the Directory. In fact, the Directory entry doesn’t really tell us why or how we might want to read The Unknown.

Jul 10 13 2010

Law Blogs

Some time ago, I asked Tinderbox users and readers for recommended legal blogs. Here, after many delays, are some of the sites most often mentioned.

Thanks: Richard Lyon ☙ Stephen Chakwin ☙ John Doernberg ☙ John Stephan ☙ Bob Bechtel ☙ Steve Winnick

Here is the Claire Cooney poem, The Sea King’s Second Wife, that I mentioned earlier. Read the whole thing. Here’s a stanza:

‘Cheer up, my doughty Sea King!’ I shout in manner bracing

“For I sicken of this city, of its traffic lights and taxes

Of the emails and the faxes, and the work and wage and worry

So, tell you what, my darling: you take me to your kingdom

And I'll romp with all your children, spin them stories by the daylight

Sing them lullabies at nighttime

And when they're sound and sleeping, I will creep

Into your bower, to your bed of bright anemone, where

I'll comb your hair with seashells, pour my palms in perfumed oil

By and by I'll take you deeper than ever Sea King ventured

We will scour off what's rotting, all these thoughts of sweet Agneta

Do you think we have a bargain?”

There’s lots of flutter about a new Jakob Nielsen study that again finds a familiar result: people don’t read as quickly on the screen (including iPads and Kindles) as they do on paper. This has been getting lots of press; one Readercon speaker, for example, cited the result (misattributed to “Harvard”‚ as suggesting that eBooks might be a mere fad.

88 sec

What we need to keep in mind, however, is that the differences were so small as to be barely measurable. The 24 users took 17 minutes and 20 seconds to finish a Hemingway short story. iPad and Kindle readers saved about 88 seconds per story.

If a book contains a dozen short stories, reading it a screen might cost you, by these figures, perhaps twenty minutes. In much of the US, it will take you more then twenty minutes to get to the bookstore or the library, grab the book, and get home again. (Yes, the book might not be available for your reader, but it might not be available in your bookstore.)

The real headline is: a top-notch usability expert with twenty-year track record of studying reading speed in eBooks is barely able to detect a difference between books and eBooks, and cannot detect any difference between iPad and Kindle.

by Mark Mazower

In early modern Europe, three cities dominated the Eastern Mediterranean: Istanbul, Vienna, and Venice. Two were fading, and the third would never really become what it promised to be. The contested land that separated them became a byword for benighted backwardness and intractable conflict.

This accessible and intelligent introduction to the modern history of the Balkans runs from from the late Ottoman Empire through the aftermath of the fall of Communism. Mazower sees the long picture clearly, and is at pains to avoid romantic and sentimental myths that are at odds with the facts. This sometimes leads to odd effects, as in his treatment of the Communist era as a coda to the Second World War. He has a point: 1989 was thirty years ago and 1948 was just 41 years before that. History marches on.

What now seems especially interesting is the late Ottoman Empire and its approach to managing religions and ethnicities. It was, obviously, a failure. At the time, it seemed that Austria was making an enlightened effort and the Turk was bumbling around, but Mazower suggests this is precisely wrong — the Hapsburg’s Balkan policy can be seen as a late and futile attempt to emulate the Ottoman world without fully understanding it.

I spent the extended weekend at Readercon, a conference for readers that convenes every summer in a suburban Boston hotel.

Readercon’s origins lie in science fiction and fantasy, and genre fiction remains central to the program. But the conference is nearly free of fannishness; no costumes, no actors, no toys.

Although Readercon is modeled on science fiction conventions, there is no art show, no costumes, no gaming, and almost no media. Instead, Readercon features a near-total focus on the written word. In many years the list of Readercon guests rivals or surpasses that of the Worldcon in quality. Readercon is the only small convention regularly attended by such giants of imaginative literature as Gene Wolfe, Samuel R. Delany, John Crowley, Barry N. Malzberg, Kit Reed, and Jonathan Lethem.

Most of the attendees are writers and the rest are serious readers, and panelists feel free to assume that everyone is conversant with the classics, the major 19th century writers, modernism, postmodernism, and contemporary postcolonial literature – and also with the SF canon.

One impressive sign: the audience is filled with former guests of honor, writers who were invited to draw crowds and who still show up every year to be the crowd. Contrast this to so many academic conferences, where the keynote speakers deliver their speech and depart.

The scholarship here is truly impressive. Lots of people — John Clute and Rose Fox were conspicuous standouts this year — do terrific work in understanding and explaining fine and challenging writers, past and present, and do it without enticements of fame, fortune, or tenure.

What unites this crowd of writers, I think, is a simultaneous commitment to fine, serious writing and to story. To this crowd, “mainstream” is just another genre, one that seems to have lost its way a bit but that will, if we are patient and supportive, be more productive someday. Nobody mentions Iowa, ever. And nobody holds truck with genre potboilers, which means that the American militaristic space opera is barely visible, while there’s tons of interest in things like postcolonial Caribbean fantasy.

I heard Claire Cooney do a terrific reading of a long poem (in dactylic tetrameter) about the silkie’s husband’s second wife. It’s said to be online. Can anyone give me a pointer?

I bought at least eight books. My summer readings is already booked up, and I just received Nate’s latest suggestion, a little book on The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period , just arrived at the offices and turns out to be the size of a small pony. Oh dear. A lot of these people read like demons; Rose Fox explained that when she started at Publishers Weekly she was reading a novel a day anyway, so having to do three reviews a week was a piece of cake.

Terrific one-minute video from Brian Polcyn on how to truss a chicken. Also funny. Watch it.

Jul 10 9 2010


A puzzle for text fans out there.

Imagine you’re a program like Twig or . Please drag text or paste it from all sorts of places. Some is unicode, some is MacRoman, some is encoded in other ways.

Now, let’s also suppose that some of the text sources are themselves confused. They say, “I am Unicode utf-8,” but they aren’t. You see this all the time on the Web, for example, because sites get their metadata tags mixed up.

Now, given the possibility of misrepresentation, what's the best policy for receiving text, such that (a) you will accept all correctly encoded text, (b) you will translate other encodings to utf-8, and (c) even if the original source lies about its encoding, you will never have invalid utf-8?

I would expect this to be trivial and routine, but if so, I’m looking in the wrong place.

Jul 10 8 2010

Radishes in soil

Clotilde has been blogging more of late, which is always welcome news. I especially liked her bit on radishes in soil, a dish from Copenhagen’s Noma (I tried to eat there once but couldn't get a reservation) that is called radiser, jord og urteemulsion. It's a small dish of fresh radishes, greens and all, in what looks to be a pot of soil but is actually toasted malt or, in Clotilde’s version, savory chocolate bread crumbs.

Also of culinary interest, the new American Drinks.

A Tinderbox user sent me this BBC report of the discovery of musical patterns in Plato. The BBC describes Dr. Jay Kennedy (Manchester) as “working from the original scripts,” which might be taken to mean that the study was working from Plato’s own manuscripts.

No autograph manuscript of a literary work survives from Greco-Roman antiquity. Indeed, I’m having a tough time discovering what the oldest surviving literary manuscript might be. Do you know? Email me.

Ground rules: the manuscript must have been written by the hand of the author or, if this is how the author customarily worked, dictated by the author to his or her customary secretary or scribe. The primary purpose of the work must be publication, not personal memoranda, private notes, or personal correspondence. We’ll interpret these strictures generously, so work written in the form of a letter but clearly intended for a general audience does count.

Updates: British literary manuscripts online (Guardian)☙ Sumerian incantation with a colophon