Jul 03 3 2003


Mike from writes:

Just in case we've never met, let me introduce myself in part: Hi. I'm Mike, and I'm a tool-a-holic. Put me to any task, and I guarantee I'll spend 9/10 of the allotted time deciding which tools best fit the job.

With that out of the way, let me introduce you to one of my favorite new tools: Tinderbox

Tinderbox is a personal content management assistant. It stores your notes, ideas, and plans. It can help you organize and understand them. And, it helps you share ideas through Web journals and web logs.

It allows for the creation of agents, which automatically scan your notes, looking for patterns and building relationships. It's super-fast. Best of all, it stores everything in XML! (Instead of some dumb proprietary format.

Currently, I'm using Tinderbox to keep track of my work and our wedding planning .

Much fun. Much geekiness. Eh?

Jul 03 2 2003

Off The Rails

I've been reassuring everyone in sight that Echo would work out. Now, I'm not sure. I'm worried that it's veering off the rails.

All of a sudden, it seems that echo wants to discard all the current posting methods (based on XML-RPC) in order to use a different protocol (SOAP), That's going to be a significant nuisance for developers. Maybe that's the agenda?

Thus far, the opposition includes Tinderbox, RadioUserland, NetNewsWire, and Archipelago...

Jul 03 1 2003

The Right Number

Scott McCloud's Flash comic, The Right Number, is now available. The first chapter is impressive.

McCloud's trying a micropayment system called BitPass; you buy a virtual BitPass card (Visa/MC/PayPal), and then use it for micropayments. This comic costs 25¢. McCloud writes:

"It's a spooky, psychological drama about math, obsession, and phone numbers. Each panel is embedded in the previous's a very story-driven project, and I'm proud of the results so far."

Lesson 16 from Lessons Learned in Software Testing (Kaner, Bach, Pettichord) reads "Testing is applied epistemology." It's good to see a technical book take its intellectual roots seriously (even if the author's need to make an inane joke to defuse the word 'epistemology').

  • How do you know the software is good enough?
  • How would you know if it wasn't good enough?
  • How do you know when you've tested enough?

Tough questions about a tough problem.

Big fireworks at Eastgate for the Fourth of July, including a spectacular price for Tinderbox and a chance to try Tekka for just $20.

A striking feature of Information Architecture Summit this year was the popularity of personas as a design and planning tool. When looking for guidance about the actual needs of users, information architects and software designers often seek inspiration from fictional characters designed to resemble the intended population.

Characters are powerful guides to the way real people behave, but as Cathy Marshall observes in the current issue of Tekka, they are far from foolproof.

The best-received scenarios have little to do with people and their observed interactions with technology. In scenarios, e-books are docked snugly in their battery chargers at night; laptops are never forgotten on the roofs of Audi station wagons; and the stars of these convincing vignettes are captivated by your elegant software, not hung up on their stupid, complicated, messy, little lives.

It is absolutely vital to remember that personas and scenarios are constructs, just like Progress Reports and design plans.

Personas give a friendly face to cold demographic data, add some spice to the blandness of that most generic of terms "the user." That's the trouble.... Want to make personal security and encryption a necessary feature for her email application? Let's just give her a secret life in which she's rekindled a dormant college romance via email.

If you really believe that your technical people are inmates and you don't want them to run the asylum -- a popular management theory these days -- personas won't rein them in.

Anders Fagerjord is posting daily summaries of his research project on "popular template tools, such as Blogger".

Andrew Stern asks, "How do we describe the behavior of the actors in a hypertext drama?" He's one of the authors of Facade, an ambitious research project whose five-year mission involves the creation of an intense one-act drama in which the actors are AI constructs and the reader is an active participant. (This is a lot harder to do than Hypertext With Characters or even Thespis.)

Intriguingly, Stern shows us a page of the specifications for the way one character interacts with one object (a "magic eightball") in one scene.

Stern writes that

"I've found, designing within the language can be cumbersome, and time consuming. Some planning before coding tends to work best for me. "

This is, of course, the conventional wisdom. The Extreme Programming folks would argue that the planning might better be done in the code and in the unit tests.

What I wonder about, reading the spec, is what this looks like once it's translated into code. Presumably, Stern and Matteas have a nifty intermediate language that lets them translate the items in this document into code in a straightforward and succinct way. If the language is good, then it might be clearer and less ambiguous than English.

The detail with which they spec treats reasons for temporarily putting down the eightball worries me. Clearly, if you want to play with the X but need to do something else (e.g. mix drinks), you put the X down now and pick it up later. If you need to specify every combination, this is going to go combinatoric on you awfully soon. But perhaps this is a didactic example.

I'm been reimplementing Thespis in Ruby this week as a learning exercise, and so the design of a Little Language for specifying thespian hypertext is on my mind. As a simple example, we don't normally want characters to speak unless they're on stage. But, I don't want to have to specify this for each speech -- I want the system to take care of this level of detail . But I don't want to add lots of special logic, because the special cases will proliferate and the code will be a mess. And I don't want to reason this out from principles, because (a) this is scoped to take a few afternoons, not five years, and (b) the point of Thespis is to argue that we don't need the AI, anyway

Jun 03 29 2003


Thanks, Kate. (IMDB, Google. RottenTomatoes is down)

Boy, there's a lot of tsures over new weblog syndication formats. (Bray, Winer, Google, BenTrott. Swartz, ) Users are chiming in, too (Alwin) with ever more anxiety.

It's a mess. It's generating tons of energy, charging off in all sorts of directions. It's generating tons of visible anger. It's generating lots of bruises.

What's the big deal? RSS 0.9 is easy, RSS 2.0 is easy. RSS/RDF 1.0 is a little harder, but it's pretty easy too, and Echo will almost certainly have to be easier than that.

I still don't understand why this is such a big tsimmes; if echo gets closure, we each spend an afternoon building an echo facade and an echo template and then post the press release. If echo doesn't get closure -- if there are too many cooks and the oven explodes -- well, they're not on our payroll.

This is not a format war, because the format is so small. I still don't understand what the fuss over "funky" feeds was about.

But the damage is real. At the very least, we've stirred up a lot of unpleasantness and hurt feelings, and not a little business angst. That could be worth it, if we were marching toward something bright and new and exciting. But, if we're just saving an afternoon or two of coding here at Eastgate, UserLand, Google, SixApart, Ranchero, and a dozen or so other places, let's just resign ourselves to the task and do it. Otherwise, we're going to be buying so many beers to patch this up that it'll take months.

Rael Dornfest (blosxom) also liked The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency . Here's my note.

Jun 03 28 2003


We need a new word.

When we talk about hypertexts, we have two different things we call "closure". First, hypertexts often lack a single, defined terminus; they have no single ending. In afternoon, famously, Michael Joyce defends this, writing that we never wanted the single, solitary ending that the physics of song and book imposed on our stories. This is the closure we mean when we say, "She had to see him one more time. She wanted closure."

"Closure is a suspect quality."

Then, there's Scott McCloud's closure, the accumulation of meaning between moments. We see two pictures in a sequence, and we understand the action that moves from one to the next without seeing that action.

McCloud closure is the basis of sequential art and the root of cinema: film tells a story not by following the hero around but by showing a series of shots, edited together so the sequence creates sense and meaning in the viewer's mind.

McCloud closure is very important to sculptural hypertexts. Indeed, it's the writer's key to letting go, to living without the familiar guarantee of enforced sequence. We're in a bar, a franchise tourist joint. The MANAGER is sitting at a table in back with KELLEY, a specialist who has just flown in from corporate headquarters. We could say:

Kelley: I'm hear to help you, and I have to say that this place is not doing as well as we, at headquarters, expect.

Manager: You don't understand the factors. There's a war on. Times are terrible. People need jobs, they need a place to make them feel a part of things. Things will improve, they always do, and money isn't everything. Except to Headquarters.

But this is all exposition, and exposition wants sequence. Instead, we might let the attitude arise from the interstices:

Kelley: It's almost six.

Manager: It's early. Things will get better. People will come.

At first, this seems a non sequitur, but we fill in the gap. Kelley doesn't state the real subject, which emerges between the lines. This is useful because Kelley's line might serve another purpose in another context -- it can mean several things, where the first dialog is only itself:

Kelley: It's almost six.

Manager: Sure, why not? (to the bartender) Joe, bring us the Lagavulin.

We need new name for McCloud's closure. Suggestions? Email me.

Jun 03 26 2003

The Cog

Honda reinvents Rube Goldberg with style and class. An incredible little film, "The most precise two minutes of television you will ever see." One, incredible, shot. Thanks, Matt Kirschenbaum.

Also on the front page of today's Boston Globe. All your base are belong to us

New in Books: The Bug has a few bugs of its own.

Isn't it odd that we have so few books about modern business life? In an era notoriously given to long hours at the office, it seems nobody is writing much about what happens at work. Glengarry Glen Ross is twenty years ago.

I'm studying Ruby. One measure of how much I've been influence by the agile software movement is that, when thinking about Ruby on the way to work this morning, one of the major credits in its favor seems to be its openness to refactoring and pervasive testing.

Journalists and pundits often regard bugs and design errors -- and any design decision with which they disagree -- as signs of programmer laziness or stupidity or bad attitude. The bad attitude is the pundit's: these are incredibly complex objects, fine programming continuously requires myriad little decisions and small choices, some of which will have large and unforeseen consequences. And it's all done on the cheap.

How, incidentally, can IEEE even think about promulgating a "Book of Knowledge" about software engineering that doesn't include Design Patterns among its recommended books?

Jun 03 24 2003

Roadmap Pie

Sam Ruby has a wiki for discussion of the new Weblog (syndication) roadmap -- a plan to create something like RSS that in vendor-neutral and universally supported.

Because the name is such an emotional instance, a lot of people are just calling it PIE. I like pie, too.

Tinderbox will support the roadmap if it can get any traction. Tinderbox 1.3 already supports the Blogger and Metablog API's, and is designed to make it easy to add additional support. (I don't really understand why the discussion to date has been so heated -- what's an additional Facade pattern among friends? No doubt I'm missing something.)

The new Tekka introduces a new and important part of the mix: original new media. The first work is Don Bosco's Fast City, from the high-rise heartlands of Singapore. George Landow writes:

One can "play" the PDA, creating an assemblage of texts, and one can also create one's own dub music by manipulating the buttons. Mousing over each of the 60 X's at the right of the PDA produces a snippet of urban sound and brings up a connected text, each a mini-portrait of life in the Fast City -- the out-of-work surveillance expert looking at the classifieds, urbanites assembling a home entertainment center, kids playing video games, dance-clubbers immersing themselves in the banbangbang of "guitaristic assaults," the fashion model on the runway, and the soldier back for R&R: lives and deaths, all permeated by modern media

This means that Tekka is also a professional market for Web fiction and other new media, giving variety and vitality to our literary ecology. There's a lot of good work sitting in people's desk drawers, work that could be finished and enjoyed if only there were a good place to put it. Now there is.

Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics). incidentally, is about to launch The Right Number, an experiment in micropayments.

Jun 03 20 2003

Ruby Tuesday

I'm learning Ruby this week.

Do you use Ruby and MacOS X? If so, I'd love to know: do you prefer to use ProjectBuilder, or BBEdit, or something else? Email me, please.

Lisbeth Klastrup defends her doctorate today, in Copenhagen. Congratulations.

Jun 03 19 2003


An intriguing and important post from Diane Greco (June 18) on the use of windows in Storyspace.

The piece at Beehive [The Country Between Us] is an excerpt of a longer work in Storyspace , which has the nice affordance of letting you work with dozens of windows open at once. I've been using Storyspace since 1992 and I've always used it with lots of windows open. It is nice to be able to see everything at the same time. I find connections suggest themselves more easily than if I had to rely on memory alone to make the links.

As "The Country Between Us" got larger, I realized that I really liked the effect of drawing the reader's eye from one live window to another live window. In "The Country Between Us", every time the reader finishes a window, the piece opens a new window somewhere else on the screen, and the resulting "popping" window is what draws the reader's eye on to the next window. It's an artifact of operating systems that only one window is "live" at a time. "The Country Between Us" exploits this convention.

The effect is, I think, kind of rhizomatic, not exactly in Deleuze's sense but in the old-fashioned meaning of the word -- window #2 will pop up somewhere very different from window #1, in the way that rhizomatic plants like asparagus grow....One unintended effect is that all the layered windows, and the windows seeming to pop up from the depths of the screen, is that the screen actually seems to have depth.

Thanks to Clifford Wulfman, I now know that the word is kerfuffle, from the Lowland Scots curfuffle. Fuffle, it turns out, means "to put in a state of disorder". It's in the OED. So, one can be fuddled and fuffled and still be unruffled.

Jun 03 17 2003

RSS Kerfluffle

Dave Winer says that MoveableType's RSS support is "funky". Aaron Swartz offers an extensive and sensible survey of the question.

I still don't understand the issue, or why it matters. I'm running a major development effort that supports RSS. I don't care about personalities; I just want our RSS to work with everyone else, and everyone else's RSS to work with ours. Come on, folks: can we please talk about the tech?

I've posted the QuickTime version of the slides from my Digital Storytelling Festival talk on Stories in Weblogs: small (800K, QuickTime) | less small (5M, QuickTime) . At the Festival, talks like this are given by curators, so there are lots of examples. Follow along at home with this handy list of links.

Jun 03 14 2003

Derrick Story

Derrick Story from O'Reilly has added Top Ten Digital Video Tips to his earlier Digital Photo Tips. He's talking about this right now at the Digital Storytellling Festival, which has WiFi everywhere.

The rhetoric of digital storytelling is so emphatically "everyone can do this" that it's hard to sustain a discussion about "how do we do this well?" He says, pointedly, "It's a data input device. Get better input, you've got more to work with"

Big rule: Have your camera with you. Digital stories happen everywhere. Also: Shoot at your highest resolution. Take your time. Get closer. No, even closer; the macro setting is your friend. Change your angle. Avoid backlighting. Use your flash outdoors as a fill flash; turn it off indoors. Try an IR filter. (!)

Interesting lesson: Story spent some time watching bad photographers -- casual tourists -- and seeing exactly what they do. It makes for a funny talk, but it's also a great way to see your own bad habits in a new light.

Jun 03 13 2003

Lance is back

Lance Arthur has started blogging again. Thanks, Fray!

"I want to graduate muscular designers who can change the world -- not people with nice ideas." -- Brenda Laurel, Utopian Entrepreneur

Brenda Laurel is launching a really ambitious effort, BackStory, to harness the storytelling power of teens for social change. It's brave.

When and if they get any of the traction and scale for which they hope, there will be a room full of Young Republican Evangelicals, with loads of money and advice in the background, dedicated to destroy BackStory through fair means or foul. They're one rich target. It sounds like a nightmare. Is there a defense?

"Basically, I don't believe in fiction. Most fiction is just true personal storytelling with plausible deniability " -- Derek Powazek, comment in Digital Storytelling Festival Blog

I'm helping out this week with a collective weblog, live, at the Digital Storytelling Festival.

Jun 03 10 2003

Back and Forth

Elin's back, but Jon Delacour has given up blogging, at least for now.

Delacour touched off a storm in March with a charming, nostalgic post about an old girlfriend, Ikuko.

"We were lying in her bed, drinking champagne, fooling around. I traced her name in the glossy film of perspiration on her stomach. (On our second date, I’d asked her to write the characters for me. Since then I’d written them dozens of times in my notebook and on scraps of paper.) I could already guess what she wanted to say. "

Ikuko was an invention; people got upset. This unfolded at almost the identical time that Jill's famous post raised such interesting questions about oblique blogging and the eleventh conjecture. Sunchrony? (Is Jon the Australian Jill? They each have important weblogs that have generated active and sophisticated weblog clusters, though these clusters overlap less than I'd have expected from the subject matter)

Jun 03 7 2003


I'm back from that rare event, a week without hypertext. Santa Fe, old friends, ruins, serious art, serious food. Paris, with cactus.

The key dish of the trip -- in which we threw sense and sensibility to the winds whenever mealtime approached -- was a plate of cheese enchiladas at Pasquales. Pasquales has been there forever, it's always been quite good, but these enchiladas were a revelation. A sauce with four different chiles, each of which could be tasted distinctly and separately. A very impressive chicken molé, too. Inspired by this level of complexity, I bought so many cookbooks from the Santa Fe Cooking School that our baggage home was overweight.

Coyote Café was very fine indeed. SantaCafe still does amazing calamari. Anasazi had a reinterpretation of frybread that bears no resemblance to any Navaho taco I've ever met but which contrives to suggest -- with its smattering of saltiness and spiciness and crispiness and a topping of roasted peppers -- why spending a whole day with a metate appealed to the inventors of corn. Tecolote still has wonderful blue corn and piñon pancakes.

The star meal was Geronimo at the end of a long day prowling the innumerable galleries of Canyon Road. Starting with seared foie gras -- not my usual style, but if you're going to try a Fabled Dish, best to do it where they know what theyr'e doing. Then, a tenderloin of elk -- sweet, perfectly cooked, spicy, just right. I don't much like venison, as a rule, but elk is their signature dish and when else are you going to try elk at a restaurant where it's not just a novelty? Besides, I'd been busting the budget all week, and it was a little less than the beef -- another sign of seriousness.