Jun 06 30 2006

Summer Reading

Summer Reading

The current issue of The Atlantic has nice "summer reading" plans from a variety of interesting and famous people. Few of them seem to be planning a great deal of reading, but perhaps that's because they must have been asked to write in January what they planned to read in June.

But where am I to find the time for my own summer reading? Especially as people do have this awkward habit of writing new books? Today, the TLS told me that I simply had to read The Evolution of Insects by Grimaldi and Engel. OK: fair enough: I've never read anything like it, I've got a hole to fill. 755 pages? It's a big subject.

Yesterday, Kathryn's new The Space Opera Renaissance was published, or announced, or rocketed to bookstores. Space opera is high in my esteem this week, as Linda and I have finally discovered Battlestar Galactica. I didn't know that they were throwing a renaissance, but -- hey! -- that's great, just great. Another 900-odd pages.

Cool tools told me to grab The Past From Above , which is apparently a dazzling tour of aerial archaeology. It sounds terrific. It's only 419 pages, but for some reason it's held up in shipping. Beating it to the punch is the new Tufte, Beautiful Evidence . Got to read that.

I've been meaning to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel for over a year. It sounds terrific. And just 800 pages. Buford's new Heat is sitting by my bed, on top of Stross's The Clan Corporate and Greenfield's much-discussed Everyware . And I've got to finish Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes , which is brilliant and inspiring.

Oh, dear.

Keith Peter Burnett is using Tinderbox to brainstorm revisions in GSCE Intermedia Maths.

My hope and summer project is that by refactoring the Maths topics ruthlessly, I can get to a set of small hard nuggets of Maths (a sort of irreducible set of base vectors) that can be rearranged and strung together in different combinations to suit the learning styles of all the various students we see at College.
Tinderbox for Curriculum Design

Cyprien Lomas, director of the Learning Center in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia, writes that:

If I need to be creative, this is the application I turn to...I continue to find that this application is one that I would bring with me if I had to pick ten to go on a long trip with me.

William Cole (DonutAge) likes Tinderbox 3.5 for the experimental new features like word clouds and link discovery, but he's a big fan of the new text window sidebar.

A bunch of metadata that one used to have to go into various other windows to get at is now in a sidebar to each note. I find myself mucking around in attributes pretty frequently, so this is a great feature for me. Non-geeks may prefer the old interface, however, and that's available too through a simple toggle control.

by Jessica Abel and Ira Glass

A fascinating little pamphlet, this comic book looks behind the scenes at The American Life. Starting from the surprising assertion that radio stories need more visual texture than print, Abel and Glass dissect the storymaking process. Lots of important lessons for podcasters.

Tinderbox 3.5.0 for MacOS X is now available. Visit the Tinderbox 3.5 page for all the news, to download the demo, or to order your upgrade.

Yes, Tinderbox for Windows is late. It's coming along. I'll be telling you more about it here, soon.

The Tinderbox 3.5 page has lots of details on the most important new features. Here, I'll just make some personal observations about a few of the big ones.

Tinderbox 3.5 for MacOS X
Separators and named separators are first-class notes that have a distinct appearance and role in outlines. I've been using ad hoc separator classes for project management for several months. Separators provide a new way to add a little extra information to your lists; they're a good way to overcome the weakness of outlines -- premature commitment and obsessive categorization.

Tinderbox 3.5 for MacOS X
Separators also cropped up in a customer request. I wasn't immediately convinced that they weren't simply a drift toward presentational elaboration. The difficulty was whether separators should be treated as adornments: should they appear outside outlines? Does it make sense to put things inside a separator? In the end, we found that people wanted separators to be full-fledged notes with a distinctive appearance, and that made the implementation very clean indeed.

Tinderbox 3.5 for MacOS X
Making the font size separately adjustable for individual notes gives you another visual dimension for communications. Since the relative font sizes are attributes, you can inherit them and you can set them with agents and rules. This gives you extraordinary flexibility to bring attention to significant notes. It also can promote visual noise; use with restraint!

Tinderbox 3.5 for MacOS X
The Common Words system exposes infrastructure we needed for our work with automatic link discovery. Why not find ways to expose the data we're collecting? We won't know what's useful until we use it.

Tinderbox 3.5 for MacOS X
Tinderbox 3.5 has quietly transformed agents. First, there's a new query #word() that looks for a specific word anywhere in the text, title, and user attributes. It's not as flexible as other agent queries, but it's very, very fast.

Tinderbox 3.5 for MacOS X
Agents and containers have a bunch of new sorting options. We've exposed these options in the HTML export tools, too. If you want your blogroll to be alphabetized, for example, Boswell can appear before Clark and Frank.

Tinderbox 3.5 for MacOS X
Tinderbox 3.5 supports services and lets you use the Font Panel. More MacOS X goodness. (Not just MacOS X, it turns out: the font panel work was brought to you by the need to abstract font manipulation for Windows).

In the long view, the big news might be the Similar Notes window, which I think you'll find makes linking to your weblog archives much easier and more pleasant than has previously been imagined. Similarity is a blunt tool, but it's a good place to start.

Jun 06 27 2006


I spent a couple of hours this morning building a Tinderbox document that makes a TiddlyWiki -- a personal, stretchtext wiki that's contained in a single HTML file and so is very portable.

I'm not yet convinced this is useful. Convince me: Email me.

Formally, Editing and Radio is an intern story. Cathy Marshall recounts her own summer internship. And Cathy told Susie that she should start a blog about her own internship, which is not getting off to a good start.

A crucial stage in radio (and podcasting) is editing: taking a lot of raw audio and finding a few minutes of exactly the right material. Ira Glass (in Radio: An Illustrated Guide says that

"It's impossible to overstate how important it is to take good notes if you're making radio. After all, you're working in a medium which is just sound floating through the air. It's ether. Vapor. You need a representation — on paper — so you can see what the hell you've got and make hard choices.

"Have a word or phrase for each sentence. You'll need this later, when you;re editing, choosing which sentences to keep. The log will be a map of what's there.

In Tinderbox, notes can have prototypes. If a note has a prototype, then we're saying the note is just like the prototype except for the places we've explicitly changed it.

Often, people use prototypes to make an informal and evolving system of types. One part of our notebook becomes a ToDo list -- just a list of notes. It grows, and we make a few prototypes to simplify adding some common things -- Tasks, Projects, Appointments, Goals.

What people forget -- what I recently forgot -- is that there's nothing to prevent you from changing these types, either by hand or automatically. For example , in GTD a "task" is a simple, atomic ToDo, and a "project" is a collection of related tasks. When you're programming, though, a task sometimes turns out to be more complicated than it seems. It wants to acquire subtasks. It wants to be a project. We can recognize this with two simple rules:

Task: if(ChildCount>0){Prototype=project}
Task: if(ChildCount=0){Prototype=task}

Now, adding a subtask converts a task to a project, and removing the last subtask makes a project into a simple task. Simple!

You don't have to automate things like this, but it's nice to know the tools are there when you need them.

  • WinFS, the technology that was going to replace the Windows file system, has apparently been scaled back to a feature of some upcoming Microsoft enterprise products. Commentary: Tim Bray.

Another good example of why it doesn't pay to crystal-ball Microsoft if you can possibly avoid it.

Jun 06 25 2006


I've been playing with Charcuterie this week, and so the refrigerator had some interesting bits and pieces.

  • Ham and eggs -- made with duck ham
  • Home-cured fresh bacon

Another example of how it's better to save products instead of leftovers.

Jun 06 24 2006

Blowing Smoke

Interesting referrer log notes: I'm blogrolled by the blog for Blowing Smoke, an indy movie with a blog.

Some people worry that they don't fully understand Tinderbox agents.

You don't need to understand them completely. Nobody understands them completely: this is research. You need to understand them well enough to use them, well enough to let them help you with your work. That's all.

One of the key roles for agents is simply to gather some notes that are especially important or urgent or need attention. For example:

Current: Done=false & DueDate<"today+1 week"

Overdue: Done=false & DueDate<"yesterday"

Agents like this let you keep your notes organized naturally -- by project, or location, or team assignment. The agent gathers copies of notes that fit its criteria. Open an outline window focused on that agent, and you've got a sorted, up-to-the-minute list of the items that demand attention.

Agents: Gathering The Important Stuff
Of course, this isn't just useful for project management or getting things done. If you're using Tinderbox for your research notes, you can track the hot topics or memes in your own reading. If you're using Tinderbox as a journal or diary, you can keep track of writing about the arts, or about your grandchildren or your cooking. If you're using Tinderbox to plan a book, your agents can track loose ends and unfinished chapters.

How do you use agents?

Tinderbox Formatting and Rules

A Tinderbox user just IM'd me with an easy question. "I'd like to turn the color of a container to red if any of its children have MissingInfo=true". He was thinking of making an agent, but it's even easier to add a rule to the container:


As is often true in Tinderbox, you can do this in other ways, too. Perhaps some kinds of notes care about missing information, but others don't. In that case, it might be easier to let the child act on the parent.

if(^any(MissingInfo)){Color(parent)=bright red}else{Color(parent)=dark green}

This lets you call attention to notes where missing information matters -- e.g. notes that are a BugReport or a FeatureRequest but not notes that are MoviesToWatch or LunchPlans.

Observant readers will notice that the Tinderbox version number (which appears in the left column of the main page) has ticked over to Tinderbox 3.5. We're putting the finishing touched on a new Tinderbox for Macintosh. Lots of cool new things!

You can now sign up for Tinderbox Day Denmark, slated for August 20, 2006.

by Elizabeth Kostova

This ambitious, intriguing, and unsuccessful book follows the paired quests of a historian who is seeking to free his graduate advisor from what he fears to be a living vampire in the 1950's, and then the quest of his teenager daughter to find the historian, in much the same circumstances, in the 1970's.

Kostova's premise is terrific. The framework of the braided thriller should generate plenty of energy, and that energy could, in turn, illuminate a close exploration of the meaning of history to historians, amateurs, students, bureaucrats, and peasants. Occasionally, everything does come together: there's a lovely chapter composed of commentary on an invented 15th-century monk's journal that captures, for a moment, what history can be like. But the historians here are fixated on the plot; they care too much about danger and too little about evidence and interpretation.

For a book about history, The Historian expresses scant interest in the passions and pursuits of historians beyond a vague interest in old stuff. When one famous historian receives a Faustian opportunity to have the run of an amazing archive of rare and lost manuscripts from antiquity to Machiavelli, it never occurs to him that risking his moral purity might be a sensible sacrifice. Everyone in this book is deeply interested in Vlad III Tepes, known as Dracula, and yet none of these historians ever proposes a revisionist or even sympathetic interpretation of his career, none of them ever questions the authenticity of what is patently a hostile tradition. We follow generations of historians, yet we never get a whiff of the winds of change: no economic history, no social history, no hint of postmodernism, no trace of the narrative revival or the culture wars or even of academic ambition.

Aaron Swartz has an interesting (if somewhat defensive) apologia about his writing practice.

I am 19 and live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in an apartment with two others. The three of us together work full-time on the site and I spend most of my days working on programming and various related tasks for it.....If you think the writing here is poor, that's probably why. Real writing takes editing. But I don't consider this writing, I consider this thinking. I like sharing my thoughts and I like hearing yours and I like practicing expressing ideas, but fundamentally this blog is not for you, it's for me. I'm sorry. Maybe that isn't how it should be, but at least for now that's how it is. In my defense, nobody's making you come here.

The nature of blogging demands a light editorial touch, because you don't yet know what's going to happen tomorrow. You can't have a narrative overview, and you can't avoid narrative.

The same light touch is needed in wikis and other cooperative spaces. You don't know what the end will be; what you can do today is create a shape, a structure to guide future growth. Michael Joyce called these "constructive hypertexts... versions of what they are becoming, a structure for what does not yet exist."

This, incidentally, is where Jakob Nielsen errs in thinking that people who check weblogs regularly are fanatics. People have a tremendous hunger for closure; they want to know what's going to happen next. Keep things coming, and they'll keep coming back for more.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. Photo: Hugh Davis
Last night, Linda and I had a small feast to remember our 21-year-old cat.

  • Brouillade with summer truffle
  • Codfish, poached in wine, with lots of fresh dill from the farmers' market
  • Fresh peas, lightly sauteed in butter
  • Farmers' market strawberries with lime and creme fraîche
  • Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2004
Jun 06 21 2006



Diane Greco has moved to Rhode Island, but the legs of her kitchen table, it seems, have stayed in Brooklyn or departed for parts unknown.

And the dish ran away with the spoon.

Congratulations to Gareth Renowden! After nine years of cultivation, he's harvested the first truffle! (Congratulations, too, to Peg the trusty truffle hound. Even though she missed this one, this is good for her job security!)

The link apprentice only sees lexical patterns. It sees letters on the page, not the ideas behind them. Can its links be useful?

A common failing of the link apprentice turns out, in weblogs, to be an asset. The apprentice is easily distracted by novelty and happenstance. The apprentice has no sense of humor. It can't detect irony. It has no sense of metaphor, either; if you write that "the Bush administration is playing games with science policy", it may think it perfectly reasonable to propose a link to a post about World of Warcraft.

Let's call this sort of link eccentric. It's off-center. In a real sense, it's a mistake: the link apprentice is being misled because it doesn't understand deeply. And it's eccentric in the other sense as well -- unconventional and slightly strange

Google doesn't understand metaphor either, and search engines don't know about irony or sarcasm or jokes. People will land in the wrong place. Sometimes, the link apprentice's bad suggestions might take them where they really belong.

But what will regular readers think of these connections? Readers excel at rationalizing links. As Adrian Miles famously observed, the link works very much like the cinematic cut. And while it's possible to confuse people with cuts, film viewers are extremely adept at building a world picture that turns two isolated scenes into a continuous, unseen action. In Hollywood films today, you've got a cut every 3.5 seconds but people perceive a continuous, uninterrupted and realistic fiction.

J Nathan Matias shows how to use XSLT stylesheets to view Tinderbox documents right in your web browser.

Here, for example, is a Tinderbox document of the amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It looks unremarkable in the latest versions of Safari, Firefox, MSIE, or Mozilla. But View Source and you'll see that you're looking directly at the Tinderbox XML file!

Jun 06 18 2006

Da Vinci

Linda on seeing The Da Vinci Code:

I liked it better in the original Minbari

Marica Sevelj has a lovely note this morning about the way weblogs become part of our daily routine. Start the coffee, squeeze two oranges, cut some bread for toast. Read the paper, check Jill and Torril, Marshall and Marshall, or Cole and Diane, or Scott and Winer and Megnut. And Marica, of course. And plenty more.

There's always too much to read. You should see my book stack.

What matters here, I think, is not just that weblogs have joined newspapers and sitcoms as part of our environment, but that we encounter some weblogs constantly. These are our companions, unfolding gradually through time. Other weblogs we meet through a link or a search engine. We're dropped into the middle of the story -- and when are we not?

When we're dropped in the midst of a weblog, we need links to catch up. Few search-engine arrivals are really seeking nuggets of information. If you stick them in a lab and ask them what they're doing, they might say they are, because they think it sounds good to have a specific purpose, because they think that's an answer you can use. But they're learning, not tracking down factoids.

The most crucial thing the new arrival needs to learn on the first visit is, simply, "Who are you? And what do you want?" They need this to know whether to trust you today, and whether to visit you tomorrow. (That's why it's important to have a useful About page or a Personal Information Place).

How My Cooking Has Changed : part 6

Sometimes in the kitchen, the right kind of speed is slow.

I've begun to set aside longer blocks of time devoted to cooking. With my schedule, this blocks have to be scheduled weeks, maybe months in advance. But I've had good luck with Sunday mornings at the market and afternoons in the kitchen.

Last week, I indulged in a brand new terrine mold, and today I've been working through what Charcuterie calls the easiest terrine in the book. It's a shrimp, spinach, and salmon mousseline. I'm going to garnish it with mushrooms and roasted peppers. The spinach alone took 2 1/2 innings of the baseball game to chiffonade.

I chickened out of the veal terrine, which left me with two pounds of stewing veal. So I've got a pot of Patricia Wells' veal stew going as a background task. That includes two pounds of carrots, sliced into thin rounds. Oh, my aching wrist.

I used to be a chemist, and this sort of systematic kitchen work takes me back to the lab. I often found lab work dull, when you come right down to it. There was always too much glasware to watch and too many beakers that weren't yet boiling. Yet sometimes I miss those cyclooctatetraenes.

Spending time with a long preparation that offers a good return on the investment -- stock, say, or even demi-glace -- is a pleasant break from wrestling with the code and balancing the books.

Instead of showing you the Link Apprentice's recommendations for recent posts, I'm going to use the Link Apprentice to advise me on hand-linking the last few months of posts.

I've long thought that, if notes were richly linked within a weblog, the weblog would be vastly more interesting. Instead of finding a few words on a topic, you'd find a few words and a few pathways whenever you landed. That could lead to rich opportunities for deeper reading, and it would give us a better use for our archives than wrapping virtual fish.

Three links per node or it's not a hypertext -- from the TINAC manifesto

Previous attempts to deeply link weblogs -- such as categories and tag clouds -- have failed because they ask for too much work and expect too much consistency. I'm hoping that the link apprentice will offer some good suggestions, and that will make linking fast enough.

Fresh Link Strategy

Here's a diagram of links among weblog posts, starting from this particular note. It's not yet an extensive link network, but with the aid of the assistant I seem to be able to link a month of posts in a half hour or so.

Update: Tammy Ames likes the idea.

Sparse posting this week, thanks to a very full plate of new Tinderbox features for the upcoming release. Beyond that, there's ongoing work on TinderWin and some intriguing but time-consuming experiments in link visualization that might generate a paper for Frank Shipman's conference IVICA conference this October.

After work, I've been cooking a lot as well, mostly from Ruhlman and Polcyn's Charcuterie . Last Sunday's salmon and shrimp terrine was tasty; I underspiced it, but a bit of basic cream or garlic aïoli works wonders for that.

I cured the salmon scraps left over from the terrine. That worked really well, and so we've been having free gravlax this week. Last night for dinner I made a salad of fennel, shallot, fresh basil, pancetta, and home-cured salmon.

Wednesday night, we had a chicken that I brined overnight in salt, sugar, onions, pepper, lime, and garlic. Air dried for a day, then roasted for an hour at 450, it was terrific. And I got started on some home-cured bacon.

One of the political sites I read has installed software to try and block sock puppets.

A sockpuppet is a blog comment, wiki participant, or other online identity that exists to simulate discussion and agreement. For example, A Pundit writes a controversial opinion, and then logs in again as A Wise Reader and opines that his own post is brilliant.

If we regard blog comments and other social software as trivial playthings, then sock puppets really don't matter. As soon as we take them seriously, though, sock puppets matter a great deal. For example, sock puppets can unfairly boost (or decrease) karma rankings, product ratings, and other seemingly-democratic and open voting systems.

You might try to detect sock puppets through technical means, looking for multiple identities that share a common IP address. That's doomed, because members of the same household are also likely to share the same net connections. You might try to detect sock puppets stylistically, or through their posting patterns. But close friends and allies might well look like sock puppets to even the closest observer.

Can you distinguish a sock puppet from a spouse?

Jun 06 12 2006

Lord Harry

You have to feel sad for Rear Admiral Harry Harris, USN. He's the fellow who recently explained that the suicides of three desperate prisoners held at Guantanamo was an act of war against the United States.

This is the terrible thing about being a soldier or a sailor: your entire career may be preparing for one crucial moment, and you never know when that moment will come. Harry Harris started as a midshipman at Annapolis and has been stationed all over the globe. Maine, the Saratoga, the Pentagon.

Whatever Admiral Harris does for the rest of his life, now, he'll always be the man who said those shameful words. It doesn't matter if he meant it, or if he slipped up, or if he didn't sleep well the night before. What went before won't matter, and what comes now probably won't matter, either.

Conrad wrote a book about this . So, for that matter, did Herman Wouk .

Jun 06 11 2006


When do you give up on a book?

I'm reading a fat novel right now. It's almost summer, the season for fat novels. I saw a good review, the setting is up my alley.

I'm in for about 150 pages. It's not bad, so far. But it's plot-driven, and not much has been happening. We just got to the first major plot twist, and I wasn't surprised. Is it time to give up?

I'm very slow to abandon a book, once I've gotten fairly started. Sometimes I'll read twenty pages and put the book on the stack. But I don't often give up half way.

I wonder whether that's a good policy. It seems immature, really, the voice of my parents wanting me not to waste the investment I made when I bought the thing. But what about the time, and all those other books on the stack?

Then again, someone worked very hard to get the remaining 400 pages into my hands. Maybe I owe it to them to shut up and listen.

I'm surprised there's not more World Cupping in the blogs I read. But Ed Ward, a reluctant Berliner, gets off to a great start with Ghost Town.

Only two days into the madness, and I realize that if I'm going to write about Berlin for the next month, I have to include the World Cup. Not that I want to, but it's really all that's happening here, all anyone talks or thinks about.

It's a great long post; read it.

Not long ago, Bangkok Nick stopped by Boston. We drove up to Ogunquit for lobster and wild blueberry pie. We'd been to see the Peabody Essex Museum and its remarkable show of Painting Summer In New England, which is generally a topic for tourists but which turns out to be a remarkable collection of paintings, including several wonderful little pieces by Scott Prior. We were talking about artists and careers.

"Sometimes it all seems to be the chance of connection, of running into the right people." It was a lovely calm evening, the eiders bobbing contentedly among the rocks. "Look at David Hockney. If he'd been straight or wound up in Chicago instead of the West Coast, would the pinnacle of his fame have been a spread in American Artist?"

"OK," Nick said, "but this doesn't hold together. Look at the show we just saw. In my experience, a room full of first-rate painters really is different."

"But so much depends on circumstance. You're nobody, you meet a nice boy, you get to draw some influential people who are just about to be even richer and more influential. Your school chums grow up to be ministers and ambassadors. Or you don't, and you do far less work because you're really lucky to have an occasional show in Sheboygan."

"That's the problem with counterfactual history." Nick skewered me. I knew it at once. "Everything could be different. There are so many things you say might have been. There's no end of it."

I still wonder how much great stuff there is out there, and stuff that will be great if it can only find a little encouragement. But, in the end, they have to paint the picture or write the book.

Water's Edge

I've occasionally found Mark Pilgrim's tech blogging a bit angry and puritanical, insisting that the reader accept an unreasonable and arbitrary standard of technical virtue as Pilgrim sees it.

But Tim Bray just mentioned that he was glad to see Pilgrim back again, and I have to admit that his "How to make the perfect fruit salad and get laid" is cute.

Weirdly, there's also some clever writing in the comments. Have you noticed how comments are almost never funny?

How My Cooking Has Changed : part 5

Saving dishes you didn't finish generates leftovers, and leftovers are usually dull. First, the food was usually better the first time. Second, you just had that! It was a treat the first time, but the second time is repetition.

But saving labor-intensive intermediate products -- stocks and braises and sauces -- gives you a nice launching pad for easily turning out something new. Often, that can be something small and luxurious that would be too costly or too difficult to undertake for its own sake. Instead of leftovers, you get a second special meal.

Last Sunday, we had duck confit with savory cherry compote and basil mashed potatoes. Last night, I had one leg of duck confit left from last Sunday night's feast. Now, duck confit takes a few hours to make; it's not something you whip up for a Thursday night dinner, especially not when you spent an extra hour at Eastgate coding a new Tinderbox feature.

Of course, this last leg was left because it was the scraggliest and least presentable. So I boned the leg, coarsely chopped the meat, and heated in a dry non-stick pan for about fifteen minutes.

I took two corn tortillas and toasted them quickly in another dry skillet. Brushed each with a little hoisin sauce. Sprinkled them with chopped scallions, and then with the duck.


The Boston Globe reports that those clever guys in the White House have decided to cancel or delay most of the upcoming NASA earth science missions -- the ones tasked with understanding and monitoring global warming.

We have plenty of money to cut taxes on the Paris Hilton's of the the country, of course.

I guess they really think that Judgment Day is coming.

by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson

Dipping into these notes -- the amicable beginning, as I suppose, of the genre of modern travel literature -- was often delightful. Two characters set off on a fairly arduous experiment in tourism. Neither are very proficient travelers, and Dr. Johnson must have been a very particular (and so very difficult) guest. Tons of fun.

A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland
Callanish, Isle of Lewis

Just when the buzz completely abandoned Web calendars, it seems we need a nice Web calendar. Nice properties would include

  • Easy, shared editing
  • Simple, reliable, fast
  • iCal support would be nice
  • Working from Safari and Firefox

I don't mind paying a setup or subscription fee. Got an favorite? Email me.

Jun 06 7 2006

Speed 2

How My Cooking Has Changed : part 4

Speed is perhaps the biggest change in the way I think about cooking.

I used to think that speed was incidental, a nice side-effect. If you worked fast, perhaps you could get out of the kitchen and back to work a few minutes faster. But speed is not a side-effect: efficiency is its own inner game, and speed is its own reward.

When you're cooking at home, you can afford to go to the pantry twice, or four times. At worst , if you're really inefficient, dinner might be a few minutes late. Who cares? Will anyone notice?

It doesn't matter that no one will notice. Efficiency is aesthetic, a challenge in itself. Do things right, you'll stay out of the weeds. Get everything you need; you save steps, you get more done, you think ahead.

Last weekend, we had a nice Sunday supper with an asparagus and mushroom sauté, a salad of roasted organic beets and home-smoked salmon, duck confit with buttermilk mashed potatoes and savory cherry compote, and roasted peaches topped with fresh blueberry sauce steeped with fresh thyme. The best part: I managed to stay entirely out of the weeds. No hurry, no worry. I don't think I've ever managed dinner for company without a few dandelions.

Thinking ahead -- working hard in the kitchen to save steps and time and to do things that need to be done correctly and not to do anything that doesn't need to be done -- is its own art, the inside game of cooking. It clears your mind. It keeps you from worrying about the office, or your upcoming conference, or your checkbook.

You're here because you want to be. You're cooking something good. Everything is in place. You're not in the weeds, you're not doing 360's at the range, you're not burning the potatoes today. You've got other things to do.

Since I'm going to be speaking at WikiSym (on Intimate Information: organic hypertext structure and incremental formalization for everyone's everyday tasks) we have an opportunity for a Tinderbox day in Denmark -- either Odense or Copenhagen -- on Saturday, August 19 or Saturday, August 26.

Would you be interested? Email me. right away, please.

by Michael Ruhlman

Restaurant owners have known for decades that you can make money on a superb little restaurant, but you can make a fortune with an unambitious big one -- or, better still, a chain. In recent years, the food press and The Food Network have made this more emphatically true, as big-name chefs spend little or no time in the kitchen. From Emeril to Keller and Robuchon, the chef is a celebrity and a CEO.

This volume follows on the wonderful Making of a Chef, which looked at culinary school, and Soul of a Chef, which visited three very different chefs. Here, Ruhlman explores celebrity chefs and their work. He revisits the Culinary Institute and discusses the New Student with his old teachers. He spends time with French Laundry creator Thomas Keller at the opening of his New York bastion Per Se. (Keller had lost his shoes, handing Ruhlman a useful metaphor.) He journeys to Maine to meet Melissa Kelley, who grows her own herbs and vegetables and invites diners out back to be introduces to "the piggies" -- Gloucester Old Spots she raises.

Perhaps simply because I seldom watch The Food Network, I'm not fascinated by celebrity chefs. Ruhlman does an unmatched job of explaining how economics and PR force them out of the kitchen and into corporate leadership or into the TV studio. He gathers the data and walks you through the numbers and shows you how people feel.

The Reach of a Chef is about money. Getting Americans to show what they feel about money without platitudes and sentiment is exceptionally difficult, and Ruhlman does it nicely. He captures the tension and frustration of chefs who only can pay themselves $150K/year as they experience it, without embarrassment or apology, and shows the various ways in which they are choosing to address their problem and the impact of those solutions on the way we eat.

I'd like, someday, for Ruhlman to take us back to the kitchen and back to the start of the trip -- to good food, its nature and its making, and to the classmates with whom he worked. To Erica-who-burt-her-roux, to sullen angry Adam who would rather have been working in wood, and perhaps even to brown sauce.

I've run across several notes on the Pope's recent visit to Auschwitz, where he said that the extermination of the Jews was aimed, in the end, at oppressing Christianity.

By destroying Israel, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.

I've seen praise of these remarks as moving, and criticism of them as impolitic. What no article I've seen has mentioned is that they are untrue.

The thoughts of the Spartans, the Visigoths, the Aztec are largely lost to us save through their few surviving writings. We don't really know exactly what they were trying to do, or why. But the Nazis are not lost to history. They are a living memory -- the Pope himself remembers them. We know, as much as we can know any other man's mind, why they wanted to move or exterminate the Jews.

And the Pope's reason was not the Nazis'.

Why would this man distort history in this way? Perhaps because he longs to hold a vision of Auschwitz in the form of a quattrocento altarpiece with a circle of Catholic martyrs in the center, praying, surrounding by an enormous host of tiny, nameless Jews and even greater hosts of angels.

Perhaps he finds that a comforting image. I don't.

Seth Godin explains why his weblog doesn't have comments. Thanks, Dave Winer!

Not for me, though. First, I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them. And finally, and most important for you, it permanently changes the way I write. Instead of writing for everyone, I find myself writing in anticipation of the commenters.

Defensive blogging brings its own risks. The gap between "elliptical" and "evasive" can be small, and the difference between privacy and precious coyness can easily vanish while your attention lies elsewhere. But, even if you aren't defensive, the trolls can hijack the discussion more easily than you can defend it.

Let them try it on their own blog.

Roger Ebert writes:

In 39 years, I have never written these words in a movie review, but here they are: You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to.

by Dorothy L. Sayers

I've always loved Dorothy Sayers, but I'd not revisited this one since college and it's a much stronger novel than I'd remembered. What I missed back then was that the fast-living young louts aren't the stereotypes that Sayers occasionally drops into her texts when she isn't paying attention: they are the bright young things of Waugh's Vile Bodies, which appeared three years before this Sayers mystery.

As is often the case in Sayers, the crime is absurdly complex and overwrought. The chance to view the insides of a 1930's London advertising office is valuable; in fiction, we see far too little of the modern workplace. Lord Peter, for all of his impossible gentility, is a wonderful character, and Sayers has a delightful ear.

I haven't asked him yet. How can I? It's horribly hampering to one's detective work when one isn't supposed to be detecting, because one daren't ask any questions, much.

Oh, that last word works wonders.

Tom Webster from Edison Research has just moved his weblog to Flint. He has an interesting overview in Blogging with Tinderbox.

Tinderbox's ability to replicate a post-it board full of non-linear notes is brilliant and irreplaceable. Why does this matter? Look at the popularity of tagging as an organizational scheme for modern blogs. Tagging has become popular precisely because 'chronological' and 'hierarchical' just don't cut it as organizing principles for the giant spinning cork ball of the creative mind.

I quite like Webster's design, too