Jul 09 1 2009

The Last Supper

by Rachel Cusk

I knew nothing about this brand-new account of a writer’s move to Italy. As I was about to embark on a visit to Italy (albeit only for a week and not, as Cusk intended, to transform Existence) this attractive book seemed ideal plane reading.It’s a studiously old-school travel story, moving from I Hate It Here to Amusing Vexations En Route to Colorful Old Townspeople And Their Lovely Daughters.

The writing is studiously fine. Sometimes, it slips the leash and runs around the garden. Of the Uffizi:

Inside, the building is deep and tenebrous and hushed.

My apartment is dark as well as damp. And this is 2009: readers who buy books like this one and for whom “tenebrous” holds no terrors have a pretty decent chance of having been to Florence. I’ve known some deep, tenebrous, and hushed places, and theUffizi doesn't come close to the Pearl Street Bar after Pedro’s disaster, or the great kiva at Aztec NM, or the basement herpetological collection of the old Chicago Academy of Sciences.

Silvio is as hard to corner as the hare I sometimes see standing proud and alert in the empty garden, that bounds away at the slightest noise. But one day I offer him coffee, and though he looks at me gravely he does not refuse.

In Italy, even the wild rabbits drink espresso!

But the real problem here is that the trip (and thus the book) is patently an occasion for short essays on Various Topics, and I’m never confident that Cusk’s impressions are substantial. The notes on painting are good, but are they better than Ruskin, or Vasari? We need a bit more assertiveness, a reason to stop and regard these ideas, a sense that they take into account what others already have proposed. There’s a bit on Italian food considered as sentimental, but the argument seems thin, focusing more on “Italian” food as Britons view it rather than on any particular Italian cuisine. A lot of what Cusk views as typically Italian (a focus on one or two ingredients, simplicity, and freshness) seems to apply just as well to many regions of France, not to mention American Regional or New Australian.

Twice, I simply don’t know what is going on. The author is travelling with her daughters, and at a hotel they have met two American girls their own age.

Later, I hear the American girls talking about their mother. She’s really sick, the older one says. I sit up: I want to explain to my daughters what that means.

I want her to explain it to me, too, because – depending on age and region and tone of voice, I could see these words indicating that (a) Mom is dying of leukemia, (b) Mom is addicted to controlled substances, (c) Mom is a suspicious and restrictive disciplinarian with whose religious fanaticism my sister and I do agree, (c) Mom is having an affair, which is gross, (d) Mom has a wicked sense of humor, or (e) my sister and I are 11 and 13.

There’s a similar passage on the subject of a fresco at Pompeii (The Catechism With Young Girl Reading), which strikes me as an innocuous decoration and which Cusk sees as depicting “the mystery and brutality of the pre-Christian world.” I think this is a stretch: even if we assume (as I guess Cusk assumes) that the next step in initiation involved sex with the priests, it would have been consensual by the standards of the time, the girl is old enough by the standards of the time, and it’s Someone Else’s Religion. Besides, where’s the evidence? Herodotus, maybe, but he's writing of other people and he's five centuries earlier. Maybe at these initiations they just taught you the secret handshake, or showed you pictures, or taught you how to dance.

Between many Madonnas and a visit to Assisi, Cusk begins to build an inchoate argument for appreciating Renaissance art while holding reservations about Catholicism. In principle, this could be interesting. In practice, it doesn’t work. Apparently, she was shhhh'd at the Basilico di San Francesco by crowds more interested in relics and masses than in frescoes, and I’m not unsympathetic. But still, they’re here for the Intended Purpose, and she’s there to look at their paintings; one could wish for more grace and generosity of spirit, but she’s a tourist and she’s a foreigner and she’s in the way. The effect, in this old-fashioned book, is an (presumably unintentional) return to the spirit of the 17th or 18th century Briton In Italy, enjoying the paintings while deploring popish superstition and ceremony. But Gibbon does it better with his barefoot monks in the Temple of Jupiter, and he only mentions it to explain how he came to write The Decline and Fall.

But, you know: this was one of my least favorite books for the last year or two, and look how much fun I had!

Adventures in Publishing

The bound galleys of Reading Hypertext are here, ready to pack for the launch party in Torino. They look great.

OK: typo on the cover. Six words, one wrong. Bright side, it keeps the galleys from wandering into bookstores. And of course they’ll be collectors items someday.

Tinderbox 4.7 is out. New dashboard support, smart adornments, better charts, better maps, and 60 other improvements.

Steve Ersinghaus has a quick and easy way to track progress of writing projects in Tinderbox.

Jun 09 25 2009

Story Meeting

Suppose you were writing a screenplay about a guy. He’s the governor of South Carolina. Don’t worry about the details; it’s that kind of movie.

Anyway, the producer comes into your office and says,

We’ve got to shoot the third act in Buenos Aires. Or Paris. Either one.

You demur. “He’s the governor of South Carolina. How are we going to get him to Argentina?"

We can’t afford to shoot this in California. And Max says he’ll only go to Argentina. So, we gotta get him down under.


A junket. Trade delegation!

"We did that last year, with Sarah Palin."

A girl. He can be in love.

"But we’ve already established…"

Madly in love. Crazy.

"But he’s the governor of South Carolina. Max pops down to South America on a whim, everyone thinks he’s on a bender. I pop down to South America for a couple of days, who's gonna notice. You think they won’t notice that the governor isn’t governing? Or there?"

Of Thee I Sing, Baby!
You have got that certain thing, Baby!
Shining star and inspiration,
Worthy of a mighty nation,
Of Thee I Sing!

"He’s a politician. He’s spent his entire life being a politician. People talk about him as president. Who is going to elect a president that vanishes? And you think he doesn’t know? Sure, all the sexes from Maine to Texas have never known such love before, but who is going to give nukes to a guy who throws his entire life away for five days in Buenos Aires."

There is nothing you can name that is anything like a dame.

I improvised an interesting apricot sauce last night for Ruhlman’s Argentinian pan-roasted tenderloin.

Wash 4 apricots. Slice in half, discard the pits. Don’t worry about the skin.

Throw them in a small saucepan with a splash of olive oil, a small cup of white wine. a bay leaf, some thyme, some ground ancho (or cayenne, or whatever hot pepper you like), and a bit of honey. Cover, cook for about 20 minutes.

Drop in the blender. Puree. Back into the saucepan. Add a spoon of good mustard, a little salt maybe. My apricots weren’t very ripe, so I added a bit more honey. Heat. Serve.

It’s a nice color, and it’s rich and creamy without much fat.

At Tinderbox Weekend London, J. Nathan Matias took a close look at using version control tools to help workgroups collaborate on Tinderbox. He’s just blogged a nice summary.

The very short answer:

  • It should be easy!
  • It’s actually quite tricky, because off-the-rack version control tools care about the order of things to which XML is indifferent.
  • There aren’t great solution for version control of XML files.

The catch is that XML doesn’t care – in fact is required not to care – about the order of XML attributes: <item Name="..." ID="..."> is equivalent to code><itemID="..." Name="..." >. If you code by hand, the sequence doesn’t change, and version control works fine; if you’re generating the XML from a program, the program is free to use any order it likes and you get the same results.

The good news: starting with Tinderbox 4.7.0, Tinderbox files will be saved with consistent attribute ordering, and so now version control will work the way you’d want it to. The post is the first in an exciting series that will discuss how teams can share one Tinderbox file across the office or across the world.

Susan Gibb is writing a short hypertext every day, through the summer. Yesterday’s piece was Idle Conversation, a short sketch in dialogue form. Here’s the introduction; click the map to read the story.

I sense real opportunities in small dramatic hypertexts composed entirely, or primarily, of dialogue. (Indeed, I think “Idle Conversation” would start stronger if it omitted “she said” and “he said.”) On the one hand, I’m thinking of short dramatic sketches like Mamet’s The Duck Variations. On the other hand, think of Frost’s wonderful setpieces, “Death of the Hired Man” and “Four Hundred Collars”. There’s lots you could do – opening into interior dialogue is just one of the moves you might make.

Imagine, for example, a variation on “Idle Conversation” where one of the characters withholds some crucial information from the other. “She” is actually the governor of a region of Argentina. “He” is married. Or “She” has just learned that she has Parkinson’s, or HIV. Or “He” is transgendered but – for reasons we can’t talk about right now – is wearing clothes from her former life. We could quickly be anywhere from “Casino Royale” to “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”.

One of my hopes for Reading Hypertext is to advance discussion of craft, and to promote real criticism of real hypertexts. I think a session — or maybe a track — of Tinderbox Weekend SF this fall (November 21-22) ought to be devoted to writerly topics. Ideas? Email me.

Jun 09 23 2009

Dr. Efimova

Congratulations to weblog scholar Lilia Efimova on the occasion of her successful defense for the PhD.

She'll be presenting her paper on "Weblog as a Personal Thinking Space", an experiment in auto-ethnography, next week at Hypertext 2009.

The Internet’s Payload, an important manifesto from Tim Bray:

  • Words are more valuable than pictures.
  • Text is more valuable than audio or video.
  • Twitter is more valuable than FriendFeed.

Bray talks about “the serious part of the net.” That’s a nice turn of phrase.

Loryn Jenkins has been exploring extensions to Tinderbox for analyzing legal and literary texts. It’s an interesting area; much can be done with today’s tools, and of course more can be imagined with tomorrow’s. At IVICA, Neal Audenaert discussed CritSpace, a spatial hypertext system designed for this domain, and that work has generated more discussion from Jenkins and in a promising Tinderbox forum thread.

Jun 09 22 2009


I’ve been nosing around TalentTrove, an online community for writers, musicians, comics, and other creatives.

On the one hand, community can help a lot: one thing that’s clear from reading Pictures at a Revolution is that everyone knew everyone. Even the people who weren’t successful: Dustin Hoffman was just about out of the theater, sleeping on his friend’s floor. Rod Steiger was going nowhere, Robert Benton (who co-wrote Bonnie and Clyde) was a magazine writer infatuated with Truffaut, trying his hand at writing an American nouvelle vague and occasionally playing jazz with a stand-up comic named Woody Allen.

But, on the other hand, they wrote and acted and made deals and got stuff done. And, to listen to Harris, most of them spent their time working, or hanging out with people who were working.

Building an artistic community of artists — not simply people who want to be with artists, or people who want to act the part — is a challenge.

On Hypertext Narrative

Preview of Hypertext 2009: here’s a preprint of my talk, “On Hypertext Narrative” (pdf). (Thanks, ACM!)

(I’ll post the slides for the talk, which I think some of you will also enjoy, after the lecture, which is first thing on June 30.)

Abstract: Annals and chronicles may be the foundation of accounting, but writers of stories and histories have long known that they seldom render a satisfactory account of complex events. In place of a simple chronological list, narrative instead organizes our account in new sequences in order to illuminate the interplay of actors and events. We want hypertext narrative to do things we cannot achieve in print; though we may occasionally use links to introduce variation in presentation or in story; it is now clear that hypertext will most frequently prove useful in changing (or adapting) plot. After discussing the ways in which plot may be varied, I describe the use of stretchtext as a reaction against the perceived incoherence of classic hypertext narrative, demonstrate the limitations that conventional stretchtext necessarily imposes on hypertext narrative, and describe an implemented generalization of stretchtext that matches the expressive and formal capabilities of classical hypertext systems while appearing to be a mere stretchtext and while running within the confines of a Web browser.

The network experts and social media enthusiasts and (oy veh) the internet libertarians kept telling us how the internet would route around the damage caused by a government crackdown on information.

Hasn't worked in China.

Didn't work in Iran. (Yeah, twitter has been working occasionally, but my impression is that its role is mostly publishing to that part of the outside world that deigns to listen.)

Speculation: they’ll keep telling us it can’t happen here, until it does. Maybe they’ll keep saying it can’t happen hear, after it does.

Reading Hypertext: Preorder

Diane Greco and I are putting the finishing touches on an anthology of key papers on Reading Hypertext.

It will be out August 15. You can preorder here.

preorder Reading Hypertext: $39.95

Jun 09 19 2009


Storied (or at least known-out-of-town) home of fancy barbeque. I sat at the bar (good show, and one of the waitstaff actually said “lime me!”) and had a charcuterie plate and the brisket.

I should’ve known better: things in Texas really are supersized. The hotel coffee mugs are huge. The afternoon break offered cookies, and fruit, and quesadillas. One professor of library science complained that the forks were oversized. So was the charcuterie plate. But: the salami was excellent, the country paté was terrific, and lomo was smoky and stiff and paper thin and by far the best I’ve had. (Do they eat a lot of lomo in Texas? Just wondering.) And the foie gras pot de creme, of which I was very skeptical, was absolutely delicious.

The brisket was good, and the sauces (bbq and mustard) even better. It was very lean brisket, which seems a bit against the grain. Surprisingly – especially considering the chilli jacked pickles and olives that accompanied the charcuterie – the coffee and brown sugar rub was a bit less prominent than I’d have liked.

Slides from today’s IVICA workshop on interactive visual information collections, at the University of Texas Austin, are here (huge pdf).

Reading Hypertext

Diane Greco and I are putting the finishing touches on an anthology of key papers on Reading Hypertext.

Today, we all read on the screen, and we find what to read by following links. The Web is continuing to transform the world, artistically, commercially, technically, and politically. But the Web is not print, and it’s certainly not television. What makes new media new? The link: the most important new punctuation mark since the comma.

preorder Reading Hypertext: $39.95

How do we write for a medium when we can’t predict what the reader might click? How do we read well, when we cannot read exhaustively?

Over the past twenty years, many brilliant scholars and writers have worked to understand how links operate, and to learn how to use them effectively. Many of these papers will be familiar to experts, some will be surprises, and others are completely new.

Publication date will be August 15, and Eastgate is now accepting pre-orders.

  • INTO THE WEEDS (Mark Bernstein)
  • LA MAISON HYPERTEXT (Charles A. Perfetti)
  • THE LYRICAL QUALITY OF LINKS (Susana Pajares Tosca)
  • A PRAGMATICS OF LINKS (Susana Pajares Tosca)
  • READING SPATIAL HYPERTEXT (Catherine C. Marshall)

A nice note on Tinderbox 4.6 from Clifford Wulfman, Coordinator of Library Digital Initiatives at Princeton.

I want to commend you once again for producing a superior tool.  I'm an old-fashioned man in many ways: I like my vintage hypertexts; I like my vintage development environments (emacs, please, and spare me your Eclipses); and over the years I've become an open-source supporter, if not exactly an evangelist.

But Tinderbox is a piece of software I've never regretted buying.  I've just spent a most productive day working through some design problems, and the way Tinderbox has allowed me to move seamlessly between visual and textual expression is simply unmatched.  I've fallen out of the blogosphere and haven't done anything with exports and agents for a long time, but it looks like all that apparatus has been improved extensively, and I'm looking forward to playing with it soon.

A strength of spatial hypertext tools like the Tinderbox map is that they carry lots of meaning without much formal overhead; you can express that relationships exist without knowing every detail of the relationship.

But a drawback of our current tools for everything from “mind maps” to “information architecture” is that we’ve become tightly focused on boxes and arrows. Boxes are fundamental: you can draw a box around everything. And boxes, used juduciously, avoid chartjunk, the temptation to load up your visualization with lots of symbolic, sentimental clipart.

One weakness of boxes and arrows is their seeming precision: those straight lines tempt us to read meaning into every pixel, and so we wind up tweaking our layouts to get pixel-level alignment and spacing just right. This is literally unnatural: the natural world isn’t like that. An organization is nothing like an org chart, and all those identical neat boxes in the site map tempt us to make each page equivalent when each page could also be precisely what it needs to be in its specific role.

IVICA: Boxes and Arrows
Louis A. Sullivan, A System of Architectural Ornament

We have few tools that work with this sort of textured, layered, organic vocabulary of forms. I think that’s going to be a fruitful direction for research, especially now that we understand spatial parsers and are getting accustomed (as in OpenType fonts) to working with forms that depend on context.

In the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh offers a terrific and thoughtful overview of recent enthusiasms for care, craftsmanship, and artisanal work: Out Of The Office. A sensible response to Matthew B. Crawford’s much-twittered New York Times Magazine defense of The Case for Working With Your Hands.

Sanneh observes that parallels have been drawn to open source development, but I think that’s probably the wrong end of NeoVictorian Computing from which to launch this argument. I predict that we’ll learn more by looking at artisans and applications than at Linux, and in the end what we learn will inform the vast platform projects as well. In this connection, it’s worth looking at John Gruber’s WWDC wrapup which observes that a lot of people are moving into the development space – many of them iPhone developers migrating to Macintosh, rather than vice versa. (Note how the iPhone Apps store is probably the first real success for micropayments – something we’ve been trying forever.)

Susan Gibb has arrives at day 25 in the 100-hypertext summer: Schematica 2: Elements.

Meagan Timney’s Factory Girls

Want to read more about Meagan Timney’s Tinderbox project for a digital archive of working class Victorian poetry? Here’s the pdf.

by Allegra Goodman

I was there. Goodman’s remarkable study of scientists at work is set in a biochemistry lab near Harvard in 1985. I was working right down the street, in the Chemistry department, from 1978-83. The settings, the scenery, the people: they’re all right. Not touristically right; the people behave as scientists do.

The detailing is extraordinary. The vending-machine dinners of yellow crackers with orange cheese, apple juice (good for you) and a brownie — I ate them, and Goodman knows that you need two packages of crackers for dinner. Celebrations as the Wursthaus, burgers at Elsie’s. Climbing the hippo in the snow. When some of the students drive up to Plum Island for a day of casual birding, the description is exactly right, and so are the birds.

But, more impressively, Intuition also captures the why scientists do science. It’s a long, long pull, modelled roughly on the Imanishi-Kari affair, and in its course we shed lots of people who never really liked science. They go into teaching or administration or management. Indeed, while Goodman tempts the reader with several enthralling plot devices — are the results too good to be true? who will end up with Dr. Glass’s lovely 16-year-old daughter? — she does a wonderful, Maltese Falcon-esque job of hiding its core question.

If the subject recalls Arrowsmith and the plotting recalls The Maltese Falcon (in which everyone — you too — gets so wrapped up chasing the black bird that they lose track of the real mystery, which is the murder of Spade’s partner), the other parallel is Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutinty, which starts as a sentimental wartime melodrama but is nearly overset by the winds of reality. Wouk asks, “Who is the real sailor?” “Who is the true man?” Goodman asks, “Who is the real scientist?” and shows you so many tempting technical baubles that you, along with most of the characters, watch the chase for tenure and grants and the cure for cancer and overlook what’s really going on and what scientists really need.

Caine was Wouk’s finest book, but Intuition is simply better.

James Pope, writing for Interjunction, offers recommendations for digital interactive fiction based on a survey of 36 readers.

I observed, questionnaired and spoke with 36 readers about their experiences of ‘reading’ a selection of interactive — hypertext — fictions, and armed with my data I would argue that reading interactive fiction can be enjoyable in many ways.

It’s an interesting conceit. But Pope never describes who the 36 readers were, or how they were chosen, or under what conditions and constraints they were reading. Were these 36 fans of Stephen King, or 36 art historians, or 36 Labour MPs? Did they all like Truffaut and Goddard? What else had they read? What did they like? Without knowing, we can’t really know what their opinions mean.

Surveying 36 readers gives the enterprise a veneer of objectivity, a sort of anthropological flair, isolating the study from quirks of individual taste and interest. But this balance is a mirage. Joe likes Jules and Jim, Jill likes Star Wars, and Pat likes Battleship Potemkin. They all are right! What, exactly, do we learn by averaging the three of them in a statistical pool. It might be interesting to let each argue their separate case; that’s why we read lots of critics.

The desire to avoid judgment pervades the two-part essay:

But I also found clear evidence that the experience of non-linear narratives combined with user-unfriendly interfaces can break the significant balance of effort and reward, a relationship which has been identified by such researchers as Nell (1988) and Csikszentmihalyi (1975, 2002) as being essential to reading pleasure.

I’m as big a believer in citation as anyone — my little Hypertext 2009 paper “On Hypertext Narrative’ has 45 references, Aarseth to Zellweger, plus 21 additional footnotes — but do we need authorities to tell us that “the significant balance of effort and reward” is “essential to reading please?” Perhaps we do, if we want to justify “significant” and “essential”, as Carroll (1865) argues so cogently:

”Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Of course, some people hate Carroll and Lear. My father, on the other hand, brought Alice in his footlocker to the South Pacific, along with Notes From Underground and Archie and Mehitabel, making room by discarding some government property he considered less necessary to the war effort. That’s the second problem here: if you try to triangulate “reading pleasure” by surveying traverses from a bunch of literary landmarks, you’re bound to find yourself in the proverbial swamp. And if you do it 36 times and sum the results, your boots are going to be soggy. Menand makes the point nicely in his recent New Yorker piece, “Show or Tell: should creative writing be taught?"

What is usually said is that you can’t teach inspiration, but you can teach craft. What counted as craft for James, though, was very different from what counted as craft for Hemingway. What counts as craft for Ann Beattie (who teaches at the University of Virginia) must be different from what counts as craft for Jonathan Safran Foer (who teaches at N.Y.U.). There is no “craft of fiction” as such.

In the end, best-seller lists are a poor way to choose what to read, and a grab-bag of 36 random readers is not much better. We don’t want to know what 9 out of 10 doctors recommend; we want to know what this friend thinks, and what that friend believes. And part of the reason we listen to friends and favorite critics is that we know who they are, what they like, how they want to spend their time. It was nice to know that Siskel and Ebert both liked a movie, but it was interesting when Gene loved a movie and Roger hated it, and that’s where we really went to town.

Recommended: Arthur Krystal on Hazlitt, who might not in fact have been “the first modern man” but can arguably be the first modern critic.

The conventional start of hypertext history is [Bush 45], “As We May Think.” It’s a nice piece of speculation by the Director of the Office of Scientific R&D, pointing out that the scientific literature was growing too fast for anyone to keep up, and proposing a Memex machine to link knowledge together.

What’s now largely forgotten is that Bush, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, was an important counterweight to Ted Nelson’s ambitious vision of what turned out to be the Web. Nelson was exciting, but Nelson was lefty; the book was called Computer Lib, and that didn’t always play well in the board room. As the memory of Vietnam became ever more fraught, conservative businessmen and academics found Lib less palatable; Bush brought impeccable Old Republican manners and military-industrial credentials to the table.

I used to spend time casting around for even earlier anticipations of hypertext, trying to unseat Bush. But I completely missed H.G. Wells The World Brain, and I think everyone missed Emanuel Goldberg, the Russian Jew who ran Zeiss-Ikon in the 1930’s and who actually built the machine that Bush imagined a decade later.

I’d once tried to make a case for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy as an anticipation, with Seldon’s grand volume of psychohistorical equations, the Prime Radiant, projected in a planetarium-like dome for instant recall and cautious revision. (What was the thing called?) I have up when I checked the publication date (1951), but I abandoned the idea too soon; I just stumbled across the fact that the book was assembled from short stories that appeared between 1942 and 1944. (Thanks to physicist Achileas Lazarides for identifying the Prime Radiant)

Meagan Timney is writing a dissertation "Of Factory Girls and Serving Maids: The Literary Labours of Victorian Working-Class Women in Victorian Britain," at Dalhousie, where she oversees the Working Class Women Poets archive. She recently sent some interesting notes about her work with Tinderbox for planning the archive.

Here’s the treemap view that she sketched for the archive.

Go ahead and click the image; so you can see the full-size window.

There’s nothing very fancy going on here — just a straightforward sketch of the structure of a scholarly site. But it occurs to me that this kind of visualization can be terrifically useful for thinking about all sorts of aspects of site development and planning. And, while you know how things work, this diagram might work well for explaining the site (and not just the front page!) to managers (and funders) who don’t spend much of their time reading this sort of Web site.

Same things with the Common Words view. It’s not a sophisticated analytical tool, but it’s right at your fingertips — and it’s easy to compare the word cloud for a single note or section to the word frequencies of the entire document.

Little Match Girls

Describing the site, Timney writes that "Materials to be mounted on the site include an annotated index of working-class women authors and their works, an extensive critical introduction, a database of more than 600 full-text poems written by working-class women in the nineteenth century (including Fanny Forrester, Marie Joussaye Fotheringham, Mary Hutton, Millicent Langton, Lucy Larcom, and Ruth Wills), a full bibliography of scholarship, reviews, and textual materials that will provide both historical and literary contexts (e.g. reviews from editors in nineteenth-century periodicals, brief biographies of authors, such as Ben Brierley’s biography of Fanny Forrester in Ben Brierley’s Journal), and serve as a portal to contemporary critical contexts. This fully-searchable database will include headnotes and annotations for each poet. Other materials will include a Wiki, which will document the design and editorial practices of the site, to augment the construction of a prototype model for other sites, and a web forum, which will allow for critical discussions of the texts themselves, humanities computing and the digital representation of non- canonical texts, as well as open discussions of hypertext editions and their function as systems of “information engineering” (Flanders)."

Little Match Girls

Have an interesting Tinderbox project? I'd like to hear about it. So would lots of people who read this blog. You might find helpers, advisors, collaborators, and fans. Email me.

Since we’re on the subject of Tinderbox maps, this is a good time to point to Eric Blue’s catalog of 15 Effective Tools for Visual Knowledge Management. Almost everything here is box-and-line, with occasional forays into circle-and-line. But there are some interesting exceptions. (The Tinderbox screen shot is from one of Pamela Taylor’s studies)

Romantic Circles, a refereed eJournal on the Romantic era, has an interesting note comparing Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl to Laurie Sheck’s forthcoming novel, A Monster’s Notes.

It appears the novel shares some affinities with Shelley Jackson’s classic hypertext Patchwork Girl, both of which imagine face-to-face meetings between the creature and Mary Shelley and which project the creature into a postmodern world.
Jun 09 10 2009

Born To Kvetch

by Michael Wex

We were visiting my aunt and uncle, who were renting a house on the Cape. It was breakfast; my aunt was making matzoh brei, as a special treat. My dad loved matzoh brei, which my mom wouldn’t make (because it's traditionally fried in schmaltz and Mom was a low-fat girl with a vengeance). So we were all sitting around, talking politics and eating just a little more matzoh brei, and a close friend of my cousin’s fiancée comes over because he wants some matzoh brei too. He’s a nice guy, a curator for an art museum, full of good stories. And he mentions this book, Born To Kvetch, whch naturally I note down in my iPhone so it can get into my Tinderbox projects file, and onto my reading stack. And now I’m reading it.

The first essays are absolutely terrific, especially the fascinating study of kvetching, “Kvetch Que C’est,” that opens the book. I’d always assumed that kvetching – that familiar style of complaining so familiar to Jews whose ancestors spoke Yiddish – was a 19th century style, but Wex makes a great case that it’s old, perhaps very old. I’d missed, for example, Exodus 14.11, which has a certain familiar ring:

Is it from lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the desert?

Wex argues that kvetching is very close to the center of Jewishness. It’s fascinating. The later chapters of the book tend to bog down in odd facts and curious sayings, but even there we encounter treasures. For example, you probably know schmuck, and putz, and maybe schlong. But what are them feminine equivalents? You never hear them. Wex explains why.

Then there’s lign in dr’erd un bakn beygl — a phrase that explains that things are going so well that you’re dead, you’ve got to spend eternity in a hot kitchen, you’re baking bagels that (being dead) you can’t eat, and since down there everyone is dead it’s really hard to sell them, but thanks for asking. (I’ve never understood why, when people ask “How are you?” I never feel right saying “Great!” This became a regular shtick with Dorie Friend, who was president of Swarthmore when I was a student, because I’d always have some complaint, and then when it became a shtick I’d get myself tangled up to his endless amusement. Now I know that my ancestors thought it was impolite, and possibly dangerous, to say how wonderfully things are going...)

We make Tinderbox maps because spatial relationships can be richer and more flexible than lists.

This argument is distinct from one that is sometimes advanced to support ‘mind mapping’ – that people are more adept at working with spatial relationships than with other symbolic forms. I'm not convinced that people are particularly good at working with spatial relations. But spatial language is inherently richer at expressing some relationships, and the continuity of space is often convenient for describing approximate relationships that are difficult or inconvenient to specify more exactly,

IVICA: Space and Patterns
Tinderbox map by J. Nathan Matias

Here’s a piece actual Tinderbox map, produced for a corporate presentation and discussion. The dialectic pattern here — question and answer, call and response — is something we often encounter in meetings, in negotiation, and in planning. We’re doing this not to validate or verify a logical inference — this isn’t a poor man’s Toulmin diagram — but rather to record the making of a design decision.

It’s easy to see what”s going on here, even if you don’t read every note. Notice, though, that there’s no good HTML markup for this description. You could use <dt> and <dd>, I suppose, but that”s a hack. You could use a bunch of special purpose <div>'s. You could format it as a dialogue, like a screenplay.

Question: what would a green, right-facing tag in the right column mean?

Question: what would a blue, left-facing tag in the right column mean?

I bet you can propose sensible answers to both questions. But you’ve never seen this diagram before, there’s no legend, and I don’t think any of us studied this visual language in school. This is interesting.

Jun 09 9 2009

Boston Globe

Lost amidst the struggle between The New York Times (which now owns the Boston Globe) and the Boston Globe’s unions, especially the writers, is a strange editorial curve the Globe embarked on this year: the Globe, long one of the great newspapers of the world, has suddenly become a neighborhood or provincial paper.

On any given day, perhaps one story on the front page will concern national or international news. Everything else will have a local angle; if there’s a story about the economy, its headline will emphasize the impact on Boston or on the state. Suddenly, the Globe has become the Berkshire Eagle or the Medford Daily Mercury.

by Ian R. Macleod

An intriguing, lively, and strangely-prescient steampunk saga set in the Third Age of a neo-Victorian Engand that is powered by aether, a powerful and dangerous fluid extracted from vast industrial mines. Robert Borrows starts as a child in a troubled Yorkshire family. He falls in love with a little girl who inhabits a ruined mansion in a nearby, abandoned town. He travels to London, where he falls in with revolutionaries and radicals. He keeps trying to understand how the world works, and hoping to change it. Remarkably — for this was a 2005 novel — one of the great secrets of the world turns out to be the quiet replacement of mining and manufacturing with mere financial chicanery.

A fantasy about a political and economic revolution, The Light Ages invites comparison to Animal Farm. In principle, I would have expected McLeod’s novel to reflect or interpret the 1989, but the revolution here seems closer to the best of all possible 1917’s. Comparing The Light Ages to Babylon 5, another science fiction epic deeply concerned with post-Communist Eastern Europe, we see more Beautiful Principle and far less historical pain. The narrator, Robert Borrows, seems oddly deaf to himself and his world; he circles endlessly around personal concerns (his mother died of injuries suffered in an industrial accident and he’s obsessed with the victims of aether) while remaining oblivious to the girl he loves, the revolution he’s leading, or the vivid, crowded steampunk London he inhabits.

I was about to conclude that I wish The Encycloped of Science Fiction were newer or the NYRSF were online when, doing a due-diligence Google, I found that Clute himself reviewed The Light Ages for Infinite Matrix. He’s got it perfectly, if uncharitably:

The story that takes up most of the surface of The Light Ages is a tale of frustrated love told in the first person by a dolt.
  • Jon Buscall discusses Tinderbox maps for note-taking, illustrated by his notes from the recent Disruptive Media conference in Stockholm and for an article in progress on social media.
If you work on a Mac and need a tool to create mindmaps, Tinderbox is excellent. Tinderbox isn’t solely a mind-mapping tool but it’s one of the ways you can use it to take notes and organise your ideas.
For goodness’ sake I didn’t realize that I could make different shapes and all kinds of good stuff with the plain little note boxes in Tinderbox.

One key to the Tinderbox map is simplicity and regularity. It’s a working tool for getting things done, not a presentation system for making fancy slides.

Ironically, as Robert Brook pointed out at Tinderbox Weekend London, this can make Tinderbox especially effective in presentations. Not only can you get lots of information in front of management this way, but when a manager say, ‘That’s in the wrong place!’ you can just drag it into a new place and astonish everyone.

But it’s important for Tinderbox maps to be able to express all sorts of relationships and conjectures. That’s why maps are (sometimes) better than lists or database tables: sometimes, you need to express tentative connections or speculative relationships, things to which that you can’t yet commit.

In addition, Tinderbox agents constantly work to find things, and often they express their results through visual characteristics. For example, an agent that searches for overdue tasks might color them red. Tinderbox provides lots of visual dimensions:

  • Color
  • Accent color
  • Shape
  • Height and Width
  • Border style, thickness, and color
  • Shadow size, blur, and color
  • Label font, boldness, size, and color
  • Badge icon

This gives you lots of ways to call attention to particular notes, especially when you have lots of notes in your map. Here’s a study I did one afternoon, while stuck on a crowded airplane, looking at all the books I’ve read in the last few years.

IVICA: visual dimensions in Tinderbox

Here, I just threw all the books into a map, zoomed out, and started a rough sort into whatever clusters made sense at the moment. (Information Architects do a lot of card sorting; it can be a terrific way to discover new ways to structure confusing information.)

And here’s Julie Tolmie’s famous Tinderbox map of patterns in game design:

IVICA: visual dimensions in Tinderbox
Tinderbox map by Julie Tolmie

Note especially the subtle, systematic use of color not merely as an alarm code but as a continuous contextual cue.

Adornments also help structure the space of each Tinderbox map.

IVICA: visual dimensions in Tinderbox
Tinderbox map of psychiatric forensic workflow by Dr. Fionnbar Lenihan

In short, we can say lots of things with Tinderbox maps. But there’s a lot that’s tricky to express, especially when we’re using the maps to jot down information that we don’t yet fully understand. For example:

  • Conference liveblogging
  • Library research notes
  • Collaborative brainstorming
  • Workgroup prioritization, project triage, and scheduling

Today, while we can distinguish exceptional elements in lots of ways, it's harder to express connections between things. We can

  • link them
  • place them next to each other
  • pile them on the same adornment.

That’s better than nothing — and better than squeezing everything into an outline or a list. But I think we can do more.

IVICA: visual dimensions in Tinderbox
Concept proposal. These notes aren’t linked, but their visual connection is stronger than simple adjacency.
Jun 09 7 2009

IVICA: the leaf

On June 19, the researchers who study spatial hypertext and related areas will hold their grand, irregular festival, IVICA. (I sha’n’t be gone long. — You come too. It’s one day, and not very expensive. It’s colocated with Digital Libraries, but you needn’t sign up for the whole conference.)

I didn’t have a paper to send this year, and so the organizers invited me open the shebang. I’m going to say a few words about the day when “A Narrative, a Picture, and a Link Walk Into a Bar”.

I’d like to take a piece of that argument and explore it here. First, because it has interesting implications for Tinderbox and for the way we use Tinderbox maps — especially for information gardening. Second, because it raises interesting questions for all kinds of interface design, from operating systems to preference dialogs.

IVICA: the leaf
Tinderbox map by Prof. Margaret Syveron, University of Texas at Austin

Our information maps are, chiefly, boxes and arrows. When screens were very small, we had no choice. With only 512x384 monochrome pixels , every bit of screen real estate mattered terribly. Every pixel still matters, and we certainly cannot waste them, but perhaps we now have enough cushion to consider a broader views.

IVICA: the leaf

Why use a box, for example, and not (say) a leaf? Boxes use space efficiently, and they’re easy to draw, and at some level of abstraction everything is a box. But then, at some level of abstraction, everything is a curve. How might information farming and information gardening benefit if we moved beyond boxes and lines?

The peril, of course, is chart junk — decorating our maps to make them look good or to impress (or baffle) managers. That’s always a mistake, though it sometimes seems an effective short-term strategy.

Can we make our maps more meaningful? More expressive? Can we perhaps make it more likely that an unconscious or accidental juxtaposition of ideas on the map will trigger reflection and understanding — what Nakakoji and Yamamoto call “representational talkback?”

Twitter: #ivica, #infoFarming

Carol Blymire (the blogger behind Alinea At Home) went to Alinea last week and blogs the menu we enjoyed so well. Gotta love the enthusiasm:

It was the first time in my life I ever had a foie course that was light and airy and fragrant in this way.  I could've eaten three of these.  Or four.  Or eleventy hundred kabillion frillion.

Blymire has recently been diagnosed with celiac, so she can’t eat wheat; when they came to the pigeonneau à la Saint-Clair, they’d simply planned ahead and made her crust with rice flour. That’s lovely. Think about it: the day before (or, perhaps, early that morning), they’d gone into the kitchen and started a special croustade specifically for her. Started two, I expect, because if you don’t have a spare, you’re gonna need it.

One reason you haven’t seen much here is that I’ve been spending many, many hours lately revamping STime and DateTranslator and their sisters and their cousins and their aunts. All these Tinderbox classes deal with generalized dates and times, and none of this was on the development blueprint. A small issue (handling a new Canadian system format) became a larger issue, and that blossomed into a performance problem.

And, naturally, problems lead to opportunities, and the upshot looks like we’ll see a real performance boost for Tinderbox agents and rules.

But, in the meantime, brother, can you spare a week?

by E. M. Forster

A terrific, and tremendously enjoyable, little book. I grabbed this right now because I'd heard a comment that Zadie Smith’s admirable On Beauty was a reworking of Howards End, and I didn’t immediately see the connection. The connection is very much there; indeed, entire scenes find themselves transported from rural cottages to urban Professorial households, and characters move from nearly-Cockney to almost-Brooklyn. Oh, and people change genders, and races, and a book about personal relations becomes a book on race and – well – on beauty. I still don’t see the whole vision; if you’ve read good criticism along these lines, Email me.

Dearest Meg,
It isn’t going to be what we expected.

What a fine way to start a story. And what a fine story! It makes an interesting pairing with Galsworthy; The Man Of Property was published in 1906, four years before Howards End, but the rest of the Forsyte Saga appeared a decade later (1918-1921). Sons and Lovers is only a couple of years later. I had forgotten, or the movie had blurred for me, how little the novel has to do with men and women; it’s about feeling and friendship and independence, and in the end poor Mr. Bast nearly deserves what he gets.

Update: Writing from Kandahar, Alex Strick can Linschoten points me to Zadie Smith’s 2003 article on Forster for The Guardian, based on her 2003 Orange Word Lecture.

Jun 09 3 2009


A nasty, brutish, and long flame war has been tearing up the SF world. Kathryn Cramer, co-editor of Year’s Best, has written a series of notes in response concerning the hazards anonymous comments. Yes, anonymity is a valuable option on some occasions, but it is also a refuge for liars and cowards and we would be wise to look closely at the motives behind habitual net anonymity.

No links because key posts from all parties are currently offline; perhaps peace is breaking out or perhaps we’re having a replay of the great wiki windwipe. I don’t know.

Later: I waited three months before posting this. The mess continues. I don’t understand the core issues. Most of the writing I’ve seen on this topic is poor, which is odd because most science fiction/fannish writing is pretty good, and some of it is terrific. If you want to take a dip yourself, google racefail.

Neither libel nor cruelty deserve to be excused because the perpetrator wants to hide. There may be times, perhaps, when cruel writing serves a good end; in general, if you are ethically compelled to commit a crime –including a social crime – I think you should do so openly.

But all this brings up a side issue that I think deserves thought. What started the fracas was an anonymously-written critique of another major science fiction editor; Kathryn was upset because she knew the anonymous writer had once been that editor’s employee.

Does leaving a job dissolve all bonds of loyalty to your previous employer? It does, if the departure is accompanied by pistols at dawn; business loyalty is not an eternal obligation and you can, for cogent and compelling reasons, openly and formally renounce it. You’d do this, for example, if you had resigned over your supervisor’s dishonesty, or because you believed the company’s policies or plans to be unethical or imprudent.

And, obviously, if you leave Macy’s and go to work for Gimbel’s, it is understood that you now serve your new employer’s interests.

Beyond that, however, I think a duty of loyalty persists, both personal and institutional. I think you owe duties to former co-workers, even when you and they alike have new jobs.

Employees of publishers also incur a duty of loyalty to their writers, and this duty survives the end of employment. Again, it can be cancelled — the pistols at dawn exception may be invoked. But this too requires an open and public declaration, so everyone knows where they stand and on whom they can rely.

Ruhlman is ranting about paté a choux. This is a ten-pound name for a simple little concotion. You take some water — say 4oz. Add half as much (by weight) of butter. Heat it to boiling. Add some flour — the same amount, by weight, as the butter. Stir for a while until it's nicely mixed. Let it cool a bit, and then add eggs — one egg for every 2oz of water you added.

  • 2 parts water
  • 1 part butter
  • 1 part flour
  • 2 parts egg

Once everything was mixed, I added a half cup of grated cheese, spooned it onto a parchment-lined backing sheet, pressed a 3/8" cube of nicely crisped wild boar bacon into the middle, and baked them at 400•F for 10 minutes and 325• for another 15 minutes. Terrific. We had these with asparagus, steamed and topped with the rest of the grated cheese and then topped with one fried egg.

Austentatious — (adj) a literary work, often neo-Victorian or otherwise historical, that is conspicuously well-mannered, cozy, and romantic. Compare austensible, which emphasizes the work’s sense and sensibility rather than its manners.

Jun 09 1 2009


by James Shapiro

Nick Hornby loved this book. So did I.

We have almost no biographical information about Shakespeare, but we do know an astonishing amount about Elizabethan London. Shapiro does a wonderful job of uncovering all sorts of daily details that impinge on Shakespeare in 1599 and the four great plays of that year, which runs from Henry V through Hamlet, with excursions through Julius Caesar and As You Like It. A lot was happening: Shakespeare's acting company, having lost their lease, pretty much stole their theater one winter weekend by disassembling the building and stowing it in a warehouse, to be reassembled that Spring on a new lot. The Earl of Essex set off for Ireland, where it seemed likely he would cover himself in glory and return home in triumph, ready to succeed to the throne in due course. There’s a lot of Ireland in all these plays, and lots of court politics, and Shapiro does a wonderful job of explaining it. Tons of fun.