MarkBernstein.org

by Charles Bracelen Flood

In perhaps the great political reversal in the history of democracy, the year 1864 transformed Lincoln’s legacy. Entering the year, his administration was hapless, its policies discredited, its personnel were considered inept and its military strategy was a disaster. Lincoln himself seemed destined to be remembered as one of the worst one-term presidents in history, a western comic unfit for the office. Eleven months later, he was reelected in a landslide and his party became forever the Party Of Lincoln.

What happened? Flood believes the crucial moment was Atlanta, where Sherman’s conquest reversed an unending flow of bad news. This seems incomplete, for the Union had won victories before, and it’s not clear to me that a contemporary who was unconvinced by Vicksburg, Gettysburg and the Wilderness campaign would be converted by the fall of Atlanta. I have no doubt it was true, but I’m not certain I understand why it was true, or what contemporaries knew about it.

An unfortunate transformation wrought in the 20th century White House is the complete isolation of the president from people with commonplace concerns. In 1864, if you could afford a decent suit, you walk right into the White House on New Years Day and shake the president's hand and say a word or two. Lincoln kept office hours, and people frequently brought him constituent problems of all sorts – lost army paperwork, pleas to pardon loved ones, inventions, or simply wanting to look him in the eye and see the face of the man whose pen had freed a people.

In McSweeney’s, James Warner has some silly fun with “The Future Of Books.” His prediction for 2080: A Golden Age of Informational Fluidity is a nice poke at Sven Birkerts and his followers.

For the benefit of those people at future-of-publishing panels—there's always one, for some reason—who insist it's really not about the text but the smell of the book, books will by this time be available exclusively as lines of fragrance.

by Charles Bracelen Flood

Tinderbox fans will find a familiar note on this recollection, by Noah Brooks, of Lincoln’s method of drafting his 1864 Message To Congress. From 1864: Lincoln At The Gates Of History .

It may be a matter of interest to know the the whole of the … message exists, or did exist, upon slips of pasteboard or boxboard. It is a favorite habit of the President, when writing anything requiring thought, to have a number of these slips of board near at hand and, seated at ease in his armchair, he lays the slip upon his knee and writes and rewrites in pencil what is afterward copied in his own hand with new changes and interlineations.

Then, being “set up“ by the printer with big “slugs” in place of “leads”, spaces of half an inch are left between each line in the proof. More corrections and interlineations are made, and from this patchwork the document is finally set up and printed.

Mar 11 27 2011

Bartelby

Steve Winnick wraps up an interesting blog series about the future of the legal profession and the place of tools like Tinderbox in making it possible for individual lawyers to work effectively.

by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Fran├žois

I am not generally a fan of cookbooks that promise incredible shortcuts. Preparing food sometimes takes a little time and a little skill, and books that promise wonderful results without effort or expense seldom deliver food worth eating.

But this book has an idea, and it works out the ramifications and consequences of that idea with determination and good sense. The central proposal, simply, is to make one large batch of dough – enough to last two weeks – and store it in the refrigerator, removing just enough to bake a small loaf when you want some fresh bread. From that, everything else follows.

Let’s begin from first principles. Freshly baked bread is much better than bread with preservatives that let it sit on the shelf of your supermarket. Preserved bread, in turn, is better than stale bread. And stale bread is better than no bread at all, or bread that just costs too much.

Our ancestors bought bread from the baker. They didn’t make bread themselves, unless they lived in the middle of nowhere, far from the baker. The reasons were economic: in towns and cities, fuel was expensive and, once the oven was hot, it would bake one loaf or dozens equally well. So, instead of everyone having their own oven, you’d pool together and have one big oven and everyone would share it, or you’d have a designated baker who made bread to everyone.

This is not our problem: lots of Americans have ovens and they don’t think twice about turning it on. Our problem is, nobody has time to mix dough, knead it, let it rise, shape it, let it rise, and bake it. Not every day.

Hertzberg and François address this problem neatly by thinking it through. You make one big batch of dough – enough to last you for two weeks. You keep it in the refrigerator. Two weeks of dough will fit into your refrigerator, and your yeast won’t run out of tasty flour (or catch an infection) in two weeks of refrigerated storage. Every day or two, you grab a handful of dough, shape it, and throw it into a hot oven to bake. The trick is to keep the bread dough on hand, in the refrigerator, all the time.

This wouldn’t work for a commercial baker. First, there’s no point: you’ve got to show up to sell the bread every day, and you’ve got to bake it every day. Mixing is easy enough, and it doesn’t take much labor to watch bread rise. Even if you wanted to use this method commercially, the refrigeration costs would be absurd. Worse, commercial cooking is all about consistency, and holding dough for two weeks is going to lead to gradual changes in the sourness and flavor of each loaf. The method tends to make lots of little loaves, each slightly different, and while that’s a fine thing at home it can be difficult in the store, where Ms. Smith is always going to suspect you’re giving Ms. Wesson the good loaf. Tears will ensue.

The underlying idea – keeping the dough around for a very long time – has a bunch of consequences, which Hertzberg and François work out neatly. To keep it going that long, you need lots of water, and so this dough is very wet – they’re working with hydration that starts at 75% and heads north to the 80’s. All that water, and days (or weeks) of development, means there’s no need to knead if you don’t want to: mix thoroughly and time (and yeast) will take care of the rest. The very slack dough means shaping techniques need to be rethought pretty thoroughly. And small, daily loaves mean shorter baking times (and fresher bread), which will confuse Americans accustomed to weekly groceries.

But the real news here is an approach to bread that is simple and, within limits, consistent. I’ve found that the difficulty of baking bread is wildly exaggerated in any case – at least if you approach your bread with a bit of flexibility and don’t insist that every loaf be identical in every respect. But this approach is incredibly simple: grab a handful of dough, shape it into a ball, let it rest for 20 minute, and bake for 30. You’re done.

My first loaves have turned out pretty well, with excellent crust and promising crumb. Intriguing variations here range from the expected (whole wheat, rye, herb bread) to eyebrow-raising bagels and bialys and pecan rolls.

The book itself is sometimes repetitious, as most recipes repeat the same essential steps with minor variations in dough or shaping technique. It’s written to encourage people who don’t bake, and while this might be a good commercial tactic it doesn’t lead anywhere or give them a hint that there’s more to know. All the measures are by volume, for example, because lots of American cooks are accustomed to that, but it’s the wrong way to do it and the book makes no effort to explain this or to accommodate people who own scales. The authors know this is wrong, and their recipes are all working back from a notional 5oz “cup” of flour, but to find out I had to ask them through Twitter.

The again, being able to ask the authors of a new book just how to go about baking your bread is a tasty innovation, too.

Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera
James Maddalena. Photo: American Repertory Theater

Ten years in the making with a stunning cast, vast resources, and generations of Media Lab expertise, this opera gives every impression of not having been though through.

Simon Powers (think Tessier-Ashpool or John Galt), a wealthy, dying technocrat, stands with his family at the edge of Singularity, driven by imminent death to leap into the Machine. At his side are his sensuous third wife Evvy, his adopted cyborg protégé Nicholas (Andrew Undershaft crossed with headmaster Negroponte), and his lovely daughter Miranda.

Powers wonders if life outside the body is life, and if it’s worth living. So do they. None of the characters seem to have given the issue much thought. Now they must, because Simon is out of time. These are not new questions. Plato asked them. Visual allusions to HAL and The Matrix (and perhaps to Star Trek’s The Changeling) and the story’s debt to Neuromancer provide the only obvious evidence that the creators know this. But of course they do: they simply pretend not to know.

Simon’s translation into the world of light creates a global economic crisis, personified by The Miseries, a crowd of desperate, grasping, silent zombies who appear to threaten Miranda as she hesitates to go where her family has already gone, into the System. These are the Little People who Hold Us Back. I guess these represent the people who buy the hundred dollar tickets, contrasted with the backers behind the Monaco art foundation FUTURUM  which funded the effort.

Once in The System, the great man is uninterested in the world, untroubled by "famine, war,/the exploitation of children/the whole planet". Simon has all of eternity, but he cannot spare a few minutes for the United Way and the United Nations:

How can I be selfish

When I’m not even a self?

I am All! And

I’m bored with you all—

All that world of meat.

It’s my flesh and blood that I love.

I will rescue my flesh and blood

From bondage to flesh and blood.

Now leave, your time is up.

This isn’t even coherent. Simon is now a being of light, a ghost in the shell: if he’s bored with the world of meat, what’s the deal with his flesh and blood? If this is irony, to what end? And what’s the rush? He is All: why not do a favor or two, or at least clean up some of the mess he left behind? And if Simon has seen 2001, might he not be a little concerned about his power switch?

Would a disembodied intelligence care about people? That question has been asked, too. Clifford Simak, Isaac Asimov, Charles Stross, Phillip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, and Alan Turing explored this in work that is, I wager, familiar to just about every one of the seventy young MIT engineers who worked on this production.

The politics, if taken seriously, are repellent: the world – personified by the Administration, United Way, and United Nations – stands begging the financial titan for aid, hoping he will repair the economic catastrophe he has precipitated. Simon Powers sings:

A name is a made-up thing

That proposes someone is real.

My name is

A machine for designation—

That’s what any name is.

My name is Simon Walter Powers,

It proposes I am alive.

Like my spiritual mentors

The immortal Walter Disney

And the immortal Walter Whitman,

My fellow Walters

And fellow-inventors.

And by the way,

I have billions of bucks,

And I can still sign checks.

That’s what!

Why do the Administration and the United Nations stand before this Powers, begging for a moment of his infinite time, pleading “with respect” that they need more than a few lines of poetry? They can solve this easily: money is a social construct, the economy is bound by law, the law serves people, and the people can seize, or tax, or simply eliminate those billions of bucks. There is no problem here: there is no spoon.

Composer Tod Machover is a disciple of Elliott Carter, and the score is intricate, challenging, melodic, and relentlessly difficult. I think I might once have detected an allusion to Mendelsohn’s Elijah (“Answer us!”), but then again, maybe not. Robotic intelligence has not been a favorite musical subject, but again there seem to be plenty of interesting ideas we could call upon.

La Statua del Commendatore: Don Giovanni, a cenar teco m’invitasti, e son venuto.

Machover says he’s interested in melody and wants to expand the audience, but this audience had better be ready to grasp his melodic line at once: if you don’t catch it now, you’re not going to hear it again tonight.

The dancing robots are really terrific.

At last call, I asked the bartender how her Old Fashioned was. She smiled and gave me a look like I just asked her if her Corvette was fast. -- Albert McMurray, American Drink

by Craig Hockenberry

This readable introduction to iPhone application development pays attention to the details. Hockenberry discusses in considerable depth the mechanics of provisioning and submitting applications and of shepherding them through the approval process, matters that might quickly go out of date but that are, for now, tricky and not widely discussed.

It is difficult to imagine who this book envisions as its ideal reader. The opening chapters – about a third of the volume – introduce Objective C and the Cocoa Touch framework. Little prior knowledge is expected, not even rudimentary object-oriented programming, about which readers are urged to visit Wikipedia. Hockenberry’s breezy, casual style is not notably concise, and so these 100 pages strike me as far too elementary for an experienced programmer, too incomplete for a novice, and too cursory for an advanced student or a Java coder to grasp. One of Cocoa’s most distinctive features, delegation, gets two or three pages, and these pages don’t make any attempt to place delegates in the context of related Smalltalk, Java, or PowerPlant concepts. Questions any CS major would ask immediately – call by reference or value? ordered or labelled arguments? – go unanswered. Some valuable hints about the debugger are a promising start, but that topic is then abandoned and nothing much is said about profiling, leak detection, or exception management. The treatment of collections is equally sketchy, and while a few Cocoa objects are described a bit, whole catalogs of capability go unmentioned.

The treatment of design as a separate and superior activity to programming is, I think, misguided. The author is a designer and is writing, I think, for people who are not; he urges them to hire themselves a designer and then do what the designer says. Since the book clearly envisions individual developers or very small teams, this model may be unrealistic. Design and code are not separate things, and attempts to separate them are misguided. At times, the author’s contempt for the audience is palpable:

As a developer, you tend to look at problems from the implementation outward. A designer thinks about the final product and works inward toward how it’s constructed. When the logical left side of your brain encounters the designer’s artistic right side, great things can happen.

This is completely misguided – the flip side of the hard-nosed managerial outlook that always wants to control the creatives, suspecting that they only want a budget in order to buy cool clothes and then persuade each other to take them off. Everyone knows you’ve got to design the final product, just as everyone knows you’ve got to design a product that can be built. This preaching is wasted space, but since nobody is really going to be deceived by it, it’s harmless.

In any case, we hear a good deal of a designer’s thoughts on good coding practice and on the importance of employing designers, where I’d have preferred to hear more about graphic design.

The sample application developed here is an elaborate flashlight app. This might seem a placeholder, but it seems to me the choice is well considered: this is a book for people who want to write iOS applications which do almost no computation.

by Joan Reardon, ed.

In 1952, Julia Child read an article in Harpers about the shortcomings of stainless steel kitchen knives. She agreed wholeheartedly, and sent the author – public intellectual Bernard DeVoto – some inexpensive French knives. Her reply came not from the author but from his wife and secretary, Avis:

I hope you won’t mind hearing from me instead of from my husband. He is trying to clear the decks before leaving on a five weeks’ trip to the Coast and is swamped with work, though I assure you most appreciative of your letter and the fine little knife. Everything I say you may take as coming straight from him – on the subject of cutlery we are in complete agreement.

Bernard had indeed appreciated the gift, and had appropriated it for the cocktail hour. But Avis turned out to be a fine and lifelong correspondent, and because Avis had terrific contacts in publishing, this letter turned out to be a crucial step in securing the eventual publication of Mastering The Art of French Cooking.

Joan Reardon has collected much (but not all) of the surviving correspondence between this first contact and the publication of the book, some eight years later. It makes a fascinating record, not only of an intricate editorial process but also of the intellectual and political world of the 1950’s. The DeVotos were at the center of the Hub. The Schlessingers lived next door and came regularly for drinks. So did the Dean Rusks. Paul Brooks, Dorothy De Santillana and the Houghton Mifflin crew were close friends, May Sarton was down the street, Albert and Blanche Knopf were close as well. DeVoto, though not well known today, was a titan who was banqueted alongside Robert Frost and Sam Morisson, Bill Faulkner and Rachel Carson at a ceremony for the great writers of the century. Child, married to a State Department official, was posted far in the periphery, unknown and greatly in fear of McCarthyist witch-hunting.

There’s not much in Julia’s letters that we didn’t have in her own recollections and her biography. DeVoto, on the other hand, is a fine discovery and a terrific writer. There’s not much to learn here about cooking, but tons to discover about sexual politics and social life and household economy. I wish the footnotes gave us a little bit more background about people the letters mention – the footnotes are not the match of Charlotte Mosley’s – and I’d have gladly read some of the later correspondence, omitted here, from later years when the widowed Avid DeVoto became one of Child’s assistants. Still, these are delightful letters that brim with enthusiasm, spirit, and the patience to nurture a large and difficult creation.

Mar 11 19 2011

Rehearsal

Met Druzinsky, the composer, right after the final rehearsal of his new suite for orchestra, Roslyn Place. Terrific mutterings and concern: something is amiss with the strings in the Lamentation movement, and something else is wrong with the winds in the same movement. The string crisis, it is thought, can be resolved by application of different accents, but the woodwind problem evokes dark thoughts, as complex harmonies on the page are becoming more complex in performance. Are the scores faulty? Are the musicians “correcting” the scores? Are the accidentals being misunderstood? A long night of checking and perhaps last-minute rewriting is promised.


Scores were delivered to the performers after 5pm, with the concert opening at 8. A triumph.

I’ve received some pushback from journalists, arguing that science reporting of the reactor troubles in Japan is not really appalling and inexcusable. The best that can be said, though, is that most of the data published on Saturday by an Australian high school teacher could, by Monday afternoon, be found scattered in the newspapers.

Here’s another example. Everyone has heard by now that a new problem is the fire in reactor 4’s spent fuel storage. Every major paper in the world, I think, mentions this in today’s edition. But nowhere do I find any answers to a simple question:

  • What’s burning? The zirconium-aluminum cladding of the fuel rods? Uranium leaking from compromised fuel rods? The walls of the pool in which the fuel rods rest? The paint on the walls of the room housing the fuel rods? Something else?

The first thing you learn about fires in school is to ask, “what is burning?”

Another good question:

  • Who is in command?

Yes, this is Japan. The Prime Minister has already assumed responsibility. But I assume that there is a senior engineer on the scene who is in charge. Who? What is his or her authority?

I would like to think that this is an engineer who can pick up a phone today and, instantly, reach any expert and any leader. Got a question for the President of the United States? Line 3. Want to hash ideas out with the world’s top nuclear physicists? We'll have them standing by on line 4. Need an airlift? Need a fleet? Need the largest bulldozer in the world? Need a new cell phone battery?

But if any reporter has asked who is in charge, and what they can do, I’ve not seen the news.

Ben Brooks explains why free software (free as in beer) is not always a good thing. First, revenue gives creators a good reason to maintain, improve, and nurture their software. Second, customers are hard to ignore – especially when they’re paying you.

When Twitter introduced the Quickbar — more affectionately known as #dickbar — users revolted at the forced interjection of promoted trends and an object that ‘messed’ with the view in the user’s content stream. Had Twitter for iPhone still been Tweetie and cost the users money I can assure you that Brichter would have removed the Quickbar immediately and would have been very communicative with users about that.

I’m accustomed to the shoddy state of science journalism. But Saturday morning I woke up early, turned on my iPad, and there was the BBC trumpetting a "huge explosion" at the Fukushima power plant. Another BBC story worried about “strong magnitude 6 aftershocks”, leaving us to wonder what a weak magnitude 6 aftershock might be.

Huge explosions happen near nuclear power plants every day. We call them thunderstorms.

This is news. We want to know the facts. What exploded? In what way was it damaged? Who was hurt? Was the explosion expected? What was done to avert it? What was done afterward? What consequences can we expect?

Now, this is complicated because nuclear power is complicated, and because the people on the scene who have the best information must make the reactors their first priority. They seem to have their hands full. Nevertheless, we can expect better reporting.

For example, one critical distinction is between radiation leakage from venting activated water -- which some contains N16 (half life 7.13 sec) and O19 (half life 27 sec), -- and leakage of melted core materials that contains Cesium 137 (half life 30 years). Yes, that nitrogen and oxygen is radioactive now, but it in a few minutes they it won’t be. The cesium and iodine, on the other hand, would be radioactive for a long time. So it’s one thing to release activated water – not a good thing, but not necessarily a disaster – and another to let core material escape from containment.

The best explanation of the situation I found Sunday was written by Josef Oehmen and published by a high school English teacher from Australia who lives in Kawasaki. As far as I can see, this teacher had a world beat on a story that every science desk in the world was trying to cover. Appalling and inexcusable.


On a similar vein, anyone who reads the trade press and major newspapers would gather that the iPad 2 launch was an interesting but mixed bag, that the iPad 2 has lots of problems and drawbacks.

The iPad 2 launched on Friday. Monday morning, it appears that the entire supply of iPads has been sold, and Apple is quoting 4 week delivery time.

Sure sounds like a product dogged by competitors and crippled by the lack of Flash to me!

Mar 11 11 2011

One To Go

A few years ago, Erik Ellestad decided to blog his way through the Savoy cocktail books. That’s a lot of cocktails, from Abbey to Zed.

And tomorrow, he gets to the Zed. Congrats.

Mar 11 8 2011

Software Houses

Keith Blount, the designer of Scrivener, is Fallows-blogging this week. His first post explores the natural scale of software firms.

Literature & Latte is an internet business run from a handful of spare rooms in different countries, staffed by people who still consider themselves enthusiastic amateurs. Up until two years ago, you could count the team on one finger -- me -- and even now that we have a team of five, we have no offices -- our registered office is the address of our accountant. I read Mark Bernstein's fascinating posts here a few weeks ago and his description of his drive in to his offices made me a little jealous. My journey to work consists of taking a coffee upstairs in our semi in Truro (putative capital of Cornwall); my office is a spare box room overlooking yellow construction machinery and piles of dirt that were, until a few weeks ago, fields and hedgerows. I sometimes wish for our own offices, a Literature & Latte headquarters, until I remember that I would be the only one driving there anyway -- while I'm in Truro, other team members are in Norwich (in the east of England), Portland, Oregon and Sydney, Australia.

"I believe,” he writes, “that innovation in software begins with someone setting out to make a tool they want or need for themselves.”

Mar 11 6 2011

The Magicians

by Lev Grossman

Linda and I usually agree about fiction, but this turned out to be an exception. Linda thought the characters were unlovable and rudderless. I think that’s the point.

Quentin Coldwater is a Brooklyn boy with good grades and plenty of troubles, all small. He goes to his Princeton interview and receives instead an offer of admission to Brakebills, the secretive upstate New York college of magic. Naturally, he accepts at once, leaving behind Brooklyn, his parents, and his childish, fannish enthusiasms. Brakebills is Hogwarts refracted through realism, a contemporary college filled with real kids who fight with each other, sleep together, and gain surprisingly sophisticated tastes in liquor.

At Brakebills, we soon find ourselves thrown together with a rambunctious red-haired pal and a preternaturally smart, shy young woman. In this story, however, it doesn't take us seven thousand pages for the the redhead to punch Quentin in the face or for the girl to take him to bed.

The backdrop of The Magicians is Fillory, which is to say Narnia. Everyone at Brakebills has read it and seen through its allegory. They’ve also read Lord of The Ring and nearly everything else in sight, though not His Dark Materials, which gets an occasional nod but which is working Grossman’s side of the street. If Philip Pullman’s trilogy is an emphatic, passionate refutation of Narnia, The Magicians shrugs its shoulders, accepts why we might once have rather liked it, and claims to have left all that behind. Still, it keeps coming up.

Quentin’s girlfriend, Alice, is drawn superbly and concisely, a wonderful example of that old writerly magic pioneered by another Alice: to make us love a character, give her no inner life and let everyone else love her.

Washington Post | New Yorker | NY Times |

Mar 11 4 2011

Tinderbox 5.8

Tinderbox 5.8

Tinderbox: the thought-crafters’ release. Read what’s new. Then download your copy.

Updates are free if you’ve upgraded in the past year. Updates from any previous version of Tinderbox are just $98.

Mar 11 3 2011

Visualization

Via J Nathan Matias, a pair of impressive Javascript visualization libraries: the Javascript InfoVis Toolkit and ProtoVis.

I’ve been working on understanding a core hypertext problem that few people discuss: thy is the Web still large? We can imagine a world in which almost all the traffic on the Web goes to a few very large sites, and everybody else gives up and goes home. That’s the world a number of experts expected ours would turn out to be – at least, not yet. What sorts of browsing behavior and what kinds of linking and search engines prevent all the attention from concentrating at a handful of URLs?

Visualization

Here’s one of my simulations. We have 100 weblogs, represented as colored dots. Each starts with links (represented here as a thin line – to three neighbors. Every day, each author browses the “web”, following some links from their own weblog and discovering new weblogs. From time to time, they add a newly-discovered link to their own weblog. Occasionally, they drop an old link. (The model still has a lot of moving parts.)

After a couple of simulated years, we still have a fairly vibrant little corner of the blogosphere. But in this example, almost 40% of the sites – the blue dots – receive no links at all. Since our little world has no search engines, no email and no advertising, there’s no way for those forgotten sites to be rediscovered.

Different parameters lead to different outcomes. At one extreme, only a few sites wind up with traffic. At the other extreme, everything ends up linked to everything else and nobody gets very much attention. But there’s a surprisingly broad parameter space where some sites get lots of traffic, some sites get less, but we maintain a nice distribution – and low-traffic sites can sometimes get hot and displace the sites that happen to be above them in the pecking order.

That’s the Web we want; I’d like to know more about the conditions that allow it.

by Connie Willis

Half of a novel, Connie Willis’s Blackout ends at an arbitrary midpoint so its sequel, All Clear can begin.

It’s 2060. Time travel works. Every day, young historians set out from an overworked Oxford lab to witness times past. Some study the Crusades, some study Rome, but our protagonists are observing the home front in Britain in the early years of the Second World War. One plans to interview Dunkirk refugees, another will mind children evacuated from London to the countryside, a third plans to spend a few weeks as a London shopgirl during the blitz. The war at home is told well, though this is familiar territory and Sarah Waters’ Night Watch is tighter and more focused.

These time-travelling historians are strangely ill-prepared and incurious. They know a lot about their specific assignment – implants and memorization tell them exactly when the air raid sirens will go off and where the bombs will hit each day – but their grasp of the course of the war outside their assignment is often vague. None seems to have much passion for history or much interest in the twentieth century. Neither the characters nor the author show sufficient anxiety for the many small things that everyone knew in the past but no historian would be likely to anticipate. One historian is going to serve as a housemaid to Lady Caroline: does she know how to do all the things a housemaid would? What kind of soap do you use when washing the windows? At what hour (and on which day of the week) do servants bathe? How do you trim a wick or shine a shoe?

Our heroes seem chiefly interesting in confirming facts and impressions from their textbooks. This seems wasteful: even if the Temporal Continuum keeps you from changing important things, and that means you can’t actually get close to Great Events that change everything, there are tons of details about how people lived that we simply don’t know about, things that everyone knew then but no one knows anymore. In ancient Rome, where did the slaves sleep? We have no idea at all. Every Roman child, free or slave, knew the answer. But in all our surviving stories and histories and letters, no one happens to mention where you’d find your secretary or cook in the middle of the night.

Even for quite recent times, there are lots of things we don’t know because they require comparisons that contemporaries – even surviving contemporaries – couldn’t make but that any graduate student could easily handle. Go back to London or New York or Chicago in 1910 for a few days, and you could find out all sorts of stuff we don’t know:

  • What was tenement life really like? We have the good memories and the bad memories and the details and the statistics. There’s much more to know. Lots of things – the smell of Old Paris, or (for that matter) all those kids necking in Parisian parks – they’re gone now. What else are we going to be forgetting?
  • How good were baseball players in 1910? We can reconstruct a lot, yes, but wouldn’t it be nice to have one afternoon’s report on Cy Young and Walter Johnson from a contemporary scout?

Or, go over to London in 1880. We could find out things like:

  • How did Escoffier’s sauces actually taste? How much sauce did he use? What were pre-phylloxera claret and sauternes really like?
  • How golden was the golden age of cricket?
  • What was the composition of London fog?
  • What was it about Sarah Bernhardt?

This is an engaging book but not an economical one. The time-travel subplot spawns complications that the characters are surprisingly slow to grasp, and it seems none of them have read the classic time traveller stories. Provisions are in place for retrieval teams to rescue students who fail to appear for their extraction rendezvous, but nobody in 2060 seems to have anticipated that fallbacks or contingency plans might perhaps prove useful.

Mar 11 1 2011

Journeyman

We had a delightful dinner last weekend and Journeyman, the elegant new Somerville hole in the wall. Diana Kudajarova and Tse Wei Lim took an industrial space in what is essentially an alleyway off Union Square and turned it into a wonderful little restaurant, serving fixed menus of three, five or seven courses. I had seven (naturally) and they were great – especially a wonderful plate of terrine de foie gras with an olive-chocolate tapenade.

The food is incredibly intricate. These guys really love to cook, because this kind of cooking means rising at dawn and prepping all day. Each plate, it seems, has six or seven or even more components, each intricate; some of them are tiny touches, tasty little crumbs that add texture and deliciousness but must be a bear to make every day.

It’s a nifty space, too, with an indoor herb factory (you’ll know it when you see it) and a counter I’m eager to try some night.

Interesting observations from Fallows-blogger Lucia Pierce on how different prose aesthetics in Chinese and English distort college admissions for Chinese kids applying to US schools.

Also interesting: retired air traffic controller Don Brown explains why air traffic control is hard. The sky isn’t crowded; the problem is always the runway.

When people report that something bad happened whilst they were using our software, I habitually ask, “What were you doing?” This is important information, crucial for diagnosing and fixing problems.

You’d be surprised how many people forget to mention this.

Even more surprisingly, some people do describe exactly what they were doing when something bad happened – and they’re often mistaken. As it happens, crash reports sometimes provide clear forensic evidence, and it's far from rare for that evidence to completely contradict the user’s report. “It crashed after I deleted a bunch of stuff,” writes the user, but the crash report describes a crash after pressing ⌘-Z to Undo something.

It’s very helpful to report problems with as much detail as you can recall, but developers need to keep in mind that the reported circumstances might not be complete or correct.