Apr 12 27 2012


by Veronica Roth

In YA Dystopian future Chicago, everyone is a member of a faction. There are five factions: Amity, Dauntless, Erudite, Abnegation, or Candor. If you aren’t part of a faction, you are cast out. Parents raise their kids in the manner of their own faction, but sixteen-year olds are free to choose the faction that suits them best. And when Beatrice Prior has to choose, she revolts at the prospect of a lifetime of Abnegation and takes the sudden, dangerous plunge into Dauntless.

One of the book’s problems begins with the lapsed parallelism of the faction names. Dauntless and Erudite are adjectives. Amity, Abnegation, and Candor are nouns. This leads to all sorts of minor awkwardness. The book must have been workshopped many times at Northwestern, where Roth began it as a creative writing student; I can’t understand why everyone didn’t harp on this.

Our rite of passage is immediately followed by an excellent boot camp story as our heroine (and many others) are tested for induction into Dauntless. The effect is heightened by the cultural differences among the recruits, with Abnegation vs. Candor filling the role usually played by the Micks and the Dagos in WWII bootcamp. Plus, in this girl’s army, you can have a crush on your drill instructor.

One detail annoys me. Here, as in The Hunger Games, the protagonist says she is 16 and is obviously younger. The roots of this story lie in Percival, in the mystic journey and the puberty rite. It’s a bat mitzvah, a kina'alda. The world does not lack for sixteen-year old girls: go out and look at a few, and then tell me that girl is Tris Prior. The target audience is YA; they know how their 16-year old friends look, and they know when they’re being lied to.

But these are quibbles. This is not a profound book. It’s not a book of ideas, though in other hands the premise would bear it. It’s a confection, but a delightful one.

Apr 12 26 2012



I wanted to try an exercise from Sullivan’s A System Of Architectural Ornament, just to see how a quick sketch on my laptop would feel. I think perhaps there really is something to Spuybroek’s sense of the digital nature of the Gothic.

by Mo Hayder

Two long-estranged sisters find themselves in interlocked novels: one in a police procedural, the other a thriller. A caper threatens to break out. One problem for the plot, it seems to me, is that it assumes a senior British detective today would think that her having worked for a few months in a strip club, fifteen or twenty years ago, would be a terrible secret, that if her colleagues knew, that would end her career.

But, suspending disbelief, this formal experiment in mystery fiction has real depth and imagination and a remarkable conclusion.

Objective C is a fine language, but I miss some idioms from C++. (Yes, I could be using Objective C++; let’s leave that aside for a moment.)

One common idiom in C++ uses object lifetime to control resource allocation. For exampe, we might write:

StGraphicState saved(cg);
...set up coordinates
...set up a funny clip region scary things

The constructor for StGraphicState does a CGContextSaveGState and the destructor restores it. That means:

  • You can’t accidentally forget the restore
  • A premature return doesn’t need to remember to do the restore
  • Even if something throws an exception, the restore will get called

The idiom neatly encapsulates a host of balanced actions where we need to set up, open, allocate, or lock something here and want to be sure to tear down, close, release, or unlock it when we’re done. It makes the programmer’s intention clear in one place, declaring that the lifetime of the balanced action is the current scope.

As far as I can tell, Objective C has no real equivalent. (We don’t throw a lot of exceptions in Objective C, but the first two issues are very real.)

With ARC, it seems you could almost do this.

StGraphicState *saved=
  [[StGraphicsState alloc] initWithContext: cg];
...set up coordinates
...set up a funny clip region scary things

But, as I read the fine print, this might not work. saved is guaranteed to be destroyed eventually, so we’ll eventually do the restore. According to the fine print, the compiler is free to destroy saved at any point after its last use. So, if you don’t refer to saved after declaring it, the compiler could save your state and then restore it right away.

You could work around this in various ways:

StGraphicState *saved= [[StGraphicsState alloc] initWithContext: cg];
...set up coordinates
...set up a funny clip region scary things
[saved self];

but then you have to remember to refer to saved at the end of the scope and worry about the cleverness of the optimizing compiler – and the whole point of the idiom is to avoid having to remember.

Is there an alternative idiom?

The underlying concept comes, as I recall, from InterLISP, and probably came to C++ via Common Lisp. I don’t remember seeing the idiom in Smalltalk-80, but that’s a long time ago for me.

Update: Much email and Twitterage to suggest block wrappers that take a block and do the setup and restore themselves, Chris Deveraux, for example, suggests

WithSavedState( ^(CGContextRef cg){

where WithSavedState takes a block as its argument. It then does the setup, runs the block and then does the teardown. . I'm still not entirely happy, but it makes sense.

A friend wrote, in passing, an image of writerly success: an agent, a slot in The New Yorker, a six figure contract from FSG.

I hear this a lot. And because these things seem almost impossible to attain, I hear more and more dreams of splendid parties. People – thoughtful people – have somehow convinced themselves that social events are the very center of literary life today, even if those other things seem out of reach.

But let’s get serious. Suppose you’re a tech writer. Does a “a head hunter, a guest column in a magazine, and a salaried job” seem the essence of bliss? With or without the party?

Discussing our recent ban on the phrase “electronic literature,” a correspondent asked, “what would we call it instead?”

How about: the way we write now.

Or, simply, writing.

by Thomas Penn

Henry VII barely won his throne, beating Richard III by the narrowest of margins after a life chiefly on the run. He was determined that no man would repeat his accomplishment, and he was anxious never to lack money again, and in the process of securing these goals he established the Tudor dynasty and stabilized England after a century of tumult. Richard III had been a knight of the late middle ages who died calling for a fresh charger, but Henry Tudor was an early modern bureaucrat who meticulously reviewed every account and checked every detail. On the road, after Prince Henry managed to mislay a gold chain, the royal jewel-house keeper noted grimly, that “the king knoweth of it.”

That nobody especially liked him, save for what he could give, seems not to have bothered the king. Or perhaps it did: in later years, his progresses were interrupted by frequent breaks for solitary time spent alone or, at any rate, out of the spotlight. He did his best to govern without Parliament, and largely succeeded. He paid close attention to security, and in the end his closest relationships were with his security detail.

This biography of Henry VII has been widely praised everywhere, from The Guardian (which you would expect) to the Wall Street Journal (which you would not). It’s a very fine book, and will become the definitive biography of this important and neglected era. It is is not, to be honest, very much fun, but neither was Henry.

Apr 12 19 2012

Battle Royale

by Koushum Takami

Often cited as an inspiration or precedent for The Hunger Games, this Japanese dystopian novel, by sharing the underlying premise, gives a wonderful illustration of the importance of competent execution in even the most favorable circumstances.

Battle Royale gets off to a fast start. Forty eight middle school kids are being bussed on an outing. Suddenly, they all feel sleepy. They wake up and find themselves in The Program: they will leave the classroom at three minute intervals. Each student will be given a different weapon. They will kill each other; the survivor gets to go home.

Everything goes wrong here. Where The Hunger Games is often hamstrung by its relentless focus on the hero’s point of view, Battle Royale flits wherever it likes, reducing its pacing to mush punctuated by body counts.

Yuji Oniki’s over-literal translation does the book no service at all; all the students come out with the same slightly-accented voice, and while this might be what the author put on the page it is surely not what he wanted to do. In an afterward, he says Shogo’s dialog is patterned after Hawk in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser mysteries. Now this is an incongruous image – I’m not sure that any Japanese middle school kid could really sound a lot like Hawk — but I’d think Hawk would be just about the easiest character to pastiche you could ask for. I’ve read every line Hawk spoke, and the idea never crossed my mind.

There’s almost no description, either. I had to ask Japanese speakers to figure out what “middle school” might be in the original because, for hundreds of pages, I couldn’t figure out whether these forty-eight students were meant to be in eighth grade or twelfth. Since writer and translator are both living and can (presumably) talk, it might have been prudent to add a bit of description to the translation’s description of the action. Some of the dialogue, I think, represents polite or even formal discourse between boys and girls on their very best behavior. The Japanese reader knows the gestures that accompany these words, but the American reader could use some help.

Swarthmoron and CO that I am, in The Hunger Games I was always keeping my eye out for pacifism. Here, almost half the class opts immediately for some variant of pacifist rejection, ranging from the immediate suicide of two lovers to a variety of more-or-less doomed rebellions. None are interesting: the lovers leap over their cliff without evoking a sigh, the rebels flourish and fail in a chaos of happenstance.

The book assumes that boys and girls are completely different and hints that a separatist society – girls without boys – might be more tenable than risking contact. At any rate, accidental contact with a boy leads to universal disaster, which makes the boy a little sad. But since he had no role in the disaster and has a girl to protect (because his pal, now dead, had a secret crush on her), the disaster doesn’t mean much to him or anything to us. The book is deeply, casually sexist to no particular point, and would be deeply immoral if we cared enough about these kids to make them matter. The Hunger Games does itself a favor in avoiding firearms; Battle Royale spenda too much time comparing Lugers to Uzis and not enough letting the poor kids look their victim in the eye.

Yglesias also likes An Economist Gets Lunch. His explanation for why restaurants decline is wrong, although Tyler Cowen’s explanation is also wrong.

First: part of the delight of food is novelty. A tasty dish that is also completely unexpected, or that is (at any rate) a very rare experience, will always seem more exciting than something we have all the time. That’s one reason why people in the 18th and 19th century went nuts for things – oranges, pineapples, sugar plums – that makes kids shrug today. If you have one orange a year, then that orange makes a wonderful Christmas gift. If you pick up a bag of oranges every week, it’s no big deal. The orange is not worse, but it seems to have declined.

Second: cooking, like all performance, tends to decline because it is very difficult to recognize small changes that make things worse. Restaurant life is always about small adjustments. This piece of meat is a little lean. Today’s peppers are on the spicy side. The customers today all seem to be in a somber mood; maybe it’s the rain? Stuff changes all the time. Against this background, it can be especially difficult to notice small lapses and shortcuts that make dishes just a little bit worse. Besides, after a few years, you’ve plated that duck confit thousands and thousands of times, and lots of people find it much harder to care as much about the ten-thousandth crêpe as they did about the tenth.

Third: the reward curve flattens out. In week three of a restaurant’s existence, it’s a bundle of potential. Anything can happen: the next person through the door might be a reviewer, or a publicist, or someone who’ll tell dozens of trendy friends to visit. Everything still hangs in the balance. After thirteen years, you are who you are; everyone in town thinks they know what you do. Crucially, you still exist: you have a business. That wasn’t necessarily assured back in week three. This fact is independent of your dependence on regular customers, and the effect is as pronounced in high-end chain restaurants that cater to tourists and conventioneers as in neighborhood joints.

Yglesias attributes decline to the conservatism of regular patrons. That’s a factor, but regulars can also help because they have a longer baseline. You see that sole meuniere ten times a day, but a regular might see it very eight weeks or so. If the guy on sautée is starting to scrimp on the spices, the regular has a better chance of noticing.

In my experience, incremental deterioration is usually decisive in restaurants. You see the same thing in other kinds of performance. It’s not invariable or inevitable, though. Some disciplines –musicians in symphony orchestras – are largely dedicated to training people to resist this decline. The traditional training of physicians was aimed at avoiding the related deterioration in performance when you are tired, distracted, and everyone is losing their head and running in circles, but this also helped doctors pay due attention to their hundredth appendectomy.

And it can be done in restaurants. Rick Bayless does it, somehow: Frontera has been around for ages, it’s thoughtful, and it’s still good. We had another nifty meal at Avec last night, and Avec’s got all the warning signs Tyler Cowens points to: a space that’s almost all bar, filled with attractive young people even on Monday night. Those chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates are still terrific.The design of Next is, I think, another response; Next won’t grow stale because it’s always about six weeks old.

Apr 12 13 2012


“As all craft moves toward design, all labor must move toward robotics.” – Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things

I’ve got an elementary headache with XCode 4.

Suppose I sit down and say, “Get me the files for CeresMapDrawingPolicy!” Back in the old days of XCode 3, this was easy enough:

  1. Select the project at the top of the group tree
  2. Type a few letters (case-insensitive!) in the search area
  3. You’re done

Since Tinderbox involves about 1900 files, it’s important to make this fast and easy,

Currently, I’m doing this with blind typing in the Project Navigator. This is bad because

  • You have to keep all groups open all the time, which defeats the utility of groups
  • Blind typing is case-sensitive
  • Mistakes fail silently
  • You need to do a lot of typing because CeresMapDrawingPolicy and CeresMapOutlinePolicy are different files in different places

There’s got to be a much better way to do this. Suggestions? Email me.

Update: That was fast. Matt Hanlon recommends Open Files Quickly (⌘-shift-O ). Helge Gudmundsen recommends Code Pilot.

Tyler Cowen in The Atlantic proposes six rules for dining out. Some are familiar and self-evident, but others are clever. Cowen thinks Thai food is declining in the US but suggests you try Thai restaurants at motels:

If the restaurant is attached to the motel, its proprietors are likely not paying extra rent for the space. A Thai family may already own the motel, and may be operating this business on the side, in which case the owners won’t have to cover high rents by appealing to large numbers of customers or by cutting corners. Odds are you’ll get fairly authentic Thai food at low prices.

by Edmund de Waal

A British ceramicist inherits a collection of Japanese netsuke from his beloved uncle Iggy, an old man named Ignatz who has lived for many years in Japan. Intrigued, he gradually uncovers the story of their family, the Ephrussi, who emerged from Odessa in the 19th century to become one of the world’s leading banks, rivaling the Rothschilds for wealth, for influence, and for inciting the envy and hatred of the Nazis. A fascinating book that carefully avoids nostalgia and that is always thinking about the role of objects in life, a history that only a singularly thoughtful potter could have written.

by Nathan Englander

A nifty collection of stories about a nifty assortment of Jews. The title story is a wonderful postmodern reprise on Raymond Carver, but the gem is “Sister Hills,” a long tale with great ambitions. First, it’s a sympathetic portrait of West Bank settlers, which is a very difficult thing to pull off without cheating and Englander is too good to cheat. That would be more than enough, but to this Englander adds a wonderful twist: we’re recapitulating the problem of The Merchant of Venice but this time it’s entirely among Jews and is to be settled under the big old olive tree in the defendant’s back yard by a court of three hastily assembled rabbis who sit on lawn furniture they brought tied to the roof of their car. They already know what they will decide, and why, and perhaps they are not wrong, but there was one thing they had forgotten.

Ever since McLuhan became a rock star, people have been fantasizing about a post-textual world. That dream underpins lots of shallow hype. That fear inspires stuff like Reading At Risk. It is deeply unserious because there is an entire catalog of indispensable topics about which we can talk in no other way. Yes, paintings and music and film are eloquent, but if you need a law or a contract, a design for a bridge that won’t fall down, the square root of 17, or an explanation for the Diels-Alder reaction, you’d better write it down. James Bridle, book futurist, gets this right:

We are witnessing a profound assault on book publishing and literature, on the text itself—not from ebooks, which publishers are slowly, painfully coming around to after a long resistance, or the internet, which is after all entirely made of text—but from applications, “enhanced” books and reductive notions of literary experience. As I’ve written about before, in the context of advertising, publishers’ reactions to new technologies betray a profound lack of confidence in the text itself. We are being distracted by shiny things.

Then, unfortunately, he veers off the tracks. “Text lasts.” he continues, though of course it doesn’t always last. And then, “It is not dependent on technology: it is what we make technology out of.” If sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then familiar technology is indistinguishable to a book futurist: it is so familiar he cannot see it. Of course, the codex book is technology, just like my computer, and I’m using both of them right now to make newer technology. Good grief.

Those tactile, haptic joys the screen denies,

The paperback’s materiality,

These simply were the way things always stood,

The nature of the world, and no technology

Had ever altered books, or ever would.

Bridle takes a swipe at hypertext fiction but seems to think it has something to do with “media-rich CDs,” conflating Expanded Books with hyperfiction. He concludes by observing that “more and more is published with less and less context,” where by “context” he means the conventional symbols of the publisher’s care: author bios, flap copy, indexes. But all this apparatus is a technology (for which see Anne Blair’s Too Much To Read and Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote) and it’s not going anywhere unless readers send it away. Nor can anyone who reads thoughtfully on an iPad fail to notice all sorts of new context; a dictionary at your fingertips is nice, Google as a fact-checker is nicer. And if someone mentions a painting, or a sculpture, or an aria, or an Elizabethan sonnet, the odds are very good that you can find a decent copy in seconds.

That’s context.

Apr 12 3 2012

Day 7

Day 7

With a fast, simple implementation of the Storyspace map, we’re getting someplace.

Day 7

That’s afternoon, a story, of course. It won’t ship with a map view, since afternoon doesn’t have one, but we’ll need map views for other titles. The split-pane approach keeps everything in one window, which makes sense for a Storyspace Reader. I don’t embrace the recent distaste for using multiple windows, but the world has voted with its feet.

I’ve got a layout conflict for this window, or so the console reports. Finding this is going to be a bear.

Status 26 classes, 20 tests.

Apr 12 2 2012

Day 6

Day 6

Revamped the text-handling routines and added support for text styles. This is trickier than it sounds because style information in Storyspace, naturally enough, coincides with the sorts of styles that QuickDraw used. The style information is stored in a hand-built heap flattened in the binary disk file, and reading it is tricky because, if you don’t get it exactly right, you have garbage and no hint of what went wrong. I remember that this drove me up a wall for the original Storyspace for Windows. Good times.

To make things worse, I lost a perfectly good hour debugging this because unit tests were asking for one file and SSPFile was opening another file just like it, but with different style information. Storyspace was doing it right but the results were wrong.

Another long session began a cleanup of the guard field parser. This is very old code, largely untouched since I added some features to support my IWHD paper in 1995. It’s so old that it doesn’t use std::string, since the standard template library wasn’t even a standard until 1994. So everything is built around old-fashioned C strings. Worse, everything depended on buffers of fixed size, because Jay Bolter, who did the coding for Storyspace 1, had a signature avoidance of variable-length strings. So not only do I have the ghost of my own old style, filled with fstrcpy and strchr, I’ve also got this palimpsest of Bolter’s style. It still needs more work, but all the antique machinery has now been replaced and those ugly buffers are all gone.

Other bits and pieces for Sunday afternoon included fast enumeration support for Nodes, Links, and Styles, and adding a pane splitter to support an optional map view. The latter was especially nasty because XCode started to crash when resizing Interface Builder elements. Something is not right.

Is there a secret trick to tell XCode to heal an ailing project? Email me.

Apr 12 1 2012

Day 5

Day 5

Settled yesterday’s “where do we put the controls” question for now by opting for a top bar and sticking with painfully standard controls.

A lot of logic had wandered into the AppDelegate for lack of a good home. Most of this was refactored to a new SSPTextViewController, which also now manages the Browse Links popover. Some new classes might help encapsulate some of the uglier Cocoa objects, things like moving between C strings, C++ std::string, CFStringRef and NSString.

Mac OS X Lion replaces Cocoa memory management, which was a bear, with automatic reference counting (ARC), which is a big win. But ARC is no panacea. In principle, most of the time it “just works” and programmers can pretend that all objects will get magically collected. In practice, the exceptions are close enough to the surface that it seems like you really need to know what you’re doing, and what ARC is doing, to get things right. As with the old memory management style, I can’t imagine how casual or novice programmers cope with this. Hell: I’m having quite a time with _bridge_retained and its friends myself!

Day 5

Good and long day of programming, punctuated by Storyspace authors who are already urging ever-earlier deadlines and some conference-review headaches. Full-screen works, controls work, menus work.

Status:25 classes, 17 tests.

To reward myself for hard work, knocked off early for 10PM showing of The Hunger Games.

Mar 12 30 2012

Day 4

Day 4

Another day that tops 12 hours at the anvil. Transitions between pages are now animated. Default links are now working, and keyboard commands are now hooked up to highlight text links, follow default links, and back up through the text. The link browser is now implemented as a popover.

Status: 18 classes, 13 tests. Not a strong day for test driven design.

Day 4

Next headache: Storyspace traditionally uses a floating tool palette. These are no longer idiomatic. I think a toolbar beneath the text would make the best sense, but it turns out that (a) bottom bars are prohibited, and (b) icon buttons are in any case prohibited from bottom bars. Moreover, the arrow buttons were never entirely successful, and people misinterpret them. Finally, afternoon famously has its own palette with the critical Yes and No tools and a typing area, so we potentially require multiple toolbars.

Afternoon also requires a text entry area where you can type anything you like, rather than selecting it. The natural approach would be an NSSearchField, but then people would expect it to behave like search. An NSTextField would not suggest “search” so emphatically, but (a) reviewers might assume that it was an incompetent substitute for a search field, and (b) text fields aren’t supposed to appear in toolbars.

Finally, I think the toolbar makes sense at the bottom of the window, but bottom bars are apparently deprecated in Lion. Who knew? One headache after another.

Day 3

Fourteen hours of coding: not to be recommended as an everyday practice, but it’s good to know I can still do it. And, at the end of the day, we’ve got Storyspace links and text links and guard fields. The traditional acceptance test: do the infinitely-tangled guard fields of Mary-Kim Arnold’s “Lust” generate the correct readings? Green bar. Kit and caboodle: we’re reading.

Day 3

She writes today:

Mar 12 29 2012


One of the histories of hypertexts I’ve been reading this week is going to be a really good book. It’s not yet published, so you can’t read it too. Not yet.

Let’s follow this new book all the way back to Michael Joyce’s original aspiration for hypertext:

I wanted, quite simply, to write a novel that would change in successive readings and to make those changing versions according to the connections that I had for some time naturally discovered in the process of writing and that I wanted my readers to share.

Today, our perspective on what Joyce said, and on what hypertext fiction is, rests on the work Joyce and his followers did, on what they wanted to do. That might not be what you want to do, of course, and that’s fine. It’s a big world, and there are lots of stories, and lots of ways to tell them.

The ever-changing novel should work in places we know well, in the old familiar pastures of spinning a yarn, far from experiment and image and metafiction. In fact, it should be terrific there.

Take The Hunger Games. It’s an exciting, melodramatic tale. It’s not trying to demonstrate new formal possibilities. It’s not a lyric little bandbox. I had lots of fun with it, and now I’ve read it twice and I’ve seen the movie and here we are.

But suppose it were just slightly hypertextual. The underlying story doesn’t change, because it’s not that kind of movie. (A naive game would let you be Katniss and sometimes you’d survive and sometimes you wouldn’t, and that’s a great failing of games.) And we can’t do very much with changing the plot, because suspense is the point: you know how it’s going to end, but you want to see it.

So, we can’t choose our own adventure, and we can’t even do a lot with varying how it’s told us. But we could do a little.

Imagine: you come back to reread The Hunger Games in a year or two, and it’s the same book – but this time, Rue tells us a little more about work in the fields. Or, this time, we overhear Clove say something that tells us what she sees in Cato. Or, Peeta reports back on exactly what (he claims) he did to Campfire Girl. Just a line here, a paragraph there, a bit of dialog, a judicious cut. In place of the canonical certainty of the book, our favorite book would have just a trace of shimmer: always the same, but subtly different every time.

It’s not a huge different either way. But why not?

by Lars Spuybroek

This morning’s coffee brought with it a TLS review by Matthew Reynolds of Spuybroek’s new The Sympathy Of Things: Ruskin and the ecology of design. Spuybroek is a prominent new media architect, and here he apparently bases a theory of design and new media on John Ruskin, “reconfigured as a prophet of computer-aided design,” and specifically on Ruskin’s idea of Gothic variability as argued in The Stones Of Venice.

Why aren’t we talking about this? The new media twitter stream, the poor substitute for the lost (to us) art conversations of weblog conversation, is mostly occupied with pleas to read one’s latest little gallery piece. Instead of criticism, we’re asserting nonsense histories (electronic literature began in 2001? that’s what the University of Colorado believes, apparently) or remembering all the cool parties we had back in the day.

Mar 12 28 2012

Day 2

Day 2

About twelve hours of head-down, straight-ahead coding. Classes include Hypertext, Node, StoryspaceLink, and the beginnings of a text window.

Day 2

I’m still undecided about using much Objective C++. Advice welcome. Automatic reference counting is delightful, though I’m still waiting for it to bite me when I’m not looking.

Status: 8 classes, 7 tests. (Four more classes were added and then removed, as the text formatting has involved a degree of design thrashing. As usual, the user interface-heavy classes lack good tests.)

Mar 12 27 2012

Day 1

Day 1

A grueling day of sprint-coding, starting from the rarely-seen XCode stationery. The blank canvas is always formidable, and it’s worse here because intensive Tinderbox work for the 5.10 updates has played havoc with my Objective-C reflexes.

Ten hours later and we’re just about reading legacy Storyspace files.

Day 1

Much of the code is quite ugly, thanks to tons of arcane bit-twiddling. Remember, this file format was originally designed to lift things efficiently off floppy disks, because a big hypertext like Victory Garden could take five minutes to load on those old machines. To minimize processing, large parts of the file format exactly matched the data structures, so you could slam the bits right into memory. Unfortunately, this means that details of the 68000 compiler’s memory layout persist even in this new code, three processors on.

It’s not all awful. Test-driven design will help a lot. It hadn’t been invented the last time I went through this. It’s already helping, although I did lose 20 minutes trying to track down the lost 141-st link in Mary-Kim Arnold’s “Lust”, when it turned out the lost link was never lost at all.

Status: 5 classes, 4 tests.

Mar 12 26 2012


I spent Friday reading two histories of early electronic literature. In one, I’m cast as a supporting actor on the side of the heroes. In the other, I’m the vanquished villain.

What fun.

Meanwhile, we’re seeing a rash of orders for Twig, which is dandy but (so far) unexplained.

On other fronts, I found the B plot for the electronic literature hypertext experiment I’m working on in the wee hours of Sunday morning. I think it will work, though at the moment it’s threatening to take over the whole story.

One Spring week about twelve years ago, Linda went off to a conference and I, finding myself at loose ends, tried a spell of round-the-clock programming. Here are the opening moves:

class Hypertext {
	Node *root;
	HypertextDoc *doc;
	Prefs *prefs;

An exhausting, grueling week later, I had an entirely new implementation of Hereford, the common foundation for Storyspace and Tinderbox, built on a fresh new platform in a fresh new language. About half of the week went to writing the Preferences system and its editor, and that code (for better or worse) is still running in Storyspace and Tinderbox.

Some time has passed. We need a fresh Storyspace. I’m of two minds about the best engineering approach, but for the first sprint I think we’ll start with a rewrite. So: finger exercises, stretching, and off we go. @interface Hypertext : NSObject {...}

What's Wrong With The Hunger Games?

The movie opens tomorrow. I’ve written a lot about The Hunger Games already. You should read the first volume. (This note is fairly free of spoilers, I think, and this isn’t a book where spoilers matter. You know the plot.)

But before we move on to The Winter King and to What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, let’s talk about some of the things that are not quite right.

  • Editing: Laura Miller has a good look at the inside of the making of a blockbuster. She thinks Scholastic was entirely behind the series from the start. But if they knew this was going to be a Big Thing, I expect that the first volume might have been more carefully edited. Katness is constantly “loading” her bow, when surely she should be nocking an arrow. There are signs of editing scars, scenes that were cut, that might have been smoothed over. Lots of talk about the moon leads nowhere; did this culminate in an escape fantasy, or something about menstruation, or a lost lunar colony before the fall? Katness thinks that she’s always known that it would come down to her and Cato, but we don’t know that; there must have been a confrontation, perhaps in training, that was cut. What are cars doing in a post-apocalypse ecological dystopia — especially when we don’t use them for anything?
  • Thresh: Collins works hard to make Thresh a character and a force. It’s difficult, because he’s literally off camera. It’s dangerous: to pull it off, she has to walk right up to the edge of a pernicious racial stereotype. And it matters, because Thresh embodies an important idea, one that Katness should be thinking of (but doesn’t) and that Peeta is working toward (but can’t quite work out). I went to a Quaker college; the moment when I figured out what Thresh was doing was the moment I realized this book might be serious. The technical problem gets the upper hand and he vanishes; because we never really learn what happens to Thresh, his story is unresolved.
  • Clove: Another editorial mishap. As the text stands, Clove’s sadism emerges just in time for us to not sympathize with her, at the moment when she must be deprived of our sympathies. That’s cheap. The problem with Thresh is technical and hard to fix, but this is simply something that needs to be bought in an earlier scene.
  • Campfire Girl (Peeta's Victim): Peeta tells the Careers that he finished her off. Is he lying? If he is indeed lying to his allies, Peeta kills no one at all in the entire trilogy. That’s too much, and too important, to discard so casually. If he is lying here, his hands are clean. And if he’s not lying, that matters, too.
  • Effie Trinket: I imagine that this silly and unimportant character is a vicious pastiche of someone in the industry, but for the rest of us she’s made of cardboard and she has no role. A few lines of dialog could make all the difference. Make her a real fan of the games, someone who reads Hunger Games Prospectus, someone who watches reruns on cable, and suddenly you have dimension. Or give her political awareness: this is necessary to hold our world together. Or make her Isaac’s father, or Iphigenia’s.
  • Age: On the page, Katness is much younger than her stated age. In fact, she’s exceptionally good in being a hero with the flaws of a little girl. Think about it: she’s much younger than Juliet; and if she ever she thinks of Juliet, it's as a role model. She’s younger than Dorothy in Oz. She’s younger than Paul Atreides ever was. She’s about the same age as Oliver Twist, I think. It’s a small untruth, probably commercially motivated and possibly necessary, but it’s still wrong.
  • Romans and Celts: The author says she was inspired by Spartacus, but the Rome to which The Capitol alludes is four or five centuries later. That's the distance that separates us from Henry VIII, and the historical analogy goes nowhere much. I find the smattering of classical names jarring, and none of the names really illuminates anything. The Robin Hood subtext, on the other hand, is understated and extraordinarily well done.

Still: a fine yarn, and one which bears more thought than it seems to require.

by Suzanne Collins

Katniss Everdeen goes to war.

Collins billed this as the last Hunger Games, and she was not wrong. Of course, Katniss is no longer a child, and she is the mockingjay. We know her style in the arena, now. Once again, one way or another, for better or worse, it's time to head for the cornucopia and end it.

Throughout the stories, we have known that Katniss would do extraordinary things, and we have wondered whether her final answer would be Peeta, or Gale, or neither. The answer is here, of course, and Collins pays the toll: before the end, I didn’t know who it would be, and after then end, the conclusion had been obvious since the first volume.

Tim Parks suggests that there’s no point in finishing a book that’s not delighting us.

It seems obvious that any serious reader will have learned long ago how much time to give a book before choosing to shut it. It’s only the young, still attached to that sense of achievement inculcated by anxious parents, who hang on doggedly when there is no enjoyment. “I’m a teenager,” remarks one sad contributor to a book review website. “I read this whole book [it would be unfair to say which] from first page to last hoping it would be as good as the reviews said. It wasn’t. I enjoy reading and finish nearly all the novels I start and it was my determination never to give up that made me finish this one, but I really wish I hadn’t.” One can only encourage a reader like this to learn not to attach self esteem to the mere finishing of a book, if only because the more bad books you finish, the fewer good ones you’ll have time to start.

I confess: I tend to plough right through to the end unless the book is clearly awful.

I start a book. I’m enjoying it thoroughly, and then the moment comes when I just know I’ve had enough. It’s not that I’ve stopped enjoying it. I’m not bored, I don’t even think it’s too long. I just have no desire to go on enjoying it. Can I say then that I’ve read it? Can I recommend it to others and speak of it as a fine book?

First, my stack is huge, but it’s not so filled with surefire delights that I can afford to drop a book I’m enjoying thoroughly. “I just have no desire to go on enjoying it” are not words you’ll hear from me. The same applied, incidentally, to food and wine; I might stop because I’ve had enough, I might stop because more than enough is too much, but I’m not going to leave the rest of the delicious cheesecake just because I’ve had a bite already.

Interestingly, though Parks is not thinking here about hypertext, his conclusion is that closure is indeed a suspect quality:

And finally I wonder if it isn’t perhaps time that I learned, in my own novels, to drop readers a hint or two that, from this or that moment on, they have my permission to let the book go just as and when they choose.

Narrating in “free indirect style,” we adopt the distance and objectivity of an outside narrator while still seeing into the character’s mind. Moretti gives a nice example from Mansfield Park:

It was the abode of noise, disorder, and impropriety. Nobody was in their right place, nothing was done as it ought to be. She could not respect her parents, as she had hoped.

This is not told us by the character. Someone else is telling us that she could not respect her parents. But who else could know, really, whether Fanny could respect them or not, or what she had hoped?

This is a subtle and powerful technique. We all understand it.

In a hypertext, when can we change the focus of free indirect style? Let’s look at an example:

  • We’re in the middle of a story. On the current page/screen/lexia, our narrator tells us why Amy is pointing a pistol at Eric – and what she secretly hopes to accomplish.
  • We follow a link to a new page.
  • We’re still with Amy and Eric, but now we hear about Eric’s surprise, confusion, and dismay, for he has only now realized that he secretly loves Amy.

On the first page, we were privy to Amy’s thoughts, on the next, Eric’s. Is this a sign of sloppy writing? Or is it a showy technique, to be used with care and discretion and typically reserved for episode boundaries? Or is this simply the sort of thing that hypertext narrative lets us do well? Film does this all the time: two-shot, close-up, reaction-shot.

This question of technique confronts everyone who writes a narrative with links – fiction or nonfiction, artistic or utilitarian – in the third person. We’ve been writing with links for twenty years. There might not be a lot of money in hyperfiction, but there’s plenty in Web writing and there’s plenty in game design. I believe this question has never been raised, much less answered, in the research literature or in criticism.

I think I can find people who know the answer, or some answer. Greco, Moulthrop, Joyce. Sarah Smith. I’ve never heard Coover talk about technique at this level, but I bet he’d have an opinion. I believe Mary-Kim Arnold uses this technique throughout “Lust”, but then so much of “Lust” is concerned with frustration, with not really sharing or penetrating, that it’s hard to know whether it’s an example or a warning. Shelley Jackson’s voice is predominantly first person, though she shifts that person a lot. So does Geoff Ryman. Andy Campbell’s technique seems closer to the first person, too. (Though it can be done, indirect discourse doesn’t sit will with IF, because reader-protagonists don’t really want to be told what they’re thinking.)

But as far as I can see, there’s nothing on this in two decades of The Hypertext Conference, or at Web Sci, or IA Summit, or MLA. Eskilinen has an interesting new book on Cybertext Poetics , but it seems to be silent on this. I don’t find much help in Alice Bell’s admirable Possible Worlds of Hypertext Fiction . We can go right down the bookshelf: Landow, Gaggi, Hayles, Douglas, Harpold, Aarseth. So it goes.

It seems to me that everyone who writes (or grades) a non-trivial third-person hypertext narrative would need to have an answer.

It seems to me that we ought to have written it down, discussed the answer, tested it.

It seems to me that we have not.

Mar 12 14 2012

Of Course

I’ve finished the Hunger Games trilogy, and know the answer to the last question: Peeta or Gale.

To the work’s credit, the answer is now obvious to me. It was obvious all along. There can be no other solution. Yet, only yesterday, I wasn’t sure. That’s hard to imagine, but it’s in my notes.

That’s why you should keep notes.

Mar 12 13 2012


The Elizabeth Warren bumper sticker in the left margin wasn’t adapting to the size of the iPad screen. It’s fixed now. (If you’re using the embed code, you might want to view source and update.)

Please let me know about glitches like this; it’s hard to check every layout on every device and still get anything done.

Curator’s Code proposes that we popularize two new link glyphs: ᔥ to denote “via” and ↬ to denote “hat tip” or acknowledgment

Marco Arment replies in "I am not a curator," arguing that the distinction is not clear and that aggregators do not really want to clarify the distinction anyway — and don’t really want you to follow these links in any case.

This is an old, old question in hypertext research. In fact, the controversy conflates a bunch of old questions that might better be addressed separately:

  • Should links be typed?
  • Should link types represent intention or citation?
  • What should be the link anchor: a text span, or a glyph embedded in the text, or a glyph in the margins or the footer?

I don’t share Arment’s confusion over the two glyphs. Use ᔥ when you’re just repeating a link you saw elsewhere, and use ↬ when you’re commenting on, extending, or disagreeing with a link.

In practice, Arment is probably right: two obscure new glyphs are probably too many for people to learn. At the same time, we need more glyphs because simply “reblogging” in tumblr fashion is soon going to seem old-fashioned and terribly 2012.

It's nice that Tinderbox macros can make it easy to embed these oddball characters in your text without an excursion to Character Viewer. Or, use TextExpander with Tinderbox to give easy mnemonics to each character.

For something like six weeks, my daily trek to work and back has been brightened by the three volumes of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, ably read by Carolyn McCormick.

The Hunger Games are always about survival, and since the odds are never in our favor our focus is necessarily on getting through another day, on passing the open windows and trying – since we cannot really hope for more – to go out on a good note. These books are nothing like Never Let Me Go, but the underlying concern finds its echoes.

But – aside from that – there’s the romantic problem. Katniss Everdeen has no real hope of living happily ever after and no particularly fervent interest in boys (or girls). But she’s got two boys, Peeta and Gale, who are in love with her. They’re very different. She cares for them both – cares enough, at any rate, to want very badly not to kill them, which under the circumstances is quite a sacrifice.

But who will she choose? This would have played out differently in a different era. In turn-of-the-century melodrama, we’d have the Good guy and the Bad guy; after Lawrence, we might have the guy we should want and the guy we desire. In the forties, we’d find a Freudian rationale. In the sixties, we’d take them both and to hell with convention. In the nineties, we’d take neither. At this point in my reading, I don’t know how or whether it will settle, but it’s clear that she could make any choice and we’d support her and wear beige.

But who should she take? It seems to me that Collins is careful not to telegraph this. Peeta, to be sure, has primarily feminine attributes: he’s a baker, he paints, he’s charming. He’s the only Tribute in history to survive the Hunger Game without actually killing anyone, though nobody seems to remark on this. Gale’s attributes are more conventionally masculine, his body count rivals Katniss’s, and rhetorically he’s always been the ruthless one.

In practice, Katniss always wants the one who’s not there. In principle, Gale nails it: she chooses the one she can’t survive without.

Mar 12 11 2012

Blue Angel

by Francine Prose

Professor Ted Swenson teaches “Beginning Fiction” at a small college in Vermont. It’s not going all that well; one after another, the seminar workshops ghastly student stories. Then, beyond expectation, a silent goth girl hands him a few pages of wonderful prose – and calamity ensues. A fine book with a fine ear, this makes an intriguing triple feature with Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.

by Christina Tosi

Blue Angel

This interesting cookbook begins with an unusually intriguing consideration of ingredients. Tosi combines an openness to the possibilities of concentrated foods — powders of ground freeze-dried corn and infusions of breakfast cereal are her signature ingredient and she’s perfectly happy to grind up a whole batch of freshly-made cookies in order to make great cookie crumbs — with a fascination for the flavors of junk food desserts.

Tosi is not shy of butter, sugar, and cream cheese.

The book is also exceptionally interesting for its profile of the restaurant business. The Momofuku restaurants are pretty much at the top of the game; around eGullet, you can mention them, or David Chang, and everyone knows what you're talking about and where you're eating. There are eGullet threads dedicated to the best strategies for eating at Ssam Bar. Yet Tosi — a favored protegé, is improvising cakes in dusty basements and rushing rolls from an borrowed apartment in Spanish Harlem, hoping to arrive in time for service. It’s nice to be reminded that software isn't the only place where we work on shoestrings and hope.

I made the bagel bombs — bagel-like rolls stuffed with cream cheese, bacon, and scallions. Her technique epitomizes the approach of the whole book, focused on intensity of flavor and uninterested in exactly how we get there. You make a standard lean dough — a little wet but nothing radical — and let it rise for 45min. You scale it, and then hand-shape eight little pizza rounds; Tosi seldom uses a rolling pin. You fold these rounds over a frozen “plug” of flavored cream cheese, making something like a dumpling, cover them with an egg wash and lots of seeds, and bake. No special dough, no malt, no boiling: in short, nothing very bagel-like, and yet the texture and flavor communicates “bagel” brilliantly.

by Christina Tosi

On a dreary day last December, I grumbled my unseasonal way into the local Barnes and Noble for some distraction and solace. What I found was a petty deception: a table filled with intriguing new cookbooks – Adria’s Family Meal, an intriguing cocktail book, and Christina Tosi’s new Momofuku Milk Bar – with a big sign that read “30% Off Selected Titles!” I thought it was clever, if unusual, to discount good new books, perhaps as a way to hook early gift shoppers. I grabbed an armful. I waited in the long line. But it turns out that “selected titles” excluded most of the titles on the table. So, back the books went.

I finally got my copy of the book last night at a special demo meal at Stir, a small Barbara Lynch space that offers nightly demo dinners. Stephanie Cmar and Caitlin Hannegan worked out a nice solution to the problem of an evening demo based on a dessert cookbook.

  • Steamed buns (shiitake, kimchi) ❧ NV Simonet-Fabvre Crémand de Bourgogne
  • Roasted rice cakes, red dragon sauce ❧ 2009 Laurent Kraft Vouvray Sec
  • Ramen (pork belly, pork shoulder, egg) ❧ Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace 
  • Birthday Cake ❧ 2010 Balletto Pino Noir
  • Crack pie

I might have been tempted to add one more small dessert, either as a mignardise or maybe as an amuse, but there’s a lot of sugar in this meal: that red dragon sauce with the rice cakes is deliciously spicy and savory, but in essence it’s a spicy simple syrup.

Most of the other students, oddly enough, were not terrifically interested in food and cooking. One was a cook at another Barbara Lynch property; I fancy he didn’t ask questions because he can ask anytime. The others were very eager to talk about Boston and New York restaurants, and everyone spent a lot of time discussing Top Chef.

I’m really surprised by this. OK: I’ve been reading The Hunger Games, in which reality TV is evil incarnate, and my own television was stolen last summer. But still: if there were a Top Programmer, I can’t imagine wanting to follow it. Either the participants would be really good, which would be depressing, or I’d be constantly complaining that I can do that.

This was obviously a tasty meal, and Tosi’s desserts are filled with intriguing ideas. Two strike me offhand:

  • Lots of effort goes into polishing the surface of contemporary desserts, to making them look great. We don’t do this with our food anymore; we don’t fold napkins into pheasants and we don’t bake our gamebirds into a pie shaped like a hawk, the way Escoffier and company used to. Let the rough edges show on the cake.
  • Kids love dessert. In addition, dessert is for us forbidden food. Dessert is gooey and gloppy and colorful. All this makes it an opportunity to reflect on childhood and to exploit the memory of lost flavors, recherches du temps perdu and those forgotten madeleines. But we didn’t have madeleines, so for us it’s infusions of Fruit Loops. Which reminds me: I owe you all a discussion of Next:Childhood. Soon

Cmar did a nice job, considering her audience wanted to gossip about television and where they eat in the financial district and how one of the local bistros no longer serves their favorite tea. It’s not an easy job. Of course, when you’re twenty-something and a grizzled veteran line cook/sous chef who got into this work as an alternative to burn out (“And who wants to listen to a 24-year-old complain about burnout?” she muses), working an audience while demoing some other cook’s unfamiliar dishes has got to be a bit of a challenge. I managed to get a few question in without obviously alienating the rest of the gang.

From my notes:

  • The mushrooms for the steamed buns had been quickly sauteed, then deep fried (90 sec) after having been dusted with tapioca flour. They were great; Caitlin was snacking on them after the course. It’s an interesting technique, almost a tempura batter that makes itself with the mushroom’s juices. I still don’t understand how you get the sauté pan oil off the mushrooms, or, if you don’t, what keeps the tapioca flour from turning into a pasty mess. Worth trying, though!
  • If you want to make your own Kimchee, the right brand of Kimchee Mix is made by Noh.
  • The ramen was based on a very nice broth. Not much was said about that, I suppose because this class didn’t look like anyone was going to rush off and make stock. But I think it’d be very interesting to know more. I often discard the braising liquid when I make picadillo or Carolina barbecue; would that be a starting point for the Ramen broth? Or would the Ramen broth be a better braising liquid?
  • They make disposable pastry bags! Who knew?
  • There’s baking powder in the birthday cake frosting. Why? (I raised my eyebrows, and Cmar took the hint and said she’d already checked McGee and still didn’t know. Not informative, but that made me feel salty as hell.)
  • Pairing the pinot noir, which is not a sweet or even fruit-forward wine, with the desserts raised my eyebrows. It worked for me, but I'd like to know more about the thinking here. Are we simply avoiding tannins (in which case a Malbec or Grenache might work) or looking for acid, or what?

Throughout the meal, we watched the cooking and then Cmar plated off to the side. This was too bad. It happens that a bunch of the dishes don’t have very interesting technique for final prep; if you’re reheating a pork belly in broth, there’s not that much to see. And all the mise was done in advance – I don’t think Cmar touched a knife before slicing the cake – so we didn’t learn anything about knife skills. I have absolutely no idea how to plate, and it’s just not something anyone writes about; I’d like to see it. (This may be because people are squeamish about knowing that cooks touch their food, but let’s grow up.)

Stir does quite a few of these cookbook/dinner tie-ins. It’s a very interesting concept, a signing (though in this case the author wasn’t even present – I got Cmar to sign, though, which will be just as good someday) which nets more than $100 per person over the price of the book. They regularly blow out the doors on these, it seems, though Hannegan said that much depends on the skill of the publicist. As a business proposition, it sure beats conventional signings which can sometimes feature three tired passers-by who wandered in from the rain.

I’m looking forward to reading the book. I do wish that cookbooks were less cagy about their ghost writers. And I don’t know how much I’ll be able to cook: Linda’s on a diet, lots of my guests are avoiding carbs, and everybody avoids fat. But I’ve got to try some of this.

Dear Bill,

     I simply cannot concentrate

On these eBooks about which you inquire.

You know that I love books. I used to spend

Long days at home beside the parlor fire

With lovely leather volumes. Mom would send

The maid to bring a slice of pie and tea,

And put another log onto the grate.

I’ve always lived with books, so I can see

Why, looking for dissent, you thought of me.

Home wasn't really like that, but you know

I want to say I just can’t concentrate

On reading like I used to, years ago.

The Kindle kindles in my heart no glow,

No inky perfume rises from my Nook,

My iPad’s leather cover does not resonate

With the perfluent dreaming of the book.

Its brightly-glowing screen distracts my eye:

I wish I had another slice of pie.

I cannot find that strength that in past days

Let me ignore the party in my room,

The deadline for Psych 6, the certain doom

That if I failed to get at least three As

My whole career might go right down the chute.

But – hey! – that girl who just came in, she’s kind of cute.

Even then I knew an arbitrary choice –

Should I read another chapter of the Joyce?

Should I take a break right now? – might, in due course,

Lead to warm embraces, grandchildren, and divorce.

I cannot concentrate. Is it just me?

Or is it lack of pie, so warm and good?

I used to read for hours in my room,

Poring over Heidegger and Hume,

Asimov and Tolkien. Hard reading then

Was light, and light verse very heaven.

Nor was reading then at risk, although I could

Risk parental wrath by reading after ten.

Those tactile, haptic joys the screen denies,

The paperback’s materiality,

These simply were the way things always stood,

The nature of the world, and no technology

Had ever altered books, or ever would.

How will these eBooks change us? Will children’s minds

Be warped by the fell Web’s distracting call,

The spammer’s snare, the phisher’s subtle lies?

I cannot seem to concentrate at all.

Each page is filled with links. Each link reminds

Me how much I miss that pie, or offers to amuse

Me and to sell me stuff I do not – cannot – use.

Oh fuck. I cannot concentrate for shit.

You know this, Bill. So what’s with all the faxes

That pester me to write your eBook piece?

The fee you offer made me think a bit,

Especially because I’ve bills for taxes

And Mom's Alzheimer clinic, and my lease.

The book world is collapsing 'round our ears;

This article can only end in tears.

Mar 12 7 2012


I've got an idea for a hypertext fiction thriller that would be exciting, sexy, and a hell of a good time.

But where on earth am I to find the time to write it? And does the world need another thriller more urgently than better Tinderbox and Twig and a new Storyspace and the two print books I'm supposed to be finishing?

Time’s winged chariot indeed.

Update: Mary-Kim Arnold suggests the employment of minions. Alan Jacobs complains that minions are not what they were.

Mar 12 6 2012


Each year, this season brings an especially heavy load of conference papers to review.

I don’t get paid for this. It’s not clear it directly benefits the company at all, though of course a thriving research community benefits everyone in the industry.

It’s a lot of work; yesterday, I wrote a 4000-word review for an 8000 word paper, and it’s going to need another draft.

I finally got around to seeing Trust, which Ebert liked quite a bit. It’s the weakest movie I’ve seen lately (movie notes are in the left sidebar of this site’s main page). It’s pretty good.

(It’s also the only movie I recall where a scene spliced into the credits is absolutely essential to the screenplay.)

There’s a ton of good film, ready to stream at the touch of a button.

Is there a decent source for kitchen tech support, beyond one’s mother?

For example, my focaccia always turns out to be bread of some sort. My ancestors were not always so lucky. Still, it is never the light and airy sort of focaccia you get at Iggy’s. The same dough makes ciabatta with a nice crust, but it’s dense and fine-grained, too.

What am I doing wrong? Not enough liquid? Not enough rising time? Wrong kind of yeast? Too much or too little of something else?

OK: Cook’s has shown us that a little systematic lab work will solve problems like this. But I don’t want to do the research: this has got to be common knowledge, but who are you going to call?

Update: See

A cousin form California whom I see too seldom came for dinner.

  • Linda’s retro chip dip ❧ peppers stuffed with goat cheese ❧ aviations
  • carrot ginger soup ❧ sprouted wheat bread (Pullman)
  • salmon with lentils several sauces
  • roast beef ❧ posole ❧ Yorkshire pudding
  • Meyer lemon jelly ❧ blood orange sorbet

Most of this is familiar and went as predicted. The Yorkshire puddings came out OK, but were not nearly as tasty as the ones I had in London. Predictable, I suppose.

“Don’t doctor recipes. More is less, and sugar will only get you so far.”–Allegra Goodman, The Cookbook Collector

The bread turned out really well. This was another experiment, a doctored version of Ruhlman’s 5:3 focaccia.

  • 25 oz flour (20 bread, 5 sprouted wheat)
  • 17.5oz water (6 buttermilk, 11 water)
  • 2t salt, sprig rosemary
  • 1t yeast

Refrigerated overnight, top slashed and brushed with egg, baked in a buttered Pullman loaf pan at 425°F.

My breads all tend to be dense, so I tried cheating a bit by adding extra liquid. The rising went very slowly, perhaps because the kitchen was cold. I’m not sure whether the extra liquid helped.

by Suzanne Collins

Dramatic and effective sequel to The Hunger Games, this book shares its strengths and discomforts. Katniss Everdeen is more than a swashbuckling fantasy heroine: she’s a kid, and her childishness is exceptionally well realized. She makes wild plans, she doesn’t think things through, she’s impetuous and impatient, she doesn’t know her own mind. And she’s a hero. Pullman does a fine job of showing how Lyra grows, but even at the outset, playing in robing room closet, Lyra knows herself a lot better than Katniss does.

One exception to Katniss’s realism is that her age is wrong. She is said to be seventeen. Katniss has two casual boyfriends with whom she thinks she’s probably in love, though in an entirely hypothetical way. She kisses her boyfriends sometimes, but doesn’t really care for it, and can assure the jealous Peeta that she only kissed Gale once. (In my experience, a jealous seventeen-year-old boyfriend will want assurance that you only slept with the other guy once.) She has no intention of marrying or having children. She has no physical desire in the first book, though she experiences first stirrings in the second. She doesn’t act like she’s seventeen; why not give her the age that accords with her character?

Collins is the master of the grand moment. This book has one. Lord Dunsany has one. Good enough.

Mar 12 1 2012


After coping with a small flood in the office and the customary paperwork, I’m heading into day three of the Great Tinderbox Action Refactoring. This is very heavy lifting indeed, sorting out and cleaning up a hand-crafted recursive descent parser in order to prepare it for a graceful platform move.

Light posting until it’s stable.

by Gregory Maguire

Auntie Em and Uncle Henry take Dorothy on a vacation, hoping that seeing the wonders of a great city will led her to cease her endless nostalgia for the glories of Oz. Naturally, they head to San Francisco. And, naturally, Dorothy wakes early on April 18, 1906 and goes for a stroll.

Soon, she’s in Oz. And she’s going to be held for trial in the case of two murders. MacGuire is rich in invention and irony, but here we have many languorous journeys and little to do. There’s plenty of low comedy and lots of grit, but perhaps not quite enough starlight and rain.