Brenda Laurel lists thirteen rules of business, culled from her experience at Purple Moon. The final rule:

"Rule 13: This is not your last good idea." -- Brenda Laurel, Utopian Entrepreneur

Ted Nelson, in classic plumage.

Mark Hurst offers a GoodExperience report on strategies for helping your employees to manage their email. Skip the first 8 pages and cut to the chase. The problem is not the number of incoming messages you receive; the problem is the number that pile up, awaiting action, demanding attention.

"Achieving simplicity -- or emptiness in this case -- takes time, practice, and continual improvement."

We all know how to use our email systems -- both the programs themselves and the filing and filtering strategies we've adopted. It may prove profitable, from time to time, to return fresh to the problem, to look again at the tools we already know and learn to use them better.Hurst tells us, "Don't use your inbox as a todo list: use a ToDo list."

"Allowing new e-mails to pile onto old e-mails overnight yields an especially demoralizing sight in the morning: an inbox filled with new work and yesterday's unfinished work."

In a second alife experiment, I take a quick look at the way Web logs can arrange themselves into clusters of related interests.

June Lester isn't convinced by my nonlinear arguments. She observes, correctly, that how we think has very little to do with how we transfer ideas. (It's even worse: how we experience thought may have nothing to do with how we actually think. I may be convinced that my mind is nonlinear, or funny, or purple, but neither you nor I really know)

But the notion that scientific arguments are inherently linear is simply wrong. Long chains of argument are the mark of textbooks that have simplified and decontextualized old arguments. Look at any real scientific argument (the synthesis of adamantane, the Woodward-Hoffman rules, the Michelson-Morley experiment) and you'll find complex web of interdependent observation and argument.

Scientific argument is not what you find in textbooks.

Exception: look at Misner, Wheeler, and Thorne, Gravitation. It's a textbook intended to take the reader all the way from the end of sophomore physics to the research frontier circa 1975, and it's probably the best paper hypertext yet published. Of particular note, look at how the authors acknowledge that not all physics students are equally comfortable with mathematics, although (naturally) they're fairly good. Each argument is made three ways; in exposition, in equations, and in pictures.

It works: I actually did some slightly interesting research in the class where this was assigned, even though I never mastered tensors. A couple of years later, I completely fouled up my graduate E&M course because I got stalled on a particular DiffEQ issue for a couple of weeks and, having gotten myself tangled up, never could get back on track. Nonlinear presentation can be easier both for the writer and the reader.

Mathematical argument, on the other hand, can be linear by construction. That, however, is a special case.

May 02 29 2002

New book site

Aaron Swartz has a brand-new book site, made with Tinderbox.

Jill/txt expertly dissects an ongoing discussion on the distinction between link-driven and content-driven weblogs.

In the end, I think this distinction becomes a chicken-egg argument. When used well, links are content, and content naturally generates links. (Observe, for example, how Dave Winer finds ways to add links to everything he writes about, even when writing about whatever he's thinking about over his morning coffee)

The extreme cases (pure links/pure essays) exist but are uninteresting. The trick is to use links effectively, both in their immediate rhetorical role and also in their long-term, social role in nurturing emergent structure among weblogs.

"Content is inseparable from its economic frame." -- Brenda Laurel, Utopian Entrepreneur.

Two months ago, Dan Bricklin wrote so glowingly about the Handspring Treo, a Palm PDA and cellphone, that I bought one -- even though I was among the last holdouts to use a cellphone. He still likes his Treo a lot. So do I.

I use the belt clip, and find it provides very adequate protection (and I'm unusually clumsy). The device hasn't been broken or even badly scuffed yet, despite a number of long trips and a general lack of care.

PDAs need to be considered as expendable. First, they're obsolete in two years, three years at the outside, so there's no point in nursing them too strenuously. More to the point, they don't do you much good if you leave them at home.

I confess that I haven't found much use for SMS messages yet.

For the past year, I've made a point of writing a word or two about each book I read. Kirsty Darbyshire also writes a weblog with book notes.

I'd love to know about others!

In an interview in Ubiquity", the ACM IT magazine, Don Norman talks about beauty and fun in design. (slow server)

Unfortunately, the interviewer seems to expect that his audience knows almost nothing about Norman, his work, or about usability. This is a strange approach for a professional journal but one that's consistent, alas, with the apparent direction of the ACM.

May 02 27 2002


Game designer and VR guru Brenda Laurel ran Purple Moon, a company that made computer games for girls, until the dotcom meltdown led its jittery investors to sell out to Mattel. This slender pamphlet, elegantly over-designed by Denise Gonzales Crisp, explains not so much what happened as why Laurel thinks the game is worth the candle. She is, at heart, a humanist, and she holds onto the ideals of hard thinking and hard research in support of the common good with a ferocious good nature.

"The whole apparatus of critical/ postmodern/ cultural studies ... never managed to excite me into action in the same way those original, if bruised ideals did. I return to humanistic values, which for all their misinterpretations and misapplications, validate humanity's ability to create a better future, and which offer both an ethical ground and a methodology for setting about it."

May 02 26 2002


Stephanie Zacharek, in Salon, explains the end of "the most disturbing Buffy season ever."

Willow, far from being a cut-out angry lesbian, is more fleshed out, and more terrifyingly alive, than she has ever been before. More than any other character, she has driven the momentum of the past few episodes; she very nearly drove it off a cliff.

May 02 25 2002


Tinderbox 1.1 (coming soon) lets you drag links (and bookmarks) from you browser and drop them into your Tinderbox window. The new note is automatically given the appropriate name. Its URL is the URL of the link you're dragging. And it's set up to ViewInBrowser, so it works just like Web Squirrel: double-click and there you are. (Plus, you've got a place to take notes, and you've agents, and Autofetch, and more)

What really helps, though, is the extra size of the TiBook screen (and the Cinema Display, for that matter). The extra pixels give you plenty of room to keep a Tinderbox outline open right beside the browser. Very handy.

Scott McCloud is teaching a 5-day seminar in comics storytelling at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design this July. Anyone can register!

The new TiBook laptop is a lot like the old TiBook, but faster. It was announced, more or less, as a speed bump. But under the hood, there are significant changes.

One of those changes is that the reset switch is under the keyboard, not on the back panel. The place where the reset switch formerly was is empty, leaving the owner of a new, and newly-crashed, TiBook to speculate on un-, sub-, or supernatural forces.

Dave Winer has been fascinated by the idea of live blogging during a conference. Tinderbox is probably an exceptionally good tool for doing this. It's fast: that's important when you want to get things down right away. It doesn't bog down if the network is slow or flaky: even at conferences that offer wireless internet connections, people often find that the connection fails at the worst moment.

One of the surprises about live blogging, it seems, is that the ergonomics favor big laptops over small ones -- TiBooks are comfortable on your lap, while those little Vaio subnotebooks require more balancing. If you've got the big screen, Tinderbox maps make good use of it! (And they can amuse your neighbors as well as your weblog audience)

Tinderbox also offers a clean way to write notes that are private, and to move them quickly but intentionally into the public sphere. Moving notes back to privacy is sometimes necessary, and equally easy.

(More on this topic: Reiter, Nicoll . See jill/txt today for more on the changing blogscape)

Betty Ann, the first girl for whom I had a crush, died yesterday after a long illness.

May 02 22 2002

Stick figures

Writing in Wired, JC Herz argues that richer visual environments are they key to richly immersive game stories.

Technology has progressed to a point where credible interactive characters are now possible. Blocky stick figures firing square bullets don't lend themselves to elaborate back stories. The latest game characters have recognizable faces, are equipped with cool-looking weapons, and roam visually impressive environments. Here, as in the films, eye candy feeds the myth.

This must be mistaken: blocky stick figures lend themselves wonderfully to mythic richness. Visual realism creates sensual immersion, the sensation and specificity of immediacy; these are powerful forces, but their power can both hinder and help the storyteller. The Torah, you will remember, explicity forbids realistic depiction.

If you were interviewing artists to design a game world, wouldn't you want to talk to Degas? Cezanne? (Thanks to PeterMe for a wondeful precis of Herz's intriguing talk at Emerging Tech)

Anders Fagerjord (22 May) finds some merit in Darren Grem's skeptical comment that he doubts "nonlinear argument even exists in a world dependent upon linear time and development."

Grem's term paper is nicely put together and very pretty, but because it overlooks the key work on the subject it's hard to take it very far. Kolb's Socrates in the Labyrinth is the obvious starting point, and his papers for the Hypertext Conference and Hyper/Text/Theory speak directly to the point. Aarseth's Cybertext is obviously important, too, and Landow's Hypertext 2.0 makes a straightforward case for academic hypertext argumentation that is hard to dismiss.

But Grem's doubt is misplaced: it's obvious that nonlinear argument not only exists but is pervasive. People constantly construct models of cause and effect from myriad sensory observations, reconciling past experience, models of physics and psychology. The data appear in complex sequences, neither systematic nor arbitrary; nonetheless, we construe them as meaningful. We notice the bleached bones of the deer on the path, hear a twig snap, notice that it's suddenly quiet (too quiet!), remember what happened that day three summers ago, and we conclude (freeze! don't move!) that there might be a jaguar in that tree with dinner plans. This is patently nonlinear and we've been doing it for a long, long time.

The Tinderbook's screen resolution, a whopping 1280x 854, is great to have. You can see big maps, and have lots of notes open at once -- screen real estate is valuable! But sometimes it's nice to use that real estate simply to make your notes look good. I've turned up Tinderbox's Magnify Fonts preference to 30% and chosen a nice, legible screen font. Now, making notes is nicer than ever.

Don't forget to leave good margins and plenty of paragraph spacing.

Beryll is a nifty square-serif font, optimized for reading on the screen and a superb as a default font for web browsers. By Lars Berquist from Timberwolf, a Swedish foundry.

The Boost C++ library is, in essence, a launching pad for future extensions to the C++ standard. The May 15th update adds The Boost Lambda Library, which lets you define ad-hoc anonymous functions for use with Standard Template Library (STL) expressions like for_each and sort.

This looks very handy for modern STL-heavy programming; C++ has essentially become a new language in the last few years.

I saw Star Wars 2 last weekend in one of the 18 all-digital theaters featured in the first release. Early word is that something wasn't quite right about the film transfer, making the digital version look much better than film. The digital version looks great. It's a lousy movie (since when do galactic senators who are retired queens pack their own luggage?) but it has great interior designers.

The second Star Wars trilogy poses a bit of a puzzle for serious students of computer games. If computer games as an art form have such promise, why does the appearance of a game-sequence (a scene intended to anchor a computer game tie-in) consistently represent an intrusion into the drama? If this were occasional, it might just be a mistake. But Lucas falls into this over and over, and everyone mentions how clumsy it is. Perhaps it simply can't be done.

The first alife weblog study got plenty of reaction. Wes Felter thinks the idea of "responsible weblogging" is ridiculous. Eric Maynard is intrigued by the whole thing. Matt Jones finds the convergence of Tim O'Reilly's talk and my experiment eery. Adrian Miles write about "social democracy meets blogsteaders."

May 02 18 2002

Tiny Blogger

Blosxom (pronounced "blossom") is Rael Dornfest's tiny (60-line) implementation of a Blogger-style weblog engine.

"Tiny" software -- programs that try to capture the essence of a big system in a very small space -- were a fascinating feature of the early personal computing landscape. This is the first time I remember seeing a stunt like this in a long time; it's like running into an old friend.

MacOS X comes with a full-scale Apache installation for its personal Web sharing system. That's nifty, because you can install cgi systems like Bloxsom locally and play with them safely, without fear of doing Something Bad to your public sites and with all the speed and convenience of local debugging.

I'm finishing my first two weeks of everyday work with MacOS X. The transition has been smooth and straightforward. Things work pretty much the way they've always worked; some things are different, some aren't.

Lots of software needs to be upgraded, but that's not a bad thing in any case.

Alpha testing of Tinderbox for MacOS X is proceeding well. We should be in beta next week.

Hypertext pioneer Scott Johnson recently wrote a lively rant on software engineers who don't test their own code sufficiently. As a manager, this drives him up the wall: you tell someone to fix a bug, they say it's fixed. You take a look and the bug's still there.

He thinks this is laziness, arrogance, and irresponsibility. Sometimes it is. But sometimes, I think, it's really another familiar problem: editing your own work is often exceedingly difficult. When you know what something says, your senses may perceive what you expect, not what's actually on the page.

Johnson recalls how a missing apostrophe cost his company $1312 one afternoon. Proponents of agile development argue that systematically designing software to be self-testing turns out to be cost-effective for exactly this reason. The test system for Storyspace 2 was a big win, and improving the Tinderbox test manager is a major priority.

Johnson's Fuzzyblog makes as an interesting management counterweight to Spolsky's successful weblog on software development, Joel On Software.

May 02 15 2002

On Style

Adrian Miles, wrapping up a semester teaching hypertext at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, presents two fascinating notes about student hypertext writing. On Style examines the way novice writers often link and reveals the opportunities they chronically overlook. More Style looks at an exceptional student hypertext.

What's interesting is the density of linking in the work and how the student has visually represented the writing. this happens a lot when the students use storyspace, and though it is often commented in the literature it appears to not get a lot of attention."

In the first note, Miles draws a fascinating link to film theory. In the second, he moves intelligently from writing to architecture. Both notes merit careful thought.

A preliminary result in my alife experiment on weblogging suggests that too much loyalty can destroy a weblog community.

May 02 14 2002


People (and demons) die all the time in Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. In Villains (episode 6.20), Marti Noxon does something incredibly hard: in a world filled with blood, she reminds us again how much it matters.


As far as I know, the best writing on TV, and some of the best dramatic writing of our time.

Shelley Jackson's book tour has its own weblog.

We've just passed the highest point east of the Mississippi, and someone fell off it.

May 02 10 2002


We now have a prototype version of Tinderbox running under MacOS X.

Today's was created in Tinderbox 1.10d1 from MacOS 10.1.4. There is still a lot of testing and polishing ahead of us, but people eagerly awaiting Tinderbox for MacOS X can look forward to an exciting release in the not-too-distant future.

May 02 9 2002

Small Pieces

Last night, Dave Weinberger (Cluetrain Manifesto) gave a talk and book signing at SoftPro, one of Boston's two good technical bookstores. SoftPro has a nice reading space in the back, perfect for this audience of about a dozen tech professionals. (I don't see how the space can possibly pay its rent, even in the best of times and certainly not in this economy. The economics of author events confound me)

Weinberger's new book describes the Web as "a loose federation of documents -- many small pieces, loosely joined." That's a lovely description, capturing the essence of the Web's strength. Ten billion pages, no managers.

There were slow moments, too. Weinberger has a bee in his bonnet about AI and representation, about which he is (I think) mistaken but which is really irrelevant to his argument. At one point, the crowd took after Blogger's free service as an example of Internet Bubble Excess, forgetting that Blogger is a guy and a server in a closet. At the height of the boom, it was a few guys (a and b) and a server in a closet. This level of service is easily sustainable as a gift: see any political or religious movement for examples.

May 02 7 2002

What things cost

Last night, Linda and I went to Robert Brustein's retirement party. Brustein's an important critic and playwright, and he's directed the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge since the 70's. Linda and I have been going to ART productions for decades.

Going to see the same repertory company for a very long time has some interesting benefits. First, because Brustein's taste in theater aren't mine, we've seen a lot of theater I'd be unlikely to see ticket-by-ticket. I think, over the years, we've seen all of Ibsen and nearly all of Brecht, and I'm happy about that.

Even better, we've seen some of the same actors in a host of parts over a host of years. It's good to know, for example, that you can be Alvin Epstein's age and still improve so much from year to year.

It's also fun to see the threads of connection in a field that isn't yours. Theatrical events like this make it easy because you recognize the names and faces. Before Brustein brought it to Harvard, this was the Yale Rep, and some of those early students (Meryl Streep and Christopher Durang were classmates) have already had long and important careers. And there are also the interesting threads of interest and community, historical (the evening opened with Gershwin, and Brustein arrives in the theater just as the Yiddish theater and the Yiddish world are closing) and artistic (look! there's Art Buchwald! George Fifield and Brooke Adams! David Mamet and Rebecca Pidgeon! Debra Winger! F. Murray Abraham! Mike Wallace!)

Besides sending Brustein on sabbatical in style, the evening funds a scholarship. I hope they keep the pictures. A hundred years from now, the recipient should be given an old-fashioned photograph of the old folks in their antique costumes who came out one night to a Boston nightclub and paid their tuition.

Yes, tuition is expensive (as Elin says in the $35K question). Everything is expensive. "Everyone needs money: that's why they call it money." -- Mamet.

May 02 5 2002

May Afternoon

Istvan Banyai's cover painting, Spring Is In The Air, (New Yorker, May 6) is wonderfully observed. The lovers are just lovers, but the bystander with a cell phone is perfect, and perfectly of the moment. He wouldn't be there in LA, his expression would be different in Paris or Bangkok, and he wouldn't have the cell phone in '92.

Also in May 6th's New Yorker, Andrea Lee's story, "The Prior's Room", looks back with pleasure but without nostalgia. A high school kid, a summer day in Switzerland, a hotel room whose walls are covered with painted saint, and "how she once had a body so perfect that they leaned out of the walls to look at it." New Yorker fiction, the way it ought to be.

I'm looking forward to teaching a tutorial on hypertextuality of weblogs with Jill Walker this June at Hypertext 2002. I'm learning a lot about weblogs from Tinderbox, and Radio, and from observation. And Jill, of course, is a true weblog artist.

There's still a lot nobody really knows about weblogs. How do you get, and keep, a great audience? Does the future hold a million small weblogs, or two really big ones?

I'm hoping to learn about weblogs from an alife simulator I'm building. In the simulated world, we have 600 little artificial writers (I call them weblets) with 600 artificial weblogs. If traffic is the currency of the Web, each of the weblets wants to get rich. Some have big blogrolls (so lots of people will think well of them). Some have lots of daily links (so they can reward their friends quickly). Some hoard traffic, some spread it around. We'll see who wins.

Years ago, we taught a series of workshops on The Craft of Hypertext, starting from the architectural virtues that Vitruvius sough for a farmhouse: Commodity, Firmness, Delight.

The end is to build well. Well building hath three conditions: firmness, commodity, and delight. (Henry Wotton, trans., 1624)

(I picked up the quotation from a memorable T-shirt, seen at the Columbia's architecture department in the late '70s) Victor Lombardi observes that designers have given the slogan new currency, translated as "usable, useful, desirable". (Latin: "Firmatas, Utilitas, Venustas")

May 02 3 2002

The Big Chill

In 1983, Lawrence Kasdan made The Big Chill, a glossy Hollywood remake of John Sayles' 1980 indy classic, The Return of the Secaucus 7. The Sayles movie was a low-budget sensation -- in a sense, it was the original low-budget sensation.

The Big Chill has big-name actors, great sets, wonderful music, living color. The Return of the Secaucus 7 doesn't. We all know this story, and we know where this leads. You already expect to hear that Secaucus 7 is a better movie -- earlier, more original, less contrived, more sincere. You don't need a film degree to anticipate this, or to understand why production values and special effects don't always make movies (or hypertexts) better.

That's why it was strange to hear Kate Hayles open the ELO conference last month with a plea to overlook the technical shortcomings of hypertexts that aren't brand new. It was a fine keynote, but why was it necessary to argue this point? This wasn't, after all, an audience of 14-year-olds who think The Scorpion King is, well, the best ever; this is an audience of writers and writing teachers and English professors, and Hayles is struggling to explain to them that the fact that Charlie Chaplin movies all look old doesn't mean they're no good anymore. (Most of them don't understand the message, and are deeply, deeply worried that hypertext literature will become unreadable unless they launch a big project to archive it or reimplement it or stamp out Storyspace or something.)

This was not what Hayles argued in Los Angeles, although some of her audience seemed to think it was. It is what she appears to be saying in her Iowa interview; I assume that she can't really mean it, and that a wrong impression was created by sloppy editing.

That great electronic writing remains untarnished after the shiny-newness of its technological wrappings falls away should be obvious, even to a self-described novice like Larry McCaffery who judged the first (and, apparently, the last) ELO fiction prize. He wrote that Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl is

still more than able to hold its own among more technologically advanced works in terms of the freshness of the writing and the conceptual brilliance of its design.

Why would an English professor be surprised that seven or eight years don't dim fresh writing and conceptual brilliance? This was a silly thing to say, just as silly as when he wrote that he wanted to "encourage" Patchwork Girl's publication. A decent editor would have caught these blunders and spared everyone a lot of embarrassment.

I've been writing a good deal about the sorry state of hypertext criticism lately. For the convenience of those just joining us, I've collected the key notes on The Criticism Page.

This is a nice example of how Tinderbox lets you improvise information architecture to meet changing needs. The Criticism Page is an agent; it scans a new attribute "topic" for items I've stamped as relevant to criticism. This adds a flexible category system to my weblog. It took only ten minutes or so to implement, and works the way I want it to. (For example, the oldest item on the Criticism Page is sorted to the top; this is the opposite of the usual weblog convention but it may help newcomers get up to speed without feeling like they've walked into the middle of the play)

In an interview in The Iowa Review's Web 'zine, Kate Hayles worries about the future "playability" of electronic literature.

I am especially concerned with building and conserving an archive of electronic literature, in a technological environment where any electronic work is likely to be unplayable in 3-5 years, certainly by a decade. How will we achieve the depth, breadth, and quality of the print archive--a treasure store without which the practice of literature would be unthinkable--for electronic works? This crucial issue is currently being addressed by a number of organizations, including museums, text-encoding initiatives, and in the case of literature, the Electronic Literature Organization. Historians accept the idea that without an archive, the discipline would be impossible. The same goes for literature." (emphasis mine)

This claim is unsupported by the evidence and probably untrue. It is extremely likely that most electronic work written today will be easily performed in 3-5 years, and that much will be easily readable in a decade.

Every Storyspace document ever published is readable today. Afternoon is fifteen years old. Victory Garden is a decade old. They're read all over the world.

Even if Eastgate hadn't just released bright and shiny new Storyspace 2, you could still read these titles with Storyspace 1. Storyspace 3.4 -- the unpublished 1987 beta, still runs fine. So does lots of antique software. You can download the 1987 outliner MORE 1.1c and run it on machines sold today. You can still run Lotus Agenda (1988). You can even still run neglected and forgotten hypertexts like my Election of 1912 (with Erin Sweeney). Flash is four years old; if you wrote a hypertext in Flash in 1998, it'll run just fine today. Old Director files work fine. HyperCard works fine. HTML will be readable for centuries, assuming there is anyone alive to read it.

Historians have often worked without archives. According to Anthony Grafton, the first historian to make real use of archives was Leopold van Ranke (1795-1886). From Thucydides to Samuel Eliot Morrison to Russell Meiggs to John Keegan, students of history have often worked in the absence of complete (or any) archives.

Since works a decade old are not only "playable" but widely available, why does Hayles assert that works will "certainly" be unplayable after a decade? I understand the problem to which Hayles is calling attention here, and agree that it's worth study. Preservation is important, and initiatives like the Text Encoding Initiative can provide invaluable infrastucture, as can good library collections of electronic literature. But, the specific assertions Hayles makes here are unsupported and probably unsupportable. Surely an intelligent editor should have queried this? Surely someone at Iowa is familiar with the history of hypertext, and the history of History?