Nov 03 25 2003


While I was enjoying an excellent martini with Cathy Marshall in the lobby bar at the St. Francis -- for my money (and it's quite a lot of money at that, the prices being mildly spectacular) the best lobby bar in the world -- Linda rang to say that she'd read Roger Angell's annual world series report in the current New Yorker and discovered that Angell mentions

It's very strange to find your friends, however peripherally, in Angell's baseball story. A dream come true, really, except it's obviously such a preposterous dream that you'd never dream it. I realized in second grade that I was never going to play second base for the White Sox -- Professor Hannaford hadn't yet brought me over to the Cubs' side -- and it wasn't until grad school that Angell rekindled my interest in baseball with his wonderfully literate and insightful essays. Angell teaches you to see what's really in the game, and why it's all not a silly waste of your time. And, my, can he write.

So, now Meryl's poetry has appeared in The New Yorker. What a nifty turn of events. And Angell's essay is like the record books; it may have been an amusing little stunt, but now it's in the book.

What's Up, Doc?

Congratulations to Dr. Jill Walker, who flew through her grand Norwegian-style defense.

Nov 03 23 2003


Best Tinderbox point at EdBlogger: it's very important, when writing a weblog, to have several different containers of unpublished material. I have one for half-formed ideas, another for posts in composition. A third bin holds posts I think are ready to publish, but that I'm saving for the ideal moment. Another bin holds writing that I now think is too inflammatory to post, but nonetheless too good to discard.

I'd never thought about this, until people started to discuss revision and editing in the classroom weblog environment.

We now understand the importance of weblog clusters in sustaining communities of interest. But one of the interesting topics at EdBlogger. raised in a panel on working with administrators and school districts, is that educators need to create overnight communities of weblogs, literal torrents.

This isn't (as I'd assumed) merely a broad initiative like Salon blogs, undertaken voluntarily. Instead, it's an administrative necessity. If some teachers have weblogs to help parents keep informed about course topics and schedules, soon all parents will expect this . Just as we now expect that any businesses will have a web site, parents will begin to wonder why there's no weblog for Johnny's fifth grade math course.

That means school IT staff have to be in the hosting business, and that they really do need server-side solutions like Blogger, Manilla and Zope, tools that can let them automate setup and default branding of dozens or hundreds of fresh weblogs. Interesting (and specialized) aggregation issues crop up, too, because Johnny needs a Fifth Grade feed while the chairman of Johnny's math department needs a Math Teachers' Feed. What the school board superintendent needs is a matter for speculation.

I suspect this is a transient issue -- in the not-too-distant future, we'll all host our weblogs on our home machines (or our cell phones) as a matter of course. And we'll wonder why we ever needed these one-size-fits-all, centralized solutions. But, in the meantime, it's an interesting application area.

Clusters and Torrents
Frank Lloyd Wright, 241 Maiden Lane, San Francisco

I was tempted to put a picture of the copper dome of the Zoetrope building next to the Transamerica Pyramid here, but perhaps this little gem from Wright's circular period makes the point better.

In San Francisco, I spent a few hours wandering through galleries. If you don't visit galleries when you travel, you should. Galleries like to have visitors, even those who aren't likely to buy anything, because visitors bring more visitors. And, artists love an audience.

The art world of galleries is not the art world of museums. It's often newer, of course, but also broader. It's much like the book world; there's plenty that's worth reading that, for one reason or another, isn't on a syllabus at your local Literature department.

At Jenkins Johnson, they've got some stunning, huge figure work by Wade Reynolds, paired with extremely nice colored-pencil studies.

Gallery Hopping

These are interesting, too, in the way they combine a formal problem -- composing a figure in the horizontal, landscape frame -- with hints of narrative -- why are all these women lying, in these particular ways, on the floor? The interiors are very plain but also, clearly, luxurious, with simple walls and simple carpeting that speak of expensive taste and frequent redecorating. It's our old, old friend, the genre painting, come to visit the nicer sections of Manhattan, the girl with the pearl earring, a trust account, and plenty of troubles.

There's no narrative at all, on the other hand, in Jay Kelley's misty, vellum gems -- a show aptly titled 2.5 x 2.5 inches. These, I think, are the old-media equivalent of the Cool Flash Site: Kelly takes an odd medium and an odd requirement -- tiny pastels on vellum, of all things -- and does more with it than you would expect.

Nov 03 22 2003


Jill toys with the idea of wearing a bunad -- a garmet that seems to occupy, in Norway, the psychic niche that Scots reserve for the kilt -- to her defense. (Read Elin's comment, too, for essential background)

The notion that clothes carry ideas more subtle than "I am rich, or pretty, or popular" is novel to me, but Anne Hollander's delightful Feeding The Eye is full of them. Of particular note is her essay on the Japanese kimono, a dress style I thought went back through the ages but that actually is only a few decades old. Hollander does a fascinating job exploring why the kimono is a living garment in the way the kilt is not. Even better, her essay on Chanel explores the ideological and political motivations behind the little black dress.

Fussell, in The Boy's Crusade, refers to the American soldier's novel sloppery, the lounging, casual attitude in dress and posture that puzzled and delighted a Europe in 1944-5 that expected soldiers to look and act like Prussians.

You never know what's going to start a controversy. This time, it turned out to be:

Writings for your friends and family is great. Writing for your teacher, so you can get a good grade, is misery.

Of course, it's not that simple. Sometimes, your teacher is a friend. Sometimes, your teacher is family. And, yes, there are lots of worse things than pointless exercises.

The joy of craft practice -- the pleasures of five finger exercises deftly done, the morning smile that follows a nice, solitary workout -- are best savored by the master and the dedicated disciple. Most of the time, we want our work to mean something, to accomplish something, in the external world. Writing for the Web -- even if chiefly for a small audience -- is real work, in a way that writing for my drawer, or for English III, isn't.

Nov 03 21 2003


I'm staying at the Rex in San Francisco. They have some good ideas:

  • Instead of bad reproductions of bad art in the rooms, they have work by contemporary San Francisco artists. I'm not wild about the paintings in my room -- the small gouache derived from Prendergast is pretty good, the breakfast-table still-life isn't, and the Degas-like bather in the bathroom is really quite good but -- seriously folks -- a pastel in the bathroom defies good sense, and if you want to do a pastel of a lady taking a bath, why a 19th-century naked lady?
  • I lost my SF tourist guide, but they have a nice fresh one, a Travellers Tales, on the table be the bed.
  • The house chardonnay is really quite good, and they have a wonderful Dorothy Parker quotation on the wall of the bar.
  • $6
  • $7
  • $8
  • $9
I like to drink martinis,
Two at the very most.
Three, I'm under the table;
Four, I'm under the host.

I think Dottie was gone to LA before my mother got to town, but where do I get "Dottie" from, anyway? Too late now to ask for more stories, I guess. Mom used to know everyone, back in the day.

Today's lesson plan: ask now.

I'm heading for EdBlogger, and asking, "Why do weblogs matter for schools?" Not because "Web skills" will help the kids get jobs, but because writing for the Web helps restore the value of writing.

What we do ourselves, what we ask children to do, must be worth doing. Writing a sonnet is hard, but worth doing; copying five synonyms out of a thesaurus is easy, but worthless. Out of an exaggerated tenderness, out of a genuine concern that children should not feel hurt by failure, we have kept them away from real challenges. We’re not letting them play the same game as the great players, even when they could. (Philip Pullman, Isis Lecture 2003)

Writing artificial exercises to satisfy a teacher is, at best, an invented and artificial task. Who benefits? Students see this, they know it.

Writing a weblog is public, it's serious, it means something -- and it continues to mean something even if your teacher is a fool or a knave. Dan Bricklin had the key insight here, back when everyone thought Web writing was about getting a big audience: even if only your mother reads your weblog, it's a great thing. We do all sorts of things that are just for our family -- notes, favors, phone calls -- things most people probably don't care about. These are valuable and precious.

Thoughts on EdBlogger

Writing for your friends and family is great. Writing for your teacher, so you can get a good grade, is misery.

Newly added to the top-of-page directory of new stuff is a line inspired by Dave Winer's Scripting News:

A Year Ago:

Mary Ann In Autumn

I bought the freshly-printed paperback at City Lights, a fitting place to buy this latest chapter in the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of our culture wars. Maupin has a dazzling gift for renewing narrative energy, an uncompromising warmth of spirit, and he resisted from the first hwat must have been an overwhelming temptation to make his queer characters more approachable by showing us some who are even queerer.

Mary Ann returns here, and it’s like she’s never left. The horrid Republican harridan of the middle years is gone, and she’s back in town, learning about Facebook and staying with Mouse. She’s not reading her daughter’s sex blog, which makes her blush, and that turns out to be a big mistake.

Tinderbox can add this functionality easily, right out of the box. I set up an agent, About A Year Ago, that looks for all the posts I made in a three or four day window last year. It sorts them by word count -- because you'd probably prefer to see an essay that's 366 days old rather than a one-liner that's exactly a year old. Then, a second agent picks off the top note. All I need to say on the page is:

^include(a year ago)

Inhomogeneous Weblogs
Kottke observes that most weblog packages make every post look alike. That's unfortunate, because you often want to vary the appearance and layout to meet the needs of different kinds of writing. Your movie reviews, for example, might deserve a different look than your tech briefings.

Doug Miller responds with a nice little tutorial on Fagerjord's approach, which places each post on its own (interlinked) page, using CSS to adapt typography as needed. By using a Tinderbox attribute, Fagerjord can adapt styles to the post as needed.

Even better, though, Tinderbox can easily use different templates for different kinds of post. You can easily set up separate HTML export templates for three prototype blog entries -- movieReview, newsFlash, and personalAdventure. Then, whenever you make a note, you choose which prototype to use. A movieReview might be boxed, with a thumbnail picture, where a personalAdventure might appear in a distinctive typeface.

Bottom line:

  • Redesign is straightforward. If you want to change the way your movieReviews look, just edit the prototype and/or its export template. You don't need to revisit the old posts; they'll inherit the change automatically.
  • $6
  • $7
  • $8
  • $9
Nov 03 18 2003


An iPod holds about 40G; sometime in 2005, Moore's Law says, the corresponding appliance will clearly be an 80G camera/phone/PDA.

It won't be a laptop replacement. If you want a fast CPU and a good screen, you need to burn watts, which means big batteries and a tether to the power outlet. But the scale of iPod-like personal storage is going to have enough capacity to keep all your working documents, sketches, and personal files. Your User Folder, in other words. And, if you've got your User Folder with you, you can pretty much get down to work anywhere.

"What about applications?", you ask. Well, we've solved that already. Say you use Tinderbox, but you didn't bring your laptop -- just your user folder. No problem: download Tinderbox again, and it recognizes that you're registered and you're all set. Interesting!

I'll be at EdBlogger in San Francisco this weekend. It's an exciting little meeting -- just 40 or 50 people. Educators, systems developers, and plenty of bloggers. I'll be part of a roundtable on writing and blogging; if any San Franciscans want to talk Tinderbox face-to-face, there's lots of time for that, too.

Adaptive Path's Jeff Veen votes for Tinderbox. Thanks!

A student from England wrote to ask me whether I thought books still stand at the center of our "dissemination systems".

They never did.

It is now abundantly clear that the future of serious writing lies on the computer screen. The physicality of print -- like many of the physical circumstances that shape our past -- appears to carry more weight than it deserves. We may remember the smells and fondly recall the petty discomforts of our childhood homes, and we may say with confidence that we'll never see their match again. And that's true. We may remember the time and the place where we met our first lover and think this place to be enchanted. And, for us, it always is. But that truth lies in ourselves, and not in some wondrous excellence of these places.

The codex book doesn't stand at the heart of the dissemination system of our society: it never did. Pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, sermons, speeches, and casual conversations have always been more popular and more influential. Books have always been expensive -- as expensive as a restaurant meal even after mass production made them commonplace. Throughout most of our history, few people could eat at restaurants, or own very many books.

The things we value most about the codex can be achieved in much the same way, but better, in electronic form. This is not to say (as so many do) that TV or cinema will replace books, for they have not and they cannot. We will continue to write and to read, to weigh and to discuss complex and valuable writing. If we can do better through innovative bookbinding -- or through dispensing with the binding altogether -- we may miss the heft of the old book and the smell of decaying morocco leather.

But to imagine that smell and touch matter terribly to books is to replace sense with sentiment. It is merely nostalgia for an imagined past.

Nov 03 15 2003


Dave Winer, champion (and inventor) of outliners, is revamping his Scripting News weblog to become a directory. Doug Miller reports on this intriguing new turn: is it a major new step in the evolution of home pages and weblogs?

Nov 03 14 2003

Book Feed

I've set up a new RSS feed that covers my book notes. Since I don't always mention book notes here, there's not much overlap. Let me know if you find this useful.


"When in the course of days we increase by thousands our estimate of the numbers of Iraqis trained, it sounds like somebody is cooking the books. When we do this as our forces are coming under increasing attack, we suggest to friends and allies alike that our ultimate goal in Iraq is leaving as soon as possible – not meeting our strategic objective of building a free and democratic country in the heart of the Arab world." -- Sen. John McCain  (Thanks, Talking Points Memo)

Lots of people think that new media and TV (and, for all I know, rock and roll) have created a world of short attention spans. Three years ago, I argued that this was exactly wrong -- that pop culture today is exploring larger and longer forms than ever before. Boy, was I right.

Take A Band of Brothers, the HBO miniseries that I'm currently watching on DVD. Like Babylon 5, it's a big film, really made for DVD. It's much too long to view at a sitting, and it's written to seep into the corners of your consciousness as you find time to watch it, hour by hour.

A core problem of this kind of war movie has been running the characters on and offstage. The mystery of combat, as John Keegan famously argued to his Sandhurst students in The Face of Battle , is why everyone doesn't run away. From Here to Eternity to Saving Private Ryan, from The Naked and the Dead to 12 O'Clock High to M*A*S*H, you always keep running into the same problem: you've only got a couple of hours, you've got to have a ton of characters, they're almost all young men and they all wear the same clothes. How do you get the audience to tell them apart? The usual answer is to paint them broadly and give them plenty of business. It works, sometimes, but it's a hard way for a screenwriter and a director to make a living.

But Band of Brothers has lots of time. It doesn't really matter that, for the longest time, you can't figure out who is who. Doesn't matter; they don't know, either. It's a long walk to Berlin.

A Mighty Wind is a slight film. There's a lot of silly apologizing for the way people looked and sounded in the '50s. But the core of the film is a stage kiss that means a lot -- and nothing -- to two performers who briefly mattered to each other a long time ago. Mitch and Mickey, once folk singers , have grown apart -- she's settled down with a nice suburban guy who likes trains, while he's bounced around mental institutions and can manage, on a good day, to more or less take care of himself. Mitch is so ruined that Mickey can scarcely bear to look at him, she can barely muster to patience to wait while he finishes each slow, banal sentence. But we know that, sometimes, magic happens on stage, and this slow, sly, manipulative movie is free to invest something like 80 minutes in building the scene.


I've been spending a few days at a NIST workshop on Semantic Distance, a gathering that explored the problems of enabling business enterprises to build systems that talk together even though their internal definitions don't agree.

For example, all weblog tools talk about "posts", "articles", or “notes”. But different tools have different names for things, and some details of those things differ. A MovableType article has a title, but a Blogger article doesn't. These differences and mismatches are inevitable, and they propagate to related systems -- syndication formats like RSS, Web services like and Google, commerce systems like iTunes and Amazon.

Right now, people sit down and argue and negotiate standards and protocols, and then people write lots of code to patch up the gaps between systems. It might be possible to make this a lot simpler, to get computers to write the code for us. But, to do this, we need the systems to explain what they require, and how badly they need it. "Each article has a title," MovableType might say, "but you can leave it blank if you like."

The NIST people have identified a huge opportunity here. XML and the Internet create the opportunity; all sorts of business systems now send the same sort of messages over the same sort of wires. They can almost understand each other. And the semantic Web work shows how we might be able to integrate the ideas automatically.

The problem is harder than the semantic Web, because the semantic Web is chiefly about documents, which stay the same, while enterprises need to integrate processes which are constantly in flux. Yesterday's PDA is today's cell phone, and yesterday's inventory is today's fish wrap. But it's easier as well; we don't have the social problem of getting everyone to write sound metadata. We only need metadata for these enterprise systems, and they get an immediate, tangible reward for their work. If you build it, orders will come.

What on earth was I doing there? I tried to point towards some things that hypertext rhetoric and modern critical theory tell us about the messages between systems that we're trying to translate. Multivalence is not a vice; messages carry several meanings, and the fact that they're marked up with lots of XML tags doesn't change that. Juxtaposing two images creates a third idea in the viewer's mind; montage and collage are important, every link that offers to carry you toward its destination is also leading you away from something else. The meaning is not contained in the text; even if you understand every term in the message, you may not understand what it means. (Here's a pdf of my slides: 16Mb)

I expect that one fascinating outcome of this workshop may be a much closer study of the nature of miscommunication in business and in systems. Much of what we know is just anecdote; remarkable disasters and hilariously memorable mishaps. And we all know that, most of the time, you can get by even without much understanding or agreement. Though our kitchen is filled with relatives who don't know each other, don't like each other, are trained in different kitchen traditions and accustomed to different kitchen equipment, nonetheless the holiday turkey usually does get cooked.

But there was one thing they'd forgotten
photo: Rebecca Ober,

This, incidentally, is the wrong way to cook a turkey. Turkeys should be cooked on a kettle grill, slowly. Stuff it with a quartered onion, a quartered apple, and a quartered orange. Don't worry about the snow.

I tried the fast, new Acela train for this week's trip to Washington. It's six hours, Boston to DC.

  • This is actually a pleasant length for a journey, long enough to feel unhurried but not cabin-fever territory.
  • The train was nearly full, mid-week. (The train was off-peak, but it gets to NY at 5pm, which might make it popular.)
  • $6
  • $7
  • $8
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Nov 03 11 2003


The trees in New England are just about bare, and at Eastgate the annual textbook rush is winding up. Cartons of hypertexts have gone out to schools and colleges and universities all over the Northern hemisphere. (Australian schools are great hypertext customers, but their academic calendars are topsy turvy)

Harkness Common at Harvard Law School, Walter Gropius, Cambridge MA. The painting is real, and was created for the space.

So, people all over the place are studying hypertexts like afternoon and Victory Garden and Patchwork Girl and Samplers. These are not new hypertexts -- literature courses prefer to study work that has been mulled over and argued about for a few years. These aren't technologically sophisticated hypertexts either, though even the oldest -- afternoon -- still has some tech secrets that nobody has properly described in the journals.

Why do we study afternoon so often, and so rarely study its game contemporaries like Captain Magneto and Wizardry and Donkey Kong?

The hypertexts are about people, about life, in a way the games are not. In afternoon, Peter is a fellow who wants to say that he may have seen his son die this morning. Whatever your position on ludology or post-structural theory, when a guy mentions this over lunch, it's a hell of a note. Victory Garden is about a grad student who suddenly finds herself at war, one of Uncle Sam's fighting mail sorters, and you've got to admit that it's topical as hell. The heroine of Patchwork Girl is (literally) falling apart at the seams, and the protagonists of the nine vicious little hypertexts in Samplers are barely holding it together. They're all interesting people, all people you think you might learn something from.

The hypertexts, too, promise to repay study. Their secrets, once we understand them, should be ours to deploy for our own purposes. Once you understand how Joyce drives afternoon with language and Moulthrop drives Victory Garden with incident, well, then you'll know how to do the same thing in your love letters or your presidential weblog or whatever it is you decide you'd like to do next.

For games, it's just not obvious today where you go outside the game, unless you want to be a game designer.

Games could tell us about people. A few do. D&D taught us a lot. You can learn plenty from poker and contract bridge. I think we might learn a lot by studying exactly how Clan Lords works as a community, or how World War II Online doesn't.

But, right now, games are about sensation and about the dance, but they're about people and ideas. They're about sensation and about the dance.

Last night, we saw Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. This wasn't precisely our choice, but the tickets were a Free Gift, and at 4pm on a Saturday your spontaneity is bound to be limited. There are sillier ideas, to be sure, than turning an animated melodrama into a Broadway show, though it's not necessarily easy to come up with one at the spur of the moment.

It's interesting to see a melodrama contrived in such a way that nobody -- in the play or in the theater -- can get very worried about anything. But, clearly, people want to like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. There were plenty of kids in the audience, but not more than I remember when I saw Oliver! on its first tour, when I was a kid at my first real show, and Oliver isn't kid stuff.

My clue: the big applause in the curtain call went to the candlestick, and meerkats are the new zoo celebrity.

If we wanted to do, in hypertexts, whatever it is that these confections do: could we? In games?

Sunday, we went uptown to visit a gallery that was, unfortunately, closed. Then we went downtown to another set of galleries, all of which were also closed. Then back uptown to the Met, where the lines to pay $12 each for admission we so long we gave up, and walked instead to the Frick, where I'd not been in decades and which was well worth the wait. The guards, clearly, felt it was their duty to guard the collection from us, and to constantly remind us of this fact, thereby adding to the experience of visiting a house of a guy who liked to pick up the occasional Vermeer to go with his Holbeins.

Then, not finding a taxi, walk 20 blocks back to the hotel to collect our bags, kiss Linda, and run 20 blocks to catch the Acela to Washington.

East Side, West Side
East side, West side, all around the town
Nov 03 7 2003

Good Weight

Everyone talks about the way Apple's equipment looks, but the feel of the iPod is what really sells it. It's small, it's polished, and it's solid. You pick it up and it fits your hand, yes, but also you know that you're holding something substantial.

After all, you are.

Semiotics have been let loose and run wild, Anthony Dunne points out in his brilliant Hertzian Dreams. Your average electronic gizmo, if it's designed at all, is designed as a sign -- a symbol of itself. Symbols are all well and good, but sometimes you just want the thing itself. iPod says, "I'm small, but I sure am solid."

Good Weight

"I like your computer," she said. "It looks like it was made by Indians or something."

Chia looked down at her sandbenders. Turned off the red switch. "Coral," she said. "These are turquoise. The ones that look like ivory are the inside of a kind of nut. Renewable."

"The rest is silver?"

' "Aluminum," Chia said. "They melt old cans they dig up on the beach cast it in sand molds. These panels are micarta. That's linen with this resin in it." -- William Gibson, Idoru'"

Nov 03 6 2003

High, Low

In the middle of Louis Menand's 1995 appreciation of film critic Pauline Kael, we find a passage with implications for literary hypertext that are, I think, interesting and important.

Kael's contention that "serious" movies should meet the same standard as pulp--that the should be entertaining -- turned out to be an extremely useful and widely adopted critical principle. For it rests on an empirically sustainable proposition, which is that although people sometimes have a hard time deciding whether or not something is art, they are rarely fooled into thinking they are having a good time when they are not. It was Kael's therapeutic advice to the overcultivated that if they just concentrated on responding to the stimulus, the aesthetic would take care of themselves. What good is form if the content leaves you cold
The academic term for the kind of antiformalism Kael promoted is 'postmodernism.' Postmodernism in the arts simply is anti-essentialism. It is a reaction against the idea, associated by academic critics in the postwar years with modernist literature, painting, and architecture, that the various arts have their own essential qualities--that poetry is essentially a matter of the organization of language, that painting is essentially a matter of composition, that architecture is essentially a matter of space and light.

First, obviously, that's a really interesting definition of postmodernism.

And, second, I was in a meeting with a bunch of really fine hypertext writers the other day. In passing, one of them remarked, "Of course, what we do isn't really entertainment." Why not? Could we?

High, Low

A delightful Web project explains where Lego bricks come from.

The isometric views (and tiny-pixelated-people style) make a superb blend with the industrial video. The interaction is a bit hokey, perhaps, but it's better than making this into a conventional film.

Now, could you take this approach and use it to tell a story about something that matters? Perhaps the brave little toaster? (Thanks, k10k!)

Nov 03 5 2003


I've revamped this page to use CSS styles instead of nested tables. You should think about doing this, too, next time you dust and clean your design; it's cleaner and faster and better for the Web environment.

This might be as good a time as any to mention a delightful experimental site, the CSS Zen Garden, which demonstrates the enormous visual range of contemporary, standards-compliant Web design.

Ted Goranson has completed a comprehensive discussion of outliners for ATPM (part 1 | part 2).

Goranson's discussion lists nearly every "feature" that outliners possess, or could possess -- good, bad, indifferent, and irrelevant. This is, of course, the favorite vice of magazine reviewers, and back when computer magazines mattered it led to absurd feature wars. Software companies would add badly thought-out and badly implemented features, one after another, just to make sure their product got more checkmarks than the competition. The result, of course, was blight: one huge program with lots of features, no coherence, no competitor, and no further development. Word, or Internet Explorer.

But, just this once, I'd make an exception: Goranson's list of features is so comprehensive and intelligent that it makes a real contribution.

Nov 03 4 2003

The Book Project

Over the last couple of years, I've posted brief notes about books I've read. That amounts to about 180 book notes so far. I've always enjoyed short reviews like those Phoebe Adams used to write for The Atlantic.

For a long time, I've worried that I'm completely missing important things I should be reading, things everybody else knows. The book project is my way of helping. And it's a plea for advice: what am I missing?

If you are familiar with similar weblogs projects, please let me know.

Meanwhile, I'm revamping my Tinderbox setup to use stylesheets more effectively and to clean up some dusty corners. Some oddities may appear; email me if there's something really bad.

Bramblestory is Tim Spalding's new meeting place for writers and center for collaborative storytelling. It's brand new, so the grafitti effect hasn't yet overwhelmed the sites ambitions.

Doug Miller publishes a fascinating discussion of his Commonplace Book, a Tinderbox tool for "keeping track of books, articles, people, Web sites, email messages, and pictures."

I let Tinderbox do the classification for me. The document also contains a number of Tinderbox agents, continually scanning my notes for patterns of interest to me. Most of these agents are topical in nature, focusing on things like People, Artificial Intelligence, or weblogging. Others are task oriented, like the agents that create a list of what books I want to buy or check out from the library. A final group is time oriented: I can tell at a glance what notes I modified last week three months ago, or a year ago. These agents provide me with a temporal context for my shifting interests and attention.

Nov 03 2 2003

Is this 1976?

Lev Manovich has been widely praised -- and rightly so -- for his brilliant observations on the database as a medium of expression. But in The Language of New Media, Manovich treats data and algorithm as distinctly separate and interdependent:

In computer programming, data structures and algorithms need each other; they are equally important for a program to work. What happens in a cultural sphere? Do databases and narratives have the same status in computer culture?

The problem is simple: this separation was the software engineering consensus of 1976. A lot has changed since then. Objects, frameworks, agile methods. Programs are no longer the sum of algorithms + data structures. Moreover, the language of the 1970's was strongly tinged by anxieties over procedural programming that are no longer widespread; we still argue over whether formality should be considered harmful, but the only time we talk about harmful GOTOs these days is when people argue (incorrectly) that hypertext links, being GOTOs, are bad. (Links aren't gotos, they're reference. Reference is good.)

Is this 1976?

That we now believe computation belongs with the data, not on it, doesn't necessarily mean the Manovich approach is wrong. But shouldn't we be talking about the gap?