During the War, MI5 discovered that the Nazis were developing weapons of mass destruction, planning to raise spirits from the vasty deep to do unspeakable things to their enemies. They failed.

Soon after the War, Alan Turing discovered the Turing-Lovecraft theory connecting computational theory with The Nameless Ones. He was assassinated. MI5 and the CIA and other covert agencies have ever since been at war against squamous demons from other dimensions -- and at war with each other. Naturally, the centers of academic research in this field are Santa Cruz, Brown, and Miskatonic.

This book is wonderfully observed and acidly witty. When Stross begins to describe a Memex -- our hero from tech support recognizes it instantly as a rare CIA antiquity -- he gets it exactly right long before he tells us what it is or what it does. When our hero's new girlfriend spots his four volume set of Knuth in his bedroom, she immediately recognizes how odd that is -- and when he explains that his agency paid Knuth to suppress the much-delayed fourth volume for reasons of galactic security, it surprises neither our hero nor his girlfriend that her plans for the evening immediately involve reading Knuth before their scheduled 9am flight to Amsterdam.

Highly recommended.

J. Nathan Matias has redesigned his weblog. Dylan Kinnet writes that it still has a distinctively Tinderbox look to it.

That's odd. Yes, a tool can influence the look of a weblog, but I can't really see why Tinderbox would foster one look or discourage another. The Tinderbox template mechanism is so flexible, for example, that it should readily accommodate just about any template design you'd want to throw at it.

Matias's scheme does adopt the unusually-detailed main-page sidebar I use here. I sometimes find that weblogs are so fixated on today that they forget to orient the new or infrequent visitor, the reader who is joining the story already in progress, and so I think a really detailed sidebar makes lots of sense. But I've been using it for years, and it hasn't really caught on.

I think most Tinderbox weblogs are closer to Derek Powazek's template examples. Jon Buscall's Grey Notebook, say, or Adam Feuer, or DonutAge.

Perhaps we need a little Tinderbox to the css zen garden?

Today, I watched "I Capture The Castle" (Ebert), which is probably the worst movie I've seen in months.

It's a very good movie.

I think that's interesting. I was looking at my recent movie notes (bottom of the left column), and said to myself, "Mark, you're getting very generous!" But, when you come right down to it, these are good movies.

It seems I've seen about 24 movies this year -- I'm counting TV serial seasons as a single movie here. Some, I think, have been memorably great. Some have merely been very, very good. And when the worst movies you can point to all year are Auto Focus and Harry Potter, well, that's not so bad.

The impact of videos, of course, makes a big difference. Netflix, too, has mattered by reducing the impact of not having a good rental place. The Netflix queue is a valuable way to plan and prioritize your viewing intelligently; I watch fewer action-films-of-the-moment these days, because there are so many interesting films waiting in the queue.

At current rates, I've got over a year of film viewing already in my queue. Oh dear.

Nov 04 26 2004


I spent of the day optimizing the new Tinderbox rule system -- a system that lets you add constraints to say things like:

Any project is urgent if any of the tasks it contains is urgent, or if you've said that it's urgent.

The catch is, I expect rules will be so attractive that people will want to use them all over the place. Can they be fast enough? Remember, a modest ToDo list might contain, say, 402 tasks -- each of which might inherit a rule from the archetypical task prototype. So now we've got to update 402 rules, all the time.

The answer's still far from clear. But at breakfast, the test case ran in 329 msec, and by dinner we were down to 79 msec. Better.

Along the way, I started an experiment in using colors in outline views. If an outline item is colored, does it use Color (the base color of the note in the map) or NameColor (the color of the note's title in the map) or something else?

Nov 04 25 2004


XMLHead has moved to Tinderbox, a big vote of confidence since James Nicholson's weblog is devoted to technical and philosophical discussions about XML and Content Management.

A nice, CSS-based and table-free design, too.

Once the last major code knot was untangled -- once Tinderbox for Windows was firmly in the realm of engineering and not research -- we planned to make a big list of everything that needed to be done before the first beta build. We planned to have the list for Hallowe'en.

It gave us a fright.

My first reaction was simple.

There are 402 things on this list! This is obviously off by 200, maybe 300 things. Do it over!

So we made the list. And checked it, Twice.

402 is a good number.

It's not the right number. Our best estimate goes up and down all the time. But the real number is something like 402.

My second reaction was simple. "If we roll up our sleeves and work very hard, every day, all day, how quickly can we run through 402 things?"

That's the wrong question: we're already seeing lots of signs of overwork around the office, we're already running just about flat out. In any case, we can't completely clear the decks. TEKKA readers still need fresh TEKKA (and TEKKA 7 has some great stuff) Students everywhere will need to have their hypertexts waiting in the bookstore for second semester courses, which means we have lots of bookstore orders to handle now. There's an important new hypertext about to join the Eastgate catalog. Payroll needs to happen. Taxes need to be filed.

So, how quickly can we work through the list? We're gathering data -- which I hope to start sharing in the peekhole soon.

Today, we ticked off AgentManager, and TextPolicy, and MapPolicy, and started AbstractTextPane. (We also had a big TEKKA meeting, shipped a new Storyspace beta, and did plenty of other stuff) That seems to be about average; the speedometer has been as high as ten, and as low as 0.5, but 3-4 seems about average.

So: it appears that we're looking at Valentine's Day. Not the answer I wanted. But we're moving at a good clip.

There should be more action in the peekhole shortly.

402: The Big List
A tree in Rome
Nov 04 21 2004

Dead Of Night

Freedom is on the march.

Last night, behind everyone's back, the Republicans tried to slip a paragraph into the middle of a rushed, 3000-page spending bill. The paragraph would have allowed the (Republican) leadership and anyone they deputized -- but no one else -- to read anyone's tax return for any purpose whatsoever. Extortion, political embarrassment, selective prosecution -- anything the Republicans liked.

For example, the Republicans could check the tax returns of people applying for government jobs (or seeking tenure at a state university) to see if they gave money to the ACLU or didn't support a Christian church.

Fortunately, someone noticed. My initial impression is that the United States just came within a few hours of becoming a one-party dictatorship.

People new to hypertext often worry that everything will be confused. "If readers can choose," the worry, "they'll go astray." Hypertext fiction seems an arty postmodern abstraction.

This is wrong.

Let's take a very familiar linear narrative. Today, we'll go with part of the libretto to Messiah, to which Anders Fagerjord was listening the other afternoon:

There were shepherds abiding in the field,
keeping watch over their flocks by night.
And suddenly an angel of the lord came upon them,
And the glory of the lord shown round about them, and they were sore afraid.
But the angel said unto them, 'Fear not, for behold
I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be
to all people:
for unto you is born this day in the city of David
a saviour which is Christ the lord.'
And suddenly there was with the angel
a multitide of the heavenly host
praising god, and saying:
Glory to god in the highest. And peace on earth, good will toward men.

(Possible small errors; I'm quoting from the memory of singing the alto part. I left out the "plunk plunk" harpsichord cadences, which I think are as much of the text as the rest, so sue me. Capitalization carefully thought out but idiosyncratic. Note to ancestors: it's just a story, no tsimmes please.)

Now, suppose -- just suppose -- you were going to shoot a movie of this scene. Maybe you're JMS, and you've got to shoot this scene set on Centauri Prime in the days of the old Republic. How do you do it? Do you start with "And suddenly?"

Shepherds abiding


The city of David is silhouetted in the distance against the night sky.

ZOOM IN reveal a star moving against the stellar background. It begins to accelerate and descends toward the horizon. The camera follows it, until it it blocked by the shoulder of A SHEPHERD, who is pointing toward a straying lamb.

A SECOND SHEPHERD runs to catch the lamb. As he does so, he notices a growing shadow from the celestial phenomenon, which is now as bright as moonlight.


Deep space. Stars. In a quotation from the opening short of Star Wars, the HEAVENLY HOST enters the frame with a loud rumble and proceeds onward behind us. In the deep rumble, we can hear '...And peace on earth. Good will toward men.'


Why did we shoot it this way? Not just to be perverse, and not just to be different. If the shepherds are going to be scared, the angel has to be a surprise to them. But if the angels surprise the audience, the audience will be simply confused. (If we really do a number, maybe they'll be sore afraid. Oy.) We've got to establish the angels before the shepherds, and we've got to establish the city (and therefore the field) before we get to the angels.

The point here is that this time we don't want to tell the story in chronological order nor in the conventional sequences. At different times and places, we'll want to arrange things differently -- not because we want to tweak the bourgeoisie, but because different arrangements work better for different audiences and situations.

After twenty years, people still think disorientation is a problem with hypertext. This is pure scholastic sloppiness. Disorientation is a problem in cinema, where there's no time to fix things once you've got them disoriented. It's not particularly a problem in hypertext.

Presentation Assistant
New in the Tinderbox Public File Exchange, a fresh Tinderbox assistant that builds web-enabled a presentation framework. It's a tool for making Powerpoint-like presentations that are lightweight -- you can download them quickly over the Web -- and it's based on ubiquitous Web standards so you can present anywhere.

It's all based on Eric Meyer's s5. Thanks!

This one's got lots of room for customization and elaboration. More, soon.

Linda took me to Excelsior last night. It's in the space where Biba used to be, and Biba was one of my favorites. Excelsior was better.

The real star of the meal was a little dish of seared, carmelized sea scallops -- very fresh scallops, mind you -- with crisped water chestnuts and oak tree shiitake mushrooms. These seared scallops were dry and crisp outside, barely cooked inside, and wonderfully tasty. I really need to work on my searing.

The roast duck was beautifully done. I could get used to boned duck, incidentally.

We had a nice Gigondas (Domaine des Bosquetes 2000) , and finished up with chocolate-filled beignets with banana ice cream and a sliver of crisped banana.

Nov 04 19 2004


The journal-maker (journalist?) from California called last night to report that Eastgate's next shipment of hand-made leather journals is finished and on its way. Here's one of them:


We've got four different styles, each refillable. They'll last just about forever. And they're on sale for the next week.

Nov 04 17 2004


In Utah, a 25-year-old has been sentenced to 55 years in prison for selling marijuana. The judge himself considers the sentence unfair.

Fraser Spiers complains that Tinderbox has the graphic pizzaz of an IC layout program. Of course, that's the point: we're not trying to be pretty. We've got a lot of work to do; pizzaz is fun, but the work is what matters.

For example, take that list of sites I mentioned yesterday. We'll put the short title of the organization in the note title, and we'll put the main URL in the URL attribute.

Lists For Use

We can turn this into a blogroll instantly, with a simple template. And we can make everything in this list have a common prototype, *protoOrganization, so that the URL will be a key attribute. We'll add an action to the container so the prototype is assigned automatically.

  • Need to add new organizations? Just hit return. Or drag a link or a bookmark from the browser.
  • Need to reformat the blogroll? Just change the stylesheet.
  • Want to add an organization but don't want it on the blogroll? Just turn off HTML Export.
  • Want to know how many organizations we've got so far? Select the blogroll and Get Info.
  • Want to make some notes about the organization? We aren't using the text of these notes yet; just type.

What we've done, really, is to build a smart personal application for our personal research. It's taken only minutes to set this up. If our work changes, it's not a huge investment; we've lost five minutes. But if we spend any time at all on this, we'll save lots of time by getting the information down, ensuring it's organized, and keeping it flexible and open to change.

I'm reading First Nights , a study of the first performances of five famous classical works, because the Boston Globe ran an intelligent article about Thomas Forrest Kelly's wildly-popular Harvard course on the subject. And I've been listening to "Solti's performance of Messiah" , because Kelly's discography recommends it particularly.

You wouldn't know that, though, from reading Amazon recommendations like this.

For some bizarre reason, nearly every movement is very "angular" and clipped. It almost sounds as if the chorus has the hiccups! If you like your "Messiah" in the style of a military march this is the one for you! I suspect Solti was trying to achieve a light, bouncy effect but instead the performance comes off sounding very "mechanical".

I notice this snertishness in lots of user reviews -- especially in software review sites. Take Delicious Library, a much-buzzed and lovingly-crafted new application for keeping track of books and CDs.

Very sparse on the features. I find it rather insulting that someone thinks I will buy their program just because it looks prettier than the competition. $40 is very overpriced.
WWAAAYYY over priced. Not only does it import DUPLICATES (which I disabled), but, you can't even change the order of the visual layout, the sorting (well, there IS NO sorting), when importing from another database I get DVDs, etc in the list I DON'T EVEN HAVE, and worst of all they want $40!!?? Obscene and insulting...

I'm beginning to wonder if all our work toward social navigation and democratic open systems is simply a way for kiddies and snerts to get attention.

Nov 04 16 2004


Over at ProgressiveHelp, we're talking about setting up a clearinghouse for willing hands and things that need doing. "Got a couple of hours?", we want to ask. "Here's a list of things. Pick one, get started."


It's just a placeholder site for now. The first priority is to find progressive organizations, so we can ask them, "What do you need?" And to find progressives who'd like to lend a hand.

In both these tasks, simple Tinderbox features are a big help. Take the list or organizations: it's going to get long, we'd like it to keep it sorted. That's easy: any Tinderbox contained can constantly sort the notes it contains.

By the way, we need a logo. Volunteers?

It's one thing to wryly apologize to the world for the election. How long will we be apologizing for this?

A Marine approached one of the [unarmed, wounded[] men in the mosque saying, "He's fucking faking he's dead. He's faking he's fucking dead."

The Marine raised his rifle and fired into the apparently wounded man's head, at which point a companion said, "Well, he's dead now."

The whole world is watching.

Nov 04 14 2004

Wiki Mobility

Moving the Tinderbox Wiki has really helped cut down on the spam rate. It's great to find a bunch of pages have changed and they aren't just spam!

Alwin Hawkins is experimenting with writing in Tinderbox and posting to Radio Userland.

I am still writing in Tinderbox, the tool I use to keep my life from falling to pieces all around me. It's become indispensable, both at the House of Pain and the House of Healing.

What a Sunday morning! Wake up to John McPhee's "Tight-Assed River", a long, drifting, lyrical tribute to river barges and then people who crew them.

Big Issue

Then back to bed and Megabite and Jon Lee Anderson's "Out On The Street", which explains where the Baathists went when Bush decided to impose DeBaathification without thinking things through. And then, Adam Gopnik on the current editorial contretemps at Le Monde, of which I'd previously heard nothing.

That's one hot issue of The New Yorker. The five-grain pancakes (with real maple syrup, of course) were nice, too.

Nov 04 13 2004


When The Paladin of Souls, the second book of the series that begins here, won this year's Hugo, I though I should read it. TEKKA wants to buy science fiction, my own reading was in a rut, I once loved a lot of science fiction, and the Cramer/Hartwell anthologies always contain some nifty little stories.

That this book is long and predictable is not a criticism but a genre description. It's a fable grown up and freshly polished, and Bujold does the job expertly and thinks things through. A noble but desperately impoverished courtier at the end of his resources is appointed tutor to a princess of a troubled kingdom. The princess is soon beset by intricate, devious, and deadly conspiracy. It's a good setting.

I think it would be fascinating to hear Bujold and Robert Coover discuss the making of literature from fairy tales. Sparks would fly. Readercon, take note.

But why, exactly, is this a fantasy? After Tolkien, yes, we're tempted to reach for fantasy when we need kings and princes, but Chalion could slide very nicely into the Balkans, or the pre-Ottoman East, or (for that matter) into medieval Italian cities on which is seems to be most closely modeled. Bujold, to be sure, does interesting work with a religion in which the Trinity is replaced by the Four Seasons augmented by The Bastard, and clearly she's interested in a world where religion is real , where gods and ghosts exist. There's nothing she says about The Daughter, though, that mightn't have been said about Mary somewhere in the 12th or 13th century, and the abilities and limitations of the divine when intervening in temporal affairs were certainly topical then.

It's a fine book. For two weeks, I returned home at night and looked forward to spending some time with the Castillar dy Cazaril.

Happy Birthday MNJ
Mac News Journal marks its second anniversary as a Tinderbox site. More than 3000 posts!

Nov 04 9 2004



Eastgate's just received some lovely leather journals. They're bench-crafted from fine, sturdy leather, and they come with archival, hard-cover, acid-free and smythe-sewn inserts.

Get 'em while they're hot!

We need a Macromedia Director pro for a small post-production chore. Lend us a hand? Phone Eastgate, or email

Nov 04 7 2004

Four Years

What do you know? This weblog's four years old. Happy Birthday too to Dan Bricklin's blog.

A lot of my overseas friends used to find American politics baffling because, for most of the 20th century, US parties were about alliances, not ideas. In most places, a party has a core idea (Labor, Catholicism, Communism); in the US, it didn't. The Republicans were more conservative, but they had plenty of liberals. The Democrats had buckets of conservatives.

This wasn't a matter of degree; there were Republican liberals who were more Progressive than most Democrats, and the Democrats had a big block of the conservative reactionaries who were far to the right of most Republicans.

This has been changing, gradually, since 1964. Or maybe it started in 1948, when the segregationists stormed out of the Democratic convention to back Strom Thurmond. But it's been gradual.

That change is essentially finished now; the most progressive Republicans are now to the right of the most conservative Democrat. There are one or two outliers -- mostly old-line New England Republicans -- but they're obviously anomalous (and may be ready to switch parties).

It might be a good change, but it is a change. And it's going to make the US a more bitterly partisan place for the next few years than it's been in living memory.

Nov 04 6 2004

The Company

Robert Altman is, I think, a one-man primer on plot for new media.

The Company is a fine film about dance -- a subject of which I know nothing beyond the familiar film and theater cliches. (I once knew a dancer who gave up and went to Harvard to be a chemical physicist; after she did that, you turned into a novelist. Dancing's a tough racket.)

The big plot tension in The Company comes from those cliches: you see the cliche coming down the track and you're captivated by the question, "How will our hero escape certain catastrophe?" It's a dance movie: you know the dancer is going to fall in love with the wrong guy. She does. It's a dance movie: someone's gonna get injured. They do. Someone is going to have to say, "But the show must go on!" They say it. It's a dance movie: there's going to be a pompous old ass spouting homilies. There is.

And all of this somehow unfolds naturally, and (incredibly) always turns away from trite melodrama at the very last moment.

The Company
© Sony Picture Classics

The way Altman drives The Company is quite different from the way he drives Gosford Park or M*A*S*H. And all of these are quite different from each other, and also from his masterpiece, Nashville. I think all this repays study -- especially since Altman's signature style holds an obvious affinity for hypertextuality.

When an election is close, you're tempted to get out the microscope and figure out just what went wrong. Take Ohio: 5455K votes, 137K separating the candidates. Stuff happens.

People trip and fall, they break a leg, they don't vote. People get the flu, or don't get the flu, and a vote gets cast or doesn't. People accidentally push the wrong button -- it happens. There are a million stories.

On balance, it evens out -- mostly. It's like flipping a coin a hundred times: you expect 50 heads, but if you get 45 or 55 you aren't surprised. 55 heads doesn't mean the coin is rigged or that headishness is the new trend, or that tails needs to rethink everything it does.

Same thing happens in baseball: when things are close -- last week of a 162-game regular season and you're one game out -- stuff just happens. You get an extra walk, and that leads to a rally. Some weak-hitting infielder comes off the bench and hits a homer: go figure. The ball goes through someone's legs. Your all-star catcher gets tied up with the batter and misses a peg to second. The umpire calls your runner out when everyone in the stadium can see he missed the tag by six feet.

It's really tempting to try to fix the immediate problem: bad umpires, bad catcher, too many walks, not enough team spirit or clutch hitting. But that's not going to help. The problem, maybe, is that you shouldn't have been in the situation -- you should've been ten games ahead instead of almost tied.

Or, maybe, getting close was everything you could hope to do. You stayed close, you got in a position where you had a chance to win, and then it didn't quite work.

The whole point of Kerry, from Iowa and New Hampshire on, was to eek out a victory in a close election. On any given Tuesday, he might have won. Same thing with Gore.

The answer: next time, make sure it's not close.

Andrew Sullivan:

Our safety valve must be federalism. We have to live and let live. As blue states become more secular, and red states become less so, the only alternative to a national religious war is to allow different states to pursue different options. That goes for things like decriminalization of marijuana, abortion rights, stem cell research and marriage rights. Forcing California and Mississippi into one model is a recipe for disaster. Federalism is now more important than ever.

Joshua Micah Marshall:

Well, here we are. And this is the test for people who care about this kind of politics and these sorts of values -- making sure that what has been started is not allowed to falter.

Fan mail:

Why don't you all just move to France? ... Tax successful people who work in the name of fairness? It's all such bullshit and you are blind. There is no progressive agenda -- it is simply do what the hell you want with no personal accountability. You will pay in the next world.
Nov 04 4 2004


That could have gone better.

Time to roll up our sleeves. There is much to do.