Nov 07 30 2007


At OOPSLA, Fred Brooks, Jr. (The Mythical Man Month and a legendary software manager) showed a slide that compared two kinds of hardware and software designs: those with fan clubs (some of the examples are his, some mine):

  • Seymour Cray's computers
  • MacOS
  • LISP
  • EMACS (or vi)
  • ruby

and those without fan clubs

  • IBM computers
  • Windows
  • Microsoft Word
  • javascript

He observed that, pretty much without exception, the designs with fan clubs have conceptual integrity because they are chiefly the work of one or two people.

Now, it's also interesting to note that some of the unclubbable designs were profitable, and some of the clubbable designs were not. (Sometimes, you get intense fan clubs for products that are otherwise hapless and hopeless: the Amiga computer, say, or languages like APL or FORTH. I shared a cab after OOPSLA with a SNOBOL fan; that takes you back...)

What I want to point out is, whatever their success in the marketplace, the designs that inspire devotion are interesting and important because of the passion they create. We're much to quick to assume that the wisdom of markets is wise. It's not: bad timing or bad marketing or bad execution can matter, too.

One of the defining properties of NeoVictorian Computing is inspiration: the conviction that a design can be, and is, right. This need not mean the arrogant conviction that the design is perfect, nor does it expect or require a proof of optimality. And we don't require a supernatural insistence that some divine spirit instills the design into us. All we need is the sense that this is the best we can do; there might be other answers just as good, but this is your best.

You can't get that in a committee, by definition. And I think this property of conviction, integrity, and passion -- this quality without a name -- is of fundamental interest in a way that friendliness and usability and standards-compliance and fashion are not.

It's been an interesting 24 hours of San Francisco food.

First, there was Nom (a spicy papaya and peanut salad) and Bo Luc Lac (deliciously earthy and tender beef cubes in a dark sauce, dipped in a spicy vinegar sauce) and the estimable BoDeGa Bistro.

Then, breakfast at Dottie's True Blue Café, where I learned that I have been overcooking my pancakes. Their pancakes, well worth the wait, were a lovely brown on the outside and meltingly liquid inside. Delicious. And the home fries were superb.

Lunch: a very nice duck confit and salad. The light alternative was roasted vegetables and couscous; I'll take confit 7 times out of 10.

And dinner at Zuni: a persimmon salad and a roast chicken. A very impressive roast chicken, with a lovely bread dressing and wilted greens, superbly done. I wasn't really expecting that much from Zuni, but it was delightful: nice service, a terrific space, and really well done food.

I might not eat for a while, though.

Nov 07 28 2007


Les Orchard has a new linklog in Tinderbox.

Gavin McGovern thinks that some of our conference guilt comes from not being in the moment.

So to that guy that was sitting next to me, typing madly and muttering to himself, during a really interesting session, I wished your batteries died and you lost all network connections and your pen ran out of ink.

I suspect, though, that sitting around the conference table on the beach at Troy, the wily Odysseus spent a fare amount of time composing witty dactyls. I bet that plenty of salesmen at the proverbial annual shindig spend the sessions planning just how they're going to close the deal, make the quota, or spend the night on the town.

There's a reason we aren't in the moment; we aren't paying attention, because we can't admit to enjoying the parts of our work that delight us, and we don't want to admit that the rest is slave's work, unredeem'd.

I'm pulling together the final program for Tinderbox Weekend San Francisco. It's going to be a remarkably strong set of talks!


  • Mark Bernstein: NeoVictorian Computing: directors' commentary
  • Michael P. Fitzhugh: Tinderbox — Noting The News
  • Bill Humphries: Tinderbox and Second Life
  • Cathy Marshall: Roots of Spatial Hypertext


  • Mark Bernstein: What's New in Tinderbox?
  • Douglas E. Miller: Using Tinderbox to Support Web Application Development
  • Greg Ibendahl: Project Management with Tinderbox: A Visual Approach
  • Tom Webster: Necessary Tangents: An Organic Inquiry into Consumer Behavior With Tinderbox
  • Rosemary Simpson: A Virtual Trip Report in Tinderbox


All this is subject to change, of course. We're essentially sold out, but we're working to arrange some extra space or, at least, some extra chairs. We're also setting up a special one-day registration for Sunday, when we have a larger room. And, once again, we'll have a few remote memberships available if you can't get to San Francisco and would like to have a copy of the Tinderbox Weekend CD.

Support Tinderbox Weekend
Tinderbox Weekend Remote Membership: $75

You can always remove it later.
Nov 07 26 2007


by Caroline H. Dall

A wonderful little collection of notes about growing up in Boston between 1820-1840. Dall can write; this set of anecdotes is meant to correct some impressions left by another 1900 memoir, but it stands cheerfully on its own.

There used to be a fort on Boston Common; it was where the girls played. (Kids were always kids; the boys were sent to their own corner, thank you much.) It was a comfort zone; later, at least one battered wife stowed her portable belongings in the old play fort while she cast around for shelter for her infant and herself.

"No one born after the Civil War has seen a lobster!", Dall writes; lobsters back then were big, and businessmen would stop one the way back from the office and choose a lobster for the family dinner.

Delightfully detailed, this curious bundle of cheer was reprinted by Arno in 1980 and should not be difficult to find.

Nov 07 24 2007


Thanksgiving was the work of many hands. I grilled the turkey, but I've already told you that you should grill your turkey. This year, I basted it for the last half hour with bourbon, lime juice, and maple syrup; this blackened the skin but was very nice for the breast meat.

The innovation, this time, was gravy. Usually, I don't do Thanksgiving gravy because the grill gives you no pan drippings. But this year, I was also doing a carrot-cilantro soup for starters, and that meant I needed some fresh stock. So, I roasted off an old turkey carcass and an old duck carcass for the stock, and that left the inevitable messy roasting pan.

Which is an opportunity. I poured off the fat and deglazed the pan with tap water, and then again with some white wine. Everything when into a saucepan and stayed there for a few hours. Later, when I had some time, I added a couple of cups of that stock I was making for the soup. I stirred a couple of tablespoons of flour into 2T of melted butter, let it cook for a few minutes, and stirred it into the warmed saucepan. Then, I briskly sauteed a couple of handfuls of sliced mushrooms, and they went into the saucepan. I added a little cream. (No; I forgot. I admit it. But, if you have it on hand, you go ahead and add it. Could've added a little butter right before serving, too.) Strain it into the gravy boat. Done.

I think this is, roughly speaking, sauce supreme. It does go nicely with turkey and potatoes.

Nice thing is, there's nothing really bad in this gravy. A little fat from the pan. Not much. A T of olive oil; they say that's actually good for you. 2T of butter. But nothing really shameful, nothing you wouldn't tell your mother about. Besides, mom can not have the gravy, and maybe then she won't notice the entire 1C of cream and 3T of butter in the rootmoos.

  • carrot-cilantro soup with lime-cilantro-chipotle salsa and creme fraiche
  • grilled turkey with gravy
  • root moos
  • cranberry, orange, and ginger relish
  • Meryl's fluffy sweet potato thing
  • stovetop stuffing (another use for that fresh stock!)
  • Chocolate pecan pie

Update: I am severely upbraided over the stovetop stuffing. I meant, "stuffing made in a skillet rather than baked inside the turkey, not a particular brand of stuffing mix. Sorry about the confusion.

WikiSym '08 will be in Oporto, Portugal, next September. WikiSym already has a base graphic identity, but we could really use a logo for the year.

Hypertext '08 will be in Pittsburgh, June 19-21. It needs a logo, too.

Want to lend a hand? It's hard for academic conferences to pay much (or anything) for graphic design, because the chance of corruption is too big. And you wouldn't want a conference for a client, because they'd bland you until nothing was left.

But if you'd care to spend a few hours on a dazzling concept for a logo (and maybe show how it could extend to a poster, memo letterhead, and name badges), I think either conference could reciprocate by getting your name (or your firm) in front of lots of interesting people, from prominent speakers and researchers to book publishers and sponsors and civic authorities.

In other words, if we fall in love with your logo, I'll try and make sure we do right by you. Want to give it a shot? Email me.

Warm Regards,
Tom Sawyer

by Judith and Neil Morgan

A helluva nice biography about a helluva nice guy. Ted Geisel tried to sell a kid's book. Nobody would buy it. He gave up. A college friend bumped into him as a trudged home after yet another rejection and, having just landed a job as an editor. bought it. Hilarity ensued.

What's striking, though, is how much sheer work went into these books — all of them, not just the vocabulary-constrained and ground-breaking Cat In The Hat. Endless tinkering was required, until every invented syllable and every last block of solid color was exactly right.

The Morgans' biography is generous and sympathetic, a mood that suits the subject. All was not entirely rosy; Geisel was reclusive and anxious and difficult, he made a wretchedly difficult business partner, and after his wonderful first wife killed herself he married his best friend's wife. This made for some unsettling ruckus in La Jolla, but they got along and so, eventually, did their friends. (I remember my mother on the subject of one the second wives in her own circle: "I wanted to hate her. I expected to hate her. We all did. But we didn't.”)

I tried to read Façade again, the heralded, AI-based interactive drama by Mateas and Stern, who call themselves Procedural Arts. It didn't work out; either it doesn't run on Leopard or my G5 tower isn't hefty enough or something else is wrong. It loads, but sometimes nobody answers the door, and when they do answer the door, the characters stand around and say nothing.

So, left with nothing to read, I turned to the license agreement. It makes interesting reading. Take this:

2.a. .... Prohibited commercial purposes include, but are not limited to: (iii) Using the Software to develop a similar application on any platform for commercial distribution.

What does this mean? It's a game: how would you use it to develop an application? The only way I can imagine is, you might be inspired to write a different interactive drama; if you do that, this is a license to litigate. Who knows what a judge might regard as a "similar" application. Is Richard II similar to Edward II? Are you sure that some judge in Kansas might not decide they were?

There's also

2.a. .... Prohibited commercial purposes include, but are not limited to: (iv) Using the software in any manner that is generally competitive with a Procedural Arts product as defines by Procedural Arts.

This seems an even blanker check than the previous clause. Does the definition of "generally competitive" need to be sensible? Does it need to adhere to any standard at all? Could any other dramatic performance be construed as "generally competitive"? What happens when Procedural Arts sells popcorn?

Google finds a few other products that use this language, though none of the other products or companies look very substantial.

Now, there are some strange clauses in our own contracts, like the one about injurious recipes. I guess the law is like that. And what happened here probably isn't really malign: some lawyer threw in the kitchen sink, and nobody much noticed or cared because nobody plans to enforce the license agreement. Then again: if you're a university professor, you probably know not to sign your name to a document if you don't mean it. And what could this mean?

Bizarrely, the license agreement does not appear to prohibit public performance of the work, or of a script generated from the work.

The whole blogosphere seems to be whaling on Amazon's eBook reader, the Kindle , which has DRM restrictions that get in the way, for example, of your lending an eBook to your friends. The real problem with the Kindle is the lack of a compelling offer: if it came bundled, say, with an eBook of everything you'd bought from Amazon, that would be cool. Or if it came with 1000 books of your choice. Or even if it included just a few reference works: The OED, the complete back issues of The New Yorker, the Loeb Library of Classical Literature, and the Modern Library. That's work for me.

I heard a terrific interview on Monday with Judith Jones, who was Julia Child's editor at Knopf and who had a tremendous impact on the modern cookbook. The interviewer, Sheilah Kast, asked Jones what new kind of cookbook remained to be done. Southern Thai? What was the undiscovered style of the next age?

Jones replied that the need wasn't for new horizons, but for technique and tools — for knowing what to do. Knowing to dry the beef for Boeuf Bourguignonne, or really any braise, before you brown it, because it won't brown if it's damp.

And I said to myself, "that's exactly right: that's the book we need." Because we don't just know these things. We need a book that tells us to buy one really good pan, not a set. A book that tells us how to clean it easily. And so I'm driving down Pleasant Street in Medford and saying, "You know, I could write that!" It'd be a lot of research, but I could.

And that's the mark of a tremendous editor. She got me thinking about sending her a manuscript. Awesome.

I'm reading a lovely biography of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seus). At one point, he's trying to write The Cat In The Hat, from a list of 225 easy words. There are no adjectives. He despairs. He tells his wife,

It's like trying to make strudel when you don't have any strudels!

by Michael Ruhlman

The introductory chapters of this lively little book are a superb introduction to cooking. What are we trying to do? What tools do we need? What does almost everyone do wrong? These essays, on topics ranging from salt to kitchen equipment to the essential kitchen library, are a wonderful idea.

The bulk of the book is a glossary, a project of which I was skeptical. We don't really care what it's called; we want to know how to do it. People who are inclined to look stuff up have resources and Larousse, and lots of people won't bother to look stuff up at all. We have enough pretense around food (and food TV) as it is; who, I wondered, wants vocabulary lessons when they need to decide what's for dinner?

But Ruhlman seizes the opportunity by preparing dozens of bite-sized essays on topics that range from cauliflower (sadly neglected) and flat-bottomed wood spoons (yes, you need one) to trichinosis (not the concern your mother told you it was). The selection of topics is interesting: cauliflower but no asparagus, sauteuse and tagine but no wok. These aren't casual omissions, I think, but reflect deliberate and interesting selections from the vast menu of possibilities.

What I miss, since so much of the book focuses on the joys of classical sauces, are a table of the most familiar of the classical sauces and their relationships, and also a table of classical ratios. (Ruhlman describes the ratio table in Making of a Chef and I've wanted to see his ratios ever since.) And, while I'm wishing, how about a table of classical potato preparations, so we can remember which one is dauphin and which dauphinoise? Tallyrand's guide to the potato is back — though impossible to find on his site if you don't know how to google it; something like this would make a wonderful appendix.

But that's all homework. Few glossaries invite you to read them cover to cover; that's good enough.

It won't last, but the New England Patriots really are one of the best teams ever to play American football.

Watch them now. It's like a flower; tomorrow they'll be gone. But right now, they're historic: you can tell your grandchildren that you saw them.

Everyone's Everyday Work is Hard

Tinderbox Weekend Boston is focusing on Tinderbox for writers and writing. We're having a great time — and the plot continues to turn in unexpected directions.

Bill Bly (We Descend) opened the curtain on Tinderbox for managing a writing life, where the challenges are not necessarily what you'd expect. Yes, there's the matter of tracking what you've got finished and where you're trying to sell the manuscript — the inevitable freelance tangle of hope and commitment. But even more challenging, you've got many open projects — was that four or five projected novels we saw in one map? — and you've got lots of moving parts, including 1000 words of morning writing every day, not to mention jottings in your notebook. That adds up to hundreds or thousands of valuable, expensive things that you could easily lose or neglect; it's a lot of work.

I talk a bit about new developments in Tinderbox: better maps (and why better maps matter), richer actions, better connections to the Web and to outside programs. We spent a good deal of time discussing set attributes, and how they express multi-valued relationships.

John M. Stephan gave us a lovely look at two complex problems. First, he showed us how he can use Tinderbox to keep track of all the people involved in the sort of complex litigation he practices. Building large, comprehensive and searchable maps of all the names that arise in an investigation provides a terrific resource for understanding just what's going on, and what the opposition might be trying to do. Then, he turned to Tinderbox for world building — in this case quite literally: a Tinderbox design study for his new kitchen. This grew out of a very simple list of Things That Need To Go Into The New Kitchen, and became a rich master plan of where everything would be stored, where it would find the water or power it requires, and where the other tools or implements with which it is used will be found. The margins of the map also provide a good place to explore alternatives and to record paths not taken.

Finally, Sarah Smith explored Tinderbox for World Building — for planning and plotting all the information needed for her richly-detailed historical novels, and also for working out the relationships among metaphors and themes. As a working example, she described a fascinating project that threads its way between the Black community of 1912 Manhattan and the Titanic, and the challenges of handling iconic scenes and events. Not to mention characters who require frequent discipline, because "if you really let them do what they want, they'd pick up and move to Brazil."

Now, we're munching warm bagels and preparing to hear Matt Griffin's account of using Tinderbox in screenwriting — including a feature film in Sicily where he was using Tinderbox each night to rewrite scripts for the next day's shooting.

We're setting the table for Tinderbox Weekend Boston this weekend. It's going to be great: everything from Tinderbox for plotting to using Tinderbox on location when the film you're shooting is not exactly what you had in mind.

Tinderbox Weekend Boston

We always make a few extra copies of the handouts as a Remote Membership package. It's not designed (unlike most everything else we do at Eastgate) to be a great deal. It's a way to support Tinderbox Weekend if you can't come. You get a copy of The Tinderbox Way, a CD filled with sample files and presentations, and your very own nametag lanyard.

For this batch, there's a little bonus: I spent an afternoon behind the microphone and worked up a screencast of the slides and audio from my recent OOPSLA Lecture on NeoVictorian Computing. So, if you'd much rather watch and listen to the talk on your iPod than read about NeoVictorian Computing here, now you can.

Support Tinderbox Weekend
Tinderbox Weekend Remote Membership: $75

You can always remove it later.

We've only got a few extras; get 'em while they're hot. All gone! But we'll have some extras for Tinderbox Weekend San Francisco, December 1-2.

Nov 07 12 2007


Bill Seitz connects the nominative nature of wikis with Eugene Eric Kim's pattern of Link As You Think. (Kim is especially interested in the dynamics of wiki composition, in the way nominative links can be sketched quickly and filled in at leisure. My emphasis was on rhetoric and structure, on the way a "finished" wiki composition differs from other hypertext idioms. It's an interesting juxtaposition.)

Writer Susan Gibb has been blogging her first encounter with Storyspace as a tool for writing. It's a terrific series of considerable interest.

  • If you're a writer who is curious about hypertext fiction, here's an intelligent but skeptical colleague, recording her reactions over an extended period both to the tool and to the work she's creating.
  • We talk a lot about experience reports and evaluation: here's the data. It's not a contrived experiment: Gibb is doing real work with the tool. It's not beholden to the developer, even indirectly; she's not our student, she doesn't hold a brief for the tool, there's no Media Equation effect to tempt the test subject to be polite to the investigator. This is, for hypertext systems, as exciting and valuable as Jane Yellowlees Douglas' famous reading logs were for hypertext criticism.
  • Gibb makes some especially interesting observations on editing and revision. "[A] funny thing with this process in Storyspace," she writes, "in contrast to the static text I'm so familiar with, is that I'm not getting as easily tired of the story because it's all been changing so much.  The characters are growing by the changes so they're becoming fuller and more interesting" I've seen this before, and writers have alluded to the effect, but I don't think it's been discussed in the hypertext literature.
  • Absent a polemical or marketing agenda, Gibb's account wanders into some interesting places. In her November 9 posting, for example, she talks about the advantages of writing spaces and maps as a displacement activity, a replacement for dropping into Solitaire while you ruminate on what comes next. Valuable observations like these are easily overlooked, even in systematic usability or ethnographic studies of writing environments and tools.

Costikyan grabs Bernstein's challenge by the blade in a review of Kudos Rock Legends.

The single mainstream title that succeeds in addressing this fantasy is a simple beat-matching game with a fancy UI device -- Guitar Hero. It's an excellent game in its own limited purview, to be sure--but its limitations illuminate the intellectual bankruptcy of mainstream games.

Why intellectually bankrupt? Because the fantasy of "being a rock 'n' roll star" has little to nothing to do with the fantasy of playing a guitar; it has to do with having an impact on culture, with a lifestyle of travel and excitement, with rebelling against the conventions of the dreary suburban existence most of us face daily, of being adulated and admired. Yes, you have to work to strum those strings effectively, but that's the craft part; we don't long to be brilliant craftsmen, we long to be stars.

In addition to my habitual harping on these open questions of game theory, I'd like to observe a sidebar: games habitually seem to focus on secondary or irrelevant aspects of familiar genres. We don't want to strum a guitar, we want to be a star. In the same way, war games -- even those patently inspired by war movies -- often focus on the generals, where great war movies are usually about the conflict between subordinate. Think about it: Run Silent, Run Deep. Apocalypse Now. Saving Private Ryan. From Here to Eternity. M*A*S*H. Twelve O'Clock High. I mean, you've got a slew of very different movies here, but they're all about the relationship between commanders and subordinates. You never see that in war games.

Don't miss Costik's wonderful diatribe in the conclusion on self-censorship in the indie game community, here evidenced by the absence of sex and drugs from the rock and roll.

Nov 07 11 2007

Wild Mushrooms

I'd planned to start dinner with some pan-smoked fish, after I accidentally (what was I thinking?) discarded last week's duck pastrami. But the fish at the local Museum didn't inspire me. The mushrooms, on the other hand, were interesting: the new, larger museum has lots of interesting (and insanely-priced) mushrooms. So, I grabbed some chanterrelles and a small assortment of odd mushrooms — about a pound in all — and adapted a pasta recipe from Susan Goin with sauteed mushrooms, roasted pecans, and breadcrumbs.

I have 3/4C of beautiful, freshly browned breadcrumbs made from the ends of a nice loaf of challah. I forgot to sprinkle them on the pasta before serving. I am an idiot. But if you happen to want some great breadcrumbs, here they are.

Two key things. First, I sauteed the mushrooms aggressively. No sweating, no gentle flame. Very hot pan, 1T oil, bang. Let them sit; turn; done. Now do the other half. (The mushrooms can cool on a plate; they'll be heated through later.)

Second key: Peter Merholz's pasta trick. Salt the pasta water liberally. Very liberally. Stop the pasta way early -- like 4 minutes before its done. Reserve some pasta water (I used about 1C). Drain the pasta, and put it in a large sautée pan over modest heat. Add the mushrooms, the roasted pecans (or hazlenuts, or what you will) and the reserved pasta water, and let it cook and reduce until the pasta is ready. (You might need to add a little extra water). The pasta water will reduce to an intensely creamy, mushroomy pasta sauce. Plate the pasta (warm the plates!) and then remember to add the breadcrumbs.

  • fettucine with wild mushrooms and toasted pecans
  • lamb shanks braised with Moroccan spices, couscous, baby squash
  • salad with roasted pears, blue cheese, boston lettuce, mesclun
  • kabocha squash pie

by Lloyd Jones

The story of Miranda, a girl who lives in a remote village on the short of Bouganville, an island in the South Pacific, and her discovery of the world. A guerilla war has closed the mine, government controls blockade the island, and isolation from the distant, modern world is nearly complete. The last White person, Mr. Watts, takes over a schoolhouse abandoned by fleeing German missionaries. He reads them Great Expectations, which the entire village adores, and which inspires spirited debate over the proper role of profane stories in community life. This is the story of the English Class that went exactly as well as could be expected, and if the teacher suffers a bit in the process, that perhaps is the nature of the post. Post-colonially ambitious literature, ambitious metafiction, and a Booker shortlist nomination ensue.

We fly across continents to vast technical conferences. We meet in glittering ballrooms, filled with our colleagues. We are, it seems, miserably unhappy.

Peter Merholz is president of Adaptive Path. He does User Experience. He went to DUX last week. It's a user experience conference. He should be happy as a clam. Instead, he's twittering in the middle of the second session:

The moment an academic takes the stage, the conference screeches to a halt.

Dave Winer has written a lot about the failures of conferences over the years. He just wrote about why most conferences suck. Winer thinks it's because "we don't have enough to do." He once thought the answer was the audience-centered unconference, but is no longer so confident:

At first the joy of finding out that everyone has something to say is overwhelming, that was the first two BloggerCons for me. But after that, it wasn't that big a thrill, then it mattered more what they had to say.

What's the problem here? Part of it is inexperience; academics, especially, aren't trained in presenting. And where a corporate researcher might be on stage once or twice a year, academics meet an audience every day; it's nothing special, and the goal isn't to take risks and change minds. The goal is to get through the class.

Part of it is timid programming of safe, easy topics. At OOPSLA, when John McCarthy stopped to talk about the afternoon he wrote cons, nobody was reading their email.

There were a thousand elite software people in the room, and they all knew that McCarthy was talking about an afternoon in which he happened to invent garbage collection, dynamic languages, and pretty much all of modern programming. It was just an afternoon with nothing better to do.

But this only works because McCarthy (and OOPSLA) trusts us to know what cons is and why it matters so much. That trust is in short supply.

Cons, or Why We Are Unhappy At Conferences

Still more fundamentally, the mass of guilt that weighs upon the field deadens our conferences. That guilt arises from the divergence of what we like from what we think we should like. We enjoy exciting new systems that do what nothing else could do; we think we should like systematic demonstrations that this widget lets students do a task 5% faster than that one. We enjoy daring prototypes and agile development; we think we should be planning our work and proving correctness. We enjoy astonishing code; we think we should write code so clear that our most mediocre students (and the management team) will grasp it without effort.

Guilt inhibits our joy in doing our work, and because we can't admit to that joy — we cannot be seen to exult in enjoying what we know to be wrong — we find our speakers addressing us in slow, measured tones about slow, measured studies.

NeoVictorian slides

The visuals from my OOPSLA talk on NeoVictorian Computing are now available from my Lecture Notes page. (I may try to provide audio as well in the future; because this talk includes extended sections in which the visuals act in counterpoint to the lecture, it might be hard to follow from visuals alone.)

What is a wiki?

The canonical characteristics seem to be open, organic, and participatory. Some have suggested that wikis should also be observable, that readers can track their evolution over time.

This is a problem for me. I'm interested in nobitic tools — computing tools we use when we're writing to ourselves, to you and me and perhaps everyone we know. Sometimes these tools aren't completely open: no, sorry but I'd rather you didn't write in my notebook! Nobitic tools aren't always completely participatory: when we plan the WikiSym conference, there might be surprises that we planners don't want to discuss in front of everyone, because we want them to be surprises. And I think there's clearly a lot of WikiNature in Tinderbox and VoodooPad and TiddlyWiki, even though they're personal wikis.

Besides, my first encounter with WikiSym was a keynote about nobitic wikis. I don't do Open software. One of the key themes of NeoVictorian Computing is distrust of collaboration; "participatory" sounds nice but great software comes from the passion and insight of one or two creators, not from alliances and committees. (And still, somehow I'm the next program chair. Hmmmm)

Organic is good: wikis have complex and changing structure, structure that grows out of the writing instead of being imposed in advance. Everything is intertwingled. (I'm an organic chemist by training and so I cavil at the use of the word, which tends to validate mystical notions of souls and life force and such stuff. But it'll do for now.)

But lots of hypertexts are organic in this sense, but don't feel like wikis. afternoon is certainly organic, the link structure is brilliant and flows naturally from the story, but is afternoon a wiki? And Wikipedia adopts a rigid, predefined structure (and employs an entire legion of troops to weed out categories and expunge links), yet we don't really want to expel Wikipedia from the wiki club.

I propose that a fourth distinctive feature of wikis is that they are nominative: to link to something, you have only to name it. And, if you name something, you link to it. (Yes, you may have exceptions, but these are the norms, the things the system implicitly wants and expects.) Nominative links have very interesting implications for the structure of wikis and for their idiomatic patterns; for example, it's tricky to write a good feint structure with nominative links. (I'm not wild about the term "nominative", either: this seems to be my day for nomenclature tangles. Ideas? Email me. )

At Play This Thing, Greg Costikiyan from Manifesto Games identifies what's really at stake when fundies want to censor games to protect children.

"Free men must be permitted to think and say what they wish, or they are not free; it's not a matter of "constitutional liberties

This isn't some vague threat of a dystopian future; it's already difficult or impossible to buy games that attempt to address sex with the seriousness of, say, the proverbial dimestore romance. This doesn't solve Bernstein's Challenge: my grandmother knew that the modern novel could deal with serious themes and owned a smuggled-from-Italy first edition of Lady Chatterly to prove it. What's on your game shelf that your grandkids that aspires to match it?

Still, that which we are, we are. And Costikyan has the question: "How polite is one required to be to fascists?"

Via DaringFireball, House Industries has released Neutraface No. 2, a reconceptualized descendant of Neutraface. I first saw Neutraface through a Communications Arts essay that singled it out as a modern decendant of Eurostile, of which I have always been very fond. I must say I'm tempted.

Following up an earlier discussion, I went for Omnes over Bryant. It worked very nicely, I thought, in the OOPSLA talk. The bold and light extremes have a very different feel, far beyond their weight, and that makes Omnes both flexible and a little tricky, but I'm happy as punch. I did try a text setting for a postcard we're printing this week, and wound up retreating to Proxima for better legibility. But we were down to 8pt and hurting for space, and Omnes would have worked if it had to.

Nov 07 7 2007


Diane Greco points us all to a LOLCat translation of The Waste Land.

April Hates u.
Makes lilacs,
U no can has!

I've got far too much on my plate today, and so of course I stopped to play, too.

Photo: Ira Bachinskaya

Speaking of the craft of hypertext, don't forget that we've got a terrific Tinderbox Weekend, focused on writing with Tinderbox, coming up here at Eastgate on November 17-18.

The NeoVictorian programmer works with myriad small pieces of code, connecting them in complex ways. She doesn't want or need to hide the segmentation or to cover up the joints.

NeoVictorian Computing 6: Honest Materials, Exposed Joints
Burnham and Root's Rookery Building, remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright, photo by Willy Feng

The classical ideal was the unbroken column and the functional subroutine: call it once with the proper arguments and receive your answer. I remember programs that were vast stacks of cards, 3000 per box; I wrote a game that ran to fifteen boxes and had thousand-line modules.

Over the span of a generation, the size of our pieces has shrunk and the parts of proliferated. Modular programming suggested that subroutines fit on a page; in John Hsoi Daub's excellent PowerPlant framework (used in Tinderbox), it's quite common to find methods like LPOP3Connection::GetOneMessage that run to 60 or 80 lines of code. The smallest method body in LPOP3Connection is four lines, and that's unusual. All of our object code used to look like this: big objects with big methods.

We don't write this way very much nowadays. Agile Methods have something to do with it. So does refactoring.

A core cause, though, is a change in materials; just as the production of cheap cast iron transformed Victorian architecture, the discovery that method calls need not slow the program transformed the way we think about objects. And then there's test driven development: small objects and small methods are much easier to test, and the advantages of pervasive testing for avoiding reversion bugs are compelling. (I've never been a fan of methodologies and I hate anything that slows down coding, even type declarations. But Test Driven Development really has transformed my code work.)

If you're going to have lots of small parts and lots of small methods, closeup views are going to seem complicated. If you're going to build an office building or a railroad station out of small pieces of iron and steel, you're going to have lots of members and lots of rivets.

You might try to hide the complexity. But NeoVictorians ask, "why?" The parts are there. The rivets are there. Covering them with a facade makes them seem simpler, but if you need to poke holes in the facade for testing and to get the objects to do what you want, the facade becomes a sham -- a frilly cover that's supposed to hide the legs but just attracts dust.