Matt Kirschenbaum mentioned Stanislav Datskovskiy’s impassioned memory of Bill Atkinson’s HyperCard, Why HyperCard Had To Die.

Though almost unknown to the sniveling digital trendoids of today, HyperCard was and is one of the most loved software products ever created. It was quite possibly an inspiration for the World Wide Web. Among its satisfied users one could even find the rich and famous.

Datskovskiy is right to look back on HyperCard’s virtues and, as he feels strongly about the matter, ought to set out to recreate them in a modern environment. But when he blames HyperCard’s demise on Steve Jobs’s preference for tyrannically closed information appliances, he’s simply mistaken.

'Quite possibly' is a weasel. HyperCard did influence hypertext research, and though it was never a leader it was always very much in the air. TBL was a hypertext conference regular.

When Jobs returned to Apple, he came back to a struggling company. Its staff was numerous, its sales were few, and its products scattered and unremarkable. Few people thought the company would survive the year. Jobs solution was focus – relentless focus on specific products that could make a difference to the company.

Datskovskiy forgets that HyperCard was originally meant to patch two gaping holes in the Macintosh, at a time (1987) when the Mac had not yet definitively lost to the PC. To make a plausible case for enterprise use, however, the Macintosh needed to demonstrate some way to compete with two well established DOS features:

  • DOS batch files let sysadmins string together a series of simple commands. This was not always very useful, but sometimes allowed staff who didn’t know anything at all about computers to get started and to get work done. There was nothing like this for the Macintosh, and the argument that nothing like it was needed was not convincing.
  • Lightweight in-memory databases were abundant on the PC but rare on the Macintosh. The database vendors were lukewarm in their commitment to Macintosh development, and database applications tended to expose the weakness of the Mac’s single-floppy design.

When Jobs returned to Apple nine years later, the world had changed. The Mac’s fight for the enterprise was lost. Batch files, in any case, weren’t going to be an issue anymore, since the new operating system (Copland, and then Mac OS X) would support them naturally. Apple had written a better lightweight database and spun off the division that supported it. HyperCard generated plenty of support costs and no revenue. Thanks to its dual mandate, the program itself was unfocused. In any case, it generated support burdens but no revenue for a company that desperately needed focus and profit, and it drew attention to amateur and hobbyist products when the company urgently wanted to establish a premium, professional niche.

Unremarked at the time, but perhaps pertinent now, the Quickdraw patents that protected the file format were then slated to expire in the coming years. That expiration would have exposed native HyperCard files to clones. Apple needed distinctive technologies, not another feature race.

None of the numerous efforts to clone or copy HyperCard got much traction, though Visual Basic had a good run. (ELO undertook to make an open source clone in 2005, estimating the project at 1-2 developer years. No progress was reported.)

Datskovskiy recalls that HyperCard was a nice way to learn to program. It was. But programming was already changing by 1996, and HyperTalk wasn’t going to cut the mustard. (It lives on in AppleScript, of course, but that doesn’t please Datskovskiy much.) There are other nice ways to dip your toe into programming now: MacRuby, node.js, Processing, Smalltalk, Squeak.

by Alan Holinghurst

This sprawling, shaggy, and superb story explores the short life and long memory of a minor war poet. Cambridge student Cecil Valance comes to spend the weekend with the family of his chum, George Sawle, who has rather swept Cecil off his feet. Cecil seduces George, besots his sister Daphne, and perhaps also the handsome footman who is pressed into service as his valet. In a few short years he will be swept off to war and fathered to eternity, but he leaves behind a poem that will live forever in classroom anthologies, memories that will live in gossip and memoirs, and possibly an illegitimate daughter. In time, his life and work becomes a minor literary industry,

This novel is a wonderfully-observed chronicle of gay life in greater London from 1908 to 2008. On one hand, it makes a nice bookend to A. S. Byatt’s Posession with its serious (but also wicked) send-up of the literary world. On the other, it’s a masterful counterpoint to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, a wonderfully skilled and adventurous experiment in historical fiction. Holinghurst likes people less well than Egan – or at any rate he treats his characters with less kindness – and he likes forgotten books less well the Byatt. He might be less fun, but then, he might be right.

Nov 11 27 2011

Paris 1906

by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas with Dave Beran

Available as an eBook from iTunes. Next is a Chicago restaurant with a unique plan that began as a fantasy. Chef Achatz had been diagnosed with tongue cancer and thought his life was over. Business partner Kokonas cajoled him: they were already on top of the food world with Alinea, so what would they do next? Achatz imagined a restaurant that would always be opening, that would have an entirely new kind of menu every three months.

So, Next opened with “Paris 1906”, recreating and reimagining Escoffier at the Ritz. The next menu was “Tour of Thailand.” The current menu, “Childhood”, is said to include a course served in a lunchbox and a course of paté de foie gras served on egg beaters – foie-sting.

This ambitious ebook explains in detail how to recreate each course of Paris 1906. Most of these are going to be out of reach of you and I; Next has a convenient supplier of farmed turtle meat for its potage a lat tartue claire, but your local fish market is not going to help you here. And who has a duck press fore caneton rouennaise a la presse?

Still, this is a fascinating exploration of classic cooking ideas, both in their turn-of-the-century forms and in modern dress. The Sûpremes de Poussin course, for example, was somewhat controversial because some people felt it was undercooked. This was, as I had speculated, the point:

Amazingly, this chicken proved difficult for some patrons. Too often, chicken is overcooked and relatively flavorless. The soft texture and hearty flavor is precisely the intended, correct effect this dish aims for, but it comes as a surprise.

There’s more going on here than meets the eye, because (unusually for this book) we have a taste here of Escoffier’s own cadence. He’s the fellow who begins his Guide by saying, “These culinary preparations define the fundamentals and the requisite ingredients without which nothing of importance can be attempted.”

And how does that little chicken course get put together? You take the chicken, butter garlic and thyme, and you cook them sous vide for 62°C for eighteen minutes. But you aren’t done! You need a blanquette base, which starts with a good chicken stock, and turns it into a double stock with a fresh lot of bones, the dark meat from the chickens, aromatics, and mushrooms. Then you take 200g of that base and add a liter of cream, 80g of foie gras, banyuls vinegar, and egg yolks. That’s your sauce.

This doesn’t look just like what you’d have seen at the Ritz back in the day, but it’s getting the same effect. Time change and we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven –that which we are, we are, and that means foie gras and labor costs are not the same for us as they were at the end of that first gilded age. Our chickens are less tasty and our knowledge greater, and we still wonder “what’s for dinner?” Any $5 eBook that can shed new light on these old questions is a terrific idea.

Nov 11 22 2011

On Conan Doyle

by Michael Dirda

This delightful book explores nothing less than the delights of adventurous reading. Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, and the great detective is central here, but Dirda also explores the delights of The Lost World, The White Company, the stories of Brigadier Gerard, and lots more. Dirda chronicles the delightfully daring deeds of the Baker Street Irregulars with the same glee and detachment he accords Dickens and Zola; he is uniquely a critic without a trace of snobbery, one who weighs each writer’s merit without regard to genre or high purpose or reputation.

A correspondent reminds me that part of a decent response to shame is to willingly step down from the position of power. Chancellor Katehi answered yesterday that the University needs her.

That might be true, but contrition is necessary. For example, the Chancellor ought to have promised to visit each of the pepper-sprayed students, individually, at their hospital room or their home or apartment or dorm room. She could bring them a small cake, or flowers, and say something appropriate. They could have a chat. That’s something the school needs, and it’s something the Chancellor can do better than anyone else.

Nov 11 21 2011


The walk of shame, as UC Davis Chancellor Katehi walks to her car before rows of silent students, was extraordinary. James Fallows wrote of the affectless sadism of the campus police, captured forever in film. If the euro collapse does usher in the second great depression, that video is going to become an icon and this behind-the-scenes account will someday be treasured the way we cherish stories of riding in the car with Martin.

Bob Ostertag wrote a terrific piece on the shameful militarization of campus police. He doesn’t go far enough. Chancellor Katehi claimed that the quad was cleared because of “the encampment raised serious health and safety concerns.” Ostertag argues treats this as an error, a stupid failure of understanding and planning. But it’s not just a mistake.

It was a lie.

The chancellor did not believe this to be true. The chancellor was not mistaken. The chancellor offered the explanation as a plausible excuse, much as a spokesman or a politician might.

But the chancellor of a university is not merely a spokesman for a government department or a government official. Universities serve the truth, and the leader of this university has knowingly published an assertion she knew to be untrue.

The faculty of UC Davis must immediately record a vote of no confidence. This is the only stance consistent with the mission of the university. If the leader of a university is free to lie, there is no reason to trust its research or its teaching.


Obviously, the person in charge of campus security must resign or be dismissed instantly as well. But campus police are a minor amenity, while the integrity of the school lies at the heart of the matter.

Update: link fixed. My Hypertext 2011 paper asks, “Can We Talk About Spatial Hypertext?” (pdf).

Can We Talk About Spatial Hypertext

It picks up the argument of Patterns Of Hypertext, applying the same sort of thinking to the way people use maps in tool like Tinderbox. I expected it would cause a stir.

Might be an interesting sidebar at Dangerous Readings this weekend. It’s in Boston; if you're interested in new narrative, you should come.

Nov 11 16 2011



For Dangerous Reading this weekend, I’ve put together a scene from The Trojan Girls (originally conceived for the 2001 Card Shark paper) as a dramatic reading.

In the original paper, I argued that a hyperdrama could give up lots of control over exactly when speeches occur, and in what sequence. I’ve always thought this intuitively obvious, but nobody else does.

So: a demo. One scene, about ten minutes long. Nothing very unusual or at all experimental or postmodern. Three soldiers have a problem. They’re going to solve it by committing a war crime. We see them get from here to there.

And then: we’ll do it again, in a completely different sequence. A few speeches shift from one character to another. A few very short speeches get added or removed. We begin and end with different speeches – though the action starts and ends with the same situation. (A number of relationships between the characters do change between the readings; for example, one of the soldiers in the second reading turns out to be sleeping with a collaborator. Links have consequences, but they don’t change everything – only what can be changed.)

The first read-through starts in a few minutes. This morning, I was concerned: was the second reading really different? Or had I simply swapped a couple of speeches. The answer appears above in a detail of a part of the scene. Red links are the first reading, black links are the second.

Pretty different.

Nov 11 10 2011

Penn State

Thoughts about the Penn State situation specifically, and college sports in general:

  • It’s fascinating to see the intensity of shock and revulsion of the sports press over pedophilia. A lot of these reporters were school athletes themselves, and they all had gym class. So did you. We all know it happens. But I really don’t think these are crocodile tears: these guys have really forgotten.
  • After we have this conversation about grownups who are too interested in the bodies of little boys, can we also talk about sadism in coaching, please?
  • Why is Penn State’s football team planning a game on Saturday?
  • According to Wikipedia, Penn State interim head coach, Tom Bradley worked “under then defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky … [coaching] the defensive backs, linebackers, defensive ends, and special teams. Bradley then became defensive coordinator after Sandusky's retirement in 1999.” Who thought this background would make him the ideal interim coach? What were the trustees thinking?
  • Why does a Penn State defensive coordinator like Tom Bradley merit a Wikipedia page? WP:NOT anyone?
  • If I were a sports reporter, I’d call every coach and AD in my contact list this morning and ask, on deep background, if they knew anything about Sandusky. On deep background, knowing you’re calling everyone, your contacts are going to have to think twice about lying to you. It’d be a hell of a fine story.
  • I would not want to be holding the errors and omissions coverage on the Board of Directors of the Second Mile Foundation this morning.
  • How did the Mark Madden piece sit out in the open since April? OK, it’s Mark Madden. Still.
  • I wonder what’s being shredded this morning in Penn State’s athletics department offices. I wonder whether the DA is wondering about that, too. Some interesting warrants might be in the works, raising some interesting issues of academic freedom.
  • A modest proposal: Penn State should suspend its entire football coaching staff. Play out the season without coaches. Opponents should be asked by the NCAA to make appropriate concessions in the name of good sportsmanship. You’re not going to New Orleans next January anyway. Just play the game and let the QB call the plays.
  • Joe Paterno should write a large check to Mike McQueary, his graduate assistant. McQueary was no hero, but he was not a criminal, and if the university had handled his report well, this would have been for him a difficult and unpleasant experience and nothing more. McQueary’s football career is over now. He ought to have a chance to go to college again and study something useful.
  • Why does an assistant assistant coach like Mike McQueary merit a Wikipedia page? WP:NOT anyone?

The redeeming feature of sports in the US is that, while business and tech journalism are uniformly superficial, sports reporters sometimes dig and sometimes report what’s really happening. The underlying dilemma here – a trusted subordinate is seen to be doing something wrong – could happen to any senior manager. Because this happened to the management of a sports team, we actually hear about it.

by Michael Dirda

Down Baker Street and every mean byway of London a man boldly goes who is neither tarnished nor afraid, though he wears an Inverness cape rather than Philip Marlowe’s trench coat. – Michael Dirda, On Conan Doyle


Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. – Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

Dirda adds a little later that, having finished all of John Watson’s reminiscences, he longed for more. But “no self-respecting kid would ask a teacher for advice, and the public library’s adult shelves were still off-limits.”

This was my experience as well. The Librarian, who might in other circumstances have become a natural friend and ally, is for me always suspect, because when they could have done me some real service – not just saved me a couple of bucks – they chose to protect the books that sat, unread, on forbidden shelves, lest the silence of nearly-empty rooms be disturbed by an underage visitor.

by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson's lively authorized biography, is the story of a man who was not changed by wealth. But there was also (as in so many of his famous product introductions) one more thing …

Review in the Barnes and Noble Review.

by C. J. Box

Cody Hoyt is an alcoholic small-town cop who seldom follows the book and who has nothing but contempt for the strutting, small-minded politicians who run law enforcement in Lewis And Clark County, Montana. When his AA sponsor is killed in a cabin blaze, Hoyt goes on a binge that begins with a bottle of Jack Daniels stolen from a hiker’s pack and ends with Hoyt shooting the county coroner. Review at

by Monica Ali

Gabe Lightfoot is the executive chef of a grand Picadilly hotel. He’s planning to leave to open his own place. He’s planning to marry Charlie, a lovely girl. His plans are about to go awry. No one in this novel is very likable, and while Ali has a nice sense of place, she doesn’t have much affection for this place, and while she does have a certain affection for these characters, it’s rather late in coming. The setting of In The Kitchen is trendy but a wasted opportunity, as nothing much happens in the kitchen that couldn't have happened back in the mill where Gabe’s father worked. Perhaps that’s the point.

Nov 11 3 2011


Reading Krugman, DeLong, Yglesias, and everyone else on Europe is depressing and difficult, because I never did study much macroeconomics. But I follow the argument, I think, and I’m convinced. Greece is going to default, and it’s very possible that either Italy or Spain will be next, leading to the collapse of the Euro and, at minimum, another Lehman-sized shock.

In principle, we could avoid it. In practice, it looks like we won’t.

How does this play out? What happens? OK: we have a self-fulfilling bank run on Italy or Spain, their bond yields go Greek. What’s the next stage? What do things look like the next day? In particular, what do things look like outside the financial industry?

Is this mostly a matter of vanishing institutions? Painting lots of new signs on buildings, finding new jobs for unemployed bankers? That when you go to an ATM in Italy, you get different colors of currency?

Or does it mean that Spain and Italy are about to hold a big tourism and real estate sale, with everything at half price?

Or does it mean everyone in Spain and Italy has no money in the bank and nobody knows who owns the house?

I understand it’s likely to be bad, but how would this really play out?

Nov 11 1 2011


Microsoft has a new concept video for future computing. It’s adventurous, in a fairly conservative way. Sun’s Starfire video was stronger (and more fully realized) back in 1992. (Tognazzini’s CHI paper about this video is a classic; read it.)

Josh Farmer offers an insightful critique into the Microsoft video which echoes a core concern of Starfire: if you’re imagining a video of your future products, you really need to think through all the details because

  1. the audience distrusts dishonesty, and they know you don’t really know what the future will look like, and
  2. if you don’t fully inhabit your personae, the audience (which is smarter than you are) will do so – with jarring effect.

I think Josh Farmer coined a new term of art for the second issue: “Mommy doesn’t wear her wedding ring on business trips.” You can see how this could happen; everyone is worrying about the device mockups, and continuity forgot about the ring. Or, perhaps someone thought that in the future, we won’t wear wedding rings. Or, maybe she’s not married, and the nice guy at home with her daughter is the baby sitter. But none of this helps articulate the vision; it’s just noise.

What really makes StarFire work is that it repeatedly frustrates the protagonist – things go wrong all the time. That resonates with experience. And StarFire shows that new problems will arise: if you have virtual meetings on your wall, what happens when visitors walk in at a bad moment?