MarkBernstein.org
Oct 02 31 2002

Uzilla

Andy Edmonds' browser-based usability test suite, Uzilla, has its own development weblog.

Apple provides a thorough catalog of all the CSS bugs in Microsoft Internet Explorer, with a succinct guide for working around them,

This (like the Switch campaign) is extremely clever hardball. It's a well written, informative, and factual article, embedded in the developer's technical library; it doesn't look or feel like marketing. It's just trying to help. It's got no axe to grind. And it just happens to position the competition in a negative light, and lets the silver-and-white computer people lend you a hand.

Another World is a bagatelle. It's an interesting project, but it's peripheral. At best, it's a talking point, a probe, an amusing way to remind people that, if I can do this, you can do a hell of a lot better.

That means it needs to be built quickly, cheaply, and with tools that aren't too unpleasant to use.

Another World also needs to confess its limitations. Like puppet theater, it needs to admit the many things it can't do, to beg its audience to overlook the obvious faults and to have a good time.

One of the ironies of Another World is that, though it's prototyped in Flash, it's going to look like it's put together with cardboard and duct tape. There's just no budget for pretty. Most people think this would be fatal off the bat -- that if you don't have great chrome, you don't have a game.

I'm guessing that people won't miss the chrome, if only I can get them as interested in what's going to happen as the Company intelligence agent creeps through the forest, armed with knife and camera, and he nears the clearing where our teenage farmgirl is trying to seduce the gorgeous elf lad whose friends (artists, mostly, and some musicians) are flirting with the Resistance.... (more on AnotherWorld)

Oct 02 28 2002

Dominions

I've been playing Dominions, an interesting, Risk-oid game from Sweden's Illwinter. The computer plays a strong game, in part because it knows the rules -- rules which are extremely baroque and often idiosyncratic. Unlike most games lately, though, Dominions gives you plenty of degrees of freedom and lots of room to experiment.

The writing is, frankly, pretty terrible. Not as bad as Diablo, at least if you allow for the translation issue, but still a feeble afterthought.

Michael Dumais discusses Tinderbox. "Un des rares produits vraiment innovateurs". Thanks!

Torill Mortensen, thinking of MUDs and such, asks about Another World:

"Where is the politics supposed to come from? Is that the game AI? Who will raise their voices, who will cry and who will undress?

The characters of Another World are simply that: characters, written on the page. It's one interfolded and interlocked set of stories that unfolds differently in each reading. It's a sculptural hypertext, quite close to Card Shark and Thespis.

Take Miles Corbett, the correspondent for the Times who wants to be your friend, your advisor, your confidant, and who has such good contacts in the Intelligence Community. I don't want him to be a "player character", because a role-player having a bad day could ruin everything. I don't want him to be a robot, because he'd be at least as hard as Julia to program -- even without worrying about dramatic pacing -- and he's just one character.

Instead, I'll simply write about Mr. Corbett, his intrigues and his passions and his singular advice. In some readings, you'll see a lot of Mr. Corbett. In some readings, he'll fade into the woodwork, or leave the stage early. When he turns to you and says,

"Wake up! Look about you! Look at that boy over there. Yes, that exquisite elf lad, Jehann's boy. Tell me: don't you want him?"

This might mean one thing in your reading, and something else entirely in mine. Everything Corbett says and does is written down: at most, the computer decides what would be best to say at each moment and what is best said later, or not said at all.

Last night, I saw two coordinated anti- marijuana ads. First, they're interesting because both assume the viewer intuitively understands the postmodern effect of Coover's The Babysitter: in each, we see the same scene three times, with stoned and stupid kids doing dumb things. Only the last telling turns out badly. In the first ad, two boys are playing around with Daddy's pistol. In the second, a boy is sitting on a couch at a party, and a stoned girl sits down next to him. She can't stop laughing.

In the first ad, the gun suddenly fires.

In the second ad, the boy starts to undo the top button of the girl's blouse.

Something is deeply addled here, and it's not the stoned kids in the ad. Smoke marijuana, you might kill your best friend. Smoke marijuana, your best friend might undo your shirt. Equivalently horrible fates, right? (Linda points out the real message: boys shouldn't get intoxicated because of what they might do, girls because of what might be done to them) Your tax dollars at work.

Prof. Ken Tompkins (Stockton) sent an interesting email about Another World. He writes:

Not sure if you intend to provide a running commentary on "Another World" but, if not, let me encourage you to do so. It is not only a fascinating project but one that would seem to have a powerful engine for educational use. If the model serves, wouldn't others be able to adapt your "engine" for other plots that could be used in the classroom? It seems likely from what you have said.

I also think that there are many of us out here who would very much like to watch you work to see how you make decisions, how you implement them and how the whole design issue is handles. We seldom see under the hood; we could learn a great deal more about all of this if we did.

That under-the-hood view is the core reason I've been writing about Another World here. In principle, yes, the engine could be adapted to other stories -- especially to tell other stories about Another World. The Card Shark engine is much more general, though.

by W.E. B. Grifiin

Griffin is my guilty secret. This is the latest installment of The Corps, a sprawling history of a cadre of US Marines that begins shortly before Pearl Harbor and that now reaches Korea. These books are marketed as "men's fiction" and claim to have lots of combat action; in fact, they have almost none, and most of what combat there is happens offstage. (O'Brian does this too, to equally fine effect) This is the story of men who fight (for the most part) sitting down -- from a desk, from a cockpit, from a training depot or a service facility. Most of their enemies wear the same uniform. (In Books...)

An introduction to working with Flash by Praystation creator and Flash guru Joshua Davis, whose Praystation Hard Drive has been flying off the shelves at Eastgate.

Davis is a musician-turned-designer, and this book is refreshingly uninfluenced by the conventions of computer manuals and textbooks. Davis describes his work process, often veering sharply amongst radically different concerns. This might confuse rank beginners and is bound to annoy professors, but I find it both convincing and effective.

Davis earned his fame by finding ways to make primitive, early versions of Flash do things of which the programming environment seemed incapable. That's not the point here; the new Flash releases have a very adequate language, and his audience here includes students and casual users, not merely the cutting-edge of Flash hackers.

The denizens of Another World include humans, elves, and demons. Why?

First, elves and demons are a convention of games: they mark Another World as gamelike rather than "literary". Another World is meant to be an olive-branch to the game world, and elves and demons are a convenient shorthand. Many people -- including some leading game theorists -- understand that Tolkien is the key precedent but completely misunderstand why these fantastic folk are important.

"Tolkein’s importance has little to do with the maps that adorn his endpapers. Yes, Tolkein spoke of writing as a journey through imagined worlds, but this perception is not uncommon. Neither is it necessarily helpful in understanding either Middle Earth or interactive art. Yes, he kept elaborate notebooks. This is not uncommon, either: we know many of the War Poets through their notebooks. (Tolkein on The Somme was 24, and if no poppies bloom in the Dead Marshes, we still recognize the muck and thirst of Flanders refracted through the memory of the Burma Road and Stalingrad and That Fucking Island, the land even Marines would not name.)" -- Mark Bernstein, "And Back Again", First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game, edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. MIT Press, in press.

Second, it's a useful way to evade a political headache. Another World is an immigrant drama, a story about the tensions of a world where your neighbor is Not From Here, where none of us are very familiar with the Fields We Know. If you don't like humans, elves and demons, think Normans, Scots, and Welsh ("I can summon spirits from the vasty deep!").

Or, for that matter, the Blacks, the Jews, and the Swedes in Old Chicago. Or, the Romans, the Cimbri, and the Ubii. This saves us from layers of unwanted contemporary politics; we can generalize about elves and still march in the Columbus Day parade.

Torill Mortensen asks, "what would elves see in people, anyway?" In fact, there's a long tradition. Tam Lin (or Thomas Rhymer), one of the Child Ballads, is the story of a fellow who meets the Queen of Elfland on the road and spends a night dancing with her -- a night that lasts 40 years. (Brenda Laurel told a variant of this story at Digital Storytelling 4) For an edgy, modern view of faery love, see Lauren Hamilton's "elven-American princess" Meredith Gentry:

"Faeries, after all, are sexual predators, deeply concerned with power and seduction, and (like all immortals) fascinated by pain." -- from my review (but note that Hamilton's fairies are not anything like the elves of Another World)

Finally, the point of archetypes is their archetypical. In Another World, elves are materialists: they live in the moment and can't imagine why any intelligent life form would worry about anything they can't observe. On the other hand, demons are mystics. Humans are alien outsiders, muddled, but not without a certain attraction to elves and demons alike. (more on AnotherWorld)

In Another World, you're running a tiny Outpost on another world. You're working for the Company, which wants you to build an efficient, thriving community. You're expected to gather natural resources and ship them back to the Capital, where the Company will turn a tidy profit. You're expected to gather indigenous artwork, which fetches excellent prices back home. You're expected to gather scientific knowledge, to keep the peace, to protect the villagers, to promote tourism, suppress revolutionaries, improve education...

None of this matters terribly to most of the people in your settlement, since they have pressing things to worry about. For example, Jules is a beautiful, and painfully young, elf who is desperately in love with a 13-year-old human farmgirl. She loves him -- or, at any rate, she lusts for him. None of their parents would think this a desirable situation, if they knew about it. But it's a small town.... (more on AnotherWorld)

Michel Dumais reviews Tinderbox.

Même après de multiples essais, impossible de catégoriser Tinderbox. Un outliner? Oui. Un gestionnaire d'organigrammes à la Visio? Oui. Un outil d'aide à la conception? Oui. Un outil d'aide à la scênarisation? Encore, oui. Un progiciel pour prendre des notes? Évidemment. Un instrument pratique pour les remues-méninges? En plein ça. Un logiciel de conception de carnet Web. Oui, oui, oui. Carnet d'adresses? Why not! Bref, encore une fois, impossible à catégoriser. Et en passant, la version Windows s'en vient pour l'année 2003. Une chose sûre toutefois: Tinderbox est un des outils les plus innovateurs que j'ai vu au cours des dernières années. Mais attention, la courbe d'apprentissage, pour pouvoir exploiter toute la puissance que recèle Tinderbox, est abrupte.

If you visit this space often, you want to see the newest notes. That's why weblogs put the newest notes at the top. If you're coming here in the middle of the story, though, today might not be the best place to begin. (We don't have to begin at the beginning, but some starting points are better than others)

The topic page for Another World is sorted chronologically, with the newest addition on the bottom. That's easy to do in Tinderbox, which lets you sort notes however you like -- by publication date, by author, by color or wordcount. This way, you can hear the story as it unfolds, day by day, or revisit it later in an order that makes sense. This seems an obvious concession to the conflicting needs of emerging narrative and archived histories. (more on AnotherWorld)

I, too, doubt the wisdom of this war against Iraq, but I think Jill lets politics foul up her historical sense when she writes that

The idea appears to be that if Australia helps the big boys, the big boys will protect Australia. They didn't though, not during the second world war.

Coral Sea and Guadalcanal saved New Guinea and, probably, Northern Australia from becoming part of the East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. No, it wouldn't have lasted, but it wouldn't have been a pleasant memory. That Fucking Island was about saving Australia. It was a terrible effort, and Americans fought there despite a firm policy of Germany First. For Australia, there was no other choice.

Germaine Greer (who Jill cites) is really expressing an old resentment about Germany First. This made some sense, from an Australian perspective, at the time: why, after all, was it more urgent to fight in Europe than at home? Yes, this was a colonial decision. But, in retrospect, Germany First seems a very good idea.

Germany's last stand was astonishingly tenacious; if it had lasted just three months longer, nuclear bombs -- many nuclear bombs -- would have ended that war. This would have changed everything. There would have been no Berlin crisis, because there would be no Berlin. The winter of 1945/46, with radioactive crops, radioactive ports, and crippled transport -- would have been truly horrific. What would have happened to the Red Army, caught in a hell that it could hardly understand? Between radioactivity and guilt, radical proposals to deindustrialize Germany might have found a receptive audience in the West, and Germany might have been made into a new Carthage.

Oct 02 21 2002

New Media

One of the most interesting points in Jill Walker's account of a recent lecture by Lev Manovich is this comment from Espen Aarseth:

He suggested that the term and field of "new media" has a visual bias, slanted towards visual artists, computer graphics and Hollywood production qualities, which lets us forget that "ordinary" people's use of the net is non-visual: email, SMS, chat, etc.

Oct 02 20 2002

Justice Hall

by Laurie R. King

This delightful, engaging mystery is among the best of Laurie King's series, which starts when a wealthy Jewish teenager, Mary Russell, stumbles across the retired Mr. Sherlock Holmes and the elderly Holmes realizes with alarm that he has -- at last -- met the woman who is his soul mate. Here, some years later, Russell and Holmes find themselves in the midst of a Country House mystery with all the trimmings. The best mystery series of the 90's. (In Books)

Oct 02 19 2002

Another World

I'm sketching out a strange hypertext story called Another World. It's an experiment. It's not finished -- it's barely begun -- and normally I wouldn't talk about it.

I'm writing about Another World here, in part, because it begins as a response to problems raised in this Weblog cluster during the past year. It starts from Anja Rau, and her disturbing questions about hypertext fiction: "Has it no tension? No excitement?" It starts from Torill Mortensen and her game response to my probes about games: "look at two decades of computer games and tell me everything we learn about, say, sexuality." It starts from Tim Parks' reminder in the October 24 NYRB that hypertext shouldn't be considered an infant any more; when movies were our age, they'd managed to accomplish a hell of a lot. It starts from long correspondence with Espen Aarseth. It starts from Jill Walker's reminders about the importance of Online Caroline.

Another World is a game. You are the Resident Administrator of a new Colony on Another World. You make the decisions. You choose what to build, and where. It's a little like SimCity. (It's loosely coupled and multiplayer; there are other colonies out there, and they can influence your colony. But they're a long way away...)

Another World is a hypertext. The most interesting thing about your Outpost is that it's filled with people. Your inbox is filled with memos, letters, and directives. You see people on the street, hear what they say, listen to their arguments and read their stories.

Another World is about ideas. It's got plenty of politics. Voices will be raised, tears may be shed, and people might take off their clothes.

Lessig takes a look at the arguments the copyright case he recently argued at the Supreme Court, breaking down the issues and the strategies beautifully and concluding with a singular, weblog-styled peroration:

Every night since Wednesday I have awoken in the middle of the night, to spend the rest of the night reanswering Justice Ginsburg, or asking Chief Justice Rehnquist just how he could distinguish Commerce from Copyright. The kind words of so many notwithstanding, I know and have always known I am not Larry Tribe, or Kathleen Sullivan. And if, after getting this so close to the right result, I have lost this by not being them, then I am not quite sure how I will live with that fact.

So please, no more of the bullshit about "rockstars" or "visionary." I've lived this struggle every moment of the last 4 years; it will take a long time for me to escape it, especially if we don't prevail. I want to turn my head elsewhere, and my heart elsewhere too. So I apologize if I don't follow up on this, or the arguments this might begin. Please, in the spirit of the best of this sphere, carry these argument along, and correct the many mistakes I have made. But I need a night when the limits of this lawyer don't keep this lawyer awake.

A remarkable glimpse at how the bright lights feel. There is something here in the spirit of the John-Abigal Adams letters, but there's also something entirely new, and something we'll want to remember, win or lose. Thanks, Aaron!

I was leafing through the extensive collection of books on Macromedia Flash programming at SoftPro this weekend, and was struck by a simple observation. There are thick books and thin books. There are elementary books and comprehensive books, There are colorful books with edgy page designs and plain books with a animals on their covers. There are books for animators, books for game designers, books for XML integrators, books for college students.

There are no books that assume their reader has even a basic college background in computer science. None even take advantage of the possibility that some readers might know something about programming languages.

This is silly. Flash is a professional tool. Surely, some professionals have taken a few decent courses.

I haven't: the last computer science course I took was in 6th grade. This used to be common, and I know a few other computer scientists who've done this. But none are younger than I; I think it would be difficult to pull this off nowadays.

Now, it's possible to explain Flash without assuming any background, but it wastes a lot of time. Jargon has a purpose, Is ActionScript call-by-reference, or call-by-value? You can just tell me, or you can spend 10 pages explaining stuff we all learned sophomore year, Does array assignment do a deep copy, or a shallow copy? Is garbage reference-counted, or what?

Yes, it's nice not to assume that you remember Programming 171. But lots of people have taken the courses or read the books; why waste our time?

In last night's Buffy, Willow interrupts a hacking session to ask whether anybody has bothered to Google the person they're investigating. Her name is Cassie Newton, she goes to Sunnydale high school. "She's only 17!", Xander objects.

Naturally, she has a web site. And her own domain. You can go there, too.

Matt Neuburg urges people to "Light Your Fire With Tinderbox".

Tinderbox is, as I hope I've implied, an inspired piece of work. With its Web capabilities, outliner hierarchy, hyperlinks, lightweight database abilities, and snippet keeping, Tinderbox will surely have something to intrigue you. It's small, it's easy, it's fascinating, and it's cool. I strongly recommend that you download the demo and see for yourself. You may not understand the program fully at first, but keep experimenting; this is a powerful program with many uses, and the possibilities will start to dawn on you as you work with it.

Dave Winer was kind enough to blog the review, even though some people think Tinderbox and RadioUserland are competitors. But we're on the same side: we all need new software, and we need it now. Between the ClickZ review, the TidBits review, and the debuts of some interesting Tinderbox weblogs, Tinderbox has been topping the charts on the buzz indexes. Thanks, everyone!

Victor Lombardi takes a fresh look at storytelling and Web design.

Jim Munro's Everyone In Silico is a graceful, intelligent, and self-published science fiction novel. I'm not quite sure why he self-publishes, but he does a nice job of it. Thanks, Cam.

Also interesting is his page on how to plan your own book tour.

Cindy Poremba is studying rhetoric and computer games. She has a weblog. She's looking, among other things, for the answer to my old challenge.

"It never fails-- you bring up game play for women, and you'll find women pipe up, 'We don't play games. We do important things.'

The quiet irony here is that, if you go back to the drawing rooms of Wilde or Shaw or Galsworthy and ask, "Why are women oppressed"?", the New Woman will answer that women are trained to play games and amuse themselves, while men are sent to school and thence to work. (Thanks, Jill)

Anja Rau reviews Life x 3, a play by Yasmina Reza. Reza's Art was a big hit in London and Broadway. Life x 3 looks at the same event three times, and each time small changes lead to remarkable differences. Anja finds that a crucial weakness lies in the absence of clear dramatic punctuation, and that punctuation is crucial for hyperdramatic structure. "A play that uses few visual markers and relies on natural language and gestures," she concludes, has a very hard time emplying hypertextual techniques that really work."

A very famous historian has a computer virus, which appears to be randomly forwarding blind copies of his email to people in his address book.

As a result, I discover that I'm in the address book of a very famous historian. Flattering!

Oct 02 10 2002

NYRB

Tim Parks thoughtful (though skeptical) essay on Tales Told by the Computer appears in the October 24 issue of the New York Review of Books. He reads Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl with intelligence and sympathy, Stuart Moulthrop's Hegirascope with a mixture of dole and delight, and finds little use for Talan Memmott's Lolli's Apartment. There's plenty of room for disagreement, but this is real criticism of real hypertexts.

To his credit, Parks avoids the pitfalls and facile arguments. He zooms past ebooks, scorns the Bolter test, refuses to be distracted by golden-age mirages or drawn into the endless wrangle of word and image.

Most intriguingly, Parks returns once more to the question of closure. afternoon, a story observes, famously, that "closure is a suspect quality." Parks would argue that this suspicion is ill-founded; to him, closure is a pleasant and beneficial drug.

(You can purchase the article online, but the Web access fee for the single article is only 25 cents less than the newstand price)

Liz Klastrup's weblog, an important data source on the games-hyperfiction border, has moved to its own domain. Fortunately, old permalinks are still good.

Oct 02 9 2002

Weblog Birthday

Happy Birthday to jill/txt, which is two years old today. Jill Walker celebrates by unwrapping her essay on Online Caroline.

Oct 02 8 2002

Cheering

One of the nice effects of Sean Carton's Tinderbox review, "The Best IA Tool You Never Heard Of", has been its cheering effect on the brave cadre of Tinderbox users who feel vindicated that the tool they use so much is getting noticed. Inluminent (a small business/marketing weblog writes that

I’m actually quite amazed that ClickZ has published an article solely about Tinderbox from Eastgate systems. Congratulations to Eastgate on the more mainstream coverage. I’d really like to see Pogue or Mossberg write about Tinderbox in one of their upcoming articles though.

I haven’t downloaded Tinderbox, but the promise of its offerings is quite real....

Think about that: the author is a marketing pro, he's not even a Tinderbox user yet, but the article makes him happy anyway. Dave Rogers defines the software industry as ranging from Microsoft to Eastgate. Pierre-Marie Carette, writing from Niort (near Bordeaux), calls for champagne, and Michael Cyntrowicz promises to get out his cava in Barcelona. Andrew Woolridge (cogworks) and Chuck Frey (Innovation Tools) cheer too. Thanks, everyone!

Oct 02 7 2002

Living Obituary

Jill Walker explores the fascinating connections between living obituaries, artifactual hypertexts like Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse, objects trouvés, and Web shrines.

Sean Carton, principal of Carton Donofrio, has reviewed Tinderbox for advertising portal ClickZ: The Best IA Tool You Never Heard Of.

"Tinderbox?" Yup, and I bet you never heard of it. It's made by Eastgate Systems, a small but incredibly innovative company that produced the first real commercial hypertext authoring system, Storyspace, years before the Web came along. Since then, it's continued to develop new versions of Storyspace, publish groundbreaking hypertext literature, and crank out a few nifty spin-off programs (such as the very cool Web Squirrel). It was here before so many Johnny-come-lately dot-coms came and went, bucking trends and putting out really smart stuff.

Oct 02 6 2002

Tube Fiction

Anja Rau, vacationing in London, speculates on the possibilities of fiction in the subway. "What about using the whole tube for an 'embodied' hypertext?", she asks. "How much would it cost to rent every single excalator-ad on the London underground for, say, a month? Who are the media-agency for the tube, anyway? ?

I read Peter Meerholz's carbonara recipe yesterday, and ran straight to the store to try it. The cheese steward at the Cambridge Museum of Fruits And Vegetables hadn't heard of Mezzo Secco. "Show me the recipe!", he said, glanced at it, and he handed me an Italian cheese he though would work well. It was delicious. The red pepper is important. I used a bunch of fresh cilantro instead of basil, an improvisation that turned out fine.

I also managed a nicely seared dish of Gloucester scallops, marinated in lime and ginger this week. Sometimes its fun to be back in the lab.

Oct 02 4 2002

FuzzyBlog

Scott Johnson writes about Tinderbox in his FuzzyBlog. "Good News! Tinderbox is Getting Better and Better." (Read more...) Scott is one of the authors of Essential Blogging.

Michael Wilson profiles software for Mind Mapping -- including Tinderbox.

"If you're looking for a truly powerful piece of software, but aren't necessarily interested in "according to Hoyle" mind maps, Tinderbox exists in a vacuum, void of competition...The learning curve is steep, but if you're up for the climb, it's well worth it."

Oct 02 2 2002

Net News Wire

The latest Tinderbox experiment involves smarter drag-and-drop (and cut-and-paste) from NetNewsWire, a handy new application that keeps an eye on weblog headlines. Tinderbox's default behavior is pretty good, but NetNewsWire has just added some new XML drag flavors that let Tinderbox understand whether you're dragging a news feed (which you'd probably want to have updated automatically) or a news story (where you probably want to keep the summary in Tinderbox, and to provide easy access to the full story).

The Hypertext Kitchen now has a RSS news feed, so you can discover new hypertext news right away. It's here.