Nov 07 4 2007


by Jo Walton

A fine sequel to the superb Farthing. Walton adopts a surprising and useful strategy here; instead of continuing with the hero of Farthing, this second book follows a new protagonist who is being investigated by the same, deeply-troubled police team.

We return here to an England that made peace with Germany in 1942 and that is gradually, by imperceptible degrees, sliding into the embrace of the Nazi world. Step by step, Walton explores Churchill's slippery slope and its effects on daily life -- on the quality of coffee in London restaurants and the language of domestics and innkeepers and cops on the beat.

J Nathan Matias lectures on Tragedy in Electronic Literature on Moinday, 5 November 2007 in Cambridge, England.

Tim Bray likes the arts and crafts angle of my NeoVictorian series.

Mark Bernstein, the Tinderbox guy, is working on a series called NeoVictorian Computing which, while perhaps not quite as elegantly-turned-out as [Stephen] Fry’s œuvre, digs a little deeper. He is making a direct appeal for software to adopt the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Since I am writing this sitting in a Stickley chair in a wooden house in the A&C style, I’m inclined to be sympathetic. Mark’s message resists summarization, so I won’t try.

My prose has been compared to Fry; life is good!

Oct 07 31 2007

Duck Pastrami

A previous flirtation with duck ham had gone astray. It tasted just like ham, so what's the point?

Last night, I wanted to build out my duck confit a bit. So, I made a bed of mesclun drizzled with a little sherry vinegar, and placed a nice, hot and crisp piece of confit on top. Two small pear slices along side, and three slices of duck pastrami. (Two duck breasts, cured in sugar, brine and pink salt for 36 hours, coated in toasted black pepper and coriander seed ground coarse, and then smoked for about 2 hours over pecan)

  • salad of duck confit, duck pastrami, mesclun and pear
  • hanger steak, carmelized onions, mushrooms
  • grilled baby artichokes, balsamic peppers
  • pecan pie

Aside from the confit, an all-American meal. (You could quibble about the artichokes, but the peppers are pretty much a 19th century relish.)

I'm going to be Program Chair of WikiSym, the ACM's International Symposium on Wikis. It'll be the fourth WikiSym, and it'll be next Fall.

Dates and places are in a scrambled state, thanks to the recent wildfires. We'll settle it soon.

WikiSym is the premier place to publish, and to hear about, the best current research on wikis. It's got a unique combination of intellectual depth, prestige, and insight. It's one of the most interdisciplinary conferences around.

So, if you've done top-notch research in wikis, weblogs, CSCW, social networks, or constructive hypertext, send it to WikiSym. We'll have panels and posters and demos — and this is one of those rare conferences where posters are worth presenting, where everyone reads and discusses the posters. I'd also love to have a Wiki BarnRaising and CodeSprint, which ought to be an experience!

Ideas and inspirations -- and willing hands -- please Email me.

I'm going to be chair of the Hypertext, Culture, and Communication track at HT08, the ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia in Pittsburgh, June 19-21 2008.

I think it's time for writers to sit down again and talk about fresh explorations in literary hypertext and creative hypertext nonfiction. Let's have a workshop: remember Cyber Mountain? Let's have some good theory. Perhaps it's time to think about hypertext and performance art. And let's work on criticism: read any great hypertext lately?

There's work to be done. Let the VCs run after the box office; we have things to do. Want to get involved? Email me. discusses OOPSLA talk about software as craft, including my NeoVictorianism as well as the wonderful keynotes of Peter Turchi and Frederick P. Brooks , Jr.

Oct 07 28 2007

Royal Flash

by George MacDonald Fraser

Flashman, the villain of Tom Brown's Schooldays and cowardly hero of the Afghan War, returns to find himself ensnared in The Prisoner of Zenda. This pleasant romp makes an interesting bookend to Stephen Frye's wonderful Revenge , though Frye is more ambitious in trying to resurrect The Count of Monte Cristo straight. MacDonald is a parody, but it's never silly and always clever.

I bought this book last year in Sydney, alarmed that I might run out of reading during the long, long trip home. I didn't; it spent a year on my stack. There's a lot of Flashman and I suppose there's no rush to run through them, but it's good to know they're waiting.

Today, my computer is your computer. We all have, pretty much, the same computer. Yours might be a year or two newer. Mine might be green.

NeoVictorian Computing 5: Brushstrokes
photo: Heidi Kristensen

Today, your software is my software. Some details might change: maybe you use Mellel and I use Word, or you use Excel and I use Numbers. Small differences matter. But it's all pretty much the same. People expect that they won't need to read a manual, that everything is just like it's always been and that nothing ever changes much.

NeoVictorian Computing 5: Brushstrokes
Tinderbox screenshot. Pamela Taylor, Virginia Commonwealth University

I want this to change. I want a software world where we might again enjoy new software that does things we couldn't do before. I want software that fits specific needs. I'm a software professional; why should I be using the same tools as a sixth grader, or a professional photographer, or an interior decorator?

Why do we have so little variety in our software? One reason is that we ask it to do what it cannot, and we expect to do too little.

We should expect to learn. Sophisticated tools require study and effort, and they repay that effort by letting us do things we could not do otherwise. Calculus is a lot of work, but you can't understand physics or the stock market until you understand derivatives. Learning to draw the figure is a lot of work; once you do the work, you can draw.

Users and software designers should embrace personality and style. Software made by committee must adhere to the committee's standards, but software made by people and made for people may be infused with the creator's personal style just as it is adapted for the user's personal needs.

We should accept failure. Software fails in many ways. We have tried to change this, we have made great progress, but it is the nature of software to fail.

We once thought that there should be no errors, that errors were a sin. Errors are natural. I suspect we routinely spend $100 in development to catch errors that would cost our users $10. I know we routinely spend thousands of dollars to forestall cosmetic errors that will cost our users nothing save transient aesthetic annoyance. Operating systems are not the appropriate standard; since everyone uses the operating system all the time, and since operating system failure probably collapses the user's entire house of cards, it makes sense to over-engineer operating systems.

In the 19th century, British railroads went bankrupt building the rail system they wanted — with level grades and safe crossings and solid infrastructure. American railroads built cheap and fast, cutting corners with abandon. They accepted that they'd need to rebuild the worst parts in ten or twenty years, while the British rails would still be in fine condition a century later. The American answer was the right answer: yes, some American routes were built and rebuilt, and American rails suffered accidents and breakage, but some of those super-engineered routes are now little commuter spurs. Some are abandoned.

NeoVictorian Computing 5: Brushstrokes
photo: Nathaniel Luckhurst

It's hard to know what is a defect, and what is merely a surprise. The cult of usability has enshrined the belief that anything a novice doesn't expect is a defect. If we're just interested in how many copies we can sell to novices, usability matters. If we're interested in utility

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

then novice usability is a smaller component. I don't care whether the perspective of the application icons is consistent: I care whether they give me the information I need and offer the affordances to help me learn more and do more.

In the 19th century, Arts And Crafts sought an alternative to the seamless simulacra of mass production. Instead of using uniform dishes from The State Dish Factory, couldn't your dishes be made for you, and mine for me? There is no free lunch: if we want dishes made just for us, we accept that they'll cost more. And since the point is that the dishes are made for you by people, not by the State Dish Factory, we accept (and enjoy) things that come along with human involvement: they won't all be identical, we might sometimes see fingerprints, and sometimes we might detect the trace of the particular maker and their particular situation on a particular day.

It didn't quite work with Arts and Crafts, though plenty of artisan work continues today. The cost difference was too large. Worse, distribution was impossible with manual office procedures: it was barely possible to fill individual orders for identical commodities, and handling unique cases would have required armies of order clerks.

NeoVictorian Computing 5: Brushstrokes
Filling our orders, B.W. Kilburn & Co's Stereoscopic View Factory.  LC-USZ62-67035

But software is the stuff of thought. We customize it all the time, through preferences and scripts and macros and plug-ins. We can, and should, embrace the workshop, and learn to treat our software as an artifact and also as material we shape to fit our needs.

It's made by people; it will have brushstrokes and thumbprints. It is what it is: it expresses its nature instead of hiding behind brushed metal shams. It is made for us, and if the maker did not always anticipate everything, we respect the effort and the intention, and we take some responsibility for picking up the pieces.

Perhaps, being lost, one should get loster.

From Turchi's opening keynote at OOPSLA 2007.

An interesting, disturbing talk at WikiSym from Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman described an exciting instructional project using Wikis in a US high school. All the desired and hoped-for things happened: students were engaged, they wrote lots of good things, they learned far more about the subject than did students in past years, they created a wiki of lasting value to other students and perhaps to outsiders.

You may be surprised to learn that, to the participants of the student, this was bad news. Bad, as the teacher pointed out, because all this time and energy wouldn't show up on the standardized test — and the test was really all that mattered. Bad, as several students pointed out in their evaluations, because by learning nuances and details that would not be evaluated, they might actually be hurting their chances to get into a good college, a top graduate school, and so the profession.

This signals, in the US, that research in academic computing might be essentially over. If all changes are likely to have negative impact, what's the point?

The lore of software speaks of great minds and decisive moments.

In the beginning, so our myths and stories tell us, the programmer created the program from the eternal nothingness of the void. Whether it is Stallman typing teco macros and wearing out the shift keys; Chuck Moore typing backwards at Kitt Peak; Goldberg, Deutsch, Robson et. al. in the parclands of California; billg hunched over Allen’s Altair emulator; Bill Joy’s VAX crashing and deleting vi multibuffer support for the next ten years; Gabriel doing The Right Thing at Lucid; or Larry Wall doing whatever....

This is the language of romance and Romanticism, honoring the individual mind and body and its struggle against the elements and the Gods and the crashing VAX. This is the language in which we programmers secretly believe.

NeoVictorian 3: Age of Heroes
Photo of the photographer's wife writing in her diary in Kerala, India. By Erik Palkhiwala

We're told we ought not to believe it. We're told that programs come from teams, from corporate departments. Even those wild-eyed romantics, the agilists, imagine that the Customer is the ultimate arbiter.

Customers are as likely as anyone else to get things wrong. Yes, the customer may know their business, but customers are no less subject to self-deception than we. Businesses convince themselves all the time that they are making progress when they are not. Managers convince their bosses all the time that they are making profits when they are not.

NeoVictorian 3: Age of Heroes
Steampunk flat panel display by Jake von Slatt

Why do I call this NeoVictorian Computing? "NeoVictorian" is a handy and imprecise placeholder. I'm thinking of a very long 19th century that runs, roughly, from Sir Joseph Banks to Heisenberg, Pauli and Dirac. From Isembard Kingdom Brunel to Louis Sullivan. From Austen to Ibsen. From Realism and Romanticism through Impressionism. What connects all these threads?

In part, a belief in right answers, in the power of the artist or the designer to find true solutions to questions. Before this era, these questions were intractable. Later, it seemed there were no right answers at all. Now, chastened by our modern knowledge of the limitations of knowledge, of reason, of ourselves, we know that those bright certainties are not as certain or are real as we once thought. But we've spent our time mourning, in depression and cynicism and irony, and we've all been taught that, if truth is a slippery and uncertain thing, lies are very real.

We long for things that are ours, even if it's just our peculiar preference for an arcane latte at our favorite coffee house, the one where we have our own mug.

NeoVictorian Computing isn't about nostalgia for brass fittings and kid gloves, but rather about an underlying belief in true answers and true designs — even though we understand, now, that sometimes truth is situated, or contingent, or just a cigar.

NeoVictorian 3: Age of Heroes
Darby and Pritchard, iron bridge at Coalbrookdale. photo: Steve Geer

Wishard Health Services IT Manager Doug Miller begins a series on NeoVictorian IT.

Our shop is configured (admittedly somewhat unconsciously) around these principles. We aren’t a shop designed to build and maintain the sort of large enterprise software Mark discusses – we could never compete with the money and resources a McKesson or SAP or Oracle bring to the table, and aren’t particularly interested in doing so. Rather, our typical project is designed to meet the needs of one to maybe a dozen people. These are people who have a unique problem that no off-the-shelf software handles well.

The NeoVictorian Computing impulse is Romantic, but it is also grounded in Realism. Not the realism of endlessly replicating variations on the same Human Interface Guidelines to keep Look and Feel from escaping from their cages, but the realism that asks us to look at things as they are and as they should be, and to do something about the difference.

Peter Turchi is also an invited speaker at this year's OOPSLA. In Maps of the Imagination: The Writer As Cartographer , he recalls that

One of the impulses behind 19th century realism was to tell the stories of people whose lives had not, previously, been deemed story-worthy. Another was to describe the world as it is.

Part of Realism is addressing the world as it is. Data are complicated; when we reduce everything to a hierarchy, we're distorting the world. Everything is intertwingled; when we pretend that clear signage will keep people from being lost or being confused, we're distorting the world. The audience is smarter than we are; when we pretend that real people can't understand inheritance, we're deceiving ourselves. Software that distorts the world can be a lie.

NeoVictorian Computing 4: Realism
photo: Lady Raven Eve, Singapore

Honest materials are important to Realism; we show the painter in the studio because that's the painter's world, filled with clutter and turpentine. Realism prefers honest wood to cheap gilding. If something needs to be clay or plastic, let it be what it is: don't pretend it's sterling. Don't fold your napkin into a pheasant, and don't hide the structure behind layers of sham.

All the fuss about the icon dock's perspective and reflections, all the brushed metal windows and all the skinnable apps, they're all dross. It's simulated kitsch, so it does no particular harm, but it's a game. Delicious Library has terrific wood shelves, but it's just a list of your stuff.

Limitations matter to Realism, too. We may struggle against them, creating paintings more real than photographs. We may accept them, knowing that brushstrokes and chisel marks are part of art. Either way, we are aware of them, and we want the viewer to know what's going on. Realism doesn't pretend to be a friendly paper clip: if you have got something to say, say it.

NeoVictorian Computing 4: Realism
National Museum, Baghdad, 2003. photo: D. Miles Cullen, US Army

Finally, Realism accepts that real people have real work to do. It's not merely filling out forms or looking up facts: these are terrific things to study in the usability lab, but they're not what people need to do. People need to rebuild wrecked museums and wrecked families. They need to make sense of lymphoma, or partial differential equations, or RFC 822. People find themselves in astonishing, unexpected situations: one day you're a travel writer or an unemployed Republican protégé, and tomorrow you're going to be a minister in the Iraq reconstruction. How can you learn what you need to know, in time?

In 2003, most of those people failed. Their masters may have been scoundrels, but they were not. They had a job to do, and it appears to have been a job they could not have been expected to do. This a task for engineers: to build machines that let people do what they can't do with their bare hands.

by Alice Sebold

A sweet and charming fantasy, told by a murdered New Jersey girl who looks down from her heaven and watches her family crumble. A sweet and familiar story, right down to the odd, extraneous classmate who takes an unusual interest in the girl's murder and who grows up to live in a tiny New York apartment, writes constantly in notebooks, and has a strange facility for words. (At a critical moment, she exclaims, "Whoa, pony!"; do people really say this in New Jersey? Anywhere?) Hello, author. Clean writing, nicely imagined, this is a fine little book.

We awoke one day to find ourselves sleeping on the floor of the software factory. Our software world is a world of alienation.

The laborer feels himself first to be other than his labor and his labor to be other than himself. He is at home when he is not laboring, and when he is laboring he is not at home.

Who would call a car company's payroll system, "home"? That was the task of the original Extreme Programming team. In software, much of our work and many of our dreams focus on Enterprise. Most of the rest concentrate on tiny tools that are expected to appeal to a mass audience, or grand tools — Office, open or otherwise — that can be imposed as standards on the world of work.

This isn't working. We've been stuck for years, the backlog never goes away, and we fight the same old fights with a new generation of management. The Enterprise is too complex, too turbulent, too confused, to be a fruitful place to study the craft of software. We don't know when it's right. Yes, we sometimes know when it's wrong, when we can't even deliver the software. But what is success? Praise from a self-interested manager? An incremental improvement in corporate throughput? A pile of surveys filled in by our students? A nice writeup in The Journal?

I propose that enterprise software is a hard problem that we can understand only after we solve an easier case, one that lies close to hand. Before we can tackle the enterprise, we need to write software for people. Not software for everyone, but software for you and for me.

NeoVictorian 2: Off The Floor
Photo: Carter McKendry. Painting: Mark Bernstein, after a photograph by Lady Raven Eve, Singapore

By NeoVictorian Computing, I mean systems that are

  • Built for people
  • Built by people
  • Crafted in workshops
  • Irregular
  • Inspired

When I say that software is "built for people", I don't mean some fuzzy notion that the software is intuitive or "friendly" or that it can be sold to millions of consumers. I mean, simply, that it offers some specific people three specific virtues: commodity, firmness, and delight.

It helps to get stuff done: not filling out forms or filing pictures or retrieving records, but the endlessly difficult, challenging, everyday stuff of understanding what is going on around us.

It doesn't break down in use. That doesn't mean it never fails: failure is part of software, just as brushstrokes are part of painting. Firmness means we can trust it, the way we trust the handle of a good hammer — including the knowledge that even good tools can crack.

And, sometimes, it makes us smile. Or it makes us think.

NeoVictorian 2: Off The Floor
Photo: Natalie Tuke, Brooks Institute, Fiji

We can know when personal software is right, in exactly the same way we know when a theory is right, when a painting or a sentence is right. We don't need clinical studies or usability labs. We don't need box office numbers. We don't need to see the reviews from the newspapers or the VC's. We know.

And, yes, we might be mistaken. We sometimes deceive ourselves. It happens. At times, an audience helps us know that we're really right, and on occasion the approbation of our students or the cheering accumulation of sales might reassure us. But these are secondary; we have to start by knowing what is right and true, because we confront too many crucial choices to work from focus groups and popularity polls.

At OOPSLA, I'm planning to talk about NeoVictorian Computing. It's a big talk, with lots of side paths and a few surprises.

The slides are now available on my Lecture Notes page.

I'm going to talk about why we in computing seem unhappy, and how we might fix it.

NeoVictorian 1: Civilization and its Discontents
Photos: Jake Hildebrandt, Lady Raven Eve

Why do I say we are unhappy?

  • Everyone has pretty much the same computer. Your computer is my computer. Nobody is really very happy about their computer; the very best minds in the field walk around with old Dells or MacBooks, just like your grandmother. Almost everyone has pretty much the same software.
  • Our tools and our rhetoric are often concerned with control of cheap, interchangeable labor: reuse, programming teams, patterns, workflow, specifications.
  • Perhaps in consequence, people aren't eager to make software or to study computer science. Enrollments are down, even at the best schools.
  • Our scientific conferences are filled with papers that focus on incremental improvements observed when asking unskilled laborers (whom we call "novices") to perform office chores. We call this "usability".
  • Scholars interested in arts and humanities computing are strangely obsessed with box office and weirdly uninterested in making software, or making meaning.
  • Our tone is often defensive. When we talk about the Web, about weblog journalism, about wikis, about computer games, we seems always to be apologizing or promising.
  • We sound unhappy. Our best Web discourse (Tim Bray and John Gruber and Joel Spolsky  and Scott Rosenberg, for example) focuses relentlessly on what a few vendors are doing, and often pleads with those vendors for small favors: new DRM policies for our iPods, or better perspective in the application dock. Our worst discourse (usenet, slashdot, valleywag, the comment section of any popular tech blog after comment #12) is consistently puerile; it's often hard to imagine that these are written by scholars, scientists and engineers, and not petulant children.

I think we all woke up one day to find ourselves living in the software factory. The floor is hard, from time to time it gets very cold at night, and they say the factory is going to close and move somewhere else.

NeoVictorian 1: Civilization and its Discontents
Photo:Lewis Wickes Hines, NYPL 91PH056.029

What might cheer up the software world? The usual answer is: piles of money. Money is nice. You can exchange it for goods and services! But I think we want something else:

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

That's what these machines are intended to do, and that's what we wanted to do. But this isn't a sentiment that fits well with Postmodern Programming. It's not really congruent with the early Modern purism of Dijkstra, or with the late modernist abstractions of UML. It speaks to the thought of an earlier age, refracted through the lens of our greater knowledge and our changed circumstances.

I see hints of similar yearnings all over the place, from steampunk to cosplay, from art to architecture to fiction. It's not just nostalgia or dressing up. It's not something we're borrowing from the arts. We are the arts.

I think we can learn a tremendous amount by pulling back from The Enterprise and putting our skills in the service of individual knowledge workers, real people doing important work.

NeoVictorian 1: Civilization and its Discontents
Photo: Aldo Murillo

In this series of posts, I'm going to speculate on what's really wrong and suggest how we might begin to change things. The short version: The Arts & Crafts movement failed in consumer goods, but it could succeed in software.

I'm going to be using some slides from my upcoming talks on NeoVictorian Computing in this series, but my argument here will be quite different from the talks. Don't worry too much about spoilers.

A new update to Tinderbox is available. If you bought or updated Tinderbox is the past year, it's free.

Tinderbox 4.0.2 is a fit and finish release, adding a few features that streamline some repetitive tasks and fixing a few annoyances.

  • There's a new option to Paste And Match Style, that's nice for clipping from the Web or from pdf's; it's smart enough to preserve bold and italic passages and to match your current font, color, and size.
  • Dragging a URL onto an existing note sets that note's URL, instead of making a new note.
  • Dragging a vCard or Address Book entry onto a note sets that note's attributes, instead of making a new note.
  • Mail to Tinderbox works better. (I use it a lot from my iPhone)
Oct 07 14 2007


After the crabapple failure on Saturday, Linda had a tough schedule of work, research, and more research. And I had a tough Sunday of research, writing, and more writing. It's going to be a busy week, and the meat shop had a special on big boneless legs of lamb.

  • leg of lamb, rubbed with garlic-thyme salt, let stand for five hours, and roasted in a moderate over
  • kohlrabi from Maggie's farm, boiled, stirred with butter, and sprinkled with dry jack
  • fingerling potatoes, roasted, then finished with pan sauce
  • pumpkin (actually squash) pie

The pie was better this week, presumably because (a) I roasted the squash further, and (b) I brushed the crust with egg yolk before baking.

by Marianne Fredriksson

Two middle-aged women meet at a garden store in a suburban town in Sweden. Inge Bertilsson is divorced, a former school teacher who has become a successful writer. She has two wonderful adult daughters. Mira Narvaes, a widow, fled Pinochet's terror in Chile and is now a citizen of Sweden. She has wonderful sons. Both women like to garden. Both have secrets.

For Fredriksson, the great virtue of the Swedish woman is the ability of cheerfully assess what work needs doing and to set about it without fuss or delay. When the power fails and the frozen fish starts to thaw, we make astonishing quantities of fish soup and launch a family tradition, and every year at this time we now gather from distant lands and strange occupations and make fish soup. This is her theme here, as in her great first novel, Hannah's Daughters. And here, too, the spectre of rape dominates the past.

But where Fredriksson used formulaic constraints of ethnic epic to cleverly cross-brace Hannah's Daughters, here they are merely applied and obeyed: Mira is a convenient outside viewpoint on the Swedish Family, Inge is a handy domestic rock against which to set Pinochet. But it's all so neat and convenient that it requires us to believe that God is also a Swedish mother, fussing to provide exactly the right characters with precisely the right personalities and to give them exactly the right opportunity to witness, and then to remember again one sunny afternoon on the sunny garden porch, over tea, not far from Goteborg.

The menu we didn't try at Topolobampo had an intriguing dish: honeycrisp apples, filled with a queso fondido made with crab, goat cheese, and poblano pepper. I tried to keep it simple: apples, crab, roasted poblano, and a simple chevre.

It didn't really work. The nice crisp Anjou helped, and it was nice enough to eat. But it's too rich, and not interesting enough, and the sweetness of the crab is hidden behind the sweetness of the apple.

Jon Tan has an interesting observation on Web writing (which he calls copywriting) as a part of user experience.

Interesting blog design, too, and lots of microformats.

From the Sidney Herald Sun, an astonishing optical illusion. Does the dancer turn clockwise, or counter-clockwise.

I was absolutely convinced that, not only does the dancer turn clockwise, but there is no way to interpret the image sequence in any other way. I tried defocusing. I tried one-eyed viewing. I tried looking away. I tried sleeping on it. There's just no question.

Then I dissected the animated gif. Frame by frame: clockwise, incontrovertible.

And then, just to pin it down, I compared the frames in reverse sequence. And there, frame by frame, she's still turning clockwise.

I can find no explanation for why this illusion reflects hemispheric dominance.


Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change split a Nobel Peace Prize. First word, nicely put, from Josh Marshall:

And yet this is a fitting bookend, with Gore receiving this accolade while the sitting president grows daily an object of greater disapproval, disapprobation and collective shame.
Oct 07 11 2007


In the current New York Review of Books, Charles Rosen has a masterful review of W. A. Mozart by Hermann Abert, which he succinctly calls the Best Book on Mozart. (There's also a fine and revealing study of the literature on Gertrude Bell, written by Rory Stewart who recently stood in her shoes).

Abert managed to set down practically everything of interest about Mozart's life that was known in 1919, and he added a complete overview of Mozart's works, very many of them discussed in great detail and related to a masterly account of the music world in Mozart's time and the different musical traditions of the age.

My current concern is how I should approach my "new" Mozart works. In college, I realized that I tended to listen to a recording over and over, until I had worn all the edges off the piece and knew what was coming, and then somehow the work lost its voice. And so I saved the operas on purpose, and the quintets by accident. But there's a limit to these things: I tend to save stuff for rainy days until it becomes stale and mouldy.

Incidentally, I think saving music was a dumb idea. Use it: there's plenty more.

In the event, though, it seems to me that I ought to be reading something about these Mozart pieces — something not too long (because I really don't have time to undertake 1,500 pages of Mozart even if I could follow it) and that would, ideally, open new vistas. Something that will keep me from knocking the wearing these out. Ideas? Email me.

Update: Dave Phillips and Andreas Vlach both recommend David Hurwitz, Getting the Most out of Mozart

Tuesday night, I baked some apples. Two were dessert, and two were so overbaked that they'd pretty much collapsed. These became tonight's sorbet.

It's ridiculously easy. I peeled and cored two apples (Cox's orange pippin, because they're at the Museum this week). I put a dollop of red currant jelly where the core had been, a pea of butter, and another dollop of jelly. I sprinkled a little sugar on top, and the juice of half a lime. I poured about 1/3c of water into the dish, and stuck it in a moderate over for an hour or so.

And then I took the mushy, overbaked apples, mixed them with a fork, and stuck them overnight in the freezer.

Next night: take them out of the freezer, pry the frozen stuff out of the baking dish, puree it in the food processor.

And that's all: good, sweet, creamy, and as easy as pie.

by Charles Stross

Following The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross treats us to a merry, supernatural romp as a powerful and wealthy titan of industry attempts an IPO — installation of planetary overlord. An homage to James Bond, and at times hilarious, especially when Stross details the horrific consequences of watching PowerPoint presentations.

Last January, photographer Richard Chase published one of his most interesting photoessays, Becoming Dan, a profile of a young man who used to be a young woman. Now, he returns to the same subject in Being Dan as Dan returns to the studio and tries on some of his old, girly clothes.

I made last night's crab cakes with lots of ginger — about 2T of fresh, minced ginger for about 6 oz of crabmeat. This seemed a mistake: I'd started a recipe scaled for 24oz of crabmeat and noticed the discrepancy too late.

But, surprisingly, the ginger wasn't overpowering; it was prominent, but it worked very nicely with the sweetness of the crab and the richness of mayonnaise and egg white. Next time, I might try this in ramekins instead of fussing with the fragile cakes. The white Graves went fairly well, though this might have been a good occasion, in retrospect, for a California chardonnay.

The baked apples for dessert were nice too, though the two Cox's Orange Pippins I baked fell apart before the Honeycrisps were done. They're destined for baked apple sorbet tonight.

Oct 07 9 2007

Print is Dead

From Jeff Gomez, a nicely-designed site previews his new book: Print is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age.

Chapter 4, Writers in a Digital Future, is a tour from New Grub Street to afternoon. The terrain is not unfamiliar, though the conflation of afternoon with Choose Your Own Adventure seems dubious. The excerpt ends (abruptly, in mid-sentence) just as things are getting interesting.

Gomez writes that

Since its introduction, hypertext has been consumed by a mostly cult following, created by experimental writers existing far outside mainstream publishing.

Gomez is not alone in saying this, but I don't think it's actually true. The mainstream for publishing is Harvard, not Hollywood; when we talk about literary publishing, we're talking about what people read and study and write about, not about box office. By that standard, hypertext is mainstream with a vengeance; hypertext has a critical audience that plenty of literary movements would kill for. Hypertexts are read in all sorts of courses all over the world, from Freshman Lit in Community Colleges to graduate seminars. They're in all sorts of libraries (and this list needs updating).

Mainstream is a slippery term, anyway. Are mysteries mainstream? Horror? What about something like The Lovely Bones, which seems, formally, to be a fantasy? Is it more mainstream because it sold a zillion copies? What about Jo Walton's Farthing and Ha'penny? What about Emswhiller's The Mount? You can wind up arguing that anything good cannot really be mainstream, and anything mainstream cannot be good, and when you do that you're sitting up late with Job .

Matt Hanlon of QISoftware updated his CalendarCreator and ContactCreator this morning. On Twitter, he wrote:

Oh, and thank Pete the new site was in Tinderbox... it made the update a little less painful than I remember them being.

That's what we like to hear!

Seriously, a very nice thing about using Tinderbox for small sites is that you can easily divide the page into small, functional blocks. This note is a container for news, this note talks about the key features, that note has links to related site, and that one tells people how to pay.

If you are changing the site all the time, you need Tinderbox because you can easily fix what needs fixing, while not worrying about breaking the whole structure because you got your >div>'s crossed.

And if you are not changing the site all the time, you really need Tinderbox because you can easily see how the page is put together, even though you haven't touched it in a while.

Oct 07 5 2007

Spam Sieve

I've been using Spam Sieve for the last few months. I get a lot of spam. It catches most of it.

But I get a lot of spam, because my email address needs to be widely available. That means I can get 90% spam rejection and still find myself with a hundred spams overnight.

Do I need to train it more — even though my corpus is already too big? Do I need to retrain it? Am I expecting too much?

Theatre de la Jeune Lune is doing Figaro in repertory with Don Juan Giovanni. It's a triumph.

Photo: American Repertory Theater

It's 1792; Count Almaviva is an old man, hiding from the revolutionary mobs in his crumbling palace, protected by good old Figaro. Susanna has fled to America, where she works for nice Mr. Jefferson and sends back cartons of potatoes. The countess lives quiety in the countryside, a single mother. And so the Count and Figaro look back on that day when everything went mad — a day, in this telling, that lit the bonfires of revolution.

Photo: American Repertory Theater

Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp take Mozart's entertainment, conflate it with Beaumarchais' confection, and wind up with something new, dark, and profound. It's even more refracted than Don Juan, and the orchestration (string quartet and keyboard) has the effect of focusing all the weight of the big, complex scenes on the singers. It's not just Mozart and Beaumarchais; look into this production and you see depths of Beckett, for example, you don't expect to meet here.

Everyone expects a standing ovation these days, but this is probably only the third or the fourth real ovation I've seen in — can it be? — something like twenty seasons of this company.

Oct 07 4 2007


I'm having a terrible fit of indecision, dithering over the choice between two rounded sans-serif font families. One is Josh Darden's Omnes.


The other is Eric Olson's Bryant 2.


And then there's Mrs. Eaves: do I really want to spend $300 on the OpenType font? Decisions, decisions.

Looks Right. Isn't.

Khoi Vinh and Liz Danico have a lovely new Web design magazine, A Brief Message. It looks terrific. It's got style to spare.

It's going to feature brief messages about design. Today, Rob Giampietro talks about Olympic identities. (Designers seem to hate London 2012's "jagged neon" logo, and there's a foulup in the proposal for Chicago 2016.) Giampetro argues that this is all premature, that we will feel differently about the design after we've experienced the event.

OK, fine. But we're talking about design, which means talking about the design of these symbols absent the event. Sure, history will load our design with lots of new layers of meaning; that's the difference between graphic design and, well, life.

But we're here to talk about design. If design doesn't matter at all, well, why bother writing about it? Why bother doing it? And if the design does matter, we want to talk about it now, when London 2012 is just an abstraction and a big pile of steel outside of the city. Sure, the logo for Munich in 1972 meant something different after Olga Korbut, and something else different after the massacre. But logo designers can't do anything about that.

If you want to talk logos, then talk about them.

Speaking of which, I've got a project. If you're a hypertext fan and you happen to be a designer, you might Email me..

Growing a Language, an amazing OOPSLA '98 keynote by Guy Steele, captured on video. Steele demonstrates the advantages and liabilities of small languages by crafting an address based on (a) words of one syllable, and (b) words and concepts he defines in the course of the talk. Astonishing.

by Jacob Gordin, Ruth Gay

A wealthy Russian Jew prepares to celebrate Purim with his three daughters. The eldest is married to an intelligent, orthodox student of religion. The middle daughter is married to a lively young Hassid. And the youngest (oy veh) is married to a nice bright graduate student who has no particular use for Jewish observance at all. As you can imagine, this leads to lively discussion around the table.

And when the old man announces that he's going to divide his business interests among the children and go live in Israel, his wife immediately exclaims: "King Lear!" It's not a translation or an adaptation: it's the whole postmodern twist, way back in 1892. We're in Lear, but the characters all know they're trapped in Lear, and they talk about it.

Jacob Gordin's Kenig Lir became a legend of the Yiddish theater. It was the signature role of Jacob Adler, the great actor (and father of Stella Adler, whose influence on American acting was profound). It was the wellspring of the realistic family drama that became the core of Broadway in the 20th century. The dialogue seems stilted, in part because the rhythms of Yiddish sound that way to this generation, in part because our great grandparents liked theater to be more theatrical than we do. Gay adds a wealth of supporting essays and readings, all fascinating in their recreation of a vibrant immigrant world.

Adaptive Path's Rachel Hinman offers a nice introduction to data analysis for user experience — the tasks involved in taking a mountain of videotapes, transcripts, focus group observations, telephone interviews, and whatnot and distilling this into meaningful insight.

Hinman on Data Analysis

Hinman uses Post-It notes.

I know of a few people who like to work digitally and enter all their memo information in tools like Excel or Word. This perplexes me. It seems akin to pounding a nail into a wall with a screwdriver — the wrong tool for the job.

Her descriptions and diagrams map beautifully onto Tinderbox, though — and while you lose the tactility of playing with lots of little slips of paper, you gain a lot as well:

  • sharing through email
  • permanent archives
  • ease of adjourning for lunch, without fear of your work being cleaned away or falling off the wall
  • works naturally with teleconferencing
  • incremental formalization (and emergent structure) in ongoing projects

It would be fun to walk through the entire process in Tinderbox, perhaps using some imaginary or sanitized data, or some data available to the public. I'd like to see someone take a shot at doing this. Interested? Let's talk!

Tom Webster from Edison Research will be at Tinderbox Weekend San Francisco, Dec 1-2, to discuss Necessary Tangents: An Organic Inquiry into Consumer Behavior with Tinderbox.

by William Gibson

In Pattern Recognition, Gibson took his wonderfully characteristic and influential science fiction style and showed it to us afresh by writing of a future that is already our recent past. It was a landmark, taking elements from the Neuromancer trilogy and showing them to us again, shiny and new because they were clad in familiar garments.

This novel is also set in our recent past, a few years after Pattern Recognition. Once more, we have Gibson's braided plot, alternating a search for an artistic truth with a quest for a big payday. Once more, a young artist (this time, a retired rock musician named Hollis Henry working as a journalist for a Web startup called Node) is swept off her feet by a mysterious offer of employment and an unlimited expense account, coming from an all-powerful, covert gnome. There are spies and agents in the woodwork. There is voodoo.

This time, it's just too much. I like Hollis. I love Gibson's style. But this feels like a superb pastiche: it's a new Gibson that's just like the old Gibson. Or, Gibson thinks the world really is full of quirky billionaires who are dying to devote their time and wealth to thinking up quests for resourceful young women. Spook Country is the color of television, tuned to an old channel.