The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

The most important book about new media in a decade is in print again, after a hiatus of several years.

Lars Spuybroek, an architect and a philosopher of design, examines “the digital nature of gothic” in light of the aesthetics of John Ruskin. Ruskin’s ideas about art and society are crucial, and if he lost favor in the 20th century’s rush to Modernism (and its embrace of Fascism and Communism), by the late age of print we were ready for another look. It’s not a coincidence that George P. Landow, the author of Hypertext, started out by working on Ruskin.

Spuybroek wrestles with new media problems in the context of designing buildings. His problems are our problems. He is not satisfied with superficial embrace of digital motifs: pasting a swoosh onto the roofline of a neoclassical box in architecture, simulacra of books and TV episodes in new media. He joins Ruskin in opposition to mass production but, unlike Ruskin, he’s got an alternative: we can generate a host of unique (though similar) things almost as easily as we can replicate identical things, and each of us can choose from this host the things that appeal to us, those that excite our sympathy.

Instead of the false promise of the holodeck’s game on rails, we have the real promise of the book that adapts to us, that changes for us on each reading. Spuybroek makes a powerful argument for generative art that gets outside the white box of academic reception. And, uniquely, he appreciates how much meaning lies in our encounter and relation with animate machinery – “our slaves of steel” – and the crucial importance of our sympathy with objects.

This is a difficult book. It’s not going to tell you what font to use on your Web site or how to optimize click-through. I’ve been praising it to New Media and Hypertext people for four years. To highlight it, I wrote a workshop paper in the form of a dramatic dialogue. I’m not sure I’ve gotten any of you to read it yet.

Drop everything.

Apr 16 21 2016


Brent Simmons says a bunch of smart things about Performance These Days.

For twenty years, people have been saying that machines are so fast, you hardly ever need to think about speed. Yes, you could write a ton of your code in any slow, interpreted language you name, and nobody would notice. “Making things fast has to do with choosing fast data structures and algorithms,” Brent says, and “moving things off the main thread.” And he is not wrong.

But there’s more to it than that, too.

Nothing will save you from a really bad algorithm, but a fast compiler can often make a naive implementation Fast Enough. Tinderbox used to do horrendously tricky things for caching the screen; now, the framework and the hardware handles all that. Storyspace used to use a ghastly file format that had the sole virtue of being really fast and really compact; now, we use XML – slow and verbose – and everything’s fast anyway.

There’s also a very interesting chasm between things that take about a second and things that take, say, a 60th of a second. A whole second interrupts your work; you don’t like that one bit. 1/60th of a second? Well, that might drop a frame of animation, making your nice animated transactions stutter slightly. If we need to, we can live with that.

I’m currently thinking about a big project for Tinderbox that might be able to do some remarkable things – but those things need to be done during the drag. The difference between 1ms and 10ms in this case is probably the difference between “that’s sort of amazing” and “it didn’t work.” Algorithms matter, but once you’ve got the algorithms down, speed matters too.

by Jack Viertel

A fascinating and anecdotal account of the structure shared by many successful American musicals. Viertel draws on a vast range of theater but returns, time and again, to an interesting set: Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Carousel, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, and My Fair Lady. It’s fascinating to see how what seems to be a very rigid and specific form like the Bench Song -- the conditional love song that follows the rollicking number known as The Noise – shows up all over the place. Viertel believes that small changes in the placement or tempo of songs can make all the difference, and provides plenty of anecdotes about good shows and bad and how they came to be structured the way they are.

It’s really hard to help Wikipedia, even if you want to. And since Gamergate is trying vary hard to get rid of me at Wikipedia, with plenty of help from various Wikipedia administrators, it’s a mystery why I’d want to help.

Still, yesterday afternoon I happened across a death threat directed at a Wikipedia administrator — a threat that posited my own demise as a potential bonus. It was the usual rot, though it had some circumstantial details that might conceivably suggest some knowledge of my travel plans. I grabbed a screen shot, deleted the threat, and notified the primary victim, the Wikipedia emergency address (which must be notified regarding threats) and the oversight department.

Since then, about 18 hours have elapsed. Here’s what I’ve received:

  • Promptly: a six-word acknowledgment from the Wikipedia emergency account: “Thanks Mark, we're looking into it.”
  • 12 hours later: an email from the oversight account - responsible for deleting threats and libel – that the threat had been erased.

That’s it from Wikipedia. Isn’t that terrific?!

The primary target filed a report with Comcast, the miscreant’s ISP. They answered promptly that “We are a legal compliance department of Comcast providing responses to subpoenas and search warrants from law enforcement. Unfortunately, as such we are unable to take any action with your request. This is a matter that you should report to your local police authority.”

Writing about Gamergate, I’ve adopted an orotund, Miltonian manner. Partly this is for fun, and to make fun of Gamergate’s illiteracy. “Wikipedia is all bias,” Gamergate complains again and again; they’re a movement that has lost its past participles along with its present principles.

Partly, the style a concession to some Wikipedia administrators who greatly prefer euphemism to plain speaking. My many troubles began when I observed that people who support or excuse rape threats are supporting and excusing rape; this is true but, I admit, it's not very friendly. Milton’s example of allusive indirection keeps me out of trouble. Milton wrote with sympathy but without approval of another very bad crew – a bunch who wanted to wreak havoc for lulz; Wikipedia needs to be reminded time and again that some compromises are intolerable; you either call a software developer a prostitute, as Gamergate so frequently wants, or you don’t.

Wikipedia places a high value on assuming good faith, and when it comes to assuming good faith, it's hard to beat the man who wrote:

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide;

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need

Either man's work or his own gifts; who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o'er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

And after all, what is the subject of Paradise Lost if not the limits of assuming good faith?

But, seriously, this is a hell of a way to treat a volunteer, especially one who is trying (with very indifferent success) to limit the use of Wikipedia for threatening Gamergate’s victims.

Apr 16 8 2016

A million words

I just noticed that this Tinderbox file recently crossed the milestone of a million words. It only contains the last three or four years of the weblog – there’s another 1.5M or so in the archives – but it’s sort of interesting to see the number.

Of course, if it weren’t in Tinderbox, I’d have no idea at all.

A million words

Jeffrey Zeldman’s A List Apart is among the oldest and most influential sources of information about the Web and digital culture. Its reach is long; the crusade for Web standards began there, as did the current movement for adaptive design that transforms fluidly from pocket screens to laptops and to living-room walls. I’m proud to have written there; my piece on writing for weblogs is probably more widely read, cited, anthologized, and assigned to more students, than anything else I’ve done.

A List Apart has spawned an itinerant conference, An Event Apart, that’s coming to Boston this year on May 16-18. It’s got some great program components.

  • Eric Meyer on Compassionate Design
  • Rachel Andrews on CSS Grids
  • Josh Clark on The Physical Interface
  • and lots more.

You can save $100 on this event (or on events in other cities) with coupon code AEABERN.

Brent Simmons offers a thoughtful piece about one of the great mysteries of the software scene today. It’s now clear that it’s extremely difficult to make money crafting well-designed and well-implemented software for iOS. Macintosh software, on the other hand, is challenging but clearly viable.

Nevertheless, lots of people want to write for iOS rather than for OS X. Why is that?

Brent thinks it’s the extra layer of difficulty in the Mac.

Were Macs to get some form of UIKit, it would have to be extended with all the things Macs need. Let’s assume we’ll still have multiple, resizable, movable windows; we’ll still have a menubar; we’ll still have AppleScript and Services and similar.

Anybody bringing an iOS app to the Mac is going to have to learn those things and handle them.


The additional stuff — menus, live resizing, AppleScript, etc. — is enough of a burden that people just don’t want to do it.

But you know what? You don’t need that stuff. Well, you do need menus, but basic menu handling is trivial. Live resizing looks nice, and looking nice is always pleasant, but if you’re doing something that people need, who cares if it looks nice? I bought a rake yesterday; it doesn't look particularly wonderful but, when you need a rake, a rake is what you need. (Plus, with a cake, you can have cake on a rake.)

AppleScript can be a pain to support, and twenty years ago you needed it or the influential magazines would dock you a mouse. Then, a couple of people discovered that hardly anyone really needed scripting support. The magazines all collapsed, anyway, and here we are. If you don’t want to support scripting, if it’s not central to the way you’re helping people, then you don’t need it. If services aren’t central to what you’re offering, you don’t need them, either.

My guess is that the problem isn’t that Mac software is ineffably less fun to write. Nor is the problem, really, that iPhones are sexier platforms. A lot of people still think that some tiny little application -- a game they dash off in a few evenings, a trivial utility like a flashlight – will sell a million copies in the app store. Why not? That’s less than 1% of the potential market.

But it’s not going to happen. Lightning strikes sometimes, but it doesn’t appear to strike the meritorious or the clever, the people with skill or fashion sense or any other discernible quality. Even Flappy Bird was only doing a fraction of that business, and that was only for a month or two.

Tinderbox 6.5 is out now. Lots of important new stuff: gorgeous word clouds, broad links, ring indicators for your dashboards, and lots mote. There’s lots of new infrastructure as well, helping to make Tinderbox fast without draining your battery.

This version requires OS X 10.10 or later. If you're still using 10.9, we can likely make provisions for you; Email me..

by E. M. Forster

Six years ago, I wrote:

Dearest Meg,
It isn’t going to be what we expected.

What a fine way to start a story. And what a fine story! It makes an interesting pairing with Galsworthy; The Man Of Property was published in 1906, four years before Howards End.

Visiting the lovely house of an English friend reminded me of Howards End; even if they don’t have a mystic wych-elm, their garden is long and lovely.

This is an oddly unsentimental book, considering that it’s literally about sentiment, and it’s also oddly uninterested in men, considering that it’s the work of a gay man. There’s a lot going on here, in a quiet way, that repays rereading.

by A. S. Byatt

Dolly keeps a secret

Safer than a Friend

Dolly's silent sympathy

Lasts without end.

A fun book to reread while visiting a English friends far too long neglected. Yes, perhaps the scholarship does come too easily, but then again it’s that kind of book.

I’m working on a hypertext fiction, a school story that draws on The Trojan Women.

I’m using Tinderbox to keep track of the characters, and I honestly wonder how anyone manages to do this without something like it. Here, for example, are notes about roughly half the characters involved in just one chapter, which describes a summer party at a country house.

Keeping Track Of Characters

This isn’t a grand wedding or a ball: it’s the late-summer weekend when our parents always invite their friends who have kids in school with us. So we’ve got six or seven kids from school, some of their parents, and a few parental friends and relatives. Some of the kids have siblings in tow, of course, and one family has an au pair. We’ve got staff, too – just enough to be convincingly grand and to provide a little upstairs-downstairs political tension: butler, cook, caterer, the gardener’s lad.

To write this at any reasonable speed, I need to know what commitments I’ve already made. If Linnea’s mother is “Vic” in one scene, she ought to have the same name later on. If Cassie’s mother died several years ago, she’d better not appear at dinner. If the butler at the door has gray hair, he ought to have gray hair when he’s serving the port.

An obvious difficulty with writing about young people is that young people don’t have much freedom of action; it’s hard to solve a mystery when Mom is always telling you to come in for dinner and to finish your homework. That’s one reason that YA stories have so many orphans and boarding schools. But there’s a limit; at one point, I realized that about half the class was missing a parent. Now, we can do that if we need to, but we’d need to explain it and to sell it. If all you have are brief mentions in exposition concerning minor characters, though, and they’re spread across hundreds of pages of text, it’s hard to notice the problem at all. Review the character notes, though – perhaps to decide which classmate will serve as The Messenger in a scene – and the problem is obvious.

I suppose one could fill out character sheets with everything we’d ever want or need to know about each of these characters, but that would waste a lot of time. I’m not eager to write stuff that I know will never appear in the finished work: I think this house party is needed to get our characters on stage and to establish The Coming Revolution, but I worry that the whole thing may wind up on the cutting room floor. Anyway, minor characters are minor; I don’t need to know everything about the gardener’s lad, but I do need to be sure he’s not Tommy in the morning and Billy after lunch.

I suppose one could do that with a notebook or a file drawer, but that feels like a lot of work.

How do people manage?

by Howard Jacobsen

This fascinating novel of ideas begins in a cemetery where Strulovitch, a man of some importance, recognizes an even more notable banker. Shylock is sitting on a stool, reading Portnoy’s Complaint to his late wife.

Strulovitch invites Shylock home for a visit. Shylock, he knows, is a divisive figure: “No two people feel the same about him. Even those who unreservedly despise him, despise him with different degrees of unreservation.”

It turns out that Strulovitch and Shylock share a long history of trouble with their daughters. It’s not the ducats that Shylock minds, it’s the daughter. And it’s not so much losing the daughter as that goddamn monkey. More pressingly, Strulovitch’s sixteen-year-old Beatrice has run off to Venice with a football player who has a thing for very young Jewesses.

They have troubles to talk about, these two aging Jewish intellectuals. “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. Our greatest weakness as Jews is forever to be thinking the worst of ourselves.”This is part of The Hogarth Shakespeare, a series of commissioned novels that revisit Shakespearean plots. Impending treats include Margaret Atwood’s Tempest, Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, and Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth.

Shylock Is My Name takes its questions seriously. Shall we not revenge? Why not? The quality of mercy, after all, has always been strained.

They walked the rest of the short distance to Strulovitch’s hearse-like black Mercedes in silence.

“Ah! I’m surprised,” Shylock commented when he saw it. A black chauffeur was holding the door open for them. Strulovitch handed him Shylock’s Glyndebourne stool. “In the boot, Brendan,” he said.

To Shylock he said, “Surprised by what? That I have a driver?”

“That you have a German car.”

“I thought you believe we have to draw a line.”

“That’s another sort of line.”

“A line’s a line. We must let bygones be bygones.”

“I’m surprised you believe that.”

“I don’t.”

Mar 16 16 2016

Miami Blues

by Charles Willeford

A Dirda-recommended mystery from the 1980s and one of the most influential mysteries of its era. Hoke Mosely is not, perhaps, an ideal cop. He’s tough and smart, but only within limits. He’s not Raymond Chandler’s man who must walk down these mean streets alone, and he’s up against a casual psychopath who is, for the time being, out of prison and who takes life as he finds it – and then helps himself to whatever he can grab.

Fascinating introduction by Elmore Leonard who notes, correctly, that Willeford and he are working on the same thing.

My fantasy baseball rivals Henry Olsen and Dante Scala are burning up the political wires this year.

Wondering yesterday about whether it is precisely right to say that “Caesar’s armies swept the armies of the Republic before him,” I was struck by how hard it is to find anyone like Donald Trump in our political stories. The mixture of ignorance, carelessness, bombast, combativeness, vanity, and bad taste cannot be unique, but where in all our stories do we find anyone at all like this?

Perkin Warbeck? Richard II? I suppose you could make a case for Marlowe’s Edward II, but Edward doesn’t especially want to be king, he simply is king and there you are.

Nero, maybe? Or Vitellius?

When you have to reach this far, we’re deeply into uncharted territory. We’re hip deep in the Big Muddy…

by Penelople Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald visits David Lodge territory and returns in triumph. It’s 1912, and Fred Fairly, promising young Cambridge scientist and junior fellow, has crashed his bicycle. He wakes up in bed beside a strapping young woman, Daisy Saunders. Naturally, Fred’s college is the last holdout at Cambridge to insist that all its fellows remain celibate, and naturally Fred falls immediately in love. A very good time is had by all.

by Penelople Fitzgerald

A TLS retrospective review of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work mention this, her first book, a few years back. I couldn’t find a copy. Now it’s back in print, and it’s a lot of fun. Of a period in which Burne-Jones was madly in love with his model (who was married, and who had wealth and influence of her own) and William Morris’s wife was in love with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she remarks:

The fact that Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti could live through these days and months and maintain such a convincing everyday life will only seem strange to those who's marriage has experienced no crisis.

Later, of the Aesthetes, she explains that

The Aesthetic movement, like all movement led not by artists but their followers, would first dilute, then copy, then exaggerate, then become ridiculous, then grow out of date.

It’s fascinating to me the William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones went off to Oxford together, already friends, expecting to become ministers and, someday, bishops. At Oxford, they recognized that their lack of belief made this career choice difficult, and so they took up Art. It never seems to have occurred to either that they might not be good at art, that they might need talents or genius or that certain something. They just set to work.

Mar 16 3 2016

Cough Cough

This winter’s cold packs a certain punch. I seem to be on the mend, but expect limited blogging – or pretty much anything else – for a day or two.

by Tessa Hadley

A pleasant and thoughtful collection of short stories about love, mostly concerning people who are not married to each other.