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

Sep 14 29 2014

Hell is Empty

by Craig Johnson

This installment in the Longmire saga is in essence a reprise of the first novel, The Cold Dish, with even more magic realism. It’s capably handled, though the formulaic insistence on putting the isolated hero in ever-greater physical peril claims a toll on both the author and the reader.

by Lev Grossman

Rereading before starting The Magician’s Land. This admirable story raises the same question I’ve always held about Snow Crash: is the central character Quentin (in Snow Crash Hiro Protagonist), who seems to occupy that role and who certainly believes it’s him, or is it Julia (YT in Snow Crash), his abandoned and forgotten high school friend, who claws her way through the underground magic scene to finally reach heights unforeseen (and possibly undesired)?

From my first reading:

In this second volume of the arc that began with The Magicians, Grossman continues to explore a magical world viewed in a strictly realist mode. Our focus again is Quentin Coldwater, who has graduated from Brakebills, the secret university of magic. In the company of his classmates, he’s bored and self-involved and he’s one of four kings of Fillory, a world of magic. But things are not quite right, and neither is Quentin, though nobody (least of all him) knows quite what’s wrong. Efforts to fix things inevitably lead to worse.

The brilliant thread here lies not with Quentin (who is something of a dope) but with Julia, the girl he admired back in his Brooklyn high school and whom he forgot after she failed the Brakebills entrance exam. The sorting hat sorted her out and she was supposed to forget the whole thing. Somehow, the spells of forgetting that were supposed to erase the memory of magic don’t quite work — she’s too smart, she sees the fuzzy edges in her memories — and these lead her into a dark subculture of underground magic, riddled with drugs and desperation. It turns out there’s an underground world of people who didn’t get into a good school, a world of community college magicians who swap tips and tattoos in dingy basement hangouts.

Julia is a student who will do anything for knowledge. There is a price to pay, and she pays it, but it’s not just a big bank loan.

by Elizabeth Strout

Interlinked stories of an unremarkable shore town in Maine, all loosely linked to an unremarkable retired school teacher. Memorable, though not a dramatic or even a very pleasant read. Winner of the Pulitzer prize and highly recommended by an old college friend.

Sep 14 21 2014

Boy Proof

by Cecil Castellucci

A slight little whisp of a novel, this story doesn’t quite have the confidence to do what it wants. Victoria calls herself “Egg” after a science fiction hero. She’s going to be valedictorian, and she’s made herself boy proof, inoculating herself against the silliness that afflicts her classmates. The world is falling apart, as anyone can see in the headlines, and she has no time for foolishness. It’s an interesting argument, but Egg is never more likely to stand by it than were the female leads of romantic comedies of the 1930s. Her capitulation simply happens; it's told buy it’s not argued, and so the book simply stands for the assertion that resistance is futile.

Texas wants more propaganda and less criticism in the AP History curriculum. In connection with this, Brent Simmons emphasizes the value of knowing stuff.

To “de-emphasize memorization” sounds like a thing everybody can agree on — except that I suspect it really means “we’ve made it so you don’t have to know what actually happened, which makes it easier for you to do well on the test, which makes us look good.

Brent has a point, but context is everything. In this case, the context is The College Boards, and it’s important to remember why the SATs and the College Boards that administer them exist.

In the old days, you could go to Harvard (or Oxford) if you met two qualifications. You had to (a) be able to pay a substantial fee for tuition, and (b) you had to be recommended by well-connected people. In other words, you had to be rich and well born. (You also had to be a guy, of course.)

By the late 19th century, this was increasingly unsatisfactory. It was especially unsatisfactory in the US, which imagined itself to have rejected birthright aristocracy. But what chance did a farm kid from Kansas have to go to Harvard?

So, Harvard got funds for a bunch of scholarships open to kids who were not from New England — kids who couldn’t afford Harvard and whose parents did not get invited to the right parties in Boston and Concord and didn’t visit with the president. But that’s a lot of kids: how are you going to choose which kids?

OK: you need a test.

But what’s on the test? If the test tries to determine what facts you know, then everything depends on either (a) knowing a lot of facts, or (b) having connections who know what the important facts are, or (better yet) know what’s on the test. In the old days, that meant going to Andover or Exeter or Groton, which simply replicated the old network. Later, it meant getting coached by expensive test-prep tutors; that led to a weird situation where the Washington Post had once invested in a tutoring company and the tutoring company had become a much larger and more profitable business than the leading newspaper of the capitol.

And the more the tests depend on facts, the more vulnerable they are to corruption. Worse, the potential for corruption is so obvious that there doesn’t really need to be any corruption at all before people generally believe that it’s hopelessly corrupt. The stakes are high, both emotionally and financially: we’re talking about scholarships that amount to six figures, plus the difference between going to an Ivy and going to a non-selective school.

Then again, it’s a big country. Which facts should kids know? My wife learned about the Lenapes in New Jersey, here in Boston you might learn about Wampanoags. I In Gallup, you could study the Lenape and the Wampanoags, but then again you’ve got classmates who speak Navaho or Tewa at home and you don’t know any Lenape and there’s only one little girl on the planet who is a native Wampanoag speaker and she doesn’t live in Gallup. So, either you test on concepts, or you can’t really test on anything concerning Native Americans, which tells all the kids that Native Americans don’t count: if they were important, they’d be on the exam.

This goes for all sorts of things. Over on Facebook, I've been discussing Progressive Massachusetts with a local politician. I know that the Progressives start with Teddy Roosevelt, Bob La Follette, and Gifford Pinchot. He knows with the exact same assurance that they start with Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and Benito Mussolini. I know that core Progressive causes were the right to form unions, pure food and drugs, safe workplaces, and abolition of child labor. He knows that core Progressive causes were eugenics and confiscatory taxation. The field of History has tools for resolving this, but those tools are hard to squeeze into a short multiple-choice exam. Further, we’re not hiring historians with the AP exam, we’re looking for promising students, and a capable defense of a difficult position is certainly a promising sign.

I’m very skeptical of these tests, though I haven’t looked at one in decades. Lately, they've also been adopted as a cudgel with which to beat teachers. But before we dismiss them completely, it’s good to remember why we started them in the first place.

Brian Crane offers advice on “front-of-the-manual” Tinderbox tips and on making text links in Tinderbox.

Sep 14 18 2014


by Hugh Howey

We live in a 135-story underground silo, a self-sufficient community of perhaps a few thousand people which is, as far as anyone knows, the only habitable place in the universe. God placed it with care between the toxic depths of the earth and the toxic heights of the sky, and peopled this habitable world with his chosen. The world above, glimpsed through a few precious sensors, is a lifeless place of toxic winds. Everyone knows their level and their job.

And then, one day, the IT Department tries to take over and the Mechanics go to war. A nicely-imagined and well drawn world – a planetary anti-romance – animated by a clever if overlong quest, this seems designed and destined for the movies (and, apparently, has been optioned by Ridley Scott).

Brent Simmons on software design.

People say it’s important to be passionate about something. But what if your passion is for something horrible?
Sep 14 17 2014

Further Review

Jon Gruber nails it in his thought piece on the Apple Watch. The most interesting and significant thing about the Watch is: we don’t know.

Ages ago, William Gibson speculated that we’d eventually want costly, custom-crafted laptop bodies that we’d keep for years and years, periodically swapping internal components as technology improves. That’s got to be the underlying logic of the Watch. Gruber has got to be correct: the expensive editions of the Watch are going to be really expensive.

Side issue: assume every Apple store has one gold watch to display, and one gold watch in stock to sell. At $10K apiece and 450 stores – and Gruber is right that the top-of-the-line watches are going to cost a lot – that’s $9 million of inventory for each SKU. Yes, I think people will buy these – especially if there’s some assurance that they won’t be obsolete in three years – but nobody’s going to buy one sight unseen. So pretty much every model adds five million in inventory.

Gruber is also right about the announcement. Apple announced the hardware because, if they didn’t announce it now, the suppliers would dribble out details about this piece and that piece. Apple didn’t announce the software – the product – because it’s not done yet. The Watch may be amazing or it may be a frost: we don’t know and we won’t know until it’s ready.

Apple told us about the outside of the box because, if they didn’t tell us now, the cardboard company would. They’ll tell us what the thing does later, when it’s finished.

Gruber’s main point is the fundamental egalitarianism of mass production: the president and the bum on the corner drink the same Coke that you drink. Obama may have a nicer glass, but the Coke’s the same.

In the tech world, weirdly, it’s even backward. A maxed out Mac Pro, for example, is a much nicer machine than an $999 MacBook Air. But that Mac Pro isn’t marketed to pro football players, real-estate moguls and hotel heiresses. Rich people are fine with the Air, and what would they do with 12 cores? The natural customers for the Mac Pro are working folks, people who make software, rocket scientists, people who make movies. There may be a few working folk who buy the gold Watch – salesmen, perhaps, or hoteliers – but that’s not their natural audience. On the other hand, just about every serious developer is going to need a low-end Watch just for research, and it’s going to be those watches for which the cool software is made.

For perspective: remember that a $10,000 gold watch costs only costs $10,000. That’s a lot of money, especially when a $375 sport watch tells the same time, but it’s also solid gold and sapphire. $10,000 buys you some nice materials. But you can blow through $10K worth of software development in no time at all. There’s a market for luxury Watches, but I don’t think there’s going to be a market for bespoke software that runs on them. There’s a pot of money in lovely Watch hardware, but the software’s going to need to run on a lot of wrists.

Outstanding thank-you email from Don Berwick this morning, especially notable because it did not ask for money. These days, I receive several donation requests from every candidate every day. I understand, but it begins to wear after a while.

Also, some very nice writing:

I believe that the future well-being of the Democratic Party lies in its unapologetic and firm commitment to the progressive values that together we explored over and over again in this campaign: social justice, equality, and compassion in public policy. 

The progressive values that together we explored is nicely phrased.

shelfies – n. Mobile phone pictures of one’s book in the bookstore.

I’ve been spending the morning with Kathryn Cramer, taking shelfies of her new anthology, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future.

The higher calling — the longer calling — is not to an election, nor is it to a party. It is to a vision of a community intolerant of needless suffering.– Don Berwick

My Republican friend is taking comfort that the center-right in Sweden might not have been smashed in the recent election. That its savior may be an anti-immigrant neo-nationalist party is not, for me, much comfort. These days, one hears such awful echoes.

Gus “Acorn/VoodooPad” Mueller on software development and The Wilderness.

It's a period of time where I'm pretty lost, and I don't know what to do. I have feature lists, I have open bugs to fix, and I have an outline of where the app is going. But I feel mentally incapacitated, like I'm getting nothing done.

I call this "The Wilderness".

I hear it talked about occasionally, though I don't think people really know what's going on. And I've seen it happen to other devs as well, from the hardly known to the super famous and successful. I've seen devs fall into it, never to return.

This merges several different sloughs of despond. There’s the pressure of deadlines, of colleagues and customers who are counting on whatever you’re building.

There’s the pressure of getting everything right. In software, every damn wrong note can bring the whole concert to a thudding halt. You can’t single that triple Axel. If you miss the blocker, there’s no running back to pick him up and no hope that Tom will step up in the pocket or Fran will turn it into a 12-yard scramble. This is made worse because people have been told that it's all easy and that intuitive, bug-free, defect-free software at $1.99 is the way everything ought to be. Some things just aren’t going to be intuitive because some things really are rocket science.

And some things are going to be wrong — and other things will seem wrong even if they’re right — because software design and implementation is one of those things that are rocket science.

And then there’s still the big problem I still call “being along with the molecule.” The craft of software is often research, and sometimes nature doesn’t yield her secrets easily. Sometimes, what seemed likely to work simply doesn’t. Sometimes, what worked well enough last year won’t work any more. We just had one of those in Tinderbox; a small bit of debris in the code that has literally no effect in Mavericks turned out to crash the Yosemite beta. This was only a little tricky to track down, but of course we didn’t know that when setting off into the wilderness. You never know.

by Thomas Hughes

A readable book, but not the Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Why the first book lives, despite its overtly sentimental structure and its patently melodramatic scheme, while the second book flounders, remains an interesting question.

I’m inclined to lay the blame on Harry East, the seeming-sidekick of the first book who is, in fact, its dramatic and moral center. East leaves Rugby first, an unexplained surprise that presumably relates to unmentionable class tension. Yet East is clearly more U than Hardy, his substitute at Oxford, a man who is never unconscious of his comparative poverty. East never seems conscious of being anything other than a gentleman — perhaps of being a gentleman who doesn’t get on with everyone, but his whole point is that he’s a gentleman and yet he’s somehow not Young Brooke, a self-indulgent and thoughtless fellow. As ever, Tom meanders but comes fairly close to being right in the end.

Forgive the sudden spate of books. I’ve been lax about writing book notes immediately on finishing a book, and I’m trying to clear the decks before the end of Summer.

by Louisa May Alcott

A necessary hole-filler, and also an intriguing book: a school story without the school. The book’s overtly sentimental moralizing might be off-putting, but Jo is such a delightful character that it’s easy to excuse. Beside’s, Bronson Alcott’s daughter deserves some slack in the department of moralizing and sentiment. Bronson was probably the first teacher to lose his place for offering sex education, and also founded a Utopian community that abjured milk and wool because it discommoded the animals. Still, it must have been a warm house.

by Miri Rubin

The Penguin History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages, a solid mainstream survey with a nice attentiveness to the lives and work of women.

Sep 14 12 2014

Autumn Term

by Antonia Forest

I’ve been reading a bunch of School Stories lately, with special attention to the modern school story. (The Victorian school story ends with graduation; the modern school story ends with the dissolution of the school.) One technical problem of the school story is that it requires buckets of exposition concerning school customs and characters; one the one hand, this is the entire point, but unless you handle things with care it also become ludicrously parochial.

To this, the modern school story adds a second problem: how do you demolish the school without harming the children? The 19th century didn’t mind killing kids; kids died all the time, they die in Little Women and in Tom Brown’s Schooldays and it’s not a scandal. But this is very dicy territory now. Anya dies in Buffy, but (a) she’s a demon, and (b) she’s a kid but she’s also hundreds of years old. Rue dies in The Hunger Games, but that’s the start of a war. It’s quite tricky even to be beastly to a fictitious child these days.

The other school stories I’ve read are either famous and beloved or new and exciting. Autumn Term, which Meryl recommended, is thoroughly forgotten, out of print, and fairly difficult to find. It’s very much in the Victorian style, and it has the further delight of featuring identical twins (cf. Sisterland and Fangirl). It’s very well written. Though it’s implicitly feminist, the book is uninterested in race or gender or class; modern Britain isn’t even on the horizon, neither War has cast a shadow, we give no thought to the colonies and we are living still in the Edwardian twilight.

The series, of which this is the first installment, is a fascinating little corner of book selling. The stories are again out of print, having been reprinted in the 90’s by Puffin and in the 00’s by a small press. They’re not wildly well known, but they have sufficient following that an old Puffin paperback in adequate condition is likely to sell for $70 or so in our newly-efficient used book market. Programmed bidding, where booksellers have their computers check competitor pricing, sometimes leads to isolated used book weirdness where some forgotten volume winds up with an astronomical price, but I suspect this is real: there’s enough demand to keep the price high, but not quite enough demand to attract the attention of a publisher and of the author’s estate.

Wednesday, my weblog received about a thousand extra visitors. They seem to have left no mark in referrer logs. This sort of thing typically signifies a link from Daring Fireball, from Brent, from Fallows, or something like that, but these all leave a clear trace (and usually generate some correspondence).

Is this what a Facebook spike looks like?

by Craig Johnson

A brilliant mystery that finds a new mix of humor and mystery. Funny mysteries tend to veer into silliness, in part because they’re hard to control and in part because both humor and mystery concern a broken world, but the nature of the fracture is fundamentally different. Down these mean streets a man must go, but if he is a funny guy it will be hard to take him seriously, and if no one takes him seriously the paladin will drift away like a kite. Here, we pile affliction on affliction as the bewildered sherif says, time and again, “you’ve got to be kidding!”