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

May 15 20 2015

Feed

by Mira Grant

This 2010 series-starter and Hugo nominee is not without shortcomings. It’s another zombie apocalypse and, knowing itself late to that party, doesn’t always take its zombies seriously. It’s a power fantasy about preternaturally smart and capable teenage bloggers who are so competent that we usually forget they’re teenagers. The early chapters have barrels of exposition once we get past the stock James Bond opening chase, and minor characters are frequently reduced to their function, which leaves the world thin. The core technical problem of the YA quest – how do we get agency in the presence of parents? – is settled here by establishing a pair of (very interesting) parents and then failing to even think of them for weeks on end. Much of the science fiction – the world of 2040 where bloggers dominate new media news – was already coming true by the time the book was published, and our hero’s amazement at her sysadmin’s ability of spin up virtual servers as needed is terribly 2008. Finally, this is a book about politics, but its politicians are not very well drawn and their politics is indistinct; I can believe we’ll have viral zombification in 2040 but I’m really skeptical that we’ll have liberal Republicans.

There’s a lot of wish fulfillment here. In the future, not only are weblogs a dominant and profitable medium, but every A-List blog employs a department of “fictionals” to fill the audience’s demand for stories – and poetry! When our heroes need to hire a head fictional, they find a simpatico young blonde who happens to be a terrific sysadmin and who wants them to call her “Buffy”.

And yet, there really is something here. There’s a competent thriller eventually, sure, but beyond that there are vistas of real strangeness. These are children born after the end of the world. They expect to die, because that happens a lot in their world. They expect to do amazing things because they were brought up that way and that’s who they are. They don’t spend much time mourning the lost, zombie-free world. They’re out to ride fast bikes, fight off zombie attacks, buy cool equipment, and manage their site’s chat boards and merchandising. They do that well, and, in the intervals, they get out the news, poetry on deadline.

May 15 18 2015

Scott Rosenberg

Scott Rosenberg on links: Will Deep Links Ever Be Truly Deep?

Every time a writer or speaker creates a project by laying out ideas in a program like Tinderbox, DevonThink, Scrivener, Workflowy, Evernote, or [your favorite here!], she is living out a little of Bush’s Memex dream.

A series from Brent Simmons on How Not To Crash. Part 2: don’t enumerate mutable collections, because no one’s that smart. Good advice.

Obviously, you’d make an exception for really huge collections, collections so big that the copy is expensive. But in that case, you probably don’t want to be enumerating the collection in the first place, not if you can help it!

You might also be wondering about small collections enumerated in tight loops. You’d be wrong. Either the outer loop is small, in which case the copies don’t cost much, or the outer loop is not small, in which case your operation is at least quadratic and you’re probably headed for trouble.

From Rupert Brooke, “Heaven.”

But somewhere, beyond Space and Time.

Is wetter water, slimier slime!

And there (they trust) there swimmeth One

Who swam ere rivers were begun,

Immense, of fishy form and mind,

Squamous, omnipotent, and kind;

And under that Almighty Fin,

The littlest fish may enter in.

The theme of this dinner was borrowed from Paradise Lost. This week, my car nearly gave out, my hearing aid nearly gave out, and now my iPhone won’t charge: it was time for a low pressure meal. The straightforward recipe for a low-pressure meal is to get a holiday joint and roast it, but that seemed to dishonor all the expenses just incurred in order to delay even great expenses. So let it be a challenge.

  • “Gin” juniper Grissini ❧ Gougeres ❧ Hard Cider on the porch
  • Braised fennel, absinthe butter, salmon roe ❧ more cider
  • Homemade agnolotti stuffed with sweet potato and bacon, in fennel broth ❧ White Bordeaux
  • Duck breast, smoked over alder and tea ❧ Vaqueyras
  • Chicken legs braised in hard cider ❧ Tempranillo
  • Salad
  • Cake

They work got off on an instructive foot as I carefully weighed my pasta eggs sans shells to get the flour to three significant figures, and then added 3:1 flour when everyone knows pasta requires 3:2. So I had precisely twice as much flour as I ought, and naturally this worked not well, or at all. Much mystery ensued, followed inevitably by a double batch of pasta and more fresh fettuccine and strozzapreti than we really need.

Thanks to the pasta production, I never did figure out great names for the courses. But we’ve got the apple thing going in the appetizers and the chicken legs, the lcorice-tinged fennel in the first course (“Black it stood as night, Fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell, And shook a dreadful dart.”), and of course it’s bathed in seas of fire. The agnolotti are allegedly papal miters, they’re also filled with something orange. The duck breast is smoked,

May 15 6 2015

Guidelines

Writers’ Guidelines for Fallen London, the stylish interactive Web Fiction from Failbetter.

Weather: It never more than drizzles in Fallen London. There’s no wind unless Storm is up to shenanigans. The temperature doesn’t change much.

Is it possible to read series bibles of completed series – Buffy, say, or Babylon 5? Where? It might be an interesting comparison.

Thanks, Stacey Mason

May 15 4 2015

The Virgins

by Pamela Erens

An accomplished and skillfully-written prep school story that takes its characters seriously. The students here are not so much young as simply inexperienced: they know a lot, they have strong opinions and determined characters and they are not fools, but they haven’t done any of this before. Bruce Bennet-Jones, the unreliable and unpleasant narrator, looks on as his classmate Seung Jung wins the love of the girl Bennet-Jones cannot possess, the new girl in school, Chicagoan Aviva Rossner. Fascinating, strange, and serious.

May 15 2 2015

660

A-Rod got his 660th, tying Willie Mays. No one seems all that excited.

I remember when Aaron broke Ruth’s record. That was a big deal, in part because Ruth’s record had stood for so long, in part because Ruth was the greatest player in history. Aaron wasn’t the greatest player, though he was great.

Then Bonds broke Aaron’s record, to much hissing. The catch here is simply that you can argue that Bonds was the greatest hitter in history. Because of steroids, and because he hasn’t been easy to get along with, no one really wants to make the argument. But the argument’s there in the record book: you could look it up.

And now here’s A-Rod, passing the Say-Hey Kid. It ought to be a good time, a time to look back to the Polo Grounds and the Vic Mertz catch and 660. That’s a lot of homers!

I think we really need to stop obsessing with pills. We accept all sorts of other kinds of sports medicine. We accept cheating: no one ever accused Ty Cobb of playing fair, and we’re not ignoring his records. It’s a game.

Apr 15 30 2015

Treemaps

Treemaps

I’ve been working on a new Treemap View for Tinderbox. Here’s an example:

Treemaps
Click here for full size

What we have here is a section of a Tinderbox note file that contains lots of expense reports from a fictional business trip. Each expense is a box. The area of each box is proportional to the expenditure, scaled logarithmically. The color of each box is proportional to the number of words used to justify the expense to Accounting.

We’ve got more the fifty notes on view view here – more than we could get onscreen with a outline – and a nice mix of hierarchical structure, visualization, and clarity. Big documents reveal some interesting structure, too; here’s my weblog:

Treemaps

There’s a good deal of work remaining to do, but it’s shaping up nicely.

Adam Gopnik:

Writing is turning time into language, and all good writers have an elaborate, fetishistic relationship to their working hours. Writers talking about time are like painters talking about unprimed canvas and pigments. (Nor is there anything philistine about writers talking money. Inside the ballroom at the PEN banquet, it’s all freedom and dignity; outside, it’s all advances.)

by Mary Miller

An eerily modern Pilgrim’s Progress in which a plain 15-year-old girl is dragged along on a family car trip, starting from their sourly-sweet Alabama home and heading for Oakland, California where, in five days, the Rapture will commence. Dad has lost his job, though the two girls aren’t supposed to know that. Mom has pretty much lost whatever affection she had for Dad, though the two girl’s aren’t supposed to know that, either. Elise, seventeen and beautiful, is pregnant, though Mom and Dad aren’t supposed to know that. And the narrator, Jess Metcalf, has pretty much concluded that it’s all a crock: beauty, true love, goodness, Jesus, fast food, all of it. She learns a lot on the road, but never loses a certain clarity of vision.

Why hadn’t he texted me? I hoped he didn’t think I was just some girl who had given him a handjob in the back of his van. I was, of course, but I couldn’t think of myself that way, and couldn’t think of him thinking of me that way, either.

Then again, fast food is pretty good.

Outlining With Tinderbox

A deep introduction by Steve Zeoli.

I was going to end this overview by saying that Tinderbox is not the world’s best Mac outliner. But I’ve changed my mind. I think it is the best, when you consider all it has to offer.
Apr 15 27 2015

42

I finally saw “42,” which has been overpriced on Amazon and unavailable on Netflix.

It’s not much of a movie, but the ballpark sets are amazing. You look at the batter digging in for the pitch and, yes, it’s the Polo Grounds! OK: I think that may have been a matte painting, and center field was out of focus – but then, center field at the Polo Grounds was so deep it would have been out of focus. Shibe Park was really impressive. (Oddly enough, I don’t recall any pictures of Ebbets offhand.)

Oddly enough, they didn’t use anything from the Major League stadium in which Jackie Robinson played in 1947 and which still exists – Wrigley Field. Sure, it’s changed, but it’s changed a lot less than the Polo Grounds.

by Kathy Sierra

Badass is the logical culmination of the contemporary business book: a PowerPoint deck on paper. It’s a good deck; Sierra is first and foremost a speaker.

Sierra’s insight here – and it’s a important – is that the whole point of technology marketing is to make users awesome, which means giving them tools to do great stuff, leading them toward using those tools well, and then getting out of the way. This is music to my ears, of course, since Tinderbox users are pretty much the definition of “badass” and “awesome” and each day’s Tinderbox support queue tends to be filled with a remarkable array of talented writers, journalists, scientists, and scholars. (Lots of musicians, too: I’m honestly not sure why.)

One insightful example explores camera documentation. On the one hand, manufacturers tend to explain how to use this camera. But purchasers don’t care about that. They want to know how to take great pictures – better pictures than they could take with their old camera. That’s a useful framing for lots of technical marketing problems, and a very intriguing guide to improving sales, support, and training.

The later sections of the book discuss strategies for help users become “badass” before they give up and abandon your product. Many of the strategies are heuristically sound, but Sierra presents them as necessary cognitive truths. This leads to an unfortunate rhetoric where we’re consistently cajoling or deceiving our user’s brain in order to help the user; instead of making users awesome, we’re manipulating them for their own good. Sierra embraces the weirdness heartily and underlines it on page after page with a series of brain icons – for example, a brain with a faucet symbolizes “distraction”.

Actual cognitive arguments – arguments about how the brain actually accomplishes something – require more than intuitive plausibility and an experiment or two. We just don’t understand brains very well, they often work in ways that aren’t intuitively obvious, and it turns out that we’re not particularly good at thinking about our thinking. In a talk, this hand-waving might be more effective, but paper provides leisure to poke holes. In the end, we aren’t trying to solve the problem of the mind right now, we’re just trying to sell some stuff! The conclusion much of this reaches is the desirability of focusing training on skills and concepts that are immediately necessary and clearly rewarding; that conclusion doesn’t need any cognitive science at all.

Nonetheless, the original observation is sound and significant. We aren’t playing silly psychological games to get customers to engage with the brand or to splurge on in-app purchases. We’re helping smart and capable people to do good and important work, one step at a time.

Apr 15 20 2015

Dashboard

My imaginary thriller proceeds, and with it I’m building some Tinderbox infrastructure to keep an eye on how the trip is shaping up.

Dashboard

The raw character map is easy enough to put together in any diagramming program, but here we’re using Tinderbox agents and rules to keep a running total of our expenses as we add them. Tinderbox is also handling currency conversions; these expenses are entered variously in dollars, euros, pounds sterling, and Swiss francs.

You could do this in a spreadsheet, sure, but where in the spreadsheet are you going to put your character notes, much less our internal memos?

Meanwhile, we’ve gone from Paris to Dijon, on to Zürich, down to Torino, and now we’ve dashed off to London for the weekend conference of our (fictitious) open source competitors. It’s nice to be spending an imaginary company’s notional revenues!

by Stacey D'Erasmo

The story of a rock-and-roll comeback, nicely written and filled with convincing detail. D’Erasmo does a masterful job of using small asides to good effect and has a nice feel for quickly sketching distinct places in the midst of a band tour where we’re constantly moving to a new city. What really works here is the world building: Anna Brundage is a convincing minor star and D’Erasmo does a terrific job of sketching the contours of a career, the small triumph of the first-album Whale, the disastrous Bang Bang tour – as well as a performance gone wrong in Hamburg, a rained-out music festival in Latvia, and the crucial distinction between flings with men you’ve scarcely met (which, on tour, is basically everyone you could possibly have a fling with) and sleeping with fans (which, on tour, is pathetic).

Before setting off on this last best chance, the Wonderland tour, Anna had been teaching shop at a private school in Manhattan; whenever failure looms, it manifests as the specter of a hundred little girls with hammers.

Apr 15 19 2015

Too Many Books?

Tim Parks:

At present, for example, it’s hard not to feel that we are in an era of massive overproduction. Just when we were already overwhelmed with paper books, often setting them aside after only a few pages in anxious search of something more satisfying, along came the Internet and the e-book so that, wonderfully, we now have access to hundreds of thousands of contemporary novels and poems.

Note to the copy editor of the NY Review of Books:

True, in the early 1300s, with the establishment of the first partially mechanized paper mills in Italy, a more generous supply of paper began to circulate and the number of people able to write rapidly increased.

Did the number of writers increase rapidly? Or does the increase relate to how many people could write hurriedly, swiftly, and in a rush?

I’m toying with an odd fiction project that, if all goes well, will generate some useful background material for Tinderbox 6.3 while perhaps being interesting (or amusing) for its own sake.

It’s going to be a quick and dirty thriller. To get things rolling, I need to lay down the bones of the conspiracy our protagonist will eventually discover, a conspiracy that’s going to ruin her April. That means keeping the players straight.

Planning A Conspiracy

Nothing very profound here; it's just a quick sketch. Usually, I just keep a list of the characters in outline view for fast reference, but here we’ve got to manage all sorts of shadowy and undisclosed relationships (and at least one double agent).

Green people work for us; light green people are contractors. Red people work, perhaps indirectly, for the bad guys; at this point, I know less about the Opposition than I do about our hero. That’s one reason for this exercise.

Of course, lots of brainstorming, “mind mapping,” or diagramming tools could do this well enough. What’s nice here is that we can seamlessly extend this to add background to characters, change their associates, perhaps use some rules to keep all this organized.

Apr 15 17 2015

Tinderbox 6.2

Tinderbox 6.2

Tinderbox 6.2 is now out.

So what I particularly like is that, even as a trivial user, things are just getting better and better.— E. P.James, Tinderbox Forum

by John Green

So I dug right down to the bottom of my soul

To see how an ice cream felt…

Another book that every teenage girl you know has read, The Fault In Our Stars seems to be a story of two kids with cancer, but it's deeply interested in the the interaction between life and the stories we tell about it.

A boy and a girl meet cute at a 12-step group for childhood cancer – itself a nicely-observed absurdity – and, one thing leading to another, they soon find themselves sharing an intense passion for a little-known novel about a kid with cancer. That novel ends abruptly and no sequel has appeared; our star-crossed readers accept that the protagonist succumbed suddenly but they want very much to know what happened to The Mother, whether her Boyfriend was good or bad, and what became of her pet hamster Sisyphus. They get in touch with the author, but he won’t commit the answers to writing. He might tell, if only we were in Amsterdam. So, two very sick kids need to get to Amsterdam.

This is done quite well. Of course, you don’t need to address these questions through the eyes of a 15-year-old with terminal lung cancer and her first boyfriend, but that’s part of the point: plot happens.

So, much of the book is an interesting concurrence to David Mamet’s attack on Method Acting: you don’t need to deeply understand the character’s background, because the character is a character and has no background. Nothing that’s not on the page exists; that’s all you know and if you need to know more than that, you’re screwed. (And you’re screwed in any case, thanks to the whole mortality thing.)

I think the book, like the internal story, might to have ended right there. Instead, Green resolves everything with a maudlin coda that shows us what we’ve already been told, and which tends to recast the literary concerns as a distracting subplot in the middle of a sentimental tale of illness.