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

by Kate Quinn

In 1947, Charlotte St. Clair, a well-heeled American college student, is heading to Switzerland with her mother in order to take care of a little problem. She ditches her mother in Southampton in order to pursue a clue to the whereabouts of her wonderful French cousin Rose, who disappeared in the war. The clue leads her to the dilapidated house of an alcoholic WWI British spymistress who threatens to shoot her. The game is soon afoot.

Based on an actual WWI spy network, the story alternates in time and point of view between the first war and the aftermath of the second. Charlie is a good character in a good predicament, and she gets the story off to a good start. Later, the situation takes over and things become too easy; contrast Simon Mawer’s haunting Trapeze.

by Mackenzie Lee

A swashbuckler, reminiscent of The Count Of Monte Cristo, with a difference: our rakish 18th-century hero is accompanied on his journey toward virtue by his best friend, who is black, and by his sister, who is a feminist and who is secretly studying medicine. A rollicking frolic is had by all.

by Jeremy Dauber

Through much of the twentieth century, American comedy — standup, skit, theatrical, cinematic or on television — was chiefly Jewish comedy. Jeremy Dauber surveys this scene and ties it to ancient writings and medieval tradition. A thorough and fascinating study.

Oct 18 11 2018

After Kavanaugh

The Kavanaugh confirmation fight will be remembered as the moment when everything changed.

In 1856, a congressman from South Carolina clubbed a senator from Massachusetts into bloody unconsciousness on the floor of the Senate. This will be like that.

  • The underlying question before us is whether women are fully human. Scientific progress has made it possible for women to control their bodies; shall they?
  • Whenever Kavanaugh’s vote is decisive, we will remember that this stolen vote was cast by an intemperate partisan, a liar and a drunkard who, in his youth, attempted to rape an acquaintance.
  • This will not be forgotten, because it is impossible to forget.
  • If women are to enjoy their own sexuality, they must have access to birth control and, in case of failure, to abortion. We also require a social convention that permits women to prevent or to end an unwanted relationship even if they are physically or socially weaker.
  • The question does not readily admit to compromise. If preventing the conception of a potential child, or ending a pregnancy, is murder, then women are simply not as human as men.
  • This question has now been settled; people will love whom they choose. Nevertheless, the Republican Party now controls the Supreme Court and intends to restrict access to birth control, to abortion, and to the voting booth.
  • The damage to the Supreme Court will be swift, severe, and lasting. I doubt it will ever be repaired.
  • Everyone will be involved. After Roe falls, we’ll be arranging secret trips to abortion-friendly states. After Griswold falls, we’ll be smuggling contraceptives into restrictionist states. There will be roadblocks at the state line. Republicans will pass more stringent laws and impose Draconian enforcement. We will have an Underground Railroad and a fugitive abortionist act.
  • It’s still not going to be enough.
  • One Republican senator might have delayed or derailed the confirmation of a judge who is an intemperate partisan, a liar and a drunkard who, in his youth, attempted to rape an acquaintance. Not one had the courage.
  • A further consequence of this situation will likely be a formal schism of the Catholic Church. Many will blame Francis, but Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae leaves little room for maneuver. It might have been possible to temporize for another generation, but with everyone in the nation involved in the struggle, temporizing won’t work. Control of parochial schools is going to be a frightful mess.
  • American Protestants will rediscover sectarianism. Once, the dividing line was the empty cross in the nave; now, it will be the rainbow at the door.
  • Already, it’s very difficult to maintain amity across the divide. You can’t pal around with someone who thinks you or your friends are not quite human. I think I know three Republicans now. I’ve stayed friends with one (for some definition of “friend”) by cutting off all contact; for ten years we avoided religion and politics, and now we avoid everything. I didn’t know until today that the second held such opinions. The third is a professional political operative who is good at his job and can (so far) navigate these treacherous waters. Amateurs cannot.
  • In the background, we have America’s concentration camps for toddlers. We have police who murder black folk with impunity. We have a revived and invigorated anti-Semitism and white supremacism supported by a political party gone mad. We have a government that plunders our environment for the benefit of a few, a government in the service of foreign dictators.
  • Amity is nice, but decency is not optional. A judge who is an intemperate partisan, a liar and a drunkard is going to rule that women are not fully human; under the circumstances, many will choose to be decent, not amiable.
  • We will be lucky to live through the storm. Many will not.

Update: The state represented by Preston Brooks, who assailed Charles Sumner, was South Carolina, not Kentucky.

The Web Unbalanced

photo:Maranke Wieringa

What was I doing in Paris? I opened Web Studies 2.0, a fascinating meeting of (mostly) Euopean and North African web researchers, with a look at the World Wide Web we have built through our research.

How did we come to this pass?

New media were meant to augment our abilities and to liberate our understanding. We dreamt of fast access to unbounded libraries, of university-level courses delivered at minuscule cost to remote villages, of access to tools. We envisioned new literary forms and a new birth of freedom of expression unencumbered by the cost of chopped trees.

What we got was Facebook, Reddit and 4chan. We got Jimmy Wales and Milo Yiannopoulos and Candy Crush Saga. We got Gamergate and the GRU. We got Donald Trump.

All this is not entirely our fault, or only our fault. But it is our fault; our new media ecology is the world we have made, and it is far, far from the world of which we had dreamt. Our predicament arose, I believe, because the twentieth century discovered a set of beautiful, difficult, and powerful ideas — and we handed those ideas to knaves, fools, and villains. The same ideas were available as well to dedicated scholars, thoughtful policy-makers, and brilliant artists, but our world is not always a place of perfect symmetry and the systems we built seem often, in practice, to favor the abusive and to privilege the villain.

This asymmetry is arguably the defining property of our new media ecology.

The paper goes on to discuss some specific ways that today’s Web helps villains more than is helps the virtuous, and then look for some ways we could change that.

ACM Digital Library subscribers can read the paper here, and everyone can read it here.

by Thi Bui

A lovely graphic novel of the author’s search for an explanation for her unhappy Vietnamese-American family. Bui started this book as an alternative to her dissertation, which explored the history of Vietnamese refugees in their historical context but failed to get at the emotional core of her experience. An exceptional and concise portal into a complex history, rich with nuance and unexpected gentleness and complimented by Bui’s wonderful portraiture and deft watercolor work.

I spent a delightful long holiday weekend in Wellfleet, thinking about some problems involving writing hypertexts that were raised in Stacey Mason’s superb dissertation advancement proposal. Stacey has always been more interested than I in diegetic links — links that concern what happens in the story.

You are being attacked by an angry grue. Do you (1) fight back, (2) run away, or (3) try to reason with the grue?

One observation I made in the course of these contemplations is that revising a complex hypertext is often hard.

Consider this contrived example. We’re writing a thriller, say, and we’ve just finished a fight scene. We had lots of choices and many variables were in play, but that’s over and we won (yay!) and now we’re starting a new episode. The start of that episode binds up lots of incoming links, and then offers a bunch of choices for what you do next.

Articulation Points

My observation was that it’s easy to add new options to the fight scene, or new opening moves in the episode that follows it, but any structural change to the start of the new episode is going to be a bear. Suppose you want “start of new episode” to be two separate notes? Or a new storylet? You can’t just paste in the new text: you’re going to need to revise all those inbound links, or all the outbound links. Or both. That’s can be a lot of bother, and bother inhibits revision.

This can be avoided by splitting the transition in advance. The destination is an empty writing space, connected to the new episode by a shark link that is followed instantly when we arrive.

Articulation Points

The new version acts just like the old one. But if we want to insert a writing space or a storylet before the new episode, we just replace one shark link and can leave all the rest of the links untouched.

Adding articulation points like these should facilitate editing and revising hypertexts.

A sign of our current predicament is that I can’t think of any place to discuss this sort of question. It’s no longer the sort of thing we talk about at ACM Hypertext. ICIDS seems to regard hypertext as a quaintly historical concern. ELO? Surely, you jest. EBR? Not enough theory. GDC? Too much theory, too few dollars. The blogosphere used to be good enough, but it’s pretty much gone now.

by E. Chris Ambrose

E. C. Ambrose author of Elisha Barber, dips a toe into the thriller in this joyful gallivant that springs from a chance encounter of a graduate student of ethnomusicology and a mercenary entrepreneur who is trying to set up a squad for protecting valuable archeological relics. From rooftop snipers in Somerville MA to fast horses on the steppes, we’re on the track of history and treasure — while the full power of China is out to stop us.