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

Nov 15 18 2015

Queen Lucia

by E. F. Bension

A very strange book about the social life of a provincial British town between the wars, and the bitter contest between Lucia Lucas and Daisy Quantock for social preeminence. The arrival of an opera singer, a young woman of real accomplishment and genuine seriousness, throws the silly social life of Riseholme into confusion, and many parties are required before things work themselves out.

The events and attitudes depicted in this witty but unreal book would, in fact, be entirely real and far more interesting if translated to the environment of a contemporary middle school. Times change.

This was highly praised by Michael Dirda, and I picked it up in my search for a path to understand and really enjoy Wodehouse. It's pleasant enough, but it looks like I need a different path.

  • ifs and buts (candied nuts) ❧ grissini ❧ onion focaccia
    • purple basil smash
  • Savory Dutch Baby pancake
    • Cotes de Gascogne
  • Carrot ginger soup
    • Chardonnay
  • Pastrami and cole slaw
    • Champagne
  • Roast beef ❧ Lamb heart posole
    • Gigondas
  • Salad
  • Cheese
    • Côtes du Rhône
  • Milk and Cookies and Juice (basil ice cream, cookies, port)
Nov 15 15 2015

Sons Of Martha

Up at 8 on birthday morning, doing tech support for people, not all of them notably polite, who don’t explain their problem in a way that would let someone help.

Simple service, simply rendered” may have been a mistake. I’m beginning to understand the wisdom of, “your call is very important to us.” Too soon old, too late smart.

Nov 15 14 2015


by Nick Harkaway

Joe Spork is a mild and middle-aged restorer of Victorian clockwork. His father was a criminal mastermind, and his grandfather was a legendary clockmaker. An old lady hires him to fix some toys; a somewhat shady friend puts him onto a strange and inscrutable automaton of doubtful purpose but immense sophistication.

Then the old lady is nearly the victim of an assassination attempt, and she turns out to be a retired but still very capable secret agent – Emma Peel in her late 80s. Our friend is murdered, Joe Spork is framed, and we’re off to the races.

Nice writing, nifty plotting, intricate world-building. What else could you wish for? As in The Gone-Away World, everything hinges on a super-villain, and while the nemesis is not quite as undeveloped as he was in Harkaway’s previous novel, Shem Shem Tsien is a bit too awful. Still, the uprising of all London’s thieves for one last glorious battle is a thing to behold.

Nov 15 5 2015

Wiki Storms

An ongoing case at Wikipedia’s high court, ArbCom, was triggered by a recent article by Emma Paling at The Atlantic about Wikipedia’s Hostility To Women. That article mentions Eric Corbett, the immensely popular and influential Wikipedian who told another editor that “The easiest way to avoid being called a cunt is not to act like one.”

Civility is a central tenet of Wikipedia and the entire reason ArbCom found it necessary to sanction every editor on Gamergate’s notorious hit list. In the aftermath of the “cunt” affair, the woman to whom Corbett addressed this charming and witty remark was banned from Wikipedia. Corbett was instructed not to discuss the topic. He violated that ban to rebuke The Atlantic, and was blocked for the violation. Another administrator promptly unblocked him, ArbCom stepped in to defrock the administrator, and we were off to the races.

You’d think this would be hilarity enough for any one case. Alas, no.

  • ArbCom can’t even settle on a name for the case; it’s changed three times so far, and the current name – Arbitration Enforcement 2 -- doesn’t tell us much.
  • One of only two women on the arbitration committee was originally named as a party to the case, in a cynical ploy to remove a feminist from the deliberations. Ostensibly, she was a party because she had been quoted in The Atlantic!
  • Though the arbitrator was removed as a party to the case, she still had to recuse herself, so the ploy worked.
  • ArbCom says it can only act on evidence provided by volunteers, but no one knows precisely what the case is supposed to be about, and so no one knows what evidence is pertinent. Yesterday, ArbCom erased reams of evidence that most observers consider very pertinent to the subject of Arbitration Enforcement, evidence that officials trying to enforce arbitration decisions are subjected to systematic harassment organized by anti-feminist zealots. But apparently that’s not the evidence ArbCom wants.

This strikes me as an irregular way to proceed. The arbitrators apparently know what this oft-renamed case concerns; we don’t. The arbitrators apparently know what evidence they want. We do not, and as ArbCom has said elsewhere that they rely entirely on volunteer-supplied evidence, the consequences may be undesirable. Others have speculated that the arbitrators already know what conclusion they expect to draw in this case; I myself doubt this, because that would be efficient if nothing else, and that seems inconsistent with ArbCom’s inclinations.

The underlying problem here is not an individual but an organized effort to subvert the project in support of right-wing opposition to “political correctness” and dangerous Liberals. The Wikipedia Community is unable to address the damage this organized effort does to the “five pillars” or principles that govern Wikipedia, especially neutrality and civility which the subversives despise.

The Community is also unable to accept the damage to those pillars. The result, plainly, has been that the pillars are much bruised while very great damage has been done to what Wikipedia calls “the Community” but which clearly has fallen into pieces.

Wikipedia is supposedly governed by consensus, but most Wikipedians, including the most influential and powerful officers, appear to have a very feeble notion of consensus. I fancy there are some really useful discussions of “consensus” in 18th and 19th century Quaker writing. Where should I look? John Woolman?

by Michael Dirda

A delightful collection of a year’s worth of brief notes about reading by a consummate bookman, originally written as a weekly Web column for The American Scholar. Dirda’s embrace of forgotten writers and, especially, old plot-driven adventures is instructive, and his central concerns – where to put all these book? how on earth to pay for them? – are refreshingly familiar. Dirda arranges his future reading by project, with piles and cartons of books all set for the day when some long-awaited project begins; makes sense to me!

Eric Raymond is worried about cold-war “honey trap” attacks run by feminists to discredit him.

If you are any kind of open-source leader or senior figure who is male, do not be alone with any female, ever, at a technical conference. Try to avoid even being alone, ever, because there is a chance that a “women in tech” advocacy group is going to try to collect your scalp.

This is wrong-headed, but not just for the reasons you think. You should not be alone with anyone at a technical conference – especially not if you’re incredibly famous and important. If you’re alone, you’re doing it wrong. You are at the conference to meet people and to spend time with them, and if you’re really prominent, you don’t have enough time to spend much of it alone with anyone.

Yes, you can be alone when you’re sleeping, and you can canoodle all you want with your partner. Conferences are not good places for canoodling with people you don’t already know really well – especially not if you’re famous and important – because everyone will be watching you. Romance is tricky; romance in front of an audience – an audience that’s going to remember anything that goes wrong, and we all know that something usually does – is an invitation to the clown caboose.

You can be alone for a time if you must. For example, you might need to close a deal – sell a company, set the terms for a speaking gig, negotiate the conditions for a job. A conference isn’t ideal for this, but conferences bring parties together and sometimes things can’t wait. Here are the rules.

  • Always wear your name badge. Yes, even if you’re a rock star, wear your name badge. When Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer came to Readercon, they wore their name badges; you can wear them too.
    • Don’t want to stick pins in your nice clothes? Bring a lanyard. It’s classy to have a lanyard that advertises your stuff. It’s very classy to have a lanyard that advertises your friends’ stuff. It’s really classy to have a lanyard from the same conference, ten or twenty years back.
    • Wear your badge where it’s comfortable and where people can see it. It’s fine to wear it on your hip, or on the strap of your purse or laptop bag.
  • If you need to talk to someone privately, find a semi-private space – a two-top in the bar, a pair of armchairs in the lobby. Take off your badges and put them on the table, or tuck them visibly in your shirt pocket.
  • Even then, be prepared for, and respond well to, casual greetings, quick questions, and similar conference-style interruptions. If someone asks a question you can’t answer quickly, arrange to meet them (specifically) at a specific place and time, or give them an effective way to contact you later.
  • If you need more privacy than this, you should leave the conference venue entirely. At minimum, you need to cross a street -- several streets for a big event. If you’re at Moscone, for example, crossing Third Street is not enough, but Sausalito is.
  • You go to conferences to meet people and exchange ideas. While you're there, you owe a reasonable amount of time and attention to everyone who wants it. If someone wants an unreasonable share, explain. If someone is being a jerk, you can ask them to stop. Ask the conference for help if you need it.
  • Feed the students, metaphorically and literally. Don’t limit this to students you are planning to employ.

One of my first great conference experiences was AAAS 1971 in Philadelphia. I needed to buy something – a bic pen? chapstick? – at the hotel pharmacy. There was a line at the cash register. The fellow in front of my had a time-consuming request. His name was Dr. Louis Leakey, he wanted to write a prescription, and it was complicated.

I was standing in line with Dr. Leakey of Olduvai!

Sure, I’d seen lectures by Carl Sagan and a memorable debate between Margaret Mead and Edward Teller, but I hadn’t been standing in line with Margaret Mead.

Dr. Leakey wasn’t there to offer a lesson in what greatness can and cannot accomplish, or in accepting bureaucratic impediments with grace and wit; he was there to get some medicine. I couldn't be of any possible use to him, but that wasn’t and isn’t the point. He did his errand and he did the other stuff, too; that’s also what conferences are for.

I’m working on some notes about Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative to accompany the forthcoming Storyspace 3.

We’ve got some galley proofs for people who’d prefer paper and who can’t wait to get started. Good news: you can have them now, they look nice, and it’s a ludicrously limited edition. Happy to sign copies, too. Bad news: you can save money and get the eBook soon, with fewer errors and perhaps with an additional chapter on the problems of nonfiction narrative.

About 220 pages. $24.95 plus shipping. Order here.

The American Right loves to pretend to be a victim. At Wikipedia, of course, the Gamergate right also loves to attack. At Wikipedia, one of their spokespeople suddenly does an about-face and endorses action against bullying -- especially my flagrantly patriarchal allusions to Shakespeare!

For example attempting to belittle another author's knowledge of Shakespeare as User:Mark Bernstein has done, is an exercise, and I would say an abuse, of power. Making accusations of criminal activity against other (blocked!) editors is an abuse of power.

So, I'm in the soup for mentioning Shakespeare and for mentioning to Gamergate’s rape and death threats. (I don’t know what incident got this fellow so hot and bothered, but I was probably alluding the Milton, anyway.)

Meanwhile, the Gamergaters have spread out to attack birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger.

Oct 15 30 2015


When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split. – Raymond Chandler, Selected Letters

by Nick Harkaway

A dazzling and delightful book about a world gone wrong. In the present, we’re part of a freelance, world-saving mercenary company that’s driving hell-for-leather through bizarre dangers to extinguish an industrial conflagration that imperils the world. In the past, we’re an orphan who is adopted by a cool older brother named Gonzo and who is taken into a strange California suburban dojo, the Order Of The Silent Dragon. We always know these threads will merge, but the actual terms of the merger are metaphysically unexpected and unexpectedly metaphysical.

Harkaway is the son of John Le Carré and acknowledges Balzac, Dumas, and Conan Doyle as influences. I think this book may be overlong, but it’s very well written.

Oct 15 29 2015


Anthony Grafton on annotation.

T. S. Eliot wrote in the margin of his copy of Logical Investigations, formerly owned by Edmund Husserl:

Above all there must be cake.

Notes from James Fallows and others on The Way We Read Now and related topics in the wake of Vannevar Bush’s classic popular science article from The Atlantic,As We May Think,” which lots of people consider the origin of hypertext. (I think it all starts with Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines, which explained what Engelbart’s AUGMENT was trying to do and what Bush’s imagined machine could actually accomplish, and that Bush only became important in the Reagan years when Computer Lib seemed too far left. But I’ve been arguing this for years and have, it seems, convinced no one. See also Murray Leinster’s “A Logic Named Joe,” published a few months after Bush’s piece, which foresees such problems of the Web as kids reading about sex and angry people getting technical advice they’d be better off without.

I’ve not yet read Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, incidentally, but I can heartily recommend Meg Rosof’s wonderful How I Live Now. There’s a lot to read.

Anthony Grafton, The Footnote.

The combined precision and obscurity of the Italian citation code compels admiration – especially in light of the practical difficulties that confront any Italian scholar who wants to read a given work before not citing it.
Oct 15 18 2015

The Weapon

Brent Simmons has a cryptic but important post on the dangers of social media: When The Weapon Was Pointed At Me.

When Brent had his first big success, Dave Winer was there to warn him.

I should have remembered Dave Winer’s words to me from 2003, after I released NetNewsWire 1.0. I’m paraphrasing, not quoting, but they were something like this: “You’re the golden boy now. Enjoy it. They’ll turn on you later.”

This is bad for everyone – kids, especially, should not be permitted to risk editing at sites like Wikipedia – but it’s especially bad for software creators. We’ve internalized so thoroughly the notion – mistaken but partly true – that software must be intuitive and its design process should be user-centered, that the roar of the crowd and the howling of the mob both mean more than they should.

For the next six months after the pile-on I asked myself every day if I should just quit the industry. Seriously. Every day, and especially every night. I came very close.

I learned a few things. I can’t count on the public to have my back. Forget it.

This is another reason why we need better software criticism. When it comes to the arts, the crowd is seldom wise and always unreliable. In the sciences, the crowd knows next to nothing. Nastiness and ignorance are a bad combination, but one that’s become very, very familiar in social media.

I’m increasingly wondering, too, whether my friend’s speculation that Gamergate is a firestorm – a small number of vociferous people – is in fact the case. I recently wrote a modest rejoinder on a Wikipedia talk page -- a reply to a reply, and nothing I hadn’t written on that page before. It seems to have caught someone’s eye overnight: a bundle of hostile tweets, a 200-comment thread at Gamergate World Headquarters – and who knows what else?

It’s the mirror world of an Art World, the destructive, deformed mockery of something like Fluxus or Futurismo. Maybe it all is a handful of boys in a handful of basements, and an outer circle who like to watch.

Speaking of Philip Werner and his, don’t miss The Best Year Of My Life.

Gamergate has been comparatively calm lately, perhaps because school is back in session, perhaps because one of its most prolific advocates was compelled to give us a few months’ respite.

I asked an Old Wiki Expert, a veteran of the very first Wiki wars, what he thought of the whole sorry Gamergate affair. One suggestion he offered was striking: might Gamergate be much smaller than we think? Sure, plenty of people could be sitting at home and nodding, but how many are actually participating in Gamergate actions? It might all be the work of a handful of people, posting all over the place.

Meanwhile, Umaire Haque speculates that persistent abuse and nastiness is killing Twitter, Reddit, and the rest of the social web.

But I’ve never been to a town square where people can shove, push, taunt, bully, shout, harass, threaten, stalk, creep, and mob you…for eavesdropping on a conversation that they weren’t a part of…to alleviate their own existential rage…at their shattered dreams…and you can’t even call a cop.

These companies think they’re in the business of selling ads, but the unpleasantness is driving everyone away. It’s a sorry mess. Thanks, Philip Werner!

For I Have Been To Ludlow Fair…

Columbus Day Weekend is a big deal in New England, not least because it’s leaf season. Lots of people driving about, staring at leaves and covered bridges and enjoying the weather, because winter is coming.

It’s great to run into a place that remembers it’s in the hospitality business. The Downtown Grocery in little Ludlow Vt. is terrific. We had lamb hash (duck-fat roasted potatoes, root veggies, a terrific jus lié) and a nice bitter red ale; a very fine lunch. The kitchen crew appeared to be having an absolute blast.

Also very tasty: Popolo is Bellows Falls, in the lobby of an old hotel that still has a publicity print for the Canadian Pacific Railroad hanging over the mantlepiece. Oh, the places you’ll go! And there was nothing wrong with the lobster ravioli.

Also grand: the Big Buzz Chainsaw Carving Festival.

by Celeste Ng

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” That’s the beginning of this fascinating new novel, a mysterious story that is not a mystery.

How well do we really know anyone? After her body is found in the nearby suburban lake, Lydia’s mother takes refuge in of her 11th-grade daughter. She sees the row of diaries on the bottom bookshelf, the diaries that have been her annual Christmas present, ever since Lydia was five years old. She does the unthinkable and pries open the lock of Lydia’s last diary.

It is blank. They all are blank. Lydia’s diaries have been a family ritual for more than a decade, and she has never written a single word.

This is a tragedy, a delicate construction of small lies and casual misunderstandings that cause spreading disaster, a disaster that seemingly could be averted at any moment but that no one can stop.

by Nick Harkaway

The tree of nonsense is watered with error, and from its branches swing the pumpkins of disaster. – Nick Harkaway, The Gone-Away World