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

Oct 14 20 2014

Hard Times

We’ve received two indignant letters from educators whose old copies of Tinderbox require upgrades to work with OS X Yosemite. Why do they have to pay for upgrades?

I suspect this is a much more significant leading economic indicator than the declining stock market: educated people with exceptionally secure and good jobs in cosmopolitan cities are willing to damage long-standing relationships to save less than $100.

Some day we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.

Hard Times

by Charles Phan

Just started this new book by restauranteur Charles Phan. who along with Chicago’s Rick Bayless shares an incredible knack for keeping a good restaurant good. It’s doubly impressive for Phan because his location pretty much ensures that he’d do fine, just selling the view; the food is great.

The cookbook’s gorgeous, too. $25 at Amazon, these days, gets you amazing cookbook production values: a very fancy custom color, coated paper, two-color printing for recipe pages and plentifully gorgeous photography and design.

One caveat: the recipes look frighteningly simple. Still, it looks like lots of fun. Has anyone cooked from this yet?

Oct 14 17 2014

Commonplace

“Aviva is always trying to broaden herself, to try things for which she has no aptitude: music theory, volunteering in the nursing home, drugs.” – Pamela Erens, The Virgins

I’m at Sources and Methods this week, with Alex Strick van Linschoten and Matt Trevithick.

Matt and Alex talk with programmer and note-taker Mark Bernstein. Mark is the force behind the notetaking and outlining software, Tinderbox, much beloved by knowledge workers. This episode is about note-taking, its uses and why people need to think reflexively about the work they're doing. Show notes are available at sourcesandmethods.com.

The show notes are exceptionally good.

Kathryn Cramer:

As I drove, I turned certain phrases over in my head like agates in a rock polisher. One was Joanna Russ's paraphrasing of Bion of Borysthenes from The Female Man:

As my mother once said: the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest. But the frogs die in earnest.

The longer quote is here.

Another of the phrases, this one being revised and refined:

Over the past five years, women with established careers in the science fiction field have been treated like they are cheap, plentiful, and easily replaced; disposable as light bulbs. And this treatment has come mostly at the hands of other women.

by Lev Grossman

The conclusion of the promising series begun with The Magicians and The Magician King, this completes Grossman’s exploration of fantasy in the mode of high realism. We thought perhaps this would be Julia’s book, but it belongs instead to Alice, our lost lover who gave up her life (and indeed her humanity) in the first volume to save her former lover, young Quentin Coldwater, and incidentally to save Fillory, the land of faerie he loves.

This trilogy is a fine, engaging, and memorable story. It’s a single work; the novels stand alone, more or less, but the overall story is the entire point. Grossman’s trilogy is, of course, a response to Harry Potter, and its argument is well worth hearing.

Grossman’s land of faerie, Fillory, is also a response and a tribute to Narnia, but where heroic fantasy tries to evoke awe and wonder, Grossman strives to retain realism even when things are happening that simply don’t take place in the fields we know. This could work, but it Grossman subverts his world even as he builds it. Fillory is filled with myriad marvelous beasts, wonders so numerous that no one cares very much about anything because another marvel is bound to crop up soon. This had a promising effect back in The Magician, since it reflected the louche, feckless, but engaging protagonists who had so recently graduated from Brakebills and who were engaged in discovering all sorts of marvels: whiskey, wine, sex, and mastery. But this is a long journey, the marvels tend to blend together, and the relentless cynicism of the your narrator necessarily undercuts the sense of wonder that is the whole point of faerie.

When seven years of epic struggle and the release of untold magic energies at terrific personal risk restore lost Alice to life, all she can manage is the request for a glass of Scotch with a single large ice cube. The Magician pours his neat. Neither really wants the whiskey.

There’s a great hunger for information about Tinderbox, both among novices and among people who’ve used Tinderbox for years. People often attribute this to the learning curve of the program, though in part it’s because Tinderbox addresses some difficult tasks, and because it uses some comparatively new computing techniques that many of us didn’t learn in school.

I’m planning to spend some time this Fall to flesh out some Tinderbox documents that are realistic explorations of an actual project, showing how I might address the task. That’s not necessarily the right way or the best way to use Tinderbox – especially as your task is probably not precisely the task we’re exploring! Still, it’s a place to start.

As a first project, I imagine a novelist in the early stages of planning a new book. The book hasn’t been written yet: it’s just a concept, a general idea for setting and handful of characters. We’ve got ten months to deliver the manuscript.

The story is set in an imaginary place that is meant to feel English. Seven or eight months from now, we plan to take a trip to England to research some locations, to gather local flavor and to check some details. We won’t have much time. We’ll want to visit some old friends, if we can, and no doubt we’ll want to meet some publishers, visit some booksellers, perhaps do a signing or two. Perhaps someone will invite us to give a talk. In any case, we want to plan this well.

Planning this trip is the underlying task for this Tinderbox document. At the start, we have lots of questions – far more questions than answers! We can sort these into a number of categories:

  • Questions about logistics. (When do we leave? What flight?)
  • Questions about time management. (Do I have time to visit Joe in Edinburgh? Can I spend an afternoon at the National Portrait Gallery?)
  • Questions about the fictive world. (What do people wear? What do they eat? What do the buildings look like?)

We need to start thinking about these questions now. That’s hard: we haven’t yet written the scenes for which we need details. We don’t know what questions to ask. But if we wait to plan the trip, it may be too late to make necessary arrangements.

One place to start, clearly, is to imagine a bit of our fictional world. Here’s a schematic Tinderbox map of our setting, Hill Academy – a fictitious school that has some flavor of an English boarding school (Hogwarts, Brakebills) and also of a small American liberal arts college – set in an imaginary Occupied country.

A Tinderbox Experiment
click to enlarge

This is a set of adornments, zoomed out and then cropped so the map isn’t too big for our purposes here. It’s meant merely to be schematic, and mostly includes only the places I’m fairly confident we’ll need. We can add notes here to represent queries we’ll need to follow up, or perhaps to contain photo references of similar places that actually exist.

If you’re a Tinderbox user and you see things here you don’t know how to do, or if you’d like to suggest a better approach: Email me.

Oct 14 12 2014

Chicken

Michael Ruhlman wrote about weekday coq a vin, arguing that we should stop treating food as medicine, stuff we eat because it’s good for us while always keeping an eye one for allergic reactions.

It was Friday, but Friday’s sort of a weekend. And it worked well!

  • An interesting twist here is that the onions are cooked with the bacon, and then the flour is mixed in to make a fast ersatz roux. It's backward, but it saves a pan!
  • I used Niman Ranch bacon; if I’m going to use bacon at all, I want to use the good stuff. But it's too lean for this task, or needs more help rendering. I wound up adding some olive oil.
  • The sauce was really good, but a bit too thick. I should’ve added stock, not water: Ruhlman was surely thinking “don’t scare people by asking for stock here,” but I’ve got a quart of stock sitting in the frig and it’s not getting and younger. Think!
Oct 14 5 2014

Oh dear

There’s a new mess around Kathy Sierra. Tim Bray explains.

…Even af­ter all this there are peo­ple still de­ter­mined to de­fend weev-the-person (not weev-the-case) to the point of sug­gest­ing I’m trolling so peo­ple will troll me back…

I do NOT feel [name omit­ted] in any way ha­rassed me, and that I just was tired of having that con­ver­sa­tion, and dis­heart­ened that there are still promi­nent peo­ple in tech that sup­port and be­lieve him.

That’s al­l.

Tim says, “This is re­al­ly not OK.” It’s clearly too bad. But I suppose that people might defend Weev, hypothetically, and I can understand not wanting to rehash things again and again. Like Tim, though, I don’t see the alternative.

Brent Simmons is losing patience with all the silly internet scams.

And now, by my estimation, people have tried to scam me 693,500 times via email. (Assume an average of 100 scams a day for the last 19 years. These days it’s closer to 200 a day.)

Grifters used to have to work hard for a living. I miss that.

Actually, I suspect that grifters today have to work pretty hard. Sure, we all get thousands of silly fraudulent emails, and someone probably makes an occasional buck off them. The yield must be astronomically low, and I imagine the risks are considerable.

This is the problem that puzzles me about routine credit card fraud. Leaving the whole matter of it’s wrong aside, it’s generally stupid. On the one hand, you win and get $2500 in stuff you didn't have to pay for. On the other hand, you lose and get a few years in jail. It’s just not proportionate, not most of the time for most people. (Sure, there are times when you’d risk prison for two grand, or for Jean Valjean’s loaf of bread.)

Imagine if you could make an appointment with The Council Of Spam Operators. You say, “You have a business: you work, you make some money. But your business happens to be annoying my cat. Suppose I paid you some money to sit on the beach, or do anything else, and you stop annoying my cat. How much would it take?”

I bet the number would be shockingly low. I bet it would be far less than the cost of the agents the FBI employs to chase this stuff down, much less the cost of all the firewalls and spam filters and wasted disk space we all incur.

Oct 14 2 2014

Tinderbox 6.1

Tinderbox 6.1

Tinderbox 6.1 is out. Dozen of fixes and refinements, recommended for everyone who uses Tinderbox. Get it right away.

by Ann Leckie

Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. That used to herald something remarkable: Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Ringworld were the first three books to do it. Some of the joint awards were really lifetime achievement awards, and if you exclude those the full list of double winners is has lots of terrific books and only a few arguable clunkers.

Ancillary Justice thinks seriously about alien minds – in this case, about collective entities with many human or humanoid bodies, all guided by a single intelligence. What happens when communications break down? What happens when the mind become bicameral? When self-doubt and self-loathing can find expression in civil war?

Some of Leckie’s world building is extremely clever. A collective mind that controls numerous humanoid agents is simply not going to be very interested in gender, and that gets expressed in all sorts of interesting ways, most notably in lots of play with pronouns that reminds us how pervasively interested in gender we are. There’s also a strangely nostalgic vein here for the space opera of a vanished age. Some passages feel like Jack Vance or Cordwainer Smith.

Jo Walton blogs her new sonnet about a recently-discovered Roman coin hoard.

I'm coming back, of course I'm coming back

I hid the coins. I won't need them in Gaul.

And if they come, you flee, just grab a sack

Of food, and hide…

Over at Tor, she has a terrific, affectionate, skeptical discussion of The Princess Bride. In retrospect, affection and skepticism are the only possible frames for framing a discussion of a fantasy entirely about framing.

In the car, I’ve been listening to Katherine Kellgren’s reading of Walton’s Among Others. Walton is Welsh, as is her heroine, and as usual Kellgren is a master of voice and accent. Usually, I worry that I miss things in audiobooks and excuse them as an alternative to not reading a book in the first place, but this morning I noticed that Mori takes her crucial vow to abjure magic as Morganna, when we know perfectly well that Morganna died and that the narrator is Morwenna. This is crucial (and deeply weird) and I'm not quite sure how to think about that.

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

Wool

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).