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 Cixin Liu, Ken Liu, trans.

In this fascinating first-encounter novel from China, two despairing civilizations – one human, one from Trisolaris (which we call Alpha Centauri) – make radio contact. A novel about the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, and also about the politics of despair, this won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Jun 16 24 2016

Eligible

by Curtis Sittenfeld

A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by the author of the wonderful school story, Prep. The Bennetts live in a nice Tudor house in the Cincinnati suburbs. Bingley is an ER physician who recently starred in a reality TV series. Darcy is a neurosurgeon. Jane Bennett teaches yoga in New York, where her sister Lizzie is an up-and-coming magazine writer; both are nearing forty and their mother is very eager for grandchildren.

The surprising technical obstacle in this vivid (and in most ways very literal) retelling is Lydia, the younger sister who threatens to disgrace herself and her family by running away with the handsome and untrustworthy Mr. Wickham. There’s just no way to do that in modern dress, at least not romantically: who could be so unsuitable, what arrangement so unspeakable, that everyone would have to drop everything and fly to Chicago to track down the errant daughter? Sitttenfeld comes up with one answer, but it's a stretch. (In the wake of today’s news about Brexit and my recent immersion in the Mitford, I suppose eloping with a fascist, Trump-eter, or war criminal might serve, though even then Mrs. Bennett could forgive much as long as there was enough money in the family.)

Written in lots of tiny chapters, this may be a frothy book but it was a ton of fun.

An interesting research area for Tinderbox (which is now on sale, incidentally) is the discovery of emergent structure in Tinderbox maps. One aspect of this is simply discovering the geometries each user prefers for each problem.

This structure emerges as soon as we begin to work. For example, when we place a single note in a map

Spontaneous Grids

its mere presence might set up in our mind an implicit grid.

Spontaneous Grids

Your grid might vary. It probably will. For example, you might want to leave spaces or gutters between objects; some people will want larger gaps than others. Different shapes and different patterns of connection will also create distinct layout constraints.

Spontaneous Grids

An important stream of research on spatial hypertext involves spatial parsers – processes that recognize implicit structures and patterns. These can, for example, recognize that you’ve got a vertical list of notes and help you treat that list as a unit. Spatial parsers can also recognize and help correct small mistakes, such as unintentional misalignments.

Graphic design thinks a lot about grids, both how they can be respected and how they ought to be subverted. What is the latest design thinking about this? What’s happened since the Bauhaus? Email me.

by Charlotte Mosley, ed.

Lord and Lady Redesdale had seven kids. The boy was popular and well-enough liked, and died in Burma during the war. The six daughters were a handful.

  1. was Nancy (Naunce), gorgeous and a terrific novelist. She wrote equally terrific letters and had a fatal tendency to fall for gay men.
  2. was Pamela (Woman), who had childhood polio, a brief, bad marriage, was gay, and lived a retired country life. She is the only one of the sisters who didn’t publish books, but she could write, too.
  3. was Diana (Honks), the beauty of her age. She was the model for one of the muses in the floor of the National Gallery, and much else beside. After another brief, bad marriage, she married Oswald Mosley, leading man of British Fascism.
  4. was Unity (Birdy or Boud), who shared a room with #5. They didn’t get along, and drew a chalk line down the middle of the room. Unity filled her side of the room with pictures of brave Fascists; her sister plastered her walls with Lenin and company. In the 30s, Unity went to Germany and fell deeply in love with Hitler, shooting herself when England declared war on Germany.
  5. was Jessica (Decca), who eloped with a communist, moved to California, and wrote important exposés and was a leader in the civil rights movement.
  6. was Deborah (Debo), who became the Duchess of Devonshire, invented the stately home industry, and remained on speaking terms with all six sisters throughout the course of her life.

They knew everyone worth knowing, pretty much. They seem to have had uniformly bad taste in men, but never let that stop them. They wrote a lot of letters, many of them brilliant.

Charlotte Mosley – Diana’s daughter in law – selects and edits these expertly. The correspondence is huge, so even selected letters leaves us with a brick. Every letter has wonderful footnotes that identify almost everyone mentioned – a task made nearly impossible by the sisters’ fondness for nicknames and private jokes. The Queen Mother, for example, is always “Cake,” apparently because, at a wedding in the 1930s, she was strikingly enthusiastic when told that the couple were going to cut the wedding cake.

Fascinating interview with IF writer Bruno Dias on the craft of writing hypertext narrative.

What does it mean to give the player a choice that is enormously consequential to the character but almost entirely inconsequential to the plot?

The 2016 Summer Festival of Artisanal Software is here. Save 25% on Tinderbox, , and lots of other great tools for writers and thinkers.

by Iain M. Banks

Second reading of this fascinating story about The Culture – a future civilization which has transcended routine scarcity, removing many sources of conflict and threatening to render narrative pointless. Further complicating the narrative problem is that the central character is a professional gamer, but since we’re talking about very advanced civilizations which have self-aware spaceships and such, the games can’t be described in much detail because they’re just too complex. Despite the challenges, this is superbly done.

Jun 16 10 2016

Too Many Voices

This summer’s research project is to find new ways to help keep Tinderbox and Storyspace maps organized. This involves some very simple ideas – tool to align notes – to some fairly complicated things I’d like to try.

One of the simple ideas turns out to be complicated. Tinderbox (like Keynote, OmniGraffle, and lots of diagramming programs) offers some dynamic guides which, as you drag notes, try to keep notes lined up. If two notes are nearly aligned, the guides snap the notes so they line up precisely. Easy enough!

Right now, Tinderbox looks all over the place for potential alignments. That’s not elegant: you probably want to align on the nearest note, not a note in the outskirts of Gloucester. Fair enough.

Then, you might want to have more guides. For ages, I've wanted to be able to align the centerlines of two notes. It’s easy to imagine more kinds of guides, and it’s likely that, once we start, Tinderbox users will suggest new guides we hadn’t thought about.

To do this, we add a collection of advisors – we’ll call them kibbitzers. Each kibbitzer looks for one kind of alignment: for example, the "top edge kibbitzer" looks for opportunities to align the top edges of notes. The “top edge touching kibbitzer” looks for top edges that are almost, but not quite, touching the bottom edge of another note.

As we rearrange the map, this crowd of kibbitzers nudges things into place. That could be a mess if two kibbitzers disagree, so the kibbitzers have a pecking order. Kibbitzers can work together: for example, one kibbitzer might handle the vertical placement while another adjusts the horizontal placement.

One problem with this sort of design is that, when things go wrong, it’s like kittens in a basket of yarn. For example, suppose a kibbitzer intends to align left edges, but mistakenly looks at the top edge instead. It sees alignments that don’t exist, it speaks up when it should be silent and is silent when it should speak up, and when it tries to help you, it puts notes in distant and arbitrary places. Worse, the other kibbitzers now see that note in a new place and helpfully try to adjust the note again, based on its crazy new placement. By the time everyone settles down, it’s cake on a rake.

This one actually happened to me this morning. I solved it (eventually) with diagnostic writes. It was not a lot of fun. Unit tests for isolated kibbitzers aren’t that hard, but it’s not hard to imagine problems that only arise when you have several kibbitzers trying to meddle at the same time, and that’s combinatorially explosive.

Jun 16 7 2016

Reprehensible

Suddenly, political violence is once more an immediate concern. Trump rallies are incendiary, and Trump’s bizarre denunciations of judges on racial and religious grounds light other fires. Once we accept violence in politics, it will be incredibly hard to return to a sane and livable world.

At the same time, the internet is threatened by a wave of politically-inspired extortion. Gamergate has discovered a valuable new tactic: they can force opponents to acquiesce in their schemes by using opposition research to threaten them, their families, and their jobs. The proving ground has been Wikipedia; if it works there – and at the moment it’s working well — it will spread throughout what remains of the open, non-corporate Web. Gamergate itself was a juvenile conspiracy of trolls, but their success has now inspired large and capable right-wing operations across the globe.

Widespread extortion is a threat to civil society and to a free internet. The situation is especially dire at Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that “anyone can edit.” Once the threat of opposition research becomes established, no responsible person will dare defy the extortionists. Responsible people – especially teachers – now edit at grave risk to their careers. Encouraging students to edit, once a widespread practice, exposes them to anti-semitism, sexual harassment, and extortion.

The “Gamaliel” Case

Gamergate and its Trumpeter allies have forced reform administrator “Gamaliel” – elected last December to the Arbitration Committee (the supreme authority for Wiki governance) on an anti-harassment platform – to accede to their ongoing assault on Wikipedia. Gamaliel works as a librarian at a Catholic university in the United States. Gamergate thought he was a thorn in their side. To silence a perceived critic, Gamergate supporters wrote to his employer, threatening to tie the school to child abuse. In the wake of these threats, Gamaliel was forced to take the extraordinary step of asking to be banned from sanctioning Gamergate violations and was then forced to resign from his elected post and abandon Wikipedia.

Last year, Gamergate launched an operation aimed at silencing five feminist Wikipedians. In an infamous decision, Wikipedia gave Gamergate everything they asked. Unsatisfied, Gamergate launched a new operation targeting Gamaliel (and me, but I was a very secondary target). Amazingly, Wikipedia fell for it again.

In an astonishing turn of events, Trump supporters brought a case against Gamaliel for publishing, as editor of a Wikipedia newsletter, an April Fool’s Day joke headline regarding Donald Trump’s small hands. Was this a blatant violation of Wikipedia’s libel policy? Of course not. Graydon Carter’s famous Spy Magazine profile called Trump “a short-fingered vulgarian” back in 1988. Marco Rubio talked about Trump’s “small hands” in a February 29 speech, which Trump discussed in embarrassing depth with the Washington Post. The New Yorker put Trump’s small hands on its cover.

(The same editors who started this mess also claimed that membership in that notoriously radical organization, the Democratic Party, was incompatible with Wikipedia’s vaunted neutrality.)

Did Wikipedia stand up for their volunteer, who was facing harassment over a Trumped-up case, and who had been silenced by threats to his livelihood? No: they admonished him and forced him to resign from the committee. After ten years and 74,912 edits to the encyclopedia, Gamaliel has been effectively removed from the project.

Opposition Research

Gamaliel has recently been the subject of at least one death threat related to Gamergate, and Gamergate boards are rife with sexual innuendo and opposition research directed at him.

Elsewhere, Gamergate is making great strides. For example, the infamous harassment of Alison Rapp has been scrubbed from Wikipedia’s history of Gamergate. Gamergate believed (incorrectly) that Rapp, a Nintendo marketing employee, had deemphasized some sexual elements in American versions of Nintendo games. A sophisticated opposition research operation pored over Rapp’s student essays, ancient Twitter discussions, and photographs. They put together allegations of sexual impropriety and ultimately convinced Nintendo to dismiss her. Her husband — a barrista at a Nintendo office — lost his job as well.

The harassers used Wikipedia talk pages to publicize rumors and allegations about Rapp when they were seeking her dismissal. The harassment having succeeded, mentioning the harassment in Wikipedia no longer serves Gamergate’s purpose and – voila! – the episode has been expunged from the encyclopedia.

What is Going On?

That a group of anonymous trolls might plan a campaign of extortion against a Wikipedia arbitrator is dismaying. That Wikipedia is willing to accept the harassment and to acquiesce in extortion is shocking, even to a writer who has a low opinion of Wikipedia.

In recent months, two Wikipedia trustees – one a popular community representative – have been forced to resign. Then, the executive director was forced out. Now, a newly-elected arbitrator elected on an anti-harassment platform has been forced to resign, after he was targeted by the harassers he had sought to rein in.

What Is To Be Done

The only defense against routine extortion is, in the end, defiance. Wikipedia chose to appease the extortionists; that makes them part of the problem.

  • Take great care when editing Wikipedia. Understand that if you edit, even anonymously, shadowy right-wing networks may track you down and do their best to destroy you.
  • Never give your Wikipedia user name and password to anyone else, even if you never use them. Gamergate, the Trump-eters, and a network of Russian trolls all collect disused accounts, which they refurbish and weaponize.
  • Urge Google and other search providers to use Wikipedia content with care, and to avoid promoting Wikipedia in search results. Avoid linking to Wikipedia.
  • Support regulatory and legislative reform. One leader in this area is Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark; if you know of others – especially EU legislators – let me know. Clark will shortly introduce legislation to clarify that internet “sextortion” is a crime; this is a very important starting point for the defense of the free internet.
Jun 16 6 2016

The Children Act

by Ian McEwan

Superb McEwan, with insightful and real prose that has impact but never calls attention to itself. A family court judge discovers that her own marriage is not quite as solid as she would like, as several of her cases escape from the court room to haunt her.

Jun 16 1 2016

Monty and Rommel

by Peter Caddick-Adams

I sought out this dual biography because I want to know how it came to pass that a gay man was in charge of such a large part of World War II, and how people managed with that. Montgomery’s homosexuality is something I’d always assumed was understood. It turns out to be a myth – at least, Caddice-Adams dismisses the notion when we finally get there, some 500 pages into the work. (I assume that I got this impression, for better or worse, from my mother. She knew a lot, and in the late 40s and early 50s she had interesting sources. She had no question at all, for example, that Eisenhower had an affair with Kay Summersby. Biographers now dismiss this, and I have know idea whether my mother knew this as an emotional truth or because someone told her, and for Mom that could have been anyone from the grocer to Summersby.)

Anyway, Montgomery was an interesting fellow who was so good at putting up a façade that he leaves his biographer with rather little to work with: there’s plenty of incident and lots of photo opportunities but not a lot of character. Perhaps Caddice-Adams’ best moment is at Normandy when he points out that, for the first day, the majority of the troops in France were British. It was the end of a long era: Britain’s last day as a superpower.

This book spends a lot of time on strategy and tactics, but doesn’t quite pin down whether Montgomery’s famous caution was a sensible response to his manpower problems, to the memory of the trenches, or to the complex political climate he inhabited. I wish, too, that I knew what Montgomery thought of Macarthur – not only in the Pacific War, but even more in Korea. Montgomery had his problems with Churchill (and separately with Clementine Churchill); I wonder what he made of the “old soldiers never die” speech.

by Evelyn Waugh

This is a school story that doesn’t care about school or use school to any particular end beyond its unforgettable line: “for anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison.” Even that is asserted, not argued. I suspect that this burlesque of the modern workplace carried a lot more punch in 1928, and though generations of screwball comedy have dulled its edge, this remains a pleasant romp.

May 16 30 2016

Sketch Club

Sketch Club

by William Manchester and Paul Reid

A huge and brilliant volume, tightly focussed on a fascinating and witty statesman and his inner circle. Manchester was a captivating writer, and when a stroke prevented him from finishing the work, Reid stepped in and ably emulated Manchester’s skill at working detail into a compelling narrative. It’s a big book – 1200 pages, or 53 hours in Clive Chafer’s able reading – but it always moves right along.

Churchill seldom bought anything and carried no money; people did that for him, even though he was not rich until his war memoirs made him so. He only took the tube one time in his ninety year life, most of it spent in London. He was often hilarious and always eloquent, and he managed to stuff a hell of a lot of work into a day.

May 16 16 2016

Family

one of the most

pathetic things i

have seen recently

was an intoxicated person

trying to fall

down a moving stairway

it was the escalator at

the thirty-fourth street

side of

pennsylvania station

he could not fall down as

fast as it

carried him up again but

he was game he kept on

trying he was

stubborn about it

evidently it was part of

his tradition habit and

he did not intend to

be defeated this time i

watched him for an hour

and moved sadly away thinking

how much sorrow

drink is responsible for the

buns by great men

reached and kept

are not attained

by sudden flight but they

while their companions slept

were falling upwards

through the night — Don Marquis

(A “bun” is a bender)

by Antonia Fraser, ed.

In a collection of memoirs on The Pleasure of Reading, Gita Mehta remembers how

In darkened dormitories with the monsoon rain beating so heavily on the tin roof it almost drowned our sobs of homesickness we could be tricked out of loneliness by a teacher reading aloud stories of Harry the Horse and his fellow citizens playing games of chance; or the fortunes of Mrs Bennett’s daughters; or Mehitabel signing off to her cockroach with the inspiring sentiment: ‘Toujours gai, Archy. Toujours gai.’

When my father went off to the war, this is what he smuggled into his duffel: Damon Runyon’s stories and Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel. Dad took Notes From Underground rather than Pride and Prejudice, perhaps anticipating that Jane Austen’s tales were not really ideal for the South Pacific. I think that, later, he’d have swapped Alice in Wonderland for Dostoevsky.

Still, one sees little enough Damon Runyon these days, and hardly anyone talks about Archy and Mehitabel. It’s amazing to find in an essay that begins:

Sahib. Latest from Plato. The Republic. Also, James Hadley Chase and P. G. Wodehouse. You want Catcher in the Rye, sahib? MAD magazine? But sahib, just now unpacked. At least sample Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens.

by A. Conan Doyle

Having revisited “Study In Pink”, the first episode of the Gattis & Moffat television series, I realized that I had not read A Study In Scarlet in a long time – perhaps not since high school. It’s an interesting mystery, introducing its unforgettable characters while offering fine in handling London. Conan Doyle is so adept at establishing the time and technology that the reader forgets this was not meant to be historical fiction. The long backstory in early Mormon Utah shows Conan Doyle’s characteristic strengths and weaknesses; it’s conventional melodrama, it’s sometimes stale and sometimes predictable, but it also keeps moving and gets us where we need to go.

It must have been something to meet Sherlock in the pages of The Strand, not knowing that this was going to be the Sherlock Holmes.