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

Feb 16 3 2016

Burial Rites

by Hannah Kent

This haunting tale of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a condemned murderer in 1829 Iceland, was much-discussed at Readercon. Kent does a wonderful job of world-building, crafting rural Iceland’s remote and cloistered society with effortless skill that recalls the first impact of Wolf Hall. This is a world where medieval horror still lurks on every doorstep, where the nearest neighbor is too distant to save you in case of fire or sudden snow, where letting the fire go out may well be a fatal error, a place where condemned prisoners can be sent to rural farms to await execution because it’s cheaper than keeping them in jail and, even if they ran, they’d simply freeze or starve.

Tinderbox dates always represent a moment in time. When you type a date like “February 3, 2016” into Tinderbox, the program supplies a specific time by using your current clock time. At worst, this is arbitrary but plausible; if you cared about the time, of course, you’d enter the time. Some edge cases work well this way, too: the date “yesterday” is 24 hours before now.

This causes trouble, though, for historical dates – dates before the introduction of time zones and the International Date Line. As I understand things, each locale knows when time zones were legally introduced; before that date, times are assumed to be Universal Standard Time. This means that, for at least part of the day, when you type "February 3, 1776,” you’ll get February 2.

There must be a better way. Anyone know?

The short story lived on – lives on – as a way to write fiction because teachers need to grade student work, and nobody really wants to read forty student novels. People seldom buy short stories – not even in collections: not, in any case, if you compare their audience with the audience for novels, much less television screenplays.

The same concern poses a challenge for new media, a challenge that distorts the literary landscape. I’ve never been completely convinced by Janet Murray’s contention that digital media are intrinsically encyclopedic, but many writers have been convinced, and their teachers don’t want to read a whole encyclopedia before handing them their A-. They especially don’t want to read a different encyclopedia for each of a dozen or two dozen students. And if, as is increasingly common, the instructor is an adjunct or a teaching assistant, they especially won’t want to read all those encyclopedias for $100-$300 apiece -- not with a couple of dozen class meetings thrown in.

But how can we create small, gradable new media works?

One approach, digital storytelling, focuses on crafting 3-5 minutes of personal memoir. There’s not much research to do: you know your past. Cinematic convention provides a narrative framework, and the miniature compass precludes most problems of plot and story.

Another approach involves poetry, especially poetry that explores the embodied nature of language beyond the familiar realms of meaning. Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

We might also mention social media performances like Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” and miniature puzzles like Winter Lake’s Rat Chaos. These can be small because they’re elect themselves superior to story, much as so many new media poems elect themselves superior to meaning. They’re about themselves and their medium, which is a fine thing, and which allows them to be small. I doubt this is a lasting solution.

The hypertext short story has been attempted quite a lot, and has succeeded occasionally. Mary-Kim Arnold’s “Lust” and Kathryn Cramer’s “In Small and Large Pieces” come to mind, though Cramer’s work isn’t all that short. “A Dark Room” is that short, and fills itself out through engaging the reader in a trivial side game, something we tried, wrong-headedly, with Sarah Smith’s King Of Space. Geoff Ryman’s 253 is large, but perhaps need not have been; 253 is not the perfect cast size, it’s just the number of people who happened to be on that particular train.

21st-century hypertexts have tended toward large lexia – chapter length lexia in Iain Pears’ Arcadia and short chapters in Paul La Farge’s Luminous Airplanes.

The problems of hypertexts that are small enough to grade and yet large enough to take seriously, to teach us something we want to know, to be held up as examples in conferences and to be discussed by weblogs and journals, is real and pressing.

by W. E. B. Greffin

Linda might be lecturing about some topics in World War 2, and I took that as an excuse to get this old and guilty pleasure down from the shelf. Griffin writes the same books over and over, but he does a nice job of capturing memorable characters and of bringing the Hollywood fantasy of the world war back into realism without casting doubt on apple pie and all the rest.

Jan 16 22 2016

Reddit

There’s a firm Reddit policy against subreddits dedicated to harassment -- at least, if the target is a Very Important Silicon Valley Investor.

Those charming folks at Gamergate have started a special subreddit dedicated to yours truly. I’ve now called Reddit’s attention to this three times. Apparently, a subreddit attacking me is fine -- just don’t attack movie stars or industry magnates.

Jan 16 21 2016

Iconic

Iconic

Sometimes, I don’t see clearly what my own software can do.

I've been trying to sketch rough images of some characters from a hypertext fiction I’ve been playing with. The cast is large, and sometimes I find it hard to keep all the characters straight, and so my cork board of bad paintings helps remind me who’s who.

But I can do this right in Tinderbox. Drop a folder into the badges directory, and fill it with little png thumbnails for the characters. Now, I can badge notes with a face to remind me of the point-of-view character, or simply of who needs work in this scene.

No muss, no fuss, and no big images cluttering the Tinderbox file.

Jan 16 19 2016

Broad Links

I’m experimenting with a new link style, broad links.

Broad Links

The source of the link is the wide end, and the destination is the narrow end.

Have a better visualization? Email me.

Jan 16 18 2016

After Alice

by Gregory Maguire

Alice is missing.

This is not headline news. Alice is often missing. She is missing, that is to say, when not underfoot, and when Alice is not underfoot, she is generally missing. Her parents are in the habit of sending her upstairs to play, or out to play, in the custody of her cat Dinah or of her elder sister Lydia or perhaps with the neighboring vicar’s girl, poor malformed Ada Boyce. It is particularly desirable that Alice not be underfoot today, because today Papa has a visitor: the famous heretic Darwin, a distant relative, come despite his feeble health to offer belated condolences after the death of Mama.

No one is certain just where Alice is. Soon, a number of the Oxford youngsters are even more unsure than her governess, for they have found themselves in a place peopled with white rabbits and tartless queens where one side of a door says KEEP OUT and the opposite side says OUT KEEP and where the best advice is not to take any advice at all.

A decade back, I have some talks focused on cultivating and nurturing the blogosphere. That failed; we allowed the blogosphere to be coopted by Facebook, and now lots of people think that Facebook is the Internet and that whatever Facebook thinks they ought to see is all there is to see.

Tom Webster and Mark Schaeffer have a nice discussion about the state of the Web from a marketer’s perspective.

An impressive and fascinating series about Storyspace by Howard Oakley.

  1. Storyspace: the original hypertext app
  2. Getting started with Storyspace 3
  3. Storyspace 3: using guards to structure reading
  4. Storyspace 3: building an interactive timeline
  5. Storyspace 3: digging a bit deeper with attributes, prototypes, and actions
  6. Storyspace 3: structuring hypertext using rules instead of links
  7. Storyspace 3: appearance attributes, badges, captions
  8. Some selected readings on hypertext
  9. Storyspace 3: handling notes and references

by Walter Tevis

Recommended by Michael Dirda (Browsings), who in turn got it from Thomas M. Disch. Walter Tevis wrote The Hustler, and The Man Who Fell To Earth, and The Color Of Money. This is a nifty book, too.

I’d never heard of Tevis.

Beth Harmon is an orphan, tossed into a ghastly orphanage where they feed the children narcotics to keep them docile. On the sly, she learns to play chess from the taciturn janitor. She turns out to be very good at chess, though she’s not particularly good at resisting narcotics and alcohol. Tevis does a wonderful job of sketching the characters of Harmon’s opponents – people who, in the nature of things, the book must rapidly leave behind – through their varied reactions to being defeated, unthinkably, by a young woman. That the author of The Hustler would be good at depicting losers is unsurprising, I suppose, but he’s really good.

Jan 16 8 2016

Mislaid

by Nell Zink

This is a charmingly serious novel about serious category errors. Our protagonist, when young, was called a “thespian” in a school quarrel, and in consequence joined the drama club. There, the cool kids told her that she wasn’t a thespian; she was a lesbian. OK: the goes to the nearby Virginia women’s college that is famous for its lesbians, and immediately winds up in an affair with one of the school’s few male professors. We’re only getting started; we have gay men who aren’t gay, black children with ivory skin, black-skinned children who are white, people with Old Money who have no money, poor people who have plenty of cash but dare not spend it, lawless law enforcement, and cocaine that isn’t cocaine. This could be slapstick, but isn’t. A smaller book than Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, but touching lightly on many of the same problems.

New from Howard Oakley on Storyspace:

Structuring hypertext using rules instead of links

“My aim is to present the reader with an interactive map of the Piazza, in which each painting is placed according to the location from which it was painted. However, as there are quite a lot of paintings, and most readers will also be interesting in how those paintings changed over time, I am going to structure this in time too.”

Storyspace In Venice

Oakley is revisiting the stones of Venice, and using metadata like a painting’s age to structure connections among works. I think this is really more a Tinderbox task than Storyspace, but in this case the technique applies to either.

Just yesterday in the Forum, we were talking about using Storyspace to do some of the things Franco Moretti does in his little book on Graphs, Maps, and Trees for understanding literature. Here we are, the very next day, with a nifty example!

Jan 16 4 2016

Score

2015.

  • 31 movies (best: Ex Machina, Short Term 12, The Man In The High Castle)
  • 54 books (best new novels: Wonderland, The Peripheral, Angelmaker. old novel: The 39 Steps. nonfiction: Prune. more analysis to come)
  • software discovery: Sketch Club + Sktchy. Sketch Club is a drawing program for the iPad with a community tacked on. The drawing tools are good, though not best in class. The community, too, is deeply flawed. Sktchy has no tools and a bizarre community: the idea is that everyone uploads photos of themselves and then you draw other artists. In practice, Sktchy has a lot of teenage girls and a lot of professional illustrators and comic-book artists because, if you're having a hard day at the office and your boss chews you out because your Thai character doesn’t look very Thai to her, this is a place where you can go find twenty Thai faces to draw for practice. Between them, I’ve finally improved my drawing a notch.
  • cooking discovery: paté sucrée, or just plain pie crust. A spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down, and even in savory pies – I improvised a salmon-crab-shrimp pie and did a lamb pie this holiday season – the sugar makes the crust flaky. Do not omit the salt, even in sweet pies – and especially not in pecan.
  • coding: it’s been a year of consolidation and refinement, but not an idle year. Tinderbox: 6.1.2, 6.1.3, 6.2.0, 6.2.1, 6.3.0, 6.3.1, 6.3.2, and 6.4.0. 68 backstage releases in all. Storyspace 3.0 – including the book-length Getting Started With Storyspace. Plus a big pile of incident that will eventually become at least a collection of Storyspace examples and possibly a hypertext novel.
  • life hack: it’s efficient to drive a car until the wheels fall off, but costly to attempt to drive it after that. The little red bean is a delight.

There’s a few days left in WinterFest: the festival of artisanal software. Great prices on Tinderbox, Storyspace, DEVONthink Pro Office, Scrivener, and lots more.

One Winterfest wit saw the “special requests” textbook in the Tinderbox order form and wrote that “a picture of a cat on my invoice would be awesome :)”. You’ll be pleased to know we managed to oblige; having real people process orders may sometimes be slow, but it has advantages.