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

Sep 14 20 2014

Tinderbox Tips

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).

Brent Simmons on software design.

People say it’s important to be passionate about something. But what if your passion is for something horrible?
Sep 14 17 2014

Further Review

Jon Gruber nails it in his thought piece on the Apple Watch. The most interesting and significant thing about the Watch is: we don’t know.

Ages ago, William Gibson speculated that we’d eventually want costly, custom-crafted laptop bodies that we’d keep for years and years, periodically swapping internal components as technology improves. That’s got to be the underlying logic of the Watch. Gruber has got to be correct: the expensive editions of the Watch are going to be really expensive.

Side issue: assume every Apple store has one gold watch to display, and one gold watch in stock to sell. At $10K apiece and 450 stores – and Gruber is right that the top-of-the-line watches are going to cost a lot – that’s $9 million of inventory for each SKU. Yes, I think people will buy these – especially if there’s some assurance that they won’t be obsolete in three years – but nobody’s going to buy one sight unseen. So pretty much every model adds five million in inventory.

Gruber is also right about the announcement. Apple announced the hardware because, if they didn’t announce it now, the suppliers would dribble out details about this piece and that piece. Apple didn’t announce the software – the product – because it’s not done yet. The Watch may be amazing or it may be a frost: we don’t know and we won’t know until it’s ready.

Apple told us about the outside of the box because, if they didn’t tell us now, the cardboard company would. They’ll tell us what the thing does later, when it’s finished.

Gruber’s main point is the fundamental egalitarianism of mass production: the president and the bum on the corner drink the same Coke that you drink. Obama may have a nicer glass, but the Coke’s the same.

In the tech world, weirdly, it’s even backward. A maxed out Mac Pro, for example, is a much nicer machine than an $999 MacBook Air. But that Mac Pro isn’t marketed to pro football players, real-estate moguls and hotel heiresses. Rich people are fine with the Air, and what would they do with 12 cores? The natural customers for the Mac Pro are working folks, people who make software, rocket scientists, people who make movies. There may be a few working folk who buy the gold Watch – salesmen, perhaps, or hoteliers – but that’s not their natural audience. On the other hand, just about every serious developer is going to need a low-end Watch just for research, and it’s going to be those watches for which the cool software is made.

For perspective: remember that a $10,000 gold watch costs only costs $10,000. That’s a lot of money, especially when a $375 sport watch tells the same time, but it’s also solid gold and sapphire. $10,000 buys you some nice materials. But you can blow through $10K worth of software development in no time at all. There’s a market for luxury Watches, but I don’t think there’s going to be a market for bespoke software that runs on them. There’s a pot of money in lovely Watch hardware, but the software’s going to need to run on a lot of wrists.

Outstanding thank-you email from Don Berwick this morning, especially notable because it did not ask for money. These days, I receive several donation requests from every candidate every day. I understand, but it begins to wear after a while.

Also, some very nice writing:

I believe that the future well-being of the Democratic Party lies in its unapologetic and firm commitment to the progressive values that together we explored over and over again in this campaign: social justice, equality, and compassion in public policy. 

The progressive values that together we explored is nicely phrased.

shelfies – n. Mobile phone pictures of one’s book in the bookstore.

I’ve been spending the morning with Kathryn Cramer, taking shelfies of her new anthology, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future.

The higher calling — the longer calling — is not to an election, nor is it to a party. It is to a vision of a community intolerant of needless suffering.– Don Berwick

My Republican friend is taking comfort that the center-right in Sweden might not have been smashed in the recent election. That its savior may be an anti-immigrant neo-nationalist party is not, for me, much comfort. These days, one hears such awful echoes.

Gus “Acorn/VoodooPad” Mueller on software development and The Wilderness.

It's a period of time where I'm pretty lost, and I don't know what to do. I have feature lists, I have open bugs to fix, and I have an outline of where the app is going. But I feel mentally incapacitated, like I'm getting nothing done.

I call this "The Wilderness".

I hear it talked about occasionally, though I don't think people really know what's going on. And I've seen it happen to other devs as well, from the hardly known to the super famous and successful. I've seen devs fall into it, never to return.

This merges several different sloughs of despond. There’s the pressure of deadlines, of colleagues and customers who are counting on whatever you’re building.

There’s the pressure of getting everything right. In software, every damn wrong note can bring the whole concert to a thudding halt. You can’t single that triple Axel. If you miss the blocker, there’s no running back to pick him up and no hope that Tom will step up in the pocket or Fran will turn it into a 12-yard scramble. This is made worse because people have been told that it's all easy and that intuitive, bug-free, defect-free software at $1.99 is the way everything ought to be. Some things just aren’t going to be intuitive because some things really are rocket science.

And some things are going to be wrong — and other things will seem wrong even if they’re right — because software design and implementation is one of those things that are rocket science.

And then there’s still the big problem I still call “being along with the molecule.” The craft of software is often research, and sometimes nature doesn’t yield her secrets easily. Sometimes, what seemed likely to work simply doesn’t. Sometimes, what worked well enough last year won’t work any more. We just had one of those in Tinderbox; a small bit of debris in the code that has literally no effect in Mavericks turned out to crash the Yosemite beta. This was only a little tricky to track down, but of course we didn’t know that when setting off into the wilderness. You never know.

by Thomas Hughes

A readable book, but not the Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Why the first book lives, despite its overtly sentimental structure and its patently melodramatic scheme, while the second book flounders, remains an interesting question.

I’m inclined to lay the blame on Harry East, the seeming-sidekick of the first book who is, in fact, its dramatic and moral center. East leaves Rugby first, an unexplained surprise that presumably relates to unmentionable class tension. Yet East is clearly more U than Hardy, his substitute at Oxford, a man who is never unconscious of his comparative poverty. East never seems conscious of being anything other than a gentleman — perhaps of being a gentleman who doesn’t get on with everyone, but his whole point is that he’s a gentleman and yet he’s somehow not Young Brooke, a self-indulgent and thoughtless fellow. As ever, Tom meanders but comes fairly close to being right in the end.

Forgive the sudden spate of books. I’ve been lax about writing book notes immediately on finishing a book, and I’m trying to clear the decks before the end of Summer.

by Louisa May Alcott

A necessary hole-filler, and also an intriguing book: a school story without the school. The book’s overtly sentimental moralizing might be off-putting, but Jo is such a delightful character that it’s easy to excuse. Beside’s, Bronson Alcott’s daughter deserves some slack in the department of moralizing and sentiment. Bronson was probably the first teacher to lose his place for offering sex education, and also founded a Utopian community that abjured milk and wool because it discommoded the animals. Still, it must have been a warm house.

by Miri Rubin

The Penguin History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages, a solid mainstream survey with a nice attentiveness to the lives and work of women.

Sep 14 12 2014

Autumn Term

by Antonia Forest

I’ve been reading a bunch of School Stories lately, with special attention to the modern school story. (The Victorian school story ends with graduation; the modern school story ends with the dissolution of the school.) One technical problem of the school story is that it requires buckets of exposition concerning school customs and characters; one the one hand, this is the entire point, but unless you handle things with care it also become ludicrously parochial.

To this, the modern school story adds a second problem: how do you demolish the school without harming the children? The 19th century didn’t mind killing kids; kids died all the time, they die in Little Women and in Tom Brown’s Schooldays and it’s not a scandal. But this is very dicy territory now. Anya dies in Buffy, but (a) she’s a demon, and (b) she’s a kid but she’s also hundreds of years old. Rue dies in The Hunger Games, but that’s the start of a war. It’s quite tricky even to be beastly to a fictitious child these days.

The other school stories I’ve read are either famous and beloved or new and exciting. Autumn Term, which Meryl recommended, is thoroughly forgotten, out of print, and fairly difficult to find. It’s very much in the Victorian style, and it has the further delight of featuring identical twins (cf. Sisterland and Fangirl). It’s very well written. Though it’s implicitly feminist, the book is uninterested in race or gender or class; modern Britain isn’t even on the horizon, neither War has cast a shadow, we give no thought to the colonies and we are living still in the Edwardian twilight.

The series, of which this is the first installment, is a fascinating little corner of book selling. The stories are again out of print, having been reprinted in the 90’s by Puffin and in the 00’s by a small press. They’re not wildly well known, but they have sufficient following that an old Puffin paperback in adequate condition is likely to sell for $70 or so in our newly-efficient used book market. Programmed bidding, where booksellers have their computers check competitor pricing, sometimes leads to isolated used book weirdness where some forgotten volume winds up with an astronomical price, but I suspect this is real: there’s enough demand to keep the price high, but not quite enough demand to attract the attention of a publisher and of the author’s estate.

Wednesday, my weblog received about a thousand extra visitors. They seem to have left no mark in referrer logs. This sort of thing typically signifies a link from Daring Fireball, from Brent, from Fallows, or something like that, but these all leave a clear trace (and usually generate some correspondence).

Is this what a Facebook spike looks like?

by Craig Johnson

A brilliant mystery that finds a new mix of humor and mystery. Funny mysteries tend to veer into silliness, in part because they’re hard to control and in part because both humor and mystery concern a broken world, but the nature of the fracture is fundamentally different. Down these mean streets a man must go, but if he is a funny guy it will be hard to take him seriously, and if no one takes him seriously the paladin will drift away like a kite. Here, we pile affliction on affliction as the bewildered sherif says, time and again, “you’ve got to be kidding!”

Lots of Apple watchers are watching the launch of the watch. Watch out for the usual suspects, especially as there have been plenty of rumors of stock manipulation lately.

I’ll predict an Apple setback if you need more eyeballs,

Always fun to aggravate the bourgeoisie.

Manipulating stocks like an

Internet rock star

You can be a biz-tech writer just like me!

Some very smart people are missing key elements.

  • We really do want to get people to stop staring at big black rectangles all the time. It looks horrible and it’s bad for public space. This will help.
  • There’s some intense engineering in this thing. The crown — the “winding knob” — appears to be milled on a very complex lathe. It must have cost a fortune to design and build. But it's the part with which you interact; they’ve really worked on it. Similarly, the straps and their attachments are apparently both innovative and very tricky.
  • The myriad styles and materials are unusual for Apple and will pose all sorts of logistical headaches. It’s not my thing, for sure. But a watch is, literally, a fashion accessory: to succeed, it has to come in lots of flavors.
  • Yes, it’s too big. Moore’s Law (and better battery technology) will fix that in 3-5 years.
  • When thinking about buying one of these watches, keep in mind that it’s a computer. Computers last two or three years.
  • Right now, I think the compelling case for the watch falls into three categories:
    • people who need a health monitor for arrhythmia, panic attacks, sleep disorders, etc.
    • serious runners and athletes.
    • people who are always checking their phone to see if the wheels have fallen off or their next appointment has been cancelled.

For these people, the watch is going to be a huge benefit.

  • Apple will sell some of these. Once it does, that’s means a ton of people who have an extra screen on their wrist, and that changes the whole software ecosphere. It wasn’t that long ago when Ted Nelson was arguing that everyone needed their own computer. Now, we'll be able to assume that your garden variety US business user has (or can easily acquire):
    • a portable Cray-1 class computer with a 200dpi display and broadband internet.
    • a second pocket computer with continuous network access, GPS, a megapixel color display, and a camera.
    • a satellite computer worn on the wrist with a high-resolution display size a little under a square inch.
  • My guess is that, somewhere around 2017, looking at your phone in company is going to be considered bad manners, but looking at your watch will be OK.
  • It really is a two-way wrist radio.
  • Moving attention and data from the wrist machine, the pocket machine, the desktop machine, and the machine on the wall is going to be tricky, and that’s where Apple will have a huge advantage over everyone.
Sep 14 6 2014

Arise

Brent Simmons was recently called “a known iOS developer.

I’m involved in our local state Representative race, which has a primary this Tuesday between a progressive Democrat and an opponent who opposes social security and who warns that Progressives like us are a dangerous outside influence.

As is my wont, I’m doing a lot of cooking for GOTV weekend. Today, I brought a batch of warm apple muffins to headquarters, singing “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation! Arise, ye wretches of the earth!”

A few days ago, I wrote about the 9-year-old who is at loggerheads with The Librarians. What might we get her to read? It happens that our host made a list of the proposed titles, which people here might enjoy. What we know about the 9-year-old in the case is that she’s already enjoyed Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and To Kill A Mockingbird.

There are bound to be shocking omissions: don’t hit me but feel free to email. You might think some are a bit advanced for 9-year-old tastes, but of course everyone’s mileage varies and it’s bound to take a while to get through the whole list. (One the one hand, it’s only about 150 titles; on the other, some of those lead to extensive series.)

Adult books

  • (something) Barbara Hambly
  • (something) Georgette Heyer
  • (something) Kurt Vonnegut
  • (something) Michael Lewis
  • Amphigorey Edward Gorey
  • Carrie Stephen King
  • 1632 Eric Flint
  • 1984 George Orwell
  • All Creatures Great and Small James Herriot
  • The Arabian Nights
  • Major Barbara or Saint Joan George Bernard Shaw
  • Around the World in 80 Days Jules Verne
  • Blue Heaven Joe Keenan
  • Brave New World Aldous Huxley
  • Catch-22 Joseph Heller
  • A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess
  • Cold Comfort Farm Stella Gibbons
  • Courtship Rite Donald Kingsbury
  • Cranford Mrs Gaskell
  • Crocodile on the Sandbank Elizabeth Peters
  • Cyrano de Bergerac Edmond Rostand
  • The Dark Lord of Derkholm Diana Wynne Jones
  • The Daughter of Time Josephine Tey
  • The Diamond Age Neal Stephenson
  • The Diary of Anne Frank
  • Don't Point that Thing at Me Kyril Bonfiglioli
  • Don't Tell Alfred Nancy Mitford
  • Dune Frank Herbert
  • The English Orphans Mary J. Holmes
  • Fire and Hemlock Diana Wynne Jones
  • Fire Upon the Deep Vernor Vinge
  • Fly by Night Frances Hardinge
  • The Forever War Joe Haldeman
  • Good Omens Terry Pratchett + Neil Gaiman
  • Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell
  • The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Greenmantle John Buchan
  • Guards! Guards! Terry Pratchett
  • His Majesty's Dragon Naomi Novik
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams
  • A Humument Tom Phillips
  • I, Claudius Robert Graves
  • Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality Eliezer Yudkowski
  • Harry Potter and the Natural 20 Sir Poley
  • The Importance of Being Earnest Oscar Wilde
  • I Robot Isaac Asimov
  • Ivanhoe Walter Scott
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell Susanna Clarke
  • Jumper Steven Gould
  • The King Must Die Mary Reneault
  • Lest Darkness Fall L. Sprague De Camp
  • Little Fuzzy H. Beam Piper
  • The World of Jeeves PG Wodehouse
  • The Jungle Book Rudyard Kipling
  • The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien
  • Lysistrata Aristophanes
  • Master and Commander Patrick O'Brian
  • Middlemarch George Eliot
  • Mr Midshipman Hornblower CS Forester
  • Murder Must Advertise Dorothy Sayers
  • Murder on the Orient Express Agatha Christie
  • Nine Princes in Amber Roger Zelazney
  • The Odyssey Homer
  • Oedipus cycle Sophocles
  • Our Hearts Were Young and Gay Cornelia Otis Skinner + Emily Kimbrough
  • Pride and Predjudice Jane Austen
  • The Princess Bride William Goldman
  • Queen Lucia EF Benson
  • Revenge Stephen Fry
  • The Riddlemaster of Hed Patricia McKillip
  • Ringworld Larry Niven
  • Rite of Passage Alexei Panshin
  • Sabriel Garth Nix
  • The Saskiad Brian Hall
  • The Screwtape Letters CS Lewis
  • Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Ship Who Sang Anne McCaffrey
  • Shogun James Clavell
  • Snow Crash Neal Stephenson
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Harry Harrison
  • Sundiver or Startide Rising David Brin
  • Tarzan of the Apes Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Tea with the Black Dragon RA MacAvoy
  • The 13th Child Patricia Wrede
  • The Three Musketeers Alexandre Dumas
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy John le Carré
  • Thus Was Adonis Murdered Sarah Caudwell
  • Tunnel in the Sky Robert Heinlein
  • The Warden Anthony Trollope
  • Watchmen Alan Moore
  • Watership Down Richard Adams
  • When Will There Be Good News? Kate Atkinson
  • The Witches of Karres James Schmitz
  • Worm wildbow
  • Young Miles Lois McMaster Bujold

YA/Children's

  • (something) by Roald Dahl
  • Airborne Kenneth Oppel
  • Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll
  • The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents Terry Pratchett
  • The Amulet of Samarkand Jonathan Stroud
  • Archer's Goon Diana Wynne Jones
  • The Bad Beginning Lemony Snicket
  • The Book of Three Lloyd Alexander
  • Bloody Jack Lois Meyer
  • Charlotte's Web EB White
  • Daddy Long Legs Jean Webster
  • Enchantress from the Stars Sylvia Engdahl
  • Ender's Game Orson Scott Card
  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate Jacqueline Kelly
  • Fangirl Rainbow Rowell
  • Flora Segunda Ysabeau Wilce
  • The Gammage Cup Carol Kendall
  • The Golden Compass Philip Pullman
  • Harriet the Spy Louise Fitzhugh
  • Have Spacesuit, Will Travel Robert Heinlein
  • The Hobbit JRR Tolkien
  • Ingathering or Pilgrimage Zenna Henderson
  • The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe CS Lewis
  • Mistress Masham's Repose T.H. White
  • Nation Terry Pratchett
  • The Once and Future King T.H. White
  • Pippi Longstocking Astrid Lindgren
  • The Princess and the Goblin George Macdonald
  • A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver EL Konigsburg
  • Ragged Dick & Struggling Upward Horatio Alger
  • Rampant [Killer Unicorns] Diana Peterfreund
  • Ruby in the Smoke Philip Pullman
  • The Secret Garden Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Serafina Rachel Hartman
  • Suite Scarlet Maureen Johnson
  • Swallows and Amazons Arthur Ransome
  • Terrier Tamora Pierce
  • The Wee Free Men Terry Pratchett
  • When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead
  • The White Mountains John Christopher
  • A Wizard of Earthsea Ursula K. LeGuin
  • The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Joan Aiken

To read to her sister

  • Chicken Soup with Rice
  • I'm Coming to Get You Tony Ross
  • Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like Jay Williams
  • The Little Engine that Could Watty Piper
  • Madeline Ludwig Bemelmans
  • The Mitten Jan Brett
  • The Snowy Day Ezra Jack Keats
  • Stellaluna Janell Cannon
  • Tacky the Penguin Helen Lester
  • Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak

Apropos of nothing: I’ve read many of these books, but not all. I read only four of them for school; almost nothing that this group of fierce readers proposed was a book they had read for class. Three were read to me before I could read. My second grade teacher was Helen Doughty who, mid-year, transmogrified herself into Helen Lester. Could it be the same Helen Lester?

by H. Paul Honsinger

I was hoping this would be what Jo Walton calls a Good Bad Book. It’s Nelson’s Navy in Space, patched up so we can keep all the period details. For example, all the warships are crewed by men because the aliens have concocted a phage that selectively afflicts women, and Humanity has to keep all the surviving women safely in the Home Systems to preserve the gene pool. And we board ships with cutlasses in hand because bullets can break stuff. This could lead to something thoughtful and interesting to go with the action, but it doesn’t.