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

Mar 23 12 2023

Ocean State

by Stewart O’Nan

“When I was in eighth grade my sister helped kill another girl.” That’s quite a first sentence. Our sister is Angel, and the girl she eventually helps to murder was Birdy. A and B. This is a schematic novel, one with interesting ways to explore shifting points of view. It’s got a nifty sense of place, too, and makes a fun pair with Ready, Set, Oh!, Diane Josefowicz’s fine and spooky 2022 novel.

Hi! I’m Jessica Brown, from Miskatonic University (MU). I use Tinderbox every day to allocate time on the various time machines on campus. I don’t know how we could manage without it!

Remember: you know who you are, but the software developer doesn’t. Your email address might be sufficient, but often it's not. It also helps to give some sense of what you’re doing, and how familiar you are with the product.

It is also a good idea to communicate a sense of your purpose here. Are you proposing something that might be intellectually interesting, or something you need next Thursday? Is it something you need just once in order to finish your dissertation, or is it something a hundred people will use every day?

We currently have no fewer than 17 time machines, but each of them has its own constraints. The machine in the basement of Severance Hall, for example, is only available during the day, while the machine in Performing Arts is available 24/7 but reserved on weekend evenings by the Theater Department. The machine in Somerville was built for the Women’s College and is not very comfortable for people taller than 175cm. The machine on the roof of Holmes Hall must be primed with burning tobacco, which can cause problems with allergies. When a professor wants to reserve a machine, they fill out a web form ( This sends me an email which Tinderbox parses into a note with the request. An agent, which is linked to that note, then finds time machines that might be suitable.

People are often tempted to abstract away all the detail of their work, or to assume those details are self-evident. In my experience, it can help a lot to have some perspective and some sense of the details.

The agent works really well! I’ve attached a simplified version, one with just three time machines and a single reservation request, so you can see the details. I know this is a very simple-minded use of Tinderbox!

Everyone says that they’re a novice, that they’ve scarcely scratched the surface. There are many different ways of being a novice. One person is “only using the easy parts” but knows them thoroughly. Another is a professional developer, but only started with Tinderbox yesterday. Having a small example lets the developer see what you’re actually doing.

The agent is very good at saying, for example, that Professor Higgins could use Severance on Tuesday or Holmes on Sunday night. My problem is that Professor Higgins inevitably calls me to ask why he cannot use the machine in University Hall instead. Can an agent — or something — tell me what part of the request rules out that particular machine? Is the Attribute Browser pertinent?

Clearly identify your problem. This is perhaps the very best use of bold fonts.

Context helps. Here, we understand that the information for which we are looking is likely to be requested by phone, at an arbitrary time.

As it is, I have to fiddle with copies of the agent, changing queries until I find the issue. This is slow and prone to error, and mistakes make people suspect that we are arbitrary or unfair in assigning time machines. In the sample file, you’ll see that University Hall is not suitable to Jane Doe’s project; how could one display why each unsuitable machines was excluded? (In this case, the answer is that this machine, when not in use by the administration, is reserved for digital humanities research and Professor Doe is in Physiology.)

A small sample file lets the developer focus on your problem without wading through extraneous detail.

Have other ideas about feature requests? Email me.

Here’s are the slides of my talk today on Early Tools For Thought.

Tools For Though Rocks

Update: Recorded talk is here.

by Karen O’Brien and Brian Young, eds.

In Catalonia for the Hypertext Conference, we saw plenty of Roman ruins. Some, like Tarragona, I expected, but others (Emporias!) were a remarkable surprise. On the way home, I had a nice dip into the Decline and Fall. One night, wanting to look beyond my familiar reading stack, I grabbed this. What fun!

Gibbon published the start of The Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776. His cadences have the resonance of that era’s best writing, and he is a subtly funny writer, the master of adding a footnote or choosing an extra adjective to turn a statement on its head. This volume is filled with finely-written, accessible and engaging pieces on such topics as Gibbon’s style, his library and note-taking practices, and his knowledge of the city of Rome. More fun than a book like this has any right to be.

Dec 22 2 2022

Lab Girl

by Hope Jahren

The engaging autobiography of a paleo-botanist, Lab Girl is really the best portrait I know of the reality of contemporary research. Jahren is filled with doubts: the book opens with a dedication to Jahren’s mother, but it soon becomes clear that Jahren and her mother never got along. Jahren faces more than the usual share of academic obstacles, as she endures periodic episodes of psychosis in addition to conventional sexism on the way to tenure. Jahren emphasizes the poverty of so much contemporary science; through much of her career she was unable to pay her lab tech anything like a living wage, so he spent years teaching at major universities while sleeping in his car or under a lab bench. There’s a wonderful set-piece tribute to homemade scientific instruments, really the only thing I know that comes close to capturing the reality. “Do not over-tighten me,” says a tag on one fastener, a label of poetic conciseness to those of us who have been there.