May 09 5 2009

The Seven Stairs

by Stuart Brent

Stuart Brent ran a legendary little bookstore in Chicago for decades, first on Rush Street and later on Michigan Avenue. Brent was at the center of a remarkable cadre of Chicago writers, critics, artists, and psychiatrists. (The latter seems out of place nowadays, but it made perfect sense at the time.)

This fine book captures the challenge of running a good little bookstore in a world that doesn’t care enough about books, or about anything thoughtful. Brent can write, and captures some of his own distinctive voice. When I was a boy, he was the oldest angry young man I could imagine, sitting at the big round table that served him for an office, bellowing on the phone at a Scribner’s rep, telling him (and everyone in the store) in great detail just how Scribner’s new policies were destroying American letters and indeed the Western Tradition. I was terrified, I still am.

Tinderbox Weekend London is coming up this weekend.

At Tinderbox Weekend, we usually have an open dinner on Saturday night. It’s a chance for people who can’t come to the event, or who just don’t do events, and for other readers of this weblog to get together at a moderate but tasty place and talk.

I don’t have a location yet. Suggestions? If you’re interested, Email me..

Apr 09 30 2009

Code Code Code

I’ve been sketching a prototype of a new system. Long hours have pushed almost everything else aside. Back soon.

by Megan Marshall

A superb biographical portrait of the early years of three influential sisters: Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody. These are the famous Peabody’s, but they’re not closely related to the town of Peabody, the Peabody museums, or the Peabody expeditions: the bankers were a different and later branch of the family, and these Peabody’s had a tough time finding rent money.

Sophia, the youngest and most artistic sister, married Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mary, the middle girl, married Horace Mann. Elizabeth never married, but from her teens she established a literary and intellectual reputation that made her the confidant, sounding board, and sometimes the editor and publisher of the leaders of Unitarianism, Universalism, and Transcendentalism. Her bookstore was the center for the movement that gave rise to abolitionism and feminism, and her book on Bronson Alcott's school became the touchstone of progressive education. Later, she became the great advocate for kindergartens.

This is a fine and thorough book. The 1830’s and 1840’s, alas, were not a great era for prose, public or private. A generation earlier and these women would have written racy, lively letters, and a generation later would replace their sometimes fussy pieties with Lincoln’s mixture of wit and grandeur. But they were born without much money in an outpost of the world, they all educated themselves, and all became great and influential teachers.

Apr 09 26 2009


There are still a few seats at the table for Tinderbox Weekend London, May 9-10.

We’ll be at the Rookery Hotel, Peter's Lane, Cowcross Street, London, EC1M 6DS. We start at 10am on Saturday.

I'll be talking about Tinderbox dashboards, Tinderbox timelines, and the Tinderbox cookbook. With luck, I'll also be showing an exciting new application that works alongside Tinderbox.

Mark Anderson, creator of the invaluable aTbRef reference, will look at Tinderbox export techniques. J. Nathan Matias will talk about collaborative Tinderbox. Robert Brook will talk his work at the UK Parliament, and Michael Bywater will plot a novel, in Tinderbox, live.

There's a good discussion about designing timelines and other handy visualizations over in the Tinderbox Forum.


Here's another kind of timeline:


Timelines lend themselves to chartjunk, but sometimes it's nice to organize your notes so you can see quickly whether the Peabody sisters had snowball fights with Henry Adams, or who knew what when.

Have ideas for other useful visualizations? All this started from a quick scan of a sketch on the back of an old calendar sheet. Contribute your own ideas; who knows what will arise?

Apr 09 19 2009

Trojan Barbie

Now at the American Repertory, and worth a detour: Trojan Barbie. The play, by Australia’s Christine Evans, does a wonderful job of blending Euripides (and Seneca– it’s pretty clear that Louise Kennedy, the Globe’s reviewer, doesn’t know about the Roman play or the Charles Mee adaptation) with a response to the US in Iraq. It’s thoughtful, effective, and it moves. I’m too close to the Trojan Women – I’ve used it as a premise for hypertext experiments — but this beats me at my own game.

(The script is available from the Australian Script Center)

Skye Noël, previously hailed here for her fine performance and ownership of the worst web site in the world, is a terrific Andromache. Careena Melia as Helen is stunning, dominating the stage. She has the best dress I’ve seen in years. Karen MacDonald as Lotte, a British doll hospital owner who vacations at Troy and somehow gets onto the wrong side of the Internment Fence, gives her best performance since Mother Courage.

The play’s innovation is Lotte, a tourist who wanders into the refugee camp of The Trojan Women. This can work really well. For example, we meet Helen – “Just Helen” – who wears an amazing dress, bribes the guards for soap and Tylenol, and despises the silly women in the tents “who just have to have their Tragedy.” I think this isn’t quite developed, but it’s not difficult to see where it might go. Beyond Rangoon is one terminus. So, I think, is The Year of Living Dangerously.

Trojan Barbie
Mica (reno Ampuero) and Helen (Careena Mella). Photo: Michael Lutch.

by Shannon Hale

I discovered that continuations of Jane Austen novels are a modern industry one afternoon, a few years back, browsing in a huge Japanese book emporium in downtown Sydney. It’s an interesting back-country for chicklit/romance I suppose. But this one was read by Katherine Kellgren, who was brilliant in her reading of Bloody Jack, so why not?

Jane Hayes has a job in graphic design, a dingy New York flat, a wealthy great aunt whose health is not good, and a history of about a dozen unsatisfactory boyfriends. Stashed behind her houseplant, Aunt Caroline discovers Jane’s stash of secret tapes – BBC videos of Pride and Prejudice. No one, it seems, measures up to Darcy. Wise Aunt Caroline grasps the problem at once, and bequeaths to Jane a three-week vacation at Pembrook Park, where guests dress in corsets and dine on mutton and metaphor.

I’ve got to admit, I like the premise. Hale gets lots of details right. It would have to be fantastically costly, because you need so many servants, and the hotel needs to supply the clothes. Many of the guests would be wealthy bores and idiots. The best part, I think, is the Reception Desk/intake interview: we can’t have you going direct from Heathrow into the drawing room, can we? So the limo drops you off at a coaching inn where the redoubtable Mrs. Wattlesbrook handles the financial arrangements, introduces you to 19th century clothes and undergarments, reviews essential etiquette, and provides improvised dancing lessons (with The Gardener, naturally) and whist instruction. The coaching inn is a lovely touch.

Apr 09 16 2009


I was late getting back from work last night, so for dinner we had some sautéed salmon, some boiled lentils, and some Hollandaise sauce right out of Ruhlman’s Ratio. That’s the point of ratios: if there are just the two of you, you don’t need to make a while cup of Hollandaise, and so you don’t need two sticks of butter.

Oh, it was good. Which brings us to the nub: between the popovers and the biscuits and the Hollandaise and the gougères and the creme patisserie in blackberry tarte, not to mention Ruhlman’s lemon bars, our consumption of butter has increased dramatically.

OK: tastes good. We try not to eat too much. We try to even out the strain. We try not to worry: food shouldn't be anxious. Still: butter?

by Nick Hornby

Shakespeare wrote for money and, for several years, Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) wrote the The Believer. This book collects the last of his wonderfully funny and illuminating columns, in which he discussed the list of books he’d read in the previous month, as well as the list of books he’s bought. This is an expensive little book: because Hornby’s enthusiasm is so deeply infectious, you’ll likely find yourself ordering lots of books yourself. Hornby is under orders from his editors, the numberless (but dazzlingly attractive) young men and women who insist that no hint of a snark should ever appear in the magazine. His evasions are clever, his punishment certain, but there’s really no need. I found myself searching at midnight for my phone so I could order a book about the making of The Graduate and Dr. Doolittle, a subject for which I seemingly have little urgent need, or (in point of fact) any. But Hornby says the book’s terrific, so onto the stack it goes.

by Michael Ruhlman

This book is important, not just because it will help you make dinner, but because it will help you understand dinner. We are emerging from the Bush era of mystical magical gibberish and have put upside-downism behind us. It’s no longer enough to do what we’re told. It’s no longer enough to believe that everything will be fine because we are Good People. It’s time for us to know what we’re doing.

Ruhlman argues that recipes are not enough; at best, having a recipe (and the necessary technique) lets you recreate a dish. You can cook it. If you like it, you can follow the instructions again. Instead, Ruhlman focuses on the key concepts that makes foods work; once you know these, you can make all sorts of things without fear.

Fear drives the cookbook business. The fear is: it won’t turn out. And, of course, if you just throw lots of stuff in a pot, like we used to do when we were six (and as clever as clever), it probably won’t turn out.

5 parts flour, 3 parts water: that’s bread. You need some yeast, but it doesn't really matter how much you add. You probably want some salt. You can add stuff: rosemary and caraway seeds, or almonds and raisins, or onion, or jalopeño peppers and dried tomatoes. You can change the shape. You can make a little, or a lot. Doesn’t matter. 5 parts flour, 3 parts water; it'll be bread.

I used to buy pancake mixes because it was so much bother to gather all the ingredients, measure them, and get the consistency right so the pancakes turned out. Sure, the Dancing Deer stuff it nice. But it’s not that hard. 2 flour:2 liquid:1 egg. An egg is 2 oz. So 4oz flour , 4oz milk, 1 egg. Throw in 1t of baking powder and 1/2t of baking soda. You can add some sugar if you like: maybe 2T. You can add some vanilla. You can add some blueberries. You can replace some of the milk with buttermilk or cottage cheese or sour cream. Want even fluffier pancakes? Separate the egg whites, whip them up, then add them to the rest. You can replace some of the flour with cornmeal or whole wheat or what you like. That's enough for 2. Need to cook for 8? 2c flour, 2c milk, 4 eggs.

It’s all like this. You can know this stuff. Nothing mystical, nothing magic, no weird rituals or procedures. Sometimes things don’t work. Ruhlman warns that mayonnaise smells fear. If your mayonnaise breaks, Ruhlman tells you how to whip it back into shape.

There’s lots of great stuff. How to make a great stock without making a big fuss. Or any fuss at all. How to whip up things like pie dough or cheese puffs off the top of your head. How to improvise a soup – any soup.

One missed opportunity is that paragon of fear, the souflée. Everyone knows that souflées are hard, dangerous, showy, and French. And Ruhlman has already covered the key ratio: bechamel for soups. The hidden trick about the souflée is: there is no trick. They’re like popovers: they just work. Alice Waters hits on this in The Art of Simple Food: the only thing that makes a souflée fall is cold air, and if your souflée does fall, pop it into a hot oven and it will poof again.

We’re seeing a second revolution in popular science in the US. The first was triggered by Sputnik, and led everyone to say, “the kids need science.” This time, in the wake of Bush and the Crash, we’re not leaving it to the kids. We want to know what we’re eating, we want to eat better, and we want to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Give us bread, and give us rosés.

by John Scalzi

The novel begins with a lyrical, deeply-imagined exploration of what it means to be old. Our wife is dead, our children grown, and we are about to enlist, on our 75th birthday, in the Colonial Defense Forces. That’s the way the army works: you don’t get to enlist until you’re 75, and once you ship out, son, you can’t come home again.

There was a xenobiological plague a while back, and so earth is quarantined. Nobody on earth really knows what’s going on in the space colonies, except that the only way to go there is to join the army. If you come from a country that can’t support its population, like India and Bangladesh and Norway, you can be a colonist at any age. Otherwise, it's the army for you.

So we say goodbye to everything and board the space ship for Parts Unknown. This is done well, intelligently, with some sensitive portraits. It’s a clever conceit, a stock situation for kids but populated exclusively by old people who have already done this stuff and who can think about it. Lunchroom cliques? Been there. Opaque bureaucracy? Coming right up. They’ve read all the boarding school books, they know all the boot camp movies.

And then, suddenly, we’re thrown into combat – and into second rate Republican Party propaganda. We travel the galaxy, defending people from ruthless invaders whom we exterminate with gallantry and without remorse. We fight alongside with Good Guys (some of whom are girls). We meet Idiots, who annoy us for a while until the enemy kills them. One of the idiots is a bad parody of a Massachusetts senator who tries to make peace and is blown away; whether the intended target is John Kerry or Edward Kennedy, it's both off-target and offensive.

In another mission, our army is called in to break an oil worker’s strike. The union leaders are faceless idiots and our army, having been angered by their violent resistance, commits dozens of war crimes while breaking the strike. We report these crimes as if they were something of which we were modestly proud, and there are neither investigations nor trials in their wake. We buy off the bad taste with a perfunctory episode of battle fatigue, and then we have a rather good heroic climax.

Reading this book, I thought for a time that it was a victim of editorial inattention, that the author needed to be shown where he went off the rails. But the wrong-headed second half is so thoroughly wrong-headed that I think this vision needs correction. This Hugo winner will be remembered, but not altogether fondly, as SF's acme of Bushism.

It was a good night for silliness, so we watched Mamma Mia!

Meryl Streep really is incredible. There's a shot, about an hour into the movie, where she’s standing on a trail, dressed in a blouse and a shawl, arguing with a man. It’s a fairly long shot, and I thought to myself, “She looks like Elli!”

Now, Meryl Streep doesn’t actually look much, or anything, like Elli. And, whatever dim associations ABBA calls to mind, it’s not really the dean of Humanities Computing. They sound nothing like each other (though I’ve heard Streep, convincingly, as everything from a young New Yorker to an elderly Russian rabbi and so, presumably, she can sound like anyone), and in any case there's no dialog because the whole gang is singing.

But, there you have it. Wear the shawl just right, move just right, it’s convincing. Even in the middle distance, without words.

Apr 09 10 2009

Gefilte Fish

by Claudia Roden

“What can I bring?” I ask.

“Why don’t you make some gefilte fish? Maybe with salmon?”

This became a mission. I searched high and low. I watched YouTube videos of restauranteurs making special gefilte fish. I read books. (No one who reads this page regularly will be surprised that I bought books, too.) I corresponded with cooks on three separate continents.

In the end, I made a pretty straight gefilte fish, right out of Roden. I used 2/3 fresh salmon – the Cambridge Museum Of Fruits and Vegetables threw a sale on wild coho just for me – and 1/3 hot-smoked salmon; the smoked salmon was suggested by Michael Ruhlman himself. (There's a nifty salmon rillettes in his Bouchon book, which was impossible here but I'm going to try it right away.) I stayed fairly close to Roden’s recipe, using less sugar.

I poached the little gefilte fish balls in fennel broth. For garnish, I found some terrific little spring carrots, which I pickled overnight in dill brine, and I made some aioli for a condiment. Linda hates beets but something like chrain, the traditional beet-horseradish sauce, seemed like a nice idea. So, I whipped up some roasted red peppers with grated horseradish.

Pickled carrots

  • 1 bunch of really good young carrots, preferably with greens
  • 1 small bunch of dill
  • salt
  • water

Cut off all but 1" of the carrot greens. Wash, or lightly peel the carrots. Don't overdue it.

Make a 20:1 brine. 4C of water, 50g=2oz (by weight) of salt. If you don’t have a scale, say 4T salt. This is not rocket science. Add a few peppercorns if they're handy. Bring to a boil; let the salt dissolve. Put the carrots in a glass baking dish, pour the brine over them, add the dill. Let them cool, refrigerate. 24hr later, they’re pickled carrots. Who knew?

Fennel broth

  • 2 large bulbs fennel, coarsely chopped
  • 4 shallots, sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 allspice berries
  • 1t whole peppercorns, crushed
  • 1T sugar
  • a little salt
  • 4c water

Cover, heat to near boiling, then simmer gently for perhaps 45 minutes.

  • 1.5lb fresh salmon, cut into 1" chunks (keep cold)
  • .5lb smoked salmon (hot-smoked and chunky smoked salmon is fine), cut into 1" chunks (keep cold)
  • 1 medium onion, cut into large chunks
  • 2 eggs, separated

Spin the onion in the food processor until coarsely chopped. Add the salmon, and spin until it, too, is coarsely chopped. Add the egg yolk, spin to combine everything. You don't want to purée. You just want to get rid of all the large chunks; if you chop too much, the fish will by unpleasantly pasty.

Whip the egg whites to soft peaks. Fold about 1/3 of the fish into the egg whites, then add the mixture to the rest of the fish. Fold until mixed. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to let everything rest.

Put the strained fennel broth in a pan (I used a sautoire, but any deepish skillet or saucepan will do), and heat to a bare simmer. Taste it; it should taste good. Add some salt if needed.

Take the fish, shape it into golf balls, and drop into the simmering broth. Cook for about 6 minutes, in batches. Fish them out with a slotted spoon. Strain the broth, cool it a little (throw in a couple of ice cubes if you like), and our some over the fish. Refrigerate overnight, and serve cool with aioli (crush a couple of cloves of garlic to a paste with salt, add to bowl, squeeze 1/2 lemon into it, add an egg yolk, gradually whisk in 1C of olive oil).

Dr. Jon Leavitt’s clutter dashboard tracks a lifestyle improvement project. Progress bars track progress toward decluttering different areas. while a color-coded notes track difficulty, intensity of use, and the all-important joy factor.

Apr 09 8 2009

Dashboard Clock

Dashboard Clock

My dad always said that the dashboard clock was the first thing that would break in a new car, because nobody needs a dashboard clock. Everything – placing the numbers, setting the color as the time of day changes – is done in a rule. For the moment, I’m leaving this as an exercise for the reader.

This isn't really meant for use; it's a folly or a fantasia. But it is a working clock.

Do you have a better way to do this? Or another nifty idea for a folly? Email me.

Apr 09 7 2009

Ebert's Comments

Roger Ebert has a wonderful reminiscence of the newsroom in the best damn job in the whole damn world.

There were no cubicles. We worked at desks lined up next to each other row after row. Ann Landers (actually Eppie Lederer) had an office full of assistants somewhere in the building, but she insisted on sitting in the middle of this chaos, next to the TV-radio critic, Paul Molloy. Once Paul was talking on a telephone headset and pounding at a typewriter and tilted back in his chair and fell to the floor and kept on talking. Eppie regarded him, reached in a file drawer, and handed down her pamphlet, Drinking Problem? Take This Test of Twenty Questions.

Just as wonderful – and twice as remarkable – are the comments. First, there’s a regular parade of experts: famous writers, columnists, descendants of newsroom legends. Second, even the idiots are terrific: when one pseudonymous poster complains that Ebert “used to be a loud mouth drunk, insulting everyone”, Ebert handles it brilliantly (and instructively) by recalling the Billy Goat Tavern.

Ebert: Thanks for that! It felt for a moment when I was back at the Goat’s.

The other newspaper drinking spot in Chicago was Ricardo’s. They made the best green pasta I’ve ever had.

Keith Rineaman has been keeping a Tinderbox cycling dashboard since September 2008. He describes the some high points:

  • The "2009 Cycling Journal Entries" container holds notes for each ride and plots the miles so I can visualize how my rides are trending. I have attributes set up for date, ride duration, miles, avg speed, annual mileage, odometer, weight, perceived exertion, and boolean attributes for indoor rides and commutes. I keep notes on the ride (route, weather, how I felt, etc.).
  • The progress bar tracks annual mileage and progress toward my goal of 3,000 miles for 2009. One of the things I'm thinking about for the progress bar is to change color if I'm on track or not, since I need to average approx 60 miles a week to hit 3,000. At the moment I'm a little behind, which I'd expect in early Spring. I have a graph in iWork Numbers, but it would be cool to see it in my dashboard.
  • Agents collect and display ride data (inside the "2009" adornment) for each month along with total mileage for the month. This allows me to see all my rides by month and track progress. For example, in January I added the total mileage for each month in the display name because I did a 300 mile challenge and wanted to see how I was doing.
  • The odometer in the upper right tracks total miles since April 2008.
  • Two graphs on the right plot my weight and perceived exertion (1 to 5) for each ride. This gives me additional insight on how my workouts are trending. These graphs pull from all rides (2008 and 2009) because I want to see a wider range of data.
  • Other Agents track indoor rides (on the bike trainer) and commutes.
  • Not shown is an adornment with 2008 data and a notes container where I track bike maintenance and whatever else I need to remember.
Apr 09 6 2009

Bloody Jack

by L. A. Meyer

Mary "Jacky" Faber, a young orphan, is managing fairly well on the streets of London. But it’s 1797, times are very hard, and one thing leads to another until she ships out on board HMS Dolphin as a cabin boy. Delightful, imaginative, and well-crafted, Bloody Jack works in bits from lots of familiar stories and ballads there’s even a moment when, at anchor, we see HMS Surprise in the harbor. Audiobook is splendidly read by Katharine Kellgren, who dazzles with such challenges as “a boy from East London doing a bad imitation of a younger boy from East London who is himself doing a good imitation of Jamaican English.”


Steve Ersinghaus offers a glimpse of the Tinderbox dashboard for this summer’s 100 stories project.

There's still time to win $100 by submitted your Tinderbox dashboard – whether working model or conceptual prototype.

Linda’s Russian History course runs late on Wednesdays, giving us an occasion for an interestingly late dinner. The starting point for last night’s treat was a pair of very nice chops of a Tamworth pig that Savenor’s had for sale. I’ve never cooked a lot of pork – I don’t think I've made pork chops in a decade – but I keep reading about the wonders of good heritage pork. So, I grabbed them, and took advice from Pork & Sons.

What I ended up doing was simply salting and peppering the chops. I brushed them lightly with olive oil, and let the sit for about 45 minutes. While they sat, I cooked some macaroni, and then cooked it again in milk thickened with blonde roux. The macaroni went into a gratin dish, was topped with a big handful of grated gruyere, and baked for 20 minutes.

While the macroni baked, I warmed up the grill. Linda came home. I opened the wine (a Touraine gamay – not an inspired choice). I grilled the pork chops, and let them rest. I took a St. Marcellin cheese out of its cute little ramekin, cut it in half, and dropped a piece on each pork chop. Then, quickly run the pork chops and the macaroni and cheese under the broiler for a couple of minutes, pop them onto nice warm plates, and enjoy.

Oh, and we had Michael Ruhlman’s neighbor’s lemon bars for dessert!