May 11 4 2011


Hypertext 2011 is in Eindhoven. I’ll be talking about developing a working vocabulary for spatial hypertext. It’s preceded by a workshop on narrative and hypertext, where I’ll be talking about “Wandering Monsters: the problem of coherent hypertext narrative.” (Punch line: the problem is that there is no problem.)

Web Science 2011 is the following week in Koblenz. I’ll be talking about “Flocks, Herds, and Stories” and looking at some scenarios that suggest the Web should have collapsed by now.

I have a few days in between, and this is a part of the world I hardly know. Suggestions? Email me.

May 11 1 2011

Reading Notes

Roger Ebert thinks about what we read:

That's how I've done my reading: Haphazardly, by inclination. I consider myself well read, but there has been no plan. Reading Cynthia Ozick's article brought me up short: I realized I knew almost every writer she was referring to, and I realized they were no longer read. In deciding to begin this piece with the list of all the names in its second paragraph, I realized I would probably alienate many readers. I decided that was all right. This would only be of interest to those who knew a name or two.

He is responding to a Cynthia Ozick review in the New Republic in which the critic observes in passing that hardly anyone reads a parcel of writers whom everyone once read:

Consider: who at this hour (apart from some professorial specialist currying his “field”) is reading Mary McCarthy, James T. Farrell, John Berryman, Allan Bloom, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, Anne Sexton, Alice Adams, Robert Lowell, Grace Paley, Owen Barfield, Stanley Elkin, Robert Penn Warren, Norman Mailer, Leslie Fiedler, R.P. Blackmur, Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, Lillian Hellman, John Crowe Ransom, Stephen Spender, Daniel Fuchs, Hugh Kenner, Seymour Krim, J.F. Powers, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Rahv, Jack Richardson, John Auerbach, Harvey Swados—or Trilling himself?

The literary stockmarket is indeed an odd game. Right now, I’m ploughing through Jeremy Lewis’s massive and marvelous biography of Cyril Connolly. Not long ago, I enjoyed the Mitford-Waugh letters – like this biography, a Dirda recommendation – and since both of those writers poke so much fun in their letters at Smartiboots, their pet name for pal Connolly, I thought this might be fun. And it is fun, thought it’s many hundreds of ddense pages of fun, none of which advance anything I’m working on.

This whole crowd loved to cut each other with devastating jokes. They seem to have slept with each other without too much checking into the beloved’s gender, marital status, or age; how they avoided embarrassing diseases and inconvenient pregancies baffles me. They drank like fish, seldom had any money to speak of, but were forever borrowing a fiver to pop over to Cannes. They spent a lot of time thinking about Catholicism, but that interest never seems to have impinged on their extramural sex games.

Reading Notes
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The art world is even worse. Why was Mary Cassatt the American Impressionist who was invited to the party, while Henry Ossawa Tanner, Henry Strater, Edmund Tarbell and Childe Hassam are provincial footnotes? There may be good reasons, but I don’t think you will find the explanation on the walls of your art museum. If you do, let me know and I’ll come visit.

Art is even more problematic than literature because it’s easier to look at a painting than to read a book. Tinderbox tells me that I've read 599 books between today and the 2000 start of this blog (Stefan Kanfer, Groucho: the life and times of Julius Henry Marx). That’s a lot of books, but it’s also a lot of time. I could look at 600 pictures in a lot less time. I might not look at them quite as they ought to be seen, but then, who is the ideal reader?

Joanna Russ died last week. A @RoseFox tweet sent me back to her story, “When It Changed.” I mentioned it to Linda over dinner (grilled shrimp, brown butter orzo), and she thought for a moment.

“Katy drives like a maniac.”

She remembered. I don’t think she’s read the story in thirty years, but that’s it. And you know something? When I read that sentence yesterday, I didn’t even think it was the strange.

We must have been doing over 120 km/hr on those turns. She's good, though, extremely good, and I've seen her take the whole car apart and put it together again in a day. My birthplace on Whileaway was largely given to farm machinery and I refuse to wrestle with a five-gear shift at unholy speeds, not having been brought up to it, but even on those turns in the middle of the night, on a country road as bad as only our district can make them, Katy's driving didn't scare me. The funny thing about my wife, though: she will not handle guns. She has even gone hiking in the forests above the 48th parallel without firearms, for days at a time. And that does scare me.

A woman driving fast? Katy with a daughter named Yuriko? In 1973, you knew right away this wasn’t Kansas. In 2011, it absolutely could be Kansas.

Stories make a difference.

Russ Lipton writes a thoughtful (and flattering) commentary on Steve Zeoli’s Tinderbox essay for AppStorm.

I have used Tinderbox since its introduction a decade ago. It is the only piece of software I have ever used over thirty years that is, itself, intellectually stimulating – a category type absent from all known software reviews. Consequently, Tinderbox must be and is, indeed, frustrating and maddening at times.

I want to address two meta areas, both of which you touched upon:

Price. I can remember when software products cost $395; in ‘old’ dollars too. Tinderbox seems outrageously expensive by today’s standards. Tire-kickers, please keep in mind that Eastgate’s ‘artisanal’ approach to software correlates closely with the product’s unique strengths. This is not committee-designed, corporate-volume targeted, me-too outliner, note taker or mind mapper stuff, though I know Eastgate welcomes corporate customers – a different matter. I suspect the price is set as low as possible consistent with maintaining the long-term health of the project.

Enhancements. Mark Bernstein seems as enthusiastic today about pushing Tinderbox’s architectural design and feature-set to its usable limits as he was when discussing the original beta publicly long ago. I chose ‘usable’ above purposely. I don’t want to give the impression that Tinderbox is for weird, eccentric hobbyists with endless time on their hands. Bernstein is always asking users who want ‘just one more’ feature to supply a possible use case and/or reasoned defense of their request. Still, that said, it is fun (and productive) to grow alongside Tinderbox itself, which means, to grow alongside Mark as well.

Again, well-done review. There is a fully productive ‘shallow end’ to the Tinderbox pool which amply rewards beginning swimmers. The neat thing is that the deep end of the pool is (as it should be) just beyond one’s gaze at any given moment.

Tinderbox Appstorm

Steve Zeoli contributes a terrific Tinderbox tutorial to Mac.Appstorm: Taking The Information Plunge With Tinderbox.

Because I am impressed with the mission of Tinderbox, because I think it is genuinely inspired, I am giving it a rating of nine out of ten. But do not take my word for it. Download Tinderbox. Try it out. Read all you can about it. Then make the decision for yourself if it is worth your software dollars.

There’s nothing quite like taking a call from an Australian interviewer to discuss hypertext history and the nature of links while you’re up to your elbows with an exceptionally recalcitrant paté sucrée.

With luck, the hazelnut chocolate tarte will be tasty. Thursday’s duck breast with smoked strawberry sauce sounded like a really good idea. It was not.

We pushed back the release date for the next big Tinderbox update just a bit, in order to squeeze one or two great new features into this cycle. It’s going to be a terrific update, with some exciting features and a big speed bump, and it’s coming very soon.

One thing the Australian Historian wanted to talk about was the difference in links between systems like Storyspace and the Web. The important differences are, I think, well understood – especially the importance of guard fields (or, more generally, dynamic links) for breaking cycles. Dynamic links or breadcrumbs are the only way we know to generate narrative thrust in a large hypertext, and their absence on the Web has long led to simple, sparsely-linked, isolated sites without much interesting structure.

Another difference, of course, was that following a Storyspace link was fast and reliable, while following a Web link is a more complex proposition. Network latency means that the page may appear now or we may have to wait. Rendering issues mean that the page might not work in our particular browser. The Web link model means that the site at the end of the link might not be there anymore, or might have been replaced by pornographers or SEO gameplayers. None of these inconveniences are very great, but they all add a little anxiety and reluctance whenever we follow a link.

Earlier, we added a new kind of hypertextuality to Tinderbox in an experimental overlay layer in maps. It may come to nothing. It might be a revolution. You never know.

A good time for all, but a very long day.

Apr 11 28 2011


Fallows conducts a formal rhetorical analysis of Obama’s birth certificate press conference. Joshua Micah Marshall creates a formal taxonomy of post-certificate birtherism. He is a latter-day Hannah Adams, “Historian of the Jews And Reviewer of the Christian Sects," though his raw material is less promising.

Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania television station has launched an exposé (watch the video) about a veteran high school English teacher who publishes successful romance novels under a pseudonym. “Sitting in her class I had no idea. She is a good teacher but I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes," said former student Drew Hollenbach.

Oh dear.

Apr 11 27 2011

Script wanted

A colleague needs a script that will convert quotes, n-dashes, m-dashes, and common diacritical characters to the corresponding HTML entities.

This would be easy to roll on one's own, but I'm betting there's a standard solution. What do you use? Email me.

David Flanagan.

The piracy of my books is profoundly discouraging. When my Ruby book came out in 2008 I was sad to discover that pirated copies were available within a week or so of the book's release. When my jQuery pocket reference came out earlier this year, I was shocked to discover that Google was giving the ebook download sites higher placement than reviews of the book. And now JavaScript: The Definitive Guide is out. I don't have a copy of it yet, but illegal copies are free for anyone who wants one. And Google will suggest those illegal downloads to anyone who tries to research the book (see the screenshot). I've worked really hard on this book, and I've got to say that this just feels like a kick in the gut.

One of the great harms the music meltdown has done to us is that lots of Internet firms now sympathize with the pirates and assume that it’s just a song or two and that everything will work out fine in the end. "An important part of this", Flanagan writes, "is that the ease of finding illegal ebooks has removed any stigma involved. Malware sites get flagged 'may harm your computer'. Porn images get filtered by default in Google image search. But illegal copies of ebooks? They're just out in the open--it must be okay to download them."

The comments are filled with idiots who suggest selling sophisticated technical reference books – some of Flanagan’s are right at the state of the art – for $0.99 in order to circumvent piracy. Or give the books away, since pirates aren’t going to pay anyway.

John Gruber really liked Tapbot’s new Twitter client, Tweetbot.

Two favorite aspects. First, when you tap a tweet in your timeline, it gets selected and a bar of buttons to act on the tweet appears beneath it. Most Twitter clients, when you tap a tweet, present that tweet in a standalone view, sliding over to the right. With Tweetbot’s inline action bar, you can do something like replying or marking as a favorite and then immediately go back to scrolling the list of tweets — no need to tap a “Back” button.

Second — and this is the feature that’s proven the most addictive for me — is that you can slide left-to-right on any tweet to get a conversation thread of tweets.

Lots of people hated the program for its user interface innovation, which is exactly what caught Gruber’s attention. Gruber tries to reconcile these sentiments in an essay titled Magic.

All this interface polishing is shiny, but does it matter? I worry that we spend all our time minimizing taps and perfecting shiny shadows, and not nearly enough time making software do things tomorrow that we cannot manage to do today.

Apr 11 24 2011

Franchi Colors

Alistair, a Tinderbox Forum poster, created a nice Tinderbox color scheme based on the design palette of Francisco Franchi. I’m finding the color scheme handy.

Franchi Colors

Here is the color swatch file; just drop it into a Tinderbox map to add a slate of attractive, neutral tones.

The Boston Globe, the small-town newspaper that now inhabits the remains of a paper by the same name, runs a Sunday feature called Bibliophiles in which a notable Bostonian is interviewed about their reading. Boston was once the hub of the intellectual universe and is still home to lots of fascinating writers and teachers, and this could be a good idea. But to deliver a good idea, one has to try.

This week, Globe correspondent Amy Sutherland interviews Ana Sortun, who owns a couple of good restaurants. She wrote a cookbook. I’m sure she’s a nifty cook and that her five year old is cute as a button.

But she doesn’t read.

I don’t read a lot. I just don’t have time. And I can only read a few pages before I fall asleep. There are some nights especially after it’s been busy, when you’re over-tired and the adrenaline kicks in. Those are the nights when I get some reading in.

Think about it: you're a major newspaper, you've got a column about what people are reading, you can pick up the phone and talk to just about any professor, scientist, writer, artist, physician, or plumber in New England. We’ve got Brahmins who have been reading every important book since the Hemingways came to dinner that time – such charming little girls! – because what else can one talk about after Friday afternoon at the Symphony? We’ve got a tradition of self-taught intellectuals to rival any city in the world, with vibrant new communities from distant lands to pick up any slack from the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews.

Instead, the Globe sends Sutherland to talk to a cook who seems very nice, but who doesn't actually read very much. What she does read, for the most part, are well-known books about cooking and recent novels about cooks. Who would have guessed that a celebrity chef might read Blood, Bones & Butter ?

At a seder last week, I met a young man who was, I think, about five years old. He’d just had a meeting with Obama; Hilary was waiting outside but the President was busy. This town overflows with people who read and write interesting, obscure, delightful stuff. Some of them aren’t famous, but the book page isn’t for party pictures. It’s for readers.

For extra point: start at the home page. Now, find the masthead. Go ahead. I think that Nicole Lamy is still the Globe’s book editor, but this shouldn’t be a hard fact to check, even on Sunday afternoon.

Merlin Mann abandons his book. Maybe.

Brilliant post. Read it.

All I know is tonight's Friday. And, that's Daddy-Daughter Night.

And, my book agent says my editor (who is awesome) will probably cancel My Book Contract if I don't send her something that pleases her…today. Now. By tonight. Theoretically, I guess...uh...this.

See: my agent very helpfully suggested I send my editor a chapter full of "email stuff." My editor really likes "email stuff." And, it was theorized by my agent that sending this "email stuff" might please my book editor just enough that she might not cancel My Book Contract. For now.

Well. If you've made it this far, you, like my editor (who is awesome), will have realized that this is not a chapter of "email stuff."

It's a very long, wooly, histrionic, messy and uncomfortable story about hospital beds, piggy jammies, and styrofoam hats. I seriously doubt it will please my editor. Who is awesome.

So, no, I really hope she doesn't cancel My Book Contract. But, it does occur to me that said contract is the last and only thing my publisher has to intimidate me into doing things I don't want to do. Things I think will harm my book, my integrity, and my life.

Joe Essid revisits Michael Joyce’s wonderful hypertext, afternoon.

Have a look at Joyce's text, if you don't know it, and see how your reading experience morphs in the equivalent of Borges' Garden of Forking Paths. One enters not a story with good hypertext, but a world with many meanings. No two visitor/readers come away with exactly the same impression.

Steve Zeoli uses Tinderbox to manage manuscript reviews. “Why I Find Tinderbox Irreplaceable".

Each year, the Pulitzer Prize committee supposedly bestows an award for distinguished fiction that deals with American life. But to my mind, this year’s committee bestowed an award for distinguished hypertext that demonstrates why we must read fiction in the Internet age. – Anne Pycha

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad isn't really a hypertext, but I like the sentiment. Added to the stack.

For the first time since high school, I’ve been listening to Mendelssohn’s Elijah . Back then, my sense of the connection between music and the rest of history was faulty; Bach was very old – I imagined Gothic cathedrals for some reason – and Mendelssohn sounded a bit like Bach.

You never hear Elijah on the radio. In fact, you don’t hear it much at all, except for all its echoes in musicals and film scores. I wonder whether this is really deserved, and whether Mendelssohn’s reputation can be recovered even if it ought to be. Wagner and his crew attacked him because he was not Christian; this would be a forgotten footnote if the 20th century had gone otherwise but is now impossible to forget when thinking about Mendelssohn. Then Shaw and friends attacked him because he was not Modern. I’ve always heard that he was too happy to be truly great. But he could not really have been Modern, and ought he to have known what was coming?

Apr 11 14 2011


Listen to this air traffic control tape of a recent emergency in New Orleans.

A United Airbus A320 takes off, heading for San Francisco. Four minutes after takeoff, the pilot reports smoke in the cockpit.

7:11:35 UA 497: We need to vector back to the airport, we got a smoke issue with the airplane.

The controller doesn't miss a beat, even though those words just changed everything.

Turn right 030 (degrees) and maintain 4,000 (feet).

And just like that, the next four minutes are calm and collected. The pilot asks for the longest runway. There are all sorts of repair trucks all over that runway, so we start a second discussion with them. The pilot reports that the instruments are all out and he’s going to need landing instructions from the ground; he does this with perfect calm.

United turn left heading, 20 degrees left.

Just continue left turn. I'll tell you when to stop.

Incredibly impressive. (Thanks, James Fallows, who has returned from his book writing adventure. The roster of guest-bloggers covering his 10-week hiatus is fascinating; this might make a good magazine!)

It’s interesting to see the new Upstairs, Downstairs. The original series arose when actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins sat down in the late 1960’s to dramatize family stories of life in domestic service. The original series has not always aged well, but it was an early and fine example of the feminist impulse to write the history of people who had once been invisible.

Now we’re back at Eaton Place, not just for nostalgia and a profitable sequel, it seems, but to bridge the transition from that old Edwardian London and its newer, more colorful, and busier descendant. We end the pilot episode with Lady Holland and the new housekeeper sitting together on a park bench. “We have experience, you and I,” she tells Rose, who was once (in our youth) an inexperienced parlor maid. It’s a good moment, and I don’t think Lady Marjorie Bellamy would have been up to it a generation before.

by A. S. Byatt

Revisited after a dimly-remembered reading in 2001, these essays explore the uneasy relationship between history and historical fiction. The work that Byatt reads is not often work with which I am familiar, and on second reading I find that Byatt seldom invites us very urgently to ready them, though her discussion of Terry Pratchett – an unexpected visitor to this company – is lively indeed.

Byatt loves intricate and detailed stories, like her own wonderful Posession. Largely missing from this discussion are less ambitious tales set, for various reasons, in other times. There’s nothing here, for example, of Patrick O’Brian, who seems to be lumped with swashbucklers and thrillers, or of Sarah Waters.

All in all, this is the best discussion of the place of historical fiction today.

For the Hypertext 2011 workshop on narrative, I've been thinking again about coherence. How hard is it for a hypertext narrative to stick together and make sense?

Bottom line: I think it's far easier than most of my colleagues do. I hope to show why.

One other group that worries about narrative coherence are social storytellers. One kind of social storytelling is the collaborative, episodic novel or screenplay, especially those where different writers build the story in turn.

Another example, of course, is the writer’s favorite drinking game, spinning a story that extends and exceeds what his neighbor has just said. See Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys for many examples. It seems likely that the whole genre of vampire stories descends from one night of this, when Byron and the Shelleys had a good night of scaring each other in the Simplon Pass.

The development of role-playing games has inspired a number of new game-like entertainments that center on collaborative or social storytelling. These share some affinities with Dungeons and Dragons, but their focus is on creating good stories rather than on accumulating treasure or leveling up. In several, there’s no notion of “winning”, so perhaps these aren’t technically games. A number of narrativist games have been created by thoughtful and capable people who know a lot about narrative and its discontents, and others, less theoretically grounded, nevertheless seem to capture interesting ideas.

I’ve taken a brief look at a few of these games, and offer these notes as a starting point for interested colleagues. I have not studied these in detail, nor have I played them. Most are available in electronic form and can be downloaded for a modest charge.

My Life With Master

Paul Czege

Who you are: a tortured minion in the service of the great and terrible Master.

What you seek: to serve the master, to please the Beloved, whom you adore, and upon whom the Master has terrible designs.

In the end: you, or one of the other minions, will grow to hate themselves so much that they will rise up and slay the master, ending their miserable existence.

Notable for: understanding that the point is not where we’re going – we know that – but how we get there. Well written and thoughtful.

Little Fears

Jason L. Blair

Who you are: a kid, between 8 and 12 years old.

What you seek: survival, in a world filled with monsters that wish you harm and which grownups cannot see. You know – the monsters in the closet, under your bed…

In the end: with the aid of your magic teddy bear, maybe you’ll live ’til dawn. And perhaps you can save your friends.

Notable for: terrific writing and imagination. The second edition apparently repairs my chief complaint, an unnecessary second layer of opponents. Closetland is scary enough.

Doom and Cookies

Andrew Peregrine

Who you are: an orphan in a Victorian orphanage.

What you seek: doom (because it’s that kind of orphanage) and cookies.

In the end: terrible events happen, but pluck and courage might suffice.

Notable for: accessible and easy to start. Could be a nice scenario for Little Fears. Most of all, Peregrine understands how we need to complicate the story with “doom” and then more doom, but when the cookies are gone it’s time to find closure.

Misspent Youth

Robert Bohl

Who you are: a youthful offender, dedicated to resisting The Authority

What you seek: freedom, liberty, and a hell of a good time

In the end: you win some, you lose some, and you spray paint all the rest.

Notable for: dramatic arc with interesting reverses; wild typography.

Dogs In The Vineyard

D. Vincent Baker

Who you are: itinerant preachers and religious inquisitors in the American West, moving from town to town.

What you seek: to cast out sin, discord, and Satan.

In the end: not every soul can be saved. Your job is to save those you can, punish those you cannot, and move on to the next town.

Notable for: mechanics that reward dramatic escalation, and that generate stories with perplexing moral dimensions. Violence is possible, but seldom desirable. Extraordinarily fine and original world-building.

Grey Ranks

Jason Morningstar

Who you are: teenage Polish partisans during and after the 1944 Warsaw uprising

What you seek: it doesn't matter; this won't end well. But perhaps in the remaining time you can do some good, or find some moment of love or heroism.

In the end: martyrdom, nervous breakdown, depression, or derangement.

Notable for: problematizing everything. Mechanics feature a host of superb prompts that inspire and constrain scenes while retaining scope for new stories; these range from “Edmund Telakowski, dashing partisan and liar” to “lacy undergarments.” The emphasis on teen sexuality is likely to be awkward in a role-playing game but could work in storytelling.


Ryo Kamiya

Who you are: a maid in a Japanese cartoon

What you seek: to please your master, avoid punishment, perhaps to find fulfillment, and to get through the day without being dismissed

In the end: all sorts of insane, unexpected, and bizarre things keep happening, ranging from visiting TV crews to cursed dolls to costume malfunctions. Somehow, things work out.

Notable for: vast and zany tables of arbitrary events that complicate everything, from lecherous colleagues to runaway trains.


Robin D. Laws

Who you are: a caveman.

What you seek: dinner would be good. Not being dinner would be good, too.

In the end: find stuff. do things. hit them on head. learn stuff.

Notable for: instead of skills and spells, players have words. Not many. “You, me, sleep, cave, go, rock, water, bang” – words like that. Scientists have thus far discovered seventeen words. The GM can say anything, but players can only use their words. “When in doubt, say your few words louder. That always helps.”

Stalin’s Story

Victor Gijsbers

Who you are: a minister or close companion of Joseph Stalin, 1928.

What you seek: Stalin is unhappy. He wants to hear a story. A good story. Please him. And, above all, say nothing about the food crisis.

In the end: many companions will be purged, exiled, shot, or will simply vanish. Perhaps you can arrange for Stalin to be displeased by someone else? Yes, that would be a plan.

Notable for: interesting card-based narrative mechanics, reminiscent of Card Shark and Auld Leakey.


Jason Morningstar

Who you are: a character. Quite a character, in fact.

What you seek: your friends will tell you when it’s time for you to know.

In the end: hilarity will ensue.

Notable for: complete focus on building and propelling narrative arc, without a game master and without pre-defining the plot or destination. Caper stories from Fargo to Band of Outsiders .

I’m working on my position paper for the Hypertext 2011 workshop on narrative and hypertext. My current plan should set the cat amongst the pigeons. We’ll see.

You should, too.

Position papers are due April 12; the workshop is in early June in Eindhoven, near Amsterdam.

Wil Shipley asks whether software should be mining or farming.

I think software doesn’t come from farms. It comes from workshops; it doesn't grow on trees. But he’s absolutely right about the miners.

Apr 11 5 2011


I’m working on a talk I’ll be giving later this year, reporting on some simulation work I’ve been doing in order to explore some important questions about the Web. For example: “Why are there still so many Web sites?” Lots of people expected that nearly all Web traffic would wind up going to a small number of important sites. That hasn’t happened so far. Why not? What keeps the Web big?

I’m building a bunch of simulations to explore some simple models of the future Web and their consequences. It occurs to me that I could actually embed the models in Web pages, so the slides for the talk would be running the simulations presented in the talk – not videos or recordings, but live data.

Does anyone have much experience of presenting from a fairly fancy, one-off Javascript presentation system? Advice?