by Michael Pollan

The long opening salvo of Pollan’s manifesto argues against nutritionism, the belief that the key to a good diet is simply to eat those compounds that are essential and to avoid those that are toxic. The argument is not completely unsound: for decades, we have been urged to eat some things and to fly from others on the basis of incomplete and contradictory evidence, and there’s good reason to think that there’s something unhealthy about the typical American diet. Pollan is a graceful writer as well, and so this section is written with surprising grace and ease.

But graceful and fluid pseudoscience is still pseudoscience, and at its core this argument retreats all the way back to premodern vitalism: there is some mystical wholeness about, well, whole foods that completes us, and if only we would give our twinkies and eat real food then we would be whole ourselves. Nutritionism is right; in the long run, foods are chemicals — stuff — and someday we’re going to understand what’s in it and what we really should eat.

We could stand to lose some weight, yes, and some of those chemical additives might come back to haunt us. But let’s be real: we’re usually talking about barely-perceptible statistical effects that, for any individual, are likely swamped by many other factors. Yes, that barbecued brisket has some carcinogenic nitrosoamines and saturated fats and cholesterol, and none of these are good for you. But if you’ve got an appointment to keep at midnight in some flaming town, or

On some scarred slope of battered hill
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear

then what’s the harm in having a nice sandwich?

The distinction Pollan makes between food and foodlike is handy. Pain perdu, made from brioche baked that morning and dressed with a reduction of fresh berries and cream, is food. Sara Lee is foodlike. Pollan thinks foodlike is Bad; I think it's just a little less trustworthy.

The concluding chapters avoid science and mysticism and launch into speculative prescription, and here Pollan’s insight and good sense win the day. He urges us to

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

and analyzes the implications of this sensible advice. Important, too, is Pollan’s recognition of how nutritionism has tangled our relationship with food, leading us to look at our food as a mixture of medicines that are Good For Us and toxins that Are Not. The implications of this failure are serious and seldom discussed. When Americans see a picture of chocolate cake, they think of guilt. The French think of celebration. This is the new American tragedy. And when eating is a necessary shame, we do it hastily and joylessly and alone. Eating together, and liking it, is more important that replacing butter with olive oil or buying free-range eggs.

After a vexing layover in Paris — much too long to spend in CDG, and much too short to venture into the city, accompanied by too much jet lag and unaccompanied by certain luggage tags and boarding passes that went astray — we arrived in Amarante. So did our excessive baggage, the bags my Swedish cousin-in-laws call “American”. So, naturally, we settled in for a wonderful meal.

For amusement, we have three spoons apiece: a taste of foie gras, a taste of tuna, and other spoon I didn't quite parse. All intricate, all tasty. And then some bass carpaccio, also refreshing. I had a small plate of lightly-smoked fresh sardines, and a wonderful rack of lamb crusted with nuts and olive. And then we had a delightful plate of cheeses, all mild but distinct, rich, and flavorful.

Lunch was Don Rodrigo’s fine smoked ham, some lovely sandwiches with cheese cut from rounds of local cheese, and vinho verde.

In between, we wandered through streets, roads, byways, and archeological detours. It’s remarkably easy to get sidetracked, charging up the airy mountain and down the rushy glen, pursuing tempting signs for archeological sites that may, or may not, have materialized. Navigation is hard, though the Navigation Problem is not.

Amarante: Casa da Calçada
Road signs directed us to archeological sites, but we found vistas instead. Photo: Linda J. Thorsen
Sep 08 2 2008

To Portugal

I'm off to Portugal! I'm planning to spend a few days in the Douro Valley, seeing antiquities and tasting everything in sight, and then on to WikiSym and WikiWalk.

I'm hoping for updates here along the way. But connectivity might be spotty; if you have urgent Tinderbox questions, you might try the Wiki or the Forum.

Tinderbox 4.5.1

We've just finished a tuneup release of Tinderbox 4.5, addressing a few rough edges. Nothing earthshaking, but it's recommended for everyone.

There's also a lot of interesting discussion over on the Tinderbox Forum. One of the weaknesses of threaded discussions is very much on view there, too: it seems that one thread wanders off-topic into talking about the terrific new in-place editing in outlines, while an adjacent thread wanders off-topic into worries that the in-place editing actually interferes with things people want to do. (Fortunately, there's a preference setting: everyone can be happy!) It's a good lesson to keep in mind, though: the consensus on a threaded discussion is not necessarily a consensus at all. (This partly explains why VersionTracker and MacUpdate are so often so wrong.)

Jim Coyer discusses an the distinction between formatting information nicely and actual capture and analysis, using Tinderbox agents and my humble Roger Ebert notes as a fulcrum.

Coming back to it after a few months of trying to use ‘standard tools’, I see immediately what I’ve been missing. I’ve been spending 80% of my time doing the formatting and 20% getting the ideas down. Tinderbox inverts this; I spend 80% on the ideas and 20% on arranging and organizing them.

Another nice note on Tinderbox from Greg Askew:

I probably only use 10% of Tinderbox, yet even that sliver of the product has given me the mental focus and agility to work through so many aspects of my life - large events like moving house, to small activities like baking a decent loaf of bread.

Software designers — especially those whose starting point is UI/User Experience — often argue that the user's needs are mostly simple. It’s just not true.

There's a lot of interesting commentary on Tinderbox 4.5. Some great quotes are at Tinderbox News.

But don’t miss Michael Bywater’s rollicking appreciation of Tinderbox 4.5, which Gordon Meyer (on Twitter) called “as good as it gets for describing the product.”

Update: Jack Baty twitters:

Tinderbox 4.5's TableExpression and the Plot() pattern are just awesome. Change my DaylogContainer prototype once and Poof! every day now shows a nice grid of notes, hours, issue, etc. I just giggled a little.

Everything looks better in Tinderbox 4.5.0, which is available right now.

Tinderbox 4.5: look better, learn more

New shapes, sparklines, drop shadows, multi-line outlines — it might all seem like eye-candy, dross to impress bored managers. But it's not. All the new graphic features are tied to showing you more of your data, and helping you to see connections you might otherwise miss.

Tinderbox has crossed a wonderful new tipping point of power and usability. — Russ Lipton

Tinderbox 4.5 will you new ways to look at your agents and containers.

First, you can scroll inside a container. It’s easy: you just drag the background of the interior, and drag it where you like. Of course, you can zoom in whenever you want.

Second, the title bar itself is now draggable. You can even pull down a text excerpt, or have your agent or container build a summary table to your order. (Here, I've got a list of early modern architects; the table is sorted alphabetically and computers how old they’d have been at the World’s Fair of 1893.

When planning a Web site, when is it best to use first person? When do you choose third person? Under what circumstances is it wise to directly address the reader?

I’m surprised these questions are not more widely discussed. A naive rule against direct address, for example, can easily lead to business-speak boilerplate

Notional Technologies offers world-class tax-abatement solutions and state-of-the-art consulting services to leading enterprises in aerospace, finance, and manufacturing sectors.

while direct address can lack dignity.

Got a tax problem? If it’s a really big problem, Notional Technolgies can solve it.

In a corporate blog, the trade-off between first-person singular and plural can be tricky. Plural can be pretentious, even preposterous if the writer claims to be speaking for hundreds or thousands of colleagues.

All of the 15,000 contractors working for Notional Technologies wish you a very warm and happy summer!

But singular is pretentious, too; even if you’re the CEO (or her ghost writer), it’s not all about you.

As president of Notional Air, I want to make our new night service to Poughkeepsie the most comfortable flight in the world, with cheerful crew and sparkling cabins.

I'm surprised this issue isn’t discussed more often.

by Laurell K. Hamilton

Third in Laurell Hamilton’s series of tales about Meredith Gentry, a sexy young lady from Los Angeles who happens to be a Faerie-American Princess. These books are silly — Linda calls them Faery Porn — but Hamilton has a fascinating mythos. Meredith spends a lot of time in bed with various preternaturally handsome demi-deities and supernatural forces, but underneath it all lies a world in which Thomas Jefferson signed a treaty that took in the wretched refuse of European faerie, vanquished in the first Great War, and gave them refuge near St. Louis where they now live in reduced circumstances. Less serious than American Gods, but if you can get past the (rather good if frighteningly plentiful) sex, the series is much worth reading.

Coming Attractions: Agent Updates

For the first time in years, I'm writing today’s weblog posts with Tinderbox’s automatic agent updates turned on. This is surprising, because this weblog document is large (6500 notes, 2000 aliases, 11,000 links ) and has nearly fifty agents. Many of those agents are searching for the entire document (about half a million words) in order to automatically assign topics or to flag posts that aren’t well linked. Others do tricky selection and formatting. (The main page, for example, is an agent.)

We’re experimenting with a new approach to agent updates. Where Tinderbox has always updated all its agents at one time, the new agent manager splits the work into many small pieces, and does each piece when time allows. It’s still not perfect; occasionally, the agent manager will bite off more than it can chew and I'll see a small delay while I'm typing. (This is on the Macbook Air, a comparatively slow machine.)

So there may still be some tuning to be done, but it’s a big improvement. And if it’s tolerable for this Tinderbox document, it’s likely to be better for yours.

by Theodore Dreiser

This perplexing and frustrating novel had great impact, exerting tremendous influence in literature and in politics. It is also a textbook example of what Gardner called frigid writing: Dreiser thinks his characters weak and unintelligent, and he doesn’t hesitate to share that opinion with the reader. Indeed, Dreiser sometimes emphasizes the characters’ shallowness by juxtaposing their very simple, realistic dialogue with overwritten exposition.

First published in 1900 (although Frank Doubleday, when he found his house had accepted the novel, tried to back out and then buried the first printing), Sister Carrie labors under impossible constraints. Carrie, after all, is a very young and very pretty country girl who goes to the city, meets a fellow on a train, and within a few months is living in rooms for which the fellow is paying and wearing clothes he bought her. She’s introduced to acquaintances as his wife. There must be a romance here, but Dreiser can’t write about it; they must be sleeping together, but Dreiser cannot say so, and if he has the skill to hint, I can’t pick up the clues. But this is crucial: in the fact of Carrie’s choices, in her candid interest in material things and disinterest in the romantic trappings of sex, lie the American fascination with white slavery that was about to burst on the scene. Of course, the same mixture also gives us the flappers a decade later, and the final consensus (crackpots of the Republican Party accepted) that women do and should control their bodies to use as they think best.

And yet, there is something here that is excellent and true. Carrie’s story, a country girl struggling to find prosperity in the city, is familiar enough, but her lover Hurstwood is finely drawn, a prosperous Chicago manager who makes a big mistake and can never manage to recover. He’s a real man in a real job in a real industry, and we learn enough about his world to understand his disaster — and to see how his world is not ours, and also why it is.

Aug 08 20 2008


The day after WikiSym — Thursday, September 11 —we’re going for a WikiWalk in Porto. You can come too.

The WikiWalk is open to the public; you don't have to be attending WikiSym, though we hope you will. It’s an opportunity to meet and talk with some of the world’s top Wiki and social media people.

We’ll meet at 9, and stroll through the streets of Porto and discuss all things Wiki. Along the way, we’ll meet some of Porto’s new media and literary leaders. We’ll see the world’s third-best bookstore. We’ll visit one of Porto’s leading newspapers. We’ll have a chance to talk about information architecture in a wonderful Rem Koolhaas building and an 18th century tower. We’ll eat.

We have space for lots — but not infinite space. If you want to sign up, or want information, you can Email me. Or contact organizer Prof. Gabriel David at the University of Porto.

Jill’s new book on Blogging is here. Can’t wait to read it. But I may have to wait: there’s a mountain of code that needs shoveling, a good deal of urgent writing that needs to be written, one or perhaps two talks that need to be composed.

Merlin Mann asks, “What makes a good blog?" His nine tips, for the most part, are compatible with my ten, and its interesting to see that the Ten Tips have held up so well. It’s also interesting, though, to notice that Merlin expects that his ideal reader is a professional, or at least a serious, writer. For example, Merlin assumes that the blogger is likely to face a word count mandated by a site owner. It’s an interesting shift

  • Margaritas
  • Yellow tomato gazpacho
  • Mousseline of crab and scallops with roasted yellow pepper aïoli
  • Homemade peach ice
  • Peach and mustard braised pork
    • sauteed yellow squash and corm
    • fried green tomatoes
  • Salad
  • Raspberry gratin

The peach and mustard-braised pork was another attempt to scale the heights of Avec, and didn’t quite get there. How do people serve a braise, anyway? It looked terrific coming out the the Le Creuset, it was really falling-apart tender, and when I sliced it, it fell apart. Tasted fine, though the mustard and the peaches both got a bit lost.

I try fried green tomatoes every year or two. Idgy’s are still better. This time, I salted the cornmeal heavily, and added some red pepper flakes, and they were almost sufficiently seasoned. Not quite.

The raspberry gratin (basically pastry cream and raspberries, run under the broiler at the last minute) was dandy

Jolyon Patten, a London solicitor who specializes in complex commercial issues, writes today about a fascinating kind of Tinderbox analysis. Here's his problem:

I’ve had a thorny problem to deal with today, involving a case in the Philippines, where I had two strands of information: the first was what a party had said (over time) had happened; the second was what had actually happened, as ex post facto discerned from various sources.

As you can imagine, this sort of analysis can quickly turn hair-raising; you need to keep track of what happened, what people thought had happened, what people pretended had happened, and what people could reasonable have believed at different times. This is hard — contrast the wonderful concept demo from Adaptive Path that posits a “business problem” of reacting to a competitor who has called to taunt you about the impact that the weather may have on your profits — and it’s absolutely the sort of problem that people need to solve.

Patten explains that he

…turned to Tinderbox and quickly scratched together a document that allowed me, in map view, to use long, thin adornments to set out the relevant years, with different coloured notes for Real Facts and for Alleged Facts above and below the adornment ‘timeline’. Facts and Representations had different prototypes, with subtle colour differences, and it was easy to add fields as and when needed.

We've got a bunch of new visualization features coming in Tinderbox 4.5, which isn’t quite ready yet. They’re shiny, they look nice, but that’s not the point. The point is that visualization can help you see things you’d otherwise miss, and to discover patterns in data that would otherwise give you a headache.

A promising discussion of Tinderbox in Medicine is under way at the Tinderbox Forum.

Possibly of interest to the topic, the experimental sparkline plots in Tinderbox might be useful. Know of other mini-visualizations that might be effective for presenting data in a small space? Email me.

Save the date: November 22-23, Hotel Rex, Union Square, San Francisco.

by Dashiell Hammett

I grabbed these short stories, on the reading stack for decades, because in some respects they must more closely reflect Hammett’s experience as a Pinkerton. A brilliant writer, Hammett had a fondness for plotting complex and brilliant novels; the short stories don’t offer scope for the plotting and so give us the experience of the young detective in California, straight up. The standout here is “The Farewell Murder”, which does a lovely early turn on the echoes of The Great War in the unimaginably remote lands on California farm country.

I’m pretty sure I read “The Girl With Silver Eyes” in scifi drag somewhere, but I can't quite place it.

Aug 08 9 2008


I'm working on some very tricky new Tinderbox code. Lots of very long days, and quite a few very long nights. Not much posting. Shouldn't go on too much longer.

Jeff Abbott, author of Panic and Fear, has just finished a book tour for Collision and is writing about questions he was asked. Today, he talks about Tinderbox and how he uses it to outline his best-selling tales.

You can attach detailed notes to your outline entries. You can put related groups of entries into visual boxes called containers. I create containers for backstory, Act One, Act Two, and so on, which is an incredibly powerful and flexible way to organize my notes and structure my story. I can also have notes appear in one than more place: so I can have a note about the scene where the hero meets his true love in the main book outline, and then make that same note reappear in a subplot outline called "love affair".

What I Planned

Michael Ruhlman’s original Skills Instructor from his wonderful book, Making of a Chef, came to visit recently, and naturally Ruhlman blogs the meal, beginning with a photograph of the prep sheet. They made lots of intensely great and difficult things. I'm hoping to take it relatively easy for this week’s dinner, and getting some of the work done in advance might help too.

I'm trying to work out what to make, based mostly on what the Farm School sent us this week. And even they don’t always know where the ball is going to go: apparently, they really liked the Italian radicchio they meant to send us this week, but so did the local deer. And so, no radicchio for us. What we do have is summer squash, and since I've already been ratatouilled out for the week, a vegetable terrine seems in order.

So the plan is

  • tomatoes, basil, balsamic
  • fussy little plates of different duck nibbles (to be figured out)
  • slices of vegetable terrine
  • grilled swordfish, lentils
  • bleu cheese and dates
  • something with berries

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

What actually happened

The tomatoes, brought by a guest, were great. The day was hot, the tomatoes were cool, the porch had a breeze.,

The duck, a play on using the entire bird, was a hit.

  • I browned the duck legs and then braised them in stock, red wine, and a half-dozen apricots (sliced in half). This worked nicely. I strained the sauce, reduced it a little, and dedided that it was already tasting a little intense; instead of further reduction, I thickened it a bit with arrowroot.
  • I brined the breasts overnight (salt, brown sugar, garlic), and then smoked them in the stovetop smoker over pecan dust. All told, I smoked them about 3½ hours. They were dark mahagony. I sliced one and gave everyone two cold slices, which were spicy and very tasty, and I have lunch next week!
  • I woke up feeling ambitious, and having more turducken stock from last week than I knew how to use. So I made a duck consommé. Not very on-topic for "taking it easy,” but this is turning into a Ruhlman dinner. And it’s an excuse for My Very First Consommé. It seemed like it took the raft forever to form. But it did work, it was clear. I'm not entirely sure that it's work the fuss, but it looks nice.

The grilled vegetable terrine looked nice, stood up to slicing (phew!), and tasted fine. Ruhlman’s Basic Cream #2 was tasty; next time, I might thicken the cream a bit more.

I did the swordfish in skewers, with lentils (substituting some smoked leftover scraps of smoky lamb for the ham), sauced with Pasquale’s cilantro cumin crema and Sally Schneider’s balsamic red peppers.

I stuffed the fresh figs with little dollops of St. Augur, a creamy bleu, and grilled them ever-so-slightly, really just enough to heat them. Very tasy.

Dessert was going to be ice cream and Inside of a Blueberry Pie, but the ice cream didn’t happen. But we had some ripe peaches, which I roasted (with a little sugar, a but of lime juice, a bit of butter) in a very slow over for about 2 ½ hours. Many scraping spoons were heard.