Mar 08 5 2008

On Boredom

Ben Vershbow at IF:Book launched a trumpet blast at Jeremy Ashkenas's Hypertopia, a web app for writing hypertext fiction, on the grounds that hypertext fiction is boring. I don't think they're serious: I think it's just a marketing ploy, a pose meant to discourage any investors Ashkenas might have or to try to convince him to drop out of their market space and go play games or something. Just business, in other words.

The US Treasury Department shut down a British travel agency's Web site, even though the agency had broken no law. It required no court order, nor trial, nor any other pretense of due process; just a letter from an unelected official.

New York Times: "A wave of the watch list, and speech disappears."

Mar 08 4 2008


Quick pointer: the pdf of my BlogTalk slides is here. It's huge (40M) and a better version will be available presently. But, if you need it right away, here it is!

Mar 08 1 2008

To Cork

I'm off to Cork for BlogTalk, where I'm planning to talk about NeoVictorian, Nobitic, and Narrative weblogs.

In my earlier Big Setpieces on weblogs, I looked at ways we could nurture the blogosphere and ensure the prosperity of the long tail. The way things played out, the blogosphere took decent care of itself, and the long tail was sold out, and then sold off as scrap to a couple of “social networking” sites.

This time, I'm sticking to description: what do weblogs want? In particular, what are the ideas that underpin blogging? Our era is understandably allergic to manifestoes, but weblogs do have Big Ideas, even while people pretend that they're silly little personal pages, generally incapable of serious thought and good, mostly, ads a parking space for millions of cheap ads.

A little bonus tension: I seem to have lost my voice, and my alarm clock. Stay tuned.

Feb 08 28 2008

Tinderbox 4.2

Tinderbox 4.2

Tinderbox 4.2 is out. Some actions and rules should be a little faster. Lots of nice little improvements.

The big one is that you can now write your export templates inside Tinderbox. This makes it much easier to create new export formats. That's usually the province of Web export — the page you're reading, for example, was assembled from a bunch of Tinderbox notes.

But it's also handy in the workaday world. For example, I've been inviting people to the WikiSym program committee. Naturally, the conference chair wants an updated list of who's on the committee; that's easy to export. But he'd also like a list he can plug right into the wiki: it is a Wiki conference, after all! That export template is easy, too. The wiki wants each name on its own line, like this:

* Mark Bernstein, Eastgate (USA)

So. I made a note, told Tinderbox that it was to be a template, and wrote out the template:

* ^value($Name), ^value($Organization) (^value($Country))

A few days later, we realized we'll need to be able to email the committee:

"^value($Name)" <^value($Email)>

Now, this could be cleaner if we knew you'd want to do this. But I didn't know I'd need to export to a wiki until my conference boss said, "It would save a lot of time if only...". Setting it up took about a minute.

I just got email this morning from a user who had moved one project to a dedicated product that specializes in that one task. That was lovely for a while. But, when something came up and she needed a new feature or format, she was stuck; in Tinderbox, she can just sit down and get it done.

Feb 08 25 2008

Game Criticism

Greg Costikiyan believes we need better criticiism of computer games, and delivers an instructive sermon on the difference between reviews and criticism.

Earlier, John Gruber pointed to this useful refutation of a critique of the MacBook Air because it has too many internal screws. You see this all the time in tech reviews in newspapers and business magazines: the reviewer will pontificate that the product in question is bound to be hurt because some particular feature they want was omitted. The iPhone will fail because it doesn't have Exchange integration. The Air will fail because it doesn't have a swappable battery. The iMac will be the ruin of Apple because it doesn't have a floppy disk. You know the drill.

It's easy to convince yourself that you could do it better, especially if you don't understand the technical and business constraints that underpin the design.

by Gregory Maguire

An infant tooth-fairy, orphaned or abandoned, hatches from its egg beside a stream, stretches his tiny limbs, and runs straight into wayward birds, a pet cat named McCavity, a boy, and a tiger. Later, he runs into a girl tooth-fairy and encounters the rest of tooth-fairy society. Meanwhile, out in the world, he's a night-time fantasy told to three home-schooled kids whose parents have been called out on an emergency that might be The Cat In The Hat but might, for all we know, the Judgment Day.

Charles Deemer is blogging preparation for a hyperdrama play he's planning to film for Hypertext '08.

Found via Susan Gibbs' ongoing exploration of the process of Storyspace, in this case "Storyspace: Watching A Master At Work".

Tinderbox 4.1 introduces a very interesting new attribute that lets you control what you see when Tinderbox displays a note. It's called the DisplayExpression.

All Tinderbox notes have a Name. The name has two uses:

  • It's displayed in outlines and maps and other views, so you can see what the note is about.
  • If an agent, action, or rule needs to refer to some other note, it can use that note's name.

Sometimes, though, you'd like to change what you see in views. DisplayExpression lets you display more than the Name in views, but leaves the note's name unchanged.

For example, right now I'm setting up a program committee for WikiSym. This is the sort of task lots of researchers need to undertake from time to time. First, I need to imagine who I might like to have on the committee. I make a prototype for Person and a container of possible candidates:

  • prototypes
    • Person (Key attributes: email, organization, country, invited,accepted)
  • candidates (sets Prototype=Person; sorts by last name)
    • M. Brillouin
    • H. Lorentz
    • W. Nernst
    • E. Solvay

So, I can just jot down names as fast as I can think of them. Each new note is automatically assigned a prototype, and the notes all stay nicely sorted.

But how many people are in the list? I can always check the ChildCount of the container, but I'd like to be able to see this at a glance. So, I add a DisplayExpression to the prototype Person:

$SiblingOrder: $Name

So my list now looks like like this:

1: M. Brillouin

2: H. Lorentz

3: W. Nernst

4: E. Solvay

Doug Miller invented a way to do this in earlier versions of Tinderbox, but his technique meant changing the Name of the note. That can be inconvenient if you need to refer to a note in an agent or an action; the new technique is cleaner and simpler.

by Erik Larson

In this very interesting approach to historical writing, Larson carefully weaves together the story of planning the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago with the discovery of one of the first serial murderers to come to light. The books is structured like a braided novel, but remains a work of history; feelings are sometimes attributed to individuals, to be sure, but all the dialogue is authentic.

Larson recognizes that architects and designers are especially useful link targets, because so many lives impinge on their work. Around the characters of fair architect Daniel Burnham and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead, Larson can fluently link the lives of people who worked on the fair, visited it, talked about, schemed in its shadows, or remembered it later.

Jason Kottke and Scott Rosenberg each mention NeoVictorian Computing.

Several people have emailed me to ask, "what programs do you mean, specifically?" This is a tricky question, of course, because software (like other works of art) carries with it a complex of circumstances and associations. Worse, there's no software canon, no body of work with which we can assume most people are familiar.

One hint, though: famous software that is intensely associated with its specific creator often (not always) has a strong NeoVictorian flavor. Reviewing the bidding, by "NeoVictorian" I mean systems that are:

  • Built for people
  • Built by people
  • Crafted in workshops
  • Irregular
  • Inspired

If we ask, "what inspired systems were clearly built by individual people in small workshops”, some things that leap to mind are aspects of Stallman's EMACS, Iverson’s APL, Atkinson’s MacPaint, Marshall's VIKI, Engelbart's Augment, Berners-Lee's World Wide Web, Kapor's Agenda, Bricklin’s VisiCalc, Cunningham's Wiki, Herzfeld and Horn’s Finder, Crowther and Woods' Adventure. (I'm sticking to software that's ten or twenty years old, in part because I don't want to get into fights. The list is just a start. Your mileage may vary. Ideas matter: emacs vs. vi doesn't.)

by Rick Atkinson

A fine treatment of the Italian campaign, 1943-1944. I find this a less interesting book than Atkinson's previous volume, Army At Dawn, because the first book undertook a unique project: how did a brand-new American army coalesce in its first real experience of war? Here, we follow the same army but the project is different, much as the project in Sicily and Italy was different.

The Allies had an army in Africa; they had no way to bring them all back to England for the invasion, and even if they were in England, there weren't enough landing craft to carry them to France. That they had to find employment seems a preposterous justification for a terrible campaign, but it is not clear that the US and Britain could reasonably have sat on their hands for a year while Russia carried all the weight.

Something is very screwy in Microsoft ad land, or my ear for language has gone entirely. Here's a snippet from the "Meet The Fource" page, which casts Microsoft products as cute action heroes.

Windows Vista Sensei comes from a long family line of warriors, the ” Windows” family.

He is highly thought of as one of the most powerful warriors alive. Although he is still young, Windows Vista Sensei is said to possess different strengths and confidence not known to anyone.

"He is highly though of as one of the most powerful warriors alive." How many things are wrong with this sentence? And if he possesses strengths and confidence unknown to anyone, how does he come to have them?

Of "Office Master," we learn that

He is a legend in his own time. just the mention of his name will certainly follow with tales of heroism. His wisdom and skills of collaboration are highly sought after.

The first sentence begins with a cliché, splices with a period when a comma is required, and then hilarity ensues as we picture a mention that follows someone or something (like a terrier?) while bearing tales. And then we have a dangling participle.

It doesn't get better. MSDN Webcast Guy once "had a few gigs as a stunt man on movies in Hollywood." (emphasis mine) Webcast Guy is also makes a big deal of knowing COBOL ("Do you know COBOL?" he asks. "Didn't think so.") What's that about?

Cute idea, but crazy execution. Best of all, these are fictitious characters in an advertisement, but they're constantly described with weasel phrases. They aren't the best, they are considered to be or thought of as one of the best. And the whole affair is a field day for racial and gender slights; if I were a giant corporation with a huge technical staff on the US West Coast and a vast R&D effort in China, I would not go there with forty superheroes, much less the fource. (And, in a downtrending economy, do skilled developers want to be epitomized as cute and funny kids?)

Does anyone at Microsoft copy edit their own ads?

Feb 08 19 2008

Stalin's Story

Via Play This Thing, Victor Gijsbers' Stalin's Story — a fascinating little sculptural hyperdrama.

Joel Spolsky, who used to work on Excel, answers the oft-asked question, "Why Are Microsoft Office File Formats So Complicated?" Why do they need a 394 page pdf to explain the file format — and, even then, leave the spec filled with obscurity:

The Excel file format specification is remarkably obscure about this. It just says that the 1904 record indicates “if the 1904 date system is used.” Ah. A classic piece of useless specification. If you were a developer working with the Excel file format, and you found this in the file format specification, you might be justified in concluding that Microsoft is hiding something.

The crucial point, though, is that user interfaces are terrifically complex, and file formats tend to document every facet of the user interface and every facet of previous versions. If you have a workaround for a bug (as Excel worked around a leap year bug in Lotus 1-2-3), that bug workaround lives forever.

There's a Storyspace preference for Deena's Default Bug, implemented to support one document, by one author, a decade ago. It’s still there. It will be reimplemented forever. Software is like that.

If you're American and you write a date as "1/20", you probably mean "January 20". Which one? This one — not January 20, 1943, even though that was a perfectly nice day (unless you were somewhere near Voronesh or planning the North Africa landings, anyway). But if you write 1/43, you probably mean "January, 1943." It's nice to have software that behaves sensibly with you do this, but each of these cases adds complexity, and adds even more edge cases.

We're experimenting with a new Tinderbox feature that lets you bake your export templates into your Tinderbox document, instead of carrying them along in a separate folder.

When we originally designed Tinderbox, we assumed that most people would create templates in visual design programs like Dreamweaver or iWeb. That can be done, but I seldom see it. Instead, people either borrow templates from someone else (or from Flint) and modify them, or they just write them. If you don't need access to all your templates from an external editor, building the templates inside Tinderbox might be more convenient.

This weblog is an interesting test case, since it's designed to be too elaborate. The home page is made up from about 35 notes — Tinderbox counted these for me just now — and right now I seem to be using about 36 templates, written at various times from 2001 onward. This is much more elaborate than sensible people are likely to require. So, it we can render this weblog satisfactorily, we can probably call it an acceptance test.

Conversely, I'd like to know about things that are newly broken! Email me.

There's a lot of talk about how nobody reads anymore, about how Kids Today have no attention span, or how fewer adults read books than at any time in modern history.

These judgments are hard to make, if you care more about the facts than you care about scoring points. Sure, kids today are worse than you were when you were a kid; that's a given. But what about history?

Do fewer adults read books today than they did in other modern times? Take 18th century England. Did people read more, back then? A bunch of people read the Bible, and Pilgrim's Progress. A bunch of Londoners read more than that. But how much reading was the habit of crofters in the Highlands, or cottagers in forgotten towns of Ireland, or sailors? Some did — we have letters, we have diaries, we have bequests — but I think we don't know how many did not.

Even simpler questions about the very recent past are tricky. Are baseball players better today than they were in, say, the 1950's? People have studied this intensely, and people should be able to know: plenty of people who watched Barry Bonds also watched Mickey Mantle. Nolan Ryan pitched to both of them (Mantle in Spring training). Even among expert contemporary witnesses, it can be hard to reach a consensus. (For me, the clinching argument is Mays' catch of Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. Contemporaries thought this was amazing, the greatest fielding feat they'd ever seen, the catch of the century. Today, it's just a fine play.)

I don't like leftovers, as a rule.

But I've learned to collect useful components in the kitchen, ready for use. Stuff like stock, and demi-glace, so I can whip up sauces.

And yesterday for lunch I had a sandwich of cold asparagus frittata and smoked turkey on home-made focaccia. It was very nearly a free lunch: the asparagus was heading south, Linda and I had both purchased eggs at the grocery and so we had far too many, the focaccia is little more than flour, yeast, and a bit of olive oil.

There's no need to legalize torture to forestall the ticking time bomb scenario.

We have understood for a century and a half that there may be times when you cannot obey the law. If someone is going to blow up Los Angeles and you can stop them, but only by breaking the rules: well, break the rules. And accept that there might be consequences for breaking the law. You might be convicted. You might go to jail. But you'd go to jail knowing that you saved Los Angeles, which is probably a better thing than lounging about in Philadelphia with the knowledge that you could have saved Los Angeles, but didn't.

In practice, judges and juries are understanding. But actions have consequences; adults understand and accept that. This government, unfortunately, doesn't.

The Hypertext Writers' Workshop is back! It's slated for Hypertext '08 in Pittsburgh, June 20-21.

Position papers are due March 21.

Speaking of which: you still have a week to go before the deadline for Hypertext '08. That's plenty of time for a short paper. It's going to be great.

Feb 08 10 2008

XML People

Tim Bray's XML People offers a wonderful look at how XML was made. Meetings in corridors, conversations in restaurants, long chats in hotel lobbies beset with lobbyists.

Feb 08 7 2008


I have a variety of ways to measure this weblog's readers; over at Eastgate and TEKKA, measuring readership is an important part of daily business, and it's easy to extend some of the tools to cover these notes as well.

Recently, it seems to me that we've acquired an additional 200 readers/day, for reasons that are not at all clear. It's not yet clear, either, whether these are mostly one-time visitors or whether they're new regulars. Either way, it's not a big deal, but it's not lost in the statistical noise.

So, hi!

But which would be nicer: 200 daily readers, or 1400 visitors who drop by once a week? Or 70,000 readers a year who drop by once, grab whatever they are looking for, and leave? I don't know. Do you? Which would be preferable?

The Air is light, thin, snappy. The keyboard is fine. I'm having a little trouble getting used to how thin it is, how the keyboard is literally hugging the desk. But that will pass.

The solid state disk, curiously, is not quite the game-changer I expected. Battery life is fine, but it's in line with other Mac laptops of recent vintage. (The lack of the swappable battery doesn't annoy me, as I'd pretty much stopped swapping the battery of the 12" AlBook, even on long flights. Which hasn't kept me from lugging it across many continents and several high hills.)

It's an impressive little machine. Not well suited to being your main workhorse, but ideal for a second workspace. That's going to place more stress on backup (hello, Time Machine) and synchronization (someone needs to find a UI that explains sync failures to users and provides sensible corrective actions; the current crop of tools are just not doing it).

The big lesson was that our office wifi network is buggy. Switching to our backup network — we rented a second network connection from the law firm down the hall after the great Verizon flap — made the Air's file transfer much nicer. Again: there should be better ways to diagnose a fouled up wifi network. PING tells me "this is not right", but (a) that's too technical for most people, (b) even a fairly technical guy like myself might not really know what PING should be reporting, and not everyone has two wifi networks on hand to compare, and (c) I definitely dont know how to move from "this is not working well" to "you need to replace/reconfigure/get rid of this base station/relay/cable/ISP."

Feb 08 6 2008

Break Of Day

At Swarthmore, that land of long reading lists, we were astonished to find that our elders had been puzzled by the same perplexities that faced us as we balanced a thousand pages of American History, Laplace polynomials, nucleophilic substitution, and romance in a relaxing weekend. My roomate-in-law, now a distinguished Professor of Economics, discovered Donne as freshmen always do.

'Tis true, 'tis day ; what though it be?
O, wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise because 'tis light?
Did we lie down because 'twas night?
Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither,
Should in despite of light keep us together.

The Donne struck a chord, because back then you had to sign up for computer time. She wrote a response:

Arise! Arise! The hour is late!
The terminal's reserved for 8!
But Love, which 'spite of FORTRAN brought us hither
Should keep us infinitely looped together.

As personal computers became a reality, there was less need for those terminals and those signup sheets, but the problem persisted. A later roomate-in-law (now the director of a Foundation) and I had a long discussions over whether computers must be banished from the bedroom.

An interesting observation, then, from a current 20-something British student, in a comment on Charles Stross's blog:

I don't think this is true of everyone - actually, I have a friend who doesn't have a laptop - but I know that Carly and I can't sleep unless we can see the little blinking lights on our laptops.

I've never understood why the Mac laptops have this pulsing, glowing light. It doesn't bother me — I sleep fine with lights on — but I wonder about it. Is this the reason?

I arrived at the office this morning to find a nice example of the way hypertextuality builds on itself, in the form of a fascinating Web link from Jonathan Leavitt. (I've quoted the whole post because JottIt's servers have been hiccuping today)

There is a new feature in Eastgate's Tinderbox note processing software, which makes it possible to turn a note clipped from the Web or from email into an almost-instant hypertext.

As an example, I went to Barack Obama's website (our California primary is coming up on Super Tuesday) and clipped an excerpt from his speech on energy policy. I did that by selecting and dragging a paragraph from the Website to a new Tinderbox document.

Using the new contextual menu feature in Tinderbox, I Googled four items in the paragraph: "climate change," "renewable fuels," and two more. I then used a standard Tinderbox feature to create links to Wikipedia pages and a government page. Voila, an instant (five-minute, actually) annotated hypertext enabling the reader to research these topics while mulling over what the candidate said in his speech.

To see, and follow the links on, the result, go here:

The feature that makes this work is simply the newly-expanded contextual menu in the Tinderbox 4.1 text window. This wasn't planned as a Big Feature; it's just a bit of user interface polish. (It turned out to be a bear to implement, but that's another story).

What happens here, though, is that it's not merely a UI tweak, because it makes it so easy to scout for new Web links. I think we rely too much on the old, reliable links — wikipedia, especially — but it's great to have link discovery tools at your fingertips.

The MacBook Air, naturally, is meant to rely heavily on the WiFi network for moving files around. As expected, this can be tedious when first setting up your computer, because you'll want to move a lot of files.

It's been very tedious here. I started to tell myself, "this is incredibly bad." And it appears that is was, indeed, unbelievably bad: once I asked myself whether I could believe how much time I was spending, I realized that something was not right: our wifi network, it seems, is fouled up.

The root of the problem appears to be that the we're spread over three floors, and the top floor can't always see the signal from the basement. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not. And that means our WDS (wireless distribution system) is probably fouled up.

Feb 08 4 2008

Tinderbox 4.1

Tinderbox 4.1 is out.

Tinderbox 4.1

The big news is that Tinderbox actions can now move notes to new containers. Now, you can mark something as done and have an agent automatically carry it off to the archives.

A personal request: please use this new feature with care, and keep good backups. Yes, it's terrific! You can do all sorts of stuff you've always dreamed of! But it's also really easy to write actions that do things you don't expect: whoosh! everything is in the archives! There are lots of subtle little issues here; you won't anticipate all of them. Take small steps. Walk, do not run.

Pollster Tom Webster takes a break from super Tuesday runup to explore a new Tinderbox/Twitter connection with automatic archiving and filing of your messages.

The new Macintosh Air has arrived at Eastgate. It's currently loading applications. First impressions:

  • Gorgeous packaging -- including the box. Even including the shrink wrap, which is the best shrink wrap I've ever seen. In the box, the unit nestles in a black velvet-lined tray.
  • The geometry is very interesting; some real work has gone into calculating the curves of this case. Someone sweated these details very hard, indeed.
  • I expect the solid-state hard drive to be the really important, distinctive part of this device. It's not getting enough attention.
  • The relatively small size of the hard disk raises some interesting issues; this is the first time in a long time that a new machine arrives with less space than its predecessor. Instead of reveling in free space, I must carefully consider just what I need to carry.

The Air stakes out a new niche. It gives you connectivity, CPU, an operating system, and your key applications and documents. It's a home away from home. It's an accessory, not your only computer. It's the luxury model of the XO.

I've long thought that, in the future, we'll all carry around big iPods with all our applications and media, and plug them into generic computational docks that will supply bandwidth and standard operating environments in two or three flavors. This is something else: instead of a bundle of data, it's a portable operating environment with a small pile of data and access to the rest through the 'net.

The other day, I saw a quote from a 20-year old student at a British university who said that she and her roomate couldn't sleep unless they could see the little blinking lights on their laptops.

Of course, in three years the SSD hard drive will be 240G instead of 60G, and that might change the equation again.

Finally, the Air should be a terrific notemaking machine. Hello, Tinderbox.

Chris Vertonghen sees writing as the savior of reading; letting people compose and link freely makes the book an unequalled participatory medium.

So my next business idea: a platform that allows anyone to import, shuffle & mix their existing stuff — be it text, music, video, or any other type of multimedia — and give them the means to publish it on-demand. I don’t think we actually need paper to do this, Hypertext will do.

Maybe the world needs more Hypertext pioneers like Mark Bernstein. Maybe the world needs more online, on-demand, well-meaning (maybe I should say grassroots) publishing houses like Lulu.

Vertonghen emphasizes the need for a publishing or distribution mechanism that values (and pays) writers. To get there, we need to value (and pay for) writing.