It's common to include the date with weblog posts — either written out at the top or the bottom of the post, or presented as a small calendar element like this:

Feb 09 28 2009

These save space on the page, but embedding one in each post might be overkill. So I changed the policy: now, we put the date on the first post of a given date.

Tinderbox makes this easy to arrange*. All it takes is to wrap the calendar code in an ^if statement:

^if(day($Date) != day($Date(previousSibling)))
... calendar markup...

In English, this is simply:

If the day of this post is different from the day of the previous post, draw the calendar.

The important thing here is not that Tinderbox lets you format your weblog dates just about any way you can imagine, but that Tinderbox lets you format your weblog (or anything else) in ways its designers couldn't imagine.

And, even more important, it's not about how things look: it’s about how they are organized. What do you include? Where do you put it? What do you leave how? How can you find it later if you’ve left it out now? It’s not the design, it’s the experience. And it’s not the user experience; it’s yours.

(*) Fine print: I'm using Tinderbox 4.6 , which is about to ship. I haven't tested it in Tinderbox 4.5; there are about 100 user-visible fixes in the update, and one of them might be necessary. So, feel free to try this at home, but life might be simpler if you wait a few days.

by Douglas Crockford

This spectacular little book argues that Javascript is not, in fact, a haphazard and sloppy little language for browsers. Crockford extracts a subset of Javascript that is both powerful and elegant, and shows how this fine little language can be used simply by ignoring a host of bad features that were tacked onto the core ideas. Javascript is not just a bag of hacks that happen to include some objects; it’s a fine and flexible object-oriented language.

Unlike most programming language books, this volume treats the reader as an adult, as a professional programmer familiar with the tools and concepts of programming. The contrast with typical language books is refreshing. Crockford assumes that you're familiar with other languages, which is to say he assumes you’ve got the equivalent of a decent undergraduate background. This lets him do more in 150 pages than many writers do in 500.

At times, the book is almost too concise, and I think many readers won’t fully grasp the details until they sit down and start working with code. But it has already transformed my approach to Javascript.

It appears that there's a full-scale fracas at Universidad Oberta de Catalunya, which has dismissed Dr. Laura Borrás. The dismissal has evoked widespread outrage, including an open letter signed by George P. Landow, Susana Tosvca, Scott Rettberg, Simon Biggs, Judd Morrissey, Markku Eskillenen, Rita Raley, and Stephanie Strickland. (My endorsement is pending a technical glitch at Google Docs, and I've sent a separate letter to the chancellor).

GTA has coverage.

I've been playing with several little javascript dinguses on this weblog. Two of them, in the left-hand sidebar of this page, let you see recent movie notes and book notes when you mouseover a button. There's also an opening epigram that appears while the page loads and fades out after a few seconds.

These are amusing toys, and also proving ground for some ideas for the Generalized Stretchtext project.

If they're malfunctioning, or driving you nuts, or if you have questions about them, let me know. Email me.

Latest changes: click the epigram to dismiss it. The book review widgets should now be more reliable. All the code is cleaner.

Alex Payne explains why his weblog doesn’t have comments. (He’s right about that: comments destroy weblogs.) The right place to respond to a weblog is on your own weblog.

Earlier this month, Payne wrote a short essay against Everything Buckets – programs like Yojimbo, Evernote, Devon, and Curio that are intended to hold lots of assorted stuff. Payne thinks the Finder is a better solution. Today, he runs down the best responses to his post. It’s quite an assortment of insightful writing by people who design a lot of good software.

Tom Armitage offers an interesting discussion on bookbinding, and on designing your ideal notebook or sketchbook. Thanks, J.D. Hollis!

Feb 09 20 2009

Friday Again

I was too hard on Friday. I was pretty hard on poor Emma, too. A correspondent took me to task. What I didn’t make clear, I think, is that I really did enjoy Friday. It’s not Heinlein’s fault that he wrote it in 1982. You can’t blame the book for not knowing that AIDS was about to happen, or that 25 years later the commune would look a bit different.

Do all webloggers received lucid 4,000 word literary essays as a matter of course?

Why was I so hard on these books? Maybe I’m a grump. It’s tax season, and Tinderbox 4.6 has grown and ramified and I’ve been working too late.

Maybe it’s because I know Heinlein and Austen aren’t about to send me email. I do hear from writers, and sometimes from their editors. And perhaps from their sisters and their cousins, too. In any case, I try to write honestly but carefully here: honestly because these notes are chiefly for myself, and carefully because you never know who is listening, or when they’ll be on your doorstep.

Late last year, I took all the book notes from this weblog, 2001-2008, to see what I could learn from them. Here’s the word cloud:

always american art author back before being best better between big business century characters david delightful down early end every everything far fascinating few find fine first found fun good got great history important indeed interesting job john know less life little long look lot made make makes mystery name need never nice novel off often once own people place point quite read reading real really right same second sense series set short simply since small something sometimes stories story things think time volume want war why without wonderful work world writer writing written wrong yet young

Face it: this is a portrait of a happy reader. OK: I don’t have the old newspaper critic’s duty to tell you how to avoid wasting your time. Your time is your own problem. But, mostly, I read a lot of good books.

In my original vision of Tinderbox, notes referred to themselves. A note’s actions could move information within a note – for example, extracting information from the text to store it in an attribute – but notes didn’t refer to other notes.

A number of early power users convinced me that this was too restrictive. Sometimes, for example, a note wants to know where it is. But the change was gradual; Marc-Antoine Parent told me right at the start to go all the way to XPath (and I think Aaron Swartz did, too), but I didn’t grasp the need.

Tinderbox 4.6, comings soon, advances things in some interesting ways. First, while keywords “parent” normally refer to this note, we have a syntax to let them refer to other notes. For example:

randomChild(/config/lottery tickets)

chooses a random lottery ticket. This lets you do things like randomly-rotating ads on a Web page, or epigrams in your journal entries. The same syntax lets you navigate through complex relationships:


is the name of your parent’s younger sibling.

Finally, we’re experimenting with allowing expressions like


where which name we want is stored in an attribute, or even


where the name we want is computed by evaluating an expression. This opens the way to some headaches, of course, but gives you lots of flexibility as well.

Will all this in fact be implementable? I think so, but I don’t yet know. Is it all desirable? That’s why they call it research. I mention it here, in advance, because we’ve guessed wrong in this area in the past, and my readers are awfully clever.

Landow’s indespensible Hypertext 3.0 has just been published in Spanish, translated by Antonio José Antón Fernández.

Feb 09 18 2009


by Robert A. Heinlein

I loved Heinlein when I was in high school. Sure, I was already anxious about his politics, but in fact he seemed to be catching up with the world, repudiating his old right-wing leanings. He sure could spin a tale, and his ideas about the social order of the future were awfully intriguing.

Then I went to college, where I and all my best friends learned how complicated a really complicated communal life could be.

But the new Stross is based in some way on Friday, and by the time this novel appeared in 1982 I was too busy learning at first hand to have a lot of time for Heinlein. And, let’s face it, though Stross is right that the big late Heinlein’s are special, they’re also creepy, filled with wise and handsome sages in bed with beautiful daughter figures.

And then, of course, came the plague; late Heinlein is all about the joys of sleeping with people, and Friday was published in the year AIDS was recognized.

If Stross’s The Jennifer Morgue is an explicit romp in the world of Bond, Friday is a Strossian inversion: the eponymous heroine is a Bond girl with a gender switch, who beds handsome old men instead of glamorous Bond girls. (She beds lots of young women, too) We start with an action scene just to get things moving and show us how skilled our heroine is – and how dedicated her organization is to saving her – and then check in with HQ for buckets of exposition. (The opening action scene includes a rape that is now beyond the pale; since I still want to think Three Days Of The Condor is a terrific movie even despite its abduction, forgiving it because they just didn’t know better, I think Heinlein gets a pass here. Barely.)

The catch about Friday is that she’s an Artificial Person, a Living Artifact. She’s bio-engineered, and essentially all earth societies have decided that Artificial People aren’t really people. This seems strange today; she's not a robot, she’s just in vitro. But we’re also supposed to take it in stride when a New Zealand family disowns their 20-something daughter for marrying a Tongan, because Tongans aren’t white and, while Maori are treated as white, Tongans aren’t Maori either. Things were different, then, and perhaps Heinlein himself was falling a decade or so behind the times. The effect, really, is like watching Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner in modern dress; if you don’t remember the time, you begin to wonder what everyone is fussing about.

Feb 09 16 2009


A very large number of years ago, I ran into this nice girl giving out candy hearts in the dorm. We both got to talking, and talked some more, and pretty soon it was morning. And here we are.

We went last night and had a hell of a dinner at Number 9 Park, where we’d never been. Extravagant, yes, but on the whole less expensive than flying to Paris. Tons of fun, and of course plenty of notes taken for many future dinners.

I'll probably jot the whole menu here tomorrow, but here are some impressions:

  • The tiny peekytoe crab cake was delicious, as you’d expect. It came with a little taste of cauliflower panna cotta, and that was a flavorful surprise. It's not clear to me how you do that, since I’d expect that any prolonged extraction of cauliflower into the cream would give you lots of sulfurous brassica flavors. Perhaps lightly cooked and then puréed?
  • The seared cod was a revelation; I didn’t think you could do that with cod. The fish wasn’t quite as sweet as the memorable codfish at the Norwegian truckstop, but it was really, really good.
  • Pickled oyster is tasty. A forgotten New England heritage,
  • Looking out the window at 9 Park, it’s easy to imagine Caroline Healey Dall lobbing snowballs. Could Henry Adams have been one of her targets? Not quite: when she was 16, Henry was only 2.
  • The wine pairing for the crab cake was a sparking wine, but we’d already been sipping prosecco waiting for our table. So the server made an executive decision and gave us a lovely Alsatian muscat instead. Nice.
  • Barbara Lynch’s prune-filled gnocchi, topped with bits of seared foie gras and accompanied by a lovely malmsey, are every bit as good as the cognoscenti said,
  • There was also a course of agnolotti filled with grilled leek. Right there, that’s the different between what a restaurant can do and what you can do. I figure someone had to grill those leeks mighty early in the day, in order to make the agnolotti, not to mention the sauce, the foam, and the garnishes. My, does it taste good.
  • There was a very fine duck trio (breast, confit, sausage), but it was upstaged by an amazing pinot noir. I don’t recall ever having that feeling before.
  • Despite the intricate prep and the many tiny plates, this is, at heart, just what you’d expect to have across the street from the State House: good local ingredients, solid home cooking with a little extra flair, crossed with a bit of Italian cooking.
  • The cheeses included three goat cheese produced from the milk of three distinct goats. How cool is that?

All in all, something like 9 courses, 9 wines, and lots of inspiration.

by Patrick O'Brian

I was not satisfied with a short trip to Treason’s Harbor. And so I followed Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin in their first long voyage to the far side of the world, a voyage in which HMS Surprise (in the role of HMS Phoebe) pursues the USS Norfolk (USS Essex) into the Pacific and far beyond. It’s hard to remember that, even at such a late date, whole swaths of the Pacific were unmapped, nondescript, essentially unknown to science. And it's always fun to see how little plot O'Brian requires in order to drive his novel along at a thrilling pace – he can generate a topsail breeze from a casual grumble or a seaman’s sigh. But O'Brian’s vessel can cope with storm and flood, too, and here she swims amidst infidelity, abortion, men overboard, the captain overboard, and an armed raft of Lesbian Polynesian Separatists.

Feb 09 15 2009


Though there’s lots of twittering about the terrible effect of the internet on our attention span (“Kids today…”), Dr. Vaughan Bell has a sobering reminder:

If you think twitter is an attention magnet, try living with an infant....The past, and for most people on the planet, the present, have never been an oasis of mental calm and creativity. And anyone who thinks they have it hard because people keep emailing them should trying bringing up a room of kids with nothing but two pairs of hands and a cooking pot.
Feb 09 14 2009



'Tis a pity it’s on Fox, but Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse has some real promise.

Fansite: Watching Dollhouse.

Meanwhile, Galactica makes my head hurt. In a good way, yes. But still.

by Patrick O'Brian

It was 3 in the morning. I was dead tired. My gut was unhappy about something I’d had to eat. My bedside reading right then was something very technical, the sort of book you want to read with a fast computer, a pad of paper, and a glass of scotch close at hand. My stomach rebelled at the thought of scotch.

So I grabbed an O'Brian from the shelf — Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin are stowed near the bathroom, along with Robert Louis Stevenson, W. E. B. Griffin, and the complete Theodore Roosevelt. The result: a delightful two-week cruise through Treason’s Harbor and The Far Side of the World.

The timing was poor. I've got a Javascript book to read for the stretchtext project, a pair of sources to mine for 1912, a new historical fiction I can’t wait to start. I’ve got the new Stross, and before I start that I need to read the classic Heinlein on which it’s based. And then there are the novels that friends have told me to read: I’ve been carrying Sarah Water’s Affinity around with me for six months, I've been about to start the Sauerwein’s Sebald since last Spring, and I’ve been about to start the Renowden’s copy of Birdsong for — can it be — nearly three years. I’ve got reading IOU’s that span four continents.

Dan Lyons wrote a tolerably silly piece in Newsweek to say that it’s hard to make a lot of money from a weblog. (Why silly? Because he argues that his own failure to make a fortune means that it’s all a high tech fairy story. That’s no argument: lots of people don’t make a lot of money doing things that, at other times or in other hands, make plenty of money. Ask your favorite starving artists. Ask just about any actor, novelist, chef, or historian you meet. C'mon guys.)

Jason Kottke’s such a smart fellow that his response, “the business blogging bust,” leaves me scratching my head.

As businesses go, blogging is a lot like shining shoes. There are going to be very few folks who own chains of shoe shining places which make a lot of money and a bunch of other people who can (maybe) make a living at it if they bust their ass 24/7/365.

Now, perhaps the rich are not like you and me, but Kottke wasn’t always rich, and back in the day he himself made a few bucks from his weblog and, if I recall, seemed pretty pleased about it.

But seriously: who owns chains of shoe shining places? And in what city do shoe-shining places make a lot of money? Do chain shoe-shining places even exist? Are they a secret among New Yorkers, something they don’t tell the tourists? Did Starbuck’s suddenly start shining shoes? Back in the day, you got your shoes shined at the barber. What is Kottke thinking?

Seriously: some people have so much faith in power laws that they see a power law even where there’s no power law to see. Kottke with a power law is like a Republican with a tax cut or a Cylon with a baby.

Dave Winer retorts that he made over $2 million with his blog. I’m surprised Dave’s number is so low.

Feb 09 12 2009


by Jane Austen

Perhaps she is not at the top of her game here, but still: Jane Austen. Delightful young women scheme to amuse themselves with eligible young men in the neighborhood, while laboring under the absurd constraints of 1816. In Emma, the constraints are even more ponderous than they are in the best Austen, and a sensible reader must foresee long before Emma Woodhouse just who must marry whom, and why. Austen’s uncharitability toward those who, through want of education or wealth, make occasional grammatical errors or fashion blunders always unsettles me. Not only does she not see the servants, she doesn’t see the farmers who rent from our family or the storekeepers they patronize. But the main difficulty here is that no one is ever in great trouble, and so no one can really be made terribly happy and the mild discomfiture of those who have been slightly unpleasant to us in the past cannot be completely satisfying.

Via Simon Graham, an interesting research project on information scraps developed as a collaboration between Southampton (m.c. schraefel) and MIT (David Karger; one of the MIT students is Michael S. Bernstein, no relation) and called List.It:

The Latitudinal Information Scrap Trapper that Indexes Things - is a small, simple note-keeping tool for solving a big, complex task -- helping you manage the tons of little information bits you need to keep track of each day.

It’s a Firefox 3 plug-in; as far as I can see, it has about the power of the desktop sticky application.

Steve Ersinghaus presents part 2 of his StretchText exercise.

Alex Payne deplores the use of “everything buckets” like DevonThink and Yojimbo.

If you want to store data of differing types within a lightweight organization system, I encourage you to check out the filesystem.

Payne’s main point is that applications create and use structure. They are better than buckets: trying to do everything in a single application leaves you doing lots of things with a versatile but second rate tool.

What Payne misses — what nearly everyone has missed in thinking about the question — is the process of finding and creating structure. Yes: you want to keep things organized. Yes: you want specialized tools for special tasks. But things don’t arrive with structure (and, when they do, they have the wrong structure!) and the kinds of structure you want are always changing.

So, Payne is wrong: you do need an everything bucket because sometimes you get a receipt or a podcast and you just want to say

Keep this, don’t lose it, but I’m really busy now so GET IT OUT OF MY FACE.

And sometimes you want to say

I have no idea what this means, but I bet it will make sense after I learn to read Farsi.

So, sure, keep an inbox, or a bucket. Use the file system if you like, use Yojimbo or Devon or whatever if you like. Use ’em all: you can have two separate piles of paper in your office!

Just don’t ask them to do more than they can. Plan to take stuff out, sort it, handle it. Put the financials into a financial program. Put the images into an image library. Put the ideas into Tinderbox.

Everything Buckets
A Tinderbox map of the book notes from this weblog, 2001-2008. The central adornment divides fiction and nonfiction; topical clusters include “historical novels,” “computer languages,” “Iraq,” etc. I could not have planned these clusters in advance; how would I have known in 2001 that I’d need to read a dozen books about the war in Iraq?

One of the Big Ideas underlying Tinderbox is incremental formalization: gradually adding and revising structure as you discover it and as you need it. It’s the opposite of the old rule that you should handle each message once and once only. When we’re talking about ideas, about important facts and crucial observations, you want to come back to them, examine them, set them out and put them away more neatly than you found them.

Banks and newspapers aren’t the only industries that are melting before our eyes; trade publishing is also vanishing into the mist. Latest: a giant magazine distributor suddenly closes up and goes home. This, in turn, will strand magazine publishers who rely on newsstand sales and book publishers who sell at grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores, places of that ilk.

Andrew Sullivan finds good arguments that micropayments are not the entire answer. Kathryn Cramer says she sees a way through.

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again.

A curious but effective little Sunday sermon on the new economy: Hard Times by Matt Mason, with graphic design by Nicholas Felton. It will soon seem to be yesterday’s news, a period piece, amidst the carnage of the economy, but it should not be neglected or forgotten.

Our parents killed bad ideas with music. We kill bad ideas with new business models. And we’re just getting started.

As another fellow reminded us in last month’s sermon,

We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.

If you’re in Boston, Providence, or the general neighborhood, you might enjoy the current production of Naomi Iizuka’s Aloha, Say The Pretty Girls at the ART/MXAT Institute, the teaching wing of Harvard’s American Repertory Theater. At this level, you’re looking at professionals; this is what they do, it’s not an extra-curricular diversion. (Harvard’s undergraduate extracurriculars are often absurdly good, too, because Harvard encourages talented students to pursue their extra-curriculars with great intensity. This is both Harvard College’s strength and its failing.) And while mainstage ART productions cost a bundle, the more intimate Institute events are just $10 a ticket, general admission.

Linsday Allbaugh does a great job directing this challenging script, and I particularly liked Skye Noël as Wendy, who starts as a stock character from a sitcom and builds surprisingly. (Skye Noël is the owner of what might just might be the worst Web site in the world; surely we could find this actress an afternoon’s work from a designer and a copywriter?)

Steve Ersinghaus on using Tinderbox to work with stretchtext poetry

I think we’re going to be talking about stretchtext and web design a great deal this year.

Feb 09 7 2009

Krugman Warning

2008 Nobel economist Paul Krugman:

The American economy is on the edge of catastrophe, and much of the Republican Party is trying to push it over that edge.

Kathryn Cramer reports that the science fiction web world has been having headaches with anonymous ranters.

At the same time, Jill Walker reports that Dagbladet has had good success by encouraging people to identify themselves. Indeed, in exchange for registration, the Norwegian news site builds you an attractive profile page that connects the account to the rest of your online world.

When someone clicks on my name in the comment thread of a newspaper article, they’ll see my profile page at Dagbladet, which includes not only my comments on that site but also my Twitter posts and posts to my blog. That’s a pretty good way of grounding me, of giving me a context.
Of Trolls, Identity, and Professional Photography

The thing that really sells the page, though, is the terrific photo. This got me thinking: could we create a nice marketplace for professional freelance portrait photographs? Something like Derek Powazek's old Pixish, a place where photographers could sell their extra time.

Suppose you're a photographer, and you've got someone coming into your studio for a $500 headshot next Tuesday from 1-3pm. You're going to be all set up. You’ve already booked half the afternoon. If you can get someone who needs a headshot and is willing to come in at 3:30, you could give the a nice price.

Claire Suddath reminds us of Time’s hysterical, anti-intellectual roots in an article deploring the current “25 Things” meme:

But it's just so stupid. Most people aren't funny, they aren't insightful, and they share way too much.

It’s all there: in place of criticism we have reflex, accepted wisdom, and a prurient promise (too much sharing!) on which the rest of the article never delivers.

Let’s face it: most people are interesting. They’re interesting in different ways, of course, and some of them might not interest you. And if you’re a depressed sophisticate who thinks everything is terribly boring, then sure, most people are going to bore you. Welcome to the planet.

The Time editors have festooned the piece with strange links to other Time articles, presumably for ad exposures. For example:

18. I cried when Spock died in Star Trek II. (See the top 10 1950s sci-fi movies.)

They're wrong on the facts: Star Trek II appeared in 1982, which happens to be slightly more recent than 1959. Never mind: when you get there, you see a page with one paragraph of introduction, one film still, six ads, and three addtional house ads (plus extensive headers and footers touting current features). But do you get the top 10 movies? Nope — they’re on pages 2 through 10!

Feb 09 4 2009

Scale and Use

Questions of scale matter a lot to software. They’re easy to get wrong in the design, and even easier to get wrong when writing reviews.

Shawn Blanc begins an extensive and thoughtful review of the task manager Things by observing that the software keeps track of lots of things.

When I first began using Things, I only had a handful of to-do items each day. I had no projects and only a few areas of responsibility.

Currently I have 8 projects, 6 areas of responsibility and close to 100 individual to-do items logged. 16 of the to-do items are in my Today list and there is one straggler task waiting in my Inbox.

But Things is modeled on David Allen’s Getting Things Done , and the whole premise of Getting Things Done is that you need to keep track of many hundreds of things. I’m a very light user of a GTD-like system (using Tinderbox), just for tracking some special projects. And I've got 844 tasks, 94 active projects, and about 3250 archived tasks and projects.

And so Blanc winds up contrasting small scale usage with really small scale usage. That’s understandable: it’s hard to get a handle on large-scale problems. And in this case it doesn’t do much harm, because (a) hundreds of tasks is the realm where Things excels, while its UI is likely to prove unsuitable beyond a few thousand, and (b) Blanc does a really nice job of explaining actual usage scenarios, which many reviewers neglect.

A friend of Linda’s used to complain about living with a guy who cooks. “You get to eat, yes, but it can be a little strange. Duck on Monday! Who has duck on Monday?”

But this was Tuesday, and last Saturday grocery had a really big moulard duck breast in the cooler for a a very nice price. Why not?

After breakfast, I liberally salted and peppered the duck breast, sprinkled it with a spoonful of sugar, and dropped it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. When I came home, I put it skin-side down into a lightly-oiled skillet and started cooking it on a moderate flame.

While it cooked – and this giant took a good 25 minutes on the skin side and 10 on the other side – Linda mixed some romaine, some left-over spinach and feta, a handful of chopped walnuts, and a small handful of chopped, dried figs. Dressing? Balsamic and sherry vinegar, walnut oil, a little olive oil, and a splash of water. (Linda used a splash of sherry instead. Go Linda.)

We had it with a nice little bottle of Castello d'Alba, an $8 wine from the far end of the Douro where we visited last year during WikiSym.

Feb 09 3 2009

Nash on Aubrey

Thoughts while leafing through Treason’s Harbor.

The one-n canon is a priest.
The two-n cannon is a beast.