Jan 03 31 2003


I am greatly enjoying Ernest May's Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France. May argues that -- contrary to what you learned in school -- the allies should have defeated the Germans handily. The French expected to win, the German military expected to lose, and both were right. I'm reading this after seeing a review by Josiah Micah Marshall, who is by far the best political blogger I've seen.

Joel Spolsky offers an insightful sermon that explains why everything goes wrong at once. At the beginning, his hard disk is out of space. He's got money for a big hard disk, plenty of technical expertise, wonderful hard disk backups. What could go wrong?

The first responsibility of an academic Web journal, it seems to me, is to get it right -- to avoid misstating facts and distorting theories. What else is academe for? And what other job does an editor have, if not to discourage writers from making embarrassing blunders?

I'm not an architect, but surely someone wasn't paying attention when the Electronic Book Review published Nick Spencer's "The Politics of Postmodern Architecture". I'm not certain, to be frank, precisely what Spencer is trying to argue here, but the core of his argument is that the attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on postmodernism:

Built at the height of American postmodernism in the early 1970s, the World Trade Center, like much architecture, presents the issue of postmodernism's radicalism in a particularly stark fashion. . . . Along with its corporate function, the abstractness of the World Trade Center suggests that it deserves to be recognized as an unqualified expression of recuperated postmodernism."

The World Trade Center cannot present the issue of postmodernism's radicalism, because it was not postmodern. The tall twin towers with their myriad columns reaching unbroken to the sky are surely Late Modern. Louis Sullivan, in "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered" (1896), famously wrote that

"It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.

Can we doubt that WTC architect Minoru Yamasaki had this passage in mind when he first drew those twin towers?

This isn't an obscure detail. When Charles Jencks begins his 1977 The Language Of Postmodern Architecture, he starts with the end of Modern Architecture. "Modern Architecture," he writes, "died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972.... when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite." The architect of that failed housing project, built between 1952-1955, was Minoru Yamasaki. Jencks' influential Architectural Design essay (1978) distinguishing "Late-Modern and Post-Modern Architecture" unambiguously situates Yamasaki in late modernism. Vincent Scully Jr.'s Modern Architecture regards Yamasaki as Modern.

Tellingly, Arthur Drexler's Transformations in Modern Architecture cites other Yamasaki buildings --especially the 1956 Wayne State College of Education, as examples of conscious Persian historicizing. There's a ton of historicized neo-Persian Modern throughout the Arab world, all of it much more convenient to explode than Manhattan office towers. Yes, the arches at the base of the WTC curtain wall suggest Moorish or Gothic precedents, and yes, quotation is important to postmodern architecture, but if every allusion makes a building pomo, then what do we make of Corbusier's romanesque arches, or Frank Lloyd Wright's japonisme? What about Sullivan's cast-iron flowers? Playing this game, we can quickly make Modernism disappear entirely, leaving only a machine-age smile floating in the sky.

This leaves an essay about the Islamic attack on postmodernism in a sorry state, because the buildings actually attacked weren't postmodern. I suppose I can see why an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska might want to view Al Quaeda as the sworn enemy of postmodern critical theory, casting John Silber and bin Laden together as a new axis of evil and making the 1990's Culture Wars and the struggle for tenure into an extension of diplomacy by other means. But the cost is confusion: muddying definitions, muddling students, and doubtless leading many to wonder, along with Casey Stengel, if anyone here knows how to play this game.

Could I be wrong, and could Yamasaki really turn out to be postmodern? Perhaps a case could be cobbled together. But, with evidence like this piled on the other side, you've got to make the case. Spencer doesn't. Did editors didn't warn him that he was about to walk off the cliff? Did someone think this over? Did Sokal cross anyone's mind?

Folks, this is literally embarrassing, not just for the author or for EBR's editors, but for everyone who publishes research in the arts and humanities. It's easy enough to make mistakes; the last thing we need is to publish stuff that looks obviously wrong and blithely to assume that being wrong doesn't matter. Being wrong matters a lot. It happens to us all at times. It might be happening to me, here and now. But checking the facts and presenting the evidence is the core of scholarship, and we should expect as much from our Web journals as we do from print. If we don't, nobody will take research seriously, and we justify the contempt in which the brokers and know-nothing politicians hold us.

Jan 03 27 2003


I'm very critical here of sloppy scholarship, but Torill points out that, for students of the software arts, even the simplest citation can be a major headache.

I've long argued that, when writing about software, scholars should accord the creator the same dignity they accord to people who write books and articles. The work should be properly cited, and the chief authors should be named. That's a problem in the software world, where companies -- even small companies -- don't always want to tell you who their developers are, lest you barrage them with support questions or try to hire them away. I've been trying to reach Cornered Rat Software with an editorial query for Tekka, but despite (or perhaps because of) their successful MMPORG, their email bounces.

Jan 03 26 2003

Best Books

Writing in the New York Review of Science Fiction, TOR editor David Hartwell observes that the many maladies of modern reviewing are at their worst when it comes to year-end Best Books lists. Since no reviewers today read a majority of the year's books, even in a limited field like "science fiction" or "horror", heavily marketed books outscore good books. Many books receive one or two reviews; some receive none.

The situation for hypertexts is even worse, and things aren't much better for people who want to review hypertexts. That's one reason we need Tekka.

But one of the advantages of a weblog is that I know what I read this year. There are 59 books in the list (a few didn't make it into the weblog for one reason or another). Here is my 2002 Best Books list.

American Gods (Neil Gaiman)
The Boston Marriage (David Mamet)
Justice Hall (Laurie King)
The Wild Party (Joseph Moncure March)
The Yellow Admiral (Patrick O'Brian)
Get Shorty (Elmore Leonard)
Bill James Historical Baseball Absract (Bill James)
Buddha's Money (Martin Limon)
My Name Is Captain, Captain. (Judd Morrissey and Lori Talley)
Mystic River (Dennis Lehane)

Jan 03 25 2003

Game Blog

Game designer and pundit Greg Costikyan has started a new weblog on games and game design. He starts with a thoughtful note about the least well known of the five greatest computer game designers of all time. (Back in the day, Costikyan wrote Paranoia, a hilarious role playing game)

Jan 03 24 2003


Scott Rosenberg, Salon's managing editor, blogs Salon's newly-revised subscription plan. "For Salon, or any other standalone independent that needs to pay not only for content but for bandwidth and software and health plans for employees and so forth, some variation on the subscription plan is the only way to go. "

Once in every generation, Boston Harbor freezes. In his wonderful (and amazingly engaging) Maritime History of Massachusetts, Samuel Eliot Morison explains this is one of the main reasons that Boston is where it is, and not in Nova Scotia or "thousand-harbored Maine".

Boston Harbor is frozen today.

Jan 03 23 2003

New Uses

Ben Poole suggests that Tinderbox could be important to Mac users who are losing some Lotus Notes functionality,

Well, if we Mac users aren't going to get the full functionality of Lotus Notes back (i.e. no Designer client), I guess we'll just have to have our own collaborative / loose data store system eh? Enter Tinderbox .

Recently, I found myself looking for the old Scrapbook accessory from MacOS 9. I used the Scrapbook for years to hold various oft-used clippings, things like our logo, Eastgate's bank transfer numbers, and the Storyspace educational price discount schedule -- snippets I need to use from time to time. MacOS X doesn't have a scrapbook. I actually sent notes out to Mac journalists to ask, "what do people use instead?" Tinderbox seems to make a great scrapbook, too.

Even I didn't think of that.

Jan 03 21 2003


Flash artist Crankbunny (Norma Toraya) premieres a new 5-minute Quicktime movie, Harboring Wells. Huge download (40M, oh brave new world!) but haunting.

Writing in the Tinderbox Forum, Andreas Klostermaier suggests that Tinderbox leads a paradigm shift in computing.

Tangentially, this raises a question that's been much discussed in the Mac development world during the past two weeks: are Apple applications a good thing, or a bad thing? Safari, for example, seems poised to clobber Chimera; is this a return to the bad old days when Apple blithely competed with its own developers? Is Apple going to come after us next?

What everyone seems to miss is that Apple is attacking dead markets. Extinct markets. Fossil markets -- markets that Microsoft slaughtered years ago, leaving only a free Microsoft placeholder standing to deter anyone from ever setting foot in those markets again. That's got to be a signal; I wish the press would pick up on it.

For those who liked my first bumper sticker:

Your choice: support the Democrats in 2004 or the Resistance in 2006."

Here's an offering I think we'll see more of in the coming year, as the Bush/Cheney/Ashcroft administration tries to cut taxes on the rich, rolls back choice, guts environmental laws, and imprisons people indefinitely without charges, trial, or counsel:

At long last, have you no shame?

If you're writing a study of the McCarthy era, you may be sitting on a gold mine.

Anja Rau looks at The Two Towers and finds it too black and white.

Back in the 1950's, Edmund Wilson and W. H. Auden squared off on The Lord Of The Rings. Auden thought it a vast and brilliant epic, a modern fairy tale. Wilson, in an essay titled "Ooh Those Awful Orcs!" found it simplistically black and white.

Tolkien asserts that there are not two sides to every question, that in some times and places, good and evil do exist and the question you face is not sorting out the nuance but, which side are you on. But Lord Of The Rings also asserts that such times are exceptional. It's the end of an age.

Jan 03 19 2003


Adaptation is strange, curious, improbable little film. It belongs in the all-time hypertext film festival. Interesting double-feature with Wonder Boys. Fascinating double-feature with Mullholland Drive. Ebert, like everyone else, loved it.

This American Life spends a week exploring the secret government that is doing some amazing things. Like imprisoning a US citizen, without trial or counsel, for the duration of a "war" that doesn't exist and will never end, (Thanks, Aaron)

Jan 03 17 2003


I've been browsing quite a bit with Apple's new Safari. So have you; my web server reports that, among Mac users, it's nudging ahead of MSIE and zooming past the other browsers. (RSS aggregators still are in the lead, since they check the site so often)

I found I was enjoying Safari's speed so much that I had to add Safari support to Tinderbox. You could do this too, if you're a thrill seeker; inside the Tinderbox package there's a config folder with a file called html_helpers.xml. Add a line for Safari (signature 'sfri'), and Tinderbox will know all about Safari.

Don't try this at home; the next version of Tinderbox will do it for you and is coming in a few days. But isn't it nice to know you could do this, if you had to?

Jan 03 16 2003


Derrick Story writes a superb discussion of how to use a light, low-end digital camera effectively to capture an event like MacWorld Expo.

What the computer press often omits is the point of the exercise: what do we want to accomplish, and how do we think about the task? It's easy to learn to push the buttons; Story tells us what shots we want to get, and how to get them. For example, you need an exterior shot of the venue, right? "The image was captured at 5:34 pm, a great time for "night shots" in the winter. You can add more color to your images if you shoot your night shots before the sky goes completely dark. "

One of the interesting things about planning Tekka, our new magazine about enjoying new media and beautiful software, is asking ourselves, what do Web people need?

One thing we need today, more than ever, is access to tools -- the old rubric of the Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog. This means knowing what tool fits what job: do I want my office network today to be wired or wireless? This means knowing about new tools -- including new theories and new technologies.

And it means a willingness to roll up your sleeves and do the work.

We're going to hunt down some of the best tools, sort them out, and help you get them into your own work. Sometimes, these will be software tools. Sometimes, the tools will be methodologies, or design styles, or events. Sometimes, the tools will be books.

It's time to wake up from the childish dream of the One True Tool. Fine work requires a varied set of tools, in software as well as carpentry.

The echoes of the Bauhaus manifesto ("The ultimate aim of all creative activity is the Web site!") struck a chord. I snuck it as a summary of my IA Summit talk into yesterday's RSS feed, and lots of people picked it up on weblogs here and there.

And why should it not? "Wonders are many, but none is more wonderful than Man. The foaming windswept sea is our conquest: our ships cleave through engulfing waves. We have conquered the earth with ploughs that never rest from year to year. We have science beyond our dreams, which we use for good or ill. We have built the Web." -- Antigone said this 2500 years ago.

We can focus so tightly on our failures and inadequacies that we don't appreciate the accomplishment. The Web, on the whole, is superb. It is replete with reliable information, well organized and elegantly presented. It is filled with services we can use and stuff we can buy. When things are wrong, we are surprised. When things go wrong, we are annoyed.

If the Web was as bad as people say it is, we would expect things to be wrong, and we wouldn't be annoyed when things turned out badly.

Jan 03 13 2003

IA Summit

My (rather impertinent) proposal to this year's Information Architecture Summit has been accepted. I'll be talking about hypertext gardens and patterns of hypertext, and about the difficult relationship between architecture and Information Architecture (IA). Often, IA has chosen to engage concerns of clarity, consistency, and usability; these are find things indeed, but they are not the architectural virtues of commodity, firmness, and delight.

I'm going to need lots of pictures.

"The ultimate aim of all creative activity is the Web site!" -- paraphrase of the Bauhaus manifesto

Michael Rose blogs an interesting discussion ongoing at the Tinderbox forum, in which a question about map views led to a broader inquiry into knowledge representation. "Among the interesting things about Tinderbox," he observes, "is how often simple feature requests lead directly to much more fundamental questions about how people visualize concepts and information."

Scott Johnson is surprised to find that I'm a Buffy watcher. The vampire slayer has a terrific following in the hypertext community. The best explanation for this is probably to be found in David Durand's pair of Web essays, "Why I Watch Buffy" and "Why You Should, Too". (Durand is an authority on hypertext versioning and XML, XLINK and their kin.) George P. Landow (Hypertext 2.0) is a big enough fan that he had fresh Buffy episodes taped and shipped to him in Singapore to supplement watching the Mandarin-subtitled local broadcasts.

The battle's done, and we kinda' won
So let's sound our victory cheer.
Where do we go from here?

Jan 03 10 2003

Wireless Gaps

A question to wireless networking experts: can I use 802.11b (Airport) wireless links to connect two ethernet LANs, or two wireless subnets?

For example, suppose we want to provide wireless connectivity to a business like Eastgate, which has offices on three separate floors. Running wire between floors is difficult. Is there some way to use multiple base stations to span long gaps? What would we need?

I saw the opening of Peter Sellars' Children of Herakles at the ART last night. It's the first American production of this Euripides play. There's got to be a story behind that, doesn't there?

It's a moving and thoughtful production, featuring talk show host Chris Lydon as the Attic Chorus (played as a talk show commentator) and a slew of high school kids -- all refugees with asylum -- from Cambridge schools as Herakles' exiled orphans. Jan Triska is simply brilliant as Iolaus, the kids' protector, an aged and wheelchair-bound survivor of the last war; his is probably the best performance I've ever seen in an ancient play, although Hepburn was awfully good in The Trojan Women.

Since nobody else seems to be talking about it, let me suggest that this year's new Apple announcements are misunderstood. Why is Apple (a) launching a PowerPoint competitor, (b) launching a new Web browser, and (c) relaunching the iApps as a separate product? What does this mean?

I suggest that these launches are strategic, and they are about Microsoft Office, the dagger that Microsoft holds at Apple's throat. For the last five years, Apple has lived with the threat that Microsoft, by killing Office, it could eliminate that Macintosh completely. Without Office, nobody -- not even the Apple faithful -- could depend on using anything but Windows for work.

The Clinton administration wouldn't permit Microsoft to obliterate Apple this completely -- they were moderate Republicans, and Apple provides the appearance of a free market. Protected from assassination, Apple invested in infrastructure: iMac, iApps, Airport. This era ended in 2002, when the Bush DOJ conceded its case against Microsoft, thereby indicating that they might not be willing or able to protect anyone any longer.

What Keynote and Safari mean is that Apple is prepared to deliver a capable office suite if it must. Note the skillful way these two products are positioned. Keynote competes on features by leveraging Apple's new graphic technology: it's better than PowerPoint. Safari, the new Web browser, can't beat Internet Explorer everywhere; instead, it's smaller, faster, and good enough. They demonstrate two ways to attack Office.

Apple is telling everyone that, if they have to, they'll build a word processor that will replace Word and a spreadsheet that will replace Excel. They don't want to do this; if they did, they'd just launch the products. Keynote and Safari don't gore Microsoft's ox; they attack dead markets where there's no money to be made. They demonstrate capability without starting a war.

Apple is also making sure they can pull it off. If they can't -- if this is Cyberdog all over again -- it's just a footnote like the Cube. Management wants to be sure that, if total war breaks out, their weapons go boom. If they do, fine: Apple has deterrence. If they don't -- if Keynote and Safari turn out badly -- then management knows to avoid war at any cost.

If Fundies were interested in ideas, they'd be fascinated by Buffy. Unless I'm mistaken, this year turns out to be an extended inquiry into the nature of grace and the limitations of redemption, questions that would have fascinated the theology fans of the 17th century.

It's interesting to see how Joss Whedon and (especially) Marti Noxon actually explore these issues instead of merely asserting them. I love Spirited Away, for example, but Miyazaki's masterpiece has a tacked-on moral (always remember who you are) that's hardly more organic than the notoriously-subverted lesson of the Wizard Of Oz (there's no place like home). This weakness comes with the territory; all of these are Parsifals -- bar mitzvah tales -- in which our hero sees the hidden world of grownups and, for the first time, does what adults do. The last line of Spirited Away, "I think I can handle it," is an idiomatic translation of "Today, I am a man."

But Buffy isn't doing that any more. Spike's done the unforgivable, and he desperately needs to be forgiven. We've established that enduring terrible trials is necessary, but it wasn't sufficient: he has a soul again, against all odds and in defiance of natural order, but that doesn't really change things. How can Buffy love him? Faith (in Buffy) and prayer are unavailing. Good works don't do it; join the Scoobies, save them, save the world: been there, bored now. Nor is Love enough, clearly, for at this point Spike is once more love's bitch.

We know that against this opponent we cannot win, nobody can, we can only hope to save something good in the coming darkness.

And this year is not a Parsifal, whatever it is. Again and again, we're being reminded of what Angel told Buffy in that cemetery so many years ago (and what Joss, I suspect, is telling his heroine): "This isn't about you. It was never about you. And you fall for it every time!"

Jan 03 7 2003


Apple announces a bunch of stuff at this year's MacWorld SF, including a web browser (!), new laptops, 802.11g (a faster wireless network), and a presentation tool that seems to compete with PowerPoint.

The latter, called Keynote, seems a quixotic attempt to revive a market that Microsoft killed and buried almost a decade ago. Gutsy.

I've discovered some interesting things about the little $400 laser printer in the basement. It has its own web server! You can telnet to it! And, if you ping it, you lose about 1/4 of the packets.

The Ping problem, I expect, may explain why the printer has become very, very slow. But why would I lose 1/4 of the packets (and not ALL the packets) on a very quiet, lazy LAN? Got a hint? Email me!

Jan 03 6 2003


Scott Johnson points out that, when you put recipes in your weblog, it's good to put each recipe on its own page. This helps search engines: a common search strategy is to look for (say) "spicy noodle recipe", and this is going to fall apart if you talk about "spicy pictures", "bland noodles", and "software recipes" on the same page.

This is an interesting point, because it suggests an emergent application. Nobody planned to construct a Web-wide recipe service, and nobody planned to participate in one. It simply happened.

Jan 03 5 2003

Airport Freedom

Penn, of Penn and Teller, had a rude encounter at the airport. An inspector grabbed his crotch, and he insisted that, while he is usually happy to have his crotch grabbed, he does rather prefer to be asked. Of course, while most of us would probably be interrogated for complaining, Penn got the VIP treatment.

He didn't care. "Well, it's not really the right word," he tells the airport flack, "but freedom is kind of a hobby with me, and I have disposable income that I'll spend to find out how to get people more of it."

Moral 1: it helps, when you're trying to be firm, angry, and funny in the midst of a legal confrontation, to be a professional. Don't try this at home, kids, unless you can afford to miss your flight.

Moral 2: support the Democrats in 2004, or you'll find yourself supporting the Resistance sometime soon. (Thanks, Scott Johnson )

Jan 03 3 2003


New Tilt is just a Flash portfolio for a user experience design firm, but its pacing is beautifully done. 95% of Flash is not Bad, but 95% of Flash is too slow.

There's a new issue of Born Magazine.

I confess that I've not found Born as compelling as its reputation would suggest. Perhaps I'm approaching this at the wrong end, or reading the wrong works. My impression is that it looks better than it reads. If you think I've got the wrong end of the stick, let me know.

Jan 03 2 2003


It's time (probably past time) that I take a look at massively multiplayer role games, since so many new media critics see so much promise in them. For my first foray, I chose World War II Online, chiefly because it's new (and so the technology should be up to date), runs on both platforms (which will make it easier for me to play occasionally), and because a copy was handy.

I'm uneasy about the subject matter (pdf) but that's not a bad sign; art isn't always supposed to be easy.

Installation lacked a few key elements of good user experience, as getting started required five separate download and patch sequences. None of the automatic downloads explained themselves very well, so I had little idea whether I was making progress or futilely downloading the same patch over and over again.

My first afternoon in 1940 Belgium, on the other hand, was not without promise. That is to say, it was a compound of interesting sightseeing and boredom, punctuated by terror and disaster. People were trying to shoot me. I had no idea why. Or where they were. Other people were running around, and I had no idea why -- or if they knew what they were doing. This is probably true -- a lot truer, anyway, than Rambo fantasies.

Jan 03 1 2003

Book Pile

One of yesterday's chores was to make Tekka its own bedside table -- the list of books our new magazine on new media and beautiful software needs to review. We need to spark some serious discussion; too many good books are neglected.

My impression is that the field needs a lot more books. But Tekka's reading list is already formidable. And, while we want to revisit some of the classics, almost all those books are recent. There's much to do.

It's New Years Day, and I suspect that weblogs feature in more resolutions than ever before. Whether the most common resolution is to blog more often, or more efficiently, or to read more widely, we can't yet know. It will be interesting to see.