Critic Michael Dirda reviews Readercon for The American Scholar.

When I say this is a serious conference, I mean it. Panels this year included: “Theological Debate in Fantasy and SF,” “The Works of Shirley Jackson,” “Genre Magazines in the 21st Century,” “The Future of Copyright,” “Book Covers Gone Wrong,” a “Speculative Poetry Workshop,” and perhaps 30 or 40 more. Peter Straub and Caitlin R. Kiernan were the two guests of honor. Regular attendees, besides those already mentioned, make up a who’s who of fantastika’s most honored writers and professionals—John Crowley, Samuel R. Delany, Ellen Datlow, David Hartwell,...

Eastgate editor Stacey Mason is packing up for a long-planned stint in grad school at UC Santa Cruz. This was a great opportunity for a chocolate dinner.

  • Small plates
    • Limpópo peppers and goat cheese
    • absinthe salmon rillettes
    • homemade pickled vegetables
  • radishes in flower pots with tasty dirt
  • coffee-seared scallops,white chocolate beurre blanc and cocoa nib crumbs
    • jicama mint salad
  • duck and posole in red Telolopense molé
    • chocolate cherry pumpernickel
    • corn and roasted pepper
    • pattypan squash
  • mesclun salad
  • cherry jelly ❧ cucumber mint sorbet
  • chocolate idiot cake ❧ chocolate espresso pecan pie

The first course is a Noma classic by way of Clotilde that I’ve always wanted to try: fresh radishes, fennel fronds, and celery stalks planted in a pot of edible soil. The top layer is a salty chocolate crumble from Tosi’s Milk Bar cookbook, with a subsoil of bleu d’Auvergne, fresh goat cheese, source cream, and shallots.

Chocolates for Stacey

The scallop course was terrifying because I’ve never actually made a beurre blanc before. Worse, all the advice I’d seen said that the hard part about beurre blanc is holding it, and the last time I tried to hold a Hollandaise for a party, it broke spectacularly and there was no time to fix it. And of course the scallops have to be seared at the last minute, and they will stick.

The molé, on the other hand, was wildly fussy. Every ingredient, it seems, must be separately fried, and then pulverized, seared, and then recombined. I didn’t have enough Mexican chocolate, but I subbed some bittersweet 70% Valrhona and added less sugar. My dutch oven was precisely big enough, with less than two millimeters of freeboard at the end. I kid you not.

The redoubtable Amy Ullman brought the wine. I didn’t tell her about the radish course, but she just happened to have the perfect pairing for radishes (!) in her bag. So we drank that with the flower pots, and a wonderful Chinon chenin blanc from (Les Chanteux) with the scallops, a redoubtable burgundy with the molé, and the nifty Cinedo de los Vientos Alcyone tannat for dessert.

New restrictions that cripple applications sold in the App Store have led a number of developers to leave the store, even at the cost of abandoning their installed base. Marco Arment concludes that

The Mac App Store is in significant danger of becoming an irrelevant, low-traffic flea market where buyers rarely venture for serious purchases. And I bet that’s not what Apple had in mind at all.

I think it might turn out to be a high-traffic flea market of limited relevance, a place for casual users and game-players (in both senses of the word).

Novelist Mike Brown is using Tinderbox to plan his next book and revise his last.

What I've been absorbed in the last week is the learning of Tinderbox. I heard about this "personal content assistant" software trolling my favorite writing software Scrivener's forums, and Tinderbox sounded like it could do much to quiet the nag within me that always compares what I’ve done with what I had planned to do, whether it is a new novel or the rewrite of one already completed.


So in a deep funk, several weeks ago I was prodded by an inner certainty to learn Tinderbox.  How much can I learn about Tinderbox?  I don’t know. Yet,  I am hooked. The brilliant concept of throwing notes at a wall, contemplating them, seeing what sticks, what links, leaving the mind free, has let me break through--I think, I hope--my unwillingness to re-imagine Dust/Hidden Children/Hidden Laughter in a way that brings out everything it was meant to be, and which allows me to feel that I've grown.

James Fallows looks at Jack Cheng’s The Slow Web and my own NeoVictorian Computing.

But I will say that if you are interested in technology, and thought, and the relationship between the two, and the ways our machines are changing us for better and worse, you will be very glad to have come across these writings.

Dominique Renauld writes about Tinderbox in Methodologie de La Thése.

Methodology of the Thesis
In 1977, Umberto Eco’s if fa una tesi Come di laurea discussed scholarship in terms of index cards. Les logiciels actuels soutiennent et facilitent un tel travail, mais dans des proportions qui sont sans commune mesure avec la fiche cartonnée.”

But She’s A Girl explores Crafted Software, with an emphasis on the craft qualities of Vim and Tinderbox.

Mark argues that software engineers who care about crafting good tools should build software to assist people in doing the hard things in life (like making sense of information rather than just collecting it, planning, and thinking); that is reliable enough to allow the user to trust it; and that is occasionally capable of inspiring “delight”. An important part of this (as the quote above states) is not trying to solve everyone’s problem or to be all things to all people. In later essays in the series he suggests that users should expect to have to learn, and that software should “embrace personality and style”. This describes precisely the qualities I value in the software that I love the most.

by Raymond Chandler

At a Readercon panel on “What Writers Want,” Peter Straub went off on a terrific tangent about the development of Raymond Chandler. He talked about how Chandler’s first plot (The Big Sleep ) was a shaggy dog, and how much more tightly plotted the later novels were – even though they always include strange notes (a repetitious cop called Hemingway) and long excursions (a three page taxonomy of The Blonde).

My notes said Straub was talking about The Long Goodbye. To be sure I didn’t forget, I also made a note on my phone reminding me that Straub said to reread Farewell My Lovely. So, despite copious notes, I had no idea which one to reread. (Answer: Hemingway’s here, the blondes are in the other book.)

Chandler and Hammett occupy an interesting cultural space. Unlike Hemingway, you aren’t told to read them in school. But everyone has to read them, and everyonbe does. (You can skip Playback and, for Hammett, The Glass Key.) Indispensable.

Jul 12 22 2012


At a conference in the mid ’90s, I was admiring the gracefully curved links that Dr. Dr. Norbert Streitz was demonstrating in a view of his latest system, SEPIA or, perhaps, DOLPHIN. I believe this was the first time that bezier curves had been used for links in a real hypertext map. It looked great, and we soon fell to talking about implementation details.

This no longer happens much. Streitz was already a VIP, and you don’t often see VIPs doing demos anymore. (Senior people do present posters at Web Science, but that’s pretty unusual.) And we almost never talk about implementation these days. It’s a shame, and it’s bad for our systems.

Anyway, Streitz suggested that what would really be nice would be to update all the Bezier-curved links during a drag. “Won’t that be way too slow?” I wondered. He shrugged. “It might be. It won’t always be.”

This afternoon, some fifteen years later, I added this feature to Tinderbox 6.

detail of a Tinderbox map by J. Nathan Matias and Mark Anderson
Jul 12 20 2012

Marco Arment

Pulp, Wallet, and Sparrow have been acquired. Marco Arment (Instapaper) writes about the danger that acquisition poses to artisanal software.

If you want to keep the software and services around that you enjoy, do what you can to make their businesses successful enough that it’s more attractive to keep running them than to be hired by a big tech company.

We’ve just announced Tinderbox Tutorial Kit 2: Diving Deeper. It’s a bundle of new screencasts, updated screencasts, workbook examples, and sample files ranging from timelines to color palettes.

The Tutorial Kit includes a copy of the new Tinderbox Way 2nd Edition ebook: instead of a book with a CD tucked in the back, this is a (virtual) CD with a book tucked in its pocket.

We focussed to much on what a nice deal it would be to include The Tinderbox Way ebook in this package that we completely forgot the vexation of those who already have a copy. Oops. For people who already own the second edition, there’s a half-price deal.

by Robert Harris

Harris writes superb, understated thrillers – often with an intriguing technological bent as in his remarkable Pompeii. In this diverting beach book, we are on more familiar ground: the wealthy genius behind a Swiss hedge fund finds that someone has broken into his house, hacked his email, and is generally driving him up the wall. Has he gone ’round the bend? We have terrorists, plunging markets, stolidly obstructive middle-level managers, software that we don’t entirely understand, and an imperturbable Swiss inspector who now lives in France because the wealthy hedge fund managers have made it impossible for real people to live in Geneva. It’s not hard to solve the crime, but the journey has its rewards. The escalating violence of the final scenes is artificial: it’s simply not essential for every white collar crime-solver to wind up in physical peril in the last chapter of every book.

Jul 12 16 2012

What Is YA?

YA (young adult) fiction was a frequent topic at Readercon, both because publishers will buy it (and sometimes seem reluctant to touch anything else) and because so much good YA is appearing from so many fine writers.

But what is YA?

One writer mentioned that her publisher had turned down her novel because it wasn’t really YA. “It’s not written in the first person,” they observed. The audience agreed this was misguided, but not entirely improbable.

There’s a general expectation that YA novels don’t have too much sex, and that nothing too terrible happens to their protagonist. But these expectations turn out to have exceptions, and of course those exceptions are singularly interesting.

My own definition: Contemporary YA fiction joins modern realism (or, alternatively, Gothic realism) with plot.

A fixture of the Readercon program is the Kirk Poland Bad Prose Competition. It’s a game show. Each round starts with an unfortunate passage from a published work of fiction*. A panel of five writers read continuations of the passage: one is the original text and the rest are invented by other panelists. The audience votes on which passage they think is authentic. The audience is almost always wildly wrong.

This doesn’t sound like a rollicking good time, but it’s absolutely hilarious. These people can flat-our write, they think about writing, and the see the gaffes at once. One unfortunate writer over-used m-dashes, and at each m-dash every panelist made an identical Klingon salute, and pretty soon you could see those m-dashes coming. One adverb too many and the audience starts to giggle; three excessive adverbs and people are rolling in the aisle.

I had earlier found a scalpel-like instrument of transparent metal in one of the cupboards of the suites above, which I had secreted about my person under the abbreviated tunic the science magician had given me to wear — an effeminate, silky thing, colored a repulsive lavender, which left my brown legs bare to the upper thigh. Now I snatched the glassy blade from its hiding place and slashed at the ropy tendril which wound ever tighter about my foot.

I’m pretty sure that they take care to make sure the unfortunate writer isn’t in the audience.

  • One of the rounds this year was based on a opaque passage of High Critical Theory. This was not quite the usual thing, but moderator Eric Van explained, "It’s not precisely science fiction, but it’s about science, and it isn’t true...”)

Year after year, Readercon one of the most rigorous and fascinating conferences I attend. Its program book has itself become a significant work of bibliographic scholarship, one that earns no one promotion or tenure but for which readers and scholars will long be grateful. They do all this on a registration fee of $60.

As I often do, I returned with loads of books. Those now on my stack include:

  • This Shared Dream (Kathleen Ann Goonan)
  • The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)
  • Mechanique (Genevieve Valentine)
  • The Gates (John Connolly)
  • Redshirts (John Scalzi)
  • Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey)
  • Bitterblue (Kristin Cashore)
  • The Brides of Rollrock Island (Margot Lanagan)
  • Rewired (James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, eds.)
  • Booklife (Jeff VanderMeer)

This amounts to nearly three months of reading at my customary rate, just to cover the best genre novels of the last year. Should I change the rate? Does genre fiction from 2011 merit a quarter of my reading for the year? (Quirkily, Readercon regards “literary fiction” as a genre but is not very interested in mysteries.)

Several of these books are parts of longer series. And reading any new writer is dangerous. During “The Year In Novels,” Don D'Ammassa — who reads about two novels a day — described the terrible pickle in which he found himself: he was visiting friends in upstate New York, he had run out of things to read, and the bookstore was closed on Sunday! Things were desperate. He fell back on the book section of Stop and Shop. He settled on a John Connolly thriller. He did not hope for much. But it was really good! So, of course, that’s another ten books to be read.

Michael Weinreb in Grantland:

Last November, as the worst month in my alma mater's history unfolded, a Penn State medical-school researcher named Craig Meyers went on the radio to detail a remarkable scientific discovery: He had discovered a potential cure for cancer. It went largely unnoticed, because Craig Meyers is a scientist and because no one associated with Penn State gave a good goddamn about science in that moment, because they were enveloped by football.

by David L. Ulin

I was in City Lights last fall and I wanted to buy a book. Mary Ann In Autumn, was just out in paperback and I wanted to read that, but a tourist in San Francisco buying a single Armistead Maupin was too much of a cliché and this tiny book by the LA Times book critic looked promising. I grabbed it, too.

Ulin frames his story with an argument. His teenage son thinks reading is boring, homework is boring, and that father is boring too. So is The Great Gatsby, which young Ulin has to read for school. Dad disagrees with his son’s scorn for print, absurdly thinking that their disagreement is about literature. They fall for it every time.

But Dad himself is finding it hard to read, hard to concentrate, now that we all have eBooks and the Web and email and cellphones.

Our constant impulse to tweet, to text, to post status updates offers the illusion of intimacy by allowing us to share the most mundane details of existence (“I think I’ll reheat the stir-fry for lunch’”) without revealing anything much of substance at all. Again, I’m not sure I agree with this assessment completely, although it’s impossible not to agree with it in part.

What was the point of writing this? First, Ulin asserts a fact about his own feelings; it may be true or false, but we cannot know. Next, the author asserts that he is unsure he believes what he has just written. Finally, he admits it’s impossible not to agree with the original argument in part. Which part, precisely, is incapable of disagreement? Perhaps so little was asserted in the first place, and that so tenuously, that we cannot find a part with which to disagree because there’s nothing substantial?

What editor thought this passage was a nifty idea?

Perhaps Ulin is no longer as interested as he used to be in books. Maybe he is more deeply engaged by music, or drama, or immersed in the struggle to find a new way of living as the Times slowly collapses. Perhaps he isn’t feeling as young as once he did. Perhaps he has worries. Who doesn’t? Stuff happens, things change. You can’t go skinny-dipping in the same river twice.

Something happens to every reading generation that convinces someone that the end is here, that kids can’t think, that they themselves can no longer concentrate. Today it’s email and Google and Twitter, but only yesterday people said the same thing about television. Before that it was radio. Before that, rum, theater, and all the delights of the city. You see it earlier in complaints about worthlessly feminine forms like the novel.

Besides, when I was in school, the seamlessly immersive mode of reading that Ulin claims to prize was regarded as immature. We learned to read and to think about what we were reading. We were taught to see what the writer did and, at the same time, to figure out how the writer did it. When you came across words you didn’t understand, it was a Good Thing to look them up.

Today, when kids do read this way, Ulin tells them they’re Doing It Wrong. Of course, if they stopped all that and plunged themselves into the perfluent dream, the same title would fit a complaint that kids today don’t think critically. This is a chump’s game: the kids can’t win, whatever they do. Nor can the benighted ebook designers, since whatever they accomplish, it necessarily redounds to the destruction of literature. It always does. No wonder kids today love dystopian fantasy.

What does “the art of reading” entail? It is, first of all, the art of choosing what to read. Ulin is a book reviewer. He might have ideas. But on this question, the book is silent.

In James Cambias’s Readercon panel “Have We Lost the Future,” Jo Walton (who wrote the best book about books in years) observed that Golden Age science fiction would be disappointed to learn that we don’t have a Mars colony or a moon base or even Kubrick’s Pan Am business shuttle to the space station. “But we do have the internet,” she said, “and I’m not sure that I wouldn’t rather have the internet than a vacation in orbit.”

We’re building things that are better than books ever were, but we need to give them a break and meet them with an open mind.

Jul 12 12 2012


A forgotten law of politics, small and large: pay attention to people and answer your mail.

When I was a kid, one of my teachers – I’m pretty sure it was Helen Doughty Lester — urged us to write a letter to Someone Important about some Important Matter. I wound up writing to the President of the University of Illinois, urging that Hull House be preserved when Chicago Circle Campus was built on its site. (Miss Doughty was a second grade teacher who played the guitar and, if you did well on your math problems, drew little shovels on your paper to show that she really did dig it.)

The point is, I did receive a prompt response, neatly typed, thanking me and saying that they’d do their best.

A few years passed. Pretty soon, I was 12 or 13 and I was writing to Senator Yates and Congressman Mikva and LBJ with my sage advice on Vietnam. And they were busy as hell, but every one of them sent a neatly typed letter of thanks, with at least one sentence to show that they’d read what I sent.

This is, I think, a forgotten rule of civil politics: you pay attention, you acknowledge effort, you locate common ground. If you can’t give the fellow what he wants, you express regret and explain why you simply cannot manage it. People don’t do this anymore, even though computers make this much easier to do than it used to be.

A few years ago, I emailed my councillor and my state rep and state senator about a local matter. None of them replied. That state senator, though a Republican, actually agreed with me and wound up doing exactly what I’d asked, but he never wrote back. Nor did the councillor, who lived right down the block. I actually can vote for these guys, their constituency is not very large, and this was an issue right up their alley – not the policy recommendations of the 9th grader.

I recently asked the Warren people for a few favors for a local event. Some were a reach, some should have been completely routine. They took forever to answer, and their answer was simply, “No.” No thanks, no regret, no white lie about how the candidate would have loved to do what I had suggested but simply had to be somewhere miles away. Just “sorry, we can’t do it.”

This is bad for the campaign, and it’s bad for democracy. Attention should be paid. It doesn’t take much: a few seconds for someone to read the email, a minute or two to plug in a sensible response. It’s all staff time, though there ought to be some brief check with the boss, some chance for a personal word or two.

James Fallows talks about our ongoing Writers’ Festival in his in Your Weekend 'Interesting Software' Update. Fallows using “interesting software” as a term of art. A lot of people have forgotten that new kinds of software can help them get more work done, or help them do work they find difficult.

The festival gates will stay open for another day or two. Hurry!

Elizabeth Warren’s campaign has a weblog.

I recently explained to someone that there are a hundred people who are stronger in weblog theory than I am. And one of them is Lauren Miller, who is doing Warren’s new media program. And even I never said the ten tips were gospel.

Still, this is a slam-dunk opportunity for terrific blogging. Infrequent updates with snapshots and apple pie won’t cut it, and that seems to be the plan. One approach:

  • Make it Elizabeth’s blog, in Elizabeth’s voice
  • Daily updates with voice, plus links to interesting stuff and upcoming events
  • Links to interesting, challenging policy stuff (“what I’m reading”) with minimal comment.
  • No comments (of course)

How can a senate candidate write a daily blog entry? They can’t. But there are people who see the candidate every day, people in her advance team and people in her strategy team. Somewhere there’s a ghost – someone who can talk to candidate for a couple of minutes and get enough to write a few sentences with perspective and voice and integrity, describing something that happened in the last few days. The traffic on 128. The heat. The pie in Peabody, the woman with no health insurance in Hingham.

Or, it’s not Elizabeth’s blog. It’s the working blog of a campaign operative, the way Chicago Hack was the blog of a cab driver. Give us the logistics, the headaches, the crises. Give us the sweet moments with the babies, the tawdry bits with egocentric (unnamed) local officials struggling for their moment of limelight, the banquet meals, the motels.

Give us a reason to come back.

Dinner at Steve Johnson’s Rendezvous in Cambridge. On impulse, I had steak frites, and while the potatoes were nothing to write home about, the skirt steak was wonderfully topped with a delicious compound butter. Oh my.

by Shaun Inman

Available from the author.

Shaun Inman wanted to create a retro game for the iOS in 30 days. He kept a development diary. As experienced developers would anticipate, the diary gets really good around day 40. A very interesting look at actual development, from concept to bugfix, in an artisanal software operation.

Jul 12 5 2012

4th Of July

I was at a barbecue, talking with an old fellow who was wearing an IBEW T-shirt. I was talking about the power of volunteering, about how some people volunteered to spend a couple of weeks registering voters in 1963 and now they’re the ones telling us about dinner with Martin.

"Oh, I worked for Martin," he told me. "Sure. Though most of the time, I was with Malcolm."

"What was Malcolm like," I asked him, "What was he like we he wasn’t angry? Or was he just angry all the time?"

"Oh, Malcom. Malcolm, he had a lovely smile."