Aug 17 7 2017

Under Fire

by W.E.B. Griffin

A pleasant little diversion in the wake of American Caesar, Manchester’s magisterial biography of Macarthur.

Griffin (a pen name) is a talented writer. I’m a progressive, a conscientious objector, and a pronounced military skeptic: he’s not, and you would not think he’d be my cup of tea, and yet Griffin does a nice job. He’s chiefly interested, I think, in a nuanced view of the masculine, and though everyone here is in the Marines and there’s a war on, violence seldom has anything to do with it. “You don’t have to practice being uncomfortable,” Ken McCoy assures his raw sergeant. “When it’s time for you to be uncomfortable, the Marine Corps will arrange for you to be uncomfortable.”

Aug 17 2 2017


by Rainbow Rowell

A nifty story about Georgie McCool, who writes television comedy. She’s married to Neal, a really nice fellow. They have a delightful kids. They’re supposed to go to visit family in Omaha for Christmas, but there's a crisis on the show and Georgie stays behind to work. Alone for the holidays, Georgie discovers a phone that she can use to call her husband — not today, but back when they were first married. Georgie discovers that her life isn’t nearly as nicely settled as she’d thought. Perhaps not as interesting as Fangirl, but nicely written.

by Karen Joy Fowler

The title essay of this slender volume — purchased as signed at Readercon but, as far as I can see not signed — is a pleasant-enough piece about Mary Anning, an impoverished little girl who learned to hunt fossils and who became a prominent, if unschooled, paleontologist and who also opened the world’s first rock shop. The great centerpiece of the book is a nifty short story, “The Pelican Bar,” which does a wonderful job of exploring and exploding punitive schools for difficult kids. A fine interview, too, with the author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

Jul 17 25 2017


by Kanae Minato

A middle-school teacher bids farewell to her class after a very difficult year. The teacher’s daughter, a toddler, drowned in the school swimming pool. She calmly explains to her class that the tragedy was not, in fact, an accident: her daughter was murdered, and the murderers are sitting in this very classroom.

This is a very clever, topsy-turvy mystery, a Rashomon with multiple points of view and a mystery that opens with the detective’s closing revelation.

Lyle Skains presents research on “Creative Hyperlinks: writerly and readerly Effects of links in hypertext fiction.”

An interesting taxonomy, dividing links into Basic Navigation, Affective Navigation, Narrative Exploration, and Affective Exploration, harnessed to a 19-reader study of a toy hypertext. The interpretive framework is described as Venn diagram of Writer Intent, Narrative Destination, and Reader Interpretation; it’s unclear whether Skains understands how problematic the idea of intent is, and the study assumes that, when asking readers how they interpret the text, the investigator will receive a full and comprehensive account. Thanks em short.

by William Wallace Cook

A delightful conceit of this 1903 time travel tale is that the year 2000 is populated by an entire colony of refugees from 1900, all of them hack novelists who leapt ahead to get the scoop on the future, and who are now stranded there. Hack writing at its finest, by the author of Plotto.

by Alexander Jones

A century ago, Greek sponge divers found an ancient wreck that held a cargo of statuary, luxury good, and the corroded, smashed remains of a bronze gizmo with lots gears off the coast of Antikythera. This contraption, known as the Antikythera Mechanism, has confounded historians of science ever since. Now, after lots of study and the advent of modern radiography, we know what it was.

The Antikythera Mechanism was a complex gearbox that demonstrated, with considerable accuracy, how the solar system works. It’s geocentric, and that makes things hard, but the ingenious inventors of this machine were up to the challenge. The machine’s instructions were engraved in brass on its covers, and much of those instructions survive. It had lots of dials and pointers, did a nice job of predicting eclipses, and even had a pointer to keep track of the Olympic Games.

This has been a proverbial mystery for ages. Now that we know what it is, we even have sources (including Cicero!) that describe similar machines. There can’t ever have been many of these, but it’s terrific that one survived.

by Steve Leveen

A pleasant little book by the founder of Levengers, the estimable mail-order company. Leveen, who founded a company that sells tools for readers, is not himself as much of a reader as he wants to be, and he’s anxious about that.

The bulk of the book is a proposal to create a library of books you might want to read someday, alongside your library of books that you’ve already read. Planning your reading is, of course, a theme to which I return often; my own haphazard journey from title to title seems undisciplined and arbitrary. A good list of prospects makes sense, and the advent of ebook readers means that you can carry those shelves of books to read eventually with you all the time.

Leveen is a big fan of audiobooks, and to me he’s preaching to the converted.

What’s missing here is systematics: how might we think about shaping a month’s reading, or a year’s, rather than focusing exclusively on what you will read next. Surprisingly little has been written about this important and perplexing question.

Breakfast involved a long and very productive discussion of the State Of Hypertext, possible futures, and the Hypertext Automata book. Also the problem of the capture of so much social media by Nazis on the one hand and various intelligence agencies, criminal gangs, and corporate boiler-rooms on the other. Many of the social scientists at the ACM Hypertext Conference are inclined to assume, for example, that each post represents the genuine opinion of a distinct individual; we now know this not true, but we haven’t figured out what to do about it.

My next paper may be titled The Ten Thousand Lies of Twitter and Facebook. We’ll see.

I pointed out to the conference that a blood libel had been openly posted on Wikipedia and had remained untouched there for many hours. It lasted more than 100 hours, outlasted the conference, and in fact I wound up deleting it myself. It's been hours since I wrote them, and Wikipedia's Oversight still hasn't responded.

The passage in question accused a specific Jewish person — a man who was murdered by an criminal mob early in the 20th century — of having “consumed a gentile child. Whether this sort of act is acceptable,” the poster continued, “has been a point of contention for millenia[sic] and will likely continue to be so. It is still as absurd as on day one of the propoganda[sic] effort that jewery[sic] in some dimension imagined they could convince the goyim that raping and strangling their children was something that ought to be abided[sic]. The ADL's founders had the rare moment of hebrew[sic] introspection and grasped that maybe this attitude wasn't ‘good optics.’”

This, friends, is the medieval blood libel — the myth that Jews sacrifice gentile children and drink their blood to celebrate Jewish holidays. As a matter of historical fact, it was originally leveled against Christians (See Pliny the Younger’s Letters X.96), and the Christians later turned it around when they found it convenient to kill a lot of medieval Jews. I’m sorry to say that this old story is new again; perhaps the old hobby is also about to be revived.

People do this on Wikipedia to encourage their friends to do it on Wikipedia, Facebook, *chan, street graffiti, and everywhere else. It’s meant to scare Jews and everyone else this mob dislikes, to persuade them to keep quiet and dissuade them from voting. Wikipedia enjoys the eyeballs and the extra volunteers; presently, it will piously say that a volunteer eventually corrected the problem, and that proves its system works. It does work very well if what you want to do is to normalize hate speech, libel, and blackmail in order to get a few extra eyeballs.

Someone ought to prosecute Wikimedia Foundation principals for abetting hate speech. My prediction: nothing will be done until someone gets killed.

If I were a trustee, I’d certainly want to be absolutely sure that the foundation has an errors and omissions policy sufficient to cover my family’s net worth, along with the net worth of all the other trustees. Given the foundation’s assets and the great wealth of many trustees, that’s a hell of a big policy, but I don’t think a court in, say, Germany is going to let a bunch of billionaires get away with paying a tiny bit of blood money.

The Národny galerie v Praze is really good. It’s housed in a magnificent High Modern trade show and exposition building, one that’s in remarkably good shape considering that it was used as an intake center for Theresienstadt and then spent fifty years as the home of modern art for a country whose government didn't have a whole lot of use for modernism.

Malostranská Beseda
Chudy Kraj, The Poor Country, 1900

The Mucha Museum, on the other hand, is rather sparse, and either the Mucha prints I’ve seen have exaggerated the colors badly or these examples have seen too much light. Some very interesting sketches and drafts, but not many; surely, a guy with so much influence left more behind. On the other hand, the angry girl in the Lottery poster is worth the (excessive) price of admission.

Malostranská Beseda

There was yet another art museum in the day, an excellent riverside beer, a good deal of walking and gallery-peering.

Malostranská Beseda

Then a dinner of excellent braised duck leg at Malostranská Beseda. Czech ducks are huge, even by the standards of D’Artagnan moulards; I’d have expected American ducks to be oversized, but man, I was not sorry to have stuck to ¼ duck even though it was really superbly done. I also want to note that pretty much everything comes with cabbage, which as a rule I dislike, but which is consistently tasty here.

After that, back to U malého Glena for an evening of blues in a basement club that seats 32 with overflow into the bar. In other words, even smaller than Kingston Mines of my youth. Pretty much the same music, well done, even if the front man did introduce one piece as “old-time Chicago jazz from way back in the 1960s.”

Festival Of Hypertext Automata

With the generous support of ACM SIGWEB, I’ve spent a good deal of recent weeks surveying mechanisms and algorithms that tell stories. Not only are many of these intriguing views into hypertext, they also provide a wonderful path to understanding the ways that critical theory interacts with literary machines.

Festival of Narrative Automata * Hypertext 2017 from eastgate
Jul 17 6 2017

U malého Glena

It’s been a while since I did much travel blogging. Thanks, Gamergate! In the meantime, I think travel blogging has stopped being a thing people do. It was a good idea then; let’s power up the machine and take it for a spin.

U malého Glena

I’m in Prague. Earlier this year, I had an idea for a research project that SIGWEB generously supported for Hypertext ’17. I’m giving a big set piece on Narrative Automata — machines that tell stories. These range from role-playing games to AI research projects to tricks that helped Hollywood screenwriters unstick their stuck plots. We don’t know a whole lot about how to tell great stories in media where the user is active – and, since 1956 or so, we’ve known that the media where the user is active is, basically, everything. I figured that automata might be one place to look for lessons, and nobody else seemed up for the job just at the moment.

So here I am, with (thanks, Rosemary Simpson) a 30-page bibliography including almost 80 automata and a whole lot of theory.

The trams are excellent. I was mostly awake on arrival, despite a long flight with lots of no sleep, so I bought my ticket and took the tram. Big win. Except…

Trams stops have eccentric names. I expected this was like Paris, where Metro stops are named for great French victories and for statesmen I’ve long forgotten if I ever knew them because, like, why not? But Prague isn’t like that. Not only do they have a tram stop “unpronounceable with surprising diacritics,” they have another trams stop also named “unpronounceable with surprising diacritics” that means “we’re getting pretty close the the place you had in mind, but we’re not there yet!” Naturally, I learned this the hard way, in the noonday sun, with luggage.

I’m essentially illiterate. When reading signs, I look for English first, Russian second. If you know how bad my Russian is, you’ll understand how lost I am around Czech.

The beer really is really good. Beer #1 was Pilsener Urquell (naturally), which in its native habitat actually tastes like what an American beer wants to be when it grows up. But at the place I stopped, no one else was drinking Pilsener Urquell. Beer #2 was a Bernard black-and-tan, which I think might be called a řezané and which is very good indeed. (This is a light lager mixed with a dark lager, and it’s almost as chewy as stout.

U malého Glena

This was U malého Glena, which was a lovely respite from lots of hot and thirsty walking. For most of the early rush, they had one barmaid (left) handling about 27 diners and drinkers – almost each of which was drinking beer, with taps about as finicky as you ever see in the US. There was also some drama involving a writer at the bar who looked a lot like David Mamet, but unless David Mamet knows a lot of Czech, not him. Here, she’s getting the next shift caught up.

Speaking of surprising diacritics, the Guláš at U malého Glena is fine, too. Hotter than I’d have thought, but that’s a good thing. I was skeptical about the dumplings, but on further review they were exactly like the illustration in The Czech Cookbook, so what do I know.