May 08 31 2008


by Robert Harriss

A richly-detailed tribute to the engineers of Imperial Rome, and most especially the men who designed, built, and who for centuries maintained the sophisticated system of aqueducts the brought water — and with it, civilization — to the towns and cities of the Empire. This story of one engineer, a temporary aquarius sent to be superintendent of the Aqua Augusta after his predecessor disappeared. This system of aqueducts, mostly underground and at this point already decades old, served the naval base at Misenum (commanded by the irascible admiral Pliny) as well as Neapolis, Herculaneum, Pompeii, and neighboring towns. The year, unfortunately for Marcus Attilius, is 79 AD.

May 08 30 2008


Martin Spernau uses Tinderbox to design a Tarot deck.

I am using Tinderbox to design a fictional Tarot deck to be used in a very narrative oriented roleplaying game. Tinderbox' map view proved invaluable in mapping out the concepts from traditional Tarot and creating corresponding cards that fit well into the setting and theme of the game.

This has a wonderfully welcome-to-the-future feel, as if we've just stepped into a story by Asimov or Clarke where we're designing computers to design new religious rites.

M2 "The Empress" proved to be a surprisingly easy case. It's main concepts being Development, Growth, Nourishment, Training, Security and Assistance. One concept from M41 almost immediately sprang to mind: "The Schola Progenium", an institution that nourishes, teaches and trains orphans of imperial officials. Many high ranking officers - even some inquisitors - come out of this orphanage, and look back on their mentors and teacher there.

In “Return To Paradise” (New Yorker, June 2), Jonathan Rosen starts from the 1638 meeting between Milton and Galileo.

The great astronomer was old and blind and under house arrest, confined by order of the Inquisition, which had forced him to recant his belief that the earth revolves around the sun, as formulated in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Milton was thirty years old—his own blindness, his own arrest, and his own cosmological epic, Paradise Lost, all lay before him.

This is nice. I admire the triple “and” in the first sentence. It's solid, sensible. And it's a bonus if you remember how Paradise Lost ends:

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Here is the distilled essence of the Ross/Shawn New Yorker. If you know the allusion, there is it — it's fun, it draws you in, it illuminates the passage. But if you don’t see it — if you're an earnest college freshman or a harried banker and Milton is pretty much Greek to you — you aren’t stopped in your tracks, or shamed, or chided. (For more, see Menand’s American Studies.)

Speaking of presentation decks, here's an intriguing (and beautifully minimal) presentation on the changing nature of publishing by Jouke Kleerebezem at Jan van Eyck Academie.

And Scott Rettberg has a precis of his next talk — and the talk after that — on his view of the economics of electronic literature. Some of what he writes is write. Some is wrong.

A work of electronic literature and five dollars will buy you a Starbuck’s Latté.
The multitudinous Web, on the other hand, offered writers the opportunity to reach a potentially wider audience. The cost of this freedom was that to reach the network, most writers essentially chose to give their work away for free. At this point it simply makes more sense for authors of e-lit to distribute their work as widely and freely as possible.

I’m left wondering about whether rubbing all the edges off "free" in this way is a good idea, or just promotes Bush-Republican newspeak. I'm left wondering what would happen if Rettberg were locked in a room with Dr. Samuel “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money” Johnson. But then, I'm a curious guy — I'm also wondering where all my browser cookies went last night.)

May 08 29 2008

Wiki at Work

Dirk Riehle (SAP) shares a nice PowerPoint deck (pdf) on "open collaboration within corporations" and introducing wikis in the enterprise.

I saw a sign at the grocery. They had a lot of frisée. They wanted to sell it.

So they suggested sweating some shallots in butter, and then wilting the frisée. Drizzle with cream, grind a little white pepper. Serve with surprisingly inexpensive bay scallops. Nice.

I've never cooked frisée before. How long has this been going on?

The conference committee for WikiSym includes (as you’d expect) people with years of wiki experience. People who wrote the first wikis. People who improved those wikis. People who built wiki businesses.

A bunch of these people are spending a lot of time standing around the conference's MediaWiki installation, scratching their heads and trying to make it do some things that it seemingly doesn't feel like doing. Reasonable things. I don’t know the details.

This is embarrassing.

(Imagine what the software feels.)

My first take on this is that MediaWiki, in specializing itself for Wikipedia, has lost its WikiNature. I'm pretty sure that we'd have a different kind of experience, for example, if we were working with Ward's Wiki . But those are fighting words, and I don't feel like another big fight today.

Anyway, if you're a MediaWiki wrangler and you’d be willing to lend a hand, Email me. I'll put you in touch with those puzzled people.

The papers for WikiSym have all arrived, and now the Program Committee is reviewing more than fifty technical papers. This review process is complex and demanding, and it's not always very well understood.

The primary duty of the program committee is to ensure the integrity and the reliability of the research literature. People who attend the conference, or who consult its Proceedings in the future, must be confident that the results reported here are honest, accurate, and may be relied upon.

This differs from the duty of a commercial conference like TED, which must consider first what might best attract and entertain its customers. It differs, too, from conferences that cultivate movements, such as SEED or An Event Apart, where the program seeks to advance a professional goal, or where the intent is to train people in the techniques that have made some of their colleagues particularly successful.

Computer science conferences would very much like to have an exciting and attractive program, but it is much more important, for then, that the research reported be of the highest quality.

One clear consequence is that we don’t particularly care who wrote a paper or where they work. Another consequences is that we care very much about who is reading the papers; WikiSym has an amazing program committee. We need one, because wikis are so diverse, And of course we don't know, from year to year, what research will be ready to present: will we have lots of computational theory to explore? What adjacent disciplines will we need? But just look at some of these names:

  • Ward Cunningham (invented wikis)
  • Dan Bricklin (invented spreadsheets)
  • Scott Rosenberg (invented Salon)
  • Thomas Burg (invented BlogTalk)

We've got George Landow, who wrote the first paper on hypertext rhetoric, and Cathy Marshall, who started spatial hypertext. We've got Lilia Efimova, who does blog research, and Amy Bruckman, who used to live in MUDs and MOOs. We've got Adrian Miles, who put vogs/vlogs on the map and who linked hypertext to film studies, and Jeremy Ruston, whose tiny TiddlyWiki has morphed into an enterprise-scale technology.

WikiSym Planning
When all the reviews are in, part of the program committee will meet in Porto. We'll discuss every paper again. Could we have overlooked a mistake? Might one of the reviewers have been too generous, or too harsh? We won’t be perfect. But every paper gets close and sympathetic scrutiny. And the committee truly doesn't care whether the paper is written by an unknown student or a titan of industry. Photo: Lapidim

And that's just for starters. (I could drop names all day; go look for yourself.) The committee is actually too small — I wanted to invite more reviewers, but my masters were worried that there might not be enough papers to warrant such a large committee.

My point is that we've got more than thirty experts. Some are quite young, others have decades of achievement. They work for large companies, small companies, government agencies, charities, ancient universities and new ones. They speak many languages. They have all sorts of degrees, or no degrees at all. They are all, naturally, extremely busy people.

And they're all hard at work, reading a thick sheaf of papers. They're checking facts and checking references. Are the equations right? Is the methodology sound? Could the result be interpreted differently — and, if they could, how might we choose which interpretation is correct?

They don't get paid. They don't even get thanked properly, because the referee comments are all anonymous. If they find a mistake in a formula, for example, all they can hope for is a footnote: “The authors thank an anonymous referee for helpful corrections.”

Next time you look something up in a Proceedings or a Journal or a textbook and feel comfortable that it's right, thank those anonymous program committees.

Roger Ebert: How Studs [Terkel] Helps Me Lead My Life. Happy 96th birthday to Studs Terkel! Terkel was another of the prime movers of that wonderful generation of northside Chicago intellectuals that also included (among others) Saul Bellow, Sydney Harris, and Stuart Brent.

May 08 23 2008

Field Notes

These little notebooks are really nice. They're small and light — just 48 pages. They're filled with graph paper, which makes diagrams and sketches a snap but which doesn't get in the way of writing.

The inside front cover has a nice form for indexing, coordinating, and to help lost notebooks get home. The back cover has lots of interesting facts about the notebook — and a handy 5" ruler.

The paper is great for pencil and pen, and stands up nicely to the challenge of my medium nib Namiki Falcon (although the fountain pen ink does bleed slightly to the back side).

Eastgate sells three-packs for $9.95. And, for Memorial Day Weekend, if you mention Field Notes under “special instructions” when you order or update Tinderbox, Storyspace, or any of our fine hypertexts, we’ll send you a free Field Notes Notebook.

May 08 20 2008


The tech.view columnist for The Economist — I can't find a name — speculates on the notional transition From Literacy to Digiracy. By this, he means a transition, over a span of perhaps 300 years, from print culture to something else, something based on computers. He cites me (I think — he cites "a blogger on") as rejecting the facile equation of hypertext with short attention span and debased taste, and goes on to observe that the primacy of print has been decaying since the invention of the telegraph. And this might be just in time:

What little we know is that our sources of trusted wisdom are eroding fast. When academics pay to have their findings published, invent results or ignore conflicting data to keep a sponsor’s money flowing, it’s hard to view our learned institutions as sources of reliable information.

It's often been expected that academic would pay to have their work published, either by private printings or through page charges in journals or through membership fees in professional societies. But the writer's other examples of academic fraud are pertinent and he has a point; though Wikipedia may be beset by cranks and influence peddling, and though weblogs may be dishonest at times and ill-informed at others, other authorities may be equally tainted.

Dirk Riehle, the guiding spirit of WikiSym, spends much of his time studying open source software for SAP. His essay on “The Economic Motivation of Open Source Software: Stakeholder Perspectives” (IEEE Computer, vol. 40, no. 4 (April 2007). Page 25-32) is very much worth reading; in place of the usual quasi-religious handwaving, this excellent essay approaches the question with sound analytical tools.

I think it might be mistaken. I can’t see a way to be sure. In some ways, that uncertainty is worse than simply being mistaken.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the paper is Dirk’s analysis of the impact of lower software pricing on the strategic choices of system integrators. Broadly speaking, he argues that lower software costs from open source let integrators keep what they would formerly have spent on software; alternatively, they can cut prices and buy market share. The details of the argument are sometimes confusing because Dirk (or his editor) assumes that the reader can't face algebra or calculus, and so the argument is couched in terms of geometric analogies ("the total profit is represented as the area of the gray triangle"). The reader is left to struggle, or expected to derive the equations herself.

In discussing the impact of open source on software vendors, Dirk examines an interesting strategy in which he envisions two existing, competing products. He shows how a failing competitor might cripple its more-successful rival by open sourcing its own, doomed product; if the community can keep it viable at no cost to its original owners, the abandoned product will provide a permanent drag on the victorious competitor's profits.

I'm not convinced this outcome is actually desirable. Admittedly, prices are lower, the loser's product remains available, ultimately both products are available as cheap community projects. What Dirk fails to consider here is capital: who will ever build new software, or new software companies, if they can be so easily destroyed? The scenario demonstrates how open source can act as an agent of capital destruction; it's not clear what role it plays in renewing this resource.

Finally, Dirk suggests that dominant community open source projects help developers by making it easier for them to find new jobs. If everyone uses Apache, then an Apache developer can easily pick up and work for anyone. This is not necessarily good news for employees:

Hiring and firing becomes easier because there’s a larger labor pool to draw from, and switching costs between employees are lower compared with the closed source situation. Given the natural imbalance between employers and employees, this aspect of open source is likely to increase competition for jobs and to drive down salaries.

Where the employee is a commodity, easily interchanged with another employee, then prudent management will drive wages and benefits down to subsistence levels. If developers don’t like subsistence wages, they can find another job. Unskilled labor, after all, is readily portable. As I wrote a few months ago:

We all woke up one day to find ourselves living in the software factory. The floor is hard, from time to time it gets very cold at night, and they say the factory is going to close and move somewhere else.

The essay suggests that rational developers should rush to become committers to successful open source projects; once securely ensconced in that role, they can command a premium salary (even though they may no longer have time to do actual work for their employer!). But will this work? There can only be a few committers; this seems a recipe for building a software world with a few well-paid foremen (who don't actually do any work) and a lot of poorly-paid mechanics who spend their days writing production code and their nights struggling to please the foreman and aspiring to reach the airy heights of open source. This seems a recipe for recreating the worst aspects of the labor union, stripped of the notion (sometimes, arguably, a pretense) that the union represents its members. In this brave future, we’re all going to be Teamsters.

My main concern, though, is that the framework is not developed in sufficient depth to be testable. Is the omission of capital a mere detail that might require amendment, or a consequential oversight that changes the result entirely? We don’t know; I don’t see any sure way to find out.

It requires capital to start a software project. The failing competitor can treat this as a sunk cost and write it off, and if Dirk is right all our existing software is destined to be Open Source or abandoned, and all the capital invested in these projects will be written off. Where the capital is then to be found for new software becomes an interesting question. I think Dirk assumes that willing volunteers will contribute sweat equity, and so the requisite capital will appear, but I don't think this is explicit in his model. Nor is it clear how the market could efficiently allocate this capital since there is no market! My guess at the software designer's exit strategy: lots of tiny firms that make artisanal software. Give people or businesses a unique and useful tool to do jobs that need doing, specialize, and keep well away from commodity software.

Update: Peter Merholz (whom I thought to be blissfully honeymooning in Dublin) deplores the design industry’s exploitation of its workers. “It's not uncommon for services firms to have their staff work 50+ hour weeks,” he observes. (A fifty hour week is light for me, but then again I have a great job and only myself to blame.)

Make sure you know the rate you’re billing out at, figure out how much money you’re bringing into the company, and how much of that you are seeing... Find out what your company’s profit margin is, and what the company is doing with those profits. You don’t need to put up with bullshit in order to work on sexy projects — I know design firms that land great work AND treat their employees well.

First grilling opportunity of Spring!

  • grilled striped bass with crême fraiche, mustard, and dill sauce
  • smoked brisket of beef
  • corn on the cob (surprisingly good corn, too)
  • raspberry/blackberry slump

I can't quite get the knack of fileting the bass for service, and this time I wound up with several unsightly piles of meat, skin, and bones. It's tasty fish, and a nice sauce, and I did get most of the bones. But plenty got through.

The fire, slow to get started, ran away with me; I wanted to take the brisket off at 190° and it got to 210°. But all was not entirely lost; the crust was black but still tasty, and the meat remained quite pleasant.

I need to remember how easy it is to make Megnut's slump. It is, literally, about five minutes prep for the crust. Much easier than pie.

Hervé This lists the ten elements of basic kitchen knowledge.

  1. Salt dissolves in water.
  2. Salt does not dissolve in oil.
  3. Oil does not dissolve in water.
  4. Water boils at 100 C (212 F).
  5. Generally foods contain mostly water (or another fluid).
  6. Foods without water or fluid are tough.
  7. Some proteins (in eggs, meat, fish) coagulate.
  8. Collagen dissolves in water at temperatures higher than 55 C (131 F).
  9. Dishes are dispersed systems (combinations of gas, liquid or solid ingredients transformed by cooking).
  10. Some chemical processes - such as the Maillard Reaction (browning or caramelizing) - generate new flavors.

This is a fine, thoughtful list. It's not complete. One of the most important missing elements is:

3a. Some flavorful components — notably some flavors in onions and herbs — dissolve in oil but not in water.

Also, while salt is central, I think it is worth mentioning that sugars and acids generally don't dissolve in oil and do dissolve in water.

Thanks, Michael Ruhlman!

by David Crystal

In this volume, we spend a week driving around Wales and the Marches with an eminent and sociable linguist who has plenty of fine and amusing stories with which to amuse the dull spaces between towns. He knows why each city and village is named as it is, and he knows what interesting thing happened there in 642 or in 1739. Once in a while, we stop to do some work — to give a talk at a conference, to attend a festival of used books or Welsh music, to record sample accents for a BBC documentary. We learn why, in the British navy, one should never speak the word “232” aloud. We learn why Charles Darwin’s famous grandfather didn’t get along with Dictionary Johnson. We learn exactly what the differences are between Harry Potter’s British and American editions. We learn that Austrian bees can understand the dance of British bees, but that they dance with slightly different accents that lead to mild misunderstandings. It’s a pleasant, unsystematic interlude, a working week away from work.

Rob Rhyne has elegant slides (pdf) of a recent talk on “Breaking Consistency For Glory And Riches”, arguing for a more expansive and humanistic view of usability. It concludes with an interesting-looking spin on NeoVictorian Computing.

I'm going to be speaking in Porto on June 30 in a one-day colloquium on The New Research Workbench. Other speakers include Stewart Mader (WikiPatterns) and George Landow (Hypertext 3.0). More details are coming soon.

It's going to be open to the public, and registration won't be terribly expensive. You can get to Porto inexpensively from lots of places in Europe; it seems to be unusually well served by discount carriers.

Digital Culture is out. Congratulations to Hilde Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg, its editors.

And congratulations to PeterMe and Stavy Kozakavich, who were just married in Berkeley, where they announced their new work in progress.

Google launches Doctype, a vast wiki of Web documentation and libraries. Seeded with numerous articles and (somewhere) important javascript library. Plenty of gaps to be filled by willing (unpaid) hands. For starters, nothing much on selectors in CSS.

This morning, I wanted to start assigning Wikisym research papers to each of the 32 members of the WikiSym program committee.

Every paper at the conference is read by three, four, perhaps five experts. But matching papers and people is tricky. It's a lot like planning a dinner party. A really big dinner party.

But, just to get started, I had to get the authors and titles of the fifty papers. These had just been uploaded from five separate continents to a web app that's sitting on a server in Portugal, and which will happily supply the list in any format I like, provided I like the format it provides. Which is a big HTML table.

OK. I could scrape the screen, parse it in ruby, dump the result to xml, and get the xml into Tinderbox. But that's a bother.

Instead, I copied the text from Safari to BBEdit, quickly turned it into a tab-delimited file, and pasted it into Numbers. In Numbers, I rearranged the columns so the first column was the title of the paper. Then, I copied the table from Numbers and pasted in Tinderbox, Voila!

  • I get a note for each paper
  • The note title is the paper title
  • I also get new user attributes, already populated, that tell me
    • the paper's identification number
    • its author's name
    • its length in pages

So far, so good! I made new new prototype Paper, and assigned all the papers to use this prototype.

Next, I wanted to distinguish short papers. I added a rule to the prototype:

Rule: if($pages<6){BorderColor=white;} else {BorderColor=black}

Now, short papers have white borders.

An Interesting Tinderbox Task

Next, it's nice to have the papers identified by title, but what I'd really like to know is both the paper's ID number and its title. Easy enough!

DisplayExpression: $id+". "+$Name

Now, Tinderbox shows me the id number and the title of each paper.

Finally, I started assigning reviewers to papers. I just typed their last names into the note's text window. Let's add the number of assigned reviewers to the display:

DisplayExpression: $id+". ("+$Wordcount+") "+$Name

That gave me a new idea for a rule:

Rule: if($Wordcount<3){NameColor=white;} else {NameColor="lightest blue"}

Now, when I've assigned three reviewers to a paper, the note's title dims slightly.

An Interesting Tinderbox Task

I didn't plan this workflow, but so far it seems to work quite well. It only took a few minutes to build.

Another approach might be so make an adornment for each reviewer, and move papers (or aliases of papers) onto the reviewers to which they were assigned. That would make it easier to see which reviewers had too much work, and who had too little. But this was easy — the first thing that came to mind — and has proved reasonably pleasant and much more fun than retyping fifty titles.

Update: Johndan Johnson-Eilola observes that what I'm describing as “easy” is not precisely beer and kittens; this isn't the “easy” they show in TV ads. I'm using a bunch of tools, I'm writing rules, I'm improvising. It's not pushbutton magic.

But that's OK. I don't believe in that kind of magic anymore.

One of the vexations in the new design of this page is the line spacing in quotations. I like to quote, and I like to set off quotations clearly. This, after all, is why we have italics. And now (at last!) Web browsers render italics well. So, everything is great!

Great indeed, except that I don't know what font you happen to have. If you're reading this on a Macintosh right now, you probably see the quotations in Hoefler Text.

CSS and line height

If you don't have a Macintosh and aren't a designer, you probably don't have Hoefler. So, we try Baskerville. But maybe you don't have Baskerville? We'll try Georgia. You've got Georgia, and it's a good font!

CSS and line height

It's a good font, but it's got a much larger x-height, and it really wants more space between lines. And, as far as I know, there's no way in CSS to say, “You can use Hoefler or Georgia, but if you do use Georgia, I want extra leading!”

The real underlying issue is that, when you say “12pt type”, there's no really precise meaning to what that 12 points means.

May 08 13 2008


While in Chicago, we had a lovely dinner at Avec. It's an unusual restaurant, but I think it's not going to be unusual much longer.

Avec is squeezed into a long, narrow space. It's an adjunct to Blackbird, a more conventional (but much lauded) restaurant. This happens all the time in Europe, where you can find great kitchens that have a few extra, informal tables in a space next door. But Blackbird is already long and narrow, so Avec has to cope with a space big enough for a very long bar and one long row of communal tables.

No reservations; you get seated when there's space. Informal (but attentive) service. Serious food.

We had a fine plate of charcuterie, followed by a lovely homemade duck sausage with roasted mushrooms, pickled onion, and tasty, flavorful spheres of what I thought were pasta (or tapioca) but were actually giant couscous.

And then we had chorizo-stuffed dates, wrapped in very thin slices of bacon and sauced with piquillo peppers and tomatoes, These were seriously good! It's not overly elaborate; you need the smoky bacon to balance the date, you need the date to offset the spicy chorizo, and the sauce helps heighten everything. So no wasted moves, but it makes a very tasty plate.

And then we had a piece of pork shoulder, brought to the table in its own little Staub coccotte, braised with stock, dried apricot, slab bacon, and apricot mustard. Brilliant!

Finishing up with cheeses was, so to speak, icing on the cake.

I see several interesting trends converging here:

  • Eating at the counter, or near the counter
  • Attentive but simple presentation
  • Serious food, convivial lunch-counter style
  • Communal or ad hoc seating

Some old Boston restaurants had long communal tables. Legal Seafoods, when it was a neighborhood dive, did this. So did Durgin Park before it was purely touristic; maybe they still do. But Australian restaurants seem to do this a lot. And while Paris bistros give you your own table, a crowded bistro gets pretty communal. This might not be quite the thing for the proverbial Big Night Out, but it can also be good fun. (I expect it only works for restaurants too expensive for small children to be very common.)

Late at night, my sister went outside her hotel for a smoke and struck up a conversation with another guest, whom she describes as immense, young, and very good looking. After a bit, he looked at her and said,

I bet you have no idea who I am!

And she didn't. OK, this is my sister, the girl who was told in a restaurant that they needed her table and replied with some irritation. "And who the hell are you?"

"I'm Bill Gates," he explained.

"And who is Bill Gates?" So Jan wound up having dessert with BillG@microsoft.

Jan asked the atheletic fellow who he was, but he told her that he likes it when people don't know. And so we don't.

Via Tim Bray, a very interesting lecture by Steve Yegge on the state of the art (or, rather, the coming state of the art) in dynamic languages. Highly recommended for CS people and programmers who aren’t allergic to a little bit of theory, though also very challenging.

When grilling, we sometimes have margaritas.

I have learned, by the way, that the secret to a really good margarita is good tequila. That's surprising, because a really good margarita has a lot of fresh lime juice, and you'd expect the lime juice to overwhelm the nuances of the liquor. No dice: I tried upgrading the tequila just once on a lark, and now our margaritas require a small bank loan.

But they're good.

I mention the margaritas because, when we have margaritas on the porch, it always brings out the garden slugs. They love margaritas. They even climb stairs.

Cathy Marshall just discovered that her houseplants are even better than margaritas; her slugs climb up to the roof! And they're not very well brought up:

I realize that slugs don’t bite, don’t sting, and they’re a great deal smaller than I am. They’re not that menacing. I was in no particular danger. But—ewwwww—they’re gross. Snails at least have the great good sense to wear some kind of outer garments.

Roger Ebert recalls his early days as a sportswriter, covering Champaign-Urbana sports.

I would begin a story time and time again on an old Smith-Corona manual typewriter, ripping each Not Quite Great Lead from the machine and hurling it at the wastebasket. [Bill] Lyon watched this performance for a couple of weeks and gave me two of the most valuable pieces of writing advice I have ever received: (1) Once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it's going? (2) The Muse visits during creation, not before. Don't want for inspiration, just plunge in.

These rules have saved me half a career's worth of time, and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I'm not faster. I just spend less time not writing.

We had Linda's late birthday dinner at Toplolobampo last week, as we were in Chicago for my mother's 80th. I had the mole tasting menu, which is inspired by the writings of Martha Chapa. I don't know Martha Chapa; I should. These days, menus come with footnotes.

The appetizer was a very pretty dish of two square blocks of fire-roasted poblano, serving as bookends for a 45-minute egg. As I understand it, the egg is some sort of sous vide preparation; it was a nice egg, but I'm not entirely sure what I was looking for. It was all nestled in mashed peas, which make a handy springtime sauce.

The soup was oxtail, from happy, educated oxen who had been fed tall grass. Tall grass must be handy, if you are of the bovine ilk. The soup had grilled ramps and xoconostle jellies. Xoconostle is a cactus; I bet you knew that. All the foodies love ramps, especially grilled. I like them a lot, too.

The squab came with "Guanajuato-style mole Francachela". You not only need footnotes, you need a scorecard. (At the time, I was busy enjoying the tasty poultry in its complex sauce. But you could have looked it up. I did later. No dice: I guess I need a Mexican Larousse. Or Ms. Chapa!)

The star course was a delicious piece of roasted goat, with a remarkable hot and sweet mole with ancho, pasilla, guajillo, almonds, raisins, pecans, sesame, chocolate, and more. The dessert (tres leches cake) had just a touch of ancho and pasilla too.

Torill Mortensen’s weblog seldom criticizes her colleagues, but a recent virtual conference on World of Warcraft has brought out her inner troll. The questions in the session, she recalls, were all asking the panelists for predictions.

1. Given that computer technology and Internet have stabilized, are current virtual worlds a technological dead end?

2. Other than WoW's are there really any long-term viable business models for virtual worlds?

3. Would standardization of software-data platforms be revolutionary, permitting migration across many worlds?

Her summary: “‘As a team building experience, this conference was interesting, it brought together a lot of people from all over the US, and some from beyond. As scholarship? Well, let's say: I know in which context I can use this experience :)” And her title: Sorry, crystal ball is DC'ed!

In a related vein, Jonathan Gottschall in the Boston Globe calls for literary criticism to recover its footing by planting its feet in firmer, more rational soil.

Though the causes of the crisis are multiple and complex, I believe the dominant factor is easily identified: We literary scholars have mostly failed to generate surer and firmer knowledge about the things we study. While most other fields gradually accumulate new and durable understanding about the world, the great minds of literary studies have, over the past few decades, chiefly produced theories and speculation with little relevance to anyone but the scholars themselves. So instead of steadily building a body of solid knowledge about literature, culture, and the human condition, the field wanders in continuous circles, bending with fashions and the pronouncements of its charismatic leaders.

Greg Costikyan gives us a sound defense of Game Studies in riposte to a provocative denunciation by Greg Travis. They're both right.

Travis (a professor of Classics) observes correctly that the concerns of Game Studies are not the concerns of people who enjoy the games, and indeed Games Studies often views designers and players alike with a certain haughty disdain. The core issue: we see the flaws in games. If we study them carefully and thoroughly, these flaws become more and more glaring. And we see the flaws in gamers, too. A filmgoer who adores Herzog and Fassbinder is no less a grognard than a gamer, but we tend to visualize one as a desirable and handsome adult and the other as an immature adolescent.

By pretending that game studies stands alone as a unified discipline rather than at the nexus of various other fields, scholars of game studies (and those of departments that call themselves things like "digital media studies") are institutionalizing exactly what Wilson feels: antipathy to the real culture of gaming. The more entrenched the notion becomes that gamers are abnormal and defective, the longer it will take for real works of art like Sins of a Solar Empire, BioShock and, yes, even Halo to vindicate gaming as a worthwhile pursuit.

Travis sees as particularly pernicious the academic desire to encourage people to create serious, persuasive games; he observes that these exercises have seldom been much fun to play.

Costikyan defends Game Studies as a necessary step, part of the evolution of game criticism that might guide games out of the malaise of commercially-constrained repetition that plagues the industry.

...a natural evolution of game culture, a recognition by the academy that games, and game culture, are now sufficiently important enough to be worthy of, and to repay, study. And since gamers, or the more sophisticated among them, are among the natural audience for the products of game studies, game studies helps to inform game culture -- and, I believe, modify it for the better.

The root discomfort, of course, is the games we play. Those that are fun seldom bear thinking about; those we can think about are rarely much fun. Persuasive games are not very persuasive, either — as far as I am aware, the best of these occasionally aspire to the subtlety of Soviet poster art.

Adrian Miles sends word of a very intriguing essay, Toward a Visceral Scholarship Online: and Hypermedia Ethnography, by Craig Saper. It's in the new e-journal, E-Media Studies.

I'm going to step back and fix some nagging design issues on this page. At the same time, I hope to clean up the Tinderbox workflow to take advantage of new Tinderbox features. Now that we're up to 4300 notes here, occasional cleaning makes sense.

Things might break occasionally; we'll put everything back together when we're done.

Susan Gibb explores the sensual nature of hypertext, reflecting on Calvino's cold winter nights and Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl:

Lovers' reading of each other's bodies (of that concentrate of mind and body which lovers use to go to bed together) differs from the reading of written pages in that it is not linear.  It starts at any point, skips, repeats itself, goes awkward, insists, ramifies in simultaneous divergent messages, converges again, has moments of irritation, turns the page, finds its place, gets lost

Another intriguing suggestion: sex as white space.

by Peter Faulkner

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Notice that ambiguous but quietly uncompromising disjunction. Have nothing that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Does Morris mean that we can retain ugly but useful things? Surely not! And note, too, the subtle acknowledgment that we can know something is useful (by using it) but we can only believe in its beauty.

This pleasant and concise biography of William Morris focuses most strongly on his literary work, but not to the exclusion of his contributions to interior design, printing, stained glass, and politics. Morris seems never to have hesitated to study something he wanted to know, or to pursue expertise he felt he might enjoy or that might benefit his friends and countrymen.

We're running a Tinderbox special for students, teachers, professors, and other academics. It's one way we try to get people off the fence. (I can't imagine investing all that time in college or graduate school — much less all that money — and not using Tinderbox. But that's just me.)

Another way I think we can help people without a lot of money is to support some screencasts, case studies, and tutorials. There's not a huge pot of money to go around, but there's some. We can certainly find some licenses and upgrades, and some extra money too, for some insights into how best to use Tinderbox to get stuff done.

Perhaps we should review scripts? Or rough cuts? Or proposals? Does a contest make more sense? Email me.

CSS is nice for making your web page look right. In this wild example, CSS is used to make a web page (with no graphics -- just text) look like Homer Simpson.