Jul 08 14 2008

Feed Me!

I'm going to have a weekend in Paris in September, in transit after WikiSym. Oh, the possibilities! I'm tempted to plan nearly every meal. This is madness.

But what do you think? Email me.

Ed Ward has a lovely paen today to the therapeutic effects of spending a little bit too much for dinner in Paris.

Monsieur had opened the front door and was standing outside on the sidewalk. What, I asked him, was that potato thing? "Gallette Lyonnaise," he answered. "Potatoes, onions, bacon. You put it on the plate to look like a cake, which is why the 'gallette.'" "And the potatoes make it Lyonnaise," I said. "Exactly." The air was cool and bracing. "You are at a hotel?" he said, pointing down the hill. "he hotel," I said, pointing up the hill. "Ah, rue Lafayette," he decided. I didn't disabuse him. He extended his hand. "Well, my friend, thank you very much. Come again." I told him I would and he went back inside. I started the climb to the firetrap I was going to call home for the night.

Closer to home, I made a nice dish the other night. I sauteed two shallots in olve oil, and added a couple of cups of wild rice. After a couple of minutes I added a half cup of white wine, and let it reduce, and then two cups of water. While the rice cooked, I small-diced some artisan kielbasa, sauteed, and drained it. Then I diced some really nice little organic carrots and browned them lightly in olive oil and butter. As the rice was nearly done, I added everything along with a few dried cherries and plenty of baby spinach, stirred, and served with a nice Chilean sauvignon blanc.

Apr 05 15 2005


The theme of my talk at American University this afternoon was a simple puzzle.

When we make exciting new software, we aren't just trying to make things slightly better. We're trying to change everything, to make things a lot better. These are big aspirations, but we've sometimes succeeded.

  • Get on a plane, and everyone around you is using a souped-up version of Alan Kay's Dynabook. I remember when laptops were someone's doctoral dissertation.
  • Go to a store, pick something up. Chances are good, it's got a URL on it. The salad has a URL. They're scanning Harvard's library. The Web is, literally, everywhere.
  • Everyone on the Metro has an iPod. More iPods than cell phones. That's a ton of music, and (I expect) a ton of Web-delivered art.
  • That's not to mention things like the number of people whose lives were changed after reading a novel that wouldn't have been written if the author had to wrestle with typescripts, or the number of business blunders prevented by ubiquitous spreadsheets.

So, this is what we're trying to do. But we also want to know we're making things better, we want to know when it's right. We want to know it.

And our techniques for measuring software quality, while good for measuring incremental improvements, are essentially blind to major successes. Terrific outcomes are bound to be rare: it's just too much to expect to make a terrific difference for nearly everybody. Statistical methods -- drag races, usability studies -- will never see more than one. And, if you see one terrific outcome in a sample of, say, 25 tests, you're almost certain to reject it as an outlier or a special case or a failure.

And if you don't, the reviewers will.

Perhaps the model here should be medicine -- another discipline that, like computer science, is essentially a craft (and sometimes an art) with aspirations to scientific seriousness -- to know and to demonstrate that the solution is good rather than simply to believe it so. The medical literature has long had a place for rare diseases and unexpected outcomes.

Perhaps I'm reading the wrong literature. But it seems to me that we're a lot better at finding out whether this widget is 5% faster than that widget, than we are at learning about programs that can sometimes change everything

Apr 05 14 2005


We spent much of the day wandering through the Centre Pompidou, exploring the vast spaces and vast collection. The building's not new anymore -- it must be nearly twenty -- but it's stood up remarkably well. Not just in terms of the general shabbiness that sometimes creeps up on modern architecture, but also in terms of the way the building still reads as new, exciting, and sensible. Moving all the circulation to the exterior was a stunt, yes, but it does leave you with huge, uncluttered spaces.


A show of newly-commissioned Dionysiac art left me completely cold. This was fun to discuss in college, sure, but I'm not sure these works teach us a lot that we didn't figure out back then.

The real gems, of course, are the vast rooms of wonderful early moderns. It's amazing to see how quickly people picked up Cubism. 1912 must have been an interesting year.

Apr 05 12 2005

Tinderbox Paris

I'm off to Tinderbox Weekend Paris. Hoping for lots of tasty dinners, and lots of stimulating Tinderbox talk. Thanks again to the American University Paris for their help in setting this up!

Tinderbox Paris

Incidentally, the AUP web site's home page is quite interesting. Most universities use their home page as a directory (Texas A&M, Bergen, ITU-Copenhagen) with perhaps a little amateur branding. AUP has what amounts to an institutional blog, with lots of interesting news about specific people and projects. Swarthmore does this too. Uncharacteristically, Harvard's also ahead of the game.

Let's meet in Paris this Spring.

Why don't we try to pull together a Tinderbox weekend in Paris, April 16-17? We've got a terrific space at the American University of Paris. We've got just barely enough space in the calendar. Let's go for it!

Tinderbox Weekend Paris

Register soon, please; because space is going to be tight and logistics are complicated by distance, the early registration fee is likely to be a real bargain)

My travel schedule this Spring is going to be slightly demanding. A Tinderbox beta tester wrote me this morning, burdened with yet another fresh release: "don't you guys ever rest?" I'm going to be doing a lot of writing and software development on airplanes.

Emma Bull's 1987 War for the Oaks describes the war in Faerie for possession of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Reading it in Rome, I was struck by the impression that the entire genre of elfpunk is really about the way intelligent and sympathetic Europeans and Americans view each other today. (This categorie excludes the Bushies in the US, of course, and the most virulent left and right-wing culture hawks in Europe)

Europe and Faerie

The denizens of Faerie are achingly beautiful and dress really well; Americans who stroll down the streets of Paris or Milan have the same feeling. Elves (and vampires) possess an ancient culture, bound up with arcane customs and incomprehensible courtesies and rituals. They make and own beautiful things, they treasure nature, and to them nature is cultivated, tamed, and comfortable. They have hereditary titles. They have great sex.

To the faerie court, mortals often seem ignorant, inexperienced, and clumsy. But mortals are also endlessly fascinating and strangely alluring; without the strictures of tradition and custom, mortals create things of which faeries never dreamed. Their art has raw power and excitement, and by elven standards the mortals have a charming directness, enthusiasm, and simplicity. Mortals are puritans, afflicted by strange conflicts about their bodies. And even the most powerful members of the faerie court always sense that this is the age of mortals, that mortals are somehow at the center of things.

Europe and Faerie

Mortals can't understand why ancient faerie rivalries matter so much, why the Seelie and Unseelie court need to fight their interminable war. Why not just sit down, work it out, shake hands, move on? To immortals, this seems foolish and naive -- except that for some reason it appears to work for mortals. The American Civil War was horrible, yes, but once it was over, it was over. In Faerie, they remember these things and keep their anger fresh. The elves would still support guerilla bands in the Appalachians, they would hold armed marches, riots, and bombings to honor the memory of Tippecanoe and the Battle of Quebec.

See also Neil Gaiman (Great Britain), American Gods, and William Gibson (Canada), Pattern Recognition, and Laurel Hamilton (U.S.), A Kiss of Shadows.  (Thanks, Maggy, for the book tip)

Laurent Sauerwein sends this photo of the last slide of my talk at the American University of Paris.

Sep 03 30 2003


What is the role of image in the weblog?

The traditional photo web journal, pioneered by Dan Bricklin, includes photographs as illustrations. You went to a wedding? Put some wedding shots in your weblog. You went to Paris? Why not get the Eiffel Tower. (See below)

That's fine for occasional images. But what do you do if you'd like images all the time? And what do you do when the topics you want to discuss don't lend themselves to illustration.

McCloud observes, in Understanding Comics, that in comics the words and images are free to support each other or to move independently. When they dance apart, their relationship may be immediately obvious, or it may be obscure at first, to be clarified gradually in time.

Sep 03 29 2003

New World

Paris is rich in small, specialized shops. They often cluster together, as they did in the Middle Ages. Rue Dante, today, is a center for comics and role playing games. You constantly bump into specialized bookstores. And, of course, the bread store, the pastry store, the vegetable store, the butcher -- all separate.

I was asking a professor at the American University of Paris (where I gave a talk and enjoyed some interesting discussions) about the economics of retail in Paris. How do small stores resist the pressures that have turned the US into the land of Wall Mart and Barnes and Noble? Perhaps, I suggested, labor costs are less, permitting stores to stay open with less overhead?

"But surely," she answered, "your labor costs are lower!"

That's a tremendous change. From Mark Twain's time on down, US labor has been famously expensive. An empty continent, insatiable competition between agriculture and factories, the land of opportunity -- all contrasted with the huddled tenements of Europe.

But one conspicuous absence during my strolls has been Web design boutiques and studios. You see plenty in London, for example. And I've seen plenty of WiFi cafes, computer stores, internet access points, interactive game sellers. But fewer galleries than I'd expected -- rents are high, I hear -- and many fewer interesting signs for trendy Web firms. Perhaps they're in another street.

Sep 03 26 2003

Bucket of Books

Charles DeGeorge's Young Aristotle, now in the Orsay, was a hit of the Salon of 1875. It's one of those sculptures from the racy Victorian era that we can hardly see anymore, now that the fundamentalists are in charge.

Boy Aristotle sits around on a nice morning. He doesn't bother to dress properly (lucky us), he doesn't sit properly, he's just reading from a bucket of books.

My talk at Paris 8 on Software Aesthetics was, I think, a complete failure. The big issue may be that I've got a fundamental problem with the argument that I'm unable to see. The mid-size problem may be that I'm ignorant of French, and that's a larger obstacle than I'd realized.

But a very real problem is that there seems to be no place to speak about new media where we can safely assume that we're all familiar with the relevant bucket of books. This is very bad. I'd assumed, by now, that at a specialist conference I was safe referring to Joyce and Aarseth, Landow and Manovich, McCloud and Laurel. How can we stand on the shoulders of giants -- or on each other's shoulders, if not giants are handy -- if we haven't done the reading?

Sep 03 22 2003


In Paris, they find extraordinary things in their basements.

When excavating for the Grand Louvre project with I.M. Pei's entrance pyramid, they found the foundations of battlements right where they'd left them. There's a lot of this going around; here's a 16th century porch, unmarked and unremarked (except, luckily, by a delightful Paris Walks by Alison and Sonia Landes).

Aug 03 16 2003

Photos in Paris

Where, in Paris, does one go to see classic photography? Serious contemporary photography? (Linda is hoping to join me in Paris next month for HT2PM...)

Update: some Web leads from François Granger