Oct 05 3 2005

Three Days To Go

Three days to go in summer. The Yankees are a game ahead of the Red Sox, and they come to Fenway for the final three games of the season. Wow.

What's interesting, here, is that the customary power structure is backwards. This year, the Yankees have patched together a stretch drive from spare parts and hope and Aaron Small. The Red Sox are here because they ought to be; the Yankees are here because they've managed to win 94 games without a center fielder, a second baseman, or a starting rotation.

And let's hear three cheers again for the Braves, who once more won the NL East. They've been playing with the patched-together remnants of a once-great club for so long that the remnants have retired and the patches themselves are mostly gone.

BitterGreens is a blog comic -- a journal-style weblog that happens to appear in the form of three-pane comics. It's written by Lulu LaMer, who also writes for 101Cookbooks.

I find the writing itself holds its own. Here, for example, is September 25:

I spent the first part of the day getting Hella laid. 'Are those your shoes?'

'They're not yours?'

Then we walked over to Webzine. I was all spaced out. 'I'm gonna talk to Justin, he has a short attention span too.'

Then I went home and made some soup and hummus. Black sesame seeds make it look like mud.

This isn't easy narrative, but it's evocative. Here's the comic (click for full size)

Blog comics

The drawing is not, I think, nearly as primitive as it looks at first glance. But you can do this, too, even if you think you can't draw. Here's the story, told with 75 cents work of stock photography:

Blog comics

But we can do roughly the same thing with a symbol font -- even a bad, ubiquitous symbol font like Webdings.

Blog comics

It's not so much the drawing that's carrying this as the writing -- and the resonance that the writing picks up from whatever imagery is close at hand.

Oct 05 2 2005

Getting it Right

The new Poser 6 looks cool, but it's crashing on me constantly.

The website blames out-of-date drivers, but the crash log says it's crashing in a menu destructor; that doesn't sound like a driver issue to me. Dubious.

I'm downloading "service release 1" -- which, since I bought the upgrade on the day it was announced, really means "the version we would've put on the CD, if we hadn't messed up."

Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks is all about the food, but it's even more about the photos.

The new issue of Cook's arrived on Tuesday, and so (like thousands of households all over the world) I spent Wednesday evening trying out some of the new results.

An article in Cook's is a 'result' rather than just a recipe, because Cook's is always about comparing ideas and approaches. Should we cook the vegetables longer, or hotter? Should we use canned tomatoes or fresh?

Roasted green beans came out very well. It's ridiculously easy: toss the green beans with a little oil, salt them, toss them into a 450° oven on a foil-covered baking sheet. Timely idea, because Linda found some champion beans at the farmers' market.

Hunter's chicken is a dish I've been trying for ages, with mixed success. Cook's came up with a few interesting axes:

  • Brown the chicken aggressively, and then finish in the oven. Build the sauce separately while the chicken cooks through. Simple, effective way to avoid overcooking the meat.
  • Brown the mushrooms very aggressively. (Having a really good range helps a lot here, as does faith that deglazing will restore your pan. Somehow, I never really understood deglazing before the last year or two. Who needs algebra? Teach those high school kids how to use a pan!)
  • Drain the canned, diced tomatoes. This seems wasteful, but makes a real difference in the consistency of the sauce.

Mistake: the 3T of brandy evaporated in my very hot pan, before I could ignite it. I don't know whether it contributed anything to the dish, or not. The Cook's writer tested the flambee step, assuming it was froth, and assures us that it matters.

From The Guardian:

Armed dolphins, trained by the US military to shoot terrorists and pinpoint spies underwater, may be missing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Oct 05 1 2005

Cloud of Ideas

Martin Spernau is on a roll! His latest Tinderbox note explores a clever way to move from complex maps (idea clouds) of notes to linear essays. By sorting the container by map position, Spernau can automatically sequence the linear essay by moving notes on the map.

If you're using Tinderbox in medicine, or want to explore medical applications of Tinderbox, drop me an email. I'd like to make some introductions, or perhaps we could start a BoF group....

by David Remnick , ed.

Astonishing. Eighty years of the New Yorker, on 8 DVDs. Good scans of the pages, including ads, and very adequate software for searching and browsing. For Mac and Windows.

Of summer, five games remain.

The Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Indians are tied. The White Sox have a two game lead on the Indians, but that used to be a fifteen game lead -- and the ChiSox are terribly shaky.

It's not quite that childhood summer -- was it 1967? -- when Detroit, Boston, Minnesota, and Chicago all went into the final weekend. But this is probably the best pennant race possible now that we're stuck with playoffs and divisions.

TEKKA contributor Greg Costikyan has left Nokia to found Manifesto Games.

PC Gamers of the World Unite! You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Retail Chains!

Nick Finck and colleagues have launched a new user experience consultancy, Blue Flavor.

Martin Spernau shows a handy Tinderbox trick for exporting in-page navigation links. These are especially useful for writing long essays, since they let you provide quick links to each section.

Late in the second day of WebZine, I ended up doing an impromptu demo of Tinderbox as a tool for crafting a quick, interactive presentation.

It's an interesting task. Irina Slutsky wanted to present an exploration of the patterns of connection in New Orleans between the Blackwater mercenaries, various front organizations, and the GOP power structure. The point she wanted to make was that organizers need to track the facts and connections and present the data -- that too much rhetoric and too few facts had too often weakened the left. But, in a moving story like this, new connections are emerging all the time -- which made the chart she was drawing on scrap cardboard a bit of a mess. And, because the didn't know in advance where all the links would go, PowerPoint turned out to be intractable.

Tinderbox Presentation Demo

Tinderbox Presentation Demo

Why do this in Tinderbox instead of a graphics or presentation program?

  1. Tinderbox makes it very easy to move things around, and to add new notes and new links
  2. Tinderbox also lets you store support information -- sources, annotation, original data, contact information -- inside the notes. After all, it a tool for notes.

The downside is that you don't have a huge repertory of shapes and arrows and assorted chartjunk. But that might not be a downside at all, since we're discovering structure and writing things down, not making glossy slides.

Sep 05 28 2005

WebZine 1.5

WebZine starts later than any conference I've been to (aside from MacHack, which boasted a midnight opening keynote as a stunt). Each day began at noon.

This was explained when the WebZine party began at 10 (which was 1am according to my jet lag) and was only beginning to cook when I left at 2am. It was a very good party, of course: these are the cool kids, and they know how to do this stuff. Lots of fun video, cool lighting. Kegs of Guinness, mixed drinks as well. Not too quiet, not too loud. And just enough oddity to keep things interesting. (The shrink-wrapped young woman was a fashion statement)

Some great discussions on cooking, games, new media journalism, and (of course) web zines.

Playwright Charles Deemer has an intriguing note on using Storyspace to craft the structure of a new hypertext fiction, the Tchaikovsky hypertext.

I write hypertext using a powerful editor called Storyspace. If there's a better hypertext tool on the market, I don't know about it. Storyspace creates writing spaces, which you then can link together in various ways.

I'm going to structure my writing spaces in three columns. The central column will be the central narrative thread. The left column will be back story writing spaces. The right column will be miscellaneous writing spaces, including stream of consciousness, monologues, reviews and other newspaper items of the day, music files, and whatever else may be appropriate.

Riding the Muni in San Francisco costs $1.50 . Exact change. No bills.


They have change machines that take a 10 or a 20, and give you some $5 bills. They also have change machines that take a $1 bill and give you quarters.

They have no machines at all that take a $5 bill. They do have an attendant in the booth, whose job it is to tell a constant stream of tourists that there's no solution to their problem. (She suggests buying something for $1 from a nearby stand, receiving $4 in change. A 20% commission, in short, for opening a cash drawer.)

What's wrong with this picture?

But this tragic story – the story of forgetting a past in Toledo where there is a church with an homage to Arabic writing on it walls, and where there is a sumptuous 14th-century synagogue built to look like Granada's Alhambra, and where Europe's richest libraries and most industrious translators of philosophical and scientific texts once sat — is inseparable from the other stories of the age that culminates with Don Quixote de La Mancha and the expulsion of the Moriscos. Cervantes' novel is framed, laid out for us, as the child — the stepchild — of that history, grotesquely transformed: Arabic books are now rags being peddled to the poor merchant in the streets of a Jewish quarter where no Jews can live, and these books will be translated by the barest remnants of a Muslim, a man who must pretend to be Christian and who, tragically, cannot really read Arabic.

A bunch of the WebZine crowd blogs about food. (A bunch blog about sex, too -- this is San Francisco. It does seem that the sex bloggers are orthogonal to the food bloggers.)

Particularly striking was Heidi Swanson, who was part of a panel on building and managing community. (What? No Derek?) She runs 101 Cookbooks, which today is featuring a recipe for salt crusted potatoes that I really want to try.

I tried to draw her out after the talk about my perception that food writing is changing, undergoing the sort of revolution that Julia Child ushered in, or Rombauer, or Mrs. Beeton for that matter. I think her own recipe captures one of the essential parts of the new style: instead of telling you what to do, her little essay on baby potatoes begins by telling you what she wanted, and the proceeds to explain what she tried and finally why the right answer works.

Ironically, her final answer is just about identical to a recipe I was staring at a few weeks ago, for potatoes in croûte sel, in Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. I didn't make the recipe, though, because I didn't know what was intended -- is the crust meant to be eaten, or is it just a means to the end? Though Swanson takes a longer path, at its end we know that she wants to do, and we can see in her photographs that the crust is a scaffold and that the three cups (cups!) of kosher salt are for process, not for dinner.

There's an interesting revolution brewing in food writing. Look for the same revolution to overtake technical writing in a few years.

Dinner tonight at Pazzia, recommended by Pat Delaney for last year's Tinderbox dinner. They couldn't fit us into their plans last year, but tonight they had a little table free. The bruschetta was everything you'd want, with really nice tomatoes and good, fragrant basil. The seafood risotto was good, too, with subtle fire and very fine shrimp that almost made up for rice that might have had just a trace of chalkiness. But perhaps I was being fussy....

Update: Martin Spernau says the change is already afoot.

by Maria Rosa Menocal

From the 9th to the 15th century, the region we now call Spain was a rich mixture of Arab, Jewish, and Christian cultures that worked together to create a culture of crucial intellectual openness and scope. Much of the legacy of antiquity -- science, mathematics, philosophy -- reenters Western history through Cordoba and Toledo, places where mosques became churches and where churches were decorated with Arabic writing because Arabic writing looked so good. Jews became viziers, Christian princes became knight-defenders of Moslem cities, and Christians from every corner of the old Empire came to study astronomy and theology, to learn from Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Musa ibn Maymun (Maimonides). The memory of this era had an extraordinarily long life: when the prosperous German Jews of Manhattan built new synagogues in the 19th century, the architectural style for which they reflexively reached was the 10th century mosque.

That al-Andalus might serve as a better model for our future than, say, the Balkans, makes Menocal's volume one of urgent political interest. What Menocal, curiously and distressingly, fails to explain is why this amity fell apart. Why did Spain expel the Jews in 1492, and then expel the conversos and moriscos who chose their homeland over their religion? How did minds close, and why? The answers here -- epedimic and puritan outsiders -- are unsatisfactory because they aren't causal. There are always closed-minded puritans: why did they suddenly and permanently rout the scholars and statesmen?

Menocal teaches us to sympathize with and appreciate the generations when things went right, but she has neither sympathy nor, it seems, much interest in the people and the forces that drove Spain, and all of Europe, so horribly wrong.

Justin was right: WebZine is surprisingly good. Solid, thoughtful, useful ideas about the online life. I'm surprised the level of discussion is so high, and that people aren't spending all their time rehashing the same old anxieties.

People here, for example, are a lot more upbeat and no less thoughtful than they were at last year's Chicago BlogWalk -- a very selective venue.

The WebZine crew also do an enviable job of publicity. Good crowd. Merlin Mann turns out to be sitting behind me.

Red Sox Nation is all a-natter as the Sox, once expected to breeze to the division past the aging and exhausted Yankees, fall into second place. What people don't mention is that 2004 was a surprise: surely, the plan was to win it this year. Last year, the Sox were over-achievers; this year, they're good. But good isn't always enough; that's why they play the games.

Little noticed, but enthralling, is the unfolding collapse of the Chicago White Sox, who a few weeks ago were the phenom of the league and a mortal lock for the playoffs and who, suddenly, are bidding to surpass the '64 Phillies. (A pity Gene Mauch didn't live to see the day)

Sep 05 26 2005

Flanking Fire

One headache that City of Heroes (and, I think, other current MMRPG games) poses for ludologists seems to have gone unremarked. If play is the essence, why are the players so bad at it?

In a ludological reading, City of Heroes is a series of exciting combat sequences, strung together by a narrative pretext. You spend most of your time crime-fighting, or traveling to the scene of the crime, or shopping for better super powers so you can arrest tougher criminals. And a lot of the game design is slanted toward getting teams of heroes to work together.

But -- at least for the low and midrange milieu my character inhabits, the tactical skill of the other players is unimpressive. They've got lots of experience, most of them -- they seem to have played the game a lot, they know exactly where to go and how to move, so they race around with blinding speed. But it seems to me they generally fight thoughtlessly, inefficiently.

  • I seldom see any attention to flanking fire. That's partly sensible, because the criminals don't seem especially dismayed to be taking damage against which they can't retaliate. Bad guys in City Of Heroes don't have much survival instinct. (In general, I'm surprised the enemy AI is so flat and so uniform)
  • I never see players pay attention to concentration of force. Never. A big team invariably splits up into a series of individual combats. This has a certain Heroic flavor to it -- it's the combat style of Troy, the battle tactics of Arthur. But, surely, this isn't the most efficient way to fight, the way to squeeze the most tactical success and safety out of the resources at hand.
  • The one tactic people talk about is pulling. Exploiting an error in the enemy AI, players lure individual figures at the edge of a group into attacking them one by one. The efficacy of pulling is just a horizon effect. Rather than fix it, the designers have assimilated the effect and its tactics into the universe, creating special powers to exploit the exploit.
  • Heroes have no zone of control -- a bad guy is free to run right past a big, scary, threatening hero, even if the hero is completely at leisure to clobber the bad guy. This, coupled with the bad guy's indifference to flanking fire (and to un, sub, and supernatural forces), means that lots of tactics don't work very well. It's hard to protect your fragile artillery and medics, for example, because a bad guy who feels like going for Fred can pretty much go for Fred, whatever anyone does.
  • In consequence, nobody is very concerned with protecting Fred.

It's not an issue of realism -- this is a City Of Heroes. But, if combat were really the point, wouldn't players work harder at doing it well?

Now, this is a very preliminary observation based on some arbitrary playing. I might have stumbled across some inept players. Or, the players who understand tactics may rush through the lower levels quickly while the inept kids pile up. At some stage, I understand, you start getting players who have bought rank outside the game, and so they have lots of power and no idea what to do with it: perhaps I'm already seeing some of that, too.

But if the ludic core of City of Heroes was the key, you'd think people who play a lot would be better at it than they are.

Primer, much buzzed at Sundance, is probably the best time travel movie ever made. It's still not a great movie, but it's nicely put together.

It looks fine. And since it's about the high tech stuff some young engineers throw together in the back of their garage, it looks fine without needing a ton of budget. Well acted, and written with respect for the audience's intelligence. I'm not sure that the editing is as taut as it could be, but some shots that seemed ornamental to me might be filling in clues and details I missed.

The underlying problem is simply that the modern time-travel paradox story is inherently cerebral. It's an insider game that's been played amongst fans for decades. Trying to do it in film means that you have to keep track of the score while it's moving in real time: it's an interesting exercise, but it's really hard to keep track of the temporal mathematics while caring about the characters and keeping an eye out for unexpected tricky business.

On the way back from Australia, it seems, I left my old collapsible headphones on the plane. As a result, I haven't been watching movies on my computer. That's put a real crimp in my film viewing.

I figured I'd buy a new pair -- they're not expensive. But shopping at Amazon, I found that Sennheiser makes a noise-cancelling headset with the same collapsible form. I thought it might be worth a try.

First impression: they're great on planes. You still hear the engines, but they're a modest rumble. They're very lightweight, too, so they don't annoy you on long flights.

I did manage to leave my Australian airplane pillow at home, even though I'm taking the redeye back from San Francisco this weekend. I am an idiot.

Sep 05 25 2005



Here's Degas: a fresh, experimental Tinderbox color scheme. It uses colors sampled from Woman Combing Her Hair (1886, Hermitage).

It's an interesting exercise. The Degas pastel reads as bright and colorful, with rich golds, pale skin, a cool blue-white bath towel. But the sampled colors are not particularly saturated and aren't bright at all. It's not an artifact and it's not sampling bias; it's the way large blocks of colors appear more brilliant and lighter than small swatches. You know this, I know this, we all learn this in school and we learn it again whenever we paint the kitchen. But it's an illustration.

I ran up this color scheme for two reasons. I need to take notes this weekend at WebZine in a Tinderbox that I can instantly distinguish from my web log, from the Tinderbox planning documents, and from various other projects. Plus, for some time I've been wondering about color schemes that would work against backgrounds that aren't off-white.

We'll see how it goes.

I've been wrestling with fouled up and incommensurable coordinate systems in the TinderWin port this week. This happens every year or two, and I always remind myself how disappointed Mr. McCutcheon would be if he knew I still was flubbing simple conformal mappings and linear algebra.

Moral one: pay attention in school. You never know what you'll need.

Moral two: I've finally broken down and we're trying to clean this up permanently, implementing separate types of objects in each coordinate system. If you try to compare something in map coordinates to something else in global coordinates, the compiler will complain. High time.

Moral three: there's more intellectual meat in school than you might think. See, for example, Larry Davidson's nifty blog, Learning Strategies, an ed-blog that's interesting to people who aren't educators.

FEMA is sending 200 trucks filled with ice for Katrina victims to Portland Maine.

The ice cost the government 44 million dollars. Truckers are being paid to haul it cross country, in the hope that some can be salvaged for a future need. Because the Portland storage facility can only unload four trucks at a time, the truckers are receiving $800/day to wait in line.

Republican fiscal conservatism.

A Wisconsin Tinderbox user (Madison) would like a tutor. Can you help? Email me.

At last: a bunch of game theory people are actually playing, and writing about, actual games. Jill dreams of what her WoW character could buy for 100 gold coins.

The armour! The equipment! Maybe even one of those bird things to fly on!!!

Torill is also running around World of Warcraft, as an orc.

Blood, fire, heat and sand are the aspects of the orc homeland. I read this background as angry and disturbing, but when I try to see it through the eyes of Agirra, I enjoy it. This is the familiar. Cool water, lush forest, rolling meadows: these are dangerous, treacherous places. Only in battle are the sides clear, only fire lights the day enough for an orc to see clearly.

This identification is, I think, distinct from the identification we know from novels and cinema. We aren't identifying so much with the character's situation as with their aesthetic and intentional system. It's not that we want our orc or our hero to win through, but we begin to appreciate what they like to see and to covet what they'd enjoy.

Perhaps this explains the immense importance of graphics to current game production. I'm playing City of Heroes instead of WoW, but I see a similar effect: I'm beginning to appreciate those seamy backlots and alleys where street villains lurk, and I'm starting to get a sneaky appreciation for the grades of urban decay that make street crime flourish. The disused mills of Kings Road, surrounded by stagnant Middle-European-Modern housing: you wouldn't want to live there, but there are plenty of street criminals that need to be trimmed back and that aren't so dangerous that my little archer daren't tackle the job. The neglected edges of Perez Park, filled with gang members hanging at the edges of the action, throwing beer cans and tossing bricks at passing heroes, become an exciting place. You get to almost like those criminals; without them, you wouldn't have a job to do.

It's interesting to see so much care lavished on capturing the texture of places we don't see: the bad side of neglected British cities, the faded grime of the less nice parts of Paris or Vienna or Pawtucket. In this view, the graphics aren't chrome: the graphics are the point. The game and the narrative put us in the right frame of mind to see, and appreciate, the images.

The Fed raised interest rates yesterday, to prevent the economy from overheating.

Why are we raising interest rates instead of taxes? After all, we're spending hundreds of billions on Iraq, and it's pretty clear that we're not going to see any ROI from that investment. And we're about to spend hundreds of billions on the Gulf Coast. It's not like we couldn't use the taxes.

If we need to cool the economy, what's wrong with a good old Republican fiscally-prudent tax hike?

British papers report that millions of dollars of rations, rushed to feed the starving crowds at the Superdome and Convention Center, were tied up by FDA regulators and are still sitting on the runway at Little Rock, where government workers are planning to discard them.

Is this report true, or not? It's not being widely covered.

Remember those $2000 debit cards that everyone in New Orleans was going to get? And then they were going to get direct deposit payments instead?

Many poor people don't have bank accounts: what happens to them?

$2000 a person is hundreds of millions of dollars. Who appropriated this? What's the rationale? Just wondering...

And what was the debit card idea, anyway? Did the issuing banks get a windfall for servicing the cards? 1.5% of a hundred million dollars is real money; who got lucky?

I've got a recurring headache with MFC and Windows.

I want a testable document class, which means a document class that can be instantiated independently of the whole view hierarchy. So, while normally a TinderboxDoc gets made by the CDocTemplate along with a frame window, sometimes I was to be able to instantiate a TinderboxBox all by itself. Fine, so far.

Now, though, I'd like to take my TinderboxDoc and say, "make yourself a frame window, please." What's the idiomatic way to do this with MFC? Surely it's an FAQ, but our current solution can't be right. Got ideas? Drop me a note. Could easily turn into a nice little consulting gig.

None of my machines seem to be able to iChat today. They couldn't iChat yesterday, either. Local is fine, Yahoo Messenger seems ok, but the Apple AIM server is unreachable.

Anyone have an idea? Email me.

CNN had a depressing feature last night on the mountains of garbage bags filled with piles of used clothes that are washing up in the Gulf, donated by people from all over the country but doing no good at all. These huge piles of castoffs are filling church basements and warehouses; there's no time to sort them and no way to deliver all this stuff to people who might want it. It's going to end up as garbage.

Take some really wonderful, thoughtful gifts -- a hundred nice cashmere turtlenecks, say, that might be terrific for people who have always lived in New Orleans and who are about to experience November in New England. Mix them with ten thousand other thoughtful gifts, toss well in garbage bags and trucks, and you've got charity junk.

Buying new isn't a great answer, either -- especially when a big chunk of everything we buy new goes into the pockets of Mr. Walmart.

The best solution is to help specific people with specific needs. For example, Grace Davis points to some Chicagoans who are driving down to Mississippi with a truck of helpful stuff. Matt Nalett needs some help with the gas. Easy enough. Won't wind up paying for the 700 Club or for the Republican Election Campaign -- and if it isn't well spent, you know who to see about it.

The answer:

  • Throwing bulk clothing at the Red Cross or at some church group won't work. It'll end up in church jumble sales or in a landfill, rather than helping people.
  • Giving cash is nice, but lots of the cash you give will end up lining the pockets of national chain stores.
  • Sending stuff that's needed, directly to the people who need it, is best.
  • Sending labeled and targeted stuff to small, targeted groups is second best.

We need better web infrastructure for matching needs and willing hands. C'mon, guys: a couple of days with mySQL and Rails should be more than enough.

Meryl sends word of CVM.ORG.  That stands for Community Voice Mail; they provide free voicemail for people in crisis -- homeless people, people in shelters, people who don't have a phone.

The New Yorker has announced they're going to sell an 8-DVD collection of the complete 80-year run, through February 2005. It costs $100 ($63 from Amazon ).

It seems to me that this is the perfect price point -- enough money to make selling the product worthwhile, but low enough that real people will want their own copy. Getting the price right is hard: the OED and CD, from example, seems never to have gotten it right.

A 73-year-old woman has been jailed for looting sausages in New Orleans, in lieu of $50,000 bail. (The title of this post is Jean Valjean's prison ID)

When they finish handing out the Pulitzers to the Times Picayune, could they save a print Pulitzer for WWL-TV? They can't copy-edit, but their weblog has done the TV station proud.

The Baptist church sign that blames New Orleans for bringing down God's wrath was removed, shortly after the the Boston Herald investigated. Their story ran today. (The Herald is Boston's right-leaning tabloid)

It was replaced with a new sign, "All that we have is a gracious gift from God", which I suppose is meant to reassure the insiders that their suffering reflects their sin, while our blessings reflect God's love for us.

Meanwhile, FEMA rules kept this bunch of National Guard soldiers sitting in a Hyatt instead of saving people. Once they got out of the Hyatt, they were told not to go inside any houses. Fortunately, Lt. Frederick Fell broke the rules to make sure that someone who seemed dead really was. He wasn't.

It turns out that the horrible bug was tied to inlining the constructor of NodeDragTask. Two solid days of misery have now isolated the issue to four simple lines of code.

But, for the life of me, I can't pin it further. If you have some good war story wisdom on subtle inlining issues in C++, I'd love to hear from you.

Sep 05 17 2005

Concrete Help

Grace Davis remains a terrific clearing house for sending real help to real people in the Gulf.

Linda's been doing a lot of thinking about finding ways to help, ways that won't simply feed into the Red Cross bureaucracy or wind up paying for some church's new lobbyist. So far, this network of mom-bloggers seems to be doing the best work anywhere.

They have instructions on shipping supplies to people who need it, and lists of specific needs for stuff and for willing hands. For example, there's a deli in Gautier that emptied its larder and its bank account to feed the community; if you happen to have a bunch of deli stuff (or credit with a deli distributor), that deli owner could use a hand.

Imagine how much better we'd all be if a lot of folks who owned buses had picked up and said: "I bet they could use me and my bus down there...." There's still plenty of needs.

Another useful site: Modest Needs.

Got more ideas? Let me know.

Sep 05 16 2005



What's most offensive about this, on further reflection and considerable correspondence, is that this is a New England church that is pretending to be asking whether someone else's misery is justified by God's just anger at someone else's supposed sins.

(I haven't seen Pat Robertson's ministry saying, "Maybe our leader's fibs brought this down on other people's heads. We're really sorry and we'll try to make it right.")


Yesterday, I came down with a painful malady most developers have learned to fear -- a critical bug that disappears when the debugger on and manifests itself only in the release build. Worse, it crept in quietly under the cover of darkness: I have to go all the way back to August 30 to find code that's not afflicted.

This one has all the hallmarks of a one-line bug. In fact, it's probably a one-character bug: an "x" that should be a "y". But I spent an entire day on it, and I was up before dawn this morning to get a head start on pinning it down.

Fake weblogs on free servers, filled with automatically-generated extracts from real weblogs, help spammers gain page rank and spoof search engines. Lately, for example, my Feedster feeds have become essentially unusuable (sorry, Scott) because there's a fresh bunch of splogs every day.

You've got to hand it to the crazies and wingnuts -- they're so filled with glee at owning the government that they feel free to indulge their worst appetites.

Now on view at the Baptist church in Medford, there's a charming sign that blames all those nasty sinners in New Orleans for calling down God's Judgment on their heads. Now, this might play in Peoria, but surely it can't happen here? Oy.

You know, someday soon we're gonna sit around and laugh about this, and everybody will be saying "I knew better." Just like McCarthyism. Just like slavery. Just like the American Revolution.

Update: A correspondent rightly points out that there are lots of different kinds of Baptist, and not all Baptist churches and organizations are blaming the victims. The church in question is the New England Baptist Church at 30 Salem Street, Medford.

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting article in the current New Yorker, describing an experiment in adapting software techniques to industry -- in this case, to the packaged food industry. It's a drag race between three teams, all working to design a better cookie.

One team follows a traditional, managed-research approach.

One team adopts what the participants think of as "open software" style, but is actually closer in detail to a Tiger Team or an elite skunkworks.

One team follows a scheme adapted from Extreme Programming (emphasizing mostly rapid design iteration, rather than unit testing or pair programming)

Intriguing scheme. Who else has thought about XP outside the software world?

Tinderbox notes gradually yellow with age, a subtle cue to tell you whether a note's been created or revised recently. But She's A Girl talks about this and related features for better filing.

This post is interesting, too, because the author is revisiting an old post from her archives. Bloggers usually waste their archives, or squeeze them for Google juice. Finding ways to link to your archives helps you refine and extend a valuable resource.

Linda has been working hard to find the answer to a simple question: how can we help people from New Orleans? (The government wants you to send money to Pat Robertson to fund his pro-assassination ministry, but we'd rather not. I know I'll get pounded for saying this, but there are historical reasons not to embrace the Red Cross. And lots of cash donations get turned into profits for Wal-Mart, which seems inefficient)

Linda writes:

I have been looking for ways to send stuff (not just money) to the people who need it. This seems to be very hard to do, as many of the large charities do not take material donations (except from large companies) and they discourage such giving. But it bothered me to know I had some perfectly good nearly new clothing for larger-sized women and no way to get it to people who had lost everything. In addition, with the number of discount stores around here it would be easy to put together care packages that would not cost a great deal.

So I gathered some stuff together and started looking for places to send it. So far, I've found one small group that is filling semi-trucks in Medford and taking them to Louisiana, and I have a call into a former work colleague who now lives in Dallas and is going to research evacuee needs in her area. I've also been prowling through sites such as craigslist, which has individual postings from people supporting individual shelters or families.

All in all, it is pretty fragmented, but check out Grace Davis's weblog.

This is one of the better resources I've come across -- two women who seem to be better organized than most of the government organizations and large charities. This is a modest blog with a long list of Mississippi shelters (and their addresses!!) and information on how to make large and small donations directly to those shelters to help their guests, plus info on which shippers are shipping to which zip codes. There are many other ways to help, but this seems to me to be a very useful starting point if you want to make a difference for people in Mississippi, which is one of the worst-hit areas.

A question for all you usability gurus in the trenches: how do you work that common complaint, "the fonts one this web page are too small!"

This is difficult because these words describe two distinct maladies:

  • Thanks to bad coding or a stylesheet bug, some fonts are being rendered at the wrong size (e.g. 4pt) and are thus illegible.
  • The client or user dislikes current graphic design, which tends to use font weight, density, and size for effect. These people often complain, for example, that most designer sites always use type that's 'too small'.

One user is saying, "No one could read the page I'm seeing." The other is saying, "I don't like the page." These are two different things. How do you efficiently disambiguate them?

We've often treated the two issues together. We say, 'People shouldn't have to think.' We say, 'Make the client happy.' We say, 'We've got tot design for accessibility.' We say, 'All the graphic design stuff is for arty types anyway' and put everything in 16pt Times Roman.

Katrina reminds us that convenience and comfort can't be our ultimate goals. It's nice if the Official Request Forms are clear and well designed, but it's essential that the people and equipment we requested actually show up to rescue the people who need to be rescued. It's nice if the helicopter pilot's task is safe and straightforward, but it's essential that you get thousands of people out of the water. There's a big difference between making things a little harder than perhaps they ought to be, and making them so hard you can't do them.

Over the weekend, I started noodling around in City of Heroes. Long story. I'll tell you later.

One thing that's striking is the difference between the writing and the art direction. The writing is perfunctory at best -- and that may yet prove generous. The art, though, strikes me as intriguingly complex and sophisticated. There's a lot of urban landscape, here, and it seems to be thought through in some detail. I think, for example, that I see some visual digs at what Chris Jencks calls Fascist Modern, and also some nostalgia for early Russian social realism.

But I don't know much about the image of the city in modern art crit. I bet some of my readers do, though. I'd like to know more about what's going on here.

We're putting together a very small, informal, high-leverage weekend in Boston to discuss creative hypertext nonfiction. Dates: October 29-30.

We'll start late Saturday morning and end early on Sunday evening, so travel won't be too hard to arrange. I'm hoping to have a nice dinner of some sort on Saturday night, too.

We'll model this after other eNarrative events, but with a healthy admixture of Blogwalk and perhaps a little Dexter thrown in. We're not going to have much space to spare (if any!). But, if you belong in the discussion, email me and we'll find an extra chair somewhere.

I'll be dropping in at Webzine 2005 later this month, talent-spotting for TEKKA. Want to pitch a feature?

This is your last chance to start the Fall with a fresh new copy of Tinderbox at a terrific price. The sale ends very soon!

by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

A well-crafted confection. Priscilla is cargo-master of an ill-run space freighter. She's pretty; the mates all want to sleep with her. She's human; management (from Liaden) wants to exploit her. Things get worse.

This is a romantic melodrama: Priscilla is afflicted by bad guys who are safely bad, bad guys so bad we don't really fear them. This is a romance: Priscilla's survival and happiness depend, in the end, on her intrinsic wonderfulness. The plotting is necessarily complex, gluing genre and disparate convention together. Yet it's all done with flair and a light hand, making this a very fine entertainment indeed.

I hate missing Hypertext '05. Especially with exciting new stuff like this.

StorySpinner takes an unusual approach to hyperfiction, exploring narrative pace in a 'Card Shark'-like environment. StorySpinner was created by Clare Hooper, with the supervision and guidance of Mark Weal.


Recursive Descent, a new weblog on personal technology has some welcome words for Tinderbox:

Software that is just beautiful and a joy to use, stuff you love to build your personal workflow around


Here's a user of the Getting Things Done forum who is looking for advice from Tinderbox users.

by Roger Ebert

In the next few months, some of us may have some extra time on our hands, waiting to go home. There's lots of work to be done, but not everybody can work, and nobody can work all the time. No doubt, a lot of movies will be watched. (Are they showing movies in the Astrodome?)

Roger Ebert's second volume of great movies is a wonderful idea. This isn't a compendium of old reviews or a silly list of the best movies. Instead, we have a chance to sit with a great and experienced critic as he revisits another 100 fine movies.

That doesn't mean 100 perfect movies: simply, 100 movies he'd hate not to see at least one more time. Ebert's got fascinating taste and broad interests, so we have a mix of eras and styles. He's willing to see a flawed movie (Birth of a Nation, West Side Story) and to enjoy its virtues without overlooking -- or having the experience ruined by -- the shortcomings. From Fellini to Saturday Night Fever (which was Gene Siskel's favorite movie -- who would have thought it?) to My Neighbor Totori, Ebert finds unexpected delights everywhere. He's interested in acting here, in direction there, in cinematography, in influence.

It's a wonderful mix.

Books like this are important, too, because they help us think about how we choose to spend our time. (A few years ago, Ebert came down with salivary cancer; perhaps these volumes, in part, are a response to the way that experience made him think about spending his own time) It's easy to say, "I really ought to see the 100 greatest movies." It's actually not too hard to do, now that movies are so easy to rent. But you've got to think about it, and you've got to set aside the time, and you've got to decide to do it.

Thanks to all who sent supportive email about What Ended. It does help.

Special appreciation to blog responses by Prof. Matt Kirschenbaum (Maryland) and Prof. Lynsey Gedye (New Zealand).

I’m confident that the USA Government’s continuing vileness towards New Zealand is insignificant compared to the vileness and despicable lack of respect they’ve shown towards their own people.

Meanwhile, NPR reports that nobody seems to have kept track of where all the hospital and nursing home patients were sent, and the master list is now being compiled by the guy who fixes computers for a local government agency. The Times Picayune says there's no plan for collecting and identifying the dead.

The National Archives sent a team of experts to salvage the city's historical records. The archivists were turned away at a checkpoint. They're apparently still waiting.

WWL reports that the First Lady commented on the radio last night that "many of the people at the Astrodome were 'underprivileged anyway.'"

Sep 05 6 2005

What Ended

What ended this week in New Orleans was not a city. The city will be rebuilt.

What ended this week was not dream. Martin's dream still lives -- not least in the outrage expressed throughout the country, from the redneck forests to the Berkeley waters, over the shabby negligence with which the victims of storm and flood were treated. And the big dream's still there, too. Somewhere in the Astrodome tonight, there's a little boy or girl who is tired and hungry and frightened, and who will grow up to be president. You can bet on it.

What ended this week was not a war, though its destined end in ignomy and failure is now assured. What ended this week a was not a presidency, though Katrina made George W. Bush, overnight, a lame duck.

What ended this week is the illusion that words can substitute for real work and real knowledge. This was the last, spectacular failure of the internet bubble, the final burnout of paper businesses that had no business and paper politicians who had no cause and paper experts whose expertise lay in their bogus credentials or in the wealth of their pals.

We'll know the details in time. We'll have years of investigations. We already know the answer. We filled key roles at the top with lawyers and promoters and press agents and cronies, and when we needed them to do their job, they held press conferences instead.

And we filled key roles on the line -- police and fire and public safety -- with too many people who weren't up to the job, or whose leaders weren't up to the job. Frightened by snipers and rumors, they sacrificed the lives of men and women and children in danger, lives entrusted to them, to save their own. They turned in their badges or grounded their choppers. Their duty was hard; they did not do it.

What ended, too, was the illusion that history is over, and the academic illusion that whatever clever argument we can make is equally good. In the last decade, arguing specious positions has been a route to funding and fame. You could argue that we didn't need better flood control in New Orleans. People did argue it -- just like they argue still for teaching intelligent design to our kids, just like they argue that global warming needs more study, that maybe the environment will take care of itself.

That's what ended. We know, now, that sometimes we need experts in jobs that require expertise. We need scholars in jobs that require scholarship. In jobs that require doing your job -- even in the face of discomfort and danger -- we need people on whom we can depend.

Most of all, we need to take responsibility to weigh the evidence, decide, and bear the weight of decision. No excuses. No press conference. No spin, because there is no need for spin.

What ended is the illusion that we can believe anything, however absurd, and make it true by insisting on it, by believing that such a nice man or such a committed woman will do a great job at FEMA or wherever. Or, if not a great job, one we can call "great".

Intriguing email from Kathryn Cramer, who is fielding email from all over the world because she's one of the few contact points for answers to a simple question: "My family was at this address on Tuesday. Is it underwater? "

That's a simple question. "How deep?" is another question. It's a matter of life and death, obviously. I want to know, how come a science fiction editor is the world's contact point for this question?

In the email, she asks another good question:

Where are the pictures of the levee break?

It's an obvious shot, a shot that's got to be high on the list of every camera crew and freelance photographer and blog reported with a digital point and shoot. I haven't seen it from closer than a satellite. It's been days. (How long before we had cameras on OJ's SUV? On Britney's belly?)

Doesn't anyone think that's strange?

Other shots seem missing, too.

  • Where are the Tired Rescue Workers Relaxing With Coffee And Donuts, served by chipper young people who rushed in from Texas or Arkansas or Uppsula?
  • Where are the Engineers and Construction Workers Laboring Through The Night to patch the floods?
  • Where are the Lonely Sentries patrolling the remaining levees, on the lookout for terrorists who might want to open a few extra breaches?
  • Where is the List Of Critical Professional Needs? Yes, health care workers on the scene, of course. But what else? I bet they need some people who build dams, right? Demolitions experts?

At the very least, we're going to have hundreds of thousands of filthy, soggy basements. Each is going to need to be inspected; where are we going to get those home inspectors? Each is going to need to be disinfected: do that many dehumidifiers exist, or are we going to make them?

Suppose you'd like to volunteer to lend a hand. Where do you go? Suppose you're already in New Orleans and you're fit and healthy and would like to make yourself useful. Where do you go?

The government's response appears to have been shameful and incompetent. But the blogosphere has not acquitted itself well, either.