Digital Humanities Manifesto (Version 2.0) is unsigned, but its author seems to be Todd Presner (UCLA).

Digital Humanities is not a unified field but an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which: a) print is no longer the exclusive or the normative medium in which knowledge is produced and/or disseminated; instead, print finds itself absorbed into new, multimedia configurations; and b) digital tools, techniques, and media have altered the production and dissemination of knowledge in the arts, human and social sciences.

I think this characterization of the universe that the humanities study is a bit thin – there are many interesting things to know about the universe and not all of them concern the status of print – but it’s natural to focus on one’s own specialty.

This an interesting document, although its open source enthusiasm sometimes seems tinged with hostility (or contempt?) for working folk who might want to be paid for their labor. In calling for professors to "circumvent or subvert all ‘claims’ that branch out from the rights of creators to those of owners“, the manifesto apparently overlooks the empirically-verifiable fact that most of us are living in a capitalist society. Are digital humanists expected to move to Oneida or Brook Farm? If owners have no rights, then creators cannot realize the value of their work because they cannot exchange it. That might not matter immediately if you’re paid to teach and you create as a hobby, but what happens to those without a sinecure bestowed by the state or by a friendly billionaire?

The manifesto adopts a very pessimistic view of the value of knowledge:

Scholarship and art practice: a) are not‐for‐profit endeavors whose actual costs far exceed real or potential returns; and b) are endeavors that, rather than diminishing the value of IP or copyright, enhance their value.

This strikes me as a classic conflation of price and value. Surely, whether we paint a canvas or examine the economics of the late Roman Empire, we set out in the expectation that the work we create will be more valuable than our time and effort. We might be mistaken, the result might disappoint us, and accidents happen; still, no sensible scholar sets out to waste their time. Inefficient markets, ignorant patrons, and the caprice of consumers may impede the work’s value from being readily converted to cash, but its value is no illusion. Skill and knowledge are worth a lot; unique skill and knowledge are worth more. The humanities used to know this.

May 12 28 2012


One of this week’s top iPad games is something called Defender Chronicles II. Supposedly, it welds tower defense and role playing games (RPGs).

This is bullshit.

Every abstract game can become an RPG overnight by gluing some stereotyped bits of stock narrative between episodes. There was a queen. She was besieged. There were monsters. And more monsters. And even more monsters!

You can do this in your sleep. And, apparently, they do.

It’s not an isolated case, either, and it’s not limited to translated titles or the clueless productions of precocious kids. What confuses me is whether these game peddlers know they’re lying, or really think that gluing a name and character sheet onto some parametric game mechanics makes something “role playing.” Yes, eurogames glue nearly-irrelevant metaphors to abstract game mechanics and nobody minds, but nobody buys a eurogame because they want to learn to build pyramids or buy art or settle Catan.

On a slightly more cheerful note, here’s a talk by Martin Jonasson and Petri Purho about “juiciness’ in games. “Juiciness” is an interesting term that stands, in essence, dor “nearly-gratuitous animation.”

The critical word here is “nearly”.

We draw a lot of boxes and arrows in computer science and information architecture. European computer science is especially fond of them. And of course they're central to the Tinderbox map view.

But should we rely on boxes? How about some curves?

Boxes and Arrows

I tried to get some interest in foliated, art nouveau maps at IVICA a few years ago. I’ve not seen much uptake, but perhaps that was too much to expect; making this happen will take a lot of work and would probably be a risky platform for a doctoral dissertation. (It sure could put someone one the map, though!)

I’m not entirely happy with this sketch. In fact, I’m not happy at all. The curves aren’t right, and we need other ways to represent anti-links and contingent links. How do we represent typed links without too much clutter? And this does nothing to help matters when you have lots of tangled links, which I think is something we ought to encourage.

But there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to be plucked around here.

I have a bunch of research topics gathering dust. Most would be suitable for a dissertation or thesis. All should be publishable.

When I was a graduate student, I used to spend hours looking for ideas that might generate a publishable scientific discovery. Everywhere one turned, either someone had been there before or you needed a ton of new equipment.

Now, I’ve got ideas lying all over the office. That was chemistry and this is the margins of computer science and the humanities. Perhaps I was completely clueless back then, perhaps everyone else has always seen these topics lying around.

Anyone interested? What’s the best things to do with them?

Apr 12 13 2012


I’m finding the first chapter of Spuybroek’s The Sympathy Of Things absolutely fascinating. It explores “The Digital Nature of the Gothic,” connecting the artistic impulse behind fan vaults and foliated stonework to the craft of new media. Ruskin’s characteristics of the Gothic – savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity, and redundance — apply with great force to the nature of the digital.

It’s tons of fun, believe it or not. It’s not easy to follow Spuybroek’s argument, which twists through spandrels and ogees and technical issues of vaulting long before we get to technical issues of the digital. I think I see how the gothic nature illuminates Storyspace-style hypertext in new and powerful ways. It’s worth a little architectural research to find out.

It will be interesting to see how NeoVictorian artisanal programming looks in the light of Gothic Revival architecture. There’s certainly an interesting point to be made about the use of new tools and finishes to achieve things to which (we think) ancient artists aspired. To accompany this, we might want to set up an iPod playlist with Respighi’s Ancient Airs, Vaughan Williams’ fantasias on Greensleeves and Thomas Tallis, a Mendelssohn oratorio, and Ormandy’s orchestral transcriptions of Bach.

Apr 12 2 2012

Day 6

Day 6

Revamped the text-handling routines and added support for text styles. This is trickier than it sounds because style information in Storyspace, naturally enough, coincides with the sorts of styles that QuickDraw used. The style information is stored in a hand-built heap flattened in the binary disk file, and reading it is tricky because, if you don’t get it exactly right, you have garbage and no hint of what went wrong. I remember that this drove me up a wall for the original Storyspace for Windows. Good times.

To make things worse, I lost a perfectly good hour debugging this because unit tests were asking for one file and SSPFile was opening another file just like it, but with different style information. Storyspace was doing it right but the results were wrong.

Another long session began a cleanup of the guard field parser. This is very old code, largely untouched since I added some features to support my IWHD paper in 1995. It’s so old that it doesn’t use std::string, since the standard template library wasn’t even a standard until 1994. So everything is built around old-fashioned C strings. Worse, everything depended on buffers of fixed size, because Jay Bolter, who did the coding for Storyspace 1, had a signature avoidance of variable-length strings. So not only do I have the ghost of my own old style, filled with fstrcpy and strchr, I’ve also got this palimpsest of Bolter’s style. It still needs more work, but all the antique machinery has now been replaced and those ugly buffers are all gone.

Other bits and pieces for Sunday afternoon included fast enumeration support for Nodes, Links, and Styles, and adding a pane splitter to support an optional map view. The latter was especially nasty because XCode started to crash when resizing Interface Builder elements. Something is not right.

Is there a secret trick to tell XCode to heal an ailing project? Email me.

Apr 12 1 2012

Day 5

Day 5

Settled yesterday’s “where do we put the controls” question for now by opting for a top bar and sticking with painfully standard controls.

A lot of logic had wandered into the AppDelegate for lack of a good home. Most of this was refactored to a new SSPTextViewController, which also now manages the Browse Links popover. Some new classes might help encapsulate some of the uglier Cocoa objects, things like moving between C strings, C++ std::string, CFStringRef and NSString.

Mac OS X Lion replaces Cocoa memory management, which was a bear, with automatic reference counting (ARC), which is a big win. But ARC is no panacea. In principle, most of the time it “just works” and programmers can pretend that all objects will get magically collected. In practice, the exceptions are close enough to the surface that it seems like you really need to know what you’re doing, and what ARC is doing, to get things right. As with the old memory management style, I can’t imagine how casual or novice programmers cope with this. Hell: I’m having quite a time with _bridge_retained and its friends myself!

Day 5

Good and long day of programming, punctuated by Storyspace authors who are already urging ever-earlier deadlines and some conference-review headaches. Full-screen works, controls work, menus work.

Status:25 classes, 17 tests.

To reward myself for hard work, knocked off early for 10PM showing of The Hunger Games.

Mar 12 28 2012

Day 2

Day 2

About twelve hours of head-down, straight-ahead coding. Classes include Hypertext, Node, StoryspaceLink, and the beginnings of a text window.

Day 2

I’m still undecided about using much Objective C++. Advice welcome. Automatic reference counting is delightful, though I’m still waiting for it to bite me when I’m not looking.

Status: 8 classes, 7 tests. (Four more classes were added and then removed, as the text formatting has involved a degree of design thrashing. As usual, the user interface-heavy classes lack good tests.)

Mar 12 27 2012

Day 1

Day 1

A grueling day of sprint-coding, starting from the rarely-seen XCode stationery. The blank canvas is always formidable, and it’s worse here because intensive Tinderbox work for the 5.10 updates has played havoc with my Objective-C reflexes.

Ten hours later and we’re just about reading legacy Storyspace files.

Day 1

Much of the code is quite ugly, thanks to tons of arcane bit-twiddling. Remember, this file format was originally designed to lift things efficiently off floppy disks, because a big hypertext like Victory Garden could take five minutes to load on those old machines. To minimize processing, large parts of the file format exactly matched the data structures, so you could slam the bits right into memory. Unfortunately, this means that details of the 68000 compiler’s memory layout persist even in this new code, three processors on.

It’s not all awful. Test-driven design will help a lot. It hadn’t been invented the last time I went through this. It’s already helping, although I did lose 20 minutes trying to track down the lost 141-st link in Mary-Kim Arnold’s “Lust”, when it turned out the lost link was never lost at all.

Status: 5 classes, 4 tests.

Tim Parks suggests that there’s no point in finishing a book that’s not delighting us.

It seems obvious that any serious reader will have learned long ago how much time to give a book before choosing to shut it. It’s only the young, still attached to that sense of achievement inculcated by anxious parents, who hang on doggedly when there is no enjoyment. “I’m a teenager,” remarks one sad contributor to a book review website. “I read this whole book [it would be unfair to say which] from first page to last hoping it would be as good as the reviews said. It wasn’t. I enjoy reading and finish nearly all the novels I start and it was my determination never to give up that made me finish this one, but I really wish I hadn’t.” One can only encourage a reader like this to learn not to attach self esteem to the mere finishing of a book, if only because the more bad books you finish, the fewer good ones you’ll have time to start.

I confess: I tend to plough right through to the end unless the book is clearly awful.

I start a book. I’m enjoying it thoroughly, and then the moment comes when I just know I’ve had enough. It’s not that I’ve stopped enjoying it. I’m not bored, I don’t even think it’s too long. I just have no desire to go on enjoying it. Can I say then that I’ve read it? Can I recommend it to others and speak of it as a fine book?

First, my stack is huge, but it’s not so filled with surefire delights that I can afford to drop a book I’m enjoying thoroughly. “I just have no desire to go on enjoying it” are not words you’ll hear from me. The same applied, incidentally, to food and wine; I might stop because I’ve had enough, I might stop because more than enough is too much, but I’m not going to leave the rest of the delicious cheesecake just because I’ve had a bite already.

Interestingly, though Parks is not thinking here about hypertext, his conclusion is that closure is indeed a suspect quality:

And finally I wonder if it isn’t perhaps time that I learned, in my own novels, to drop readers a hint or two that, from this or that moment on, they have my permission to let the book go just as and when they choose.

The man in black walks to the lectern and begins. “Today’s reading is the second clause the the Dryden Minifesto.”

II) Any person.

Interaction manifests itself through recognition, sympathy, and witness as much as through impersonation, perception, and exploration. Apprehension of character is participatory design.

Apprehension of character: it it not sufficient that there be characters, that they populate the narrative. We must apprehend them. And we do not merely see what is written, what is placed before our eyes by the author; we conspire with the writer to create the character. Reading, we design characters.

Diane Greco once explained that, to make a character lovable, you need only take steps to ensure she has no interior life, and that everyone loves or wants to love her. The writer sets the table, and the reader supplies the meal.

This was true when Homer recalled the bitter anger of a proud subordinate, and it was still true when Will himself was Hamlet’s ghost. It is, indeed, participatory design; we don’t do it ourselves, we can’t choose anything, but we bring a lot to the table. The reader needs to work ; she always has.

Recognition, sympathy, witness: interaction. When we speak of interaction, we usually talk about mouse clicks and touches, commands, intentional gestures. Or we discuss the absence of interaction, the film unrolling, the world unraveling, or things unfolding as they should. But sympathy, too, is interaction. Sympathy is the door in the wall behind which lie the delights of new media, and its absence often leads to unhappy, hostile reading.

Here endeth the lesson.

A popup unconference on strange hypertexts and narrative play. The second international web art/science camp. A lot of fun.

Boston. November 19-20.

Join us.

Last week I cited the 1988 Dryden Minifesto, TINAC’s fascinating 1988 proposal for a new way to write. There’s a lot to be learned from TINAC – lessons we never quite assimilated, lessons we forgot, lessons we only half mastered.

The very first statement seems puzzling today:

I) No interruptions.

Reading should be a seamless and uninterrupted experience. Its choices proceed from the expression of possibilities as a narrative medium and depend upon the complicity of the reader in the creation of a narrative. Reading is design enacted.

We might object, for example, that hypertexts – including the wonderful work the TINAC people were doing – is full of interruptions, since it’s broken up into screens or lexias or pages and since, in a hypertext, you need to choose a link. On a more theoretical plane, “seamless and uninterrupted” sounds like Gardner’s “perfluent dream” of immersive fiction. But Gardner extols the perfluent dream to oppose metafiction, the self-reflective manner of postmodernism, and early TINAC work seems to abound in metafiction. What can this mean?

Puzzled, I asked the authors. Nancy Kaplan was under the weather (feel better!), but the rest wrote fascinating replies.

John McDaid answers that “When you click and zap somewhere, as an anthropologist, you are inclined to say, aha, interruption. But the emic experience of the reader as she traverses that link is one of flow. This was, to me, no different in kind from a cut in film. No one but theorists says that a film is discontinuous because we cut to a closeup.”

Michael Joyce recalls that “In writing afternoon I was obsessed with having it read seamlessly in the way books did and which Gardner was neither the first nor last (me too) to overvalue.” In afternoon, links are not underlined or blue or frames, and nearly every word yields to the click. “They all (with a few planned and significant exceptions) were links.” Joyce also calls attention to the concluding sentence,

Reading is design enacted.

“There,” he writes, “we truly were way ahead of the curve in setting a standard by which almost all current interfaces fall short, as well as our own.”

Stuart Moulthrop responded with a new manifesto, fragmenting the stricture against interruptions into a twelve step embrace. He recalls that, in 1988, he was anxious to move the reader’s focus from the command line back into the narrative. “I liked afternoon because it moved interaction cues (clickable words) into the narrative discourse, rather than interposing a command line.” He has since recanted; “Interruptions are just fine, thanks. So are in-your-face interfaces.” Stuart also recalls Nancy Kaplan’s insistence that it’s impossible to read immersively anyway, that you’re always arguing with the author. (Even “real life” isn’t as immersive as the holodeck: Job’s question is always with us.) Moulthrop also raises interesting questions about the status of the tablet, “made not revealed, one among all the Moores allowed by Law.”

Stuart’s seventh point is an important lesson for all who write about new media:

This is not about computers.  It's about books.  Books won't die, and the world will always welcome novels, backlit or otherwise.  I've found that a tendency to attack anything that doesn't look like a book or a novel (or the sorts of novels one writes) appears in inverse proportion to belief in the previous sentence.

Before this MLA dustup attempts (and fails – these things never work) to erase years of hard-won knowledge and finely wrought electronic literature that was created before ELO, I’d like to remind everyone about TINAC, the crucial movement that represents the moment in the late 1980s when the literary embraced the digital, when the street found its use for things and the thing knew itself.

TINAC was an informal gathering or collective, including many of the first literary writers who were actively committed to discover new opportunities in new media. I wasn’t part of this, not until the very end. TINAC stood for “Textuality, Intertextuality, Narrative and Consciousness” (or, alternatively, “This Is Not A Conference”) and included (among others) J. Yellowlees Douglas, Michael Joyce, Nancy Kaplan, John McDaid, and Stuart Moulthrop.

Here is the Dryden Minifesto from TINAC, promulgated in 1988:

I) No interruptions.

Reading should be a seamless and uninterrupted experience. Its choices proceed from the expression of possibilities as a narrative medium and depend upon the complicity of the reader in the creation of a narrative. Reading is design enacted.

II) Any person.

Interaction manifests itself through recognition, sympathy, and witness as much as through impersonation, perception, and exploration. Apprehension of character is participatory design.

III) Every ending.

Closure has been described as the completion of self by the reader. It is, in this sense, design determined.

IV). A read-write revolution.

Interactive narratives are what is written, whether by reader or writer. Authorship is an invitation to active design.

This manifesto is still interesting and timely, more than twenty years later. Its language and its concerns are difficult but repay concentrated effort. They assume a broad view of electronic writing, not the narrow focus that the ELO faction imagines hypertext has. Where most people today are still wrestling with surface mechanics — multiple endings, page turning, video illustrations – TINAC was already moving beyond that surface into much deeper territory. There’s no hint here that they were thinking only of blue underlined text: that historical canard arose from a misunderstanding of Aarseth’s Cybertext. Before ELO spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars on “branding” e-Lit, almost every serious scholar and critic used “hypertext” or “hypermedia” to include all, or almost all, the kinds of media that Aarseth called cybertext and ELO calls e-Lit.

(There was an additional ten-point TINAC statement that included the famous three-link dictum. I can’t put my hands on it right now. Can you? Email me. )

I had assumed that Prof. Emerson’s sentence about Glazier’s book was a slip-up that somehow got past her and the MLA reviewers. Happens to me all the time; you’ll find plenty of typos right here. (Does MLA have reviewers? Surely someone in the field read that first sentence, at least. I know that MLA has different standards of evidence from Chemistry or Computer Science, but colleagues are supposed to save you from things like this.) Supposedly, we’re all working toward truth and understanding, and the sentence as written is at least prone to misunderstanding.

Alternatively, Emerson might be asserting the claim that Glazier’s Digital Poetics literally redefined electronic literature and represents a clean break with previous critical and artistic practices. This doesn’t happen often – some would say it doesn’t happen at all – but one might point to Ruskin on painting, Shaw/Wilde/Eliot on theater, or possibly The Beatles as precedents. But to my knowledge, no one has ever published this claim for Digital Poetics – not even the enthusiastic Sandy Baldwin. It is, moreover, primarily a book about poetry, and the concerns of "digital literature“ are usually conceived as extending to prose. I know the literature pretty well, and I’ve certainly never heard this sentiment before. (I have the greatest respect for Glazier, whose indefatigable work to provide a space for electronic poetry has been of indispensable service to the field.) If that’s the intent, you’ve got to make the argument.

I’d expected Emerson would simply clarify the sentence, but her rejoinder tries to argue that the ELO rebranding of of hypertext and new media as eLit was both significant and crucial: that it changed everything and so makes earlier scholarship worthless (or not worth mentioning). That’s a very interesting argument: it might, for example, explain some of the strange gaps in the organization’s directory of electronic literature. About fifteen months have passed since I observed that

The directory currently appears to list 159 works. Some hypertexts that aren’t listed include Greco’s Cyborg, Kolb’s Socrates in the Labyrinth and “Twin Media: Hypertext Under Pressure”, Falco’s Dream with Demons and “Charmin’ Cleary”, Mary-kim Arnold’s “Lust” and “kokura”, Michael Joyce’s Twilight, a symphony and “Twelve Blue” and “WOE”, Brian Thomas’s If Monks Had Macs, Richard Holeton’s Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, William Gibson’s Agrippa: The Book of the Dead, Adrienne Eisen’s Six Sex Scenes, Carolyn Guyer’s Quibbling and “Izme Pass” (with Martha Petry), Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger and its name was Penelope and Forward Anywhere (with Cathy Marshall), Rick Pryll’s Lies, Nitin Sawhney’s HyperCafe, Deena Larsen’s Samplers, Jean-Pierre Balpe’s oeuvre, Loss Glazier’s oeuvre, and George P. Landow’s Victorian Web.

A few of these were added last August, but apparently not Cyborg, Socrates in the Labyrinth, “Twin Media”, “Charmin’ Cleary”, “kokura”, Twilight, “Twelve Blue”, “WOE”, If Monks Had Macs, Agrippa, “Six Sex Scenes”, Quibbling, “Izme Pass”, Lies, “HyperCafe”, Samplers, Balpe’s oeuvre, Glazier’s oeurve, and Victorian Web. There seem to be plenty of other notable absences. Off the top of my head: Ryman’s 253, Marc Saporta’s Composition 1, Robert Coover’s “Heart Suit”, Deena Larsen’s Marble Springs, Eric Loyer’s Strange Rain, Em Short’s Galatea, John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, The Perseus Project, the electronic edition of the OED, Michael Fraase’s Arts and Farces, and Paul La Farge’s Luminous Airplanes.

The “resources” category seems to do a reasonable job of covering the papers of ELO presidents past and present, but you won’t find any mention of work by Ted Nelson or Cathy Marshall, by Bob Stein or Polle Zellweger, by George Landow or by me.

Some of these precede ELO’s branding efforts or were created by people who didn’t go to those famous ELO parties, but the #elit hashtag doesn’t simply stand for the aspirations of a faction. We’re working on the future of fiction. And it’s past time to get back to work. I hear on Twitter that they’re still flogging the PAD report on preservation, which announced an ambitious technical program in August 2005 – open-source HyperCard, a universal XML dialect for digital literature, and more. It seemed to me to be unrealizable at the time and as far as I’ve heard, no one has done a lick of work from that day to this.

Meanwhile, on the real preservation front, we’re doing a ton of work here. its name was Penelope for iPad, Judy Malloy’s wonderful classic about art and AIDS, is in testing. We’re just getting started on two complete rewrites – re-envisionings – of Storyspace. And we’re hosting (and sponsoring) a meeting next month about Dangerous Readings – a weekend hackfest and international web art/science camp for writers and programmers and critics who want to get stuff done.

We’d welcome help. And I’m willing to help: I’m happy share what I know about the history, the technology, and the craft with anyone who is interested. My Rolodex® is your Rolodex. But I’d be happier if there were fewer obstructions. Muddying history doesn’t help.

Oct 11 6 2011

MLA Talks

Lori Emerson’s abstract for the next MLA begins:

It is remarkable that in just ten years, since the publication of the first book on electronic literature (Loss Glazier’s Digital Poetics in 2001)...

This overlooks Jay David Bolter’s Writing Machines, George P. Landow’s Hypertext, Michael Joyce’s Of Two Minds, Silvio Gaggi’s From Text To Hypertext, Jane Yellowlees Douglas’s The End of Books, and I shudder to think what I’m forgetting.

In other fields, it’s the Professors of English and the Librarians who play the role of dusty pedants. Sigh.

Updates: I was right to shudder. Titles I forgot include Richard Lanham’s The Electronic Word, Michael Heim’s Electric Language, perhaps Ted Nelson’s Literary Machines, and assuredly Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext. Lori Emerson responds, though not very responsively, by trying to argue that none of the early work really counted until the ELO’s branding effort. Publishers fixing MLA citations, English professors lecturing me about branding – what a country!

Everyone saw the focus, the insistence, and the scorn for bozos – for people who were happy enough to get by. What people always missed about Jobs at Apple was the agile mind, able and eager to shift from the inside to the outside and back again.

Apple was not saved by design or innovation. What saved Apple is the constantly iterated shift from design to execution, from surface to depth, from style to science and back again.

Jobs learned from bad times but did not let bad times shape him. When he was kicked out as a dreamy incompetent, he went elsewhere, made a couple of new fortunes, came back, and kept dreaming. When the press assumed that Microsoft would simply discontinue Office for Mac and let someone buy the wreckage at the fire sale, Apple stood on a hill before the setting sun and shook its fist at the heavens and vowed that it would never be hungry (and powerless) again. But Apple did not become a defensive shell or an outlaw.

The original iMac, Steve’s machine, was Bondi Blue. Everything else was business beige. A couple of months later, you could tell which galleries on Santa Fe’s Canyon Road were doing well because the prosperous galleries all had those Bondi Blue iMacs. Some were sitting on 17th century Spanish oak, some on polished steel, and some on two planks of raw pine thrown across a couple of old trestles – depends on the gallery – but if they were selling art, they were buying that iMac.

Apple built the iMac into a nice little business, and then wrecked its own business with laptops. Same thing with MP3 players: people ridiculed the new iPod as underpowered and overpriced, then watched in amazement as it consumed the entire sector. And watched again as it fought off every challenge until, once again, Apple demolished that market with a new kind of phone.

Mac OS was clearly a better UI package than its competitors. Rather than refine it, Jobs replaced it with Mac OS X. This required tons of work and a vast leap of faith, since a company that had always rolled its own foundations now learned to depend on Unix and Postscript.

The dramatic shifts – abandoning floppies, abandoning Pascal and OpenDoc and Java, embracing virtual memory, abandoning the PowerPC, abandoning CDs – masked a steady reengineering of everything. Compare today’s MacBook Air to the original. They look pretty much the same, but the new one isn’t just faster. It feels better: more solid, more durable. Remember hinge kits? Hinges don’t wobble anymore. (A visible side effect of the process is the maxim that every new Apple laptop has a new video connector.)

After Apple had brought color to computers and everyone else was trying to slap juicy colors on their cases, Apple seized white. Dell and HP kept black for themselves. This was pure style, but Apple has exploited that blunder for a decade.

Look at the Apple stores. The analysts thought they were the desperate indulgence of a washed-up hippie who didn’t understand business, and they turned out to make heaps of money. But they’re not just distribution and maintenance centers. Everything is geared to say, you can do stuff with Apple stuff. You. MicroCenter and Fry’s were exciting with their racks of components and motherboards, but Apple put Grandma right in the center of the store and – look at that! – you were standing there learning stuff about video production, along with Grandma.

Everyone knew that companies should build on their core competency. What does a boutique computer company know about retail? Apple went about it like building a new system, with a fresh package and style and innovative systems in the background. (Everyone thinks Lion is about the scroll bars, but blocks and Grand Central Dispatch are going to change everything in ways that matter a lot more than scrolling.)

Have you ever seen an Apple Store employee standing around, looking bored, waiting? That’s execution. It can’t have been easy to see why this is important, to convince people it matters, even to make it possible. It’s not something you can instill by walking around and asking programmer A whether programmer B is really a bozo, which was Steve’s original management skill. This sort of polish goes all the way down. You never see a pile of Apple products in the stores: the piles are in the back, out of sight. You never see money. Do they even take cash? There’s no cashier and no cash register.

It’s still going on, and the analysts still can’t follow the shift from outside to inside. The iPhone 4 was outside: new design, new display, new camera. Now, we do the inside, with a new fast processor. “Who needs a fast processor?” they wonder. You need it to do stuff, because phone software has only a few seconds to do what you have in mind. (Desktop programs like Photoshop can take minutes to load, but if an iOS app doesn’t get itself loaded in five seconds, the system assumes it’s run amok and throws it in the drunk tank.) And what do you want your phone to do? Well, Knowledge Navigator is a nice start, isn’t it? If you want to do speech recognition, you need a separate thread and a separate core – and look what we have here? GCD to manage the cores, and mobile processors with multiple cores and decent battery life. The action this year is inside.

And down the road, when everyone is finally looking at the inside again, you’ve got to think that Tim will remind us again that there’s one more thing...

Oct 11 4 2011

No Comment

Paul LaFarge in Salon on hypertext fiction and why the future of the book never happened. 

Linked here without comment for the present.

Flocks, Herds, and Stories

Slides and text for my Web Science 2011 short paper on Flocks, Herds, and Stories: temporal coherence and the long tail are now available here. (Use a big window;. Click for next slide. Tested in Safari. Update: now works in Firefox, too. Adaptation for the Web was hasty; let me know about problems.)

Last week at Hypertext, Dame Wendy Hall

Reminded us of what we might forget:

The Web is large and new, it flourishes,

It seems to go from strength to strength, and yet

We do not know how strong it really is.

We must remember that we still could wreck the web.

This is the paper that I delivered in verse. The text is embedded in the presentation.

May 11 5 2011

XY Plots

Tinderbox dashboards have offered histograms for a while. The new Tinderbox 5.9, which will likely be available in a few hours, adds xyplots, too.

XY Plots

Histograms could substitute in charts like this if each entry were evenly spaces – if you checked your Twitter followers every day, for example. The new plot lets you specify both X and Y coordinates for each item. Any container or agent can have its own graph in seconds.

Russ Lipton writes a thoughtful (and flattering) commentary on Steve Zeoli’s Tinderbox essay for AppStorm.

I have used Tinderbox since its introduction a decade ago. It is the only piece of software I have ever used over thirty years that is, itself, intellectually stimulating – a category type absent from all known software reviews. Consequently, Tinderbox must be and is, indeed, frustrating and maddening at times.

I want to address two meta areas, both of which you touched upon:

Price. I can remember when software products cost $395; in ‘old’ dollars too. Tinderbox seems outrageously expensive by today’s standards. Tire-kickers, please keep in mind that Eastgate’s ‘artisanal’ approach to software correlates closely with the product’s unique strengths. This is not committee-designed, corporate-volume targeted, me-too outliner, note taker or mind mapper stuff, though I know Eastgate welcomes corporate customers – a different matter. I suspect the price is set as low as possible consistent with maintaining the long-term health of the project.

Enhancements. Mark Bernstein seems as enthusiastic today about pushing Tinderbox’s architectural design and feature-set to its usable limits as he was when discussing the original beta publicly long ago. I chose ‘usable’ above purposely. I don’t want to give the impression that Tinderbox is for weird, eccentric hobbyists with endless time on their hands. Bernstein is always asking users who want ‘just one more’ feature to supply a possible use case and/or reasoned defense of their request. Still, that said, it is fun (and productive) to grow alongside Tinderbox itself, which means, to grow alongside Mark as well.

Again, well-done review. There is a fully productive ‘shallow end’ to the Tinderbox pool which amply rewards beginning swimmers. The neat thing is that the deep end of the pool is (as it should be) just beyond one’s gaze at any given moment.

Tinderbox Appstorm

Steve Zeoli contributes a terrific Tinderbox tutorial to Mac.Appstorm: Taking The Information Plunge With Tinderbox.

Because I am impressed with the mission of Tinderbox, because I think it is genuinely inspired, I am giving it a rating of nine out of ten. But do not take my word for it. Download Tinderbox. Try it out. Read all you can about it. Then make the decision for yourself if it is worth your software dollars.
Nov 10 9 2010


Calvetica is an iOS calendar, fully compatible with the built-in calendar, that promises a simpler user interface, trading fewer taps for slightly more arcana. It’s a good tradeoff, since people who use calendars use them all the time; learn once, use a thousand times.

I’m not a great fan of publishing software development plans. Either you know what the next version will have, in which case you should ship it, or you don’t, in which case the reader can’t really rely on your plans. But, if you’re writing a calendar, it’s clever to format your roadmap as a calendar.


Calvetica is also interesting for full-throated embrace of Swiss Poster Design in the UI: Helvetica everywhere, and everything is red, white, black, grey, and gridded within an inch of it life.

I need to write a hypertext story, just to have an example to use in testing a new concept. This should be easy enough; it’s a short and simple story.

It’s not strictly necessary that it be a good story. But if I’m going to write the thing, it seems sensible to write it well.

It’s not going very well.

What’s vexing is that there’s shockingly little to read about writing a good hypertext narrative, or fixing one that’s lost its way. It seems there’s an entire literary organization devoted to the notion that hypertext narrative is too easy to be interesting, but I only know a couple of dozen writers who know how to do it.

There’s some help in Reading Hypertext. But not as much as I would like: after all, it’s a book about reading.

This should not be so difficult.

The torrent of emotion that has drenched discussion of the iPad in the tech community stems from an expectation that is wildly improbable. The iPad is not your next computer. It’s not your mother’s next computer. It’s not going to replace your laptop.

The iPad is a new thing.

Dave Winer is right: it's important to make stuff, and it’s nice to make stuff on the same device you’re going to run it. This is like using your own software: if you start developing here and running there, you can tell yourself that problems and imperfections don’t matter because your users won’t notice. It doesn’t affect you: you’re working somewhere else. And sometimes that’s the right decision. But this can also lead your company to start thinking of the customers as children to be placated, or marks to be fleeced.

The iPad isn't a place for developers to develop. Nor does it slice, dice, or make salad. That’s not what it wants to be.

Al3x is right; it’s important to have places where people learn to program, and places where people who don’t know better can once again take a shot at programs we all know are impossible.

The iPad isn’t a place for programming. It’s also not a place for dancing.

Adrian Miles is vexed that his colleagues, who still haven’t understood how important new media are going to be, won’t stop students from leasing obsolete laptops and get them to grab iPads. I think he’s wrong: students need a general-purpose computer. And they also need something like the iPad. (The iPad is a luxury: you could get by with a good laptop, but you’ll do better with both. $500 isn’t a lot compared to the cost of being a student.)

All the fuss about iPad and the enterprise (no printing!) is froth. Do you know how often you’ll feel like printing something from your iPad? No you do not. You won’t know until you’ve done a lot of work with it. You can guess, you can theorize, but you don’t know anything. (Funny: people will advocate user-centered design until the cows come home, but when they have a newspaper pulpit and a review assignment, they somehow forget all about it.)

Maybe Winer is wrong to think of the iPad as a computer at all. Maybe it’s not a replacement for the computer. Maybe it’s just a replacement for the book that sits next to your computer.

You say: '$500? That’s an expensive book.' Sure. Who knows what the price point will be? In the meantime, have you worked out what your company pays as rent for bookshelves? Across my office, I see lots of books that used to be next to my computer. Thinking FORTH. Petzold. Knuth. CSCW ’90. I pay rent for them every month.

Maybe it’s a replacement for your picture frame. Or for your clipboard. Maybe it’s something else.

Relax. Take a deep breath. Enjoy iPad for what it is. Figure out what it’s trying to do — not what its maker thinks it’s trying to do, not what they say they want it to do, not what the script kiddies or the Wall Street Journal or your grandmother imagine it wants to do. Look what the thing itself is attempting.

Listen to the the work.

Then, when you know what the system wants, you can criticize it intelligently.

Until then, it’s not criticism, it’s merely a projection of your anxieties and your politics.

Coudal’s Steve Delahoyde puts together a wonderful critique of the Rovian attack ad in the form of a home-made video on behalf of Rework .

Mike Taylor: Whatever Happened To Programming? 

Today, I mostly paste libraries together.  So do you, most likely, if you work in software.  Doesn’t that seem anticlimactic?  We did all those courses on LR grammars and concurrent software and referentially transparent functional languages.  We messed about with Prolog, Lisp and APL.  We studied invariants and formal preconditions and operating system theory.  Now how much of that do we use?  A huge part of my job these days seems to be impedence-matching between big opaque chunks of library software that sort of do most of what my program is meant to achieve, but don’t quite work right together so I have to, I don’t know, translate USMARC records into Dublin Core or something.  Is that programming?  Really?  Yes, it takes taste and discernment and experience to do well; but it doesn’t require brilliance and it doesn’t excite.  It’s not what we dreamed of as fourteen-year-olds and trained for as eighteen-year-olds.  It doesn’t get the juices flowing.  It’s not making.

I do a lot of work to paste libraries together too, but I do get to do a fair amount of exciting code as well. Artisanal software matters: it's our way to stop having to sleep on the cold floor of the software factory.

Feb 10 7 2010

Second Post

Dan Phiffer introduces his new weblog with a brilliant exploration of The Second Post, examining the second post in weblogs through history. A genre is born: technocrit at its best. (Thanks, Daring Fireball!)

Sep 09 25 2009

Web traces

People worry endlessly about preservation of electronic artwork. They worry so much that sometimes people don’t make the art, fearing their progeny might find it inconvenient to view.

Of course, the progeny might be busy. They might by unappreciative. They might have lousy taste. To hell with them.

But a correspondent happened to remind me yesterday of a girl I knew in high school, a lovely girl who killed herself and of whom I have always tried to think (though I did not know her well) from time to time. She deserves that, at least. She lived and died long before the Web, and people didn’t write books about her, or even newspaper stories. There's no Facebook page, no twitstream, no blog.

Hypertext links are about memory. I try to remember winter...

Sep 09 9 2009

Fun or Easy?

Glen Lipska asks which is more important: fun, or ease of learning? He argues that “most software developers get this exactly wrong.”

Most software developers and usability experts (shocker) focus on the easy part, rather than on the software being fun to use after they learn it.  I have been trying to value the opposite priorities.  Of course, I am not trying to make something hard to use.  Rather, I am focusing on making sure the thing is fun to use.  I still apply tons of usability techniques and make sure to include all the big UI five for the user.

Ed Blachman pointed this one out to me, drawing the connection to my NeoVictorian revival. And he’s got an even better point. He writes that we’re in a vicious cycle; “[enterprise software] developers decide we’re developing for drudges, so fun doesn’t matter; users are stuck with software that’s never any fun, so they regard using it as drudgework.” This is the textbook definition of alienation.

Fun is important. Results are even more important; getting the right answer, doing work that you could not do otherwise, beats fun and ease hands down. But, in the end, results are fun; they make you happy, they make customers happy, and along the way you’ll be rewarded with tokens that you can exchange for goods and services!

We talk far too much about first impressions and out of the box experiences, and far too little about letting people do things they couldn’t do before.

John Gruber has a thoughtful argument on why newspaper efforts to charge for the news are probably doomed. I agree with his conclusion, but his diagnosis of the problem with newspapers is wrong.

Old-school news companies aren’t like that — the editorial staff makes up only a fraction of the total head count at major newspaper and magazine companies. The question these companies should be asking is, “How do we keep reporting and publishing good content?” Instead, though, they’re asking “How do we keep making enough money to support our existing management and advertising divisions?” It’s dinosaurs and mammals.

And it’s not really surprising that they’re failing to evolve. The decision-makers — the executives sitting atop large non-editorial management bureaucracies — are exactly the people who need to go if newspapers are going to remain profitable.

The heavy staffing of traditional newspapers was not the fault of management bureaucracy. It was the fault of technology and distribution.


I remember visiting the Chicago Sun Times/Daily News building as a kid, where my best friend’s dad was a columnist. The place was huge! But it wasn't filled with middle managers; it was filled with compositors and pressmen and ad sales clerks. You didn’t just need someone to mark up the HTML; you had to cast the letters in lead type. And, if you needed to make a change, someone had to go take the plates off the press, melt them down, cast new plates, and start the press up again.

Keep in mind, too, the problems of doing business without computers. Every little transaction generates paper, and that paper needs to be reliably filed and quickly retrieved. Every transaction: two bucks for the delivery boy, the rent for the Paris office, the fee for the department store ads. Every paycheck had to be computed and written out by hand, in duplicate. Even in the 70’s, the fax machine was so new and faxes were so slow that Peter Gammons was able to write the story of a lifetime faster than the fax machine could send it.

If anything, the newsroom of old was notably short on bureaucracy. That was the whole point of the news room: you had a huge open office in which dozens of people worked because all those dozens of people reported to one editor. Some of those dozens would turn out to be idiots, some of them would be crazy, plenty of them were drunks, and all of them were prone to be unmanageable. Even so, there are remarkably few layers of bureaucracy.


If you’re going to be a big daily paper in the early or mid-20th century, you’re going to need to run a big printing facility. That means you’ve got huge production costs, and lots of people who set up, run, and maintain the presses. You’ve got to staff them for the worst case, too; that means you need enough maintenance people on hand that, when the worst possible breakdown happens at the worst possible time, you still get the paper on the street.

Plus, you’ve got a fleet of trucks to deliver the paper to retailers, because you can’t just sell the thing on your doorstep. Before you had trucks, you had horses and wagons. Lots of horses, and lots of wagons, and lots of teamsters to drive them. Those horses got a raw deal; the teamsters did, too, and eventually they drove a hard bargain. Newspapers are living with the consequences of that bargain, but it’s worth remembering how badly those early drivers, and their horses, were treated.

This puts the newspapers into the same bind as the movie business. If you’ve got to support a theater in every town in the country, that’s a lot of mortgages to pay. If you’ve got to run the largest printing operation in town, and the largest cartage operation in town, as a side-effect of your real business, then spending an extra dollar or two on editorial has no significant effect on the bottom line. You add writers, and editors, and bureaus, because their cost is small relative to your presses and your delivery trucks – and if you have a Paris bureau and the other paper doesn’t, then someday you might outsell the other paper big time.

This is the core dynamic of the 20th century newspaper. Why did columnists make so much money? Because they recruited readers, and because it wasn’t much money compared to the rest of the operation. Why did they have rewrite boys and typists and gofers? Because lots of newspaper reporters were still barely educated – reporting was a job for people with a high school education – and you needed someone to fix the spelling. (“Never let them know you can type,” my mother’s first editor told her.) Why fix the spelling? Because a bunch of readers have gone to college, and the advertisers badly want those readers. Fact checking? Same story. Why did newspapers have crime reporters and book reporters and theater reporters and society reporters, not just in New York but in Detroit and Denver and Des Moines? Because those columns sold a few papers, sometimes they attracted an advertiser, and the extra pair of hands came cheap.

Newspapers aren’t bloated bureaucracies because they have antiquated management. They’re heavily staffed because they are built for a different technology and a different distribution system. The old economy made them strong in some areas, and vulnerable in others. The new economics will change their structure. But it’s not simply a matter of antique management; it’s the result of that press in the basement and all those trucks out back.

Instapaper’s Marco Arment recites a litany of iPhone app developer woes, and sums them up with an important observation: “Apple thinks this is good enough.”

It’s not just a business model problem; it’s a potential disaster for mobile software innovation. To sell software for the iPhone, you have to get Apple’s approval. The approval process turns out to be a mess, and this – much more than the 30% overhead – threatens to wreck the marketplace. If you can’t predict whether Apple will let you sell your software, you can’t invest in making good software.

My overview:

  • The dominant platform offers thousands of choices, but only when authorized through a single source.
  • The dominant price point is so low that the penalty for selling garbage is slight.
  • Authorization is always slow and often capricious.
  • The age-rating system is obviously doomed, since noisy groups assert that almost every aspect of existence is unsuitable for children.
  • The result is that most applications are barely-functional junk, and star applications are often little more than slight papering-over of the built-in APIs or of familiar genres.

The last two featured games I bought — the only games I purchased by browsing, as opposed to personal recommendations from Web celebs — were crap. I’ll probably stop buying stuff from the app store unless someone like Gruber or PeterMe extolls it.

That’s a disaster for software innovation. And the last, best hope for an alternate mobile platform.

But I’ve still got an iPhone in my pocket.

Meagan Timney is writing a dissertation "Of Factory Girls and Serving Maids: The Literary Labours of Victorian Working-Class Women in Victorian Britain," at Dalhousie, where she oversees the Working Class Women Poets archive. She recently sent some interesting notes about her work with Tinderbox for planning the archive.

Here’s the treemap view that she sketched for the archive.

Go ahead and click the image; so you can see the full-size window.

There’s nothing very fancy going on here — just a straightforward sketch of the structure of a scholarly site. But it occurs to me that this kind of visualization can be terrifically useful for thinking about all sorts of aspects of site development and planning. And, while you know how things work, this diagram might work well for explaining the site (and not just the front page!) to managers (and funders) who don’t spend much of their time reading this sort of Web site.

Same things with the Common Words view. It’s not a sophisticated analytical tool, but it’s right at your fingertips — and it’s easy to compare the word cloud for a single note or section to the word frequencies of the entire document.

Little Match Girls

Describing the site, Timney writes that "Materials to be mounted on the site include an annotated index of working-class women authors and their works, an extensive critical introduction, a database of more than 600 full-text poems written by working-class women in the nineteenth century (including Fanny Forrester, Marie Joussaye Fotheringham, Mary Hutton, Millicent Langton, Lucy Larcom, and Ruth Wills), a full bibliography of scholarship, reviews, and textual materials that will provide both historical and literary contexts (e.g. reviews from editors in nineteenth-century periodicals, brief biographies of authors, such as Ben Brierley’s biography of Fanny Forrester in Ben Brierley’s Journal), and serve as a portal to contemporary critical contexts. This fully-searchable database will include headnotes and annotations for each poet. Other materials will include a Wiki, which will document the design and editorial practices of the site, to augment the construction of a prototype model for other sites, and a web forum, which will allow for critical discussions of the texts themselves, humanities computing and the digital representation of non- canonical texts, as well as open discussions of hypertext editions and their function as systems of “information engineering” (Flanders)."

Little Match Girls

Have an interesting Tinderbox project? I'd like to hear about it. So would lots of people who read this blog. You might find helpers, advisors, collaborators, and fans. Email me.

In Porto, George Landow mentioned offhand that Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student describes five ways to open an argument and, by extension, to start a hypertext.

They are:

  • Introduction Inquisitive
  • Introduction Paradoxical
  • Introduction Corrective
  • Introduction Preparatory
  • Introduction Narrative
Jul 08 3 2008

Internet Stories

Post-Adversiting Guru Jeremy Greenfield lights into Advertising Age over Ruben Steiger’s attack piece, "Has The Internet Failed as a Storytelling Medium?

Steiger, an ad-agency CEO, has an adman’s approach to the story.

Creating great stories regardless of medium is expensive. This means content creators need seed capital, which can be repaid either by transactional revenues from selling content -- not too effective on the Internet -- or from advertising, which works well. But until the net proves itself able to attract a large audience to great content built expressly for the web, advertisers will continue to be difficult to bring aboard to underwrite that content.

This sounds good, but of course it’s complete nonsense. Storytelling seldom requires much seed capital. Novelists and screenwriters work in garrets, they write on kitchen tables. Painters work in attics and basements and garages. The garage is the proving ground of rock and roll; when the band’s prosperity permits, perhaps it will rehearse in a disused light industrial space. Steiger is simply wrong on the facts.

Internet Stories

And, as Greenfield points out nicely, he sees no stories on the internet because his eyes are shut. Greenfield reminds us of Joyce’s wonderful story afternoon, which turns 25 this year, and points to wikis and MMRPG and home-made net videos for inspiration.

Writing in the July/August number of The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr asks whether Google (and the Web) are making us stupid (or, rather, inattentive and distracted).

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Short answer: don't be silly. Thanks for playing.

Dept. of “What were they thinking?”: Carr finds it harder, lately, to read long articles and long books.

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Carr, who is rapidly approaching 50, has obviously forgotten what it was like to be in fourth grade. Kids talk like this all the time. They can’t concentrate. The book is boring. Those girls are making too much noise. There’s gonna be a ball game in the park at 3. Is it 3 yet?

Carr’s forgotten what it's like to be young, and look up at old people — your parents are likely to supply good material — and wonder what they do with their time. When I was in college, I used to wonder about this: my professors, for example, knew a lot more than I did, but they were also a lot older. In the previous four years, I'd learned the rudiments of three or four languages: how come none of them spoke a dozen? They'd read a lot more than I, but it didn’t really seem to be twenty or forty years worth of reading, not at the pace we were getting used to at Swarthmore. What was wrong with these people?

What was wrong, of course, is they had kids. And jobs. And some of them were tired. Some of them were bored now. Some of them wanted to go dig ditches or design cities or write. Some were old, some ill, and some were distracted by one thing or another. Life gets in the way. And there are other things worth doing — even I admit that. Sometimes, you need to put down the book and pick up the girl.

If you’re done with school and you don’t want to read Little Dorrit today, you don’t have to. There won’t be a test. Just don’t blame Google.

May 08 11 2008

Torill Swings

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.

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.

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.

May 08 1 2008

Wild CSS

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.

Although I think I agree with the conclusion of Clay Shirky's new talk about Gin, Television, and Social Surplus, the way he gets there is probably not the best route.

Shirky wants to argue that we now have a lot of spare thinking time, time we used to spend watching television sitcoms. By taking a little of our television time and using it to create media (LOLcats, weblogs, wikipedia, whatever), we collectively wind up building amazing new things through lots of small contributions. This is right, but not new: it's Mamet's quote:

The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that.

That might be right, but Shirky argues through historical analogy with the industrial revolution.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing-- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

This sounds good, but inconveniently, it's wrong.

Shirky and History
Elna Borch,Death and the Maiden,Ny Carlsberg Glypotek

Yes, early industrial Britain drank a lot. In Nelson's navy, the minimum liquor ration was something like 4oz of rum a day, often supplemented by plenty of beer. This wasn't hard partying, it wasn't decadence; anything less was thought to be cruel and inhuman, even for men to whom weevily bread and the lash were part of daily life. But their great grandparents drank even more; in Medieval Northern Europe, beer was the main staple food for many months of the year.

Wassail! Wassail! All over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown

Sure, there were gin pushcarts. There were pushcarts for cherries and mackerel and matches and milk, for knife grinding and chair mending. Shops were for rich folk; small businessmen went from door to door. This wasn't new: Gibbons set The Cryes of London for five voices and viols before 1625, and he wasn't alone. This was true almost to living memory; Eliza Doolittle sells flowers on the steps of Covent Garden and her ambition is to someday, somehow, be employed in a flower shop.

Shirky opines that

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would've come off the whole enterprise, I'd say it was the sitcom.

This sounds OK, but it can't be right. His canonical examples are I Love Lucy (1951-7) and Gilligan's Island (1964-7); Malcolm In The Middle is mentioned but begins in 2000, a decade after the end of history. There were some who thought the twentieth century included events somewhat earlier. By the time Gilligan starts, the last moment at which we generally think the wheels really came close to falling off was two years past. This is (obscenely) to forget the six million voices crying in the road that the wheels did fall off, and the unnumbered voices ground under those wheels:

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for -- but we fight for roses, too!

Yes: creativity and appropriation, interaction and re-creation: all are important.

Yes: history shapes this, and yes: this will shape history.

But you've got to get the argument right; sounding good isn't good enough.

Mike Power thinks I'm mistaken. Yes, the gin craze was real, and it was urban. But in the very long view, it's a shift in alcohol. Shakespeare's age drank a lot of fortified wine: sack and malmsey and possets — and a lot of ale. Before then, the middle ages drank even more ale; there was no better way to preserve grain from rodents than to brew it, so much of Europe could either be tipsy or starve. 2.2 gallons per person per year, the 1743 peak, is not that much, even by modern post-temperance standards. Russia's vodka consumption is higher than this, and France's 54 lit=14 gallons of wine per person is certainly in the ballpark. Gin was manufactured and concentrated, which made it ideal in the new industrial cities; where transporting liquids was incredibly expensive, requiring horses and carts and cooperage, concentrated gin made a lot of sense.

The political sites have evolved a notion of diary rescue, in which the editors “promote” especially interesting comments from the weblog and place them on the main page. Here is Diane Greco, from way down the page in the dreary IF:Book “hypertext is boring” thread; upon further review, it's one of the best notes ever written on hypertext reading, and it would be terrible were it lost.

What we're talking about, I think, is appreciation. All I can add to this is my personal appreciation of so-called classic hypertext. I spent some years deeply involved with it, so I'm probably dismissable on that basis alone. Nonetheless, the stuff's stuck with me, the way literature just does stick, sometimes. When it's good.

One long, sentimental example: After my daughter was born, during a time when I was feeling very inside-out, I went to the mountains with my fledgling family, and all weekend I was thinking, on one hand, about how unsettled I was by my new role, by mothering, and, on the other hand, wistfully, of this line from Michael Joyce's Twilight: Mountain the first home.

The line was my refrain for the weekend: it soothed me like little else did at the time, and as I reflected on it, I found that I had deepened my sense of what we, as a family, were all doing out there in the middle of the woods, trying to make ourselves a home in the world in more ways than one.

I returned to New York to find Mark had linked to David Ciccoricco's dazzling essay (no longer available, it seems) on Twilight. The essay contained the whole lovely quotation ("Atom recalling granule, granule stone, stone the great mountain, mountain the first home"), and also drew a fascinating connection between the pile of stones that, for better or worse, is Eastgate's logo, and a different pile on Michael Joyce's home page, which was, and still is, like a lot of homes, abandoned.

And then, writing all of this down, I found, for the first time in a decade, that I could not remember the first lines of Joyce's afternoon, a story, except for the words "beset by fear" and "echoing off far ice," even though I had heard the words in my head -- all of them, very clearly -- for years and years. (I even heard them when I was pregnant, and I forgot lots and lots of things then!) At last the line came to me, and when it did I recognized that it was (of course) about memory, or more precisely the loss thereof ("I try to remember winter" "As if it were yesterday?"). And then I remembered that the word is not "remember" but "recall," and the difference had to do with hearing things, with echoes, which don't usually sound the same as the original anyway. (To make the doublings even more elaborate, in afternoon, there is also the matter of the two beginnings, true and false.) So: mountains, stones, homes, abandonments, forgetting, misremembering, beginning and beginning again. Story of my life, in other words, at that moment.

When people ask me why I "do" hypertext, or (alas) sneer at my involvement in it, and I reply that the stuff speaks to me, this is what I mean. It inhabits me. When I read the stuff, I'm amazed at how quickly the associations pile up, and how relevant, how apposite everything having to do with hypertext suddenly seems; I rediscover, through the experience of reading, say, Twilight or afternoon, a vital sense of how interconnected we all are, or might be, and how personal such associations are, how intimate.

Maybe it's just me. Or maybe readers who resist hypertext are resisting this. If it is, that's just too bad, I suppose. I really don't know how other people feel about hypertext (it seems like mostly people don't feel the way I do, or if they do, they're not talking about it.) In this stuff, like so much else, it's all YMMV. I've only got my own experience to go on. I'm not an academic, I don't have a critical agenda. I'm just a reader of the stuff.

I think we need an anthology of articles about writing (and reading) hypertext. Have favorites? Email me, even if they're obvious. Have something in your drawer? Email me, too.

Sep 07 14 2007

Edale to Hope

On Sunday, I took a little stroll in the Peaks District, planning to follow the conference chair's advice and walk from Edale to Hope. Walking to Hope sounded nice.

It was a good deal more exciting than I'd planned.

Edale to Hope

I'd expected a gentle stroll amongst country lanes, with views of gardens and summits and declivities. A walk suitable for the Miss Bennets, or Mary Russell at the outermost. I was equipped with sturdy shoes, a bottle of water, a tomato and Taw Valley Cheddar sandwich, and an Ordnance Map of the district. I was fit. I was prepared. I was feeling salty as hell.

Edale to Hope

There were a good many sheep along my walk. They come in many varieties. Most were a bit reserved, but some were very curious about hypertext.

The very helpful gentleman at the visitor's center gave me printed directions to the most suitable trailhead, explaining that perhaps the signposting might be less prominent than I was accustomed to in the States.

It appears that, when a trail crosses a pasture, there is no perceived need to indicate the trail at all. Having entered, you must exit; you're simply expected to find the other exit and proceed. Or, perhaps there's another secret.

Edale to Hope

And so I arrived at the trailhead and set out, and here things began to go badly wrong, for the simple reason that I had set out on the wrong trail. Or, I think, on no trail at all. I have read about following a sheep path on the moor. I know about this. Didn't stop me. So I started to climb, following this nice little footpath, clinging to the side of a steep and increasingly narrow little valley, clambering up a tall ridge.

It was the wrong ridge.

But, far above, I could see lots of people on the trail. They were happy people, on a busy trail. Many had walking sticks, which it seems are all the rage in the Peaks District these days. I pushed on and up. I wanted to join them.

I discovered an interesting fact at this point.

In Colorado, say, you get boggy swamps in lowlands. In Derbyshire, you can be at the bottom, the top, or in between, standing on a steep, steep slope, and you carefully set you foot to keep your balance in a patch of dirt that looks a little muddy, and glop! you're up to your calves in glutinous brown mud.

There were lots of sheep. There have been lots of sheep here for a long time. In consequence, approximately every plant has thorns, or little prickles on its leaves, or burrs. I soon had legs covered in mud, hands covered in bleeding scratches, with a cloud of pursuing midges who had discovered true love.

Edale to Hope

So, at this point I'm getting quite high up the slope, which is getting much less passable, and the trail has given out entirely. But, at the ridge, there's a steady stream of hikers: that's were I ought to be. There were still occasional sheep about. I did reflect, frequently, that "if Linda were here, she would have said, 'This is not a trail!' several miles back." And she would have been right.

It was tiring. I made it. Eventually. Hooray.

Lunch. Another tomato baguette, or six, would have been welcome. Never mind; I was at the top of the ridge, and some small privation — a few cuts, some scrapes, a cloud of midges, a shortage of baguettes — are only to be expected.

Confidently, I set out, smiling and nodding at each encounter with a fellow rambler, restored to society once more. Good times, good road. Everyone was cheerful. A group of fresh young fellows, led by a wiry older man who looked like he knew just where he was and where he was going, walked past.

"Is this the road to Hope?" I asked.


"I've been waiting to ask this question for many years."

"Hope. No, I don't think so!" He looked concerned and pulled out his map. Much study ensued. "I think you have gone wrong. Down here," he said, pointing to an indistinct spot on the map, "you would have lots of choices. There's a very nice pub in Hope, you know." A pub sounded very nice to me, right then, since pubs tend not to have gelatinous brown mud, thorns, or precipitous ridges. "But you're up here. If you want Hope, today, I think you really need to go down this clough."

And so I set off down the clough. It was a nice clough. A stream runs through it, as streams will.

Edale to Hope

And here, again, we find ourselves in a muddle. There was no trail to be found. Much of the descent was steep, and much of it was wet, and lots of bad things can happen when clambering over wet rocks in a stream in a hidden and obscure defile in which one was not expecting to be. I observed to myself that, if someone at Hypertext '07 was wondering where they had mislaid their track chair, this particular clough would not be the first place they would look.

I was sure there must be a trail. Somewhere. Unfortunately, I was at the bottom of the clough, so any attempt to find the trail involved struggling up its steep and thorny sides. My ordnance map made an excellent sail, but did not offer any clear advice. The clearest thing it told me was that no feature in sight conformed to the place my advisor had told me this was.

I decided the trail couldn't possibly lead down the wet boulders, so I climbed the ridge to what looked to be a trail. It was a disused pasture wall. I climbed some more; but this was getting serious. As the view improved, I realized that my revised itinerary had almost certainly been proposed by a fellow who, like me, did not know where he stood: the clough I was clambering was distinctly curving, and the Ordnance map clough had no curve.

Edale to Hope
I did not fall off cliff, or down either clough. I did not spend night on moor, though was thinking very seriously of making provisions.

And so, eventually, I got back down, and now I was again on real footpaths. I was also far from Hope, and night was not that far off. But there were sure to be some hours of daylight left, and on I went. And then, the map said that if I were only to follow a spur and climb this little ridge, there'd be a Roman road.

Edale to Hope

By this time, I really must have been tired, as I did notice how the trail up the ridge crossed quite a few of those little brown lines on the Ordnance map but somehow failed to understand exactly what this meant.

I am still sore.

This must be Tolkein's Eriador: barren hillsides with lovely views, crossed by The Road and The Greenway and dotted with ruined walls and strange, deep holes. Somehow, I managed to notice the cairn that marks the path that winds slowly down the ridge and into the lovely hamlet of Hope, Derbs.

Edale to Hope


Bill Bly, musician and author of We Descend, writes about Megan Heyward's of day, of night :

I really enjoyed my first reading of "of day, of night." It's certainly immersive: it took me a little over an hour to read, and I only got up once to refill my coffee cup.

I was captivated by the overall visual appeal of the piece, and found the reading apparatus welcoming and engaging. I always like to see if I can figure out how to move around inside a hypertext without resorting to the directions, and here that was easy as well as rewarding. Thoughtful wandering seemed to work best, and it was gratifying to find, when I finally did read the directions, that wandering was what the author recommended. The interface itself encouraged the best way to read.

The music is dreamy, all bottleneck & pedal steel guitar. The rest of the soundtrack consists of the natural sounds of objects and critters -- matches rattling inside a paper box, a rusty tin opening, pages being turned, a pencil scribbling in a notebook, treefrogs, birds, insects. Human sounds (except for the narration and a single line of dialogue in what may be Chinese) are of the same order: atural sound, like footsteps on different surfaces and in different (or no) shoes, breathing, laughter, sighing. To me, this was the most enchanting dimension of the piece.

I was especially delighted by Sophie's gambit, once traditional therapies had failed to "wake up" her ability to dream, of wandering around town picking up objects and imagining their stories. The sketchy fragment she writes to accompany -- not explain -- each artifact invites the reader to come up with more details, fill the fragment out.


Rose Hepworth writes from Goldsmith's College, University of London:

Re-reading [Of Day, of Night], it struck me again how 'I lost the ability to dream' is such a beautifully simple premise for a fragmented narrative. It just dovetails so perfectly, for me, with the experience of reconstructing the text, which is dream-like in itself.

Fragmented narrative is one of the hallmarks of much electronic writing. It's not just an artistic challenge: weblogs are fragmented narratives. Memorable weblog arcs unfold over days and weeks -- whether we're talking about Drudge's pursuit of sex scandals or Kaycee's fight against leukemia or Badger's struggle to put her life back together.


Brendan Pieters has been teaching English and new media at Santa Fe Community College for more than a decade. Reading of day, of night prompted him to look back:

Of Day, Of Night combines oral narrative, words onscreen, music, and video to create a rather sensuous détournement through a person's life. Amazing how hypertext has evolved since Patchwork Girl, or afternoon -- they were more like traditional stories with the capacity for the reader/user to interact. Of Day, Of Night is very accomplished.

When I read this, my initial reaction was that Professor Pieters was wrong -- that Heyward's of day, of night is indeed unlike Patchwork Girl and afternoon, but that the effort to measure them in this competitive way is wrong-headed. The critical corridor, I think, always has a cluster of sourpusses eager to complain that last year's new media is too old and too full of words, that they want the shiniest new thing.

But I think there's something else here, something deeper than "Heyward has more pictures". Heyward is sitting right at the border of artifactual hypertext; she gives the reader a range of objects, links the objects to moments, and knits this together in a young woman's quest. It's not just the intrusion of film into text, it's the singular appropriateness of these dreamy images in a struggle to dream again.

Or maybe not. My point is that we should be talking about hypertexts, new and old. What's fun? What isn't fun, but turns out to repay the effort? What bits of craft can we note down to use in tomorrow's weblog, or next year's electronic fiction?


Denise Atchley is a multimedia producer who has convened a long and important series of Digital Storytelling Festivals. Recalling Megan Heyward's reading of of day of night in Sedona, she recalls:

The sumptuous quality of the artwork and the story line behind the piece. Also, the hidden little surprises that made the whole piece feel a bit like a treasure hunt, but because it was personal, that we were being also being voyeuristic.
Fleming on Of Day, Of Night

One of the nice parts of my job is that I have the pleasure of reading notes that people send us about new hypertexts. Professor Dan Fleming writes from Waikato about Megan Heyward's new of day, of night:

The more time I spend with it, the more I think it's one of the best pieces of new media narrative I've encountered.

At times, on a formal level, it recalls Peter Gabriel's Eve, but where the latter invites the reader/viewer to reconstruct a lost paradise by puzzle-solving, of day, of night doesn't so much offer puzzles as narrative 'knots' that loosen and reconnect themselves just by having time spent over them. There's a delicious sense of reconstructed memories that gently exert pressure from underneath somewhere until you can't stop them from flowing back together in unexpected but wholly satisfying ways.

That rising flow of connectedness is very rare in hypertext where connection often doesn't shake off the arbitrariness of user interaction. Here the interaction shifts gradually away from the physical encounter with the interface and onto a conceptual and emotional plane where I found myself, in the end, in a state of stillness and apparent non-interaction with the computer - but very much engaged by the dreamlike flow of interconnecting memories. Powerful stuff.

As I was saying, even the proverbially boring blog post

I ate a cheese sandwich.

is not really boring if you do it well. And there are lots of ways to do it well: so many, indeed, that I left out some important ones.

  1. How I made a cheese sandwich is always interesting. While I was in LA, Linda did some experimenting and found that lightly toasting the bread before grilling the cheese sandwich made a huge difference -- the bread stayed crisp, it got nicely buttered, and the Vermont cheddar melted just enough.
  2. The cheese sandwich may focus a larger issue or resentment. Every Tuesday and Thursday, they serve the same cheese sandwich to the inmates -- a repulsive and unhealthy sandwich which, thanks to graft and profiteering, costs the taxpayers more than steak. This is the dominant discourse of political weblogs. The sandwich isn't merely an emblem, but it's part of the picture.
  3. The cheese sandwich may be introduced for pacing. I am in the midst of a dramatic, unfolding story -- struggling with a dreadful disease, perhaps, or running for Congress, or selling my startup to Google -- and you're visiting my weblog every day to see what happened, and today I'm going to tell you a long and interesting story about this cheese sandwich because I want to remind you that life continues to unfold while we're waiting for the test results or due diligence.

Just to review the bidding, our earlier cheese sandwiches included:

  • the excellent sandwich
  • the notable accomplishment
  • the conventional occasion for an extraordinary event
  • the symbol or emblem
  • the sandwich that identifies a place or time

It's not just cheese sandwiches, of course.

Cheese Sandwiches Again

Exercise: the LiveJournal equivalent of the cheese sandwich might be something like this:

Last night I went to the party at Foo and saw this really cute guy and we danced all night and then I brought him back here and it was really great, except...

Compose blog posts that use this story for each cheese sandwich variant.

People who want to disparage weblogs like to say that they're full of dull trivia. "I ate a cheese sandwich."

Let's take a look at the craft of the weblog, by looking at the craft of that cheese sandwich. How can the cheese sandwich matter? How can it be interesting?

First, it might be an excellent cheese sandwich. I had a very fine bleu cheese the other night at AOC, a mild and creamy bleu from a small farmhouse cheese maker in Minnesota, served with a nicely fresh and crusty baguette. Food blogging has been immensely successful and influential. We're in the midst of a food writing revolution, a new way of thinking about food, and blogs and other forums are leading the way.

Second, eating a cheese sandwich might be a notable accomplishment. After a long convalescence from surgery, I actually ate a cheese sandwich. Or, the cheese sandwich might affirm or reject a longstanding habit or prejudice: though you all know that on moral grounds I have always despised all meat and dairy products, yesterday -- defying my physician, my ancestors, and sneering at hell's bells -- I ate a cheese sandwich.

The cheese sandwich may be the conventional occasion for an extraordinary event. Yesterday, I was eating my usual cheese sandwich and Roger Ebert came into the sandwich shop and sat across from me and we had a long talk about Pauline Kael.

The cheese sandwich may be a symbol or emblem, standing concretely for an abstraction. This need not be a grand or remote literary effect; indeed, much food writing is not precisely about food at all, but rather uses the food and our feelings about it to approach even deeper subjects in ways that, if addressed directly, might seem merely sentimental.

sad thoughts on the love that got away on the plate that time forgot -- Adam Gopnik

The cheese sandwich might identify a place and time, situating a story specifically in order to help us believe. The Sunday bagel and cream cheese in the Bronx, or the elaborately-garnished, thin slices of seven-grain organic bread and imported low-fat Havarti wolfed down at a desk in Hollywood, can matter beyond the bread and cheese.

Here's an interesting discussion in a church blog on the subject of allowing comments.

Comments give us flames, trolls, comment spam. Imagine: if the left took some of the hours and hours of work they spent last October fighting comment spam and trolls on Atrios and DailyKos, and spent maybe a tenth of those hours canvassing Ohio and Florida.

Moral of the Great Weblog Comment Experiment: comments build traffic, but not traffic you want or you can use. Link liberally to other weblogs -- including those that disagree with you -- but let your opponents publish in their own space.

In a brand-new paper for the upcoming Blogtalk, Trevor Cook suggests that bloggers won't be able to make much money from their weblogs.

Only a few bloggers seem to have any serious prospect of generating enough revenue to be able to provide journalism outside the constraints of corporate media.

This seems plausible. Is it true?

  • Industry analysts and specialist correspondents can clearly generate enough income to sustain a business. Writers who provide critical business intelligence can easily justify subscription fees of $500-$2000 per reader per year from the circle of insiders who absolutely need that information. This has been true for decades, and won't change; private weblogs simply provide a better and more timely vehicle than mimeographed newsletters. These businesses don't need a mass audience; they need a writer, an office, a lot of plane tickets and hotel rooms, and perhaps an assistant. Do the numbers; you can make money way out in the tail. Needed: 100-1000 readers who really want the information you can get for them.
  • Political columnists who can command even a modest following should be able to generate enough income to stay in the field. If you're a political reporter in the US and it's an election year, you want to go cover the New Hampshire Primary. Several weeks of motels, a rental car, lots of meals in diners and lots of drinks for your sources. A plane ticket. Two, three thousand bucks. You won't get rich. Neither did Ida Tarbell or Sinclair Lewis. Get some readers, get $25 donations from them and $100 from your fans, and you'll be working, you'll be writing, you'll be heard -- and you won't have to haggle over your expense reports. Needed: 1K-10K fellow travelers.
  • Sports writers, food writers, and travel writers might be able to break into the field through weblog writing. It's not a sure thing, but it might work. The challenges here differ. Sportswriting is a shrinking field: there aren't many jobs, and there are plenty of gatekeepers. There are also plenty of readers: the decline in jobs stems from the decline of newspapers and the consolidation of publishing, not from anything intrinsic. Travel writing is dominated by publisher-owned brands, and so getting beyond Barely Scraping By is a challenge. Food writing is in transition from "women's page" to something else. A combination of subscription, tie-in merchandising, and membership/affinity programs should be able to generate $5 or $10/year from each reader. Needed: 20K readers, a garret, and a calling.
  • Viable, small businesses can (and often should) support a blogger, especially in a field where everyone needs to be able to write. One fundamental difficulty managing a small firm is that people are quantized and expensive. If you want to add staff, you usually have to add a whole person -- and commit to that person for months or years. This means that small companies are either understaffed (and nobody has time to do anything) or overstaffed (and that usually means there's no money for equipment that everyone needs). A weblog can convert a a fraction of a person to cash, simply by attracting visitors and making them interested in your products. (If you don't need more visitors and more prospects, you don't need more money. Please send it to me, ok?) Every bit helps. Plus, it's great training, it helps build contacts in the industry, it's got upside. Needed: For a retail business, 10K visits/month ought to translate to about $15-30K/year gross margin, which can make that extra staff position a bit more palatable.

Notice, too, that this is a revenue stream that clusters of small firms can mine much more efficiently than large firms. A small operation can pick up $10K lying on the table, but the overhead burden on a large company makes this a much more marginal proposition.

  • Artists need a blog. If you are (or want to be) a professional artist, you need a channel -- a path that leads from you to your patrons. Galleries used to be the channel for painters and sculptors, publishers and agents were the channel for novelists. Just about every artist has some unsold stuff, so you can always use a better channel. At minimum, it's a place where your collectors and fans can see what you're doing now and dream about acquiring a new piece or perhaps giving one to their cousin or their alma mater. You never know. Needed: a vocation, a style, and a short list of people who want to know what you're making.

This isn't a comprehensive list. These are some models that can clearly generate enough revenue to sustain themselves, given the appropriate underlying capabilities.

If you want to be a business pundit, you've got to write well and schmooze well and travel lots.

Notice that I haven't even mentioned advertising revenue (which is, in my experience, overrated by people who write about blogs and underrated by bloggers themselves) or sponsorships or donations. And none of these models require lots of traffic.

They key isn't to get a lot of readers. They key is to get the right readers.

Adrian Miles says that we are written by our blogs. Lilia Efimova responds, suspecting that Adrian overestimates the importance of incoming links for shaping weblogs.

I'm not sure that the way others could construct my identity from links to me is the same as my identity... From my perspective 'incoming links' matter, but it's me who decides what role they play...

In a (formerly) separate conversation, Blogtalk Downunder speaker Chris Chesher argues the opposing view:

In the speculative era of cyberculture criticism in the early 1990s, many authors claimed electronic text would destabilise the institution of authorship (Poster 2001; Landow 1994; Bolter 2001). They argued changes of material form of writing would decrease the power of the author. They connected this claim with critics such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault who had questioned conventional assumptions about authorship, and speculated on the possibilities of texts without authors. While the claims of these electronic writing advocates were contested theoretically (Grusin 1994), the popularity of blogs empirically demonstrates the persistence of authorship, and how progress often works backwards.

This is problematic on a few fronts -- surely the place to reach for Bolter's view is his 1991 Writing Space? Later, Chesher say that authorship emerged "alongside a range of economic, technological, social, political and legal changes associated with the rise of individualism, capitalism, rationalism, democracy and rule of law." This might surprise Archilochus, the 7th century poet whose authorship is sufficiently recognizable that we can find 30 new lines of his work in a scrap pile, some 2,600 years after he died, and say "By George, this is Archilochus!" (Democracy isn't on Archilochus's radar -- Pericles was born about 150 years after Archilocus died -- capitalism is a problematic term two millenia before the Medicis, and as far as rule of law goes, the handy Oxford Classical Dictionary reports that Archilochus's most-remembered poems were biting satires of the sexual habits of his former fiancée and her younger sister, written by Archilochus as a form of revenge after their dad broke a marriage contract and reneged on the wedding.)

But Chesher assumes that the natural boundary of the blog excludes the pages linked to the blog, and the pages to which it links. The critics he denounces -- especially Landow -- assumed the opposite, and so reach a different conclusion. Miles assumes that the linked pages are the essence of the blogosphere, that they flavor the blog so intensely that they set its key, its tonality. Lilia demurs; I fancy, though, that if Lilia were slashdotted more frequently, the slashdotting would change things. If your blog inscribes your calendar -- adding speaking engagements and consulting trips -- does it inscribe you? If it inscribes your bank account, does it change who you are?

For example, I have just posited a debate between Miles, Efimova, and Chesher, outlined their positions, and demonstrated some weaknesses each writer exposes. Who made this debate? Adrian, who wrote the first post? Chesher, who began it? Perhaps I am the author of the entire affair.

Peter Wasilko integrates iCal and Tinderbox.

Aug 04 19 2004

Code Smells

There are at least 38 different kinds of windows in Tinderbox. I know this, because there are exactly 38 classes that compute a WindowTitle. (Some windows, of course, have no title, or don't need to computer a title). Indulge me while I adduce some consequences:

  • Because it's obvious that each HypertextView needs a title, this was one of the oldest parts of the Tinderbox code. Walking down memory lane is sometimes pleasant, but this youthful indiscretion summons up no bittersweet smiles.
  • The old method was named MakeWindowTitle. In prose, a bad choice like this would have been caught by my editor, or it would by now be way back in the rear view mirror. In code, we've had to repeat the same awkward construction in more and more places
  • Because this is an old corner of Tinderbox, the calling convention was designed to reduce memory allocation which I then thought would be expensive. Wrong: it's not expensive anymore. Wrong twice: the design doesn't actually reduce memory allocation. It did make the code look clumsy, though.
  • Ripping out the old code and replacing it took all 112 minutes of Wonder Boys, which is a very fine film indeed.
  • I think there's a business case for cleaning up the annoying code smell surrounding this. But I'm not at all sure. I can rationalize it, of course. I'm the boss, it's the end of a long day, it's 1 AM, and why not fix up the clutter. But it's like office furniture: you may suspect good furniture helps people work better, but it's hard to prove it.

Incidentally, the development peekhole is back.

They weren't all fools
Among the worst, and most popular, historical myths is the belief that people used to be idiots. It's always tempting for historians to fall into this because the historian knows how things turned out, and because our inner adolescents perpetually remind us of what fools are parents were.

One symptom of this mistake is sudden descent from something very interesting into unreadable politics:

Orientalism serves as a safety valve for gender friction by providing imagery for male wish fulfillment and idealization. This function was signaled early on by Hiram Power's The Greek Slave, which depicts a nude woman chained and sold into harem slavery by the Turks during the Greek War of Independence. This unprecedented sculpture came to epitomize the nineteenth century cult of pure womanhood, with its ideals of chastity, piety, and quietude.

This is Holly Edwards channeling Edward Said, and though her catalog of Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America 1870-1930 is full of delightful work, the text is often marred by this sort of carping. The artist's politics were not ours -- or at least not Said's -- and so we have to hold the artist (and the buyers, viewers, and critics who were all fellow travelers) in a certain contempt. (Edwards does do an important service in explaining why France's imperial issues were not America's, and that Orientalism in American painting does not have to mean the same thing that it meant in Paris)

But if of politics we now would speak, what were the artist's and the viewer's politics, anyway? No, the Greek Slave isn't the girl next door. If she were, this would be unbearable. Terrible things happen; art gives you some distance. Sooner or later, it is going to happen here , and it's easier to plan and to prepare if you begin by thinking about what's happening over there.

And somehow, speaking of politics, we've managed to forget that we're in New England in 1843 and we're talking about people who knew slaves, people who could (and did) say that some of their best friends had been slaves, people who were 17 years away from busting up the last, best hope of mankind and walking out of their New England parlors all the way to Georgia, in order to destroy slavery at any cost.

If you convince yourself that those old folks were fools and louts who just wanted to do the male gaze thing to the Orient, you're fooling yourself. They may have been wrong, there were lots of things they didn't know, but they weren't merely greedy simpletons and perverts.

They weren't all fools
In Carpeaux's Les Quarte Parties Du Monde (Luxembourg Gardens, maquette in the Orsay), we have four women -- Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, supporting the globe. Africa's leg is shackled, and America just happens to be stepping on her chain.

I spent a couple of hours this afternoon, sketching The Greek Slave in Poser, to sort out two different ways we're distanced from this girl. One is intentional -- she's a hunk of silicon dioxide. The other, though, is partly an accident of time. Her hair is antique, and that's a powerful source of distance. (Anne Hollander points out that, in historical movies, the stars almost always have modern hair.) And her body is antique, too; nude statues, from the Greeks on, are almost always distorted by the forces of the underwear that the subject is not wearing . (Poser has the same problem -- and it gives her the abs of a kouros -- but because it's modern we don't see it so prominently)

The unexpectedly interesting parts of this exercise in new media remediation were the hands. I wanted to change the right arm just a little, moving the girl a little away from the column and letting her put more weight on it. Hiram Powers probably couldn't do this because the marble wouldn't withstand the shear force, but we can benefit from the magic of virtuality. The Poser 5 slave isn't conscious of the corset she's not wearing, she's accustomed to jeans or skirts or to the little black dresses that Coco Chanel will invent for her granddaughter, and I wanted some muscle tension somewhere.

The left hand, I thought, was a bit of silly 19th-century nonsense. It turned out to be a headache, because small changes in gesture end up reading very differently, and I didn't want to wind up in Fleshbot. It was murder to get anything close to acceptable, and to do that I pretty much abandoned the attempt to mimic the original angles. (There's a reason you never see hands in user interface icons: nearly every gesture is obscene, somewhere)

It's a hell of a note that we're now more puritanical than the 19th century Boston Brahmins. But, let's face it, we are. Gender friction? Male wish fulfillment? The viewers were often women, the tastemakers were even more often women. Those women didn't have much political power, but they had some -- and they could easily have preferred something else. And the whole point of the sculpture is that you're obviously supposed to identify with the slave girl.

And this is becoming the sort of thing of which plain folks, in 21st century America, dare not speak.

As I'm walking home, a fellow pulls over and asked me for the best way to drive to Paddington. I'm from Boston, I have no idea where Paddington is, and I'm striding confidently down Gower Street because I narrowly escaped from being enmazed in Russell Square. I'm not that confident anyway: I've been up for 40 hours, I just walked about 15 miles or so through Bloomsbury and Notting Hill (see below), before that I flew across the ocean, and I have just enjoyed two of those excellent (but preternaturally large) pints of real ale.

Someone always asks me for directions. Lately, someone always asks on my first day. Often, in a language I don't speak, in a place I've never been.

Why, exactly, did we think hypertext navigation was a problem?

I had those two pints (memo: special is worth the 15p premium) at a very pleasant, unremarkable pub just down the street from where Foundling's Hospital used to be. It's a park now, for children -- Foundling's is. Not the pub. The pub has always been there, and it's always been a pub.

I did have some trouble, ordering a pint. even though I read an entire thesis on how to act in a pub. Spending more time in Britain and among Britons abroad has left me nearly deaf to accents. I forget that, where I hear a charming trace of an accent I can't place, the other person hears me speaking broad and incomprehensible Chicago with overlays of something nobody can identify anymore as a speech problem (thank you Mrs. Horowitz). Like the Minbari, Britons may sometimes sound like us....

The pub seems unremarkable, but Robert Elms did remark (in London Walks v2) that it's not much changed since his schooldays -- or since the 18th century -- "complete with snugs and engraved screens." So, back in 1775 or so, a couple of medical workers probably sat in the nook where I was reading Hiromi Goto and complained about their caseload and worried together about the troubles over in Boston.

Everything in this post is about hypertext. It has no links.

In the past months, many weblogs have pondered Iraqi blogger Salam Pax. Is he real? A fiction? Paul Boutin summed up the evidence  last month:

Speculation continues that Dear Raed , the weblog of a young man in Baghdad who posts under the name Salam Pax, is a hoax, perhaps even a disinformation campaign by the CIA or Mossad. A month after Computerworld published a story quoting a "terrorist" who turned out to be one of their former writers pranking them, it would be foolish not to wonder.

An interview with Salam Pax by Mark Stephen Meadows, to appear in Tekka this week, appears to close the book on the question. Salam Pax is real.

  • Meadows met Salam in Baghdad, at the Baghdad Sheraton. They spoke at length, on the record. Meadows also met Salam's father. Salam asked not to be photographed.
  • Salam blogged the meeting in some detail, on May 22.

So, we know that Meadows met someone in Baghdad who said he was Salam, and who has access to Salam's weblog. This doesn't completely preclude some off-the-wall scenarios -- perhaps Salam flew to Baghdad for this interview, having posted his weblog from Wisconsin through an Iraqi intermediary? But what would be the point?

As I've written previously, we worry about the authenticity of weblogs more than we ought. Kaycee Nicole was true, although she was a fiction. Isabella (new URL) revealed an important lesson about thrillers that the interactive fiction community had overlooked. Salam reminds us that people can be who they say they are -- that, sometimes, things are pretty much what they seem.

Of course, we still have all the questions about reality that face any reader. When Salam offers an opinion, or I do, is this precisely what he believes? Of course not. We write things we believe, we write things we want to believe, we write things we ought to believe even though we cannot believe them. We write about who we were, not who we are; we write about who we wish he had been and what we wish we'd thought to say. Isn't that more true, in the end, than a recording?

The wonder of designing software tools is the chance to take ideas (the gossamer of dreams) and commodity hardware (rust) and create something completely new that helps people do wonderful things. If you're lucky and skillful, you can sometimes make this happen. Sometimes, you might be well paid for doing it.

Sometimes, things don't work. Maarten Hekkelman wrote a text editor called Pepper, meant to be better than BBEdit. He gives a long, detailed, and frank interview to John Gruber, who used to work for BBEdit. Together, they explore what went wrong, and why in this case rust and dreams remained rust, and dreams. (Thanks, Aaron Swartz!)

Sep 02 10 2002


Apple has just shipped iCal, its new calendar program. A free download, for MacOS X 10.2 (Jaguar).

iCal and .Mac may be more important to technoculture than you'd think. Apple's plan seeks to lower the barrier between the net and the local system by building network awareness into lots of local applications. You've already got built-in photo downloads -- and easy snapshot sharing over .Mac. Easy sharing: WebDAV as a hotkey, ftp and windows servers on the desktop, Rendezvous discovering your LAN on its own. iChat transfers files to your buddies by drag and drop. Next, calendars. Many-to-many sharing.

It's brilliant marketing. Microsoft's message, right now, is all about security and copy protection, patches and Palladium. Apple's message is about sharing. Dell and IBM ship Windows in black boxes. Apple wears white. Don't you just love it when a plan comes together?

Jan 04 1 1904


After dinner last night, I was talking with open source software engineering guru Walt Scacchi, and with Doug Engelbart, the guy who invented outliners, the mouse, and lots of other things you use all the time.

It was a Memory Lane kind of evening -- Frank Halasz was there, too, a guy who had a huge influence on my career though I'm sure this would surprise him.

Someone recalled the early personal computer flea markets. "I was there," said Doug. "I saw Bill, in a little flea market booth, selling software off his tailgate," Scacchi recalled. "I saw Adam Osborne on his soapbox, telling us to give away the computers, to give away the software. 'How can we do that?', people asked him. 'We'll all make money selling them the manuals!'"

"Well," I said, "it turned out that it was Bill who got to buy the big house." That might have been the real start of open software, right then and there. Scacchi's almost convinced me that the open software economy might work, even without the cost-shifting arbitrage that currently seems to supply so much of its fuel.

And that's still, in a way, the core of the problem. 'Indirect economies suck,' said Diane Greco, and she is not wrong. Computing may have become a service industry, but the needs of a service industry are not the needs of research and innovation and progress. It's a puzzle and a problem.


Adam Osborne was a wonderful tech writer. He built a terrific business on his model, writing a wonderful series of books on microprocessors back when microprocessors were new. I still own mine. It was brilliant: from sentence structure to production, everything was right. Osborne, and Brian Kernighan, and maybe Bob Horn (who was at Hypertext '87, though not at dinner) pretty much defined modern tech writing. Or so it seems to me.