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. — David Mamet

by Jacob L. Wright

In 722 BCE, Assyria defeated the northern kingdom of Israel. The southern Kingdom of Judah remained nominally independent until 587. In the wake of those defeats, and the universal dominance of great empires, newly unemployed scribes of both kingdoms sought for a way to remain relevant and to preserve an audience for the literature they treasured. The Bible is the fruit of their editorial work, a document of resistance, skepticism, and of the unending quest for knowledge.

May 24 24 2024



The new Tinderbox view is coming along nicely, though it’s still very rough. Here’s a working document that collects some notes about information gardening. The system chooses shapes and collaborates in choosing how they fit together: in this map, notes that share an author or a tag attract each other.

This is about four hours of work.

by H. R. McMaster

This interesting but unlikable book on the decision to go to war in Vietnam was written by a US Army major in 1997. Later, the author disgraced himself by serving as Trump’s National Security Advisor; it is, alas, not hard to see the path McMaster had already paved, two decades before.

McMaster is at pains to show that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were sidelined in the course of this decision, and deeply critical of their willingness to accept being sidelined. Throughout the critical year, the Joint Chiefs were deeply divided by bureaucratic infighting and by inter-service competition. Oddly, though McMaster observes that JFK (and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara) did not, as a rule, have great respect for military expertise, he makes no effort at all to explore why they felt as they did. Kennedy and McNamara were smart, and liked to be seen as smart. They’d each had spectacular careers in World War II. A lot of contemporary literature — The Caine Mutiny, Catch-22, even The Naked and the Dead — explores reasons for this mistrust. It’s not a secret or an aberration.

Though the Joint Chiefs want to be consulted, their deliberations seldom or never considered Vietnam or the Vietnamese in any detail. McMaster’s failure to notice that is significant.

McMaster, in castigating LBJ for placing his domestic agenda ahead of winning the war, repeats the dereliction of which he indicts the Joint Chiefs. South Vietnam was doomed in 1963; it is seldom mourned. The Johnson agenda which McMaster would have sacrificed to prop it up included civil rights, voting rights, and Medicare: changes that transformed and improved the nation, even if they didn’t help Army beat Navy.

Is there a reasonable biography of Curtis LeMay? Email me.

A review of Niklas Luhmann’s note-taking technique, by Jillian Hess (author of the excellent How Romantics and Victorians Organized Information)

Luhmann saw his notes as communication partners. In order to have better conversations, he had to equip his partners with interesting ideas. Throughout, he refers to his notes as though they are sentient beings: “I, of course, do not think everything by myself. It happens mainly within the Zettelkasten.”
May 24 15 2024

A New View

A New View

I’ve been hard at work on refactoring some legacy code from the literature. I want to use it, but before using it I want to understand it, and the code as it stands is quite hard to understand.

This code originates in the 1994, and performs some fascinating computations on graphs, using a really nice algorithm. I took a stab at it a couple of years back, but blew it. This time, I was smart enough to realize that help would be a good thing: a doctoral student in mathematics gave me a very fine lesson, and that was almost enough to get unstuck.

The 1994 code has been revised a few times over the years, but it’s still C++ the way we all used C++ in 1994. It’s one big class with zillions of instance variables. Some of its methods run to hundreds of lines. It has lots of comments, but most of the comments describe what the code does, and I can see what the code does, line by line: what I need is a handle on the bigger picture.

It took a week, including one ghastly false start, but it’s slowly beginning to make sense. I’ve got 11 new classes, and the monolith is down about 400 lines.

The bigger goal is to take a fresh look at hypertext maps, one that gets away from boxes and arrows. I want to get way out there, as I argued in last year’s web studies paper, “The Indefinite Idea Plane Artistically Considered.” For example, spatial hypertext has always posited fixedness and stability: you put things where they belong, and they stay where they are until you move them. Nancy Kaplan was the first to get that into a publication: I think maybe should we call that Kaplan’s Rule.

But what happens (for example) if notes in a spatial hypertext constantly jostle each other in a crowd, trying to get close to related or linked notes? It would be like a crowded cocktail party; there would be some geometry, but individual notes would move on their own. That might be bad, because you could find yourself looking for a particular note. But it might be good, because you’d run across other notes in the process.

So here’s today’s screenshot, derived from notes I made while sketching the Web Studies paper.

The Gaza war has destroyed the progressive movement in the United States. I have been concerned about the tension for months, but I think it’s over. The last feeble light of the flame kindled in the New Deal has been extinguished.

Even among the left, we no longer have a consensus that Jews have a right to live somewhere, anywhere, on the planet. Anti-Dreyfusards are all over lefty Twitter. It’s terrifying. (Some of these accounts are probably Russian bots. But their ubiquity is terrifying in itself.)

Let me be clear: Biden will win in November. He’ll have the support of every former progressive and every loyal American. But the coalition that elects Biden is going to be awkward, filled with lots of people who can no longer trust their allies.

May 24 7 2024

Weblog, reviewed

Sociologist Rigas Arvanitis revisits the question: why do we write weblogs?

Il y a une certaine satisfaction à écrire un blog car on publie là, de suite. En somme, c’est un rêve d’auto-édition. Bien sûr on fait l’impasse sur tout ce qui fait la qualité et la diffusion d’une oeuvre. Mais avec le blog, on s’en fiche, on n’écrit pas pour la postérité. On écrit, dit-on, pour soi ! Mais n’est-ce pas toujours le cas. Et pourquoi un blog serait-il plus "pour soi" qu’’un journal intime. Au contraire même, c’est l’anti-journal intime. C’est le journal que je veux bien ne pas garder pour moi seul...

Some lovely comments about this weblog, too.

By Abigail Shannon.

He indulged my first few questions with a cold yes/no before breaking the pattern with a sharp sigh: “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, then why are you here?”

That was a visit to a Warhammer store a decade back. A recent revisit turned out better.

Impressive Apple iPhone ad.

May 24 5 2024


A YouTube performer does the “Cantina Band Song” from Star Wars in various styles. Bach is the headliner, but don’t miss Oscar Peterson, and be sure to stay for Stevie Wonder.

by Chris Bohjalian

This thriller, recommended by The NY Times Book Newsletter, centers on Crissy Dowling, a Las Vegas actress and Princess Diana impersonator. She is the princess of Las Vegas impersonators, many of whom feature prominently. Crissy is just a little bit bulimic, and perhaps just slightly too prone to indulge in pills. But she’s got a free suite in a Las Vegas casino, a free cabana, and her two shows nightly are booked well in advance. Then, both owners of her casino kill themselves. Crissy’s sister — who looks a lot like Crissy — moves to Las Vegas, trading a career in social work for a Vegas-based cryptocurrency startup. She has a new boyfriend and a newly-adopted daughter who is uncannily smart.

It’s a nifty setup, and Bohjalian keeps everything simmering. The tone is unsettling: much of this is funny and many of the characters picaresque, but Bohjalian takes the picaresque characters just seriously enough that this doesn’t become a romp.

Apr 24 27 2024


So, Thursday I had planned to implement a nifty feature that had been on the wishlist roadmap for two years. The point is to embed some objects other than images in the text presented in the Tinderbox text pane. The task requires a class called NSTextAttachment which is poorly documented, even by Apple’s standards. Here’s how it went.

Thursday morning: OK: this should be fine! Wonder why I waited so long? Let’s get it done.

Thursday midday: That’s strange: it works OK, but as soon as I save a reload, it’s gone. Hit Stack Overflow: almost nothing of use. Hit Google: one old post suggests a really clumsy way of doing persistence. Try it: it works — until I save the file. At that point, *>poof<*.

Thursday night: This is a total disaster. Perhaps there’s a solution, but this isn’t it. Unpack “Oh shit, Git!” (which is hilarious and very good) and rewind to the start of Thursday morning. Abandon hope, also the project.

Friday morning: Wait! Think about it the other way around. Imagine that you were the Apple engineer who wrote this mess. The main task is just embedding images in text, and that works. Yet this engineer wrote the API we have, which seems cockamamie, and also wrote the persistence we have, which is completely undocumented. If I had wound up in this place, what might I have been thinking about? Use that guesswork to start over.

Friday evening: What do you know? It works! By “it”, I mean a non-functional trial balloon, but by George, I think we’ve got it!

Saturday morning: What we’ve got, in fact, is a mess. Code smells from here to the horizon: indecent exposure everywhere, downcasts, and weird hacks that have to be explained in comments. Up with this we cannot put: place all Saturday plans on hold, because this cannot wait.

Aside from the total rollback, in which I indulge perhaps once or twice a year, this is pretty much what it’s like.

Apr 24 22 2024


I’m recovering from a close encounter with modern dentistry, and I forgot to marinate the meat for a carne asada last night. I went surfing for things to do with what I had on hand. Here’s what I ended up doing, from the bottom up:

  • large slice of toasted brioche (excess from brunch French toast)
  • two slices of lox (from the brunch I’d planned, but my poor teeth weren’t up to bagels)
  • six spears of grilled asparagus
  • two poached eggs
  • a sauce of 2T mayonnaise, juice of 1 lemon, a dollop of good mustard, a slug or two of olive oil, salt and pepper

I was leery of that sauce, which pretty obviously assumes that the site’s audience isn’t up to Hollandaise. But Hollandaise is notorious for sensing weakness, and I guess in this situations I myself wasn't up to Hollandaise, or even to making my own mayonnaise. No worries, it was all very tasty indeed.

One of the odd joys of citation is coming across a footnote that cites something you don’t remember writing. From John Hartley, How We Use Stories And Why That Matters: cultural sciences in action, New York: Bloomsbury, 2020 p. 102.

[Footnote] 15. An unusually direct statement of this tension can be found by Mark Bernstein, an editor of The Victorian Web: ‘Classical architecture is a universal architecture of precision, planning, and control. Each element has its proper place and size, and each is subordinated to the greater plan. In antiquity, classicism was the architectural language of empire; in the nineteenth century it was the language of manifest destiny and of a Republic taming the wilderness; in the twentieth century, it became the language of fascism. Ruskin expounded an (admittedly ahistorical) vision of the Gothic in opposition to the Classical, emphasizing savageness and changefulness as the touchstones of the Gothic. Changefulness refers to continuous change, as the vaulted rib has no single radius of curvature but changes continuously as it flies. Savageness refers to clean breaks, to asymmetry, to unique work expressed by different hands where structural constraints allow such variation.’

I rather suspect that “unusually direct” here serves as a tactful way of saying “foolhardy.” Still, it’s fun. Hartley found this through a 2014 blog of René Merle, which is flattering in itself. Alas, that weblog seems to be lost.

Michael Dirda.

Replace books where you found them. Don’t carry on loud or long conversations. Don’t boast to the owner or manager that the old paperback of Jack Vance’s “The Dying Earth” priced at $5 is actually its scarce Hillman first edition worth $100. Do look at the books themselves, not at a handheld device that indicates what they sell for online. Otherwise, prepare to be quietly and justly reviled by those around you.

See: Browsings.

Ross Douhat (NY Times).

The left-wing temperament is, by nature, unhappier than the moderate and conservative alternatives. The refusal of contentment is essential to radical politics; the desire to take the givens of the world and make something better out of them is always going to be linked to less relaxed gratitude, than to more of a discontented itch.
Apr 24 4 2024


Anna Gin writing on Telegram (in Russian). Nadin Brzezinski observes that, if you didn’t know this was written yesterday, you could easily think it was a diary from 1943. I took a stab at fixing up Deepl’s translation.

Today I stopped by my favorite flower store on Kharkov’s Avenue of Heroes. I was thinking that, if the electricity goes out during the day, I will tidy up the balcony. I will wash the windows, take out the flowers, and I’ll transplant the shoots because the roots are already kilometers long.
It's spring. No matter what.
The sales girl meets me on the doorstep. She says: “Oh no, what are you thinking? Begonias on the balcony this early? There might still be frost at night.”
And we stand in the amazing-smelling shop with the garden roses, and together we watch the weather. The siren squeals. We look at each other, and silently move away from the windows to the fertilizer section, and we talk about the dracaenas waking up from their winter hibernation.
God, I love my city.

Image: Kostiantyn Vierkieiev, Kyiv, via unsplash.

How we’re approaching theming with modern CSS, by

Based on Cube.css. More on cube here.

You have to make not just decisions about pixels, but also high-level organisation decisions which the design system helps to solve. Design system work is actually diplomacy work, a lot of the time.

Rebecca Solnit wants a joyous, inviting Left — not an angry, Puritanical one. Interview with Anand Giridharadas.

“There's a kind of absolutist idea that doesn't accept imperfect and interim victories, even though that's probably all we'll ever get because the total revolution, paradise on earth, is not in my view going to happen.”

Lessons from the experts, Ton Zylstra and Elmina Wijnia.

How To Unconference Your Birthday