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 R. F. Kuang

A well-crafted alternative history of the British Empire and its industrial revolution, in which steam power only becomes practical after scholars have harnessed the magical powers of silver. Silver in this world has the ability to release the missing elements that separate words in different languages but share common roots: French treácle (antidote): English treacle (sweet), for example, is medicinal. Four young Oxford undergraduates arrive from the corners of Empire: Calcutta, Canton, Port-au-Prince, and the daughter of an admiral. Two are women. Two are black; the boy from Canton can sometimes pass. They are to be trained to supply the magic power that powers the empire.

The catch here is that the students know too many post-colonial ideas, and too little history. They’re entirely convincing until they speak about the political and economic ideas at the heart of the story. When they do, they suddenly sound like contemporary undergraduates at top schools who have learned to problematize and interrogate from a tender age. Kuang is absolutely convincing on 19th-century Oxford slang, and if anything minimizes its racism. But we’re a half-century before Shaw’s first plays — and Shaw saw himself as a radical. At the time of the novel, Frederick Douglass was only at the start of his career. The students are intended to be brilliant, but they seem to know W. E. B. Du Bois decades before his birth.

I was interviewed by information architect Jorge Arango on The Informed Life.

Oct 22 4 2022



Here’s an interesting example of software development in practice.

A customer was experiencing intermittent Tinderbox crashes. I asked to see the crash logs and any future crash logs. This question sometimes clears up a problem, because sometimes the crashes stop! But not this time; over a few days, we accumulated a few logs.

The crash logs varied a bit, but all seemed to involve export. “Did it crash while you were exporting?” The user didn’t think so. (That was a head scratcher. It’s not uncommon for users who experience a crash to have no idea what they were doing before the crash, but Export is fairly unusual and sometimes takes a while because you might be building a site with hundreds of pages. You’d probably remember if you were waiting for Tinderbox to finish and instead it quit. Hmmmm.)

A number of the crash logs revealed a crash in TbxProgressBar. That was interesting, because it's not usually a place where Tinderbox has trouble. I studied the code, and there’s a reason for that: as far as I can make out, TbxProgressBar simply cannot crash. I bullet-proofed the code, which was already bullet-proofed. I wrote some tests. I hoped for the best. No luck!

This left some twilight zone possibilities. Was something fouling up the TbxProgressBar object? I remember one pesky bug, ages ago, that was tracked down to a faulty memory chip right where one object tended to wind up. Could I be looking at the wrong version of the TbxProgressBar code? Was this a time-bomb crash, somehow planted by code that ran earlier? (Time bombs used to be really common, back before OS X. I haven't seen one in years, but who knows?)

After far too long, I asked the customer to take a look at Activity Monitor. What was Tinderbox’s memory footprint? The footprint was huge. Now, worrying about activity monitor is often pointless: Tinderbox uses a lot of memory because you have lots of memory to use. You have lots of memory and not enough time. The was said to be a complicated document, but nonetheless, the footprint was too big.

Finally, wiring up the document to the profiler, the answer emerged at once: a memory leak in ExportPathAttribute. This is a seldom-used, read-only attribute that tells you where this page will wind up if it's exported to disk. For years, each use of ExportPathAttribute has leaked — not much, but a drip. If you were editing a weblog and then exporting to your server, well, you might have wasted some kilobytes, but you wouldn’t notice that at all.

In the last year or so, however, a new approach to Tinderbox notes has become popular; people write their notes in Markdown or HTML, and when they read their notes, they use the Preview pane. This Preview-led Tinderbox isn’t what I’d designed, and it sometimes feels like Obsidian-in-Tinderbox or something like that, but in skilled hands it can be pretty cool. And this customer was really skilled!

So, we had a complex Tinderbox document with lots of actions and lots of agents, that was spending a lot of time in Preview. That meant Tinderbox was responding to changes from rules and agents and running a new Preview every few seconds. Preview was reaching out to rebuild a complex page by assembling lots of individual notes in a big overview. A few kilobytes every 3 seconds is a few megabytes every 5 minutes. Leave that cooking for a day or two, and hilarity is bound to ensue.

Why TbxProgressBar? Because Tinderbox updates the progress bar a lot during preview. Too much, clearly, but again: if preview is fast enough, who cares if it's updating a hidden progress bar and doing extra work? But that’s where we often were when we wanted to reach for some memory and the system said, “More? You want more?

And why did we have a leak in the first place? A decade or more back, Tinderbox adopted an optimistic approach to concurrency: agents ran in the background, and most of the time everything was OK. But “most of the time” isn’t really good enough, and perhaps four years ago I started to put this on a sounder basis. That meant taking a lot more care to make sure that we weren't writing a value in one thread at the same time we were reading it in another thread. That process has tests for all the common and tricky attributes like $Text, and most of the attribute classes are designed to handle everything themselves. But, somehow, ExportPathAttribute never got the memo.

It simply didn’t matter, until it did.

Aug 22 10 2022

Rome Is Burning

by Anthony Barrett

At once accessible, engaging, and comprehensive, this history of the great fire of 64 brings together textual scholarship and archaeology to paint a remarkably comprehensive picture of the disaster and its aftermath. Our main literary sources for Nero are uniformly hostile, and the Flavians who eventually took over the Roman Empire after Nero’s fall (and a year of chaos) had good reason to blacken Nero’s reputation. Barrett’s study of the passage in Tacitus on Nero’s persecution of the Christians is brilliant, lending new weight to a 19th-Century suspicion that the essence of this account is a much later interpolation. Heartily recommended.

Someday, they’re going to tell stories about all this.  

Do any of you have contacts in the restaurant world, especially owners of pizzerias or sub shops?  I’d welcome an introduction: perhaps we can work together to get more help to Kharkiv.

Pizza donations have been very slow lately. Please do spread the word if you can.

We did manage two amazing deliveries this week. The first was to a shelter in the basement of the ruined Palace Of Labor in central Kharkiv. About 25 families currently live in the basement shelter here.

Pizza For Ukraine: Update
Pizza For Ukraine: Update

Jenny from the pizza crew writesJ that "This was our most emotionally vivid trip. It's eerie to look at the ruin where there used to be life. But the people who stayed to live in the basements are very friendly. They don't lose heart, so we shouldn’t, either.”  Jenny’s mother used to work in the Dept. Of Social Policy in City Hall, seen in the background below, though she (like so much of Kharkiv) has been out of work since the start of the war.  

Pizza For Ukraine: Update
Pizza For Ukraine: Update

Then, we did our largest delivery so far, bringing lots of pizza to an aid distribution center in the Nemyshlyansky district in northeast Kharkiv. The food kits distributed here are really important, and these centers are just about the only place to get baby food. With sporadic shelling at random times, people avoid gathering in crowds in order to minimize the risk of random catastrophe. Sometimes, though, gatherings cannot be helped. At least we were able to bring pizza.

Pizza For Ukraine: Update
Pizza For Ukraine: Update

Feel free to share this with anyone who might be interested; it helps enormously.  Individually, we perhaps cannot bring peace or victory, or even warm and dry homes for half a million people. But we can send pizza. It’s not nothing. 

Jul 22 15 2022

A New View

ACM Hypertext was in Barcelona, a small but (I thought) good conference. My papers this year were gloomy — the Web Conference paper was gloomy as well. That’s the nature of the time.

In addition to many tasty meals, Barcelona featured some fine sights. Here’s the gatehouse to Gaudi’s Park Güell.

A New View

It's been a while since we’ve had a really new hypertext visualization. I wonder what might be done, starting with this notion of trencadis, mosaics based on broken tiles and random shapes. I’ve been doing some quick software sketches. Here’s one:

A New View

Lots of rough edges, but then, the aesthetic is about rough edges, too. A lot of white space, but not nearly as much as we have with boxes and arrows, and the whitespace shows a bit of energy,