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

Plague dinner 11: Slow-roasted cauliflower. Toasted orzo in brown butter. Braised chuck. Chocolate pots de crême.

First project for the Tinderbox COVID-19 project: helping with a tool for daily staff reports for a distributed mobile health service. Good to be of use.

Locally, our officials seem to be sitting on their hands, waiting for the end. Some assure me that much is being done invisibly. What that is meaningful could at this point be done invisibly? We need more ICU beds, more ventilators, and a plan to care for people when many doctors and nurses are sick or dead.

Three weeks from today. Perhaps sooner.

Plague dinner 10. Homemade baba ganoush, picadillo de Oaxaca, Bordeaux blanc. Salad, brownies.

In five weeks, every school kid will know the quiz question: What was the greatest catastrophe in the history of Malden? Answer: The plague of 2020. Yet, it appears we are doing little or nothing to prepare.

I cannot understand this.

We should be building ventilators. We should be building hospitals. We should be training medics.

We have perhaps 15 days.

Plague 10: Picadillo

Plague dinner 9: cheese enchiladas, green chili sauce. Margarita/white lady. Brownies.

I called the city health department 36 hours ago to ask how I could help. They have not condescended to reply. City officials appear to be sitting on their hands to await God’s wrath, or expecting someone else to take care of the big things — PPE, ventilators, ICU beds, replacement caregivers to step in for those who will fall.

I cannot fathom this.

We should be building ventilators. We should be building hospitals. We should be training medics. We have perhaps 16 days.

Plague 9: Enchiladas

Plague dinner 8: Dan Dan noodles, cold roasted chicken, Picpoul de Pinet. Chocolate pots de crême. The noodles were a bit too spicy but paired wonderfully with the Picpoul.

Michigan is preparing to ration ventilators. New York is overwhelmed. People are dying in chairs, waiting to be seen in the ER.

Trump admin cancelled an order to make 20,000 ventilators, claiming they won’t be needed. Trump disputing NY ventilator shortage.

Right wing trolls spreading misinterpretations of epidemiological papers. Locally, no sense of urgency or preparation for the disaster that is coming.

Plague 8: Dan Dan Mien

Plague dinner #7: rösti potatoes (because we’re watching The Restuarant/Vår tid är nu), grilled ribeye. Shiraz/Viognier. Brownies. Happy birthday to my beloved.

and so it begins....

Ventured outside for first time, risking peril in order to acquire food. Rationing of eggs, milk, tomato sauce. Bread flour unavailable in the market, not even for ready money.

It wouldn’t be pretty, but we might be able to hold out for a month.

I told the cashier, “Thank you for your service.” I believe this wrong to say to ex-military (ww2 excepted) but apt for grocery store personnel who continue to work despite the risk.

The apparent indifference of local leaders to the looming catastrophe is alarming: while we face mass deaths, they fiddle at the margins with errand running and sewing ineffective masks. We need 16000 ventilators next week, but people seem to assume that someone else will take care of it. We need a million N95 respirators right now; the leaders are asking people to check their closets.

This focus on minutiae in the face of catastrophe baffles me. “Do your job” is good advice for normal plays, but not now: today, it’s “someone tackle that guy or we will lose the game and the season.” Is the seeming indifference a catholic assumption that God will provide, or that we should give up because it is all in His hands?

We are facing a terrible reckoning.

People who should know better are spreading misinformation. Don’t do that. If you are distributing information and any detail is wrong, fix it. If you’re not sure, do the research or call someone who can.

Work: memorandum Plague dinner #6: strozzapretti amatriciana, fresh bread, pecan pie.

Happy birthday to my beloved Linda.

Yesterday, the Mayor of our little City of Malden (Official) hosted a call-in show with the chief of police and Karen Colón Hayes. Almost every question in the tedious marathon concerned the caller’s safety or convenience. Almost none concerned volunteer service or preparation for what is to come. The Mayor concluded by saying that “we’ll all get through this.” I hope he understood that this was untrue, because it is very unlikely that all of us will.

Ask not what your city can do for you: ask what you can do for your city. I wish I knew better ways to help prepare for the coming storm.

Plague dinner #5: gong bao chicken, rice. Chocolate pots de crême.

Ten (!) hot peppers, but the dish was not even especially hot. No peanuts or cashews in the pantry, so went with pecans.

Pots de crême sous vide (90min, 158°F) was a piece of cake. 4 pots held in reserve for later in the plague.

We are growing short of eggs and milk, and one day soon we will have to risk the grocery.

I confess I did look at 1-way air fares to Australia And New Zealand tonight, on the off chance that we could get a visa. Already astronomical; soon they’ll be at 1960 levels, as much as a small house. Probably better anyway to stay and fight for the last best hope, even if survival seems increasingly in doubt and victory, if still possible, will be as bitter as those peppers.

Trump announced plans to let ~2 million die. My friends and neighbors don’t believe it, and are cheerily sewing nearly-useless cloth masks because they’ve seen movies of WW1 ladies knitting socks for the soldiers. We could be preparing for the storm. We could be building ventilators and building hospitals. But I’m afraid that a lot of folks will have to die before the local city officials stop assuring us that everything is under control.

Many of the first victims will live in cities that won’t vote for Trump; GOP planning to blame Democratic Mayors for the terrible carnage. Of course, many victims will be black, asian american, or Latinx. they’ll be blamed, naturally.

Dissolution of the United States in the coming 18-36 months is now on the table.


Plague 5: Gong Bao

Mar 20 23 2020



The latest Tinderbox brings back an idea from one of my oldest papers — the Link Apprentice. When you select a note, Tinderbox compares it to other notes in the weblog and suggests some notes to which you might link.

Right now, Tinderbox uses common language to suggest link ideas. (For wonks: it’s a modified tf-idf that looks at substring prefixes and is slightly weighted to reemphasize repetition and rare or unique words.) I’ve got plans for a better link apprentice.

In a big document like this one, the link apprentice finds some interesting links. They aren’t necessarily good ideas, and some of them are idiotic or over-simplified, but some of them are interesting.

The raw data from Lombardy, a ghastly scene soon to be repeated in our neighborhood. The early phase of the COVID-19 outbreak in Lombardy, Italy. Cereda et al.

Plague 4: Sugo de Spezzatino

Plague dinner #4: Sugo de Spezzatino, , noodles, home-made biscuits, Rosso Toscano.

Nice pot roast of chuck, tomatoes, celery, onion, juniper and sage with a little hot pepper. I would have made some pasta, but we’re running low on eggs. There’s lots of sugo left, so fresh pasta next time.

Ruhlman 312 biscuits were good! These weeks will be the rennIsance of American baking if the King Arthur Flour people can keep it together.

The president last night floated a trial balloon to left the disease go ahead and run its course, killing perhaps 10 million Americans, in order to prop up the economy.

The Imperial College Report #9 is indispensable. Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID- 19 mortality and healthcare demand

Ryan Avent: Apart, Together

There’s no need to hoard, but if each individual suspects that others may hoard then it makes sense to hoard, and so there’s hoarding. But what determines whether a community refrains from or engages in hoarding? It’s about mutual expectations, yes: I think you won’t (or will) and you think I won’t (or will) and so we don’t (or do). But what shapes and informs those expectations?

We face a real risk is the collapse of civil society. Trump and his allies make this far worse by undermining trust. Sooner or later, the government may want to tell people that they ought to do something they don’t want to do. Will anyone believe them?

Plague Dinner update #3: roast chicken, purple sweet potatoes, broccoli sautéed in olive oil, Quinta de Chocalpha (Lisboa). Pecan pie.

Lacking foresight, I failed to brine the chicken and so I went for crispiness. 450F convection oven, lots of kosher salt, stuffed with a quartered yellow onion. The sweet potatoes were overdone — convection isn’t so good for them — but good enough in their way.

Plague 3: Roast Chicken
Mar 20 21 2020

Plague 2: Lamb

Dinner update #2: lamb shoulder, Brussels sprouts, steak fries, les heretiques. Pecan pie.

Lamb was 24hr sous vide at 137F With garlic and dried rosemary, finished on grill. Excellent. very tender, flavorful. 137 was just short of medium; might try 133 next time.

Brussels sprouts: chop and render 2 slices bacon. Reserve bacon, keep fat. Saute sprout over med-high heat until slightly charred, salt, cheap “balsamic“ in quantity. Reduce to a thick glaze. Add the bacon.

The new continues dismal. I sent a memo to all our local officials, following up on a memo I sent nine days back, pointing out apparent hazards that seem not to have been publicly addressed. I’m far from convinced local officials understand the enormity of the situation, or that they have resources to do more than react to immediate crying needs. Soon, a wave of disaster will overwhelm us all.

Last night: Dry-fried Chicken (ganbian ji 干煸鸡) from . surprisingly good. Made with with stuff on hand, substituting asparagus for green pepper. It’s an emergency!

Estimates for Q2 GDP changes are very modest — down 12%, maybe down 24%. I don’t see how that’s possible. Everyone is going to get laid off; I don't think there's an independent restaurant in our city that will survive. Lots of people won’t be able to make rent — and a lot of the people to whom they pay rent are the family upstairs, who count on the rent check to make ends meet. Even if you can work from home, the productivity loss is enormous: I’m good at this, and getting my workflow right on a new MacBook Pro has meant installing a half dozen apps — Transmit, Slack, DropDmg, SD Notary, Tot, a big Xcode update — and attendant fiddling and registration and whatnot. A quarter that was down 24% would be unprecedented, but I can’t imagine how we could achieve it.

by Marie Brennan

A long time ago, I did a little bit of graduate work in Latin Epigraphy (with Herbert “Brick Stamps” Bloch). This is a wonderfully-imagined fantasy about Victorian epigraphy. The grand-daughter of the famous Lady Trent, Miss Audrey Carhart, rivals her famous grandmother for erudition and determination. She is called upon to translate a dozen newly-discovered clay tablets, written in ancient Draconic and describing a sort of foundational epic or creation myth. The world is interested in the dragons — discovered a few decades ago by Audrey’s illustrious ancestress — and their political status is a source of friction. Anti-draconic proto-fascists are organizing and they have the ear of many influential and wealthy people. An epigraphic fantasy of manners is a fine thing to read in time of plague.

There’s a lot of interest lately in zettelkasten. In German, this just means “note cards”; the term alludes to the a 1992 chapter “Communicating With Slip Boxes: An Empirical Account” by Niklas Luhmann in which Luhman described his note-taking practice. The latest revival has centered around Roam Research, an interestingly hypertextual Web app by Conor White-Sullivan.

When I first read the Zettelkasten paper, in the late 90s, the interesting point was the physical filing system. Luhmann wound up with 20,000 note cards, which obviously is quite a stack to shuffle. His idea was to avoid systematic or categorical filing: every note had a unique number, which was arbitrary. If it wasn't obvious where a new note should go, you’d give it the next number in sequence and file it away at the end. If it was clear that a note belonged alongside some other note, you'd just extend the numbering system: if it belonged with Note 571, then this would be 571.a. The let you easily refer to (link) notes in other notes, and an external index listed interesting entry points for later use.

The new zettelkasten revival isn’t about all that: it’s about facile linking. Three components seem to be key:

  • foregrounding the list of existing links to and from the note you’re reading.
  • making it very easy to add links, for which zettelkasten fans prefer the wiki convention of [[enclosing]] the name of the destination on double brackets.
  • some sort of help remembering the name of the destination note.

Tinderbox is good at this, but it arguably could be better. Indeed, there's been a gargantuan thread on the Tinderbox Forum exploring various routes to faster or more facile link discovery.

Thirty years ago (!) I wrote a little paper about a tool for suggesting new links for a hypertext. I’d started the paper expecting to show that then-current techniques couldn't do a decent job, but the code worked surprisingly well. I’ve revisited similar things from time to time — notably in Twig, but also in the Tinderbox Get Info ▸ Similar Notes pane.

I’ve had an opportunity to revisit the link apprentice today, and to test its performance I tried it out on this weblog’s working file (3,478 notes, half a million words). Some similar notes to The Cactus League include:

  • Jewish Comedy: A Serious History
  • The Chalk Artist

That’s interesting, though perhaps not very useful. Let’s try The Art Of Escapist Cooking:

Some top choices for last month’s post arguing that “In social media, we actually encounter monsters”, we get

  • Five Days In London
  • The Hunger Games
  • Prizes, a note about my paper with Clare Hooper on “Villainy in Web Science And New Media”

One of the related notes to this note — appearing as I write, is John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. That’s interesting, too, though some other suggestions are mysterious. Jo Walton’s Farthing? An old piece of Tinderbox fan mail? Still, not bad for an afternoon.

by Emily Nemens

A charming and atmospheric book about the world that surrounds major league baseball, the perplexities of coaches, writers, agents, wives, and even of the minor league stadium organist. There is surprisingly little baseball here: occasionally, some part of a play might be mentioned but there's scarcely a trace of the game itself. Even so, the Nemens does get the details right and avoids the ancient stereotypes when possible. There’s some echoes of Annie Savoy, but perhaps that’s because art becomes life.

Feb 20 18 2020


A while ago, I joined and did some chores for an online New England group combatting anti-semitism.

Alas: the loons have descended. They’re eager to denounce Linda Sarsour. They’re eager to denounce Bernie Sanders. They’re eager to denounce Islam. They denounce the illuminati, praise Trump, praise Russia, and muddy the waters.

In part, this is the old story of two Jews, three opinions. But I expect that in good part it’s a planned campaign from our old friends in St. Petersburg. Send a few trolls to stir things up. Get them to spread some Trump talking points: it might help. Slip in a few blood libels and Illuminati: that’s always fun. Start promoting “Islam is Evil!”: maybe we can get the Jews and the Moslems to exterminate each other, bringing on the End Times or giving Russia a nice Mediterranean port.

And if someone tries to object, shout ,“Censorship!” And shout, “Incivility!”

by Mandy Lee

A fascinating food book. Most of the best food writing has pursued what Adam Gopnik calls the “mystical microcosmic” — “sad thoughts on the love that got away or the plate that time forgot.” Mystical microcosmic writers — M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain, Michael Ruhlman — implicitly argue that they are like us, that we would enjoy what they enjoyed, that thoughtful eating can improve your life. Julia went to a fish place in Normandy and found a future husband and beurre blanc, and much of her best writing implicitly concerns the pursuit and care of each.

Mandy Lee’s book comes from a different place. In 2012, Lee was deeply depressed and living in a city she hated. Lee was born in Taiwan, grew up in Vancouver, went to grad school in (and loved) New York. Now, she was in Beijing, and everything in Beijing was awful: so awful that she could seldom get out of bed. She became an obsessive cook because focusing on elaborate and time-consuming recipes (and on elaborate and lovely photography of the prep) meant she could spend hours — days — locked in her home. Her cooking is not fun or easy or fast: her cooking is very angry, and she knows it.

Lee is always cooking for herself. (She’s cooking for her husband too, but he’s even more in shadow here than were M.F.K. Fisher’s lovers.) There’s no patron, no restaurant, no one to please but herself, and Lee is not easy to please. Her tastes are unusual, and for this she offers no explanation or apology. Reading between the lines, she likes savory and bitter breakfasts on the Chinese model, but she also really likes cheese. A few of her recipes reinvent what Minnesotans call a Juicy Lucy — hamburgers infused with tons of cheese — but hers represent a systematic study of how much cheese is possible in a burger and also feature green chili aioli, poached eggs, spicy pork or lamb patties, and sweet potato buns.

Most of the recipes concern spectacular and complex interplay of contrasting flavors and textures — finding ways to combine hot and sweet, crisp and unctuous and sour in each bite. There’s a lot of prep and plenty of challenging ingredients. In my first foray into cooking one of these, I struck out on one ingredient not only at Whole Foods but also at Super 88, an big Asian store that has two separate freezer cases of frozen buns, a whole aisle of fish sauce, and family-size packages of beef penis.

The book has a chapter on elaborate home-cooked dog food.

This is not, in other woods, a replacement for The Joy Of Cooking. But it’s got some very fine (and hilarious) writing, some nifty food ideas, and a nice insight into what cooking means to many of us.

Feb 20 11 2020

Flesh And Bone

For various reasons, I’ve been keeping strange hours lately, and this has given me some spare moments to rewatch Moira Walley-Beckett’s Flesh And Bone. It’s a brilliant, if shaggy, look at art and the people who make art. It’s very complex, masquerading as simple. I don’t think I know anyone who has seen it. (It’s easily watchable: 8 episodes, only one season. They gave up after one season because dance injuries kept exploding the schedule, but I think the end of season one says everything that they wanted to say.)

Two of the subplots involves two very different people who are writing stories. One is a world-famous choreographer, commissioned to create a ballet that revisits a dance chestnut — a girl becomes a woman — with a modern, #MeToo sensibility. It starts out a travesty: sappy, awkward and doomed. By opening night, we’re not sure. (This is also the central subplot of Robert Altman’s underrated The Company.). At the same time, we meet a homeless guy, Romeo, who hangs around one of the shabby, cheap apartments in which the dancers live. He’s clearly disturbed, and he keeps trying to map people in the neighborhood into his weird Henry Darger fantasy of dragons and rats. He, too, is making a story — and he writes it down by taking a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit and turning it into an artist’s book. It’s a very good artist’s book, though he’s still nuts, and as he writes it he’s not quite sure where he fits into the story. “I thought I was the middleman,” he says, “the sayer of things and the seer of things. Maybe even the prophet. But now I’m concerned.”