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 Elizabeth van Arnhim

Two married women live in Hampstead, shop in London, and are members of the same uncomfortable club on Shaftesbury Avenue. They know each other by sight. Mrs. Wilkins reads an advertisement in The Times:

To Those Who Appreciate Wisteria And Sunshine. Small medieval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

It is a rainy February day in London, and Mrs. Wilkins thinks that yes, she does appreciate Wisteria And Sunshine. She proposes to Mrs. Arbuthnot, whom she does not properly know, that they go halves. They decide that it cannot hurt to make inquiries.

This delightful vacation fantasy was written in 1922. In 1932, Peter Fleming would read an equally odd advertisement in The Times and launch on his Brazilian Adventure, becoming the template of his little brother’s James Bond.

by Alos Elon

The founding generations of Israel were not fools. They had concluded ion the 19th century that Europe was ultimately inhospitable to Jews. In this, they were not wrong. If Jews had to go, they had to go somewhere. Precisely where? Herzl didn’t much care, but Palestine seemed one of several decent possibilities, and its British administrators did not entirely disagree.

Hitler’s rise changed everything, and overnight the project transformed from a doubtful political speculation to an urgent rescue mission. The Founders knew perfectly well that there were already people who lived in Palestine; most expected that, in time, they would be good friends to the Jewish immigrants who would transform malarial wastes into green fields and shining cities. It didn’t work, but after 1932 (and especially after 1948) there was no choice.

Apr 20 19 2020

Saint X

by Alexis Schaiktin

A shaggy novel, with lots of incident and detail included for the joy of incident and detail. A New York family goes to the Caribbean island of Saint X for a luxurious vacation, father and mother and two girls. Princeton freshman Alison is hot stuff and knows it, little sister Claire is a little strange and knows it, too. On the final night of the vacation, Alison sneaks off and then vanishes; her body is eventually discovered on nearby, uninhabited Faraway Cay. Everything is changed.

This is formally a murder mystery and the little sister, who changes her name to Emily, serves as its detective. Nobody here is reliable, least of all Claire/Emily. You can’t rely on the police. And in the end, you cannot rely entirely on the author.

Apr 20 8 2020

Plague Dinner 20

Plague Dinner 20: Yu Xiang broccoli, rice, Dao.

Used new supplied from the redoubtable Mala Market.

New COVID incidence functions are now implemented in Tinderbox for US counties and states. International incidence coming today.

Plague dinner 19: kori-mex bibimbap with beef mole. A complex recipe featuring chocolate, gojuchang and raisins and 10 cloves of garlic in the same sauce. Hot and sweet. That’s layered on a salsa fresca spiked with lemon and fish sauce. All on top of crispy rice. From Mandy Lee, ESCAPIST COOKING.

Better news from NY, though avoidable shortages of PPE and analgesics are causing untold deaths and miseries. Ghastly news from Wisconsin, where a partisan state Supreme Court colluded with us Supreme Court to steal an election tomorrow. If this repeats in November, Trump could steal the electoral college and precipitate collapse of the Republic.

Butter and produce nearly exhausted.

Apr 20 6 2020


I wrote to console a colleague who lost his job this week. He asked, “Are you doing OK, too?” I sent an honest reply; he says it should be a blog post.

Yes, for most public-facing values of OK. I’m fine working from home. I’m cooking a lot. This week the code has been garbage, but I’m distracted and breaking in a new Catalina machine. The code will come.

But not being able to help is driving me nuts.

When I was a kid, I had a running argument with my uncle Fred. Also with my Dad, but fathers are complicated so let’s stick with Fred. Here’s Fred on Saipan (center):


The Fred I knew was a crusty, gruff old surgeon who was not shy of laying down the law, and his chief law was that anyone who could be a physician ought to be one. My family was very medical: my grandparents, physician and nurse, met on an Indian reservation where they were working in the early 20s; uncles Fred and Li and Mike and Tom were doctors, my dad was a doctor, aunt Hazel was a nurse.

No one in my generation went to medical school.

I never really regretted that. But I have spent a career building tools for research, tools to help people make sense of a crisis and to make the right decisions. I thought it was significant work, more rigorous than medicine, more elegant, and with broader reach.

It was all a mistake: people don’t want a better handle on the data, they just want to win the next election.

Even so, I could be doing something slightly useful. I have some hardware chops — not good enough for design anymore, but plenty for assembly. I know my way around a machine shop — old-style, not CNC, but then again I could adapt pretty damn fast because some of my grad school work laid foundations for programming these things. I could assemble ventilators from a kit or on an assembly line. I could do QA or train new assembly techs. I could write briefing papers and backgrounders. I could recruit a small army of engineers and technicians.

Hell: for the next eight weeks, all medicine is going to be one disease. I could be a highly-specialized nurse in — what — 80 hrs of training? So one week. Not ideal, not desirable, and (since I’m 64) risky, but we’re going to have a lot of dead physicians and nurses to replace by early May. As far as I know, nobody’s training the stopgaps. That’s the way you drive the case fatality rate from 1.3% to 7%: ask Bergamo.

But I can’t. The local politicians here are in charge of everything real, they hoard information, and they’re doing absolutely nothing. Nothing! I’m not even sure they understand the catastrophe that’s almost surely coming; I send them the papers but it does no good.

And, as you see, it’s making me a little nuts.

Plague 18. homemade smoky baba ganoush. Duck confit, sour cream mashed potatoes. Blueberry gallette.

It is now clear that, when the Federal government face planted on the virus, our state and local governments ought to have stepped up. Instead, they wasted precious weeks insisting on (only) doing their job.

Lots of people may die because mayors and health commissioners did only their job and ignored what was needed.

Apr 20 5 2020

Red Plenty

by Francis Spufford

A daring and fascinating study of what the Soviet Union was trying to do in the years after the great famines. Spufford attempts to capture not the budgets and programs but what people believed and the goal toward which they together were working — a vision of abundance that would forever put the specter of medieval Russia to rest.

Spufford does this through a series of lightly fictionalized vignettes, scrupulously documented, that try to show clearly what everyday people thought they were trying to do. The core idea here was not bad: where capitalist markets waste lots of effort and material to discover an equilibrium price, systematic planning and linear programming can discover that price from first principles. If you invent a new kind of car, in America you’d have four companies building four variants. They’d spend lots of money on marketing and lobbying and PR, and it might take a decade to figure out which was best. Every part in that car undergoes the same wasteful process. If you could just get things right the first time — even close to right — you’d save a tremendous amount of time and money. You might be wrong sometimes, but even then, you only need to be a few percentage points faster and smarter than the wasteful random experimentation of capitalism.

It didn’t work, but they weren’t all idiots.

Plague 17: lamb shoulder, grilled asparagus. Dao vinho. Blueberry gallette.

The lamb was 24hr at 133°F with garlic and rosemary, then seared on the grill.

We wasted time, and now doth Time waste us.

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.”