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

A collection of new media articles, including contributions by Lev Manovich, Adrian Miles, Peter Lunenfeld, Howard Rheingold, and me.

October 14, 2005 (permalink)

From the 9th to the 15th century, the region we now call Spain was a rich mixture of Arab, Jewish, and Christian cultures that thrived together to create a culture of crucial intellectual openness and scope. Much of the legacy of antiquity -- science, mathematics, philosophy -- reenters Western history through Cordoba and Toledo, places where mosques became churches and where churches were decorated with Arabic writing because Arabic writing looked so good. Jews became viziers, Christian princes became knight-defenders of Moslem cities, and Christians from every corner of the old Empire came to study astronomy and theology, to learn from Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Musa ibn Maymun (Maimonides). The memory of this era of good feelings had an extraordinarily long life: when the prosperous German Jews of Manhattan built new synagogues in the 19th century, the traditional architectural style for which they reflexively reached was the 10th century mosque.

That al-Andalus might serve as a better model for our future than, say, Bosnia, makes Menocal's volume one of urgent political interest. What Menocal, curiously and distressingly, fails to explain is why this amity fell apart. Why did Spain expel the Jews in 1492, and then expel the conversos and moriscos who chose their homeland over their religion? How did minds close, and why? Menocal teaches us to sympathize with and appreciate the generations when things went right, but has neither sympathy nor, it seems, much interest in the people and the forces that drove it so horribly wrong.

August 5, 2005 (permalink)

Agent of Change
Steve Miller and Sahron Lee

A space opera romance that follows on Conflict of Honors. At times, the plotting seems synthetic, and the female protagonist's dialect is distractingly inconsistent. On the other hand, a race of (very) intelligent turtles is delightfully thought out and nicely presented.

September 19, 2005 (permalink)

Conflict of Honors
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

A well-crafted confection. Priscilla is cargo-master of an ill-run space freighter. She's pretty; the mates all want to sleep with her. She's human; management (from Liaden) wants to exploit her. Things get worse.

This is a romantic melodrama: Priscilla is afflicted by bad guys who are safely bad, bad guys so bad we don't really fear them. This is a romance: Priscilla's survival and happiness depend, in the end, on her intrinsic wonderfulness. The plotting is necessarily complex, gluing genre and disparate convention together. Yet it's all done with flair and a light hand, making this a very fine entertainment indeed.

September 14, 2005 (permalink)

Roger Ebert's second volume of great movies is a wonderful idea. This isn't a compendium of old reviews or a silly list of the best movies. Instead, we have a chance to sit with a great and experienced critic as he revisits another 100 fine movies.

That doesn't mean 100 perfect movies: simply, 100 movies he'd hate not to see at least one more time. Ebert's got fascinating taste and broad interests, so we have a mix of eras and styles. He's willing to see a flawed movie (Birth of a Nation, West Side Story) and to enjoy its virtues without overlooking -- or having the experience ruined by -- the shortcomings. He's interested in acting here, in direction there, in cinematography, in influence.

It's a wonderful mix.

Books like this are important, too, because they help us think about how we choose to spend our time. (A few years ago, Ebert came down with salivary cancer; perhaps these volumes, in part, are a response to the way that experienced made him think about spending his time) It's easy to say, "I really ought to see the 100 greatest movies." It's actually not too hard to do, what with Blockbuster and Netflix. But you've got to think about it, and you've got to set aside the time, and you've got to decide to do it.

August 5, 2005 (permalink)

Bernard Loiseau, a poor kid and a worse student, was packed off at 13 to be a kitchen apprentice. He was a bad apprentice, too, but worked in a very good kitchen with some very good apprentices, young men who would grow up to be celebrity chefs. Loiseau joined them: eventually, he had 3 Michelin stars and an IPO. When younger and more radical chefs started to get more attention from his friends in the media, and when rumors started to whisper that perhaps the future might hold a mere two stars, Loiseau killed himself.

The core of this book is not the food (which Chelminski describes without any particular passion) or the Perfectionist's character (although Chelminski was a friend and feels badly about how things turned out). This is a book about the irreconcilable tension between the interests of the late 20th century critic and those of the audience.

Food critics -- notably the small cadre of Michelin inspectors -- eat elaborate and expensive food twice a day, every day. Truffles and foie gras are everyday fare, and something new -- tiny portions! strange ingredients! a light meal! -- is almost a day off. The natural audience for fine restaurants, places where a quiet dinner might cost a thousand dollars, has different interests and desires. By the end of the century, the gap between the writers and the eaters seemed unbridgeable and a gun seemed a good answer.

July 11, 2005 (permalink)

A delightful Victorian romp. Sally Lockhart is sixteen, a spunky and serious middle-class orphan whose late father taught her a variety of useful things: accounting, Hindustani, marksmanship. Pullman is out for fun this time, and he has plenty of it, in flavors ranging from nifty dialogue to delicious villains to clever plays on convention. When Sally's intolerable guardian is rude and unfair to her, Sally speaks her piece and packs her bag -- and she gets away with it (as countless girls did, and continue to do) without having a censorious author or the universe punish her. The guardian is not worth knowing, and so the acquaintance ceases and we make other arrangements.

August 24, 2005 (permalink)

Software patterns were the revolution of the '90s, and Agile methods and reefactoring appear to be the key idea of the current decade. This book stands squarely at the intersection.

Kerievsky observes that the early Patterns literature has a bias in favor of classical Design First methodology, and many people assume that patterns need to be carefully planned and designed before a product is implemented. This book argues the opposite case: patterns can emerge naturally through incremental refactoring. Kerievsky shows how refactoring steps can move gradually and safely from complex and arbitrary code to implement even such high-design methods as Visitor and Composite.

Like the ideas in Fowler's valuable Refactoring, Kerievsky's refactorings sometimes seems obvious. That's one of the points about refactoring: it takes a practice that everyone has always performed unconsciously and, by naming it, makes it visible. We've always had intuitive approaches, for example, to dealing with a large and complex hunk of procedural code that works today, and that needs a new feature. The Refactoring literature names the practices and so lets us think about them. We know we can do this; now, we can reflect on whether we can do it well.

More fundamentally, it's interesting to see how modern understanding of emergent complexity has moved from applied mathematics to engineering; in a real sense, Kerievsky's work recalls the spread of Darwin's ideas in 19th century engineering, literature, and art.

August 6, 2005 (permalink)

Feather's adopts an extreme position on the definition of legacy code: code that doesn't have a complete suite of unit tests that support test driven development. This makes almost everything "legacy".

Still, he makes the definition work, and in the process creates an engaging book that presents one of the few good arguments I've seen that we're not stagnating, that software development really is making progress. Feathers concludes that the underlying issue that complicates and clutters all big systems is, in the end, dependency: everything comes to depend on everything else, and so maintenance increasingly leads toward Big Ball of Mud.

I've been intrigued by this problem for years. It's chronic in hypertext system design. You have core classes that represent core abstractions in your system: Hypertext, Node, Link. They're powerful, so they're big. They're central, so everything depends on them. Soon, every little improvement in functionality requires recompiling the world. Worse, improving one part of the system can conceivably break anything: changing the spell checker might break the registration dialog. Feathers presents concrete steps toward incremental improvement through refactoring and ubiquitous scaffolding.

August 19, 2005 (permalink)

A delightful book. The elderly Sherlock Holmes and his young wife, Mary Russell, return to San Francisco after their adventures in India in order to settle some loose ends of Mary's estate.

With a fine sense of place and superb minor characters, this is Laurie King at her best.

June 25, 2005 (permalink)

Griffin's serial novels are simple fun. He has a knack for generating excitement from everyday confrontations. Though he writes about soldiers, their conflicts are more often settled over a conference table than at gunpoint and bureaucratic infighting is more dangerous to them than surface-to-air missiles.

This book launches a new, contemporary series, and compactly demonstrates Griffin's strengths and also displays some of his weaknesses. Once again, we're focused on the tradition of military service among wealthy Southern Americans; how live is this tradition, nowadays? Compare the number of celebrity and political kids in the service in WW2 or WW1 or charging up San Juan Hill to the news from Iraq; there's a big difference. And once again, we've got a guy with the Medal -- and no one notices that even a silver star won't keep the Republicans from calling you a craven coward. Some of the editing is sloppy, as when the high-tech radios come fresh from Silicone Valley?

But there are few writers today who can capture meeting-room drama as well as Griffin.

July 4, 2005 (permalink)

Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King

Two Red Sox fans, Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan, chronicle a year of fandom. They go to lots of games: King has great season tickets. They watch lots of games on television. They listen to the radio, they read the papers, they send each other lots of email. They are very careful to be fans, not journalists: they don't visit the clubhouse, they don't hang out with the guys. They're fans: they don't know stuff that you and I don't know, they just watch a lot of games.

It's a pleasant book about a pleasant season, the season the Red Sox won at last. At times, King and O'Nan seem dense: in the playoffs when the Sox were barely hanging on and their pitching was threadbare and everyone was wondering who could possibly throw tomorrow, they're still weirdly focused on the Yankees. Earlier, they seem completely unfocused when the Sox trade their Hall Of Fame shortstop for a pair of expendable fielders. It was a weird, fascinating transaction, but Faithful focuses on the the disappointed grandkids.

At times, the book is slow, or repetitious. But that's baseball.

June 20, 2005 (permalink)

A quiet, graceful story of the minor nobility of 12th century France, the age of troubadours and crusades. Sauerwein deploys a very contemporary and sophisticated arsenal of writerly techniques -- present tense, timeshift, fragmented narrative, multiple points of view -- in the service of a delicate YA mission that lies somewhere between realism and historical romance.

It's very thoroughly considered and researched, though there's almost no description and absolutely no sign of the familiar "day in the life" trope. No characters spend time, for example, discovering that the 12th century was less clean than the 21st or that food and medical care weren't of a high standard. Indeed, since the word "troubadour" hasn't quite appeared in Eloise's time, Sauerwein lets her listen to the song of the trobar -- the French root for troubadour, so be sure, but perhaps it might be italicized in the English-language edition to warn us that it's a foreign word. (I know more about the 12th century than the average YA reader, and on first reading I thought a trobar might be a French bird, perhaps something like a trogon)

It's a brave book, a book in which young lovers remove their clothes (off-stage) and in which the all the protagonists know that the world does not revolve around them and that, if they are to have clothes or if there is to be magic, they must make their own.

The current assumption is that YA books should be plotful -- an assumption that has lately attracted a boatload of literary writers to visit the YA world. A Song for Eloise is not plotful; whether this will bother her readers or merely alarm the librarians may prove instructive.

April 24, 2005 (permalink)

David McCullough

I ordered this account of the first year of the American Revolution as soon as I read Joshua Micah Marshall's enthusiastic review in the New Yorker. McCullough crafts an exciting, readable, but scholarly account of Washington and his army, from the siege of Boston to disaster in Brooklyn and then, at the last moment, unlooked-for and rememptive success at Trenton and Princeton. This is essentially the story of Washington and his army and a time when, for the first time, to be an American meant something new and important.

June 10, 2005 (permalink)

Specimen Days
Michael Cunningham

Three long stories, each featuring a crippled boy, a beloved woman, and character who speaks in the voice of Walt Whitman. The first story is a 19th-century historical vignette, set in the slums of New York, the second is a contemporary police procedural, and the third is a science-fiction thriller.

All three stories slow down on occasion, and the first slows down so often and so ponderously that it seems almost impenetrable. The second and third are much better.

August 7, 2005 (permalink)