Notes from March, 2002. Latest notes

Mark Bernstein: Time begins
March 28, 2002

Time begins

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the opening lineup of the 2002 Malden Mallards (more...)

Mark Bernstein: Taking Notes on Engelbart
March 28, 2002

Taking Notes on Engelbart

Gordon Meyer describes a unique experience: learning to use Tinderbox to take notes at a lecture by hypertext pioneer Doug Engelbart. (Engelbart's NLS/Augment was probably the first full-scale hypertext system; the same project also invented the computer mouse, the outliner, and groupware).

Sometimes, an application just comes together; it sounds like Tinderbox is at that stage. Meyer recalls that:

"Engelbart discussed how technology should be used to augment our abilities, to extend what we can do. Automating the mundane does not move us forward -- we should be building tools that augment our human capabilities -- making connections, thinking, communicating, and extending our knowledge.

"I laughed aloud as I realized Tinderbox had just done exactly that for me. Its "agent" feature was allowing me to gather a better understanding of this view of "smart agent" technology. How wonderfully recursive!

Mark Bernstein: We need to talk
March 27, 2002

We need to talk

The other night, Doug Miller from iRobotics had a Tinderbox revelation while reading a science fiction novel. The heroine, he recalls, was

"reading mail and scanning news items her filters and clipping services have culled out of the fire hose of information that's constantly directed at her by the 'net of 2039. Brin's descriptions of the technologies she uses are wonderful. We're seeing the beginnings of some of what he describes in today's syndication, content aggregation and weblogging tools."

Suddenly, he realized that Tinderbox can do that. So he woke up in the middle of the night and set to work. There were problems, of course. Solutions. More obstacles. It all turns into a compelling narrative, and a tech support parable to boot.

"The second important thing to come out of this process today was to remember that it takes interaction with people who see things from a different perspective to generate those 'aha!' moments."

Mark Bernstein: Ebert
March 26, 2002


Roger Ebert makes wonderful, thoughtful points about art and film, even when dismissing a bad movie his readers are unlikely to see. Look at this opening paragraph:

"Only enormously talented people could have made 'Death to Smoochy.' Those with lesser gifts would have lacked the nerve to make a film so bad, so miscalculated, so lacking any connection with any possible audience. To make a film this awful, you have to have enormous ambition and confidence, and dream big dreams." (full review...)

Mark Bernstein: Digital Literacy
March 26, 2002

Digital Literacy

A new weblog by H. Lewis Ulman. It's made with Tinderbox.

Mark Bernstein: Mobile books
March 26, 2002

Mobile books

When you're reading from a palmtop, long pages are a bother -- especially when the pages are lists, like my book pages. Lists are easily scanned on a large screen, but small screens make them incomprehensible.

For the mobile edition of this site, I've asked Tinderbox to take only the most recent book note and place it in its own page, suitable formatted.,

Mark Bernstein: On criticism
March 26, 2002

On criticism

Diane Greco takes a look at the New York Times Book Review, and doesn't like what she sees. The favorable reviews, she finds, are mere hagiography, but Greco argues that the unfavorable reviews often reflect intellectual laziness. "Hypertext", she finds, has entered pop culture as a term of abuse, people don't like emotion or complexity or challenge, and worry entirely too much about whether a book will sell -- a question that should hardly concern the reviewer.

"Another popular way to slam a book is to argue that it is too intellectual, too 'symbolic,' in need of too much "interpretation." (Can you hear the gagging yet?) Claiming a book won't appeal to the hoi polloi implies that the book is not marketable -- it won't sell. This argument is not only completely specious because it conflates merit with sales, but it is particularly deadly because it encourages people to believe that it is perfectly all right to conflate merit with sales. "

Mark Bernstein: Mobile edition
March 25, 2002

Mobile edition

I'm experimenting with a mobile edition of this weblog, suitable for reading on a Treo or similar palmtop device. The key issues for making this practical, I think, are (1) the low bandwidth of the handheld makes small, fast pages even more important, (2) lots of handhelds are monochrome, so color is less useful, (3) it's nice if the page looks good on a desktop browser; CSS stylesheets make this practical, and (4)supporting experimental technology is easiest when you don't need to do much work.

Setting up Tinderbox to custom-build the mobile page took about an hour -- chiefly tinkering with the stylesheets for desktop support. The process is now automatic; an agent builds the page whenever I update the site. I can forget the mobile page entirely until I want to redesign it.

This also illustrates a familiar adage; a good way to get an organization to support a technology is to get the managers to use it. My interest in mobile Web pages increased dramatically when I started using a palmtop with Web access.

Mark Bernstein: email meltdown
March 24, 2002

email meltdown

David Reed provides a cogent technical discussion of what may well be the impending end of email as we know it. Between the spammers and the anti-spam vigilante's, it's becoming impossible for individuals or small businesses (or even large businesses) to buy internet mail service. You can send mail as (say), providing free advertising for your phone company, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to send mail as at almost any price. It's already a mess, it's going to get worse.

Mark Bernstein: Short papers are harder
March 23, 2002

Short papers are harder

Jill Walker despairs of her Hypertext '02 short paper:

God, if I feel this way finishing a two page paper, what's it going to be like finishing my whole dissertation?

Fortunately, the dissertation is likely to be much easier. Short papers are hard, and the current two-page limit is, in my opinion, impossible. I spent an hour yesterday, trying to trim a text that was one inch too long. And I wrote an entire short paper that we decided, on further review, ought not to be submitted at all.

It's hard to write tight. It's unreasonably hard to write unreasonably tight.

Mark Bernstein: Anonymous reviewers
March 23, 2002

Anonymous reviewers

Elin Sjursen asks (March 25), "Why do scientific conferences like Hypertext '02 have anonymous reviewers?"

The most important duty of a conference reviewer is to preserve the integrity of the literature -- to ensure that reported data are sound and that their interpretation is as thorough and as correct as possible. If the data are wrong, they must not be published. People rely on the scientific literature. You have to assume that someone might design a bridge or a spacecraft that relies on this data; if the data are wrong, people will die.

Worse, if we let any consideration override this imperative, if we knowingly allow questionable results or false conclusions to appear in the literature, then nobody can trust the literature. That betrays science and welcomes the return of the dark ages.

But reviewers are people, and there's often a significant power imbalance between the author of a paper and the reviewer. The reviewers with the keenest eyes and freshest perceptions are often graduate students or post-docs; dare they offend the senior people who control jobs, salaries, and honors? To whom they may owe personal and professional debts?

Some conferences hide author identities from reviewers to prevent reviewers from being swayed by fame or reputation. In theory, this makes sense. In hypertext research, I think this is problematical. Because it's a small field, readers would often know the author's identity even though the paper was notionally anonymous. You'd exchange one kind of bias for another. And the new bias would be noisy -- occasionally, reviewers would be absolutely certain they knew the author's identity, but would get it wrong anyway. It's easier to watch for bias if the cards are on the table. (On rare occasions, reviewers do waive anonymity. Usually, this happens when a reviewer identifies a mistake and can offer unique assistance in remedying it.)

The combination of signed papers and anonymous reviewers protects new members of the research community. As reviewers, they can speak firmly and clearly, without fear of political repercussions. As authors, they gain reputation from their submissions -- even their unsuccessful submissions. It may in fact be better to write a controversial paper that's ultimately rejected than to write a tame, middle-of-the-pack paper that is accepted. The controversial paper is going to be read, reread, scrutinized, and argued over by the whole program committee; that's about as good an audience as you can hope for in hypertext research.

I'm nursing some wounds myself here -- one of my HT02 papers went down in flames this year. On the whole, I think I'm happier not knowing the identities of the reviewers.

Mark Bernstein: ATT Service
March 22, 2002

ATT Service

ATT Broadband went out last night in Malden. They hope to have service back in 24 hours. I found this out at the end of 2.5 hours of painful phone calls. My ATT pal Justin concluded (at 11:15 pm) "Have a nice evening"; when I pointed out the irony of this, he agreed -- and went right back to the exit script, "Have a nice evening."

Cable service issues are going to play a big role in local politics in the next decade.

Mark Bernstein: NEMO
March 21, 2002


I'll be talking about hypertext at the NEMO Music Showcase and Conference in Boston, April 12.

Mark Bernstein: Scripting
March 21, 2002


Oliver Wrede is intrigued by Tinderbox. Being from Köln, he's especially happy that Tinderbox anticipates the needs of writers who work in languages other than English! He worries that Tinderbox (and Radio Userland, which he also likes a lot) are too complex. And he'd like Tinderbox to be scriptable, like Radio Userland.

I think it's important to remember that we can use tools together. Choosing One Perfect Program used to be a good idea; nowadays, it's better to keep lots of tools on hand and to use each for what it does best. Radio Userland is about scripting; if you need lots of scripting, use Radio on the client side and Perl/Python/php on the server. If you need a great tool to keep track of your notes, use Tinderbox. When you need both, use both. What could be easier?

Mark Bernstein: Passages
March 20, 2002


In Wired, Phillip Torone covers a new rite of passage: unpacking your iMac. (Thanks, Gulker)

Resembling a tea ceremony, the unpacking of a new iMac has taken on some distinctly ritualistic touches: The iMac arrives in the mail. People are invited over. They gather around the boxed computer in the center of the room. Drinks are poured, lights lowered, candles lit. And while the new machine is unwrapped, someone takes pictures to post on the Web.

Mark Bernstein: Eaton
March 20, 2002


Brigitte Eaton's Eatonweb was a pioneering weblog. Recently, she's been having a dreadful time, and her weblog has become incredibly intense. Thanks, Dave.

Mark Bernstein: The bar at Zoetrope
March 19, 2002

The bar at Zoetrope

Powazek advocates raising the bar in an electronic community-- making it difficult to participate in order to deter irrelevance and casually malice. The Zoetrope writers community has a significant bar!

First, it's hard to find; this might be bad design but it's probably deliberate, recalling one version of that had a secret URL.

Second, you have to register.

Third, after you register, you learn you're only a probationer; until you write five reviews of recently-submitted short stories, you have very limited access.

This encourages active participants, makes newcomers share the work, and chases away freeloaders. In a field rife with wannabees who want the perks but can't or won't do the work, it's a very clever idea.

Mark Bernstein: Treo
March 18, 2002


The Treo is a new Palm-compatible cell phone from Handspring. Dan Bricklin liked the Treo a lot:

Many aspects of this device that are important to understand if you want to see where handheld computing is going.

I was so convinced by Bricklin's review that I bought a Treo. I've never used a cell phone before. It's very exciting. (The Treo is loud enough for comfortable use, even though my hearing is terrible)

Once again, the Palm proved a superb information appliance. My Treo works as a phone, out of the box. It works as a Palm, too. Better yet, a few minutes of beaming from my old Palm IIIxe to the Treo, and suddenly the Treo is my Palm: it knows my contact list, it knows the list of things I'm planning to write, it knows the itinerary for my upcoming trips.

Mark Bernstein: Grad school
March 18, 2002

Grad school

Liz Klastrup describes in some detail what it's like to be a Danish doctoral candidate.

People don't know as much as they ought about the source of so much modern research. I'm currently reviewing a promising mystery about a geology grad student. Her lover plagiarized part of her thesis (and tried to erase some chapters of her dissertation to hide the evidence). She's got an academic job lined up, contingent on finishing her dissertation by year's end. She's got a week of field work left before she needs to report to her new job. And she's missing a crucial bit of evidence (a hypothetical rock outcrop) that's essential to her entire argument.

She's also worried about a serial killer working in the region. I find this unrealistic: graduate students I've known, facing this kind of research pressure, would dismiss rumors of wandering murderers out of hand, just as they dismiss sleep, friends, family, toxins, illness. If she doesn't find those rocks, it's over anyway. (In the aftermath of a student suicide in my old chemistry department, one student spoke of the loneliness of life when it's just you and the molecule)

Mark Bernstein: Mergansers
March 17, 2002


It's hard to be sure in traffic, but I believe some Hooded Mergansers have stopped off for the last week at Fellsmere Pond. No doubt, they're on their way to Canada. They're pretty ducks, probably my favorite. Our local pond usually gets Mallards and Black Ducks, so the Hoodies are distinguished visitors.

Mark Bernstein: A Mac for every Tinderbox!
March 17, 2002

A Mac for every Tinderbox!

5-10% of early Tinderbox users indicate that they're going to buy a Macintosh in order to use Tinderbox. That may be an artifact of a small sample size, and it's doubtless an early-adopter phenomenon, but it's interesting nonetheless.

Doug Miller revisits his Tinderbox review: "I'm loving Tinderbox more every day."

Mark Bernstein: Empire Falls
March 17, 2002

Empire Falls

by Richard Russo

HBR listed this novel as one of the year's best business books. The absence of realistic business life from current literature is remarkable. Babbit and Death of a Salesman cast a long shadow, but both are now relics of a distant era.(In Books...)

Mark Bernstein: 7 Issues
March 16, 2002

7 Issues

In 1991, Frank Halasz's 7 issues revisited updated his important 1987 lecture on the key hypertext research topics. A decade later, there are still well worth pondering.

Mark Bernstein: eNarrative 4
March 15, 2002

eNarrative 4

Lots of interesting discussion at eNarrative 4. Diane Greco did a wonderful job of summing up; I'm hoping she kept her notes and that they'll appear someday on the Web.

Some highlights for me included Anne Murase on using Storyspace for visual anthropology, Sarah Smith's tips on using Storyspace to help refine the plots of your novel, and a fascinating dialogue lead by Mark Weal and Dave Millard on sculptural hypertext and the future of guard fields.

Seeing David Kolb's Tinderbox notes of the conferences was exciting, too!

But there was a LOT of ground to cover, and plenty of energy.

Mark Bernstein: ALife
March 15, 2002


The Atlantic Monthly (April 2002) has a wonderful little essay by Jonathan Rauch on artificial life. Simple simulations of flocks of independent agents can generate complex behavior -- flocking, for example, or the schooling of fishes, seems to require lots of central planning but can actually emerge from simple rules without any central leader. Rauch reports on recent work on the emergence of communities, the stability of corporations, and the disappearance of the Anasazi.

(Thanks to Aaron Swartz and Bill Humphries for the link.)

This is the sort of essay that Scientific American used to do so well -- an essay that makes you want to fire up your computer and try to replicate the experiments yourself.

Mark Bernstein: Personal Version Control Systems
March 15, 2002

Personal Version Control Systems

Versioning was once a hot hypertext topic, one of the Halasz Seven Issues. It's never really caught on, inside hypertext or out. (The exception is Frank Shipman's VKB, a spatial hypertext system with a VCR control that lets you rewind instantly to any point in the document's past. It's a fascinating experiment in infinite undo)

Programmers use version control systems so several people can work on the same project. You "check out" a chunk of code that you need to work on; if someone else tries to change the same chunk, they're told that you've checked it out and they need to wait. Version control systems make it easy to store copies of old versions and to compare them with new versions. Important to understanding rapidly-changing code, version control systems are also wonderful for looking at the ways a draft of a document changes over time.

Version control systems don't store old documents in their entirety. Instead, they figure out how documents have changed, and only store the changes. That means you can use them freely without worrying about disk space.

Right now, I use Voodoo Personal for documents and SourceServer for programming. Voodoo is $79, and seems to work nicely with just about everything. It's from a small German firm, interestingly.

Mark Bernstein: Better readers, not more
March 15, 2002

Better readers, not more

Jill Walker points out that discussions of better weblogging often start by assuming that people want more readers. That might not be the case; quite a few dedicated weblog writers say they don't care about attracting a big audience.

People don't always want more readers, but almost all web writers do want more great readers. Readers who will receive our message, and act on it, are always wonderful to find. If you are writing about chemical physics or water management policy, you don't want millions of readers, but you do want a few readers who will listen, consider, and take action.

(Nobody has mentioned the tradition of journaling here, where we write privately for the sake of writing. That's a factor in weblogs, too. But, when we keep a journal to hone our craft, we write as if there were an audience; I think that's true of even the most private, unpublicized online journals.

Mark Bernstein: No error
March 15, 2002

No error

Anders Fagerjord says that he's sorry about an earlier probe on "Where Are The Hypertexts?", but I don't think he's got anything to apologize for. Why, for example, aren't the Proceedings of the ACM Hypertext Conference published as hypertexts? (Why, for that matter, can't the ACM get last year's proceedings in print in any form, for that matter?)

Mark Bernstein: Tindertips
March 12, 2002


Adrian Miles proposes 9+1 Tindertips for getting more out of (and into) your Tinderbox.

Mark Bernstein: Do I write hypertext?
March 9, 2002

Do I write hypertext?

Anders Fagerjord mentions Where are the hypertexts? and observes (March 7) that "Notably, Mark Bernstein himself doesn't write hypertext. He writes papers, slide shows and a blog. Even as he said himself, the trouble with blogs is that dates rarely are a good way of organising material."

This is a fair indictment, I think, but the matter is complicated. My Election of 1912, published in 1988, is now of purely historical interest but it's definitely a hypertext. Hypertext Gardens is a hypertext (and gets assigned in lots of Web writing courses). This web journal is itself pushing the envelope of weblog hypertextuality -- there's a lot of linkage and a lot of collage here, and there will soon be more -- while staying just inside the bounds of weblog convention. It's important that this page feel like a weblog -- perhaps a richer, linkier weblog, but a weblog nonetheless; the purpose here, after all, is to improve tools and techniques.

We're planning a Hypertext '02 panel on web logs, Wikis, and self-assembling hypertexts to explore issues raised by Web writing clusters, such as the Scripting News technojournalists and the Scandinavian media theory cluster. (Want to play? Write me) There's more going on here than links between documents.

Fagerjord quotes Aarseth on hypertext: "It's an ideology", he says. But partial differential equations work. So do French horns, and omelet pans, and game theory, and computers. Lots of people use none of these very effectively; some things take time, effort and practice.

Mark Bernstein: Architecture on the fly
March 9, 2002

Architecture on the fly

The other night, I couldn't quite remember the title of Robert Brustein's latest book. I couldn't find it on my bookshelf, I'd left my Tinderbox at the office, and I couldn't find the title here on my site because I didn't have an index of authors.

That's fixed now. Flying to Chicago, I added a new agent that shows all my book notes, sorted by author. I've added the authors list and the titles list to the navigation footer, too, because the chronological lists are getting awkwardly long.

I didn't get this right the first time. I didn't have to. That's why it's nice to think of Tinderbox as a personal content management assistant: when I discover a new organizational need, I make the change and then Tinderbox automatically does the housekeeping. I don't need to remember to update the author list; whenever a new book is added, Tinderbox adds the entry automatically. I don't need to do the sorting; Tinderbox is good at that. And I didn't need to plan ahead; when I realized the new navigation route would be handy, I simply added it. (I started to work on this when our plane reached 10,000 feet and it was finished before we got to Albany.)

Sites change over time. They grow, adapt, find new audience and new uses. My book notes were meant as a sort of unfolding narrative, a tour of art and ideas experienced over time, and that's still the main point. But, as they grow, the notes find new uses and need new kinds of organizing.

Mark Bernstein: Design for Community
March 8, 2002

Design for Community

by Derek Powazek

Derek Powazek hosts {fray}, the famously beautiful personal storytelling site. Each Fray story ends with a direct question, such as "Who have you almost forgiven?" Readers respond with their own stories, often hauntingly frank and disarmingly candid. The main Fray stories appeal through their polish and care, while the impact of the reader stories stems from their authenticity, their sharp edges and raw candor. At its best, it's a lively mix.

In Design for Community, Powazek explores how designers can use discussion groups, email lists, and weblogs to nurture cohesive communities of dozens or hundreds of readers and writers. Some communities are larger -- slashdot, for example, is huge though hardly cohesive -- and some very large groups (amazon users, for example) have aspects of communities, but Powazek's experience suggests that, once you grow beyond a a few thousand participants, electronic communities tend to explode or collapse.

A large part of the book records interviews with community leaders -- people like Slashdot creator Rob Malda, Metafilter's Matt Haughey, Burns and Parr from jGuru. The interviews give a picture of the human side of community maintenance, the day-to-day role of hosts and moderators. Knowing how to survive a flame war without being emotionally drained, and how to nurse a community through a flame war without seeing it collapsing in ashes, is valuable. Had this book been written four years earlier, we might still have TechnoCulture.

Powazek is a designer, not a decorator, and he understands that usability can be the enemy of utility, that making something harder can sometimes make it better. He's not very interested in ethnography, and so looks more at capabilities than at usage patterns; I wish we knew more about how communities typically work, to supplement the book's success stories and anecdotes.

Design for Communities had the bad luck to appear just after then end of the dot-com era. Had he written this book three years earlier, Powazek would have sold a lot of copies to managers, investors, and frequent flyers. This useful book will be light and pleasant reading for its core audience, though right now the people who are dedicated enough to read the book would probably welcome more detail, while the suits who would be scared off by the details have moved on.

Mark Bernstein: The Corner Bar
March 6, 2002

The Corner Bar

I left Chicago before I was old enough to drink, but as a child in Chicago I somehow absorbed the peculiarly midwestern custom of the corner tavern. In Chicago, small neighborhood bars have always been the rule. They are meeting places for workers, mating places for young people, cooling-off places for feuding spouses. My parents rarely went to a tavern, and only to the ones with really good food, like Gene & Georgetti's. (When we got married, our rehearsal dinner was held at the Golden Dome Hickory Pit, which isn't a corner bar but comes close)

Corner taverns aren't pubs, though I'm not sure precisely how they differ. I always enjoy pubs when I'm in England or Scotland, but they're different, an alien world. Cheers was set in Boston, but Boston doesn't really work that way -- the Bull And Finch was a politician's bar, more the Northern annex of the Willard Lobby than The Laugh Inn where Mamet used to hang out.

And so it felt perfectly natural that two old school friends took me to an updated corner bar last night for a good cry in my beer. It was Hoegarden, not Blatz or Hamm's, and they had a fireplace instead of a television, but it felt right.

Mark Bernstein: Tinderbox Notes
March 6, 2002

Tinderbox Notes

Anders Fagerjord writes in his elegantly fascinating surftrail that "This Blog, and increasing portions of my Web site is made with Tinderbox. I have been using the beta for months, and I really love this powerful little program."

David Rogers writes in his weblog, Time's Shadow , that "I've been playing around with Tinderbox. It's pretty damn cool.."

Mark Bernstein: End of email
March 5, 2002

End of email

Elin Sjursen is finding Tinderbox a little confusing because it doesn't have a clear agenda, in contrast to some screenwriting and business plan tools . I was going to send her some tips, invitations, introduce her to someone who could show her the ropes, and explore the interesting theoretical issues her obstacles raise -- after all, she's a media theory expert. (Short version: college and grad school instructors often despise agendas)

But there's no email address on her Web page. People forget this, or remove it to avoid spam, but it's a bad sign; at this rate, knowing Elin's email may be like knowing Barry Diller's cell phone number.

At the same time, Eastgate is having a terrible time finding a supplier of reliable outbound email. Our DSL provider doesn't want to do this. Our Web host doesn't want to do this. It seems we can have plenty of other Web services for the asking, but a simple mail server is becoming a rare and precious thing.

Mark Bernstein: LaRue on outliners
March 5, 2002

LaRue on outliners

Jamie LaRue, director of the Douglas Public Library in Castle Rock, Colorado, is a big fan of outliners. "Between 1982 and 1991", he writes, "there flowered a golden age of software...[Outliners] have always fascinated me. Recently, I spent some twenty hours or so seeing what was still out there, and writing up my thoughts on what I found."

The original note on old outliner programs that still work generated lots of mail, and now LaRue reports on Tinderbox in the Brave New World of Outliner Software. He spent some time with the Tinderbox demo, and reports that "this set off a pretty intense day of intellectual stimulation....There was a time when automation saved libraries money. For the past 10 years, it has COST us money. (It has also, of course, allowed us to offer new services.) But I begin to see a way to make it more cost-effective."

Mark Bernstein: Miller on Tinderbox
March 5, 2002

Miller on Tinderbox

Doug Miller, CTO of iRobotics, has a long a thoughftul review of Tinderbox.

"Tinderbox allows me to manage my ideas, thoughts, notes, and reminders as I prefer, using structures and relationships that make sense to me. It lets me keep tabs on news and blogs I find important at the same time I'm writing and reviewing other notes. From that perspective it excels as a personal knowledge management, planning, and writing tool. After all that, I can turn around and share pertinent information with a larger audience easily, making it an ideal blogging tool or allowing me to integrate information into enterprise knowledge management systems."

Mark Bernstein: Nothing is as simple...
March 2, 2002

Nothing is as simple...

Joel Spolsky observes that, in software, nothing is as simple as it seems. Simplicity isn't a quality you buy at the store, or that management instills through enterprise initiatives; simplicity needs to be designed into the system, and making things simple is terribly complex.

"A good way to interview candidates for testing jobs is to give them a simple operation and ask them to enumerate all the things that can possibly go wrong. A classic Microsoft test interview question: how do you test the File Open dialog box? A good tester will be able to rattle off several dozen weird things to test ("file is deleted by another user between the time it is listed in the box and the time you select it and click Open")."

Mark Bernstein: Hazards of simplicity
March 2, 2002

Hazards of simplicity

Derek Powazek's Design For Community makes a fascinating observation in passing. Community sites and discussion forums aim to attract posts, to build big discussion threads on hot topics. You might expect that the best way to do this would be to make it easy to post; Powazek finds that it's actually a better idea to make posting difficult, to "bury the Post button" deep in the discussion. For example, in {fray}, you can post only at the end of multi-page stories.

The core problems community sites face are flamewars and graffiti -- casual posts that add nothing but noise, that sap the vitality and spirit of the discussion. Making it hard to post reduces graffiti; only committed people stick around long enough to post. By the time people reach the Post button, they've had a chance to absorb the spirit and the mood of the site.

Mark Bernstein: Hazards of planning
March 2, 2002

Hazards of planning

Why am I only now writing about Powazek's fine Design for Community? It came out last Fall! But I cleverly sent it ahead to Singapore, so I'd read and review it in an ideal environment: an office, a good library, a good Web connection, and no temptation to rush out and write code to experiment with Powazek's ideas.

Unfortunately, the package never made it to Singapore. Or, rather, I never got the message that said "Come and get it!" In due course, the Singapore post shipped it back to the Boston office, using a slow but expensive surface rate.

Mark Bernstein: Lies
March 2, 2002


The signs at the Logan Airport security checkpoints still say that the airlines are in charge of the screening personnel, and that if you have a complaint you should contact the airline. I am told by the airport's security office that this is untrue. They've added lots of signage since 9/11; leaving this untruth so clearly and systematically posted must be deliberate.

When I inquired about the discrepancy, the soldier guarding the X-ray machine asked me why it mattered who was in charge. He also addressed me by my first name (which he knew from my ticket and identification papers -- oops, I mean my photo ID).

The next time a soldier in the airport orders you to produce your papers, try to think of a movie where the question, "Your papers, please?" is asked by the good guys.

Mark Bernstein: Sirens
March 2, 2002


My mom's in the hospital. Not serious, but upsetting and disruptive. So I'm taking some unscheduled trips, and don't know where my next upload is coming from.

Anyone know a good Chicago-area ISP? Leave a message with anyone at Eastgate, and they'll launch a passenger pigeon.

Mark Bernstein: What's killing the independent book stores
March 2, 2002

What's killing the independent book stores

For over a decade, Eastgate gave credit to independent bookstores. That's probably over now.

Last month, a college store returned a carton filled with many copies of Salome. We found this surprising, because we don't accept returns, and we don't publish Salome.

I suppose we might have read the books, or sold them, or given them to our friends. Instead, we made long-distance phone calls, figured out how to send them to the right place without wasting more money, repacked the books, and sheltered them until they were picked up. This cost us time and money; nobody offered to reimburse us.

Today, that store tried to charge us $100 for the copies of Salome they sent us, plus $20 for extra shipping. They deducted this (without permission) from a payment they owed us (and which was long overdue) Another long distance call. They promise a check. Real soon.

This is the way the world of letters rots and decays.

Mark Bernstein: Pen and ink
March 1, 2002

Pen and ink

I need a fountain pen. I bought a modest one today, a Schaefer Prelude, and perhaps it will be fine. But I'd like suggestions. The point is better writing, not impressing people with gold plate.

Mark Bernstein: Rules for Revolutionaries
March 1, 2002

Rules for Revolutionaries

by Guy Kawasaki

"Create like a god, command like a king, work like a slave": the inventor of product evangelism examines how entrepreneurs and crusaders inspire followers and avoid the swamps that sap revolutions of their momentum. This breezy, fluffy book -- the very model of a business-category best-seller -- is intriguing and occasionally informative, but the central point is Kawasaki himself: dynamic, irreverent, inspiring, and unstoppable. (More in books....)

Mark Bernstein: Hypertext 2002
February 24, 2002

Hypertext 2002

This weekend, I'll be in Maryland for the Hypertext 2002 Program Committee meetings. I've been on every Hypertext Program Committee except for the first one (1987), and I've been co-chair twice. It's always an interesting conference, usually the most interesting conference I attend each year.

Hypertext '99 PC Meeting, Darmstadt. Hugh Davis, Uffe Wiil, and Joerg Haake

The program committee's work begins with the paper submissions. Most papers are already carefully vetted by the author's frienda and colleagues even before the paper is submitted, and every submission is read by at least three (and often by five or six) expert reviewers. The readers are looking, first of all, for original ideas and for outright mistakes -- errors in fact or methodology that could mislead future researchers. Finding mistakes in cutting-edge research can be incredibly difficult; that's why so many reviewers are needed.

Each year, a handful of papers breeze to general acclaim, and a somehwat larger number are quickly dismissed as inappropriate for the conference, fundamentally unsound, or otherwise unsuitable. The rest are examined by the committee, paper by paper, hour after hour. The views of the readers are scrutinized, and often still more readers are recruited to resolve thorny questions. Calls may be placed to authorities who live half way 'round the world, just to make sure that a paper's claims are sound. (One year, wanting to make an argument within the research community, I planted some in-jokes and barbs in the footnotes. I knew that they might not be accepted, but calculated that everyone I wanted to see them would wind up reading them during the reviews)

What surprises most people is how easy it is to have a paper rejected. My first year on the committee, I was astonished by the carnage: major papers from big labs, leading universities, acclaimed projects were studied, scrutinized, and judged not quite good enough. Nobody cares that the paper comes from a big company. Nobody cares that is comes from an ancient university. It's got to be right.