choose your style: neoclassical | blue | modern | nouveau

Notes from late November, 2001. Latest notes

What resources are available for people who want to make better Web logs? If you know of useful sites and articles, please let me know!

Information architect Christina Wodtke has redesigned Elegant Hack with style and elegance. Unfortunately, the new design forgets to identify who the author is! This is awkward on a number of counts, from personal branding to citation.

A real danger, when rolling out a new design, is leaving out information that is so obvious that it becomes invisible. Once, for a few days, Eastgate's home page failed to explain the core concept: WE SELL HYPERTEXTS. We knew what Eastgate does, so we didn't notice. Nor did our regular visitors, many of whom write frequently with corrections and clarifications. After a few days, we got a call from a Board Member ("I don't find this entirely clear") and I received email from a high-school girlfriend from whom I'd not heard in decades ("I visited your Web site. What is it you do, anyway?").

I once knew an architecture student who, for a class, was told to design an embassy. She planned and drew a wonderful, elegant, cost-is-not-object building. It was filled with beautiful conveniences and thoughtful, unexpected twists. At the end, she drew the driveway on the plan -- and had a terrible, sinking feeling: there wasn't enough space on the lot to accommodate the turning radius of a limousine. The entire project had to be redone. Seeing the invisible is hard; fortunately, it's easier to move Web modules than concrete.

Torill Mortensen on grad school burnout.

A nice tutorial on practical details of using stylesheets for making boxes, by Own Briggs. Most sites (including this one) use tables, which is inelegant, inefficient, but reliable. Stylesheets are better in the long run.

Dave Winer explains why he links to the debut of CityDesk, which competes with his own Radio Userland.

"Joel and I share a philosophy that dates back to the 80s and early 90s, a way of developing software that is centered around users. This is an art that's in danger of being lost....If you're willing to support hard-working developers, with cash, the lights can come back on."

Michael Korda picks his five favorite novels of the last 40 years for Salon. It's a very surprising list, even after reading Korda's autobiography. The Last Picture Show is the big sleeper. But any list that runs from Brideshead Revisited to Lord of the Rings is, at the very least, interesting.

(Because I am a notoriously sloppy writer, I took a certain pleasure in seeing that Korda, having read Tolkien umpteen times, can't spell "Gandalf". Even editors get things wrong at times.)

What happens when Achilles' mom files her insurance claim? Thanks, Meryl Cohen!

The news gets worse and worse. Columnist Dan Gilllmor looks at two recent court decisions and concludes that "The Digital Millenium Copyright Action will do more damage to your rights, and to society, than you can possibly imagine."

It's another Virus Day, it seems; the morning mail brought roughly 30 separate worm-infested messages. We read our mail at Eastgate on Macs, which are immune; Windows users should check their security settings before reading mail in Outlook!

(Where is the rumor that this outbreak originates in the FBI's new snooping program?)

Anja Rau, writing about the social life of games, captures an interesting point about the loneliness of the reader. (Dateline November 27,2001: permalinks aren't working) Social interaction is also a key, I think, to very large narratives like online-caroline and Buffy; part of their attraction (like the fascination with Little Nell) lies in thinking and talking about the fictive situation as it unfolds. (Can Willow stay on the wagon? How do they get her scenes past the censors? Now that Angel's a daddy, can he buy life insurance even though he's dead?)

I think it's important to distinguish critics who find artistic shortcomings in games from those who just don't like games in the first place. Both may say, "there's no character here", but they mean different things. The nay-sayer is merely claiming that games can't do what the amusements of her youth once did, and we're all familiar with that kind of nostalgia for an imaginary past. It's useful, on the other hand, to identify apparent shortcomings in a body of work. This usefulness is even clearer when software enters the mix, for conceivably the apparent propensities of the medium might be changed by changing the software.

We're seeing this effect right now with Ceres. People are very interested in the way Ceres leads people to write, and how writing with Ceres compares, say, to working in Blogger. But as soon as we identify a tendency -- Jill's suggestion, for example, that we link less often in Ceres -- small changes and new features (like Web links) may transform everything.

Levitated offers daily Flash gems -- with source -- demonstrating a variety of coding ideas and artificial life themes. Thanks, Victor Lombardi!

A photograph from outside my hotel in Erfurt earlier this Fall. Now that digital cameras will make snapshots ubiquitous in our (now-ubiquitous) Web journals, we'll need to think again about why pictures matter and how to make them meaningful. I suspect that manipulation helps in Web memoirs -- manipulation through obvious cropping, unusual aspect ratios (a Powazek trademark), or redrawing, or blending images and words. It's not merely usability; it's also the sign that someone has taken care to make the image right.

Dan Bricklin makes a good point: it's a blessing to share pictures promptly with friends and family -- with people for whom they'll extend a happy event (link here, scroll to bottom). This could easily grow to be a family obligation. Pictures per se aren't very expressive, as Alison Monzy's pantscam demonstrates so hilariously. How do we actually use digital images?

Mamet on acting.

If you want to go into theater, go into theater. If you want to have made a valiant effort to go into the theater before you go into real estate of law school or marry wealth, then perhaps you should stay in school. (In Books...)

While Mamet and Brustein disagree on the training of actors, it is interesting that they agree on the problem of hobbyists, what Brustein calls "the exaltation of the amateur." Mamet extends this to all artists who have become disconnected from (and financially independent of) the audience, artists who serve a muse (and a grant) without reference to actually moving people, delighting people, changing people.

Amateurs can afford to show contempt for the audience. They needn't bother with craft if they don't feel like it. They needn't get the details exactly right. They needn't do their best, because their intrinsic wonderfulness is expected to compensate. It doesn't matter if they're unintelligible -- just as long as the grant is renewed.

Taken too far, this line of argument leads to naive worship of the box office. It's essential, too, to distinguish the matters that matter from the trappings and the suits of the profession. Lunch at the Four Seasons and the endless book tour matter to nobody, and artistic progress often depends on turning our back on the encrustations of craft and technique and production values.

But there's a germ of truth here, and a source of concern. Too much electronic art is deeply amateur.

It's interesting to compare the vision of America found in Baudrillard's recent discussion of terrorism to Neil Gaimain's American Gods. Baudrillard's view, insofar as one can be seen beneath the general sense of repugnance, is a sort of generalized neurasthenic suburbia, the tract house world of Back to the Future or ET. Gaiman's America, on the other hand, is a world where Europe is distorted through the prism of wilderness and vulgarity, a land of waitresses and cops and college girls where ancient wisdom occasionally reaches the surface but where, on the whole, people are happy to be free of the spiritual baggage of Europe. Baudrillard sees America in Hollywood, Gaiman sees Kenosha.

Isn't is strange that the French philosopher adopts the banal, safe, familiar view, while the the difficult, nuanced, weird vision comes from the comic book writer?

This Thursday is Thanksgiving in the US. It's a big holiday. It works because it's a genuine holiday (unlike Mother's Day, invented by a department store) and it's secular (unlike Christmas). Religious holidays make Americans uneasy with the memory of ancient disputes, memory of a time when the Unitarians and the Quakers and the Baptists and the Methodists and the Congregationalists and the Catholics really didn't get along. (They don't get along now, either, outside the fantasy-life of a few fringe politician-evangelists)

But Thursday's the day for the annual turkey which in my heretical opinion should be cooked on a kettle grill. Put the turkey on at half-time of the first game and it will be ready when everyone arrives. Don't forget pumpkin pie. And cranberry relish (add sugar, orange, Cuisinart. Never use cans.)

I'll be in sunny New Jersey; no updates for a few days and a few hundred miles of driving.

We often think of hypertext as new, special, extraordinary. Anja Rau recalls our romance with hypertext -- the good times ("This was what I had been looking for most of my writing life") and the bad: " But how do I get across messages of multiple threads and voices and possible readings when I lose my reader between the 3rd and 4th node?"

Not long ago I was asked to compose a story. It had to be short -- too short, as it happened, for what I really wanted to attempt. It had to be linear. It had to be finished quickly.

I wrote it as a hypertext because that was the fastest, best way to work. I knew the characters, some of the locations, and the overall plot arc; each element became a Ceres note, just a placeholder in a big map. I spent an hour or two identifying issues (because it was that kind of story); these, too, became notes scattered across the map. Issues turned red, character notes blue, plot points black.

Then I gathered the plot into a container and started to flesh out individual sections. At the same time, I played with narrative order: what should be told in flashback? What could be skipped entirely? This is where the Nakakoji view turned out to be very handy; I could drag plot sections around in the outline and instantly see the new, linear narrative.

I always knew that the end of the story would seem arbitrary. My original idea was to establish multiple endings held in mutual suspension, playing with alternative endings much as The Babysitter did. I wasn't striving for metafictional effect, and I wasn't interested in metaphysics or experimentation; I simply didn't want the impact of any particular ending to swallow the rest of the story, since all my issues were established before the end and the end merely grows from those issues.

On deadline, I found that I simply didn't have the word count to pull it off. I trimmed and trimmed, and eventually I saw that the only way to make the piece fit was to choose one ending. So, once more, I swapped endings in and out to discover the least unsatisfactory compromise. (In one alternate ending, Hueckel borrows a sub. In another, everyone dies pathetically and the politicians vow to do better)

Now that we are able to write hypertexts, we'll never be completely happy writing flat, linear arguments. Even our linear texts will be refracted through the filter of hypertextuality, and we'll always be sensitive to patterns and interaction. Yes, sometimes it might seem that nobody wants to read hypertext. But everybody reads hypertext all the time, and hypertext is what we all write.

(This page is interesting only because it's part of an interlinked, global discussion. That's new, and important; when Winer says web logs are "like academic writing", he's not going far enough. This is where scholarship is happening -- in the links and in the correspondence (hi, Espen!) that follows. Suddenly, hundreds of people are reading it every day -- including many of the best people in the field. It's all in the links.)

Faith Manages.

Laid Off, a Flash tale of unemployment in an era when your gas-station attendant recently worked designing middleware.

Buffy, the Musical, was a wonderful stunt. And now, I think, the suspicion is dawning: this year there is no Big Bad coming to haunt us. I have a theory: I'm not quite sure where we go from here, but I think I know where we end up. This is the year we learn that all the monsters on the Hell Mouth are not just aliens -- vampires, demons, teachers. We're grownups now, and some of them are our friends and lovers. (Sweet: "You call me and I come a-runnin, I turn the music on, I bring the fun in." Faith:"You've got to find the fun, B." Faith manages)

Joel Spolsky writes about the problems inherent in making a program run safely on thousands of different kinds of machines. The common wisdom is that "the best way for computer programs to communicate with each other is for each of the them to be strict in what they emit, and liberal in what they accept." Spolsky disagrees, suggesting that the many woes of HTML demonstrate that strict API's are better. If a program sees errors and accepts them, he observes, people will come to depend on the mistakes.

I've been taking a look back at Storyspace I; now that Storyspace II is well launched, it's probably a good time for a retrospective paper. Spolsky is absolutely correct: people will come to depend on mistakes. But (Spolsky aside) that's not always bad; we never expected people to write poems in the links dialog!

Spolsky reports spending 3 weeks in a 52-week development cycle dealing with configuration issues. That's surprisingly little! So far (barring one report today) we've kept Ceres out of deep water across three operating systems, but bad things could still happen.

To test the new Ceres Web links, I'm adopting a different style of writing today. Today, I'm Winer-esque. Today, I'm baroque. Lots of links! Hit that link button!

Rediscovered, thanks to the Google cache, Aunt Sarah's Handy-Dandy Plotting Recipe by Sarah Smith, author of King of Space and The Vanished Child. Titled "How to plot when you can't", this pleasant exercise (reminiscent of McCloud's Story Machine) works well with note cards but even better with software. Smith suggest Storyspace or Agenda, but Ceres is probably the perfect tool.

Michael, an old school friend, now a composer, recently sent word of a memorable performance. It was part of a centennial celebration at our old school, where he and I spent a dozen years. Michael's new composition for brass ensemble was featured early in the program, and was (I hear) very well received.

Michael reports the unforgettable part came later, as part of "an eight hand version of the most bombastic piece the conductor could find -- Liszt's Rackoczi March. The other three performers are all much better pianists than I am, but I was determined to do it, so Bart xeroxed my part and I practised. We had two rehearsals and they both went well.

"Then, at the performance, I placed my xerox copies on the piano. Bart was my partner, and at first we both read from his book, to my left. Then, at the second page, I turned to my xerox copies. As they had not been placed in their proper order, I went on to page three, while my fellow pianists thought they ought to play page two first. This brought the proceedings to a grinding halt.

"We tried again, and then Philip, thinking the problem was that I had been trying to take a repeat of the first section, whispered loudly across the piano "NO REPEAT!"

"This time, however, we all began from the top of page two. Meanwhile, Bart, sitting next to me at the second piano, thought it wise to take Philp's advice, which of course no longer applied, and so as we played he leaned over and loudly whispered in my ear "NO REPEAT!" I took Bart at his word, and at the end of the section we were amid, when Bart passed along his advice, he and I happily continued on to the next part. Unfortunately, Philip and Tom, at the other piano, proceeded according to our initial plan and went back to the beginning of that section. This confusion soon made itself known to those kind enough to remain in the audience.

"I am proud to say that we then picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and, if not started all over again, at least made it finally to the end."

A great movie, based on a bad book. This is Bacall's debut, and it's breathtaking. I'd love to know if the screenplay was written with Bacall in mind; she was 16, and she must have been a force of nature. Could Hollywood today produce a character study a 16 year old runaway who likes sex, keeps $30 in her nightgown so she can say 'no' if she wants to, and knows that giving that last $30 to Bogart will cost her nothing?

Anja Rau has started a Web journal, and responds to recent discussion of her critique of the ELO Award.

Dragons turn out to be less mythical than the Civil Service believed. In fact, everything the Town Watch believe is likely to be wrong, because it's that kind of movie... In books

We're adding a new feature to Ceres that makes it much easier to build links from Ceres notes to the Web. To test this, I'm revising this log to use the new features extensively; some links might break and some formatting be unsightly for a few days.

The Archers is a BBC radio drama that started during World War II has has been running continuously ever since. Actors who were boys in the early years are now old men. Remember this the next time people try to tell you that people don't read because kids nowadays have short attention spans. Thanks, Su White

William Safire (arch-conservative, Nixon apologist) registers an eloquent and important protest against Bush's outageous, terrifying military tribunal order.

Misadvised by a frustrated and panic-stricken attorney general, a president of the United States has just assumed what amounts to dictatorial power to jail or execute aliens. Intimidated by terrorists and inflamed by a passion for rough justice, we are letting George W. Bush get away with the replacement of the American rule of law with military kangaroo a time when even liberals are debating the ethics of torture of suspects -- weighing the distaste for barbarism against the need to save innocent lives -- it's time for conservative iconoclasts and card-carrying hard-liners to stand up for American values.