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

Jul 24 14 2024

Tinderbox 10

Tinderbox 10

Tinderbox 10 is now available. Download it here.

by Michael Chabon

It’s 2008, and the Yiddish-speaking enclave of refugee Jews on the island of Sitka will soon revert to Alaska. Homicide detective Meyer Landsman is trying to solve one last murder case before everything falls apart, even if it’s just a dead junkie who lives in the same fleabag hotel as Landsman. Absolutely terrific: Chabon lays out a carnival of Yids in all their varieties.

Wonderful dialogue.

"Do you suppose. Detective Landsman, that my wife would ever attempt to subvert my authority with respect to this or any other matter?"
"I suppose everything, Rabbi Shpilman," Landsman says. "I don't mean anything by it."

by Jacob L. Wright

In 722 BCE, Assyria defeated the northern kingdom of Israel. The southern Kingdom of Judah remained nominally independent until 587. In the wake of those defeats, and the universal dominance of great empires, newly unemployed scribes of both kingdoms sought for a way to remain relevant and to preserve an audience for the literature they treasured. The Bible is the fruit of their editorial work, a document of resistance, skepticism, and of the unending quest for knowledge.

May 24 24 2024



The new Tinderbox view is coming along nicely, though it’s still very rough. Here’s a working document that collects some notes about information gardening. The system chooses shapes and collaborates in choosing how they fit together: in this map, notes that share an author or a tag attract each other.

This is about four hours of work.

by H. R. McMaster

This interesting but unlikable book on the decision to go to war in Vietnam was written by a US Army major in 1997. Later, the author disgraced himself by serving as Trump’s National Security Advisor; it is, alas, not hard to see the path McMaster had already paved, two decades before.

McMaster is at pains to show that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were sidelined in the course of this decision, and deeply critical of their willingness to accept being sidelined. Throughout the critical year, the Joint Chiefs were deeply divided by bureaucratic infighting and by inter-service competition. Oddly, though McMaster observes that JFK (and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara) did not, as a rule, have great respect for military expertise, he makes no effort at all to explore why they felt as they did. Kennedy and McNamara were smart, and liked to be seen as smart. They’d each had spectacular careers in World War II. A lot of contemporary literature — The Caine Mutiny, Catch-22, even The Naked and the Dead — explores reasons for this mistrust. It’s not a secret or an aberration.

Though the Joint Chiefs want to be consulted, their deliberations seldom or never considered Vietnam or the Vietnamese in any detail. McMaster’s failure to notice that is significant.

McMaster, in castigating LBJ for placing his domestic agenda ahead of winning the war, repeats the dereliction of which he indicts the Joint Chiefs. South Vietnam was doomed in 1963; it is seldom mourned. The Johnson agenda which McMaster would have sacrificed to prop it up included civil rights, voting rights, and Medicare: changes that transformed and improved the nation, even if they didn’t help Army beat Navy.

Is there a reasonable biography of Curtis LeMay? Email me.

A review of Niklas Luhmann’s note-taking technique, by Jillian Hess (author of the excellent How Romantics and Victorians Organized Information)

Luhmann saw his notes as communication partners. In order to have better conversations, he had to equip his partners with interesting ideas. Throughout, he refers to his notes as though they are sentient beings: “I, of course, do not think everything by myself. It happens mainly within the Zettelkasten.”
May 24 15 2024

A New View

A New View

I’ve been hard at work on refactoring some legacy code from the literature. I want to use it, but before using it I want to understand it, and the code as it stands is quite hard to understand.

This code originates in the 1994, and performs some fascinating computations on graphs, using a really nice algorithm. I took a stab at it a couple of years back, but blew it. This time, I was smart enough to realize that help would be a good thing: a doctoral student in mathematics gave me a very fine lesson, and that was almost enough to get unstuck.

The 1994 code has been revised a few times over the years, but it’s still C++ the way we all used C++ in 1994. It’s one big class with zillions of instance variables. Some of its methods run to hundreds of lines. It has lots of comments, but most of the comments describe what the code does, and I can see what the code does, line by line: what I need is a handle on the bigger picture.

It took a week, including one ghastly false start, but it’s slowly beginning to make sense. I’ve got 11 new classes, and the monolith is down about 400 lines.

The bigger goal is to take a fresh look at hypertext maps, one that gets away from boxes and arrows. I want to get way out there, as I argued in last year’s web studies paper, “The Indefinite Idea Plane Artistically Considered.” For example, spatial hypertext has always posited fixedness and stability: you put things where they belong, and they stay where they are until you move them. Nancy Kaplan was the first to get that into a publication: I think maybe should we call that Kaplan’s Rule.

But what happens (for example) if notes in a spatial hypertext constantly jostle each other in a crowd, trying to get close to related or linked notes? It would be like a crowded cocktail party; there would be some geometry, but individual notes would move on their own. That might be bad, because you could find yourself looking for a particular note. But it might be good, because you’d run across other notes in the process.

So here’s today’s screenshot, derived from notes I made while sketching the Web Studies paper.

The Gaza war has destroyed the progressive movement in the United States. I have been concerned about the tension for months, but I think it’s over. The last feeble light of the flame kindled in the New Deal has been extinguished.

Even among the left, we no longer have a consensus that Jews have a right to live somewhere, anywhere, on the planet. Anti-Dreyfusards are all over lefty Twitter. It’s terrifying. (Some of these accounts are probably Russian bots. But their ubiquity is terrifying in itself.)

Let me be clear: Biden will win in November. He’ll have the support of every former progressive and every loyal American. But the coalition that elects Biden is going to be awkward, filled with lots of people who can no longer trust their allies.

May 24 7 2024

Weblog, reviewed

Sociologist Rigas Arvanitis revisits the question: why do we write weblogs?

Il y a une certaine satisfaction à écrire un blog car on publie là, de suite. En somme, c’est un rêve d’auto-édition. Bien sûr on fait l’impasse sur tout ce qui fait la qualité et la diffusion d’une oeuvre. Mais avec le blog, on s’en fiche, on n’écrit pas pour la postérité. On écrit, dit-on, pour soi ! Mais n’est-ce pas toujours le cas. Et pourquoi un blog serait-il plus "pour soi" qu’’un journal intime. Au contraire même, c’est l’anti-journal intime. C’est le journal que je veux bien ne pas garder pour moi seul...

Some lovely comments about this weblog, too.

By Abigail Shannon.

He indulged my first few questions with a cold yes/no before breaking the pattern with a sharp sigh: “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, then why are you here?”

That was a visit to a Warhammer store a decade back. A recent revisit turned out better.

Impressive Apple iPhone ad.

May 24 5 2024


A YouTube performer does the “Cantina Band Song” from Star Wars in various styles. Bach is the headliner, but don’t miss Oscar Peterson, and be sure to stay for Stevie Wonder.

by Chris Bohjalian

This thriller, recommended by The NY Times Book Newsletter, centers on Crissy Dowling, a Las Vegas actress and Princess Diana impersonator. She is the princess of Las Vegas impersonators, many of whom feature prominently. Crissy is just a little bit bulimic, and perhaps just slightly too prone to indulge in pills. But she’s got a free suite in a Las Vegas casino, a free cabana, and her two shows nightly are booked well in advance. Then, both owners of her casino kill themselves. Crissy’s sister — who looks a lot like Crissy — moves to Las Vegas, trading a career in social work for a Vegas-based cryptocurrency startup. She has a new boyfriend and a newly-adopted daughter who is uncannily smart.

It’s a nifty setup, and Bohjalian keeps everything simmering. The tone is unsettling: much of this is funny and many of the characters picaresque, but Bohjalian takes the picaresque characters just seriously enough that this doesn’t become a romp.