Amazon review permalinks

Who’s noticed long before me that reviews don’t have permalinks so, even if you want to, you can’t refer and talk back to other readers.
This seemingly subtle choice turns a potentially interesting conversation, distributed over space and time, into a much duller series of conventional-style reviews.
A conventional review has the pundit (or pair of pundits) recapping the plot of the book or movie, describing the genre of the music, and then propounding a thumbs-up or thumbs-down recommendation.
Links wouldn’t make bad writers better writers, and they wouldn’t make unoriginal thinkers into insightful observers, but they would enable a conversation to deepen the understanding and appreciation — or dislike and disparagement — of the work at hand.
Instead of a conversation that would build on the discussion of plot, character, sight, sound, influence and emotional impact, and could even build groups of shared interest, there’s a series of redundant soliloquies. One of the best review sites I found its

What I wish did

Allconsuming is a website and web service that shows what books bloggers are reading, based on blog aggregator pings and Amazon links.
Unfortunately, Allconsuming has a “hot-or-not” model that concentrates on the books that people are reading now — in the last hour, day, week, month.
This form doesn’t take full advantage of the “long tail”. The zeitgeist check is of some interest. At any given time, the “hit book” of the moment will be at the top of the list.
But over time, there’s a large distribution of books read. I’d love to see the reviews of people who’ve read Interface over the last year, with the current election in mind.
But you can’t even reconstruct the history from the AllConsuming api. GetWeblogMentionsForBook can also take an argument in the form of “days_back” but the number of days back that you get data for can’t be greater than 60.” (It does looks like it’s possible to crawl the archive, here:
Also, when you browse, you can’t tell the difference between a book mentioned in a “currently reading” sidebar, and a book review. The useful view would omit entries that are less than 10 words (say), and would print 50 word excerpts, so you could tell which entries were reviews or essays actually discussing the book.
These hacks would make it easier to expose book-related conversation, and to take advantage of “the long tail” — with 4 million bloggers, a few people have probably written about the book you’re currently reading.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Billed as a combination of Harry Potter and Jane Austen, with some Dickens tossed in, which says more about marketing than anything, but is a start. The plot is about magicians who revive practical magic in early 19th century England, when it had become almost entirely a matter of disputatious theory and fusty history. The two main characters are begin as mentor and protege, but the younger, more romantic, bold, and gregarious character becomes the rival of his more cautious and reclusive mentor.
Like Austen the heart of the book is comedy and satire of manners. Austen’s main topics are marriage and money. The book has a few marriage plots but they are tertiary. Clarke’s emotional themes are vanity and ambition, revenge, betrayal, and loyalty. Two of the best characters are a pair of Norrell’s hangers-on, Drawlight and Lascelles, who make a life and a living from treachery and malicious gossip. An evil fairy enchants two of the characters; he compels them to spend their nights dancing in endless balls in gloomy castles, and sleepy days back in the human world; and he does his best to persuade them that their benefactors in the human world are their betrayors.
The book won’t do much for readers who don’t like fantasy at all, but for readers who can tolerate some of it, the theme can be easily translated to the loss and search for enchantment in the rationalist modern world; the replacement of religious experience with ritual and pedantry, the ascendance of literary theory over storytelling. It’s no coincidence that Strange hangs out with Byron in Italy.
As for me, I really liked Clarke’s vision of an enchanted world — the rambling buildings with extra doors, closets, and starecases; the mirrors and crossroads heading off into alternate universes; the trees, birds, water with a life and language of their own; the music that transports people into a lonely and melancholy place; the Boschian scenes of grisly horror.
Clarke’s magic creates painterly fantastic panoramas and anecdotal miniatures — it is not at all like the Harry Potter rule-based system. The pace is quite slow to get started, but picks up when Strange enters the stage. Unlike Rowling and Neal Stephenson, whose long, 18th century Baroque Cycle is a cousin of “Strange”, Clarke feels no compulsion to add cinematic chase scenes; the dramatic action is fantastical, without extra effort to make it filmable. It will be darn hard to make a good movie or miniseries from the book.
Like Dickens, Austen — and Stephenson — Clarke deals with social marginality and mobility. Two of the characters are talented servants who feel a mixture of dissatisfaction, accomodation with their lot, and loyalty to their masters. The literal enchantment to a fairy king parallels real life bondage, physical and mental, to an aristocratic class structure. In the end (spoiler….) Clarke sets the white character on a path to a more democratic success; the black character has no choice but a fantasy world.
19th century novelists are more firmly within the class structure; they would either engineer the plot so they take their true place among the nobility, or engineer a sorry ending for untoward aspiration. Stephenson’s American, and doesn’t get the mental bonds; his upwardly mobile characters work around their limitations, and don’t feel conflicted about aspiring behind their station.
Like Tolkien, Clarke uses footnotes for backstory. Tolkein’s footnotes convey the impression that there’s a fully realized world and history beyond the story at hand. Clarke’s footnotes have an ironic and pseudoscholarly air, and walk the border between mock-pedantry and just pedantry.
To Peterme, who always asks whether I’d recommend the book — I really liked it, and would recommend it to people who find it appealing after reading this post, and recommend against it to people who think it sounds dull and trivial.

East Austin Studio Tour

Some belated notes about the East Austin art tour last weekend, which was much fun despite the pouring rain.
The most entertaining spots were Blue Genie and a pair of graceful glassblowers who worked together like musicians. The art I liked best was by a sculptor who makes human/animal/robot scultures out of old metal tools; his work was playful and serious and a little disturbing.
No pictures. Hereby a resolve to get a digital camera, as a reward for getting some useful but boring things done by next weekend.
Missed the Travis Heights walk. I hope they do it again soon.

Firefox seems to fix memory problems

Using current Firefox instead of old Mozilla seems to (toss salt over shoulder and spit twice) improve the memory behavior of the aged win98 ex-laptop by a LOT.
I have seven tabs open, have been checking email for a few hours, and the system seems happily stable.
I still want my laptop back NOW, but daily experience may have gotten less chronically miserable.

Not ignoring you

If you sent me an email in early November and I haven’t answered, I’m not ignoring you. I don’t have the message. Please send it again.
Currently I’m getting email, but without the detailed folder-and-filter system on my laptop. If I’m slow to respond, it’s because the the email is in a big, tangled, pile of goo. Please resend.

Laptop held hostage

My Fujitsu laptop’s in the shop, and the conditions to get it back keep receding off into the future.
When I took it in last week Friday, I thought the problem was the same broken power connection that needed resoldering before. I’d have it back the same day.
Unfortunately, the part itself was broken. Fortunately, they found the $29 part and had ordered it. Unfortunately, the part wasn’t actually in stock. Fortunately, there are other suppliers that carry it. Unfortunately, none of those seem to be in stock either. Fortunately, there’s a brand new version of the $29 remanufactured part. Unfortunately, it costs $250 just for the part, not counting the labor.
Fortunately, the $250 part seems to be in stock, in theory. Unfortunately, the part comes from Sony, which has a reputation for delivery between the time of order and then end of the universe.
The chances of getting my laptop back before Thanksgiving is receding into improbability.
Fortunately, I have a backup computer — an ex-laptop from 1999 with a busted screen, replaced by a really cheap desktop monitor. Unfortunately, it’s running a crufty, never-rebuilt, highly unstable version of Win98 which crashes about 3x per day.
Fortunately, the ex-laptop would probably be a well-behaved Linux machine. Unfortunately, I’m using it as a primary work box, so I’m not going to run the risk of conversion now.
Fortunately, most of my data is on servers. Unfortunately, there are a few email attachments from last few weeks that aren’t on the project workspace.
Fortunately, the shop gave me a cd with the email file. Unfortunately, the drive driver was busted. Fortunately, I was able to reinstall the driver. Unfortunately, their backup didn’t have the attachments. So a major weekend project has been at a standstill for two weekends.
Unfortunately, the crappy desktop monitor gives me eyestrain. Fortunately, it’s probably healthier to spend less time in front of a computer.

How the mind works

In a conversation about religion and science on Joi Ito’s blog, John Jensen recommended Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works for a scientific perspective on the origin of culture and religion. The book fails at that mission, but is interesting in a more limited scope.
The parts of the book backed up by experimental research are fascinating. In readable prose, Pinker summarizes research about how the mind processes visual images, logic, and math. The experimental evidence supports a coherent theory that intelligence is composed of modular components.
The parts of the book about emotions, altruism, and values have much less experimental content. Pinker uses evolution as myth — canonical stories about hunter-gatherer cultures and primate ethology are used to draw broad lessons about human nature. One of Pinker’s “insights” — humans have evolved to assess the trustworthiness of others, and also to deceive themselves and others. Another: addictions to food and sex derive from biological desires for pleasure. Another: human cultural achievements are driven by desire for status.
Damasio’s based analysis of emotion and consciousness based on clinical neurological research and Terrence Deacon’s analysis of the neuroanatomy of the brain are more empirically based, and have more compelling insights about the relationships between emotions, language, and consciousness. When Deacon strays off the empirical farm and does evidence-free, evolution-based mythic speculation, he gets shallow too.
Pinker’s use of evolution as a myth doesn’t lead to more insight than traditional explanations of human complexity (desire leads to suffering in the Buddhist tradition; the “good inclination/evil inclination” framework in the Jewish tradition). These traditional sources don’t have evolutionary science as their base, yet they perceive the conflicts in human nature, and can reach wise insights about how to handle the conflicts.
A good part of the argument in “How the Mind Works” is polemic against foolish politically-correct academic conventional wisdom that humans don’t have natural tendencies toward selfishness, deceit and violence.
But in arguing against “culturist” extremism, Pinker misses the point about culture. Pinker ties himself into knots trying to explain why people would engage in behavior that contradicted a basic evolutionary program — why a successful scientist would focus on career and marry late, why a family would adopt a child.
He doesn’t understand that cultural rewards like prestige and social experiences like nurturing can extend underlying biological programming. It’s not enough for Pinker to reverse-engineer the biological roots of behavior, he needs to explain the higher-level behavior in terms of the lower-level behavior. This is like explaining the plot of a video game in terms of assembly language, or even the game’s object model.
In summary, Pinker does fine as a scientist, but he hasn’t successfully made the transition to moral philosopher. And he certainly hasn’t made the case that scientific research has made moral philosophy obsolete.

Computer as door

The practice of software design is shot through with computer-as-box assumptions, while our actual behavior is closer to computer-as-door, treating the device as an entrance to a social space.

This bit of tossed-off brilliance in a thought-provoking piece about flaming in mailing lists and newsgroup
I’m currently organizing user testing for social software — the established methodologies are designed for individual users. A team of observers watches an individual user, and notes their “success”, “failure”, and “comprehension”.
Of course, social software has attributes for individual users — if an individual user is thorougly baffled, the software won’t get used.
There are also attributes that apply to the social interaction. How easy is it to invite, and how welcoming does an invitation feel? Are the early stages of usage conducive to talking, working, or playing with others? How are the norms of the community expressed?
Clay’s examples are mostly about how to dampen flamewars, but there are other positive social affordances.
References and comments welcome.