20 October 2014


We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

You can get that image as a t-shirt. It seems that most people know that quote as Willy Wonka, from the 1971 film adaptation with Gene Wilder.

Through a strange turn of fate, I never saw the film as a kid. I only discovered it when I was a teenager, the year I was taking English Literature, and I noticed that a lot of Wonka's poetic asides are allusions. Via Christina Wodke, I learn that Thomas M. Brodhead tell us that this did not come from Roald Dahl, but from a script doctor who wrote the screenplay.

When Quaker Oats (yes, the Quaker Oats company!) decided to adapt Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for film, Roald Dahl was asked to write the screenplay. Dahl produced a fairly literal translation of his book that was deemed unacceptable by the studio executives. The young writer and script doctor David Seltzer was then asked to “improve” Dahl's script. The result was a recalibration of Dahl's story with many significant changes (e.g. rival chocolatier Slugworth became a central character in the film as a tempter of the children, etc.) More importantly, Wonka was cast in a darker light, with an ambiguous stance toward the children (as opposed to the sprightly and somewhat avuncular candyman of Dahl's conception.)

In the finished script, Wonka's dialogue is peppered with literary quotations and allusions not found in Dahl's book. They were all introduced by David Seltzer as part of his rewrite of Dahl's screenplay.

Brodhead has tracked down sources for the allusions (including Arthur O'Shaughnessy's Ode, which gives us “we are the music makers”).

17 October 2014


A tweet from Andy Baio informs me that the visual interface style for Yosemite has taken a interesting turn.

In his tweet, Baio complains:

OS X got hit hard by the ugly stick.

The big problem is that Emphasis Blue. Too light and saturated.

I get where it came from. The post-Forrestal visual style introduced with iOS 7 has moved in a more pastel-ish direction, which is obviously carefully considered and likely directed toward the global market. I dislike it, but I recognize that I'm coming from a very particular place in my tastes, so de gustibus.

But aside from taste, as used here that Emphasis Blue is a couple of ticks too strong. This stylesheet makes it look even worse than it is, because there's a greater density of emphasized elements than one would ordinarily use.

More importantly, I badly dislike that the use of Emphasis Blue on selected checkboxes and radio buttons, and on the dropdown and spinner controls. It adds too much strong emphasis to the interface. The more things you emphasize, the less emphasis means and the more it contributes to a sense of interface noise.

But there is something good here, which I almost don't want to point out because when I designed it for a client it was meant to register subconsciously for the user.

I was doing a system that had endless tables and forms full of configurations for a complex technical internet thingy. I'm more an interaction architect / interaction designer than an interface visual designer; I tell potential clients and employers, “My visual design skills are very adequate. I can do icons that are not embarrassing and an interface that reads clearly enough, but there are specialists who can do it twice as well and twice as fast.” But I was the designer on deck for this system, so it was up to me.

So I tried an experiment in a very flat interface language which I'd been thinking about for years. It's obviously parallel to some of the defining patterns of this new OS X interface style:

  • Non-clickable elements have a very light gray background
  • Clickable elements all have a white background, edged in light gray
  • Unavailble clickable buttons et cetera have the very light gray background, edged in gray
  • Text fields have square corners
  • Buttons have rounded corners
  • Data content is in black text, data labels in dark gray text

Here's how my version of it looked:

Looking at it now, it bugs me how cramped that looks. In that system we were dealing with a lot of huge tables of data, so I was trying to make the density as high as possible, plus trying to ring a bit of a “crisp and technical” bell to go with the company's brand. I'm not sure I would do it that way again for that system, and I certainly would not recommend it for a consumer OS.

But I was happy with how it overcame the visual harshness of black text on a white background (which I've also countered in the style of this blog), very happy with how it made it possible to look at the interface and easily pick out what was active and clickable without it adding a lot of visual noise, and delighted with it making form content readable without the usual clutter of text entry box borders.

There was a lot more patterns in the interface system that aren't worth going into here, but I never quite came to a fully satisfactory solution for this principle:

  • Emphasized interface elements all use a consistent emphasis color

Obviously Apple is wrestling with the same thing.

15 October 2014


Samuel R. Delaney reflects on a discussion of Transgressive Sexual Practice he participated in. (There's video!)


Last week at the New School, with bell hooks, M. Lamar, and Marci Blackman, in a conversation on transgressive sexual practices, hooks and the others paid me the compliment of calling me “a sex radical”. I said, sincerely that I didn't think of myself in those terms. (The truth is, at 72 I don't think on my feet as nimbly as I once might have — which is why this elaboration here, a week after the fact.) As I explained, for me, transgression — sexual or any other kind — means there is a line that you have not crossed and that, from somewhere, you must seize the power to overcome the fear of crossing. I have crossed such lines many times in my life — many of them sexual. (And, in many cases, I have decided that it would be better to remain on the side I already was.) If, when I crossed them, what I'd found was five, fifteen, twenty-five or even fifty people there, then probably I would be able to call my own crossing a radical act. But what I invariably found beyond the lines I crossed — and this is what I did not say then — were thousands and thousands of people on the other side, and not only that, they had been there for years and years; in some cases; many of them lived on the far side for all practical purposes. Not only that, but buildings, businesses, whole languages (literary and vernacular) and institutions (legal and illegal) existed and had existed for years to accommodate them. Thus, I never felt I was doing anything unique. In books such as The Motion of Light in Water, Heavenly Breakfast, The Mad Man, and Times Square Red / Times Square Blue, and even Dhalgren, I would write about what I saw or use it as the basis for fiction. But even there, I'm aware that I was never the first to do so. Andre Gide, Bruce Nugent, Paul Goodman, W. H. Auden, James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Wallace Thurman, Hart Crane, Radclyffe Hall, Ned Rorum, John Rechy, Jean Genet, Djuna Barnes, Collette, Henry Miller, Violet Leduc, Sade, Klowsowski, Bataille, Cocteau, Lillian Helman, Wilde and Proust had all preceded me — and many, many others, back to Petronious and Apuleius and Catullus. These were the people who allowed me to do it and without whom I could never have written anything that I wanted to about the world I saw around me. That's why I've never seen my enterprise as radical.

If you are not familiar with Delaney's books: go read them all.

I cannot resist thinking of an old blog post of mine, Swamp, which contains a similar metaphor.

Imagine the world of human experience as a swamp. The swamp has a varied terrain: sandbars, reedy marshy bits, outcroppings of land, shallow rivers, muddy riverbanks, and so forth. Full of interesting stuff, but not entirely hospitable.

Most people live in castles in the swamp. A castle has a controlled environment, defined by the people who live there. It typically has windows and parapets from which the residents can view the swamp, though a few castles are completely sealed off.


Swamp travellers are interested in the swamp, and often are also interested in the different swamp denizens. They may stop in to visit folks in the various castles, carrying news and information around the swamp, picking up supplies, and occasionally deciding to settle down in one for a while, or even forever. They also tend to know the locations of ruined castles where a few eccentric holdouts are living and working.

Terrorism explained

Chainsawsuit explains terrorism in six cartoon panels:

(FYI, I also have my own explanation.

10 October 2014

It is the soldier

There's this poem you have probably seen or heard before.

It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.

It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

The poem was written in 1970 by a guy named Charles M. Province.

It's a well-crafted little poem. It has that plain-spoken American voice that Robert Frost exemplified. The cadences and use of repetition give it a flow that makes it easy to recite.

Let's take a look at what it says.

Those repetitions are interesting. What is important in the eyes of the poem? The Soldier is mentioned seven times, freedom and the flag four times each, rights twice. This is about the Soldier, who gets a capital S to emphasize being an archetypal figure, unlike everyone else in the poem. The poem also concerns the flag, and freedom, and to a lesser degree rights.

What does it tell us about freedom and rights? They is not a product of civil society — ministers, reporters, poets, campus organizers, protesters. They are not a product of democratic institutions — lawyers, politicians. They come from the Soldier. They come only from the Soldier.

When contrasting the Soldier with the protester, we learn more about the Soldier, exploring their virtues. The Soldier's virtues reflect deference to the state and its symbols: saluting, serving, dying ... and in that last, demonstrating specifically martial service, in warfare. Other forms of service have already been dismissed as irrelevant. The protester, in contrast, is described only in their disrespect for the symbol of the state. Not only unimportant relative to the Soldier, as the other figures in the poem, but acting in direct opposition to the Soldier's deference to the flag.

We see that the protester's freedom is something the Soldier “allows”. The implication is that the Soldier might withdraw that allowance at any time.

Perhaps even should withdraw it.


  • Rights and freedoms do not come from democratic institutions
  • Rights and freedoms come from the Soldier
  • The Soldier defers to the state, and to its symbol the flag
  • The protester is the Soldier's opposite
  • The Soldier is the true legislator of society

A military junta would love this poem. But it has no place being repeated in a democratic society, much less engraved on our public monuments under the title “Freedom's Flag”.

01 October 2014


Jenny Trout is conducting a Big Damn Buffy Rewatch. She has some provocative observations:

  1. Sex is the real villain of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer universe.
  2. Giles is totally in love with Buffy.
  3. Joyce is a fucking terrible parent.
  4. Willow’s magic is utterly useless (this one won’t be an issue until season 2, when she gets a chance to become a witch)
  5. Xander is a textbook Nice Guy.
  6. The show isn’t as feminist as people claim.
  7. All the monsters look like wieners.
  8. If ambivalence to possible danger were an Olympic sport, Team Sunnydale would take the gold.
  9. Angel is a dick.
  10. Harmony is the strongest female character on the show.
  11. Team sports are portrayed in an extremely negative light.
  12. Some of this shit is racist as fuck.
  13. Science and technology are not to be trusted.
  14. Mental illness is stigmatized.
  15. Only Willow can use a computer.
  16. Buffy’s strength is flexible at the plot’s convenience.
  17. Cheap laughs and desperate grabs at plot plausibility are made through Xenophobia.
  18. Oz is the Anti-Xander

I don't entirely agree or disagree, but it's very sharply observed.

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan is a lively writer, and occasionally people pass along him saying things I agree with and saying them well. I'm not above enjoying them.

But I've also followed his blogging and journalism career for too long to praise him. He's a bad journalist and a bad judge of policy and a cheerleader for some truly odious ideas. When friends pass along links to his articles, I grumble.

Finally, Mark Ames has assembled the full brief against him: If Andrew Sullivan Is The Future of Journalism Then Journalism Is Fucked. Even worse than even I knew. Of course.

26 September 2014

Ello improvements

Chris Reimer asks:

What needs to functionally improve here at Ello to make it a player?

I reply:

  1. Long text posts should be more legible. That means can the cool monospaced font, and display shorter text line widths. So much of the visual design of this site is crisp and nice, but this one aspect is fussy, twee, and a genuine usability hurdle. Why write something here when I can have it legible on my blog?
  2. Replies to posts are confusing. How do I know when there's a reply to something I've said? Right now I've opened posts of my own and discovered to my surprise that there were comments I hadn't seen! I presume that this is a result of bugginess of the feature as designed.
  3. Threads of discussions/replies are confusing. They seem to be in reverse-chronological order. Usually. So clarify that. I suspect this is also a bug, rather than design.
  4. Some kind of solution for an equivalent to re-sharing / re-tweeting. Maybe. On the one hand, I itch to re-share cool images I see here, and to make other folks' posts here available on the feed of people who follow me. On the other hand, re-sharing encourages meme bullshit. So this is a consequential decision about what this tool is actually meant to do.
  5. Linked feeds. I'd sure like a way to have either my Tweets show up here or the ability to easily tweet the presence of Ello posts. It's probably a good idea to do one but not the other. Which to do and which not to is a strategic decision about what this thing is going to be. :^)
  6. A big one for adoption: some kind of network import. The best would be to import FB contacts. G+ or Twitter contacts would also be good.
  7. Another for adoption, particularly important now while the network is growing: suggested Friends, based on simple "three of your Friends are also Friends with this person" logic.
  8. More feed lists. The Friends/Noise list pair is, to my mind, the coolest part of Ello — of course you want a different format for your short list and your long list! -- but if your network is complex enough, you need more lists than that. (Including, if you have a few lists, an automatically managed "All".)
  9. Strong Block tools. This has been much discussed.
  10. A crystal clear plan for privacy. Now the current Everything Is Public protocol is actually not too bad: it has a huge advantage in simplicity and clarity, but it obviously radically fails a lot of people. But it is probably better to introduce a system for privacy, and less important than exactly what the privacy rules are (though I have ideas, of course) is that they are absolutely crystal f%$#ing clear. The Lesson Of Facebook is that it's bad if users are unclear about what is visible to whom. Make it impossible to get confused.
  11. Provide permalinks for comments.

25 September 2014

Tech industry technocrats

Wise words from Nathan Jurgenson about some social software entrepreneurs.

The people who have decided they should mediate our social interactions and write a political manifesto have no special expertise in the social or political.

It could be about Facebook or Twitter or any number of other people in current tech. There's more, and it's interesting, but that bit really jumped out at me.

24 September 2014

Pop songs about urban planning

Urban planning is a sufficiently dry and obscure topic that you wouldn't think that it would be the subject of pop music. But you'd be wrong.

My favorite is the Pretenders' “Back to Ohio”.

Joni Mitchell's “Big Yellow Taxi” informs us that they've paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

The Talking Heads' “(Nothing But) Flowers”, which Kevin Smith used to introduce the world of New Jersey in Clerks II.

I'm writing this because I've now encountered yet another example: Arcade Fire's “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” from their album The Suburbs. The video features some landscapes of appropriately horrifying bleakness. (And one can see the ’burbs used as a dystopian setting in Spike Jonze's 30 minute film Scenes From The Suburbs inspired by the album.)

David Rovics' song “Parking Lots And Strip Malls” is in the club.

And Planetizen, incredibly, has a list of even more examples.

20 September 2014

Epistemic closure

David Roberts at Grist points to how movement conservative attacks on “elites” are an attack on the fundamental institutions of liberal democracy.

The core idea is most clearly expressed by Rush Limbaugh:

We really live, folks, in two worlds. There are two worlds. We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap. …

The Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.

The right’s project over the last 30 years has been to dismantle the post-war liberal consensus by undermining trust in society’s leading institutions. Experts are made elites; their presumption of expertise becomes self-damning. They think they’re better than you. They talk down to you. They don’t respect people like us, real Americans.

This posts' title comes from Julian Sanchez, who is worth reading on the subject of conservative truthiness.

08 September 2014

Economics of slavery

There's a canard I've seen come up disconcertingly often from a certain kind of conservative who will mount a defense of the antebellum South, claiming that American chattel slavery was not as bad as people imagine. Of course slavery is wrong, they say, but severe mistreatment of slaves was actually very rare if for no other reason than that it doesn't make sense that slaveowners would mistreat slaves who were valuable assets.

I've long been puzzled by why people seem to feel compelled to offer this unpersuasive defense of one of the least defensible practices in history. But now it has been made clear to me.

Recently The Economist magazine reviewed Edward Baptist's book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The review contained this memorable turn of phrase:

Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.

#NotAllSlaveOwners were bad! This is ripe for the obvious reasons, and produced a well-deserved outcry.

Baptist himself responded, explaining not just what The Economist was wrong about, but making a persuasive explanation of why it is important.

Had the Economist actually engaged the book’s arguments, the reviewer would have had to confront the scary fact that the unrestrained domination of market forces can sometimes amplify existing forms of oppression into something more horrific. No wonder the Economist abandoned its long-standing intellectual commitments in favor of sloppy old paternalism on Sept. 4, because if it hadn’t, Mr./Ms. Anonymous might have had to admit that market fundamentalism doesn’t always provide the best solution for every economic or social problem.


If you're interested in the details, Billmon expands on Baptist's economic logic, Matthew Yglesias at Vox discusses how the industrial revolution depended on slavery in the South, and Baptist comments on the pervasiveness of White doubt about the horrors of slavery.

And while we are here, this is a good time to mention that emerging scholarship shows that slavery was integral to the origins of core techniques of market capitalism like accounting and management, as well as to the economic development of the free North, with discomforting echoes in contemporary economics.

29 August 2014

The Patriarchy

This keeps coming up. So a quick word about The Patriarchy.

This feminist term of art conjures an image of a vast conspiracy, with room full of patriarchs smoking cigars and inventing sexism all day, sending orders to an army of agents who work quietly and tirelessly to ensure that men are always in charge of everything. Anti-feminists take the absurdity of this image as a demonstration that feminism is bunk because there is no such conspiracy.

But that's not what “The Patriarchy” means.

Feminists know that men aren't always in charge, though we will point out that men are disproportionately in charge. Feminists know that there's no smoke-filled room and no deliberate conspiracy, though it sure does feel that way, sometimes.

But though a big, singular conspiracy does not exist, a vast array of mechanisms — personal, institutional, cultural, structural, systemic, and so forth — work to create and perpetuate sexist injustices against women.

It's important to underline that while sexist bigotry against women plays an important part in animating all this, it's not the only factor. Consider, for example, what folks in the tech industry call “the pipeline problem”: women are scarce in leadership positions because women with the relevant industry experience are rare because women don't study the relevant subjects in college because women in college think there are no careers for them in tech because women to serve as role models are scarce in tech leadership positions, and round and round it goes. Apologists for the tech industry use the pipeline problem as a dodge, to evade talking about men's sexist attitudes. It's a bullshit move, because anyone paying attention knows that men's attitudes are a major driver of sexist inequities in the tech industry. But that doesn't make the pipeline problem just bullshit: it is real and would continue to generate inequities even if we could magically erase everyone's sexist bigotry, making it an example of a self-perpetuating system of inequity which needs systemic-level action.

Feminists need a succinct name that invokes the whole ball of wax, from individuals' sexist bigotry to impersonal sexist systems and everything in between, all the stuff that creates sexist injustices. So The Patriarchy is a necessary and useful feminist term of art.

21 August 2014

Motivational quotes

A while back I found out about a school of sharp satire: pairing “motivational” quotes — often about “fitness” — with images to suggest that they are about alcoholism.

This is several kinds of good, especially as a critique of how sick and hateful a lot of those “inspirational” mottos really are.

On Facebook, Rhett Aultman proposed that this implies a useful critical tool, which I'm dubbing “Rhett's Law”:

If it makes a funny “drunksperation” meme image, it's questionable motivational advice.

He unpacks why this is a useful test.

Update: Over at Weirdly Shaped And Well Photographed, some witty responses to “fitspiration” images.

Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels? Really?

Have you tried ...
  • Nutella!
  • Cupcakes!
  • Ice Cream!
  • Framboise!
  • Lamb chops!

Update: Via Aultman, an actual real life advertisement which fills the bill:

19 August 2014


Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg of the National Review is a notorious numbskull, but he has a blind squirrel tendency to occasionally make a clarifying comment by mistake. Case in point from the article America's Selective Libertarianism.

I wish it were otherwise, but people tend to be libertarian only after it’s demonstrated to them that the government can’t deliver the results they want.

He wishes people hated government even when it benefits citizens.

Why? Because freedom, of course.