Soderbergh on Spielberg

Steven Soderbergh has posted a black and white “silent” version of Raiders of the Lost Ark. His reason?

I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are. See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot—whether short or long—held for that exact length of time and placed in that order? Sounds like fun, right? It actually is.

He’s trying to (make us) understand and appreciate a work by paying close attention to specific choices involved in making it. Fascinating–and yes, fun–stuff.

Tinderbox: How to Make In-text Links

This is a follow-up to my post about front-of-the-manual tools in Eastgate’s Tinderbox. It explains how I make the in-text links I discussed there. Because it’s sometimes easier to see things done than to read about it, I’m also including a couple of short screen cap videos. I don’t often post videos and have a spotty record with them. The ones here look like black boxes to me…but they play. If they don’t for you, please let me know by email or Twitter.

Links Within the Same Tab

In-text links within the same tab are pretty straightforward. You simply:

  1. select the anchor text;
  2. click the link button in the text viewer;
  3. drag the button’s link animation to another note;
  4. click “create link” in the pop-up that appears.

The video shows what it looks like in practice. (It also shows how to assign a prototype and how I change the badge of an agenda item to a check mark once it is dealt with in a meeting.)


With these links in place, you can move from the meeting container to an agenda item’s note with a single click.


Links Across Different Tabs

Links across tabs are made in roughly the same way although there are a couple extra steps that allow you to find the note you are looking for. To  make these links, you:

  1. select the anchor text;
  2. click the link button in the text viewer;
  3. drag the button’s link animation to the link placeholder in the upper left corner of the window;
  4. click the tab that has the note you wish to link to;
  5. drag the link animation from the link placeholder to a note;
  6. click “create link” in the pop-up that appears.

Here’s what is looks like in practice:


This example also shows the reason I link from meeting containers to agenda items (i.e. what I demonstrate in the first video). In the future when I need refer to information from this meeting I will link to the meeting container and not the specific note I need. Doing so will bring me to an agenda that lets me access the specific information I’m looking for by using the blue links. But it also provides an overview of the context in which the information originally appeared and lets me click to see that information if I decide it’s useful to me.

Finally, if you don’t have multiple tabs open but wish to link to a note that is not visible in your outline, that’s no problem. Once you’ve dragged your link from the source note to the placeholder, you can dig around and find your destination note. Once you do, you drag the link from the placeholder and finish the process.

In-text Links and Maps

These in-text links show up on maps. Because my admin file has many more links than notes, these links often confuse things rather than clarify them in map view. In my course plan, I deal with this problem by using the inspector to make all but one link type invisible. When I think a particular link will add something to a map, I assign it the visible type using the drop-down menu on the create link pop-up window.

Drop-down Menu for selecting link types.
Drop-down Menu for selecting link types.


Deleting Accidental Links

I make mistakes when I create in-text links. When this happens I hit opt-cmd-L to pull up the “Browse Links” pop-up for the note, find my mistaken link, delete it and then try again.

Links to Files & to the Web

I also create links to files in my dropbox (frequently) and to sites on the web (rarely). These links are held in key attributes for a note. I make them by dragging and dropping the file from a finder window (or the url from my browser) onto the attribute’s field at the top of the note viewer.


Front-of-the-manual Tools

A Tinderbox file is like sculpture. You chip away at your project—first here, then there—slowly digging to find the shape of your specific problem and its logic.

It can seem hard because there are a lot of tools at hand. Some of them are complicated. And, in a sense, you are all alone: other people aren’t doing what you are doing and the Tinderbox files they use in their work are very different from the files you need for yours. So even when they offer advice, they can’t really tell you what to do. Not really.

My tendency is to assume that work would be easier if I could just master the complicated tools at the back of the manual. Yet, I find (and too often forget) that Tinderbox’s front-of-the-manual tools—links and aliases for example—are flexible and powerful enough to work wonders. To show what I mean (and to remind myself when I’ll have forgotten in a couple months), I’ve prepared a mock-up of the TBX file I’m using to do my administrative work.

Starting Simply

A lot of administration boils down to managing meetings and reports. So when I created my file, I simply started adding container notes for for each of my upcoming meetings.

Starting with Meeting Notes
Starting with Meeting Notes

Notes for agenda items are placed in the meeting container; the container text is a typed copy of the agenda with in-text links to individual item notes. Basic, non-hierarchical prototypes set “File” as a key attribute allowing me to link to the pdfs of supporting documents that I have stored in the Finder. [note]These pdf files sit in a work specific section of my hard drive that has a stable, date-based filing system so that links to the document files won’t be broken accidentally by moving the file to a new location. Topical organization is done in Tinderbox, not the Finder.[/note]

As more meetings are added to the file, material discussed in earlier meeting often appears on agendas for later ones. Each time it does I link from that later meeting’s agenda item back to the container for the earlier meeting and link the earlier meeting’s agenda item to the agenda item note in the later one.

Cross-links Develop Progressively
Cross-links Develop Progressively

Making these cross-links requires no additional work because I have to go back to my earlier meeting notes when I prepare for the new meeting anyway. I simply make these links when I do. Yet despite being easy to make, their pay-off is huge: these cross-links capture my knowledge of my materials and are are fast and productive in use. When I click, my past work is there, supporting my current work.

Scale & Complexity

Tinderbox allows this very simple system of cross-links to scale easily. In the span of only two months, my TBX file looks something like this:

Complexly Interacting Complexities
Complexly Interacting Complexities

In one sense, this is pure chaos: dozens of different meetings and projects spread across three different organizational units (each kept open as a tab), all of which subdivide into numerous other units. It’s overwhelming. And yet, woven through the noise is a system of links creating sensible paths through the confusion.

Aliases supplement these links by letting me keep a note in the container for it’s original meeting while simultaneously placing it in the container for a new meeting. This allows me to access relevant material both through in-text cross-links as well as through the outline, where I can click on aliases directly.

More importantly, these links and aliases lower the bar for beginning to work on otherwise daunting tasks. When I have something to do or something to prepare, I click on the note for that thing and begin to work my links. I follow them, add to them, do what I can, skip over what I can’t and bit-by-bit I manage to chip away at the task at hand. And the notes, links and aliases I build up preserve the work I do. It’s a powerful system.

But Tinderbox…So Attributes & Agents

In my actual working file, the linking strategy I’ve described is fundamental. Yet once I had a few hundred notes, I saw that some info would serve me better if I moved it to user attributes that I then set to key attributes by prototypes so that I could see it easily. (Committee membership for people, for example.)

Then I had an idea and added a keyword attribute, making it a set. I then went through all my notes assigning keywords, adding new ones when I need them, selecting them from the dropdown menu when I could. This took some time, but I was shocked by how many notes took no keywords, shocked by how many notes weren’t important enough to merit keywords. (That counts as an insight.)

And then I created a few simple agents with a single query: $keyword=(“[one of my keywords]”) to pull out and group topical notes. This is the first complicated difficult thing I do in my Tinderbox file. Up to this point, everything else has been basic “create file, drag and drop, make alias or make a link” file-managment type stuff, most of it done in outline mode. Those links and aliases are still there and still fundamental, but these topical groupings added something new and useful.

The Point

So this is a long post, but my point, I guess, is that I’m drawn to back-of-the-manual tools. They are fancy, impressive, and seem to be where the action is. But Tinderbox’s front-of-the-manual tools are the action too. Links and aliases make sense, are easy to use, and they can do great things, especially in cases where you’re bombarded with information and just need to keep your head above water while you figure out how to move forward.


Update: I have explained how I make the links I discuss here in a new post.


FoundationThis novel reminded me of an epic fantasy insofar as it is fascinated with large-scale historical change, the political consequences of religion, the fragmentation of social life and magic. (In this novel, “magic” is a mathematics that no one understands that a prophet figure has used to predict the future.)

Three aspects of its point of view set it apart from epic fantasy:

  1. The narrative tracks the sweep of history across several epochs rather than detailing efforts to cope with a single transition from one epoch to the other.
  2. The characters are upper-middle-class politicians and merchants rather than lower class artisans, labourers, or orphans.
  3. The story turns around the decisive actions of the “Great Men” of history rather than on the appearance and transfiguration of a messiah.

Set alongside the celebration of nuclear power and the ubiquitous use of cigarettes as a sign of sophistication and competence, number three gives the novel a decidedly old-fashioned feel.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Capt America Winter SoldierSo many people raved about this film to me that I was actually looking forward to it, and it was okay. But just okay.

I am caught off guard though by Chris Evans’s mascara and rose-colored lip pigment. They were exaggerated and unsettling when set against the tough-guy masculinity otherwise on display. Was this effect intentional or just a case of make-up badly calibrated for HD?


Family Tech

The announcement of the new iPhone has sent me wandering down memory lane and has me thinking about how my not-so-long-ago, pre-iPhone mobile life was transformed by the 3G into a family project.

First Laptop

I made the leap to mobile computing in grad school when I bought my first laptop, a Toshiba PC that won me over because, at 10 or 11 pounds, it seemed light enough to carry back and forth to the library when I needed it. I was fooling myself. I live in a city. I walk, I bike, I take the metro. Bringing the machine to the library meant bringing it with me all day, every day, and it was too heavy for that and never left my desk.

Palm Pilot

When the Toshiba died enough that I felt I could replace it without guilt, I got another desktop PC [note]Gratuitous aside: A friend put together the specs for the desktop machine over the course of a long evening in which we drank a bottle of absinthe I’d brought back from Marseille. The evening ended when in the wee hours of the morning, he began calling family and friends and I had the pleasure of listening to him say things like “No, I’m fine….No really, everything’s great. …What do you mean? What time is it there?” Time zones are fun.[/note] and a Palm TX. The Palm was a great machine. I bought a small IR keyboard that folded in half and both it and TX together could fit inside my coat pocket. I bought Documents to Go, figured out how to transfer files back and forth to my computer manually. And this changed how I worked.

Weekdays, I’d wake up at five o’clock, take a shower, grab my backpack and walk down to my favourite cafe where I’d sit at my table (I had a table) and write for a few hours before heading off to get started with the rest of my day. I wrote first drafts of my dissertation proposal, my comprehensive exams, and most of the early parts of my dissertation in that cafe on that TX.

Mac Mini

It was my Palm TX that caused me to stretch my budget and buy my first mac. Writing on the Palm I tended to write in short segments rather than in a single file: a single article might be broken into a dozen or more files that I would organize in directories on my PC and later combine into a Word document. This made sense when I was drafting on the TX but was complicated to manage back on my PC.

Then one day I stumbled across a reference to Scrivener, a then Mac-only program that let you write in non-sequential fragments easily and productively. After a week or so of hesitation, I bought a Mac mini and installed the Scrivener free trial, thinking all the time: I have a few weeks to change my mind and return this computer for a refund. But after the first day, I was sold.

Ironically, the Mac made me stop using the Palm. Scrivener was so good and the process of transferring files from the TX so clumsy that I started drafting at my computer again and the Palm found its way into a box.

Meanwhile the first iPhone came out in the States (but not in Canada) and I got a pancake sized Blackberry with a sidewheel. Using it I got a crash course on the differences between POP, IMAP and Exchange email, but otherwise it was a brief, failed experiment.

First iPhone

The first iPhone to come to Canada was the 3G. I’d imagined it would be a way to replace my Palm, that I’d be able to use it to draft on the run, but it turned out that this wasn’t possible. The 3G wasn’t much more than a tool for jotting down notes and observations. (I used the excellent Write Room from Hog Bay Software for this.) [note]Incidentally, Write Room was one of the programs that, along with Scrivener, made me realize how much of what I loved about the Mac was produced by small developers.[/note] Ultimately though, my 3G was less about work than it was about how my family and I kept in touch.

When the 3G came out international calling was expensive. Texting was something no one I knew did. I’d convinced my brother and my sisters to buy Minis by this time, and so to talk, my family would use iChat to access our old AIM accounts. [note]AIM is apparently still around! Who knew?[/note] As we one-by-one got computer cameras we also began to do group video chats as well.

The 3G added a twist: here were text messages strung together like our AIM chats but we could talk throughout the day without being chained to our computers. It was amazing and revolutionary.

Family Twitter

Unfortunately for me, texting was expensive: text messages to the states cost .75$ each. So “k” and “?” added up quickly to a steep price tag.

Twitter provided a solution. It was new and I wasn’t sure what it was for, but once I got online, I realized that, regardless of it’s intended purpose, my family could turn it into a means of getting around the international text problem.

Family members who had an iPhone grabbed Twitterific and signed up for private Twitter accounts. Those who had feature phones signed up and registered their numbers to receive tweets as texts. We all approved each other as followers. And suddenly we could “iChat” all day by tweeting and our timelines would track the conversation.

The one snag was notifications: they didn’t exist on the 3G. So while everyone without an iPhone got an alert when a new tweet came in (because it arrived as a text message), everyone else had to remember to open the Twitter app. This was a pain, so I dug around and found Boxcar, a notification app that solved that problem for us and that I still keep download in iTunes as a souvenir even though I don’t use it for anything.


Subsequent iPhones made our various work-arounds obsolete. Now we iMessage and FaceTime. It’s all built in and automatic. Once the iPads came out, my grandmother (codename: TechnoGranny) also joined the party, which by then included aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. It’s great and I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to our old system. [note]In my mind, the old system has a definitive end. Soon after our Twitter Circle had gone dormant, I decided to make my Twitter account public. This meant I needed to delete all my previous tweets or they would become public. So I went through them one by one reading my family’s couple-year-long conversation, and as I did, I deleted my part of it tweet by tweet. Even though I had no way at that time to save those tweets or that conversation.

I’d never liked lock-in, but when I was done with these deletions I decided definitively that if I can’t get my stuff out of a service in a usable form, I won’t use the service. (All the family iChats I have going are backed up and stored in an archive I keep.) [/note]

But still, that old system did have the advantage of being ours. My brother, my sisters, my mother and I had built it up together, slowly over time, based on our own experiences. It was complicated but effective, and it suited our needs. I was proud of it, even bragged about it to other people (like I’m doing now) because we were making this new technology work for us and not the other way around. We weren’t trying to be “social”; we were just trying to stay close from far away. And it turns out that that difference was enough to make a gadget into a tool.

The Mysteries of Pittsburg

The Mysteries of PittsburgWonder Boys is one of my favourite books. It’s fun and true without being cruel or overly sentimental. Mysteries is a smaller book and lighter in some ways than Wonder Boys. But its portrait of young people’s first encounters with queer sexuality is just great through and through. This makes Myseries a novel to come back to and probably one to teach. (I think students would like it a lot.)

That said, I’ve realized that Michael Chabon is not one of my favourite writers, however much I might want him to be. When his books are short, I like them and reread them in part or in whole. But when they go on and on, I get tired of quirky situations or oddball traits well before the end and wind up grumbling about (rather than enjoying) the “joy and wonder of it all.” The most obvious example of this is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I’ve tried to read it three times and have never made it much past the midway point.

Cool. Confessions.

So. A chain of links and at the end, Scott Rosenberg explaining that blogging is becoming a thing again. He’s excited enough to write about it and hesitent enough to be snarky. But I think I’m rooting for the same team he is.

Rosenberg concludes (in a follow up post) that:

as waves of smart people hit the limits of their frustration with Twitter and Facebook, many will look around and realize, hey, this blogging thing still makes a great deal of sense

What will be the appeal? What will attract the people currently living their online lives exclusively in Twitter or Facebook? In a blog, they can do whatever they want in whatever way they want. That’s not really true elsewhere.

Does that mean that there will be a “blogging revival?” Rosenberg doesn’t seem to think so. Blogging is not going to suddenly become the best new (read: coolest) thing on the web.

But that’s not a bad thing. After all, who cares if blogging is “cool”? What matters is that the people you want to read are writing blogs. In my circle, that’s starting to happen. Here’s hoping that circle keeps growing.

UPDATE: Same thing (with links to more) here.

My Problem

The one Google service I used and depended on was Google Reader, and I haven’t really decided how to replace it even months and months (and months) after it’s gone. By discontinuing it, Google made following the blogs I like harder than it should be.

If I want ads in my email though, they got that covered.

My Field in Five

In a previous post, I asked what four or five books could define the basic knowledge in your field? Here is my answer.

My Field

The area of the Venn diagram where America, literature, film and narrative overlap. Let’s call it “American Storytelling.”

My Five

  1. The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, & Joseph M. Williams
  2. Story and Discourse by Seymour Chatman
  3. Overhearing Film Dialogue by Sarah Kozloff
  4. Reading for the Plot by Peter Brooks
  5. Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

My Reasons

Writing is fundamental to everything in my field, and The Craft of Research provides a model for thinking about its purposes and processes that is among the best that I know of. It’s old enough to have bits that strike today’s reader as funny—there’s a chapter on how to organize index cards, for example—but the conceptual stuff—what are notes for? how will you use them? (for example)—are still rock solid. Best of all, it asks simply, What do you want to know?

Stories are experience worked into a temporal pattern and shared with others. They have a form, a history and a context. Story and Discourse and Overhearing Film Dialogue are two large-scale synthetic works that together sketch out or suggest many of the most important narrative frameworks. Chatman’s book lays out some basic but highly abstracted ways of thinking about narrative as a form. Kozloff’s examines the various ways traditions and stories interact while modelling a solid approach to close reading.

My last two choices are again large-scale and synthetic, but they turn their attention away from how narrative works and toward what it does. In Reading for the Plot, Brooks explores how stories—inventing them, writing them, reading them—illicit and address our desires. In doing so, he suggests why stories matter. Beyond it’s specific concern with sexuality, Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet demonstrates the process by which careful, intelligent reading that is attuned both to pattern and detail can allow familiar stories to reveal and to recreate the world we live in. More than thirty years after it’s publication, it remains an essential work and shows clearly one important aspect of what literary study is for.

My Sixth…

Despite the difficulty I had arriving at this list of five, once I had it and had settled on it, I felt (and continue to feel) good about it. I do have one reservation however: I think it is lessened by having no work of general history. I chose not to have one because I wanted Booth’s rhetoric, and I need the other four to complete each other by working within and between the two pairings.

If I could have a sixth book, it would be a standard history such as The Oxford History of American Literature. Histories like these are marginalized or absent in many undergraduate programs, but they are fundamental. English majors would do better and learn more if they were to read them in their first few years.


Your Field in Four or Five Books

In a recent post about picking books to read, Mark Bernstein makes the following incidental comment:

if you master four or five books, … you know chemistry.

His point here is simply that the basic body of knowledge that constitutes his field is definable and more manageable than we realize.

Does the same idea apply to the humanities? I don’t know, but given how basic the needs of my students are, I would like to think that the rudimentary principles and practices of what I teach could be stated more or less directly. Or failing that, that I could at least point to books that together come close to capturing those principles. But can I do it? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’m interested in what books other people would come up with if they tried. I’m so interested in fact that I’m going to post the following scenario both here and on Facebook despite the very real risk of being met with total silence. (ack!)

The Scenario

Imagine that your preferred apocalypse is upon us. Thankfully the governments of the world are working together and have a plan to save civilization. As part of this plan they have stored all primary texts in a safe location: books, films, paintings, musical scores, everything. But they discover they have room left over. So they ask you to select four (max five) non-primary texts that they can preserve in order to pass on the basic knowledge of your field to future generations.

What are the book titles you give them and what field do they define?

I’ll chime in in a bit. But I’d also love for you to let me know your answer in the comments here or on Facebook. (But if it’s all the same, I’d prefer to hear from you here. Or as always, by email. Or even Twitter.)

No pressure.


Raiders of the Lost Galaxy (a variation)

As the movie opens, the Hero watches his mother die. Overcome, he runs away from his extended family.

The Hero, an adult now, walks across the crest of a dune. On the horizon, a pyramid can be seen through the blowing sand. Sliding down a slope, he reaches a stone doorway with statues standing guard. He consults a map, enters, and finds a golden amulet in a room behind the stone wall at the end of an underground corridor. Nazi soldiers burst in and attempt to claim the amulet for someone they call Schmidt. The Hero flees down a tunnel that brings him out of the tomb near his airplane, and he escapes.

Arriving in Cairo, he meets with the Love Interest to find out about the amulet. She hates him but hates her former professor, Herr Schmidt, even more and offers to help. In the market, they meet a Wild Card and his sidekick (“My name Sahib”), two orphans who ride around in a motorcycle and sidecar causing trouble and stealing. He also hires a very serious man to organize all the actual work. He takes the job but says “I care only that Schmidt killed my wife and children as he plundered the upper Nile. He must be stopped.”

Business happens and the Hero and the others discover the amulet is valuable. Let’s say it’s a decoder. For a map leading to Hadrion’s canon, a fabled Roman weapon buried when the emporer’s army retreated across the Mediterranean after some battle. The five set out to find it but don’t work well together, and Schmidt’s men take the amulet from them. During the fight, the Hero chooses to save the Love Interest’s life rather than to chase the Nazis, and the five end up lost in the desert. They realize they will have to trust each other and they band together to stop Schmidt from finding the canon.

More business happens that sets up the Nazi’s defeat during a final confrontation in somes caves hidden in the rocky cliffs along the northern coast of Egypt. Each of the five characters plays an important role. Let’s imagine that:

  • The Love Interest winks and raises her eyebrows at some guards then knocks them out. Insde the room they guarded, she finds her sister, a Nazi sympathizer who is packing up various maps and charts. The two fight, but the Love interest wins. She grabs a leather sack of maps and, before dashing off to catch up with the Hero shuts off the generators. All but the emergency lights go out in the cave. She then rushes off to save the Hero if she can.
  • The Wild Card stays above the cliffs. Sneaking between the vehicles, he releases their parking brakes one by one. When he gets to the last vehicle, he pushes it down the slight incline, sending it rolling into the others, which sets them all moving. One by one they fall off the cliff.
  • In the chaos, one of the large trucks risks hitting the Wild Card. The sidekick pushes him out of the way but is hit in the head by the truck’s mirror. The Wild Card shakes him to see if he’s alive, and the Sidekick mutters, “Our name Sahib.”
  • The Very Serious Man runs ahead in the cave and confronts Schmidt as he reaches the doorway leading to the canon. He is nearly killed by the Nazi guards but ducks behind some crates, dragging two Egyptian women with him. He does not know they are the Egyptian police chief’s wife and daughter. From his hiding place he fires at the Nazis to give the Hero time.
  • The Hero arrives late to the scene. He has been bound in a tent by his former university professor, the man who taught him everything he knows but who now wants the claim the canon for for himself. The Hero outwits/overpowers the man and rushes into the caves to confront Schmidt. As Schmidt is about open the stone door leading to the canon room, the roof above him caves in and a truck falls into the room. It is driven by the Wild Card.

Action ensues, but together the Hero and his team subdue Schmidt. They then open the door and enter the room where they discover that Hadrian’s “canon” is the emporer’s personal copies of great works from the fabled library at Alexandria. The Hero picks up a scroll and reads the label aloud: Aristotle’s Comedy. The police enter, the chief thanks the Very Serious Man for saving his family, and the Hero and Love Interest put their hand on the same dusty book as they look around the room and into each others’ eyes.

As the movie closes, the five sit side-by-side on cushions drinking mint tea. The Wild Card and Sidekick smoke a hooka with the Very Serious Man. The Love Interest pulls a map out of the sac she took from her sister and unfolds it on the table. Across the top is written “Excaliber.”

(Or if you prefer, replace the amulet with a spear, the desert with a jungle, the trucks with machetes and porters. If your jungle has orangutans or rubber trees, the German soldiers can be Japanese.)

the end

This post is part of a series.