Where we went wrong, or, The one thing Philip Greenspun got right (in 1997)

Cast your mind back, if you will, to the heady days of the “Web 1.0″ bubble. A fellow by the name of Philip Greenspun was a Ph.D. student at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. He was also a serial entrepreneur, a one-percenter, and a very opinionated photographer. (It may be more difficult for some of you to remember those days than others; I know some of my audience here was not even 10 years old then, and doesn’t really remember the days Before Google.) In the year I started my current job at MIT. Greenspun published a book, written in his typically bombastic style: Philip Greenspun’s Database Backed Web Sites: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Web Publishing (ZD Press, 1997). Most of what was in that book has since been overtaken by events, to say the least, but one particular claim, early on in the introductory chapters, bears revisiting. (You young’uns will have to remember that, in the days Before Google, many reference works and databases were published as CD-ROMs that required proprietary, vendor-specific software to browse and search.)

When you use a set of traditional Web sites, you don’t have to learn anything new. Every CD-ROM, on the other hand, has a sui generis user interface. Somebody thought it would be cute to put a little navigation cube at the bottom right of the screen. Somebody else thought it would be neat if you clicked on the righthand page of an open book to take you to the next page. Meanwhile, you sit there for 15 seconds feeling frustrated, with no clue that you are supposed to do anything with that book graphic on the screen. The CD-ROM goes back on the shelf.

The beauty of Netscape 2.0 and more recent browsers is that they allow the graphic designers behind Web sites to make their sites just as opaque and hard to use as CD-ROMs. Graphic designers are not user interface designers. If you read a book like the Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines (Apple Computer, Inc.; Addison-Wesley, 1993), you will appreciate what kind of thought goes into a well-designed user interface. Most of it has nothing to do with graphics and appearance. Pull-down menus are not better than pop-up menus because they look prettier; they are better because you always know exactly where to find the Print command.

Some of the bad things a graphic designer can do with a page were possible even way back in the days of Netscape 1.1. A graphic designer might note that most of the text on a page was hyperlinks and decide to just make all of the text black (text=#000000, link=#000000, vlink=#000000). Alternatively, he may choose a funky color for a background and then three more funky colors for text, links, and visited links. Either way, users have no way of knowing what is a hyperlink and what isn’t. Often designers get bored and change the colors even for different pages on the same site.

— pp. 40–41

I’m not sure if Greenspun even still believes this; I haven’t heard from philg in many years. But in today’s “Web 3.0″ world, we have this problem to an even greater extreme, because we have allowed Web sites to completely take control over our computers. We think nothing of executing random binaries (and make no mistake, most of the JavaScript out there qualifies as a “binary”) downloaded from Ghu-knows-where and giving them the ability to open windows, capture keystrokes, disable mouse commands, and oh, by the way, present novel user interface elements that have no apparent meaning or interaction model. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in practice it means we, or rather, the Web browser makers acting on our behalf, have given control of our experience over to a group of people whose interests are not aligned with ours (if not entirely adverse) and who do not want us to have control over our computing experience. Sometimes what they do is merely to make up for a relatively impoverished user interface that traditional HTML provides for, but in most cases this results in a hundred non-standard interactions which, although they may have commonalities, are never quite the same in any two pages, have many widely varying and buggy, independent implementations, and look out of place with whatever user interface the rest of the applications on our computer use. Many times, little or no thought is put into making things accessible (to people with a broad variety of visual, cognitive, or mobility impairments), never mind meaningfully archivable (I’m looking at you, GWT!) or even linkable (and wasn’t that the whole purpose of this Web thing in the first place?) simply because those are not revenue-generating uses.

I’ll close with one more quote from Phil Greenspun:

Remember, the Web is not there so that you can impose what you think is cool on readers.

— p. 42

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Other people’s recipes: Four & Twenty Blackbirds’ Malted chocolate pecan pie

This gallery contains 8 photos.

Emily and Melissa Elsen’s Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book (Grand Central Life & Style, 2013) is organized by season, the theory being that the best pies are made from seasonal ingredients (or, I suppose, those ingredients that keep well … Continue reading

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Recipe quick take: Lan Lam’s “Grown-up” grilled cheese for Cook’s Illustrated

My TiVo recently recorded a rerun of the PBS series America’s Test Kitchen called “A Modern Take on Pizza and Grilled Cheese” (#1404). I was already planning to bake some bread, and grilled cheese sounded like a nice alternative to the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches I had been having rather too often lately. On TV, the recipe for “Grown-Up Grilled Cheese Sandwiches with Cheddar and Shallot” was presented by Bridget Lancaster; I knew that everything on the show appeared in Cook’s Illustrated magazine — usually the previous year — so I checked my back issues from 2013 and found the original writeup, by Lan Lam, in the September/October issue (p. 24).

Their recipe calls for a “hearty white sandwich bread”; I had oatmeal-whole wheat sandwich bread, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. The bread slices they used in the TV version were a bit larger than mine, which is not surprising (see my previous post), and the crumb a bit finer, but these are not supremely important differences.

In order to make a grilled cheese that uses flavorful, aged cheese — in this case, a 12-month-old sharp cheddar — the first step is to make a fromage fort using the cheddar, a small amount of Brie (pâte only — no rind), and a couple tablespoons of white wine or (my choice) vermouth. Nowhere in the writeup or the TV episode do they actually use the words “fromage fort“, but if you’ve ever visited the cheese department at Whole Foods, it’s very often on display there (they make it to use up ends and small, less-saleable pieces of cheese). This is pretty easy to do in the food processor with all ingredients at room temperature. In addition to the usual ingredients, most of a minced shallot is also added to give some additional flavor. To punch up the toasted sides of the bread, they also make a compound butter with Dijon mustard — I left a few tablespoons of unsalted butter on the counter overnight so that it would be soft enough. The butter is applied to the outside of the sandwich, and the fromage fort is spread on the inside, then the whole thing is cooked on a preheated skillet until well browned on both sides.

The result? Well, it sure looks good:
Two grilled cheese sandwiches
The recipe makes four sandwiches, but only two at a time. I put the second half of both cheese and butter into the refrigerator to save for another time (although just how I’m going to get them to room temperature in time for a weekday dinner I haven’t figured out). I ate both sandwiches for lunch, which as it turned out wasn’t the best choice nutritionally, but I hadn’t yet done the computation. (Now I know and I’ll only be having one at a time.)

I’ve never been a huge fan of grilled cheese, at least not made the traditional way (with plastic “process cheese food” rather than actual cheese). This is one that I would happily make again.


I have computed this exclusive of the bread, since the nutrition details for bread vary greatly from one recipe to another. You’ll want to use a fairly firm bread that can stand up to the heavy butter and cheese application without squishing down to nothing or disintegrating into crumbs, and then count that separately in your nutrition calculations.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1/4 recipe, plus bread
Servings per recipe: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 330 Calories from fat 252
% Daily Value
Total Fat 28g 43%
 Saturated Fat 18g 91%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 89mg 30%
Sodium 435mg 18%
Potassium 39mg 1%
Total Carbohydrate 2g 1%
 Dietary fiber 0g 0%
 Sugars 1g
Proteins 15g 31%
Vitamin A 19%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 38%
Iron 1%
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Other people’s recipes: Honey-Oatmeal Sandwich Bread from King Arthur Flour

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I’ve now recovered from my two consecutive vacations (a long one to South Florida and a much shorter one to Long Island and New York City), so as promised it’s time to resume my regular posting on this blog — … Continue reading

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Regular service to resume shortly…

I just got back from nearly two weeks of travel and am now decompressing. Expect my regular posting schedule to resume next weekend. Maybe some day you’ll actually get to see my pictures from the longer of the two trips (I didn’t take my camera on the short trip to Long Island, so no pictures to share).

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Recipe quick takes: Sour Cream Coffeecake from the King Arthur Flour cookbook

I’m about to leave on vacation, and there’s always a bit of concern to use up perishable items that might not still be edible by the time I get back home and am ready to cook again. In this case, because I made that tasty vegetarian chili last week, I had most of a tub of sour cream left over, and experience has taught me that — despite what you’d think — sour cream actually has a tendency to go off before I manage to use it. This is perhaps because, other than chili, there aren’t a whole lot of recipes that use small — or even moderate — quantities of the stuff. I have plenty of recipes that call for a quarter cup, say, and a few that call for multiple cups, but I only found one in my cookbook library that would use almost exactly what I had.

The cookbook in question is The King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook — for a long time, simply the King Arthur Flour cookbook. Now it has been superseded to a great degree by newer cookbooks, both three thick volumes from the company and numerous other bakery cookbooks, not to mention Web sites too numerous to mention. But it’s occasionally still good for something, in this case a coffee cake recipe that can use sour cream, yogurt, or buttermilk depending on what you have on hand and how much fat you want in the end product. Apparently it was in the company’s files for a long time and later reformulated to allow this flexibility; in any case, it calls for nearly a pound of flour and quite a lot of baking powder in addition to three eggs, but not so much butter as I would have expected. There’s a “topping” — almost but not quite a streusel — made from nuts, brown sugar, and spices. I put “topping” in quotation marks because two thirds of it actually goes into the cake itself, as a thin layer in the middle and also on the top of the cake (which becomes the bottom when inverted, although perhaps I misunderstood the directions).

In the spirit of getting rid of things before they spoil, I used all India Tree dark muscovado in this recipe where brown sugar is called for; I had to heat it up in the microwave to loosen the nearly solid block of sugar. I found the batter to be quite stiff — often an issue when I use the Wallaby brand sour cream I usually prefer as a condiment, as it has less water than other supermarket sour creams — and it was very difficult to get it into the tube pan in even layers to allow the insertion of the “topping”, and I made no effort to swirl them together. The recipe calls for adding the remaining third of the “topping” after turning the baked cake out of the pan; I put it on the “top” — which was the bottom during baking — but in retrospect think I should either have re-inverted the cake, or else baked it with the “topping” on the bottom of the pan.

Overall I’d rate this coffee cake as a “meh”. While everyone at work seemed to like it, I didn’t think particularly highly of it, and it has a very high calorie load (nearly 400 kcal when sliced in 16 pieces). I might try it again with fat-free buttermilk to see if that makes it any better, but I have a feeling the issues with it are more than just the dairy ingredients — and there are plenty of other coffee cakes and tea breads to try first. The obligatory photo:
Sour Cream Coffee Cake

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New “Recommendations” page

I’ve created a new “Recommendations” page calling out the recipes that I recommend particularly highly. (This is just a summary of the other pages under the “Recipes” menu.)

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Other people’s recipes: Lan Lam’s Vegetarian (vegan, even) Chili for Cook’s Illustrated

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I’m not a fan of a lot of vegetarian fare: all too often the major flavors, especially the protein sources, are things I don’t care to eat. That goes doubly for vegan food, since without eggs and dairy many of … Continue reading

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Other people’s recipes: Diane St. Clair’s Buttermilk coconut blondies (sort of)

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Usually when I do one of these recipe posts, I try to follow the original procedure as closely as possible — especially for bakery. But in this case — from Diane St. Clair’s The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook (p. 188) … Continue reading

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Other people’s recipes: Rosetta Costantino’a Torta Caprese

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If it seems to you like I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year baking from just a handful of cookbooks, you’d be right. Leaving the same books in a pile on one’s dinner table can have that … Continue reading

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