October 24, 2002

Scholarship and failure of will

Darconville's Cat, Alexander Theroux
The Grand Complication, Kurzweil
Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

I recommend Darconville's Cat instead of the others, although official critical opinion seems to be with Confederacy.... The Kurzweil novel is a faint attempt at Umberto Eco-ish intellectual plotting and sophistication. Darconville's Cat doesn't have hunt-the-slipper MacGuffins, but his prose is actually intellectual and sophisticated (especially in the early sense of that word, adulterated and untrue ). Each book has a young lovely person wound into the plots of an elegant and slimy scholar, but Theroux had the nous to write as the scholar, recognizing that the pretty young thing is better to look at, but the prose of the Humbert^2 is more interesting to read.

Confederacy of Dunces is also written in the voice of a horrible would-be intellectual, set in the South as is Darconville..., but my tastes weren't up to the miasma of hopeless self-destruction and unloveableness of Toole's antihero. I want two classical things in a tragedy: beautiful language, and the tragedy has to have been brought on - however loaded the circumstances - by its hero.

Darconville... has both in spades; the book is like a collection of Elizabethan halfbricks flung at the South, women, sex, academia, the narrator - it's a long book.

ISBN: 0805043659

ISBN: 0786885181

ISBN: 0802130208

Posted by clew at 10:38 PM

Lost Languages, Andrew Robinson

This survey of ancient scripts, excluding Asian ones, and the attempts to decipher them, is a very pretty book. Excellent use of two-color printing, sanserif text that manages to be readable by looking modern and clean and not like a (manu) script at all, and great pictures of mysterious writings. It would be a lovely present for someone already interested in the archaeology of these areas who doesn't know much about the scripts.

Odd that the Asian languages are left out, since they're mentioned as proof that we can't assume writing represents speech in the way that Western alphabets do.

Posted by clew at 10:04 PM

Mathematics Of The Incas, Ascher&Ascher

Glorious; breaks down what quipus possibly mean by looking at the mathematical relations between their elements as well as what little we know about their use in Inca society. You will want paper and pencil to enjoy this book properly, or maybe a lot of string, because it solidifies its explanations not just with detailed examples but with exercises.

By security through obscurity, this is probably better secure data-storage than a PDA or notebook; if 1970's fringe remains fashionable you could even hide it in plain sight. Budgeting? Bets? Hierarchal relationships? Remember what you need to remember and let the past live.

Posted by clew at 10:04 PM

21 Dog Years, Mike Daisey

This means, I think, to indict Amazon for suckering workers into Giving Their All. However, Daisey's early self seems so eager to be suckered, and so bad at his various jobs, that he isn't much of a test case - a very minor flimflam artist could have pulled him in and only a very successful company could have absorbed someone so puzzled by their work. Amazon may have been trying to be sneaky, but they seem to have been about as subtle as Nigerian money-transfer scams. Of course, some of those still work.

What'a best is his description of how he wanted to be fooled, which is extra embarrassing in someone who started as an outraged slacker outsider artist. It isn't just a special case of the fiscal hope that overtook everyone. Just as the worst cynic is said to be a disappointed idealist, the childlike trust of a hopeful cynic outdoes normal optimism. I wish I had sold him a bridge.

Of course, he wins in the end, as it gave him material with the irresistible hook of large amounts of money and equal amounts of schadenfreude. What more could he have wanted? Princess Diana?

Posted by clew at 08:23 AM

Word Freaks, Stefan Fatsis

Word Freaks would have been mildly entertaining had Fatsis stuck to the mocking outsider role as the author of Them mostly did. Scrabble hustlers and pros are, or include, enough obsessive loser types to fill a melancholy evening.

Fatsis was authentically sucked in, though. He took a year off his job and worked hard enough at Scrabble - word memorization, psychology, theory, playing lots and lots of games - to compete in the top rank nationally. This is modestly interesting as a quest-story, mostly because he spends so much time with the long term obsessives.

The specialized book he didn't quite write is about the real strategies of Scrabble. For instance, if you can't memorize all the legal words ( a few can), which do you memorize? How do you sort the ones you do know? Choose which letters to leave in your rack? Make promising sections of the board open to you and closed to your opponent? There are newsletters seriously devoted to these questions, complete with computer analyses of possible games after a hard choice.

Fatsis and several champions find that that the glory of the game only comes with these strategic concerns, playing with nearly all words at your command and against someone of similar skill. There aren't many of these people; it takes serious study for most people to learn even a significant fraction of the words legal in U.S. or U.K. competition. This is a dictionary issue: There are two overlapping Scrabble competition dictionaries, one mostly North American, one from England: the rest of the world mostly plays with both. Neither is exactly a dictionary of any language used for anything but Scrabble. The shared dictionary is important not just to decide challenges to a words legality, but because the strategic choices often depend on statistical knowledge of legal words vs. the letters that haven't been played.

It's possible that strategic Scrabble would be more common if the competition dictionary was smaller, then. More people would know enough words to start playing the 'total game'. Leaving out real words is heresy to me, an amateur player who enjoys making a good joke as much as points, but serious Scrabble players mostly don't play words as words; they're playing something like two dimensional poker or blackjack, with a large but almost arbitrary set of scoring hands. However those who know enough to know the difference between knowing some words and knowing enough words to play strategy have already invested a lot in learning so many words. They would have to have a remarkably pure love of the game to advocate trimming the word lists.

Posted by clew at 07:36 AM
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