February 15, 2003

Distributed Proofreading

I have been reading books backwards, odd pages only, and with unusual attention to their punctuation; I am sucked into the Distributed Proofreading project. A page a day for the public domain, you know. Proofreading a page a day doesn't seem so useful the slightly-old way, with a proofreader assigned to each book; much can happen in a year, your partial efforts can easily be lost. Also it's daunting. DP just shows you a black-and-white image of a single page, and checks out a copy if the OCR text produced from it, and if all you can do today is that page, fine; the improvement in the common store of available text is proportional to your effort.

I'd be better off if I could keep it down to a page a day; I find it as mindlessly enthralling as Tetris. I'm not even attempting the hard stuff yet, the Hakluyt or Anatomy of Melancholy. Latin, Greek, superscripts as contractions, ligature characters, poetry, nested footnotes; tricky. Especially tricky because the Project Gutenberg standards, towards which DP tends its efforts, are all old skool Latin-1 completely linear text. I was made a bit sad taking the page numbers out of an index; the topic titles in a good index are not always enough to find the page referred to, because a good index may have a topic filed under a explicit term when the text identifies something in context; "Clarissa Character, bankruptcy of" might point to a paragraph saying "From epistolary evidence, in this year his sister signed over her share of the inheritance completely, and it was lost with the whole." Hypertext can be very good at this, of course, and at footnotes and endnotes. Really excellent footnotes are a form of commented linking that hypertext is still thinking about. It seems a pity to be washing out some of the links that we could improve instead. On the other hand, do I feel like doing it all myself? Not that book, no. Maybe I'll think of a tool.

Really, embarrassingly, if the two goals are to allow fairly precise internal references and to be readable by both machines and humans, page numbers are not at all bad. Three, four digits every eighty lines? there aren't many HTML anchors smaller, let alone identifiers in newer cooler schemes.

Many sites are storing images of the originals, although they present a more emphatic choice between easy-to-read formats, images good enough to be useful and attractive, and compression algorithms that will be reversible later.

Posted by clew at 05:28 AM

In the Heart of the Rockies, G. A. Henty

Coincidentally, one of the easy books up for first-round proofing when I joined Distributed Proofreading was by G. A. Henty, who had also floated to the top of my library hold list. Henty is on that list because of something ambivalent A.S. Byatt wrote about him - my notes suggest that I expected it to be a guilty pleasure - and so it is. It's very Boy's Own literature; in this particular one a plucky young lad leaves his sisters in [England] to seek his fortune hunting gold with his uncle in the Rockies. Rough but kindly persons take care of him the whole way, including a saloon-keeper who congratulates him on the wisdom of avoiding drink; he learns outdoor skills, goes across country, meets up with Indian warriors and his uncle, builds a winter cabin & defensible revetments, fights off bears, finds gold... It's perfect hammock reading; something keeps happening, but you can put it down at any moment, he'll be fine when you get back.

Worst parts; the descriptions of the Indians. I think the author meant us to respect the courage and skill of his (sketched-in) Indian characters; his European characters certainly do, and also remark that the most unpleasant Indians have become so after interactions with sleazy cheating whites. There was contemporaneous fiction a lot more racist than that. But it's obvious that no amount of non-market virtue is going to save them; when "the chief" refuses his share of gold, on the grounds that it could not buy him anything he wants, his reasons are probably admirable; the Europeans may have been right to admire him for it; but they should have known enough to invest it in San Francisco, so his children would have something when the next treaty was broken. I am *such* a revisionist.

Henty is still enormously in print, with more of his books available on Amazon than at Project Gutenberg.

ISBN: 1890623083

Posted by clew at 04:33 AM

February 12, 2003

Engine City, Ken MacLeod

There are other SF series that combine the Vast Forces of History with long-pursued personal human intrigue, and aliens and magical technology, but I cannot think of another living writer who compresses it into as few pages.

"I apologize for sending you such a long letter; I did not have time to write a short one." (Attributed to Wilde, Kipling and Churchill; Kipling seems unlikely.)

ISBN: 0-765-30502-X

Posted by clew at 08:08 PM

February 11, 2003

Kiln People, David Brin

Lots of merry mayhem here, and a soulful conclusion, both evolving from the hypothesis of the novel: that it is possible to put a copy of one's consciousness into a clay golem, which is guaranteed to live no longer than a day, but can transfer all its memories into the original if it lives to get back home. It's also a "down these mean streets" rugged-detective novel, and the temporary copies exaggerate that charmingly; like Philip Marlowe, they bull through beatings and worse, but it's much more plausible that a physically new copy can go out & do it again tomorrow.

There's a constant interplay between the hijinks and violence and cruelty that people can indulge in in copy, which drive the action of the plot, and the philosophical and moral issues raised by having arbitrarily good copies, each of whom feels, on creation, like the original. I think the hijinks are rather better done, probably because they're easier to compare with people's current behavior. The soul-wave science that allows the copying technology is a little too contrived for me to be swept into philosophizing that deduces things from it. The phil. isn't annoying.

Tidbits: many puns; a Transparent Society.

ISBN: 0-765-34261-8

Posted by clew at 09:47 AM

February 10, 2003

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

A Tim Powers plot, written in a Robert B. Parker voice. No, that's not fair; the plot is from two-three Tim Powers books and the narrator far more personable and changeable than Spenser. I read it with enjoyment, although not staggering awe and a coldness after which I will never be warm again.

It does have one common oddity which, like the homosexual reimaginings of slash, bothers me because it is frequent without bothering me in any instance. Here's heaps of magic, much-telegraphed links between rites of power and the obsessions of our most primitive, String-and-Bone age ancestors, and there is hardly any food. Sex and gore play better now, but if I'm going to believe that rituals and obsessions are that old, they have to involve great lashings of food sacrificed or invoked. Especially in midwinter; the Hogfather needs his turnips. My superficial memory of various anthropology museums bears this out; I should look it up.

ISBN 0-380-78903-5

Posted by clew at 04:08 AM

February 09, 2003

Colors: The Story of Dyes and Pigments, François Delamare & Bernard Guineau

Single-topic histories make a funny map of history in toto, as I collect enough transects to find rickety squares in their intersections, and then sturdy triangles, and eventually mutual contradictions. It is also more trustworthy and less embarrassing than using historical novels as my memory palace, although rarely as vivid.

This Colors has only a little history, but is mostly an excuse for gloriously vivid pictures, themselves often of dyestuffs or pigments - from an ancient Egyptian tomb or Roman shipwreck, or the chemical corporations of the nineteenth century. Some pictures of people dying or printing cloth, too.

Uneasy precedent for hyperneoliberal trade prescriptions: after Germany (with twenty years' work) developed cheap synthetic indigo, Once again whole regions were ruined, this time in India and the Caribbean; the English indigo trade disappeared and the shipping trade of Marseilles, wholly dependent on it, also collapsed. If I were a third-world country being told to abandon local food security in order to specialize in growing export crops - palm oil, say - I'd worry about this. Some Monsanto chemist is thinking about how to synthesize a cheaper replacement from corn or kudzu. if my only foothold in the market is to always be the cheapest option, I think I'd better leave a fair amount of my land in local crops and go for the slower growth method of educating everyone (as Amartya Sen says somewhere, that's least expensive early on, while wages are low) and having the family farm as a fallback when the global economy won't pay to feed the cities. ...My grandfather thinks the same tactic is sensible in the US, because he remembers the Great Depression.

See also: 20,000 Years of Women's Work; Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo series, mostly the first books; Mauve.

ISBN 0-8109-2872-8

Posted by clew at 01:42 AM

February 08, 2003

Xanadu, ed. by Jane Yolen

I looked this antholgy up for the story Owlswater, which is a bit of th history of Pamela Dean's wonderful Secret Country trilogy (soon to be reprinted, I hear; hurrah!). the story answers some questions and opens rather more, just as history ought.

Much of the anthology is good-to-excellent, in fact, with poetry both light and serious (but always brief. 'Female villainy occurs in lyric poetry, but not at sufficient length.")

Posted by clew at 05:20 AM

Ex-Libris, Ross King

really excellent chase-object, bits of Elizabethan vocabulary fitted in where they can be understood from context, enigmatic and disastrous characters clustered around an endearingly timid narrator. Wonderful sense of how global the affairs of Western Europe had become by the 1600s, so that distant events troubled the wharves in London.

And the chase-object is really excellent, especially since I was expecting it to be a Boojum.

Posted by clew at 05:13 AM

Isabella and Sam : the story of Mrs. Beeton, Sarah Freeman

Isabella Beeton was a perfect Victorian, though she wasn't exactly a perfect Victorian woman. She was, like her husband Sam, an enormously hard worker, practical, thrifty, happily married, successful. She wasn't demure or shy or sentimental.

Their name is still famous because of the Beeton guide to Household Management. A slew of "how-to" books were published under the Beeton name, one a guide to investment written just after Sam had lost everything in a bank crash and sold the firm; not his fault, though, and I bet he had an interest in the subject afterwards. Household Management, similarly, benefited from Isabella's undomestic upbringing - as one of a large family's children who lived in the cavernous Epsom Downs race building fifty weeks of the year. She recognized the need for a good clear no-previous-knowledge book on housekeeping, and made some minor but useful changes to how recipes are written and laid out. UI design, you might say. The Beeton books were part of a flood of cheap useful literature that followed technical and tax improvements. Sam - he was the idealist of the couple - had an early enthusiasm for boy's literature that boys would actually enjoy reading; later the self-education manuals; finally some of his periodicals got an enormous boom of more-or-less prurient letters, wildly popular but also scandalous, like a comment BBS out of control. He went out of control himself and embarrassed his friends and controlling publisher before dying.

Isabella had died young long before.

Posted by clew at 05:10 AM
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