August 27, 2003

Old London Bridge, Gordon Home

A seventy-year-old history book is usually a historical source itself. This one is not shocking in its views; it is, rather, sweet, considering with equal affection the many stages, makeshifts, and heroic repairs of the bridges that have stood where London Bridge does. Unlike Black Lamb, Grey Falcon or even Three Men on the Bummel, this 1931 book makes WWII sink into the background of the imagination. Disasters happen. Traffic patterns are eternal. (How eternal? London Bridge, the sand in the pearl when the world was London's oyster, might be where it is because just before the Romans¹ got there sealevel was 12 ft. lower and there was a low-tide ford. That's even better than the army-horse/train-gauge story.)

Bridge-building was a medieval work of charity, so Church foundations were set up to build and maintain them. The houses and shops that lined the old Bridge were meant to help fund it; their rents went toward upkeep. This did not prevent money being borrowed from or for the Bridge. It's a nice idea. Columbus may be trying it again.

I was reading Margaret Frazer's The Bastard's Tale while reading Old London Bridge, and was amused that a political scandal in the first appears (noises off; the procession would have seen the Bridge) in the second. Better yet, for real roots of fluff fiction, a joust fought for pride by knights in armor; on the Bridge itself, which was on average only twelve feet wide, and was in many parts covered by the houses' throwing out upper stories to meet each other in midair. I presume shop-signs would have been taken down for the event.

"The King to all and singular, our Sheriffs, Mayors, Bailiffs, Ministers, and faithful subjets, within and without our liberties, to whom these present letters shall come: Greeting. Know ye, that because our beloved and faithful John de Welles, for the perfecting of a certain Passage of Arms within our Kingdom of England, against David de Lyndeseye, of Scotland, Knight, as he appears to have been calumniated by the said David--he is petitioner to us for the security of the said David, with his followers and servants coming into our Kingdom aforesaid..." ...Then follows a clause covering the chance of any outlaw seeking to enter England in Lindesaye's protection... The date of the document is January 22nd, 1389-90.
The day for the encounter arrived, and the two knights fully armed in the plate armour of the period were conducted to the Bridge, where a daïs had been erected for Richard II and the members of his Court. All the suitable positions were occupied by the nobility, and elsewhere the populace crowded every available corner. When all was in readiness the heralds gave the signal and the two horsemen, spurring their heavy horses, charged full at one another. Spears were broken, but both warriors remained seated firmly in their saddles. "The people beholding how stiffelie earle (sic) David sat without moving, cried that the Scottisman was locked in his saddle. He hearing this, leapt beside his horse, and verie nimblie mounted up againe into the saddle, armed as he was, to the great wonder of the beholders."
With fresh spears a second course was taken and once more the weapons were splintered "and yet without anie great hurt on either part." At the third collision Lord Welles was borne from his saddle and fell heavily to the ground, being "sore hurt." The onlookers appear to have thought he was killed, but Lindesay was quickly off his horse, and, kneeling by his side, he tenderly held him in his arms until the doctor came to tend his wounds.

Valor and tenderness made the Scotsman popular in London at the time. I wonder if he did not remain more famous in Scotland; He was proclaimed and belted Earl of Crawford in 1398 - and Crawford is the shining family in the twelve long, Dumas-dense historical novels by Dorothy Dunnett.

Hundreds more years of complicated engineering and its complicated funding are decorated with charming anecdotes that happened near the Bridge. The house/shops had rooms right down into the piers, and loading-doors for stock at river level. Tricky, as the Thames was so thwarted by the bridge that the fall of water through it was sometimes five feet high. Even more efficient, one house built a pen for food fish into the protective starling.

With mixed efficiency, the city grain stores were at one end of the bridge, near shipping and mill-power but sadly vulnerable to mold.

The illustrations are jackdaw and plentiful - copies of amateur archaeologists' drawings of old work exposed by new; trade cards from the successive trades that clustered there; stonework from old bridges long since moved. Home's prose isn't as delightful as Picard's, but he appreciates a good phrase found elsewhere.

Home, Gordon. Old London Bridge. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1931.

¹Of course this history starts with the Romans. I don't understand the determination of the English to see themselves as the last Romano-Britons, and I wonder often if it existed before the British Empire, and the poem on the statue of Boadicea suggests one heck of a grudge; but like their obsession with gardening, it produces some wonderful books. From Auden's Bathtub Thoughts (c. 500 - c.1950):

Hail, future friend, whose present I
With gratitude now prophesy,
[...]
So thought, I thought, the last Romano-Briton
To take his last hot bath.
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August 23, 2003

Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis

Subtitle: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster

Los Angeles, as I understand the argument of this book, is profoundly invested - both psychologically and economically - in its image as a bucolic idyll, as someplace where Nature is so kindly that people can be relaxed and free. No-one familiar with Freud, or nineteenth-century Christian theology, or the dullness of stories in which 'nothing happens' would be surprised that this investment led to an opposite fascination with LA as the victim of fictional disasters. Davis argues that urban planning and politics have actually increased the number and damage of disasters, especially in the poor regions, but also in some expensive ones.

I don't think the evidence that LA is especially popular for disaster fiction was very compelling - there is a great list of disaster novels and movies set there, but of course London and New York and Tokyo have plenty of their own. Does LA have more, proportionately, than its importance as a city warrants? And anyhow, it's probably the easiest place for LA-local filmmakers to set their B-movies. Are there Bollywood disaster flicks, and where are they set? On the other hand, it doesn't really matter if LA has an unusual quantity of them; he only needed to convince me that the Eden/Apocalypse cognitive dissonance is unusually strong in LA. Since I find it unusually strong about LA even among people who haven't lived there, that's plausible.

The fury at stupid waste - building in ways that invite repeated disasters, and wailing in surprise when they reoccur - was more convincing, esp. a nearly-funny summary of the apparent refusal of locals to believe that they get tornadoes, no matter how many houses the last "waterspout" destroyed. Worse planning shoves all the risks into the poor neighborhoods and funnels all the rescue money into the rich ones; the treatment of fire risks in Malibu was the most startling thing there.

I was most impressed with the enjambment of subjects. Many of his subjects are enormously different in tone: tables of historical data, citizens quoted on their sense of the normal, catchy pictures from lowbrow movies, statistics about pest control, dense geological maps. Davis doesn't repeat himself, didn't write several basically independent sub-books, and maintains an even pace of argument throughout.

ISBN: 0-8-50-5106-6

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August 19, 2003

"As moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine"

From Matilde's comment on Invisible Adjunct, I was led to a history and summary of the algorithm used to match residents to hospital slots. Nice to have these things clear - or "Clearing", as the UK system for getting into college seems to call it. The algorithm is easy to understand; the old and basic example is stated in terms of boys proposing to girls who keep an eye out for better engagements. Still, startling to find so blunt a summary of old-fashioned sexual mores and politics:

Gale and Shapley also showed that the match achieved in this manner has a remarkable property: It is "boy-optimal" and "girlpessimal," meaning that each boy is matched to the best girl he can get in any stable matching, while each girl ends up with the worst possible guy. (I leave this as an easy exercise for the reader's morning commute.) Of course, the corresponding algorithm that has the girls proposing achieves the opposite, prompting some reflection on real-life dating conventions.

Another exercise is to show that it's possible for those on the side that's not proposing to "game the system." By lying about her preferences, a girl can do better in the male-proposing algorithm than she would otherwise.

I need to tidy up whatever is preventing this blog from having several categories for one post, because it's not all that often I can categorize something at once as math and 19th c. fiction.

Locksley Hall gave me my title.

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August 18, 2003

nuncupatory

Meaning: declaratory (obs.); nominal(obs.); spoken instead of written, as a will (legal). That's from the 1913 Webster. Funny chiasmus in the changing meanings of this word; it's gotten more solid about being immaterial.

From Latin translated as "nominal". Did that mean to them what it does to us? My little Junior Classic Latin Dictionary has nuncupo, to call, to name; to proclaim, to appoint. Hunh. If naming someone appoints them to office, and and having office is regarded as a real thing, then it doesn't mean (as it often does to us) being something only in name. I have recently been vexed by nominal dimensions in lumber, because I am trying to repair something built with wood of the actual dimensions we now only name things by. Nothing like a black dusty half-inch physical gap to remind one that names can outlast their meanings.

Judging, inexpertly, from the uses cited in the OED, "nuncupatory" has gone down in the world as the spoken word has. In 1609, writing probably about the ancient world, an imperial throne was bestowed nuncupatively;
in 1651 "Lands cannot be given by a nuncupative will"; soldiers and sailors can make them, though. "Soi-disant" implies that no-one else would say so; "nuncupative" is a little more polite?

Or I'm leaning too much on this because I have been wallowing through the seas of the Elder Edda, which has lengthy catalogues just explained to me as "mnemonic ... primitive belief that knowledge of the proper name for a thing gives the knower the ability to evoke the object, or its power." But in Germanic, look you, and it lasted longer where the Latin-speaking clergy came late. That's an odd one for Harry Potter consistency arguments.

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August 13, 2003

Complete RFID systems

Well, isn't the 3M Digital Identification System tempting? Okay, no, I don't need the whole automated checkout system, and I think the exit detection monitors are too big for my hall. Maybe a roll-my-own with the TI Tag-It™ inlays. They're considered "consumable", so they must be getting affordable¹; and there are 10,000 on a whole reel of the smaller ones... that's at most three personal libraries. I bet I can find two other Seattle-based book maniacs to divvy up a reel.

Despite the good geeky fun, I should think about what good this would do me. I'm not actually likely to wander through my friend's houses with a reader; doing so would probably reduce the number of friends who borrowed books. Might actually reduce the number of my friends. Gadget blowback, very insidious. No, to increase the likelihood of getting books back, I think the old-fashioned physical sign-out card is best. Even when I forgot to have the borrower sign and return the card, they'd see the card pocket, which would have some form of our address on it.

On the other hand, we lose books we have, even though we don't have all that many. A system that made it easy to find books densely packed into the quondam garage might be cheaper than reinforcing the house foundations enough to support the much larger bookshelves necessary to file by subject. (Not that we would successfully maintain a filing system; and the data entry for maintaining a proper index, with some books relevant to several subjects, would be much of the work in organizing them by RFID in the first place.)

What would be efficient and all sorts of geeky would be to give up on keeping anything published too late for it to go online, or not published online in the first place. The current commercial stuff I can get from the city library, which has already reinforced its foundations. In that case I need a Minolta Overhead scanner and more server space...

¹ Although the TI online store is closed as I write, and I can't find TI transponders in the DigiKey catalog - am I blind? - so I don't know.

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August 11, 2003

Green Plastics, E. S. Stevens

Subtitle: An Introduction to the New Science of Biodegradable Plastics

Well beyond an introduction - "Alice--Mutton: Mutton--Alice."
- practically a trip to meet the parents. The first few chapters, rehearsing the benefits and costs of petroleum-based plastics, are a little dry, but they leaf out into a discussion with light chemistry (there are diagrams of molecules) of popular plastics and important processes (oxidation, hydrolysis). Once we have reviewed the virtues plastics have and those they lack, we are introduced to various biopolymers in their chemical schema. Later we get a history of early plastics, many of which were bioplastics. (These chapters have charming pictures, including one of a 1941 Ford made with soybean-plastic body panels.)

Then speculation on the economic prospects of bioplastic production, and research programs to speed their profitability.

Finally, recipes! Kitchen chemistry is apparently enough to allow experimental production (the safety warnings are, pretty much, Don't scald yourself with the boiling water; and Don't eat it.) One of the main possible ingredients is glycerol, or glycerin, which is a byproduct of diesel made from fryer oil. There must be a virtuous circle here.

The first recipes are for photo 'glass', buttons, doodads; but we rapidly get to a more practical biodegradable root wrap, for transplanting; and instructions for building a simple test of tensile strength. All sorts of practical idealism; the world may change, and here's how to start.

ISBN: 0-691-04967-X

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Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough, Michael Braungart

Subtitle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

Two good things. One, the argument that recycling and melioration are not sufficient cures for toxic processes; we should make things so that at the end of their usefulness they are raw materials as good as the ones they were made from. (Many examples from biology, mostly poetic. When a brief for reuse of waste goes on about cherryblossoms and doesn't mention horseshit, they've drifted from Nature's reality.) The second, the physical book itself, made of a plastic claimed to be recyclable as a polymer of equal quality. The 'paper' is smooth and heavy and the printing clear; it purports
to be waterproof, but my copy had smudged a bit. I would have experimented, but it belongs to the library. I couldn't find instructions on how to recycle it. (It isn't more recyclable than any other polypro yet. Actually, the waterproof book was developed to publish erotica for the bath; just right for popularizing a new technology.)

The bulk of the text is examples of good or bad design, with sub-principles; for instance that there are technical nutrients (e.g., cadmium) and biological nutrients (e.g., starch) and that products made with only technological, or only biological, nutrients, will be easier to reprocess. I would like to have seen more data on successful redesign and reuse. This team seems to mostly have worked on building redesigns, many of them plausibly productive and embracing. The narration is a bit boastful, certainly unspecific about the successes of their projects vs. those of the "conventional" ecological design they badmouth. I think their scorn of dour, self-denying, pro-efficiency environmentalism is too much based on a strawman. For one thing, 'efficiency' the joyless blight is more a Gantt and Taylor creed than a Lovins and Waters one.

So it's okay as an introduction to the idea that we could produce more stuff with less harm if we planned in advance to do so. It won't be new to anyone who's heard of sustainable hedonism already, and it seems thin and timid after any book on permaculture. For techies, it has the signal flaw of providing no hook at all for do-it-yourself projects. On the other hand, it has smoothed away everything not perfectly conventional in Yuppie or BoBo success, so maybe it will carry the ideas to people otherwise immune to them.

ISBN: 0-86547-587-3

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August 08, 2003

Tu Marcellus eris

The Hermitage has sent on tour a collection of works done for the Imperial Russian court by women artists. (Seattleites, it's at the Frye Museum.)

One of Angelica Kauffman's dramatic paintings is of "Virgil Reading Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia"; Octavia has swooned, everyone around her is throwing up their hands or glaring at Vergil, Vergil looks like a puppy who ate the flowers. One line on his scroll is legible: "Tu Marcellus eris".

Virgil's political subtext is known. Marcellus, Octavia's son, had been assassinated; he is compared in the poem to an earlier heroic Marcellus (who died in battle). Dryden's translation, next to the original:

The Trojan honor, and the Roman boast,
Admir'd when living, and ador'd when lost!
Mirror of ancient faith in early youth!
Undaunted worth, inviolable truth!
No foe, unpunish'd, in the fighting field
Shall dare thee, foot to foot, with sword and shield;
Much less in arms oppose thy matchless force,
When thy sharp spurs shall urge thy foaming horse.
Ah! couldst thou break thro' fate's severe decree,
A new Marcellus shall arise in thee!
Full canisters of fragrant lilies bring,
Mix'd with the purple roses of the spring;
Let me with fun'ral flow'rs his body strow;
This gift which parents to their children owe,
This unavailing gift, at least, I may bestow!"

Ingres also painted the scene - maybe more than once?. So; political assassinations still relevant for these painter's patrons, or is the drama generally catchy enough?

Several of her paintings were scenes from A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, which I had maybe heard of but haven't read. I certainly recognize a line from the Prologue:

"They order," said I, "this matter better in France."

It's by Laurence Sterne, was in the 1917 Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, and is available online. Art is educational, though sometimes only about other art.

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August 06, 2003

Punk's Wing, Ward Carroll

The best character in this is the jargon. That's not because it's a terrible book; but the plot evolutions aren't hard to guess, and the characters aren't long on dramatic evolution or soliloquy. It's set in a training squadron of F-14s, so there's plenty going on between the short soliloquies.

Half the jargon is wonderful. The in-group affectionate (?) insults and slang are vivid; the half-technical Air Force jargon is so compressed and specific, so expressive, and so clearly designed to be spoken - over noisy headphones, I imagine - that some of it is poetry. (There's a little subplot of a Son Going Wrong to rap music: I hoped for a flight-jargon rap, but no.)

The villain of the piece is also jargon. The obfuscating, self-impressed, inflated managerial jargon of much of the military management, most of the politicians, and all the industry suppliers is as evilly disposed towards Truth and Responsibility as the fliers' and mechanics' jargon is generous.

If jargon is characters, there's a semi-buffoon: the language of feeling and mutual understanding. The tough guys use it as though it were a joke when they actually mean to be kind to each other, which is quite sweet and endearing. There's also a Bridezilla subplot seen through the poor bewildered groom-to-be; another problem with inflated words and symbols.

Punk's Wing is the second of a series, and I hope there will be a third, because it really doesn't end with a triumph. By the end of the book the trainee fliers have mostly survived - survived learning tailhook landings, in-air refueling in a war zone - but the most lethal thing has been a Big Lie, speaking from the chorus of evil jargon, and it hasn't been confronted yet. It isn't clear that there's a mechanism to confront it. But clearly it was a profitable lie, and too many of them would be too much for even the studious, courageous, loyal pilots to overcome. I wasn't expecting a tragedy.

ISBN: 0-451-20877-3

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August 01, 2003

Some know, some don't

I don't know why it took me so long to notice that Dorothea Salo works (and thinks and opines) in electronic publishing. Her blog is not so much about cataloging, although clearly I would be happy with metadata as she thinks it should be done. It is much about the formats books go through, and where to put what markup when. Many points that match my memory of my startlingly long-ago efforts putting vast programming manuals into a format from which we could publish simultaneously to paper and CD - yeah, right - and in less than six months in Japanese. We learned to stay with the most abstract format as long as possible. (We used to talk about a problem being 'up' in SGML or 'down' in the wordprocessing or CDROM formats, and open our hands gently while looking up in imagination towards SGML, very like Hope on a Beaux-Arts monument. SGML! That was a long time ago!)

On the other hand, there's the Internet Book List, which I admire for existing, but which causes me pain because the identifying data for a book is so... so... so newbie. No field for publisher, for instance, although that's a necessary part of the older ways of identifying books. "Series" and "Series Part" considered very important, though; also "Genre" soi-disant. Now, it may become a useful reference for slightly geeky light reading, apt to be mined for If-You-Liked-This recommendations; and that wouldn't be a bad thing. But it would need munging to be integrated into a similar design made by people with slightly different interests, and more munging to be clean data in a system designed to identify nearly all books.

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