November 20, 2004

Jacquard's Web, James Essinger

Bruce Sterling divides technology into string and glue, doesn't he? String is older. Information technology was first a child of string (some children were lost).

Most people who care already know that the Jacquard loom used punch cards to store the amazingly complex patterns of fashionable brocade and damask cloth; Essinger can only stretch that out into a few chapters, mostly related to the economic importance of cloth, because not a lot is known about Jacquard's life and what is mostly comes before his inventing. The rest of the book is about the currently-more-interesting descent of computing, of which Jacquard's looms were parents twice: once to part of Babbage's machines, d.s.p., again to telegraphic paper tape, most fruitfully to Hollerith's punchcards. Hollerith was related to a weaver/industrialist who used Jacquard looms.

Quite a lot of this book is devoted to the history of I.B.M., descended mostly from Hollerith's company but also some others, including one that made cheese-slicers... Remington Rand is a more suitable example, since it was a powerful maker of typewriters partly from its experience in making sewing-machines, which required speed, precision and enough reliability to run without a dedicated maintenance team. It's not actually very surprising that clothing should have several times impelled a technological leap. It's a tempting use of capital, since so much money is spent on it at all times, and the standards are high; really good handwork is still better at some things than what machines can do. If the next industrial revolution is 'mass customization', it will probably start in clothes again. I hope so, because it's an offense to aesthetics that so many people have so many clothes that don't really fit.

I wonder if Hollerith's cards were the first time data lived naturally in a database. It's an error-inviting pain to fill out even a two-dimensional table by hand, let alone a deeper one.

It's a pity that information never went from cloth back into the machines; I imagine it as long-term storage: punch the cards until the design is right, weave a reference sample, and when the cards wear out unweave the sample through a machine that generates cards from cloth: then save the first weaving from those cards as the new reference. This wouldn't be a good idea, since punching more cards from cards is easy.

I also wonder where Jacquard got the idea for punched cards. (Or where one Falcon, who built the first but worse punchcard loom got it, if Jacquard got the idea from Falcon.) I have a Theory, actually; bobbin-lace patterns. Bobbin-lace was as expensive and slow to make as brocade, and the patterns changed with fashion much faster than one person could make up a suit of lace. Complicated patterns require pinholes punched into stiff card, which give a skilled lacemaker enough direction to make up the pattern. Middlemen made up many many cards corresponding to small pieces of a fashionable pattern and handed them out to lacemakers as they picked up the finished pieces from the last pattern. It would have been important that the patterns lined up well to be invisibly sewn together, although the threads did not weave from one piece into the next. I think there must have been a lot of these cards around, especially in a town as devoted to luxury clothing as Lyons was. It's still a big intellectual jump to switch from a human feeling with a pin to know where thread-crossing should go, to a machine that always crosses in the same places feeling a card to decide whether a crossing should happen; but it would explain why sheaves of punched cards 'looked like' information storage.

Online glossaries give 'lace cards' as a synonym for punchcards, but they also sometimes suggest that that only refers to a card with all possible holes punched out, giving it a resemblance to simple lace. On the other hand, that resemblance would provide an easy false etymology.

I can't find an online picture of how the early automatic lacemaking machines work, although Nottingham has a promising history of mostly-Nottingham lace machine inventions; the Jacquard idea came in after decades of improving knitting-frames to approximate the action of lace-twisting.

ISBN: 0192805770

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Gloriana's Torch, Patricia Finney

Wonderful spy novel; set in the sixteenth century, so literally cloak-and-dagger, and dashing in it. It's fairly grim, since it revolves around intrigues against Queen Elizabeth; war, civil war, religious schism, disease and the slave trade all come into it. It isn't as grim as, say, Patricia Highsmith. Some of Finney's characters do not betray those they love, and a few more do but don't enjoy it.

This is the third in a series, which I recommend you read in order; I liked the first but missed the second. The scale of events has grown through the three novels, so this one is in many parts an adventure novel. The writing is less pretty than I remember in the first, maybe because events move at such a thundering pace.

Along with intrigue and adventure, and credible character development, there is a big swath of mysticism and alternate history which makes perfect sense for the book; Finney explains in her afterword that she was wondering what the strategy behind the invasion of the Spanish Armada was, and she came up with one that would have worked, had her characters not foiled it. Half of them dream all through the novel of what will happen if they don't stop the Armada; horrible things, the least of them the destruction of London Bridge.

Some of her characters are Africans forced north by the slave trade. One intended to come North to free the other and also learn the making of gunpowder to put her nation on a better footing against the whites; but instead they are both drawn into this stranger's war and lost to their own nation. I was put off by the appearance of mystical, sympathetic black characters set up to die the touching but convenient deaths of sidekicks, but even in the Anglocentrism of the novel, I think Finney makes it clear that the other victory might have prevented more misery and injustice. Finney also apologizes for not knowing enough about West Africa in the sixteenth century. I think the final result is less using the Other for convenience as trying to imagine a past that was, now irremediably, distant and doomed.

ISBN: 0312312857

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November 18, 2004

Swann's Way, Marcel Proust

Alas; Proust's narrator bored me silly and I didn't like him or any of the people he admired, and although I plowed through this volume of one translation, I am not going to get any farther.

All these people are unpleasant to anyone they can get away with being unpleasant to, and if anyone but the housekeeper and cook do anything productive I don't remember it, and although I think much of the writing is supposed to be introspective or even insightful I didn't see it at all. I could see a costume-drama charm, because the rich here are so rich and so well-dressed and so unconcerned that anything worse than moving slightly down the scale among their rich peers will happen to them.

Maybe something happens another megabyte in.

There's a stunningly pretty graphic-novel version of The Remembrance of Things Past coming out volume by slim volume; my flippings-through have suggested that still not much happens, but the costumes and backgrounds get their proper spotlight.

Project Gutenberg text #7178

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Lorna Doone, R. D. Blackmoore

There aren't any shortbread cookies in this novel. There is excellent butter, but no cookies, and the eponymous heroine isn't much of a cook. She is Scots by inheritance, but she doesn't grow up there; her childhood nurse is Italian and she's actually brought up by a gang of noble robbers in Exmoor. The cookie name is completely a shallow marketing ploy.

However, John Ridd the wonderful hero is awake to the chance of using a shallow marketing ploy to sell his butter, so in an accidental way it's a fine memorial. It would be a more accurate memorial with better butter and a couple gallons of beer.

John Ridd boasts about everything and is likeable anyway. He boasts about his strength, honesty, flirtatousness, commercial cunning, and modesty; you'd think the last would be a hard boast to carry, but no. Lorna Doone is a fluttery drip, but Ridd's narration is completely steady, although the author throws just everything into it; fantasias on the sublimity of Nature, lots and lots of food, wrestling, a battle-scene, a devil-and-saint fairy tale, considerable fondness for horses.

Between the farming and the horses this avoids Diana Wynne Jones' Toughguide errors. It isn't technically a fantasy novel, it's rather a historical adventure in the late 17th century (the battle is the end of Monmouth's invasion), but the structure is a lot like fantasy novels. Local boy grows up to put down the evil horde, meets the King, etc.

The evil horde lives in one of my favorite clichés of tripe fiction: a beautiful, completely enclosed river valley, reached only through natural tunnels in the rock and other geological extravagances. The hero can sneak in and out, as in fact can servant-women who exchange news, not that anyone pays attention to the serving-women when discussing the impregnable hideaway. Casual Web lookups suggest that there are boggy, complicated valleys all over Exmoor, many of them now named after this novel and catering to the tourist trade. Actually, it sounds like a wonderful place for a holiday if you like rain (and butter); they advertise roadless areas for riding, where John Ridd remarked that wheels had not yet come to Exmoor because the roads were so muddy they required sledges.

(One of the Walter Farley series had an even better hideaway, a Caribbean island that looked like a waterless rock from the sea but had a green valley sustaining an entire herd of horses inside.)

Project Gutenberg etext #840

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The Virginian, Owen Wister

Firefly really isn't science fiction. I have enjoyed the romance of the first three CDs greatly, but it gives me snickerfits that the economy is so goofball; some of the things they treat as rare are physically fungible with stuff they treat as cheap.

But, okay, it's obviously SF in the same way the Star Wars movies are, which is to say, romantic historical gallimaufry; of Westerns, in Firefly's case; so, being almost but not quite thorough, I read The Virginian for familiarity with the source. This was wrong; the TV source is probably 1950s TV, or maybe novels. But a 19th. century enthusiast gotta do what she's compelled by circumstance and character to do.

Actually, Wister's book is completely early-20th-c., in its politics and romance; the natives are just scary 'noises off', and the heroine is halfway between coy and competent. I don't think there's a woman of easy virtue in it anywhere, the rich are just and deserving (dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt), juries are untrustworthy, violence one of those unfortunate necessities.

The oddest thing I noticed was what a perfect 'chick flick' it would currently make, although I think it was renowned for manlitude in its own day. The plot and the writing are just dreamily fond of the lithe good looks of The Virginian; and the man himself is happy to be domesticated to become worthy of his bride. Also, he stages a wedding-night that fogged up the lens of my critical faculty.

It seems to me that somewhere after noir, conventional novels-aimed-at-men dropped the domestic fantasies. Travis McGee was good-looking and seductive and all, but rather a lout. And it further seems to me that this was a backlash against the loss of men's automatic status. Barbara Ehrenreich probably covers it in The Hearts of Men.

Project Gutenberg etext #1298

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Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton

I parted ways with this book when Botton suggested that peasants used to feel comfortable about their status, and aristocrats uneasy, because the Church comforted peasants and the aristocrats knew they hadn't earned their place.The Church mixes its messages on the subject, and aristocrats were very proud of not having earned their place; that was the whole point. I believe there's experimental evidence that treating people with the markers of high status will induce most of the hormonal (neurotransmitter? I should look this up) turbocharging we get when we fight our way to high status, which suggests that the curlèd darlings were soaked in self-regard like babas are in rum.

I do see that the possibility of earning one's place has added a new stress, but that's no excuse for whitewashing the old ones.

Other than that, it's a nice trot through changes of attitudes towards just desert, with special attention paid to props for battered status: religion, duelling, Bohemianism.

I have looked through the index of Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy for any reference to Boethius or his excellent The Consolation of Philosophy, and not only is it not in the index, but Amazon's search-inside says Boethius isn't even mentioned in the text. Fie. Read the original, with or without the Latin.

There's an oddity in Boethius that I think should come up more often in discussions of how technology affects our world-views. He wrote,

[plants] all, as is so well known, are like regular machines not merely for lasting a time, but for reproducing themselves for ever, a nd that by their own kinds.

That seems quite surprising to me; "so well known"? Combined with "like...machines...for reproducing themselves"? Unless The Book of Ash were right, Boethius saw no self-reproducing machines; and if everyone thought of plants as like machines, only spectacularly better, then they had startlingly plastic understandings of technology.

ISBN: 0375420835

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Anglomania, Ian Buruma

This is a suggestive, though not conclusive, meditation on the persistent appeal of the life of the English gentry; Buruma is a half-outsider of all sorts, and kindly towards people's comfortable delusions.

He returns often to his own experience of Anglo-ism and Anglomania, which is as full of counterbalances as a crib ornament. He grew up in a quietly snobbish section of The Hague, where all the respectable people imitated out-of-date upper-class Englishisms; but Buruma had grandparents living in a perfect old vicarage in Berkshire; but the grandparents were the children of Jewish immigrants from Germany, and their perfect English life could not be called instinctive, though it was heartfelt. With this opener I was afraid the book would never leave the cosy grounds of reminiscence, as in Auden's

Oxford philosophy, to be cursory,
Never really leaves the nursery;
All those arguments anent
What Nanny really meant.

Fortunately Buruma has an outward-looking as well as an inward-looking tendency, and can quote a broad range in conditions and eras of people who admired, more or less enviously, some image of the English gentleman. (There are little side-notes on the occasional extension of this to merely British gentlemen, and sometimes even to the health and independence of the English working class, whether yeoman or union; but mostly it's about the English gentleman who can pretend to be of private means.) What's interesting is how various, even contradictory, that image has been; and how various, even contradictory, are the actions one image could inspire. What's funny is how effective the most ersatz versions were, from Queen Victoria's imaginary medieval Highlands to Leslie Howard's screen career.

The shortest summary I can make of Buruma's finding is that the idea of a permeable upper class, in a nation peacefully based on the equality of law, was strong enough to outweigh any evidence that actual England didn't live up to the idea. England symbolizes muddling through, avoiding excesses of principle that would only have to be undone later. This is a common view.

A distinction more particular to Buruma is that England was representative of all the trading cities, especially the ones on the western coast of all of Europe; cosmopolitan, lawful, open cities that had learnt to benefit from social change. The opposing principle was that of the Blood-and-Soil nativism in which all status was inherited.

Now, given even my frivolous dips into English novels of the last three centuries, I think more attention should have been paid to the tension between these ideas in England itself. The Manchester man is not 'the English gentleman'. Buruma's point is probably that Manchester and Country Life co-existed better in England than elsewhere. I think one should check whether the tolerance followed the wealth, rather than generated it. The strongest form of the 'city air makes free' argument is that the tolerance causes the wealth; but one does notice that the Low Countries were for some time noticeably more open than their neighbors, and then rich—so far so good—until conquered by those aristocratic neighbors, including though not mostly England. Having a protective ocean lets a nation feel awfully smug for a while.

I think the smugness is intrinsic to the charm; if one is fantasizing about the perfect life, one might as well dream of being effortlessly at the top of a meritocracy. Many a Victorian three-decker novel is a story of compromise inside the English gentry, the compromise between shutting out meritocracy vs. letting it in. The worse novels, descending to pulp romances. are more about 'effortless winning'; Mary-Sue-ism.

Ken McLeod somewhere mentions the final political triumph of a barely-permeable upper class, that it seduces the most competent of the unfortunate away from the interests of their birth-fellows.

ISBN: 0375502068

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November 16, 2004

The Stone of Heaven , Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark

Subtitle: Unearthing the Secret History of Imperial Green Jade

These reporters competently render a glamorous subject gloomy, and suggest that a dull subject is rather interesting. The glamorous subject is "Imperial Jade", the best, greenest, most glowing jade, found in remote Burma. The gloom is cast by the bad effects that power & money seem to have had on everyone rich enough to afford the jade. We start with the pathetically ineffectual emperor Qianlong, progress through the alternately wasteful and hypocritical sackings of Chinese and Burmese palaces (early armies destroyed what they couldn't walk away with; the British were organized enough to haul off most of the extravagances, but they spent a lot of effort on paperwork and runaround denying that they'd done it), have a side-note on Shanghai glitterati, mostly Barbara Hutton and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and wind up in the present day, in which the mines are run by slave labor even worse off than slave labor usually is. This last is really awful; for one thing, drugs, disease and modern military power have finally destroyed the tribes indigeneous to the jungly hills around the jade mines. For more than a thousand years, those tribes had been picking off enormous armies that tried to capture the mines, and to have them replaced by systematic immiseration does not make Modernity look like Progress; it seems more like an argument for Deep Green.

The only comfortable part is the authors' hunting facts through archives, frequently moldering ex-British archives in India. They could, for instance, find the letters from Corporal Puff denying that the Queen's troops would take anything for their personal enrichment; and then the auction announcement, at General Puff's death, that his estate was selling jewels from the coffers of an Imperial concubine of China. All the archives are falling to dust, and have been redacted by forgotten censors anyway; it reduces my faith in history.

ISBN: 0316525960

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November 08, 2004

Spam, spam, spam

I'm closing comments because I have too much spam and not enough time. Pfui.

There are a whole lot of comments of form

"Hi! Just looking around!"

None of the URLs go anywhere... either there's a sophomore class with an ill-thought-out Internet assignment, or someone's seeding Google with links to something that will be commercial later, or ???

So I've deleted them. In the unlikely case that they belonged to real people with bad hosting, sorry; in this troubled world you have to be cleverer than Eliza to survive.

Posted by clew at 01:26 PM | TrackBack
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