March 31, 2005


Etymologically, from words for "doubt" or "error" or "deadly nightshade". ('I thought they were huckleberries', dwaled Tom.) Or, black, in a floriferous system of heraldic tinctures; or, a sleeping potion or opiate; all according to

Oops; I thought it was an archaic form of 'dwindle'.

I wonder if the heraldic tinctures-by-plants was for doing heraldry out in bedding-plants. Belladonna isn't perfectly black, but it might have been one of the blackest-leaved plants available a hundred years ago. When did the foliage-fanciers start searching for dark materials?

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March 29, 2005

Trading in Danger, Elizabeth Moon

The current issue of Nature has an excellent supplement on art and science. There's not just the usual artists' representation of what science looks like to them (well, there is some of that, in which the sculpture especially is annoyingly stuck on accidental rather than inherent characteristics; never mind), but an elegant discussion of several ways in which art serves as evidence of and experiments on human perception. The essay on what wild inaccuracies painters can get away with was especially easy to follow, as it provided examples with captions and closeups pointing out what was wrong. (We really don't care where the illumination comes from, is what I remember from the article, although we will use it for some clues. Vermeer used that, didn't he? his scenes are sometimes painted as though his subjects are literally glowing, although the subjects themselves are not painted so?) There's also a nice long essay by A. S. Byatt which is mostly about how she used what science she could learn to structure and pattern the novel cycle that began with The Virgin in the Garden.

One of the ideas about novels, several times refigured, is that they are like psychological experiments. 'Experiments' is the word I remember, but it seems to me 'models' would be more appropriate; if you're a total genius, Albert Einstein or George Eliot, your gedankenexperiments (sp?) will be so accurate that the rest of us use them as experiments instead of models. Most of us make choices of what to assume away or make homogeneous or let-approach-to-infinity that are obvious or unconvincing or infuriatingly tendentious.

Here I arrive at Trading in Danger, and infuriatingly tendentious I find it, so much so that it almost convinces me that it's a parody despite its marketing. It combines several popular wish-fulfillment tropes. The first is basically Mary-Sue-ism, the heroine who is just perfect and always right and therefore unfairly attacked by the Bad characters and unfailingly supported by the Good ones. This is embarrassing, as visible wish-fulfillment, and also pretty dull. Moon's early books The Deed of Paksenarrion had less of each flaw even though the main character was a literal saint and the world an extension of Tolkien and his medieval characterizations.

Second annoying trope is that the perfect princess faces the difficult life burden of a rich and indulgent family. The terrible trauma, her eye-opening experience of reality, is to be thrown out of the military and promptly given private command of a trading vessel with an experienced and loyal crew. It took volumes and volumes of characterization, not to mention some actual history, for Patrick O'Brien to make that seem painful for Jack Aubrey; on the whole I think most spiritual buccaneers would be chuffed from the outset, even if they did have to be bought a whole new fancy wardrobe to go with it, poor things.

Third annoying trope; Servants Love Their Masters. Okay, happens sometimes. I'll even hope that it's sometimes justified and returned. In this case, though, it's an extension of that unconvincing difficult life burden; when push comes to shove, someone else dies for our heroine. She does kill his killer. The most completely icky part of her repetitive self-justification is her private scorn for her father because he has never killed anyone. He was apparently too smart to need to, and smart enough to develop this crew that kept her alive long enough to fire, but that just makes him a useful chump.

Actually, in this ?moral? universe, maybe there are just chumps and killers. It's such a nasty society that I don't believe it could get as complicated as it is; it's mastered by unrestrained and violent commercial enterprise, and I don't believe they wouldn't have fallen already to faction, schism, nationalism, or sheer desperate opting-out. (Ma Bell/ICANN as the profit arm of a supraplanetary army is the most vivid case.)

In contrast, for instance, Lois McMaster Bujold rides the range with aristocratic fantasies Two and Three, above, but she uses too much, oh, basic biology and game theory to write worlds in which those fantasies are accurate descriptions of the real world. I think her particular Barrayaran heroes and heroines have gotten away in velvet a lot longer than is likely and almost longer than is interesting, but then I remember Talleyrand, so she's within the realms of historical plausibility; and I think it's clear that the fantasy is a permanent burden on Barrayar, which may yet present the bill. I really hope she writes that novel.

To get back to the flawed model; it is a common experiment, in fiction, to think 'under what conditions would I/the character have to do this Most Awful Thing?' Crime and Punishment; Sophie's Choice; jokes about the Donner Party or plane crashes. There is a creepier version, which would be the same experiment if it were objective but is very different in psychology: the question is, 'under what conditions would I/the character have an excuse to do this Most Awful Thing?' And sometimes an author looks rather too hard for an excuse. That is properly the fatal flaw of characters, e.g. Raskolnikov, not of the author.

I think of this as the Cold Equations disease. That's a powerfully popular story, has been since it was published, in which the hero has to—has to, for moral reasons—kill a lovely innocent young girl who has to like it. It's porn in the worst sense. I find it so because the 'what conditions' are so feebly set up, given that the lethal excuse happens a lot; we are to believe that society expects ruthless armed killers where this story gives us a feckless maiden, but this (spacetravelling) society can't put together (say) a mass balance and oxygen monitor to exclude the killers and, incidentally, the maiden. I think it's extra odd that this story was considered so groundbreaking after the historical versions that abounded throughout, e.g., WWII; and can only conclude that the desired high was the pretense of righteousness over the joy in murder.

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Destroyer, C. J. Cherryh

Hm. I enjoy the worldbuilding, the backstory, of this whole series rather more than I'm enjoying the actual story. Part of the problem is that I don't think the main character, the hero, is nearly the most interesting character in the book; I don't find him as unconvincing as the young man in Forge of Heaven, but he doesn't have the internal drama that many of the supporting cast presumably have.

Specifically, I don't believe he really has divided or uncertain loyalties. He ought to. He thinks he does, sometimes at annoying length. The driving force of the alien society in which he lives is loyalty, its demands and subterranean faults; so there should be a hell of a story in which human loyalties are backgrounded and backlit by the alien loyalties. But I don't believe it. Eight novels in and his behavior is, meseems, getting more and more predictable, given the actually complex and ambivalent stimuli of the characters around him.

Also, I admit, I am annoyed and unconvinced by yet another infallible, loyal-and-loving suite of retainers. There's no moral excuse for SF's dependence on this trope, and Cherryh knows too much history for her to think it likely. That's why I still like the backstory and worldbuilding; nothing is guaranteed there, so it feels far more real.

ISBN: 0756402530

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Alphabet of Thorn, Patricia A. McKillip

Did this remind anyone else of McKillip's Stepping From the Shadows? That was mostly gloomy, lost, seen from the viewpoint of the youth in the dark wood; this has some, not all, of the threats from the first, but the youth has a safe home, so it's not surprising that the story turns out well. Well, well enough.

Maybe the connection is that the safe home is a library; the orphan is actually raised in and by a library and librarians. The anima-and-shadow heroine of Stepping... has to absorb and rebuild literature to make herself a safe world, even though she had family all along.

Probably the real connection is that I react so strongly to mentions of libraries.

ISBN: 0441011306

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Mother Aegypt and Other Stories, Kage Baker

Good short stories, independent of their several related longer works.

Several of them are Trad. fairy-tales reset to be peculiar to California. These are fine and not forced; the mysterious prince in Winchester House is especially good, using the post-Civil-War background of the Wild West (cf. The Virginian) to replace Old World dynastic tropes.

I prefer the stories that make up a Stone Age for present California without external colonization, as The Anvil of the World did; a mythology that would make sense if we knew the present conditions of the West Coast and nothing of its actual past.

That may not be what Baker is trying to do at all; or maybe it comes naturally with writing time-travel stories that must hide a different present and cataclysmic future in what we do know of the past.

ISBN: 1892389754

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March 22, 2005

Murder in a Mill Town, P. B. Ryan

This is one of the more successful hybrids of the Kinsey Millhone (sp?) tough-PI mystery subgenre with the Victorian-lady mystery subgenre. It's set in Gilded Age Boston, which provides all sort of plausible rich corruption and desparate poverty for basically noir plot. The heroine had a vicious girlhood, but is working as a governess for an unshakeable Brahmin, which lets her move between the legal and the violent worlds more plausibly than most Victorian tough dames.

ISBN: 0425197158

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March 11, 2005

Getting there from here

I should be modelling a final, but I wanted to nod enthusiastically to Caveat Lector's latest musings on the Google/scanning/Gorman kerfuffle. Also, I am more optimistic than she is about the eventual conversion of buckets of bitmap to useful digital texts.

As a friend of Distributed Proofreading, and a constant reader of its products, I feel that it will all work itself out eventually as long as the scanned images are available to anyone who's perplexed by a reading. (AFAIK the original books will also be as available as they used to be?) Eventually may be decades or centuries, but somebody will be gripped by the need to make this book a pleasure to read for all the people who really ought to read it. The more people the books have access to, the sooner each one will find its loving midwife. And the tools will get better - Dorothea's use of a concordance to backstop proofreading for scannos is GENIUS.

I wouldn't say PG has had scanning licked, actually; I have a Civil War book with every tip-in, pearl-font table, list of idiosyncratically spelled proper names, incredibly fine-engraved map you don't want to deal with, and a terribly broken five-inch spine; I think there's a orbital scanner in SF that I could use through DP, but I'm not in SF...

It is true that the text artisanry, the conversion of a collection of proofread pages to a coherent book, is the slowest point, probably the bottleneck, and (I fear) the part least amenable to someone casually coming by and fixing errors later. DP would be better off if it/they/we could teach/learn markup skills faster. I'm kind of perplexed by the TEI instructions I've found online, and I can't be the worst-prepared person looking; I can use LaTex, I've edited DTDs, I read books with Scholarly Apparatus. The online instructions seem to be reminders for people who have been taught by a human, as is proper for something both an art and a craft, but doesn't speed up a whole lot when done in BBS and IM. (In no way do I speak for DP, but I think this would not be a minority view in its forums.)

The University of Washington has a digital humanities ?minor?, including a course next quarter that probably touches text-artisanry and certainly discusses metadata. I cannot possibly fit this course in. It does make me wonder why literature and history classes don't do more proofing and markup, as, one might say, the letter-scale act of close reading.

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March 07, 2005

Sea Changes of the Toucan Pirates, Toucan Pirates

"Traditional Irish instrumentals with authentic pirate sound effects!"

It dawns on me slowly that the appeal of Pirates! ("Pirates: now more than ever", says my other half) is principally to the scarcely piratical. This recording should fit in.

The steel drum fits the music surprisingly well, being as forceful as a bodhran and more melodic. The other piratization only accidentally enthralled me, though; it's played very neatly and precisely, and at sensible breaks in the music everyone announces, "Arrr!", also neatly and precisely. It's not just unusually sober for pirate jokes, it's awfully sober for the extensive dance opus of Trad.

I was going to write that pirate music should have more swagger and snap, but the ear of my imagination insists that they actually went in for treacly sentimental songs with raunchy choruses.

Anyhow, as I say, I enjoy this, however tangentially; and I think I'd have liked it a whole lot before adolescence taught me what fun warping the tempo can be.

Dunno why a steel drum band comes across as careful, but I can't be the only person who liked it, as this is only the last of three Pirate Adventures they've recorded.

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March 04, 2005

Bab: A Sub-Deb, Mary Roberts Rinehart

Nothing bad happens to the Sub-Deb, except that occasionally she spends even more money than her lavish allowance gives her. Everyone likes her, even her older sister; she will clearly get to marry and be adored by the nicest young man; she orders her friends around relentlessly and they like her anyway.

There are other suspicious similarities to Mary Sue fictions:

I had my Work, and it filled my life. There were times when my Soul was so filled with joy that I could hardly bare it. I had one act done in two days. I wrote out the Love seens in full, because I wanted to be sure of what they would say to each other. How I thrilled as each marvelous burst of Fantacy flowed from my pen! But the dialogue of less interesting parts I left for the actors to fill in themselves.

There must be a monograph somewhere on the automobile as a figure of pre-War freedom for women. Bab buys one, without telling her parents; finding the operating costs more than she'd budgeted for, she starts a cab service from the train station. Hijinks ensue.

Most other hijinks are about clothes or money, although the War starts partway through so there is a Spy subplot and she practically gives her courtier the white feather, which horrified me but he took in manly puttee'd stride.

Project Gutenberg etext #366

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Ragtime in Simla, Barbara Cleverly

Is that a perfect escapist title or what? It's a great little piece of nougat. Not filling, not subtle, but the characters are likeable and the several looming disasters in the political background give the whole some weight that it otherwise lacks.

There's not actually a lot of ragtime, and the plot would have worked for Wilkie Collins. The social disjuncture that was so useful in The Last Kashmiri Rose is present, but not as stressful for the hero, nor as useful to the plot.

ISBN: 0440242231

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March 01, 2005

The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I, Edward Gibbon

More scraps:

A martial nobility and stubborn commons, possessed of arms, tenacious of property, and collected into constitutional assemblies, form the only balance capable of preserving a free constitution against enterprises of an aspiring prince.

The character of the tribunes was, in every respect, different from that of the consuls. The appearance of the former was modest and humble; but their persons were sacred and inviolable. Their force was suited rather for opposition than for action. They were instituted to defend the oppressed, to pardon offences, to arraign the enemies of the people, and, when they judged it necessary, to stop, by a single word, the whole machine of government. As long as the republic subsisted, the dangerous influence, which either the consul or the tribune might derive from their respective jurisdiction, was diminished by several important restrictions. Their authority expired with the year in which they were elected; the former office was divided between two, the latter among ten persons; and, as both in their private and public interest they were averse to each other, their mutual conflicts contributed, for the most part, to strengthen rather than to destroy the balance of the constitution. ^* But when the consular and tribunitian powers were united, when they were vested for life in a single person, when the general of the army was, at the same time, the minister of the senate and the representative of the Roman people, it was impossible to resist the exercise, nor was it easy to define the limits, of his imperial prerogative.

We should disgrace the virtues of the Antonines by comparing them with the vices of Hercules or Jupiter. Even the characters of Caesar or Augustus were far superior to those of the popular deities. But it was the misfortune of the former to live in an enlightened age, and their actions were too faithfully recorded to admit of such a mixture of fable and mystery, as the devotion of the vulgar requires. As soon as their divinity was established by law, it sunk into oblivion, without contributing either to their own fame, or to the dignity of succeeding princes.

Faustina, the daughter of Pius and the wife of Marcus, has been as much celebrated for her gallantries as for her beauty. The grave simplicity of the philosopher was ill calculated to engage her wanton levity, or to fix that unbounded passion for variety, which often discovered personal merit in the meanest of mankind. ^2 The Cupid of the ancients was, in general, a very sensual deity; and the amours of an empress, as they exact on her side the plainest advances, are seldom susceptible of much sentimental delicacy. Marcus was the only man in the empire who seemed ignorant or insensible of the irregularities of Faustina; which, according to the prejudices of every age, reflected some disgrace on the injured husband. He promoted several of her lovers to posts of honor and profit, ^3 and during a connection of thirty years, invariably gave her proofs of the most tender confidence, and of a respect which ended not with her life. In his Meditations, he thanks the gods, who had bestowed on him a wife so faithful, so gentle, and of such a wonderful simplicity of manners.

During the second Punic war, the Romans imported from Asia the worship of the mother of the gods. Her festival, the Megalesia, began on the fourth of April, and lasted six days.
The streets were crowded with mad processions, the theatres with spectators, and the public tables with unbidden guests. Order and police were suspended, and pleasure was the only serious business of the city.

In the lucrative provincial employments, the minister shared with the governor the spoils of the people. The execution of the laws was penal and arbitrary. A wealthy criminal might obtain, not only the reversal of the sentence by which he was justly condemned, but might likewise inflict whatever punishment he pleased on the accuser, the witnesses, and the judge.

What Gibbon improperly calls, both here and in the note, tumultuous decrees, were no more than the applauses and acclamations which recur so often in the history of the emperors.
The custom passed from the theatre to the forum, from the forum to the senate. Applauses on the adoption of the Imperial decrees were first introduced under Trajan. (Plin. jun. Panegyr. 75.) One senator read the form of the decree, and all the rest answered by acclamations, accompanied with a kind of chant or rhythm.
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