Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Monday, August 30, 2010
When it first became common for college students to write on computers, researchers noticed some changes in the quality of their writing. (I think I read about this first in Michael Heim’s 1989 book Electric Language, though I could be misremembering.) On the sentence level, they tended to improve, largely because it is so easy on screen to make changes to improve word choice, sentence structure, and basic grammar and syntax. By contrast, before electronic word-processing the making of such changes was so laborious — involving the delicate application of White-Out at best, retyping of whole pages at worst — that most of us just didn't bother. We had significant incentive not even to notice such shortcomings.
But word-processed papers, at least in those early days, tended to be more poorly organized than their typed or handwritten predecessors. The use of multiple sheets of paper, coupled with most writers’ need to produce drafts that had to be retyped at least once, allowed for and even encouraged visualizing of the paper as a whole. You could lay out pages before you and just see how the words on one page related to the words on others. You could non-metaphorically cut and paste, and then rearrange paragraphs or whole sections. But when the writer’s view was cut down to a few lines on the screen, and the rest of the paper was invisible without scrolling — which of course didn't make more of the paper visible, just some different part of it — it became harder to discern the overall shape of the paper, and so while papers got better in stylistic and mechanical ways they got organizationally worse.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
There’s been a lot of talk in my Twitter feed and elsewhere online about this NYT story on open-access online peer review of literary scholarship. For me, this model marks an obviously significant improvement over the usual peer-review model. Pretty much everyone else whose views I’ve seen feels the same way, but their emphasis — and for the most part that of the story itself — is chiefly on the value of making decisions more open and transparent and therefore more accountable.
Those are good things, but I’m more interested in how this richer, denser, and yet also faster process could make scholarship just plain better. By aggregating responses, this model allows the author to see how people in general are responding to his or her argument — and then to reply in turn, either by agreeing with the criticisms or by re-emphasizing the original argument. In either case, the author then has the opportunity to revise the article in ways that can greatly strengthen its argument. After all, even if you don't agree with your critics, the clearer understanding you have of their objections the more effectively you can address those objections. And if you do agree with your critics, at least to a point, you can revise your argument accordingly.
Also, the more eyes that read your work — assuming, as is fair to assume in this case, that they are pretty well-informed eyes — the more likely it is that someone will come up with an apposite quotation that helps or challenges your thesis, or will alert you to some research that you hadn’t known about that affects the argument. This won't always be an obviously good thing for you — it wouldn't be pleasant to discover data that undermines your whole thesis, or to find that someone else has already made your argument — but for serious scholars this will almost never happen, and less serious ones will benefit from the lesson in the need to cover all your research bases.
More important, this model will be better for the cause of knowledge itself. Stronger arguments are stronger because they take the legitimate available evidence more fully into account. If we can get interested parties to do more to share the evidence they have, we will have more of what the Bible calls iron sharpening iron. And that’s good for the cause of scholarship.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Episode 12 of Ulysses is called “Cyclops,” and in the schematic outline of the book that Joyce produced for a few friends the “technic” (technique) of the episode is identified as gigantism. Everything here is extreme; it’s too much; it’s over the top. See for instance the introductory description of the Irish-nationalist pub-hanger known elsewhere in the episode simply as the Citizen:
The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero. From shoulder to shoulder he measured several ells and his rocklike mountainous knees were covered, as was likewise the rest of his body wherever visible, with a strong growth of tawny prickly hair in hue and toughness similar to the mountain gorse (Ulex Europeus). The widewinged nostrils, from which bristles of the same tawny hue projected, were of such capaciousness that within their cavernous obscurity the fieldlark might easily have lodged her nest. The eyes in which a tear and a smile strove ever for the mastery were of the dimensions of a goodsized cauliflower. A powerful current of warm breath issued at regular intervals from the profound cavity of his mouth while in rhythmic resonance the loud strong hale reverberations of his formidable heart thundered rumblingly causing the ground, the summit of the lofty tower and the still loftier walls of the cave to vibrate and tremble.
That’s one style taken too far, amplified unnaturally. Here’s another one, from the end of the episode, describing the consequences of the Citizen’s having thrown a biscuit tin at the departing Leopold Bloom:
The catastrophe was terrific and instantaneous in its effect. The observatory of Dunsink registered in all eleven shocks, all of the fifth grade of Mercalli's scale, and there is no record extant of a similar seismic disturbance in our island since the earthquake of 1534, the year of the rebellion of Silken Thomas. The epicentre appears to have been that part of the metropolis which constitutes the Inn's Quay ward and parish of Saint Michan covering a surface of fortyone acres, two roods and one square pole or perch. All the lordly residences in the vicinity of the palace of justice were demolished and that noble edifice itself, in which at the time of the catastrophe important legal debates were in progress, is literally a mass of ruins beneath which it is to be feared all the occupants have been buried alive. From the reports of eyewitnesses it transpires that the seismic waves were accompanied by a violent atmospheric perturbation of cyclonic character. An article of headgear since ascertained to belong to the much respected clerk of the crown and peace Mr George Fottrell and a silk umbrella with gold handle with the engraved initials, crest, coat of arms and house number of the erudite and worshipful chairman of quarter sessions sir Frederick Falkiner, recorder of Dublin, have been discovered by search parties in remote parts of the island respectively, the former on the third basaltic ridge of the giant's causeway, the latter embedded to the extent of one foot three inches in the sandy beach of Holeopen bay near the old head of Kinsale. Other eyewitnesses depose that they observed an incandescent object of enormous proportions hurtling through the atmosphere at a terrifying velocity in a trajectory directed southwest by west. Messages of condolence and sympathy are being hourly received from all parts of the different continents and the sovereign pontiff has been graciously pleased to decree that a special missa pro defunctis shall be celebrated simultaneously by the ordinaries of each and every cathedral church of all the episcopal dioceses subject to the spiritual authority of the Holy See in suffrage of the souls of those faithful departed who have been so unexpectedly called away from our midst. The work of salvage, removal of débris, human remains etc has been entrusted to Messrs Michael Meade and Son, 159 Great Brunswick street, and Messrs T. and C. Martin, 77, 78, 79 and 80 North Wall, assisted by the men and officers of the Duke of Cornwall's light infantry under the general supervision of H. R. H., rear admiral, the right honourable sir Hercules Hannibal Habeas Corpus Anderson, K. G., K. P., K. T., P. C., K. C. B., M. P, J. P., M. B., D. S. O., S. O. D., M. F. H., M. R. I. A., B. L., Mus. Doc., P. L. G., F. T. C. D., F. R. U. I., F. R. C. P. I. and F. R. C. S. I.
This episode occupies about forty pages in Ulysses, but Infinite Jest is a thousand-page exercise in gigantism. It’s impossible to tell how much of this is strictly intentional and how much is the effect of writerly indiscipline, but either way, I think it's a problem. Most episodes (the sections of IJ, like those of Ulysses, are best described as episodes rather than chapters, I think) are approximately three times longer than they need to be: there are just too many words, phrases, and whole paragraphs that do nearly nothing to advance the narrative or deepen the characterizations or fill in the fictional world's weave.
Consider endnote 110, for instance, in which Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin have a phone conversation about the causes and consequences of Québecois nationalism — a conversation that breaks off in mid-sentence. (Or maybe it’s just the endnote that does so.) The note is thousands of words long, but could communicate everything it needs to communicate at perhaps one-fourth the length, or less. And I can't figure out any reason why this particular passage should be so long. A little earlier in the book there’s an also quite lengthy account of a few residents of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House sitting around and doing not much in particular — arguments start and then stop, Don Gately (a former resident, now on staff) tries repeatedly to figure out what color the ceiling is . . . it seems pretty pointless, but pointlessness is the point. That is, the narration is mimetic of the experience of the residents: it, like their day, just rambles along without anything much in the way of pattern and coherence.
So in that case the tendency towards gigantism is effective. But too often it isn't. I am coming more and more to suspect that Infinite Jest would be a great book at half its current length.
(And I will just add that the the mad-genius patriarch of the Incandenza family, the creator of Enfield Tennis Academy and maker of an astonishingly wide range of films — including the most powerful film of all, the Entertainment, also known as Infinite Jest — the fabulous artificer, you might call him, is James O. Incandenza, initials J.O.I., almost the French word joie, just as Joyce is almost the English word “joy.” Cf. the German Freud.)
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
You wouldn’t just pick up someone’s telephone and start fiddling with it – just as you wouldn’t pick up a wallet or handbag and start rifling through the compartments or click around somebody’s desktop without their permission. Presumably the same technology etiquette applies to the iPad, creating another layer of difference between the device and the media it is starting to supplant. However, you would feel pretty confident about picking up somebody’s copy of Wired and casually flick through the pages, probably without even asking for permission, as the very act of picking up a magazine, be it in a shop or from someone else’s coffee table, is not an infringement of privacy. Will this make electronic books and magazines more personal and intimate?
Monday, August 23, 2010
swissmiss (in the comments to an earlier post), what we do with our hands when we read books.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Friday, August 20, 2010
So, in footnote 304 — ten thousand words or so ostensibly devoted to a history of Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents — we get a beautifully and truly prophetic account of online plagiarism, a topic of occasional interest here at TP. A teenager named James Struck consults the B.P.L. ArchFax database for information about this group, “one of the most feared cells in the annals of Canadian extremism,” while researching a paper he must write for his History of Canadian Unpleasantness class. And of course the possibility of copying and pasting from an online source is irresistible to him. He spends a lot of time thinking not only about what he’s going to steal but also how he’s going to conceal the theft — though as he grows more and more exhausted he also grows less and less self-critical, and ends up just tossing stuff in that surely will get him nabbed. Then:
What’s interesting to Hal Incandenza [the closest thing IJ has to a protagonist] about his take on Struck [and some other students] is that congenital plagiarists put so much more work into camouflaging their plagiarism than it would take just to write up an assignment from conceptual scratch. It usually seems like plagiarists aren’t lazy so much as kind of navigationally insecure. They have trouble navigating without a detailed map’s assurance that somebody has been this way before them. About this incredible painstaking care to hide and camouflage the plagiarism — whether it’s dishonesty or a kind of kleptomaniacal thrill-seeking or what — Hal hasn't developed much of any sort of take.
But surely the “navigationally insecure” — acute phrase, that — are unlikely to be thrill-seekers. Isn't it more likely that they’re not just hiding their sources, but also hiding — from themselves as much as from their teachers — the fact of their insecurity?
And one more thing: the article Struck plagiarizes explains that Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents have their origin in a game played by Québécois teenagers. It's called Le Jeu (or La Culte) du Prochain Train, and the goal of the game is to stand next to railroad tracks as a train approaches, with five other people, and to be the last of the six to leap across the tracks. Supposedly this leads to players who jump an instant too late and have their legs severed by the onrushing train. Now, here's the point: the whole story is completely nonsensical. You couldn't possibly play such a game. Start with the fact that the players would have to stand in a row so that they're not equidistant from the train; plus no one jumping across tracks would do so with legs neatly trailing behind to be conveniently severed (try it and see). The game is, I believe, only described in the article Struck consults — though it's mentioned in at least one other place without description — so maybe the article is completely fabricated. Maybe Struck is being suckered. (I haven't finished the book yet, so perhaps I'll find out.)
Thursday, August 19, 2010
“The Case for Boredom” isn't really a case for boredom as such, but for pauses — for moments, especially in the lives of young people, when external stimuli cease long enough for some actual thought to arise, or contemplation to occur, or (mirabile dictu) mere silence to settle in for a time.
In Boredom: the Literary History of a State of Mind, Patricia Meyer Spacks explains that boredom as such is a relatively recent invention, from the eighteenth century at the latest. Before that we had melancholy (which was a kind of affliction of the spirit) and, further back still, acedia (which was a sin). What’s distinctive about boredom is that we don't see it as either a condition of our own selves or a sin, but rather something that just happens to us. When we’re bored, we don't think there’s anything wrong with us: we think the world is at fault. Stupid old world — it doesn't interest me. And interesting me is the world’s job.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
I really think Infinite Jest ought to be discussed as a novel, rather than a prophecy, but there’s no way of avoiding some acknowledgement of the latter element. Jason Kottke posted recently about the novel’s anticipation of Apple’s FaceTime technology, but it also anticipates Peapod (online ordering and delivery of groceries, though in IJ by teenagers driving their own cars, like pizza delivery people) and Netflix (entertainment “cartridges” arriving in the mail) and who knows what else. Early in the book we even see the phrase “killer apps,” which I did not think existed in the early- to mid- 90s, when Wallace was writing the book.
But in some respects the book is already taking on the aura of retro-futurism. Consider those “cartridges,” for instance: physical media for movies? Dude, how old-school can you get? And there are points in the book when people are doing the equivalent of a Google search — a “B.P.L. ArchFax database search” — and get, like, four hundred hits for their search term. Hard to believe that once sounded like an avalanche of data.
More on ArchFax database searches in a later post. . . .
Monday, August 16, 2010
Yeah, I know everybody read Infinite Jest last summer, but I didn't. I had a book to write. Also this summer. So I am finally getting around to it, but have been somewhat comically delayed by indecisiveness: paperback or Kindle?
I’ve had the big paperback version for a while, and I was expecting to read that. I got myself a bookmark, and then stuck a Post-it note in the endnotes for rapid reference; I even printed out a list of significant characters and taped it to the inside back cover. I sharpened my pencils, and then plunged in.
But darn, that book is big and awkward. Also, it has a lot of words per page, and per line — understandable, given the novel’s length, but not ideal for readability. And then I started thinking that I might want to blog about it, and in that case, being able to access underlined passages online for quick & easy copying & pasting would be a large plus. . . .
So I bought the Kindle version. All the above problems solved . . . but . . . I found that I was missing the visual cues that codexes offer. I don't often miss them, or not all that much anyway, but in this case I miss them. Wallace goes off on these long riffs, but on the Kindle it’s hard to tell how long they are; whereas when holding the codex I could flip ahead to see how long I should be prepared to keep my concentration before I can expect a break. Also, I found that I don't wholly trust the Kindle the way I trust printed books: for instance, in a relatively early episode featuring a conversation between two men on a hilltop overlooking Tucson, Arizona, there’s a sudden cut to a description of vast herds of enormous feral hamsters in an environmentally ravaged region of the northeastern U.S. / southeastern Canada, and I thought, Wait . . . did someone make a mistake here? Is this actually a footnote misplaced? Did an episode heading get left out? I have seen enough mistakes in Kindle editions that I couldn't, and actually stopped reading until I could compare the codex — in the fidelity and accuracy of which I, like most people, have nearly absolute trust.
(That trust, by the way, isn't automatic and natural, but something that has been built up over centuries by a very complex social economics, as described by Adrian Johns in his magisterial Nature of the Book.) (Turns out that the Kindle was right about the placement of the hamster interlude, but a section break — in the form extra leading between paragraphs — was missing. It was there in the paperback.)
So I decided to go back to the codex. But — again — it’s kinda big. My eyes didn't like tracking that far across the page. If I wanted to annotate anything (and I did) I had to be sitting up. I began to long for the small size and light weight of the Kindle, and the ability to underline passages while recumbent. . . .
So I think I’m back to the Kindle. One way or another, I’m going to get this thing read, and there will be some comments on this blog along the way.
(However, blogging will continue to be lighter than usual for a while. I will be on the road this coming week with limited online access, so while I have queued up a couple of posts I might not have many chances to reply to comments.)
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Here’s a really thoughtful post by Siobhan Phillips on the highly fraught relationship between e-readers and verse. Phillips wants to argue that poetry’s concern with lineation and space ought to cause us to rethink what books and texts are. Poetry is not just a problem for e-reading, but a challenge to us to reconsider what we think is intrinsic, and what extrinsic, to a text, especially a literary text.
I was thinking along similar lines when I was working on Auden’s Age of Anxiety, because Auden was so concerned about the appearance of his work on the page. He frequently quarreled with his American publisher, Random House, about the appearance of his books. “It isn't that I don't realise that, as such things go, the fount [font] is well designed,” he wrote to Bennett Cerf in 1944. “It's a matter of principle. You would never think of using such a fount for, say, ‘The Embryology of the Elasmobranch Liver’, so why use it for poetry? I feel very strongly that ‘aesthetic’ books should not be put in a special class.” And then, in 1951, he told Publishers Weekly, “I have a violent prejudice against arty paper and printing which is too often considered fitting for unsalable prestige books, and by inverted snobbery I favor the shiny white paper and format of the textbook. Further, perhaps because I am near-sighted and hold the page nearer my nose than is normal, I have a strong preference for small type.”Nick Jenkins, a wonderful Auden scholar, has written: “In 1946, when he told Random House what he wanted for The Age of Anxiety, he loaned them his copy of A Treatise on a Section of the Strata from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Cross Fell, with Remarks on Mineral Veins, by Westgarth Forster, a book originally published in 1821 but that he seems to have owned in the third edition of 1883, and instructed them to copy its appearance. They did. A Treatise on a Section of the Strata had been set in Scotch, an extremely popular 19th century typeface, and the Kingsport Press in Tennessee used the Linotype version of Scotch for Auden's book.” (We couldn't use it for our edition, though.)
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Via this post by Tim Carmody at Snarkmarket, or rather the comments thereupon, I found this story about life as a freelance writer. It made my blood run cold, not because I’ve been in that situation but because there but for the grace of God. . . .
I’ve had some wonderful relationships with editors over the years, but also some of the nightmares Richard Morgan experienced. Once I was commissioned to write two reviews for a magazine, wrote and submitted them, then waited and waited to find out when they were going to run. Finally I sent an email inquiry to the editor. No answer. A month later, another email inquiry. No answer. After a couple of weeks more I started writing other people in the office. I was promised a quick reply, which didn't come. Finally, after a few more promptings, they got back to me: they couldn't use the reviews because they were no longer timely. (I’m thankful that both reviews eventually appeared elsewhere.)
Or this: I got an email from a magazine editor asking if I would expand something I wrote in a blog post into an article. I did so, and sent it to him. No reply. So I followed the pattern I described earlier: sent emails first to the editor who had commissioned the piece, then to others in the office. I got a reply from another editor — an editor who had previously written to me expressing a great interest in having me write for his magazine — promising to get back to me soon. I have never heard another word from anyone at that magazine.
And then there’s the matter of chasing for payment. All of the magazines I have written for have been good about paying, though perhaps they have moved a little slowly for my taste: sometimes magazines and publishing houses alike need to be prompted to part with their brass. I’m kind of the same way, so I suppose I should be more understanding — but my pockets aren't as deep as theirs.
(Of course, editors have their horror stories about writers too. But not about me: as a writer I am perfect in every way.)
I said earlier that these are equivalent to “the nightmares Richard Morgan experienced” — but actually, that’s not true at all. Because I have a full-time job as a teacher, and writing is what I do on the side, these are really just annoyances for me. I couldn't plausibly call them “nightmares.” Whether I eat or not doesn't depend on what editors do or fail to do. But whenever I start having daydreams about quitting teaching and writing full-time, I’ll go back and take another look at Richard Morgan’s story. Then the mood of those daydreams will change in a hurry.
Monday, August 9, 2010
Friday, August 6, 2010
When the wonderful literary critic Tony Tanner died twelve years ago, Colin McCabe wrote an obituary containing these lines:
The degree he undertook at Cambridge was largely the product of a union of I.A. Richards’s methods of practical criticism and F.R. Leavis’s historical moralism. Both for very different reasons situated English literature as the central discipline for a modern university: a discipline focused on close reading of the canon - the body of English literature from Chaucer to Eliot which recorded Arnold’s “best that had been thought and said”.
To read English at Cambridge in the late Fifties was to have the last opportunity to read the whole canon of English literature. The texts had been agreed for 30 years, the secondary literature was still modest and while history, sociology and anthropology could make contributions to the “central discipline of the modern university”, the questions posed by both theory and popular culture had yet to be articulated.
It’s hard not to hear this as a nostalgic narrative, though the nostalgia isn’t explicit. McCabe seems to sigh as he remembers the days when academic literary study knew — just knew — what it was doing.
Contrast this to the view expressed by Valentine Coverly, the devoted mathematician in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, as he tries to explain how chaos theory and fractal geometry are reshaping our understanding of the world:
The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.
(Val’s preference for a time when “everything you thought you knew is wrong” may be shared even by people who don't think that we’re living in such a time. Neal Stephenson’s fascination with the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, in his Baroque Cycle, is clearly a function of his sense that that was really a time when existing intellectual worlds had been turned upside and nobody knew what was coming next.)
An interesting characterological divide: between those who prefer the periods of clear intellectual orientation — more or less what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science” — and those who like living in the midst of chaotic upheaval.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
* Don't post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.
* If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to attract people who don't yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.
* Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won't fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.
* Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.
* Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.
* If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.
One more random but really interesting point from Lanier. He looks at the famous Turing test in a very distinctive way:
But the Turing test cuts both ways. You can't tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you've just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you've let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?
Monday, August 2, 2010
This is a reasonably good story about plagiarism, covering the usual theories about How Social Media Are Changing Our Kids, but offering some rebuttals as well. But there’s one point that always emerges in stories on this topic that bug me a little, i.e.:
At Rhode Island College, a freshman copied and pasted from a Web site’s frequently asked questions page about homelessness — and did not think he needed to credit a source in his assignment because the page did not include author information. . . .
And at the University of Maryland, a student reprimanded for copying from Wikipedia in a paper on the Great Depression said he thought its entries — unsigned and collectively written — did not need to be credited since they counted, essentially, as common knowledge.
Professors used to deal with plagiarism by admonishing students to give credit to others and to follow the style guide for citations, and pretty much left it at that.
But these cases — typical ones, according to writing tutors and officials responsible for discipline at the three schools who described the plagiarism — suggest that many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.
Hasn't anyone here ever heard of playing dumb? Anyone can say “I didn't know it was wrong” — but are they really as ignorant as they claim? Haven't people been pleading innocence-through-ignorance as long as there have been rules or laws? Let’s have a bit of skepticism here, people. Not all students are as clueless as they claim when backed into a corner.
Commentary on technologies of reading, writing, research, and, generally, knowledge. As these technologies change and develop, what do we lose, what do we gain, what is (fundamentally or trivially) altered? And, not least, what's fun?
Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program of Baylor University and the author, most recently, of The “Book of Common Prayer”: A Biography and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. His homepage is here.
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