For all you visually-oriented folks out there, here’s an interesting tumblr by Jaz Parkinson, who has created color signatures of various well-known books, based on how often a given color shows up in the text. Like him, I was astonished at how colorful The Road turns out to be.
A while back, I posted about the awesome Digital Public Library of America, source of all sorts of digital archives useful for writers of every stripe. Seeing as I also like to talk maps and mapping, I wanted to point out a development that increases the awesome – the DPL has partnered with the David Rumsey map collection, so now you can look at the 38,000 historical maps from that fine collection at either site.
If only I had checked this out before writing 90,000 words predicated on a slight histori0-geographical misinterpretation.
I don’t normally link to book reviews here, but this, technically speaking, isn’t a review, since it doesn’t really reference the plot and all. Plus, it is awesome. This is how you do it, book reviewers. If you can’t do a whole review in the style of the author you’re reviewing, how do we know you actually read the book?
I’m all in favor as many people as possible discovering the joys of HP Lovecraft (well known for his spare, lean writing style), so in addition to Patton Oswalt’s famous KFC food review, I wanted to point ya’ll to this awesome series of webcomics, which do a great job of bringing Lovecraft stories to life once again. There are a variety of classic Lovecraft tales there, such as The Doom That Came to Sarnath and The White Ship.
This is sort of outside my brief as a leading literary blog, but it is sort of a matter of language, and after all I occasionally dabble in matters of mapping. And it is a complaint, which is my favorite type of post.
Specifically, what is the deal with “football field” becoming a default unit of length. Just to be clear I’m talking “American Football” here – I don’t know if this is only an American thing, but I suspect in other parts of the world media reports and the like go on about things being “nearly six football pitches long” or whatever (though maybe not since the sizes aren’t so carefully regulated).
There are two problems, as I see it, with the obsessive need to convert every length into football field equivalents. The first is that an official football field takes up 120 yards (109 m, for readers in other parts of the world) if you include the endzones. But of course, the whole thing about football is that the zone of play is 100 yards long (0.46 furlongs). So when someone says that some new fountain is “over two football fields” long, do they mean better than 200 yards (36.36 rods) or over 240 yards (10.9 chains)?
This uncertainty gets progressively fuzzier the longer the distance, which leads to the next problem. Does it really help anyone visualize a distance anyway? I can see talking about things in terms of “blocks”, since that is a distance folks actually experience all the time (though of course the problem is the damn things vary in length), but does anyone hear “nearly 43 football fields long” and think “Oh, I get it now”? And at the other end, are you really clarifying things when you say “200 yards (2 football fields)”? I mean, if you know how long a football field is in the first place you know it is about 100 yards long because when you watch a game everyone is always talking about yard lines.
And God help you if you are Canadian, and start thinking about about one of those weird 110-yard (55 fathom) fields, or 150 yards (0.85 miles) with the end zones.
Really, if I had a dollar for every time I heard this weird formulation, I’d probably have $2,000. And to help you visualize that, if I had that in thousand-dollar bills, I’d have two of them.
I’ve been seeing a lot of articles lately about whether men do or don’t “read women”. Seriously? This is enough of a thing to warrant people thoughtfully writing about it? First of all, I guess there is some confusion about whether the question up for discussion is books by women or books about women (and of course, that whole “about” thing is fuzzier than some people would like it to be). So first of all, it seems there are some poor souls out there who think women only write books with female characters and men only write books about male characters. But assuming we’re talking about female authors, are there really a non-trivial number of people out there who filter their reading experience like that?
Based on the article linked above, it seems that Noah Berlatsky, at least, thinks this pathology has something to do with readers wanting to more easily identify with the main character of a book. That’s kind of sad on its own, in my opinion – why would I want to spend all my time reading about people like me? I’m like me already, so I don’t need a book to get another big helping of me. But whatever the reason, it just seems pathetic to cut out huge swaths of authors and their books for no good reason. I mean, should all the men in the reading public deny themselves the pleasure of reading China Mieville just because she …
Okay, I’ve just been told that China Mieville is, in fact, a large, strapping bald man. But that sort of goes to my point. The only logical reason for men not to “read women” is that they write “differently”, but I’ll bet that anyone who only reads authors of one gender only manages that feat because they know the gender ahead of time. I’m not saying most people couldn’t make an educated guess, deprived of the author’s name and any prior information, but I rather doubt the odds would be good enough for 2-1 money. But then, presumably the sort of person who would refuse to read books by women is also the kind of person who does the research to know what he’s going to think of a book before he reads it. I just hope there aren’t really enough of them to worry about.
So the good folks at Miller-Coors brewing recently came out with a few new fake craft beers – Batch 19 and Third Shift. What I’m curious about is how I immediately knew that neither one was what you could actually call a craft beer, despite the rustic labels and so on. I guess I’m sort of a beer snob, but not the kind who hangs around Beer Advocate or whatever, keeping up on the latest trends. I didn’t know that either beer was brewed by Coors until I looked it up for this post, just that they had to be brewed by some massive brewery. But how, given that Coors does everything it can to avoid putting its name on labels or ads? Okay, I guess for Third Shift it was pretty clear just because of the massive advertising campaign – no craft brewery can afford all those TV ads. But I can’t recall ever seeing an ad for Batch 19, so how did I know?
Anyway, it isn’t really that bad, in my humble opinion. Which is kind of strange, given that the whole whoopty-doo about it is that it is supposed to be “pre-prohibition”, and it’s not like beer was necessarily all that great back then. I confess I’m having a hard time coming up with relating this to writing in any way, but I’m genuinely curious, and I’m wondering if someone can tell me what hidden power I used to discern this puzzle, and whether they can tell me how to harness it for something useful.
I had a post involving beer all set to go, but I had a bit of a traumatic experience today, so I’m going to talk about that instead. I won’t go into details, on the vanishingly small chance that the responsible parties might read this, but during a meeting for the ol’ day job, I was told to “synergistically onboard people to grow my network.” Now, that wasn’t all that bad, though one could argue that verbing a propositional adjective phrase is more troublesome than the standard verbing of nouns. And obviously, one “builds” networks from all these onboarded people, one does not “grow” them. And clearly, in this context, “synergistic” is meaning-free, so the speaker would have been better off substituting it with some foul piece of profanity just to jazz things up a bit. But I can handle all that, and better writers than I have complained extensively about such things. No, what stuck in my mind was a few seconds later, when I was instructed to “bootstrap them through the network”.
This will not stand.
As frequent readers will know, I’m basically a descriptivist, and I can chuckle indulgently (albeit through clenched teeth) at people who somehow think that using a perfectly serviceable phrase like “bring in” or “find” is boring and feel the need to spruce things up with a rather opaque and clumsy word – such is the price of low self-esteem. But these theoretical frequent readers will also know that the misuse of metaphor really grinds my gears (so to speak).
So let us explore “bootstrap”, in case any managers happen to be reading this. It’s a word that probably wouldn’t get much use these days, since boots that have them are less common. But in brief, it is that little strap at the top rear of, say, a combat boot, or on either side of the top of a cowboy boot. In a non-metaphoric sense, they are used to help a person pull on their boots, possibly using a boot hook. The primary metaphor involving bootstraps is “to pull yourself up by your bootstraps” – in other words to get into or out of a situation using only the resources at hand, with no outside help. This, of course, led to all sorts of secondary metaphors, such as “bootstrap loading” (or “booting”) where hardware kicks off the initial software being loaded onto a computer, and “bootstrapping” a set of data by resampling from it over and over to obtain better estimates of summary statistics.
The point being – once you get outside the concrete world of actually pulling on boots, anything involving bootstrapping, by definition, can’t involve outside intervention, no matter what. So telling me to “bootstrap” someone is not only not meaningful, it is precisely the opposite of meaningful. It has negative meaning, and I am slightly dumber for having heard it used thus. So I reiterate my plea: if you don’t know what a bootstrap is, just don’t use the word. Assuming we’re dealing with English here, we’ve got more words than we know what to do with, so a) there is no shame in not knowing what the odd one means, and b) there is likely a perfectly good alternative lying around ready to be used.
The Digital Public Library of America (dp.la) went live today. You just don’t see many 4-letter URLs these days. But even more impressive, perhaps, is that it is a free resource holding millions of manuscripts, photos, etc., held by various libraries and archives. Personally, I’ve been on the hunt for pictures of boring Victrorian-era rooms (as opposed to the homes of the rich and famous), but I imagine I’ll be able to come up with many other research-related uses for it. And so will you, I reckon.
I would also like to note that once again, I have resisted the temptation to drive pageviews with a sexy librarian picture, even though it would have been appropriate. Don’t tempt me a third time, current events.