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A New Life Awaits You…on the Off World Colonies!

December 6, 2010

A taxing weekend, dealing with my living situation, a situation that was supposed to be over and done with yesterday but isn’t.  Suffice it to say I’m looking forward to my new life, pushing the restart button yet again, and if the dregs of this situation doesn’t resolve themselves by EOD today, I’ll be resolving them myself.  I’ve taken control of quite a few situations lately, and feel pretty good about it.  My weight loss has gotten stuck, but I’ll be unsticking that starting today, too.  I don’t get personal on here for a lot of reasons, mostly because I find “dear diary” blog entries to be pretty boring.  This is where my intellectual life goes, and “feelings” only come into it when I have to admit that they’ve caused the failure of a project, as happened with the Alex book. 

I don’t see “feelings” interfering with the Bronzino novel, however – for once and at long last, I’ve found a set of characters none of whom are “me,” and so I’m free to make them suffer without suffering myself.  (I have a sketch of a plot, which I’ll lay out some time this week.)  So there are fewer obstacles to actually writing a novel this go-round, though one of the problems as always when you work for a living is time.  I’ve written and published eight books, all of which were written while I was working full time – just as I do today, I’d get up early and write, then go to work, like Trollope dashing off triple-deckers before galloping away to reform the Irish post office.  (Time is all the more precious now that I’m writing from research rather than experience, and I can’t just dash off what comes to mind but have to do copious research before I can even transport my characters from one town to another.)  And though I’m older now, and the dreams of fiscal and critical glory which drove me to jump up and write have been tamed, I may be able to do so again, though that’ll mean sacrificing some blogging to the demands of fiction. 

Not all of it though, since “thinking out loud” is necessary to get your thoughts right (I’m a notorious talker-to-myself).  I’m the sort of person who cultivates only one or two close friends at a time, and I’ve had the bad luck to have my two smartest friends move away (though one is moving back next summer).  I’m not part of any artistic “community,” so I don’t have the feedback or stimulation or support most creatives get from their network.  I’m hoping my art history class at “uni-bloody-versity darling” will get something going in that department, but always in the back of my mind is that old Smiths lyric – “When you want to live, how do you start, where do you go, whom do you need to know?”

My new life, at least according to plan, will involve more people who read books, and that’s a good start.

Computers are reading more books these days as well, and the more I read about the field of “digital humanities,” the more interested I get in pursuing it (and however much I may rag on Google, I give credit where credit is due to them for supporting this field with their cash and resources).  There was another article in the Times on this on Saturday, discussing a project at George Mason University in which

The titles of every British book published in English in and around the 19th century — 1,681,161, to be exact — are being electronically scoured for key words and phrases that might offer fresh insight into the minds of the Victorians.

This is a wide net to cast, and it has so far revealed some interesting facts, such as the decline of the words “Christian,” “God” and “Bible” in book titles as the Industrial Revolution and its accompanying Second Enlightenment of scientific and educational progress took hold:


But once again, mathematics alone are not enough to tackle the problem at hand, as one scholar found out:

Ms. Martin at Princeton knows firsthand how electronic searches can unearth both obscure texts and dead ends. She has spent the last 10 years compiling a list of books, newspaper and journal articles about the technical aspects of poetry.

She recalled finding a sudden explosion of the words “syntax” and “prosody” in 1832, suggesting a spirited debate about poetic structure. But it turned out that Dr. Syntax and Prosody were the names of two racehorses.

So hand-corrections of the Matrix are still necessary.  The results of a search on the word “evil” remain low throughout the century, although the researchers acknowledge that

Perhaps authors didn’t like to use the word “evil” in the title; perhaps there were other, more common synonyms; perhaps the context points to another subject altogether.

Perhaps a better starting point on that analysis would be the texts of Victorian sermons, which would at least give you not only the most popular synonyms in use, such as “sin” or “wickedness,” but phrases such as or “led astray” or “off the golden path” or whatnot – the euphemistic and repressed culture of the Victorians was too indirect for its nature to be netted in single word searches.  Taking the “American” sensibility of directness (when we think of evil we use the word evil) and applying it to the Victorians isn’t an adequate approach.  Search the sermons for long obtuse strings of alternate references to things like “unspeakable vice,” and then you’ll get the true yardstick.

I hope that this material is made available to mere self-educated workmen like myself and not just to learned dons (emphasis mine):

Some scholars are wary of the control an enterprise like Google can exert over digital information. Google’s plan to create a voluminous online library and store has raised alarms about a potential monopoly over digital books and the hefty pricing that might follow.

But Jon Orwant, the engineering manager for Google Books, Magazines and Patents, said the plan was to make collections and searching tools available to libraries and scholars free. “That’s something we absolutely will do, and no, it’s not going to cost anything,” he said.

Google says it will provide the information not just to scholars but to “the rest of the world as laws permit,” which is the best they can do. This is worrying to me, especially as college costs rise and rise to the point where, just as in the 19th century, only the scions of privilege will be able to attend (my single art history class will be costing me, a resident, approximately $550).  We’re going back to the Victorian and “Gilded” ages in so many ways – the disparity between rich and, well, everyone else; the return of artistic creation to a non-remunerative pursuit available only to Ladies and Gentlemen of Leisure as copyright gets trampled; and the locking up of what knowledge remains protected by copyright and patent behind ivy-covered paywalls.

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