The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'literature'
The Oxford English Dictionary is appealing to the public for help with tracing down a mysterious (and possibly pornographic) 19th-century book, from which a number of quotations used in the dictionary derive. The book, Meanderings of Memory, attributed to one “Nightlark”, is dated to 1851 and cited in 51 dictionary entries for words including “couchward” and “revirginize” (“Where that cosmetic … Shall e'er revirginize that brow's abuse”), though no copies nor any evidence of it having existed have been found:
Hurst was contacted; she expected to track the book down within 10 minutes. "That turned into half an hour, and I was no further along the line to solving it – I looked on Google Books, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in short I looked everywhere I could think of and couldn't come up with anything," said Hurst. "We're not usually completely floored, but this time we're stumped."
The only evidence for the book's existence the OED could find was an entry in a bookseller's catalogue, which includes the description: "Written and published by a well-known connoisseur with the epigraph 'Cur potius lacrimae tibi mi Philomela placebant?'" "We naturally thought the Latin quotation would be a huge clue [but] it's not a quote from anything," said Hurst. "It means, roughly, 'why did my tears please you more, my Philomel?', and Philomela is another name for a nightingale." The book's author, meanwhile, is "Nightlark", she pointed out.
Today in algorithmic content creation: Philip Parker, a professor of marketing in the US, has created an algorithm that automatically generates books on a variety of subjects, gathering information on the internet in the way a human author would. The article suggests that the result is of a somewhat higher quality than the usual spam ebooks harvested from Wikipedia articles:
To be clear, this isn’t just software alone but a computer system designated to write for a specific genre. The system’s database is filled with genre-relevant content and specific templates coded to reflect domain knowledge, that is, to be written according to an expert in that particular field/genre. To avoid copyright infringement, the system is designed to avoid plagiarism, but the patent aims to create original but not necessarily creative works. In other words, if any kind of content can be broken down into a formula, then the system could package related, but different content in that same formula repeatedly ad infinitum.The hundreds of thousands of books generated by this system range from the fairly generalist and relatively cheap (Webster’s English to Haitian Creole Crossword Puzzles: Level 1, which can be yours for $14.95; incidentally, “Webster's” is not a trademark) to the more specialised and pricy (The 2007-2012 World Outlook for Wood Toilet Seats for $795). As the system works on demand, it is even possible to fill the catalogue with books that could exist, and generate the books when someone buys one; it's Borges' Infinite Library as a money-making scheme.
In truth, many nonfiction books — like news articles — often fall into formulas that cover the who, what, where, when, and why of a topic, perhaps the history or projected future, and some insight. Regardless of how topical information is presented or what comes with it, the core data must be present, even for incredibly obscure topics. And Parker is not alone in automating content either. The Chicago-based Narrative Science has been producing sport news and financial articles for Forbes for a while.And following on his success with auto-distilled technical and factual tracts, Parker is next applying his system to the potentially even more lucrative field of romance novels (which have the advantage of both being defined by a formula, not requiring a huge amount of originality, and being the largest share of the consumer book market).
And if romance novels fall next, followed in short order by other functionally formulaic genres (techno-thrillers, for example, or police procedurals), we may soon find ourselves entertained by machines of loving grace. Though there's no reason why it should stop at books; given that the scripts of mass-market films (with the amounts of money invested in their production and the bottom-line-oriented conservatism of the corporations holding the purse strings) are already produced by a highly formulaised process (scriptwriters use special software to define the skeletons of their plots, making sure it fits in the formal constraints of the genre), going further and writing software that will make the plot to the next action blockbuster or quirky indie comedy would be relatively easy. Of course, today, it makes little sense to replace the scriptwriters with a piece of software whilst keeping all the actors, cameramen, lighters, gaffers and best boys on the payroll, though this may change as computer graphics technologies improve:
Using 3D animation and avatars, a variety of audio and video formats can be generated, and Parker indicates that these are being explored. Avatars that read compiled news stories might become preferred, especially if viewers were allowed to customize who reads the news to them and how in-depth those stories need to be.Then, eventually, the software will be miniaturised and commodified, becoming more widely available. Rather than belonging to content barons who fill the stores with algorithmically generated pulp fiction and technical literature, it'll live in your phone, tablet or e-reader, and will tell you stories, sing you songs and show you movies tailored to entertain you, based on your previous selections.
(via David Gerard)
In a Grauniad article on a new zombie-themed novel by MacArthur genius grant recipient Colson Whitehead, more speculation on the political economy of the undead:
Critic and writer Stuart Kelly believes something political is going on when authors use zombies. "It goes back to Das Kapital," he said. "Marx doesn't use the word zombie, but the idea of the worker as repetitive drudge and human machine is there. The vampires are the capitalists; the workers are the zombies. The idea descends through Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School and becomes a paradigm for discussing the unlived life."And previously on the left-right zombie-vampire divide.
In VICE's Motherboard forum, Claire Evans (one half of hippyish art-rave duo YACHT) interviews various science fiction authors about what happened to cyberpunk:
William Gibson: Cyberpunk today is a standard Pantone shade in pop culture. You know it when you see it.
Benjamin Rosenbaum: Just as the innovation of the early rock and rollers and the British Invasion had degenerated (from the punk rock perspective) into the bloated pretensions, the light shows and orchestral follies, of 70s dinosaur bands, so too the authentic speculation of Golden Age SF had degenerated into a series of tropes — FTL galactic empires, humanoid aliens, nefarious AIs, loyal robots — which represented (to the cyberpunks), not thinking about the future, but merely using it as a set dressing. The real future was happening all around them, in waves of privatization and deregulation and postindustrialism and the end of jobs-for-life, in the Apple ][s and 7800 baud modems and BBSs… and the dinosaur bands of SF were ignoring it in favor of the light shows of interstellar colonialist adventure. Now, of course, cyberpunk itself has suffered the same fate. Noir antiheroes in mirrorshades and black trenchcoats hacking into corporate and government systems, the internet envisioned as an immersive (even physically invasive) world — these are no longer daring speculations: they are Hollywood staples. The internet is here and much of its nomenclature derives from cyberpunk’s visions; the world is full of the real-life successors of Case and Hiro — network manipulators with flexible moralities, independent streaks, and a willingness to hide in the nooks and crannies of the Matrix — from Nigerian scammers to Julian Assange. But of course, now that they’re real, they’re harder to imagine as Keanu Reeves saving the day.
Pat Cadigan: Nothing “happened,” it’s just more evenly distributed now.
Douglas Rushkoff: For most people, it was surrendered to the cloud. For those who understand, it stayed on their hard drives.
Neal Stephenson: It evolved into birds.
Bruce Bethke: But out here in the larger world time has moved on, and those kinds of stories look as quaint now as did Chesley Bonestell’s beautiful 1950s spaceship art after Apollo landed on the Moon. The cyberpunk trope, as a literary form, is still stuck firmly in the 1980s, with no hope of ever breaking free.
Jack Womack: Last time I saw cyberpunk I threw 25 cents in its hat.
Irony of the day: apparently books on ethics are stolen more often from libraries than philosophical books not on ethics; after adjusting for other factors (the age of books, and their popularity), books on ethics are almost one and a half times as likely to be stolen.
(via David Gerard)
Margaret Atwood on the difference between science fiction and speculative fiction:
Speculative fiction encompasses that which we could actually do. Sci-fi is that which we’re probably not going to see. We can do the lineage: Sci-fi descends from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; speculative fiction descends from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Out of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea came Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, out of which came We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, then George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Ray Bradbury’s Fahreneheit 451 was speculative fiction, while The Martian Chronicles was not.
Cult author JG Ballard has passed away, aged 78. Ballard is best known for his novels of utopian modernism spawning postmodern dystopias, and extreme and bizarre behaviours arising from the modern, technologically-enhanced human condition, so much to the point that the adjective "Ballardian" emerged to denote those sorts of things.
This just in: Eoin Colfer is the new Douglas Adams. Or, rather, the Irish children's author, best known for the Artemis Fowl novels, has been commissioned to write a new Hitchhiker's Guide book, to be titled "And Another Thing...". And so, the valuable assets that are Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox and such live to be monetised another day.
The Seattle Stranger has an article by an independent bookseller about the battle against book thieves:
There's an underground economy of boosted books. These values are commonly understood and roundly agreed upon through word of mouth, and the values always seem to be true. Once, a scruffy, large man approached me, holding a folded-up piece of paper. "Do you have any Buck?" He paused and looked at the piece of paper. "Any books by Buckorsick?" I suspected that he meant Bukowski, but I played dumb, and asked to see the piece of paper he was holding. It was written in crisp handwriting that clearly didn't belong to him, and it read:
This is pretty much the authoritative top five, the New York Times best-seller list of stolen books. Its origins still mystify me. It might have belonged to an unscrupulous used bookseller who sent the homeless out, Fagin-like, to do his bidding, or it might have been another book thief helping a semi-illiterate friend identify the valuable merchandise.
- Charles Bukowski
- Jim Thompson
- Philip K. Dick
- William S. Burroughs
- Any Graphic Novel
Most used bookstores try to avoid buying unread-looking books from the list above, but they do always sell, and so any crook who figures out how to roll a spine can turn a profit pretty easily. The list of popular books is surprisingly static, although newer artists have earned their place in the pantheon with Hunter S. Thompson and the Beats: Palahniuk, Murakami, and Danielewski have become hugely popular antisellers in the last five years. I've had hundreds of dollars of graphic novels—Sandman, Preacher, The Dark Knight Returns—lifted from right under my nose all at once. Science fiction and fantasy are high in demand, too: The coin of the realm is now, and has always been, the fiction that young white men read, and self-satisfied young white men, the kind who love to stick it to the man, are the majority of book shoplifters.
(via Boing Boing)
Read: Mister Wonderful, a graphic story by Daniel Clowes, dealing with modern alienation, though this time in middle age.
Interestingly, the PDF files contain the unrasterised line art; when OSX Preview shows the pages, it draws it in layers, first the neat shapes of colour, then outlines and shading, then speech/thought bubbles and text.
(via Boing Boing)
After publishing a best-selling crime novel detailing a gruesome torture and murder, Polish crime novelist Krystian Bala has been charged with a similar murder which happened a few years earlier, the victim having been a friend of his ex-wife:
The case was broadcast on Poland’s version of the BBC television programme Crimewatch but it produced no serious leads — only some strange e-mails sent from internet cafés in Indonesia and South Korea, describing the murder as “the perfect crime”.
The first break for the police came when they discovered that Mr Bala, a highly experienced diver, was on a diving trip to South Korea and Indonesia at the time that the e-mails were sent. Then they discovered that he had sold a mobile phone four days after the body of Dariusz J was discovered. It was the same model that the victim was known to have owned, but that police had never found.
Mr Bala offered to take a lie-detector test to prove his innocence and passed. When the transcripts were read out in court, the judge was struck by the very long pauses taken by Mr Bala before answering, a technique that may allow a suspect to mask the physical signs of lying.Of course, that doesn't mean that he did it, though it does start to look somewhat suspicious.
Meanwhile, some light has been shed on another murder mystery, the whereabouts of Lord Lucan; some people, including a retired Scotland Yard detective believe that the disgraced peer, who may have bludgeoned his family nanny to death, is living out of a car in New Zealand, with a cat and a pet possum, no less:
Neighbours say the man has an upper-class English accent and a military bearing like Lord Lucan, who was educated at Eton before serving in the Coldstream Guards.
He is said to have arrived in New Zealand about the time Lucan disappeared and is also understood to be receiving money from property he owns in Britain.
And another one exits this world; Kurt Vonnegut, author of Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five and chronicler of the absurd, has died, a year after coming out of retirement to write a book, A Man Without A Country, bitterly denouncing the state of America under Bush.
Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a story of bohemian, intellectual bootywhang in Communist Prague, has acquired a reputation as a standard seduction prop. Though, according to Maciej Ceglowski, it is a very mediocre book; the literary equivalent of one of those high-concept Working Title films that purports to be sophisticated art-house fare for people who like the aura of intellectuality without the arduous chore of being made to think (or, for that matter, read subtitles):
Milan Kundera is the Dave Matthews of Slavic letters, a talented hack, certainly a hack who's paid his dues, but a hack nonetheless. And by his own admission, this is his worst book. If you strip off the exoticism of Brezhnev-era Czechoslovakia (this rinses off easily in soapy water), you are left with a book full of vapid characters bouncing against each other like little perfectly elastic balls of condensed ego. And every twenty pages the story steps outside for a cigarette so that the author can deliver a short philosophical homily. Kundera has a sterile, cleanroom writing style meant to suggest that he is a surgeon expertly dissecting the human condition before your eyes, but if you look a little more closely, you see he's just performing an autopsy on a mannequin. Or more accurately, a RealDoll.Ceglowski goes on to recommend a set of books by Slavic authors much better than Kundera, and rate their date-impressing potential. He's right on the money for The Master and Margarita (in terms of it being a cracking good read, at least), and I get the feeling that I'm going to have to read Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk.
I just found out that, at the time of his death, one of the projects Edward Gorey had lined up was the illustrations to a new edition of Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings. It's a real pity he never got to do it. (via MeFi)
Claire Thompson, author David Foster Wallace's girlfriend of two years, stopped reading his 67-page breakup letter at page 20, she admitted Monday.
"One thing I found annoying was that you had to read all the way to the middle to figure out what things on the first page of the letter were talking about," Thompson said. "For instance, he kept referring to somebody named The Cackler without explanation until page 11, at which point I finally found out that The Cackler is my friend Renée--essentially forcing me to read the whole first 11 pages over again. And then there are all the footnotes. I always felt he overused those in his valentines, too."
"Maybe I'll pick it up again," Thompson said. "I'd sort of like to see how it ends. Then again, knowing David, it probably just leaves a whole bunch of loose ends untied."
Guatemalan writer, Augusto Monterroso, has died at age 81. Monterroso, winner of Spain's Prince of Asturias literary prize, is credited with writing one of the world's shortest stories. El Dinosaurio (The Dinosaur) reads in its entirety: "Upon waking, the dinosaur was still there."
Rudy Rucker on William Gibson's new novel, Pattern Recognition. The concepts sound interesting, at least superficially.
Mind you, one of the things I don't like about William Gibson's novels is that his characters are all from the same small set of cardboard cutouts. Everyone is, it seems, either a grizzled mercenary techie of some sort, a future-dwelling mutant geek with special senses or a sassy, butt-kicking teenage girl. In fact, I can't remember the differences between his last 2 or 3 novels, because they all melted into one amalgam of hard-boiled one-liners, snippets of disjointed, future-shocked pop culture and random Japanese things. The review suggests that Pattern Recognition may go in the same direction; we already have a hard-boiled "cool hunter" who's so sensitive to things that she's physically allergic to brand names and the obligatory Tokyo references.
I'll probably buy it anyway; whether I remember anything of the plot afterward is another question entirely.
Michael Moorcock on the poor state of English fantasy literature, and the similarities between Lord of the Rings and Winnie the Pooh, being steeped in the moribundly conservative values of restraint and conventionality of a nation in decline:
I sometimes think that as Britain declines, dreaming of a sweeter past, entertaining few hopes for a finer future, her middle-classes turn increasingly to the fantasy of rural life and talking animals, the safety of the woods that are the pattern of the paper on the nursery room wall. Old hippies, housewives, civil servants, share in this wistful trance; eating nothing as dangerous or exotic as the lotus, but chewing instead on a form of mildly anaesthetic British cabbage. If the bulk of American sf could be said to be written by robots, about robots, for robots, then the bulk of English fantasy seems to be written by rabbits, about rabbits and for rabbits.
(via bOING bOING)
Researchers in Wales have found that the types of books you read affect your dreams. Adults who read fiction have stranger dreams than those who don't, and are more likely to remember them; meanwhile, fantasy readers have more nightmares and lucid dreams, while those who prefer fantasy novels have more emotionally intense dreams.
A look at the parallel universe of Christian apocalyptic fiction, comparing and contrasting it with science fiction and techno-thrillers. (via bOING bOING)
Cultural documents: Summaries of Soviet literary classics, most with impeccable socialist credentials:
The daughter of a Volga fisherman becomes a sniper with a Red partisan detachment. She misses her 41st vicitim (a White officer), then winds up stranded with him on a desert island, where they fall in love. However, the White's essentially selfish, bourgeois nature becomes apparent and she shoots him, fulfilling her mission and her class destiny.
A philistine from the NEP era gets accidentally frozen and is revived fifty years later in 1979. The moderns at first mistake him for an honest worker, but then correctly identify him as a bourgeoisus vulgaris , a blood-sucking insect similar to, but more dangerous than, the bedbug. He is put on display in a cage equipped with special filters to trap all the dirty words. (Klop, 1929)
Horrorshow, O my brothers: The latest bestseller in Russia is the diary of two young hoodlums. Titled "Bigger than Ben", the autobiographical tome tells the story of Spiker and Sobakkaa, two podonoki (translated as "scumbags") travelling in London in 1999, and reads like a how-to guide to crime and fraud; it has also won a major literary prize as the best Russian literary début.
The book brilliantly captures the cliché of the contemporary young Russian male: hard-edged, dishonest and callous, distilling his creative flair into nefarious, if not criminal, activity.
His inspiration was his father, an honest engineer who struggled, poor and threadbare, refusing to go into small business until he could do so without sacrificing his principles. Sakin was determined not to live that way.
(via bOING bOING)
Making the best of a bad thing: Convicted perjurer, former Tory deputy chairman and best-selling pulp novelist Lord Jeffrey Archer is able to use his stay in prison as a unique opportunity for research. Archer says that prison has taught him more about drugs than life outside ever did. He has also been using his spare time in writing, but given his history, I doubt we can expect the next Ballad of Reading Gaol to emerge.
A BBC piece on Douglas Coupland, what he is currently working on (which promises to be a lot darker and more paranoid than his earlier works), and his take on the current zeitgeist.
An interesting review of a new compilation of Jorge Luis Borges' non-fictions. (Washington Post, via Robot Wisdom)