books languages

Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis


books literature peevishness

Rosenberg's A Literary Bible: A brief hatchet job


Awful, awful, awful.

I picked up Daniel Rosenberg’s 2009 A Literary Bible with a bit of initial interest, interest that was soon to be thoroughly brutalized.  This turgid morass bills itself as a “translation” of the Hebrew Bible, which is bollocks.  To pick one mite from a mountain, consider this excerpt from what appears to be intended as Chapter 2 of Isaiah:

all the upright oaks
of Bashan
all the straight-backed mountains

and high-rising hills
the skyscrapers
and sheer walls

the Super Powers
and their walls of missiles

Um, what?

This isn’t translation.  This isn’t “literary” anything.  This is Bible-flavored poetastery.  A perfectly legitimate endeavor, as long as you keep it to yourself and don’t try to claim that the random associative crap that floats through your head is anything other than random associative crap that floated through your head.

Not convinced?  Perhaps we should try a bit of “Job”:

We’re all somebody’s workers
in a big factory
grasping for breaks

reaching for paychecks and prizes
here I’m paid these empty months
heavy nights awarded


listen to this mind in pain
this “educated” soul
in words it complains

am I some Frankenstein
to be guarded
can’t go to sleep alone

This may be poetry (in as much as any act of writing stuff down with random line breaks and [ooh!] violating conventional English sentence structure is poetry), but it clearly reflects more on Rosenberg than on the source text.  Perhaps it’s the “method” school of literature: just make sure you emote like a Great Poet-Author while you’re writing it.

His Yahweh talks like an aphasic Yoda.

“Who told you naked is what you are?” he [Yahweh] asked.  “Did you touch the tree I desired you not to eat?”


“What disturbs you so?” said Yahweh to Cain.  “Why wear a face so fallen?  Look up: if you conceive good it is moving; if not good, sin is an open door, a demon crouching there.”

I was horrified anew at each page.  Rosenberg picks and chooses what he “translates,” leaving out books or chapters at whim.  This is, I suppose, a mercy.  I must admit that I thought some of “Lamentations” wasn’t too bad, but at the end he swings into a bathetic

I lighten their labors
I am the guinea pig of their salvation

Recently, I read two poetic renderings of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one by Stephen Mitchell, one by David Ferry.  Neither writer knows Sumerian, Akkadian, or Old Babylonian, and each worked from various literal translations and textual commentaries.  Neither one claims to be “translating” their source; they explicitly state that what they are doing is composing English-language poetry.  While I’m not too keen on the Mitchell (which was a bit tepid and tried to fill in the gaps to make a nicely rounded story), I have much more respect for his efforts than Rosenberg’s haphazard textual flailing.

If you’re in the mood for modern adaption of ancient literature, give this “literary” Bible a miss.  Pick up a copy of Ferry, who understands the importance of language and cadence to poetry.

And so they traveled until they reached Uruk.
There Gilgamesh the king said to the boatman:

“Study the brickwork, study the fortification;
climb the great ancient staircase to the terrace;

study how it is made; from the terrace see
the planted and fallow fields, the ponds and orchards.

One league is the inner city, another league
is orchards; still another the fields beyond;

over there is the precinct of the temple.
Three leagues and the temple precinct of Ishtar

measure Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh.

books mind performance hacks

Foul news: Ron Hale-Evans's upcoming book cancelled

Ron Hale-Evans just twittered that Mind Agility Hacks, his in-progress (and rapidly nearing completion) sequel to Mind Performance Hacks, has been cancelled.

A boo and a hiss to those at O’Reilly Media whose short-sightedness has deprived us of what promised to be another intelligently orchestrated assemblage of tools for exploring and tuning the functioning of the tool that matters most: our grey matter.

I heartily recommend that everyone solace themselves by purchasing a copy of the original MPH.  If you already own one, go ahead and buy another—it’s probably getting dog-eared.


A Modicum of Order

After a moderately hellish Anno Domini 2008, the solstitial vacation was quite welcome.  Rooms were frantically cleaned, relatives descended, food was devoured, and tasty, tasty beer from my birth state was consumed.  At last, the wreckage cleared, I found myself at ends for a few days.

When M—— and I moved to our current house, five years ago or so, the books were not neatly organized.  No, indeed, the first boxes were unloaded without ceremony onto the nearest shelf until all were full,  leaving several dozen which had to be piled into the attic where they yet remain.  A few ordered clusters emerged (philosophy, for example, moved over nearly intact), but others (oy, the Judaica!) seemed to be equally distributed over the entire house.

Desorted Bookshelf

This Saturday, I settled in for the pleasant task of finally sorting through some of the morass, which mostly meant making piles of books on every available horizontal surface (and several wobbly fabric surfaces).  The picture at right shows the dining room table after the first of the shelves had been emptied.  I played Maxwell’s demon, attempting to shuttle like volumes toward their kindred.  But where does one file Thurber’s Fables for Our Time?  Does Manzanar get placed with Holocaust, with the World War II books, or with twentieth-century American history?  (I settled on the last of these for Manzanar, but the Thurber is still a puzzle.)

It will be a long time until the Kindle or its ilk replace the physical volume.  Sure, it’s easier to keep dusted, but the experience of renaming a directory of e-book files is nothing like the tactile pleasure of handling a stack of real tomes.

Maybe its my limited budget, but I’ve never gone in much for collecting volumes of serious bibliophilic interest.  A nice trade paperback can be extremely satisfying, and one doesn’t need to worry about maintaining it in humidity-controlled isolation…content trumps all.

Faced Shelves

Rooting around in one shelf, I made some gleeful rediscoveries: a copy of an Ionesco children’s book (Story Number One), chapbooks of Michael Swanwick short-shorts (Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary and Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna), my hardcover of the Annotated Snark, four volumes that had been originally filed together because of their Gorey cover illustrations.  The real frisson, though, comes from the order itself, looking at the neatly-faced shelves and recalling every book and the reason it was placed with its fellows.

As midnight neared, I realized the task was not to be completed in a weekend.  Laggard books were hustled back willy-nilly and surfaces cleared, but somehow, they had expanded.  All the shelves are full, but many book-feet remain.  The guest room is encrusted with piles and, somehow, a waist-high stack stands in front of the full case in M——‘s sewing room.  Work begins again tomorrow, class on Tuesday, and my evenings will again be spent on my Ph.D. studies.  In spare moments, though, I can refile a book here, a book there, perhaps bring a box down from the attic.  The seed crystal of order has been planted, and the lattice of the library will form inevitably around it.


La gloutonnerie et la bibliothèque

The public library seems to have fallen out of favor, of late. Budgets are slashed. Circulation is down, so the collection must be popularized. Librarians have lost that cultural authority that once let them enforce a stern rule of silence; they even seem grateful for the shenanigans of any Strewwelpeter left to wander around by his piggish parents. What use has the common public library in these days of Internet?

When I moved to Pennsylvania a decade or so ago, I’d fallen out of the habit of libraries. I came from Ann Arbor, an Elysian town of bookstores used and new. Walking the four blocks to downtown, I whiled away many a Saturday strolling from one to the next: West Side, Dawn Treader, David’s . . . there were at least eight within the range of a casual perambulation. Perhaps a drive to Ypsilanti to visit Cross St; a jaunt down to Toledo to Frog Town.

Part of the pleasure was to watch the slow evolution of each inventory, trolling patiently through the shelves wrapped in the scent of old paper. The goal, though, the thrill, was in the kill: a volume of Scholem; a remembered book from childhood (Bellairs, say, with a treasured Gorey frontispiece); a worn paperback of Dick or Zelazny; an issue of Aman’s Maladicta from 1981.

At home, the books piled higher, far exceeding the book-foot capacity of the shelves. I have never sought books as artifacts to be hoarded in alabaster isolation. They are to be kept near at hand, read and handled, annexes to my palace of memory.

When F- entered private school in Pennsylvania, our resources were turned to this new end, and we entered a long period of austerity. Sad as it was, I had to curb my acquisitions.

When one has a personal library, one can survive a year or two of drought. Old volumes are rediscovered. A small cache purchased long ago, boxed and forgotten, emerges from the attic. But after a time, this pales. The soul of the bibliomane craves novelty, the exploration of new semiotic terrain.

It was in this environment of penury and deprivation that I began to rediscover the pleasures of the public library, but slowly. At first, I was dismayed at the plebian assortment. Where was the Calvino? Barely more than one shelf of philosophy? As for the computer books, I would be hesitant to poke them with a stick.

Desperation, though, acts as a Maslovian aqua regia on aesthetic hauteur. The economics of “free” are hard to resist.

As I explored the stacks, I began to realize that my initial impression was awry. As Boswell observed, “But what can a man see of a library being one day in it?” The shelves were not static, and three subsequent visits would reveal new books in each section as they returned from circulation.

Most significant, though, was the lack of risk. If out of a dozen books taken home only one proved to be of interest, nothing was lost. I could allow my tastes to run unfettered, sating my bibliophagy with sheer volume.

Austerity has eased, of late, but the library habit remains. Only rarely will there be a stack of less than two dozen circulating volumes piled by my chair in the dining room. The library blunts the edge of my daily hunger, so the occasional feast is all the sweeter.

books mental exercises zenoli

Mind Performance Hacks: Review and Manifesto

Mind Performance Hacks CoverMy copy of Mind Performance Hacks has been sitting by my chair in the living room for some months, waiting for me to spend some serious time digging into its contents. I picked it up again this past weekend, and was once again impressed with the density of surpassingly cool information packed therein.

The book is perfect for those with omnivorous interests who enjoy pushing the limits of their minds, but I’d venture to suggest that anyone with a modicum of curiosity will find a quite a number of things to pique their enthusiasm.  The book’s 75 short articles (called “hacks”, implying an attractive blend of usefulness, cleverness, and efficacity) are grouped into eight chapters: Memory, Information Processing, Creativity, Math, Decision Making, Communication, Clarity, and Mental Fitness.

Even though I’ve encountered many of the specific topics previously, I found plenty of material that was either new to me or contained interesting perspectives. For example, even though I’ve investigated shorthand systems I’d never paid much attention to Dutton Speedwords. I’ve played around with mental arithmetic, but I’d never encountered the divisibility tests for seven, eleven, and thirteen.

Simply placing all this material into close proximity invites experimentation. While I’ve read much about mnemotechnics, for example, I’ve only put some of the most basic techniques into practice, and never in any sort of systematic fashion. The book starts with a relatively simple pegwords example, then moves into more advanced material, including a system that purports to allow you to remember a list of 10,000 items.

Rather than write a single in-depth review of this book, over the next few months I plan to use the hacks in MPH as jumping-off points for posts, recording my experiences putting them into action. I’ll be ranging through the book freely rather than taking the entries in order.

books organization

A Semblance of Order: Library Management

[Updated 23 July 2007: Minor typographical corrections, added a mention of LibraryThing’s CueCat offer, added a screenshot of the NYPL HLS.]

In which we examine LibraryThing, Delicious Library, and the New York Public Library Home Library System.

Where is human nature so weak as in a bookstore?

—Henry Ward Beecher, 1855

The books continue to accumulate, despite a valiant effort at asceticism . . . I let my guard down for a moment, and there are another couple book-feet sitting on the coffee table. One must face up to the fact that a personal library is not a self-organizing phenomenon.

Well, perhaps that’s not strictly true, but the order that emerges tends to be less than helpful: if I’ve read it recently, it’s lying on some surface (perhaps, I’m sorry to say, on the floor by the bed); if I haven’t read it recently, it’s on a bookshelf somewhere; and if I want to read it, it’s in a box in the attic. It is that last category (and the fear that one of those boxes might actually be mouldering in the basement) that causes the most pain. Getting the books in order is moving up the priority list.

Like any good book-obsessed geek, I’ve been meaning to pick up a bar-code scanner to help automate the tedium of data-entry. Recently, I’ve read about video barcode readers that can pluck and decode the barcodes from a camera. Thus, like any good Linux geek (and being extremely cheap), I started wondering if there were any free or open source software packages I could appropriate. Today, I did some digging.

The best I could dredge up along those lines is /barCode, which looks a bit raw but could perhaps be coaxed to work on my XV6700. During my search, though, I happened across something not free but still quite impressive: Delicious Library.

Delicious Library

Delicious Library is a Mac OS X app with supremely spiffy, live, video barcode recognition. Despite my Linux ways, I’ve been playing around with a MacBook Pro that has an integrated camera, so I figured I’d give it a try.

Delicious Library Screenshot

I sat down next to one of my bookshelves and started scanning. It took a moment to find the right distance and angle, but very quickly there was a beep, and almost instantly DL had sucked down the information from Amazon, displayed a small image of the cover, and read out the title in a synthesized voice. Slick! I proceeded through the first dozen books on the top shelf: of these, three were unrecognized.

DL appears to be performing its primary lookups through the UPC code; as near as I can tell, you have to manually enter the ISBN to run a search if the UPC isn’t found. It took a bit of frustrated poking to figure out how to make that happen . . . for example, there’s no ISBN field visible on the book information entry panel, which was quite vexing. For pre-ISBN books, you appear to be completely out-of-luck. I wanted to just enter the title and have the program give me a list of possible matches from which to choose, but this doesn’t appear to be an option.

Once the books are scanned and recognized, they can be organized by creating shelves and dragging and dropping, but this is about the limit of the interactivity. Books can be rated and notes entered, but there’s no tagging that I could find. The Similar function can be used to list related books on Amazon, but any wishlist management would have to be delegated there; there’s no such capacity in DL.

One theoretically interesting feature is voice search: you can speak the name of any title in your library, and DL will pop it up. I didn’t find this particularly helpful or successful. You need to speak the full title (including subtitle, if any) at just the right speed. Some titles, try as I might, simply would not be recognized. Being able to speak a word or two and get a list of candidates would have been much more useful: if I know exactly what I’m looking for, I hardly need to search for it.

Delicious Library is $40, and the demo will let you scan up to twenty-five books before making you pay. If you’ve got a Mac, it’s definitely worth some experimentation. It allows full import/export, so it might be possible to use the free version to scan the easy parts of your library in 200-book chunks, to be imported into another application.


Delicious Library’s scanning was quite slick, but I could already feel the limitations chafing a bit. I’d glanced at LibraryThing several times over the past few months, but had never felt a serious urge to try it out. Letting the world know what books I’ve purchased doesn’t seem to be particularly necessary. Today, though, the bit was in my teeth, and I plunged right in.

LibraryThing is completely web-based, with a strong social component (finding other people who own the same books, and so on). Sign-up is instant . . . to log on is to create an account, no email address required. As previously mentioned, I don’t yet own a barcode scanner, so ISBN entry was by hand. Typing ten digits by hand isn’t too hard, and very quickly the first book popped up. Once you enter a title, you get a list of matches; for any book for which I had an ISBN, there was only one option, which required clicking on a link.

The data entry flow was pretty smooth. I could leave the mouse hovering over the spot where the link would appear, and after each entry the cursor remained in the search box: type ISBN, hit return, click repeat. Some keyboard shortcuts are definitely indicated, though.

LibraryThing - Adding a Book

The particular bookshelf I selected (after the top shelf) included a few challenges, including relatively recent volumes, books from the fifties without ISBNs, and texts going back to 1871 (including several in Latin that were published in Germany).

Everything with an ISBN was recognized immediately and smoothly. LibraryThing allows searches by Library of Congress number (insanely cool) which handled the several mid-twentieth century books with ease (though I had to switch the search corpus from Amazon to the LoC, and LoC searches sometimes turned up several hits).

One exceptional feature is the ability to search the catalogs of dozens of different libraries, as well as international Amazon listings. Amazingly, I was able to scrape up information from around two-thirds of the nineteenth-century, Leipzig-published books from German libraries, though I had to correct an occasional date field. You can only search one library at a time, though, so I had to perform up to eight searches in some cases before I found a hit.

LibraryThing - Viewing my library

Like Delicious Library, LibraryThing offers a visual display of the covers in your collection (I assume it’s possible to upload covers for volumes that lack them, though I’ve yet to determine how.) The navigation is, unsurprisingly, not as convenient as the desktop application, and lacks the spiffy shelf graphics. There’s no drag and drop, either . . . this is a site that could use a good shot of AJAX.

More significantly, LibraryThing has no concept of shelving. It provides tagging, so I suppose one could approximate a filing system by tagging with shelf names or numbers. I found the tagging interface a bit awkward, though, and nowhere near as smooth as the data entry. Trying to tag multiple books at once involved lots of laborious clicking on tiny checkboxes, and it was very hard to manipulate tags directly. Also, I would have like to have the option of appropriating tags that other have used, rather than having to type everything myself from scratch. Perhaps theses features are there, but I’m not finding them.

I’ve not played much with the social aspects of LibraryThing, and the eclectic set of books I entered has not revealed my bibliodoppelgänger. I’ll be poking around some more over the next few days.

LibraryThing is ludicrously affordable: you can keep 200 books in your catalog for free; after that, it’s $10 for a year or $25 for a lifetime membership. They are also offering :CueCat barcode readers for $15, so $40 will get you either the current edition of Delicious Library, or LibraryThing lifetime membership plus a barcode reader.

In a few hours of playing around I scanned 86 books, and I’m deeply tempted to keep going. One of my key requirements, though, is keeping track of which book is in which box, and I’m not sure if the blunt instrument of tagging will be effective.

The New York Public Library Home Library System

I’m going to mention one more product, sold as Your Home Library: The Complete System for Organizing, Locating, Referencing, and Maintaining Your Book Collection This is a kit with personal library software, a binder with parchment-like paper for printing a permanent record, and a 128-page book on home library organization. Knowing my vices (and, I might point out, M——‘s vices), my brothers gave us a copy for Christmas a few years back. I started a bit of cataloguing, but the sheer volume of the task militated against entering the entire collection.

New York Public Library Home Library System Screenshot

The included book is quite a useful little guide on categorization organization strategies and contains some painfully pointed advice on culling one’s collection. The software is written for Windows and Mac (and could probably be coaxed to run under Wine on Linux). Unfortunately, the package is from 2002 or so and written using FileMaker 6.0, and every bit of data entry is manual. It also takes over your entire screen, which I’d have to categorize as “not playing nicely with others”. (It does have explicit support for recording exactly where you’ve filed each book in your collection, which would be nice to see in LibraryThing). Entering a single book takes around five minutes, whereas you can whip through six to ten non-problematic books in a minute with either Delicious or LibraryThing.

You can pick up a used copy for five bucks or so, but in 2007 I’d have to say that Internet lookup of catalog information is a sine qua non.


Delicious Library is slick as hell but with some frustrating limitations. LibraryThing is extremely powerful with unparalleled lookup capabilities; some user interface work and the addition of field for shelving information would suck me in totally. The New York Time Library System has useful information in the included book, but its software is strictly outmoded.

There are several other sites and software packages out there than can fill the personal library management niche, but a quick gloss of the reviews suggest that they remain behind LT for the moment. You can view the LibraryThing test catalog I created, should you so desire. If I decide to use LT as my primary library catalog, I’d have to think long and hard before I made my listing public. Sometimes, one just wants to be alone with one’s books.

books games science fiction

Inconspicuous Consumption

Slowly, slowly, I am emerging from the sessile phase that I entered after surviving (and passing, praise Eris!) my doctoral qualifying exams.  I am anticipating a full return to something approaching full motility and sentience.

After such extended periods of ascetically-focused mental exertion, I find myself enveloped in a sort of lassitudinous passivity.  All of the needs that have been denied demand to be satisfied, and I descend into a gluttonous pit of media consumption.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read a dozen books or so (not, I am sorry to say, of a particularly elevating nature), watched way too many back episodes of science fiction television shows, and finally got around to finishing several video games that had been sitting, unplayed on the shelf.  Work, school, and Latin studies continue apace, but my free time has been heavily unstructured.  Here are a few comments on what’s been occupying my mind.  I warn you, though: if you’re looking for high-brow in this post, you’d best move along.


From the books, I can definitely recommend Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archives . . . it’s not often that one finds a novel where the central conceit is the existence of a proof that P=NP, and his melding of the myth of Medusa with quantum mechanical theory is a thing of genius.  The Family Trade, also by Stross, is a bit disappointing by comparison, as the characters and writing are a bit flat and the fancies do not fly as high.

Neal Asher had previously caught my attention with The Skinner, which was a great science fiction romp.  (One of its best small bits is a unique take on technologically-sustained undeath.)  I was pleased to get my hands on a copy of Prador Moon, but it left me unimpressed.  The plot was on the mechanical side, and the tension wasn’t particularly tense.  I also have a copy of Brass Man which I may or may not finish before returning it to the library; thus far, it hasn’t drawn me in.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Beguilement: The Sharing Knife is her second run at a romance-oriented fantasy, and it strongly echoes The Hallowed Hunt.  The plot structure is somewhat curious, with the ostensible dramatic climax coming in the first third of the book.  The remainder focuses on the relationship between the characters.  I have to say that it didn’t really work for me, though her writing is competent, and I enjoyed the story well enough.  I’ll be curious to see what she does with the next two novels in the trilogy.  The Hallowed Hunt is, in my opinion, a much stronger novel, if not quite up to her previous Chalion efforts.

I’ve been meaning to bone up on the history of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, and nabbed a few volumes from the library to that end.  Robert E. Howard’s early Kull of Atlantis stories are purple and overwrought, with some curious parallels to Lovecraft (who, it should noted, admired Howard’s writing).  I’ve never read any of his Conan stories, and it will be interesting to compare.

Also in this vein, I read the first three collections of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories: Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, and Swords in the Mist.  It is interesting to see how Leiber’s tropes have worked their way throughout the genre, but I really can’t recommend them as particularly good.  The origin stories in Swords and Deviltry were particularly weak, barely rising above the level of Gygaxian fiction.

To recover from too much low-grade fiction, I reread Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide.  What a difference!  Swanwick remains one of my favorite SF authors, and I hope that he’ll get around to releasing that new novel one of these days (his last was the 2002 Bones of the Earth).

I’ve followed Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels since I first found The Colour of Magic in 1989.  Over the years, his books have become something more than simple humorous parody.  His combination of mood, character, and humor is quite effective, and his Vimes stories are among my favorite modern fantasies.  Recently, he has written a few Discworld novels targeting the “young adult” market.  The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith tell the story of a young witch, Tiffany Aching and her interactions with the Nac Mac Feegle (a race of small, blue-tattooed faerie-kin called, well, Pictsies).  There are few characters from other Discworld stories: I only noticed Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg.  These books are by no means inferior efforts, and should be read by everyone who likes Pratchett’s work.


It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen Star Trek (Enterprise didn’t hold my attention at all).  I’ve just watched my way through the sixth season of Next Generation, which was quite a reasonable show.  The late seasons were much better than the painfully wooden early episodes, but they’re still rather mechanical, particularly when watched in close succession.  I did have have to skip two episodes for excessive obnoxiousness.

I’ve just started watching Firefly, which thus far has been quite engaging.  I’ll reserve further comments until I’m all the way through.

Video Games

First, Archangel.  This is a modern magic-themed first-person combat game with some sort of a story, but I couldn’t bear to keep playing past the training sequence.  The vocal acting is mind-shatteringly awful.

I hadn’t played a lot of racing games before this, but I have three that were picked up on deep discount: Midnight Club 2, Need for Speed: Underground, and Need for Speed Underground 2.  All are reasonably satisfying arcade-style racers, but I think that NFSU2 gets the nod.

NFSU is fun up until around 80% completion.   At that point the races become joyless exercises in perfectionism, even at the lowest difficulty setting.  I abandoned play at that point.

MC2 becomes quite difficult by the end, but is quite beatable.  Its key advantages over the NFS titles are: lots of shortcuts to discover, no mind-numbing closed-course races, and a semblance of damage model for the vehicles.  Watching the NFS vehicles bouncing hood-over-trunk then blithely driving on is just silly (though none of these titles get many points in the realism department).

NFSU2 loses some features that were well-polished NFSU, but makes up for them by adding an explorable world.  The visuals are superb, and the gameplay is rather easier than that of its predecessor.  I would have like to see a few more free-form races, but modifying and tuning the cars is surprisingly enjoyable.  The game would be improved by abandoning the silly graphic novel sequences that spring up occasionally.  I’m perhaps halfway though this game, but it will be going back on the shelf for a while.

I now return to my regularly-scheduled life.

books computer science miscellanea

Calliope and the Spambot

Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry Randomly-generated spam email can have a certain “found art” quality to it. I’ve seen plenty of articles over the past few years gleefully musing over some chance juxtaposition in the inbox. See, for example, this article from The Register. A sample:

If you get it overnight, you can lose it just as quick
When Mumma dead family done.
Take heed of reconciled enemies and of meat twice boiled

The algorithms that generate these messages are quite simple, for the most part. The most common is the Markov chain.  A program of this type first takes a corpus of text and analyzes it to generate a table of probabilities that a given word follows another. To create a first-order Markov chain based on words in the corpus, the program repeatedly asks and answers the following question: given a certain word, what are the most likely words to follow it in the source text? It then randomly picks one of those following words, weighting its choice by the calculated probabilities.  After that, it picks the next word using the word it just generated as the base. A second-order chain bases its probabilities on the previous two words, and so on. Increasing the order of the chain can produce more authentic-seeming phrases.

One of the most common methods of content-filtering spam is Bayesian analysis, which uses a related algorithm to analyze the probability that a particular message is spam, based on the frequency of words in other messages already received and identified. If you are a spammer, the care and feeding of your spambot, your bulk mailer, is matter of great concern. You need to produce messages that have enough randomness to slip through recipients’ spam filters, but that look like they could be a valid messages. Project Gutenberg was an early source of texts for these Markov text generators, resulting in bathetic, surprisingly pseudo-literary nonsense.

I received the following message this morning, the text of which I reproduce in its entirety:

Summer bees were saying
That desire has ever built, have approached
How can they get the point of how a world
Pallid waste where no radiant fathomers,
From there. Toward . . .
demonstrating their talent for comedy?stroke
Glimmering of light:
Rise, to the muffled chime of churchbell choir.
Reshaping magnified, each risen flake
XVII. Greenland
Silent patch of ultimate paint. You are
marked with a dark stroke from the left, encroached
A matter of getting all that right . . .
What I have in my hands, these flowers, these shadows,
Come, swallows, it’s good-bye.
Place of absorbing snow, itself to be
With a hand freed from weight,
Is the moon to grow
Suddenly, in a savage, dreadful bend,

With minor editing (particularly the punctuation), this could almost be passed of as something from a modern poetry review . . . and here’s why: rather than generate its text word-by-word, the bulk mailer worked line-by-line from actual poems. (The line “XVII. Greenland” is a good clue.) A bit of Googling revealed that most of these lines can be found on a particular page of poems about winter on the website of the University of Chicago Press. The unfortunate question-mark in line 6 is an em-dash on the source page.

PIPO: Poetry In; Poetry Out.

This recalls to mind one of my favorite pieces of randomly-generated text.  In 2004, a group of SFWA members set out to show that a company called “PublishAmerica” is not a “traditional” publisher (that is, that they do not engage in any sort of editorial quality-control over their books).  To this end, this group produced a very good candidate for the worst novel ever written: Atlanta Nights.  Each chapter was written by a different person to be as terrible as possible.  Chapter 34 was actually machine-generated using the rest of the book as the source material.  The pseudonymous author-of-record, “Travis Tea”, now has his own web site.

[Image of Calliope, Muse of epic poetry, courtesy of Wikipedia.]


A Nasty Shock

It has been some years since I was last in the store of William H. Allen, Bookseller, so I decided to rectify this. I admit, the avoidance was quite deliberate, as I have been attempting to limit both the outflow of cash and inflow of books brought in by regular biblioexcursions. (Also, their hours were terribly inconvenient for me.) I was in the city for a business meeting, and I decided that it had been long enough. I walked over to their location, in the 2100 block of Walnut.

Imagine my dismay: the store is there no longer. I had a chat with the contractor who was waiting impatiently for the owner . . . he knew nothing about a bookstore, and said that he’d been working on the building for five years. Has it really been that long?

William H. Allen was one of my favorites, pecializing in classical, medieval, and Renaissance studies. Not only was the selection mouth-watering, the building was the quintessence of bookstore, with winding back passages and stories of books.

Their website,, is offline, with a mocking “site coming soon” messag. Refering to the Wayback Machine, I discovered that sometime between April 2, 2002 and June 9, 2002, their address changed from Philadelphia to Sharon Hill. There have been no updates to the front page since around January 6, 2006. A call to their new phone number yielded no answer, and no machine. Google yields only echoes, a hundred out-of-date

Things look grim, but all may not be lost. They have 32,988 books listed under their store at AbeBooks, but their profile links only to the dead website. I’ll be making a few more phone calls, to see what I can discover.