EEBO-TCP Hackathon

Last month I got the opportunity to attend the EEBO-TCP Hackfest, hosted in the (then still very-much under construction) Weston Library at my workplace. I’ve done a couple of hackathons and similar get-togethers before, but this one was somewhat different in that it was unmistakably geared towards a different kind of geek than the technology-minded folks that I usually see at these things. People like me, with a computer science background, were remarkably in the minority.

Dan Q in Blackwell Hall, at the Weston Library.
Me in the Weston Library (still under construction, as evidenced by the scaffolding in the background).

Instead, this particular hack event attracted a great number of folks from the humanities end of the spectrum. Which is understandable, given its theme: the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP) is an effort to digitise and make available in marked-up, machine-readable text formats a huge corpus of English-language books printed between 1475 and 1700. So: a little over three centuries of work including both household names (like Shakespeare, Galileo, Chaucer, Newton, Locke, and Hobbes) and an enormous number of others that you’ll never have heard of.

Dan Q talks to academic Stephen Gregg
After an introduction to the concept and the material, attendees engaged in a speed-networking event to share their thoughts prior to pitching their ideas.

The hackday event was scheduled to coincide with and celebrate the release of the first 25,000 texts into the public domain, and attendees were challenged to come up with ways to use the newly-available data in any way they liked. As is common with any kind of hackathon, many of the attendees had come with their own ideas half-baked already, but as for me: I had no idea what I’d end up doing! I’m not particularly familiar with the books of the 15th through 17th centuries and I’d never looked at the way in which the digitised texts had been encoded. In short: I knew nothing.

Dan Q and Liz McCarthy listen as other attendees pitch their ideas.
The ideas pitch session quickly showed some overlap between different project ideas, and teams were split and reformed a few times as people found the best places for themselves.

Instead, I’d thought: there’ll be people here who need a geek. A major part of a lot of the freelance work I end up doing (and a lesser part of my work at the Bodleian, from time to time) involves manipulating and mining data from disparate sources, and it seemed to me that these kinds of skills would be useful for a variety of different conceivable projects.

Dan Q explains what the spreadsheet he's produced 'means'.
XML may have been our interchange format, but everything fell into Excel in the end for speedy management even by less-technical team members.

I paired up with a chap called Stephen Gregg, a lecturer in 18th century literature from Bath Spa University. His idea was to use this newly-open data to explore the frequency (and the change in frequency over the centuries) of particular structural features in early printed fiction: features like chapters, illustrations, dedications, notes to the reader, encomia, and so on). This proved to be a perfect task for us to pair-up on, because he had the domain knowledge to ask meaningful questions, and I had the the technical knowledge to write software that could extract the answers from the data. We shared our table with another pair, who had technically-similar goals – looking at the change in the use of features like lists and tables (spoiler: lists were going out of fashion, tables were coming in, during the 17th century) in alchemical textbooks – and ultimately I was able to pass on the software tools I’d written to them to adapt for their purposes, too.

Dan Q with two academic-minded humanities folks, talking about their hackathon projects.
A quick meeting on the relative importance of ‘chapters’ as a concept in 16th century literature. Half of the words that the academics are saying go over my head, but I’m formulating XPath queries in my head while I wait.

And here’s where I made a discovery: the folks I was working with (and presumably academics of the humanities in general) have no idea quite how powerful data mining tools could be in giving them new opportunities for research and analysis. Within two hours we were getting real results from our queries and were making amendments and refinements in our questions and trying again. Within a further two hours we’d exhausted our original questions and, while the others were writing-up their findings in an attractive way, I was beginning to look at how the structural differences between fiction and non-fiction might be usable as a training data set for an artificial intelligence that could learn to differentiate between the two, providing yet more value from the dataset. And all the while, my teammates – who’d been used to looking at a single book at a time – were amazed by the possibilities we’d uncovered for training computers to do simple tasks while reading thousands at once.

Laptop showing a map of the area around Old St. Paul's Cathedral.
The area around Old St. Paul’s Cathedral was the place to be if you were a 16th century hipster looking for a new book.

Elsewhere at the hackathon, one group was trying to simulate the view of the shelves of booksellers around the old St. Paul’s Cathedral, another looked at the change in the popularity of colour and fashion-related words over the period (especially challenging towards the beginning of the timeline, where spelling of colours was less-standardised than towards the end), and a third came up with ways to make old playscripts accessible to modern performers.

A graph showing the frequency of colour-related words in English-language books printed over three centuries.
Aside from an increase in the relative frequency of the use of colour words to describe yellow things, there’s not much to say about this graph.

At the end of the session we presented our findings – by which I mean, Stephen explained what they meant – and talked about the technology and its potential future impact – by which I mean, I said what we’d like to allow others to do with it, if they’re so-inclined. And I explained how I’d come to learn over the course of the day what the word encomium meant.

Dan Q presents findings in Excel.
Presenting our findings in amazing technicolour Excel.

My personal favourite contribution from the event was by Sarah Cole, who adapted the text of a story about a witch trial into a piece of interactive fiction, powered by Twine/Twee, and then allowed us as an audience to collectively “play” her game. I love the idea of making old artefacts more-accessible to modern audiences through new media, and this was a fun and innovative way to achieve this. You can even play her game online!

(by the way: for those of you who enjoy my IF recommendations: have a look at Detritus; it’s a delightful little experimental/experiential game)

Output from the interactive fiction version of a story about a witch trial.
Things are about to go very badly for Joan Buts.

But while that was clearly my favourite, the judges were far more impressed by the work of my teammate and I, as well as the team who’d adapted my software and used it to investigate different features of the corpus, and decided to divide the cash price between the four of us. Which was especially awesome, because I hadn’t even realised that there was a prize to be had, and I made the most of it at the Drinking About Museums event I attended later in the day.

Members of the other team, who adapted my software, were particularly excited to receive their award.
Cold hard cash! This’ll be useful at the bar, later!

If there’s a moral to take from all of this, it’s that you shouldn’t let your background limit your involvement in “hackathon”-like events. This event was geared towards literature, history, linguistics, and the study of the book… but clearly there was value in me – a computer geek, first and foremost – being there. Similarly, a hack event I attended last year, while clearly tech-focussed, wouldn’t have been as good as it was were it not for the diversity of the attendees, who included a good number of artists and entrepreneurs as well as the obligatory hackers.

Stephen and Dan give a congratulatory nod to one another.
“Nice work, Stephen.” “Nice work, Dan.”

But for me, I think the greatest lesson is that humanities researchers can benefit from thinking a little bit like computer scientists, once in a while. The code I wrote (which uses Ruby and Nokogiri) is freely available for use and adaptation, and while I’ve no idea whether or not it’ll ever be useful to anybody again, what it represents is the research benefits of inter-disciplinary collaboration. It pleases me to see things like the “Library Carpentry” (software for research, with a library slant) seeming to take off.

And yeah, I love a good hackathon.

Update 2015-04-22 11:59: with thanks to Sarah for pointing me in the right direction, you can play the witch trial game in your browser.

Ice and Lemon

I recently finished reading a novel called Ice & Lemon, which was given to me by my mother for Christmas (my reading list is quite long at the moment; I’m only just getting close to catching up!). I could tell you about what I liked about the book – and I will, in a moment – but before that I’d like to mention what makes this book personally so spooky to me, as a reader.

Ice and Lemon, by Pete Hartley
Ice and Lemon, by Pete Hartley

My mother got it for me because the coincidences apparent on the front and back cover appealed to her:

  1. The author’s name, Pete Hartley, is remarkably similar to my father’s name, Peter Huntley.
  2. The strapline contains a date, and that date is my mother’s birthday.
  3. The protagonist of the story is called Daniel, which is – prior to that point in the late 1990s when I started going by Dan among virtually everybody – my name.
  4. The front cover shows a picture of a baby’s hand, and Ruth‘s expected delivery date of New Year’s Eve was thus a hot discussion topic for us all around Christmas-time.

Okay, so – that’s a handful of quirky coincidences, certainly, but I’m sure if you looked at every volume in a bookshop – in the right frame of mind – you’d find a dozen other novels that seemed similarly fortuitous. But as I began to read the story, I discovered that I shared a lot more in common with the story’s Daniel than I could have possibly predicted. It was almost as if I were reading an alternate-history version of my own life – it’s incredibly easy to see how believable choices made in the early 2000s could have lead to a reality that even-more closely paralleled with my own:

Dan with a golden banana nailed to a stick.
In 2006, I won an award of dubious value for my stand-up act: a gold-plated banana nailed to a plank of wood hewn from the funniest tree in town.
  • Daniel’s partner is called Claire. In 2005, when the story is set, I too had a partner called Claire.
  • Daniel grew up in, and lives in, Preston, near to the football stadium and his local supermarket, the Deepdale Road/Sir Tom Finney Way Sainsburys. I grew up in Preston, and my parents houses are both within sight of the football stadium. My father used to, and my mother still does, do their shopping at the Deepdale Road/Sir Tom Finney Way Sainsburys.
  • The story begins with Daniel travelling back from a trip to Spain. I too spent time in Spain in 2005.
  • Daniel is a stand-up comedian and a veteran of the Edinburgh Fringe. I had an incredibly-short career as a stand-up comedian, and of course I too have a history with the Fringe.
  • Some time after an apocalyptic event takes place, Daniel joins a group of survivors who call themselves “Camp Q” (no explanation is given for the choice of name). Some time after the date of the event as it appears in the story, I changed my surname to Q.
The Sainsburys on Deepdale Road/Sir Tom Finney Way, in Preston.
Before the apocalypse, Daniel did his shopping here. Before I moved to Aberystwyth, so did I.

There are about a hundred smaller coincidences in Daniel’s story, too, but after a few of them you stop looking objectively and you can’t help but see them, so I’ll spare you the list. If I wanted to, I’m sure I could find plenty of things that definitely didn’t fit me: for example, Daniel’s significantly older than me. That sort of blows the alternate history idea out of the water. But nonetheless, it was a disturbing and eerie experience to be reading about a protagonist so much like myself, travelling around a post-disaster area that I personally know so very well. I feel like I ought to reach out to the author and check that he’s not just pranking me, somehow. His son features in the book, but somehow the coincidences that naturally occur as a result of this are less-impressive because they’re pre-informed.

The book itself is pretty good: a soft science fiction story full of a thorougly-explored post-apocalyptic grief. Very human, and very British, it exemplifies that curious sense of humour that we as a nation exhibit in the face of a disaster, while still being emotionally-scarring in the sheer scope of the tragedy it depicts. The science of the science-fiction is… questionable, but it’s not explored in detail (and it’s only treated as being speculative by the characters discussing it anyway, who aren’t scientists): this is a story about people, suffering, and survival, not about technology nor futurism. There are a handful of points at which it feels like it could have done with an additional pass by a proofreader; while occasionally distracting, these typos are not problematic. Plus: the book contains the most literal deus ex machina I’ve ever encountered (and thankfully, it doesn’t come across as lazy writing so much as general wasteland craziness).

It’sunder £3 in ebook format, and if I didn’t already own a paperback copy, I’d be happy to pay that for it. Even if it didn’t make me feel like I was looking at an alternate version of myself.

Bee

Bee, by Emily Short
Bee, by Emily Short, uses the Varytale platform to produce a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style tale that’s insightful and compelling.

On account of having a busy life, I only just recently got around to playing Bee, Emily Short‘s interactive book on the Varytale platform. Varytale is one of a number of recent attempts to make a modern, computerised system for “choose your own adventure“-style fiction, alongside the likes of Undum, Choice Of Games, and my personal favourite, Twine/Twee. As a beta author for the platform, Emily was invited to put her book on the front page of the Varytale website, and it’s well worth a look.

Bee is the story of a young girl, home-schooled by her frugal and religious parents. After a few short and somewhat-linear opening chapters, options are opened up to the reader… and it doesn’t take long before you’re immersed in the protagonist’s life. Her relationships with her sister, her parents, and the children from the local homeschool co-operative and from her church can be explored and developed, while she tries to find time – and motivation – to study for the local, regional and national spelling bees that are her vocational focus.

The choices you make will affect her motivation, her spelling proficiency, and her relationships, and in doing so open up different choices towards one of the book’s four possible endings. But that’s not what makes this piece magical (and, in fact, “choose your own adventure”-style games can actually feel a little limiting to fans of conventional interactive fiction):

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Minor spoilers below: you might like to play Bee for yourself, first.[/spb_message]

What’s so inspirational about this story is the compelling realism from the characters. Initially, I found it somewhat difficult to relate to them: I know next to nothing about the US education system, don’t “get” spelling bees (apparently they’re a big thing over there), and certainly can’t put myself in the position of a home-schooled American girl with a super-religious family background! But before long, I was starting to really feel for the character and beginning to see how her life fit together.

To begin with, I saw the national spelling bee as a goal, and my “spelling” score as a goal. I read the book like I play The Sims: efficiently balancing the character’s time to keep her motivation up, so that I could get the best out of her cramming sessions with her flashcards. Under my guidance, the character became highly-academic and driven by achievement.

Spelling Bee (British TV show)
Apparently there existed a short-lived British game show called Spelling Bee, which was on television way back in 1938! Click the picture for more information.

After I’d won the local spelling bee with flying colours, I came to understand how the game actually worked. Suddenly, I didn’t need to study so hard any more. Sure, it was important to get some flashcard-time in now and then, but there were bigger things going on: making sure that my little sister got the upbringing that she deserved; doing my bit to ease the strain on my family as financial pressures forced us into an even-more-frugal lifestyle; finding my place among the other children – and adults – in my life, and in the church.

By the time I made it to the national spelling bee, I didn’t even care that I didn’t win. It was almost a bigger deal to my mother than to me. I thought back to the blurb for the story:

Sooner or later, you’re going to lose. Only one person wins the National Spelling Bee each year, so an elementary understanding of the odds means it almost certainly won’t be you.

The only question is when you fail, and why.

Then, everything made a little more sense. This was never a story about a spelling bee. The spelling bee is a framing device. The story is about growing up, and about finding your place in the world, and about coming to an age where you can see that your parents are not all-knowing, not all-understanding, far from perfect and with limits and problems of their own. And it’s a story about what you do with that realisation.

And it’s really pretty good. Go have a play.

The Course, Of Course

I mentioned back in October that I’ve returned to education and am now studying counselling, part-time. I thought I’d share with you an update on how that’s going.

The classroom at Aylesbury College where the practical parts (and some of the theory) of my course are taught.

The short answer: it’s going well.

I’m finding myself challenged in fun and new ways, despite my volunteering experience, which has included no small amount of work on emotional support helplines of one kind of another. For example, we’ve on two occasions now done role-play sessions in which the “helper” (the person acting in the role of a counsellor) has been required to not ask any questions to the “helpee” (their client). Depending on your theoretical orientation and your background, that’s either a moderately challenging or a very challenging thing – sort of like the opposite of a game of Questions, but with the added challenge that you’re trying to pay attention to what the other participant is actually saying, rather than thinking “Don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question…” the whole damn time.

It’s an enjoyable exercise, and works really well to help focus on sometimes-underused skills like paraphrasing and summarising, as well as of course giving you plenty of opportunity to simply listen, attend to the helpee, and practice your empathic response. The first time I did it I was noticed (by my observer) to be visibly uncomfortable, almost “itching to ask something”, but by the second occasion, I’d cracked it. It’s like climbing with one arm tied behind your back! But as you’d expect of such an exercise, it leaves you with far more care, and control… and one enormous muscular arm!

Amidst all of the “fluffy” assessment, I was pleased this semester to be able to cut my teeth on some theoretical stuff, as a break. The practical side is good, but I do enjoy the chance to get deep into some theory once in a while, and my reading list has spiraled out of control as each thing I read leads me to find two other titles that I’d probably enjoy getting into next. I’ve recently been reading Living with ‘The Gloria Films’: A Daughter’s Memory, by Pamela J Burry, whose existence in itself takes a little explanation:

Gloria with Carl Rogers, from the film "Three Approaches to Psychotherapy"

In 1964, three psychotherapists walked into a bar. They were Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis and Fritz Perls. They had a few drinks, and then they had an argument about whose approach to psychotherapy was the best.

“I respect you both deeply,” began Perls, “But surely it is clear to see that your rejection of Gestalt therapy is rooted in your attempts to pretend to be accepting of it. It is clearly the superior approach.”

“You don’t need to get emotional over this,” said Ellis, “Let’s just go back and find the event that first inspired your prejudice against my rational emotive therapy, and re-examine it: there should be no doubt that it is the best way to treat disorders.”

“It feels like you’re being quite cold to one another,” said Rogers, father of the humanistic approach, after a moment’s pause. “I wonder what we could do to explore this disagreement that we’re having… and perhaps come to an answer that feels right to us all?”

And so the three agreed to a test: they would find a subject who was willing to undergo a single therapy session from all three of them, and then it’d be clear who was the winner. They’d film the whole thing, to make sure that there could be no denying the relative successes of each approach. And the losers would each pay for all of the winner’s drinks the next time they went out to the Rat And Bang, their local pub.

Albert Ellis wraps up at the end of his section of "Three Approaches to Psychotherapy".

Now that story is complete bullshit, but it’s far more-amusing than any true explanation as to why these three leading counsellors were filmed, each in turn, talking to a client by the name of Gloria – a 30-year-old divorced mother of three concerned with being a good parent and how she presents herself to men. I’ll leave you to find and watch the films for yourself if you want: they’re all available on video sharing sites around the web, and I’d particularly recommend Carl Rogers’ videos if you’re looking for something that almost everybody will find quite watchable.

Gloria died fifteen years later, but her daughter “Pammy” (whose question about sex, when she was nine years old, gave so much material to Gloria’s session with Carl Rogers) wrote a biography of their lives together, which was published in 2008. The focus of “The Gloria Films” was on the therapeutic methodologies of the practitioners, of course. But Gloria herself was intelligent and compelling, and I was genuinely interested to get “the rest of the story” after she left that film studio (made up to look like a psychotherapist’s office) and got on with her life.

Hence the book.

And so hence, my example of how I keep reading (or in this case watching) things, which  lead me to find more things to read, which in turn give me yet more things to read.

And now you’re up-to-date.

Quickly, Before They Turn The Glass Into Lesbians!

So, what have I been up to this weekend, you ask. Well…

“Cover The Mirrors” Launch Party

On Friday I took the train up to Preston. The train I was on broke down at Machynlleth when they linked it up to the carriages that had come down the Pwllheli line, and the repairs set me back by almost an hour, but it turns out that the rest of the rail network was running behind schedule that day, too, and so I didn’t miss any important connections. I arrived in time for a quick “birthday tea” with my family (for my dad’s birthday) before rushing off to the Waterstones for the launch party for my friend Faye‘s first published novel, Cover The Mirrors.

Dan with author Faye at the book launch

I drank as much wine as the store were willing to give me and bought myself a signed copy of the book. I even managed to get the photo, above, under the proviso that it’s only allowed to appear on the internet thanks to the fact that I’m holding a carrier bag in front of Faye’s face (she’s more than a little camera-shy). I haven’t started reading Cover The Mirrors yet, because I’m virtually at the end of The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko, and I’d like to finish that first, but little doubt you’ll hear about it here in due course.

Dad’s Birthday

After the book launch, my sisters and I took my dad out for a few drinks to celebrate his 51st birthday. It turns out that, in my absence, Preston’s nightclub scene has really taken off. We started out in an 80s-themed bar which is part of a chain called Reflex. It’s so 80s it’s unreal: all 80s hits playing, David Hasselhoff and Mr. T decorating every wall, glitter balls and spots and mirrors everywhere… deely-boppers available at the bar… and so on. Really quite a fantastic theme venue. Then, under my sister Sarah’s recommendation, we tootled up the street and into a cafe/club called Manyana, where my dad got hit on by somebody young enough to be his daughter.

My dad and some 20-something year-old

I snatched this picture. I’ve no idea who she is – we didn’t get her name – but she seemed genuinely surprised to hear my dad’s age. So I had the DJ announce it, just to make sure there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that there was an old person on the dancefloor.

This influx of Preston nightclubs is making them all remarkably competitive with their drinks prices, too. I bought a few rounds for the four of us and none of them ever came to over a tenner, and one – thanks to the “buy one get one free” policy at Manyana – came to under £6, which is quite remarkable for a city nightclub on a Friday night for four people!

Back To Aberystwyth

On Saturday I had brunch with my sister Becky, my mum, and her boyfriend and then got back onto the trains to head back to Aberystwyth. Owing to line maintenance, the stretch of track between Crewe and Preston is unusable every weekend within sight, and so I was re-directed via Manchester Picadilly. Yet again, my train ran late, and I found myself sprinting accross Picadilly station, trying to find a train that was heading Shrewsbury-way…

…meanwhile, my friend Katie, having slept through her stop, woke up in Manchester Picadilly and, not quite awake, clambered off her train in an attempt to find a connection. I’d apparently featured in her dream, and so she was quite surprised (and not quite sure if she was seeing things) when I sprinted past her. She sent a text (which I chose to ignore: my pocket beeped but I was too busy looking for a train to take the time to get my phone out) and then phoned me before she was able to confirm that yes, it really was me.

As we were headed the same way, she joined me on my train for one stop, which was a nice surprise for what was a long and overcomplicated train journey. A few folks have suggested that this might not be a coincidence, and that she might be stalking me, but I’m yet to be convinced.

In any case, I don’t have a picture to go with this part of the story. Sorry.

Jimmy, Beth, and Troma Night

YATN. If you were there, you know how it went. Big thanks to Jimmy and Beth for coming along.

Lloyd Kaufman’s Visit

In case you’ve not been anywhere that I can pounce on you and go “squee!” recently, here’s what you missed out on. You’ll remember that last week I mentioned that PoultrygeistTroma‘s new movie – was coming to Aberystwyth. Well, it did. And it rocked…

…and better yet, Ruth, Claire, JTA, Paul and I got to hang out with Lloyd Kaufman, president of Troma Studios and producer of The Toxic Avenger, for a couple of pints and to share a bowl of nachos. The guy’s fabulously chatty and friendly, and if it weren’t for the awestruck feeling of “wow, we’re just sat here chatting with Lloyd Kaufman in Lord Beechings” we’d have probably been more interesting company.

Dan, Claire, !!!LLOYD KAUFMAN!!!, JTA, and Ruth

When he said goodbye, kissing the cheeks of each of the girls, I genuinely thought that they were in danger of exploding with excitment. Thankfully they didn’t, because I’d already bought them tickets to see Poultrygeist later on.

Which was, as I’ve said before, fantastic. It’s even better seen with a nice, energised audience, and better still when the director and several other people who worked on the film are hanging around afterwards to answer questions, chat, autograph things and so on. There are apparently 15 prints of Poultrygeist and the capacity to make more on demand, so if you want to see it and can’t wait for the DVD release, go speak to your local cinema now and ask if they’ll show Poultrygeist, even if only for a week (as Lloyd himself said, it’s better than showing Transformers on all 24 screens of some soulless megaplex). And hell, with Troma’s current financial situation, they could probably do with a helping hand with getting into as many projection booths as possible!

The title of this post – Quickly, Before They Turn The Glass Into Lesbians! – is a reference to one of my favourite lines in the film.

Paul might have bitten off more than he can chew, though, as he hinted on his blog. After some discussion with Lloyd, Paul is likely to be responsible for:

  • Re-establishing the UK division of the Troma fan club.
  • Acting as president of the above, for the forseeable future.
  • Investigating UK distribution of Troma films.
  • Oh, and making an official DVD subtitle track for Poultrygeist: Night Of The Chicken Dead, which describes the Troma Night drinking rules and reminds you when you should be drinking. He’s got a few ideas about things that should be in such a subtitle track, too, and if you’re familiar with the rules you’ll probably be able to guess what he’s thinking about.

I’ll leave it to him to go into detail, if he wishes.

Matt In Hospital

Between places, we also joined a growing crowd at the foot of Matt‘s bed in Bronglais Hospital. His operation was a success, but he’s reacted unusually to the general anasthetic and they’re likely to keep him in for observation for another few days. If you haven’t had a chance to visit him already, he’d probably appreciate the company (although Sarah seems to have barely left his side): visiting hours are 3pm-5pm, 6pm-8pm: just ask if you need to know what ward he’s in and how to get there. If you’re feeling particularly cruel, mock him by talking about how well your bodily excretions are working, or swap his drip with his catheter bag while he’s not looking.

But seriously: I’m sure we all wish him well.

Curry!

Finally – as if we weren’t full enough from a large Sunday lunch – after leaving the cinema, Gareth, Penny, Amy, Ruth, JTA, Claire and I slipped down for a late-night curry at the Spice of Bengal. Which was delicious, although there was a little much food for those of us who were already quite full.

Dan eating curry!

Nonetheless, a fantastic end to a fantastic weekend! I’m sure everybody else will have a different story to tell (Paul spent longer with Lloyd and went to more films; Claire and Jimmy got horribly drunk together on Friday night after she, Ruth and JTA failed to see a Meatloaf concert; Matt’ll have his own morphine-fuelled tale to spin, and so on), because it’s been a rich, full couple of days for many of us abnibbers.

Open Fidelity

The other book I got in my recent order from Amazon was Open Fidelity: An A-Z Guide, by Anna Sharman. I bought the book after being made aware of it’s existence by the author on a discussion list on which we’re both members. It’s cheaper to buy direct from her website, and an e-book version is available for just £3, but I had an Amazon voucher that was burning a hole in my pocket, and an order that was only a few pounds from Super Saver delivery!

It’s not in competition with The Ethical Slut (my review), by any stretch of the imagination. At 36 pages long, it’s no good as a paperweight. However, it is good for what I bought it for – providing a five-minute introduction to open relationships to those people who seem to be confused by the concept ("Look, just read this…").

As you might expect from the name, the book takes each letter of the alphabet and writes a little about it. N… is for Negotiation, J… is for Jealousy, W… is for weddings, and so on. In addition, is if it’s pretending to be some kind of encyclopædia, each page ends with "you might also have meant"-style suggestions, which are sometimes serious but as often tongue-in-cheek: "O is also for… Over – see E for Ending Relationships, and Out – see P for going Public."

And some bits of it are really good: D (Defending your relationship), L (Love), and M (Monogamy) are all particularly well-written and thought-provoking. Considering that what I thought I was buying was a coffee-table conversation-starter (and it is that!), I ended up taking more from the book than I expected. Other bits are silly, in particular Z (Zzzzz), but never too silly to be useless. There are bits that don’t feel like they have any relevance to me: G (God), R (Rings), and W (Weddings), in particular, and in a 36-page book for £4, I almost feel as if I should get better value for money… those three pages are worth… what… almost 35 pence!

There’s a set of quotes in the middle of the book, and a little before the middle of the alphabet (I’d have thought that Anna would have put it after Q, to save herself a letter, but no, she’d saved that for Queer Relationships, which I’m not entirely sure justified a page of it’s own). They’re okay, but there’s nothing mind-blowingly clever in there.

Anna’s planing to work on three more books. The most obvious one is Open Fidelity: the Complete Guide, which will presumably be a less concise version of this book, with more emphasis on how-tos and stuff, which I’m sure will have value to some, but I doubt there’s anything new to somebody who’s succesfully practiced non-monogamy. The second is Open Fidelity and Bisexuality. This is a book that probably really does need to be written: there are many bisexual people or otherwise bi-inclined people unfulfilled by their monogamous relationships with one or the other gender. There are plenty more who are quite happy with that arrangement, of course, but there’s nonetheless probably a lot less market for a book about how to be a monogamous bisexual.

The third book Anna’s planning is the one that interests me the most, even though it’s the one that applies least to me, and it’s just because it’s a book who’s title you might never expect to see. The title is Open Fidelity: a Quaker Perspective. Yup, you read that right. I’ll be fascinated to see what she comes up with for that.

As usual with the books I review, this’ll be sat around in the living room at The Cottage for some time to come, for anybody who fancies a flick.

Influence: Science and Practice

Influence: Science and Practice

I recently received an Amazon order I’d been looking forward to for some time, and thought I’d share with you my thoughts on one of the two books I’d ordered (and which I’ve just finished reading): Influence: Science and Practice (International Edition) by Robert B. Cialdini, which I’d first heard of when Scott Adams mentioned it.

It’s a remarkably deep and thought-provoking book which I thoroughly enjoyed. It sets out to be valuable as a course text (barely a paragraph goes by without making reference to some study or paper), but succeeds also in appealing to the "living room psychologist" in us all, too. Its informal tone makes it immensely pick-up-and-readable, and it covers all of it’s concepts from the ground up in a witty, friendly style.

The book is about the various means of influence – that is, persuasion, coercion, and control – that can be exerted over people through the subtle use of various techniques. The studies referenced by the author are wide-ranging, and the subjects ubiquitous, and you’ll end up nodding in agreement as you read about tricks of the trade you’ve seen used by advertisers, tele-salespeople, shopkeepers, preachers… even lawyers and politicians. It’s all approachable as pop psychology, but equally it’s backed by hundreds of well-referenced, well-researched studies from the 1940s to the present day.

Did you know that, statistically speaking, when somebody crosses the street in a place where it is illegal to do so, about three times as many people will follow them across, on average, if they are wearing a suit? That in some markets and at certain times, putting prices up will increase sales dramatically? That during the week after a widely-reported news story about a high-profile suicide, the number of people killed in commercial aeroplane crashes averages triple what it does in the previous week? These are the kinds of phenomena that Cialdini investigates, using sackloads of evidence from dozens of studies for each, and applies meaningful and believable theories to. The book’s broken up into chapters each discussing a different "weapon of influence," and they’re all fascinating, well-researched, and engaging. It fells a little America-centric from time to time, and the ending feels abrupt (a result of the last two chapters being significantly shorter than most of the others), but it’s still a great read.

If you’re selling anything, or if you find it hard to say no to surveyors and salespeople, or if you’re just interested in the elements of social persuasion, I’d recommend the book. As usual, it’ll be lying around on our coffee table for anybody who’s sat around at The Cottage.

The Ethical Slut

I’ve just been reading The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt. Well, I say "just been reading" – I actually read it over two days last week (couldn’t put it down) – I’m actually just slow to post anything of interest to my blog, these days.

Anyway; I just wanted to share with you all what a cool book it is (although I appreciate that it’s content, like it’s message, isn’t for everybody). Its a handbook of ethical slutdom – consensual nonmonogamy, for those who prefer longer and better-defined words – and its a veritable wealth of information on alternative lifestyle choices from homosexuality to swinging. Did you know that there was a respected code of etiquitte for orgies? Neither did I. And while breaches of group sex manners are not a faux pas I anticipate having the opportunity to make any time in the near future, it nonetheless makes for fascinating learning.

The thing that impressed me most about the book, though, wasn’t what it gets rave reviews for. Its frank, honest, open and informative coverage of how to have successful polyamourus relationships were extremely good; that’s for sure – certainly great reading even if you’re only casually interested in the subject… but what really impressed me was its coverage of various aspects of relationship management: all as valid, extrapolated from the context in which it is presented, for "regular" serial monogomists as it is for polygamists. It talks about jealously, conflict management, ownership of feelings, respect, distance… all with a healthy dose of active listening on top. Its interspersed with some great stories that the authors (a relationship counsellor and sex therapist) have drawn out of their friends and colleagues, it’s charming, it’s witty, and it challenges you to think about why relationship norms are so popular: things most people take for granted.

The book’s biggest downside: it repeats itself. Now and then it’s easy to find yourself reading a few paragraphs, sure that you must have read this bit before, only to later realise that the authors had copied a whole paragraph to a place earlier in the book, in order to prepare you for them covering it later. It’s a little confusing. Still, highly recommended.

Edit: this comic says it all, really.

God’s Debris

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has released as a free e-book God’s Debris, a short fray into religion and philosophy. I’ve read several of Scott Adam’s books before. Most of these have been comic books – compilations of Dilbert strips. Others have been his interesting, satirical books on office life and tongue-in-cheek guides to survival in cube farms. God’s Debris is somewhat different. It is a work of fiction which centres on the conversation between two individuals with, at least to begin with, radically different views on the nature of God and the universe. The elder of the two, the self-defined "Avatar", talks little of his beliefs, instead choosing to speak widely and knowledgably of facts he is privy to: facts based on assumed premises such as free will and, in a roundabout way, creationism. The younger – the protagonist and a blatant representation of "the majority" – is a non-commital monotheist who has neglected to put more than a modicum of thought into his beliefs. Like most of the monotheists I know, I guess. And, sadly, many of the atheists. The two talk about the nature of the universe through a series of short, well-written chapters, loaded with comprehensive analogies but with a significant amount of "thinker material" if the reader cares to delve deeper. The book is designed as a thought experiment, and has moderate success. Spoiler Warning – what follows is a discussion about some of the significant points of the book – if you’re going to read it (it doesn’t take long: I read the whole thing in just over an hour) then go read it and come back here later. Or to jump to the conclusion of my micro-review, scroll down until you reach the "end of spoilers" section. I’ve had a closer look at the chapters of the book:

  • Introduction (Introduction, The Package, The Old Man) – the story is set-up well, quite obviously as a work of fiction. Several mentions are made to thought processes of the individual and behaviour in accordance with society’s rules, which will be referenced later. The writing style of the introductory chapters, like the rest of the book, is charming and welcoming, and approachable on many different levels. The deliveryman and the Avatar – the two characters in the story – are introduced, and the latter is done so with an air of mystery which I feel is possibly unbefitting of the status ("level 5") he later declares. Probability, which forms a major part of the story and of the Avatar’s beliefs, is introduced through a coin-flip metaphor, but, again, the level of mystery and suspense induced is perhaps too much for a small, easy-reading volume such as this one.
  • Free Will and Determinism in Omnipotence (Your Free Will, God’s Free Will, Science, Where Is Free Will Located?) – The concept of free will is introduced; that is, that a thinking organism can have control over it’s own activities, and the discussion turns to that of determinism: if there is a single entity in the universe which truly knows everything, including the future, then there is no free will for any entity, but there can be an illusion of free will. As a determinist, I have no problem with this statement, which is presented as being bold and world-changing, however Adams seems to try to present it as something shocking; perhaps to cater to readers who may not have entirely followed the free will vs. determinism thought train through. However, the characters then go on to dismiss the idea of universal determinism, without further discussion, which left me feeling somewhat cheated. Thankfully I carried on reading regardless, drawn on by the excellent writing style, because (as you’ll see below) I found the book very enjoyable despite the fact that the author seems almost to expect that the reader will agree with him on basic premises like the existance of free will. These chapters go on to discuss God, the soul, etc. in a way that, for a moment, made me fear that the novel was going to continue to use these "wooly" terms to avoid having to talk about any real philosophical, moral, or religious issues at all! However, I was proven to be, again thankfully, mistaken…
  • Facets of Belief, and Religious Incompatability (Genuine Belief, Road Maps, Delusion Generator) – The Avatar and the deliveryman go on to discuss the value of religion and where it comes from (again, of course, in the belief set of the Avatar), in what turns out to be a well thought-out couple of chapters. Analogies are drawn which let the reader begin to think about religious teachings and their place in our world, which are referenced wonderfully by the later chapter Curious Bees. Several well-written chapters. The nature of abstraction and the need for mental models through which to understand the world is touched upon, although not in a terribly detailed manner.
  • Understanding God, and The Avatar’s Beliefs (Reincarnation, UFOs, and God, God’s Motivation, God’s Debris, God’s Conciousness, Physics of God Dust) – At long last, the Avatar goes in to detail about the nature of the universe as he understands it: that there is/was (the temporal difference is subtle) an omnipotent God, and the only possible thing that an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful God could be motivated to do is to bring about It’s own destruction (Adams repeatedly uses "He" when referring to God, which irks me slightly, but not enough to count against his book). The Avatar’s reasoning is this: that for such an entity, any other course of action or inaction is entirely pointless, as there is no motivation to do so. There is no motivation to do so because all possible other states can be concieved already, and, through their conception, they exist (that they exist as "thoughts" is irrelevent, because the perception of the universe as we experience it can not be demonstrated to be more than a thought belonging to some diety with a wandering mind). As a result, the Avatar reasons, the only experience different to universal omnipotence for a universally omnipotent entity is to cause Itself to become something that is not omnipotent: the Avatar believes that this is what the universe is – the remains of a God that destroyed itself.This line of reasoning doesn’t sit well with me. Wouldn’t an entity with ultimate power and knowledge in an (obviously) determinist reality equally be able to appreciate the results of even such an operation? And if not, It has demonstrated Itself to be subject to rules such as "existance". As I see it, if there is an omnipotent entity, It has a form which resides outside of the rules of existence, which leads us back to the original conundrum that It would not be motivated to do anything at all, and it would be entirely undetectable in any form anyway. I’m far more comfortable believing in one of two God scenarios. The first is, as hinted above, of an omnipotent God of which the universe as we understand it is a fleeting figment of It’s perception. The second is of a non-omnipotent God, of the type that most theists seem to believe in (even if they think they don’t). A non-omnipotent, or, shall we say, flawed, God could have a great deal of motivation to do anything, including "working in mysterious ways", creating a universe, talking to mortals, etc. As Adams says, it is an imperfect existance that causes motivation to act. And in every religious text I’ve read, the descriptions of God point to a belief in a non-perfect deity. In any case, I’m babbling, and the conflict between my beliefs and that of the Avatar do not make the story any less good. But from this point on, it’s important to realise that the majority of my interest in the book came from the same source as my interest in other people’s beliefs in general: that I’m fascinated by religion and belief systems.
  • Free Will Revisited (Free Will of a Penny) – Now within the context of the Avatar’s viewpoint, we revisit the idea of free will, and apply the idea that the probability in the universe (alongside matter/energy, part of the remnants/being of God) is universal in scope, and that it is as valid to say that humans have free will as it is to say that a penny has free will to determine what side it lands on when it is tossed. The analogy is perhaps un-necessary, but, like some earlier examples, it would illustrate the author’s point in a way that is approachable to anybody.Surprisingly, these ideas are not put forward with the "shock value" that it felt some of the earlier ideas were supposed to: the writing style is changed in order to present the information more fluidly. I, for one, found this more readable, but I’m interested to hear how other readers found it – presumabley we’re supposed to face the revelations of the previous chapters as facts for the purposes of understanding these ones. Which is fine.
  • Evolution, Skepticism, And ESP (Evolution, Skeptics’ Disease, ESP and Luck, ESP and Pattern Recognition) – What follows are the best-written chapters in the book. The Avatar and the deliveryman discuss skepticism and how inexplicable phenomena – such as extra-sensory perception (ESP) – fit in to the Avatar’s model of the universe. Some wide and varied explainations tease the reader with ideas that invite further thought and comment. ESP is described as the result of probability on the mind, or perhaps as the acute perception of forces elsewhere. Having already discussed gravity and magnetism, earlier, we are reminded that every thought is characterised by physical transformations in the brain – chemicals, electrical impulses, matter changes – which, of course, exert fields such as gravity into the universe. As a result, like it or not, thoughts do travel through the air, although this isn’t in a form that might be recognisable as a thought.
  • Light (Light) – A quick examination and hurried explanation of the more confusing points of general relativity follows. Those of a physics disposition or even a physics interest may find this a little patronising, but a point is made at the end, by way of excessive analogy. One is left wondering to what degree Adams – or, at least, his fictional Avatar character – understands some of the more interesting properties of light (such as that it is affected by gravity, or that it’s speed is not necessarily constant), and this casts a shadow of doubt accross other things he’s stated as fact. Nonetheless, an interesting chapter.
  • Curious Bees (Curious Bees) – Using a great analogy involving bees looking through the different colours of stained glass window of a church, the Avatar talks about the nature of religion. Superficially, the chapter is similar to Road Maps, but goes into greater detail about the Avatar’s belief in the necessity of human models by which to understand the world. It’s also a lovely bit of writing.
  • Willpower (Willpower) – A further examination of free will and relativity, this time from the perspective of humans. Issues of the subjectivity of morality are hinted at, but not at a level that would excite a philosopher. The chapter uses some interesting metaphors, but if you’ve read books on philosophical morality before, you won’t find anything new here.
  • Prelude To The War (Holy Lands and Fighting God) – The Avatar incites a discussion with the deliveryman about the nature of religious artefacts and their irrelevence, and hints at the purpose of an Avatar – to facilitate improved communication between intelligent individual entities in order to get closer to the state of understanding of the God from which all probability originally came. It is implied that the Avatar believes this to be "the great plan" of where the universe is headed, and it makes fascinating reading, despite my inability to facilitate his beliefs. Later, it is implied that there is to be an important war, fuelled by religion, and I’m left wondering why Adams didn’t take the obvious oppertunity to make reference to this idea before, during – for example – Curious Bees. Or maybe he did and I just didn’t notice.
  • Relationships (Relationships) – The Avatar dispenses some general advice on living life in a way that improves the value of the lives of others, and, by proxy, yourself. This doesn’t really feel like it belongs in this book, but is good reading nonetheless, particularly if you’ve had any formal training in skills like active listening.
  • Affirmations (Affirmations) – In another ‘aside’, the value of human thought and determination is explored. This ties in more closely with the rest of the story than Relationships did, talking again about ideas of probability and of noticing the results you want to notice (the same kinds of phenomena that cause superstitions to be reinforced). Good reading, but, like Relationships, you’re not sure why.
  • Fifth Level (Fifth Level) – In a slightly pompus way that feels unbefitting of it’s own definition, the Avatar declares himself to have reached the fifth level of conciousness, the level at which God’s nature can begin to be understood. In order to try to alleviate the tension caused by this revelation, the Avatar explains the importance of other levels, with particular reference to the most influencial political and religious leaders, who are typically of lower levels (as it is valuable for them to be able to close their minds to particular outside ideas). The whole chapter’s a little wooly around the edges, but prepares the reader well for the final revelations.
  • The Religious War (Going Home, After The War) – It is implied that in the years that follow there is a great religious war of the kind alluded to by the old Avatar. Now the former deliveryman is the new Avatar, and he himself is old, having survived the religious war (who’s build-up is described, over several chapters, in terms that are chilling when explored in reference to the political climate of today’s real world). It’s suggested that the Avatar is responsible for ensuring that the war ends peacefully, as part of a longer-running plan to reunite the many distributed facets of humanity into the "great plan" of a re-assembled God, but other suggestions are hinted at, too.

End of spoilers – if you skipped the bit above, it’s safe to start reading again here. The book is an interesting one, with some well-presented ideas (behind a little bit too much wooly thinking). I’d have no problem with recommending it to anybody with an interest in religion, or to anybody who needs their theism or atheism challenged. However, if you’ve explored an interest in philosophy or religion before, you’re unlikely to find much that is new or that can excite you in this book, except for the story it wraps inside it. The book takes a very direct route to it’s destination without exploring any of the alternative beliefs: for example, I disagreed entirely with one of the earlier premises, but the story as told by the protagonists left no room for dispute, and just pushed onwards towards it’s inevitable conclusion. This made little difference to me: I was reading it because I enjoy trying to understand the beliefs of other people – even fictional ones – but I can see how it could infuriate people who don’t expect their beliefs to be dismissed at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, it’ll only take you a few hours (at a maximum) to read it, and it’s free, so go download God’s Debris and make an afternoon of it. I’ll be delighted to discuss in finer detail the book with anybody who’s read it.