When I was a kid of about 10, one of my favourite books was Usborne’s Spy’s Guidebook. (I also liked its sister the Detective’s Handbook, but the Spy’s Guidebook always seemed a smidge cooler to me).
So I was pleased when our eldest, now 7, took an interest in the book too. This morning, for example, she came to breakfast with an encrypted message for me (along with the relevant page in the book that contained the cipher I’d need to decode it).
Later, as we used the experience to talk about some of the easier practical attacks against this simple substitution cipher (letter frequency analysis, and known-plaintext attacks… I haven’t gotten on to the issue of its miniscule keyspace yet!), she asked me to make a pocket version of the code card as described in the book.
While I was eating leftover curry for lunch with one hand and producing a nice printable, foldable pocket card for her (which you can download here if you like) with the other, I realised something. There are likely to be a lot more messages in my future that are protected by this substitution cipher, so I might as well preempt them by implementing a computerised encoder/decoder right away.
If you’ve got kids of the right kind of age, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the Spy’s Guidebook (and possibly the Detective’s Handbook). Either use it as a vehicle to talk about codes and maths, like I have… or let them believe it’s secure while you know you can break it, like we did with Enigma machines after WWII. Either way, they eventually learn a valuable lesson about cryptography.
Twine 2 is a popular tool for making hypertext interactive fiction, but there’s something about physical printed “choose your own adventure”-style gamebooks that isn’t quite replicated when you’re playing on the Web. Maybe it’s the experience of keeping your finger in a page break to facilitate a “save point” for when you inevitably have to backtrack and try again?
As a medium for interactive adventures, paper isn’t dead! Our 7-year-old is currently tackling the second part of a series of books by John Diary, the latest part of which was only published in December! But I worry that authors of printed interactive fiction might have a harder time than those producing hypertext versions. Keeping track of all of your cross-references and routes is harder than writing linear fiction, and in the hypertext
So I’ve thrown together Twinebook, an experimental/prototype tool which aims to bring the feature-rich toolset of Twine to authors of paper-based interactive fiction. Simply: you upload your compiled Twine HTML to Twinebook and it gives you a printable PDF file, replacing the hyperlinks with references in the style of “turn to 27” to instruct the player where to go next. By default, the passages are all scrambled to keep it interesting, but with the starting passage in position 1… but it’s possible to override this for specific passages to facilitate puzzles that require flipping to specific numbered passages.
If this tool is valuable to anybody, that’s great! Naturally I’ve open-sourced the whole thing so others can expand on it if they like. If you find it useful, let me know.
If you’re interested in the possibility of using Twine to streamline the production of printable interactive fiction, give my Twinebook prototype a try and let me know what you think.
While there has been plenty of fiction written about pandemics, I think the biggest difference between those scenarios and our reality is how poorly our government has handled it. If your goal is to dramatize the threat posed by an unknown virus, there’s no advantage in depicting the officials responding as incompetent, because that minimizes the threat; it leads the reader to conclude that the virus wouldn’t be dangerous if competent people were on the job. A pandemic story like that would be similar to what’s known as an “idiot plot,” a plot that would be resolved very quickly if your protagonist weren’t an idiot. What we’re living through is only partly a disaster novel; it’s also—and perhaps mostly—a grotesque political satire.
What will “normal” look like after the coronavirus crisis has passed? Will it be the same normal as we’re used to? Or could we actually learn some lessons from this and progress towards something better?
I love Ted Chiang’s writing; enough to reshare this interview even though I’m only lukewarm about it!
Have you noticed how the titles printed on the spines of your books are all, for the most part, oriented the same way? That’s not a coincidence.
ISO 6357 defines the standard positioning of titles on the spines of printed books (it’s also codified as British Standard BS6738). If you assume that your book is stood “upright”, the question is one of which way you tilt your head to read the title printed on the spine. If you tilt your head to the right, that’s a descending title (as you read left-to-right, your gaze moves down, towards the surface on which the book stands). If you tilt your head to the left, that’s an ascending title. If you don’t need to tilt your head in either direction, that’s a transverse title.
The standard goes on to dictate that descending titles are to be favoured: this places the title in a readable orientation when the book lays flat on a surface with the cover face-up. Grab the nearest book to you right now and you’ll probably find that it has a descending title.
But if the book is lying on a surface, I can usually read the cover of the book. Only if a book is in a stack am I unable to do so, and stacks are usually relatively short and so it’s easy enough to lift one or more books from the top to see what lies beneath. What really matters when considering the orientation of a spine title is, in my mind, how it appears when it’s shelved.
It feels to me like this standard’s got things backwards. If a shelf of anglophone books is organised into any kind of order (e.g. alphabetically) then it’ll usually be from left to right. If I’m reading the titles from left to right, and the spines are printed descending, then – from the perspective of my eyes – I’m reading from bottom to top: i.e. backwards!
It’s possible that this is one of those things that I overthink.
When October Books, a small radical bookshop in Southampton, England, was moving to a new location down the street, it faced a problem. How could it move its entire stock to the new spot, without spending a lot of money or closing down for long?
The shop came up with a clever solution: They put out a call for volunteers to act as a human conveyor belt.
Oh my Goat! We just finished reading this awesome pick-a-path story that helps children learn the power of kindness. Have a go… #OatTheGoat
Discovered this fun interactive storybook; it tells the tale of a goat called Oat who endeavours to climb a mountain (making friends along the way). At a few points, it presents as a “choose your own adventure”-style book (although the forks are artificial and making the “wrong” choice immediately returns you the previous page), but it still does a reasonable job at looking at issues of bullying and diversity.
This self-proclaimed “better Bundo book” tells a different (educational and relevant) story: in it, Marlon Bundo falls in love with another boy rabbit but their desire to get married is hampered by the animals’ leader, the Stink Bug, who proclaims that “boy rabbits can’t marry boy rabbits; boy rabbits have to marry girl rabbits!” With the help of the other animals, the rabbits vote-out the Stink Bug, get married, and go on a lovely bunnymoon… a cheery and uplifting story and, of course, a distinctly trollish way to piss off the (clearly anti-LGBT) Mike Pence. This evening, I decided to offer it as a bedtime story to our little bookwork. At four years old, she’s of an age at which the highly-hetronormative narratives of the media to which she’s exposed might be only-just beginning to sink in, so I figured this was a perfect vehicle to talk about difference, diversity, and discrimination. Starting school later this year means that she’s getting closer to the point where she may go from realising that her family is somewhat unusually-shaped to discovering that some people might think that “unusual” means “wrong”, so this is also a possible step towards thinking about her own place in the world and what other people make of it.
Her initial verdict was that it was “sweet”, and that she was glad that the Stink Bug was vanquished and that Marlon and Wesley got to live together happily-ever-after. I explained that while the story was made-up, a lot of what it was talking about was something that really happens in this world: that some people think that boys should not marry boys and that girls should not marry girls, even if they love them, and that sometimes, if those people get to be In Charge then they can stop those people marrying who they love. I mentioned that in our country we were fortunate enough that boys can marry boys and girls can marry girls, if they want to, but that there are places where that’s not allowed (and there are even some people who think it shouldn’t be allowed here!). And then I asked her what she thought.
GQ asked its favorite new authors to dunk on the classics.
We’ve been told all our lives that we can only call ourselves well-read once we’ve read the Great Books. We tried. We got halfway through Infinite Jest and halfway through the SparkNotes on Finnegans Wake. But a few pages into Bleak House, we realized that not all the Great Books have aged well. Some are racist and some are sexist, but most are just really, really boring. So we—and a group of un-boring writers—give you permission to strike these books from the canon. Here’s what you should read instead.
Personally, I quite enjoyed at least two of the books on the “books you don’t have to read” list… but this list has inspired me to look into some of the 21 “you should read instead”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
My mother got it for me because the coincidences apparent on the front and back cover appealed to her:
The author’s name, Pete Hartley, is remarkably similar to my father’s name, Peter Huntley.
The strapline contains a date, and that date is my mother’s birthday.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.