Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Digital Humanities and the 2016 Election

I've previously mentioned the advent of digital humanities, especially in regards to measuring ebb and flow of positive and negative words.  The New York Times has done something similar, but with the presidential candidates on a scale of positive/negative and simple/complex, while also including the books closest to them on this matrix.  That Trump's language is the simplest, by a significant margin, is not surprising.  In fact, his placement is directly above The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (a novel narrated by an uneducated thirteen year old) and slightly below the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Anderson.  To be fair, this is a man whose most lasting contribution to English letters was a two-word catchphrase.  The positive/negative spectrum is more interesting, especially when you look within a party.  The democratic candidates are interesting in that they form almost a mirror image, with O'Malley just a hair from the center line, and Sanders and Clinton equidistant from the origin on the negative and positive sides, respectively.  It's not difficult to see how this corresponds to their rhetorical style, with Sanders spending more time focusing on what's wrong and why we need to fix it, while Clinton is more focused on saying how things will improve.  

It's an interesting article, and provides a neat visualization of political rhetoric.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Christopher Walken's "The Raven"

Just in time for Halloween, here's a reading of Poe's classic poem "The Raven," read by none other than Christopher Walken:

Monday, October 26, 2015

Review: Krakatoa by Simon Winchester

I wrote briefly about an aspect of Winchester's popular history book last week, but I wanted to do a fuller review.

Despite the book's subtitle, The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, comparatively little is about the eruption itself.  Winchester, who was a geologist before he became a journalist, goes into depth on the geological, ecological, and political history of the region surrounding Krakatoa, which lies in the Sunda Strait, between Sumatra and Java (or rather lied, until the eponymous date when it blew itself up and crumbled into the sea).  Most complaints I've seen about the book have been in regards to Winchester's digressive narration, but this is in keeping with one of the major themes in the book, which is Krakatoa's position as one of the first truly global modern events.  Global here being used in the McCluhan "global village" sense, as news of the eruption spread worldwide in hours via underseas telegraphy.  The effects of the eruption are as important to the story as the eruption itself.

More than just emphasizing the global nature of the event, Winchester's digressions tend to focus on the tangential but necessary results of the circumstances that made the eruption possible in the first place, from the strange biodiversity of the Malay archipelago (to the west of the Wallace line the islands are exclusively inhabited by Asian flora and fauna, while to the east is exclusively Australian. At their closest, these islands are only a handful of miles apart.  This odd ecosystem is the result of one tectonic plate moving west from Australia and another moving east from India) to the mythology of the native Indonesians.  But Winchester also likes to point out the neat coincidence, the way things affect or merely reflect each other.  Krakatoa wasn't just a volcano that erupted one day.  The eruption, what led up to it, why it was so well recorded, our attempts to understand it, one of these stories cannot be told without the others.  Winchester's approach to history is not one of discrete events occurring in sequence, but of thousands of events, happening simultaneously, all, to some degree, affecting each other.  Digression, then, is not a foible to be forgiven, but a necessary trait of this kind of history.  

Of course, those turning to Krakatoa primarily for descriptions of the eruption itself and its immediate aftermath will be disappointed.  The book is more accurately about the total history of the island of Krakatoa, not just "the day the world exploded."  As such, everything from movements of the lithosphere to Dutch colonialism need to be addressed.  Nevertheless, Winchester manages to consistently bring the story back to the titular volcano as it geared up for its big day.

If you're the type of person who likes to hop from idea to idea, and discover connections between disparate subjects (even if the connections are merely semantic), this is the type of history book that will be right up your alley.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A book by any other title

Some titles are easy to translate.  Austen's Emma or Tolstoy's Anna Karenina can just be transliterated from one alphabet to another.  Some cases are a little more difficult, but still pretty simple.  Just go for a literal translation.  But other times, whether for marketing or artistic reasons I can't be sure, the changes are a bit more interesting. While trying to improve my Spanish on duolingo, I was on the Spanish language Wikipedia page for William Golding, a page which included his bibliography, including his novel Close Quarters which, in Spanish, is titled Cuerpo a cuerpo ("Body to Body").  This was a pretty neat translation, and reminded me of something I'd been meaning to look up.  At a panel at the Festival of Books, Jonathan Lethem remarked on the strange titles his Italian publishers gave his books.  For example, his sci-fi/noir pastiche, Gun, with Occasional Music is known as Concerto per Archi e Kanguro (Concerto for Strings and Kangaroo), As She Climbed Across the Table is Oggetto Amoroso non Identificato (Unidentified Love Object) and, most perplexing, Men and Cartoons is given the title A Ovest dell'Inferno (West of Hell).

It seems like loose translations of titles may be a trend in Italian publishing.  While the Spanish translation of The Grapes of Wrath is pretty literal (Las Uvas de la Ira), the Italians pared it down to just Furore.

Furore is basically Rage or Fury (at least that's what the internet tells me), so I went to see if the Italian edition of Stephen King's early pseudonymous novel Rage shared this title on Roman bookshelves.  It doesn't.  For some reason, the translated title is the Ossessione (Obsession (obviously)).

This led me to look at another King title, The Stand, which is admittedly a rather subdued title for a novel about a civilization ending disease and ensuing holy war.  The Spanish translation at least makes sense in this regard.

But, though it's been a while since I've read this, I think the Italian title, L'ombra dello Scorpione (The Shadow of the Scorpion) is a complete non-sequitur:

Here's a fun game, I'll give you a few foreign titles (and their English translations) and you guess what notable English language work they refer to:

1. Un Mundo Feliz (A Happy World)

2. Schiavo d'amore (Slave of Love)  

3. La Senda del Perdedor (Loser's Lane)

4. Pânico (Panic)


1. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

2. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

3. Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

4. Something Happened by Joseph Heller

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Thoughts on what I'm reading

I'm currently reading Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 (Harper, 2003) by Simon Winchester.  It's great, but something struck me as I was reading it, that speaks back to some issues I'd had with others and my own writing, specifically, how to deal with an audience with varying levels of knowledge in the subject you're discussing.  Winchester, originally trained as a geologist before becoming a journalist in the late 1960s, has to deal with this here.  Discussing the biodiversity and geology of Krakatoa necessitate a discussion of natural selection and plate tectonics.  The problem is that much of his audience will be well-versed in these subjects (i.e. the type of people who will actively seek out a book about Krakatoa) while many others will know little to nothing of the matter. So what do you do?  If you elide this information, you confuse the latter group, but if you go into detail, you bore the former.  Winchester manages to have his cake and eat it too.  What he does is couch the theory in anecdote, for example, explaining natural selection through the life and career of Alfred Russel Wallace.  While some points are necessarily dry (there's no other way to explain how a transform-fault functions than to just dive in) Winchester essentially manages to give the people who are already aware of the underlying theory something else to focus on while presenting the theory itself to those who don't know it.