Not a good writing day today

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Actually an abso­lutely lousy writ­ing day today. I’d writ­ten myself into a dead end. There’s two ways of deal­ing with that.

The clever way would have been so have accep­ted there was a prob­lem that I wasn’t going to fix in a rush and moved on to the next sec­tion. After get­ting that done I could return to the prob­lem point and re-write to get from there to here.

However, I thought the sec­tion I was stuck with might affect how the rest of that chapter works, so I looked for a fix. And looked. And looked. I finally have one, but it’s prob­ably cost me a day’s writing.

I have a party I have to go to tomor­row, so it’s a bit of a stall on the writ­ing at the moment. This is a slight pain as my cal­en­dar tells me it’s just day 2 of #AcWriMo . I would have been nice to get to day 3 before run­ning into a big­ger problem.

#blog #writ­ing  

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What can the short form do for (insert discipline here)?

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Colleen Morgan is get­ting ready for the SAA con­fer­ence ses­sion on blog­ging. To open up the ses­sion to people bey­ond those who can get to the USA, she’s ask­ing a series of ques­tions to the world at large. Her first ques­tion is:

The emer­gence of the short form, or blog entry, is becom­ing a pop­u­lar way to trans­mit a wide range of archae­olo­gical know­ledge. What is the place of this con­ver­sa­tion within aca­demic, pro­fes­sional, and pub­lic dis­course? Simply put, what can the short form do for archaeology?

This is a topic that’s being dis­cussed else­where. At Ether Wave Propaganda (h/t Jonathan Dresner) Will Thomas notes that blog entries are cre­at­ing extra interest in papers. At AoB Blog for Botany, we’re find­ing that the blog is increas­ing interest in art­icles. So what is it that helps?

First up there’s the simple act of telling people that there’s research out. This is why there isn’t just a blog for the Annals of Botany, there’s also a Facebook page and Twitter account. These aren’t repla­cing other meth­ods of com­mu­nic­a­tion, they sup­ple­ment them and they work.

Another issue is that there are ser­i­ous aca­demic con­cerns that can be aided with dis­cus­sion that don’t belong in a journal. Exhibit one is Mick Morrisson’s post on a Digital Archaeology Workshop. Nearly every aca­demic is going to have expert­ise that’s unique to their depart­ment that is also shared with other people around the world. A blog is a tool that can open dis­cus­sion with col­leagues around the world. I’m sure Mick could write up his blog post in long form with ref­er­ences and sub­mit it to a sub­scrip­tion only journal with a read­er­ship that’s well over 100 people, but would the extra effort be worth the extra (or just dif­fer­ent?) response?

Google drink. Photo (cc) Peter Kaminski.

Downloadable drink, they’re work­ing on it.
Photo (cc) Peter Kaminski.

Which leads me to the third point. Short form doesn’t apply to just blog­ging. It applies to com­ments as well. We’re used to the 20 minute talk at con­fer­ences. Social con­ven­tion means you don’t hear 20 minute ram­bling replies at a con­fer­ence unless the ram­bler is old and the ori­ginal speaker is young. Even then the abil­ity to reply without pause for breath, coher­ence or mercy doesn’t work. Likewise blogs also offer oppor­tun­it­ies for short com­ments and if you see a long ram­bling reply with CAPITAL LETTERS lib­er­ally sprinkled around, scroll on.

Blogging is writ­ten, so there’s a tend­ency to see it as a com­pet­itor for aca­demic pub­lic­a­tion. Instead the short form means it can be more inter­act­ive and dis­curs­ive. For an example fol­low the many links in Bora Zivkovic’s post Roosevelts on Toilets for dis­cus­sion about what blogs can dis­cuss and an example of an event becom­ing a mat­ter of ser­i­ous and pas­sion­ate debate. Blogs are more a com­ple­ment to con­fer­ences. Just as one con­fer­ence doesn’t really pre­clude the exist­ence of oth­ers, so too blog­ging is not going to replace any con­fer­ences. At least not till you can down­load alco­hol and brief but embar­rass­ing romantic encoun­ters over the internet.

Re-thinking Mendeley

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I’ve got a blog post I’d like to fin­ish here, but it needs time for me to sit down and write it prop­erly. One of the things that has eaten my time instead is look­ing over Mendeley. In the past I haven’t used it because I haven’t had a need for it. I already have accounts on Zotero, CiteULike and I have a copy of Papers for my PDFs. I think this could change as I’ve been work­ing with Mendeley accounts for AoBBlog.

If you visit AoBBlog you’ll see a Bibliographies option on the menu bar, and drop­ping down from that four options. Three of these are shared col­lec­tions and Pollination is cur­ated by David Frost, the man­aging editor of the Annals of Botany. These are all admin­istered at Mendeley. I’ve set up Arabidopsis, Ecology and Nutrition as shared col­lec­tions so that when people who know more about Arabidopsis etc. than me sign up, they can keep the bib­li­o­graphy up-to-date. The reason you can see it on the web­site and not have to guess which AoB staff mem­ber is keep­ing the col­lec­tion on Mendeley is that Mendeley now has an API, allow­ing me to pull data out of the site. There’s also a WordPress plu­gin for Mendeley and that’s how I’ve been able to put some­thing quickly on the web rather than try to delve into JSON myself.

So why care? Continue read­ing

The limits of fiction

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Space station

Station V by Les Chatfield

Just over a week ago Sidney Perkowitz sug­ges­ted that film-makers should limit them­selves to one big sci­entific flaw in a film. All sorts of crit­ics have had fun with this. writer­James has pos­ted an inter­est­ing response arguing sci­entific accur­acy can enhance a story. I’m going to go a bit fur­ther and argue that the one BIG flaw idea is a good idea, for a given defin­i­tion of BIG.

It’s not a new idea. Brian Stableford made it one of the key points in Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. He argued good SF intro­duced one new BIG idea, which he called a novum, and explored the con­sequences. That sounds lim­ited, and it’s rare you’ll get big crowds shout­ing for more lim­its on what they can do. Yet Stableford’s reas­on­ing isn’t that it’s good for sci­ence. It’s good for the story. Terry Pratchett came to a sim­ilar con­clu­sion when he even­tu­ally made the map of Ankh-Morpork. Initially he was against pin­ning down places because it lim­ited what he could do. He then real­ised that it’s the lim­it­a­tions that make a story. The Door You Cannot Open. The Path You Cannot Take. It’s the lack of an easy route that makes the story worth telling. Every single murder mys­tery could be speeded up if the lead char­ac­ter had an app on their iPhone that told them all the neces­sary details at the start of the pro­gramme, along with a GPS route to the cur­rent loc­a­tion of the mur­derer. It would cer­tainly cut out a lot of the faff­ing about, but the only pro­gramme that would be improved by such a device is Murder, She Wrote.

There is a dif­fer­ence between a one novum rule and ped­antry for drama. Take for instance David Mitchell’s com­plaint:

Apparently, if a ship blows up in space, it doesn’t really make a noise. How silly much of Hollywood’s sci-fi out­put must look to audi­ence mem­bers with exper­i­ence of inter-stellar warfare.

Personally I think it’s excit­ing when things go bang but it would be a ludicrous waste of the one phys­ical impossib­il­ity that Perkowitz per­mits. You’d need to save that for warp speed or all of Kirk’s adven­tures would have to hap­pen on the moon.

Pedantry would be point­ing out that a ship blow­ing up around the Moon wouldn’t make a noise either, so inter-stellar war­fare is not a neces­sity. My objec­tion is that sound in space is one of the con­ven­tions of the genre. This and other oddit­ies, like sim­ul­tan­eous light and sound for explo­sions, are simply part of the dra­matic tool box used for sci­ence fic­tion. The sort of per­son who com­plains about those is the sort of per­son who watches a musical and asks “How come every­body knows the words?”

If we were hav­ing this dis­cus­sion about Geography it’d be a non-issue. I don’t know much about American geo­graphy. I know Chicago and Detroit are in neigh­bour­ing states, but I don’t know if you could drive from one to another in three hours. That means a film where a crook picks up the guns in Chicago in the morn­ing and deliv­ers them in Detroit at lunch­time wouldn’t bother me. Would it be reas­on­able for me to mock any­one who was annoyed as a bunch of spods? ((If Chicago and Detroit doesn’t work for this example, then replace them with NY and LA — which I know are quite far apart.))

I don’t think one novum per film should be a rigid law. FTL travel, in one form or another is a staple of SF, even if it cur­rently looks impossible. It works not because of warps or tachy­ons, but because it’s neces­sary for the story. Still, I do sup­port the prin­ciple that using sci­ence as a magic wand is a bad idea. So do most of the authors that I fol­low and read. One of the nice things about Twitter is see­ing authors ask­ing ques­tions because pulling an answer out of the air isn’t good enough for them. The clas­sic wheeled space sta­tion is the res­ult of writers not want­ing to magic grav­ity into a set­ting, when they can come up with a plaus­ible reason for it. It’s an obvi­ous example of cre­ativ­ity through limitations.

Perhaps a bet­ter idea would be to count each novum as a neg­at­ive mark on a story. FTL drive is a neg­at­ive, but so long as the place you end up is inter­est­ing enough, the net res­ult is pos­it­ive. Similarly there’s no reason for English-speaking ali­ens to appear, unless the story is improved by them. Under this rule the magic wand the Doctor uses against the Cybermen in the Christmas spe­cial Dr Who vs the Cyberkittens is a bad idea because it’s a big neg­at­ive and it kills the story.

It also helps if you think about what is or isn’t sci­ence fic­tion. Star Wars is not science-fiction. It’s set in space, but it’s fantasy. The driv­ing motor of the story is about the people and their struggles. It’s set in space, but for the most part that’s just exotic scenery. The Core in con­trast is driven by a phys­ical dis­aster. The reason for the story exist­ing is a sci­entific prob­lem, which surely makes the sci­ence fair game for cri­ti­cism. The sci­ence not tan­gen­tial to the drama as it is in Star Wars, it is the ant­ag­on­ist. If the peril is as ludicrous as the Pacific Ocean lev­it­at­ing and drop­ping on the lower 48 states of the USA in the mother of all tsuna­mis you have a prob­lem. If your solu­tion is get­ting Bruce Willis to build a giant umbrella before the ocean drops you have a worthy sequel to The Core.

Red Letter Day: Danish Alphologists Discover the 27th Letter of the Alphabet

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DENMARK: Alphologists at the University of Billund, Denmark have announced the dis­cov­ery of the 27th let­ter of the English Alphabet. The let­ter, which has yet to be named, was uncovered dur­ing lib­rary renov­a­tions over the Easter Break. Professor Olaf Proil who iden­ti­fied the let­ter said the dis­cov­ery was a com­plete sur­prise:

Alphologists think there are plenty of let­ters wait­ing to be dis­covered, but that most of these lie out in the far reaches of the alpha­bet, far bey­ond the punc­tu­ation marks and the sym­bols you get on cell­phones. What is so sur­pris­ing is that this let­ter is near the middle of the alpha­bet, between Q and R. It is an extremely small let­ter, which may explain why no-one had noticed it before. We think it may have been hid­den behind the tail, or pesce which comes out of the Q.”


The site of the pro­posed miss­ing let­ter.
© Olaf Proil, Pål Foilor, University of Billund

The find is set to be con­tro­ver­sial when it is presen­ted at the International Alphological Union next month. One pro­fessor has already dis­missed the new let­ter.

We get this kind of head­line every few years and each time it’s proven to be non­sense. It’s almost cer­tainly a vari­ant of another let­ter, just like there are two vari­ants of writ­ing a lower-case A. This was settled a couple of years ago when the IAU elec­ted to des­ig­nate such things as dwarf letters.”

History will prove me right

Proil nev­er­the­less claims there is his­tor­ical proof this is indeed a miss­ing let­ter.

There’s clear evid­ence that this let­ter dates back to the Dark Ages. A close exam­in­a­tion of A History of England by the Venerable Bede shows there are ele­ments miss­ing from the page. Previously his­tor­i­ans have argued these were spaces, or pos­sibly that he’d for­got­ten to dip his quill in the ink. Documented Viking raids on Lindisfarne, the mon­as­tery where the Vulnerable Bede wrote his his­tory, could well have taken the let­ter back to Denmark as booty along with the gold and jewels.”

Proil spec­u­lates that the let­ter could be even older:

We have ref­er­ences to Celtic texts in Roman his­tor­ies, but so far all Celtic mater­ial seems to use the Roman Alphabet which was imposed on them when the emperor Maximus invaded their ter­rit­ory. It is pos­sible some Celtic let­ters were smuggled to Britain dur­ing the Roman inva­sion and hid­den from the con­quer­ors. We need to carbon-date it, but we may have the first pre­his­toric letter.”

Media Controversy

Dr. Pål Foilor who has assisted Prof. Proil in his work admits that there have been prob­lems in announ­cing the let­ter to the pub­lic.

My first reac­tion was email all my friends with the excit­ing news. That’s when I real­ised I couldn’t, because the let­ter wasn’t on my keyboard!”

Foilor has been work­ing with Compaq to pro­duce a down­load­able ver­sion of the let­ter which users will be able to type by press­ing Q and R similtan­eously.

“Compaq are the obvi­ous choice for any com­put­ing work requir­ing heavy-duty lex­ico­graphy. They’ve been safely using a ‘q’ without a ‘u’ buf­fer on their products for years. The sav­ing by using Compaq makes it 14% more eco-friendly than Compaqu. That’s the kind of expert­ise we need in repro­du­cing the new letter.”

Rude WordsNot every­one has been so pos­it­ive. Major cell­phone man­u­fac­tur­ers are skep­tical about the new letter’s use. Avril Poisson of the American Cellphone Federation said:

While new let­ters might seem like fun, we shouldn’t for­get there’s a cost too. The num­ber 7 on cell­phones already hosts P,Q, R and S. Adding a new let­ter between Q and R could over­load the key and mean we lose the use of 7, which is the world’s luck­i­est number.”

Family groups have also urged cau­tion, not­ing that the new let­ter might be used to pro­mote drugs, por­no­graphy and women’s rights. Bill Donohue, of the Catholic League, is said to be angry — though exper­i­enced Donahologists are as yet uncer­tain if this is about the letter.

Nonetheless Prof Proil says that he is look­ing for­ward to the unveil­ing of the let­ter at noon. “While the let­ter is tiny, the pos­sib­il­it­ies are huge, I think its small size could make it par­tic­u­larly use­ful when describ­ing sub-atomic particles.”

The Discovery Channel will be cov­er­ing the event live in their pro­gram “The Lost Letter”.

Other pro­grams cov­er­ing the let­ter in the fol­low­ing week will be a BBC Horizon Special and the History Channel’s “The Secret Letter of the Third Reich.”

[Compiled from a press release by the University of Billund and stor­ies around the web]

2010

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A lot of people will be talk­ing about the obvi­ous film/book. The film and book ver­sions of 2001 are dif­fer­ent, in the book the mono­lith is on Iapetus, the moon of Saturn where liquid water may exist. Arthur C. Clarke changed his mind for the sequel, and decided that Jupiter was the bet­ter place for the sequel 2010, which is far bet­ter than any sequel to 2001 has the right to be. I haven’t bought the DVD yet, but I will even­tu­ally. A dir­ect com­par­ison between the two is per­haps not fair as they’re two dif­fer­ent films and stor­ies. As great as 2001 is, it is umm… cine­matic in scope. It’s a story of bil­lions of years. 2010 is much more personal.

The plot is the quest to find out what happened after Dave Bowman left the Discovery for the last time. All the people on Earth have to go on is the mes­sage: “My God! It’s full of stars!” The Americans are build­ing Discovery II travel there. In the mean­time Russians have built their own ship, the Leonov, to exam­ine Jupiter and board Discovery as a derel­ict. This hap­pens against a back­ground of Cold War ten­sion (one magazine said that this dated the film). An ana­lysis of Discovery’s orbit shows that it will crash onto Io before the American ship can reach it. The Russians offer to take three American astro­nauts with them on the Leonov, so that they can try and avoid whatever happened to the Discovery’s crew repeat­ing itself.

The Americans are put into hiberna­tion for the trip, but as they sleep US-Russian rela­tions deteri­or­ate fur­ther. The Russians dis­cover unusual read­ings from Europa and reluct­antly awake Heywood Floyd. They agree they haven’t the fuel to make a diver­sion, they’ll be rely­ing on scrap­ing over Jupiter’s atmo­sphere to act as a brake to slow them down. Instead they launch a probe…

2010 is among other things a ghost story, the adversary is unknown and pos­sibly unknow­able. It shows off what Arthur C Clarke could do. The scene above was based on pub­lished spec­u­la­tion about Europa at the time. The res­ult is that the scene isn’t too far off how sci­ent­ists would describe Europa today. However the point of 2010 isn’t to be a lec­ture in astro­bi­o­logy, it’s about human inter­ac­tion. Unseen alien pres­ence poses a chal­lenge which means the crews of the Discovery and the Leonov have to over­come both their fear of the unknown and of each other to leave the Jovian sys­tem alive. Technology is import­ant in the story, but its role is pla­cing lim­it­a­tions on what is feas­ible rather than a means of escap­ing limitations.

Arthur C. Clarke under­stood the lim­it­a­tions of tech­no­logy and that’s what makes 2010 a far bet­ter story than you’d expect. His death will be a great loss.

Reviews in Archaeology

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Reading Archaeology
Reading Archaeology. Photo (cc) Queen Roly.

There’s an inter­est­ing post gone up at Publishing Archaeology: Why Aren’t There More Good Book Reviews in Archaeology? — the dis­cip­line, not the magazine. Mike Smith raises one of those points which is obvi­ous when someone else men­tions it. Why is there no archae­olo­gical equi­val­ent of BMCR?

One key point is the dif­fer­ence between good reviews and pos­it­ive reviews. When I review some­thing here it tends to be pos­it­ive. One reason for this is that I write in my spare time and I don’t often feel like put­ting in effort for what may pro­mote a bad book. A good review in con­trast is one which informs you about the book and gives an accur­ate account of whether or not it’s worth both­er­ing with. Whether or not there are good reviews here is for you to decide and I’m not fish­ing for compliments.

My first reac­tion when read­ing this post were that there were plenty of good reviews, most of them in BMCR, but as Mike points out (and I keep for­get­ting) there is a Divide between archae­ology and clas­sics. Nonetheless BMCR is fant­astic. If you haven’t read it then it’s a free online journal which is only reviews of recent books. Better still you can also sign up to have the reviews delivered to your mail­box, where I tend to end up delet­ing a lot of them, because they’re often not some­thing I’d be inter­ested in. However, it’s not unusual to find some­thing which I wouldn’t have oth­er­wise read about.

So why is there no archae­olo­gical equi­val­ent? The tech­nical issues are trivial. From my pos­i­tion as a post-grad, we’re not really trained in book reviews. Mike Smith’s guide is a help here. Also, writ­ing a good review as opposed to a pos­it­ive review might be a bad idea when you don’t have a job. For instance a com­ment that north and south are oppos­ite dir­ec­tions can cause people to take umbrage [PDF]. Some people even set up an entirely new sec­tion of an organisation’s web­site to deliver that umbrage. That wouldn’t explain the dif­fer­ence between archae­ology and clas­sics though, because pre­sum­ably there are still aca­demic polit­ics to nego­ti­ate in classics.

Another reason may be the frag­ment­a­tion of archae­ology. Classics has big meet­ings for all clas­sics in both the UK and USA. The Classical Association is the big event in the UK, the APA meet­ing in the USA. Archaeologists in con­trast tend to meet in period-themed or method/theory-themed meet­ings. The closest to a gen­eral meet­ing for archae­ology in the UK is the TAG series, which is about Theoretical Archaeology with a very broad defin­i­tion of the­ory. There are some com­mon grounds between archae­olo­gists, Antiquity is the most obvi­ous one that springs to mind, but they’re rare.

This mat­ters because spe­ci­al­it­ies tend to be con­cen­trated in regions. You’re more likely to find an cluster of archae­olo­gical research­ers on Medieval Britain in the UK than in the USA. Similarly Australian archae­ology tends to be prac­ticed by Australian archae­olo­gists. The bound­ar­ies aren’t exclus­ive. There are Mayanists in the UK as well as the USA, but noth­ing like the same pro­por­tion. This means that in archae­ology, much more than in clas­sics, that spe­cial­isms are also social groups. Classicists in con­trast have the same sources regard­less of where they are in the world. A clas­si­cist is more likely to be able to review someone’s work and have little to do with them socially and pro­fes­sion­ally than an archae­olo­gist. If I like someone then I will find it dif­fi­cult to give a book a neg­at­ive review, even if it richly deserves one. If this isn’t a freak­ish per­sonal foible then it would explain how the less tightly knit clas­sical com­munity can pro­duce more good reviews.

A final UK based point is that we’re all assess­ment mad here at the moment. We get assessed on pro­du­cing papers and books, not review­ing them. Rather like under­grads if it ain’t assessed then we don’t think it’s important.

This wouldn’t in any­way detract from the cent­ral point Mike Smith makes, which is that from the per­spect­ive of pro­du­cing good Archaeology good book reviews are import­ant. It’s well worth read­ing the whole thing and the com­ments.