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Category Archives: books

I am glad to say that I didn’t leave Lynn Truss’s talk feeling inadequate when it comes to my skills with the English language. In fact, I felt the emphasis on convention rather than rule was refreshing and honest, reflecting a pragmatic attitude to English grammar and acknowledging changes over time which, doubtless, will continue.

The focus was on the purpose of punctuation: the meaning-making that is an essential process of writing.  Not that perfect punctuation can ensure perfect understanding (‘I know you like the back of my hand’ vs ‘I know you like the back of my hand’) but it can help (‘The Queen: without her, dinner is noisy’ vs ‘The Queen without her dinner, is noisy’).

An interesting point was brought out by a questioner: is this lack of interest in punctuation linked to a lack of interest in thinking of the needs of others? Do we think the recipient is responsible for finding the meaning in a message, rather than it being the role of the writer to punctuate it correctly to give the meaning?

Two questions mentioned ‘text speak’ and how it might be part of the decline (symptomatic if not causal), but another mentioned the telex machine which also used a system of abbreviations. An essential difference is of course the number of people who have some experience of text-speak (either using it or have to decipher it) compared with telex users (who must have been relatively rare.)

The one area where I disagreed with Truss was her imagining of a future where all punctuation disappeared. I can’t imagine, since English took up punctuation to enable it to develop a greater level of sophistication, it reverting to a punctuation-free form again whilst it is still written down.

Bath Literature Festival 2012 http://www.bathlitfest.org.uk/lynnetruss.aspx

According to John Gribbin, those of us entertaining the idea that we might find intelligent life on other planets are destined to be disappointed. There appears to be no sign that another advanced civilisation (Gribbin typifies this as one which has advanced to the point of developing radio telescopes) exists.

His central argument hinges on Fermi’s remark that “If aliens exist they would be here“, not seeing any reported ‘alien sightings’ as credible. We have already started to explore beyond our home planet; it would be reasonable to expect another technically sophisticated civilisation (it would only take one) to have done the same. If they think Earth too ‘infected’ to visit they could have sent probes. If their politics are isolationist, it would have only taken one independent individual (with sufficient funds) to explore themselves (and would all alien civilisations be isolationist simultaneously?) We know that only part of our galaxy is inhabitable, they could have worked that out too, and reduced the time it would take to find us. One possibility exists, that we are the oldest and most advanced of the civilisations in the universe and the others have yet to reach a level of technical ability to explore space; but is this likely?

It’s not a happy thought for us members of the Star Trek generation, brought up with space exploration as just another one of those thing we did. We expected that we would have been on Mars long ago. We didn’t know that we wouldn’t have to worry about aliens because there weren’t any.

[‘The Reason Why’ – John Gribbin; talk given at The Mineral Hospital on March 3, 2012 as part of the Bath Literature Festival 2012]

I’ve recently become involved with ebooks on both a personal and professional level. As a keen reader I’ve been considering whether ebooks were for me and whether I should consider a dedicated ebook reader (ereader). We are also considering ebooks and ereaders, for our distance learners, as an alternative to supplying them with traditional textbooks.

A little research reveals that ebooks are produced in different formats but not all ebooks are available in all formats… and not all readers can display ebooks in all formats. There are extremely detailed comparison tables of ereaders (this one, for instance) and unless ebooks can always be converted into a format of choice, the user is left making a decision on their choice of ereader based on what format of ebook they foresee wishing to use. A less than optimal situation.

As well as dedicated ereaders there are of course other options for reading ebooks, including tablets/PCs/laptops/netbooks and mobile phones. The first group offers the greater flexibility in formats that can be displayed, but possibly a less comfortable reading experience than with a device with an e-ink screen and less mobility some cases. Mobile phones offer the greatest access when it comes to mobility, but the small screen size brings issues of its own along with limited memory size.

Attending the very well attended JISC Digital Media online surgery ‘Getting Started with ebooks’ this week we learnt more about creating ebooks including multimedia, insuring accessibility and copyright.

Those producing ebooks have obvious responsibilities (eg accessibility and copyright) but many options with the technology they choose to use. Recognising that readers may be using one (or more) of many possible devices to access the ebook must be the first consideration, because it determines:

  • what formats of ebook can be accessed (and therefore what titles)
  • the screen size which could affect how well the pages can be displayed (eg large tables or detailed diagrams)
  • whether colour can be seen (coloured diagrams rendered in B/W may be much less useful)
  • memory size (if the ebooks are intended to be stored on the device)

 

Possible solutions to this for ebook producers are:

  • produce ebooks that can be viewed fully on  the lowest specification device (eg smallest screen, B/W, lowest memory)
  • produce ebooks in all the major formats

 

Those wanting their students to access available ebooks could:

  • prescribe a device that the student would need to provide for themselves
  • provide a device for each student (could be a loan)

 

I would be interested to hear if anyone has succeeded in making what they feel is a successful choice of ereader/other device for students to access academic texts.

I’ve recently being enjoying reading and rereading a few golden era who done its. For the uninitiated, these are tales in which the amateur sleuth is prevalent and usually has the whole crime solved with the application of a public school education/common sense/a life spent in a small village (which, pound for pound, come across as the most crime ridden places on earth.)

Usually, there is only one police officer per crime which, if you found a body in your library today, I think would attract a whole fleet of coppers (unless it’s a common occurence in your neck of the woods, in which case I would consider moving, as corpses take up a serious amount of shelf space.)

Libraries, yes. If your house isn’t the sort to have a library, you’re patently rif raf and can forget a visit from that nice Belgian detective or the old lady with the knitting; this is not a genre in which you will appear other than as a parlour maid or the stiff.

But what was I talking about? Ah yes, technology. It struck me that it would be impossible to construct one of these simple mystery stories in the modern age as modern gadgetry as rendered much of the traditional devices of threat and tension redundant.

Isolation is just not what it used to be. You’re in a spooky old house in the middle of nowhere, the other inhabitants dropping like flies, and you find that someone has disconnected the telephone line. Kids, that used to be frightening. These days, who would care? Seriously, how long would it be before you even noticed that your own land line had been disconnected?

Stranded on an island with a homicidal manic? Call the emergency services with your mobile. Finding yourself lost in the woods when following the trail of a gang of crooks to their lair? The sat nav feature will solve that (or at least the compass.) And if you can take a few clear photographs of the gang members while you’re there (good job you went for the model with the better camera), that’s going to save the police artist a lot of work.

Think the other members of the diner party have  a ‘past’?  Google them. Person who may be able to corroborate a story unobtainable because they are travelling ‘out East’? No problem, text them, no one’s unobtainable these days unless they are on retreat (and taking it seriously, not Tweeting about it.)

I’ve just read my first who done it featuring characters with mobile phones and digital cameras as common place. How long before we get a story where the characters in a country house mystery are updating their Facebook status with the current body count and the amature detective is using Wikipedia to research untraceable poisons. Or have I just invented a new spoof genre?

I heard a news item on Radio 4 yesterday about the release of what would be the world’s largest thesaurus, drawing on entries from the Oxford English Dictionary. Seeing a message on Twitter linking to the news story (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/8319175.stm) I quickly RTed the good news; well, it is the sort of thing you would want to share isn’t it (humour me here).

I was delighted and somewhat surprised to receive a reply (from someone who’s blushes I shall spare) saying that they had misread the message and thought it was reporting the discovery of a new dinosaur.

Well, on hearing that an image of the creature popped into my head. The mighty and terrible Thesaurus Rex, running amok in the Glasgow Public Library heading for the reference section. Brave librarians try to fend him off with those wooden poles with the hooks on the end you use to open high windows, but to no avail. Now there’s nothing left of their Encyclopedia Britannica but  bits of chewed cover.

The story of the thesaurus is a gem. A project started in 1965 that grew on a diet of good ideas (“I know, why don’t we include this as well?” Ring any bells? Every been involved in a project like this?) At one point almost destroyed by a fire but saved from having being stored in a metal filing cabinet (and you can picture it can’t you, paint singed and blistered but defiant.) And now, after over forty years, it’s finally complete in all its blue cloth and gold-leaved glory. I’d actually quite like a copy but I’m afraid to even look at the price. Plus I don’t know if I can trust it in the same bookcase as my dictionary of physics.