Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Save our Children's Books!

The poorly-conceived, overly-broad Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act which went into effect on Feb. 10, was intended to protect children from lead in toys and other products for children. However, an unintended side effect could ban access to all children's books printed before 1985. What a horrifying loss to our culture.

What can you do? For easy, but probably ineffective, action, sign a petition. For the chance to actually make a difference, contact your congressman! Representative Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska has sponsored H.R. 1692, which would exempt normal books from the CPSIA. Urge your representative to support this resolution!

And if the impact on books isn't enough to get you upset about this dreadful law, think about it's impact on everything from secondhand clothing to hand-me-down bicycles. Handmade toys and clothes are likewise contraband. Have a favorite toy from your childhood? Forget about passing it on to your kids.

The more I read about CPSIA and how it is absolutely destroying entire industries, the more it sickens me.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Migraine Lightshow

I was home with a migraine for most of the day yesterday, laying in bed with a thick blindfold to block out all external light. I normally experience a heightened sensitivity to light with my migraines, but I rarely have other visual effects. But yesterday, with my eyes closed in the perfect darkness, I was treated to quite a show of lights and colors.

Blobs of dingy purple and greenish gold blossomed and flowed into bizarre shapes, pushing against one another, as unmixable as oil and water. Then there were the jagged flashes of white, like lightning piercing clouds roiled by strong winds. The flashes seemed to highlight the edges of abstract, sharp-edged forms, which appeared three-dimensional and organic, but not recognizable as anything I had ever seen before. Overlaid upon all of this was a hazy gray static. The pattern changed quickly and never repeated.

I'm not sure how long this went on, since I never took off the blindfold to look at the clock, but I would guess at least an hour. It was strangely beautiful, like watching a lava lamp. But I'm glad I didn't try to stay at work. Pain aside, it would probably have been difficult to look at a computer screen with all that visual disruption.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Of the Oxford English Dictionary and Wikipedia

I just finished reading The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), an excellent book for any lover of words or person otherwise interested in the history of lexicography, but likely too pedantic for the casual reader.

Conceived in 1857 not completed until 1928, the gargantuan twelve-volume OED remains the preeminent English language dictionary to this day. The Professor and the Madman is the tale of how Dr. William Chester Minor, a schizophrenic American surgeon, committed a murder in England, which resulted in his confinement in an English lunatic asylum for most of the remainder of his very long life. This unfortunate circumstance created the conditions under which a brilliant (if delusional) man, now confined to a cell, could spend virtually every waking moment reading and gathering quotations to support the definitions in the "big dictionary." Dr. Minor's contributions were on a scale unmatched by other volunteer readers involved in the project.

On page 106, one passage caught my attention. Dr. R.C. Trench, who first proposed the idea of creating a comprehensive dictionary of all the words in English (as opposed to previous dictionaries, which were collections of only rare and unusual words, often with highly biased definitions), suggested that in order to gather and define all the words, it would be necessary to read all the books.

"The undertaking of the scheme, he said, was beyond the ability of any one man. To peruse all of English literature--and to comb the London and New York newspapers and the most literate of the magazines and journals--must be instead 'the combined action of many.' It would be necessary to recruit a team--moreover, a huge one--probably comprising hundreds and hundreds of unpaid amateurs, all of them working as volunteers."

That was a radical idea in 1857. Literally and literarily world-shaking. However, that was indeed how the project went forth. It would have been impossible any other way.

But the real reason this passage stuck in my mind was the revelation that the OED, one of the most respected, authoritative sources in the English language, was produced at least in part by hordes of "unpaid amateurs."

The OED was the Wikipedia of its day.

Scholars scoff at Wikipedia. While it is true that ignorant or malicious people can add errors to Wikipedia, it is no less true that errors make it into print encyclopedias. Even peer-reviewed journals have been hoodwinked, and their back issues are sullied with the occasional article based on falsified research. On the whole, I have found Wikipedia to be quite good, never the end of a research project, but often a worthy start.

Of course, Winchester did not make the OED-Wikipedia connection in his book, since The Professor and the Madman was written well before Wikipedia's creation. However, it's impossible for me not to ponder this matter. Wikipedia is very young. It has the potential to become a comprehensive bank of all world knowledge. If the academic world were to embrace Wikipedia, if more scholars and researchers were to join the ranks of editors to improve both the quantity and the quality of the information in the articles, Wikipedia could evolve.

If the greatest dictionary in the world was produced from the efforts of an army of volunteers, why not the greatest encyclopedia in the world?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Meet Ferber

Last Saturday, I bought a brand new bottom-of-the-line iMac. It's amazing what passes for bottom-of-the-line these days: 20-inch screen, 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB memory, a 320GB hard drive, and OS 10.5.

Considering the Mac I just migrated from was a G4 running OS 10.2, with a 40 GB hard drive and a 17-inch screen that I had considered plenty big, the sheer awesomeness of my new iMac is dizzying. I like it. Yes sir, I do.

To go with my shiny new computer, I got a shiny new game: Spore. If there was ever a game for creative people, this is it. You guide the evolutionary path of a creature from single-celled organism to space-faring super-race. Yes, you're using "off the shelf" body parts instead of rendering your creature from scratch, but there are several axes along which you can modify the parts, as well as the textures, colors, and patterns. So no two people will end up with exactly the same alien.

My creature is currently still a beast, but it has developed enough sentience that I can graduate to person and form a tribe at my convenience. I'm a little reluctant to move on, because once you transition from animal to person, you can't modify the appearance of your creature anymore. (Although there will still be much creation in the form of vehicles, buildings, urban planning, civic structure, and so on. You even get to compose a national anthem.) But I really enjoy tweaking my creature. I suppose I can always start a new one from the amoeba stage.

My creature's name is Ferber, after FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records), a frequent topic at work. Here are the highlights of Ferber's evolutionary path.

Fresh from the ocean, first time on land. At this point, I was still thinking of making a cockatrice or a manticore.

Look, Ma, I have arms!

Much as I like purple, I decided it was time to move on. Also, I've found some eyes and jaws I like so well that they'll stay in place through Ferber's final form.

Those now-useless fins have been replaced by some sweet insect wings. And those big, honkin' claws show how fearsome a predator Ferber has become. Think of a velociraptor that can glide and shoot poison.

About time he learned to stand upright. You can't see it from this angle, but I believe he still had that ridiculously long stinger tail at this stage. At least he finally got some ears.

And here is Ferber's current form. Bigger antlers, leathery dragon wings, and a more respectable tail. This might be final, unless I decide to make some last-minute changes before leaping into the Tribal Stage.

Also, today I noticed that you can use the Creature Builder outside of the game. So, just for the fun of it, I made Odin's eight-legged horse Sleipnir from Norse mythology.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Happy National Grammar Day!

Here are a few of my favorite blogs devoted to grammar, punctuation, and style. I know it's Grammar Day and not Punctuation and Style Day, but good writing requires all three, and they are deeply intertwined.

SPOGG: The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar
Founders of National Grammar Day.

Mighty Red Pen
A little bit of everything, from punctuation issues in the news to zombie sightings.

The Blood-Red Pencil
Writing advice from 19 professional editors, including Maryann Miller, who used to lead the Nebraska Novelists group until she up and moved to Texas.

The Sentence Sleuth
Features "Criminal Sentences," in which she passes sentence on sentences so poorly written they ought to be criminal. (Like the one I just wrote.)

The Grammarphobia Blog
Answers to reader-submitted questions about grammar and word usage.

The Engine Room
Pokes fun at errors and oddities found in the wild, including signs and news headlines.

Apostrophe Abuse
That's right. A whole blog devoted to signs with prominent apostrophe errors. Go on, laugh at other people's mistakes.

Daily Writing Tips
As expected, offers daily writing tips, and also hosts a short story competition.

Pro Writing Tips
Backing away from the minutia of grammar to give writing advice that will help you develop your own style.

Evil Editor
He takes your query letters and synopses and burns them with his laser eye-beams, then mocks your plot mercilessly. Find out what it is that makes an editor heave your manuscript into the fire without even reading it.