1995: Forsøk i kjærlighet

I hadn’t kept up with the 1995 project in a while, so I pounced on Essays in Love: A Novel by Alain de Botton yesterday.

It’s a somewhat unusual novel.  As it says on the cover, it’s sort of an essay collection, and it’s sort of a novel.  So very avantey.  But not really.

It’s a love story, but the protagonist tends to overthink things.  It’s quite amusing.

But I just couldn’t get past this bit in the opening section.

Our hero is calculating the chance that he and The Love Of His Life were to sit in neighbouring seats on the plain from Paris, given that a) only this woman is TLOHS and b) they both were to take planes from Paris to London that day.  Fine.

But the numbers are somewhat odd.  And it doesn’t help that the Norwegian translator is mixing up decimal commas and decimal points, either. 

The chance of sitting next to each other, given that they take the same plane, is said to be either one in “162,245” or “162,(245)” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), which doesn’t seem all that unlikely to be correct.  (There are 192 seats on the plane.)

But then we get to the bit where there are six planes, so we should multiply the chance by 36?  And we should end up with a change of one in “5 840.81”? 

What? 

And what’s up with all the decimals, anyway?  Grr!  Pretend precision is Pet Peeve Number 241.456!

So while reading half the book, half my brain was kinda going through the maths while the other half was reading the book.  And I really don’t have half my brain to spare.  I can’t spare even a tenth.

Finally I went to An Online Retailer and looked at the English version of the book:

There all the numbers are totally different!  AAARGH!

But they look more sensible there, at least.

Did the Norwegian translator just throw down some random numbers on the page, or did de Botton fix this in later printings?  Could someone check an early (1993) copy of this book in English?
  
With that out of the way, I could finally pay more attention to the rest of the book, which made me notice stuff like the thing above.  It’s supposed to be an illusion, but the longer arrow is 3mm longer than the short one.

I’m totally open to the idea that de Botton would do something like that on purpose just to annoy us nerds, and if so, I applaud him.

Rating: Baitalicious.

Books, Emacs, and ISBN APIs

I have the worst memory.

But even so, I pretty much manage to remember what books I’ve read.  If I’ve read Anagrams by Lorrie Moore, I remember that.

The problem is with the less (how to put it?) good books.

I read a lot of crap.  Crap that I like, but it’s crap.  Book after book of entertaining, but not really essential books.

For instance, I’m now reading No Cooperation from the Cat by Marian Babson.  It’s amusing, quite decently written and is a pleasant read.  It’s ostensibly a mystery novel, but people mainly stand around talking wittily to each other while they cuddle cats.  And then somebody’s going to die or something, I’m guessing.  The suspense!
 
She has previously written books like The Company of Cats, To Catch a Cat, The Cat Next Door and Even Yuppies Die.

I have absolutely no idea whether I’ve read those books or not, but if I haven’t, I want to.  And there’s the problem.

My books are kinda organised on the shelves, so I can pretty much find any book if I look at four separate locations where a book is likely to be.  Unless I’ve recently read it.  Then there’s no hope, because it’ll be in the “just-read” stacks.

So I thought: Perhaps I should just enter all the Marian Babson books into a database of sorts, and then just buy all the ones I haven’t read in one fell swoop.  I like fell swoops.

And then I thought that that sounded kinda boring, so perhaps it would be an idea to have a bar-code scanner, and enter the ISBNs that way.

But then I needed to look up the ISBNs via some API, so that I could see that the book is look-up-able.

Strapped-on Keypad

And then I thought that I might as well just scan all the books.  But then I needed to have a routine going where I would scan newly bought books to.

You can see where this is going.

I wrote an Emacs ISBN interface and book database thingie: Bookiez, and a bought a wireless barcode scanner, so that I don’t have to bring the books to the computer to enter them into the database.

I also set up the computer so that the data from the scanner goes directly to Emacs so that I don’t have to futz around.  I can just grab the scanner, point it at a book, and then it’s registered, without me having to start the right program or put focus into the correct window.

The Cyborg

Bookiez looks up the ISBNs via the APIs from Google Books, OpenLibrary, ISBNDB and LibraryThing.  (Phew.)  They all seem to have vaguely differing ISBN coverage, and the data quality is also…  varying.

Anyway, after scanning about a K of books, I’m really impressed with the Datalogic Gryphon D120 Barcode Scanner (aka. Datalogic Quickscan M2130).

The wireless range is fantastic (more than 20 meters), and the user interface is perfect.  When I scan something successfully, it beeps immediately, and when it transmits to the base station, it beeps, too.  So there’s never any doubt whether the scan was successful or not.  It does require you to hold it in a certain angle when scanning, but overall I think it’s a great device.  Nine thumbs up!

Not all books have ISBN barcodes, so I have to enter those by hand.  So I gaffa-taped a wireless keypad to my right thigh.  I can enter numpad stuff by touch-typing, and it makes a fashion-forward statement, as you can see.

The main annoyance when scanning is really the network latency when looking up the ISBN codes.  I’m looking at you, OpenLibrary.  But I’ve scanned half my books in a handful of hours, so it’s not too bad.

So now I can order some more Marion Babson books.  I don’t think I over-engineered this one at all.

1995: Dagbøker i stein

Or “The Stone Diaries” as it was called in English.

The reason this one never got read is probably that I suspected it to be respectable and stuff.

And it is.  It’s very respectable.

Initially I thought it was a fictional (auto-)biography of sorts.  Then when I reached the middle, I found all these pictures of the people portrayed in the book, so I kinda for a second thought that it might be a real (auto-)biography of sorts.  And then I noticed that none of the people pictured looked anything like the people described in the book, so I went back to “fictional (auto-)biography with unreliable narrator.  Of sorts.”

I never ever ever read anything about a book before I read it.  I don’t read the stuff on the back, or on the flaps, or reviews.  It much more amusing to read stuff when you don’t know how it’s supposed to be read.

I do, however, love reading reviews of stuff after I’ve read it.  If I loathe a book, I love going to Amazon.com and read the other 1- and 2-star reviews and getting my views validated.  Then reading the 5-star reviews, and see how moronic their reasons for liking the dreck is.

And the opposite thing works, too.  If I love a book, I read the 5-star reviews and congratulate myself on having such good taste, and then I read the 1-star reviews written by obviously sup-par twits who didn’t get the point at all.

I thought this book was kinda “eh”.  Not bad, not particularly good, but definitely respectable.  So I binged it after I finished reading it, and it turns out that Carol Shields won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this book, which I feel is such a confirmation.  Mainstream mediocrity seems to be the essence of that prize.

So there you are.

Rating: Respectablicious.

1995: The Zanzibar Cat

I’m not a fan of short story collections, but I’m a fan of a number of authors who write one short story collection after another, so I read them anyway.

But that explains why this book went unread.  I really like Joanna Russ.  She’s very funny and she’s quite angry, which makes for an enjoyable reading experience.

This collection has lots of funny bits, and lots of very sf-ey bits, and I enjoyed it immensely. I read it (as I do most short story collections) while travelling, and the mixture of storytelling approaches fits that situation perfectly.

As with any other book that I like, after finishing it, I went online to buy other books by the same author that I hadn’t read yet.  (This is why the backlog grows.) 

Not only have I read all her books, but she died last year.

Sigh.

Anyway, I bought this paperback used.  I like used books with marks from previous owners.  Like this:

I don’t leave any marks in my book myself, though.

Rating: Terrifilicious.

1995: The Mark of Merlin

I bought this book at an SF auction thing at the University.  I remember a bidding war broke out between me and some woman over this book.

I’m not sure why.  I was just caught up in the excitement.

And then it sat on the bookshelf until now.

I used to read a lot of the Anne McCaffrey sf/fantasy stuff.  She’s not a good writer or anything, but her books are…  relaxing.  They’re just there.  Things happen.  Dragons fly by.  A spaceship rebels. 

This isn’t a fantasy book, though.  “Merlin” (he of the title) is a dog.

I mean, literally.  He’s a dog.

So is this book.  This books is literally a dog.

It’s an uneasy mash-up between a gothic romance book and a spy adventure book, and it fails pretty much completely in every conceivable manner.  The plot is moronic and the romance is icky.

Rating: Twaddlelific!

1995: Tourists

I do remember why I haven’t read this one.  I thought it was a short story collection.

I hate short story collections.

No, that’s not quite true.  I love short stories.  It’s just that they take more energy than novels.  They’re so compressed.  You have to start caring about these characters in a couple of pages, and then ten pages later, they’re gone.  And then you start on the next one.

It’s less than relaxing.

So I thought this was a short story collection for some reason or other, but it isn’t.  Instead it’s an sf/magic realism mash-up.  Sort of.

It’s quite original and fun, but it didn’t really make me want to run out and buy ten more books by Lisa Goldstein.  It’s quite good.  Quite.  Kinda.  Yes.

Rating: Ambivalific!