Help transcribe ancient Egyptian texts

You don't need to know an ancient language to help scientists read ancient literature. Researchers are looking for volunteers for a crowdsource project aimed at transcribing (and, later, translating) the words written on a series of crumbling papyrus scrolls, found in a trash heap at the site of what was once Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.

What's the creepiest passage in literature?

At The Atlantic, Joe Fassler votes for an infamous passage from Cormac McCarthy's The Road:

He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

Jesus, he whispered.

Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.

The key, he adds: "What is revealed is even more terrifying that what I could have imagined."

Do readers judge female characters more harshly?

Oh yes, writes Maria Konnikova in The Atlantic: "Work by social psychologists like Susan Fiske and Mina Cikara has repeatedly demonstrated that women are perceived and evaluated on different criteria than men. ... ">Now, even fictional females are feeling the sting."

Forget scarlet fever: What really blinded Mary Ingalls

Anybody who has spent much time with children's literature knows that scarlet fever blinded Mary Ingalls.

But scarlet fever doesn't cause blindness.

Mary really did become blind, though, in real life as well as in the books, so what was the real culprit? A paper published this week in the journal Pediatrics speculates that it could have been viral meningoencephalitis — inflammation in the brain and in the membranes that surround the central nervous system.

There are several possible causes. In Europe and Asia, ticks can spread a virus that causes meningoencephalitis. West Nile virus can cause it, as well. So can the mumps. And so can herpes simplex type 1 — the oral herpes virus that is present in the vast majority of people.

Which means that this story not only has ties to the other Little House history pieces we've run here at Boing Boing — the meteorology of the Long Winter, and the crazy connection between the Ingalls' and a family of serial killers — it's also, possibly, another example of a heroine from children's fiction who had herpes.

The full paper, sadly, is behind a paywall. But The New York Times' Motherlode blog has a nice summary of it.

Image: Wikipedia editor Lrcg2012, via CC

Great Moments in Pedantry: James and the Giant Peach needs moar seagulls

Children’s literature is about the wonder of discovering new worlds, the power of imagination, and the all the little triumphs and defeats that make up a life.

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Grendel as Grinch

Ross sez, "I was reading Thomas Meyer's great new translation of Beowulf when the annual showing of The Grinch came on. The potential for a mash-up overwhelmed me, and this is the result."

Every Scylding in Heorot liked mead a lot,
But Grendel the beast, roaring outside did not.

Grendel hated Scyldings, the whole Danish clan.,
Can I say why? I don’t think I can.

He spied on the Scyldings, he fumed and he wailed.,
He watched as in Heorot they drank mead and drank ale.

Grendel as Grinch

Omnishambles is word of the year

The Oxford English Dictionary has determined that "omnishambles", referring to situations shambolic in all possible respects, is word of the year. Coined by Armando Iannucci for BBC political comedy The Thick Of It, it has since been used in Britain's real-life parliament to refer to real-life omnishambles. [BBC]

Why Philip Roth had to explain himself in the New Yorker before his Wikipedia entry could be corrected

My latest Guardian column, "Why Philip Roth needs a secondary source," explains why it makes sense for Wikipedians to insist that Roth's claims about his novels be vetted by and published in the New Yorker before they can be included on Wikipedia:

Wikipedians not only have no way of deciding whether Philip Roth is an authority on Philip Roth, but even if they decided that he was, they have no way of knowing that the person claiming to be Philip Roth really is Philip Roth. And even if Wikipedians today decide that they believe that the PhilipRoth account belongs to the real Philip Roth, how will the Wikipdians 10 years from now know whether the editor who called himself PhilipRoth really was Philip Roth?

Wikipedia succeeds by "not doing the things that nobody ever thought of not doing". Specifically, Wikipedia does not verify the identity or credentials of any of its editors. This would be a transcendentally difficult task for a project that is open to any participant, because verifying the identity claims of random strangers sitting at distant keyboards is time-consuming and expensive. If each user has to be vetted and validated, it's not practical to admit anyone who wants to add a few words to a Wikipedia entry.

Why Philip Roth needs a secondary source

Little House on the Prairie, serial killers, and the nature of memoir

Over the weekend, I read a couple of the posts blogger Ana Mardoll has been writing in which she deconstructs some of the weirder/more objectionable elements of the Little House books. That sent me looking for an essay I'd read several years ago on the actual history of how the Osage people were removed from southeastern Kansas ... which is given a prominent, if rather warped, role in Little House on the Prairie.

I didn't find that essay, but I did find several references to a story I had never, ever heard before. Turns out, the Ingalls family's sojourn in Kansas might have overlapped with that of a family of serial killers. At the American Indians in Children's Literature blog, Debbie Reese writes about stumbling across the story in the transcript of a speech Laura Ingalls Wilder gave in 1937. Here's an excerpt from that transcript:

There were Kate Bender and two men, her brothers, in the family and their tavern was the only place for travelers to stop on the road south from Independence. People disappeared on that road. Leaving Independence and going south they were never heard of again. It was thought they were killed by Indians but no bodies were ever found.

Then it was noticed that the Benders’ garden was always freshly plowed but never planted. People wondered. And then a man came from the east looking for his brother, who was missing.

... In the cellar underneath was the body of a man whose head had been crushed by the hammer. It appeared that he had been seated at the table back to the curtain and had been struck from behind it. A grave was partly dug in the garden with a shovel close by. The posse searched the garden and dug up human bones and bodies. One body was that of a little girl who had been buried alive with her murdered parents. The garden was truly a grave-yard kept plowed so it would show no signs. The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa. Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, “The vigilantes are called out.” Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been. For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, “They will never be found.”

Read the rest

Spoilers are actually kind of nice

UCSD psych researchers Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld have published a paper called Spoilers Don't Spoil Stories in Psychological Science, in which they systematically study the effect of spoilers on audiences' appreciation of stories. As the title suggests, they found that despite subjects' stated sensitivity to spoilers, having stories spoiled for them didn't undermine their enjoyment of stories -- in fact, it sometimes enhanced it. Ty Burr has more:

No matter how much we claim to love that uncertainty, Leavitt and Christenfeld’s study indicates that spoilers provide some psychological relief, a way of dipping our toes in the ocean of fiction before diving in. Not knowing where a compelling story is going creates anxiety, and it’s that anxiety, Leavitt believes, that fuels the secret itch to cheat. “There are emotions we don’t like feeling in real life,” he says. “We feel them watching a movie, but without the anxiety it’s not as difficult to cope with. We feel safer. I feel that’s even more the case if you know where the story’s going — there’s not the dread or the fear that could spill over a little bit into real life.”

If a work of fiction is particularly well crafted — like “The Godfather” or like one of Leavitt’s recent favorite reads, Richard Russo’s “Straight Man” — it’s possible to fool ourselves into a temporary not-knowing while revisiting it, to lose ourselves in the story all over again even as part of our brains breathes a sigh of relief at knowing where the guard rails are. From that perspective, an unspoiled story may be just a hurdle we have to surmount in order to appreciate it later in greater comfort, the way we have to get used to certain foods, like artichokes or oysters.

I don't mind spoilers at all, and I find extreme spoiler-aversion pretty tedious. Some people act like they have a deadly nut allergy to spoilers, one which will cause their throat to close and suffocate them should they happen on the faintest trace of spoil. It's all a bit precious and drama-y.

The secret allure of the spoiler

Crazy stuff they'll teach in Louisiana's publicly funded charter schools

Louisiana governor (and retired exorcist) Bobby Jindal has signed an aggressive charter school bill that will transfer millions in tax dollars to religious academies run by evolution-denying, homophobic, climate-change-denying Christian extremists. Mother Jones's Deanna Pan went for a dig through these schools' official texts and discovered that Louisiana's publicly funded education system will soon tell some of its luckiest students that the KKK "achieved a certain respectability" by fighting bootleggers; "the majority of slave holders treated their slaves well;" dragons might be real; "dinosaurs and humans were definitely on the earth at the same time," and many other fun facts.

3. "God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ."—America: Land That I Love, Teacher ed., A Beka Book, 1994...

7. The Great Depression wasn't as bad as the liberals made it sound: "Perhaps the best known work of propaganda to come from the Depression was John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath…Other forms of propaganda included rumors of mortgage foreclosures, mass evictions, and hunger riots and exaggerated statistics representing the number of unemployed and homeless people in America."—United States History: Heritage of Freedom, 2nd ed., A Beka Book, 1996...

10. Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson were a couple of hacks: "[Mark] Twain's outlook was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless…Twain's skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel."—Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, Bob Jones University, 2001

"Several of [Emily Dickinson's] poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life."—Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, Bob Jones University, 2001...

12. Gay people "have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists."—Teacher's Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, 1998-1999, Bob Jones University Press, 1998

One text also decries mathematical set theory as ungodly.

14 Wacky "Facts" Kids Will Learn in Louisiana's Voucher Schools

Ayn Rand's Lord of the Rings

“'Yes,' said Frodo. 'I shall keep the Ring from the foolish parasities who wish to destroy it. For shockingly, many wish to destroy the Ring! They wish to keep the Ring from the rightful ownership of the rugged individualist who made it as his own.'" [Oliver Miller at Slacktory. Previously.]

An interview with China Miéville

Photo: Ceridwen (cc)

China Miéville is one of the most important writers working in Britain today. The author of ten novels of "weird fiction"—as well as short stories, comics, non-fiction, a roleplaying game, and academic writing on law and ideology—his 2011 science fiction novel Embassytown was acclaimed by Ursula K le Guin, among others, as "a fully achieved work of art" busy "bringing the craft of science fiction out of the backwaters".

We share the same British publisher, Pan Macmillan, and so—ahead of the publication on May 24 of his newest book, Railsea, a fantastical novel set in a world whose "seas" are an endless web of railway lines—I spent an hour with him discussing fiction, fantasy, giant moles, and the limits of contemporary geekdom.

Read the rest

Makers, the Master's thesis

Noah Brewer just successfully defended his MA English thesis Re-Makers: The Novel in Digital Collaborative Space at the University of Georgia. As the title implies, the piece is about my novel Makers. It's a smart piece of work, and I'm both tickled and honored. Cory

Chicago Writers Conference seeks funds

Bill Shunn sez,

The Chicago Writers Conference is Chicago's only homegrown mainstream literary conference focusing on practical business advice for fiction and non-fiction writers alike. The brainchild of Mare Swallow, it will feature such editors, agents, and authors as Chuck Sambuchino, Christine Sneed, Robert K. Elder, and Jennifer Mattson.

But it can only happen with support! The CWC is in the final eight days of its Kickstarter campaign and still needs to raise over $4000 for equipment rental, web development, speakers' travel expenses. There are lots of great incentives remaining for various donation levels, including art, signed books, and query letter or story manuscript critiques from Chuck Sambuchino and William Shunn. Please help, and support Chicago's long tradition of literary excellence!

Make the Chicago Writers Conference a Reality! (Thanks, Bill)