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September 1, 2004

'Vanity Fair' - was William Makepeace Thackeray the world's first manga artist?


Who knew?

Certainly not me, before I read Verlyn Klinkenborg's New York Times editorial page essay this past Sunday.

Only now do I learn that the original version of "Vanity Fair," published as a monthly serial in 1848, contained Thackeray's original illustrations - a title page, 38 etched plates, 83 vignettes and 66 initials.

Klinkenborg bought an 1869 edition of the book years ago in London, and wrote that the experience of reading it is an entirely different one from that of reading the Penguin brick-of-smallish-type-version we read in high school.

He says the illustrated version comes alive.

Victorians waited just as eagerly for the next monthly number of "Vanity Fair" as "Star Wars" fans do these days for the next episode.

Klinkenborg's superb piece follows.

Reading Thackeray's 'Vanity Fair' With the Illustrations Intact

The Penguin edition of William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" has a new cover.


It shows Reese Witherspoon, who plays Becky Sharp in the new film version, staring balefully at the reader.

Whether this "Vanity Fair" does justice to the novel is not really the right question, of course.

But it's likely that Becky Sharp - one of the wiliest characters in English literature - will be too much for any actress, even the estimable Ms. Witherspoon.

There's a tension between great novels and the all-too-often not-great movies made from them.

It's wise to keep Laurence Olivier's Mr. Darcy bottled in memory so he doesn't contaminate Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy.

More equal works - say, Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" and Robert Rossen's 1949 film- coexist in an almost fused state, as if the movie were a particularly cogent illustration of the novel.

But Thackeray illustrated himself, something that is often forgotten.

I first read "Vanity Fair" in the Penguin English Library edition - a familiar brick of smallish type uninterrupted by anything as frivolous as an etching.

Years ago in London, I bought a cheap, dilapidated, two-volume edition of "Vanity Fair" that was published in 1869, some 21 years after the novel first appeared as a monthly serial.

What made the set worth buying was Thackeray's original illustrations - a title page, 38 etched plates, 83 vignettes and 66 initials. When I reread the book recently, this was the edition I used.

If you listen to the electronic chatter of our brave new world, you might almost be persuaded that there's nothing very kinetic about a mere book.

Compared with a movie or a Web page or a recorded version of a novel downloaded to your iPod, the text of an actual book just lies there, waiting for something to be done to it.

Good readers, of course, bring the kinetics of imagination to the text.

And compared with the genuine collaboration that exists between readers and a writer, the dynamism of hypertext, for instance, looks preposterously mechanical.

"Vanity Fair" is a case in point.

As it was originally published - illustrations intact - Thackeray met his readers more than halfway.

He is an interlocutor in his novel as much as its narrator. He patrols the scenes of "Vanity Fair" - London high and low, the battle of Waterloo, the prosperous ducal town of Pumpernickel - happy to intervene when a point needs clarifying, eager to field readers' comments even as the novel is unfolding.

Thackeray is always present as an illustrator, too. Each chapter begins with an ornamented initial.

The capital "I" of Chapter XVII, for instance, shows a painting of the immense Jos Sedley - collector of Boggley Wollah - seated upon an elephant, a painting that has a role to play much later in the book.

Readers now are used to the notion of a graphic novel, like Art Spiegelman's "Maus," in which text and illustration tell the story together.

But something very different happens in "Vanity Fair."

Reading that 1869 edition, I found the story of Becky Sharp's outrageous contention with the world around her swelling in imagination again.

But there was also room to admire that crisp mid-Victorian typeface and Thackeray's droll quarter-page vignettes.

They pop up with the lightness of touch, the glibness, that characterizes Thackeray as a writer at his best.

They are comments, often ironic, on the picture developing in a reader's mind.

Every couple of chapters a full-page etching appears, almost ceremonially.

It's hard to decide what these illustrations really intend.

"A Family Party at Brighton," for instance, shows Becky Sharp, with wickedly arched eyes and her "famous frontal development," flirting with George Osborne on a moonlit balcony, while her husband and Osborne's sad little wife, Amelia, look on from inside.

The etching is not how I imagine the scene.

And it isn't really how Thackeray's words imagine it either.

The picture doesn't really help tell the story.

It pauses the story, giving the reader a moment to linger over a critical episode.

Publishers strip Thackeray's etchings from reprints of "Vanity Fair" for reasons of cost and from a sense that, given the primacy of the text, the illustrations must be irrelevant.

We're meant to read as moderns, not as Victorians, who waited eagerly for the next monthly number of "Vanity Fair," poring over the words and illustrations.

We take for granted the dynamism, the pace of cinematic story-telling.

But compared with a comedy as rich and sprawling as "Vanity Fair," a movie nearly always shows us too much of the world and not enough of the story.

Compared with the way we moderns get to read "Vanity Fair," with an almost puritanical lack of ornament, the Victorians may have been better off.

September 1, 2004 at 09:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'The Great Firewall of China'


That's the term being used by critics of China's internet policy.

Today's Wall Street Journal article by Charles Hutzler was of great interest to me, because it focused on the 20% of the world I was effectively shut out of with bookofjoe Version 1.0, as a result of the XXX-rated content that appeared daily.

There's an Arab proverb that goes, "One door closes, another opens."

That's precisely how I'm beginning to view the shift here to Version 2.0.

Because all of a sudden, not only does China open up to bookofjoe, but a number of other people who before, for any number of reasons, couldn't/wouldn't read bookofjoe are climbing on board.

My prediction, by the way, as to how much of my audience I'd retain after becoming G-rated was right on the money.

I suggested that I'd end up with 5% of my Version 1.0 audience, after the dust settled, some 1,100 readers: turns out that the number is 1,500 or so.

But that's fine, 'cause I love a challenge.

Those numbers are already climbing, and they'll keep on doing so. But I digress.

Hutzler's article points out that China is using a variety of defenses to restrict internet content.

1) Chinese police focus on the backbone networks that undergird the internet. They simply block I.P. addresses of objectionable web sites at the routers.

2) New filtering technology combs the web for objectionable words and phrases (a list of some of the more than 1,000 filtered ones appears at the end of this post)

Of interest: 15% of the banned terms are sexual, while the rest are political

Emails containing them get lost in cyberspace; search engine requests for these words and phrases go unanswered, without an error message being sent back

3) ISP companies themselves, afraid of running afoul of Chinese authorities and being shut down, do their own censoring

Google's cache feature has been disabled in China; Google says its been done by the Chinese, not them, and research by Jonathan Zittrain and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard confirms this.

Of course, Google was shut down by China two years ago, only to come back with its cache feature disabled.

Google denies doing a deal with the Chinese, but who really knows?

What I want is this: would a bookofjoe reader in China, just one joehead among you 1.3 billion people, be so kind as to email me or post a comment to let me know if I'm getting through in my new Disney World-compatible Version 2.0?

I'd be most appreciative.

Saudi Arabia, by the way, also vigorously polices the internet, but - unlike China - makes public its general criteria for banning internet sites.

I've had readers from Saudi Arabia even in the bad old days, so who knows what's going on there?

Probably people in the ministries chillin' on a hot day.

One other thought.

The Journal's story notes, in its final paragraph, that China's firewall is porous, and intentionally so.

China knows it must connect to the outside to flourish.

What the country's doing, rather, is making it "prohibitively difficult to access or disseminate objectionable content."

I'm reminded of one of my favorite stories, about film director Brian de Palma.

A reporter interviewing him noted that it was really hard to find his production studio and office: the facility was in a warehouse building in Santa Monica, California, without any address or name on it.

In addition, the company's phone number was unlisted.

"Why?" asked the reporter.

De Palma replied, "Anyone who really needs to find us, and should find us, somehow always does."

Here's the Wall Street Journal story.


China Finds New Ways To Restrict Access To the Internet

The phalanx of barriers China uses to block access to dissenting views on the Internet is growing in sophistication and reach, stretching from network nerve centers to home desktop computers.

China's Internet police are using a filtering technology to, in effect, disable a popular feature of the search engine Google, according to a team of researchers at Cambridge, Harvard and Toronto universities.

The feature taps into snapshots of Web pages stored on Google's servers - which are based outside China - and was once a common way for Chinese to view sites that were otherwise blocked.

Separately, a research project at the University of California, Berkeley, found a list of banned words and phrases that a Chinese company embeds in desktop software to filter messaging among PCs and cellphones.

Among the more than 1,000 taboo terms: "democracy," "sex" and "Hu Jintao," China's president.

Added together, these reports are helping to flesh out the shape of what critics have dubbed "the Great Firewall of China" and show how successful China has been in bringing to heel the Internet, which was once championed abroad as an unruly marketplace of ideas that would promote free expression.

The communist government has jailed people for disseminating politically critical views, in part to serve as a warning to other Web users.

But it has never publicly disclosed its policing methods; the Ministry of Public Security, the agency in charge of supervising the Internet, said yesterday it couldn't comment on its monitoring and the assertions in the foreign research reports.

Now, with groups of researchers outside China probing for cracks in the firewall, a clearer picture is emerging.

"They're using a variety of methods. It isn't just one approach," says Jonathan Zittrain of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

For the first line of defense, Chinese police focus on the backbone networks that undergird the Internet in China, Mr. Zittrain and other members of his research project say.

Routers that connect the networks are encoded with the unique numerical addresses for the Web sites China deems objectionable, blocking, for example, purveyors of uncensored news, such as the BBC's Chinese and English news sites, and some Chinese Web sites based overseas.

To further plug holes, new filtering technology operated presumably by government authorities combs messages on the Internet, searching for objectionable words, the researchers say.

With this method, e-mails can be lost in Chinese cyberspace and never reach their destinations, and requests to search engines, which provide lists of Web sites based on words, can go unanswered, foreign and Chinese researchers say.

The research project by the three universities, known as the OpenNet Initiative, routed requests through computers in China to Google, Yahoo and Chinese search engines Baidu.com, in which Google Inc. is an investor, and Yisou.com, which is owned by Yahoo Inc.

Searches with sensitive terms like "Falun," for the Falun Gong spiritual movement that is banned in China, or "Free Tibet" were routinely cut off, without sending back an error message, the report says.

The result, the foreign researchers say, is that the Internet in China is very different from the relatively unfettered medium enjoyed in the West, with implications for the creation of a seamless world-wide Web of communications.

Mr. Zittrain says Saudi Arabia, for example, vigorously polices the Internet in that nation, but unlike China, Saudi authorities make public their general criteria for banning Web sites.

Further bolstering this divided Internet are Internet-service companies themselves.

Either at the behest of Chinese authorities or in fear of running afoul of vague regulations, these companies are doing their own censoring, removing provocative comments and blocking messages deemed sensitive, say the researchers and Internet-service-company executives.

Tencent Technologies Ltd., a company based in the Chinese city of Shenzhen whose stock trades in Hong Kong, is allegedly going a step farther, requiring customers of its popular instant-messaging service, QQ, to download software to their PCs that contains a filtering mechanism, according to the Berkeley China Internet Project.

Chinese hackers, who unlocked the program file, ComToolKit.dll, found a list of banned key words, and an Internet executive in China passed it on to Xiao Qiang, a veteran human-rights campaigner and head of the Berkeley project.

Mr. Xiao, in a report posted on the project's Web site, says one analysis of the list estimated that 15% of the forbidden terms are sexual while the rest are political, including the names of Chinese leaders and words including "human rights" and "dictatorship."

Tencent wouldn't comment on the report.

Spokeswoman Catherine Chan says the company declines to discuss software applications or programs "for commercial reasons."

Google has had previous run-ins with Chinese authorities.

Two year ago they temporarily blocked all access to the search engine.

When service was restored, Google's feature that stores copies of Web sites, called its cache function, was disabled.

Chinese Internet users had been able to view banned sites by accessing the cache, which is designed to make Web searching faster.

Since the stored pages could be accessed without visiting the original Web sites, Chinese consumers were able to get around some of the government's blocking techniques.

The disabling of Google's cache function ignited suspicions among industry executives and analysts that the California-based company struck a deal to remain in the booming Chinese market.

Google has previously denied any such compromise to get its search engine unblocked, and Mr. Zittrain's research team says its Internet probing proves that the blocking originates in China, not with Google.

A Google spokeswoman declined to comment.

Yet the researchers also say China's firewall is porous, and intentionally so. The idea isn't to seal China off - an impossibility given the country's size and the government's eagerness to tap the Internet for commerce.

Rather, they say, the system is designed to make it prohibitively difficult to access or disseminate objectionable content.

"It's a deliberate way to frustrate people," says Ronald Deibert of the University of Toronto.


Some of the more than 1,000 words and phrases allegedly filtered by the Chinese instant messaging service, QQ:

• Democracy
• Christian
• Falun Gong
• Hu Jintao
• Human rights
• Multiparty
• Oppose corruption
• Underground church
• Overthrow
• Prostitution

• Riot

• Sex

• Taiwan independence

• Tiananmen

• Traitor

September 1, 2004 at 06:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

'Eat it raw' - rawfoodinfo.com


This website now lists more than 60 raw food restaurants in the U.S., up from only 2 seven years ago.

Devotees are typically vegans, meaning they eschew animal and dairy products.

They also believe that heating food above the 110-115° range destroys enzymes in food and diminishes nutritional value.

Many nutritionists are dubious about basing an entire diet on the concept.


It just doesn't seem like something worth worrying about; I mean, do it if it makes you happy.

September 1, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

World's best can opener: Swing-A-Way classic


After decades of assaults on its iconic design, Swing-A-Way still stands tall at the top of the heap.

Every time I cut myself on a sharp can lid trying to remove the darn thing from under the liquid on top, I vow to replace my Swing-A-Way with one of those that removes the entire top with no sharp edges.

Then I buy one, use it for day, and put it in the bottom drawer to gather dust, never to be seen/used again.


Because every single one of the pretenders are much harder to use, requiring much more force to turn the handle.

That's because in addition to cutting, they have to compress the metal to create a safe edge.

They also generally make you turn the handle parallel to the ground, making you work without the aid of gravity.

I spent $24.95 for a Kuhn-Rikon opener billed as being "built like a Swiss watch."



But still too hard to use.

OXO came out with a version, and put in a kind of transmission gear that lets you turn the handle vertically like the Swing-A-Way.


No good: still too hard to turn.

So every few years, as I did just now, I drop $5.95 for a new Swing-A-Way and just suck up the occasional cut.

I suppose I could clean the old opener, but that gunk that gets in and behind the gears really doesn't come completely off no matter how hard I try with a toothpick.

I see now that Zyliss, the Swiss manufacturer of all things kitchen-related,


has just come out with a safety-lid version, for $14.95.

I think this dog is just not gonna hunt here anymore: I'm passing.

Of interest is that Cook's Illustrated magazine, the only objective source in the world for reviews on things food-related (they accept no advertising) reviewed a whole slew of can-openers and came to the same conclusion as I did.

September 1, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

'Nuclear War Survival Skills'


I just finished this book, by Cresson H. Kearny, last night.

Kearny authored the original 1979 Oak Ridge National Laboratory edition, and then updated and expanded it for a new 1987 edition and added yet another section on hormesis (the positive effects of low-level radiation on the human body) in 1999.

For $19.50 (at amazon), you get a plain-spoken, clearly written, how-to guide to shelter and protection before, during, and after an all-out nuclear exchange.

Written at the height of the Cold War, this book was intended for average Americans who believed it not only possible but desirable to ride out a nuclear exchange with "The Evil Empire" and then emerge weeks or months later into a Mad Max-like world to rebuild.


The matter-of-fact prose about the millions of dead and maimed is compelling.

Even more so, however, are the pictures of what happens to structures and shelters after being exposed to a nuclear explosion at close range.

For example, one simple underground wood-framed shelter survived completely intact 300 yards from ground zero at Hiroshima.

Writes Kearny, "Although the shelter itself was undamaged, its occupants would have been fatally injured because the shelter had no blast door.


"The combined effect of blast waves, excessive pressure, blast wind, and burns from extremely hot dust blown into the shelter (the popcorning effect) and from the heated air would have killed the occupants.

"For people to survive in areas of severe blast, their shelters must have strong blast doors."

What with our post 9/11 world, and the apparently endless war on terror that appears to be a major underlying theme of the early 21st century, I expect that sales of this book will steadily increase in years to come.


If an "event" occurs, look for an inflection point in the sales curve.

September 1, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Being wrong is very cheap'


The fundamental premise of the next stage in internet search.

AltaVista, back in the Paleolithic era, demonstrated that indexing the entire world wide web was feasible.

Google's success stems from its uncanny ability to sort useful web pages from dross.

But the real prize, according to the article "From factoids to facts," in the August 28 Economist magazine, "will surely go to whoever can use the web to deliver a straight answer to a straight question."

Microsoft's Eric Brill heads a new system called "Ask MSR" (Microsoft Research).

Ask MSR is still a prototype, although Microsoft may launch an improved version commercially under the name AnswerBot.

Memo to Nick Denton: remember that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery when you read this.

The new approach allows for lots of mistakes that are quickly discarded, hence the title of this post.

I find it interesting that Microsoft's taking the "brute force" approach, instead of the older, now largely discarded "fine focus" path, to a semblance of AI.


Their "noisy channel" model of search is remarkably reminiscent of the whole field of "fuzzy logic."

Here's the Economist story:


From factoids to facts

At last, a way of getting answers from the web

What is the next stage in the evolution of internet search engines? AltaVista demonstrated that indexing the entire world wide web was feasible.

Google's success stems from its uncanny ability to sort useful web pages from dross. But the real prize will surely go to whoever can use the web to deliver a straight answer to a straight question.

And Eric Brill, a researcher at Microsoft, intends that his firm will be the first to do that.

Dr Brill's initial crack at the problem is a system called “Ask MSR” (MSR stands for Microsoft Research).

This program uses information on web pages to respond to questions to which the answer is a single word or phrase - such as “When was Marilyn Monroe born?”

Ask MSR starts by manipulating the question in various ways: by identifying the verb, for example, and then changing its tense or moving it into different positions in the sentence (“Marilyn was Monroe born”, “Marilyn Monroe was born” and so on).

The resulting phrases are then fed into a search engine, and documents containing matching strings of words are retrieved.

It sounds a promiscuous strategy, but gibberish phrases produce few matches, so, as Dr Brill puts it, “being wrong is very cheap.”

Once accumulated, the pile of documents is scanned for possible answers, and these are ranked by frequency.

In practice, the correct answer appears in one of the first three places around 75% of the time.

That might not sound very good, but human intelligence provides a second filter, since wrong answers are often obvious.

If you ask how many times Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon, for example, “1980” is not a plausible answer, but “5” is.

If in doubt, clicking on an answer produces a list of links to pages which provide support for that answer.

Ask MSR is still a prototype, although Microsoft is trying to improve it and it may be launched commercially under the name AnswerBot.

Dr Brill, meanwhile, has moved to a more difficult task.

One of his most recent papers, written jointly with Radu Soricut of the University of Southern California, is entitled “Beyond the Factoid”.

It describes his efforts to build a system capable of providing 50-word answers to questions such as “What are the rules for qualifying for the Academy Awards?”

This is harder than finding a single-word answer, but Dr Brill thinks it should be possible using something called a “noisy channel” model.

Such models are already employed in spell-checking and speech-recognition systems.

They work by modelling the transformation between what a user means (in spell-checking, the word he intended to type) and what he does (the garbled word actually typed).

Just as a telephone line distorts the voice of the person at the other end of the line, this process can be thought of as being a noisy channel that transforms the user's intention into something rather different.

By analysing many pairs of correct and mis-spelled words using statistical techniques, it is possible to predict how such transformations work in general cases.

A system can then be designed to work the process backwards. Given a mis-spelled word, it can guess what that word is most likely to be a mis-spelling of.

Dr Brill's question-answering system does something similar.

Many question-and-answer pairs exist on the web, in the form of “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) pages.

Dr Brill trained his system using a million such pairs, to create a model that, given a question, can work out various structures that the answer could take.

These structures are then used to generate search queries, and the matching documents found on the web are scanned for things that look like answers.

The current prototype provides appropriate answers about 40% of the time. Not brilliant, but not bad.

And it should improve as the web grows.

Rather than relying on a traditional “artificial intelligence” approach of parsing sentences and trying to work out what a question actually means, this quick-and-dirty method draws instead on the collective, ever-growing intelligence of the web itself.

September 1, 2004 at 06:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Consciousness is not a thing, but a process' - William James


James wrote that in "The Principles of Psychology" in 1890.

Have we really gotten any closer to understanding the nature of consciousness since then?

I don't think so.

What's required is not a new theory, but a new way of creating theories.


Otherwise, it's just gonna be more of the same old same old for the indefinite future.

The person who'll turn the ship around is already alive; there's about a 20% chance she/he's Chinese (1.3 billion people in China, 6.3 billion on the planet: do the math).

I doubt it's the same kid who'll be the first human to walk on Mars, even though we know that boy's gonna be Chinese. But I digress.

Funny, isn't it, how happiness is also a by-product of other things you do?


I mean, it's not something you can get your mind around any more than you can consciousness.

In fact, that which has no apparent substance was long ago recognized as the source of stability and immortality.

The Corinthians asked, in the Bible, "What are the things in life that never change?"

Paul answered, "The things you cannot see."

September 1, 2004 at 03:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sushi specs


A German company has invented a pair of glasses that come apart to double as chopsticks.

Ralph Anderl, who runs the Berlin-based company Ic!Berlin, designed them.

He says he came up with the idea after noticing that eating on the go was becoming increasingly popular.

The "sushi specs" have detachable arms that can be used to eat traditional Japanese food.

Those who aren't adept at using chopsticks can have forks attached as an alternative.

"The idea came from the common need for cutlery at any time. Nowadays people don't have time to stop and eat lunch in a restaurant, they want to eat while they're walking to their next job," said Anderl.

The spectacles can be made into prescription glasses for the far or near-sighted, or turned into sunglasses for those who want to eat outside.

"The glasses have been a particular hit in Japan," said Anderl.

The frames of the glasses are made from lightweight stainless steel and fit together without the use of screws.

Unfortunately, once the arms have been removed the glasses cannot be worn until the chopsticks have been reattached - making eating for the visually impaired a little tricky.

But that hasn't stopped the sushi specs, which cost $325 a pair, from flying off the shelves across the globe.

"We sell hundreds of frames across Europe, the U.S. and Japan every day," Anderl said.

I like the concept, but stainless steel chopsticks?

Doesn't sound like the greatest mouth feel.

Maybe better for a Terminator or I, Robot type.

[via Ananova]

September 1, 2004 at 12:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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