Thursday, August 25, 2005

What I did on my summer 'vacation'

No blogging recently because I have spent just about every available moment on the revision of my Old English grammar book, King Alfred's Grammar. I needed it to be done in time for the beginning of the semester because I am again using it as the sole textbook in my OE class. I'm glad I started the revision when I did because every possible thing that could go wrong or delay the project has, and up until Tuesday my back was really against the wall: it would be difficult to start the semester without the textbook.

But it's finally done. Thanks to Bruce Gilchrist's collaboration, the book is much better than the previous version. It now has a decent number of sample translation sentences for every chapter, it's got "reading practice" paragraphs (all of them about King Alfred) to go along with each chapter. It's got an appendix on sound changes (which Bruce wrote), a glossary of grammar terms (as well as the pre-existing glossary of Old English), and now all the long vowels in OE are marked with macrons (Bruce did that particular hellish job).

The electronic version is identical to the paper copy except in terms of macrons and the sound changes chapter, which will eventually be there, but not until I figure out why the stupid Word-generated html is causing Dreamweaver to crash when it tries to fix it.

The idea behind the grammar is that it is a completely stripped down, simplified OE grammar that gets students translating as soon as humanly possible. KAG does not assume that students know Latin, and it also doesn't assume that they know any formal Modern English grammar. I think my students understand inflected languages and cases far better than I did when I started OE (although I had a background in Russian, at least), because KAG takes time to explain parts of speech, word functions and cases. The entire thing runs 150 pages (so only 75 when printed double-sided) and students can reasonably get through the entire grammar in seven weeks and then move on to translating Old English. I myself go right from the sample sentences to Pope's Seven Old English Poems, and my students don't seem to have any problems, but I know other people like to spend some time on prose first, in which case combining King Alfred's Grammar with Richard Marsden's excellent Cambridge Old English Reader might be a good choice.

One press is looking into publishing KAG and another seems to be interested, so we'll see how that goes. My aim is for someone to publish it as a small, inexpensive, simple and straightforward book, the way Sweet's primer was in its time. We'll see.

Next week I should be able to unveil the new, much better, version of King Alfred, the learning-assistant program that goes along with the grammar.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Maybe I should just rename it Necronomicon...

Over the past couple of years I have given some conference papers that included work from, and made references to, How Tradition Works. After these conferences, a few people--often graduate students--have come up to me, asked me when the book was coming out and if they could get a copy. I've obligingly gone home, printed up a copy of the manuscript, photocopied it double sided, bound it, and mailed it off.

Not a single person who has received one of these copies has ever commented on it. I've never heard from most of them ever again.

Does this mean that the book is so bad that no one can stand to read it?

Is it so bad that people are embarrassed and don't want to tell me?

No. That couldn't be.

Maybe the book drives everyone who reads it stark raving mad.

N'ghai, y-nyah, y-nyah! N'ghaa, n'n'ghai, waf'l pthaghn -- Yog-Sothoth! Yog Sothoth! ....

(is this why my galleys haven't arrived yet?)

Monday, August 08, 2005

Archeology of Knowledge

Blogging has been sparse of late as I've been racing to the finish line of a complete re-write of my Old English grammar book, King Alfred's Grammar. I need to get the book done in the next few days so that I have time to tweak the layout, print, copy and bind the books in time for classes.

[Brief technical discussion in response to comments on previous post: I use MS Word in all its horror for this project because I am trying to keep the html version and the hard copy version the same. This is not to say that I am using Word's terrible auto-generated html, but that I want the ability to cut and paste from the hard copy document to the e-version. If I were to do the layout and changes in InDesign (which is what I used to the design and layout for Tolkien Studies volume 1 , once I poured the Word files into InDesign, I would have a mare's nest of tracking and document control problems. Also, if KAG ever does get published (and to my shock and joy I now may have two publishers who both seem very interested in getting the book), the publisher will want the files in Word. So I use MS Word and try to keep the project small enough to avoid using "Master Document" (necessary for Beowulf and the Critics and How Tradition Works, avoidable with this project, which I'm fighting tooth and nail to keep down to 150 manuscript pages). -- And to Commenters: thank you for the excellent tips. Some of them I'd known and then forgotton, but most were new to me. ]

But on to the Archeology of Knowledge. As I revise this book I see more and more fossilized decisions upon which other structures have been built. For example, the book originally had (the website still has, though that's about to change) about six introductory chapters that were not numbered. Chapter 1 (which actually came seven chapters in) began with the first real Old English, the pronouns, and then progressed smoothly. But why did the book begin being numbered here ? How confusing was that? What was I thinking, I wondered.

And then I remembered one of the many work-arounds we were developing in the King Alfred computer program required sentences to be encoded with a difficulty level. That difficulty level was read back into the grammar book (which began as the interactive help files for the program), and so it made life easier to have Chapter 1 be the first chapter with practice sentences.

Now at this stage in the project, none of that matters or makes sense. But the structure had persisted for so long because so many other things (names of hyperlinks, help files, documentation, etc.) had been built on top of it. So now when I think about the manifest irrationality of the organization of Mitchell and Robinson's Old English grammar, for instance, I now immediately wonder what other structure or organizing principle was the foundation for the weird superstructure that now exists.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Update on the Crazy Sheep DNA Project

Well, it looks like we are going to go ahead and take a real stab at the crazy sheep DNA project. I just learned today that the Art History department at Wheaton just purchased a 15th-century Book of Hours, so with my friend in biology, Prof. Shawn McCafferty, I am going to try to figure out non-destructive ways to try to extract some sheep DNA. We'll try, for example, running a sterile probe along the edges of a manuscript leaf, running pcr and seeing if we've got any DNA. Then, depending on how much and how good it is, we'll try with smaller and smaller (or larger and larger) samples.

If that doesn't work I may buy a manuscript leaf on the open market and work in the other direction (i.e., clip a corner and see if that is enough, the continually shrink the sample until we get nothing).

Joachim Burger, et. al. "DNA Preservation: A Micro-satellite-DNA Study on Ancient Skeletal Remains," Electrophoresis 1999, 20, 1722-1728, notes that they were able to extract DNA from sample sizes of .3 grams of powdered tooth. That doesn't sound like much, but .3 grams of parchment would still be a visible, destructive removal that would prevent the project from going forward on any important manuscripts.

Also, it looks like someone at Cambridge may be trying the same thing: see this link. That would be bad news if our work were to be direct competition, since Cambridge has the Parker Library, and Wheaton doesn't. But I think our "Value Added" will be to design a database, set of conventions and visual representation of the data so that all data anyone can recover from any manuscripts can be easily compared. After all, just doing every leaf of the Nowell Codex (Beowulf manuscript) would take an enormous amount of work and funding and would generate reams of data. Hopefully, if this works and the methods can be refined, different groups all over the world will gather the DNA evidence, put it into some central database, and see what relationships can be extracted from the data.

And now, back to grammar book revisions, which have reached the formatting stage, in which my hatred of Microsoft Word knows no bounds. Oh, Word, how do I loathe thee. I loathe thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach. I loathe your weird crashes, your incomprehensible formatting, your amazingly annoying pop-up icons (which are not and never were cute) that give me no useful information. Ah, Word, my soul writhes with disgust knowing that I have to click on a stupid button for every single section of a 22-section document if I want the first page of that section to have a blank header. Yes, Word, your inexplicable formatting screw-ups when I delete what is, in your logic-free design, the wrong blank line, your stupid inability to represent some characters, and your tedious, slow scrolling, they gnaw at me, Word. I consign thee to the depths of hell, and from the depths of hell I stab at thee...