Notes in the margins

February 21, 2011

A nice little piece about marginalia and the digital age in the Times today. I don’t think that I will go digital until ebooks come in paper format. 🙂



Do We Need to Involve Shakespeare in this Argument?

February 20, 2011

Recently, novelist and attorney Scott Turow and other members of the Authors Guild wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times called “Would the Bard Have Survived the Web?” in which the authors bemoan the prevalence of copyright infringement and piracy on the Internet. They warn of a dire future if copyright is not strictly protected:

Certainly there’s a place for free creative work online, but that cannot be the end of it. A rich culture demands contributions from authors and artists who devote thousands of hours to a work and a lifetime to their craft. Since the Enlightenment, Western societies have been lulled into a belief that progress is inevitable. It never has been. It’s the result of abiding by rules that were carefully constructed and practices that were begun by people living in the long shadow of the Dark Ages. We tamper with those rules at our peril.

Oh noes!!!1!!1 teh internets will send us hurtling back to the barbarity of the time before teh movable type printing press! I can’t imagine what relevance the early Middle Ages could have to the question of modern copyright law except to suggest an over-dramatic sense of Badness. Oh, and they also talk about Shakespeare for some reason. I say “for some reason” because, as the authors make clear, the first copyright law was enacted in 1709, almost 100 years after Shakespeare’s death. I don’t know, there’s something about the playhouses’ admission charge being a “paywall.” Plus, hey, Dark Ages=Bad; Shakespeare=Good.

The Turow piece has inspired a response from Kevin L. Smith, the Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University. According to the Scholarly Communications Office, Smith is “both a librarian and an attorney experienced in copyright and technology law.” Smith says,

It seems a little bit unfair to critique these editorials because they are usually manifestly uninformed; several critiques of Turow have already appeared, and I don’t want to seem to be piling on.


…he does so. And I’m afraid I have to say, “A plague o’ both your houses!” On the one hand, I admit that my immediate reaction is “Oh, boo hoo, Scott Turow isn’t making enough money.” In addition, using a writer who made a nice living without modern copyright protection as an example of why authors need copyright protection is definitely a bit problematic.  Also, they were rude about my beloved Middle Ages.

On the other hand, Smith actually strikes me as “manifestly uninformed” and perhaps a bit hard of reading. For one thing, he attributes the New York Time piece to Turow alone. In fact, Turow has two co-authors, Paul Aiken and James Shapiro. Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Among Shapiro’s publications are the books Rival Playwrights : Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare; Shakespeare and the Jews; 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? He is currently working on a book called The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Granted, Turow is the best-known of the three authors, but under the circumstances, it seems borderline dishonest to ignore the contribution of so eminent a Shakespeare scholar. Who do you think knows more about Shakespeare, Smith or Shapiro?

Smith summarizes Turow, Aiken and Shapiro’s argument as follows:

The core of the argument is that Shakespeare and his contemporaries flourished because their work was rewarded financially, owing to the innovation of producing plays in an enclosed environment and sharing the income from theater admissions with the playwrights.  Turow then analogizes this physical barrier to theater admission with the “cultural paywall” of copyright in order to argue that the Internet threat to copyright must be addressed with stronger laws.

This is a fair summary, as is Smith’s criticism of the analogy between theater admission and copyright. However, Smith goes on to say,

First, Shakespeare lived before there were any copyright laws in England….so his productivity is evidence that there are ways to support authorship other than with copyright.  In truth, it was not so much his share of theater revenues that paid Shakespeare’s bills as it was patronage.

In the first place, it should be noted that Turow, Aiken and Shapiro themselves note that the first copyright law was not passed until well after Shakespeare’s time. Secondly, the assertion that “patronage” was Shakespeare’s main source of income is simply not true. The acting company to which Shakespeare belonged had a patron. It had to: according to the 1572 Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds and for the Relief of the Poor and Impotent, any acting troupe that lacked an aristocratic patron was regarded as a group of vagabonds. Shakespeare’s livelihood, however, did not depend primarily on the company’s patron; he made a good living from the company’s earnings and business deals.

We don’t really know if Shakespeare himself ever had a patron. He dedicated two poems to the Earl of Southampton (perhaps significantly, he produced these poems when the theaters were closed because of an outbreak of plague), but we don’t know whether or not Southampton actually was Shakespeare’s patron. Regardless, any money he may have received from Southampton for these two poems is trivial compared to the income he earned as actor, shareholder and principal playwright for the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men.

Smith further argues that

The second reason Turow’s choice of a hero for his piece is unfortunate is that Shakespeare was, himself, a pirate (in Turow’s sense), basing most of his best known plays on materials that he borrowed from others and reworked.  If Boccaccio, or Spenser, or Holinshed had held a copyright in the modern sense in their works, Shakespeare’s productions could have been stopped by the courts (as unauthorized derivative works).

While it is certainly true that Shakespeare’s plots are not original, Spenser and Boccaccio also borrowed material. Since none of them were affected by modern copyright law, it seems unfair to imagine what would happen if only Shakespeare were constrained by it. In addition, Boccaccio’s work would, I assume, have been out of copyright by the time Shakespeare was writing. Holinshed was writing non-fiction, so I don’t think he could have won a lawsuit against a playwright (think about what happened when the authors of the non-fictional Holy Blood, Holy Grail tried to sue novelist Dan Brown for plagiarism).

What I suppose I find most odd about both the Turow et al. piece and the Smith piece is that neither discusses the publication of Shakespeare’s works. We know there were pirated editions of Shakespeare’s plays printed in his lifetime; we also know that the acting companies, which owned the plays, weren’t too happy about such piracy. Shapiro discusses the publication process in Contested Will, so he knows all about it, and it seems more germane to the issue than the performance of those plays.

Shakespeare, what do you think of these two articles calling on you to defend two opposing positions?

That’s what I thought.


Big shout out to Maria Walters, a.k.a. Masala Skeptic, of for pointing me toward the Smith article.

Is the Voynich Manuscript the Product of an Alien Intelligence?

February 19, 2011

Of course the hell not, but by sticking to the evidence, I find myself regrettably unable to run out into the quad and shout: “IT’S A COOKBOOK! THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT IS A COOKBOOK!” Sticking to evidence, however, has never been the strength of the writers at Above Top Secret, which delivered a rather soggy excuse for a story entitled: “Voynich Manuscript–Diary of an Alien or a Mad Man? 100 Years Older than First Thought.”

Already wrong, but I’ll get there.

The Voynich Manuscript is a genuine mystery. Currently housed in Yale’s Beineke Library, the Voynich MS totally skipped my mind when I went up there to do research for my dissertation. Nonetheless, it is there, which has until recently been just about the only thing we’ve known for sure about it.

According to Curt A. Zimansky, writing in Philological Quarterly (before it went all corporate–haha), says that the manuscript was originally found in the library of Rudolph II and that it was in the possession of Father Athanasius Kircher in 1666. It then dropped out of sight for centuries, until it was acquired by a Polish bookseller named Voynich in 1912 during one of his book buying tours of Europe. The provenance of the manuscript is only certain, as far as I can tell, once it is in Voynich’s hands. He found it in a trunk at Villa Mondragone, in Frascatti. Upon Voynich’s death, it passed into the hands of Hans Kraus and eventually ended up at Yale.

It’s a beautiful book–nearly 250 vellum pages–an example of fine craftsmanship, beautiful and elegant and nobody has the faintest idea what the crap it says. You see, it is written in an unknown script in a language that does not seem to exist outside of the manuscript. Based on the illustrations that accompany the text, scholars have divided up the book into parts, including the herbal section, astrological section,  biological section, cosmological section, pharmaceutical section, and “recipes,” but really, we have no idea how closely the text corresponds to the images. But even with the, say, “herbal” sections, the plants that appear are unknown. As Voynich is reported to have asked, “WTF?”

A lot of people have stepped forward to offer their interpretations of the MS. The first person to attempt to answer the question was an otherwise reputable scholar at Penn by the name of Newbold.

In April 1921, Newbold announced that he had deciphered the Voynich MS. Hurrah! He said that it was a monograph written in a secret hand by Roger Bacon. Bacon was a 13th-century English monk and one of the first Europeans to embrace empiricism and experiment; and such he is considered a founding father of modern science. Hurrah!

Among the fantastic revelations that Newbold, uh, revealed, was that the manuscript was written in two codes. The first was a surface code, a Latin-text cipher. This cipher was so rife with arbitrary rules of substitution and anagrams that it could yield basically anything. The second cipher was a more subtle, much more interesting cipher, the shorthand cipher. The premise of this cipher was that tiny, literally microscopic strokes appeared on each character, and that a complete reading of this second, more secret text depended on deciphering these marks.

He revealed that the Voynich MS revealed the invention of the telescope in the 13th century! Doctor mirabilis!

As evidence of this exceptional assertion, Newbold produced the Latin text which  he said was associated with a peculiar image in the manuscript:

The Latin decipherment Newbold associates with this diagram partially reads:

Vidi stellas in speculo concavo, in cochleae forma agglomeratas…

If my eyeballing of this snippet is correct, it reads: “In a concave mirror, I saw stars formed into the shape of a snail.” (That is, a spiral.) The rest of the passage makes this clear he is talking the Andromeda Galaxy:

Well, Holy Haleakala, Batman! Newbold pushed the history of the telescope back hundreds of years.

But, wait, there’s more! Bacon also invented the compound microscope, as evidenced by the images of what Newbold interpreted as ova and spermatozoa. (Not to mention the shorthand cipher itself, which could only be seen through a microscope.) The Voynich MS was the most important discovery in the history of science, and scholars generally accepted Newbold’s interpretation. Probably because nobody could understand his process of deciphering the manuscript.

In 1931, following Newbold’s death, John Matthews Manly wrote what should stand as one of the most thorough debunkings in the history of debunking, a spectacular and thorough treatment of Newbold’s assertions. He showed that the encryption that Newbold could not reliably generate text for the recipient. He illustrated that the cipher could achieve and had achieved “results” when applied to texts known not to be written by Bacon, to texts written long before the Voynich MS, and to mistranscriptions of the Voynich manuscript that Newbold used. In Newbold’s decipherments, sometimes the same passage revealed different messages. Manly demolished the content of the messages that Newbold had found to show that they could not square with what was known with the period. Newbold’s assertion defied even the laws of physics. Newbold apparently had simply shrugged off the objection that the Andromeda galaxy could not possibly have changed so radically in the time between the manuscript’s production and the 20th century. Also, he seemed not to worry that the spirals could not be seen by the naked eye even in a modern telescope–our images come from long exposures. It was in every way a thorough and complete trashing of the Newbold interpretation, and it left Newbold’s legacy in tatters. One may consider it a professional courtesy that Manly waited until Newbold had died before publishing his rebuttal.

It also meant that we had not progressed a single jot toward understanding what the heck this manuscript was.

As far as I can tell, the most interesting fabrication of Newbold’s mind was the secondary shorthand cipher. The little tails and swoops and signs that Newbold had found under a microscope were either clearly examples of ink bleeding into the cracks on the surface of the vellum and therefore meaningless, or they disappeared entirely when others looked at them. This strikes me as a close corollary to Lowell’s “discovery” of canals on Mars a few decades earlier, when the astronomer declared that he could see artificial channels on the surface of the Red Planet and spun a rather fanciful story to explain them. Turns out they weren’t there at all, but were artifacts of Lowell’s imagination.

By the way, I strongly recommend the conclusion of the Manly article as perhaps the epitome of the “don’t be a dick” school of skeptical criticism.

In the intervening years, a number of hypotheses have been floated about the content and meaning of the manuscript.In 1943, a bloke named O’Neill announced that he had deciphered the manuscript. In 1944, a botanist, James Feeley, have claimed that New World pepper plants and sunflowers appeared in the manuscript, which would place the manuscript after 1492. But even these botanical identifications are dubious, especially in the light of the vellum’s carbon-dating.

Without a doubt, my favorite “translation” appeared in Science in 1945, and it underlines why specialists in the humanities should be given their due respect. It came from Leonell C. Strong, who said that he had finally, really, actually cracked the code, but because of the current state of war, thought it was an inopportune time to reveal how he had uncovered its cryptological secrets (ahem, yeah). Voynich, Strong claimed, was written by 16th-century astrologer Anthony Askham. Most of the manuscript, he reported, discussed “the effects of plants on physiological processes in health and disease, especially, the diseases of women, and a conception of pre-Harveian generation and parturition” (608).

The cipher translated into something called “Medieval English,” which reads like: “When skuge uf tun’c-bag rip, seo oogon kum sli of se mosure-issue ped-stans sku-bent, stokked kimbo-elbow crawknot.” This passage, he says, is about the birth of a baby: “when the contents of the womb rip, the child comes slyly from the mother-issuing with the leg stance scewed and bent, while the arms, are knotted (above the head) like the legs of a crawfish.” I can’t imagine that anyone with a postgraduate degree in English at the time (Old English and history of English were still generally required graduate courses) did not howl with laughter when they read the “Medieval English.” It looks like it wants to be “Old English”: for instance, the “seo” is a feminine form for “that” and there are some…compound-y words. Unfortunately, it has the letter “k,” not found in Old English (you’d see it Old Norse), and words like “issue” that seem to be from a romance language. And it’s nothing like Middle English either. And what the hell’s up with that apostrophe? Strong further claimed that Ascham knew about antibiotics!

A group of cryptographers waiting to be released from the military after the Second World War spent their free time trying to decipher the sucker. I even found a reference to a report produced by the NSA on the shelves at Emory, but when I went to pull it, the report had mysteriously disappeared. Others have seen it, however, and report that the NSA was unable to crack the cipher. Take that, NSA! (Please don’t hurt me.)

A 2007 analysis of the characters by theoretical physicist Andreas Schinner suggests that the manuscript has been “generated by a stochastic (random) process rather than by encoding of encryption of language.” Damn it.

Nonetheless, crafty science types at the University of Arizona have at least pinned down the age of the vellum (which is slightly different from pinning down the age of the manuscript). The critters that died to make the MS snuffed it in the early 15th century. In the release at, the author says that the writing doesn’t “resemble anything written–or read–by human beings.” This statement seems to have lead the imaginative author at ATS to a new hypothesis–aliens wrote it!

On vellum.

In the 15th century.

The poor guy writes, referring to the “galaxy” image above: “I will start with the picture that shocked me the most. To me, this is on par with the Sumerians knowing things they should not have been able to.”

Sigh. Me too, my friend. Me too.



Kennedy, Gerry and Rob Churchill. The Voynich Manuscript: The Unsolved Riddle of an Extraordinary Book Which Has Defied Interpretation for Centuries. London: Orion, 2005.

Manly, John Matthews. “Roger Bacon and the Voynich MS.” Speculum 6.3 (1931): 345-391.

Schinner, Andreas. “The Voynich Manuscript: Evidence of the Hoax Hypothesis.” Cryptologia 31 (2007): 95-107.

Strong, Leonell C. “Anthony Askham, the Author of the Voynich Manuscript.” Science 101.2633 (15 June 1945): 608-609.

Zimansky, Curt A. “William F. Friedman and the Voynich Manuscript.” Philological Quarterly 49.4 (Oct 1970): 433-443.

National Commission on the Humanities Formed

February 18, 2011

The humanities have a hard time getting respect, if by respect you mean funding. Sure, we’re (often) the ones teaching the basic research, thinking and documentation skills that underpin the rest of a valuable education…blah blah whine. I often think that popular apathy toward the humanities, especially literature and cultural criticism, stems from the topics to which we choose to apply those important, cross-disciplinary skills. That is to say, that students often resent, say, that we are looking at the business culture of the Renaissance or the works of Theodore Dreiser or 17th-century Norwegian mysticism or whatever. Yes, these are the topics that float the boat of the instructor, who has devoted his or her life to the study of these topics. I know that I picked my areas of study, war and literature and extraordinary claims because I’m fascinated about them, but I certainly do not expect my students to love those topics with the myopic, passionate intensity that I devote to them. At the same time, however, I expect them to recognize that the research practices, habits of thought and underlying curiosity I bring to the study of, say, conspiracy theory, has value in all areas of education.

The incessant beating that the humanities seem to get as university budgets shrink fundamentally undermine the mission of the university. We’re not trying to crank out people as effete, feckless and dull as we are. We’re trying to arm our students with the ability to become self-directed, fulfilled, lifelong learners, as well as college students worth bragging about.

A number of muckety-mucks from Research-1 institutions are pooling their brainpower to give the humanities a boost, according to the Chronicle. This is swell and all, but I agree with the first comment that other types of schools need to be represented. I have a feeling that the smart students are the ones who are going to be taking their core courses, including the core humanities courses, at less expensive institutions of higher ed before moving on to the R1s. Their instructors will be a part of the field and should be included.

Thus ends my mid-afternoon proclamation. Perhaps I will see folks tonight at Virtual Drinking Skeptically? I think Eve will be participating as well.


Excellent Tribute to an Awesome Soldier

February 17, 2011

In the spirit of my current class, Writing about World War II, I thought I would pass along the following announcement. Early this year, Maj. Dick Winters of the 101st AB died at age 92, I think he was. His story and that of Easy Company was depicted in the Spielberg/Hanks/Ambrose collaboration Band of Brothers. We’ll be watching parts of the series later in the semester.

Well, the cast of Band of Brothers is coming together again to raise money for a monument to Winters in Normandy. They are going to jump out of planes, and donations go toward sponsoring parachutes. If you don’t donate, I presume the cast of Band of Brothers splatters.

I great, creative, and appropriate fundraiser, I thought. Will they remember to yell, “Curahee!” I wonder?


The Great Gatsby for NES

February 17, 2011

It is, in a word, awesome. You’re Nick and you are looking for Gatsby. The only thing between you and your objective is an army of waiters and flappers. Luckily, you have booze on your side!

Love it.


The Week in Conspiracy: 14 Feb 2011

February 14, 2011

Forget what I said last week. That’s just peanuts compared to how important this week was in the unfolding of global events that will lead to our inevitable doom! Shall we?

  • You can almost hear Philip Jones resisting the urge to type this entire story in capital letters and centered in the middle of his page. Luckily, reason won out: “Google: Zionist Engine of Mind and Genetic Control.”
  • In a sinister turn of events, Long Island Sky Watch, your source for news about the chemtrail menace, has discovered…schmutz in snow! DUM DUM DUMMMMM!
  • From WorldNetDaily comes the warning that Islamists are invading CPAC! Yes, it is the silliest thing ever written, folks.
  • Alex Jones: “Texas hippies: ‘Give us uranium'”:


Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

This week it’s not a conspiracy that caught my fancy so much as a parody of Glenn Beck’s conspiracies. Behold the Glenn Beck Conspiracy Theory Generator!

Also, I would like to thank Glenn Beck for going a conspiracy theory too far with his socialist caliphate conspiracy this week! That cracked me up!