[Humanist] 22.660 a billion e-books; what might happen with them?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Mar 31 07:27:55 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 660.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    "Michael S. Hart" <hart at pglaf.org>                        (66)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.658 a billion e-books

  [2]   From:    "Michael S. Hart" <hart at pglaf.org>                       (222)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.658 a billion e-books

  [3]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (25)
        Subject: wait and see and participate

        Date: Mon, 30 Mar 2009 01:18:18 -0700 (PDT)
        From: "Michael S. Hart" <hart at pglaf.org>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.658 a billion e-books
        In-Reply-To: <20090330055853.433B331767 at woodward.joyent.us>

In reply to:

>        Date: Sun, 29 Mar 2009 09:45:33 -0700
>        From: "Kirsten C. Uszkalo" <circe at ufies.org>
>        >        In-Reply-To: <20090329074521.C2A3B307B9 at woodward.joyent.us>
> Hey Michael,
> You started project Gutenburg? Nice. Nifty thing that site.

It's always nice to be appreciated, thank you so much!

> It seems to me, and forgive me for jumping in too late in the 
> conversation, but actually reading billion books doesn't seem to 
> be the point. I am not sure how many of the billion would be of 
> interest to me. Say five thousand, maybe? Add us all up and maybe 
> we start getting to need a billion books.

I say the more books the better.

It's just that the odds go up that you CAN find what you really 

Searching is still something not taught or done nearly well enough.

I took coursework in searching nearly two decades ago and I still 
see that it hasn't improved all that much, even with Google and 
Yahoo and all the others.  It's still too much of a "shotgun 

> However, I desperately want my part of the billion books on file, 
> as a kind of literary avarice, of course, but I want to shift 
> through them, look for what I am l looking for, see what patterns 
> there are, and what might be flipped over in the page flipping.

"Avarice," isn't that one of "The Seven Deadly Sins?"  Hee hee!

Ah. . .then you are interested in searching, as well!

> Our library systems are excellent, but I can't look through the 
> shelves, seeing into the books with a kind of transparency I could 
> with an e-text. It seems the excellent information management 
> folks out there can us look at the information, datamining kids to 
> help build tools to better move through the information as it 
> grows, and visualization people can help us make sense of what we 
> are seeing, and scholars can sort ideas and find connections are 
> they could in smaller collections.

Well, my own hopes are that it will get much better, that our 
searching will be taught better on the one hand, and improved with 
better engines on the other hand, not to mention, of course, having 
so much more books out there, or in there, depending on your 
perspective, to search.

> I have done enough chatting about this to know that the physical 
> artifact, the close reading, and the expert engagement in a field 
> isn't going anywhere. But to be able to move through a large 
> electronic collection, with the right tools to make it a useful 
> trip, now that feels like an electronic archive. I like the 
> feeling :)

Sadly to say, I think your first point is all too accurate, because 
it is so easy to manipulate those who have the narrow expertise, but 
not, as they say, are they "worldly wise."  So many examples. . . .

You can be sure that the various governments and megacorporations 
have NOT been having this argument. . .they are compiling the 
greatest text collections they can manage. . .and keeping it all 

They say "knowledge is power."

Some people believe this means keeping knowledge close to the vest.

Other people believe this means shareing knowledge with everyone.

I have a very cute example of that, if you'd like to hear it.

> cheers,
> Kirsten
> --
> Dr. Kirsten C. Uszkalo

Many thanks for this conversation.

Michael S. Hart
[Who else would say this stuff?]

        Date: Mon, 30 Mar 2009 01:49:15 -0700 (PDT)
        From: "Michael S. Hart" <hart at pglaf.org>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.658 a billion e-books
        In-Reply-To: <20090330055853.433B331767 at woodward.joyent.us>


I am not able to reply online as quickly as usual, my connection is
just flaky enough today to make that somewhat difficult, and a time
consuming operation, waiting for the cursor to catch up with me.

So I'm having to answer offline and wait, my apologies.

>        >        In-Reply-To: <20090329074521.C2A3B307B9 at woodward.joyent.us>
> Various replies:
> So I've been put into a box, eh?

Oh, don't misquote me quite readily and quite so early, you may find
you may offend our readers who would like to be fooled on a somewhat
more sophisticated level rather than with sheer sophistry.  There is
a difference between the two, at least there used to be.

Just because I say that I have spent a whole lifetime thinking where
we label things "outside the box" does not give you the right to say
that I have put you "into a box, eh?"

You want to pretend you are insulted, find a better way, and one our
reader can start off with that is on topic, ok?

They are likely to give you more credence, then.

"Beyond silly," "sheer banality," "failure," "bumpersticker," these,
if I may borrow your words, are "something that belongs on a bumper-
sticker, not in serious conversation, not to mention "cliches."


Next time, don't go with your first impulse, think a little before.

> My first impulse is to say I don't have words for the sheer 
> banality of this reply, it's failure to grasp the issues as they 
> are being presented on anywhere near the level of detail (which 
> isn't really that much on my end) in which they've been presented. 
> This is something that belongs on a bumpersticker, not in serious 
> conversation.
> Perhaps you could -carefully- read my posts and describe the box 
> me, quoting me, explaining what exactly you see in my words and 
> why? Describe to me the walls of this box in -very specific 
> terms-, not in general, cliche terms.  Begin with a summary of 
> what I do think and don't think.  Be specific. That might lead to 
> discussion more productive than the repetition of gung-ho cliches.

No, you won't sucker me into making your own points for you, sorry.

If what I have said has never been said before, and it hasn't, then 
I can hardly be convicted of speaking in "cliches."

You didn't even ask what books I was reading before jumping to an 
awful lot of conclusions about them.


They were about rocketry, and served me well enough on stage not 
long thereafter at age 11, when I debated the subject at the U of 
Illinois auditorium with Werner Von Braun.

> If the books you read in the second grade are just as meaningful 
> to you now as the books you read over the last year, you need to 
> change your reading.  I say this as a parent who knows what's 
> really in second grade level books and as a college teacher who 
> knows the difference between students who read deeply and those 
> who read superficially.

Some of us can read quickly and still retain what we have read, even
many years later.  I believe in "mastery learning" not this stuff in
which students can't pass the same exam a month later.

> Yes, reading can make us better people.  But this benefit from 
> reading does not work magically -- it is not automatic.  I can't 
> believe you'd actually think that if reading ten books makes you a 
> 1% better person then reading one hundred could make you a 10% 
> better person.  Do you really believe you can quantify goodness 
> and that it exists in direct proportion to the -amount- of 
> reading?  I wish this were true, but reality is more complex than 
> this.

So, you, as stated below, can tell "good" from "bad" a subjective 
level distinction, unless you have some objective standards for it, 
but I may not even give the lowest nominal figures for how we 
improve ourselves-- in the process???

No, I don't think you are setting up a level playing field here, and 
it should also be obvious to our readers.

However, I am sure you are familiar that that one standard. . 

You are also undoubtedly familiar with the statistics about how much 
it is increased when people read well enough for a college degree, 
or even a high school diploma.

Take your own measurements. . .but MEASURE. . .please, not just 
"good," "bad" and ugly.

Please. . . .

Take yourself seriously, even if you don't take US seriously.

Hmmm, perhaps I should have said that the other way around?

> If you want an argument against the value of sheer quantity, I 
> suggest you read Plato's Seventh Letter and Milton's Areopagitica 
> about the effect of books and how they work.  Or perhaps read some 
> books about Nazi culture.  How much do you think Heidegger and 
> Ezra Pound read?  I guess not enough.

"These fragments I have shored up against my ruins."

As for Plato, I am sure you think highly of "The Cave," but I think 
we are much better than that.

As for Milton's Aeropagetica, if you really take a look, I think 
you'd see that it supports my point of view quite strongly.

Sorry, I'm also not going to let you sucker me into "Godwin's Law."

I can't believe people such as yourself are still trying that when 
the thing is nearly 20 years old.

Do you really think you are helping your position by trying all 
these fallacies out in such erudite company?

> However, if this is the mind which produced Project Gutenberg, 
> it's a mind for which I am grateful.  I have benefited greatly 
> from this resource and should hesitate before criticizing the mind 
> which gave the world this wonderful gift.  It's not perfect, but 
> it's approximately a billion times better than nothing.  Thank 
> you.

When is a double positive a negative?   "Yeah, right!"

As if I didn't know "a billion times". . ."nothing" is "nothing"!!!

Your comments on databases are not aimed at me, I presume, so I 
should not be the one to answer them.

> Next, I've never called into question the value of databases 
> (literary and otherwise) for various types of research.  This type 
> of research usually does not yield a great deal of insight into 
> individual works except after the fact -- what it gives us is 
> knowledge of the uses and frequencies of specific words and 
> phrases, word clusters, lexical info, etc., which in turn we can 
> take back with us to the study of individual works.  I'm a Blake 
> scholar.  I can't describe how I am for the availability of 
> Blake's works digitally on the Blake Archive and the Blake Digital 
> Text Project.  But our discussion about the average user -- not 
> the language or literature scholar -- having a billion books on 
> his/her computer and about the real value of having this kind of 
> access.

As for Blake, he's pretty cool, but I'm not sure how that works into 
the paragraph above, other than just perhaps your favorite example.

Obviously Project Gutenberg started more on the Milton track, but I 
have to say Blake is right up there, no kidding, no offense meant.

> Of course I don't imagine that we read one and only one good book 
> our entire lives and that our opinion of everything is shaped by 
> that one book.  I can't believe some of the responses I'm getting 
> here. What I'm talking about is a -proportion-: from what would I 
> benefit more, reading 100 books superficially or 10 books deeply 
> in any given year? In reality, we do both continually, but we take 
> more of value away from a book read deeply than several read 
> superficially.

"Reading 100 books superficially or 10 books deeply" ???

Wasn't that more like "reading 100 superficially or 1 book deeply"???

Are you saying your argument now needs to be 10 times stronger???

> And yes, I make a distinction between "good" and "bad" books, and 
> between books with substantial content and books that lack them. 
> Reading Danielle Steele does not provide the same kind of 
> experience as reading Milton, Shakespeare, or virtually any 
> non-fiction book written on a professional level.

Are you saying Milton and Shakespeare are non-fiction?

As much as I love much of what they have written, it IS fiction.

At least with Shakespeare and much of Milton, not Aereopagitica, ok?

As for Danielle Steele, I can't say I've read anything worth 
recalling--but I presume you MIGHT think Judith Krantz is in the 
same category--or Jacqueline Susann. . .yet, having lived in the 
worlds they describe--I found perhaps something more, even something 
worth remembering such a long time later, and even worth rereading 
several times.

You just never know where you are going find a gem, unless you look.

Let's suppose the genius is right 999 out of a thousand.

Let's suppose the retarded person is right 1 time out of a thousand.

The true genius, above and beyond the rest, knows when that
one time in a million is coming when he should listen. . .eh?

Beyond cliche?  Banal?  Bumpersticker?

You don't think they said these same things to me when I first
invented eBooks?

"You're the guy who wants to put Shakespeare on the computer?"

"You must be crazy!  No one will ever want books on computers!"

> The challenge isn't the same, nor the quality of content.  I spent 
> three or four days getting through Adorno's thesis on Kierkegaard 
> during a period when I was normally reading about 100 pages of 
> scholarship per day (which isn't that much, really) -- which means 
> Adorno's book should have been a one day read. But Adorno was 
> trying something different -- a decentered text, a text without 
> topic sentences -- and I needed time to process the 25-30 or
> so pages per day I could read.

So, you think the fact that the author made it difficult to 
understand makes it all the more worthwhile???


Writing is communication.

If you make the communicating difficult, you impede the process.

The less the communication, the less effective the writing.

Let me put it this way, if you will please:

I believe writing is an art.

I know, all too well, the cliche:

"I know art when I see it,
but no one can actually define it."

Well, at the risk of once again being called "beyond silly," 
"banal," and all that, and I know it is impossible, please at least

Let me try:

"Art is the work of someone who can see what others cannot see,
and who can communicate it in a manner that they can see."

I love trying to do the impossible. . . .

By this definition, if it doesn't communicate, it is not art.

Perhaps this is why so many people can't define art, because they 
were NOT the recipient of the intended communication.

If it doesn't communicate well, it is not good writing, or art.

If someone does write clearly, what is the point of reading them?

[I do have an answer to that, hee hee!]

> I think he slips up and lets a controlling idea surface about 
> every ten pages.
> I can honestly say I took much more away from Adorno after a day 
> spent on just 25 pages than I would from a day spent with, say, 
> 400 pages of Harry Potter -- and yes, I love these novels and was 
> reading them about 300-400 pages a day every time a new one came 
> out.  Now the series is over.  Damn.  But there's nothing about 
> plot, setting, character, good vs. evil, magic, religion, 
> language, narrative, etc. in Harry Potter that I haven't already 
> gotten elsewhere in more detail and complexity.  It's okay.  I 
> just -enjoy- those novels.  But if I want more substantial 
> literary content, I need Joyce, not Rowling.

I was going to try to avoid getting into any subjective arguments 
with you, and even though Joyce is one of the Project Gutenberg 
"best sellers," even, again, though many people think he is a great 
writer, there just isn't that much of Joyce that leaps off the page 
into my mind the way Shakespeare did.

There are entire passages of Shakespeare I read before I could drive 
that I never had to memorize, they just leapt off the page into my 


Of course, you can always say that if a young kid can "get it" then 
it must be useless at the higher levels of education.

Then again, E=mc2 is incredibly simple, incredibly easy to 
understand as is the temporal displacement approaching the speed of 
light, but those are not said to become useless at the higher levels 
of education.

If you don't really see them as easy to understand, I will explain 
in a few lines in a subsequent message, and we will see if I can 
communicate them.

> Jim R

Michael S. Hart
Internet User ~100

        Date: Tue, 31 Mar 2009 06:23:38 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: wait and see and participate
        In-Reply-To: <20090330055853.433B331767 at woodward.joyent.us>

However many books there might be in digital form, the question that 
strikes me as important is the one Greg Crane, I think it was, has 
asked: what to do with them? Or perhaps one should ask, how can we know? 
If it were the case that reality is strictly cumulative -- that knowing 
the behaviour of an atom, say, or a neuron, one could determine not just 
a cow, say, or even its behaviour, then the question would be an easy 
one, easily solvable by social-scientific methods. One could simply 
observe what n people do with their collections of digital books, then 
do the maths. But we know that physical reality doesn't operate like 
that. We know that at certain levels of complexity new things start 
happening, new behaviours are emergent, and we can observe this all up 
and down the Great Chain of Being. So, I'd guess, we should start 
looking for new behaviours with the amounts of digital written stuff we 
have. So, what's new?

And since we're supposedly intelligent beings who can change things (and 
muck them up), we're part and parcel of the emergent happenings, yes? 
This means, among other things, experimenting.


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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