London and Its Environs by Baedeker

The other day I was watching the 1939 movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a rather fun film staring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Early in the film, the maniacal Professor Moriarty (played with great zest by George Zucco) is menacing his butler Dawes for allowing one of his prize orchids to wither while he was in jail awaiting trial for murder. He laments the injustice of him serving six weeks in jail for murdering a man, while a more suitable punishment for murdering one of his flowers would be to be “flogged, broken on the wheel, drawn and quartered and boiled in oil”.

Great stuff.

londonImmediately after, he takes on of his orchids and presses it meaningfully into a copy of Baedeker’s London and Its Environs. I love old books, so I looked i up on And, of course, they have digitized it, at least the 1901 version. It’s a traveler’s guide, carefully documenting all the kinds of things you might want to know about when visiting London at the turn of the last century. Neat! What’s also cool is that Moriarty puts the orchid at a place where there is a map or diagram on the left side of the book. A few minutes of perusing reveals that it’s a map of the Tower of London, which plays a key role in the story. Nice bit of foreshadowing! thetower Digging around, it kind of makes me wish that I had a copy, and as luck would have it you can get a digital version of the 1899 edition for your kindle. It also appears you can get facimiles of original Bradshaw railway guides for about the same. If I ever return to working on my Sherlock Holmes story, I’ll have some useful references.

RIP: Michael S. Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg

Dan alerted me to the fact that Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart passed away. On the Project Gutenberg site, Dr. Gregory Newby wrote a very nice obituary:

Michael S. Hart – Gutenberg.

I also liked this quote from Hart:

“One thing about eBooks that most people haven’t thought much is that eBooks are the very first thing that we’re all able to have as much as we want other than air. Think about that for a moment and you realize we are in the right job.”

I’m a huge fan of Project Gutenberg. I’ve enjoyed many classic books in their collection, from the stories of Conan Doyle, to Robert Louis Stevenson, to Lewis Carroll, Bram Stoker, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens… And on and on, as far as the public domain can take me. It’s hard to overestimate the value to public literacy that Project Gutenberg provides, and it could provide much more as a resource if people used it more. Thanks to Michael Hart, what a great contribution to humanity, and what a great legacy.

Gutenberg Gem: Francis Galton’s Finger Prints

I’ve always had an interest in forensics in general, and fingerprints in specific. Previously, I had blogged about the FBI publication The Science of Fingerprints. Today, I noticed that another major work on the subject had been released by Project Gutenberg: Francis Galton’s Finger Prints.

Francis Galton was a prolific scientist in a number of fields. Half-cousin of Charles Darwin, he’s perhaps most famous for pioneering the field of eugenics, but he also was the first to create a system for the classification of fingerprints, and argued based upon statistics that fingerprints were unique.

Nice to see this online.

Gutenberg Gem: Blacker’s Art of Flymaking, by William Blacker.

I’m pretty much a city slicker. I’m more comfortable ordering take out than farming, fishing or hunting. My dad grew up on a farm, and went hunting and fishing for food. He used to tell stories of how his bicycle had a mount for his rifle across the handlebars. When I was a kid, he used to go hunt for deer and elk. We ate venison, not really out of need, but as a nod to my father’s humbler beginnings. We went fishing for trout and salmon. And we used to go camping. I haven’t been camping in twenty years. But sometimes I admit: I do kind of miss it. And fishing. It makes me think of quieter, slower times. The sound of running water. Of waking up early with dad and my brother to catch trout, and cook them for breakfast.

All of that is an aside. We did most of our trout fishing with just worms or fish eggs for bait, but I do remember a bit of fly fishing. Today’s Gutenberg Gem is a manual for tying flies. It seems like an quaint anachronism now, to spend hours tying flies, or writing books about them, carefully illustrated with beautiful water colors. It probably seems like a pointless activity to most of us, but it seems oddly appealing to me. The blog motto is, after all, “there is much pleasure in useless knowledge”.

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Blacker’s Art of Flymaking, by William Blacker..

Bicycles & tricycles; an elementary treatise

Courtesy of the Make blog, here’s a link to an 1896 book on the design of bicycles and tricycles. I suspect a lot has been learned about bicycle design in the past 100 years, but I think it’s pretty interesting to see how much design theory had been developed at this early stage.

Bicycles & tricycles; an elementary treatise on their design and construction, with examples and tables : Sharp, Archibald, 1862-1934 : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive.

Teaching English, Ebooks, and the Public Domain

Forgive this slightly meandering diatribe, there are a few ideas that have been kicking around in my head, and today is the day I decided to try to give them form here on my blog. I’ve been thinking about three interwoven topics: the rather odd way we teach people “English” in high school, the oncoming electronic book revolution, and the public domain.

On the drive in to work, I was thinking what an odd subject “English” actually is. It is actually an amalgum of two separate disciplines which are only vaguely related. The first is mastery (or at least competence) in the basic mechanics of the English language: mastery of spelling, increasing your vocabulary, and constructing meaningful and precise sentences. The second is usually reading, analysis and criticism of some works which are viewed as “good” by some, well, teachers of the English language. For some reason, these works seem to be almost exclusively works of fiction or poetry, and are usually of considerable diversity. They also seem to have largely written by people who are now dead, people who lived not just before the birth of modern high school students, but often before the birth of their grandparents.

Leaving that for the moment, I recently was gifted an iPad by my lovely wife. I’ve discovered (somewhat to my amazement) that one of its primary uses for me has been as an ebook reader. I’ve been rather skeptical of the ebook reading experience, but without really making an effort, I’ve found that I have read five entire books on my iPad, and generally had a very positive experience. I’ve begun to actually buy books online. Yes, you don’t actually have the physical artifact anymore, but Amazon will nicely keep track of the books you have bought, and you can redownload them to your device (or new devices) whenever you please, so in some sense they are better than the physical artifact. They are also in general signficantly cheaper: the $9.99 pricepoint is gaining some traction in the market.

I’ve also found the iPad to be a convenient repository for the myriad of technical PDF files that I used to have to print to read. Suddenly, bankers’ boxes full of papers are obsolete: I’m just downloading them to my iPad and tossing them into the shredder. The paperless office might still be a myth, but the source of much of the clutter in my office is slowly evaporating. It’s a minor revolution for me and my reading habits.

And now, the public domain. As long time readers of this blog can assert, I’m a big fan of Project Gutenberg and other efforts to make books and materials which are in the public domain widely available. But even I was forced to admit that I didn’t read a lot of the freely available classics of literature that are available because reading on your computer just isn’t that pleasant. But I find reading on the iPad to be pretty pleasant, so I’m finding that I don’t have any excuse anymore. Many, many classics are available for free and I actually enjoy reading them using the iPad. The net result of this is that I’m reading more, and it is not like I didn’t read a lot before.

Okay, back to teaching English.

One of the reasons that I suspect that high school English curricula contain so many “old books” is that these old books are now in the public domain, and are therefore cheaper to buy. But in electronic format, these books aren’t just cheap, they are for all practical purposes free. I was scanning a few suggested reading lists for high school students such as this one. The page thoughtfully says that:

Students may find these titles at libraries and bookstores.

But somewhat tragically, the page doesn’t even acknowledge that online editions could exist. I conservatively estimate that at least half and likely three quarters of these books are available in electronic formats for free. Imagine what we could do for the literacy of young people if we made sure that all these titles were available to them.

And of course we can go further. Using the Kindle reader on the iPad, you can highlight and annotate your book, but you can also share your highlighting and see parts which are commonly highlighted. Imagine an ecosphere where we could archive the commentary of these classic works, and make them similarly available to all readers.

In my analysis thusfar, I’ve been unfairly ignoring the cost of the reader. After all, my iPad wasn’t cheap even by my standards, and putting one in the hands of high school students seems like a huge expense. To that, I would merely say that other good reader options are emerging at much more competitive price points, and it is likely to only get better over time. Currently the cheapest Kindle you can buy (and which I ordered this morning) is a mere $139, which still sounds like a lot when you compare it to a single paperback, but when you compare it to 20 cheap paperbacks, it’s about even, and when you compare it to 200 paperbacks, it’s pretty obviously a heck of a bargain. It’s also a lot smaller and lighter than carrying even a single book, you can adjust font sizes so even my presbyopic eyes can read comfortably, and you can even do a bit of web browsing and check your twitter and facebook feeds.

I read arguments that we are becoming an increasingly illiterate society. Too much TV, too many video games, too much consumption, not enough reflection. But I see glimmers of hope. The computer networks which bury us in spam also allow us to communicate as never before. The devices which seduce with cheap thrills can also be used to educate and inform.

I don’t think these devices are a panacea. Putting them in the hands of students is no guarantee of improved results, but I think they represent an interesting new opportunity. And even at age forty-six, I think they will reduce the cost of enhancing my mind by bringing some classic literature onto my virtual shelf, without cluttering my physical shelf.

Okay, that’s off my chest. I’m off to download Jack London’s The Sea Wolf.

Gutenberg Gem: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Yes, Christmas is upon us again, and this year we are treated to a movie release about a character near and dear to my own heart: Sherlock Holmes. While I am rather fond of Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, and even Rachel McAdams, I can’t help but think that this reinterpretation of the classic stories is going to make more than a little uncomfortable. If you enjoy the classic Sherlock Holmes, you can do worse than reread the originals, and in particular The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle which appropriately enough, takes place on the second morning after Christmas, when Watson arrives at Baker St. to wish Holmes “the compliments of the season”.

The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

If you’d rather have an MP3 of the classic story, try this excellent version that is also part of Project Gutenberg’s collection.

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, part one.
The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, part two.

Gutenberg Gem: Letters of a Radio-Engineer to His Son, by John Mills

I love old books, even  on technical subjects like radio.  Often, by looking at the books of the past, we find them more accessible (because there was less knowledge, they assume less as a precursor) and also possess considerable historical interest.

Letters of a Radio-Engineer to His Son is a nice little book by John Mills Sr. to his son back in 1922, which begins simply with:

My Dear Son:

You are interested in radio-telephony and want me to explain it to you. I’ll do so in the shortest and easiest way which I can devise. The explanation will be the simplest which I can give and still make it possible for you to build and operate your own set and to understand the operation of the large commercial sets to which you will listen.

I’ll write you a series of letters which will contain only what is important in the radio of to-day and those ideas which seem necessary if you are to follow the rapid advances which radio is making. Some of the letters you will find to require a second reading and study. In the case of a few you might postpone a second reading until you have finished those which interest you most. I’ll mark the letters to omit in this way.

All the letters will be written just as I would talk to you, for I shall draw little sketches as I go along. One of them will tell you how to experiment for yourself. This will be the most interesting of all. You can find plenty of books to tell you how radio sets operate and what to do, but very few except some for advanced students tell you how to experiment for yourself. Not to waste time in your own 4experiments, however, you will need to be quite familiar with the ideas of the other letters.

It’s a delightful little book, which talks about electrons, and waves, capacitance and inductance, audion tubes and continuous waves.  It’s not mathematical, but neither is it just handwaving.  It strikes a nice balance, and should be accessible to anyone with basic science knowledge. Check it out.

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Letters of a Radio-Engineer to His Son, by John Mills.

Gutenberg Gems: Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume VIII slice III – Destructor to Diameter

img154bIt’s been a while since I posted a link to a Gutenberg Gem. I am subscribed to the Project Gutenberg feed, and scan it from time to time. Today’s Gem is volume 8 from the Encyclopædia Britannica: which includes topics from Destructor to Diameter. Interestingly, it includes an entry for “Dialing”, which is also known as gnomonics: the construction of sun dials. I was thinking about constructing a high accuracy sun dial just the other day. Anyway, lots of good stuff to check out.

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume VIII slice III – Destructor to Diameter

Addendum: When I find something in Project Gutenberg which interests me, I somethings will just go search Google Books or the Internet Archive for other books on the same topic. Kind of bombed out on Google Books, but had the following:

Gnomonique by Bigourdan. In French, but it seems awesome.
Sundials: How to Know, Use and Make Them by Mayhall & Mayhall

Gutenberg Gem: Pioneers Of Science, by Oliver Lodge.

fig66Glancing through the recent additions to Project Gutenberg, I encountered this nice little book which details some of the pioneering scientists in the field of astronomy. It even has some nice illustrations which might be useful, such as the one on the right of Newton’s first reflecting telescope.

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Pioneers Of Science, by Oliver Lodge.

Gutenberg Gem: Advice to Young Musicians. Musikalische Haus- und Lebens-Regeln, by Robert Schumann

Project Gutenberg just released the following:

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Advice to Young Musicians. Musikalische Haus- und Lebens-Regeln, by Robert Schumann
It’s nominally a book of proverbs about learning how to become a musician, but music is like many other fields in which you might gain expertise, so the advice in general is quite appropriate to other disciplines. Some nice quotes.

When you play, never mind who listens to you.

When you have done your musical day’s work and feel tired, do not exert yourself further. It is better to rest than to work without pleasure and vigour.

As to choice in the study of your pieces, ask the advice of more experienced persons than yourself; by so doing, you will save much time.

Relieve the severity of your musical studies by reading poetry. Take many a walk in the fields and woods!

Highly esteem the Old, but take also a warm interest in the New. Be not prejudiced against names unknown to you.

In judging of compositions, discriminate between works of real art and those merely calculated to amuse amateurs. Cherish those of the former description, and do not get angry with the others.

Without enthusiasm nothing great can be effected in art.

and perhaps most importantly…

There is no end of learning.

One might just as well think he was talking about any of my other interests, like telescope making, mathematics, or amateur radio.

Gutenberg Gem: The Canterbury Puzzles by Henry Ernest Dudeney – Project Gutenberg

A couple of years ago, I blogged about H. E. Dudeney’s Amusements in Mathematics. Today, I noticed that Project Gutenberg had released a copy of The Canterbury Puzzles by Henry Ernest Dudeney – Project Gutenberg. This book has quite a few more nominally mathematical puzzles than its sibling. In particular, it introduces the game Kayles, which makes appearances in most of the books I have on combinatorial game theory such as Conway’s On Numbers and Games.


Addendum: Some information on strategy for Kayles can be found here.

Gutenberg Gem: Latin for Beginners by Benjamin Leonard D’Ooge

Latin for BeginnersEver wanted to learn Latin? Well, perhaps it is just me then, but if you ever had the urge, you can check out Latin for Beginners by Benjamin Leonard D’Ooge courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

Perhaps then you could figure out:

Antiquis temporibus, nati tibi similes in rupibus ventosissimis exponebantur ad necem.

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