This Herodotus is a Hoot!

Yesterday, while driving to the mall with my wife, I launched into a lecture on why the iPad and it’s Kindle’ly kindred will never replace books.  As you are reading this on a 21st century blog you can infer that I am not a technophobic Luddite.  Devices like the Kindle are another way to read and for many purposes, (textbooks anyone), such gadgets will be better than traditional books.  But, and this is one big butt-ugly but, when it comes to the book as a objet d’art the iPad is to a book like a bumper sticker is to the Sistine Chapel.

If you don’t see this I feel sorry for you; you have never read a real book.  It’s not your fault,  publishing,  like everything in this sad sorry world,  is subject to Sturgeon’s Law:  “Ninety percent of everything is crap!”  Most of the books you find on the shelves of big-box book stores are essentially paper turds  — the more current the topic, the more Oprah’ey the content, the greater the likelihood of turdhood.  Paper turds can be  great books.  In fact there is a thriving  niche industry that specializes in reissuing great classics as low-cost paper turds.  Here the medium is definitely not the message.

The Landmark Herodotus

The Landmark Herodotus

Most of the time we are drowning in a sea of paper turds but every now and then a book appears that literally restores your faith in mankind: The Landmark Herodotus is such a book.  The instant I opened the cover I knew I was dealing with something special.  Book design is a subtle art, when executed at the highest level on the best source material it can produce jaw-dropping results.  The design of The Landmark Herodotus is simply the best annotation scheme I have ever seen.  Somehow the editors have managed to include thousands of marginal notes, footnotes and elegant place maps that simultaneously elucidate the original and stay out-of-the-way.  I was completely taken by the end of the front matter.

My reactions are hardly unique. Panagiotis Polichronakis wrote in his we are not worthy review:

It’s a rude thing, the march of history. It disabuses us, and we must gracefully acquiesce. Every single aspect of The Landmark Herodotus – most certainly including the translation at the heart of it – is superior to anything else that’s ever been produced on behalf of the author.

So this is not only a good translation — it’s the best ever!  For a book that has been in circulation for over 2,400 years that’s a pretty extravagant claim but it’s probably true.

Last night I was sucked into Herodotus and managed to pull myself away at 3:00 am after reading the story of Cyrus the Great. Cyrus’s story offers up a tasty morsel.  Astyages, Cyrus’s grandfather, dreamed of a vine growing from his daughter’s genitals that grew to cover all of Asia.  Now that’s a bush!  Alarmed Astyages told his Magi about his dream and they told him that he would be deposed by a grandchild:  like duh!  Being the kingly king he was Astyages resolved to off any of his daughter’s offspring.  In time Mandane, Astyages daughter, bore a son named Cyrus.  Astyages charged his right hand man Harpagos with the task of terminating Cyrus.  Harpagos wanted to obey his king but he wussed out when he saw Cyrus’s cute little innocent baby eyes. He couldn’t kill Cyrus so he did what all government bureaucrats do when faced with a tough choice: he delegated.  Harpagos gave Cyrus to the herdsman Mitradates and told him to expose the child and bring back the body so he could be sure the kid was kaput. Mitradates knew he was Median toast if he didn’t obey.  He took Cyrus home to his pregnant wife and told her we are so screwed if we don’t kill Cyrus. Fortunately for Mitradates, his wife and Cyrus she had given birth while Mitradates was away.  Unfortunately,  for her baby,  it was a stillborn.  Mitradates’s wife suggested swapping her stillborn with baby Cyrus and raising Cyrus as their own son.  In this way Cyrus survived and grew up as the son of herdsman.

Despite this clever ruse Astyages eventually learned the truth about Cyrus and how his trusted man Harpagos had disobeyed him.  But Astyages was cool about being betrayed.  He forgave Harpagos and remarked that Cyrus, being alive and all, would need some playmates.  Astyages then told Harpagos why don’t you go home and tell your own boy to come over and keep Cyrus company.  He also invited Harpagos to diner.  When Harpagos’s son arrived Astyages had him killed, chopped up and boiled.  When Harpagos arrived for diner Astyages served him chunks of his own son.  Harpagos gulped his meat down.  Astyages asked Harpagos  if the meat was to his liking and added that if wanted more just look in this pot.  Harpagos looked in the pot and saw the boiled head, hands and feet of his son.

Stop me if you have heard this family diner story before.  Shakespeare severed up a version in Titus Andronicus,  South Park took a stab at it with Scott Tenorman Must Die  and Jeffery Dahmer seems to have confused this story with a recipe but,  no matter how you like your history served, The Landmark Herodotus is a magnificent hooting feast of a book.

WordPress to LaTeX Hack

This post is obsolete. Look here for details on converting WordPress to \LaTeX.

I have stumbled on another coding nuisance. Last weekend I spent a few moments exploring ways to export and print this blog in a nice typeset fashion. I first tried Blurb’s book making software. It has a nice feature that automatically downloads blog posts and formats them as ready to print books. Sounds great ehh?  Download your precious blog rants, press a few buttons, generate a slick PDF, upload it to a site like Lulu and then wait a few days for your blog to appear in hardcover.  As usual the devil is in the details.

Blurb’s book making software makes a mess of:

  1. Any  \LaTeX inclusions. All \LaTeX code is echoed verbatim as ASCII.  I suppose we should be grateful that it’s not deleted.
  2. Source code listings are mangled beyond repair.  Your elegantly formatted code comes out worse than HEX dumps.
  3. Embedded images are improperly placed.  When it comes to blogs restricting image inclusions to simple center of the page layouts pays big dividends.  Wrapping text around images may look ok on your blog but RSS software like Google Reader will wreck it.  Apparently simple center of the page layouts is too much for Blurb.  The default layout stuffs square thumbnails in the margins:  arghhhh……
  4. Web Links are inserted as verbatim footnotes at the end of each posting.  The link footnotes often sprawl onto extra pages that have only one or two lines.  I can see why book publishers might not care about efficient page allocation ($$$) but I certainly do.

After hitting all these shortcomings on my first test I abandoned Blurb and started searching for ways to export WordPress blogs as \LaTeX.  There are a number of  useful tools for converting \LaTeX to WordPress. Some of these tools are used by Fields Medal winners: see Terence Tao’s blog.   Unfortunately going the other way does not appear to be well supported.  Damn!

After failing to come up with an acceptable WordPress to \LaTeX freebie I downloaded this blog in WordPress’s XML export format and took a look.  To my surprise WordPress XML is what I call good XML.  Good XML is designed to be read and understood by human beings!  This contrasts with bad XML.  Bad XML is essentially a binary format that some idiot decided should be rendered as XML.  Bad XML is useful when you want to slow down computers.

Converting WordPress XML to \LaTeX looks simple enough to make a nice C# coding exercise.  When I have hacked up a converter that panders to my idiosyncratic tastes I will post the source code.