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The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane — just odd enough.

Well here’s a classic, but also an example of how publishing on the cheap can ruin a book.  <i>The Red Badge of Courage</i> by Stephen Crane is one of those ‘classics’ that are out of copyright, so you see it in cheap anonymous editions in supermarkets and book shops. Out of copyright, low-grade editions flanged together on the cheap by various publishers you’ve never heard of. It’s famous. How’s it to read?

Cover of <i>The Red Badge of Courage</i> -- do not buy this edition!

Cover of The Red Badge of Courage — do not buy this edition!

 

Not bad.

The story is subtitled ‘an episode of the American civil war’ and it is in essence ‘young man learns lesson’. He learns how he will cope in a fight, and it’s not all good news. Shame, fear, braggadocio, boredom.

Our protagonist is mostly referred to as ‘the youth’, and the author gets close to him but dissects him dispassionately at the same time. It means that the tone of the book takes a little getting used to, but it works very well.

The story is leavened by flashes of wit and neat turns of phrase from the author.

He made a fine use of the third person.

He evidently complimented himself on the modesty of this statement.

Some in the regiment began to whoop frenziedly. Many were silent. Apparently they were trying to contemplate themselves.

He had performed his mistake in the dark, so he was still a man.

The youth’s friend had a geographical illusion concerning a stream…

The forest made a tremendous objection.

He had continued to curse, but it was now with the air of a man who was using his last box of oaths.

But I must advise no one to buy the edition illustrated above, It is one of the most carelessly put together volumes I have ever seen. My eyeballs were tripped up by errors frequently, and I ended up looking for them rather than reading the story.  And there’s not a lot of thought gone into it. I mean, here is the contents page:

badge_bloomsbury_contents

…and I think you’ll agree it is of doubtful utility. More to the point, the book is full of typographical errors, including ‘rig2ht’ and ‘allusions’ for ‘illusions’ and the like. Most importantly, it drops two paragraphs from possibly the most crucial section of the book, such that the main character suddenly has a wound on his head and I can’t tell how. I spent a good half hour flipping through the book trying to work out when it had happened and assuming I had been distracted while reading and had not noticed; only recourse to another edition, a good one put out by a reputable publisher, was able to confirm that bits were missing.

To sum up: I can recommend this book, but not in this edition.

 

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Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland. Too true.

Penguin, 1994, 357 pages.

This book is replete with summaries of studies that on the whole show that we are creatures of habit, instinct and fear more than thought and reason. We suffer from the illusion of control. We make emotional decisions and then convince ourselves they were carefully reasoned. We avoid data that might prove us wrong, even when being proved wrong is the best thing that could happen to us.

The cover of <i>Irrationality</i> by Stuart Sutherland.

The cover of Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland.

I can’t say I was shocked. There’s a time and a place for aiming for the utmost in rationality, of course, and times when that’s not sensible, and it is useful to know the difference. If you’re being chased by a bear a quick but sub-optimal decision may be better than making the right one too late. And it’s useful to know when it doesn’t really matter and you can just please your inner reptile, and when you really do need to sit down and analyse things properly.

And in a sense that is the key point. He basically says that only by understanding statistics and by essentially falling back on some means of scoring the alternatives and then picking the one with the best score can we really make rational decisions. Otherwise we rely on impressions, feelings and hunches, none of which are actually reliable. In the end, only by breaking down the problem and applying some kind of rigorous-as-possible analysis, generally relying on mathematics, can a really rational decision be made. And what fraction of decisions are made like than? In my life, relatively few.

Each chapter tackles various forms of irrationality, and each ends with a ‘moral’ which is really a bullet-point summary, the last one of which is usually humorous/facetious. (‘Eat what you fancy.’)

There is some repetition, but the points being made deserve hammering home. There are some lovely little ‘try this yourself’ puzzles, where even though I knew there was a trick and I desperately did not want to answer like an irrational creature, I still got it wrong. The simple two card trick, for example, which I won’t describe in detail here since it would be too much like giving away the twist in the tail.

In summary, if you think you are good at making decisions, you might find this book useful. If you already believe that we’re basically animals in clothes, this will not disabuse you. It’s funny, opinionated, amusing and entertaining, but a little, I repeat, repetitive. Some of the case studies of how really really really important ‘decisions’ were made are a little worrisome, especially because (of course) human nature has not really changed in the meantime. I sometimes look around at a skyscraper, or read about a decision to go to war or spend billions of dollars on a useless aeroplane, and this book comes to mind. Will the building fall down? Is the war really worthwhile? Will the aeroplane get off the ground, and if it does will it stay up?

In some ways the book makes our achievements all the greater. Okay, the planet is in trouble. Okay, we don’t always elect great leaders or do the right thing by our neighbours, family, friends. Yet so much has been done. We’re not always rational, no, and neither should we be. Would more people be happier if the balance shifted towards more rationality? Probably. Yet on the whole we go forward, stumbling sometimes, by accident sometimes, yet we do live longer, we have sent people (okay, men) to the moon, vastly fewer children and mothers die in childbirth. It’s not all bad, this world.

Anyway, it’s a good book.

 

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Where should you (not) send your research paper?

Greetings! I’m a working scientist and also a scientific editor at Brittle Gum Editing, and the quality of academic publishing is important to me. The rise of open-access publishing has changed the landscape in academic publishing, and not always for the better. While the idea that publicly-funded research should be publicly available is ethically very reasonable, in the real world it results in some problems with quality control.

This post is just a little advice on choosing where to send your wonderful piece of academic communication. The full version is on my personal blog at https://darrengoossens.wordpress.com/science-spammers/.

As a general point, it is absolutely imperative that any researcher looks carefully at the journals they submit work to. I would offer this advice, particularly to less-experienced researchers:

  • Society-based publishers are often reliable (IUCr, APS, IoP, EPS, ACS, etc).
  • Look at the journals where you have found useful references. If one journal stands out (I have had projects where a lot of the relevant literature was to be found in JSSC, for example), then that is a great place to send your work. First, that journal will have a highly relevant audience, so the right people will see your work, and secondly, you’ve been reading a bunch of papers from it and you know that they are sound. To put it another way: If you’ve never found a useful paper in a journal, don’t submit there.
  • (If you have access) go to a reliable database like Web of Science (not google) and have a look at ‘Journal Citation Reports’. If the journal is not in the database, be very wary. Impact factor is not everything, but it is worth a look. Useful as it is, google scholar is not a viable way of evaluating a publication. A journal ‘indexed’ only on google scholar and similar is not really indexed.
  • If you are in chemistry, physical and materials-related sciences and the journal is not indexed in SciFinder, the CAS database, then it is probably a no go. Other fields have their own definitive indexing services. Unfortunately, there is no viable free alternative.
  • Look at Beall’s website and search for the journal name.
  • Look out for names that sound like real journals but are not quite. Make sure you check; the Research Journal of XYZ might be an intentional rip-off of the Journal of XYZ, for example. These can be subtle — Journal of Complicated Sciences is not the same as Journal of Complicated Science. They differ by a single ‘s’, which could be all it takes.
  • Not all impact factors are the same. One of the ‘journals’ below claimed this in its own semi-grammatical way in an email to me: ‘We are happy to announce you that IJLRET (www.ijlret.com) have Impact Factor. It was calculated on the basis of “Google Scholar Citation” of published articles. IJLRET got 2.265 Impact Factor by I2OR (International Institute of Organized Research).’ This is not a real impact factor.

You have no doubt worked hard on your research. Don’t devalue it by choosing the wrong place to present it to the world.

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A bit of light reading for summer.

Been reading a bit of old sci-fi.

The World Swappers by John Brunner

Ace, some time in the 60s. 153 pages.

Cover of <i>The World Swappers</i> by John Brunner.

Cover of The World Swappers by John Brunner.

To me Brunner is a major figure of 60s and 70s SF. His ‘big 4‘ novels of the late 60s/early 70, (Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, The Shockwave Rider and Jagged Orbit) form a block of work few writers can match; even so, they are perhaps more admired and respected than loved.

The World Swappers is a much earlier work — 1959 according to the imprint page, when Brunner was around 24 years old and had already been publishing for seven years, and was trying to make it as a full-time writer,

It draws on numerous conventions of space opera — matter transmission, faster than light travel, aliens, supermen (well, sort of). Brunner played with the matter transmitter off and on throughout his career. Another one that that comes to mind is The Infinitive of Go a much later tale with an asperity and astringency that I liked, though probably not to everyone‘s taste. This is a much earlier tale, and closer to the heart of space opera. Yet there remains a sense of calculation to it, as if Brunner the craftsman did not quite manage to hide the scaffolding from the reader. Someone who appears set to be a major character hardly appears again after the first chapter. Characters are wheeled in and out like gears being shunted back and forth in a gearbox, with nothing but the needs of the plot to impel them. Nowhere is there are character to root for.

The quote on the front cover says ‘very competent‘, but nothing more effusive. And it’s right. The story hangs together, every part functions, we get to an ending that manages to wrap up what went before. Did I care? No. Can I see that the author knows how to write? Yes.


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This site is a website for Brittle Gum Editing.  My personal blog is at https://darrengoossens.wordpress.com, and you’re welcome to go there an take a look around.

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