Stories for a Pandemic

April 1, 2020

What do you do when a deadly disease is raging all around you? Pandemics aren’t new to mankind, one earth-shaking example being the Black Death that decimated medieval Europe, Asia, and the Middle East in the mid-14th Century. Now known as bubonic, septicemic, or pneumonic plague, depending on where it lands in the body, this nasty illness is believed to have killed off up to 200 million people in just a few years. (By contrast, the influenza pandemic of 1918 killed perhaps half that number.)

Accurate medical knowledge at the time was spectacularly lacking. Not only was there no understanding of what the plague was (a bacterial infection) or how it spread (fleas carried by rodents), there was no effective treatment for it (antibiotics). People randomly survived or died according to what they believed was God’s will. But one thing they did dimly understand was that being near people who had the plague made you more likely to get it.

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Boccaccio and other Florentines fleeing the plague, from a 1485 French edition of The Decameron

So, if you lived in a city like Florence, and you had the means, what you did was flee to the countryside to escape the city’s “bad air.” And that was what gave the Florentine author and humanist Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) the framing device for his masterwork, The Decameron.

Written in the immediate aftermath of the plague that reduced Florence’s population by more than half in just two years, The Decameron is a collection of 100 stories, told by a group of young Florentines, three men and seven women, who have taken shelter in an empty villa in nearby Fiesole. Each is appointed to tell one story a night for 10 nights.

The stories range from the bawdy to the holy, the sweet to the horrific. The astonishing thing about them is that they are so modern and so universal. Boccaccio explored, with wit and wisdom, every aspect of humanity – vices, virtues, strengths, weaknesses – and he pulled no punches.

One of the most famous tragic stories concerns a young woman, Lisabetta, whose brothers have murdered her lover (Day 4, Tale 5). She finds his body and buries his head in a pot of basil, which she tends lovingly, watering it with her tears. The story inspired John Keats’s poem, “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil” (which can be found in Keats: Poems Published in 1820). That, in turn, inspired paintings by William Holman Hunt, John William Waterhouse, and Joseph Severn, among others, as well as a symphonic tone poem by Frank Bridge.

On the bright (and very naughty) side are tales like that of Caterina (Day 5, Tale 4), who dupes her parents into letting her sleep out on the terrace so she can hear the nightingale sing – a euphemism for something quite different involving her secret lover. Or the comic tale of the hapless Andreuccio (Day 2, Tale 5), whose slapstick accidents start in a latrine and go downhill from there.

Distributed Proofreaders volunteers worked on the e-text of John Payne’s 1886 English translation, which was originally published privately. It has the virtue of copious explanatory footnotes. It’s also considered to be the first complete English translation – but it’s not truly complete. Payne just couldn’t bring himself to translate part of the X-rated story of Rustico, a monk who teaches a heathen girl how the Devil is put into Hell (Day 3, Tale 10). Payne adds a footnote with the excuse that “The translators regret that the disuse into which magic has fallen, makes it impossible to render the technicalities of that mysterious art into tolerable English; they have therefore found it necessary to insert several passages in the original Italian.” But the Project Gutenberg e-book has a helpful transcriber’s note giving the passage in English from the 1903 translation by J.M. Rigg, who was apparently undaunted by that disused “magic.”

Project Gutenberg also has the very first English translation, by John Florio, published in 1620. It’s not complete; among other things, it replaces the Rustico tale with a rather cleaner story not written by Boccaccio. And Project Gutenberg has a Dutch version, De Decamerone, contributed by Distributed Proofreaders, as well as one in Finnish, Novelleja Decameronesta, but, oddly, no Italian version yet.

During this time of modern pestilence, Boccaccio’s wonderful tales may be just the antidote to cabin fever that you’re looking for.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


Transcribing Wagner’s Music

March 1, 2020
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Richard and Cosima Wagner

I volunteer on the Distributed Proofreaders Music Team, which helps transcribe music in the books we work on for Project Gutenberg into audio for readers to listen to and enjoy. All kinds of books — not just books about music — can contain music: hymnbooks, children’s books, history books, biography books. All kinds of books contain music! These days, we are able to add sound files to what was once only a visual experience. What a wonderful technological advance!

The books we prepare for Project Gutenberg are in the public domain. Public domain means the music is old by today’s standards, and sometimes ancient by anyone’s standards. The internet in general, and YouTube specifically, offers an awesome amount of audio listening, even for musical relics! I’m always amazed when I go hunting for a specific tune and find it already online, sometimes in several versions. What a wonderful achievement! I no longer have just black noteheads on stave lines. Someone else has already thought this through and provided indications for tempo, dynamics, articulation, and instruments, things not always specified in the original score. Marvelous!

On the other hand, there are pieces that simply don’t have any guidance other than what’s provided in the book itself. Sometimes I just have to listen to lots of medieval music, or lots of African chants, or lots of Chinese opera to get a sense of the general direction, and then make my best guess.

Happily, Richard Wagner falls into the first category. Lots and lots of Wagner to listen to! Yet, when a book contains just snippets of his music, I have to find a handful of bars in any one of Wagner’s musical tomes to figure out how they should sound. His compositions not only go on for hours — sometimes they go on for days! Der Ring des Nibelungen comes to mind — four German-language epic music dramas spread over four consecutive evenings. The only solution for transcribing Wagner’s music is to take whatever hints I can find in the text, then start listening and researching full scores for all the information needed to recreate his glorious sounds. Armed with this knowledge, I then use music notation software and other tools to create the audio files.

I won’t bore you with all the details of getting from here to there. I will only say it was a committed effort of many, many hours over many weeks to pull this together. We’re volunteers, and as much as we love what we do, Real Life also has its demands.

Following are five excerpts from Wagner as Man and Artist by the eminent English musicologist Ernest Newman. Each excerpt contains Newman’s description of the music, an image of the music snippet, and an audio file (MP3) so you can hear it. To see and hear more, go to the HTML version of the e-book at Project Gutenberg, where you can also download PDF images of the music notation and MusicXML files that can be opened in just about any music notation program, as well as MP3 files. Enjoy!


From Die Walküre

Shakespeare’s magic is in the phrasing,—not, be it remembered, a merely extraneous, artificial grace added to the idea, a mere clothing that can be put on or off it at will, but a subtle interaction and mutual enkindlement of idea and expression. For the musician that enkindlement comes from the adding of music to the words: the music does for the idea what the style does for it in the case of the poet,—raises it to a higher emotional power, gives it colour, odour, incandescence, wings. Brynhilde comes to tell Siegfried that he must die. The mere announcement of the fact is next to nothing; the infinities and the solemn silences only gather about it when the orchestra gives out the wonderful theme.

 

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From Das Liebesverbot

Nor in any other work but this would Wagner have accompanied with so irresponsible a theme the appeal of Claudio (sentenced to death) to his friend Luzio to seek the aid of Isabella—

 

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In the third scene appears a theme that was afterwards expanded and put to splendid use in Tannhäuser. Here the nuns sing it behind the scenes to the words “Salve regina cœli.”

 

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In the opening scene of the second Act,—the garden of the prison in which Claudio is awaiting death—we have another employment of the leit-motive, the oboe giving out softly the theme to which Claudio had previously urged Luzio to implore the help of Isabella, but now with appropriately altered harmonies—

 

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The later Wagnerian method of accumulating excitement, which we have seen anticipated in Die Feen, is employed also in Das Liebesverbot, as in the following passage, which, like the one previously quoted, gives us a decided foretaste of the meeting of Tristan and Isolde—

 

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This post was contributed by Jude Eylander, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


Crossword: Nothing to Do

February 1, 2020

Nothing to do on a bleak midwinter day (or, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, a hot midsummer day)? Try our latest crossword!

This one is based on Nothing to Do: A Tilt at Our Best Society, by Horatio Alger. It’s an early work by the not-yet-famous “rags to riches” novelist — a 300-line satirical poem in the epic style, poking fun at the idle rich.

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In order to solve the puzzle, first read the book. It’s short and entertaining. And, being an e-book, it’s searchable.

Then you can solve the puzzle in one of two ways:

  • Use the interactive version. Just click on a blank square and the corresponding clue pops up. Type in the answer and click OK (or, if you’re stumped, click the Solve button). Clicking the Check Puzzle button at the bottom gives the number of errors and incomplete words, if you want to see how you’re getting on. The interactive version can be used online or downloaded for offline solving.
  • Or, download the printable PDF version and print out the puzzle to solve it the old-fashioned way, with your favorite writing implement. Check your solution with the printable PDF answer key. No peeking! (But who’s to know?)

Happy Puzzling!

This crossword was created by FallenArchangel, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer, using the free EclipseCrossword app.


Distributed Proofreaders Site Maintenance – 21 January 2020

January 19, 2020

The Distributed Proofreaders site is scheduled to be completely unavailable starting at 1pm server time on Tuesday 21 January 2020 as we do some database maintenance and install some disruptive code updates. It’s possible that these database changes could take a significant amount of time, possibly even a few days. During this time the main site will be down but the forums and the wiki will be remain available.

Please consider using this maintenance window to do Smooth Reads that you have taken out prior to the downtime or to help us test the new Unicode DP code on the test server. For more information about the testing, please visit our Distributed Proofreaders forums.

The code update requires logging out all volunteers. This means that you must save all of your work before we start the maintenance at 1pm server time. Proofreading pages offline while the server is down and saving them when it comes back up will not work.

We hope that the update will not take several days. If the upgrade and data conversion and related checks are completed early, the site will return sooner.

Thank you for your patience. As you wait for Distributed Proofreaders to become available again, please feel free to browse through the excellent articles in this Blog.

We’ll keep this blog post updated with progress during the outage. You can also find us on Facebook.

Update 10:30am EST: Site is back up and operational. Thank you for your patience!

Update 9:45am EST: Making good progress.

Update 12:00am EST: Proceeding as planned.

Update 10:00pm EST: Proceeding as planned.

Update 7:20pm EST: Proceeding as planned.

Update 4:20pm EST: Proceeding as planned.

Update 2:00pm EST: We’re making very good time so far and hope to be live sometime today.

Update 1:00pm EST: Maintenance has started.


Ten (Eleven) Years at DP

January 1, 2020

Dans la Bibliothèque by Auguste Toulmouche

I recently reached my ten-year anniversary at Distributed Proofreaders. I thought it would be interesting to acknowledge ten memories, observations, events, changes, or other items of nostalgia and hopefully of interest to others — Screeching halt! I wrote that a year ago and never finished. So now it’s eleven years and eleven items.

The Beginning — Welcome!

Someone had mentioned Distributed Proofreaders on another website, and I came to see what it was about. I started at the DP page, decided to create an ID, and started as a beginner. I immediately felt welcome. People’s answers to questions, appreciation for efforts, and encouragement are part of the palpable fabric of DP life. This year, someone posted in the forums, “Being helpful is the sort of thing that DP does so well.” I agree. There’s a blog article about Comments That Matter that expresses this in more depth.

Nitpickers

I found a group of fellow nitpickers, perfectionists, error spotters, spelling geeks, and grammar guards. It’s great to be in a place where you can question the use of a comma, semi-colon, duplicated word, mis-seplling misspelling, etc., and instead of getting a long-suffering sigh in response, to know that the comment is appreciated or in some cases leads to a thoughtful discussion or a thank-you. I found a group of fellow nitpickers! If you are one also, this may be for you!

Diffs: A Source of Enlightenment

An e-book project at DP goes through several rounds of proofreading and formatting. After each round, a proofer or formatter can check his or her “diffs” — the changes made to the text of a project’s individual pages as it progresses through each round. (A diff doesn’t necessarily mean there was something wrong, just that the page text coming out of the subsequent round is different.) I learned so much from my diffs. Yes, I got gentle feedback for the pages I did in Begin (projects set aside especially for beginners). However, by looking at the changes the next rounds of proofers made to my pages, I also learned an incredible amount. I learned what my eyes were glossing over and seeing what they expected to see instead of what was there. I learned to slow down. I learned to stop for the day or at least take a break every so often. I learned to go over a page another time if I found I was just reading instead of proofing. I learned that I still need to access the Proofreading Guidelines regularly.

Variety, Variety, Variety

Within the first few days I was at DP, I had the temerity to work on an English-Spanish dictionary as well as part of the Encyclopædia Britannica (in the G’s). I’m pretty sure I worked on an issue of The American Missionary (a challenging 19th-Century periodical) in early days as well. I know I also worked on some Begin projects, got helpful feedback, and forged on ahead. Over time I’ve been impressed with the wide variety of projects we work on. There are of course English-language books published across time periods, mostly up through 1923 (due to copyright) in standard library categories like fiction, reference, science fiction, cookbooks, adventure, history, military, music, anthropology, etc., etc. Add to that books in those same categories, but in other languages: French, German, Catalan, Spanish, Esperanto, Italian, Latin, Dutch, Portuguese, Swedish, and Cebuano. But there are more — think of the patience of the DP volunteers who provide content and manage the projects, and the dedication of proofers and formatters to work on single- and dual-language dictionaries, multi-volume encyclopedias, “Complete Works of…,” etc. I’ve also seen and worked on thesis papers and handwritten documents. There are also relatively modern government publications about parks, national monuments, nature guides, and more. The variety seems infinite.

Working Site – Not Just Social

While there is definitely a rich social aspect to DP through the volunteer forums, that’s not the primary focus. This is a working site. People contribute in many, many ways. I like the feeling of my efforts being a small part that feeds into a much larger contribution. People’s work gets recognized. There are places to announce accomplishments, and DP Anniversaries are acknowledged and celebrated. Without that, I wouldn’t be aware of my tenth eleventh anniversary.

Incredible Volunteers

It’s incredible that so many people volunteer so much time to make this happen. It ranges from a-page-a-day to what approaches or even exceeds enough time for a full-time job. Volunteers are not just incredible for the time and/or consistency they donate, but for their incredible knowledge and willingness to share it with others.

International Community

There is a considerable international community involved at DP. There are contributors from English-speaking countries, but also from many other parts of the world. I mentioned some of the different languages in the Variety paragraph above. There are perspectives brought to various discussions that I wouldn’t be exposed to on a U.S.-only site.

It’s a Learning Site

I learn a lot from other volunteers. They are always willing to share their knowledge and answer questions. I’ve learned some html coding in setting up project comments, using templates others have provided, and then finding resources on the Internet to figure out how to do other things. I’ve learned from discussions on various threads. And of course, I’ve learned a lot from the content of projects I’ve worked on.

The Custom Proofreading Font Looks Normal Now

DP is continually looking for ways to make the volunteers’ work easier. For example, a DP volunteer created a display font especially for proofreading, DPCustomMono2. When I first proofed with it, I was amazed at how much it helped. It clearly differentiates among I, 1, l. It distinguishes O and 0 without strain. It helps point out capital W that should be lower-case w and much more. Although at first it seemed odd looking and just plain weird, one day I realized that I had gotten used to it. It was the day I was sure DPCustomMono2 was missing and had been replaced by a “normal” font. Looking more closely, I saw the l with the curve and the 0 with the dot. DPCustomMono2 looked “normal” to me now.

Change and Accomplishments

Over my eleven years at DP, there has been a lot of change and many accomplishments. DP’s management has changed from a “benevolent dictatorship” (being run by a single overworked volunteer) to a non-profit corporation with a Board of Trustees and a General Manager. DP posted its 14,000th e-book to Project Gutenberg a few weeks before I joined. We just posted our 38,000th e-book last month. That’s 24,000 books since I joined. The site has been made available in French. Hardware, operating system, middleware, and forum upgrades have been rolled out. Now we’re gearing up to support additional character sets. The site changes, but the sense of purpose continues, as do the improvements and milestones.

Blogging

This Blog was introduced in 2010, and DP volunteers were invited to contribute blog posts. Surprising myself, I found I had thoughts to share. Thoughts grew to paragraphs and to contributions. It’s a good feeling to see something I’ve worked on show up as an official blog post. It’s something I don’t think I would have attempted otherwise. Once again, although a year late, here’s another article.

Thanks for joining me on my journey through the past.

This post was contributed by WebRover, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

Distributed Proofreaders wishes everyone a Happy New Year!


The Golden Bough

December 1, 2019
Turner Golden Bough

The Golden Bough, by J.M.W. Turner

Distributed Proofreaders recently completed posting to Project Gutenberg all twelve volumes of Sir James George Frazer’s masterwork, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (3rd edition, 1915). This monumental study of comparative mythology and religion, first published in two volumes in 1890, had a huge influence not only on the newly developing fields of social anthropology and psychology, but also on modern literature.

Frazer’s studies in classics at Cambridge sparked a deep interest in myths and religious rites. The Golden Bough was inspired by an ancient Roman myth depicted in J.M.W. Turner’s painting of the same name. As Frazer explains in Volume I:

Who does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough? The scene, suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape, is a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi—”Diana’s Mirror,” as it was called by the ancients….

Within the sanctuary at Nemi grew a certain tree of which no branch might be broken. Only a runaway slave was allowed to break off, if he could, one of its boughs. Success in the attempt entitled him to fight the priest in single combat, and if he slew him he reigned in his stead with the title of King of the Wood (Rex Nemorensis). According to the public opinion of the ancients the fateful branch was that Golden Bough which, at the Sibyl’s bidding, Aeneas plucked before he essayed the perilous journey to the world of the dead.

Although he read extensively in ancient texts, Frazer’s research was not confined to Greek and Roman myths. He also sent detailed questionnaires to missionaries and British colonial officials all over the world, including Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific, seeking their observations of the natives’ customs and rituals. Today this method would cause a field anthropologist to raise an eyebrow, but it was a start. Until then, no one had attempted so vast a comparison of human beliefs.

Frazer’s global study of myths and rituals formed the basis for his theory that human civilization evolved from belief in magic, to faith in religion, to reliance on science. Of course, the implication that science is on an evolutionary plane higher than religion did not endear Frazer to Christian church authorities. And Frazer’s inclusion of events sacred to Christianity in his comparative studies, such as Christ’s resurrection, outraged some contemporary critics, because it implied that these events were the equivalent of pagan myths.

But to others, Frazer’s work was revolutionary and inspiring. Particularly fascinating was the realization that the essential archetypes of ancient myths are universal across all human cultures, “civilized” or not. This concept had a profound impact on modern literature, influencing artists as diverse as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, H.P. Lovecraft, Jim Morrison, and even George Lucas (through the later work of Joseph Campbell). And the newborn science of psychology benefited as well, influencing Sigmund Freud’s theories in Totem and Taboo and, indirectly, Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious.

Some modern critics have faulted Frazer for what they perceive as his unscientific methods and Victorian biases. But others continue to appreciate the multicultural scope of Frazer’s work. The Golden Bough‘s vivid synthesis of worldwide myths about life and death, gods and monsters, heroes and kings — stories common to all human cultures — shaped modern thought in ways that cannot be underestimated.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

 

 


Celebrating 38,000 Titles

November 8, 2019

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Distributed Proofreaders celebrates the 38,000th title it has posted to Project Gutenberg, The Birds of Australia, Volume III, by John Gould. Congratulations and thanks to all the Distributed Proofreaders volunteers who worked on it.

John Gould (1804-1881) began work as a gardener under his father. He later set himself up as a taxidermist and eventually became the first Curator and Preserver at the museum of the Zoological Society of London. This provided the opportunity for him to be the first to view new specimens donated to the Society. 

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Gould began to publish books on birds illustrated by his wife Elizabeth and other artists. After a string of successful works, John and Elizabeth moved to Australia to work on The Birds of Australia, published between 1840 and 1848. Elizabeth died in childbirth in 1841, soon after returning to England, and other artists completed the illustrations.

The bird specimens collected by Charles Darwin in his second voyage on the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836 were presented to the Zoological Society. Gould began identifying them and noticed that birds that were identified by Darwin as blackbirds, gross-bills, and finches were “a series of ground Finches which are so peculiar” as to form “an entirely new group, containing 12 species.” Gould met with Darwin and informed him that several of the birds Darwin had identified but supposed to be just varieties of the same species were actually distinct species on different islands. Darwin was then able to establish that the species were unique to the islands, leading to the inception of his theory of evolution. Gould’s research, with his wife’s illustrations, was published in 1838-1841 as Part 3 of The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, edited by Darwin.

The Birds of Australia was the first comprehensive survey of the birds of Australia. It is a seven-volume set that includes descriptions of 681 species, of which 328 were first described by Gould. Elizabeth Gould made hundreds of drawings and 84 color plates before her death. H.C. Richter produced 595 plates from her drawings. As Gould noted in the introduction to Volume I, there was no doubt a great deal more work to be done in the Australian wilderness:

If we compare the ornithology of Australia with that of any other country in similar latitudes and of the same extent, we shall find that it fully equals, if it does not exceed them all, in the number of species it comprises; and those parts of the country that are still unexplored doubtless contain many yet to be added to the list of its Fauna.

The Birds of Australia, Volume II, was previously posted to Project Gutenberg. Volumes I and IV through VII are in progress at Distributed Proofreaders.

This post was contributed by Richard Tonsing, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

 


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