Miskatonic University Press

Vexation After Vexation

code4lib staplr

STAPLR is running a new composition: “Vexation After Vexation,” an interpretation of Erik Satie’s mysterious solo piano work Vexations. You can listen to STAPLR on the site or right here:

I ran “Library Silences” for months and months—it seemed appropriate—but now it’s time for something different. (York University Libraries Ambiences are always available for home listening.)

Photo from Wikipedia
Photo from Wikipedia

The score of Vexations fits on one page, but instructions say (translated from French), “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” The piece was ignored until John Cage took it, and the suggestion about 840 repetitions, seriously and organized a performance in 1963 where it was actually played 840 times. (This has been done many times since. In 2010 during Nuit Blanche I watched a performance downtown for quite a while. It was beautiful. If you want to hear it yourself by a real pianist, I recommend buying Stephane Ginsburgh’s 42 Vexations (1893) and making a playlist where the one track is played twenty times.)

One of many Nuit Blanche pianists
One of many Nuit Blanche pianists

In this STAPLR composition, one one-minute iteration of Vexations is played for each minute of help given at any desk at York University Libraries that day. It keeps a running counter of how many more minutes it should play. Let’s say that at 0900 someone checks their email and answers a quick research question that takes them five minutes. They enter that into our reference statistics system, where STAPLR sees it and counts 5. It starts to play five iterations. One minute later, the counter is at 4. One minute later, the counter goes down to 3, but there’s another question in the system, this time a virtual chat that took 10 minutes to answer, so the counter goes up to 13. After one iteration it goes down to 12, then 11, then up again if there’s another question. If the counter reaches 0 it will wait and start back up when there’s another question answered.

STAPLR screenshot
STAPLR screenshot

This is how it began this morning:

[2021-02-23 07:57:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {} (0 mins)
[2021-02-23 07:58:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {} (0 mins)
[2021-02-23 07:59:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {"AskUs"=>{"1"=>[3]}} (3 mins)
[2021-02-23 08:00:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {} (2 mins)
[2021-02-23 08:01:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {"AskUs"=>{"1"=>[3]}} (4 mins)
[2021-02-23 08:02:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {} (3 mins)
[2021-02-23 08:03:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {} (2 mins)
[2021-02-23 08:04:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {} (1 mins)
[2021-02-23 08:05:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {"AskUs"=>{"1"=>[3]}} (3 mins)
[2021-02-23 08:06:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {} (2 mins)
[2021-02-23 08:07:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {} (1 mins)
[2021-02-23 08:08:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {} (0 mins)
[2021-02-23 08:09:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {} (0 mins)

Close to 1000 it really got going:

[2021-02-23 09:53:40] Vexation After Vexation 1.0: {"Osgoode"=>{"4"=>[40]}} (40 mins)

That ran down for 13 minutes then more activity came in and it’s been going ever since. I’m curious to see when it stops. (The server reboots around 0600, but it could run all night.)

Vexations has a bass theme played in the left hand and two sections (the second a slight variation of the first) played by the right hand accompanied by the bass theme on the left. It’s usually played thus: bass theme alone, theme A, bass theme alone, theme B, repeat. There are 13 quarter-notes in each section, so setting the speed to 52 bpm makes it work out at exactly one minute per repetition. This is faster than it’s normally played, but it still works well.

“Vexation After Vexation” doesn’t tell you how busy the desks at York University Libraries are right now, the way other STAPLR sonifications do, but I think it perfectly combines Satie and STAPLR. I’m looking forward to listening to it through to the end of April, at least.

Press play, turn the volume low, and let it go in the background through your day as a piece of aural furniture.

Take Note


I learned this week that my favourite stationery store in Toronto, Take Note, opened up an online store. I placed an order for a Lamy Safari (the 2021 special edition coloured “terra red,” with a broad nib) and a bottle of J. Herbin Corail des Tropiques ink (see the review at the Well Appointed Desk). They’re fairly close, but I didn’t twig to that until I got them.

The pen and ink were hand-delivered the next day! That’s only for people that live within a certain distance, but they’ll ship anywhere, so if you need pens, ink, pencils or paper, I recommend them.

I make a sheet for each ink I have so I can see what it looks like on paper with various pens. Here’s the one for this ink, with a writing sample (I always use whatever book I’m reading) made with the new pen.

Pen, ink and ink swatch
Pen, ink and ink swatch

The Money Harvest


Along with rereading Terry Pratchett, I’m also working through everything by the great yet forgotten Ross Thomas. (For more about him, see or Remembering Ross Thomas by Tony Hiss in 1996 for a solid introduction, then Ah, Treachery! by Ethan Iverson for thorough coverage of all his books.)

Right now I’m reading The Money Harvest, first published in 1975. My paperback copy was published by Pan in 1977. They published several Ross Thomas books, some with some pretty bad covers, but this one is very bad. It’s one of the ugliest covers in my collection.

Front cover
Front cover

“Heady mixture of mayhem, sex and mystery” is appealing, sure, but in no way describes the book.

But what really gets me is one of the review quotes on the back.

Back cover
Back cover

It’s the one from The Scotsman: “Slick, good jokes, pre-heated sex and no poor people.”

The quote
The quote

Slick, good jokes, pre-heated sex and no poor people.

Clean Sweep


Back in the nineties I enjoyed listening to The Mystery Project on CBC Radio (later Radio One) every week. They ran original radio dramas, as used to be very common in the old radio days but is pretty much gone now in North America. (There’s a lot of drama on BBC Radio still, and perhaps elsewhere.)

One of my favourites was Clean Sweep, created and mostly written by Alf Silver. It was about Bonnie Marsden (played by Deborah Allen) and her husband Ben (Richard Donat). They live in rural Nova Scotia and the series begins with Bonnie unfairly losing her job at the credit union. Ben lost his job with the parks department a while back when the provincial government changed and there were nepotistic hires; now he’s picking up whatever work is available. They have four kids: the older three have moved out but there’s a little girl at home.

Bonnie starts cleaning houses to make money. This gets her into all kinds of houses around Membertou County, and she notices things. She’s a bit nosy and she’s good at figuring things out. Thus, the mysteries every week. There might be a mysterious death, an arson, some thefts, something fishy about about a son’s interest in his parent’s property, or maybe a strange shape that appears on a wall which can’t be cleaned off.

The writing is good, and the relation between Bonnie and Ben is very well done; they’re generally happy together but go through rough periods. Corporal Kowalchuk, the local Mountie, is played well, and his growing friendship with and respect for Bonnie is nice to hear. The sound design is good (though they were done for AM radio and the files I heard are pretty low quality). This is a solid radio mystery series and you can enjoy listening to several episodes in a row. The only episode I really didn’t like is a bizarre one about a Mennonite former Nazi in hiding.

Someone uploaded all of the episodes to the Internet Archive. If you want to take a break from podcasts and listen to some fine rural Canadian mystery radio dramas, Nova Scotia accents and all, now’s your chance.

Doctor Thorne

anthony.powell anthony.trollope literature

Anthony Trollope is one of my favourite writers. He’s best known for two loosely connected series, the Barsetshire novels (written 1855–1867) and the Palliser novels (1864–1879), both concerned, as are all his novels, with marriage, money and status. If anyone’s interested in trying one of his novels, I recommend starting with The Eustace Diamonds, which is in the Palliser series but can certainly be read alone. For a bigger one, try The Way We Live Now. An Autobiography is one of the best by any writer.

Book cover
Book cover

I’m a member of the Anthony Trollope Society. Up until the pandemic, all that got me was Trollopiana, the journal, because events were in person in the UK. But the Society has done an excellent job of adapting to the lockdowns and restrictions and is now doing regular events online, including group readings of Trollope’s novels. And you don’t need to be a member of the Society! The events are open to everyone. I think this is helping interest lots of new readers in Trollope: if anyone was ever interested in trying one of these thick Victorian triple-deckers, which assume a lot of knowledge of religion, politics and especially class in Victorian England, listening in to talks and discussions will be a big help.

The current Big Read is Doctor Thorne, which the Society is doing over two months, with four biweekly meetings. The first one was two weeks ago and had a big turnout, including quite a few people who seemed new to Trollope, which was great to see. The next is on Monday and I’m just catching up to chapter twenty-four so I’ll be ready for it.

Earlier this week the Society hosted Julian Fellowes in conversation with Gyles Brandreth. Both are great admirers of Trollope; Fellowes is the president of the Society and adapted Doctor Thorne for TV a few years ago. The chat was an absolute delight. They both wonderful speakers, full of good humour and great insight into Trollope’s novels. They agreed that he is a kind writer, appreciating and understanding all types of people, and Fellowes talked about how all his characters are fully fleshed out—he creates real people even when they’re unlikeable—and that one should be careful not to prejudge anyone in the novels based on initial assumptions or prejudices about how they seem (also a very good lesson in life, of course).

The Society put a recording of the talk on YouTube:

I wish the Anthony Powell Society would do start online events. It’s missing a big opportunity to introduce Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time to new readers, and to show that Powell has the same approach to his characters, and that the series is not full of insufferable snobs, which it may seem to be at a quick glance.

What is my user agent?


I discovered another neat thing DuckDuckGo can do: report your web browser’s user agent.

Screenshot of the output
Screenshot of the output

(The DNT: 1 is because I have Do Not Track turned on.)

Try it out: what is my user agent?

Sweet Treat

archie libraries

In “Sweet Treat!” we see Betty’s committed involvement at the Riverdale Public Library. It starts with two friendly librarians (an older white woman with glasses (and brown hair, not grey) and a youngish Black woman) admiring Betty’s volunteer work helping with the library’s programs for teens.

Librarians admire Betty's library volunteer work
Librarians admire Betty's library volunteer work

(You’ll notice this looks different from usual. It has a “new look,” but I don’t know if it’s the new look.)

Betty’s helped Archie with math. He’s grateful and wants to take her to Pop’s and a movie, but has no money. Betty tells him about one of the programs she’s helped start at the library: a free movie day for teens, with free popcorn and ice cream! But she can’t watch with him because she has to train some new teen volunteers (one of whom is Nancy).

Cover of Betty 190
Cover of Betty 190

Back at the library, the older librarian thanks Betty for all the work she’s done—the librarian is happy with all the teens coming in. But while Betty’s working, Archie and Veronica are having a cuddle and enjoying the free snacks, so once again Betty loses out.

Betty’s library work even made the cover of Betty 190.

This is a great story about engaging teens at the library. The librarians found an excellent volunteer in Betty, they encouraged her ideas and then helped implement them, and the results are very successful. Everyone’s happy and everyone benefits.

“Sweet Treat!” first appeared in Betty 190 (April 2011) but I read it in Betty and Veronica (Jumbo Comics) Double Digest 260 (March 2018). It was written by George Gladir, pencilled by Tim and Pat Kennedy, inked by Mike DeCarlo, coloured by Digikore Studios and lettered by Jack Morelli. It is copyright Archie Comic Publications.


covid19 literature

Here’s a telling sign of how bad things are: this exchange between William Gibson and Wendell Pierce on Twitter.

Screencap from Twitter
Screencap from Twitter

Pierce: “With the new variants of Coronavirus, the slow production of the vaccine, the millions that will refuse to take it, the millions who ignore the slightest health preventions, [and] the steady death march of this disease, [are] we in an extinction event? Has anyone considered this?”

Gibson: “Potentially, but it’s going to be multi-causal, and far more incremental than we culturally have imagined any apocalypse to be. In a sense, we caused this pandemic to happen, but very gradually.”

Gibson’s describing the “Jackpot,” which is the background for his excellent recent novels Peripheral (2014) and Agency (2020). From an interview in the New Statesman last year:

[I]t might be worrying to learn that Gibson’s latest novel, Agency, is largely a credible account of a coming apocalypse. His characters call it “the Jackpot.” “It’s multi-causal, and it’s of extremely long duration,” he explains. Over many decades, climate change, pollution, drug-resistant diseases and other factors – “I’ve never really had the heart to make up a full list, else I’ll depress myself” – deplete the human race by 80 per cent.

The Jackpot is the mundane cataclysm of modernity itself. It is hundreds of millions of people driving to the supermarket in their SUVs, flying six times a year, and eating medicated animals for dinner. “If the Jackpot is going to happen,” Gibson says, “it’s already happening. It’s been happening for at least 100 years.”

Miriam Lahrsow's data set of self-annotated literary works

footnotes literature

Here’s an amazing data set: Miriam Lahrsow’s Self-Annotated Literary Works 1300-1900: An Extensive Collection of Titles and Selected Metadata.

The Introduction to the Collection (PDF) explains what it is and why she made it:

This collection was created in the context of my PhD thesis titled The Author as Annotator: Ambiguities of Self-Annotation in Pope and Byron (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, 2021, GRK 1808 “Ambiguität”, DFG- Projektnummer: 198647426). It lists more than 1100 literary works published between 1300 and 1900 that feature self-annotations, i.e. marginal notes, footnotes, or endnotes written by the author of the work. Self- annotations here only refer to notes that were published in a work, not private, handwritten comments in the author’s own copy.

The aim of this collection is threefold. First of all, it shows the prevalence and variety of literary self-annotation before 1900. While authorial notes in post-1900 literature have received a considerable amount of critical attention, the number and ‘experimentality’ of earlier self-annotations is often underestimated among literary scholars. The present collection strives to correct this view. Secondly, the collection reveals general tendencies in the field of literary self-annotation, providing tentative answers to questions like ‘when did it become popular to use both footnotes and endnotes in the same work?’. Thirdly and most importantly, this collection is meant to provide an incentive and starting point for further research by laying the (albeit yet insufficient) groundwork for quantitative research, by including a multitude of now-forgotten works, and by citing relevant secondary literature on as many titles as possible.

It’s mostly focused on English poetry from 1700–1830, but there’s a lot else in it. She generously cites my Fictional Footnotes and Indices page, which as she notes is mostly post-1900 work, and also Bernhard Metz and Sabine Zubarik’s Noten, Anmerkungen, Kommentare in literarischen Texten, which was new to me.

The data is available in XML (and as an Access database, if you run Windows) and human-readable as PDF or HTML. Obviously it took a huge amount of work to assemble this, and it’s delightful that it’s now available online. This is just the kind of digital humanities I like to see. Lahrsow has done marvellous work!

Book Returns

archie libraries

Last summer someone gave me a beat-up copy of World of Archie (Comics) Double Digest 45 (January 2015) that has an Archie story that happens completely inside a library! It’s the mother lode! There are five librarians in it!

The story is “Book Returns,” originally from Archie 480 (February 1999). It starts with the gang sitting at a table at the Riverdale Public Library … and a middle-aged male librarian is saying, “SHHHHHHHH!” He says it’s the third time he’s told them to be quiet. The gang are upset.

Very bad librarian stalking off angrily
Very bad librarian stalking off angrily

That librarian is terrible. This is a dreadful way to deal with high school students who are talking a bit too loud. Look at what Reggie’s saying: “It’s obvious that we’re not welcome here, people.” Driving a student away from a library should never happen.

However (this being an Archie story) the gang are cheerful and positive, and they begin to reminisce about things that happened at the library when they were kids. They’re all mishaps: Jughead let a bunch of dried leaves fly around, Betty was on roller skates and knocked over a librarian, and Reggie accidentally set off a smoke bomb instead of a stink bomb. It’s during these stories that we see three of the other librarians; the fifth is a smiling middle-aged black woman (with eyeglasses) who’s shelving some books.

Why do the gang keep coming back? Because of the books, Archie says, naming Treasure Island, Black Beauty and The Cat in the Hat. “Our best memories of the library are the great books we used to read! That’s why we used to come here … and that’s why we keep coming back!”

While they’re standing around talking about how much they love the library (Jughead even says, “I like reading almost as much as eating!”) the librarian comes over to tell them again to be quiet. The gang march out shouting “Reading rules!” The librarian’s angry gesticulations knock some books off a shelf.

All librarians should read this story. The attitude of the teenagers is wonderful, and the response of this male librarian is a lesson in how not to behave.

“Book Returns” was written by George Gladir, pencilled by Stan Goldberg, inked by Mike Esposito, coloured by Barry Grossman and lettered by Bill Yoshida. It is copyright Archie Comic Publications.

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