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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Semantography (Blissymbolics) - Charles K Bliss This afternoon, we visited Kathryn Gunn, one of the world's foremost experts on Blissymbolics. She showed me her copy of Semantography and I spent a couple of hours leafing through it. Seeing how interested I was, she very kindly offered to lend it to me, but I couldn't accept: it's an incredibly rare book, and the cheapest copy I could find online was priced at around $400. There was one being offered on eBay for around three times that.

Kathryn, who knew Bliss personally, said he was both a very smart person and quite mad. This was indeed apparent from the book. The idea is elegant and clever: basically, Bliss symbols are to Chinese/Japanese characters as Esperanto is to Latin, in other words a reconstruction of the basic idea done in as rational a way as possible. As anyone who has tried to learn kanji will attest, real characters are ferociously difficult to remember. They do sort of make sense, in a way. Most large characters are composed of smaller elements, and the meaning of the large character is in many cases related to those of the elements. For example, if you look at this image:


you'll see that words for different kinds of fish generally contain the 'fish' element on the left. But, alas, it's rarely as good as this, and often it's impossible for anyone but an expert to understand why the character means what it does; as is so often the case, etymology depends on odd shifts and associations that are now deeply buried in the language. You are reduced to silly mnemonics and interminable rote memorization.

So why not start over? This what Bliss did, and the result is rather nice. Here are a couple of examples to give you the flavor of the thing:


In general, my feeling was that it would be very easy to learn to read Bliss symbols. Even after an hour of study, I knew a couple of dozen elements, and the combinations looked like they would be reasonably easy to remember. Some famous people liked Bliss's idea; he proudly displays an encouraging letter from Bertrand Russell. But somehow it never really took off. Kathryn and a few other people continue to work on it. It is used for teaching children with learning difficulties, and in some crisis situations. It's never become the major thing that Bliss wanted it to be.

The book is a mess - a thousand pages long, full of asides, with frequent rants about fascism, communism, religion and other things. I'm not sure if that's cause or effect. Bliss had had a hard life, and he was bitterly disappointed. But I still wonder if someone might pick it up and run with it one day. Basically, it seems to be a good idea that's just never found the right person to champion it.

If you want more details, you might like to check out this online Bliss dictionary.