October 24th, 2014

_The French Lieutenant's Woman_, John Fowles SPOILERS also not a real book review

This was the October selection for the book group in Mayberry (<-- not its real name). As always, we had a very nice discussion. The book was widely regarded as slow going, but most of those present finished it. I did not.

Hey, I'm really serious about the spoilers thing. Run in fear. Soon.

Look, I get that this is not a romance genre novel. I do. But I'm going to point a few things out about this book that seem relevant.

(1) It's a Reforming the Rake novel. He's not the worst rake, by any means, but he is presented in classic rake fashion, right down to finally deciding to do his duty and produce an heir and picking someone cute and snarky and then wondering if he screwed up. Because it's not actually a romance novel, he really does screw this up; more about that in a moment.

(2) It's a baby-daddy/secret baby novel. (You were warned about the spoilers.). While two of the three endings don't involve Tragedy's baby, there's no reason to believe that the baby is absent from any of the three endings. The only difference is that Smithson doesn't know about the baby in the other two endings. And in classic, classic, classic baby-daddy/secret baby novel fashion, the man doesn't get to learn about the existence of his offspring until he passes some subtle, unannounced and somewhat arbitrary test (in one of the endings, he never gets anywhere near the test; in the third ending he walks out in the middle of it, thus flunking). I really dislike secret baby novels. It just seems so wildly unfair to the baby and the daddy for them not to know about each other's existence.

You bang together those two classic plots, and it's hard _not_ to judge the book by romance novel standards. What happens if we do? Nothing good. Between the pomo devices (the obtrusive Narrator, Chapter 13's descent into cheap thrills of literary analysis and possibly a little epistemology, the endless comparisons of the 1860s to the author's contemporary 1960s) and the relentlessly negative portrayal of women in the novel, it left a really unpleasant aftertaste.

Okay, so it's a crap romance novel, but how about if it's not a romance novel? What then? Maybe it is a bildungsroman for Tragedy/Sarah Woodruff and/or Charles Smithson? What kind of character development actually happens? Well, the two of them share a real problem with indecision. Sarah, "educated beyond her class" (goddess, is that ever a cliche of historical romances), is poisoned by envy and relentlessly denies it. She won't buckle down and live the lot she's been given nor will she leave and go take her chances in the city. The pressure has to get quite intense to convince her to actually leave Lyme Regis. (I have to say that the section in which the Doctor attempts to convince Smithson that Sarah suffers from hysteria and/or is a manipulative shit is one of the creepiest bits I've read lately. Really reminded me of all that Freudian garbage that was so prevalent during the 20th C, which we have almost entirely left behind us. I sure don't miss it.) Smithson can't seem to bring himself to seriously nerd it up like his grandfather or play nice with Uncle to carry on the tradition of whatever it is Uncle believes in (shooting things, at least in part). Smithson and Woodruff are fully prepared to snipe at everyone around them -- and it doesn't seem to make them any happier, nor do they appear to suffer from any of the moral qualms that Ernestina does when she's been punching down.

It might actually _be_ a somewhat decent bildungsroman. Sarah and Charles are both sociable (socialized?) and connected enough to not want to disappoint the people around them. But their values are at odds with those people. They really needed to walk away from the people around them and find a better environment -- or modify their values to better suit the people they chose to love. And for a variety of reasons, they had a lot of trouble deciding which it was going to be. As has been my experience with indecision and the indecisive, they did a ton of damage to the people around them along the way (have I been that person? Alas, yes). Slogging through the excruciatingly long-winded descriptions of the indecision was a lot more than I can take. I started skimming, and ultimately skipped some large chunks of the book. SEE NOT A REAL BOOK REVIEW.

But it's only a somewhat decent bildungsroman. A lot of that long winded description was less than great. The one that attracted the most specific ire for me was the description of an early (but not the first) interaction between Sam and Mary, where she asks him what it's going to cost her and he responds with an "unambiguous wink".

Really? An unambiguous wink? What's that look like? The lid of the eye made it all the way down, as opposed to halfway? Or is the unambiguity what the wink is about? Because that wasn't unambiguous at all. Since Sam winds up having honorable intentions for Mary, the obvious "unambiguous" interpretation (that presumably causes her to slam the door in his face) isn't even true.

But hey. That's a postmodern novel for you.

You want pomo? Go read some Robbe-Grillet. It's better.

A few remarks about microrecords, to be followed by link-fu

This is only very peripherally about genealogy, so I am not tagging it genealogy.

Regular readers know that I am fascinated by format transitions. Disruptive innovation is great in general (well, not for the disruptee, obvs), but I really love format changes, because they are so ... sneaky.

Speaking of long ago, I used to do clerical temp work, before I got my degree and got Real Jobs. I type fast and mostly accurately (more accurately if I'm poor and people are paying me, hence all the errors these days) and once upon a time I was wicked quick at 10 key. There was one job in particular that stuck out in my memory, because it had a whole set of stories associated with it. I pulled records involving a man who actually had the name Sherlock Holmes. I ran across medical records involving various people I knew, including a high school classmate who accessed reproductive services while we were both in high school. This was all pre-HIPAA, and while there was a decent informal culture of Don't Talk About What You See Even If It Is A Juicy Story and You Know the Person, I was basically happy to start having to sign a bunch of forms post-HIPAA, because I also knew what happened when we were on break. "Hey, guess what I saw today!"

So, why did I see so much? Because I was printing records from microfilm storage so that claims adjusters could adjust claims. (I've never been a claims adjuster so I am a little hazy on those details.) If you haven't had the pleasure of using a microfilm system, it's a spool of film that goes into a machine. There is a label on the spool (you sure hope, anyway) indicating the range of records stored on it (by date, serial number, last name, wtf), and you basically hit go forward or go back, stop, take a look at where you are, lather rinse repeat. I read very quickly with good comprehension and can skim at an unholy rate, so I was a walking privacy violation for anyone who had a record stored anywhere in that system.

It is easy, when thinking of office automation in terms of computers, to forget how pervasive microfilm once was (here in the United States. Because of certain aspects of the technology, such as storage requirements, and because of the comparative expense of the machines, it was not as widely adopted in most of the world), and how persistent it still is. I do genealogy almost exclusively online, but when I break down and send away for court records, I get paper print outs from the court's microfilm system. There are tons of records that I'm not accessing until they get scanned from microfilm and put up on ancestry.com or elsewhere; I'm not in that much of a hurry. (Well, okay, I suppose if the kids grow up and find other things to do with themselves, I probably _will_ go digging around in those records. But that's still a ways off.) It is easy for me to believe that there are still offices out there that are running off of microfilm, and I keep waiting to see when that turnover is finally going to happen.

I think it is. Here's my evidence: I have a friend who is temping in Seattle using claims adjustment workflow software that handles nearly any kind of input, but can be end-to-end EHR. It's new -- so new that the training is out of step with the software because they are getting frequent updates. The rest of my evidence is a sense that enough health care providers have finally scanned the contents of their file room(s) (receiving in exchange additional exam room(s) or office space) in order to move to EHR. The entire rationale for microfilm is to make paper storage smaller. As paper inputs wane, the last reason for retaining a paper-centric workflow dissipates. With computer storage as cheap as it is now, it's really just a matter of the labor involved in scanning historic records.

Here's a 2008 article about how to handle older records when transitioning medical records to EHR. Microfilm and microfilm are listed as a viable option, altho not a preferred one.


The article also discusses whether or not to keep paper originals.

Here's someone contemplating a big conversion project, and answers from 2011:


Notice that at this point, the machines that center, and do a really go job of auto-focus and so forth to deal with lower quality (not straight up and down, for example) images are expensive, and it is horribly labor intensive to do it manually, but people were hiring temps to just do the project. And you don't get structured data out of this -- just images on a computer, instead of images on film.

Hey, a blast from the past in this title from the early 1980s:


"Small office microfilm cures medical insurance paperwork problems."

And you wonder why people were so reluctant to computerize their paper charts and health records.

If you go to monster.com and search on keyword "microfilm" or similar, it does not take any real effort to find current postings that ask for some amount of proficiency using microfilm. Ancestry.com might hire you for around $10 to work on digitizing microfilm. But most of the rest of the postings are clerical positions that will straightforwardly access records stored on microfilm. While there are many, many, many businesses around to help convert your microfilm to records, with some degree of automation bringing the price down, they are still focused pretty intently on libraries and also on newspapers which are trying to monetize their morgues. There isn't as much focus on moving the health care industry off of microfilm and onto digital storage.

Here's a jumpstation provided by the New York State archives:


My husband thinks that there's a lot less usage of microfilm in healthcare than I think there is. But he has also observed that the transition from microrecords to digital storage, when he has encountered it, tends to not be discussed. Like at all. So where I would usually conclude by saying, I guess we'll have to see what happens, this particular transition might be largely invisible.