Sunday, February 28, 2010

The complete nerd

I recently ran across my friend Laura's post about The Complete New Yorker DVD set and James Wolcott's enthusiastic review of it in New Criterion. Wolcott's thoughtful piece isn't free, but it's the best piece of writing I've seen about the set, and it's worth looking up.

As Wolcott and most reviewers have noted, the collection's search function is bad. I could list many complaints, but perhaps most irksome is that the search window is so small. I have a nice big display, but I can only search using this cramped, cluttered little interface, which is made all the more unattractive by the extensive use of bold typeface, a design no-no since, oh, 1995.

I'm also frustrated by the limited options. Yes, under Department I can click Cartoon and see only cartoons. But what if I want to see everything except cartoons? I mean no disrespect to The New Yorker's signature funnies, but there are a lot of them in any given issue, and for the purposes of my browsing I am, for the most part, not that interested.

I could go on. The good news is that with a little IT elbow grease I've devised much more agreeable ways to poke around this marvelous archive. What makes them possible is the fact that although the images of the magazine pages are encrypted, the database with all the information about the archive is not. It is, for those of you following along at home, a plain old SQLite database, as I learned from this page ages ago when I was trying to figure out how to copy all the DVDs to a hard drive.

I have a bit of experience with databases, so after much fiddling -- which involved making a copy of the 640-megabyte database file, installing what's called an ODBC driver to make the database accessible, and dusting off some programming skills -- I used sturdy old Access 97 to build searching and browsing tools that make me a much happier Complete New Yorker owner.

What I'm most pleased with is this form, which lets me look at the article information in a nice big grid. In the upper left corner are drop-down boxes that let me filter by month and year. I like being able to see article abstracts at much greater length, and to see several abstracts on the screen at once. It's also helpful to see the articles in order by page number. If there's a system to how the built-in search interface orders articles, I don't know what it is.

In this form I am filtering out categories of items and articles I don't want to see, like cartoons and -- sorry, poets -- poems. (I was amused to see that in the database, these categories are collectively identified as "rubrics," which seems a New Yorker-y sort of word.) I somewhat crudely do this filtering by directly editing the underlying database query. The query is in SQL, the computer language widely used for manipulating databases. My New Yorker SQL looks like this (it would probably look better if the New Yorker fact checkers had a crack at it):

I also made this form, which lists movie reviews. I love New Yorker movie reviews, including Pauline Kael's and also those by the likes of Penelope Gilliatt. (Remember her?) But another problem with the Complete New Yorker database is that the data entry was sloppy -- surprising, given The New Yorker's famous fussiness -- so for many movie reviews there are no abstracts. But at least the movie titles have been entered as keywords, so on this screen, for example, I can see that Roger Angell's 1979 piece "High and Low" is about (get it?) Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Jerk. Cool.

Of course, when I use this software to find an article I'm interested in, I still have to clumsily switch over to The Complete New Yorker program and look it up. But what I have done here is, for my purposes at least, a big improvement. I have long been so very happy with The Complete New Yorker, and now I am even happier.