Through many years and many computer systems, I’ve always been the sort of person who likes to tweak and customize my setup. I’m not happy just to make do with the programs that come preinstalled or shipped in shrinkwrap. I acknowledge a point of diminishing returns in this sort of thing, of course; I’ve never taken the effort to learn how to use Linux, for instance, or for that matter even to dip into Terminal on my Mac… but I do like to be able to do my own basic troubleshooting.  I don’t script my own utilities… but on the other hand, I do know how to dig up, install, and use custom scripts created by others, whether I use ’em through Automator in OS X or through Greasemonkey in Firefox or what-have-you.

Nor have I ever had the inclination (or money or time) to be an early adopter of every new thing that comes along… but that just makes it all the more important to put in the time and effort to properly research and configure my choice of tools and workflow when I do make a change, because it’s probably something I’m going to be sticking with for a while.

So I’ve always been in sort of a middle ground… I’m by no means a Power User compared to the kind of folks who post on SlashDot, but OTOH I am one compared to probably 90+ percent of day-to-day computer users.

With all that said, one might imagine that finding a way (in the course of my latest nearly-from-scratch rebuild of my system) to handle basic PIM functionality wouldn’t be that big a deal, right? After all, managing data like contacts, calendars, and to-do lists is at the very heart of what people do with computers, and there’s been user-friendly software for the purpose for over 20 years. You’d think finding a solution now would be a no-brainer.

Think again…

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At this point we have very nearly completed our chronology of the Sherlock Holmes Canon. We have spanned his entire career, from his earliest investigations through his disappearance and return to his retirement and beyond. We have determined along the way that his colleague and biographer Dr. Watson married twice, once in 1888 (to Mary Morstan, d. circa 1892-’93), and again in 1902. We have placed 52 cases on the calendar, all but a few with a considerable degree of certainty.

There remain, however, a few cases from among those published after the Hiatus in which Watson provides us with no clear dates. Included among these are cases that have posed some of the greatest difficulties to students of the Canon, and provoked the greatest debates among them. The texts are not entirely devoid of evidence, and in that regard we continue to trust Watson’s testimony, but they require close examination. It is to these that we now turn our attention.

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We have reached the midway point of our chronological project, having dated and arranged all the cases of Sherlock Holmes prior to his apparent death in the spring of 1891. The time has come to turn our attention to the later part of his career. Thirty-two adventures of Holmes (novels aside) were published between 1903 and 1927, later collected in the volumes The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Of these cases, all but three (as discussed earlier) belong to the latter half of his career.

On “the night of March 30, 1894,” young Ronald Adair was mysteriously murdered in cold blood in his own home on Park Lane. Only days later, Sherlock Holmes returned to London, after three years traveling the world under an assumed name. He reintroduced himself to Dr. Watson and explained his deception at the Reichenbach Falls, where he had faked his death in order to elude the remnants of Prof. Moriarty’s criminal organization. He promptly enlisted Watson’s aid in capturing Col. Sebastian Moran, the last member of that organization, proving in the process that Moran had killed Adair. Watson was overjoyed to see his old friend, who, he noted, “in some manner… had learned of my own sad bereavement”: for although Watson never shared the details with his readers (thereby stimulating much later speculation), Mary Morstan Watson had apparently suffered an untimely death.

All this we learn from the adventure of “The Empty House” (EMPT), which appeared in print in October, 1903; Watson reports that he would have shared it with the public earlier, “had I not been barred by a positive prohibition from [Holmes’s] own lips, which was only withdrawn upon the third of last month.” About all of this, there is almost no debate or controversy.

About the details of the following decade, of course, there’s more than a little.

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In the endeavor to derive a comprehensive Sherlock Holmes chronology, we have at the outset resolved (to my satisfaction, at any rate) the question of the number of Watson’s marriages through a judicious application of Occam’s Razor. This has allowed us to set up a framework that covers the cases published up through the Great Hiatus of 1891-’94 (the period in which Holmes was presumed dead), and within that framework we have placed all those cases that can be easily dated—those in which Watson provides both a month (or season) and a year, or clear clues pointing to same.

There remain several cases from this period (nine, in fact) in which the clues are more opaque, and the reader must bring to bear more careful deductive abilities. In addition, the two later novels also fit into the pre-Hiatus phase of Holmes’s career (this is relatively uncontroversial), as do three of the later-published short cases (there’s more argument here, but I believe a strong case can be made for these three and no others, as I’ll discuss when we reach them).

The time has come to start fitting the more ambiguous pieces into the puzzle. The game is afoot!…

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And now, a brief interlude from all the Sherlockiana for a bit of politics and economics. After hearing a radio interview today about a fascinating new book, I’ve done a bit of digging and realized I may have come a bit late to the game, for—at least in England—this book has been gathering serious attention for the better part of a year now. It deserves to do the same here in the U.S.

The interview was with Prof. Richard Wilkinson of Nottingham University, co-author (with Kate Pickett of York University) of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. (The title is perhaps a bit less than apt; the authors apparently wanted to call it “Evidence-Based Politics,” which to my ear would have been superior.) Wilkinson and Pickett, epidemiologists both, started out studying data on public health outcomes and wound up with a project much larger than they had originally envisioned. Their data demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that economic inequality within a society, regardless of overall wealth, is the single biggest predictor of a wide range of other social ills, from life expectancy to violent crime and far, far more.

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So, the project is this: to construct a reliable, chronological reading order for the Sherlock Holmes canon, as written by Dr. Watson. The goal is clear: to glean a more complete and robust sense of the life of the Great Detective, and of his friend and colleague, than afforded by any single tale. The methodology is straightforward: when seeking clues, trust Watson first and foremost. And beyond that, the resources are ample, as many other Sherlockians have trod this path before… without ever reaching any serious consensus.

What do we know as a starting point? There is relatively widespread consensus on a few basic facts, and I see no reason to disagree with the statement that Sherlock Holmes was born in 1854, while John Watson, slightly older, was born in 1852. Neither date is ever stated outright in the Canon; but Holmes is described without reservation as a “man of sixty” in 1914 in “His Last Bow” (LAST), and we know from A Study In Scarlet (STUD) that, in the very first words from Watson’s pen, “In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London,” which places the good doctor’s birth 26 years earlier given the typical duration of a British medical education of the day.

We know very few facts about either man’s childhood, family, or upbringing (although speculation is rampant). The next definitive information comes in a pair of “flashback” tales describing two of Holmes’s earliest cases, before he met Watson:  “The Gloria Scott” (GLOR) and “The Musgrave Ritual” (MUSG), which appeared in print back-to-back in consecutive months in 1893. (It’s interesting to note, in passing, that departures from the usual narrative structure of the Writings seem to come in pairs; the only two cases told in the third person also appeared consecutively, in 1917 and 1921 respectively, as did the only two written by Holmes himself, both in 1926.) Thus, it is time to begin delving into the details of the cases.
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Sherlock Holmes has been much in the public eye of late, thanks to the big-budget Hollywood movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. (And it’s an enjoyable picture; if the overall style is a bit too frenetic and overblown, and a few obvious liberties are taken with the source material, still the filmmakers at least seem familiar with that source material… and the cast, especially Downey, does a terrific job of capturing the subtle quirks of their characters.)

Of course, Holmes has been a cultural icon for well over a century, and I’ve been a fan for some years. As it happens, around the same time my girlfriend and I acquired the DVD box set of the 1980s-’90s TV series with Jeremy Brett as Holmes, and have been watching it from beginning to end. It offers more faithful adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories than any other filmed version before or since, in a style that’s a closer match for the original sensibilities of the material (i.e., fewer chase scenes, fistfights, and explosions)… and Brett does an uncanny job of capturing the persona of the Great Detective (although in some scenes he seems, perhaps, just a bit too caustic and antisocial), ably abetted by first David Burke and later Edward Hardwicke as Dr. Watson. It’s a fantastic series, well worth watching.

Even the best adaptation is a mere interpretation of the original, though, and I found myself moved to turn my attention back to “The Canon,” the original four novels and fifty-six short stories by Conan Doyle, published between 1887 and 1927. I’m fortunate enough to own both annotations of the complete works, William Baring-Gould’s classic Annotated Sherlock Holmes from 1967, and Leslie Klinger’s New Annotated edition from 2004-’05. Both offer not only the original texts but a fascinating treasure-trove of scholarly exegesis, analysis, background information, and speculation about the characters, settings, and myriad other details of the stories.

The Holmes canon has been peculiarly attractive to armchair scholars almost from the beginning, perhaps due to the natural appeal of applying the Master’s own analytical methods to the source material in which we discover them. And the exercise is more enjoyable for the distinctive rules of the game, the set of underlying premises observed with scholarly solemnity when possible and with tongue clamped firmly in cheek when necessary: namely, that the Canon represents a true and genuine (if tantalizingly far from complete) account of the life and career of Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective, as recorded by his friend and colleague Dr. John H. Watson, published under the auspices and (for reasons lost to history) under the name of Watson’s literary agent (and occasional editor), Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle. I respect and observe these rules.

There are as many facets of Sherlockian scholarship as there are enthusiasts ready to undertake it, but one area of longstanding controversy that I find particularly engaging (given my own deep-seated and frankly self-evident interest in narrative chronology) is the matter of how to date the cases. I’m coming late to the game, of course; there have been well over a dozen books published on the matter of chronologizing the Canon. Nevertheless, I think I have some insights and observations worth exploring… and this is the first in a series of posts in which I’ll share that exploration.

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And no one told me when to run… that’s for damn sure.

New Year’s came and went without me writing a blog post. I was preoccupied with other things at the time, as detailed to some extent in my last couple of entries bookending my computer headaches. But I did make some observations that I think are still worth mentioning, as both the year and the decade rolled over and restarted.

I’m well aware, of course, that both our calendar year and the decades into which we assemble them are completely arbitrary human constructs, and that there’s nothing metaphysically significant about the transition from one random chronological marker to another, despite all the cultural baggage we attach to them. Nevertheless, one of the central components of human consciousness is our capability for pattern recognition, and the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century definitely displayed some patterns that are, at the very least, psychologically meaningful.

To put it all in a nutshell… this past decade sucked. Big time.

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It’s been quite a few weeks since my last post. That’s because during most of that span, whenever I’ve had time to sit down with my laptop, it’s been to work on restoring things from the catastrophic hard drive failure I suffered just before Christmas. I’m happy to say that as of now, I’ve finally got the computer back to a state where I feel my life is under control again (as much as it ever was, anyway), and in fact the system is (in some ways) better than ever.

All the gory details below the fold…

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I love my PowerBook. My computer is my life… or at least, it allows me to conduct it, and contains most of the relevant details of it, and connects me with the world beyond it. And using a Mac makes the whole process, really, downright fun sometimes.

Nevertheless, I admit to living dangerously where the safety of my loved one is concerned. I know the mantra that hard-drive failures are a matter of “not if, but when”… but despite that, I’ve never really had a regular backup routine. I have some archived files that are years old, but most of the more recent documents on my current machine (purchased over three years ago now) aren’t backed up.

Recently, however, I decided to own up to this irresponsible conduct and change my ways. I’ve been putting off a system upgrade (from OS X 10.4 to 10.5; this Mac is from the last pre-Intel generation, so it won’t run 10.6), but I knew that before installing a major upgrade a backup would be a Really Good Idea, just in case Something Went Wrong. This drive has worked flawlessly for as long as I’ve had the computer—in fact, I’ve never had a drive failure—but better safe than sorry, right? Plus, its 80GB capacity was about 75% full, and I know performance starts to take a hit above that level, and I figured before I started weeding out old files I should have everything backed up. And I expected that regular incremental backups would be easier after the upgrade, anyway, thanks to Apple’s nifty TimeMachine utility, so any headaches involved with this “safety” backup would be a one-time thing.

So yesterday I pulled a pristine new 500GB external drive out of its box, and attached it to my trusty PowerBook with a FireWire cable, and downloaded the latest version of the handy freeware backup utility SuperDuper!, and carefully shut down everything else that was running, and had the program begin making a bootable clone of my PowerBook drive on the external drive.

And guess when my hard drive decided to fail?

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