Thursday, June 25, 2015

Njal's Saga and South Park

Tom Shippey has a piece in the LRB on Njal's Saga (here).  It's a wonderful piece, but there are priceless lines strangely reminiscent of South Park (I heard these in the voice of Cartman):

This killing was legitimate. Thrain had given serious provocation: he had stood by twice when the Njalssons were called taðskegglingar, ‘little dung-beards’, and though he didn’t say it himself, in sagas rude words are never forgiven. 

So lovely.

Or how about this:

The pile of money is lying on the ground waiting for Hoskuld’s wife’s uncle Flosi to pick it up, when Njal adds a silk cloak to the pile, apparently as a ‘sweetener’, a further gesture of conciliation. It isn’t taken like that. When Flosi arrives, he asks who gave the cloak (why?). No one replies (why not?). He asks again, and laughs (laughing is a bad sign in the saga-world). He asks if they’re afraid to tell him, and when he gets a sharp answer from Skarphedin (‘Who do you think gave it?’), he lets fly the standard insult against Njal, that he can’t grow a beard and so may not be a real man.

This ratcheting-up of tension could have been avoided if a conciliatory answer had been given in the first place. It’s not clear what Flosi’s problem with the cloak is anyway. Some say a silk cloak could have been seen as an effeminate garment, but as Miller points out, Egil Skallagrimsson wore one, and no one called that troll-descended bruiser a ‘girly-man’. 

Thankfully, the critic later moves on to the kind of Emperor's New Clothes sanity so familiar in Kyle and Stan:

A lawyer himself, Miller has trouble with this combination of pettifogging and violence. ‘The problem for a legal system,’ he says, ‘is to keep the perception of tricksterism and actual tricksterism within acceptable bounds so that the law still maintains a certain level of respect.’ Non-lawyers may say that we were hoping for something rather better than that.
 The thing that particularly struck me, though, was the way the analysis places this social structure at a distance, not incomprehensibly remote, but remote in requiring explanation in a society with different values:

Miller’s analyses could make more of matters of honour (which has no status in modern law). Right at the start Hallgerd’s father, seeing his beautiful child, asks his half-brother Hrut what he thinks of her. Hrut says nothing, and Hoskuld asks again: ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ Hrut says yes, but adds: ‘I cannot imagine how a thief’s eyes have come into our kin.’ Miller notes that Hallgerd’s father’s repetition of the question is tactless – he should have listened to the silence – but seems to think that Hrut might have held back his ‘insult’. I would suggest that in a prickly society, between adult  males, asking a question twice is a challenge that necessitates an equivalent response.
 Several years ago I had to look after my mother in the aftermath of an operation. This turned out to be a professional disaster, since Bill Clegg, the agent I had signed with, had failed to sell the book he had insisted on sending out, and now wanted 100 pages of an ambitious new book within a month. There was no way I could produce this while living with and looking after my mother; it ended badly. (He resigned while she was in intensive care.)  Since I was in a situation where it was impossible to work, though, I ended up watching all 5 seasons of The Wire courtesy of Netflix - and I was immediately struck by the Sophoclean clash between the honour-governed world of the black drug dealers (honour as this is understood in Homer) and the law-governed world of white Baltimore. (Law-governed in the sense that there are rules about the tricks that can be played.)

Matters of honour have no status in modern law... I've spent a couple of decades dealing with people who are comfortable with playing tricks as long as these either fall within what the law allows OR won't lead to a lawsuit  What's been interesting is not the games people play, but the extent to which a culture of honour is wholly incomprehensible.  It's been interesting to see how resistant this blind spot is to even the greatest literature.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

sweet

For reasons too complicated to explain, I ended up watching Gossip Girl hot on the heels of South Park. Have just reached the point in GG where a bloke who lied about going to Georgetown or Princeton confesses that he is actually a lord. (Dialogue: "I am actually a lord.")  Both accent and confession are pure Cartman. Without the Internet, how would I have known? Adorable.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

pop-up ads, boon or bane?

Tim Harford on the use of Amazon's Mechanical Turk to quantify level of annoyance of pop-up ads
Usually researchers want to avoid people dropping out of their experiments. The wicked brilliance of this experimental design is that the dropout rate is precisely what the experimenters wanted to study.
Unsurprisingly, the experiment found that people will do more work when you pay them a better rate, and they will do less work when you show them annoying adverts. Comparing the two lets the researchers estimate the magnitude of the effect, which is striking: removing the annoying adverts entirely produced as much extra effort as paying an additional $1.15 per 1,000 emails categorised — and effectively $1.15 per 1,000 adverts viewed. But $1.15 per 1,000 views is actually a higher rate than many annoying advertisers will pay — the rate for a cheap advert may be as low as 25 cents per 1,000 views, says Goldstein.
 . . . 
Good adverts are much less destructive. They push workers to quit at an implicit rate of $0.38 per 1,000 views, for an advert that may pay $2 per 1,000 views to the publisher.
The rest here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Geoff Pullum on the IPA

Studying the full array of symbols (see the definitive one-page copyright-free chart here) reveals that for almost any point in the mouth or throat where an obstruction or radical restriction of the airflow from the lungs can be made by lips or teeth or tongue or pharynx, such a restriction will be used to produce at least some consonants: sounds produced either by complete occlusion of the airflow or by narrowing or interrupting the channel to produce hissing, buzzing, scraping, trilling, rattling, or clicking.
And for every reasonable position in which you can hold the tongue and lips and cheeks while permitting unimpeded airflow, there is a vowelsound employing that oral posture.

the whole thing here

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

GG über alles

Reading Gerd Gigerenzer's "Mindless Statistics" (here).

In a café. Back in Berlin. A better blogger would include quotations from this splendid article, but we at pp are somewhat threadbare after months of showing the flag.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

"sigh"

Reading Michael Booth's The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.

Bought for my Kindle off Amazon.com, even though I'm in London, because Amazon fought me tooth and nail when I tried to change the location of my Kindle and buy off Amazon.co.uk.

This turns out to mean I get an Americanized version of the book.

"Not all nationalism is bad, for a start," he told me over the phone from his home in Sheffield, England.

I spent some time in Vermont. I sometimes explained that I normally lived in Berlin. I would then need to specify: Berlin, Germany. (There is a Berlin, Vermont.) I am trying to imagine the circumstances in which I would not go berserk if required to specify this in a book destined for publication.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Interview

While I was in New York Andy Beckerman interviewed me for his podcast series, Beginnings. It's now up, here