Friday, August 31, 2007

Ein echter deutscher Schlüsseldienst

I got locked out of the apartment again. 2C2E. I went to the Schlüsseldienst in Hagelbergerstraße, who knows me well by now. Ähm, ich bin aus meinem Haus geschloßen, ähm, leider habe ich kein Geld zuhause, ääääähm. He calls Christian (who has got me into the apartment twice before) but he is busy. He calls Esmond. Esmond can be there in 20 minutes.

I ring the bell at the building, hoping to reduce the number of locks to be picked. Hallo, hier ist Frau DeWitt, ich bin ausgeschloßen... Frau Finke buzzes me in. She says I should leave a spare key with her. I know I know I know. Esmond turns up with a bag that means business. We go to the apartment. I point to the lock. He asks for ID. Ähm, ich habe meine Fitnessstudiokarte? I pull out the card for my gym, Axxel, the only 24-hour gym in town, and you can pick up a free copy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine on your way out. I hand it over. He is unimpressed. He asks if there is ID in the apartment. Oh yes. He asks about the price, I say I was told 50 euros, I say, only there's no money in the apartment, I'll have to go to the bank, and he looks unenthusiastic. He opens the door. I go in to get my ID and my bank card. I show him my passport, I say, OK! (time to go to the bank)

Esmond [I translate] Aren't you going to lock it? It's really easy to break in.
HD: I don't think I can.
Esmond tries turning the key to relock the door, nothing happens.
Esmond: But it's really fast to break in.
HD: Well...there is another key, maybe some other time...
Esmond: But it's really fast to break in.
I go to the kitchen, haul out the key to the serious lock. Esmond tries it, something doesn't work.

My friend Ingrid Kerma used to tell me about German apprenticeships. In England, if you go to B&Q to buy wood, the salespeople know nothing about it. You ask them a question. 'Dunnooooo.' You ask another question. 'Dunnoooo.' In a German store, the salespeople know all about wood, they can tell you all about it, and they will not let you buy the wrong kind of wood -- because they have done apprenticeships in which they learned all about wood.

We now see the German apprenticeship system in action.

Esmond: Are you insured?
Yes, I say, not because I'm insured (are you serious? have you looked at these forms?) but because it looks like the easy way out.
Esmond says something, the gist of which seems to be that if you have a lock that can be picked in 2 seconds your insurance probably won't cover you. (If you are uninsured this will not be a problem.)
He looks at a hole in the floor, a hole into which a bolt goes if you use the good key. Since the key has not been used in over two years, the hole is packed with dirt. He gets to work with a screwdriver. He gouges out dirt. He gets a hammer and pounds the screwdriver, deepening the hole. Tries the key. Something still doesn't work. He takes the screwdriver and gouges dirt out of the hole above the door; dust pours down. Tries the key. Something still doesn't work. Gets out the old WD-40. Spraaaaaaaaaaaays the motherfucker. Tries the key. Back and forth, back and forth, alles in Ordnung, wow!

He makes me lock and unlock the door five or six times to ensure that the owner of the key can operate the key.

I don't have the heart or the German to explain that if you are the sort of person who gets locked out of an apartment on a regular basis, the last thing you want is a lock that is hard to pick.

My German is even less up to an ad hoc discussion of existentialism. Every time I get locked out of the apartment I think: I could get on a train, never come back, how good that would feel.

We go in his car to the bank. Which bank? asks Esmond. I explain that we can go to any bank because I am using a card from a British bank. Esmond tells me I should have a German bank account. I do have a German bank account, I explain, ich habe ein Postbankkonto, but I have just been sent a new card and I have not been sent the new PIN. We pull up and park by a branch of Deutschebank. Bourgeois to the core, I think all this hypererogatory effort should be rewarded, I offer an extra 20 euros for sorting out the good key and getting it to work. (Since Ilya is a Nietzschean Bataillean socialist, one very good thing is that my mismatched co-scripteur is not here in the hour of shame.)

I do think hypererogatory effort should be rewarded. The things the lock protects are not things I care about very much, but I was touched by this workman who knew what he was doing and wanted to see a good lock and a good key put to use.

When I hire a lawyer or an agent or an accountant, when I negotiate a contract, I think I am putting in place something like the lock that a German Schlüsseldienst thinks is a good lock. Es ist ein gutes Schloß, says Extremely Fabulous Esmond.

Here's what interests me. EF Esmond doesn't know me from a bar of soap. He isn't 'passionate about my work', to use a favourite phrase. What's more, he has absolutely no reason to think there is money to be made from getting the good lock working and getting his clueless customer to use it. He just HATES to see an apartment open to the first thief to come along. He doesn't know about books, but he knows about locks. He wants the customer to use a good lock.

Nicht zu fassen. Unbelievable. Even if there is money it, it's a rubbishy 20 Euros. Whereas, [have suddenly remembered a comment by Virginia Woolf on H G Wells, how tiresome he was always talking about the business, how right she was, OK]

After EF Esmond rode off into the sunset I realised that using the good key should not present a problem. I could lock the door with the good key only if the key and I were both on the same side of the door. Also, if I left a spare copy with Frau Finke there would be no need to break in. So I went downstairs and gave a spare set of keys to Frau Finke.

So schönes Wochenende, Extremely Fabulous Esmond. Vorsprung durch Technik.

Back Street Bankers

Great piece in the FT by Amy Kaslin on black market money traders getting hard currency into Burma here

Junk Drawer Math Problems

from drunkenpanda (HT TAR ART RAT)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Being Ilya Gridneff

It's just under 4 years since I met Ilya Gridneff in an East End pub by Victoria Park. The pub was aggressively organic; two large blackboards above the bar carried chalked disclaimers.


Had the game been factory-farmed the Crown could have testified to its diet of tofu and bean sprouts; since the animals had been living in the wild, the Crown could not lay hand on heart and swear that they had not been nipping into the nearest KFC. This was the gist. Only in Britain.

I was about to go to New York as a Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. I gave Ilya my e-mail address on a receipt. A couple of weeks later I got an e-mail, or rather a copy of an e-mail he had sent to a friend in Canada, something he'd written in 22 minutes at 3am, the most exciting piece of writing I'd seen in years. Should have written back, but things were not going well in New York.

I write, delete, write, delete, write, delete a long wearisome account of all the things that went wrong. Long story short, I ended up in Berlin where more things went wrong. More crazy movie people. Yet another book in ruins. I kept reading the e-mail from IG, still in my inbox, sure the old e-mail address was dead.

The Internet has thrown up a strange fetishism of writing as commodity. As we hear all too often, anyone can post anything online -- it's not edited, there's no filter, no quality control. A published book goes through a selection process, the lucky few are then edited to perfection and sold to the discriminating public. Anyone can write a blog. Hence the striking gap between The Da Vinci Code and the sort of mindless drivel on offer in the pp sidebar. And anyone can write an e-mail.

There's something odd about this.

Byron's letters were not written for publication. Kilvert's diary was not written for publication. The text published as Naked Lunch was originally a series of letters from Burroughs to Ginsberg. Tom Wolfe's Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby was not the piece of journalism he had been commissioned to write for Esquire, a properly-crafted report on the cult of customized cars. He missed one deadline after another, unable to fit the material to the form; his editor told him to write everything down and send it in, Wolfe wrote Dear Byron followed by an outpouring written at a single sitting followed by Tom, the editor removed Dear Byron and Tom and sent it to print and that, oh Best Beloved, was how Journalism got New. Hunter S. Thompson said he did his best work when he just sat down and wrote, and it was Thompson's pharmaceutically-enhanced failure to report on the Mint that gave us Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

All of these texts have been published, but all were not written for publication. There is, in fact, no hard and fast line separating the public and private. Molly Bloom's soliloquy draws extensively on Nora's letters to James Joyce -- letters whose style entranced one of the greatest languagemakers the world has ever known. There's really something odd going on, then: we now have a convention, it seems, such that the letters of a dead poet can be published, but all sorts of other texts in unapproved forms must be hauled into publishable legitimacy by appropriation into journalism or the novel.

I don't especially want to label IG as a Thompson or a Burroughs, because his style is his own, but the e-mail in my Inbox was like those mythical texts -- the difference being that I had not picked it up in a bookstore under the auspices of Faber or Picador or Serpent's Tail, it had just turned up out of the ether. I wrote him an e-mail, and an e-mail came back: he had been travelling around the Middle East, was now on the border of Kurdistan, was thinking of coming to Berlin. 2 years ago now. Long time ago.

When I was 9 I was given The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for Christmas. I think I read it 100 times. I didn't know there were others in the series. I discovered the rest when we moved to Rio; the school library had the rest of the series, but they would not lend them to children under 12. I still remember the disbelief, the joy, on discovering there were more; the misery on being refused permission to read them; the long wait. This was like that. Getting a second e-mail to add to the one I'd had for so long, and then a third, and then a fourth -- but it was not really like that, because books are in the public domain. Years later I read a collection of Hunter S. Thompson's letters, including his letters to his agent Lynne Nesbit: the rest of us, of course, could always buy Fear and Loathing, but here were people who had writing no one else could see. So this was like that.

I think Mithridates hates new historicism, but I thought there was something interesting about this. IG has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology Sydney; in London he covered deaths at the Coroner's Court for an agency, got shifts with various papers, got contacts who would pay for celebrity stories. So there were stories he had trained to write and stories that could be sold. The stories that could be sold were what made it possible to travel around the Middle East and dodge bullets in Baghdad. If we think of the work of Burroughs or Wolfe or Thompson, the fact that we can read these texts tells us nothing about what it is possible to publish: each time there is a story behind the appearance in print.

I sent copies of three e-mails to my former editor, who used the phrase 'crackling with energy' and begged to see more -- but the idea of publishing a collection of e-mails was too alien. I then had an idea that looked very clever: IG and I could collaborate on a novel, incorporate some of these texts, the public would see them in a context that is generally recognized as a literary form.

This looked like a good idea because it drew on some films that we both liked. La Dolce Vita, that's obvious. Fellini's 8 1/2 and Kaufman's Adaptation both tackle the dilemma of the artist trying to live up to an earlier work, solving the problem by an exercise in narcissism. Being John Malkovich, Kaufman's first film, was edgy, manipulative, why not have a work of fiction that used a real person as an ostentatiously manipulated character the way Kaufman had used JM? And so on.

It's hard to collaborate with someone on a book. Perhaps there was too much going on in Your Name Here. My editor was not the only reader to be dazzled by the IG correspondence. Some readers said they were dazzled by YNH, but if everyone wasn't it must have been doing something wrong. I now have a stash of a few hundred e-mails from IG, which is sort of like having my own personal stash of letters of Byron or Thompson -- it's good for me, yes, but the possessor of this voice should have cashed in on it by now, and all I've managed to do is drag him into the publishing machine.

So this is not such a good anniversary, no, but it does make all the arguments about Webworld and the quality control of publication look very strange. People tell me: The way to find an agent is to think of writers you like and find out who represents them. I think: Yes, but I read the most interesting writer I know in a couple of hundred e-mails on my hard drive. There are writers who are certified organic, I know, I know, but show me your Whopper-fed venison, I want wild deer that's been scarfing Chicken McNuggets on the sly.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Stardust Memories

Adam Mars-Jones used to write like this

One gets the sense that Neil Gaiman's rep as a genius must somehow be a reflection on the subculture that has so elected him. Like the water-cooler boor who becomes the office analyst because he read a Jung book in college, Gaiman seems to have raised himself into the empyrean on the narrow shoulders of Joseph Campbell. Campbell is not a very persuasive starting position in the first place: a sloppy structuralism denuded of whatever force it might have had by spiritualization. Stardust, in film version at least, for all its stylized whimsies, seems like the most mechanical Campbelliana imaginable. There are no characters, only positions, in which squat a rather unfortunate set of actors. The little matrix of the hero narrative has been filled with requisitely "original" figures; it's a movie written entirely in a single page Excel spreadsheet.

(Jane Dark on Stardust)

TLS is my first novel. At a time when I was working on Opus -52 or thereabouts David and I shared a house in Stewart Street in Oxford. David had a JRF at Brasenose; I was working on the Oxford Corpus as well as on Opp. -52, -51, -50, -49 & so on & on. We read everything AMJ wrote, regardless of subject. One day: I'm sitting in the kitchen reading the Independent on Sunday. There's a long piece by AMJ about someone called Marc Almond, which I start reading because it's by AMJ. I say: 'There's a piece by AMJ about someone called Marc Almond!' David: 'Mark Almond! I know Mark Almond! I'd no idea he'd become famous. He had a JRF at Jesus, specialised in Eastern Europe -- I suppose he must be very much in demand what with the war in Bosnia.' HD: 'I think this is a different Almond.'

Anyway, Jane Dark reminds me of the days when I would read AMJ reviewing films I did not plan to see. On Stardust here

I wish I'd written

-Alors quoi, merde, dit Zazie, on va le boire, cette verre?
Gabriel s'extrait avec habileté et souplesse du tac. Tout le monde se retrouve autour d'une table, sur le trottoir. La serveuse s'amène négligemment. Aussitot Zazie exprime son désir:
--Un cacocalo, qu'elle demande.
--Y'en a pas, qu'on répond.
--Ça alors, s'esclame Zazie, c'est un monde.
Elle est indignée.
--Pour moi, dit Charles, ça sera un beaujoulais.
--Et pour moi, dit Gabriel, un lait-grenadine. Et toi, demande-t-il à Zazie.
--Jl'ai déjà dit : un cacocalo.
--Elle a dit qu'y en avait pas.
--C'est hun cacocalo que jveux.

(Queneau, Zazie dans le métro)

Pythonia rule the waves

Complétons notre première formule : un système d'organisation bureaucratique est un système d'organisation incapable de se corriger en fonction de ses erreurs et dont les dysfonctions sont devenues un des éléments essentiels de l'équilibre. (Michel Crozier, Le phénomène bureaucratique, p 219)

[Let's complete our first formula: a bureaucratic system of organisation is a system of organisation incapable of correcting itself in response to its mistakes, whose dysfunctions have become one of the essential elements of equilibrium.]

Saturday, August 25, 2007

a cork on the sea of language

Bremer Sprachblog has this quotation from an interview of Urs Widmer, a Swiss scholar and writer:

Unser Sprachgebrauch ist durchsetzt mit Anglizismen. Wie weit beugen Sie sich dem Denglisch?

Widmer: Wissen Sie, ich habe ein Verhältnis zur Sprache, das nicht moralisiert. Die Sprache tut, was sie tut. Und ich schaue zu, was sie tut, verwende das manchmal eins zu eins, aufrichtig, und manchmal mit kritischer Ironie. Aber die Sprache hat immer recht. Ich bin gegen Sprachkämpfe, gegen Vorwürfe, dass zu viele englische Wörter gebraucht würden, zu wenige französische, dass wir unsern Dialekt pflegen sollten. Ich bin einer, der wie ein Korken auf dieser Sprache schwimmt und dabei seinen wachen Kopf gebraucht.

Friday, August 24, 2007


An extract from J M Coetzee's new book, Diary of a Bad Year, appeared in the NYRB for 10 July.

The Seven Samurai is a film in complete command of its medium yet naive enough to deal simply and directly with first things. Specifically it deals with the birth of the state, and it does so with Shakespearean clarity and comprehensiveness. In fact, what The Seven Samurai offers is no less than the Kurosawan theory of the origin of the state.

The story told in the film is of a village during a time of political disorder—a time when the state has in effect ceased to exist—and of the relations of the villagers with a troop of armed bandits. After years of descending upon the village like a storm, raping the women, killing those men who resist, and bearing away stored-up food supplies, the bandits hit on the idea of systematizing their visits, calling on the village just once a year to exact or extort tribute (tax). That is to say, the bandits cease being predators upon the village and become parasites instead.

One presumes that the bandits have other such "pacified" villages under their thumb, that they descend upon them in rotation, that in ensemble such villages constitute the bandits' tax base. Very likely they have to fight off rival bands for control of specific villages, although we see none of this in the film.

The bandits have not yet begun to live among their subjects, having their wants taken care of day by day—that is to say, they have not yet turned the villagers into a slave population. Kurosawa is thus laying out for our consideration a very early stage in the growth of the state.

[For those unfamiliar with the film in question, what actually happens is this:

A group of bandits gallop to the top of a hill overlooking a village. One says something like: Let's attack! The leader says: No, we raided them in the autumn. There's nothing there. Let's come back after the rice harvest.

The bandits gallop off. Two peasants who have been hiding in the bushes go back to the village to share the bad news.

At the risk of stating the obvious, not only do we see nothing in the film of the bandits fighting rival bands for control of specific villages, we also see nothing of the system of "pacified" villages descended upon in rotation. The political philosophy is the product of Mr Coetzee's unfevered imagination.]

The main action of the film starts when the villagers conceive a plan of hiring their own band of hard men, the seven unemployed samurai of the title, to protect them from the bandits. The plan works, the bandits are defeated (the body of the film is taken up with skirmishes and battles), the samurai are victorious. Having seen how the protection and extortion system works, the samurai band, the new parasites, make an offer to the villagers: they will, at a price, take the village under their wing, that is to say, will take the place of the bandits. But in a rather wishful ending the villagers decline: they ask the samurai to leave, and the samurai comply.

Having seen how the protection and extortion system works??????? The new parasites????? offer, at a price, to take the village under their wing???????

The bandits started out with a band of 40. The samurai start out as a band of (the title of the film is a useful aide-memoire) 7. 4 die. 7 - 4 = 3.

During the recruitment of the samurai Kurosawa goes to a great deal of trouble to emphasise that the band is really too small for the job; 7 is not enough. Given that premise, it would have been ludicrous for 3 to propose themselves as protectors against any further marauding bandits who might happen to come along. Emphasis is also placed on the fact that the farmers are unable to pay: they can offer nothing but food. It would have been equally ludicrous for the samurai to offer to stay "for a price" when the point is made repeatedly that what the farmers have to offer is not worth the risk. If Kurosawa had introduced the development proposed by Coetzee he would have thrown away the moral and practical difficulties which he had placed at the centre of the film. Unsurprisingly, he did nothing of the kind.

2 of the 4 killed die in the final battle, a last stand in the mud and the rain. The master swordsman is killed by a bullet from a hidden bandit. The impostor, Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), tracks the bandit down; he is shot in the stomach but manages to kill the bandit. The young aristocrat, Katsushiro, rushes wildly through the rain, shouting Where are the bandits, where are the bandits -- and is told they're all dead, there are none left to kill. He sinks to his knees, howling, in the mud. This is, of course, a splendid opportunity for Kurosawa to share with us his thoughts on Hobbes, but he passes. For reasons best known to himself, he, um, cuts to a scene of the villagers planting rice shoots. Kambei: We lose again. The remaining 3 samurai look up at the mound where their comrades are buried.

Coetzee is ascribing to Kurosawa an artistic practice which is, in fact, highly characteristic of his own work: a propensity to substitute philosophical discourse for attention to plot and character. This is the sort of thing that goes down well with the Nobel Committee, who do dearly love worthy books that tackle Big Issues -- but it is not Kurosawa.

Coetzee's summary ("band of hard men", "unemployed samurai") misses out precisely the resistance to stereotype through attention to detail which is one of Kurosawa's hallmarks. Kikuchiyo is not a samurai; he's a farmer's son who picked up a sword and decided he liked swaggering around with it. Katsushiro comes from an old samurai family, but he has never killed a man. Heihachi is found chopping wood; he attributes his survival to the fact that, "since you can't kill them all, I usually run away." Kyuzo, the master swordsman, "isn't interested in killing people, he just wants to perfect his art." Rikichi, the farmer who first wants to fight the bandits, is as brave and reckless as Kikuchiyo -- but he doesn't force his way into the band of samurai. The question of what it means to be a warrior, of who is entitled to fight, is explored in one episode after another. (It would be easy to go on at very great length.)

This is an example which shows exactly what an editor might contribute to a book, and why the common practice of selling books to editors with no relevant knowledge is so damaging. The Last Samurai was acquired in the US and the UK by two editors who had never seen Seven Samurai, and who saw no need to do so before commenting on the manuscript. It's possible, of course, that Coetzee's editor knew the film well, objected to this nonsense, and was stonewalled by the author. It's more likely, I can't help feeling, that the editor hadn't seen the film and assumed Coetzee knew what he was talking about. When I was discussing possible publishers of Your Name Here with my last agent, Warren Frazier, I said I would like to talk to editors who knew at least some of the films and books that had inspired it (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita were the most important films, there were rather a lot of books); he either didn't know or wouldn't tell me.

Well, well, well. There's a book by Agatha Christie of which I remember nothing but the title: Why Didn't They Ask Evans? What can I say? Why didn't you ask Evans, Mr Coetzee? Why didn't you ask Evans?

[A reader comments that the views appear in essays by a character and may not be Coetzee's; that C would be unlikely to make such mistakes about so well-known a film. Yes; it may be that the views of the JC in the book are not those of JC. On the second point, though, people often seem to allow memory to rewrite SS long after they've seen it, sometimes influenced by better familiarity with The Magnificent Seven. (JC's comment about the band of hard men, for instance, makes better sense if we think of TMS, which simply gets rid of the character of the young aristocrat who has never fought before, transferring his love interest to the Horst Buchholz character based on Kikuchiyo. My own memory of TMS is a bit vague, but I also seem to remember that it keeps the wood-chopping episode but transfers it to Charles Bronson, getting rid of Heihachi's line about usually running away. [Could be wrong about this.]) So it may be, in fact, that the mistakes mentioned are not JC's; on the other hand, they are not unimaginable as misrememberings of a film seen long ago.]

Thursday, August 23, 2007


Panel of barcharts using the Lattice package in R, showing survivors/non-survivors of Titanic, divided by class (crew, 1st class, 2nd class, 3rd class), age, sex

Phylogeny of teleos fishes
This data set describes the phylogeny of 49 teleos fishes as reported by Rochet et al. (2000). It also gives life-history traits corresponding to these 49 species.

Variables of mjrochet$tab are the following ones : tm (age at maturity (years)), lm (length at maturity (cm)), l05 (length at 5 per cent survival (cm)), t05 (time to 5 per cent survival (years)), fb (slope of the log-log fecundity-length relationship), fm (fecundity the year of maturity), egg (volume of eggs (mm^{3})).


Murakami interviews

Self-Divider has translated two interviews of Haruki Murakami from GQ Korea here and here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


amusing comment on colour manager

> ## Truly awful colour scheme to illustrate flexibility

> plot(e, colors=meta.colors(summary="green",lines=c("purple","skyblue"),
+ box="red",zero="yellow",text=palette(),background="tomato",
+ axes="lightgreen"))

metaplot -
Plot confidence intervals with boxes indicating the sample size/precision and optionally a diamond indicating a summary confidence interval. This function is usually called by plot methods for meta-analysis objects.


plot normal curve

panelbbplot from Hmisc

For all their good points, box plots have a high ink/information ratio in that they mainly display 3 quartiles. Many practitioners have found that the "outer values" are difficult to explain to non-statisticians and many feel that the notion of "outliers" is too dependent on (false) expectations that data distributions should be Gaussian.

panel.bpplot is a panel function for use with trellis, especially for bwplot. It draws box plots (without the whiskers) with any number of user-specified "corners" (corresponding to different quantiles), but it also draws box-percentile plots similar to those drawn by Jeffrey Banfield's ( bpplot function. To quote from Banfield, "box-percentile plots supply more information about the univariate distributions. At any height the width of the irregular 'box' is proportional to the percentile of that height, up to the 50th percentile, and above the 50th percentile the width is proportional to 100 minus the percentile. Thus, the width at any given height is proportional to the percent of observations that are more extreme in that direction. As in boxplots, the median, 25th and 75th percentiles are marked with line segments across the box."

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Rule, Pythonia

Eric Allison writes in Monday's Guardian

A prisoner released early from jail with no money was handed an IOU for £140 but no information about where it could be redeemed, it was claimed today.

A crisis in the prison service was blamed for the situation, which has seen hundreds of people freed from prison with little or no money and no accommodation.

Released prisoners are often dependent on state benefits but applications usually take a month to process. Those freed early cannot put in a claim until their sentence officially ends.

The reason there is a push to release prisoners early is that Britain's prisons suffer from overcrowding.

The National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) has said many prisoners are released with no money at all; and for those who receive the £45 grant it can amount to as little as £1.50 a day on which to survive until state benefits begin.

Yup. Someone in the Ministry of Silly Walks had a Cunning Plan. 'Let's let lots and lots and lots of prisoners out early! And find out if the educational opportunities offered by our prison service are actually working! If all goes according to plan, they'll have picked up plenty of tips from the old lags -- they'll have contacts on the outside, they'll know how to steal and deal drugs without getting caught!!!! If we gave them something to live on when they walked out, they might not turn to crime -- and we'd never know if they'd learnt their lesson.'

Not to be too much the tired cynic, this is an unorthodox approach to reducing the prison population.

The Fourth, Unethical, Path to Ad Fixations

Jakob Nielsen on banner blindness

I've been reluctant to discuss one of the findings from our eyetracking research because the conclusion is that unethical design pays off.

In 1997, I chose to suppress a similar finding: users tend to click on banner ads that look like dialog boxes, complete with fake OK and Cancel buttons. Of course, instead of being an actual system message -- such as "Your Internet Connection Is Not Optimized" -- the banner is just a picture of a dialog box, and clicking its close box doesn't dismiss it, but rather takes users to the advertiser's site. Deceptive, unethical, and #3 among the most-hated advertising techniques. Still, fake dialog boxes got many more clicks than regular banners, which users had already started to ignore in 1997.

Not the New Yorker (link fixed)

Mithridates has pointed out that the link in the sidebar to Samizdat doesn't work, because .com got left out after helendewitt. It now works. This is the link to a page with two mp3 files of Roland Barthes' 1975 Radioscopie interview with Jacques Chancel (as far as I know unavailable anywhere else on the web), as well as two stories (unavailable anywhere else in the world).

A reader who liked the stories and can't hack the fiction in the New Yorker commented on the latter:

But the short stories are terrible. I keep trying to read them, and every time my heart starts sinking after a page or so, and I then flick through the next couple of pages rapidly to see if I can see anything more interesting coming, and I never can, so I move onto a proper article (some of their proper articles are quite interesting...). I never read Harper's, so I don't know if they are any better, but I suspect not.

Link in sidebar and also here.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bris à la Ingmar Bergman

8 soap commercials by Ingmar Bergman, undertaken during a Swedish film strike in the early 50s

Bris á la Ingmar Bergman (II)

Bris á la Bergman (III)

Bris á la Bergman (IV)

Bris á la Bergman (V)

Bris á la Bergman (VI)

Bris á la Bergman (VII)

Bris á la Bergman (VIII)

the paper pools

Hockney had a friend who lived in the country. The friend kept telling him, You have to come, I'm doing amazing things with paper pulp, you have to come and do something with pulp. Hockney kept saying No no and the friend kept saying You have to come and Hockney went to the country and made paper pools



Chris McGreal has a piece in the Observer on Zimbabwe:

The shelves are bare except for what Zimbabwe's limping factories produce - baked beans at the cost of a month's salary, crisps rationed to two packets per shopper and all the cleaning fluid you want.

The petrol pumps dried up a month ago. Water and electricity are off more often than they are on. The national currency has an expiry date of July 2007 stamped on it but it's worth hardly anything anyway, so nobody seems to care.

Some Zimbabweans find a perverse comfort in all this because they believe, as the American ambassador put it, that Robert Mugabe is committing regime change on himself with his mad economics. It cannot get any worse, they say, but it can.

It's easy for those outside Zimbabwe to think the situation is hopeless and nothing can be done -- nothing by anyone outside Zimbabwe. This is not actually the case. Camfed has been running a programme for the last 12 years offering full scholarships to girls, enabling them to complete their secondary education -- a programme that now helps members in a country on the brink of famine. Camfed concentrates on girls' education because very poor families, if they must choose, will pay a boy's school fees and keep a girl at home; women's education has been shown to reduce infant mortality and improve children's chances of education, so undereducating girls is damaging not only for the girls themselves but for the society they live in.

NGOs whose programmes rely on foreign staff have long since had to close down operations in Zimbabwe as a result of the escalating violence. Camfed has, from the start, made a point of setting up an organisation of graduates from its programme, CAMA, which provides a support network for those still in the programme and also runs a micro-credit scheme enabling members to create employment for themselves -- something of crucial importance in rural districts with depressed economies, where there may be few opportunities for employment. Camfed has also made a point of involving parents, teachers and local leaders in running the programme. The result is that it has not had to shut down operations at the very time when support is desperately needed; it continues to give girls a chance to break out of poverty at a time when the country is falling apart.

It's easy to think there's no point sending a one-off, small donation, because it can't make a difference. Believe me, in a country whose currency officially expired at the end of July, five bucks in a hard currency, now, can make a difference. The link is here.

Philip K. Dick

A friend has send me a link to an article in the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik on Philip K. Dick; he comments: It really captures both what I like and dislike about him - for example:

"All this remains thrilling and funny; to detail Dick's conceits is to inventory a time. The trouble is that, much as one would like to place Dick above or alongside Pynchon and Vonnegut-or, for that matter, Chesterton or Tolkien-as a poet of the fantastic parable he was a pretty bad writer ... At the end of a Dick marathon, you end up admiring every one of his conceits and not a single one of his sentences ... That's probably why Dick's reputation as a serious writer, like Poe's, has always been higher in France, where the sentences aren't read as they were written. And his paint-by-numbers prose is ideally suited for the movies. The last monologue in "Blade Runner" ("All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die"), improvised by Rutger Hauer on the set that day, has a pathos that the book achieves only in design, intellectually, because the movie speech is spoken by a recognizable person, dressed up as a robot, where Dick's characters tend to be robots dressed up as people."

[HD: perhaps the French translations are better than the original, the way the Vulgate, King James' Version and Luther's translation all produce prose of great beauty from the generally disheartening Greek of the New Testament.]


Although “Blade Runner,” with its rainy, ruined Los Angeles, got Dick’s
antic tone wrong, making it too noirish and romantic, it got the
central idea right: the future will be like the past, in the sense
that, no matter how amazing or technologically advanced a society
becomes, the basic human rhythm of petty malevolence, sordid
moneygrubbing, and official violence, illuminated by occasional bursts
of loyalty or desire or tenderness, will go on. Dick’s future worlds
are rarely evil and oppressive, exactly; they are banal and a little
sordid, run by a demoralized élite at the expense of a deluded
population. No matter how mad life gets, it will first of all be life.

Gopnik later says:

At the end of a Dick marathon, you end up admiring every one of his
conceits and not a single one of his sentences. His facility is
amazing. He once wrote eleven novels in a twenty-four-month stretch.
But one thing you have to have done in order to write eleven novels in
two years is not to have written any of them twice.

No, Mr Gopnik. Not true. I once wrote 10 novels in 11 months, and they were all different -- but they were not all finished, because at the end of the year I got an offer of publication for The Last Samurai. If I had had another 3 months I suppose I would have finished 10 novels in 14 months. If I had had PDK's access to amphetamines it might have been a different story. It takes Adderall to write AND publish.

war is hell

The frenetic nature of the conflict in southern Afghanistan is underlined by the fact that many young infantrymen intend to leave the army because the firefights they have survived in Helmand could never be surpassed. In terms of soldiering, the conflict has offered some of the most intense fighting for 50 years, with two million rounds of ammunition so far fired by British forces.

'You could be in the army for decades and you will never get anything like that again. Will it be bettered? I can't see it,' said one soldier. Commanders are understood to be concerned that the Helmand conflict could precipitate an exodus of combat troops who feel military life will never offer the same challenge again.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

brief note

I should perhaps say, as an addendum to an earlier post on copy-editing problems, that The Last Samurai might well never have been published at all without the commitment of its editor. An agent had shown it to editors in London a few years earlier and failed to find it a publisher; it might never have found one. The editor who acquired it in New York had had a very senior position in London, where he had a full complement of well-trained staff; when I met him he was starting up a new imprint with a staff consisting of a PA and a very young, very inexperienced production manager. He found himself having to carry a much heavier workload, and in this case failed to give his subordinates the guidance they needed. It was horrible for me to have so much other work destroyed by these unnecessary problems, and it would have been better if he had backed me up when we discussed matters of style -- but he was certainly an eloquent advocate of the book, and it undoubtedly owes its wide publication outside America to his efforts.

It is uncommon these days for an author to find a publisher without an agent; the problems I encountered are normally settled by an agent with a quick phone call. This is not quite like calling in a lawyer: a lawyer, who hasn't read the book, can insist on compliance with a contract but can't offer encouragement. Editors are used to getting flak for sending out carelessly-edited texts; an agent can persuade the editor that the text will not bring shame on its publishing house, something an author, perhaps, is not well placed to do.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Why I Miss Philosophy

Does anyone know of any literature on the closure problem for testimony: that if one gains knowledge that p from someone's assertion that p, and one's knowledge is closed under known implication, then one knows (or is in a position to know) that the asserter was telling the truth?

at Boundaries of Language

Cormac McCarthy & the semi-colon

Mithridates has sent me the link to Cormac McCarthy's interview with Oprah Winfrey, here -- you have to join Oprah's book club, but membership is free.

Oprah asked McCarthy about punctuation. He said at one point he had a job, he was working for someone who was writing a book that included excerpts from 18th-century writers, and he was given an assignment: Go away and fix the punctuation. So he read the texts. The writing was wonderful, he said, but the punctuation, there were semi-colons cluttering up the sentences, so he started on an essay, a piece by, it might be, Swift, and he went through and fixed the punctuation, and he gave it back to the professor who said that's just right. So he realised that punctuation was very important. He doesn't like semi-colons, never uses them. He uses periods, commas, capitalisation. Occasionally a colon, before a list of things.

Now, I like 18th-century punctuation; I like 17th-century punctuation; I like 16th-century punctuation; one of the things I love about Peter Ackroyd is the way he gets the punctuation right when he writes a text that is from another century. The punctuation is part of the texture of the text, and when I read that a text has been repunctuated for modern readers I go away and find another edition of the text. I like McCarthy's punctuation in McCarthy's texts, but I would rather not have it imported into the work of Jonathan Swift. The assumption that one has the right to repunctuate a writer's texts is in fact a very dangerous one, since it leaves modern writers open to all kinds of abuse.

Winfrey commented on McCarthy's punctuation, and the most interesting thing about this was that McCarthy did not say anything about how that punctuation got into the published text in the first place. A standard publisher's contract gives the publisher the right to conform the text to house style. If this clause is not changed, preservation of the author's punctuation is a matter of chance -- it depends entirely on the discretion of the publisher. If the clause is changed, however, this STILL doesn't guarantee that the author's punctuation will be respected.

When I was given an offer of publication I asked my lawyer to change the clause relating to house style; the book had many different kinds of punctuation, including a small boy's diary, and one could not require it to conform to some arbitrary standard. He changed the clause, so the contract gave me the last word on spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage and so on.

The text was quite complicated, so I offered to meet the copy-editor before she started work. I had made a special trip to New York to try to settle possible difficulties in advance. I had five books that were coming up for completion; I was desperate to get back to them before they were gone; I wanted everything to be as simple and clearcut as possible. My editor called the copy-editor, who said she would rather work through the book first and send me her mark-up. The editor, copy-editor and production manager all assured me that the copy-editor's comments were only suggestions; I could change anything I didn't like, and then the book would be sent to the printer. I asked whether there were any points on which the editor felt strongly. If anyone wanted to make a case for some particular point I was happy to discuss it. The editor and copy-editor both said there was no point on which the editor felt strongly; no one wanted to make a case for any particular point. I reminded everyone politely that my contract gave me the last word.

The copy-editor made thousands of gratuitous changes to the book, for which she was, of course, paid an hourly rate. It was then necessary to go through the book thinking about these suggestions -- if someone has "corrected" a grammatical mistake, it is always possible that it is a genuine mistake, so one must consult various works on usage to ensure that one has not been wrong all these years. I went through, anyway, marking up the mark-up, and I again made a special trip to New York to make sure there were no problems.

The production manager looked through the book and she was very very unhappy, because I did not want to italicise titles of books and films, I did not want to use quotation marks around the titles of songs, I had used numerals in many cases instead of spelling out numbers below 100, I had used ALL CAPS WHEN A CHARACTER WAS OUTRAGED and told there was no need to get so excited instead of italics, which is the correct usage, or small caps, which is another possibility, and altogether the production manager was afraid the book would bring shame on Miramax if published with its author's grammar, spelling and punctuation.

The editor came back to the office; I assumed we would now have a discussion involving someone with a wider knowledge of literature. My editor has an undergraduate degree from Oxford in French and Italian; he has an M.Litt. for a thesis on Music and Montale; presumably someone who has read Montale &c. &c. The office was on the 55th floor of a building looking down Manhattan; it was so high you could see the East River and the West River and the end of the island, it was the office of a Master of the Universe.

In this office we have a stupid, petty little conversation. The editor explains that if one does not italicise the titles of books it looks like carelessness. He explains that there are rules. The production manager explains that there are rules. I explain that the Chicago Manual of Style has only whatever authority we choose to give it. I explain: Look, these are two characters obsessed with numbers. The Chicago Manual of Style does not have a rule for using numerals in texts about characters obsessed with numbers because THIS BOOK HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN when they last drew up the Chicago Manual of Style. They could not ANTICIPATE the need for a rule because the book did not then exist. I WROTE THE BOOK so I am obviously in a better position to decide what usage is correct for its characters than a group of people in Chicago who have NEVER SEEN IT.

I say: LOOK, if perceived norms did not exist it would not be possible to mark a text as departing from norms, it is not possible for the texture of a text to be different, to be perceived as original, without marking itself off from norms by departing from them.

I say: When Gertrude Stein wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas she was not "Gertrude Stein", she was just Gertrude Stein, a writer doing what she thought was right for her text. It's not a question of justifying what's in a text by appealing to precedent; you do what is right for the text.

I say: Look at Frank O'Hara! Look at don marquis! This is America, where there is this idea that playing around with punctuation and usage is part of the vernacular, the AMERICAN way of doing things, when some artists started calling themselves "the New York School" it was a JOKE, this American idea that you can just have your own circus--

I say: Look, we give force to these rules by complying with them for the sake of compliance. The more people comply with them, the harder it is for others not to comply with them, the more non-compliance looks like the prerogative of genius rather than just what any writer can choose in doing what's right for--

They're looking at me in an embarrassed, pitying way, and it's kind of funny, because as it happens I am actually a, perhaps even the, world authority on this subject. I really am. The concept of propriety in ancient literary criticism was the subject of my doctoral thesis. It covered ancient criticism, rhetoric and theories of correctness of language from Homer to St Augustine, it took in sociolinguistics, it looked at the subject of linguistic Atticism, it looked at the whole tradition of Shakespearean scholarship with special attention to 18th-century objections to Shakespeare, it looked at the Homeric scholia, it did groundbreaking work on the conceptual difficulties raised by distinguishing propriety (which was seen as stylistic) from purity of language (which for ideological reason was meant to be neutral, a degree zero) -- not only was it a monster of erudition, it also brought to bear modern theories of language and literature. The problem is not that I am speaking from a position of ignorance. I am speaking from a position of knowledge to people who don't know what knowledge would look like. I am talking to people who are afraid that other people who also don't know what knowledge would look like will read the book and think it is full of mistakes.

I say I should have published the book myself. I leave. I go to Coliseum Books and I buy copies of All the Pretty Horses and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and some others I now forget, and I bring them back, and I say LOOK, and I show them passages in the books and how the punctuation is essential to the character of the books, and I say LOOK, Alice B. Toklas was not just some book that only a few people could get, it was INCREDIBLY POPULAR, and my editor says: But that was a very special book.

My editor says: Well -- I can never really tell until I've seen the typeset pages. Let's see what it looks like and then decide.

What this means is he would like to send the copy-editor's mark-up to the printer and present me with a fait accompli, so that it is then necessary to go through the text again and mark it up all over again. There is a chance that if they make it hard enough I will give up, I will not be willing to spend that much time on it, and also there is a chance that once it is actually typeset it can just stay that way and some unfortunate accident will prevent changes being made in time to affect the published text. And all this time I am desperate to get back to my five other books, so if I have to keep fighting for this one they will all be lost. (The whole time I watch the McCarthy interview I am thinking of this meeting in a room at the top of the world.) And I don't know what to do, because even if I utter more sentences, if I utter sentences about my contract, I can't stop them from sending whatever they want to the printer. I can't control what they do with the physical object. The production manager will do whatever the editor tells her to do.

I go to Washington to visit my mother. I think that perhaps, if I get the editor in a social setting, if I set up a dinner with the friends who first discovered the book, perhaps it will be possible to get him to see that this is ridiculous. The New Yorker has a Brooks Brothers buttoned-down collar approach to prose, but all books don't look like the New Yorker. So I set up the dinner. I go back to New York. The business manager at Miramax, Steve Hutensky, who first showed the book to my editor, is also coming. My editor and I get to the restaurant first. Then my friends Tim and Maude come. And then Tatum O'Neal, Steve's girlfriend, shows up unannounced, and we are all at the table waiting for Steve, and Tatum is talking vivaciously. Steve comes very late. It's loud, and there are too many people, and Tatum is talking about the histrionics of women these days at the Oscars, and it is impossible to talk about the book. This is my last day in New York; I don't have an agent; this is my only chance to make sure this is settled, but Tatum talks and talks and talks.

I have an e-mail exchange with my editor. My editor's boyfriend, Joe Dolce, had said FUCK the Chicago Manual of Style, and this had carried weight in a way that a world authority on propriety vs. purity of language had not. My editor says he thinks I may be right.

I go back to England. A couple of weeks go by. I get the proofs of the book. I start reading through, and I see something on the first page and think: Is that what I wrote? I thought I changed that. So I check the text on my hard drive, and this was not in the text. I don't have a copy of the mark-up I sent in (later other writers would say to me, you should ALWAYS keep a copy). I ask my publishers to send me a copy of the copy-editor's mark-up, and when it comes I can see places where I had written STET where the STET had been whited out, because the whiter-out had been careless and whited out part of the text.

So now I'm insane. All the other books have been driven out of my head. If I kill myself now, though, the book will go out looking like this, so I have to try not to kill myself before it is fixed. I ask my publishers to send me the copy-editor's original. I go through looking for incrustations of white-out. Poor crazy head. There are a couple of places where I wrote a long explanation in the margin of why the copy-editor's suggestion was not right, and in those places she had allowed the author's text to stay, so if I had written a long explanation for every single one of thousands of changes, explaining why the text as marked up was the way it was, this might have been acceptable in a way that merely writing the book was not.

The typesetter had made all the thousands of gratuitous changes, which were sent out in the Advance Reading Copies, and now he had to go through the text making thousands of changes, which meant that time he could have spent concentrating on Greek and Japanese was taken up with undoing copy-editor madness. Technical problems with Greek and Japanese were never resolved, so all the technical problems had to be solved by all the foreign publishers from scratch, so years, in the end, were disrupted cleaning up after all the problems caused by the copy-editor and production manager. McCarthy seems not to have gone through this.

McCarthy is laconic, with a deep voice. He's impressive. This is someone who had no doubt that he had improved on Swift by fixing the punctuation -- and in some cases rewriting sentences to accommodate the improvement. He's been lucky, though, because he never came up against an editor or a production manager or a copy-editor who decided his own texts were not fit to be seen.

Well, well. To say that it would be easy to go on for another 3,000 words is a slight understatement. My thesis was 100,000 words long and could well have been longer. It's hard to be sane. One tries not to write about King Charles' head. It was good to see the interview.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Street charity

There was a post about a week ago on Freakonomics on economics of street charity, in which five panelists were invited to comment on this question:

You are walking down the street in New York City with $10 of disposable income in your pocket. You come to a corner with a hot dog vendor on one side and a beggar on the other. The beggar looks like he’s been drinking; the hot dog vendor looks like an upstanding citizen. How, if at all, do you distribute the $10 in your pocket, and why?

The post got 175 comments. No one thought it worth mentioning that New York, with a population of some 8 million, is a magnet for immigration both from overseas and from within the United States -- that is, that it attracts large numbers of people who may have no local connections and not enough of a financial cushion to see them through to employment in one of the most expensive cities in the world. New York is also the city with the largest Jewish population outside Israel -- yet no one mentioned Maimonides.

Religious Jews take the requirement of charity (tzedaka) very seriously, so that one never sees homeless people in extremely religious communities; a Jew who has nowhere to go can turn up at a synagogue and be offered help among the members of the community. Maimonides (1135-1204) analysed the various degrees of charity in his great codification of Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah; the following is the translation of Jonathan J. Baker, copyright 1990, 2003:

Eight Degrees of Charity:
Rambam, Hilchot Mat'not Ani'im 10:1,7-14
(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts of [that belong to] the Poor)

1) We are required to take more care about the mitzva ["command"] of tzedaka [Tzedaka, unlike "charity" (from Gk. karitas, "love"), is the Jewish legal requirement to do rightly with your fellow person -- that is, to support him when he is in need.(Deut. 15:7-8)] than for any other positive mitzva. For the mitzva of tzedaka is the sign of the righteous descendents of Abraham our father, as "[God] has made known to him [Abraham], so that he shall command his sons to do tzedaka." {Genesis XVIII:19} The throne of Israel is not established, nor does true faith stand except through tzedaka), for "through tzedaka will I [God] be established." {Isaiah LIV:14} And Israel will not be redeemed except through tzedaka, for "Zion will be ransomed through judgment and returned through tzedaka." {Isaiah I:27}

7) There are eight levels of tzedaka, each greater than the next. The greatest level, above which there is no other, is to strengthen the name of another Jew by giving him a present or loan, or making a partnership with him, or finding him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he needs no longer [beg from] people. For it is said, "You shall strengthen the stranger and the dweller in your midst and live with him," {Leviticus XXV:35} that is to say, strengthen him until he needs no longer fall [upon the mercy of the community] or be in need.

8) Below this is the one who gives tzedaka to the poor, but does not know to whom he gives, nor does the recipient know his benefactor. For this is performing a mitzva for the sake of Heaven. This is like the Secret [Anonymous] Office in the Temple. There the righteous gave secretly, and the good poor drew sustenance anonymously. This is much like giving tzedaka through a tzedaka box. One should not put into the box unless he knows that the one responsible for the box is faithful and wise and a proper leader like Rabbi Hananya ben Teradyon.

9) Below this is one who knows to whom he gives, but the recipient does not know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to walk about in secret and put coins into the doors of the poor. It is worthy and truly good to do this if those who are responsible for collecting tzedaka are not trustworthy.

10) Below this is one who does not know to whom he gives, but the poor person does know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to pack coins into their scarves and roll them up over their backs, and the poor would come and pick [the coins out of the scarves] so that they would not be ashamed.

11) Below this is one who gives to the poor person before being asked.

12) Below this is one who gives to the poor person after being asked.

13) Below this is one who gives to the poor person gladly and with a smile.

14) Below this is one who gives to the poor person unwillingly.

The self-supporting hot dog seller of the Freakonomics example may, for all we know, be selling kosher hot dogs thanks to a timely loan from the Lubavitch. Those who, like me, would prefer not to live in a religious community, whether Jewish or of any other denomination, must ask ourselves why we cannot match their achievement in looking after the weakest in society.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Jaegerman's graphics

Edward Tufte has a collection of news graphics by Megan Jaegerman here

Monday, August 13, 2007


Nick Szabo on Unenumerated has 10 ways to make a political difference, starting with the most important: Vote with your feet. He also has some suggestions for making the law your own (more Henry Fonda than Clint Eastwood).

out and about

Saturday, August 11, 2007


I haven't managed to find my tape of Jacques Chancel's 1975 interview of Roland Barthes for Radioscopie. I have an mp3 recording that Wyatt Mason made for me a few years ago, a bit wonky for Side B. The recording has been unavailable for at least 10 years from Radioscopie, so I have uploaded it to my website here.

Friday, August 10, 2007

the child's guide to incentives

Tyler Cowen's Discover Your Inner Economist has come. It may be that its superficial level of analysis was thought appropriate to a general audience.

(My first thoughts on the book seem to have expanded into a monstrous post, so I begin here and put the whole thing on the sister blog.)

To take an example, Cowen comments briefly on the use of financial incentives to reward students for good grades:

Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard, decided to conduct an experiment and pay students for better grades. A new pilot program will reward schoolchildren if they do well on reading and math exame throughout the school year. A score of 80, for instance, would receive a $20 bonus, with further payments for later improvements. Fryer remarked to a reporter: "There are people who are worried about giving kids extra incentives for something that they should be intrinsically able to do...I understand that, but there is a huge achievement gap in this country, and we have to be proactive."

Indeed there have been experiments with paying for grades. A school near Detroit, in the Birmingham school district, started paying third-graders "Beverly Bucks" for doing well on homework and tests. A spelling test is worth $2. Their "paycheck" was denominated in terms of dollars but it was good only in the school store. The children also paid taxes on the hallways and on the playgrounds. They could forfeit money too. "If I accidentally hit somebody, I have to lose $4 or $5," said Shane Holmes, eight, who appeared to find a loss that size horrifying.

Fryer has yet to finish this experiment, but I have a prediction: this method will work best in bad schools, where children otherwise see no reason to do their homework or pay attention in class.

There is in fact a long history of paying students for good grades. It was tried as early as 1820, in the New York City school system, by the Society for Progressive Education. The system was abandoned by the 1830s, on the grounds that it encouraged a "mercenary spirit" rather than learning.

Now, an enormous amount of research has been done on the use of token economies in various closed societies (of which schools are only one example) -- various populations in no position to resist experiments in social engineering (children, prisoners, asylum inmates) have been offered the chance to earn rewards in return for various sorts of behaviour valued by the institution. Since time put in at such an institution generally makes it impossible for the inmate to devote time and energy to getting things he or she actually wants, the chance to get something for something is generally welcomed and effective in encouraging the desired behaviour.

(continued here)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

"I" was a teenage robot

All this puts us in the position of grasping schizophrenia as a break-down of the relationship between signifiers. For Lacan, the experience of temporality, human time, past, present, memory, the persistence of personal identity over months and years- this existential or experiential feeling of time itself- is also an effect of language. It is because language has a past and a future, because the sentence moves in time, that we can have what seems to us a concrete or lived experience in time. But since the schizophrenic does not know language articulation in that way, he or she does not have our experience of temporal continuity either, but is condemned to live a perpetual present with which various moments of his or her past have little connection and for which there is no conceivable future on the horizon. In other words, schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our sense of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the "I" and the "me" over time

Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism and the Consumer Society"


I met TAR ART RAT at Yorckschlößchen for a beer last night, and we did NOT talk about nothing but blogs, but in the course of the conversation I discovered that T.A.R. had never come across xkcd, so I whip out my laptop, call up today's page. This is my favourite, I say, after a quick search for Merlin:

and today we have

T.A.R. had never visited Language Log, so had also missed out on the great intellectual cereal packets post. I have not worked out how to upload the cartoon, but the link's here. Sound resistible? Punchline: Silly deontologist! Cocoa Krispies are for consequentialists! Kant: I hold you morally responsible!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

bush telegraph

According to Sitemeter, the number of Mac users among Paperpools readers ranges between 20% and 38%. This means, of course, that the Paperpoolship is not typical of the population as a whole, where Macs struggle to achieve a 6% market share.

Ahem. Does anybody know anybody?

The Help offered on a Mac for input in Hangul looks like this:

Help for Japanese input looks like this:
Help for Traditional Chinese Input looks, well, pretty authentically Chinese:

As far as I can make out there are no plans to fix this, ähm, slight impediment to usability in Leopard. I'm a bit baffled. There are many second- and third-generation Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans and Korean-Americans who are likelier to be fluent in Unix than in C/J/K but may well have reason to include one of the latter in a document -- and that's not even taking into account the very large number of English-speakers (or, of course, French-speakers, German-speakers, Italian-speakers and so on) with an interest in the languages that falls short of fluency. Could Apple really not fix this? Seems like there must be plenty of people who'd be only too happy to translate if asked.

So -- does anybody know anybody?

More Keegan

Christopher Duffy, who was lucky enough to spend some weeks teaching Yugoslav militia the elements of Napoleonic drill for a film enactment of War and Peace, described to me the thrill of comprehension he experienced in failing to manoeuvre he troops successfully across country 'in line' and of the comoparative ease with which he managed it 'in column', thus proving to his own satisfaction that Napoleon preferred the latter formation to the former not because it more effectively harnessed the revolutionary ardour of his troops (the traditional 'glamorous' explanation) but because anything more complicated was simply impracticable.

(The Face of War, p 34)

Keegan, The Face of War

This gives some idea of the style of the book:

[Military histories, we may infer, must in the last resort be about battle.]

That certainly was Clausewitz's view. In an economic analogy, which delighted Engels and has helped the ensure this Prussian (admittedly vaguely Hegelian) general an unobtrusive niche in the Marxist Temple du Génie, he suggests that 'fighting is to war', (the paraphrase is Engels') 'what cash payment is to trade, for however rarely it may be necessary for it actually to occur, everything is directed towards it, and eventually it must take place all the same and must be decisive.' (p 30)

Historians, traditionally and rightly, are expected to ride their feelings on a tighter rein than the man of letters can allow himself. One school of historians at least, the compilers of the British Official History of the First World War, hae achieved the remarkable feat of writing an exhaustive account of one of the world's greatest tragedies without the display of any emotion at all. A brief, and wholly typical, extract will convey the flavour; it describes a minor trench-to-trench attack by infantry, supported by artillery, on August 8th, 1916 at Guillemont, in the second month of the Battle of the Somme:

Some confusion arose on the left brigade front, where the 166th Brigade (Brigadier-General L.F. Green Wilkinson) was replacing the 164th - a very difficult relief - and although the 1/10th King's (Liverpool Scottish), keeping close behind the barrage, approached the German wire, it lost very heavily in two desperate but unavailing attempts to close with the enemy. Nearly all the officers were hit, including Lieutenant-Colonel J. R. Davidson who was wounded. Next on the left, the 1/5th Loyal North Lancashire (also 155th Brigade) was late through no fault of its own; starting after the barrage had lifted, it stood no chance of success. Subsequently the 1/7th King's attached, from the position won by its own brigade (the 165th) on the previous day, but could make no headway.

Agreed that this is technical history; that it is intended as a chronological record of military incident to provide, among other things, material for Staff College lectures and authoritative source references for other historians to work from. But is this featureless prose appropriate to the description of what we may divine was something very nasty indeed that happened that morning at Guillemont fifty-eight years ago to those 3,000 Englishmen, in particular to those of the 1/10th Battalion of the King's Regiment? That it was something very nasty is revealed by a footnote: 'The Victoria Cross was awarded to the medical officer of the 1/10th King's, Captanin N.C. Chavasse, for his exceptionally gallant work in rescuing wounded under heavy fire.' For most of know, even if nothing else about the British army, that the Victoria Cross can be won, and then very rarely, only at the risk, often at the cost, of death. If we also know that Chavasse is but one of three men ever to have won the Cross twice, his second being a posthumous award, and that his battalion was a Kitchener unit, composed of enthusiastic but half-trained volunteers; if we guess that 'could make no headway' and 'stood no chance of success' mean that its neighbouring battalions returned precipitately to their trenches or did not leave them, then we can glimpse, in this episode in no-man's-land at Gullemont on August 8th, 1916, a picture in miniaturre of the First World War at, for those compelled to fight it, almost its very worst.

Monday, August 6, 2007

out of the loop


What I want to know is, where are all the other crap culture blogs? Always the last to know.

Lest we forget

Remember that writers are creatives too

Better Writing Through Design

Jewish Humour in Wikipedia

(from the DeWitt archives)

> Jewish depictions of heaven as a place where humans go upon death are
> few, and depict it as a place where Jews spend eternity studying the
> Written and Oral Torah.
> Jewish depictions of hell as a place humans go upon death are even
> fewer. According to most depictions, upon death, Jews who have sinned
> spend up to twelve miserable months in gehenna before going to heaven,
> although some accounts suggest that certain classes of sinners never go
> to heaven.
> (It's the "twelve miserable months" that's so lovely.)


Did you know that is the reason that one says Kaddish for 11 months after a
parent's death? A common explanation for saying Kaddish is that it helps
the soul escape Gehenna; but if one said it for 12 months one would be
insulting one's parent by implying that they were evil enough to spend the
full time there.

Trailer for Dr Strangelove


Sunday, August 5, 2007


I've decided to sell a few stories on my website. I was looking again at a story that had this line:

When I was at school my teachers used to get mad at me because I never did any work, & later the Fossil used to throw up his hands in horror because I’d never read Racine or Balzac or anyone like that, he’d start talking about the musician as homme cultivé – I used to say to him, If you would like me to compose an opera based on the Phèdre of M. Racine I shall be happy to examine the work in question, otherwise I have not the slightest desire to read this, I have no doubt, excellent play.

Harper's did not take to the story -- but then, I never read the fiction in Harper's. At any rate, the stories are available here.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Dryden's Horace

Happy the man, and happy he alone
He who can call today his own
He who secure within can say
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today

Come fair, come foul, come rain, come shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of Fate, are mine
Not Heavn' itself upon the past has power
And what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

Thursday, August 2, 2007


A reader writes

I don't know if you've ever come across Sir John Keegan, but he wrote a remarkable book called "The Face of Battle" in the mid-1970s, which I had long heard about but never read. I normally hate it when people talk about "paradigm shifts", because I have reservations about that whole Kuhnian model of science, and also because people use the term in so sloppy a fashion. But it is probably as applicable here as anywhere, because Keegan, as far as I can see, did genuinely, and more or less single-handedly, change the entire discipline of military history - literally it seems to be impossible to write military history now without referencing him. His basic argument is that you can't make sense of a battle merely from a commander's-eye or strategic point of view: that you have to reduce it to the level of the individual participants and understand their motivations and the constraints on them, and one has to understand the result of a battle as the aggregate of that. It doesn't now look quite as revolutionary as it must have been when it came out, precisely because his methodology has swept the board so comprehensively, but it is still fascinating to read.

I've also read various other things: at the moment I'm reading a book on military strategy by Colin Gray called Strategies for Chaos, arguing against a widespread model of military change called the model of Revolutions in Military Affairs, or RMA, which has apparently been very influential in the US - that there are ground-breaking periods where the whole of warfare changes as a result of some technological development, and strategic thinking has to undergo a total shift accordingly. Gray argues that basic strategic thinking never changes, and that there are no single big technological shifts, but rather constant developments and changes which commanders have to work with.

It is interesting reading all of this, particularly since military history and theory is so closely connected with real-world military thinking: most of these writers teach at military academies and so on. Gray's book came out in 2002, so a bit before the invasion of Iraq, but it did occur to me that the failures in Iraq bear out his thesis all too well. Donald Rumsfeld was apparently convinced that there was an entirely new way of fighting (an RMA) which would enable Iraq to be conquered comprehensively with few ground troops; but in practice the US has found itself tied down in Iraq in all too familiar a way. If only Donald Rumsfeld had read and absorbed the lessons of Colin Gray - or indeed of Clausewitz, whom Gray acknowledges as his intellectual inspiration. But presumably someone who believes in RMAs would regard Clausewitz as no longer appropriate to modern war.

Copyfarleft and Copyjustright

Challenges to traditional copyright resulting from peer-to-peer applications, free software, filesharing and appropriation art have caused a wide ranging debate on the future of copyright. Dmytri Kleiner brings existing critiques of material property from the left to bear upon the realm of copyleft artistic production and asks how, within the existing copyright regime, can artists earn a living?

in Mute magazine

the little prince

The diffusion theory here comes from the German sociologist Simmel. This says that adoption runs like a pig through a python. The earliest adopters take hold of the pig and then three things happen.

1) The later adopters go, "Pig! Yes, please. Now that I know about it, and now that it has been approved by my betters, I would very much like some pig."

2) The early adopters go, "Oh, please. Now that our lessers are consuming pig, we're not interested" and they bail out.

3) Eventually, the later adopters notice that the early adopters have bailed, and they bail, too.

Thus does a bump run through the python. As each later group adopts, each previous group repudiates. (Of course there are always extenuating circumstances. Adoption is also decided by the value created by competing parties. Simmel's theory accounts only for the effects of admiration and imitation.)

Now, the marketing community is keenly interested in buzz, word of mouth and the tipping point. But many marketers seem to believe you get to keep the early adopters. They act as if the python keeps filling up from one end to the other. In their view, apparently, the adoption process is not a running bump. It's a filling up.

THIS SITE SITS at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics on Google

So long, Jorge Luis Borges

Un plan brillante -- the Borgesian PR blog of Aleix Gabarra.

Jihad & secondhand books

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), under threat of a law suit, Cambridge University Press has just agreed to pulp all unsold copies of the 2006 book, Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World. According to the Chronicle, this is the fourth such book on terrorism funding to be pursued by a libel action.

more at National Review Online

Deborah Lipstadt discusses the issues here.

We've talked before about why we might want a scheme that enabled buyers of a secondhand book to send money to its author. Academic presses don't usually offer advances; if CUP pulps this book, a writer who took on an important and (evidently) dangerous topic will get royalties on copies already sold and no more. Since readers normally have no way of contacting authors directly, they can't show their support even if they want to.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Riddley Walker poll

Results of poll: Masterpiece: 51. Good but not great: 2. Heard of not read: 7. Never heard of: 27.

One last excerpt from the book for those who haven't come across Riddley Walker, this from a kind of Punch and Judy show of the mythical events leading to the holocaust:

Eusa says to us, ‘This is time back way back like I said. He goes down and he comes up with paper and pen and a measuring stick and a triangl. Hes writing writing hes numbering hes drawing lines all over that paper. Hes thinking hard hes mummering to his self then hes scratching his head and hes thinking some mor. He groans a littl then he says, ‘All these here numbers and that its all too much to keap in 1 head and programming my self. What I nead is a nother head and bigger so it can do some of this hevvy head work for me.’

Eusa does down agen and hes clanging and banging hes huffing and puffing and hammering it souns like hes bellering up a reddying fire and hes beating some thing on a hanvil.

Persoon Eusa comes up agen this time hes got a iron hat on his head. 2 long wires coming out of the top of the hat and littl pegs on the ends of the wires. Plus theres a cranking handl on the side of the iron hat. Eusas trying to shif some kynd of a box its biggern he is. He gets the box heavit up on to the show board. He says, ‘Hoo! Thats a hevvy 1.’ Theres a cranking handl on the side of the box as the 1 on Eusas hat. 2 littl hoals and a slot in the top of the box and a nother slot in 1 end of it.

Eusa says, ‘2 heads are bettern 1.’ He takes them 2 wires coming out of his hat and he pegs them in to the hoals in the box. He says, ‘Now Iwl jus input a few little things in to my No. 2 head.’ Hes terning that crank on his iron hat. Rrrrrrrrrr.
Eusa says, ‘Now les see if it works.’ He takes a peace of paper and he says out loud what hes writing on it: ‘Whats my name?’ He puts the peace of paper in the slot in the top of the box he says, ‘Now les see if you can anser that.’

Eusa terns the crank on the side of the box and a peace of paper comes out of the slot in the end of the box. Theres writing ont he paper. Eusa reads it out: ‘My name is Eusa.’

Eusa says, ‘That the ticket.’