Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Robert Donat Lookalike?

A reader has sent me a link to the Daily Mail which reports on Arpan Shama, a 10-year-old resident of Edgbaston who speaks 11 languages, but does not mention resemblance to Robert Donat as a boy.

inbox zero

This morning I did not even bother to clock into Fogbugz because, I forget, anyway it suddenly occurred to me that I had not checked out the Juice Analytics blog for a long time. So I checked out the blog and the most recent entry was a set of tips for a maps mashup, with a link to another maps mashup, both of which I have passed on to Hassan who is jobhunting so probably has no time (but looking at the tips I thought I might be able to tackle this myself if the world of gainful employment claims HA). In the sidebar was a link to Michael Lavine's free e-book Introduction to Statistical Thought with examples using R (it has been out since December 2006, so I'm a bit late, but it looks great and this is really not too bad). There was also a link to a video, Inbox Zero, a talk given by Merlin Mann to Google. I do think I need to do something about Inbox management, but this has to be the worst advice I have ever seen - bad advice for anyone with an Inbox, and exceptionally stupid given the audience (who are, at the risk of stating the obvious, exceptionally smart people). I give you the link so you can judge for yourselves if you want to:

Inbox Zero

Mann's advice amounts to this: you should try to check e-mail less often (turn off Autocheck if you have it (I don't), try to keep checking down to once an hour), and act on all incoming e-mail as soon as you check it, with one of the following responses:

Delete (includes Archive)
Respond (preferably with a maximum of 5 sentences)
Do (take an action that solves the problem)

All these responses, as I say, should be done immediately so that the Inbox is not used as a To Do list.

Now, Mann does not talk about the problem of a Drafts folder whose contents are up in the triple digits, and you might think someone whose Drafts folder is overflowing is even worse than someone with an Inbox that's overflowing. That's not really true.

As any fule kno, Google has a policy of allowing its very smart staff to spend 20% of their time on a personal project. What this means, of course, is that each member of staff is spending 20% of his or her time on a cool project which he or she hopes ONE day to be spending 100% of his or her time on - a cool project that will take off. But if you work on something new you often have to get advice or information from other people - and each time you have some new brilliant idea the temptation is to fire off an e-mail to someone who might have the answer.

This is ordinary practice even for someone like me, who works independently. You surf around online, you discover the existence of someone you don't know from a bar of soap who would naturally be only too THRILLED to help, dash off a quick e-mail or maybe just capture the e-mail address for future use... If you're at Google, though, this element of working on a project is also (I assume) a way of persuading other people that the project is cool, getting other people excited about it so that it stands a better chance of being adopted by Google. Well, obviously, if EVERYONE at Google is spending 20% of their time on a pet project they think incredibly cool, the potential for everyone to be buried under an avalanche of e-mails is very high - and that's before you take into account the 80% of time that's spent on Google-approved projects.

What this means is that one very good way to keep the general volume of e-mail down is for people to be much more ruthless, not with the e-mails that come in, but with those that go out. You have a brilliant idea, you want quick answers, you dash off an e-mail - and put it in the Drafts folder. Sometimes the answer to the question turns up in a few days or a week. Sometimes you go back to the e-mail which is full of last week's brilliant idea and meanwhile you have moved on to another brilliant idea. If you have a lot of these ideas you will end up with a Drafts folder with 177 e-mails, but you have kept them out of someone else's Inbox. You can be selective about the people you do write to, you can think through your questions properly, you can provide whatever information is necessary so people can answer once rather than engage in e-mail ping pong.

Mann thought one way to keep volume down was to write brief replies. Someone sends me a 25-paragraph e-mail, I can't write a 25-paragraph reply... This is actually silly. If a point or question can be made briefly then of course there is no virtue in length. If an issue is complex, though, if several options must be considered, each with different implications, it is more helpful to have everything set out in a single message. Each paragraph should not need a paragraph in reply; a good reply will respond point by point, with perhaps a sentence or two per paragraph, interpolated into the original text. You then have all relevant information and responses in a single document, which is much easier to consult if you have to go back to it in 6 months than a series of e-mails with the same title prefaced by Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

There are people who can't cope with anything more complicated than an exam with T/F and multiple choice questions. It's very hard to do business with that kind of person, because you have to boil everything down to the type of question that has simple answers. Things go horribly wrong because you can't discuss problems at the level of complexity required. I find that as a writer of fiction; it strikes me as unlikely that high-powered software developers have simpler problems than mine.

At the beginning of his talk Mann said one should look at how one spends one's time and think about how well it matches the priorities one claims to hold. One might claim, he said, that family and religion mattered most; if those were one's priorities, were they reflected in the distribution of e-mails? The time spent on e-mails rather than other things? Again, this was someone who had not bothered to spend three seconds thinking about what Google claims to be about.

We may certainly feel that the way Google handled its dealings with China is at odds with the moral position it claims to hold. It's still not unreasonable to think that many people working there think they can come up with ideas whose implementation will make the world a better place. They don't necessarily put religion high (maybe anywhere) on their list of priorities, but they might put making the world a better place high on the list; quite a lot of them might subscribe to the hacker principle, for instance, that the world would be a better place if good solutions to problems only had to be discovered once for everyone to have access to them. It's not clear that the distribution of e-mails in Inboxes (assuming a good spam filter) would be wildly out of sync with this; the challenge would be to make this form of communication more effective in promoting goals it to some extent already serves.

I don't know whether there is a one-size-fits-all system for managing e-mails. I don't know whether the recommended system would be more helpful in a workplace where life was what happened outside office hours. It was interesting to see what a bad fit was achieved under the assumption that this was the only possible type of workplace.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Fix If Time

Trying to sort out minor problems with the proofs for an excerpt of Your Name Here which is to appear in n+1, not to mention major problems sorting out health insurance with the Kunstlersozialkasse (lead time 6 months) with help from Johanna (well, all right, I have mentioned them but the tedium is in the details and these I spare you). Came up against a terrible piece of self-knowledge while trying to tackle project management through a 45-day-free-trial to FoggBugz.

Foggbugz lets you establish projects, with cases within each project, and each case is assigned a priority level. There are also other excellent features - you can set up online discussion groups for customers, you can set up a WYSIWYG wiki either for internal use or public access, problems are raised and resolved, correspondence can be incorporated in the history of the project - it's great, exactly the thing publishers should be using. The thing that's very tiring, after all, is the fact that one often thinks one has resolved an issue through e-mail correspondence with Person A, except that Person A doesn't bother to tell Person B - there's no single place with a history of all the discussions relating to a book, the tasks to be done. Also, of course, people spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel; a technical problem may be solved for the production of one book, but the knowledge is lost, there's no reasonably public record of the solution.

So yes, it's great, but selecting priorities for various stages of various projects was bad news. The fact is, after all, that finishing the book on sexual codes is top priority, a 1 Must Fix, various articles that might or might not get published are a 2, and blogging is at best a 4 Fix If Time and if we're honest a 6 Fix If Time. So how can it be that I treat my 6 Fix If Time activity as if it were top priority, and my top priority activity as if there were all the time in the world?

Well, I know, but I'm not saying.

Tomorrow will be better.

On a more cheerful note, Anatol Stefanowitsch (who has luckily not yet had the Foggbugz Aha! moment) has a post today on the great Eskimo-words-for-snow debate (a term which would, as an earlier post suggests, itself count as a word for snow in Inuktikut).

Sunday, October 28, 2007

charmed, disarmed

I had an idea for a project which I would like to work on with Pons, whose dictionaries, quick tip sheets and other language-learning paraphernalia are far and away the best designed. (I don't know whether Edward Tufte has ever consulted a Pons dictionary, but on Tuftean principles they are little miracles of information design. 'Blue emboldened headwords' may not sound like much, but they leave poor old monochromatic Duden, Langenscheidt, OUP and CUP eating Ponspolver.)

So a letter must be written, but to whom? I checked out the Pons website. I might have known. Pons now offer online dictionaries for German-English/French/Italian/Spanish/Polish, each of which can be installed as a search engine plug-in (Mein PONSline: Toolbar und Search-Plugin). They also offer a Lexitrainer which enables you to save the words you look up in an online vocabulary review tool (Ihr persönliches elektronisches Vokabelheft). The Lexitrainer is currently not available for German or Polish, and I don't especially need it for French, Italian or Spanish (or, of course, English), but there's no doubt about it: if Martha Stewart were in the market for language-learning tools this would be her pick, A Good Thing.


Well, I say that, and then it all falls apart. I think I should give readers a link to a sample entry in the online dictionary, so I type in 'scholarship' and get a couple of respectable definitions. In the sidebar to the left are the entries in the online dictionary which precede and follow this selection, one of which is 'schmoozer'. Hm, I think, what IS the German for this word of Yiddish descent? So I type in 'schmoozer' and I get this: Radfahrer (der), Speichellecker (der), abwertend. Now, a schmoozer is clearly not a cyclist, so there must be a colloquial meaning; I check it out and find 'crawler'. 'Speichellecker' is literally a saliva-licker, figuratively a sycophant, a toady. Both of which, of course, completely miss the way 'schmoozer' is used in English. Bill Clinton is a schmoozer, Al Gore is not: Clinton is good at what the American Heritage Dictionary describes as 'To converse casually, especially in order to gain an advantage or make a social connection'. Tina Brown is a schmoozer, someone who knows how to work a party. English has plenty of words for 'sycophant' - given the birth of the language in a country renowned for its deeply-entrenched class system this is not unsurprising. But we also have a word for something different, the kind of guy people like to have a drink with, the kind of guy who is good at getting people's business cards and giving them his over drinks, the kind of guy people like having a drink with so much he doesn't even have to follow up with a phone call, they call him.

I still don't know whether German has an equivalent for this useful word. I check out Pons in its Deutsch-Englisch Wörterbuch für Schule und Studium incarnation and find that German has the word schmusen, defined as 'to kiss and cuddle [or sl. to neck], which sounds like what schmooze might once have meant in Yiddish but German seems not to have made the simple Jewish businessman's leap to a usage of wider social application.

If PP were paid-up members of the Whorf-Sapir school we might leap on this (ha HA!) as evidence of latent anti-semitism making its presence felt in the German language - not only do they have no word for schmoozer, they also lack the concept, and can perceive instances of the activity only as despicable sycophancy. Being wise in the ways of lexicographers we note that the dictionary is like quite a lot of dictionaries in having problems quite a lot of the time with colloquial usage. 'Schmusen' as defined sounds like the German for 'snog', except that Pons doesn't bother to offer 'snog' (Br.) as a possible translation, offering instead terms that no English-speaker would ever use. I check out 'snog' and get 'Knutscherei' and '(rum)knutschen', and when I look up Knutscherei I get 'smooching, petting' and 'knutschen' offers 'to kiss [or fam. smooch with], ˜sich to smooch fam., to pet fam., to canoodle hum. dated - an entry that gives the unwary German reader no way of knowing that 'petting' (like 'necking') has not been used in this sense in English for about half a century. (For all I know, of course, knutschen and schmusen may last have been used in this country when Adenauer was Chancellor.) When you consider that the target audience of my little dictionary is the hapless German schoolchild - the sort of reader who might, late teens, take a cheap flight to Britain and test the London club scene -

To be used with caution.

best news in a long time

I wrote an e-mail to David the other day in which I commented that my mother, though trained as a pianist and an accomplished musician, seemed to have absorbed the assumption prevalent in our culture (meaning, roughly, American+European) that musical education is dispensable: musical theory is not taught in schools as a matter of course, but my mother was not appalled and convinced that she must fill the gap by personal instruction. I had piano lessons for about a year when I was 9, from a teacher I didn't get on with; my sister never had lessons, is still unable to read a score and knows nothing about the theory of harmony underlying the Western musical tradition.

David then drew my attention to a splendid article by Arthur Lubow in today's New York Times on Gustavo Dudamel, a young Venezuelan conductor who is the product of a remarkable programme designed to include every child in an orchestra and provide every child with a musical instrument. Dudamel has recently been appointed conductor of the LA Philharmonic and hopes to introduce the programme to LA.

In selecting Dudamel, the L.A. Philharmonic is also allying itself with a uniquely successful education initiative, of which its new music director is the most illustrious product; this week the philharmonic will announce plans to inaugurate a program, “Youth Orchestra L.A.,” that is directly modeled on a Venezuelan prototype. Youth Orchestra L.A. will begin with youngsters between the ages of 8 and 12 in a disadvantaged district in central Los Angeles, but its ultimate goal is much grander: to provide a musical instrument and a place in a youth orchestra for every young person in Los Angeles County who wants one. Borda says that she was inspired by her visit late last year to Caracas. In vivid contrast to the situation in the United States, where arts-education programs have been snipped from school curricula as unaffordable frippery, the Venezuelan system provides a place in an orchestra for children, no matter how poor or troubled their backgrounds, throughout the country.


The most remarkable feature of the Venezuelan music-education system is its instant immersion: the children begin playing in ensembles from the moment they pick up their instruments. Their instructors say the students are learning to behave as much as they are discovering how to make music. “In an orchestra, everybody respects meritocracy, everybody respects tempo, everybody knows he has to support everyone else, whether he is a soloist or not,” explains Igor Lanz, the executive director of the private foundation that administers the government-financed sistema. “They learn that the most important thing is to work together in one common aim.” Across Venezuela the sistema has established 246 centers, known as nucleos, which admit children between 2 and 18, assign them instruments and organize them into groups with instructors. Typically practicing for two or three hours every day, the children are performing recognizable music virtually from the outset.

Not long ago I visited a few nucleos, including one in a concrete-block building in the Los Chorros district of Caracas that was constructed in the mid-60s as a detention center for juvenile delinquents. It now houses youngsters who have been taken from the streets or from violent or crime-ridden homes into the protective custody of the state. Only 57 kids were residents of the shelter, but 300 more who lived in the neighborhood came there for daily music instruction. I watched several orchestral groups perform, including a string ensemble of 7- and 8-year-olds sawing away at Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the first violinists scratchily bowing and the second violinists fingering pizzicato notes. The harsh overhead fluorescent lights, the white and ocher paint peeling off the concrete walls and the bars on some windows (dating from the building’s origins) might have cast a gloomy air over the proceedings. Instead, the pleasure and pride that the children took in their collective effort was infectious. “It was a shot in the arm,” Matias Tarnopolsky, the artistic director of the New York Philharmonic, told me of his own tour of the sistema in Caracas. “It reminded me of the reasons I went into the music world as a profession.” Rattle has called the sistema “the most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in the world.”

Like a far-reaching catchment network that comprises 1,800 teachers and some 600 orchestras, the sistema pulls in youngsters who, depending on talent and ambition, advance to statewide orchestras, with the younger ones in children’s orchestras and those in their late teens and 20s in youth orchestras. The best are funneled into the national Bolívar Youth Orchestra. (One of them, Edicson Ruiz, a double bassist, at 19 became the youngest musician admitted to the modern-day Berlin Philharmonic.) Directed by Dudamel since 1999, the Bolívar Youth Orchestra enjoys a worldwide reputation for a sound that is not only passionate — to be expected with youth orchestras — but also surprisingly polished and balanced.

the full article here

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Things go better with Coke

London wine writer Tim Atkin recalls watching four cigar-smoking east Europeans order two bottles of first-growth Bordeaux and one of Chateau Petrus at the Michelin-starred Hakkasan in London one night in June. Two of the men proceeded to dilute their wine with Diet Coke. Hakkasan sells the 1996 Chateau Petrus for £1,560 a bottle. "I've heard of it happening in China, but I'd never seen it in this country. I think in China it's a prestige thing... people like the idea that they are drinking a first growth or, in the case of Petrus, a top Pomerol, but they don't actually like the taste of it that much, so it's all about image," he says.

(from the FT magazine)


Presse Citron had a post on 18 most useful bookmarklets, most of which were new to me. One was from Zamzar: ConvertIt enables you to click on a YouTube video and convert it to any format you like.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Creatures of a day

I read artist diaries and autobiographies as fast as I can get my hands on them. I read the obituaries online (in newspapers on several continents) first thing every morning, looking for stories that feed my habit. Over the past two years, I have also spent a fair amount of time in libraries and private collections looking at sketchbooks, notebooks, scrapbooks and personal papers, doggedly seeking those rare glimmers of certainty — fleeting indications of what a person was actually thinking while they were making something. Increasingly, I’ve become attuned to small gestures: the fastidiousness of a line, a chance scribble — a seemingly inconsequential, yet ultimately stunning realization about something intangible.

The American filmmaker Stan Brakhage lived a rural life in Colorado, and kept scrapbooks that combine writing, drawing, collage and poetry. There are many things to say about Brakhage, most of them already said by people far more qualified than I am on the subject of avant-garde cinema. But my interest here is less in the product than in the process that preceded it, because what’s so striking about Brakhage's scrapbook is the way he sketched with found objects: the scrapbook, in this sense, became a kind of studio annex, a canvas for working out ideas that weren’t quite two dimensional but weren’t yet time-based either.

Design Observer on Stan Brakhage

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Another Rubber Tree

Trying to eliminate chaos from apartment, picking up where I left off on going to Morocco. On the narrowly-caught plane back I read a review in the Economist of Oliver Morton's Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet, of which this is an excerpt [I think subscription-only online]:

Mr Morton's thesis is that modern biology has become so focused on the movement of information, in the form of genes, that it has neglected the processes needed to move that information around: in essence, thermodynamics. People talk glibly of "using up" energy when in fact they are doing no such thing. What is actually used up is order. An energy flow drives the process, but it is disorder (or "entropy", to use the jargon) that changes, by increasing.

A highly ordered system such as a living thing thus needs an abundant supply of negative entropy (or unentropy, or call it what you will) to maintain its internal order. That negative entropy comes from the sun and is captured by photosynthesis, which uses light to split water molecules and combines the resulting hydrogen with carbon dioxide to form sugars. The sugars are a store of negative entropy that can be used elsewhere. The waste product, conveniently for the animals of Earth, is oxygen.

The book, then, is in part a refrain in praise of photosynthesis, the Earth's energy and order currency-exchange market. It is also an entertaining history of how the subject arrived where it is today...

I love the Economist.

goodbye to all that?

German law forbids the discounting of books except when damaged or in other special circumstances - a book must be sold at the same price whether by a chain store, a small independent bookstore or Amazon. This has been credited with the strength of independent publishers and booksellers in Germany but is now seen as under threat, since a Competition Commission in Switzerland has recently decided to permit the discounting of German books. The full story in today's New York Times, here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

so capitalist it's Marxist

Jonathan Jones on Frieze

The Frieze Art Fair is the best advert for capitalism I've ever seen. Compared with almost anything you'll see at a public venue it is closer to the pulse of new art, richer and wilder and less predictable. The exhilaration lies in really being able to feel you are plugging directly into something vast and energetic and apparently unstoppable - an art machine always shuffling its selection to reveal one more new idea; but you can hardly miss the fact that you are also plugging directly into the electricity of money.

By the time art reaches the Turner Prize or any other public event it has already been analysed, criticised, institutionalised: at Frieze you can get it raw. It's like going down to the fish market and buying a live lobster. Visit the stand of Edinburgh gallery doggerfisher (Stand G19) and you can see - or even buy - blanked out photographs by Nathan Coley , shortlisted for this year's Turner Prize - get him while he's fresh. Move on to the Stephen Friedman Gallery (Stand D4) and there is a horrific work that no museum is going to be showing for a while: an object by Thomas Hirschhorn that incorporates "trophy photographs" of human bodies not just killed but pulped. Don't, by the way, on any account let a child see this.

Hirschhorn is the best advert of all for the marketplace. The piece he shows at Frieze is revolting and shocking but it is just a souvenir of this year's most important exhibition at a London commercial gallery, ...

Monday, October 22, 2007

If that isn't aura it'll have to do

Robert Smithson said a great artist can create art by casting a glance. He raged at the materialism of the art world which gave legitimacy only to the objects that could be bought and sold.

Duchamp cast a glance upon a urinal and there was Fountain. And he saw that it was good. And in 2002 its estimated market value was $3.6 million. (here, here) Andy Warhol cast a glance upon Campbell's Soup cans and Brillo boxes and there was Campbell's Soup Can and Brillo Box. And he saw that they were good. And he was not alone. And if I were being paid to write this post I would look up the latest auction prices for a Campbell Soup Can, but native sloth is not tempered by greed.

In The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility Walter Benjamin argued that the work of art had lost its aura once technology had enabled multiple copies to be made. The art market has always had a different take on this. That Picasso's Boy with a Pipe sold for $106 million might suggest that the possibility of copies simply reinforces the fact that the value of the original lies not in its appearance (which may be replicated or even improved on), but in the brute fact that it is what it is, the thing for which copies are substitutes. But the siblings of Fountain were not replicas of the Chosen One; they all went through the production line in their huddled masses, and Duchamp bestowed the aura of Art upon one, and created what has been called one of the most influential works of 20th-century art.

The question arises: how can two physically indistinguishable objects be different works of art? How can two physically indistinguishable objects fall into different categories, one a work of art, one not? It's a question which is explored at length in A.C. Danto's The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, a seminal work on the philosophy of art first published in 1980 -- coincidentally, the year of publication of Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller, and also the year Raymond Carver wrote a 7-page letter to Gordon Lish begging him to publish Carver's stories in their original form rather than the form achieved after substantial alteration by Lish.


"If the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story, that's how closely, God forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being."

D T Max, consulting the archives in 1998, found that Lish had cut some stories by as much as 70%, changed the endings of more than half, moved lines around. Lish ignored Carver's request and sent his own work to print under Carver's name. So Carver got the royalties and the recognition; he was simply not permitted to see his own work in print.

Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, wants to publish the stories in their original form. Carver's publishers, Knopf, have refused to do this and claim publication by another firm would constitute a competing edition calling for legal action. Gary Fisketjon, a senior editor at Knopf, says he would as soon see Carver's body dragged from the grave, and accuses of Gallagher of wanting to rewrite history.

Most Carver fans think the Lish versions are best. No one thinks the Lish versions should be removed from circulation. No one, including Fisketjon, thinks history would be better served if Lish got a credit on the cover of this edition. These are the definitive versions, and they should be published under the name of Carver alone.

The controversy has thrown up so many oddities it's hard to know where to start. We're told many times that 'everyone knows' that writing is a collaborative activity and that all writers need editors - except that it's somehow scandalous for the actual nature of this activity to be brought out into the open and a name attached to it. Fisketjon objects to the rewriting of history, when ALL reputable historians value access to primary sources and regard with deep suspicion attempts to suppress them. The relation of authors to texts has been a central subject in literary theory for at least the last half-century (Barthes' 'The Death of the Author' was published in 1951, Derrida's 'On Grammatology' and 'On Writing and Difference' in 1967, Foucault's 'What is an author' in 1969, Iser's The Implied Reader in 1978, Fish's Is there a text in this class? in 1982, one could go on and on and on), and literary theory, for better or worse, has dominated the literature departments of American universities for much of that time - yet theory, it seems, cannot be mentioned in the presence of a general audience. Different art forms follow different conventions in their approach to collaboration, accreditation and division of the spoils, but it won't do to examine the conventions of the book world in their light.

In the art world, the phenomenon of the artist obsessively reworking the 'same' material is so commonplace as to be the stuff of introductory courses. Giacometti returned again and again to his figures striding into the void; Monet painted Rouen Cathedral at different times of day; Warhol gave us Marilyns and Maos in different colourways - there is no one right thing, only multiple possibilities that another eye might not have seen. A composer may write variations on a theme without exciting dismay. It's accepted that different performers may offer radically different interpretations of a piece - Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations are different from Murray Perahia's, Solti's Parsifal is different from Boulez's. There is not only tolerance of but interest in the process of development, its place in an artist's history, its place in the history of an art. And in the case of music, of course, we cannot help but be aware of the time- and placebound nature of interpretation - soloists, ensembles and conductors all bear the traces of the history of their engagement with music.

This awareness of historical embeddedness, of the work of art placed in time, which we find in other arts is more or less absent in the book world - not in academia, of course, but in the world of publication and reviews. A metaphysics of authorial presence justifies the time-consuming activity of replacing what the author wrote with a different text: a person who is generally not identified on the book engages in the business of helping the text to be true to the author's voice. However extensive the alterations urged, this is seen neither as an act of appropriation (common enough in the making of art) nor an act of interpretive performance, but an act of recuperation. The anonymity of the agent is essential to preservation of the recuperative ideal. And what this generally amounts to is helping the text to speak clearly to a phantom army of potential readers.

Though there is much talk of making a book 'the best possible book', 'best' tends to mean 'likeliest to sell a large number of copies.' Given this financial consideration, it would be better if the variations and drafts and original manuscript were also available for sale on CD, just as additional material is sold on DVD - a publisher might then urge David Foster Wallace to cut the footnotes in Infinite Jest to a manageable size, and yet sell them separately on CD to a fanatical public. Given that financial considerations are exacerbated by agents, it would be better if authors' computers were sold as collector's items upon publication, creating the sort of market for unique objects that works so well in the art world. A gallerist, remember, takes a 50% cut, with rare exceptions (it's said that Damien Hirst got a better deal); one might like to think that an agent who could hope for $15,000 off a $30,000 sale would be less besotted with the sort of publisher who can promise a $15,000 commission off a $100,000 sale. One might like to think a publisher who could hope to cash in on the sale of CDs (gloriously cheap to produce, ship and store, unlike their paper brothers) would be less anxious to tailor a book to the judgement of Nielson Bookscan.

There's just one slight problem, which Marx and Bourdieu have thrashed out. A veil of decency separates the search for the 'best possible book' from sordid financial considerations. The novel, that bourgeois form of art, has no qualms about poking around in the dirty corners of money and power, but the people who bring these books to the market have a euphemistic discourse all their own, one which makes it possible to talk about money without talking about money. Other forms of art have their own systems of euphemisms, but they are different systems, adapted to the sources of revenue. Bringing the traces of writers' methods of composition to the market would involve talking in a non-euphemistic way about means of infiltrating those other systems of discourse; people who are euphemising successfuly in one field find that very uncomfortable; it's unlikely to happen anytime soon.

A round-up:

Motoko Rich, NY Times 2007
Bootlegs for Sale or Rent, papercuts (NY Times blog)
Richard Lea, Guardian 18 October 2007
James Lasdun, Guardian 22 October 2007

Saturday, October 20, 2007

busman's holiday

Many thanks to the contributors who have posted on PP while the auteur was in Morocco. If I move to Morocco for the winter I shall know PP is in good hands.

I found a hotel in Marrakesh that was not in Lonely Planet, the Hotel Atlal, Rue de la Recette. First hotel I'd found with a single room. A single bed, very white walls, a bright light. Two sparrow-like birds flew and sang and perched on picture frames, door frames, or flew up out of the wrought-iron skylight. 70 dirhams, about 7 euros or $10 a night. I had booked a room for Sunday in another hotel, a boutique hotel, the Najma Lounge, for Sunday.

On Monday morning I was packing to leave and could not find my passport. I went through all my papers many times; I lifted cushions from the bed. The Najma Lounge liked the dim, romantic lighting of most Moroccan riads; it was hard to see. I could not find the passport. I went to reception and asked for advice on contacting the American consulate and the police. Alex made calls. He told me to to go the Commissariat Central in a taxi. I told the taxi driver to take me to the police, found myself in room 4, a room with shoeboxes full of filed papers and names of countries above them. I filled forms. The official told me where I need to go to make a copy of my bank card and pay for a stamp. I looked doubtful. He said he would go, the place was down the street, he was gone for some time. He came back. Just as he returned, a boy from the hotel appeared at the door, exclaiming something that sounded like: I found you! I was in the middle of finshing up with the official. I said, Could I have a piece of paper to send the travel insurance people? The boy said: But it's been found! The penny dropped. I shook everyone's hand, I embraced the boy, we got in a taxi and returned to the hotel while he explained that someone had found it in the bed. He said he had gone first to the Commissariat Central but I was not there, so he had asked and gone to this Commissariat. I could not believe he had gone to so much trouble.

As we went back to the hotel in the taxi I tried to work out what I could possibly do to express thanks for this supererogatory effort, and at first 100 dirhams seemed like a good idea (about 10 euros), because people were always asking for 10, but the longer I thought the more conscious I was of the day I would have had to spend in Casablanca at the American consulate chasing a new passport, and in the end I begged him to accept 200 which I hoped was all right. On our way back to the hotel some small children had asked for change and I had offered them a small backpack that I wanted to get rid of and he had expressed interest, so I had given it to him along with the copy of Maupassant's Bel-Ami which I had picked up from a local bookstore and read. He said he liked Zola; I said if he liked Zola he would probably like it, Maupassant had been a protege of Flaubert's. He said he was planning to go to Quebec, to Canada, when he had finished his studies, because eventually he would like to return to Morocco and open a hotel like the Najma Lounge. So Abdel Latif was the hero of the hour, and I mention these materialistic details only because the people I normally deal with don't go to that kind of trouble, and so I do spend a lot of time dealing with practical problems in a system where no writer can encourage people to help with practical problems.

At the airport I bought large numbers of books and newspapers, went to the departure gate, presented my boarding pass and shuffled onto a wasplike plane, two seats either side of the aisle. I began reading the Economist. Announcements were made. Someone stood by the seat and said it was hers. I showed my boarding pass stub to the stewardess who said this was a plane to Almeria. I said, what, this is not the flight to Berlin? My flight had a connection in Madrid. I dashed down the aisle and off the plane and stood on the runway. No one had offered advice for catching the plane to Berlin. I saw a flight of stairs leading onto another plane. I ran up these stairs and asked a startled flight attendant: Is this the flight to Berlin? She said embarcation had closed, it was not acceptable to embark in this way. I said: Well, they checked me onto the plane to Almeria, and I showed her my stub, and in the end she agreed to let me onto the plane.

I had with me a copy of Tel Quel, a francophone Moroccan magazine, which I read fresh from news that Eagleton and Amis had had a spat over Amis's alleged Islamophobia. Amis objected that he had not written what Eagleton said he had, he had said in an interview that he had briefly had the thought -- 'Don't you' -- that Muslims should be made to feel pain, strip-searched at airports, this sort of thing, to bring pressure on the fanatics, before he had reverted to a bridge-building frame of mind. Anyone who, like me, has fundamentalists of various denominations in the family (Catholics, Jews, atheists), is unlikely to have had this sort of thought, and likely to sympathise with the exasperation of those who put out Tel Quel.

I read when I got back that the Nobel Prize for economics had been won for mechanism design, of which more later.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Note on the Text: I was telling this story the other night and someone suggested that I really need to write it down, that it is just too weird, it should be preserved somehow, and since Helen has been away Paperpools has been filling up with interesting stories about various people, I have decided to drop it in as my last wild-card contribution before she comes back to town. If you do happen to recognize the main character or the bestselling kids book series mentioned please keep that information to yourself, just because I don't want it to reflect badly on them. Sorry about the length, I couldn't really cut it down. So, here we go:

Adjacent to my art studio, a modest basement space in a former sailor's brothel, was a hip-hop production studio. I rarely closed my door when I was there working on projects, so people would just sort of wander in randomly to say hi. One of these wanderers was a young hip-hop artist named Josh from the outer suburbs. Usually when I saw him he had huge aviator glasses near-permanently affixed below his apparently receding hairline. Small, wirey, always hyper, pacing constantly (due to an inner-ear disorder that would often make him nauseous if he stood still) he was a fun visitor, we chatted a lot. He was rarely without a tall can of malt liquor in one hand and an American Spirit in the other, wandering into the studio with a Fear and Loathing gait “Heeyyy, heey, whatcha working on in here Mr. TAR ART RAT? OOOOh, niiice, that is craaazy shit man, that is some crazy shit you got there. What is that?”
We would trade sometimes- he'd give me his latest album or a remix of some ancient Jamaican .45s his producer had just bought in an old steamer trunk at a junk shop down the street, downloaded and remixed and I would give him a small painting or drawing in return.
After a few months of these small visits he approached me with a project. A very popular children's book author was a big fan of a cable access show that Josh and his brothers had done for years, a puppet show of sorts. One a side-note: I could also never disconnect this information from the story he told me about getting kicked out of High School because he would constantly do a puppet show with his own testicles in class. I never chose to witness the demonstration he always offered:
“Yea, his name is Ballsy McWrinkleson- I just draw a face on him, put some clothes around my hand and squeeze so he pops out a bit- maybe like a nice little suit or something, something classy, and – hey, maybe you wanna build a little set for him? Like, a little late night tv show set like Letterman or something-”
“I... uh, wait...starring your balls?”
“Just one ball. We can film a series, put it on YouTube-”
“I dunno if they'll allow it on YouTube, we might get booted to one of those PornTube sites or something”
“But it's just BALLS! No penis even! That is – like- fine, right? Just a nut with a little smiley face?”
“I... I... jeez, I honestly don't know man.”

Regarding the children's book author, after being a longtime fan of the cable access show one thing lead to another and the next thing you know Josh was doing videos for the author's website. I myself had a full time job so was reluctant to help out at first, although it sounded like a great project. Initially another guy had been working on the set designs and constructing mechanical puppets, really cool stuff actually, but creative differences (and I assume drug issues) came between he and Josh and suddenly I was on-deck. To kind of offically confirm my dedication to the project Josh bought me a brand new mountain bike and then showed up at my work with a briefcase full of thick-packed envelopes, he handed me one and said “Heereyago, Sir!” The danced off with his signature gait. Inside the envelope was $2,000 cash, more money than I had ever seen all together in real life at one time before.
We worked on the sets and creatures at night, usually starting around 7pm and calling it quits sometime before the sun came up, this went on for months. We began by converting Josh's entire studio space into a miniature metropolitan city. Filmed segments here and there while Josh's brother edited and added special effects. We built robot and monster costumes, usually all night long while drinking beer or bulk cheap boxed wine and watching random dvds on the huge flatscreen TV Josh had just bought, "Rat Race" feat. Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese and Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Cruise's “the Last Samurai” and Billy Crystal's “Mr. Saturday Night” were somehow always in rotation, along with one of the Matrixes (Matricies?). All these were stacked all over near and around the tv along with a lot of blowjob-only porn.

Just before he went off to the – some fancy- islands for a few weeks, the author had given Josh a lot of money up front to get started on the project, much of which went towards transportation costs, (namely the 1971 convertible muscle car Josh had just bought) and other random things... somehow, Josh justified, which were always related to the project.
At the end of several hours of work we would go out. Or somehow even when we weren't working and I was just out wandering Josh would coincidentally drive by while I was out downtown and holler “Heyyy, Mr. TAR ART RAT- let's go for a ride, sir!” I'd hop in Dukes-of-Hazard style and we would end up on a drinking binge through Chinatown or on a chilly remote beach somewhere drinking with 16 year old girls or hunting down prostitutes in the industrial district. With Josh it seemed like there were always teenage girls around smoking and doing their nails.
“Hey man, you wanna go get some hookers?”
“Uhm, not really Josh, I have to get this sculpture finished for the head of the costume.”
“It's ok, we can take a break- go to s strip club and get some hookers.”
he would just toss this all in the open with a manic energy, he talked ferociously, a mile a minute.
“Uhmmm, naw, that's alright, man I'll just have another one of those KIRIN Ichiban. I thought you weren't allowed to touch strippers-?”
“Sometimes if you hang around long enough and give them enough money they'll just let you have sex with them. That happened last weekend, the girl was kinda gnarly though. Her name was Cheryl or Cherrie or something like that, she was a total meth-head, really pretty, though. She had a nice round booty. I went straight for the ass, I'm crazy about that, love to just bury my face in it- She even let me do her without a condom-”
“Whoa, ok, that is a REALLLY not a good idea man, jeez- you should be careful-”
“Yea, I know, hey- she had one of your posters that you made up in her bedroom, though, those ones you put all over town-”
“Oh, ... cool.”
What do you say, really? What can you say to all this...? These type of conversations happened often with Josh, where I was just left saying “Wow, uh,,, Well..”

For a meeting that weekend we took a ferry boat out to an island to meet with one of the project team members and ate at his resteraunt, Josh talked endlessly about the project at first, saying how the author had turned down Peter Jackson for the movie rights and how we might all go to Japan for the release there in the Fall. Not sure if any of that was actually true, but then the subject turned to girls, both of us had just come out of bad break-ups from long-term relationships and it was all downhill from there. We were at a Mexican themed sports bar drinking until close, then wandering back towards the ferry-
“Oh, shit man, I really wanna call that Cheryl girl... wait, where's my phone...”
Sometime in the last few hours as we wandered the island's small towns Josh had lost his phone.
We went back, looking everywhere, he insisted on crawling through peoples yards, peeing on their patios, looking,babbling, looking, but the phone was nowhere- not even at the Mexican-themed bar. We returned to the ferry terminal and had missed the last boat back to the city. The next one didn't leave for several hours.
On the walkway to the waiting area Josh collapsed, screaming then moaning about his lost love and then tried to throw himself int to he sea, all the while the state ferry workers looked on trying to decide whether or not to call the police.
“He's just having girl trouble- it's ok- don't worry!” I tried to explain to them feebly while Josh crawled around on the ground moaning dramatically.
Soon thereafter the author returned and realized that the project was way over-budget and in a state of near chaos, so he was then in the studio working and editing daily. Josh had to promise to stop drinking, things ran smoothly from then on out and we got a lot done. We got dressed up in our huge home-made costumes, went out and filmed in public parks and around the city (without a permit) to small crowds who would gather, kids would recognize the book's main character, it was actually a lot fun.

After the project was completed Josh disappeared. Weeks later I bumped into him speeding in his muscle car through downtown. He was kind of hard to miss, wearing a huge cowboy had and the same aviator glasses, blaring raunchy rap which reverberated off the glass of the skyscrapers all around. He explained in the same stop-go fevered style of speech about how he went across the country to meet a girl he had been corresponding with online. When he arrived she was 100 lbs heavier than in her photo, So he turned right around and started bus-ing it back home.
"That photo must've been at least five years old, man. Jeez. I Greyhounded all across the country, though. It sucked, don"t ever do it- and you wouldn't believe what happened- I liked Montana, though, got this hat there...” That night we had a party on the roof of a parking garage, half a dozen cars all blaring music which, once again, echoed throughout the hi-rises of the city since we were 6 stories off ground in a forest of buildings. Josh and his friends had figured out that after the parking garage attendant left you could just drive up to the top level, an open-air roof with a great view of the ocean and cityscape- you could grill, spit on bar-hopping frat boys down below and even camp out there They (the owners) didn't seem to know or care.
From then on I rarely saw Josh. I was preparing to move to Berlin and he had a new girl, a quiet 19-year-old, sweet but no bullshit. They had moved into the studio for some reason, which was a bit surprising at first, because I still had a key and would drop by to pick up or drop off tools- and there they were- in the windowless space sleeping at 3 in the afternoon.
“Hey, Sir!” Josh would say waking up instantly “shoot- what time is it?”
“Jesus, three! We just sleep all the time here, never know if it is day or night without any windows... ”

The place was a disaster, everything from gigantic unraveling sheets of chickenwire to two-week-old sushi to a series of “Addicted to Cock” dvds was strewn in every corner garnished by sharpies and dead paintbrushes, rocks, treebranches, somebody's clothes, wires, unidentifiable electronic parts and devices...
Josh finally got evicted from the space after not paying rent for 4 months. It was kind of awkward, too. Every time I walked by the rental office the building manager would say:
"Hey, have you seen Josh?"
"Oh, no... not recently."
Even though he could've very well been sound asleep in the studio or creating beats in the other studio downstairs. I think he only used the backdoor entrance for that last month.
When they were finally forced to leave the studio space he only took the valuables- the TV, the expensive tools and random gadgets. So many of the supplies we bought for the project didn't even get used. The man-sized bumblebee costume was still in its package. The astronaut helmet had never been worn, except when one of the hip-hop guys up from the production studio had used it to hotbox himself.
I saw Josh one last time driving with his girlfriend. He gave me a ride home, and I gave him a painting in return, one I actually really wanted him to have- it was a good one. One of the few.
“Have fun in Germany, Mr. TAR ART RAT!”
“Yea, man, come visit sometime- come to Europe, it would be good for you.”
“I dunno man, my granddad survived the concentration camps, he didn't have much good to say- he was kinda crazy actually. I was always afraid of Germany because of that, the stories he used to tell...”
“I... yea. That's awful.”
“Hey, you got a couple bucks for gas?”

I gave him some money and the muscle car screeched off down the street, him waving, his girlfriend smiling in the passenger seat as they headed back off to suburbia to lay low for awhile and regroup, I'd imagine. Haven't seen or heard from him since but he has released a few more albums and I heard he was on Howard Stern's radio show.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Imbecility and the Absolute

The autumn harvest of my verbal vegetable garden seems to have been decimated by some mysterious sort of pestilence - which is to say, my ha'penny writing's worth even less than that these days - so I'll just pass along a couple of amusing anecdotes about the James brothers.

The first, an anecdote about Henry James, Ford Madox Ford (then known as Ford Madox Hueffer), another writer (name not given), and a dog named Maximilian, is related in Javier Marias's Written Lives, a series of brief sketches of famous writers:

"He [James] spoke with so many interpolations and parentheses that this occasionally got him into difficulties: one afternoon, he went out for a walk along the Rye road, as was his custom, with Hueffer and another writer and with his dog Maximilian, who liked to chase sheep and who was , for this reason, kept on a leash, but one long enough to allow him considerable freedom of movement. At one point, in order to conclude one particularly immense sentence with due emphasis, James stopped and planted his walking stick firmly in the ground, and in that position held forth for a long time while his companions listened in reverential silence, and the dog Maximilian, running about, back and forth, as the fancy took him, wound his leash around the walking stick and the gentlemen's legs, leaving them trapped. The Master finished his speech and wanted to continue on his way, but found himself immobilised. When he did, with some difficulty, extricate himself, he turned, eyes blazing, to Hueffer, reproachfully brandished his walking stick and cried: 'Heuffer! You are painfully young, but at no more than the age to which you have attained, the playing of such tricks is an imbecibility! An im . . . be . . . cility!' "

The second involves pictures. William James and Josiah Royce were being photographed by James's daughter Peggy. Here are the two pictures:

Peggy took the pictures one after the other. After the click of the first shot, James said to Royce, "Royce, you're being photographed! Look out! Damn the Absolute!"


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

the fawlty code

I had a rather nasty hotel in Fez for which I had paid two nights. People were bothering me. I decided to leave a day early. I packed my bag, went to the office, explained to the receptionist that I was leaving early but I did not mind about the payment for the extra night. I started walking away. When I was out in the street the man at reception came running after me. He said something or other about the second night and the patronne. I thought she must want to offer a refund for the unused night. I went back. He put out his hand and said I must pay money for the second night. I said, No, I paid 140 in advance for two nights, it is all in order.

I wanted to get out of there. I went first to the bus station in the Ville Nouvelle, then to the train station, looking for somewhere to go. Finally I bought a ticket for a train to Marrakech that left at 1:50 am. So there were about 7 hours to wait at the station cafe, a quiet, gravelled place with bright lights under which to read. The train came. About an hour into the journey I felt pretty sick, so I got off at the next stop, thinking to find a hotel. The place was not in the guidebook. A taxi driver said he could find me a hotel. He drove through endless empty streets, saying, Look, if we can't find a hotel you can stay with me! So that's OK! He found a couple of places with FNDQ (funduq = hotel) on the wall, both claiming to be full. He talked endlessly. I said we must go back to the station and I would take a train to the next town. We got back to the station at 4.23. A train for Tangiers was already at the platform. There was also a 4.25 scheduled to Casablanca. I bought a ticket and pushed money at this driver who kept talking. Got on the train. Woke in Casablanca. There was a train at 8.50 to Marrakech.

Too tired and hot for more travel, but it seemed stupid to spend a day in a hotel in Casablanca. Took train to Marrakech. Taught two New Zealand children to write their names in Arabic. A man sat down across from me and said he liked the way I was with children and he would love to invite me home to a meal with his family, Moroccans are famous for their hospitality, he explained, he could advise me on how to buy and ship a carpet home, he worked with a government-approved artisanate, he would find me a taxi and a hotel and take me on a short tour and then show me the carpets. I said Thank you, but I am trying to write an article so I must concentrate on my article, and he stood up and walked off.

My guidebook described the Hotel Sharazade as a gem, a haven of calm within the medina. Every hotel I had been to so far had tried some sort of con with the price of the room but perhaps this would be different. I called and asked if they had a single and was told they did. I asked Combien? and heard something that at first I thought was cent cinquante. I said cent cinquante ou deux cent cinquante? The reply appeared to be deux cent cinquante. I said OK. I took a taxi, was dropped two streets from the hotel, dragged my suitcase in.

Three 60-something Australian women stood in reception, distraught. A princess stood at reception, unperturbed. (Think Sybil Fawlty reincarnated as a sweet young Muslim girl.) They had booked rooms by e-mail weeks before. The princess explained that the rooms had been cancelled. They had been sent an e-mail stating that the rooms would be held for them provided they arrived before 2. They had failed to confirm that they would be arriving before 2. One traveller said: But look, I have my e-mail to you here, I say: We will definitely be taking the rooms. The princess explained again that the hotel had then sent its e-mail stating that the rooms would be held if they arrived before 2, and they had failed to confirm, so the reservation had been cancelled. The traveller said: But how was I supposed to know I was supposed to confirm again? The princess said they might have another room, the guesthouse, but not at the same price.

This would have been a very good time to get in writing the quote of 250 dirhams. I was very tired and did not feel up to negotiations with the princess. I took the key to the room. Nice room. Time passed. I did not have a good feeling about it, because the price on the list of tarifs is 340. It's very common for hotelkeepers to quote prices that bear no relation to their tarifs, but it's also very common, if someone has made a verbal offer, to smuggle a higher price in later, and if someone tries this it is necessary to challenge it early on. One online reviewer of the hotel who had been there a week ago had said she had had a room with a double bed and bathroom with breakfast for 260 dirhams, which is in line with the quote on the phone, but this is not a point I want to be making to Sybil. I would have liked to stay in the hotel for longer than 3 days, but I could not face yet another argument with yet another traveller's friend.

This morning I went to reception thinking this must be done. I explained that I would like to stay longer if the room (or another) was free. I said that when I had called from the station she had said the price was 250 dirhams, would that price be all right for the extra days? Sybil said the price was 350 dirhams.

Devotees of Fawlty Towers will know that there is no point in getting into an argument with Sybil. I did not want to discuss a) the phone quote, b) the reviewer who had stayed there a week ago, c) the fact that the new price was higher than both the phone quote and the published tarif. I wanted a Sybil-free environment. I say, Oh, I see.

I go out of the hotel and find the Assia Hotel, which is billed in my guide as offering TV. (Good, good, I can practice my Arabic.) This offers a room with a double bed with bathroom, including breakfast, for 250 a night. They have a room free for 2 nights.

The Assia does not have the charm of the Sharazade (I think everyone who has stayed at the S has commented on its enchanting rooms and courtyards and terraces, and they are not wrong). It is somewhat dark. And it could be, that is, I am not convinced that it is rational to leave a place I like for the sake of 10 euros a night -- except that it is not a good idea for other reasons to form a habit of letting people walk all over you. I go back to the S and pack my bags and go to reception. Sybil is talking to a boy. I put 500 dirhams on the counter with the key and say I am going and leave.

As I am walking down the street the boy comes after and grabs my arm. He says You owe more money. I say No, I don't. She gave me one price for the room on the phone and now she has tried to change it. I don't want to stay. He says: But you don't just walk out like that, you should talk to her. I say: I have nothing to say to her. He says: Well, I will hold you and call the police. I say: Fine, call the police. We stand for a while and I say, OK, look, I will talk to her. I go back. Sybil has been joined at the desk by an older woman. We have a discussion. I explain that Sybil had quoted one price on the phone and had later changed the price of the room. The woman explains that misunderstandings can occur on the phone and I should have got this in writing on arriving at the hotel (a point on which we are, of course, in perfect agreement). I suggest that confirming the price of a room is more commonly seen as the responsibility of the receptionist. We have a further unprofitable discussion.

The Lonely Planet Guide urges visitors to book rooms at the hotel well in advance, because they go quickly. This might, I suppose, avoid misunderstandings about the price of a room; the problem is, though, that those who follow this advice can have no reason to believe that their booking for the quoted price holds good. It would not be much fun to travel for 24 hours, turn up in Marrakech under the impression that one's hotel had been lined up, and be told that the only thing now available was the guest house at a much steeper price.

Every hotel I have dealt with has tried to pull some sort of dodge -- and the fact is, the sharp practice of a hotel has very little bearing on whether it is a good place to stay. The Souika in Chefchaouen tried a bait-and-switch and was rather nasty; the Chams tried to smuggle in a price inflation which was caught early, and was a place anyone with a passion for an environment of carved woodwork would be sure to enjoy. The Majestic in Meknes quoted a price that was 30 dirhams over the tarif posted in its rooms -- a hotel of gloomy provincial grandeur, with knowledgeable, helpful staff. The clerk at the Erraha in Fez offered me a special deal, I paid for 2 nights, and as I've said he tried to make me pay twice for the second night when I left. (One could go on.) The Sharazade was the nastiest to deal with. It may be the odd one out, an innocent victim; I am not absolutely sure that it was playing off the usual tricks, but it is certainly a hotel that travellers who expect to spend long hours on the road should approach with the utmost caution.

This is rather dull for those who don't plan to go to Morocco, but I thought I should put up a post in case anyone else Down Under liked the sound of the oasis of calm in the medina.

[later. I must add that the staff of the Assia Hotel, where I have spent the last day and a half, has been helpful and pleasant, and it has been a piece of luck having a TV in my room so I could practice listening to Arabic. (This was 250 dirhams a night including breakfast.) They don't have room tomorrow night so I am moving to the Souria Hotel, which so far looks equally stress-free (though no TVs), at 100 dirhams a night, about 11 euros; the proprietor of the latter asked for the first night's payment in advance to hold the reservation, which seemed fair, sensible and efficient. Marrakesh itself is fabulous.]

Monday, October 8, 2007

lots of fried ants, lots and lots of fried ants...

Mark Liberman has a post on Language Log on the Piraha and other Amazonian tribes who apparently manage quite happily without numbers and can't see why their lives are blighted by the absence of a distinction between, as it might be, 3 and 7, let alone such concepts as the 5-, 6- and 7-figure deal. Liberman points out that a similar situation obtains in Western societies, where basic concepts of statistics and probability have been deveoped in only the last 100 years or so and have yet to win widespread understanding or use.

Friday, October 5, 2007

can we / can't we integrate a bit? & "On Kastanien"

Pictured above: Kastanien in Question. "What's the use?" (and Kastanienallee has two L's actually)

someone talked to me at breakfast

I had gone innocently across the road to buy Le Monde as soon as the newsagent opened (just 10 dirhams, or 1.10 euros) and went into breakfast and was innocently reading Le Monde when someone I met yesterday came in and sat at the table and said 'Just go on reading your magazine.' I did not immediately realise that this was meant to be a joke.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Bad guesses

Ok, so in the early 1990's I am living in Olathe, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City. My oldest son was a then just a baby so I was spending the afternoon in the recliner, reading a book and watching the Kansas City Royals baseball game while he napped.

Partway through the game, during a break between innings, the announcers say that it is time for the Somebody Airlines Trivia Question. I poke my head up from my book in time to hear them ask something akin to “Who was the one-armed man who played for the St Louis Browns in the 1940’s?”

Without flinching, I reply out loud, “That’s easy: Peter Gray.”

When I was a lot younger, I had read of Pete Gray and how he had lost his arm as a youth in an accident and then how the war had forced the Browns to sign Gray in 1945 because the talent pool had gotten rather shallow. It was a great trivia answer I had held onto for years; today was the day I was going to make it worth my while.

Two round-trip airline tickets were on the line so I popped up and grabbed the cordless phone. Keep in mind this was years before Google and the internet; this was the kind of thing you either knew or you didn’t. I figured that everybody who knew anything about baseball knew the answer to that question, so I punched in the numbers real quick.

The line was busy.

There must be a bunch of people still on the line who called in before the question was asked, I thought. They’ll either get the right answer or hang up because they’ll know they don’t know the answer.

I hit 'Redial'. Busy. Click. Redial.

Busy. Click. Redial.

Busy. Click. Redial.

The ball game returns.



One out. BCR. BCR. BCR.

I want those tickets.

Two outs.


I really want those tickets.


Three outs. We go back to commercial.

BCR. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

They come back from commercial and I am still frantically BCR-ing and I hear them say “We still don’t have a correct answer, so we’ll go another inning. Remember, the question is who was the one-arm player for the Browns in 1945?” and I’m now screaming “Pete Gray! Pete Gray! Everybody knows it is Pete Gray!!!!” Of course, I wake the baby.


I must have called a zillion times and it was busy each time.

After another inning the announcers say “Well, we didn’t get any correct guesses so we’ll just tell you. It was Pete Gray who played for the Browns in 1945...”.


Did he say ‘guesses’? How do you GUESS at the answer to that one?

Finding the answer to that question involves taking the set of all baseball players you know {Aaron, Bonds, Clementi, ...} and intersecting it with the set of people you know who only have one arm {Pete Gray, Jim Abbott, the one strange uncle you know from the family reunion, the guy down at the Gas ‘n’ Sip}. The intersection of those sets forms the only rational guesses. What in the world were people guessing??!? How many one-armed people do they know? Did they call in and guess Babe Ruth? What were they thinking? Why would they call in if they didn’t know they knew the answer? THERE IS NOTHING TO GUESS!!!

See, I can ask you “Who was the only player to strike out four times in an All-Star Game” and you could GUESS at that by taking the collection of All-Stars and then trying to find someone who might have batted four times AND stuck out. You can GUESS Ruth or Gehrig or Clementi or someone else. You would be right with Clementi.

But you can’t guess about one-armed ballplayers. That’s just dumb. What were people thinking? Didn’t they know that they didn’t know?

So I didn’t get the tickets.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

the bug in Excel

In Meknes, just checking emails to see if Justin Smith has set up an appointment with my dentist to fix my broken tooth on my return to Berlin (he has), I suddenly wonder what Joel Spolsky is up to (for this, I hear you say incredulously, you needed to go to Morocco?), and I find that Joel has a post on the bug in Excel! And why, if you multiply 77.1 x 850, you get 100,000 instead of 65,535! (It turns out that .1 is the binary equivalent of a repeating decimal.) All here.

I spent a few days in Chefchouen, in the Rif mountains. Many as yet inchoate thoughts on languages that fall outside formal educational systems for one reason or another - there are three or four Berber languages, of which only one has been written down, and there are no mechanisms in place to help travellers pick up enough of the basics to go to places where not much else is spoken.