Sunday, November 25, 2007

long ago and far away

Drove through the streets of Gainesville with my father, who talked about a book he is writing about Brazil. He said when he was in Brasilia as a political officer in the mid-60s he had no idea what was going on, and neither did the other political officers (Purdy, Lavitsky). Herb Okun [head of mission] might have known something, he had contacts, he spoke excellent Portuguese, but he did a terrible job. He should have been having cocktail parties, inviting his contacts to meet the junior officers. 'I don't know what he did all day, probably sat at home in his apartment reading Edmund Wilson.'

I said I was surprised, I had always though of Mr Okun as a great socialiser.
My father: Maybe he was when he was down in Belo Horizonte, he did a good job in Belo, he knew all kinds of people, in fact through one of his contacts he heard early that the military were marching on Rio, so he was able to tell the Embassy they were coming. He didn't do any of that in Brasilia. In fact, the best contacts we made were through Mary [my mother], she was teaching English at the Binational Center and she had all these deputies in the class, there was Bernardo Cabral who later became Minister of Justice, X [forget name], there was a very right-wing guy, there was a governor, I guess there were five in the class. So we had these guys over to the house and got to know them. Some of the other wives were also teaching English, but Mary had the most interesting students.
He explained: Anyway, we didn't know what was going on, sometimes Fred Purdy and I would say, Hey, let's go over to Congress and see if we meet anyone! and sometimes we would.
He said: It should have been easy to meet people in Brasilia, the deputies were there three days a week, anyway, even if they were away on weekends, they were away from their families, some of them left their wives at home, they were bored, but Herb just sat at home reading Edmund Wilson.
He explained: Well, the problem was, Herb was brought back en route to Moscow. He did a very good job in Belo, and then he spent a year in Brasilia, and then he was appointed to Moscow. So he actually left, and then the Ambassador decided he couldn't afford to let him go. The guy who was supposed to replace him was a very nice kind of guy but ineffectual, and it was a sensitive time, and they didn't think they could afford to have him in place, so the Ambassador called the State Department and they sent Herb back. And he bitterly resented it. They gave him a second title, he was also Political Counsellor for the whole of Brazil, you'd think it would have meant something to be indispensable but he bitterly resented it. So he didn't do anything. There was a special suite at the Embassy where you could give dinners for 12, it would have been perfect for inviting deputies to meet people, but Herb didn't use it once. He just sat in his apartment reading Edmund Wilson, and then he and Loraine went to Moscow and Steve Lowe came, and he didn't know anybody and didn't speak Portuguese. So nobody knew anything.

In a separate but not unrelated incident my father explains that he is finding all kinds of information about the activities of the CIA at the time. He expresses horror at the current practice of waterboarding, he can't believe these are AMERICAN CITIZENS. I remind him that his career advice to me was to join the CIA. My father: You'd have been good in the CIA. (My comment at the time of the advice was that I did not like the idea of going around assassinating people. My father: You would probably not be in the field. You would probably be analysing data.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

shape and strength

Eliot said it was the poet's job to purify the language of the tribe. Philosophy has sometimes shared that ambition. The bidding systems of bridge offer a different model for the way language might be made to work. It's sometimes hard to see this clearly, because for the most part people who write on bridge simply describe one or more systems, or list hundreds of conventions. Came across a very good bridge blog yesterday, DavidC's Bridge Blog, which discusses bidding systems from first principles. This is extremely interesting (a much longer post lies hidden in the drafts folder), but I am packing to catch a plane in the morning so can only mention it in haste.

Monday, November 19, 2007

never trust a widget

Level of education required to read


cash advance


cash advance

According to critics rant

I know I know I know

The "blog which is an art project which is disguised as a blog"
and which has, literally, changed names a couple hundred times
but which has always been some arrangement of either:
"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT
just had its thousandth post this morning.

It is like one of those stupid effing truck commercials where they ask
"where were you when you hit 100,000 miles?!"
Well, Iäm/was at work, and thought: "whoa, shit. -crrrazy. I could've
written a book or
done something which aspired to be truly great with all that time and
effort-but instead...
I did THAT-"

Nevertheless, 1,000 is a LOT of loading adn linking and reading adn
writing and haphazard
researching and cheesy reminiscing and venting venom and mispelling things
- a lot of time and effort ...and I could have done sooo many
other things with all that time and effort (which I will never get back)
- well, "but" nothing, blogging just happens to be the perfect
platform for a lifelong
journal-writer / image and news/info junkie - especially when trapped
behind a computer full-time, weird things happen, what can I say-? and
that IS the blog, that's it, that's all really, just something that

I type QWERTY you type QWERTZ let's call the whole thing off

SMB said in a recent comment that if I were to have a shopping basket on the website it should definitely be in Flash. (SMB disapproves of selling stories on the website in principle - a while back she offered to go out and earn $1000 or so, whatever it would take, and give me the money so that I did not disgrace myself by this shameful practice. I only wish Lewis Lapham felt that strongly about it.)

Meanwhile Bremer Sprachblog has been discussing the question of languages that 'don't have a word for X' - for instance, the folk myth that the Finns do not have a word for Amoklauf (running amok). It struck me that we are missing a word for something that is now very common, which I shall call DVORAKracy. I explain.

The term 'QWERTY lock-in' is commonly used to refer to the way a particular technology achieves dominance when it is used by a sufficiently large number of people, to the point that it makes introduction of something better impossible. It has been claimed that the DVORAK keyboard layout is in fact more efficient, but in the days when typewriters were all we knew it was not worth a manufacturer's while to construct typewriters with that configuration, and today, though one can easily switch virtual keyboards, the physical keyboard in anglophone countries tends to stick to QWERTY.

People then get into arguments about how hard it is to adapt to a new virtual keyboard, how long it would take to get used to DVORAK. It would not be worth a typist's time, is the argument, because it would take so long to get back up to the original speed, let alone improve on it. As far as I can tell, this is not true.

I learned to type at the age of 13, at the Centro Colombo-Americano de Cali. I was 13, my best friend and her twin sister were 13, my sister was 10, and we used to go down and work our way through classes with young Colombian secretaries-in-training, beginning:

Index finger:

fff jjj fff jjj fjf jfj fjf jfj

Next finger:

ddd kkk ddd kkk dkd kdk dkd kdk

4th finger:

sss lll sss lll sss lll sls lsl sls lsl

5th finger, aaa ;;; aaa ;;; and so on, and then it got exciting, because g and h were introduced - letters which were struck by moving the left index finger to the right, the right index finger to the left:

ggg hhh ggg hhh ghg hgh ghg hgh AND, more importantly,
fgf jhj fgf jhj fgf jhj gfg hjh gfg jhj (so that one got used to this tricky manoeuvre, moving the finger one key over and back again)

gh were, in fact, well placed for a typist of English; the index fingers, thanks to their placement on the hand, have the most room to move around, and striking two keys with the index fingers in quick succesion feels very easy.

Once you're used to typing this way, minor variations can be picked up quickly. Germany does not have QWERTY lock-in, it has QWERTZ lock-in (the Z is where the Y was found on the Remingtons and Olivettis of the Centro Colombo-Americano), and a German keyboard has ö ä ü and ß where we had ; ' [ and -. A French keyboard has AZERTY lock-in; it also has the most common combinations of letter-plus-diacritical mark on the numbers row, numbers being typed by using the shift key. Both are EXTREMELY convenient, and it does not take long - perhaps an hour or so - to adapt to either if one is typing in the relevant language. That's if one is doing what I do most of the time, thinking as I type. I expect it would take longer to achieve a good copy-typing speed, but that's partly because when one types in one's native language one has typed most of the words many times before - thousands of words are in muscle memory. In a new language one is typing most of the words for the first time; the hands don't know where they're going to go as soon as the word presents itself.

I tried DVORAK at one point, and it didn't look as though it would take long to get back to my normal speed - and there would be good reason to switch, or rather to switch between DVORAK and QWERTY, because if one spends a lot of time at a keyboard typing the same words with the same patterns of movement there probably is a danger of repetitive strain injury. Yes. Sloth has prevented me from doing so, but I don't think the investment of time would be significant.

The fact is, though, that no one is going to come along, install the DVORAK virtual keyboard and delete QWERTY, so that I have no choice but to use the new one.

Unfortunately the equivalent of this does happen very frequently with software. Someone decides to design my website in software I don't own and have never used; I can then choose between making all updates by proxy and learning a new software program. But the latter really is time-consuming, not least because the quality of documentation is generally very poor. So I leave the website untouched. The blog gets hundreds of posts, but the website is virtually static because the designer used software she knew and loved.

Now, there are software programs that do well things I might want to be able to do - LaTeX, for instance, does do a wonderful job with equations. Everyone who has ever used LaTeX, though, admits that it takes a long time to master it; someone once told me he thought his thesis had taken an extra year to write because he spent so much time wrestling with LaTeX. In other words, it is a fact of modern life that at some point or other one will be forced to spend a lot of time on some piece of software that is crucial to a project one badly wants to do. Since this is unavoidable, one would like to avoid adding yet more software programs to the To Do list if they are not strictly necessary. Not least because one knows very well that the new program will itself be superseded within a few years; knowledge of the program is a rapidly depreciating asset.

The conviction that a task will be much better accomplished in software unknown to the primary user seems to be very common. If there were a word for it, I sometimes think, it might not go so absolutely unchallenged.


SMB has left another comment expressing incredulity at the idea that one might buy Flash. The thing to do is get it illegally. Did I buy my copy of Office, anti-virus software etc? (Um, yes, actually. Legal copy of Office. Legal copy of Mellel. Legal copy of Illustrator. Legal copy of Dreamweaver.) It could be that nobody buys software any more. It does strike me as a leetle odd that helping myself to illegal software would be morally acceptable, while selling stories on a website looks bad.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

inscrutable occidentals

Was watching Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More again for a piece I'm writing for The Believer on sequels. The DVDs have interviews with Christopher Frayling, Leone's biographer; Frayling talks about the acting style of Gian Maria Volonte, the bad guy. Volonte, he says, had had a distinguished career on the stage and had an extremely theatrical, flamboyant style which stood in sharp contrast to the laconic, understated style of Eastwood; by the time Leone made For a Few Dollars More he was starting to get irritated by the excesses of Volonte, to the point of having him make multiple takes of the same scene to wear him down. I'd always heard the same thing of Leone's method in directing Rod Steiger in Fistful of Dynamite: Steiger would put in an explosive performance and Leone would say: That's amazing, Rod, absolutely amazing, could you do that for me just one more time? And he would have Steiger do the scene again and again until he was worn out and the performance was what Leone was looking for.

Interesting because so radically different from Kurosawa's use of Mifune (star of Yojimbo, the film which inspired Fistful of Dollars). When Kurosawa first saw Mifune's audition for the studio's talent search Mifune was hurling himself around the stage in a frenzy, like a wild animal; Kurosawa knew he would offend the studio aparatchiks and made a personal appeal to the jury to give this extraordinary talent a chance. When he used Mifune in Drunken Angel, with Shimura Takashi, he commented that Mifune's performance threw off the balance of the film - Shimura, as the alcoholic doctor, was excellent, but Mifune was completely overpowering.

And yet a film director can rejoice over a marvelous asset only to have it turn into a terrible burden. If I let Mifune in his role of the gangster become too attractive, the balance with his adversary, the doctor played by Shimura Takashi, would be destroyed. If this should occur, the result would be a distortion of the film's overall structure. Yet to suppress Mifune's attractiveness at the blossoming point of his career because of the need for balance in the structure of my film would be a waste. And in fact Mifune's attraction was something his innate and powerful qualities pushed unwittingly to the fore; there was no way to prevent him from emerging as too attractive on the screen other than keeping him off the screen. I was caught in a real dilemma. Mifune's attractiveness gave me joy and pain at the same time.

Drunken Angel came to life in the midst of these contradictions. My dilemma did indeed warp the structure of the drama, and the theme of the film became somewhat indistinct. But as a result of my battle with the wonderful qualities called Mifune the whole job became for me a liberation from something resembling a spiritual prison. Suddenly I found myself on the outside.

The drunken-doctor performance Shimura gave was a superb 90 percent, but because his adversary, Mifune, turned in 120 percent I had to feel a little sorry for him.

(Something Like an Autobiography, p 162)

One we made earlier

I got an e-mail from Rafe Donahue a couple of months ago with two plots that I couldn't get to display properly, and so time passed, time passed, but I am now having another shot at it, including also Rafe's comments:

...logistic regression allows one to predict a categorical outcome as a function of other variables. The output is typically a cumulative logit (log-odds), which is linear, but those are hard to understand. So I drew the probabilities and their confidence intervals.

So, you can see that as your TAC score goes up, you are less likely to be in the No Disease group, and if you have a TAC score of about 10,000 you have about a 50-50 chance of being in the Rutherford 1,2,3 club (disease) or the Rutherford 4,5,6 club (very bad disease).

I did the analysis in SAS and drew the plot in R.

Also is a plot that shows how to predict TAC score from disease group. This one shows the means, confidence intervals for the means, and prediction intervals for the individual scores.

Meanwhile Rafe has sent another e-mail with his thoughts on the study of biostatistics, it's not all cool plots was the gist, I know, I know, I know . . .

Friday, November 16, 2007

Word from Q

I asked Hassan whether it was really necessary to have a shopping basket in Flash and he said Yes. He explained:

What I have in mind is something where a short story title lies on top of a
long underlining line with a synopsis underneath, perhaps the whole thing
enclosed in a rectangular border, not sure, but anyway when you click on it,
the synopsis text rolls up into the line to fall back again as the extract
of the story with scroll/page flip buttons on the bottom or the side of the
text, as the entire unit moves to take over the page. Sort of see the
picture? And then that allows this to be visually related to the shopping
basket that will faithfully maintain the HoV ideal, which unfortunately is
offline at the moment so I can't refresh my memory.

Now all I need is the Aston Martin and the vodka martini.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


I got an e-mail a few days ago from Mithridates. He said if Tender Only to One was what he thought it was it should go public because it might help people who were close to the edge.

Also an e-mail from someone whose son had read The Last Samurai many times many years ago.

Also an e-mail from Hassan Abudu, who in the midst of jobhunting has grappled with PHP and MYSQL and produced a map for the website where readers can mark their location.

Also many e-mails from Mark Greif of n+1, who is seeing Your Name Here through the last stages before the magazine goes to print.

Among others.

So I have been discussing vexed questions by e-mail. Is it kosher to talk about bad things people do when one is fresh from a psychiatric ward, I say, citing the example of X. Mith: Yes, you should definitely use this. ... Check with Rawls; I'm sure of it!!! It's in the chapter called "Fuck Him": Rawls uses Grotius in a really
interesting way there....

And what would be good headings for the map app, says Hassan. What would make speech bubbles less lame? What would make the forms look good? And what about a shopping cart for the website?

I was not sure this was such a good idea; there are more stories, yes, but they are on hard drives on three or four laptops, or a pile of plastic folders somewhere, and they would have to be cleaned up, and in short this looked like a good way not to finish a book.

I then remembered the website I had asked my first webdesigner to use as a model 3 years ago. Haunch of Venison. I thought, Yes, maybe we could pirate the design of the HOV website for the map page. So I had a look, and I suddenly realised that if I could have a shopping basket like the HOV shopping basket it would be worth digging up 5 stories to have something to put in it. I passed this on to HA, who writes:

laaaaaaaa ilaha illallah... You know, when I first read you'd consider digging through terabytes of data and kilograms of paper to get 5 short stories together just so you could have an online store like this HoV thing, you had me wondering what sort of shopping basket could be that cool, I mean, it's just a freaking shopping basket, anyway, it's also just a webpage, how bad could it be. Sweet Jesus and Mary Poppins I will never doubt again. Next time I will show Faith! Holy fucking cow, where on earth did you find that thing? How am I also going to fully communicate the full scale and magnitude of my awe, and of course my newfound respect for web designers who take pride in their work, I mean, who'd ever think to do that to a freaking *shopping basket*, canonically the shittiest part of any website?! OK, now I see where the bar has been all along, I see I'm going to have to step it up a notch now. *stretches fingers*
Which may sound irrelevant, or anyway irrelevant to thoughts of suicide, but the thing is, I've spent the last 12 years working on books where the look of the page was essential to the narrative. (I can't stand to look at the Greek and Japanese in The Last Samurai; I remember the way this was meant to look on the page, I think of the designers who fought successfully to achieve something amateurish, I don't want to think about it.) I told agents: I want to work with an editor who's interested in design, who'll let me work with a designer, who's interested in the technical side, and they all said: You're never gonna get that, you're wasting your time, you'll go barmy if you try, no editor is interested in that, you'll drive yourself mad. My website was supposed to achieve all the things I was told No Publisher Will Allow in books, so I hired a designer in Berlin 3 years ago and asked for something like the Haunch of Venison site, only with Jim Rose's kanji stroke diagrams, and No Webdesigner Will Allow.

Spolsky's criterion for good hires is Smart, Gets Things Done. It's strange to stumble across people who are SGTD not by sending out manuscripts, not by recruitment, not by paying people, but just by swapping e-mails with people who happened to read a book. If I'd been dealing with people like Mith and Hassan for the last 12 years I would have spent the time writing and publishing books, what larks. Meanwhile Hassan is full of ideas:

Oh, but I have reworked the database design so that a social networking book
exchange webapp should just fall into place naturally. ... What I changed: the user data we'll now be able to store when I'm done are: name, password, town, country, picture, books you own, books you desire, and an message section where you can send and receive messages. Anything else come to mind?

I could say more, much more, but I am meeting someone in Rosenthalerplatz in 15 minutes, so I am already late. The beta of the map app is here:

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Imran sent off

"I am not a dictator, I want a democracy," he told Britain's Sky News. "The day when there is no turmoil in Pakistan, I will step down."

General Pervez Musharraf, shortly after the arrest of Imran Khan. (Arresting popular former cricket superstars: just another innovative approach to the tricky question of how to end turmoil in Pakistan.) "Safe Pair of Hands" Musharraf has explained that he feels the state of emergency is crucial to fair elections; its purpose is simply to ensure that elections proceed in an undisturbed manner.

Declan Walsh in the Guardian

Saturday, November 10, 2007

impossible negative

From Good Math, Bad Math

The British lottery put out a "scratch-off" game called "Cool Cash". The idea of it is that it's got a target temperature on the card, and to win, you need uncover only temperatures colder than the target. Simple, right?

Since Britain is on the metric system, they measure temperatures in Celsius. So naturally, some of the temperatures end up being below zero. And that's where the trouble came in. So many people didn't know that below zero, larger numbers are lower and thus colder, that the lottery had to withdraw the game!

To quote one of the "victims":

On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won, and so did the woman in the shop. But when she scanned the card the machine said I hadn't.

I phoned Camelot and they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher - not lower - than -8 but I'm not having it.

Edy Poppy

While in Morocco I got an e-mail from Rose Merrill, an American who does I forget what in Berlin, announcing the book launch of Edy Poppy. According to Ilya, Poppy has been called the Norwegian Marguerite Duras. Her book, Anatomy. Monotony, has been published in Norwegian, Italian and now German. I said I would not be able to make it to the launch but Rose could post the announcement on the blog; I had a shot at making her a contributor, which did not work, so I gave her my password and said she could log on as me.

[It is snowing heavily. First snow of the year.]

I kept checking the blog for the announcement but there was no sign of it. I needed to check something today on Tender Only to One, a blog which is currently under wraps with classified posts in the drafts folder. Shock horror. The Edy Poppy announcement was on the secret blog!

The launch has come and gone, but I have imported the post for German, Norwegian or Italian readers who may want to know more about the Norwegian Duras.

Book launch at FUCHSBAU

a brand new bar at: Planufer 95, 10967 Berlin-Kreuzberg, tel: 030 691 75 95

From 7 pm till you drop ...

Ragnhild Moe (Edy Poppy) invites you to the launch party of her debut novel: Die Hände des Cellisten(original title: Anatomy. Monotony.), by Goldmann Verlag

Rose Berlin will introduce the author, who will read an extract from her book in English.
The actress Nora Linnemann will read an extract in German.

PS: To support the heroine of the book, Vår, we request that all girls and boys with long hair wear braids wrapped around their head or coiled at the side – milkmaid style.

Also: Don’t judge a book by its cover!
Behind Ragnhild Moe is in fact the Norwegian writer Edy Poppy, author of Anatomy. Monotony. for which she received the Gyldendal prize (for best “fucked up” love story). The novel has also been translated into Finnish (Otava) and Italian (Bompiani). However, Poppy feels she has been cheated by her German publisher, Goldmann. Without consulting the author, they changed her title into a cliché and made the cover look cheap and kiosk-like, claiming the original was too shocking for the German sensibility. She says, “It feels like having plastic surgery while asleep and waking up with a face that doesn’t belong to you anymore.”

SO PLEASE COVER IT UP! - As one would do in the old times: putting grey paper over the offensive image to censor pornography.

In collaboration with
Gartenstudio Gallery
Naunynstr. 53
10999 Berlin
tel. 030-22 16 222 97

We ask those of you interested to create your own cover: photographs, drawings... anything goes. Send, hand deliver or e-mail your proposal, from now until the 15th of January, to Gartenstudio Gallery, or to the author herself: There will be an exhibition of the best entries at the end of January 2008 and publication in a literary art magazine.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Our Man in Port Moresby

IG is about to head off for Papua New Guinea, having been made AAP correspondent in Port Moresby.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

the new new grub street

Gabriele Bärtels, award-winning journalist, founder and editor of the now defunct online magazine Frida, had a remarkable piece in last week's Zeit on the financial difficulties facing journalists in Germany today. I say remarkable because there is no reason to think Die Zeit is any better than any of the other papers in its treatment of freelancers - the editors who don’t reply to submissions, accept a piece after months of silence, decide not to publish but don’t bother to tell the author are no doubt as much a fact of life at Die Zeit as anywhere else, as, I assume, are the cheques which mysteriously take further months to materialise thanks to helpful accounts departments. Bärtels’ hand-to-mouth existence, avoiding her landlord when she can’t pay the rent, staying in bed when she runs out of money, coaxing and cajoling her bank manager not to close down her account because look, a national newspaper has accepted a substantial piece of work, the money is in the pipeline if not the post, is not the predicament of someone just starting out, with no credentials and no contacts, but someone with an impressive history of publications and awards. It’s as bad as it is because of the capricious behaviour of those who buy her work. So hats off to Ms Bärtels for having the chutzpah to write about it and send the result to Die Zeit, and hats off to Die Zeit for putting it on the front page of Chancen (‘job opportunities’ would be the English equivalent, I think, but German trounces English in capturing the lottery that is the modern job market).

I can’t imagine any English-language paper of comparable stature publishing a piece that exposes the machinery behind its own publishing practice. Back in the mid-90s David Foster Wallace wrote an essay for Esquire on the Canadian Open; he spent a lot of time on the obstacles the system places in the path of talented players not yet in the top 10. It’s an extraordinary piece of work - but if DFW has written anything comparable about the system confronting writers like himself it’s never been published by Esquire or anyone else.


Bah. Many hours have passed. My start-up OS 9 disk has arrived, ordered off Ebay so I can install Language Kits for a version of Photoshop ME that only works in Classic. I wanted to say something about Adorno, I wanted to translate passages from GB's excellent article, but the phone rang and it was a friend who had been out of town, visited by another friend from out of town, we should have coffee, he said, so I joined them for coffee and was told no names could be named, Whatever you do don't mention this in your blog, my wife will think we're having an affair. Adorno. Dead giveaway. Hm. German readers can check out the piece here, those unfamiliar with the language can curse jealous wives and nameless friends.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Readers of The Last Samurai may remember that I spoke in the acknowledgements of my friend Ann Cotton, who had started raising funds in 1990 to help girls in Zimbabwe finish secondary school. Their reputation for exceptionally effective work in this field continues to grow; just found this excellent news on the Camfed website:

President Clinton Highlights Camfed Commitment for Girls’ Education in Africa

The 2006 CGI Annual MeetingBill Clinton highlighted Camfed’s work for girls’ education in Africa during a plenary session of the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York on Friday. Choosing Camfed as just one of three Commitments to be highlighted by the former US President, Clinton spoke about the importance of girls’ education, and Camfed’s efficacy in delivering its maximum returns:

(the rest, including a video of Clinton talking about Camfed, here)

Camfed has also been chosen for the Financial Times Christmas appeal for the second year in a row (last year $1.2 million dollars were raised). More about this year's appeal here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


It's 6.50 am. I got up at 6.02 to put more coal in the ovens before they went out. It's tricky because you have to leave the flu open for a while to get the carbon monoxide sucked out, but it can't be open too long or all the heat leaves and the coal burns down. TAR ART RAT has given me a number to call for compressed wood briquettes.

Johanna Thompson likes the idea of the pret-a-parler language lessons, though our meetings lately have been taken up with abortive attempts to get me signed up for health insurance. Since April having health insurance has been a legal requirement in Germany, and insurance companies are legally required to provide insurance to people who have jobs that offer benefits, but they are not required to insure people who are self-employed.

We talked to the DAK, her insurance company, and they said that they could not insure me because I was self-employed, but if I signed on with the Kunstlersozialkasse they would then be able to provide insurance. The KSK paperwork takes 6 months to process, but the longest journey starts with a single step; we got the forms, which required a survey of my employment history from the time I finished my doctorate to the publication of my first book; they also required a form from the insurance company I proposed to use. So Johanna got the form from DAK, and we filled it in and went back, and they explained that they could not sign off on it unless I was already insured. If I took out private insurance they could then sign the form; otherwise not. If I had been overseas and had proof of insurance there that would be all right. So it might be necessary to go back to Britain and get a certificate from the NHS. Or it might be possible to sign on with Sozialhilfe, claiming phobia of the spoken word as a mental disability presenting obstacles to employment (this is not a dodge, just a statement of fact, but that does not necessarily give it a better chance of making the grade).

I once knew a woman who wrote a novel about German bureaucracy. She had been knocked off her bicycle at Checkpoint Charlie and had had to go through a complicated procedure to get compensation. For some reason there were penalties associated with not claiming compensation.

The next room smells strange. I open the windows. The air is fresh and sweet.

Mark Greif has been sending the proofs for the excerpt from Your Name Here which will appear in the next issue of n+1. The designer has not yet finalised the Arabic so it's hard to tell what it will look like.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Scott Adams reveals some

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, agreed to take part in a Q&A session on Freakonomics. On blogging:

It’s the best creative outlet I’ve ever had because I can write whatever I want, as often as I want. No editor gets between me and the reader. As a writer, you can’t beat that. It’s highly rewarding from a creative standpoint.

more on schmoozing

DSL said he was sure schmoozing meant simply social talk rather than sycophancy; I said I had always thought of it as social with talk with connotations of a possible pay-off; D said:

I'm not sure about that. I've certainly seen synagogues here advertising
social evenings involving "schmoozing", and I don't take the implication to
be that lots of business deals will be conducted on the premises.

I then checked out the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary online, which says:

to talk informally with someone, especially in a way that is not sincere or to gain some advantage for yourself:

He spent the entire evening schmoozing with the senator.

This certainly tallies with my first instinct, which was to associate it with the sort of thing Bill Clinton and Tina Brown do so well. I do wonder, though. It could be that in the Jewish community the word is used simply as a synonym for 'chat', while in the larger pool of English speakers it carries with it the idea of chatting with ulterior motives. Or perhaps there is a pattern of usage but it does not fall along confessional lines. Hm.

Be that as it may, Pons seems to be decidedly unhelpful to Germans who come across Yiddish terms in common English use: nebbish, mensch, schlemiel, kibitz, kvetsh, shtik and chutzpah are all beneath the radar. 'Chuzpe' does turn up in my Deutsch-Englisch für Schule und Studium, defined as 'gall'. The thing that has dropped out, obviously, is that in English we have the word 'gall', which is pejorative, and we have the word 'chutzpah' which is a term expressive of admiration referring to the same thing. Many centuries ago the English responded to the Norman invasion by enriching the language: we have cows, pigs and sheep (the animals downtrodden peasants raise by the sweat of their brow) and we have beef, veal, pork and mutton (the comestible version that turns up on the oppressor's plate). Thanks to Yiddish we now have affectionate lexemes for all sorts of things for which the language already had unamused equivalents. This is exactly where one looks to a dictionary for guidance: if Chuzpe is pejorative in German, the user needs to know that it is in common use in English but does not have pejorative connotations.

There is another twist, though, which is that English-speakers often perceive Germans as brusque and unpleasantly direct. In other words, while 'gall' is undoubtedly pejorative in English, it's entirely possible that Chutzpe is not actually pejorative in German, it's simply the 'Let's call a spade a spade' term for the quality. In other words, it could be that it is only the English-speaker's search for the impossible dream, the perfect euphemism, that perceived 'gall' as harsh in the first place and felt a need for a friendlier term.


I had a quick look at the Cambridge American English Dictionary online.

schmooze, shmooze
verb [I]
to talk informally with someone
Mike's out on the porch schmoozing with the neighbors.

So does this mean that, in the view of Cambridge lexicographers, schmooze means 'talk informally especially with an ulterior motive' while in American English it just means 'talk informally'? (But DSL is British.)

Curiouser and curiouser.


The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary offers this for chutzpah:

imaginative and shocking behaviour, involving taking risks but not feeling guilt

(And is there really no German word for this?)


The Cambridge American Dictionary defines chutzpah as

noun [U]
behavior that is extremely confident and often rude, with no respect for the opinions or abilities of anyone else

The movie was made with a little money and a lot of chutzpah.
I wonder who had the chutzpah to disagree with him?