Sunday, December 30, 2007

Friday, December 28, 2007

Benazir Bhutto

Went out to the newsagent this morning after another bad day of flu, saw the news about Bhutto. Tariq Ali has a piece about her in the Guardian. In the early days they would discuss the future of Pakistan, what she might be able to do; she saw herself as on the side of the poor. Later he argued with her about some of her decisions; she would say she did not want to be on the 'wrong side' of history.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

CDO to Pleasure

Interesting essay by John Lanchester in the LRB on the recent Northern Rock debacle and the largely unchallenged role of the City in the UK; if you've never really understood how derivatives work or why they matter, or what a Collateralised Debt Obligation actually is, this is a good overview. Lanchester is one of the most intelligent critics writing in English today (as well as author of the viciously clever Debt to Pleasure); his earlier pieces for the LRB are also available on their website for those new to his work.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Got this in an e-mail from a friend just before I went to America. He'd been to a concert performed by Thomas Ades, which included pieces by a composer he (and I) didn't know:

Conlon Nancarrow, an American composer who was born in 1912,
lived mainly in Mexico, and who died in 1997. Apparently he mostly wrote
for player piano, since he felt that no human performers could produce the
sorts of complex sounds at high speeds that he was interested in. But then
in old age he started writing for pianists again, and this piece - called
Three Canons for Ursula - was one of its fruits. It is what it claims to be
- three canons. But the canons are all expressions of mathematical
relationships: one is called Canon 5/7, the second Canon 6/9/10/15, and the
third Canon 2/3. With each the principle is the same: he starts a melody
(generally a very expressive and tonally intricate one) in the left hand,
and then joins it with the same melody in the right hand played at a faster
speed (in the ratio 5:7 or 2:3, for example), and they then catch up with
one another. The second movement has the left hand playing two melodies in
canon in the ratio 2:3, then joined by the right hand playing the same two
melodies in the ratio 2:3, but with the relationship between the left hand
and the right in the ratio 3:5. Oh, and the melodies in the different hands
are sometimes in different keys.

FWIW, 'Listen to at least one composition by Conlon Nancarrow' strikes me as both a more interesting New Year's Resolution than the normal vows to exercise more, drink and smoke less, and (ahem) spend no more than two hours a day online - and one with better chances of success. So that's mine.

Monday, December 24, 2007

amj tomorrow, amj yesterday but never amj today?

In bed with bad cold. 11am the doorbell rings. Ich komme, ich komme, I cry, rolling out of bed, pulling on trousers, ich komme (which may not be what a native speaker would say in the circs, just a handy phrase I picked up from Johann Sebastian). I open the door, it's the Postlieferin with two packages. One is a Portugese dictionary because I wanted to say something about Bernardo Moraes' Minimundo last week and kept getting stranded at key points in the text. The other is Adam Mars-Jones' Blind Bitter Happiness, a collection of the incomparable AMJ's essays which I discovered online the other day.

Sample (from a memoir of his mother, an anecdote about his grandmother):

Their mother had been all but bald, at least until the day of her Transformation. One day Father had said, Your mother has had a Transformation, and when Mam had come downstairs, radiantly smiling, the top of her head had a quite different aspect. No one in Llansannan used the word wig. Perhaps no one even thought it. It was always: 'Your mam's Transformation is so smart', 'Doesn't your mam look magnificent in her Transformation?' The sudden change in Mrs Jones's appearance was received in that Chapel community like a biblical miracle. It was not to be questioned. Lazarus was dead and just now came stumbling from the tomb. Mrs Jones was all but bald and has a fine head of hair.

Also an interview, sort of, of Mick Jagger at which Ian Botham turned up:

The phone rings. It's someone called Ian, not from Hollywood. Jagger talks to him. 'Yeah...yeah. Come on over. Yeah. See ya.' He rings off.
'My God,' says Charlie. 'I.T. Botham. I.T. fucking Botham. He's like W.G. Grace, you know, fucking W.G. Grace. I've never met thim.' Awe-struck.
'I have,' says Mick. 'Twice, three times.'


Charlie reminisces about his love of cricket and music. Since the age of eight. Hutton. Bradman. Well, not Bradman in the flesh. 'I.T., it's the same as Coe and Ovett. Thirty thousand people'd come and see you any day of the week. But you belong to a club, to a club of old colonels, and what do you get out of it?'
Botham doesn't mind this line of argument. 'Appearance money, that's about it.'
'That's how it was for us when we started. It was 10-90. A dollar for you, a few cents for us. Then we got a dollar each. And now it's 90-10. We hire a stadium -- say, we hire Wembley for 15 per cent of the gate. Nobody hires us.'
'I know. So what do we do about it?'
'There msut be something. Because fuck it, you're like W.G. Grace. You're one of the greats, I.T.'
'Right,' says Mick.
Charlie turns to Vic again. 'You and me, Vic, we're close. Can we be alone?'
Vic laughs.
Botham takes a deep breath. 'Well, there's one thing you can do, and that's play a gig for me in my benefit year, that's 1984. Say I put up the expenses,, and we share the profits.'
'Where?' says Charlie, sarcastic. 'Taunton?'
'Glastonbury, more like,' says Botham. 'Do it proper. Make it a good show.'
'I dunno,' says Jagger. 'I dunno about that.' The atmosphere isn't what it was. 'I dunno about that, even in terms of the business.'
What can he mean? Surely he can't mean Keith and me aren't what you could call chums and he thinks cricket's a joke, so why would he play guitar for you? Would I do a benefit for a retiring distiller?

[From Tatler 1982. It's more moving now, a quarter of a century later: the Stones can still fill a stadium. One of the great cricketers of the 20th century is unlikely to command much in appearance money today.]

The book has pieces on cinematic representations of disability, many pieces on gay rights and writing, including a savage analysis of Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal. In one respect it has dated in a way that's encouraging: Mars-Jones thinks the battle for same-sex marriage rights takes on so entrenched a position as to be a lost cause, also that it is some kind of betrayal of the alternative forms of relationship that gays have developed outside the framework of institutionalised monogamy. Neither position looks as plausible as they must have done 20 years ago. The suggestion that gay couples should go after the benefits offered by formal adoption just looks like the clumsy workaround that it is.

It's perfectly true that in the United States the prospect of same-sex marriage has aroused such horror that its elimination has trumped states' rights - a significant number of legislators have been willing to override the constitution to ensure that every marriage should boast at least one and at most one Y chromosome. Throwing the constitution overboard has found a significant fanbase in one other realm - fighting terrorism - though here it has actually been less of a crowdpleaser. The overwhelming response of gay couples to the windows of opportunity that opened, however, made it only too obvious that separate but equal translated into secondclass citizenship; the crackdown has at any rate encouraged more principled nations to examine their principles.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


It's the time of year when one tries to deal with unfinished business. Do nasty little jobs one has been putting off. Starting with a clean slate looks so good.

One thing I have been putting off is updating the website. Just before I went to Morocco I tried to post an ad which Mellel had taken out in n+1; Dreamweaver claimed that I had no home page specified but it was not clear what it wanted in the way of a home page so I sent Johanna a 5am e-mail asking if she could upload the attached image instead. She was able to do this, but the page did not make clear that the book had not been published, simply excerpted in n+1, so I got lots of e-mails from people keen to buy the book. So here was this bit of unfinished business, cleaning up the website so that the homepage made it clear &c &c.

I kept putting this off. Today I told myself not to be an idiot. Don't be a coward. Just do it. Do it. COME on.

So I opened Dreamweaver and opened the relevant page. Placing and formatting the bit of text which was to link to n+1 was actually MORE fiddly than my worst fears, which is saying something, but after about 4 hours of trying things out, checking them in the browers and trying again there was something that looked good on all browsers. Good. So I copied the updated page to the server, and on typing in got a page which had a menu and the instruction: n+1. Submit Query. No picture. Bad news.

I tinkered with the page but got nowhere. Best just to leave it, perhaps? I clicked on a menu item and got a 404 message, Page Not Found. So now the whole website was down. Johanna is once again having a look at its directories. Update, Johanna has restored it to its former state. And we will meet and clean up directories. Poor tired head. Try to be sane.

sadly for simple piety

Various prominent members of German churches are extremely annoyed. German shopping hours have gradually been relaxed over the years (it was once the case that shops were open 9-6 Monday-Friday, 9-1 on Saturday). Sunday trading was the sticking point. More recently, though, the decision was made to leave this up to the individual Länder. Berlin has been especially aggressive in taking advantage of this, passing a law permitting shops to remain open 17 Sundays a year. Needless to say a large number of merchants have picked the Sundays in the run-up to Christmas as the most profitable. One churchman complained: When it comes to staying open on Sunday during ADVENT it's simply the last straw.

Meanwhile I've been reading the manuscript of THE SKEPTICAL SYNAGOGUE-GOER'S GUIDE TO JEWISH HISTORY, by David Levene of the NYU Classics Department. It is a book offering ammunition for the sort of person who goes to synagogue, sits through a sermon in growing indignation at the ludicrous stories passed off as historical fact, thinks "This is absolute bollocks" and wants to share this point of view with the rabbi later over a thimbleful of kosher wine - but doesn't have the evidence to back him (or, of course, her) to back it up. While aimed primarily at a Jewish audience, the book is obviously of interest to anyone who has ever wondered vaguely, as it might be, Did the Assyrian really come down like a wolf on the fold?

The book sets out the accounts of various supposedly historical events as presented in the Tanach and Midrash, then looks at these in the light of historical evidence and considers the question of how far the evidence bears out the traditional version. In some cases, the answer is, not terribly far. The reasoning by which the Seder Olam Rabbah concluded that there were only four Persian kings, and that the Persian Empire lasted 52 years (as opposed to the span of 539-331 BCE favoured by most historians) has a charm all its own. In other cases the traditional version holds up surprisingly well.

To come clean, I tend to steer clear of the type of place where people bundle up moral arguments and historical fabrications. I converted to Judaism in 1987, but I seldom go to a service. Before conversion I was an Episcopalian who avoided services with the same assiduity.
Nothing I have seen of Islam makes me think it would have more to offer than the competition. It's still a pleasure to have the evidence in one place for anecdotes dimly remembered from religious texts; it's a pleasure to see how the chronology of Persian kings can be worked out from Babylonian astronomical calendars showing lunar eclipses, confirmed by legal documents of the time and other sources. Books aimed at a general audience tend to skimp on quotations and references, so that the interested reader has no way of following up something that sounds interesting; it's a pleasure to read one that's an exception to the rule.

DSL is currently looking for a publisher for the book (it is under consideration by an editor as I write); I trust he will find one soon.

Friday, December 21, 2007


I was going to write a post on the Accents series I bought in Oxford, but it needed a lot of space to do it justice; as so often, the thought of moving to another blog host looked good, as did putting Movable Type on my webserver, much tinkering, all boring and a stupid use of time. Meanwhile I came across a podcast in the Guardian of John Mullan and audience throwing questions at Philip Pullman. I think if anyone wanted to study English accents they would do well to start with something like this podcast, which gives one a variety of accents to compare - but as boring technical problems remain unresolved I leave this large topic for later. Meanwhile, a sample of this interesting interview:

Q (Very Young Reader): Why did you choose to put the religious plot in The Amber Spyglass?

A (Pullman): Well it was there from the beginning actually because it was always the power

I mean the power that has dominion in that world is a religious power and I wanted that to be there because um that's the most dangerous sort of power it seems to me

A power that rules in the in the in the name of something that may not be questioned

Religion um -- and this is something I've said a good few times -- religion is something that is very good when it is far away from power, when it concerns itself with the poor, with the suffering, with the oppressed, with injustice, with that sort of thing, with the sick, religion does good things.

When you give it political power, when you give it the power to send armies into war or to order people to be executed or to to reach into our lives and tell us what to to eat and drink, what to wear and so on, when it has that sort of power, the power of punishing people basically, it goes bad very very quickly

and I wanted to I wanted to see what it would be like to imagine a world in which religious power had that sort of authority. That's why I put it in.

Q (Older Reader): I was just wondering about whether you, the characters in the book are predestined at all, with the daemons for example, servants all have dogs as daemons, and I wondered whether the daemons are a sort of view of the predestination of these characters or whether the daemons are dogs because they have become servants

A (Pullman): That's a question that other people have wondered about so perhaps I didn't put it very well in the book

It's not a it's not a it's not a limiting thing, it's not a determining thing.
If your daemon is a dog it means that you're happy in the sort of in the sort of structure where you know who has the authority, where you know who's the boss,
dogs like to know who's in charge,

and if you have a group of dogs, a pack of dogs, there's a top dog and there's a bottom dog and there's a, they all know their place in the order, they like that, it keeps them happy, they know where they are.

And it seemed to me that if your daemon was a dog it would tell you that you'd be happy working in a sort of structure where there was someone in charge and you were happy to obey orders and carry them out. It doesn't say anything about your character apart from that, it doesn't say whether you're good or bad or strong or weak or clever or silly it just says that's the sort of person you are and you'd be happy in that sort of structure.

So it would probably turn out as I said in the story that if your daemon is a dog you'd be quite happy being a servant and there are some people who I've no doubt would be happy carrying out orders and making sure things are all right for the person in charge and so on.

That's why but it doesn't say anything more about you than that.

Q (Young Reader): I was quite intrigued about the concept of dust and how it's like so complex and you use it to portray so many things like puberty and the universe and everything really

(John Mullan): It's one of those all-purpose symbols

A (Pullman): It means -- well, now here I'm wondering whether I should interpret my own work and tell you what it means

I'm kind of reluctant to tell you what things mean because as I'm the chap who wrote it that gives me a sort of authority in this field

but I'm not sure that I do have that sort of authority because

If you think, if you've got a theory of dust and you've worked it out you have every right to do that.

When the book, when the book is finished and published the autocracy of writing, which is an autocratic procedure, I'm a despot, I'm a tyrant when I write because I have absolute power of life and death over every sentence, every comma, every, every character, I can kill them, I can bring them to life, I can cut off the end of this chapter and start somewhere else, I'm the authority and no one can tell me not to do it.

Once the book is published the autocracy of authorship comes to an end and the democracy of reading begins, and that's the point when I cease to have any authority.

I can't tell you what it means.
I can tell you what I think it means -- and so can anybody else.
But if I tell you what I think it means that'll, because I wrote the book people might think that that is what it really means,
and there's no more argument about it,
but I don't want that to to happen, I want there to be discussion about it,
I want you to think about all the things it might mean --
You've come up with a good few things there
If I if I

But you have asked me a question and it's unfair to evade it so I'll just say the word 'consciousness'. And leave it at that.


If Pullman has always had undisputed control of the text that appeared in the published books he is a very lucky man. Especially the commas.

On the subject of intentionalism, it's interesting to look at PP's answer to the last question in light of his comments on daemons as dogs. The dog-daemon reply struck me as a flagrant piece of question-begging -- after all, an animal with strongly hierarchical instincts might just as well want to be top dog, the one giving the orders. (Cf. Robert Altemeyer's work on the authoritarian personality, most recently in The Authoritarians.) So it would be reasonable to find such daemons accompanying persons in all sorts of positions - for example, in all ranks of the military, or a hierarchical Church. The sort of person who wants to know his/her place in a system needs other people above, below and on the same level forming that sort of system. We may note, for example, that someone like Pullman would not satisfy anyone with that sort of personality: he would be reluctant to exercise authority over someone who wanted orders to follow, but equally reluctant, as far as one can see, to accept a position requiring obedience. What he likes is to exercise authority over a text, a non-human object, and to abjure authority over what other humans do with the object once it exists.

Pullman thinks a disposition to obedience says nothing about your moral virtues or vices. Sadly, Bob Altmeyer has yet to write a series of bestselling children's books culminating in a movie starring Nicole Kidman. Altmeyer:

Don’t think for a minute this doesn’t concern you personally. Let me ask you, as we’re passing the time here, how many ordinary people do you think an evil authority would have to order to kill you before he found someone who would, unjustly, out of sheer obedience, just because the authority said to? What sort of person is most likely to follow such an order? What kind of official is most likely to give that order, if it suited his purposes? Look at what experiments tell us, as I did.

If that isn't a moral issue it'll have to do, until the real thing comes along. Links for the lazy repeated: Pullman, Altmeyer.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

the other side of the fence

Somewhat overwhelmed by end-of-year getting into position. Came across a rabblerousing analysis of the music industry by David Byrne (Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists -- and Megastars) on Wired, courtesy of 3quarksdaily:

What is music?

First, a definition of terms. What is it we're talking about here? What exactly is being bought and sold? In the past, music was something you heard and experienced — it was as much a social event as a purely musical one. Before recording technology existed, you could not separate music from its social context. Epic songs and ballads, troubadours, courtly entertainments, church music, shamanic chants, pub sing-alongs, ceremonial music, military music, dance music — it was pretty much all tied to specific social functions. It was communal and often utilitarian. You couldn't take it home, copy it, sell it as a commodity (except as sheet music, but that's not music), or even hear it again. Music was an experience, intimately married to your life. You could pay to hear music, but after you did, it was over, gone — a memory.

Technology changed all that in the 20th century. Music — or its recorded artifact, at least — became a product, a thing that could be bought, sold, traded, and replayed endlessly in any context. This upended the economics of music...

The rest here.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Came across a review article on things by Jessica Helfand of Design Observer, taking in Perec, Dr Seuss, Buy Nothing Day, the Addams Family, Sherry Turkle's Evocative Objects, and other, ahem, things too numerous for a half-awake blogger to mention. Just in time for the Christmas season.

In George Perec's first novel Things, published in 1965, the protagonists are a pair of disillusioned dropouts who are quickly revived when they join the (then-newly minted) field of market research — a choice that ultimately traps them in a kind of closed loop of consumer greed. It's easy to perceive this story as a fictional depiction of bourgeois culture (the characters become puppets in a modern retelling of an ancient parable, proving that no good ever comes of wanting too much) when, in point of fact, Perec's narrative is stunningly, even disturbingly accurate as a modern-day portrayal of capitalist greed.

The rest here.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Greening of books again

I recently thought I'd try out an online bookswapping site, Bookmooch. You sign up; you list some books you'd like to get rid of, for each of which you get 1/10th of a point; if someone asks for one and you send it you get 1 or 3 points, depending on whether they're in your country or another; if you mooch a book you pay 1 or 2 points, depending on whether it's a national or international mooch.

Bookmooch has been fretting over the free rider problem: some people sign up, mooch lots of books and are never heard of again. Quite why this came as a surprise is anybody's guess. On listing my books and getting requests for them, I found that the postage was on my nickel - in other words, having paid for the books once, I must then pay again to give them away. It's true that if I sent them internationally I get 3 points - in other words, I can get 3 books locally for every book I give away - but the last thing I want is to end up with three times as many books as I started with. I'm trying to FREE UP shelfspace.

In other words, other things being equal I would happily be adding more books to the system than I took out of it. On my last trip to London I hauled a whole suitcaseful of books to the Idea Store formally known as the local library. I don't really want to replace them with competitors for restricted shelfspace; at the risk of stating the obvious, releasing them into the Bookmooch pool, when postage for 50+ books had to be paid by me, was not in the realm of the possible. So Bookmooch, bless it, is selecting for free riders and selecting against altruists because they're not altruistic enough. In rewarding people for sending books internationally it's also doing its bit to promote global warming.

Having said all that, it would be possible to use the system to encourage local exchange of books. It's possible to browse books by location - in the US not just by city but even by ZIP code, in the UK by city, in France by department, in Rest of World by country. It would be perfectly possible to encourage people locally to sign up, and to make a point in 2008 of looking first for the books one wanted locally. It wouldn't help authors pay the rent, no, but it would help to reduce one's carbon footprint. From that point of view it's A Good Thing.

Friday, December 14, 2007

money shots then and now

Infinite Thought posts her recent paper on the history of cinematic pornography, of which this is an excerpt:

Despite the overwhelming ‘choice’ of contemporary pornography, certain aspects present in earlier porn are generally forbidden in the mainstream (though they may appear separately as a ‘kink’). These include body hair for women and increasingly for men; physical unfitness (especially for women), and physical ineptitude of any kind. Even those forms of porn that attempt to naturalise its expression, and I’m thinking here of sites like Abby Winters, which shoots in natural light girls without make-up in a particularly intimate way stress the physical superiority of their subjects – it’s all jumping up and down and turning cartwheels. One of the crucial differences between vintage and contemporary porn is the repeated presence of physical failure in the former, and particularly the inability of men to keep it up or to regain their virility fast enough. These physical factors are woven into the plots, such as they are, of some early porn films, lending an air of Beckettian comedy to proceedings. As the appropriately-named Gertrud Koch puts it: ‘we cannot assume that these comic aspects of old porn movies are merely an effect of historical distance.’ Though our retrospective gaze will perhaps add a layer of nostalgia, not least for the poor quality of the footage, we should not imagine that due to some sort of spurious contemporary wisdom about what porn ‘really is’, we are in any position to feel fondly about earlier kinds of erotic material.


Cahiers du Cinema has a video clip of an interview with Jean-Luc Godard here. I'm afraid I found this unenthralling and stopped watching after a few minutes, but fans might like to see it.

hangul to hanja

A reader asked whether one could do this in Tiger. I think so, I think the instructions were simply offered in Korean before the release of Leopard, in which Help Input says:

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


I bought a MacBook in the States (against stiff opposition from Chase Bank): you can run Windows programs, something last offered in a shortlived model of the Performa, and I want to try Bissantz's Sparklines software (won't run on a Mac).

I also very much wanted to upgrade to Leopard; a few months ago a reader who works at Apple had sent me a private communication explaining that Leopard would be offering English-language Help for Japanese, Korean and Chinese input; sure enough, I try out the Kotoeri and Hangul Input Help and get:

which is deeply thrilling for anyone who has struggled along for years with nothing but the instructions Apple used to provide for CJK input, couched in Chinese, Japanese or Korean depending on the language one hoped to use. The funny thing is, though, that this development was not advertised as one of the glories of Leopard - in fact, the reader explained that the reason he was sharing this by e-mail was that he couldn't mention it in a comment on the blog. I felt bad about keeping this to myself, frankly, because I was sure many other Mac users would love to know the ease with which they could soon be inputting away in C, J or K (or all of the above) - but if someone tells me something in confidence I don't think I should be broadcasting it to the blogosphere. Why Apple would want to keep this fabulous news a closely guarded secret is another matter, but let's not be churlish. I assume we can now reveal.

Of course (OK, let's be churlish), the fact that you can run Windows programs on the new Intel-based Macs with OS 10.5 is offset by the fact that you can't run OS 9 and all the applications you have that run in OS 9. Apple tells you sweetly that you should upgrade all your OS 9 applications to versions that run on OS X, which would be a doddle if Adobe out of the goodness of its heart offered free upgrades; Adobe being a nasty, grasping, mercenary sort of company, the sort of company that sees OS X without benefit of OS 9 as a windfall, you're looking at a couple of thousand dollars, at a guess, if you don't happen to have a very dear personal friend who will give you a free installation. Being of a somewhat cynical, pessimistic (not to say churlish) disposition I hung onto the laptop that ran only OS 9 (with the excellent Nisus), but it's now a leetle tricky: that laptop now won't connect to the Internet. So there's probably some sort of lumpen workaround, saving files to a CD, transferring them to the new hard drive . . .

In a separate but not unrelated incident I talked to my father about journals to which he might submit articles, and he was doubtful because they seemed not to say they would accept documents in WordPerfect, and he then opened a document to show me what he had and awwwwwwwwwww. He was still using WordPerfect 6.0 for DOS. Which he had installed in 1986. On the one hand I naturally reflect that Hemingway and Faulker could just buy a typewriter and use the same damn typewriter for the next 50 years. Hemingway's first wife lost a suitcase containing all his early stories, leaving them accidentally on purpose behind on a train because Hemingway had been a shit, but Steve Jobs and Bill Gates do all writers this kind of friendly turn every couple of years or so. But on the other hand my father is now pretty much housebound, and yet he has access to an immense range of scholarly articles through JSTOR. You win some you lose some.

Doris Lessing recently complained about what she saw as the lower level of intellectual engagement which came of spending time on the Internet rather than reading books - and books, she said, were about telling stories. It's not quite that simple, because some stories need images, some stories require more than one language - War and Peace does have upperclass Russians speaking a great deal of French, but it would really be very difficult to get such a book published. Even academic publishers often put pressure on writers to omit quotations from languages other than that in which the book is written - OUP asked Toril Moi to omit quotations from Ibsen in Norwegian in her book on the playwright because the book would otherwise be prohibitively long and expensive. Whereas, for instance, Language Hat often gives generous quotations in Russian from books he has come across. You do win some.

Monday, December 10, 2007

inanity, inanity, all is inanity

Sankt Oberholz is a café on Rosenthalerstraße. It has a blog with a somewhat Alexandrian aesthetic: that is, it has turned the Lost and Found notice into an art form. Berlin is papered with poignant descriptions of missing animals, primarily cats, and Sankt Oberholz has brought this poignancy to plastic folders, CDs, sunglasses, clogs and Ritter sports chocolate.

Gestern wurde eine Tafel Ritter Sport vergessen. Es handelt sich um die Sorte “Pfefferminz”. Es lässt sich deutlich erkennen, dass diese Tafel Schokolade mindestens einmal, eher mehrmals, warm und damit weich und danach wieder kalt und damit fest wurde. Die Verpackung wurde vermutlich während eines dieser Vorgänge im Bereich der beiden rechten Rippenreihen auf den Inhalt aufgedrückt und klebt nun immer noch dort fest.

Yesterday a bar of Ritter Sport was forgotten. It is the 'Peppermint' variety. One can see clearly that this bar of chocolate became warm and soft and after that cold again and hard at least once, more likely many times. The wrapping was presumably pressed against the contents in the area of both right rows during one of these events and is now permanently stuck there fast. [roughly - there's actually more but I am so demoralised by my plodding translation I can't bring myself to include it]

I'd love to be able to write lighthearted yet poignant squibs about Ritter Sports chocolate. In German. What I'd like to do is pay Sankt Oberholz a deposit of 30 euros. Each day I would write a German blog post (yes, time for another blog, 2008 is almost upon us); each day a random Germanophone stranger could correct the post and collect a free coffee and cake at Sankt Oberholz.

When a German cat is striped, by the way, it is 'getigert' (pr. geTiggert). 'Grau getigert' - with grey stripes. I imagine a verb, 'tigern', to give the tiger his stripes (argument from Intelligent Design lurking in the background, Tyger! Tyger! burning bright! In the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry? - I think of Blake whenever I see the word). According to Pons, 'tigern' actually means to mooch, saunter around, like a tiger on the prowl.

I called LottoTeam about the 160 euros. It turns out this is the result of an ill-judged move in early November: the phone was plugged in for some reason, it rang, I answered it. A flood of German poured from the earpiece of the phone; I couldn't make head or tail of it. The speaker seemed to be saying that I was in a draw for Win-A-Cabrio, and this did ring a bell, I seemed to remember entering this free draw online at some earlier date, which must have been when I inadvisedly gave my phone number. The speaker kept talking, and I kept saying, Entschuldigung? And out of the mists came a comprehensible request for my bank details. The point is not that it did not seem a stupid idea to give out bank details over the phone, the point is just that this is exactly the sort of thing that always happens when I get on the phone (which is exactly why I don't like to do business on the phone) - and also, anyway, I had no idea someone could take money from my bank account even if they had the account number unless I actually signed something saying they could.

This is all exasperating, yes, but on the other hand the girl I spoke to today said she would stop whatever it was so no further payments would be taken, and I could write an e-mail explaining the circumstances & requesting a refund, and oddly enough this conversation was beautifully comprehensible. I think it was obvious to the first person I spoke to that I had no idea what was going on, so this was undoubtedly the sort of dodge Mamet dreams up - but then, frankly, 160 Euros is nothing if one has come up through the Miramax school of talent management. And I did get to practice speaking German.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

there's no place like kansas

My stepmother used to share an e-mail address with my father. Then she set up her own e-mail address and he would tell her when people wrote to her and what they had said. I thought she should set up another e-mail address. She said she had no secrets from my father.

I realised that I did not really want to write in English any more. I would feel safer writing in German. I would feel safer still writing in Hungarian.

When bad things happen, the sentences that bring them about are written or spoken in English by people who describe themselves as close personal friends. Unfortunately there is no separate set of articles, pronouns, prepositions, modal verbs and common vocabulary in which people doing ugly things express themselves; they use everyday language, and after a while the words are poisoned. It's stressful to hear people speaking English, which my family naturally do. It's pleasant to read French or German, it's pleasant to hear French or German or Spanish or some other language, one rinsed of bad associations. It's pleasant to be exposed to a language where one is for the most part an eavesdropper, a bystander, anything but a participant.

My parents learned Spanish and Portuguese through the course developed by the Foreign Language Institute. The course permitted no discussion of grammar, the student was required to memorise a series of dialogues and then practice endless variations in phrasing, the idea being that the various structures would become second nature and one would never stop to think about the correct form. As one progressed through the books one achieved a level of fluency which would permit one not only to question a visa applicant but even to utter polite veiled threats, as well as, of course, to give cocktail parties and charm businessmen, politicians and journalists. (The courses are available gratis at , so if there's a language in which you would like to utter suave veiled threats you know where to go.) My stepmother, who is Brazilian, has not had the benefit of this sort of programme; she has lived in America for 17 years without achieving the iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove level of proficiency. My father and stepmother speak English in the home; my brother, who's twelve, doesn't speak Portuguese. There's a point, though you might not think so.

It seems to me that one is often drawn to a language that offers an escape from what one knows. One resists languages that seem to drag one back. So David hated Yiddish, loved American literature, especially Faulkner and Melville, was drawn to Latin, Greek, German, Old Norse. Hassan says his parents tried to force him to learn Ghanaian languages but he escaped into English. I loved French when I was a child because it had no conceivable use in any of the places I happened to be; this was also part of the appeal of Latin, Greek, Italian. My mother disapproved of the sort of person who learns a lot of different languages instead of leaning one extremely well; when I was 18 I decided to learn German, which I knew was simply inadmissible on top of all the others, so when I bought a dictionary I pretended I was buying it for a friend.

I came across that dictionary - a very bad one - while I was going through my storage unit in London. When I bought it I thought that all serious intellectuals read foreign literature in the original language; one day I would meet these people and it would be embarrassing to have grown up in places where that was not the norm. When I was in high school I thought everyone in college would be like that; the people at Smith were not like that, but I then imagined that people at Oxford would be like that. Years later I was talking to my Oxford tutor about Proust, whom I had naturally read in French under the impression that this was something all serious people did, and he said, 'Oh, you have time to read novels in French.' By this time I had read so many novels in French it took no more time to read one in French than in English. How long ago that seems.

It surprises me when someone like Doris Lessing, an expat like me, complains about the Internet. If you grow up in the provinces, where it's hard to get books, you never get over the early sense of scarcity, of being in a place where a single paperback by Simenon might be the only French book. It's hard to get used to the wealth of books which can either be read online or ordered. You can read Ibsen in Norwegian online. You can read the Norse sagas. You can read a facsimile of the first edition of Montaigne. You can read most of Greek and Latin literature and click through to the lexical entries. You can read the Hebrew Bible. When people complain it's as if it never occurred to them in the first place that one might want to do any of these things.

It's late. I'm not sure that my German is up to an argument with LottoTeam.

ups and downs and ups and

Got back from the gym this morning (good) resolved to get a new bike basket (the last stolen while I was in Morocco). Was not sure whether there was enough money in my Postbank account. Went online. My Postbank account asked me to activate my new TAN list (a list of 100 numbers you use to authenticate online payments). I did. Recent activity was displayed. There was a debit of 160 Euros from LottoTeam.

I'm baffled. There was a letter from LottoTeam when I got back offering a 32 Euro voucher in return for taking out a three-month subscription to the Lottery, which I naturally don't want, with all my bank account details and a blank line for a signature. No idea how they got my account details, but surely (I thought) they can't take money from my account if I don't sign anything? I now look more closely at this letter. It says they tried to reach me by telephone twice without success, and the debit for the lottery is made monthly, and they will charge me 160 Euros unless I notify them to the contrary by postcard or fax. I naturally failed to notify them to the contrary, since I was in Florida, so they have taken 160 Euros from my account. Um. Are they really allowed to take money from my account if they simply tell me they will unless I tell them not to?

Anyway, I send them a fax, and I suppose I shall have to call them, and this is stressful so I turn in my hour of need to Bremer Sprachblog. In the comments section it emerges that Anatol Stefanowitsch is considering his options. The blog was started last January as part of the Jahr der Wissenschaften; it takes a lot of time; it may not continue in its present form. Say it ain't so, Anatol, say it ain't so! (What he in fact says is that Unesco has declared 2008 the Jahr der Sprachen, so there may be a reprieve.)

All this while I am mulling over my outraged response to LottoTeam. I have a quick glance at the Guardian; they have published Doris Lessing's acceptance speech for her Nobel Prize - a speech whose nearest rival for sheer idiocy is Paul Auster's speech for the Prince of Asturias Prize earlier this year. Auster's line was that no book had ever stopped anyone from killing anyone, never saved a child's life, never changed anything, a line which, even applied only to novels, could sound plausible only to someone who had never heard of Harriet Beecher Stowe. I had thought no one could top Auster for portentous intellectual laziness; I was young and naive. Lessing begins by talking about the desperate hunger for books in Zimbabwe, moves on to the indifference to books of boys at an upmarket North London school, moves on to sweeping comments about technology:

What has happened to us is an amazing invention - computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked: "What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print?" In the same way, we never thought to ask, "How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?"

They say you're as old as you feel, which would make me about 963, and that was before Lessing went on to privilege books over oral composition, a move which might look plausible to anyone who a) thinks The Da Vinci Code is better value than the Iliad or b) has never come across Milman Parry's work on Homeric epic and oral composition. It's entirely possible that the book-filled mud hut of Lessing's childhood had a copy of the Iliad but missed out on Parry's classic papers in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 1930 and 1932, and entirely possible that Lessing never happened to come across developments in Homeric scholarship on leaving home, one would be rather less likely, one might think, to preserve this unselfconscious ignorance if brought up on, um, the inanities of the Internet. If you're as old as you feel then discovering that a Novel Prize acceptance speech can underperform the sort of blog post one dashes off in half an hour (without bothering to check Wikipedia) would make me about 1097.

Which might explain why I have yet to adjust to the telephone, that instrument of the Devil.

votes for sperm

In 1984 Gerald Ford chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. I thought it was pretty exciting, the prospect of a woman as VP. My father did not think this was exciting; he also commented that he thought no woman could be elected President.

On my recent visit to see my father he commented on a reader's report to his publishers on his book on Brazil. The report was unfavourable. My father imagined the reader as a dandy with a mustache who taught at a women's college. He apologised for this in an afterthought, remembering that I had gone to Smith. I went to Smith because I thought it would be full of hardcore intellectuals who were not interested in a social life; I dropped out because it wasn't.

My father also went to a single-sex institution, the Naval Academy.

Sperm sperm sperm sperm Sperm sperm sperm sperm SPERM wonderful sperm.

I don't know whether a candidate's ability to be a good president is irredeemably compromised by the means it takes to get into office. JFK overcame the handicap of Catholicity with more than a little help from the less famous Joe. HRC has certainly jettisoned rather a lot of scruples over the years. I have no idea what she would do with power if she had it. I see no reason to think she would have even the longest of shots at power if she had stuck to her scruples. I'd love to think my father is an outlier.

Friday, December 7, 2007


Levitation aside, there is a vocabulary test engine called Lavengro that is written in Python (one you can use, in other words, to build your own vocabulary tests); I started learning Python months ago and then something came up, but I'd like to go back to it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Dick Van Dyke, Rod Steiger, someone was watching

In Oxford to see my dentist, Roz Tritton. Or rather, in Oxford to see my dentist's hygienist. I would just as soon not make a special trip to Oxford to see a hygienist, but dentists don't like patients who cherrypick - you can't have your teeth cleaned locally and then make special trips to see the Best Dentist in the World.

Went into Blackwell's Language Department. Methuen has produced a series called access accents, developed by actors by accent coach Penny Dyer: they have London (Cockney), American, Geordie, Yorkshire, Welsh and Received Pronunciation. The thing that's odd, of course, is that this is a series aimed at actors who are native speakers but want to master a range of accents - as far as I know there's nothing like it for language learners, though regional accents are one of the biggest obstacles. But it's a fabulous idea; I have bought 4 (London/Cockney, American, Yorkshire and RP). Perhaps I can do something similar for German on Garageband.

And now I am late for my bus, half an hour to get up to Headington.