Friday, March 28, 2008
'No nation has ever treated the pig as cruelly, as barbarously, as diabolically as the U.S. But you will never find a pig sign or sculpture where the pig isn’t smiling. So the question is – is this unanimous smile the successful result of the big lie? Or, examined a little closer, aren’t those smiles more in the nature of grimaces? Aren’t the mass of happy cartoon pigs really like the damned in Memlinc’s paintings, except that they are denied even the faculty of frowning or crying out as the demons poke them with their tridents – or, the case of the poor American pig, stun them with their tasers? There’s an interesting connection to be made to feminism – Ellen Willis, in the eighties, suggested the idea of a smile strike by women. The idea never really got off the ground, but I think that the omni-depicted smiling pig is, perhaps, engaged in something like it – such exaggerated smiles are put on the pig, so happy is the cavorting pig, that I suspect a strike-like aspect, a sort of kabuki piggism in which the smiles are coded, in their exaggeration, to mean the opposite. Charlotte’s Pig, Wilbur, was, in a sense, a last, romantic feudal pig before the meat corporations took over the pig’s life – perhaps, indeed, the Wilbur, or the Empress of Blandings, stands to pigdom as Robinson Crusoe stood to the ideology of the classical economists. Marx would immediately understand the smiling pig for what it was.'
Thursday, March 27, 2008
If education is pure signaling, just give everyone a standardized test in seventh grade and then close up the schools. But the process of self-image formation, at least for most people, is far from complete at that point.
That being said, education will look like what the signaling model predicts. It will be about subtle brainwashing, image, and learning markers of status. What the signaling model misses is how important those features are for your subsequent productivity.
Nerds will hate education and tend to embrace the signaling model. Their sense of self is often formed quite early, and they do not why so much time should be wasted in school. This is one reason why the signaling model is so popular in economics.and here
Here is much more. And here is more yet; this second paper estimates the speed of employer learning and uses that estimate to bound the value of the signal at no more than 28 percent of the value of education. I consider this devastating to the signaling hypothesis. How can ?? years of schooling be needed to signal your quality, if your employer often knows your quality within months?
We find that employer learning about productivity occurs fairly quickly after labor market entry, implying that the signaling effects of schooling are small.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Owen Hatherley at Sitdownmanyoureabloodytragedy on Godard, more (with video clips) here
R&W is a car rental place that will rent a van out for an hourly rate of 3 euros.
She asks when I will be bringing it back and I say Höffentlich um 11 Uhr. I am renting a slightly larger van which costs 4 euros an hour.
Berlin (or rather Germany) has two other facilities that make life easy for the footloose. It is possible to get a Post Office box for the price of a 15-euro key deposit. (Yes. Really. There is no charge for use of the box.) So if you are moving from one short-term let to another, as I did for my first two years, you can have mail sent to the PO Box. You can also get a free Packstation, which accepts DHL deliveries. If you think you may not be home to take deliveries of packages, you can have them sent to the Packstation. You have a card with a PIN; you go to the Post Office to the bank of Packstation boxes, type in your PIN; the display directs you to the box where your package is waiting. This section of the Post Office is open 24 hours a day.
The freefalling dollar would be a matter of indifference if I had, for instance, sold the book about a boy trapped in an online poker fraud ring to 20th Century Fox. The Ulysses-level first print run would be a matter of indifference if the dollar were gaining ground. The two together raise the FAQ: What is to be done?
A: I buy an Idea sofabed on Craigslist, which must now be transported from A (Naunynstrasse) to B (my apartment). (Why not rent out one half of a handsome Berlin apartment while finishing the book about the boy trapped in an online poker fraud ring?)
So I've been shamelessly scrounging, asking Alex Frey, Johanna Thompson and TARARTRAT for help with the schlafsofa. While waiting for a reply I've been fecklessly surfing instead of getting on with the book about the boy etc. etc. And what to my wondering eyes should appear....
In the early 90s I worked for an NGO that supported women's projects in what our brochures referred to as the developing world. For a while I had a colleague, a 50-something-year-old woman who had once worked for NOW (the campaigning organisation for the ordination of women). X had had an old-fashioned marriage; she had met her husband-to-be briefly before he went overseas, they'd become engaged, she'd gone out to India to get married and had second thoughts, her mother-in-law-to-be had poured champagne down her throat till she was too drunk to back out. In retrospect X thought that the fact that she'd agreed to do it had not been a terribly good reason to go through with it.
At some point I was writing a letter to a population of possible supporters, young women we knew only by name. I said: What do you think, is it better to use Miss or Ms?
X: Oh, if you're writing to that generation you should certainly use Ms.
Well, a kiss is still a kiss, but a Ms is not as good as a Miss as time goes by...
Frittering away my time, as I say, trying to organise help with my schlafsofa, I check out Nathan Bransford's blog. Nathan has a post on formality in query letters. Down among the comments
[Update: TARARTRAT has agreed to get up at the crack of dawn to help with the verdammte Schlafsofa]
is one from a 20-something agent, who says, in Anno Domini 2008,
My pet peeve in being addressed is "MS."
My inner English major screams whenever I see this. It's always bothered me. I would prefer people just call me "Colleen".
"Miss" is not offensive in any way and I don't understand why cranky feminists decided to replace a perfectly good honorific with one that is not actually short for anything.
I was under the impression that both married and unmarried women were once addressed as Mistress; two abbreviations were later derived from this to mark marital status. (But to the best of my knowledge, I have no inner (or, indeed, outer) English major. ) I do think feminists made a serious mistake in introducing Ms in the hope of achieving an unmarked form; the sensible plan would have been to coopt Mrs.
As my friend X understood, anyway, it is very common to write business letters to people whose personal lives are irrelevant to the matter at hand. It is not offensive to address an unmarried woman as Miss; it would look careless and unprofessional to address either a man or a married woman as Miss. It is generally possible to identify the sex of an unknown correspondent by the first name; it is not possible to determine marital status, since we do not have the custom of changing first names upon marriage and selecting the new names from a pool restricted only to married persons. It is not easy to see why someone who wants to deal with a woman professionally should have to go to the trouble of finding out whether she is married or single.
[Update: Alex Frey has also agreed to help with the verdammte Schlafsofa.]
In any case. If anyone wants to correspond with me, none of the following is incorrect: Dr DeWitt; Ms DeWitt; Miss DeWitt; Mrs Levene; Helen. I would very much prefer people not just call me Colleen.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Readers of this blog may not be aware of the full extent of my admiration for Mark Liberman - the only reason I don't link to several Liberman posts a day is that I assume everyone is reading them anyway. (A similar reasoning explains the rare links to Languagehat.) But I'm now baffled.
Look. Let's say you have a female character from a cultured family who is left an orphan by a freak accident. She travels out west with her young brother to stay with friends of her parents who have offered to take the children in. She is attracted to one of the family, a strong, silent man who keeps going off and disappearing for long periods. At one point he brings back a brass bathtub, supposedly as a gift for the whole family. They're all living together, crammed into the house; there's no privacy. One day, for some reason I now forget, everyone in the family except Clara goes off on some excursion; they'll be away for days; she has the place to herself! She fills the bath with water and bathes in it. The strong, silent man appears on the rooftop. She stands up so he can see her naked. He falls off the roof. She nurses him back to health.
You just can't.
You just can't.
Well, you can, obviously, since Marianne Wiggins did. And it is apparently possible to read this without howling, since ML seems to have found the story of Edward and Clara compelling.
But you just can't.
(Do they do the dirty deed, you ask? Now honestly. Need you ask? What would be the point of getting everyone else in the family conveniently out of the way, if not to allow the male and female leads some highly implausible quality time à deux?)
Readers who enjoyed Susan Sontag's In America would probably enjoy the book.
Accounting techniques like budgeting, sales projections and financial reporting are supposed to help prevent business failures by giving managers realistic plans to guide their actions and feedback on their progress. In other words, they are supposed to leaven entrepreneurial optimism with green-eye-shaded realism.
At least that's the theory. But when Gavin Cassar, a Wharton accounting professor, tested this idea, he found something troubling: Some accounting tools not only fail to help businesspeople, but may actually lead them astray. In one of his recent studies, forthcoming in Contemporary Accounting Research, Cassar showed that budgeting didn't help a group of Australian firms accurately forecast their revenues. In a second paper,he found that the preparation of financial projections added to aspiring entrepreneurs' optimism, leading them to overestimate their subsequent levels of sales and employment.
"It's been shown in many studies that people are overly optimistic," Cassar says. "What's interesting here is that, when you use the accounting tools, the optimism is even more extreme. This suggests that using the tools, which a lot of academics and government agencies say is good practice, can lead to even bigger mistakes."From Knowledge@Wharton, courtesy Daily EM.
(Bigger version here)
Sunday, March 23, 2008
In an age where you need to be numerate to do almost anything else (from building bridges to conquering disease), governments anxiously compare their performance in mathematics with that of competitor nations. This month a new cry of alarm came from America, where a National Mathematics Advisory Panel, established by George Bush in 2006, reported that “without substantial and sustained changes” the country was doomed to “relinquish its leadership” in the world of numbers as the century wears on.
America has long masked its difficulty in educating enough mathematicians by importing lots of ready-made talent, especially from East Asia and the former Soviet Union. But the problems are real enough. As the panel noted, the share of American students doing degrees in maths or related areas fell from 32% in 1994-95 to 27% in 2003-04. And the share of maths-related doctorates at American universities that went to American citizens or residents fell over the past four decades from 80% of the total to less than 60%. The panel concluded that America's problems become apparent when students start to study algebra—for most, their first encounter with genuinely abstract thinking.
The Economist reports on scarcity in native mathematicians in the US.
From an economic point of view, gearing up the American educational system to produce more capable mathematicians might be far more expensive than simply offering fast-track visas to mathematicians of proven ability who have had the bad luck to be born in countries with nasty political systems (I say 'nasty'; OK, 'nastiER'), underfunded universities, poor infrastructure, a scarcity of malls, fast-food outlets, first-class orchestras - WHATEVER it is that makes one place look less appealing than another to a mathematician of proven ability.
From a nationalistic point of view, um, isn't there something a bit fishy about this soul-searching? 'We're not producing enough second-generation, third-generation, fourth-generation, fifth-generation, n+1th-generation American mathematicians!!!!! We've had to fall back on first-generation Americans!!!!!!! The country is doomed!!!!!!!' If a State of Emergency has been declared because we are not producing enough Cherokee, Navajo, and other certifiably aboriginal American mathematicians, it has passed without comment by the Economist. Fact is, it's a country of immigrants. Today's Chinese math whiz, freed from the one-child-family rule, is tomorrow's parent of a gaggle of Chinese-Americans, some of whom may be math whizzes, all of whom will be American.
The real objection to America's poor showing in mathematical education is not a matter of economics, it's a matter of human rights. For reasons that are never entirely clear to me, religious beliefs, however loopy, are generally treated with respect even by those who don't share them. Mathematicians, however, are drawn to something that has no church and no tax-exemptions: a world outside this world of accidents, waiting to be discovered, a world of beauty, elegance and wit. Because of the strongly utilitarian bent of our educational system, because of the assumption that EVERYONE, regardless of aptitude or inclination, must achieve a certain level of competence, those drawn to mathematics are often forced to study it in a social group consisting primarily of contemporaries who regard it with unqualified loathing. We don't require Jews to study the Talmud in a class of bored, resentful Christians; we don't require Muslims to study the Qur'an in a class of bored, resentful Jews; we don't require Christians to study the Gospel in a class where they are outnumbered by Jews and Muslims 10 to 1. We do throw young mathematicans to the, ahem, unenlightened, with the result that too many end up unqualified to engage with those who should have been their peers.
A few years ago I gatecrashed a class on partial integration given by a Chinese lecturer at Columbia; the thing that stays with me is the wit he brought to the business of converting the seemingly unintegrable to something more tractable. If every American schoolchild could be taught by someone with his gifts we could count ourselves lucky.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
It has an introduction by Art Spiegelman, who talks about his objections to the term 'graphic novel' - 'graphic' sounded serious, 'novel' sounded serious, so a 'graphic novel' would be twice as serious and twice removed from the lowbrow comics they might otherwise have been mistaken for...
Friday, March 21, 2008
Her premise is that many criminals are intelligent people with good heads for business and healthy appetites for risk, and that these traits can be put to productive use. She is particularly interested in people who have already demonstrated these skills—for example by running a successful drug business or achieving a high rank in a gang.
Participants say that PEP provides male role models, and helps them have hope for the future. Ms Rohr considers it her job to build character. “They're not in here because they were bad businessmen,” she says. “They're in here because they were lacking moral values in their lives.”
(in this week's Economist, which also has a special feature on the Wall Street crisis, which would appear to have been precipitated by intelligent people with good heads for business and unhealthy appetites for risk)
The restrictiveness of big company jobs is particularly hard on programmers, because the essence of programming is to build new things. Sales people make much the same pitches every day; support people answer much the same questions; but once you've written a piece of code you don't need to write it again. So a programmer working as programmers are meant to is always making new things. And when you're part of an organization whose structure gives each person freedom in inverse proportion to the size of the tree, you're going to face resistance when you do something new.
This seems an inevitable consequence of bigness. It's true even in the smartest companies. I was talking recently to a founder who considered starting a startup right out of college, but went to work for Google instead because he thought he'd learn more there. He didn't learn as much as he expected. Programmers learn by doing, and most of the things he wanted to do, he couldn't—sometimes because the company wouldn't let him, but often because the company's code wouldn't let him. Between the drag of legacy code, the overhead of doing development in such a large organization, and the restrictions imposed by interfaces owned by other groups, he could only try a fraction of the things he would have liked to. He said he has learned much more in his own startup, despite the fact that he has to do all the company's errands as well as programming, because at least when he's programming he can do whatever he wants.
(Graham's argument is bolstered by an appeal to the habits of our prehistoric ancestors, as well as the social behaviour of various other species in the wild; this is a move that always strikes me as unlikely to strengthen an argument in need of support, but the piece strikes a chord.)
Jefferson argued that each generation should create its own laws. A Forefather malgré soi, he thought that no generation should be bound by laws drawn up by persons ignorant of the conditions to be faced. The drag of legacy code is downright unAmerican.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Matt Soar at Design Observer on the uses of failure
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Calvino once described a city in which a man passes a girl with a puma on a leash, a sailor with a tattoo. He imagines that these are remarkable events. The comment is made: there's always some girl walking a puma for a whim. (I am paraphrasing wildly, too lazy to check.) The point is, when we observe events we can't tell whether they're unusual. Most of us are aware of this to some extent, but we start out with only a very loose sense of the ways we might go wrong; when one starts reading about data analysis, one sees how little we actually know about we actually see. Which means, of course, that the typical 'realistic' novel is not realistic in showing us a fictional analogue for what's actually in the world, it's realistic only in replicating the kinds of mistakes the naive observer makes in looking at the world. The unreliable narrator, of course, is part of fiction's stock in trade, but this is not unreliability used as literary strategy; it's just a form of unreliability that's invisible to author and readers alike.
Here's a simple example of the intuitionist's approach to probability:
We come into a room. It contains two indistinguishable urns. We’ve been told that one has 300 white balls and 700 red, the other 300 red balls and 700 white. I bet you $10 that Urn 1 has 700 red balls. Will you bet $10 that it’s not? (You may not be willing to bet with only even odds, but it’s a fair bet.)
I take a ball from Urn 1. It’s red. I put it back; the Mechanical Ball Mixer mixes the balls. I take another ball. It’s red. I put it back; the Mechanical Ball Mixer mixes the balls. After 12 draws, I have this result: RRWRRRWWRRWR (i.e. 8 red balls and 4 white). Will you still bet $10?
Almost certainly not. Most people wouldn’t. But suppose I bet $12 against your $10? $14? $16? $20? At what point would it again be a fair bet?
Most people* think something between $14 and $20 would be fair. This is not correct - I would have to bet $293 to make it a fair bet. In other words, intuition goes very quickly from being a good guide to being wildly astray.
* I do have a reference somewhere among my papers to a study with actual data, but I am not convinced that the relevant papers are not in storage in London.
Most fiction does nothing to make us aware of the gulf between cases where intution serves us well and those (surely far more common) where it does not. It does nothing to show where we should be wary, or how to think through tough cases. Most fiction is confined to the realm of false intuition; it offers us no viewpoint with a better understanding of chance. Which is simply to say that, because we live in a culture with a profound hostility to mathematics, the type of person who writes fiction is likely to be the type of person who shares that hostility and can rely on a large audience which also shares it. Among other things, this means that someone like my friend Rafe Donahue, a biostatistician at Vanderbilt, tends to be both underrepresented and misrepresented among fictional characters. Once upon a time persons of color could only get parts in films playing servants, often with amusing eccentricities which confirmed the supposed preconceptions of the audience; the sort of person who grapples with data analysis is either not seen in fiction or appears as some sort of eccentric.
As I write the Fed has cut its key interest rate by 75 points, down to 2.25%. The Fed has brokered a deal with Morgan Stanley; Bear Stearns, the fifth largest bank in the country, has been bought by MS at $2 a share, down from $160 a share last year. All this comes as a result of the collapse of the subprime market - a market dependent on financial instruments which were the pride of the finance industry only a couple of years ago. One thing fiction could have been doing all this time was enabling people to see on the page the way those in the risk business think about risk; it could have used the techniques of Edward Tufte's information design, for example, to present data in a way that did not numb the mind of the general reader.
This looks interesting from a formal point of view: fiction has made use for centuries of free indirect discourse, in which narrative is presented in the inner language of a character who is not the author, but has steered clear of the sort of inner language that helps itself to the bag of tricks of Tukey, Mosteller, Bill Cleveland and others too numerous to mention. It looks important simply because the management of risk is integral to our society; if fiction ignores the way this actually works, its view of the world is not much less primitive than one in which storms blow up because Odysseus angered Poseidon.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
But how can you tell if the research literature on a given subject has been rigged? It’s a tricky problem, because you’re chasing evidence for the existence of trials you cannot see. One option is to use mathematical tools, and something called a funnel plot, one of the cleverest ideas of the last century. It’s so clever that you might need to concentrate for the next bit.
Let’s imagine that there are 30 trials on a given drug. Some are big, and more accurate. Some are small and less accurate, with more random noise. You’d expect that the big, accurate trials should all cluster together around the true finding, all giving similar results for the efficacy of a drug. Meanwhile the smaller, rubbish trials - because they are less accurate measures of the drugs efficacy - will be scattered about randomly, some showing the treatment to be better than the good big trials indicate, some showing that it is worse.
You could then plot all your trials on a graph, one dot for each trial. On the x-axis, left to right, is “how good the drug was shown to be by this trial” and on the y-axis, “how methodologically sound and large the trial was”. If there is no publication bias, you should get a triangle shape: at the top of your graph, you will see all your good-quality, accurate trials, clustered together around the true answer. At the bottom of the graph, you will see a broad smear of results, the poor quality trials showing random variation.
But if there is publication bias, you will see a distorted triangle: the small, poor-quality trials at the bottom will be smeared over to the right, because small trials with unwelcome results are much more likely to be overlooked, and dumped in desk drawers, than huge multicentre collaborative studies involving dozens of academics and tens of thousands of participants, which are almost definitely going to get published. If you get a distorted triangle, you know there are some interesting negative trials missing.
Ben Goldacre in the Guardian's Bad Science column, the rest here.
It's almost certain that on its current precedents, the U.S. Supreme Court would hold that garden-variety pornographic actors are indeed engaged in First-Amendment-protected activity, so long as obscenity is not involved. Odd as it may seem, what appears finally to make all of the difference is the mode of gratification for the person who is paying but not himself seeking money.
The ultimate demand for pornography comes from the viewer of pornography, and what excites him is the watching of the adult film, rather than any physical act performed on him by another person. The "enjoyment" of pornography is therefore as "speech," rather than as action.
Though real sex occurred in the making of the pornographic film, this fact is only relevant insofar as it is known (or believed) by the viewer. If, for example, the entire film were created with highly realistic computer graphics, but the viewer believed that what he saw was real, then he would enjoy the material just as much.
Because the impact of pornography occurs through the mediation of an audience witnessing a performance, rather than an audience receiving physical services from a performer, pornography and its making qualify as First-Amendment protected speech.
Does this make sense? Consider again the significance of the sexual act: legal consequences can follow from it and it can, accordingly, be regulated by the law in a variety of ways. Though two people may very much want to have sex with each other in private, the law can intervene to say that they cannot, just because one of them seeks money and the other gratification, for example.
If, however, both members of the couple are in it for the money, and there is a man with a camera taping them, then the sex is insulated by the Constitution from legal regulation.
Sherry F. Colb, a professor at Rutgers Law School, explains why Spitzer, had he taken the precaution of performing in a pornographic film rather than confining his activities to the privacy of a hotel room, would have been entitled to a Get Out of Jail Free card. The rest here.
Monday, March 17, 2008
Joel Spolsky on IE8 and standards...
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution on the legalization of prostitution
Roger Matthews in the Guardian, initially in favour, changed his mind.
For another, aesthetic rapture may be simulated. One of his heroes is Stendhal, who recalled, in 1826, that when he first went to Florence he swooned on seeing the Giottos in Santa Croce. It has made him “the modern art-lover’s progenitor and justification”, and his swoon has been recognised by psychologists as a special kind of arty faint called Stendhal’s Syndrome. But it seems it never happened. Barnes finds no mention of it in Stendhal’s original 1811 diary of the Florence trip.
Right. So let's say I write an essay now on something extraordinary that happened to me in 1993. You dig up my diary for 1993 and find that I have not mentioned it. You adduce this as evidence that the event never took place. I adduce this as evidence that you have confused a diary with a surveillance camera.
Yet posterity is not so easily outfaced. Letters cannot always be called back and destroyed; the content and purpose of gaps in a correspondence can often be intuited; while the mere printing side by side of virtually every known letter – something Flaubert can scarcely have envisaged – will point up inconsistencies, contradictions and all the small hypocrisies of polite behaviour. When Flaubert excuses himself in May 1879 for not having visited the society beauty Jeanne de Loynes because he was “only in Paris for a few hours”, an editor comes along 130 years later to point out that he was actually in town for nearly three days. When he tell Edma Roger des Genettes in March of the same year that he has just finished reading the whole of Spinoza for the third time, Jean Bruneau (whose life’s work the Correspondance was) knows enough to explain that this boast can only apply to the Ethics, since Flaubert did not discover the Tractatus until 1870. As for his sex life: the novelist is often caught lying to women friends about where he is going, while asking male friends to cover for him, and later reporting back to them what he had got up to.I recently wrote to Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, proposing a piece on writers' laptops as collectors' items. Barnes' piece ends with the inventory made of Flaubert's house at the time of his death; while most of the contents were valued, the manuscripts were not, since it was deemed impossible to assign them a monetary value. The laptop of a modern Flaubert would, presumably, have none of the correspondence which makes F's collected letters compulsive reading, but would undoubtedly contain versions of books, sketches, fragments. The laptop of someone less secretive than Flaubert would also have on its hard drive correspondence with some or all of the following: friends, family, lovers, business associates, editors, admirers, proteges (Flaubert was tireless in his championing of Maupassant, assiduous in his correspondence with Turgenev). If these little workhorses entered the world of the art market, the world of those who are interested in art but also have an eye to speculation, this would in fact transform the world of literature as we know it - it would transform the financial prospects of the sort of writer who, like Joyce, publishes a book destined to transform what is possible in an initial print run of 1000 copies.
The maps on Strange Maps show enclaves, alternative political configurations, possible worlds. But this is just a map of the actual world seen from a different perspective: the perspective of someone watching an election in another country, someone whose life may be affected by the preferences of voters in Ohio. Could be the best thing in the book.
Zitzewitz’s analysis focuses on analyzing the set of cases involving mutual fund market timing and late trading. Using available data, he develops some useful proxies of what he calls “the dilution of long-term fund shareholders from arbitrage trading.” Eric is too polite: this is a measure of how much money unsavory fund managers allowed to be diverted from our mutual fund savings. This all occurred because select friends of these managers were given the right to buy into the fund at this morning’s low price, rather than this afternoon’s higher price (even after the markets had risen).
In these cases, the evidence was uniformly strong, and by measuring this “dilution,” Zitzewitz can measure how egregious the misconduct by these firms was. All told, he compiles estimates of the harm — and public records on the restitution ordered — in 20 SEC-negotiated settlements. Of these, 16 involved the New York attorney general, and the resulting restitution typically amounted to about 80 percent of the harm — pretty close to full restitution. But in the 4 settlements in which Spitzer’s office was not involved, the SEC was willing to settle on a figure closer to 7 percent of the total harm.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
George Borrow's Lavengro (more on Languagehat)
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Well, I was looking for a blog I came across the other day, Sit Down Man, You're a Bloody Tragedy, run by one Owen Hathaway, a 26-year-old in London who writes about pseudomodernist architecture and other joys, so I was obviously looking for the online presence of Owen Hathaway, but when Google, that goofy bird dog amongst search engines, served up a site billed as the online presence of Owen Hathaway something told me this was not THE Owen Hathaway. Not the master of pseudomodernist discourse. Some other Owen Hathaway. An Owen Hathaway, I could not help feeling, from a simpler place and time.
Those of you with websites and blogs of your own, those who have been bullied by webdesigners and consultants, will understand. Understand, I mean, the urge to appropriate.
Here you will find the online presence of Helen DeWitt. My goal for this site is to represent myself online in an accessible way.
That's all I ever wanted. Why not just come out and say so?
The OTHER Owen Hathaway turns out to be a specialist in security management based in Fort Collins, Colorado. He has an impressive array of qualifications in IT; he has concentrated on security management in healthcare. He is, in other words, the sort of person who would probably make himself unpopular in Britain, with its happy-go-lucky pop-it-in-the-post leave-it-in-the-taxi approach to data protection.
THE Owen Hathaway, anyway,
is actually called Owen Hatherley
The OTHER Owen Hathaway is actually THE Owen Hathaway.
THE Owen Hatherley is THE Owen Hatherley.
has a blog called Sit Down Man, You're a Bloody Tragedy, blog address nastybrutalistandshort.blogspot.com. While he may not be making himself popular in Britain, in Fort Collins he would probably be locked up as a raving lunatic:
I'll tell you who makes the Nazis...Here's Two excellent pieces on the BBC's ridiculously dangerous 'White' season, in which the experience of the 'white working class' is boiled down to having a bee in one's bonnet about immigrants - something motivated, as Lynsey Hanley's piece points out, by the Beeb's own cossetted middle class fuckwittery, in a world where these things are excitingly exotic. Note also that on the comments appending her piece the working classes are accused of stupidity and smelling of piss by someone clearly unfamiliar with the niceties of English grammar. An interestingly common thing on Comment is Free and its ilk, the grammatically and verbally challenged rantings of right-wing arseholes who still, somehow, manage to maintain a sense of impregnable superiority.
and so on
Lessons to be learnt:
1. You can cope with senile dementia as long as you keep your sense of humour.
2. Plagiarism never looked so good.
Cosma Shalizi on Ibn Khaldun
(for readers of Portuguese, there's also Identificação, Ásabiyah e Cultura: Ibn Khaldun e Freud by Alfredo Henrique Caldeira Lustosa Cabral)
Monday, March 10, 2008
There’s a passage in Kevin Brownlow’s biography of David Lean that describes Trevor Howard’s response to a poignant scene in Brief Encounter, the Rachmaninoff-saturated classic of repressed British love: “They know jolly well this chap’s borrowed a flat, they know exactly why she’s coming back to him, why doesn’t he fuck her? All this talk about the wood being damp and that sort of stuff.”
Lean struggled to explain his vision.
Howard: “Oh God, you are a funny chap.”
Lean: “Funny chap or not, that’s the way we’re doing the scene. Now come on.”
This had no direct bearing on Ed's questions.
The current revival of Soho had little to do with Raymond, but stems from the spending power of the affluent homosexuals who have pitched camp in the area.
Raymond's last major purchase was in 1994, when he brought the "Island Site" in Piccadilly, incorporating the Café de Paris, large sections of Rupert and Coventry Streets and the old Rialto cinema, which had screened his film Erotica in 1982.
The Paul Raymond Organisation never went public, and after this purchase he was said to be the richest man in Britain.
Many — particularly male journalists — found Raymond's candour charming, and he could be generous to employees. Nor did his lifestyle follow the American fashion of vain exclusivity and pretence; he remained a louche and unhealthy man of vulgar tastes, though he wore good suits.
Tall, with an artificial tan that mummified his skin like cracked toffee, a mane of hair like brittle silver lamé and a smear of moustache, he latterly evoked Dracula lurking in the guise of an Oxford Street spiv.
He sported heavy gold jewellery, a gold Rolls-Royce and had a penthouse next to the Ritz. He did not affect intellect; fearful that reading could destroy his instinct for the popular, he claimed he had not touched a book since infancy.
& so on
Sunday, March 9, 2008
Paul Krugman on the Fed's latest rate cut
I thought: But 7 pounds? That's roughly, what, 400 dollars about?
I thought: No one will ever think you're anybody if you're commuting with a beat-up library copy of Kate Hamburger's The Logic of Literature (by my lights an unjustly neglected classic of phenomenological literary theory).
I thought: Why don't you just read it in the station and put it back on the shelf?
I thought: How do you expect to be discovered if you're always exuding this image of nerdiness, second-handedness, a ragman picking through shelves and putting things back? This isn't about expanding your knowledge; it's about showing pizazz.
I thought: OK, let's compromise. We'll buy the magazine, read it -- very publicly -- and then see if we can return it.
I thought: This is pathetic, I'm not talking to you anymore.
Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution on you know what.
Saturday, March 8, 2008
Friday, March 7, 2008
Mark Liberman of Language Log maddens his fans. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding the futuristic sections of Cloud Atlas linguistically implausible; would LOVE to see China Babel. (I mention in passing that The Last Samurai originally had a final futuristic section which used a writing system which was an amalgam of Chinese and Arabic, or rather there was a sketch of this futuristic section which I planned to finish when I had all the necessary software, but somehow it seemed too much. I AM alone, I know, in seeing The Last Samurai as a minimalist, ruthlessly pared-down work of fiction in which much is left out, not least because I am also alone in having seen the amazing futuristic section written in an amalgam of Chinese and Arabic...)
Thursday, March 6, 2008
My mother used to tell me a story about my grandfather. He was the most talented musician she knew: he taught himself to play the violin at the age of 12 on a fiddle he bought by mail order from money he'd made crabbing on the Chesapeake, he could play any string instrument by ear, he could play the piano by ear. His Uncle John, a doctor who'd trained as a doctor at Heidelberg, offered to pay to send him to college to study music. My grandfather thought of the concerts he'd been to: at the end the musicians couldn't wait to get away. He didn't want to hate music because music was his life. So he said he'd rather be a lawyer, and his uncle refused to pay, so he put himself through law school. He never did become a professional musician, but he loved music to the end of his life. He had a basement full of instruments he'd been unable to resist picking up at auction: two violins, a Gibson mandolin, a banjo, a viola, a cello, a bass, a couple of guitars, a ukelele. Grand piano in the living room. When he went to parties he drove people crazy because he couldn't see the point of a party without music: he'd bring out one or two of the instruments he'd brought along, and soon they'd all be singing while he played up a storm. Sometimes he'd go into his local music shop and the owner would let him play the Jefferson Stradivarius and say: Nobody gets the tone out of it that you do, John.
Nathan Bransford tells writers they have no choice but to put up with the things that make writers hate their work. Anyone with a crazy grandfather who played the Jefferson Strad for fun knows better.
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Look at it this way. If the TestDAF takes the Fawlty Towers line on German history (Don't mention the war), the same can hardly be said of the KDS, which seems to select its texts for their usefulness as a base on which to thrash out Issues. It's unbearable. On the one hand, the critical naivety with which both issues and literary texts are discussed is an affront both to the texts and to a culture which has, after all, an extremely distinguished tradition of Kritik. And on the other hand, just about anything one could read independently is likely to be more rewarding. If one wants a text that engages with Issues, one would be a lot better off with Detlev Claussen's biography of Adorno, or Golo Mann's Erinnerungen und Gedanken, or for that matter Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre's Transkript.
Could not face another two months of this, so went into the office and asked to transfer to another class.
Monday, March 3, 2008
Books for the chop include:
- Albert Camus, The Plague
- Joseph Joffo, A Bag of Marbles
- Molière, The Bourgeois Gentleman
- Marcel Proust, A Love of Swann’s
- Françoise Sagan, Hello Sadness
- Voltaire, Candide
- Bertolt Brecht, The Good Woman of Sichuan
- Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis
- Eduard von Keyserling, Sultry Days
- Thomas Mann, Disorder and Early Sorrow
- Isabel Allende, Eva Luna
- Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya
- Dante, Inferno
- Federico Garcia Lorca, The House of Bernarda Alba
- Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author
- Alexander Pushkin, The Queen of Spades
(list from the Times, which has somewhat oddly given all titles in English)
I find this completely baffling. I can still remember being put in an advanced French class my last year of high school, when we read Madame Bovary, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Anatole France's Le livre de mon ami, Therese Desqueyroux and Butor's La Modification. All discussion of the texts was conducted, painfully, in French. If only more of school had been like that. I suppose one could argue that this put me off studying French at university, since I then realised that I could read Balzac, Proust, Voltaire, Mme de Sevigne, anything, without signing up for a course - but it seems to me that it is the business of a school, when teaching a subject at the advanced level, to provide precisely this sort of basis for strong students. (The A in A-level, for those new to the British system, stands for 'advanced'.)
According to the Times, Eton and Winchester have decided to stop teaching modern language A-levels and offer a different, 'more traditional' exam (the PreU) instead. Meanwhile a source at one of the English examination boards has explained that 'there was nothing to stop English schools opting for language A-levels offered by exam boards in Northern Ireland and Wales, which have retained lists of set texts.' (link courtesy of The Elegant Variation).
Sunday, March 2, 2008
I went off to Möbel-Hübner to read Adorno and seek enlightenment in sofa brochures. At 5am the next day I woke up and suddenly saw that if I went through the same old entrance test it would be a disaster. The entrance test and interview give no scope for showing the level of difficulty of the texts you have read; they give no scope for showing your command, such as it is, of German prose composition. So it's important to take unilateral action. I spent the next four or five hours on unilateral action, took in my essay (which covered Freud's 'das Ich', 'das Es' and 'das Über-ich', Adorno's Entfremdung, Sofas, Integration, the TestDAF and much more), handed it over; the examiner read it and presently started to laugh. She agreed that it was hard to know which level would be best, went over various options and finally recommended the second month of the KDS (Kleines Deutsches Sprachdiplom), which is the most advanced course they offer, concentrates on literature (unlike the graphics-minded TestDAF), and generally looks like a good thing. I had the slight impression that vice (in the form of shameless namedropping) had been rewarded; consulting with the other examiner, the examiner explained that the candidate had read Adorno, Zweig, usw (and had also had amusing things to say about the TestDAF).
All good but exhausting. There's a whole persona that goes with asking people to make exceptions to rules, trying to bend a bureaucracy: instead of just going into a room, taking a test, doing what you're told, it's necessary to be plausible, confident, outgoing, good-humoured yet sure of entitlement. It takes a lot of energy, not least because one has to fight down embarrassment at what feels like exhibitionism.
In the evening I went out to Pankow for the VHS class on PHP and databases. It's been a long time since I used Windows; the combination of Windows and German made for a sort of befogged bafflement in which small wrinkles in the database became threats to sanity. I left at the break to go to the launch party of Extra Room, a new English-language literary magazine, wandered the black wet streets of Treptow for several miles in high heels, stumbled into the party which had been described as having a 'donation-based entry fee'. This turned out to mean payment of 5 euros was compulsory but if you felt like giving more that would be absolutely lovely - which is the kind of twisted logic that makes any programming language a thing of joy in its own right, regardless of what it can actually accomplish. Heard a few readings, left, was misdirected to a U-Bahn a mile or so away, couldn't buy a ticket with my card, dodged ticket-inexpectors at Alexanderplatz, got ticketless home.
Saturday, March 1, 2008
In most competitions the judges must work their way through a very large number of books, which does take up time; on the other hand, if a brilliant book has been entered for the competition the judge will certainly have the chance to read it. In a knock-out you get your two books, look at the complete list of entries and discover that some other lucky sod got Robert Bolanos' The Savage Detectives AND Tom McCarthy's Remainder. If you had been reading from a pool that included The Savage Detectives, you could be pretty sure of reading at least one brilliant book, and then you could confine your public comments to enthusiastic remarks on the brilliance of X (and possibly Y and Z which you reluctantly decided where not QUITE as brilliant as X). In a knock-out, you may find yourself not only reading two books you would never have chosen to read, but forced to say something about them to justify sending one on to the next round. The two correspondents with whom I shared uncensored anguish asked whether it was actually necessary to vote for one of the books; as the competition is set up, yes. Perhaps it would have been better to refuse to cooperate, perhaps it would have been better to toss a coin. I was tired.
A week ago I got an e-mail from the organiser explaining that they would be announcing the names of the judges the following week and would need a brief bio, as well as any conflicts of interest relating to the books in the competition. The e-mail explained that any conflict of interest must be mentioned because the prize, unlike other prizes, made a point of transparency. It then explained that it would be nice if those with blogs were to mention the competition, but they must not mention the fact that they were judges.
A reader has asked in a comment why I have not been publicising this competition. I would have been happy to mention the competition if I had not been asked to conceal my participation as a judge. The other judges include Maud Newton, Mark Sarvas of the Elegant Variation and Mark Liberman of the incomparable Language Log, all well established, highly regarded bloggers; I'm sure they too felt they could not mention the competition until their participation was a matter of public knowledge.
The winner of my first-round pair-off will come up against the winner of The Savage Detectives and Remainder, and the two books will be judged by Mark Liberman.