Thursday, June 26, 2008

radar days

It is generally agreed that the quality of German radar was superior to that of British radar. German radar had been built by engineers, British radar had been lashed together by physicists. In part this represented a deliberate choice of a force march towards a new technology (Watson-Watt's motto of 'Second best tomorrow' rather than 'Best, but next week'), but in part it reflected Britain's industrial weakness and in particular the lack of sufficient suitable engineers.* The strength of the British system lay not in the radar itself but in its integration into the air defence system. (Thus the British refused to believe that the Germans had radar because German fighters took so long to scramble, whilst the desultory German search for a possible British radar was restricted to a system using the single figure metre wavelength which a radar 'ought to use' rather than the primitive 25 metre wavelengths that the first chain actually used.)

* R. V. Jones gives an account of the attempt during the 1930s by the self-made millionaire Lord Nuffield to found an Oxford Colege devoted to engineering. 'According to what I heard at the time this prospect alarmed the strong humanist element in Oxford, headed by the Vice-Chancellor, Lord Lindsay, who sought to palliate the engineering onslaught by persuading Nuffield to broaden his objective. There would be less opposition to the foundation of a new colelge, he said, if Nuffield could disguise his intentions by replacing spcific mention of engeering by some more subtle wording. Engineering was a science, but it made a more direct impact on society, and so it might be fairly described as "social science". Therefore if Lord Nuffield would specify social science as the primary interest, there would be much less opposition to its creation. It was only after the college had been founded and staffed not with engineers but social scientists that Lord Nuffield realised he had been outwitted.

rereading T. W. Körner, The Pleasures of Counting, which has been in storage for some time.

Körner describes the book as 'meant, first of all, for able school children of 14 and over and first year undergraduates who are interested in mathematics and would like to learn something of what it looks like at a higher level.' He adds, 'Listening to a mathematician talking to mathematicians about things that interest mathematicians may well be more enlightening than listening to mathematicians speaking to non-mathematicians about things that they hope may be interesting to non-mathematicians.'

I had taken the book to Yorckschlößchen, where I ordered pommes (pr. pom-mess) and a beer. Sparrows flew down to the table and hopped cautiously at the other side of the plate. I tossed one a chip. It flew off, bearing the chip in its beak. I tossed a chip to another sparrow, which flew off, chip in beak. Soon the Biergarten was full of sparrows flying through the air carrying chips, pursued by other sparrows which had not yet managed to get a chip.

I was reading the book for a piece the LRB may take on information design and James Wood's piece on hysterical realism.

Körner went on:

The methods Tizard had used to discover how radar could be used came to be called 'oeprational research'. Those who used the phrase found it hard to define what exactly it meant and to explain what was new about it. Certainly it involved the application of science not merely to the invention of weapons, but to the choice of tactics in their use. However, it also required the kind of collaboration between scientista dn military typified by the radar 'Sunday Soviets' in which senior scientists, Staff Officers, junior research workers and serving officers 'straight from the heat of battle' met informally and where anyone could say anything to anyone. Whatever 'operational research' meant precisely, it was something that could be copied, and the idea of operational research spread through the British and then the American armed services. Nothing comparable occurred in Germany....

In January 1943, the Germans shot down a British bomber carrying a new radar. Examination showed it to operate at an incredible ten centimetre wavelength. Göring commented bleakly, 'I expected them to be advanced, but frankly I never thought they would get so far ahead. I did hope we could at least be in the same race.' The German military had not asked for such a radar and, since the proper role for German science was to supply what the military asked for, it had not produced such a radar.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Technology makes it easier to jump from corpus to corpus, and it makes it possible to take advantage of analysis above the word level. And because of that — at least for me — that helps me get a better understanding of the word of God, which I love and which is very important to me.

Rick Brennan of Ricoblog interviewed on Hard not to love. (I discovered RB doing a search for J D Denniston, whose Greek Particles I'd been reading; RB has a great post on JDD.)

Some day more novels will look like...


an interactive visualization dashboard of recent statistics from MotoGP, the premier motorcycle road racing championship. the project explores different means of viewing to provide a novel way to understand the championship, individual races & the interrelationships between riders, manufacturers, tires & teams.

users can drill down into each race to explore different visualization of lap graphs, gap differences by lap, lap times & average speeds. these details can then be cross-referenced by tire, manufacturer & lap time data.

from Infosthetics, who got it from Minglebee

Saturday, June 21, 2008

I am a doughnut, oder?

There's a post on the NY Times book blog, Paper Cuts, about Kennedy's famous speech and alleged howler, including a YouTube clip of Kennedy giving the speech. Steve Coates talks to Michael Jennings, Professor of German at Princeton, asking whether 'Ich bin ein Berliner' really does mean 'I am a doughnut.' (Jennings argues that it could in fact be a more nuanced way of stating one's affiliation with Berlin - 'Ich bin Berliner' meaning 'I'm a native of Berlin,' 'Ich bin ein Berliner' indicating more recent arrival.) Somewhat oddly, Coates keeps asking whether it's ungrammatical. I think even those who think it means 'I am a doughnut' have never claimed it was ungrammatical; 'I'd love to be an Oscar Meyer Wiener' is perfectly grammatical, but it would be an odd thing to say to underline, as it might be, solidarity with the US against al-Qaedah.
Whatever the sentence may be able to mean, anyway, it is as an assertion of doughnuthood that it is remembered, loved and recycled by local advertising agencies, a source of comfort to the linguistically-challenged Berlinerin.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

under the net

Took delivery two weeks ago of boxes of books and a piano that I put in storage 8 years ago. Some had spent time in Leeds with my DSL, who put them back in storage on going to NYU in 2006. The action of the piano has been wrapped in a blanket behind a sofa at the flat of DSL's father Eric in South Woodford. Some of the books were taken out of storage in 2002 and put back in storage in 2003 in London when I went to New York. Now they're here.

& many many more. Was going through a box when I came across yet another laptop, a Toshiba Satellite 110CS. A laptop with Windows 95 as its operating system and WordPerfect 6.0 for Windows. On the hard drive an early version of a book called The Seventh Samurai dating back to 1997. I open up Eudora and see an e-mail from Kristin Powers dated 17/01/2000:

Kristin was the production manager at Talk Miramax Books. She was replying to an e-mail from me about marking up the copy-editor's mark-up: if I disagreed with a change that had been made throughout, I asked, could I simply state that the change should be globally ignored or must it be manually reversed every time? (I reminded her that my contract gave me the last word.) Kristin's reply, which you probably can't read, was that in the case of systematic changes it was enough to state once that the change should not be made.

As I've said in an earlier post, through a series of unfortunate misunderstandings the copy-editor ended up rejecting the author's rejections of the majority of her improvements to the book, with the result that a great of deal of time was lost that should have been spent finishing other books. So the world is furnished with different objects from those of a world in which the production manager and copy-editor take the contract seriously. This world contains a mark-up of The Seventh Samurai encrusted with white-out, a laptop with correspondence about copy-editing, print-outs and disks with books that never progressed past the point they had reached when an offer of publication for The Seventh Samurai was made in August 1999. There are possible worlds that do not include the mark-up encrusted with white-out or the correspondence, and do include published books incorporating portions of what had been written by August 1999. The reason Kristin's e-mail comes up on the screen of the laptop is that I called it up later to check what it said, its assurance that global changes would be incorporated, upon receiving the ms with its erasures.

KP's e-mail might genuinely have been what it appeared to be: an undertaking that the author's mark-up would be respected and sent to the printer. The author would then have retained access to as well as possession of the personal library which had helped to form The Seventh Samurai, and would have been better placed to write successors to the book. It's demoralising, of course, to struggle with the caprices of the industry for 8 years, only to regain access to the Oxford Latin Dictionary, Greek-English Lexicon, Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, Wright's Arabic Grammar, collection of Oxford Classical Texts and so on which were readily available when one worked as a secretary and could not find a publisher. It's demoralising, of course, to have squandered so much time and energy on petty struggles, when there are so many serious problems with the world.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day


I had a rough idea of what we'd be talking about. I knew a number of refugees who'd come to the UK in the past. And I knew something about the UK's current asylum system, from newspapers, from TV and from the radio. In particular I knew that it was neither generous nor efficient. But I'd never met anyone on the receiving end.

Now I have. And nothing has made me this angry in a long time. We bellyache about the abuse of human rights overseas. But there are thousands of people living here, right now, in one of the richest countries in the world, forced to live in poverty. They are denied basic rights and services which the rest of us take for granted. And this is not an accident. This is government policy. And we should be ashamed of it.

Mark Haddon talks to asylum seekers in the UK, in today's Observer

Ruskin thou shouldst be living at this hour

Most construction workers — no matter what their trade or how narrow their job description — are fascinated by the entire scope of a project and proud to be a part of it. Another thing many don’t realize is the intense pride the men and women take in being part of creating something that will last for decades or even centuries. They take ownership of the project — as in, “I built this tower or that bridge or that tunnel.”

from Freakonomics

Sunday, June 8, 2008


Wyatt Mason, who reviews for Harper's, the New Yorker and other magazines, has started a blog at the Harper's website called Sentences. Four posts are devoted to Mason's belief that writers who think their work has been unintelligently reviewed should respond publicly. The blog is not open to comments.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


If there is a change in Idol's process, it is simply that the test marketing is now conducted via remote technologies of video monitor and cell phone (distanced learning redux!); respondents solicit themselves for participation; and the latter two phases have been brought closer together, such that the voting-with-your-dollar phase begins a bit earlier for the "people." In terms of the making of the pop star, they retain the exact "power" they might have had before; that there are more of them involved sooner does not change the structure of the overall event into something more democratic.

But this is not to say that there is no real novelty in the AI process. There is. Pop Idol debuted less than three months after the MPAA awoke with a start from the industrial nightmare that was Napster, and confronted the new day that dream presaged. The Idol franchise should be understood in no other way than as a specific solution to a historical problem: how to re-monetize pop music in the face of a certain decline sales of both in hardware (CDs, players) and software (songs as such). Idol is perhaps the most successful — and clearest — response to this economic crisis. Whether or not anyone buys the David products Cook or Archuleta, the revenue is shifted to advertising, and to service providers for downloads, online views, and cell phone usage. Which is to say that the reputed "democracy" of the Idol process is nothing other than the industry's monetizing of participation in its own marketing plan.

Jane Dark on American Idol

Friday, June 6, 2008

McCarthyism de nos jours

Great interview of Tom McCarthy in the Believer.

That said, McCarthy sometimes seems not to see his hand in front of his face. He says:

TM: I mean, in the current climate in the UK, publishing is a very, very conservative field. Editorial decisions are taken by marketing boards. There isn’t really much room for something that isn’t middle-of-the-road. On the other hand, in the art world—you can’t help noticing if you mix, as I do, with one foot or one toe in the publishing world and nine toes in the art world—it’s the artists who are extremely literate. In the current climate, art has become the place where literary ideas are received, debated, and creatively transformed. You mentioned Robbe-Grillet—I know several artists that are doing works based on his novels. Most artists I know have read Beckett, have read Burroughs, have read Faulkner. For example, one of the real structural understandings of great literature, from Greek tragedy to Beckett and Faulkner, is that it’s an event. It’s not something that you can contain and narrate, but it’s like this seismic set of ripples that goes on through time, backward and forward. Contemporary novelists don’t really understand that, but contemporary artists do.

Now honestly. If you think editorial decisions are taken by marketing boards, and that marketing boards prefer middle-of-the-road fiction, this amounts to saying that the sample on which you base your assessment of contemporary novelists is based on what marketing boards were willing to publish. You can safely say that certain contemporary novelists were able to write fiction that could get past a marketing board. Unless you have done an enormous amount of research, you have no way of knowing whether A) some of the writers who got work published ALSO wrote books they could not get past the marketing board, B) some of the writers who got work published ALSO wrote books their agent didn't bother to try to get past the marketing board, C) some of the writers who got work published WANTED to write other books they knew they couldn't get past the marketing board, or, of course, D) writers who haven't managed to get ANYTHING published have written the sort of fiction he considers interesting but couldn't get an agent or couldn't get it past the marketing board.

I can't help but think that someone who had done substantial background research, and who had ascertained, on the basis of this research, that the middle-of-the-road fiction being published was NOT an unrepresentative sample of what was being written, would have, um, said so.

Ilya Gridneff got a job in London covering the Coroners' Court. He later got assignments covering Britney Spears and Angelina Jolie. John Pilger is one of his heroes; while travelling round the Middle East he wrote Pilgeresque pieces which he sent to various London papers and could not get published. He reads Bataille, Burroughs, Miller; he hasn't found a publisher for his novel, either. It would be silly to draw any conclusions from his portfolio except the unsurprising one that it is often necessary to eat.

(Still a very interesting interview.)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Native Son

I don't know anyone who has read Gilbert Sorrentino.

This is not exactly true.

A college professor introduced me to Sorrentino's work when I was a sophomore.

I was always looking for avant-garde fiction. I liked fiction that was formally interesting. I didn't want Richard Ford stories, middle age men going through divorce, amorphous stories about boring middle class life, etc. I didn't want clogged, embarrassing, senseless Updikean prose, with his "newsletters and quarterlies that pour through a minister's letter slot like urine from a cow's vulva." I wanted a sophisticated novelist for once. An intelligent novelist.

Sorrentino's right up your alley, my prof says.

I read Aberration of Starlight, Red the Fiend, The Imaginative Quality of Actual Things, Mulligan Stew, and Blue Pastoral over Christmas break.


Mithridates, who is, like Sorrentino, from Bay Ridge, speaks of a writer visiting GS in Bay Ridge and goes on (I am dropping the italics to preserve the italics of the original)

But the moving thing had to do with his being from Bay Ridge. I thought native son? How did I not pick up on this until now? How did I not know he was from Bay Ridge? The heartbreaking thing isn't what this writer says about Bay Ridge, but simply that Sorrentino was from Bay Ridge at all. Because Bay Ridge is my hometown. I used to bowl at Leemark Lanes (which became Mark Lanes and then went out of business). I eat regularly at Bridgeview - natives drop the Diner - most recently with George. I went to high school there, lived there for twenty-three years. (Not the diner, although, OK, sure: I went to high school at Bridgeview Diner and lived there for twenty-three years.)

I wondered what it was about being from Bay Ridge that makes Sorrentino's artistic needs so similar to my own:

In his 1983 literary credo "Genetic Coding," Sorrentino states, "my own artistic necessities . . . are: an obsessive concern with formal structure, a dislike of the replication of experience, a love of digression and embroidery, a great pleasure in false or ambiguous information, a desire to invent problems that only the invention of new forms can solve, and a joy in making mountains out of molehills." Elsewhere he refers to "the joyous heresy that will not go away . . . that heresy [that] simply states: form determines content."

Was it the faux marble and silver mirrors that gave me the same artistic needs as Sorrentino?

[the whole post here]

Sunday, June 1, 2008

three novellas for a novel

Carl Shuker will be publishing three novellas for a novel on his website as of tomorrow.