Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I go to a café and the stalker turns up. (Of course, he's not really a stalker, just someone who knew my old address and used to turn up and ring the bell. But this was one of the reasons for moving out.) Anyway, X turns up and asks inside if it's all right to busk. They say yes. He brings out a stool, sits on it, sings a couple of Russian songs while playing guitar. Afterwards he comes over to sit down, orders a beer, talks. "I'd like to kiss you," says X. "Don't you like men?" (I need to find another apartment.) Presently X finishes his beer and leaves, kissing me on the cheek. A patron of the café comes over, says, Sie kennen den Junge? I say (roughly) Well, sort of. He points out that X took the stool outside to play, and now the waitress will have to take it back in. He says, also, that people here like good music, if X comes and plays schlechte Musik he has no chance. So he must either play classical music or pop from the 60s, 70s, 80s. I say (roughly) that I really have no independent access to X, he just turned up by accident at the café. The patron says He kissed you on the cheek. I do not say Is that my fault? He reiterates that X left the stool outside and now the waitress will have to take it in. I agree that this was very wrong. I knew it was a mistake to get out of bed. Dolce vita ist vorbei.

Monday, June 29, 2009

same again

Came across an interview on Poets & Writers of Chuck Adams, formerly of Simon & Schuster, now an editor at Algonquin Press.

When I was at Simon & Schuster, they started this thing on diversity in publishing, and we were all supposed to go through diversity training. To my knowledge, I'm the only person who was not summoned to go through diversity training. I think it was because I wrote them such a scathing reply to their initial query of "How do you feel about diversity in publishing?" I said, "There is no diversity in publishing and we're not likely to get it as long as you just pay lip service to it." There are virtually no African Americans in this business, there are virtually no Hispanics, virtually no Asian Americans. It's because we don't pay competitive salaries, we don't make an effort to recruit them, and, frankly, if they came in and really had a sense of their area of publishing, the bosses wouldn't know what to do with them and probably wouldn't give them a chance to do anything anyway. They expect you to be white like all the rest of us. There's too much of the elitist school culture in New York. The only people who can afford to take jobs in publishing are those who come from enough money and whose parents will help support them. We don't encourage a diversity of people in the business. We don't. We just want more of the same because they're the ones who can afford to work in it.



Go back to this notion of working very closely with an authorwith the reader in mindto make something as commercial as possible. What are the nuts and bolts of that process? What does the page look like?
Physically, it's a mess. I write all over it. I'm not a shy editor. I edit in ink, and I just sit down as a reader. I start reading, and when I come to a word or whatever that makes me stop, then I think, "Okay, there's a problem." Because any time a reader stops—whether it's because they didn't understand something, or the word is an odd choice and it throws them off, or a character does something slightly out of character—then you have to stop and say, "This is a problem. How do we fix it?" Usually I will have a fix that I just go ahead and write in. I always tell the authors, of course, that my fixes are suggestions. I say, "You don't have to do it this way, but you've got to do something here. Whenever I find a problem, you've got to address it. You can't ignore it. You can find your own solution, but you have to do something."

I go through the whole manuscript that way. Sometimes I just write in the margins, sometimes I write pages of notes and type them up and send them to the author. Sometimes it's just a matter of cutting and connecting and writing little one- or two-word transitions. But it's always a matter of taking the reader with me. I want them to be able to follow everything that's going on and not have to stop and puzzle anything out.


We don't hear people talking much about "the voter" for, I would have thought, fairly obviously reasons; there are many voters, each with a range of interests which may or may not influence voting patterns ( Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, by Andrew Gelman et al., offers one example of the kind of analysis needed to get a handle on this). When an agent or editor talks about "the reader" I - well, I don't necessarily want to shoot myself, but I do think, as so often, how much happier I would be among statisticians. Readers are not clones. Plenty of readers, presumably, would have no problem with the crucial clue in Lee Child's first Jack Reacher book: a scrap of paper that read "e unum pluribus" meaning, allegedly, "out of one many". (Awwwww.) And plenty of readers (though, probably, a different subset) have no problem with a sample size of one.

Some of you may think that the disadvantage of a sample size of one would be immediately apparent if a sample size of two threw up two radically different opinions. Ha.

What's the most satisfying big edit you've ever done?
It was probably Kitty Dukakis's memoir. It was one of the first manuscripts I was given to edit at Simon & Schuster. It was an unusual situation: It had been bought jointly by Alice Mayhew and Michael Korda, who are two radically different editors. The manuscript was huge, about five hundred pages. Alice called me into her office and said, "Chuck, there's way too much in here about politics. People want to know the personal story. You need to cut out a lot of this political stuff." Michael called me into his office and said, "Chuck, there's way too much personal stuff in here. People want to know about the politics. You've got to get rid of a lot of this personal stuff."

I sat down and thought, "Okay, who are you going to please?" I decided to just please the reader.

Oh. Um, right.

Whole thing here.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

dolce vita ist vorbei

Overheard at Café Kleisther last night.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

et in academia, äääääääähm, tu

Jenny Davidson has a link to this post on how best to tackle a dissertation as a route to an academic career.

I'm tired.

I'm a feminist. Qua feminist, I feel under some sort of obligation to chase prizes. If I drop out, I feel I'm letting the side down. And I once had a psychopathic (or do I mean sociopathic?) boyfriend who had an unerring instinct for what it took to rack up points on the scoreboard. So I must rack up points on the scoreboard. My tutors, at what had once been a women's college at Oxford, may, for all I know, have had this instinct; if they did, they chose not to share. So I found out about prizes, not from a mentor, but from a psycho- (or possibly socio-) path.

On the one hand, I went in for prizes of fiendish technical difficulty that women did not normally go in for (I think because their tutors assumed that public school men would have it sewn up, why cause unnecessary angst?). And, occasionally, won. On the other hand (know what? I don't wildly want to talk about this. But I've just read Nina Power's MS of One-Dimensional Woman, so I sort of feel I ought to)-- OK, on the other hand, when I had my final exams coming up, the psycho/sociopath would turn up at the library and want endorsement in the form of coffee in the Covered Market or some such thing, when I was just trying to prepare for the fucking exam. A week before the exam I went up to London to stay in a B&B for a night so I could revise for an exam in an X-free environment, except that X wanted to be called from a phonebox. I actually don't want to think about what it would have been like if I had had a tutor or tutors to explain how the system worked, without invocation of the crying need for a double bed.

Anyway, hm. I finished my thesis (Oxford for "dissertation") in four years, and OUP offered to publish it. But I couldn't face spending any more time on the fucker.

What I would say.

Superficially, academia looks very different from commercial publishing. I think they're really sisters under the skin.

As a graduate student, I did my doctoral research in the place that had offered me money. I did not survey the field of classicists, and/or the field of philosophers, and go where I could work with someone whose work I found exciting. I did my research in a place where I'd been offered three years' funding.

In academia, at least, you can find out about interesting people working in your field, even if you can't get money to study with them. So you can probably have some kind of intellectual engagement with them anyway.

In publishing, you have no way of finding out whether there are interesting people who would be receptive to the kind of book you want to write. Because, um, duh, in academia people have to publish to get jobs - you can get some kind of idea of whether you'd like to work with someone by his/her, um, publication record. Without which s/he couldn't had got the job in the first place. But in publishing, of course, there is no requirement to have a publication record to get a job. So. Well. Hm. It' s hard to be sane.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Anybody know about this?

Having sworn I would not get sidetracked by LaTeX again I naturally was unable to resist trying to install it on my new laptop. Went to MacTex on the tug.org site, and my Norton Security flagged up a warning saying this was a known fraudulent site. Can that possibly be true? Tug.org?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

going bonkers

Apparently involved in some kind of dodgy deal. Which I can't talk about. Which makes jumping off a bridge look so good.

I think I should just go back to the States, move with in my long-suffering mother and start a degree in statistics at the University of Maryland. Spend the rest of my life among statisticians. Be sane.

When I wake up in the morning, I always think what a bad idea it is to get out of bed. As long as I stay in bed nothing can go wrong. And every day I make the same mistake.

Meanwhile. Inference for R can now be used with PowerPoint. Trying to write a story for the New Yorker which incorporates this thrilling fact.


The latest issue of The Author, the quarterly magazine of the Society of Authors, was waiting at my PO Box. I read a number of dour pieces on publishing, which is going to the dogs, and then come upon a piece by Norman Leaver on how to sell from your website. Mr Leaver explains:

Since getting that initial CD-ROM onto the shelves of shops in 2006, I have extended the range and I now have three training and revision CDs for plumbing trainees, a home study and reference book for both experienced gas engineers and trainees, and a series of six sets of study notes dealing with domestic gas appliances. I have picked up some useful information along the way which works very well for me, and may be of use to others.


Since putting the site up in September 2007 there have been well over 20,000 downloads. Installing these two areas was way beyond my ability, so I resorted to the professionals. And that was when I discovered Rentacoder.com.

(There is, of course, more. I don't think The Author is available online. But you can check out Mr Leaver's website, www.learnatrade.co.uk, and, of course, www.Rentacoder.com.)

I think the lesson to be learnt, sadly, is not that Rentacoder is the answer. If I had written a series of six sets of study notes dealing with domestic gas appliances, I think I too might well have achieved 20,000 downloads, with or without Rentacoder.

Monday, June 22, 2009

SS Stats

If policy were set by state-by-state majorities of those 65 or older, none would allow same-sex marriage. If policy were set by those under 30, only 12 states would not allow-same-sex marriage.

From Jeff Lax on Andrew Gelman's Statistical Modeling blog, the rest here.

(There's a terrific graphic, but Blogger has foiled my efforts to import it in a viewable size.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Three-toed good, Peebles bad

Thanks to a commenter, I've found Cosma Shalizi's review of Gillian Tett's Fool's Gold, which includes the following:

In short, the group at Morgan decided to change the way a basic capitalist institution worked, on the basis of abstract ideological principles, without any concern for its real-world effects, or the hard-won experience embodied in the social order they had inherited. (No doubt it helped that they all considered each other super-smart.) In conjunction with their peers at other major banks and financial institutions, they created these instruments, and then engaged in a series of highly successful lobbying efforts to ensure that they remained unregulated, and indeed to make sure that they didn't even trade on organized exchanges, so as to keep the banks' customers from seeing the deals being offered on comparable securities. (Naturally, the bankers who lobbied against transparency claimed to act in the name of free-market competition.) This may not have involved any illegal, brown-paper-bags-stuffed-with-cash corruption, but it's still a striking example of how a compact, organized, and above all rich special interest group can bend the political process to its will.

It is at this point, after the victory of an elitist cadre of self-serving ideologues, that what Tett calls the "corruption" set in. The original Morgan group were rationalistic social engineers filled with hubris, but even they realized there were limits on the trick they devised. To pull it off, the bank had to estimate the risk not just of any one loan in the portfolio defaulting, but of groups of them doing so at once, which meant estimating the correlations among loan defaults. In the nature of things, this is much harder than just estimating the risk of a single loan, and in many cases, like defaults on sub-prime mortgages, the data just wasn't there to support any sensible kind of estimation. (Cf..) The Morgan team realized this, and so did only a few mortgage deals. The rest of the industry was not so scrupulous: some of them thought they had a way of letting the market figure out the correlations, without anyone in the market having any information about the underlying economic entities, while the ratings agencies, for their part, used correlations set not so much ex ante as ex ano. The result, naturally, was an orgy of leveraged risk-taking such as had not been seen since the banks and financial markets were regulated in the first place. I say "naturally" because banks compete for investors' money, and they do so by offering returns. Leverage and gambling increase your returns, at least when your bets pay off, so the leveraged, aggressive banks gain at the expense of their more prudent competitors, who can't easily prove that they're being prudent, rather than timid and incompetent. (Tett makes it clear that Morgan suffered from its comparative restraint, and, had the bubble lasted just a bit longer, would probably have been forced to join in by its shareholders.) So leverage and risk-taking tend to ratchet up, until things go bust. If the aggressive banks have had the brains to diversify, then they have by that token correlated their portfolios (even were there no correlations within each portfolio), and so they will all go bust together. Which brings us to the end of 2008, more or less.

The rest here.

quis custodet ipsos custodes

Jenny Diski was invited to guest edit a student magazine, but failed lamentably to stay on-message.

"It is not possible for us to print your introduction in good conscience. The negative tone does not reflect the spirit of [the magazine], which is meant to be an encouraging platform for new and developing student writers ... we feel that three high-quality stories have been omitted from your final shortlist, and we would not be adequately performing our job as editors of the journal if we allowed those writers to go unrecognised. As a result of these concerns, we can no longer continue this working relationship.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

that clinking clanking sound

Donald McKenzie has a terrific review of Gillian Tett's new book, Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe on the LRB.

Monday, June 15, 2009

a working girl's guide to game theory

Mithridates sent me an e-mail in which he mentioned Erving Goffman's book Interaction Ritual, which I haven't read. The Staatsbibliothek didn't have it, but they do have Randall Collins' book Interaction Ritual Chains, and Professor Collins is billed as a sociological hotshot, so I order it. Went up there today to collect.

The reason I was interested is that I thought this might be relevant to my book on sexual codes, which needs a shot in the arm. A while back I tried to explain this book to a philosopher, and what I said was that it was trying to introduce a new kind of speech act to communication of sexual preferences, and I then went into a long narrative on the evolution of whist (in which information about a hand could only be communicated by playing a card) into bridge, in which highly sophisticated bidding systems communicate the shape and strength of hands before a single card is played. The philosopher said something along the lines of, he did not think there was such a thing as a cleanly demarcated speech act. But the hell of it is, the only reason I brought speech acts into the discussion was, I was pretty sure he knew nothing about whist or bridge; I was trying to translate into something he would understand.

Anyway, not sure I can explicate this book properly in blogtime, but I brought RC's book home and was thrilled to find that he actually had a chapter on A Theory of Sexual Interaction. I go straight to the chapter, and um, hm.


The strongest empirical approximation to sex as selfish, individual pleasure-seeding is prostitution. In the ideal type, there is a simple exchange of customer's money for exual pleasure. I wil suggest the relevance of three kinds of empirical observations.

First: customers' interaction with prostitutes is often difficult and unpleasant, characterized by a high degree of distrust and cheating. Prostitutes are primarily motivated by money: they generally try to get as much money as possible from the customer, and give as little sexual labor in return as the can get away with.... Full-fledged prostitutes engage in various forms of bargaining, both as to price and quantity, such as charging a given sum for initial sex acts and asking for more to continue on to actual intercourse, sometimes stringing out the customer to continued renegotiations of what he thought was a done deal. Prostitutes in arenas with high turnover tend to minimize their work for the money, trying to hurry the customer through as quicklyas possible. In short, a prostitute tends to act very much like a pure utilitarian actor in game theory: since this is a purely selfish exchange on both sides, the focus is on monetary bargaining and on shirking work. [¿K?] Prostitutes almost always demand their money up front, before performing; customers agree to this, apparently because the strength of their desire for sex is stronger than their willingness to calculate and bargain. In other words, the cooler head is on the side of the prostitute, hence the better bargaining position. For the same reason, prostitutes are in a better position to cheat their customers than the other way around. ...

I'm afraid this doesn't leave me with high hopes for the book (I have racked up further credit card debt and ordered Goffman on Amazon). It's actually scary to see this.

(Poor head.)

Look. I went to Smith College in 1975, and my father had to pay fees up front, and the intellectual mediocrity of the place* drove me to my first suicide attempt, and if you think Smith gave my father a refund, well, hey, over the rainbow skies are blue. Someday I'll wish upon a star. In 1978 I took the Oxford entrance exam for classics (8 exams, in fact, 2C2E), got a place, went up in 1979, to be told that overseas fees had been introduced. All fees were to be paid up front. PLUS, my beloved college wanted £1000 up front as a deposit. So then as now, academic institutions had to be paid up front - IT had a piece a while back on students being denied access to course materials because their loans had not come through, plus ça change. OK. But see, the fact that cashstrapped students have to pay up front does not necessarily mean that the people drawing their salaries are actually doing what they are notionally being paid for. So, frinstans...

For Mods, you were supposed to do three special subjects. One of mine was Aristophanic Comedy. My contemporaries at other colleges were getting their tutorials on their special subjects, as well as going to university lectures; my first year went by, and these tutorials had not taken place, so I assumed they would be arranged for the first term of my second year. I went home to the US to grapple with a) reading the whole of Homer in Greek and also reading my three Aristophanes plays and b) holding down an office job, something that could easily be managed by getting up at 5, reading Greek for 3 hours, going to work, coming home, then reading Greek from 6 to midnight. Went back to Oxford. My tutor set me a collection on Aristophanes - that is, a practice exam which was a trial run for the real thing which would take place at the end of the following term. I assumed this was the preliminary to an announcement of arrangments for my Aristophanes tutorials.

I took this practice exam and handed it in. My tutor explained that she had arranged to have it assessed by Letitia Edwards of St Hugh's (a specialist in Aristophanes). So it was sent to Dr Edwards, and I think she gave it some kind of high beta mark, and my tutor returned it to me. And that was it.

I remember walking out of that meeting with my tutor. I remember thinking: - but that's the wrong way of putting it. I can throw in some sentences - "What am I going to do? What in God's name do I do?" but there weren't any sentences. My contemporaries at other colleges - the ones who'd done the Aristophanes special subject - had all had a term of tutorials on Aristophanes, for which they had written an essay a week; they'd had reading lists, they'd done the background reading and grappled with the various issues relating to Aristophanes; and, well, erm, just because you are paying overseas fees for, ahem, "tuition" does not mean that your tutor considers herself under any obligation to set up the tuition for which you've paid. Whereas, truth be told, I think the average tart, paid for a blow job, does actually suck dick. And, truth be told, the disutility to a client of an overpriced subpar blow job strikes me as dramatically lower than that of the disutility to a university student of overpriced subpar tuition.

Payment for the tuition must be drummed up by selling time, one way or another - that is, time that could be spent on independent reading must be sold to pay for the tuition, which means that the tuition is, notionally, of higher value than what the student could achieve by simply reading 40 hours a week. But, um...

After my father retired from the State Department he got a job teaching Geography at the University of Radford, in Radford, Virginia. And my father had a strong preference for setting multiple choice exams, because they could be computer-assessed, he hated essay exams, and he hated setting papers, because they took so much time to mark. My tutor who arranged no tutorials at all was... well, I won't say she was an extreme of slackerdom, because I also had a philosophy tutor who spent the tutorials talking about the jumble sale economy and her feud with the college principal, but anyway I would say that a fondness for collecting a salary and getting away with as little intellectual intercourse as possible is endemic to the academic world. And this is actually pretty nasty.

Racking up £20,000 of student debt (Britain) or $50,000+ (US) is pretty much compulsory for access to a wide range of careers, regardless of the quality of instruction actually provided. An academic who is a good mentor can transform the intellectual abilities of his/her students - I notice that both Julia Annas and Martha Nussbaum acknowledge their debt to G E L Owen, who seems to have been an extraordinary teacher. An academic may also be tired, overworked, alcoholic, lazy; may have settled comfortably into tenure, or may be shuffled around from one short-term teaching post to another, asked to get on top of a succession of subjects at short notice - there are all kinds of reasons why an academic may not teach to a standard justified by the sacrifices required of students and their families.

Collins' comments seemed to me, anyway, to presuppose the thing they wanted to prove - that introducing commerce to a relationship automatically brings with it dishonesty. I can't help feeling that anyone familiar with Hicks's A Market Theory of Money (or, heck, The Wealth of Nations) could not make that assumption. A prostitute is really in a position similar to that of a professional writer: the costs involved are not primarily those of the actual act being paid for, but those of getting custom in the first place. An independent prostitute, at least, will generally be better off if she is in the position of one of my friends, many of whose clients have been coming back for 30 years - which is to say that she plays a game with iterations, so it can't be her dominant strategy to cheat the client on any single transaction. (Academics, of course, have no remotely comparable incentive to chase student loyalty; from a strictly game theoretical point of view, it is much more to their advantage to cheat.)

So, well, it's a bit demoralizing to find the blind spots of the culture replicated by Professor Collins. More could be said, but I've got to see a man about a dog.

* I had better clarify; I don't mean to suggest that the faculty were mediocre; they weren't. The standard of the classes, however, was constrained by the work students could reasonably be expected to do; it was easy to see that many lecturers had been worn down over the years, becoming increasingly "realistic" in their expectations.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

the wrong kind of data

Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, on the results of a 1995 WHO report on cocaine use.

"Health problems from the use of legal substances, particularly alcohol and tobacco, are greater than health problems from cocaine use," they said. "Cocaine-related problems are widely perceived to be more common and more severe for intensive, high-dosage users and very rare and much less severe for occasional, low-dosage users."

The full report – which has never been published – was extremely critical of most US policies. It suggested that supply reduction and law enforcement strategies have failed, and that options such as decriminalisation might be explored, flagging up such programmes in Australia, Bolivia, Canada and Colombia. "Approaches which over-emphasise punitive drug control measures may actually contribute to the development of heath-related problems," it said, before committing heresy by recommending research into the adverse consequences of prohibition, and discussing "harm reduction" strategies.


At the point where mild cocaine use was described in positive tones the Americans presumably blew some kind of outrage fuse. This report was never published because the US representative to the WHO threatened to withdraw US funding for all its research projects and interventions unless the organisation "dissociated itself from the study" and cancelled publication. According to the WHO this document does not exist, (although you can read a leaked copy at www.tdpf.org.uk/WHOleaked.pdf).

Friday, June 12, 2009

Mr P and gay marriage

Andrew Gelman has a terrific post, Gay Marriage: A Tipping Point? over on Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference and Social Science on a study by Jeff Lax and Justin Phillips on changes in attitudes to gay marriage in the different states.


Here I'll focus on the coolest thing Lax and Phillips found, which is a graph of state-by-state trends in public support for gay marriage. In the past fifteen years, gay marriage has increased in popularity in all fifty states. No news there, but what was a surprise to me is where the largest changes have occurred. The popularity of gay marriage has increased fastest in the states where gay rights were already relatively popular in the 1990s.
In 1995, support for gay marriage exceeded 30% in only six states: New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, and Vermont. In these states, support for gay marriage has increased by an average of almost 20 percentage points. In contrast, support has increased by less than 10 percentage points in the six states that in 1995 were most anti-gay-marriage--Utah, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Idaho.

(AG displays this excellent graph, so I shall not haul it over here.)

I was stunned when I saw this picture. I generally expect to see uniform swing, or maybe even some "regression to the mean," with the lowest values increasing the most and the highest values declining, relative to the average. But that's not what's happening at all. What's going on?

I have not found a way to link to this specific post, but AG's analysis is well worth reading. (Update, thanks, anon - OK, the rest here.)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

haus und maus

A neighbour in my old apartment building sent me an e-mail; there's a bad smell in the house from one of the coal ovens. One of my tenants came to the door to ask for bicycle maintenance kit; she raised the question of the oven; tenant: "Oh, there was a small explosion a couple of months ago."

So I'm trying to chase down the chimneysweep. Poor head. Poor head. Poor head.


Next week, three of Spiegelman's sketchbooks will be published for the first time. These days it is standard for major cartoonists, from Robert Crumb to Chris Ware, to publish seminal sketchbooks, so it seems odd that Spiegelman hasn't before. It turns out he has such a neurotic fear of them that he can barely keep one going for more than a few days. What he calls his "efficiently casual" drawings in Maus took 20 to 30 drafts. He is so paralysed by the pressure of creating the perfect sketchbook that he prefers to draw while on the phone, on Post-It notes or envelopes, which he usually throws away. If he is drawing on a newspaper scrap, it is easier to shut down the left side of the brain, so the right side is free to move around; he won't know what the drawing is until it is finished.

Spiegelman tells me this in a stream of rapid-fire, Woody Allen-style self-deprecation as we walk down a Paris street. "I have too much respect for books, so to make a mark in a blank one seems like a violation," he says. "Then the neurosis compounds itself, because if you make a good drawing, you don't want to screw the book up by making a bad drawing after. So I have a lot of sketchbooks that have one drawing in them - a whole shelf full. And then if you make a bad drawing, you never want to look at the book again. So I have a lot of sketchbooks that have one page torn out that I never went back to.

Art Spiegelman in the Guardian.

(Steve Bell says:

What I like about these books is the hesitancy, the awkwardness, the sense of the absolute inevitability of going wrong, coupled with the certainty of occasionally going triumphantly right, and above all the willingness to take risks.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


There's a long interview of Owen Hatherley over on Ready Steady Book, in which OH talks about his new book Militant Modernism. I am a lucky early adopter of this splendid book, which deserves a post but there is work to be done.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


brief internet access in a café. check out bremer sprachblog. find Anatol Stefanowitch writing about the Voynitch ms, previously known to me, ahem, only from xkcd. AS has this phrase:

und wer ein bisschen googelt...

('and he who googles a bit...' or, more idiomatically, 'if you google a bit...')

Interessanterweise, I just devoured Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Man, and then felt I must read Blood Meridian, which reminded me of something I have thought in the past about Spanish in McCarthy. McCarthy has an incomparable ear for English dialogue of the South and Southwest. His Spanish is something else again. It's not that he has or doesn't have an ear for it - I have no opinion on this point. The Spanish is coopted into the prosody of the English; English speakers are laconic, and speakers of Spanish are also laconic. So when you read the Spanish dialogue in McCarthy you get Spanish stripped of everything that Mexicans actually do with the language when they speak it; it's a language with a rolled r, they do with the language what Scots do with English, the r works, roughly, like the - I don't know the word for this, the things that stick up on a pinball machine that the ball bounces off. Speech speeds from r to r, and when it hits an r it's sometimes like that moment in pinball when the ball goes madly back and forth between two posts, sometimes rattles rrrrrrrrrrrapidito off to the next r - this is not a language whose speakers prize the laconic. This is the thing that Spanish speakers miss when they speak English, at least when they haven't happened to land up in Glasgow; there are no rrrrrrrrs to bounce a sentence off.

It's good for a writer to have a voice. It's harder to have a voice if there's this susceptibility to language on the hoof. But CMcC says you have to trust where it comes from, and maybe you just do. Googeln. Googeln. Delovely.