Wednesday, March 31, 2010


But in a person there lives a small observer – he takes part in neither actions nor sufferings – he is always cold-blooded and always the same. His employment is to see and to be a witness, but he has no vote [literally 'voice'] in the life of the person and it is not known why he, lonely, exists. This corner of a person's consciousness is illuminated day and night, like a doorman's room in a great house. For days on end this doorman sits awake in the entrance, he knows all the inhabitants of his house, but not a single one of them asks the doorman's advice about his own affairs.

Languagehat has been reading Platonov's Chevengur, translates a couple of passages which make one long for more.

why is this night different from all other nights

Came back to the motel early yesterday afternoon and found an e-mail from a reader in the Boston area, Leah Archibald, asking if I would like to come to a Seder that night. This sounded like a wonderful idea; I haven't been to a Seder since David and I separated. Leah very kindly agreed to pick me up at 5 when she got off work.

Leah works at a firm specialising in internet marketing. I say: Oh, that sounds interesting. Leah: You don't have to pretend. Sadly, perhaps, I am not pretending: I think this is fascinating. Partly, no doubt, as a result of having a blog. Also, unfortunately, as a result of inconclusive discussions with my former agent, Bill Clegg on the subject of likely readers of a book incorporating Tuftean information design, one which Bill originally thought I would have to self-publish. The drive to the house turns into a sort of busman's holiday for Leah: For example, I say, I explained to Bill that we could have a cover by Randall Munroe! xkcd gets 190,000 hits a day! Deservedly so! (And, ahem, if RM had better things to do I could probably come up with a drawing myself...) Bill was decidedly uninterested in this and the many other statistics on relevant blogs, and presently explained that publishers would not be interested in this sort of thing, they just had to love the book. An unnerving revelation which can now be shared with a sympathetic audience. Leah says her husband Dan went to one of ET's seminars a few years ago and they now have many of the books.

Leah lives in Bedford with her husband Dan, dog Rascal and 9-month-old baby Harvey. Leah and Dan grew up about a block from each other in Lexington; one of the things I discovered in the course of the evening was that civic holidays are seen differently in this part of the world. Patriots Day, a holiday marking the Battles of Lexington and Concord, is celebrated only in Massachusetts and Maine: in Massachusetts it involves a reenactment of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and the Battle of Lexington. And, possibly, the Battle of Concord. In period costume. There is local rivalry: in Lexington the focus of the day is the Battle of Lexington, in Concord the battle at North Bridge, while other towns emphasise other highlights of the historic day which I have now forgotten.

Dan: Oh, yes, it's a really big deal. They don't really pay much attention to the Fourth of July.

I anticipate.

When we arrive we find that Dan and friends are in the kitchen preparing the meal. Dan comes out with Harvey strapped to his back. We talk; I find that Dan is a loyal follower of Languagehat (thanks to whom he first read The Last Samurai many years ago, so thanks, Steve) and Language Log. More friends come.

One of the friends, Alan, teaches biology to 11th and 12th graders; he has just been roped into teaching an electronics class. He explains that he has been having the class build an amplifier using vacuum tubes. No one got electrocuted, so they're doing well. Another friend, Cara, teaches ancient history to 5th graders. She once worked in a Barnes & Noble. I ask why the Framingham B&N would not stock Portuguese books when the town has a large Brazilian population. She says it is partly the result of being a national chain; that the Brazilian community may not be large enough to justify a special stock; and that it may not be easy to order foreign books. The B&N may not be able to get the books in its system; they may not know who the distributors are. The last point sounds plausible: it seems entirely possible that local staff would not know which books to order, let alone how they could be ordered in the US, and if local staff don't know it's hard to see why anyone at head office would be better informed. (It may be that those of us who would like to see more foreign-language books in bookstores need to do some legwork. As things stand, unfortunately, it always looks so much easier to order books online - but then one misses out on the happy accidents that come of seeing something one hadn't heard of before.)

Dan is Episcopalian but runs the Seder with aplomb. Many of the friends are not Jewish, but the Haggadah is presented in a way that allows the Seder to combine English and Hebrew (it has Hebrew and Aramaic texts, transliteration and translation). A wonderful evening, and heartening, somehow, in these days of religious segregationism.

Fans of Rashomon can see Leah's account here.

Monday, March 29, 2010

EHJC reveal some

There's an interview of Emily Horne and Joey Comeau (of A Softer World) at


I'm in Boston, staying in a motel in Framingham. Was surprised to find that Framingham has a large Brazilian population - the taxi to the motel passed any number of Brazilian stores, and the driver said there was a large Brazilian community. Went into the Barnes & Noble in the mall across from the motel; went, as one does, to the languages section. Which had 12 shelves, at a guess, of books in Spanish, and none in Portuguese. Asked about this at Information: was stock decided on by head office? Was told it was normally decided on at head office, unless there was strong local demand for something not stocked.

It may well be that there is also a large local population of Hispanics, but this still seemed somewhat unenterprising. It may be that the typical manager of a bookstore hasn't spent much time overseas, and so doesn't realize how helpful it is for expats to have access to books in their native language. It's not just that it's nice to be able to pick up books that are written in one's own language - people who were not big readers to begin with may not be especially likely to pick up reading as a leisure activity overseas. If one is trying to learn a new language, it helps to buy a book in both the target language and one's own: it's often easier to make progress in the new language by reading a text in it, flipping as needed to a translation, than to look up one word after another in a dictionary. (So if I were running this branch of B&N I would have a selection of Portuguese books with English translations in the same section, and the relevant English audio books as well if available. )

Meanwhile, was unable to resist buying a copy of Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Tres Tristes Tigres. Advertencia:

El libro está en cubano. Es decir, escrito en los diferentes dialectos del español que se hablen en Cuba y la escritura no es más que un intento de atrapar la voz humana al vuelo, come aquel que dice. Las distintas formas del cubano se funden o creo que se funden en un solo lenguaje literario. Sin embargo, predomina como un acento el habla de los habaneros y en particular la jerga nocturna que , como en todas las grandes ciudades, tiende a ser un idioma secreto. La reconstrucción no fue fácil y algunas páginas se deben oír mejor que se leen, y no sería mala idea leerlas en voz alta. Finalmente, quiero hacer mío este reparo de Mark Twain:

"Hago estas explicaciones por la simple razón de que sin ellas muchos lectores supondrían que todos los personajes tratan de hablar igual sin conseguirlo."

[Note: can't quite see how one could use an ebook, as currently on offer, to have a page of a translation and one of the original side by side; seems as though it would be enormously helpful if there were some kind of ebook with two screens, or one wide one, onto which one could upload two books at a time.]

[Shd probably translate, but I write in haste.]

new game new game new game

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution has a post on the role of computers in improving educational achievement in the young.

Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches look at the effects of a program that gave poor households a voucher to purchase a computer. ... Households with incomes directly below a cutoff level were given a voucher while households with incomes directly above the cutoff were not. Thus, households which were very similar were treated differently and this lets the authors use a regression discontinuity design that makes their results credible as representing a causal effect. The results of a regression discontinuity design are also very easy to explain with figures.

The income cutoff is shown by the red line. Beginning at the top left we see that households with incomes just below the cutoff were much more likely to have a computer than households with incomes just above the cutoff - thus the voucher program has a big effect on computer ownership. The top right figure shows similarly that the voucher program increased computer usage since computers were used much more often in households with incomes just below the cutoff than in the non-eligible for voucher households with incomes just above the cutoff.


We hate spoilers. The rest here.

(Originally from David Youngberg at See the invisible hand, which looks terrifyingly addictive in its own right.)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Modernist fiction is that fiction that does not tease you into thinking that you can win.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Stevens thou shouldst be living at this hour

He was a very imaginative claims man. I mean that he was never satisfied handling cases entirely according to routine. One of the
things in the old days was, if you had a contractor who defaulted, don't try to finish the contract or you'll lose your pants. Well, Stevens very often violated that principle, and he finished contracts and was always pretty successful. He was at that time and for many years before his death the dean of claims men in the whole country. I've often wondered how he could separate his mind between poetry and all that's involved in poetry and this mundane, realistic surety-claims world. They're just two ends of the pole: one is fantasy and the other is real as real can get.

Hale Anderson, quoted in Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered by Peter Brazeau. Extract in Harpers, September 1983. (Subscribers only, which is why Harpers is a bargain at $16.97 a year.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

War and War

Interviewed at the 2009 Venice festival, Yoav Donat, one of the actors [in Lebanon], said: ‘This is not a movie that makes you think: “I’ve just been to a movie.” This is a movie that makes you feel like you’ve been to war.’ Maoz has said his film is not a condemnation of Israel’s policies, but a personal account of what he went through: ‘The mistake I made is to call the film Lebanon because the Lebanon war is no different in its essence from any other war and for me any attempt to be political would have flattened the film.’ This is ideology at its purest: the focus on the perpetrator’s traumatic experience enables us to obliterate the entire ethico-political background of the conflict.

Slavoj Žižek at the LRB blog on the Hurt Locker's Oscar

Monday, March 22, 2010

From Dataviz, via Revolutions.

Obama recently appointed ET to the Recovery Independent Advisory Commission. Excelsior.

Friday, March 19, 2010

passive competence

And so, beginning in the early 1980s, I learned a new language. I began by purchasing Teach Yourself Czech. Taking advantage of the length (and increasingly welcome) absence of Wife #2, I devoted two hours a night to this book. Its method was old-fashioned and thus reassuringly familiar: page upon page of grammar, with the emphasis on the complicated conjugations and declensions of the Slavonic family of languages, interspersed with vocabulary, translations, pronunciation, important exceptions, etc. In short, just the way I had been taught German.


Learning Czech... made me a very different sort of scholar, historian, and person. Would it have made a significant difference had I taken up, say, Polish? My friends certainly thought so: to them, Czech was a small Slav language (much as Russian colleagues would later describe Polish) and I had inexplicably opted to specialize in what -- for them -- was the equivalent of the history of, say, Wales. I felt otherwise: that distinctly Polish (or Russian) sense of cultural grandeur was precisely what I wanted to circumnavigate, preferring the distinctively Czech qualities of doubt, cultural insecurity, and skeptical self-mockery. These were already familiar to me from Jewish sources: Kafka, above all -- but Kafka is also the Czech writer par excellence.

Tony Judt in the 10 March issue of the NYRB (behind paywall, bought by me in a bookstore that would appear to be about 2 issues behind the times). He decided to learn Czech, since you ask, because he was going through a mid-life crisis.


Sir Kenneth Dover has died, obituary by Stephen Halliwell here. The Time obituary comments:

What captivated him in classical Greece was, first and foremost, the language. From childhood, all languages had fascinated him, and he liked to draw parallels even from remote Melanesian tongues. Second, he loved the complexities of the social and political history of the fifth and fourth centuries BC. For philosophy, he had little taste; Latin he put aside early, and he never wrote or talked much about the continuities of European civilisation. Of the importance of knowing about Ancient Greece, he had of course no doubt; but the historical links between the world in which we live and that of Thucydides and Aristophanes were not, to him, evidence of that importance. It rested rather on what he believed to be the social and moral perceptions of the classical age and the precise and subtle language in which they are expressed.

(Hat tip Jenny Davidson)

Monday, March 15, 2010

say it ain't so

Joel Spolsky is going to give up blogging on March 18, the 10th anniversary of Joel on Software. He has also written his last column for Inc., of which he says:

Writing for Inc. was an enormous honor, but it was very different than writing on my own website. Every article I submitted was extensively rewritten in the house style by a very talented editor, Mike Hofman. When Mike got done with it, it was almost always better, but it never felt like my own words. I look back on those Inc. columns and they literally don’t feel like mine. It’s as if somebody kidnapped me and replaced me with an indistinguishable imposter who went to Columbia Journalism School. Or I slipped into an alternate universe where Joel Spolsky is left-handed and everything he does is subtlely different.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

boredom containers

The inhuman in human beings: that is what the face is from the start. It is by nature a close-up,
with its inanimate white surfaces, its shining black holes, its emptiness and boredom. Bunker face.

Deleuze Guattari 1986

Just as the face is a deterritorialized head, so the feet and the hands deterritorialize into
cyborganic admixtures: couplings of hand/tool and foot/ shoe. Of these, the foot/shoe is
the most basic foundation, the ground upon which the rest of the socialbody rests. By
standing on two feet, the hands are freed to become tool making and using appendages,
and the mouth is thereby freed from carrying to bear words instead. In structural terms,
the foot/shoe functions as base to the face’s superstructure.


As Sloterdijk puts it, once it becomes able to see the approach
of a predator or other dangers from far away, the savannah-ape is introduced
simultaneously to boredom. Removed from the constant vigilance of the jungle, and
overwhelmed by boredom and joblessness, the savannah-ape sets its hands and tools to
work and builds.

What is built out there on the savannah? In short, ‘boredom containers’. The primary
function of architecture, Sloterdijk tells us, is to contain boredom. So the savannah-ape
builds in order to fend off boredom and joblessness, and slowly but surely the open
savannah is reduced to a closed monastic cell. Isolated within four walls, and trapped
within the strict hierarchy of the Church, the process of destruction and new building
must start again.

Nick Butler, Chris Land, Martyna Śliwa, Throwing Shoes, editorial in the current issue of ephemera: theory & politics in organization. The whole essay in PDF here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Went to see The Ghost Writer the other day. The ghost writer tracks down a senior academic who seems to be linked to the former prime minister whose memoirs he is improving. Mentions the politician's name. Academic: He is whom?

Monday, March 8, 2010

i'm a real samurai

Veblen, an inveterate reader of ethnographies, noticed a historical pattern that could illuminate America’s peculiar relationship with its economic institutions. Societies everywhere fall between two extremes. First, there are societies in which every person works, and no one is demeaned by his or her toil. In these societies, individuals pride themselves on their workmanship, and they exhibit a natural concern for the welfare of their entire community. As examples of such “productive” societies, Veblen mentions Native Americans, the Ainus of Japan, the Todas of the Nilgiri hills and the bushmen of Australia. Second, there are “barbarian” societies, in which a single dominant class (usually of warriors) seizes the wealth and produce of others through force or fraud—think ancient Vikings, Japanese shoguns and Polynesian tribesmen. Farmers labor for their livelihood and warriors expropriate the fruits of that labor. Exploitative elites take no part in the actual production of wealth; they live off the toil of others. Yet far from being judged criminal or indolent, they are revered by the rest of the community. In barbarian societies, nothing is as manly, as venerated, as envied, as the lives of warriors. Their every trait—their predatory practices, their dress, their sport, their gait, their speech—is held in high esteem by all.


In barbarian societies, the warriors plunder and parade. Their homes adorned with booty from past raids, they brazenly announce their superiority to the rest of their community. Destructive and wasteful, they avoid accusations of spiritual and social infertility by defining what counts as spiritual and social wealth. As Veblen notes, “The obtaining of goods by other methods than seizure comes to be accounted unworthy of man in his best estate.” All throughout history, in fact, virtues of manliness track the least productive—and most esteemed—professions, hobbies and social ambitions. Fight, idle, wear ornate clothing, but suffer not touching the earth or assisting one’s fellow man.


The Wall Street worker understands that he is not yesterday’s noble captain of industry, but merely a deckhand on a ship rowing between the Scylla of unethical trading and Charybdis of financial ruin. To pass these troubled waters, someone needs to be sacrificed. On occasion, Scylla will capture a few of the crew (Madoff, Stanford), but generally, only clientele have to be handed over. Lewis describes his peculiar relief at being able to slough off financial losses:

[The client] was shouting and moaning. And that was it. That was all he could do. Shout and moan. That was the beauty of being a middleman, which I did not appreciate until that moment. The customer suffered. I didn’t. He wasn’t going to kill me. He wasn’t even going to sue me. I wasn’t going to lose my job. On the contrary, I was a minor hero at Salomon for dumping a sixty-thousand-dollar loss into someone else’s pocket.

the Point Magazine, courtesy of Woods Lot, the rest here.

steel magnolias

Toward the end of January things went badly wrong with Bill Clegg, the agent who then represented me, to the point where he resigned and was adamant that he did not want to go on.

I've been trying to think what to say about this.

Most writers, I think, would be nervous of an agent who resigns on the strength of a stroppy e-mail sent during a medical crisis (my mother was in the ICU at the time); they would be especially nervous if this came after three months providing live-in care, an interruption whose financial consequences are sufficiently worrying in themselves. If the justification is that the writer took up too much time and was unproductive this is frankly terrifying.

My mother had an emergency colostomy in September; she was left excreting into a plastic bag affixed to her stomach. She'd been told the procedure would be reversed in 3 months or so, but was afraid this wouldn't happen; if she had to spend her days with shit spurting into a bag on her stomach she did not want to live. She would share thoughts on means of committing suicide should need arise. So it wasn't simply a matter of providing the occasional care involved in changing the bag, preparing meals, light housekeeping; it was a matter of marshalling the kind of social self that is capable of raising morale.

Proust talks about the fact that the writer's real self is something alien, solitary: the social self is just a shell sent out in the world. One of the reasons you need an agent is that you need someone who actually understands that - someone who is not repelled by having, for the most part, social interactions with a thing that is simply a façade, with occasional exposure to the obsessive-compulsive machine that writes the books. This is something quite different from loving books: loving books is easy. The better the books are, though, the more ruthless the obsessive-compulsive machine behind them, and the more frankly manipulative, in all likelihood, the social self. An editor is, for the most part, someone who engages with texts and knows how to get them published; the specialists who work on a book have their special skills; none of these jobs presuppose the ability to work with someone whose real self just stares at a blank wall laughing out loud and typing madly to get it all down before it's gone. You want an agent so all these people have an actual human being to deal with. The presumption is that the agent is someone who can deal with monsters.

This is not a dodge that works with your family. If you spend 3 months en famille you're cut off from the alien; you can't let your guard down. Bill had said he would like 100 pages or so of Risk, a book based on part of my Guggenheim proposal - an exceptionally demanding book making use of the information design of Edward Tufte, hence presenting technical difficulties over and above the challenges of normal narrative. There were 100 pages, after a while, but they were not fit to be seen. Andrew Gelman sent me a fabulous array of plots of the binomial distribution, with a spectacularly elegant piece of code - it's not that no progress was made - but.

Normally, when you have a breakthrough with a book, it gives you a rush of energy and you work madly on the book and achieve further breakthroughs, and in all likelihood these involve throwing away 10,000 words but you know Jesus loves you. It was not possible, in the circumstances, to follow through when breakthroughs were achieved.

My mother got a date for her reversal a week before I was to return to Berlin. She was in surgery for 6 hours; she went on the ward, then was taken to the ICU. Her blood pressure had gone through the floor, there were other worrying vital signs. My sister and I took turns staying with her, spending nights in a chair, 24-hour, 48-hour shifts. There wasn't much to do while my mother was sleeping.

It seemed a good time to read Bill's memoir, Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man. Bill seemed to like about 70% of what I'd sent him; it seemed a good idea to get a better feeling for his sensibility, with a view to sending him stories and books he would try to get published. With somewhat Sophoclean irony, it seemed as though reading this memoir would help me avoid the sort of situation where we drove each other crazy. Bill had said several times that he would send me a copy of the galleys; he now explained in a rather cavalier manner that he had not bothered to put me on the list, no copies were left, but I wd be sent a copy of the finished book. I was a bit taken aback by this: Bill had said that when he talked to employers they had had concerns about his crack addiction in 2005, and that these had naturally had to be addressed; if legitimate in an employer, surely a fortiori in a client?

A somewhat stressful day or two went by. I replied in terms which by British standards would count as good-humoured yet firm. (Bear in mind that David Cameron does not consider 'twat' a swear word - and no, since you ask, I did not use either this or any other language that anyone would consider even slightly blue.) Bill said he was worn out; he had thought we had established a good working relationship, but it was too much, unproductive, he gave up.

When we spoke the next day he said that his memoir had no relevance to his representation of clients, he had not sent it to any of his clients and none had asked to see it. You might want to ask yourself, Helen, what YOU'RE doing to have this string of failures. (Since you ask, a recurring source of grievance, among people I've worked with, has been the expectation that people would do what they said they would do. Clear permissions. Respect terms of contract relating to copy-editing. Provide designer. Pay royalties. This was where I had thought an agent would be so helpful.)

Anyway. I'm still somewhat shell-shocked. Tired. I don't want some other writer to sign with Bill and run on the rocks. But Bill is absolutely right, all kinds of people think I'm impossible to work with. And many of his clients adore him.

Only thing is.

When a book is published in a large number of countries you have a chance to compare the practice of many publishers. Some put together a crack team and do a fabulous job. Others are inefficient, understaffed, take an imaginative approach to their contractual obligations. When things go wrong it is not normally your fault: you warn people of possible problems, they wave you aside, things go horribly wrong and they blame you. And they really think you were the problem, because they don't compare themselves to all the other people who published the book.

So you're not a good candidate for the Stockholm Syndrome. You don't bond with your tormentors. But the fact is, you don't necessarily think they're to blame (sometimes they are; depends). What you see is experienced people spread too thin; inexperienced people in over their heads. Not a situation likely to be less common in the wake of the drastic lay-offs of the last year or so. What you hope is that you can compensate, to some extent, by introducing an agent of robotic efficiency into the situation. What you imagine, also, is that something that's obvious to you will be obvious to your agent. Sometimes things do just go horribly wrong, and the author has to pick up the pieces; and if it goes on too long, if the writer is cut off from writing because the social self has to be put into play again and again, the writer is likely to crack up - or just not be nice. You imagine, that is, that an agent will be the sort of person who is used to making allowances for difficult circumstances.

If a book is technically challenging in various ways, even a crack team may have problems - all that experience may not help with a book that does things no one has seen before. So you have some kind of sense of what it is reasonable to expect people to cope with - which is to say, how much extra work you need to do to give them a chance of doing a good job. And of course, if you're doing all that extra work, it will take longer to hand in a manuscript in the first place. Again, what you hope is that an agent will understand that you're just trying to make people look good. You give yourself a lot of extra headaches so people with a reasonable level of publishing expertise can draw on the experience they already have - and still publish a book like nothing anyone has ever seen.

Well. In his commencement address at Kenyon College David Foster Wallace invited the audience to imagine going to a crowded supermarket after a 10-hour day, being exasperated because our default assumption is that we are the center of the world. He suggested:

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible.
Needless to say, it was not only not unlikely but the simple truth that I spent three months looking after my mother, followed by a number of nights sitting by her in the ICU. Admittedly I was not holding her hand, I was dealing with various requests every five minutes. Also, admittedly, she did not have bone cancer.

DFW goes on:

It just depends what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Um. I don't think I could bring myself to urge Bill to see a stroppy e-mail as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars. Er. I know I can be a nuisance; in a somewhat prosaic attempt to mitigate I once offered Bill a 30% commission. Ähm. I think I would find it easier to offer Bill a 50% commission than to invite him to see dealing with me as infused with love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things.

(My ex-father-in-law, mildmannered GP Eric Levene: I'm a simple businessman.)

Long story short, I think things could have worked out with Bill if I had had more information from the start. They could have worked out if I had had three finished books rather than two. They could have worked out if I had had a reliable source of Ecstasy and black market Adderall (I'm working on it - better luck next time - but I just don't have the contacts). They could also have worked out if Bill had understood what it means to a writer to be en famille for 3 months. Things could have worked out, and I still have a sneaking fondness for the 30% solution - but he is a high-risk proposition for someone like me. If you're the kind of writer who would never dream of insulting an agent with a 30% commission - if you could unblushingly invoke the force that made the stars - you might well scrape happily by with a single book and no drug dealer.

My mother is home again and doing very well.