Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year

Looking back over the year.  Somewhat stunned by the extraordinary kindness and generosity so many people have shown -- many of them strangers known only through this blog.  I would especially like to thank those who gave me a place to stay this autumn in New York (Bernie Onken, Chris Glazek, Jenny Davidson, Elizabeth and Eileen Gumport) or offered to do so (Danielle Sucher, Sherally Munshi, Jeremy Glick, and Ezra Nielsen), and William Flesch and Laura Quinney, who put me up in Boston at (I can't help thinking) great inconvenience (and also let me walk off with William's copy of Erving Goffman's Forms of Talk). Also Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Marco Roth and the whole team at n+1, who put so much energy into helping to launch Lightning Rods. Also, needless to say, Barbara Epler, Jeffrey Yang, Tom Roberge, Laurie Callahan, Declan Spring, and the rest of the staff at New Directions. And, er, Edward Orloff, who has the somewhat thankless task of explaining the biz to a skeptical client.

Oh and ALSO - after the dust had settled and publicity-hunting was over - Daniel Medin very kindly invited me to Paris to talk to the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University in Paris; and Léna Devos gave me the chance to stay on in Paris for several days, not only making available a room in her apartment but also taking me out on various excursions, sometimes à deux, sometimes with her family. 

I am very grateful. With so much encouragement, it may seem perverse to think of jumping ship, but . . .

Joey Comeau came down from Toronto! I had such a nice time - and I kept thinking, gosh, if I wrote a webcomic my whole life could be like this.

And now readers of the blog have offered so many helpful suggestions for getting into programming. (A line of work which might make it a lot easier to decamp to Toronto.)

Other things being equal, I could crowd an acknowledgements page or three in my next book with thanks to all the people who have been so unbelievably kind in 2011. Not sure what 2012 holds in store, but would like in the meantime to express my heartfelt thanks, and best wishes to all for a Very Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


It turns out that a portion of the talent required to survive in the trenches of the ATP Tour is emotional: Joyce is able to keep from getting upset about stuff that struck me as hard not to get upset about. When he points out that there's "no point" getting exercised about unfairnesses you can't control, I think what he's really saying is that you either learn how not to get upset about it or you disappear from the Tour.

David Foster Wallace, 'Tennis player Michael Joyce's professional artistry as a paradigm of certain stuff about choice...', in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

...The reverence with which he approached Frege's ideas, and the irritation and puzzlement with which he often approached the ideas of other philosophers, prompted one reviewer of the collection Frege and Other Philosophers to remark that Dummett seemed to regard the parallel between the title of that collection and the earlier collection Truth and Other Enigmas "as more than just a parallel".

Terrific obituary of Michael Dummett by A W Moore in the Guardian, the rest here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has shown that if conditional probabilities are reinterpreted as frequencies, people have no problem in interpreting their meaning (see the discussion "Risk School" in Nature 461,29, October 2009). Gigerenzer has been promoting the idea that trigonometry be dropped from the high school math sequence (no one uses it except surveyors, physicists, and engineers) and probability theory be added. This sounds like a great idea to me.

Herbert Gingis reviewing Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow over at our very dear friends at Amazon (HT, as too often, MR) [We at pp are huge fans of GG, not that it helps: we feel that if our very dear friends in the biz had but read GG, and then immersed themselves in the oeuvre of ET, we could have been a contender.] [This is not necessarily the most insightful quote from HG wrt DK, but we at pp are, as we say, huge fans of GG.]

Stop press!!!!!! New Yorkers take note! 

On Saturday January 21 at 2.00pm Edward Tufte will conduct an open forum answering questions about analytical design, art, the creative process, and public service. Free event, ET Modern.
On Monday January 23, 2012, Edward Tufte will give his one-day course, "Presenting Data and Information," at ET Modern. The Monday course filled up quickly and is now closed, so we've now added another course day: Sunday, January 22, 2012. See below for course information and registration.

post hoc, ergo propter hoc (not)

... A lot of success stories we hear are despite the system, not because of it, and the sooner we recognize that, the better the chances that we’ll do something to fix the status quo. 

Editorial in LiveMint, HT Steve Sailer on education in India, HT MR, more SS here.  Mutatis mutandis . . .

below the cut

As I think I've said somewhere or other, I've given an awful lot of interviews recently.  Often by e-mail. And the editorial view -- even when the interview was to be published online -- was generally that less is more.  Ours not to reason why.  But I was thinking today about the pink-collar labour force, to which I am thinking of returning, and for one interview I had much to say about pink-collar labour which turned out to be superfluous to requirements. 

Which is interesting, because my position, at this point, is essentially that of a woman who took time off to stay home with children.   A position that would have been, to those coming up after, unimaginably less worrying in the day of the typewriter. (I now read ads that require, inter alia, a PowerPoint whiz; as an ET acolyte I naturally renounce Satan and all His works, sc. Powerpoint, but feel a job app would not be enhanced by reference to ET on the cognitive evils of PP or by Mark Gertz's ET Kitten Assassin wallpaper. In my young day applying for secretarial work did not involve these crises of conscience.) 

Can't see any point in identifying the interview for which I expanded on the theme at bloggish length, but these were the thoughts of the day:

Monday, December 26, 2011

The guiding principle of Graeber's sweeping global history is that debt must not remain the exclusive property of economic historians, and moreover, that anthropologists are better equipped to take on the issue. The foundational myth on which economics rests, and which Graeber relishes debunking, is the "touchingly utopian" idea that money emerged directly out of primitive barter systems and had only to do with interest-maximizing exchange. Arguing against this from an anthropological perspective, Graeber claims that debt is the basis of society, and as such is inherently ineliminable. He illustrates this point through the example of debt to one's parents: to seek to cancel that debt would be impossible. Graeber describes a system of gift-giving in traditional societies that takes place over time, and involves gifts of slightly more or less value than the ones that preceded them, thus ensuring that everyone is always slightly in debt or in credit to everyone else. This sort of debt, he says, is nothing less than the continual creation of society. It is not so much that we owe something to society, but that society "just is our debts."

Justin E H Smith on Debt, by David Graeber, at Bookforum, the rest here (courtesy Wood s Lot)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Carter: Well, first of all, my mother made her living writing memoirs and extremely autobiographical novels about her family, and there were major ramifications from that. But she always told me to write whatever I had to, and not to worry. Now, when she saw the piece that hurt and offended her, she was very hurt and offended. I didn’t write it to do that. My love for them and my gratitude, I felt, showed through in my work. I felt that I never attacked them in my work that way. I had to write about growing up with the family I grew up with or I would have been somehow dishonest. But it was not my agenda to expose and destroy, or to hurt or offend. But there was some hurt and some offense taken.
Rumpus: Which story was it?
Carter: “The Bride.” It was supposed to be published as fiction. But it was rejected as fiction and sold as memoir. At the time I was really, really, really strapped for money, and I had to say, I don’t care what you call it, just publish it and pay me for my piece so I can pay my rent. I really was in no position to argue about the niceties of autobiographical fiction at that point in my life.

Rumpus: I’ve got all these stories I’m so afraid to tell. Like about how I grew up adjacent to affluence, but not from an affluent family myself. I had these step-sisters who had trust funds, and they had this grandmother who would give them thousands of dollars every year, and then she’d give me and my sister each a card at Chanukah with one crisp dollar bill in it.

[I'm thinking of Jane Austen publishing her books under the sobriquet 'A Lady'. I'm thinking of Sir Walter Scott, whose manuscripts were copied out by a friend before being sent to a publisher lest the handwriting be recognised; whose later books were published as by 'the Author of Waverley'. Perhaps Literature needs its Bourbaki.]

Emily Carter, author of Glory Goes and Get Some (the rest here)

Feliz Navidad

Javier Moreno has translated That Obscure Object of Desire (published in a recent edition of Bullett Magazine) into Spanish - the language in which it should clearly have been written in the first place.

Exhibit A:

Incertidumbre e información son las mismas cantidades, la pérdida de incertidumbre es igual a la ganancia de información.
Códigos y Criptografía, Dominic Welsh

Exhibit B:

La rampa de concreto bifurca; él se dirige a la izquierda y sale a un mercado de verduras al aire libre.

[It's 'La rampa de concreto bifurca' that's so lovely.]

The point is, the piece is now saturated with the language of Borges. (Writing in a café, so do not have the oeuvre to hand, but a line that was a mere inert quotation from Codes and Cryptography now brings to mind La Lotería de Babylon : He conocido el incertidumbre.)

Moreno will be publishing the piece in HermanoCerdo in January.

Have been talking to my mother about Wallace Stevens; I might have been happier all these years if I had had a job in insurance and a briefcase with compartments.  If I had had the sense to get a job in insurance, or train as a programmer, or, or, or, years ago, I could write a piece in whichever language seemed best for the piece without worrying about - what shall we say - Acts of Copy-Editor, Typesetter, &c. All as comprehensively excluded from the protection offered by an Agent as are Acts of God from a cautious insurance policy, the difference being that Insurance favours small print rather than unwritten rules.

(16 lessons into Python The Hard Way. THANK you, Zed Shaw, this was exactly what I wanted for Christmas.)

(-- Well, I wouldn't mind also having my hobbyist's edition of Mathematica, which arrived just after I left DC to talk to Michael Miller in the Tik Tok Diner; I wouldn't mind having my SUDO MAKE ME A SANDWICH t-shirt, which also arrived too late, too late. Er, I wouldn't mind having an accountant with superhero powers to grapple with my UK tax return. But these are minor cavils. Merry Christmas, one and all.)

Spoiled by the power of your best tools, you tend to shy away from messy calculations or long, case-by-case arguments unless they are absolutely unavoidable. Mathematicians develop a powerful attachment to elegance and depth, which are in tension with, if not directly opposed to, mechanical calculation. Mathematicians will often spend days thinking of a clean argument that completely avoids numbers and strings of elementary deductions in favor of seeing why what they want to show follows easily from some very deep and general pattern that is already well-understood. Indeed, you tend to choose problems motivated by how likely it is that there will be some "clean" insight in them, as opposed to a detailed but ultimately unenlightening proof by exhaustively enumerating a bunch of possibilities.

What is it like to have understanding of very advanced mathematics, the rest here (ht Tyler Cowen at MR)

Thursday, December 22, 2011


I hope it was not bad form to clarify a few points that were not quite right in Michael Miller's piece; I am not convinced that I would have done a better job if I had had to grapple with a) a long, complicated saga and b) the place where language breaks down.

Also - if you have a long history of depression and worse you realise that most people, mental health professionals included, can't deal with it. The people who can tend to be people who have been through a bad time themselves. I remember meeting someone I had known in London, Sara Jenkins (now Valentine); she talked about a time when she had had what she called 'bad thoughts', and the mind responded to the voice like a hurt dog. I think I imagined that Bill Clegg, who had been through a bad time, might be like that; he wasn't, but I don't know that his behaviour was abnormal.

In any case, I just wanted to thank the reader who recommended Learn Python the Hard Way. This looks like exactly the sort of thing I need (and in fact, if I had been able to work my way through LPTHW during bad times, they would probably not have been so bad).


I posted a link yesterday to Michael Miller's profile in the Observer.  I'm not sure that it's not petty to correct details of chronology and such; the problem is, as you probably know, that Wikipedia treats accounts published in the press as sources.  If I understand the piece correctly, MM thought that, upon receiving Bill Clegg's resignation in January 2010, I went straight from my mother's bedside in Silver Spring to Eastbourne in the UK with the intention of committing suicide, and that I wrote to Bill from Eastbourne.  (I expect getting a verbal account at the Tik Tok diner, and then having to make sense of the material from a recorder, contributed to the misunderstanding.) This was not correct, and I think gives a false impression of the situation:

She could not see a way forward. “Fourteen years of publishing crap, no end in sight,” she said. She knew of a 600-foot cliff in Eastbourne. Back in England, she booked a one-way train ticket to Gatwick, an hour from the cliff by train, then checked into a hotel. On Feb. 10, 2010, she sent an email to Mr. Clegg that said, “I’m leaving tomorrow, sorting out a few last-minute things.” 

I had a flight booked back to Berlin on January 28.  I did not know what to do. I was exhausted after looking after my mother; Bill had resigned while she was in intensive care, saying the relationship was unproductive. I had $10,000 in credit card debt; I could not finish a new book fast from a state of exhaustion, and even if I could I did not know where to send it. I had tried desperately hard, as I had for the last 14 years, to get information leading to publishers who could cope with technically challenging work, and I had failed yet again. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Michael Miller has published a profile in the New York Observer, here. It's a curious thing.

If an industry is governed by a culture of secrecy, its public face looks very clean. If an agent sells a book for half a million dollars, it gets reported. If an agent kills a half-milion-dollar deal, it's not reported. If an agent sells the film rights to a high-profile director, it's reported.  If an agent kills a film deal with a high-profile director, it's not reported. If a publisher buys a book for a big advance, it's reported. If the publisher won't pay the author, breaks its contract, tries to change the book behind the author's back, it's not reported.

If someone breaks the code, that's rare. So the question isn't really what Helen DeWitt thinks of the write-up - it goes without saying that Helen DeWitt, the subject of the profile, thinks it has not done justice to the sheer unutterable brilliance of Helen DeWitt.  The question is, what do all the people think who have engaged in questionable business practice over the years? Because the thing is, every one of those people will read the piece looking for their name. Wondering what will come out. 

Same old, same old.

Miller has had to grapple with an immense mass of material into shape. He was working to a word count and a deadline. He managed to set up an interview, make calls, read e-mails, write the thing up and get it into print, all within three weeks.  This is very much to his credit.  But I think a lot of people will read the piece looking for their names and feel very good.


I've given a lot of interviews lately; this was the first where I made a serious attempt to get the interviewer to understand why there is a genuine risk of suicide if too much work is disrupted and destroyed. I can't say I was terribly successful.

Miller is like most people in discounting what he doesn't see. Assigning disproportionate value to what he can see. Which is actually the single worst problem for writers dealing with Rest of World. Because you better believe we believe in what we can't see.  We believe in what does not yet exist. We believe in it the way a parent believes in the miracle of birth. How can we possibly not? Time t, a room contains the following: man, table, paper, pen, ink. The man is Coleridge. Time t+n, the room contains the following: man, table, paper, pen, ink, Kubla Khan.

So say a contract includes a clause giving the author last word on usage: no changes to made without author's approval. Someone who doesn't believe in the unseen, someone who does not believe that what does not exist can exist, sees an author who is fanatical about every aspect of the text, right down to the typeface. The clause is there to protect the existing text.  As long as the text is right in the end, there's no problem. But no.

The clause is there to protect the author's time.  It is there to protect work that exists only in the mind, or that will come to the mind if there is a point when a line is drawn under the work that already exists. The copy-editor has made recommendations; the author has considered them, made decisions; now LOTTERYLAND, GIVE GOD A CHANCE, YOU CAN TELL ME and their brothers can advance from 61,000 words, 21,000 words, 65,000 words &c to a state of completion.

I see five tables in a room in Chesterfield, each with a separate project - drafts, notes, clippings.
And I see a woman in Brooklyn at a table with a typescript and a bottle of Wite-out. In her hand she holds the cap to which is attached a narrow tube to which is attached a tiny brush.  She dips the brush in the bottle, she moves the brush across marks on the page. She dips the brush in the bottle, moves the brush across marks on  the page.  She does this hundreds of times. She puts the pages in an envelope and sends them to the typesetter.  There is a sentence in a contract but it has no power. There are books waiting for their endings but they have no power.  What does it take to connect the sentence in the contract with the woman in Brooklyn?

I see myself in an office in Midtown, putting a CD in the hand of the production manager.  A CD with software with which Greek and Japanese can be professionally typeset.  I see a girl in an office putting the CD in a drawer, importing the text into Quark, where it will cause problems for many many texts. I see too many things.

If you don't see the dead books, turning down a $525,000 deal looks strange. Looking obsessively for the right editor, the right agent, the ones who protect the books to come, looks strange. And if you have an actual living author sitting across the table from you in the Tik Tok diner, the chance that the body might have been at the bottom of a cliff in 2010 looks negligible. And getting Lightning Rods into print looks like a happy ending.

But this is stupid.  This is the behaviour of an addict.  I should do a programming course and think of other things.

Monday, December 19, 2011

the Cassandra Sydrome

The Last Samurai is, for the time being, well and truly out of print. Not because sales of a paltry few hundred a year had caused its publisher to lose heart. No. How to gesture at the situation without aggravating?

Faithful readers of pp may remember that I did not want to publish the book as a first novel, because a debut novelist is in a weak position; I thought permissions would be a nightmare, copy-editing would be a nightmare, typesetting would be a nightmare, and in short I felt I could do a better job of defending the book if I were in the position of, say, Salman Rushdie. Jonathan Burnham (editor), Steve Hutensky (friend who showed the book to Jonathan) and Larry Shire (lawyer recommended by Steve) pooh-poohed these fears to a man.  Suffice it to say that it was the fate of Cassandra never to be believed.

It's at times like this that the old Secondhand Sales Donation comes into its own.  New copies, as new copies, very good and good copies are available on Amazon Marketplace.  A very good copy, for example, is available from Bacobooks for just $2.50 plus $3.99 p&p.  Easiest thing in the world to buy this very good copy for a friend, send the author a $1 royalty-equivalent, and make TWO people happy. (Acceptable copies start at $0.24, but these are probably not gift-standard editions.)

Even when the book was in print, readers who generously sent a donation after buying the book secondhand were doing as much to pay the author's rent, and so give time to finish new books, as those who equally generously stumped up for a new copy.  So thank you, thank you all.  New readers can try out the PayPal button in the sidebar if so inclined.

How Shape Influences Strength

Rereading Alex Martelli, How Shape Influences Strength, Bridge World Jan & Feb 2000.

NS Tricks // N has 7222 // N has 7321

6 // 4019 // 4455
7 // 10778 //11089
8 // 14016 // 12307
9 // 10811 // 9886
10 // 5371 // 6146
11 // 2344 // 2869
12 // 532 // 1033
13 // 178 // 215

It is clear from this table [cd not work out how to use tabs in Blogger] that the variation is higher for the slightly more shapely hand, which fits in well with our intuition: A 7-3-2-1 hand is more likely than a 7-2-2-2 to meet with either a particularly unsuitable hand for partner (with wasted values opposite the singleton, perhaps holding the partnership to six or seven tricks) or a particularly suitable one (with values opposite the tripleton, often allowing the partnership to take from 10 to 13 tricks.)

I used to think that anyone who had seen hundreds of books published would have a bridgeplayer's sense of fit; would see that writers rarely have balanced hands, so that a fit with an agent or editor is likely to be very good or very bad.

It seems not to work that way. There are disciplines, cultures that value intellectual elegance and economy. A serious bridgeplayer does not have to explain the value of elegance to his peers. A programmer does not have to explain the value of elegance to other programmers. A mathematician does not have to explain the value of elegance to mathematicians. Explanation comes into play only when one deals with what dance schools call beginners and improvers. Whereas.

Over the last 15 years I have had conversations with many, many people in the industry. Mainly agents and editors, but also accountants, lawyers, designers, production managers, publicists, marketers, booksellers - the number of people who have to get paid out of the cover price of a book is not small. These conversations have certain features in common.  Blank looks. Incomprehension. Disbelief. Comment: 'I've dealt with hundreds of authors, and no one has ever wanted this before.'

So I think it may be necessary to do something else.  I thought I might be happier in IT, but the programmers I know have not been very helpful in suggesting entry-level jobs.  It may be best to go back to London and work again as a legal secretary for a few years; if I had an evening job I might do a BSc. during the day. It's possible that a public blog will turn out to be incompatible with that sort of job, in which case pp may have to go offliine. We'll see.

(Martelli, by the way, is also a member of the Python Software Foundation, author of Python in a Nutshell and co-editor of The Python Cookbook. Wikipedia: 'According to Martelli's self-evaluation, his proudest achievement is the articles that appeared in The Bridge World (January/February 2000), which were hailed as giant steps towards solving issues that had haunted contract-bridge theoreticians for decades.' If you are a writer who is haunted by the kind of issue that bothers contract-bridge theoreticians, you are probably in the wrong line of work.)

How do we get back, from those average numbers of tricks taken by the partnership, call it P, to the "strength of North's hand," call it N? Well, if we knew N, we would estimate P through the forumla, P = N plus one-third (of 13 minus N), because, by symmetry, on average partner's hand can be taken as supplying one-third of the "remaining" tricks, 13 minus N.  From that equation, it follows that
N = (1.5 times P) minus 6.5

Applying this to the earlier values (7222 Average 8.26 and 7321 Average 8.33 yields hand-strength estimates of 5.90 for Hand 7222 and 6.00 for Hand 7321.

How can Hand 7222, that will surely take six tricks itself, be worth a bit less than six tricks in this scale?  Because the hand-strength values were computed under the assumption that the ratings of th North and South hands would be added to produce a partnership total.  When North holds 7=2=2=2, his shape will (on average) destroy some of the values that South will count on.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

nomina nuda tenemus

Went to Paris at the beginning of the month to give a talk at the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University in Paris.  Elena Devos, a Russian poet who has translated two of my stories, very kindly let me stay for several days after this engagement; we walked around one day with her husband Ludo and 7-year-old son Nico, and came upon the Librairie Polonaise/Ksiegarnia Polska at 123 boulevard Saint-Germain.

We went in and looked around. I thought that if I had an audiobook in Polish and the text to go with it this might help me get a feel for Polish.  They had a few audiobooks, including one of The Name of the Rose (Imię Róży), the text of which was also available in Polish translation.  In a less imperfect world I would have been able to get an audiobook of Bajki robotów, but I couldn't, and the Eco translation seemed a reasonable place to start.

Have just been playing CD1 on my laptop, and it is FABULOUS.  In the voice of the reader, Krzysztof Gosztyła, the language is like whisky and dark chocolate. The audiobook does exactly what I had hoped an audiobook would do: it gets me past the glamorous words on the page to the sound of the sentences (no less glamorous, it turns out, than the text). 

The audiobook is available from noir sur blanc ( A steal at 31.43 zlotys. The text is available in volume form or as ebook.

As so often, I see that life would be easier if I had moved over to WordPress years ago.  It may be possible to upload an mp3 file on Blogger, but if so I'm not sure how. Have therefore posted a brief extract on pp's WordPress sibling, here. (Hoping this will not outrage noir sur blanc, as the extract can only encourage listeners to buy the whole thing.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tyler Cowen at MR, linking here:

Coffee shops around the world have employed loyalty card schemes for many years, but now we’ve come across an interesting twist on the idea. In Singapore, a collaborate scheme aims to benefit eight of the city’s best independent cafés with the Be Disloyal disloyalty card.
The Be Disloyal disloyalty card — created by digital creative agency Antics, blogger and eight of Singapore’s independent coffee shops — was designed to encourage consumers to discover different coffee venues while bringing businesses together to grow as a vertical. From September until the end of this month customers can pick up a disloyalty card from one of the eight participating cafés. The card is stamped each time they purchase a coffee from one of the other seven cafés and, once the card is full, they return to the original café to receive their free coffee.
Competing with large chain brands can be difficult for small businesses, but teaming up with similar smaller companies can create stronger competition. Inspiration here for independent businesses in any industry!
 model, maybe, for indie bookstores . . .

xmas is coming

Have just been talking to my publicist.  Lightning Rods has had very good reviews, many interviews were given, but sales are a few significant figures short of a zillion.  Unsurprisingly, to my mind - I am always astounded that ANYBODY buys hardback books.  I never do if I can avoid it.  I pointed this out to Tom, who admitted that he too never bought books in hard cover.  The problem is, I gather, that if a book is not published as a hardback it is hard to get it reviewed at all. So reviews come out and readers, for the most part, do what any rational person would do in the circumstances - they wait for the paperback.

This IS rational insofar as it enables the buyer to read the book at a lower price in convenient portable form. Having said that, the readers who have bought the book early on are doing more than buying a book: they are sending a message, via our friends at Nielsen Bookscan, to publishers who might think of publishing the author's next book.  (The timing of this message is, obviously, not irrelevant to date of publication of author's next book. This is, in turn, not irrelevant to the sort of reader who does not want to read a book in PDF.) 

Lightning Rods is not necessarily a safe bet as a Christmas gift (if your mother is like my mother, she will hate the book). Still, if you have a friend or friends who love the books your mother hates, this could be the perfect choice.  If you are a cash-strapped undergraduate, you could club together with one or more cash-strapped friends, buy a copy, and laugh loudly in public places (while, obviously, reading the book) - preferably places frequented by people rich enough to buy a hardback copy for themselves.

Review in NY Times by Jennifer Szalai, here.
Review by Garth Risk Hallberg at the Millions, here.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Think about it: Almost 40 percent of Amazon’s customers, according to this poll, have added a complicated step (the time-consuming and not-without-expense process of going to a bookstore) to the simplicity of Amazon’s buying process. Maybe it’s because they don’t want a book with a dinger on it, or they want to see the quality of the paper or art reproduction. Maybe they want to ask a clerk about it. Maybe they want to be sure they don’t get stuck with another print-on-demand copy that looks like a piece of shit when it arrives. Maybe it’s because “Look Inside the Book” just isn’t the same as flipping through a real book. Whatever. Almost 40 percent of Amazon’s book-buying customers have rejected something fundamental to Amazon, which is the concept of buying something sight unseen. And indeed, according to this poll 40 percent of Amazon’s business thus relies on brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Dennis Johnson of MobyLives, the rest here 

I remember meeting Dan Frank of Pantheon in the Random House lobby about a year ago; the lobby had floor-to-ceiling shelves displaying books published by RH imprints over the decades.  It seemed odd at the time that they were not using the space to sell current books in print; if they are not allowed to use the space for retail, presumably they could at least use it to facilitate the sort of thing DJ describes.  (But can it really be the case that they can't sell their own books?  Apple has an Apple Store. Prada has a Prada store. Strange.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

First rule of Fight Club

♦ Contract provisions

This one seems obvious, but many authors don’t realize how many things are covered in their contract and hence are subject to the contract’s confidentiality clause. Any of the following are typically off-limits for discussion (public or otherwise) unless you have your publisher’s permission to disclose.
  • Amount of your advance
  • Advance payout schedule
  • Royalty rates
  • Author buyback discount
  • Number of free author copies you receive
  • Anything else specifically covered in your contract!

Rachelle Gardner

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Odontogriphus omalus was an early slug-like mollusk, related to the more heavily armored Wiwaxia. 

Life Before Dinosaurs

Friday, December 9, 2011

Trying to answer some questions, including one about cuts in review sections in print media. I check in on some blogs and find this on Rajiv Sethi:

The very first book on economics that I remember reading was Robert Heilbroner's majesterial history of thought The Worldly Philosophers. I'm sure that I'm not the only person who was drawn to the study of economics by that wonderfully lucid work. Heilbroner managed to convey the complexity of the subject matter, the depth of the great ideas, and the enormous social value that the discipline at its best is capable of generating.

I was reminded of Heilbroner's book by Robert Solow's review of Sylvia Nasar's Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius. Solow begins by arguing that the book does not quite deliver on the promise of its subtitle, and then goes on to fill the gap by providing his own encapsulated history of ideas. Like Heilbroner before him, he manages to convey with great lucidity the essence of some pathbreaking contributions. I was especially struck by the following passages on Keynes: [the rest here]

Which illustrates one of the points I wanted to make - in the blogosphere reviewers are not constrained by word count, or by an editor's sense of the level of specialization readers can cope with.  And reviews can be reviewed, or recommended.

I've only written two reviews for print media, and each time I was told to write something under 500 words. Getting my thoughts on the book down from 1000+ words to 500- took 50% of the time.

J-P Sartre Cookbook

October 10

I find myself trying ever more radical interpretations of traditional dishes, in an effort to somehow express the void I feel so acutely. Today I tried this recipe:
Tuna Casserole

Ingredients: 1 large casserole dish Place the casserole dish in a cold oven. Place a chair facing the oven and sit in it forever. Think about how hungry you are. When night falls, do not turn on the light.
While a void is expressed in this recipe, I am struck by its inapplicability to the bourgeois lifestyle. How can the eater recognize that the food denied him is a tuna casserole and not some other dish? I am becoming more and more frustrated.

Woods lot
got it from
Nag on the Lake
who got it from

Saturday, December 3, 2011

one last interview . . .

with Brian Feinblum of Planned Television Arts, here

Thursday, December 1, 2011

chess à trois

There is a rule sheet (next page), but you can start playing without it and refer to it as needed.  Basically, three sets of pieces (the same sets as in conventional Chess) border each other on the outer two ranks of the round board.  Since the "rows" are now concentric circles, a Rook may rotate around the entire board - [!!!!! -- the perfect Xmas upgrade] or move straight across the board passing through the center.  There is no space to occupy in the center, you simply pass through it.  By the nature of the board, diagonal moves "bend" toward and may rotate through the center.  The "trajectory" lines on the board are only visual aids to help you see and plan possible diagonal moves.  Diagonal moves such as a Bishop, may rotate through the center but cannot rotate through (or bounce off) the outer rank in one move.  There are "Moats" between each team on the outer rank.  They are necessary to keep Rooks from capturing each other on the first move. These Moats may become bridged if the outer rank between two teams becomes vacant.  Also, there are Creeks that run two ranks toward the center off each Moat.  The Creeks only purpose is that a Pawn cannot diagonally capture across the Creek (it must first be past the Creek).

Hat Tip MR. Ordering and more information here.

Monday, November 28, 2011


The mail has just come.  Envelope from Harvard University Press.  HUP is celebrating 100 years of the Loeb Classical Library - which they now plan to make available online!

NEXT time, I want a tattoo artist

Of course, tattoo artists come from a different world, one where people come in, request a drawing, the artist does the work and gets paid, often in cash. Some, writes Buckley, were frustrated with the geriatric pace of the publishing process, with one guy getting so peeved during the revision process that he kept yelling into the phone “Do you have any idea JUST WHO I AM??!”

Re Penguin backlist issued with tattoo art covers, curated by my ND publicist, Tom Roberge. More here.

Lunch with my mother and sister. My sister says at some point: "Sometimes I wonder, where did we COME from?" She enlarges.  The Vermont DeWitts (my father's family) are conservative Northerners. My mother's family - the Spurriers (grandmother) and Marshes (grandfather) are conservative Southerners. Where did we COME from?  (The spectrum runs from yellow dog Democrat (my mother) to, ahem, Independent (moi).  Independent as in Bernie Sanders is the only Socialist in the Senate but calls himself Independent to be polite.)

My mother, after a pause: Well, after the divorce there was so much going on, I never got around to getting in touch with people.  But I always thought Sutton Jett might have been a Democrat.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

christmas is coming . . .

My ex-father-in-law, Eric Levene, is a GP. A GP with an exceptionally well-stocked liquor cabinet. Christmas comes but once a year, and when it does his loyal patients think as one.  Kurosawa realised, after much anguish, that his film about a doctor curing TB patients was all worthy and boring; what was wanted was a doctor who was a raging alcoholic! With Shimura Takashi as drunken foil to Mifune Toshiro! How better to show appreciation for Dr Levene than to send him down the road of the incomparable Shimura Takashi! (By bearing gifts. Scotch, sherry, port . . .)

I tell a lie.

Dr Levene's patients are Eastenders. They are justifiably loyal to their GP; they wish merely to bring him good cheer.

Suppose, however, for the sake of argument, that you would like to gladden the heart of your GP (Am. "primary care physician") and suspect that all the other loyal patients are adding to an already overstocked liquor cabinet.  What is to be done?  Well, there's always a T-shirt.

Courtesy A Softer World.  Available here.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

disgusted in topeka

pp has not had much to say about statistics lately.  So. Data. Cussedness thereof.

Lighting Rods took a long time to get published.  It was very different from The Last Samurai, so different that 50% (at a guess) of readers who loved TLS hated the book.  This is not encouraging to a publisher, whichever half of the 50% he happens to side with.

You'd never guess it now that the book has been published.  Reviews have been, for the most part, extremely enthusiastic.  (Sloth prevails over shameless self-promotion; I could throw in lots of links, but sloth, as I say, prevails.)  This does not really give an accurate picture of responses to the book.

My publicist, Tom Roberge, was swamped by requests for review copies.  Everyone who asked for an ARC did not write a review. Some loved the book. Others HATED it. The ones who hated it hated it so much they couldn't bring themselves to waste time writing a review.

The result being that, if you go by reviews, you'd be likely to see this as a book with a 3.8 GPA. A, A, A, A+, A+, A++, A-, B+, B+ . . . Because the people who HATED the book, the people who would give the book a C, C-, D+, or downright F -- hated it so much they couldn't write a review.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lee Konstantinou, author of Pop Apocalypse, has a review of Lightning Rods and slightly mad interview of me over at the LA Review of Books.  (Grappling with this interview meant that I lost a whole day that I could have spent hanging out with Joey Comeau, who did, admittedly,  use the time to write for his horror movie blog; there is also, admittedly, quite a lot in the interview about my longing to put the interview behind me and spend time with the writing half of A Softer World.)

The review is extremely funny (at least to me).  LK draws attention to the DeWitt fondness for the instructional, which to his mind is at odds with the cultural trend toward informality, relaxation. I don't know whether he is right about this alleged cultural trend -- he may well be, but then we now live in a culture where taking part in a marathon, or even triathlon, is commonplace.  At any rate, the thing I notice in myself is not so much this predilection as an inability to believe that other people don't really share it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

As Joey Comeau points out, there is a book called Outwitting Squirrels.  An extremely amusing book, I might add (if the pages available for inspection in Search Inside This Book! are anything to go by). What Joey may not know is that there is, in fact, an entire Outwitting series! Launched, it would seem, by the success of Outwitting Squirrels (which has sold 300,000 copies):

It began in 1988 with Outwitting Squirrels by Bill Adler, Jr.  Since then a number of Outwitting books have been published, including Outwitting Deer, Outwitting Fish, Outwitting Critters, Outwitting Neighbors, Outwitting Contractors, Outwitting Clutter, Outwitting Mice, and more.

You can be part of this success story.  Adler is not only a writer but a literary agent; if you would like to write an Outwitting title, you can find a list of available topics on the agency website (or propose one of your own). 
On Dec 1 I will be giving a talk on Language Games at the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University in Paris, details here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

meanwhile, over at asw . . .

Joey Comeau:

So, there a book called Outwitting Squirrels. The fact that there exists a guide to outwitting squirrels makes me happy in ways I can't even express. But even better? Customers who bought "Outwitting Squirrels" also bought Good to Go: Preparing for the end of life. You know, in case they don't manage to outwit the squirrels. They can make arrangements, let their families know what to do with their squirrel-ravaged bodies. 

Joey Comeau did come to New York, by the way.  It was kind of like hanging out with a friendly werewolf, which is what you naturally hope for in the writing half of A Softer World . . .  ASW today brought it all back.  I long to go to Toronto.

Monday, November 14, 2011

unendlich shameless self-promotion

Readers of pp will have noticed that the blog has dwindled to an outpost of the New Directions PR machine, not much happening apart from occasional announcements re the new career of Lightning Rods. This can't be very entertaining.  To the untutored eye, the position of pp would appear to be: We suffered for our art, now it's your turn.

A slight problem is that, as one goes through a succession of interviews and events, one puts forward ideas, one replies to questions, and each time someone or other decides that about 50% of the DeWitt offering is not what people are interested in.  You might think this is what blogs are for (ha HA), but it's chastening. No doubt we will recover our nerve in the fullness of time.  Meanwhile, the Man in the Machine, the unsurpassable Tom Roberge, has passed on links to some reviews.
The Winter issue of Bullett magazine has a story, That Obscure Object of Desire, of which my editor, Henry Giardina, says: The Turkish speakers in the office were very excited.

You can read it online here, but the print edition is much nicer: Henry commissioned an illustration from Amelia Saul, a young designer whom I met in Berlin, so the piece is accompanied by a full-page detail from one of the extraordinary, obsessive works I first saw in Amelia's apartment.  It's a fabulous thing.

PS The link to the site worked when I put it up, but doesn't now; am leaving it here in case it comes back.

Monday, October 31, 2011

yet another interview . . .

with Elizabeth Gumport and Chris Glazek of n+1, here and (Part II) here

Friday, October 21, 2011

the Guardian on my Senator

(Bernie Sanders of Vermont; formerly the only Socialist in Congress, now the only Socialist in the Senate . . .)


Thursday, October 20, 2011

It's hard to be sane.

Everywhere I look I seem to come across some new memorial issue of Steve Jobs.  Recurring themes: The perfectionism, the attention to detail. Design more important than function. No point asking consumers what they want, if you're going to do something really revolutionary they won't know what they want until they see it.

It seems safe to assume that the authors of these pieces did not spend the years 2000-2007 grappling with the new CJK GUI of OS X.  (Ah me ah me, what evil looks Had I from old and young, Instead of the cross the Albatross About my neck was hung . . .) 

It seems equally, sadly, safe to assume that the authors are not members of that elite band, the readership of paperpools.

If Time magazine can dust off old pieces on Steve Jobs, we at paperpools can do no less.  We link now to an early post, our tribute to the man who believed in us when we did not believe in ourselves. The man who believed that American Mac owners, attempting to input Chinese/Japanese/Korean on a nice new Mac, might once, thoughtlessly, have preferred Help in their mother tongue, but would recognize the value of something more revolutionary when they saw it (the chance to work on their Chinese/Japanese/Korean while deciphering Help written in the language in question).

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

Reading tonight with Dale Peck at le Poisson Rouge

I'll be doing a reading and Q&A tonight at le Poisson Rouge with Dale Peck of Mischief and Mayhem. Address: 158 Bleecker Street.  Time: 6:30 sharp.

Note - I seem to have mentioned this to various people and given the wrong time (7 pm), having found this on the Calendar of le Poisson Rouge.  It is in fact at 6:30 as a band will playing at 8, but if you turn up at 7 you will probably catch my reading anyway as I will be second.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Readers of pp will have noticed that not much is going on around here these days.  I have been trying to compose answers to various interviews, so whenever I have access to the Internet and might otherwise fritter away time on a post I remember guiltily that I have not yet answered all the questions I have been sent . . .

The good news is that Joey Comeau of A Softer World may be coming to New York -- he says he will take the bus down from Toronto if he can find a sofa to sleep on.    (I was in the Barnes & Noble at 14th Street the other day and saw all three of Joey's books in stock, so maybe we should go down and do an impromptu event.)  If no sofa is forthcoming I may take a bus up to Toronto instead; this would cheer me up.

Meanwhile Elif Batuman has posted a couple of videos of the Lightning Rods reading at the Center for Fiction back in mid-September; one is of the reading, the other of a Q&A with me afterward.  It goes without saying that I think I look and sound extremely peculiar, and need to work on cutting down on nervous fillers (I seem to say 'you know' and 'um' an awful lot), but at any rate it's all here for those who missed it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Interview with Morten Høi Jensen of Bookforum

Friday, September 16, 2011

Events updated

New York

Wednesday, October 5, 7-9pm   Reading and launch party - all welcome! PowerHouse Arena, 37 Main Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201 (Directions here)

Thursday, 6 October, 7pm  Reading & Q&A with Sam Lipsyte at McNally Jackson 52 Prince Street

Monday, 10 October, 6:30pm Reading and Q&A with Dale Peck of Mischief + Mayhem at the Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker Street

Dale: The series is called Unprintable. We're asking people to read things that either haven't been published because the writer was afraid to or editors told her that it was in some way unfit for print, or things that have been published after weathering some resistance from either the writer or the publishing industry. From what you've told me about Lightning Rods' history, it seems perfect for the series. . .

Thursday, 13 October Reading at 192 Books in Chelsea : 190 10th Avenue (time TBA)


Monday, 17 October, 5:30-7:30 pm Reading at Brandeis University, 415 South Street, Waltham, MA -- Mandel Center.  More information here.

Tuesday, 18 October Reading at Harvard Coop


Wednesday, 26 October  n+1 event at Fordham, details TBA

Thursday, 27 October Cooper Union New Directions  75 Birthday Gala : 30 Cooper Square
[corner of e 7th street and 3rd avenue] - writers reading from favorite ND books

Friday, September 9, 2011

Lit Crawl NYC

Lit Crawl NYC: The Sex Lives of Salesmen Tickets: FREE  

Stage adaptations of Lightning Rods. Actors will be on hand to perform scenes from the book, and the author will compare them to her own vision. Hilarity assured.

The Lounge, Dixon Place 8.15-9 pm

161A Chrystie St. (between Rivington & Delancey)

Sunday, September 4, 2011


A friend has just written asking why I had not told her about a reading.  Probably because it seemed like an imposition.  At any rate, these are the events I know of (you'll notice that I am a bit hazy on times, will post these when I know what they are):


8 September Center for Fiction (Party for new n+1 issue, which includes an excerpt from Lightning Rods, with enactment of scenes from the book) : 17 East 47th Street (time TBA)

10 September  Literary Pub Crawl (time and place TBA) : Enactment of different scenes from Lightning Rods, Q&A

6 October Reading at McNally Jackson and Q&A with Sam Lipsyte: 52 Prince Street (time TBA)

10 October 6:30pm Reading with Dale Peck of Mischief + Mayhem  at le Poisson Rouge 158 Bleecker Street

13 October 7 pm Reading at 192 Books in Chelsea : 190 10th Avenue 


17 October Reading at Brandeis University

18 October Reading at Harvard Coop


26 October  n+1 event just mentioned by Keith Gessen, details TBA

27 October Cooper Union New Directions  75 Birthday Gala : 30 Cooper Square
[corner of e 7th street and 3rd avenue] - writers reading from favorite ND books

Meanwhile, Andrew Gelman has read the excerpt of LR in the new issue of n+1 and has a review up, which you can read here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Danielle and Jessica very kindly made offers in the comments of a place to stay, each with a cat (which sounds just the thing to relieve the stress of a roadshow).  I realised later that I had taken my e-mail address off pp so was not easily contactable; if you would still be willing to put me up for a few nights it would be wonderful.

Both New Directions and n+1 have been coming up with new things to do, so it seems I should try to be in New York for a slightly longer time than originally expected.  One reader has generously offered a place for September 8-12, another for (roughly) October 3-7; meanwhile New Directions has said it would help if I could come back to NYC for the 29th of September, n+1 will be having some kind of event on 26th October and New Directions will be having its 75th Birthday Gala at Cooper Union on the 27th.  I think I will be going up to Boston for the 18th of October (and maybe a day or so either side), but otherwise I am hoping to rely on the kindness of strangers.

A reader has also come to my rescue and offered to sublet my apartment, which is, on the one hand, great, but means, on the other hand, that I have been doing the things one does to get an apartment ready for occupancy by someone other than oneself.  (So, er, had no idea that a whole week had gone by since commenters kindly offered a place to stay in New York.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Since Zola, however, mental environmentalism has been stuck in a philosophical morass. To claim that advertising is metaphorically mental pollution is one thing, namely an easily dismissible rhetorical flourish. To say that advertising is literally a kind of pollution and that TV commercials and highway billboards are more closely related to toxic sludge than to speech is another matter entirely. And while mental environmentalists have always tried to make the latter argument, they have more often been forced to retreat to the former. Where is the evidence that advertising is a species of pollution? Isn’t it obvious that a corporate slogan is nothing but glorified, commercialized speech?

Into this difficult question has stepped one of the greatest living philosophers, the eccentric Michel Serres, who has written the inaugural philosophical work of the mental environmentalist movement. Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution? is a radical reconception of pollution that cements its primal relation to advertising. The big idea of this recently translated book is that animals, humans included, use pollution to mark, claim and appropriate territory through defiling it, and that over time this appropriative act has evolved away from primitive pollution, urine and feces, to “hard pollution,” industrial chemicals, and finally to “soft pollution,” the many forms of advertising.

“Let us define two things and clearly distinguish them from one another,” Michel Serres writes, “first the hard [pollutants], and second the soft. By the first I mean on the one hand solid residues, liquid gases, emitted throughout the atmosphere by big industrial companies or gigantic garbage dumps, the shameful signature of big cities. By the second, tsunamis of writings, signs, images and logos flooding rural, civic, public and natural spaces as well as landscapes with their advertising. Even though different in terms of energy, garbage and marks nevertheless result from the same soiling gesture, from the same intention to appropriate, and are of animal origin.”

Adbusters, courtesy the incomparable Wood s Lot

Not that I am not charmed by differentiation by packaging  - one block of butter in a white wrapper bearing the word ja! in bold sans serif, another block of butter in a gold foil wrapper with Kerrygold in vaguely celtic lettering . . . Beers differentiated by proprietary glasses, by paper collars for the stem bearing the slogan of the beer . . . (Bitte, ein Bit! [Bitburger] Eine Perle der Natur [Krombacher] Eine Königin unter den Bieren [Warsteiner] and so on)

No, I am contemplating how much of the preparation of a book for publication seems to be a matter of marking territory.  Have ordered this uplifting book to read on the plane.


Friday, August 19, 2011


Beyond the warped ingenuity of these Heath Robinson schemes to force ‘free’ competition to happen in closely controlled circumstances, such interest as the White Paper possesses may lie chiefly in its providing a handy compendium of current officialese, a sottisier of econobabble. One of the most revealing features of its prose is the way the tense that might be called the mission-statement present is used to disguise implausible non sequiturs as universally acknowledged general truths. Here is one mantra, repeated in similar terms at several points: ‘Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.’ Part of the brilliance of the semantic reversals at the heart of such Newspeak lies in the simple transposition of negative to positive. After all, ‘putting financial power into the hands of learners’ means ‘making them pay for something they used to get as of right’. So forcing you to pay for something enhances your power. And then the empty, relationship-counselling cadence of the assertion that this ‘makes student choice meaningful’. Translation: ‘If you choose something because you care about it and hope it will extend your human capacities it will have no significance for you, but if you are paying for it then you will scratch people’s eyes out to get what you’re entitled to.’ No paying, no meaning. After all, why else would anyone do anything?


Not that practical things are unimportant or students’ views irrelevant or future employment an unworthy consideration: suggesting that critics of the proposals despise such things, as David Willetts did when discussing my LRB piece on the Browne Report (4 November 2010) in a speech at the British Academy, is just a way of setting up easily knocked-down straw opponents. It is, rather, that the model of the student as consumer is inimical to the purposes of education. The paradox of real learning is that you don’t get what you ‘want’ – and you certainly can’t buy it. The really vital aspects of the experience of studying something (a condition very different from ‘the student experience’) are bafflement and effort. Hacking your way through the jungle of unintelligibility to a few small clearings of partial intelligibility is a demanding and not always enjoyable process. It isn’t much like wallowing in fluffy towels. And it helps if you trust your guides rather than assuming they will skimp on the job unless they’re kept up to the mark by constant monitoring of their performance indicators.

Stefan Collini in the LRB, the rest here.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Readers of PP will be aware that Lightning Rods is coming out in October.  It looks as though I will be in New York from September 8 to 11 -- n+1 is having an event on the 8th at the Center for Fiction to launch its next issue, which includes an extract from LR, and there will be a literary pub crawl on the 10th -- and back in town for the first two weeks of October before (I think) going up to Boston. 

Powerhouse Arena has very kindly offered to hold a launch party for the book on (I think) October 5.  Tom Roberge, the publicist at New Directions, is lining up some readings and other events.

So (ahem) New Directions does not have the kind of slush fund available to Miramax; we are all sending e-mails around to see whether anyone might have a spare bed / room for a few nights.  This may well suffice to compensate for the ND-Mx gap; if any reader of PP happens to have room to spare, though, we would be profoundly grateful.

(In November I will probably go down to DC, but here my mother and sister can put up the itinerant author.)

Also, if anyone has any other ideas for events do let me know.  Not necessarily in New York or Boston, though anything outside, what, this little enclave of the upper eastern seaboard is probably also more than the budget can bear.  (Sad, really, otherwise I could go to Toronto and meet Sheila Heti and Margaux Williamson and Joey Comeau and Emily Horne.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011


(I was reminded of the fact that there are people who honestly believe that if a speaker of British English had a moment of extreme emotion such as fear or anger, the affected British manner of speech would drop away and they would cry out in American English.) 

But back to the evolution of language. Caesar makes only one other intelligible spoken utterance in the film. It is a full clause, well enunciated, right at the end. Naturally students of the evolution of syntax will want to know the structure. It is what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls a complex-intransitive canonical clause, with copular be as its main verb.

Geoffrey Pullum of Language Log on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the whole thing here.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Kornél Esti and Haydn had one thing in common: he did not rail against his fate, he had the requisite sense of self-respect, but wasn't caught up with the question: Is the world fair? His Count was fair enough, insofar as such a thing can be posited of a count in the first place. Especially if we now add to all this the seventeenth century, and we're adding it. Esti's self-respect – and in this he differed from Haydn – did not feed on those gifts of his that elicit respect but, one might say, the other way around, Esti did not excel in anything, he was not dull and he was not clever, he was not especially good looking, but he was not homely either. Just one example: a carbuncle kept growing on his neck, one wouldn't have liked to touch it; on the other hand, despite his adolescent years, his face was as bright and shiny as – let me see now – a mountain lake.

Talent was not among the gifts bestowed on him by the Lord. But – a rare thing! – he could feel his life. He began his days with the confidence that comes from trusting in an easy existence – his humble chores in the downstairs kitchen. This existence had its own brightness for him, and honor; greatness, majesty not really, but fairness, definitely. Which means that the cheerful serenity, an offshoot of self-respect, was simply rooted in the circumstance that Kornél Esti was: Kornél Esti.

Wood s Lot quotes Péter Esterházy.  Linking to Asymptote Journal.  (I want a life like Wood s Lot.) The rest here.

useful & cool (dulce et utile)

I was playing around on Khan Academy (as one does).  As one does if one is unable to block out the world and write a book because unable to leave e-mails unchecked for months on end because there is a book to be launched. ('Publish and be damned' takes on a whole new meaning in these degenerate days.)


What to my wondering eyes should appear!

A couple of weeks ago I was playing around on Khan Academy, reminding myself of really basic stuff, trigonometry, bits and pieces, mostly last used a couple of decades ago, needed for less basic stuff.  The answers to the exercises were multiple choice.

Last night I went back to a couple of these exercises.

They had fixed things that weren't quite right.

Instead of multiple choice answers, the player (erm, student) had blanks to fill in.  The player could also click to get a  list of acceptable formats for answers.

So on the one hand you had to work harder -- had to generate the correct answer rather than picking it off a list -- but on the other hand you were less likely to be penalized for not giving the right answer in the right format.

I told my mother about the Khan Academy the other day.

My grandmother, Blanche Spurrier Marsh, was born in 1900; she was a mathematician.  After majoring in math at Randolph Macon she went on to teach, then to be principal of a school. She then married my grandfather, a Southerner who did not want his wife to work.  My mother was born; my grandfather told my grandmother that she could not do two things.  Her job was to look after the child; she could not also work in a school.  What it turned out to mean was that it was fine for my grandmother to go to a school as a substitute, to help out as a favor, but not to have the advantages of a permanent job. (This would imply she needed to do it for the money.)

My mother was a musical prodigy, but she had no aptitude for mathematics.  My grandmother tried to tutor her.  To this day -- my mother is now 78 -- my mother remembers working on problems in long division at the dining room table.  My mother was then 9 -- this would have been 1942.  My grandmother walked up the stairs to the landing, looked down, said: You'll never be anything but a nincompoop!

(My mother has a phobia of computers.  When things go wrong she does not remember that she played the Ballades of Chopin at her senior recital; she remembers that her mother called her a nincompoop in 1942.)

So, ANYWAY, I talk to my mother about the Khan Academy.

Khan says he started tutoring his cousins by phone, made a few videos as a "nice to have" -- and was told they liked the videos better.  Which, he realized, made sense: they didn't have to expose their ignorance, they didn't have to worry about wasting his time, they could go back, replay, shame no longer got in the way of learning.

I think I thought telling my mother about this wonderful resource would lance the wound. 

Or maybe that if my mother went online and did some exercises THIS would lance the wound.

It seems not to work that way.  

My mother did see at once the value of the resource.  She said you would go into a math class where everyone else understood something, and you would pretend to understand, so you fell further and further behind because no one bothered to explain because you had been pretending to understand.

(She never bothered to look at colleges.  One of her teachers asked her about her plans in 12th grade, and she had done nothing, and he was appalled, and pushed her into an application to Rollins, which had an excellent conservatory -- and so she went to college.  Because she was a musical prodigy, and one of her teachers noticed that something had to be done. I think we can agree an educational system ought not to depend on last-minute saves.)

It may be that you have to see the damage a sense of inadequacy can cause over a lifetime to appreciate the value of the Khan Academy.  Khan himself may be too young to understand the full value of what he is offering.  I looked at these exercises, which had been improved in a few WEEKS, and was charmed, disarmed, and for once, among all the madness, hopeful.

God is good

The years go by.  One goes on a daily basis to the supermarket.  One comes home with a one cent coin, a two cent coin; one rarely remembers to put these coins back into play on trips to the supermarket.  The coins accumulate in the home.

One, well, I try from time to time to spend them.  I collect, as it might be, one euro in 2-cent pieces, go to the newsagent, and am told off.  He won't take them; his bank will charge for depositing them; I must take them to the bank myself.

I go to a bank and am told they will not accept these coins unless I am a customer of the bank.  Do I have an account with another bank?  Yes, the Postbank.  Well, I must go to the Postbank.

Weeks go by.  I have 6 euros in small change: 3.70 in 2-cent pieces, 2.15 in 1-cent pieces, 15 cents to make up an even 6 in 5-cent pieces.

I go to the nearest Deutsche Post and ask if they can give me the paper rolls.  The woman at the counter says gaily (in German, but I give you the gist):

Oh, you don't need to do that, we have a machine! You can just bring it all in and fill out this paying-in form!


I'm not sure whether I can put everything in one container, or whether the coins need to be separated by denomination; to be on the safe side I separate the ones and twos.  I label the bags. I fill out the form. I return to this helpful branch of the Deutsche Post.

Where a different woman explains that the machine is kaputt.  And HAS been kaputt for four weeks. I need to roll up the coins. 

OK, I say, can you give me the Rollen?  (Not sure if this is the technical term.) 

She brings out a sheaf of papers, or rather two sheaves (is this really English usage?), one for 1 cent coins, one for 2.  These are not rolls into which coins can be dropped, these are small romboidal sheets of paper into which the coins must be rolled. 

I try to roll a couple. I am not adept.

I have a brilliant idea!

I can take the coins to a different branch, one where the machine is not kaputt!

I go to the branch where I have my PO box and am told they don't have the machine, the coins need to be rolled.

I go to the big branch in Haupstraße and am told THEY don't have the machine, the coins need to be rolled.

I am tired.  I am very very very very tired.

It IS petty.  Ezra Klein is not bogged down in these petty details.  The US just narrowly raised the debt ceiling; S&P has downgraded its rating, generating much of interest on the difference between S&P and Moody's.  The troubled Eurozone (Greece! But it's not so much Greece, what if Portugal, Italy, Spain?????) has markets in turmoil. (Or possibly not turmoil, maybe they're just worryingly going down, but meanwhile we at paperpools have 6 euros in small change which nobody wants.)

I go to Restaurant Toronto, just up the street, in my old neighborhood, Crellekiez.

Not without qualms.  Last time I came to the Toronto the waitress said the Stalker kept coming by and asking for me.  But I like the Toronto, so sod it.

(Does Ezra Klein have a stalker? Punk rock musician from Moscow? I'm guessing not.)


I'm sitting at an outside table at the Toronto.  My laptop is out, I'm online, I have a glass of Riesling.

A guy comes by selling a street magazine, and he also says, as they do, Kleine Spende?

Meaning, even if you don't want to buy the paper, maybe you could spare some small change.

I first dig out a coin, 50 cents.  Then I have an idea.

I say, Er, Moment.  Moment.  Ich weiß nicht (I don't know), ich bin nicht begabt (I don't have the knack), vielleicht sind Sie begabt (maybe you have the knack).

I root around in my three bags (handbag, laptop bag, gym bag) and haul out these bags of 1- and 2-cent coins, WITH the rolling papers provided by Deutsche Post.  I explain haltingly that I have tried many times to hand them in, without success; perhaps HE will know what to do, but if not I perfectly understand.

There is a moment of confusion; he is not sure what is on offer, whether he is being asked to roll up the coins for me.  A man at the adjacent table explains, no, he is not being asked to give them back, if he wants he can take them away.

We then exchange thanks many times.  He is happy to take away these bags of coins, I am happy that 215 1-cent coins and 185 2-cent coins are now HIS.  (Yes. He did not get the full Monty. The 3 5-cent coins are at the bottom of one of the bags.)

There is some sort of moral, if you want a moral.  Most of the things I need done for me as a writer are little 1-cent 2-cent jobs. If I have to do them all myself there is never a clear block of time for writing.
But I can't pay someone 6 euros to do 215 1-cent jobs, 185 2-cent jobs, and 3 5-cent jobs. Not only can I not pay 6 euros for this service, there is NO amount of money I can pay to get 403 microjobs taken care of.

Which is too bad, but somebody asked for small change and got 6.35 (5.85 in 1- and 2-cent coints, 50 cents before I had the brilliant idea of ridding myself of the copper).

useless but cool (ars gratia artis)

One R Tip a Day offers a package which enables one to display one's favorite strips from xkcdHere.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Andrew Gelman on the difference between information visualization and statistical graphics:

When I discuss the failings of Wordle (or of Nightingale’s spiral, or Kosara’s swirl, or this graph), it is not to put them down, but rather to highlight the gap between (a) what these visualizations do (draw attention to a data pattern and engage the viewer both visually and intellectually) and (b) my goal in statistical graphics (to display data patterns, both expected and unexpected). The differences between (a) and (b) are my subject, and a great way to highlight them is to consider examples that are effective as infovis but not as statistical graphics. I would have no problem with Kosara etc. doing the opposite with my favorite statistical graphics: demonstrating that despite their savvy graphical arrangements of comparisons, my graphs don’t always communicate what I’d like them to.

I’m very open to the idea that graphics experts could help me communicate in ways that I didn’t think of, just as I’d hope that graphics experts would accept that even the coolest images and dynamic graphics could be reimagined if the goal is data exploration.

To get back to our exchange with Kosara, I stand firm in my belief that the swirly plot is not such a good way to display time series data–there are more effective ways of understanding periodicity, and no I don’t think this has anything to do with dynamic vs. static graphics or problems with R. As I noted elsewhere, I think the very feature that makes many infographics appear beautiful is that they reveal the expected in an unexpected way, whereas statistical graphics are more about revealing the unexpected (or, as I would put it, checking the fit to data of models which may be explicitly or implicitly formulated. But I don’t want to debate that here. I’ll quarantine a discussion of the display of periodic data to another blog post.

The whole thing here.

Friday, August 5, 2011

For David

I go to Sarotti and decide to have a baked potato. Which comes, this being Berlin, in foil moulded in the shape of a swan.

Time passes.

The waiter comes, asks if he can remove the remains.  I assent.  He asks if it was good (Hat es geschmeckt?).  I say it was great.  I say: Wann kommt der nächste Schwann?

[Wagnerians will understand.  2C2E.]

Time passes.

The waiter heads outside bearing a baked potato on a plate, remarks in passing that here comes the next swan.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Anyone interested in coming to Berlin?  I'm leaving for the States on August 29 for three months, possibly longer, will be subletting my apartment.  Some photos (furniture has since been rearranged) here.  A chance to spend quality time with an upright piano and 3000 books.

Lots of great cafés in the area, including a jazz café on the corner; Potsdamerplatz (with the Staatsbibliothek, Philharmonie, Neue Nationalgalerie, Sony Cinecenter and Arsenal) is about 15 minutes away by bike, well connected by U-Bahn to Museuminsel.

About $900 a month including bills.

Friday, July 22, 2011


A new edition of The Last Samurai arrived on the doorstep this morning via FedEx.  I flip through the book with the sense of foreboding which greets each new translation, and find:

Οχυπέφθ y άυδ ςώ ξηιγωφ έοέκωτ Μυρφ θ φ

above the transliteration

muromeno d'ara to ge idon eleese Kronion

[I omit macrons in the depth of my despair]

As so often I am consumed with guilt.  I expect I should have tracked down this new publisher when it first expressed interest in the book and insisted on proofreading the Greek.  It seems to me, though, that they sent in their request in the early days of my representation by Mr Clegg; there were a lot of other things going on.

I should say that, randomised Greek apart, it is a lovely edition.  But oh my poor head.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

MR had a post on the Khan Academy, had a look at what Salman Khan is doing; this is extraordinary. But no Ancient Greek, I see.  (Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese . . . ) This is what I should be doing. (Of course, if I knew Java I would be doing it already.  Shame. Shame.) Mr Khan, Mr Khan, PLEEEEAAAAAAAAAZ.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A writer is not for Christmas

Employees say they stress how much work it is to own a dog. They say they would rather lose a sale than send a puppy into an unsafe home.

 Drunken puppy buying, HT MR who HTs Daniel Lippman

Friday, July 8, 2011

Back in 2007, in the early days of this blog, Yvain Dewaele sent me a terrific account of Serbian writers he admired.  I then expected to be moving to Wordpress in the next week or so, having been thwarted by Blogger's failure to provide what's known in the trade as a fold - a device permitting one to publish part of a post on the front page of the blog, the rest available to anyone who clicked on Read More.  So this excellent post went over to the Wordpress blog; day followed day, week followed week . . . and sloth prevailed.  PP was still on Blogger, and went on being on Blogger . . .

Who, in the fullness of time, introduced a fold feature! Ha ha! 

I like Wordpress better for all kinds of reasons; sloth being what passes for a work ethic at PP, we seem unlikely to move any time soon, so I now reintroduce this excellent post.

En ce qui concerne les auteurs serbes. J’ai découvert Branimir Scepanovic avec son recueil de nouvelles “La mort de Monsieur Golouja”. Ce sont des nouvelles assez noires, écrit dans un style vif et le plus souvent sans fioritures. Son chef d’oeuvre est “La bouche pleine de terre”, qui en moins d’une centaine de pages en dit plus sur l’humain que des bibliothèques entières…

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

elegance in bribery

Lovely post at (where else?) MR on bribery in China.

The First Scenario:
The corrupted official can sell a fake painting at any rigged gallery. After coordinating with the official, the briber will go to the designated gallery and buy it at the agreed price plus the commission of the gallery owner. All of the three parties know that the painting is fake, but eventually they are all benefited. This fake painting can be reused and it can go through another bribery circulation of other “elegant” buyers and sellers.
The whole thing here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Triple Canopy

Triple Canopy is running a Kickstarter campaign (now in its final week) to raise funds for 155 Freeman.  I quote:

About 155 Freeman and the Kickstarter campaign
This September, Triple Canopy will be opening a new arts-and-culture center at 155 Freeman Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with our friends Light Industry, a cinema, and The Public School, an open-source classroom with no curriculum. Together, our groups will organize performances, classes, artist talks, readings, panels, workshops, concerts, and weekly film screenings—all of which will be open to the public. We've signed a five-year lease, which means relying on the continued generosity of donors near and far—which is to say we're relying on you. We're currently in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for our first year of programming. By contributing to our campaign, you can help us establish this truly alternative space and support the work of the many innovative artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and educators with whom we collaborate. 

This sounds terrific.  New York hates me, but this is the kind of thing that makes me wonder whether it would be so terrible, after all, to spend some time there.  If any New Yorkers are reading, they might want to send ten bucks along.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


The Electric Literature blog has a post by Nora Fussner on a new iPad app of The Waste Land, which includes the poem read by Eliot, Ted Hughes, Fiona Shaw and others, a facsimile of the typescript edited by Pound, and much more.  Toward the end Fussner comments that it would be nice if other books had the benefit of such an app; she mentions The Last Samurai, which could have clips from the Kurosawa film and translation of the lines in Greek.

I am all for an iPad app with clips from the film (always supposing Toho could be persuaded to cooperate).  In fact, I love the idea of an app that offers more help with Greek than was included in the book. But, um, to the best of my knowledge all lines in Greek within the text ARE translated, and with one exception (a brief quotation from the Odyssey) they are also transliterated. 

(I am only too conscious of the fact that pages offering this help are not especially well designed - when cobbling them together in, if memory serves, WordPerfect 7, I imagined, in my innocence, that they would be handed over to a professional designer who would produce something handsome on the page.  As it happens, the designer and typesetter seem to have seen the Greek, Old Norse and Japanese as tricky stuff they could not reasonably be expected to tackle, so those bits of the text were left pretty much the way they were in the wordprocessed submission.  (The Japanese looked better in the original document, having been typed in using software suitable for Japanese, rather than plonked in as graphics objects in a vanilla Quark file.)  But enough of King Charles' Head.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Languagehat has a post which includes a quotation from the Autobiography of the Protopope Avvakum. "Protopope" in Cyrillic: протопоп.  Impossible not to love.
Tribrachidium was a strange genus of ediacara which has been found in Russian, Ukraine, and Australia. 

Tribrachidium has been described as a member of many groups. It probably lived on the bottom of the ocean filtering food. Like many animals from the Ediacaran Period, Tribrachidium was mysterious and little is known about it.

ABC Age Seven

[But was there an oktokaiogdoekontabrachidium?  We can only surmise...]

(Courtesy Mr Know-it-all)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The humour, while probably more easily appreciated by seasoned birdwatchers, isn't restricted to in jokes.

[Does Jonathan Franzen know about this film? I think he should be told.]

The Disillusioned Taxonomist on The Hide.
There's an interview of Ryan North at

Why dinosaurs? And while the T rex. is a natural, why two other, more obscure dinosaurs? No Triceratops?
I wish I had a better answer than “I had some dinosaur clip art lying around.”

[Best interview answer EVER. ]

Also, the Dinosaur Comics whiteboard is back in stock at TopatoCo.

Speaking of which, I had a phone conversation with my mother the other day. My mother said the book had come, and she had got up to page 49 and COULD NOT GO ON. 

I was completely at a loss.  I have never read Dinosaur Comics in book form.  What terrible thing could have happened on page 49, such that my mother could not go on? (I had ordered my mother a copy of the Dinosaur Comics book, and had been innocently expecting to hear how much she was enjoying it...)

'I got to 'tight wet twat' and I just STOPPED,' said my mother.

I thought: Hm. That doesn't sound much like Dinosaur Comics - I don't THINK.

I cast my mind back over early episodes of DC.  The webcomic has evolved over the years; I once went back and started going through strips from the beginning;  had I missed No. 49? 

My mother said something or other.  I realised that she was not talking about Dinosaur Comics (page 49 of which is, to the best of my knowledge, blameless), but Lightning Rods.  New Directions had sent her a galley.  She had read it years ago and hated it; she had loyally undertaken to read it again, hoping to change her mind, and I had assumed she would hate it again. 

Whereas I had confidently assumed that life in Leisure World would be brightened by Dinosaur Comics.

As, I suspect, it is.