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.