Saturday, March 31, 2012

devant les enfants

almost everything we have done over the last two decades in the area of ICT education in British schools has been misguided and largely futile. Instead of educating children about the most revolutionary technology of their young lifetimes, we have focused on training them to use obsolescent software products. And we did this because we fell into what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle would have called a "category mistake" – an error in which things of one kind are presented as if they belonged to another. We made the mistake of thinking that learning about computing is like learning to drive a car, and since a knowledge of internal combustion technology is not essential for becoming a proficient driver, it followed that an understanding of how computers work was not important for our children. 

John Naughton in the Guardian

Naughton goes on to take issue with the claim that code is the new Latin, because Latin is a dead language.  This is somewhat misguided: the Latin (and, for that matter, Greek) literature I learned to read 40 years ago is no more obsolete than Beethoven's Ninth.  If I had started programming the year I started Latin (1971) I would not now be able to use the programming language I learned then with the same benefits it offered when I first studied it. (I am not saying it is not a good thing to learn to code, or that I don't wish I had done so earlier, only that it's rare to learn something in school that retains its value close to half a century later.)

Naughton also argues that the reason to teach programming in schools is not economic, but moral. What he means by this is that we owe it to children not to leave them in the power of computer-savvy elites. I would have thought the moral obligation was in fact much stronger than this: programming forces one to think logically.  (Some may remember the complaint of the Professor in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: What do they TEACH them in school?  Don't they teach them logic?)  It also forces one to face up many, many times to one's fallibility. (Douglas Crockford's JSLint carries the warning: Your feelings will be hurt.)  Many of the problems I have faced with the publishing industry over the last 16 years could easily have been avoided if people who were "passionate about books" had the kind of logical training, the attention to detail, the awareness of possible errors, that programming provides. 

Anyway, very glad to see this new initiative.  (As a number of journalists have commented, IT in British schools has dwindled to getting schoolchildren up to speed on Word. Jesus wept.)

Friday, March 30, 2012

H, R

Piece on the Book Bench about reactions on Twitter to casting of an actress of color as Rue in The Hunger Games.

Interesting.  Too slothful to link back to my own posts, but I was surprised by many of the covers for The Last Samurai - I went out of my way in the book to give Ludo an appearance that would leave the ethnicity of his father open, and then got many a cover back with a little white boy.  In one case, with blue eyes. Later, talking to Steve Gaghan, I commented that there was really no reason Sibylla must be played by a white actress - I had always thought of her as looking like Nigella Lawson, but there's nothing in the text that would be require it. (Was trying to be helpful -- really just wanted to emphasize that he could do whatever he wanted.  Not that it did in fact help.)


Lightning Rods is available on e-book at Emily Books, $11.99.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

I started doing exercises on the Khan Academy about 8 months ago as a way of taking my mind of crazymaking things I can do nothing about.  I now have 1,755,000 exercise points and loose change; this gives some idea of how crazy I would have been if I had not been working out fiddly little exercises in kinematics and such.  I feel a bit guilty about this, because I could long since have gone past the mathematics I already know by watching videos. The problem is, though, that I hate videos as an instructional tool, and the whole point, after all, was to soothe the savage breast.

The other day, though, I succumbed to the gamification which some see as a flaw in the enterprise. At the time I had every badge it was possible to win without watching a video.  There are many more badges, but these all require watching videos, and I do so LOATHE videos.  Still, I thought I would look at the list of videos and see if there was anything I could bear to watch.  And what should I see but a whole slew of videos on Laplace Transforms!  Something I had never covered in the days when I was studying mathematics!

I should say at once that I had no idea at this point what a Laplace Transform actually was.  The appeal of the topic was simply the name "Laplace Transform."  For reasons that I can't defend, mathematics appeals to what I suppose boils down to a love of kit.  Glamorous names are good, as is some novel sort of notation.  (The Laplace Transform, of course, offers both.)   So I watched 6 or 7 videos, racking up several badges in the process - but the fact is, I really don't like videos.

It was at this point that the policy of giving house room to unread books came into its own.  Back in 1997 I would appear to have bought a book on differential equations under the impression that I would quickly be reading up on differential equations.  (Readers familiar with my publishing career will, I hope, not hold it against me if this optimism was unfounded.)  Now, though,  I pulled the book off my shelf and found a whole chapter on the Laplace Transform!  A chapter which I did find much easier to follow than the video, though without the video it might have gone unread for further countless years. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

I went to Meeting this morning at the Society of Friends in Planckstraße.  I got there very early; the woman who greeted me, Gisela Faust, talked to me for a while before the meeting began.   The Meeting was founded in 1920, after the First World War.  It had been here through National Socialism, through the Second World War and everything that followed. I asked if she had been here for all this; she said yes, she was 98. (I think I heard that right.)  She then said that Quakers addressed each other as du.  (I had used Sie.) Which of course they would - except it had never occurred to me.  The early Quakers used only thou for the second-person pronoun, I think not only for each other but for everyone; now English pronouns no longer offer a distinction comparable to that between 'you' and 'thou'; I had never bothered to think about Quaker linguistic practice in languages that had kept the informal second person singular.  (Since you ask, the German plural of Quaker is Quäker. A form it is impossible not to love.)

I used to go to Meeting quite often in Chesterfield, but I have not gone often since.  I did go once in New York last autumn.  As you may know, Meetings are normally silent, but if someone is moved to speak they may do so. The principle is that there is that of God in everyone.  The contributions the spirit moves people to make are, as you can probably imagine, something of a mixed bag; this Meeting was silent for about 20 minutes or so and then became rather talkative. I missed the silence. After several contributions a woman stood up, placed her hands on the back of the seat in front of her, and remained standing in silence.  A couple of minutes passed. Another woman stood up and began to share some insight. The silent woman said: I am standing in silence.

I didn't know you could do that, preemptively stake out a space for silence.  What a wonderful convention!  And how splendid it would be if some such convention were more widely available.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

the ‘p' is silent, as in pshrimp

Norton will be publishing a new release of Leave it to Psmith in July.  (The phrase 'pterodactyl with a secret sorrow', another favourite, turns up in Right Ho, Jeeves, another winner.)

Friday, March 23, 2012

pa pa pa PAAAAAAAAA pa

n+1 held a panel discussion at Fordham back in late October last year, a reprise of an earlier discussion of "What we wish we'd known."  Moderated by Keith Gessen.  Participants, HDW and J.D. Daniels.

(An edited transcript of the event is now available on the n+1 blog, here.)

One thing I will say is that if you ever have the chance to hear J.D. Daniels talk about anything you should go.  You live in Seattle?  He's giving a talk in the inconveniently located Portland?  Expedia is your friend. This will sound crazy only to those who have not heard J.D. Daniels. You may feel like an idiot when you book the flight; when the lights go down you'll be pitying all the friends who stayed sensibly in Seattle.  Click.  Walk out the door. 

Another thing I will say is that Keith Gessen is a saint.
Within any education category, richer people vote more Republican. In contrast, the pattern of education and voting is nonlinear. High school graduates are more Republican than non-HS grads, but after that, the groups with more education tend to vote more Democratic. At the very highest education level tabulated in the survey, voters with post-graduate degrees lean toward the Democrats. Except for the rich post-graduates; they are split 50-50 between the parties.
What does this say about America’s elites? If you define elites as high-income non-Hispanic whites, the elites vote strongly Republican. If you define elites as college-educated high-income whites, they vote moderately Republican.
There is no plausible way based on these data in which elites can be considered a Democratic voting bloc. To create a group of strongly Democratic-leaning elite whites using these graphs, you would need to consider only postgraduates (no simple college grads included, even if they have achieved social and financial success), and you have to go down to the below-$75,000 level of family income, which hardly seems like the American elites to me.

Andrew Gelman, Statistical Modeling...

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

hinc illae lacrimae

...the thing about Lightning Rods is that of all the books in the tourney this year, it is probably the one I would be least likely to recommend. I would have to know you really well before I would suggest that you would like this novel.

A month or so ago I was in a coffee shop before school with my five-year-old and a few mothers from the neighborhood who were also there with their kids. Someone asked me what I was reading and I said a book called Lightning Rods, and they asked what it was about and I opened my mouth to reply and I looked around at these three women, friends of mine, all of them, and I looked at their preschool kids, and then I looked at the moms again and I had a hell of a time even describing it.

Kevin Guillefoile at the Morning News Tournament of Books.
Quand j'entends Sarkozy qui fait des fautes d'accord du participe passé, je me dis que, moi l'Algérien, fier de posséder le français, j'ai au fond plus de mérite et aussi plus de grammaire que lui.

Mohamed Badaoui, quoted in La Libération by Jean-Louis Le Touzet (behind paywall)

Monday, March 19, 2012


Made a rare visit to the dashboard and discovered that 20 comments were awaiting moderation. 15 or so were perfectly legitimate comments - I have no idea why they aroused the suspicion of Blogger, which is normally good at filtering out spam and publishing the rest.  Some of these go back to mid-2011. So, er, if anyone posted a comment and wondered why it had not appeared it now has, though annoyingly too late to attract much in the way of response from other readers.


 As I've said, a journalist wrote to me back in November asking if I'd reread any books that mattered to me and asking various questions about the importance of rereading to writers.  I wrote an insanely long e-mail in reply which some readers have said they would like to see.  

I have doubts about this, which strike me more forcefully now that I have read Sheila Heti's piece for the Globe and Mail.  I find that the business connected with publishing a book makes it hard to do any serious writing, which means that I am increasingly cut off from the things I actually care about (one of which is, of course, reading); but in the meantime it is necessary to construct and deploy a social self as a matter of professionalism.  This somehow ends up being a tapdancer with a Gene Kelly grin.  (That's the way it feels, anyway.)  I don't know if Heti feels that way too; when she shows up for public engagements she somehow comes across as genuine, so then I feel there is something wrong with me for covering up alienation with a lot of flippant remarks. Still, I have written 5000 words of a story in the last day, so perhaps the thing that used to be there is coming back.

Maybe if I had taken more time I would have written less manically and at a more sensible length; I had the feeling that if a journalist has a deadline to meet it's unhelpful to spend too much time self-editing. That might not be true. Anyway, this is what I said at the time, with some afterthoughts:

Saturday, March 17, 2012

more bookses, precioussss

Back in November a journalist wrote asking if there were any books I had reread, why rereading might matter to a writer, a few other questions.  I spent about 8 hours, I seem to remember, writing an insanely long e-mail.  Of this, two points made it into the piece: the fact that I had reread Nancy Drew as a child; an amusing quotation from Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love.  I was a bit demoralized; what I had been trying to show was the way that the books one reread obsessively at a particular time marked different stages of the self - some one could go back to (Alice in Wonderland), others not (not, at least, without recognizing that the self who had loved them no longer existed). 

I thought this mattered for writers because agents and editors are always offering comments with a view to "the reader" - "the" reader does not exist. The 9-year-old who discovered The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is genetically identical to the 54-year-old who cannot travel without Calvino's Invisible Cities and the OCT of the Iliad; if these are not the same reader -- if between them lie many, many obsessives to whom the current occupant of the body can never return -- the project of improving a book with a view to "the" reader is obviously a non-starter.

I recently got an e-mail from Sheila Heti asking about books I had read as a young reader that one might recommend as an alternative to YA.  Her piece is now available at the Globe and Mail.  She has said much better the things I was trying to say to David Bowman about the growth of a reader.  (Not to be too hard on myself, I assume she did not write the piece in an 8-hour blitz.  I thought a quick reply would be helpful to a journalist with a deadline.)  The whole thing here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Richard Feynman and the semi-colon?

The novelist’s corrections appear to be more literary than scientific. In addition to suggested some rephrasing, Mr. Krauss, said, Mr. McCarthy “made me promise he could excise all exclamation points and semicolons, both of which he said have no place in literature.” (A quick digital search through Mr. McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” and several other novels finds no examples of the offending punctuation.)

Cormac McCarthy has copyedited a new biography of Richard Feynman, Lawrence M. Krauss's Quantum Man.  HT Paper Cuts.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

the writer's life

...Each stage is easy enough, but it is a combination of all the parts that create the natural-looking, dwarfed, containerized tree in an artificial environment.

Yoshimura & Halford, Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes
Consider the humble punch card. Punch cards had been used in France to control textile looms since the early 1700s; the method was perfected by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801 with his Jacquard loom.
     Flash forward to the year 1890, when a man named Herman Hollerith invented a punch card and tabulating machines for that year's United States Census. His census project was so successful that Mr. Hollerith left the government and started The Tabulating Machine Company in 1896. After a series of mergers and name changes, this company became IBM. You may have heard of it.
     Up to the 1970s, the "IBM card" and related machinery was everywhere. The most common card was the IBM 5081, and that part number became the most common term for it -- even across vendors! The punch card was data processing back then.
     The physical characteristics of the card determined how we stored and processed data for decades afterwards. The card was the size of an 1887 United States dollar bill (3.25 inches by 7.375 inches). The reason for that size was simple: when Hollerith worked on the Census, he could get drawers to store the decks of cards from the Department of the Treasury across the street.

Joe Celko, Thinking in Sets: Auxiliary, Temporal, and Virtual Tables in SQL

Thursday, March 8, 2012

will have had gone

One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can't cope with. There is no problem with changing the course of history—the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.

The major problem is simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's Time Traveler's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

comment on Languagehat. Who does not normally draw attention to items on Language Log, assuming most readers will be reading LL anyway.  (I know I do.)  But could not resist discussing a post on LL on a tense that was certainly new to me: will have had gone.