Sunday, April 29, 2012

split or steal

HT Ben Goldacre, amazing display of psychology and game theory on a game show, here.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

et tu, Brute?

I received this email from an eighth-grader: “Listen, I love your work, but seriously? Selling out to the state test?
“Also, before my class goes crazy, which was the wisest animal in ‘The Hare and the Pineapple’?”
You bet I sold out, I replied. Not to the Department of Education, but to the publisher of tests, useless programmed reading materials, and similar junk. All authors who are not Stephen King will sell permission to allow excerpts from their books to have all the pleasure edited out of them and used this way. You’d do the same thing if you were a writer, and didn’t know where your next pineapple was coming from.


But it did not stop with emails. I was directed to a Facebook page in which the kids griped and groaned and made some pretty funny jokes about the dumb test. And then, after 40 years of authoring, and more than 100 books, I got interviewed by all the major newspapers in New York City. About a story under my name, of which not a line was written by me, which was like a paragraph from a novel I wrote in 1998, and which had appeared on a test with unanswerable questions following.

Daniel Pinkwater on "The Pineapple and the Hare," the rest  here


Friday, April 27, 2012

talk the talk

At the end of the 18th century, Nazarene painter Eberhard Wachter rejected a position on the staff of the Stuttgart academy, noting that ‘there is too much misery in art already; I do not want to increase it.’1 Wachter uttered his sullen epigram on art education well before the development of postgraduate programmes in studio art, but the weariness of his tone would have only increased if he had read the raft of ‘written components’ – usually in the form of an exegesis – that are now mandatory in art school submissions. Examiners do their best to maintain fresh eyes in front of works that groan under pointless descriptions of dull making processes, overblown and unconvincing attempts by artists to write their own work in an art historical tradition, or perhaps worst of all, interesting practices (de)formed into ‘research questions’ that the works are then supposed to answer. Duchamp did his best to dissuade such thinking, believing that ‘there is no solution, because there is no problem.’2 Now the need to find problems to satisfy a demand for academic rigour seems to be the problem.


As Dieter Lesage has argued, to require an artist to adopt a particular form of writing is precisely to fail to recognise their status as an artist.3 Artists also seem to recognise that the university exegesis yields little aesthetic or professional reward: the market seeks the artist as a producer of mystery, rather than an explainer.

Danny Butt, The Art of the Exegesis, Mute, the rest here


Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, to take the most pervasive of these models, had been a highly popular way to theorize the internet in the years before many people used it, and by doing so understood it.

Mute may in many ways be seen as Wired’s antithesis: leftist, not libertarian; more interested in communal action than in individualist competition; asking critical questions about the effects of new technology rather than celebrating it with a reflex technophilia; and being a magazine of dialogue rather than consumer marketing. The contrast was also formed by the magazines’ different geographical bases. Wired is published from San Francisco, with Silicon Valley hard by, and it is marked by a fascination with the vast spending and bizarre projects of by far the most technologically advanced military machine on the planet. Mute is based in London which, dominated by the City, with its weak local government and run-down infrastructure, offered fertile opportunities for the symbiosis between high-tech cultural workers, finance capital and speculation in real estate. The association with the Financial Times thus made a certain ironic sense. 

Julian Stallabrass of the New Left Review on Mute magazine

Monday, April 23, 2012

read 'em and weep

Went to Vogt's Bier-Express for a Duckstein.  They had two poker tables set up at the back of the room. A guy told me the tournament started at 8: 25€ buy-in (3000 chips), with an hour during which 20€ rebuys got you 6000 chips. No-limit Texas Hold 'em.  I don't have much experience of live games, and when I play online I normally play limit games, which is safe though not very exciting. He said it did not matter, and the dealer explained how the system worked. 

I played with extreme caution, apologetically.  Another player said encouragingly that it was fine to fold, this was good tournament play in the early stages. This player also advised me to be more careful in looking at my cards, because otherwise people could see them - no one would do so intentionally, but sometimes they could not help seeing.  Another player explained that if I was still in the game I must put my cards back on the side of the table, rather than holding them, because otherwise people would not know I was in the game. Toward the end of the first hour I got a pair of Aces which won several thousand chips, and then an Ace and a King which won a few thousand more.  Much later I went all in with K8 of clubs, winning a few thousand chips.  The net result (mainly because the other players were much more aggressive) was that I came third in the tournament, winning 130 euros.  Each time I won a hand the other players congratulated me, and at the end they all congratulated me on coming out ahead. There was a pause during which we were brought a complimentary meal from the Currywurst place next door; then the players settled in to play a cash game.  They explained that I could play if I wanted to but I did not have to, so I watched for a while.  They were betting as much as 100€ on a hand, which wasn't money I would be happy to have at stake with only my modest skills to defend it.  The player who had advised about care in looking at my cards told me kindly that it was dangerous to play in cash games.  The general ambience, in case you're missing this, was one of care for an inexperienced player.

In my admittedly limited experience this is typical of the world of poker.  The object of the game is to take money off other players, but within that context there is a code of honour which includes not taking advantage of the inexperienced. 

I came to poker after having a book published; this world stood in startling contrast to the world of publishing.  To the uninitiated, it is in the interest of everyone involved in a book to explain how things work to the novice.  The publisher has tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake; the writer, her entire livelihood. But there is no analogue for the code of honour of the world of poker. There is no one to explain how the system works, or where you might put yourself at a disadvantage by showing your cards.  If you ask questions, people lie to you.  The terms of your contract are words on a piece of paper.  If you bring in an agent you don't get someone who will give you a truthful explanation, the kind of thing you might get from a group of strangers at a poker table; you get another round of the runaround. 

Most people in this business seem to be in denial about the writer's exposure to risk.  I think I imagined, when I was put in touch with Bill Clegg, that he would have a clearer view of this; having left so many writers high and dry, he would naturally be anxious to protect new clients from risk. This point of view turned out to be not only wrong but offensive. It's probably impossible to convey how touching it is to find so much concern among people who profess not even a trace element of interest in literature.

In patriotic duty bound, the Cambridge of Newton adhered to Newton's fluxions, to Newton's geometry, to the very text of Newton's Principia; in my own Tripos in 1881 we were expected to know any lemma in that great work by its number alone, as if it were one of the commandments or the 100th Psalm.

.... Finally, in the earlier section of the Tripos Examinations (officially described as "qualifying for honours", commonly known as "the three days"), there was a rigid rule against the explicit use of a differential coefficient and of an integration-process: we might substitute x+h for x and subtract, dodging onwards to the satisfaction of the examiner; we might use a Newton curve, if we could devise it, to effect a quadrature; but never might we use d/dx or the ∫-sign of integration which were taboo. 

A R Forsyth, Old Tripos Days at Cambridge, The Mathematical Gazette, Vol 19, No 234, July1935 (at JSTOR, unfortunately)
It’s salutary to remember that the C.I.A. poured hundreds of millions into culture. For example, there was a festival of atonal music in Paris in 1950, entirely funded by the C.I.A. Can you imagine a less attractive festival? They paid for tours by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Abstract Expressionist art exhibitions. The aim was to persuade especially left-of-center European intellectuals that the United States was a powerhouse of culture, because there was a widespread assumption, so the C.I.A. believed, that Europeans thought America was just an empty-headed place of money and loudness, with no depth.

Ian McEwan talks to Deborah Treisman at the New Yorker Book Bench, the whole thing  here

Sunday, April 22, 2012

dutch day 3

Our teacher explains today that Dutch is much fonder than German of Verbalisierung.  (Our teacher switched happily back and forth between German and Dutch, which was naturally also good for my German.)  So the following are verbs:  tennissen, voetballen, sporten, fitnessen, computeren.  You can say: ik heb getennist.

Ga ik beter tennissen als ik met het racket van Kim Clijsters speel?  (more here)

Our teacher explains something else that's very nice.  Just as in English it's common to say, for example, 'You can say...' rather than 'One can say...', so in Dutch the second person singular, 'je', is used rather than 'man' (though the latter is also correct).  There's one difference.  In English, of course, we no longer distinguish formal and informal second person singular; Dutch still has a formal form (u).  To the Dutch ear, it's obvious that 'je' used in the context of generalisations is not actually the informal second person: you can use it while addressing someone as meneer or mevrouw (formal).  You would still use 'u' in sentences where the pronoun genuinely referred to the addressee.  I was charmed.

So perhaps I should do an apartment swap and live in Amsterdam, where these and other features of grammar are in daily use. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

be on the one hand good, and do not on the other hand be bad

Rich Beck has a terrific discussion of The Last Samurai on Emily Books, of which this is my favourite line:

DeWitt, working at a time when critics routinely praise writers for their “generosity of spirit,” is ungenerous, even mean.  

This also made me laugh:

She is neither a likeable protagonist nor the kind of charming, charismatic jerk who populates Martin Amis novels. She is just genuinely unlikeable, full stop.

Not that I actually agree, mind you; it still made me laugh.

When I started work on the book it had a single mother whose name was Ruth, a Shavian character of perfect self-possession.  She decided to raise a child following the principles of J S Mill and did so. Her many strong opinions set her at odds with the rest of the world; she remained sublimely untroubled.  It struck me at some point that this was rather dull.

I then read Kurosawa's account of his problems with the script of Drunken Angel, in which a virtuous doctor looked after tubercular patients in the slums.  Kurosawa explained that his breakthrough came when he realised the character was too good, it wasn't interesting.  He saw suddenly that the character would work much better as an irascible alcoholic.  I then thought of Wilkie Collins' Armadale, and in particular of the marvellous Lydia Gwilt: an acerbic drug addict, plotter, murderess.  (Best line: 'He put his arm round her waist - if you can call it a waist.')  How much more appealing my single mother would be if she were as tormented, as acerbic as Lydia Gwilt!  It was immediately obvious that her name must be Sibylla, from the opening epigraph of the Waste Land (quotation from Petronius, where two boys see the Sibyl at Cumae, ask what she wants, are told she wants to die).

I do also feel somewhat wounded and misunderstood, since I think I was generous to a fault: I think of the hours spent incorporating Greek and Japanese and Old Norse into the text, all to enable the reader to see for him- or herself how delightful they were; the months, or rather years, wrangling with typesetters and copy-editors in multiple editions, to share these delights with readers throughout the world . . .  I contemplate the misery involved in clearing permissions for quotations from 26 separate sources, all to share passages with readers that I might otherwise have saved for my own personal enjoyment in the privacy of my own personal library . . .  A woman who has suffered to share the aerodynamic properties of the grebe with the reading public is likely to feel that her distinguishing characteristic is wanton prodigality. 

But I still thought this was a very clever take on the book, and in some sense I would agree with Mr Beck: the book does not make much of an effort to be nice.

Meanwhile I am taking a weekend intro to Dutch, which is very cheering.  The language feels shocking after German: j = y, w = v, but you have to learn to pronounce the e of 'me', 'je', 'we' like that in French 'me'.  Also, you have to learn not to pronounce final n in words like 'kennen', 'leren' and so on. G is a harsh guttural, like Arabic kh: geboren = khebore(n), gegeten (G. gegessen) = khekhete(n). 'ui' = the ow of 'house' (duizend, Zuid-Holland, huis).  oe = the oo of moo (boek).  This is hard to get used to, but great.

Friday, April 20, 2012

not satirizing anything

TM: I was really struck by the tone of the book. It seems weirdly refined in a way that was oddly familiar to me, but that I couldn’t quite place.

DR: That’s because it’s the voice that God speaks to you with when he answers your prayers. But for years, I have collected early-to-mid 20th-century industrial manuals and how-to guides. And a lot of those books are written in a slightly elevated, gentlemanly tone. Like, “The reader will be forgiven for thinking that this die cast mold will produce…” And for me, that tone is just so intoxicating. It’s slightly aspirational, like it’s written for the gentleman plumber or something. It’s fascinating, because these are blue-collar manuals, but the writing is often so much more ambitious and literary than what you would expect if you went to a Home Depot today and just bought a book called How to Put Up Fucking Drywall. That’s why I wanted the book to have poems in it and references to Biblical verses, because I really wanted to pay homage to all those books in my personal library.

Mark O'Connell interviews David Rees on The Millions.  (Continent cut off, I had never hears of DR's book Get Your War On, which I have now ordered on Amazon.  Where have I been all these years.) (DR's new book is How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Sharpening Pencils.)

over the rainbow

My job is not only watching film. The most interesting part will be in June, July, and August when I meet the filmmakers, read scripts, and talk to the technicians, the producers, and the directors of photography. [I want to] follow the project and know that if a film is finishing shooting in September, it could be ready for us. The idea is to say "We can premiere your film in Tribeca," if we like it.
The first week of June, I will be in Tel Aviv on the jury of the biggest student film festival in the world. I didn't know the festival but it's fantastic to meet the people from the film school. I will go because I'm working for Tribeca, but also for me. I just want to meet them. I want to say, "I'm here. I'm looking at your film. I'm respecting what you're doing."

Meeting the filmmakers is the most interesting part to me. Especially the filmmakers who are premiering here for the first time. The mother, the father, the brother, everybody will be here. It is something so beautiful. It is extremely important to support them.

Why anyone thinking of writing a novel would be better off making a film . . .

Frédéric Boyer talks to Noah Davis at the Awl

calculated risks

Fortunately, when you purchase a low-powered car from Young Marmalade, the free installation of a black box can cut your insurance premiums into half. By monitoring the driving behaviour such as acceleration, braking, what time of the day the car was driven and at what speed, Young Marmalade provides affordable telematic insurance premiums.

It’s simple. The black box data is used to calculate premiums, if the car was driven well, the lower the premiums will be and vice-versa.

HT Tyler Cowen of MR, the whole thing here.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

pudding meet alice

(pp, vegetarian since 1985, reads a piece in which a vegetarian interviews a man who gives cows a nice life before they become steak)

Logan: Does looking at those eels remind you of The Little Mermaid?
Greg: No.

Logan: Not even a little bit?
Greg: No.

Logan: Which one of these is Finding Nemo?
Greg: None of them. You don’t eat clown fish. They’re too little.

Logan: Oh.
[A dude is cutting some stuff up! We look.]
Greg: This is also awesome, watching these guys do their work. Oh look. He’s got a turtle.

Logan: That fucking thing is alive.
Greg: Yeah. It’s alive until it’s dead, dude.

Logan: …
Greg: Okay let’s roll. You’re uncomfortable, I can tell.

Logan: …
Greg: Those turtles are delicious. That’s the thing.

the whole thing here

yet another interview

with Andy Seisberg, for Emilybooks, here

* like me

Christine had put her finger on the pulse of cinema. What matters is who it allows – or rather invites – you to be. Christine refused the invitation because it was not reciprocal: no white person identifies with a ‘Negro’. We are talking about the turn of the 1960s, about New Orleans, a bitterly segregated city where – in one incident described by Weatherby and hard to imagine today – partygoers arriving at a meeting place for the blind could be watched from the window of the house of the federal judge opposite as they were separated into black and white because ‘they couldn’t see to segregate themselves.’ Christine, we could say, was exposing the delusion Hollywood offers, the false democracy of a world in which it appears that everyone can see and be seen, that anyone can become anyone else. If Monroe is an emblem of that delusion – she made her way to the top from nowhere – she also exposed the ruthlessness and anguish at its core.

Writing of what McCarthyism had done to the spirit of freedom, I.F. Stone cites these lines from Pasternak:
The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune. Our nervous system isn’t just a fiction, it’s a part of our physical body and our soul exists in space and is inside us, like the teeth in our mouth. It can’t be forever violated with impunity.
There was a ‘numbness’ in the national air, Stone wrote. ‘It’s like you scream,’ Monroe’s character, Roslyn, says in The Misfits, ‘and there’s nothing coming out of your mouth, and everybody’s going around: “Hello, how are you, what a nice day” … and you’re dying.’

Jacqueline Rose on Marilyn Monroe at the LRB

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Marshalsea de nos jours

Debtor’s prisons are supposed to be illegal in the United States but today poor people who fail to pay even small criminal justice fees are routinely being imprisoned. The problem has gotten worse recently because strapped states have dramatically increased the number of criminal justice fees. In Pennsylvania, for example, the criminal court charges for police transport, sheriff costs, state court costs, postage, and “judgment.” Many of these charges are not for any direct costs imposed by the criminal but have been added as revenue enhancers.

Most outrageously, in some states public defender, pre-trial jail and other court fees can be assessed on individuals even when they are not convicted of any crime. 
Alex Tabarrok on MR

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Berlin stories

Anna Winger is launching a one-hour programme of Berlin Stories for NPR; the first episode aired yesterday.  I was one of the people she interviewed for this; the link is here.

I heard excerpts of the programme at a launch party last week; would not have recognized my own voice if I had heard this out of context.  I don't mean that I disliked it (people often do dislike the sound of their recorded voice); I wouldn't have known this was me.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Anne Tyler

She went on to study Russian at Columbia, because "that was one of the most outrageous things you could do in America in the 1950s", and while she can't remember any of the language, she loved the literature, "the purity and clarity" of both Chekhov and Tolstoy, and regularly rereads Anna Karenina.

How is that possible?  (To forget a language, I mean.  Perhaps this is not quite what she said?)

Interview of Anne Tyler at the Guardian

Temple Grandin, Haruki Murakami...

My Norwegian editor, Birgit Bjerk, once told me about the time Temple Grandin came to Oslo. Grandin has Asperger's syndrome; she sent Birgit a list of things to avoid.  (Do not wear red.  Do not touch me.  And so on.)  Birgit followed these instructions.

On another occasion she went to a dinner at which Murakami was also present.  She had read about Japanese etiquette for gift-giving, and had wrapped her gift in accordance with this etiquette.

I have never actually given her a list of things I like and don't like, but if I did I'm sure she would follow it. One very nice thing she does do is recommend books - it was through her that I discovered Grandin, in fact.  She recommended a book by Janet Frame in which a character chokes on a vowel. Her hero is Merleau-Ponty; I knew his work, of course, but it is very cheering to have an editor whose hero is Merleau-Ponty. It cheers me up whenever I think of it. 

The thing I like most about Birgit, though, is that she is absolutely straight with you.  She says she doesn't finish most of the mss she is sent; if she finishes a book she usually publishes it.  She does not hunt around for nice things to say about a book she didn't like. She does not publish a book because it would make publishing sense; she has to believe people should read it.  She said once that she has to be honest about her reaction to a book because writers need to know where you stand.

It would cheer me up to have another book that she liked because I could go back to Oslo and hear about Merleau-Ponty. A long time ago we talked about a book about poker; sometimes I think I should finish this book so I can go back to Oslo and talk about Merleau-Ponty.

Friday, April 13, 2012


A London book market founded by independent booksellers is to launch in Hackney, selling new and second-hand titles.

Goldsmith Row Book Market will be held every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the junction of Hackney Road and Columbia Road, at the beginning of the "mile of markets", which includes the famous flower market. The first event will take place on 13th May.
Around 15 booksellers have signed up to take part in the market so far, including Pages of Hackney, Donlon Books, Artwords Bookshop, photographer's agency nbpictures and Muatta Books. The event's founders are inviting around 25 more stallholders to join them. Photography and art publisher Dewi Lewis has also taken a stall; pitches are £40.
Lisa Campbell at The Bookseller, the whole thing here.

Siu Kam Wen


Comencé a escribir ficción a los diez años, pero en chino. Sólo a partir de los 29 decidí hacerlo en español. En esa época el panorama literario de los chinos en Perú era desolado; no había poetas ni novelistas; y se me ocurrió que si los de segunda o tercera generación no estaban dispuestos a asumir ese reto, lo haría yo. Fue una actitud un poco arrogante pero dio resultado. Por supuesto, antes de poder tomar la pluma y sentarme a escribir mi primer cuento en español, tuve que pasar por un largo y penoso proceso de aprendizaje del idioma. Yo no aprendí el español en la forma ortodoxa que conocemos, en la calle y en el colegio, sino haciendo traducciones de textos clásicos, del español al chino y viceversa, durante mis vacaciones de verano. Eso fue entre las edades de once y dieciséis. Cuando ingresé a un colegio nacional a los diecisiete, ya podía expresarme literariamente en español. 

Luis Pulido Ritter interviews the Chinese-Peruvian writer Siu Kam Wen

Saturday, April 7, 2012

who ARE these people?

Erm, I do have a Mac, but erm . . . Look, if Steve Jobs had happened to audit a course in Ancient Greek or Arabic or Hebrew or Japanese or Chinese, rather than a course on calligraphy, I might just possibly have found Quark aiding and abetting my endeavors a decade and a bit ago; the switch to OS X might not have blighted my second book deal.  So it's just a leetle unsettling to find pp a magnet for Macheads.  And even Linuxheads.  But OK OK OK . . .

talks about talks

The point of academic talk is to try to persuade your audience to agree with you about your research. This means that you need to raise a structure of argument in their minds, in less than an hour, using just your voice, your slides, and your body-language. Your audience, for its part, has no tools available to it but its ears, eyes, and mind. (Their phones do not, in this respect, help.)

This is a crazy way of trying to convey the intricacies of a complex argument. Without external aids like writing and reading, the mind of the East African Plains Ape has little ability to grasp, and more importantly to remember, new information. (The great psychologist George Miller estimated the number of pieces of information we can hold in short-term memory as "the magical number seven, plus or minus two", but this may if anything be an over-estimate.) Keeping in mind all the details of an academic argument would certainly exceed that slight capacity*. When you over-load your audience, they get confused and cranky, and they will either tune you out or avenge themselves on the obvious source of their discomfort, namely you. 

Cosma Shalizi at Three-Toed Sloth

Friday, April 6, 2012

ultimi Australi

3) Related: No tipping. Yes, some people expect and offer tips in Australia, but that's the exception rather than the degrading-to-all-parties rule. I realize that there is no chance that we'll actually switch to a similar system with a much higher minimum wage (> $15/hour in Australia) and consequently higher service-sector prices, but no expectation of the ongoing bazaar-and-bribery ritual that is the tipping culture. That's too bad, because the no-tip system is better.

on Australia, HT MR, James Fallows at

die fetten Jahre sind vorbei

I had NO IDEA until I read it in the Times that writers had stopped keeping blogs!! Three or four years ago—that’s just when I started blogging! And now I’m one of the last ones left?? How did this happen?? When??

Elif Batuman on Twitter

felicific calculus smbc

stupid games

Tetris was invented exactly when and where you would expect — in a Soviet computer lab in 1984 — and its game play reflects this origin. The enemy in Tetris is not some identifiable villain (Donkey Kong, Mike Tyson, Carmen Sandiego) but a faceless, ceaseless, reasonless force that threatens constantly to overwhelm you, a churning production of blocks against which your only defense is a repetitive, meaningless sorting. It is bureaucracy in pure form, busywork with no aim or end, impossible to avoid or escape. And the game’s final insult is that it annihilates free will. Despite its obvious futility, somehow we can’t make ourselves stop rotating blocks. Tetris, like all the stupid games it spawned, forces us to choose to punish ourselves. 

Sam Anderson, NY Times magazine

[This is a terrific article.   The NYT has just dropped the number of free articles per month from 20 to 10; have hitherto gone off in a huff when my quota of free articles was used up, but if they are paying the likes of Mr Anderson they should maybe be getting my nickel.]

The piece is full of quotable quotes, here's one more--

“Having just built this, I’m seeing how much I hate the Internet,” Gage told me. “I mean, I really like the Internet and what it’s done for games — it’s been amazing. But in so many ways it’s just terrible. Arcade cabinets did a lot of things that were really smart that we never gave them credit for. There’s a lot of social psychology embedded in that structure.” The Xbox, he explained, offered only a few games designed to be played along with other people in the same room. “No one is designing games like that anymore,” he said. “It’s very terrible.” 

[it's 3.32]

Meg Wollitzer has a piece in the NYT about the rules of literary fiction for men and women.   I really don't pay enough attention to what's published to know whether she is generally on the right track, but I did think being a woman was a handicap in various ways when my first book was published. 

When my editor bought The Last Samurai he told me it was essentially a love affair between the mother and the little boy.  Well, I was strapped for cash, and it didn't seem to matter desperately if the editor misread the book in this way - but as it turned out this meant that neither he nor anyone on his staff took seriously the formal aspects of the text.  As I've said (this really is getting old, sorry), when there was a disagreement over punctuation I drew attention to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; my editor explained that "That was a very special book," and he said it in the presence of his production manager, who seems to have thought this gave her license to override the terms of my contract.  (It seems unlikely that Cormac McCarthy got this kind of response to The Road.) 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

bad science

You write – “First of all it is so good to hear you are doing well!”
As you have made no effort to find out the truth for yourself, and as I am the only source of information that is reliable, it is time you were apprised of the facts.
Perhaps, you may then even contemplate apologising.

The MRI scan taken in April 2003 was read accurately by the surgeon Cameron Platell, and the consulting GP.
It was read inaccurately by you.
The lymphs you informed me were simply overworked were already cancerous. The ovary you informed me was swollen due to another cyst was also cancerous. At this point, my uterus and second ovary were healthy and unaffected. I presume you remember - you examined the scans yourself.
I have had to have a total hysterectomy. You know this because I informed you during one of the conversations we had while I was in hospital, although your card makes no mention of it.
I am now going through early onset menopause.
I can never bear children.
You are responsible for this outcome.
Considering the fact that my original treatment with you was aimed at getting me a pregnancy, and taking into account your assurances that I would fall pregnant and have a healthy child after my cancer was cured, this is all the more grievous and shocking. 

Penelope Dingle's letters to Francine Scrayen at Australian Story, HT Ben Goldacre.

Coroner's report here.

losing streak

The Khan Academy has just got rid of its popular streak metric.  I woke up this morning in a somewhat ratty frame of mind and decided to soothe the savage breast by doing a few exercises on KA (which for a while now has had a feature that suggested exercises to review) - and discovered, with shock and dismay, that KA had completely changed the UI.  It is much more sensible in one respect - the user is prodded into working through a group of exercises on a single subject, rather than reviewing the mixed bag of exercises hauled up by the algorithm.  Unfortunately all this solid good sense is coupled with a new progress display consisting of stacks of leaves, which replaces the former streak bar (and the most recent streak bar was already a step in the wrong direction, replacing the ur-streak bar which told you how long a streak you had racked up). 

Now honestly.  If they were going to lavish this kind of ingenuity on the site, why not give us exercises on Laplace transforms?  Or, to be slightly less esoteric, why not have a bank of exercises on integration?  At present the site simply reinforces the bad mindset of the sort of person who does not use calculus on a daily basis - that is, the attitude that differentiation is the easy one and integration is to be approached with extreme caution, not to say trepidation.  (There are currently NO exercises in integration.)

A while back I read a piece by a British mathematician who commented that the sense for how best to tackle integration came with maturity - one developed one's intuition by doing a wide variety of problems over the years.  I was unfortunately introduced to integration at Smith, at a time when I was profoundly depressed, so I did not then lay down the foundation for this particular sort of mathematical maturity - but the comment filled me with hope.  I felt that if I did problems on a daily basis intuition would come.  And if such problems were readily available online, with instant feedback, I would probably be doing them on a daily basis.  Paltry it may be, but it would be good for me to rack up a streak of a thousand or so.  Well, it is salutary, no doubt, to be made to confront one's sloth: I expect there is a software package with a perfectly serviceable question bank, and sloth has led me down the path of least resistance.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


I was going through my papers and came across notes from Peafowl, their conservation, breeding and management by T P Gardiner of the World Pheasant Association.

The antics and activities of peafowl provoke more enquiries to the offices of the World Pheasant Association than all other species of pheasant put together. It was this simple fact that highlighted the gap in current literature on the galliformes and prompted me to feel that WPA publications should seek to fill it. Who better to do the job than than the person who has answered most of the questions on peafowl for the WPA during the past 10 years.

Those who keep peafowl, ad I do, will now that they can cause embarrassment -- ours  have. At our home in southern England they decided that the roof of a new 200 bedroom hotel next door made a more interesting perch than our numerous trees. In Scotland where we have them roaming in the highland glens and breeding prolifically, an adult male decided that the windowsill of an elderly lady neighbour's bathroom was an excellent roosting place -- the lady in question insisted that it embarrassed her and demanded its removal.

I'm not sure if Tom Gardiner, for all his knowledge of peafowl, would have had any solution for my problems with peafowl, but I am sure that readers will find within these pages the answers to many queries concerning peafowl both in the wild and in captivity.

Keith Howman [I think - handwriting deteriorating at this point]

[Mr Gardiner than takes up the baton . . .]

At the time of writing this preface, books about peafowl are still surprisingly few . . .

Another perennial problem with peafowl is that of birds leaving their owner's property and wandering onto adjoining or even distant properties. It is probably true to say that the World Pheasant Association headquarter receives more calls about this problem than any other peafowl related subject.
There was naturally more, but you get the picture.  If I remember correctly, Gardiner points to a major problem with the ownership of peafowl: since the male of the species is the beauty, owners tend to like a large number of peacocks.  Once one has established itself as the dominant male over such peahens as are on offer, however, the other peacocks leave in hopes of finding unclaimed females in the neighbouring countryside.  (Hence, presumably, the fondness for roaming Highland glens.)