Monday, August 27, 2012

that clinking clanking sound

Weird piece in NYT on private schools. Though expensive ($40,000 or so a year), they can't cover their costs by tuition -- donations must fill the gap.

The author of the piece claims that, if tuition doesn't cover costs, the gap must be covered by past and present donations; that this is both financially unviable and unethical.

Sorry, but I don't get it.  My understanding is that  David Swensen, who manages the endowment for Yale, is seen as a financial wizard - if donations give him serious money to play with, he turns this into super-serious, or even super-super-serious, money. He doesn't mainly spend his time wheedling more money out of alums; he spends it gaming the market.

So. Um. If you've got a private school that is allegedly the fast track to being a hot shot like Dave Swensen, over time you should have a crop of alums some of whom are hot shots like Dave Swensen. But, um, Yale only needs ONE such hot shot to multiply its endowment to the point where savvy investors are following Dave Swensen. So, um. If the school is REALLY the fast track it claims to be, it can deploy the brilliance of a single alum, no? Or, ahem. If the school is NOT the fast track it claims to be, it could just buy in outside talent. If its best plan is to bully parents into donating over and above tuition, this suggests a level of-- That is, the reasonable inference is, not only has no alum EVER achieved the gifts of Dave Swensen, but the people running the school are so stupid they're not smart enough to buy in an alum of some other school with Swensen-calibre alums.

Anyhoo. There's all this browbeating about the hideous costs, bla. Seriously?  A few years ago I tried to get some kind of teaching job at Northfield Mt Hermon, which I attended in 12th grade. I was very strapped for cash; I just needed accommodation and a little money for expenses. My contact sounded people out. If I had really PUSHED for a job maybe I could have wangled something, but I was very tired, in no position to push. So it fell apart.  A reader who had been to Phillips Exeter Academy, gone on to Harvard, had corresponded with me for years; I put out feelers for a possible job; no interest. So, OK, fine. I have a doctorate in classics from Oxford; I'm what I'm told is a critically acclaimed novelist; and I am very, very cheap because I am very strapped for cash.  Is there any sign that the schools facing this alleged gap between tuition and costs are open to overqualified cash-strapped staff? Ääääääääähm.....

take that!

The site is simple to use, just sign in with Twitter via Oauth and then your off. Once logged in you can do the following tasks. You can manually check who has unfollowed you every 15 minutes, call out your unfollowers for unfollowing you, view people you are following that are not following you back and view a 7 day unfollower history.

Once you have checked who is not following you back on Twitter, you can then unfollow them, if you want to, or even post a tweet saying that tweeter isn’t following you any more.

(Details of this invaluable resource here.)

[This strikes me as very, very strange. I think Evan Soltas is very clever, for instance, so if he bothers to post on Twitter I would like to know, but I can't for the life of me see why he would want to follow me. If he were to do so on impulse he would soon discover his mistake. The idea that it would be rude of Mr Soltas not to follow me back, or that I might call out the hapless Mr Soltas for unfollowing me, seems completely ludicrous. Still, it's cheering to see that there is a whole miserable way of life out there that I have effortlessly avoided.]

[PS - Oh, er, yes, it is possible to follow me on Twitter. I am clearly not taking this seriously enough; otherwise I would presumably have been chivvying readers of pp into following me. (But, um, why?) Anyone who wants more ways to fritter away their time, though, would do better to follow Anatol Stefanowitsch (@astefanowitsch), who has a real genius for the medium.]

taking responsibilities seriously

I'm reading Gordon Leff's Heresy in the Later Middle Ages.  The phenomena described are terrifyingly familiar - the malaise which affects so many academics, so many writers, seems to arise from very similar developments. It is as if one were a Franciscan, drawn to a life of poverty and prayer, and put suddenly in charge of the inquisition...

In 1227 cardinal Ugolino, protector of the Franciscan order, became pope Gregory IX and within five years he had entrusted the Dominicans and Franciscans with the working of the papal inquisition. These responsibilities, and sheer numbers, transformed the mendicants from wandering bands of preachers into highly organized orders extending over Christendom: mendicant poverty gave way to property and buildings, libraries, study, and the paraphernalia of government. It was their revulsion at the change which led the Franciscan Spirituals to demand a return to the simple apostolic precepts of their founder; but, as we shall see, in vain.  To have done so would have been to dismantle what had become an indispensable part of the church. Here we come upon one of the constant factors in the tension between the demands of Christian first principles and institutional responsibility. It was not that the Franciscans and Dominicans, any more than the church as a whole, became morally degenerate in abandoning their early rigours. They had taken on a new role. They had now to fulfil an office and no longer merely to observe their own practice. The majority continued to preach and when necessary to beg; but they did so by the second half of the thirteenth century as some activities among many rather than as a way of life. (16)

It was the gradual constitution of the two mendicant orders into regular full-time inquisitors which marked the full-fledged emergence of the papal inquisition. (!!!!!) (43)
Judaism has the institution of the bar or bat mitzvah, which marks the passage to adulthood, often accompanied by a party and lots of presents. If some such ritual were the norm for all children around the age of 13, I would want every person leaving childhood to be given a copy of Leff, a copy of Patterson's Slavery and Social Death, and a copy of Goffman's Asylums. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

always the last to know

Reading an interview of Christopher Tolkien which appeared in le Monde last month.

French readers, it seems, meet Bilbo and Frodo Baggins only if they read the original texts. If they read in translation, they get Frodon Sacquet, Bilbon Sacquet.  The French title of The Hobbit, though, is apparently Bilbo le Hobbit, so I'm confused.

(There is an English translation of the interview here.)

either either

"You've no idea how much email I get telling me how wrong every single thing in the book is. There are a lot of very specific things that Americans don't say and English people don't realise … Also New York has enough writers, and I don't think I need to add to them," she said.

Zadie Smith says she will never write another book set in the US, because she got so many complaints about On Beauty.  Well, I can see it would be annoying if peevish emails kept turning up in one's inbox. We can only hope Lee Child does not follow her example.

Sometimes, of course, one is bad. One knows one is in the wrong and goes on regardless.  Someone pointed out to me some time ago that "in no very good mood" is not American usage. I kept trying to think of a replacement that I liked and couldn't.  Finally I thought, Well, it may not be American usage now, but who's to say? Maybe Americans will see it and like it and start using it, and then this instance in my book will simply be the first attested case in American English.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Every oral-sex seminar, “every masturbation how-to session, every tip I heard on how to stimulate the anus — each of these seemed to be mocking the greatest achievement of my life up to that point, which was that somehow I, a home-school dropout with a G.E.D., had clawed and scratched and fought my way into Yale,” he writes. “Yale had been like some kind of drug. It was a blast, and then I came down with a crash.”

review of Sex and God at Yale, Nathan Harden, by Hanna Rosin, the rest  here

over there

Part of a series begun in World War II for American GIs going abroad, A Pocket Guide to Vietnam was intended to introduce them to the customs, and, rather lightly, the dangers of the place where they were headed. First issued in 1962, it was revised in 1966 and has now been republished by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, with an introduction by Bruns Grayson, a veteran who arrived in Vietnam in 1968 and was given the booklet. Grayson describes the average soldier handed the Pocket Guide as “about twenty years old, not well-educated, not wily enough to avoid the draft in most cases, very often on his first trip away from the United States. I don’t know what the Vietnamese equivalent of ‘overpaid, oversexed, and over here’ was…such a phrase would have described almost all of us.”
But the young, uneducated soldiers described by Grayson also had to be told why they were going to Vietnam, from which, after all, they might not return. “It is interesting,” Grayson writes, “that the booklet accurately and briefly describes the history of the Vietnamese resisting outsiders—the Chinese and others—while assuming that we could never be cast in this light.” 

Jonathan Mirsky at NYRB blog, the rest here

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dr. Mutti

Was checking in on Twitter with the usual shame and self-loathing, when what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a retweet from Anatol Stefanowitsch! Linking to a terrific new blog, Dr. Mutti (Wer die Kinder hat, hat die Zukunft), run by Juliana Goschler of the University of Hamburg.

I gather there has been furore in the ether on the subject of sexy teenie girlies, now known as Pornoelfen, as the prize in one in every 7 Überraschungseier (surprise eggs) from Ferrero.  And I missed the whole thing! Which is good, because it suggests I have not been frittering away my whole life online after all. At any rate, Dr. Mutti has a series of excellent posts, with discussion of research on, e.g., the high proportion of women who described themselves as having been tomboys, rejecting what they perceived as gender stereotypes, as children. Like Stefanowitsch, Goeschler does not suffer fools gladly - it is a lucky thing that the blog only dates back to June 2012, at least for those who are trying to cut down the time they spend online.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The stalker came again and rang the bell at the house door for a long time. I sat silently at my desk in case someone let him in and he came to the apartment door.  Someone asked him what he wanted from a window; I heard him explaining; they didn't buzz him in.  He went back to ringing the doorbell. After a while he stopped. I assume he has gone away. I do need to leave Berlin.

It seems to me that life would be impossible if one went around anxiously wondering whether it was safe to let people know where one lived, but this is pretty tiring.

best text

I got an email from David yesterday.  He has been having a book copyedited, and had had to explain the meaning of "best text":

I mean by “best text” the same thing as classical scholars have meant by it for the last 200 years or more. The “best text” is the one which (in my opinion) is likely to represent most accurately what the author originally wrote, ideally making the basis for editorial judgement clear via an apparatus criticus which succinctly reports significant manuscript variants and proposed emendations.
Ah me, ah me. 

[Have just written and deleted lengthy discussion of You Know What.]

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


When I first started blogging I was young(er) and naive.  I linked blithely away, confident that whatever I linked to would always be there.  I now know that other bloggers selfishly take their blogs private.  Voltaire's Monkey. Night Hauling. (Yes, YOU, Mithridates, I'm talking to YOU.) The Big Side Order.

From time to time I think of Gary James' great post on the Action Man dollhouse. It would cheer me up to click back to the post, but TBSO has gone private. No links today, because everyone I might link to has gone private. Bastards. BASTARDS.

(The Wayback Machine apparently only crawled TBSO once, back in 2006, before the great Action Man dollhouse post. BASTARDS.)

monkey biz

A while back I read a post by Sarah Manguso on the FSG blog: How to Have a Career: Advice to Young Writers.  There were points that could have been made which it seemed best not to make...

Today I came across this clip from a TED talk by Fans de Wall, Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay. HT MR, HT Greg Mankiw.

This does not really encapsulate the challenges that face you as a writer.  The problem is not that you get a cucumber while the other monkey gets a grape for the same work.  You write a book from scratch of 80,000+ words; you'll be lucky to get a cucumber.  Your agent/lawyer/accountant/other, meanwhile, is OUTRAGED if the book can't be crammed into a boilerplate - and lives on a lovely steady diet of grapes. If you are one of the lucky sods who got a cucumber, they will also be OUTRAGED if you fling that cucumber away and shake the walls of your cage.

Monday, August 20, 2012

possible worlds

In learning languages, at first everything is repulsive and burdensome. If one were not encouraged by the hope that, after having accustomed his ear to the unusual sounds and having mastered the strange pronunciation, most delightful ways would be opened up to him, it is doubtful that one would want to enter upon so arduous a path. But when these obstacles are surmounted, how generous is the reward for perseverance in overcoming hardships! New aspects of nature, and a new chain of ideas then present themselves. By acquiring a foreign language we become citizens of the region where it is spoken, we converse with those who lived many thousand years ago, we adopt their ideas; and we unite and co-ordinate the inventions and the thought of all peoples and all times.

Radishchev, quoted by Language Hat

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Nomination Whist

Was rereading David Parlett's History of Card Games today.

I've come across critics who say morosely that, while people often SAY a book was laugh-out-loud funny, very few people literally laugh out loud reading a book, and they themselves never do.  Possibly because they have never read Parlett's History of Card Games?  I sat at a café reading Parlett's account of the history of whist and kept shouting with laughter - the people at the next table kept looking around and laughing sympathetically.  OUP has apparently allowed the book to go out of print (what were you THINKING, OUP, what were you THINKING?) but no doubt secondhand copies are floating around online.

Nomination Whist, anyway, was not one of the funny bits, just a game that sounded terribly attractive:

In Nomination Whist -- much played in the Royal Navy, according to my correspondent Rodney Jones -- whoever bids the highest number of tricks announces trumps and names a card, the holder of which becomes his partner in the contract but may not reveal himself except by means of play. The bidder may alternatively play a secret solo by naming a card held in his own hand.

[italics mine. It's enough to make one want to join the Royal Navy.]

Friday, August 17, 2012

baby it's cold inside


Behavior of young children in a situation simulating entrapment in refrigerators was studied in order to develop standards for inside releasing devices, in accordance with Public Law 930 of the 84th Congress.
Using a specially designed enclosure, 201 children 2 to 5 years of age took part in tests in which six devices were used, including two developed in the course of this experiment as the result of observation of behavior.
Success in escaping was dependent on the device, a child's age and size and his behavior. It was also influenced by the educational level of the parents, a higher rate of success being associated with fewer years of education attained by mother and father combined. Three major types of behavior were observed: (1) inaction, with no effort or only slight effort to get out (24%); (2) purposeful effort to escape (39%); (3) violent action both directed toward escape and undirected (37%). 

ht @felixsalmon, more here

why a lion and emus?

I wrote to [his American publishers] expressing (with moderation) my dislike of the cover for The Hobbit. It was a short hasty note by hand, without a copy, but it was to this effect: I think the cover ugly; but I recognize that a main object of a paperback cover is to attract purchasers, and I suppose that you are better judges of what is attractive in USA than I am. I therefore will not enter into a debate about taste -- (meaning though I did not say so: horrible colours and foul lettering) -- but I must ask this about the vignette: what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs? I do not understand how anybody who had read the tale (I hope you are one) could think such a picture would please the author. ...

the rest here

a skilful negligence

After the failures of the Pamela sequels, Richardson began to compose a new novel.[1]:73 It was not until early 1744 that the content of the plot was known, and this happened when he sent Aaron Hill two chapters to read.[1]:73 In particular, Richardson asked Hill if he could help shorten the chapters because Richardson was worried about the length of the novel.[1]:73 Hill refused, saying,
You have formed a style, as much your property as our respect for what you write is, where verbosity becomes a virtue; because, in pictures which you draw with such a skilful negligence, redundance but conveys resemblance; and to contract the strokes, would be to spoil the likeness.[1]:73–4
In July, Richardson sent Hill a complete "design" of the story, and asked Hill to try again, but Hill responded, "It is impossible, after the wonders you have shown in Pamela, to question your infallible success in this new, natural, attempt" and that "you must give me leave to be astonished, when you tell me that you have finished it already".[1]:74 However, the novel wasn't complete to Richardson's satisfaction until October 1746.[1]:74 Between 1744 and 1746, Richardson tried to find readers who could help him shorten the work, but his readers wanted to keep the work in its entirety.

From our friends at Wikipedia.  (Depending on your point of view, you may feel that Richardson was born too soon, or David Foster Wallace too late. I know very little of Michael Pietsch, but I feel he would be unlikely to tell an author that 'you have formed a style, as much your property as our respect for what you write is, where verbosity becomes a virtue.')

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Scott goes home.  He gets a thing of bacon out of the fridge.  Fries four or five slices.  Butters two slices of Wonder Bread, places two slices of Kraft's American Processed Cheese between, adds the bacon, inserts the result in the sandwich toaster deal.  (It sounds crazy, probably, but he did in fact stock up on Kraft's American Processed Cheese, buying 100 72-slice packs @ $9.95 for a total of $995.00 (at 2 slices per day, a 10-year supply).  Toasted cheese sandwiches are Ralph's favorite food.)  Ralph is nuzzling his legs all this time, purring like a steam engine.
Um, okay, no, not purring like, obviously, producing a sound that is more reminiscent of steam engine FX than your typical purr.
Cruel to be kind, Scotty forces the cat to wait till the sandwich has cooled; no way should a cat eat a piping hot toasted cheese sandwich with the liquid cheese close to boiling.  Ralph meows pitifully. 

Electric Literature has posted one of my stories, "Recovery," here.

(Er, as so often, this is in fact part of a longer work, a 61,000-word draft of which sits on my hard drive.  Bah.)

Monday, August 13, 2012

MS Wha-

He had good reason to fret. Signs that Microsoft would be missing the boat in the next decade were already emerging. That very moment at Microsoft’s headquarters, in Redmond, Washington, a group of executives were developing a device that, in 10 years’ time, would transform a multi-billion-dollar industry: an electronic reader that allowed customers to download digital versions of any written material—books, magazines, newspapers, whatever. But, despite its multi-year head start, Microsoft would not be the one to introduce the game-changing innovation to the market. Instead, the big profits would eventually go to Amazon and Apple.

The spark of inspiration for the device had come from a 1979 work of science fiction, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. The novel put forth the idea that a single book could hold all knowledge in the galaxy. An e-book, the Microsoft developers believed, would bring Adams’s vision to life. By 1998 a prototype of the revolutionary tool was ready to go. Thrilled with its success and anticipating accolades, the technology group sent the device to Bill Gates—who promptly gave it a thumbs-down. The e-book wasn’t right for Microsoft, he declared.

“He didn’t like the user interface, because it didn’t look like Windows,” one programmer involved in the project recalled. But Windows would have been completely wrong for an e-book, team members agreed. The point was to have a book, and a book alone, appear on the full screen. Real books didn’t have images from Microsoft Windows floating around; putting them into an electronic version would do nothing but undermine the consumer experience.

The death of the e-book effort was not simply the consequence of a desire for immediate profits, according to a former official in the Office division. The real problem for his colleagues was that a simple touch-screen device was seen as a laughable distraction from the tried-and-true ways of dealing with data. “Office is designed to inputting with a keyboard, not a stylus or a finger,” the official said. “There were all kinds of personal prejudices at work.”

Kurt Eichenwald on Microsoft's Lost Decade

Thursday, August 2, 2012

ich wünschte ich wüßte...

Cathy and Cosma both feel that knowing specific programming languages is not essential. To quote Cathy, "you shouldn’t obsess over something small like whether they already know SQL." To put it politely, I reject this statement. To apply to a data science job without learning the five key SQL statements is a fool's errand. Simply put, I'd never hire such a person. To come to an interview and draw a blank trying to explain "left join" is a sign of (a) not smart enough or (b) not wanting the job enough or (c) not having recently done any data processing, or some combination of the above. If the job candidate is a fresh college grad, I'd be sympathetic. If he/she has been in the industry, you won't be called back. (One not-disclosed detail in the Cosma-Cathy dialogue is what level of hire they are talking about.)

Why do I insist that all (experienced) hires demonstrate a minimum competence in programming skills? It's not because I think smart people can't pick up SQL. The data science job is so much more than coding -- you need to learn the data structure, what the data mean, the business, the people, the processes, the systems, etc. You really don't want to spend your first few months sitting at your desk learning new programming languages.
Both Cathy and Cosma also agree that basic statistical concepts are easily taught or acquired. Many studies have disproven this point, starting with the Kahneman-Tversky work. ..

Terrific post by Kaiser Fung (of Junk Charts and Numbers Rule Your World) - not least for thrill of discovery that Cosma Shalizi is, er, aggressively discussing...