Sunday, December 30, 2007

Friday, December 28, 2007

Benazir Bhutto

Went out to the newsagent this morning after another bad day of flu, saw the news about Bhutto. Tariq Ali has a piece about her in the Guardian. In the early days they would discuss the future of Pakistan, what she might be able to do; she saw herself as on the side of the poor. Later he argued with her about some of her decisions; she would say she did not want to be on the 'wrong side' of history.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

CDO to Pleasure

Interesting essay by John Lanchester in the LRB on the recent Northern Rock debacle and the largely unchallenged role of the City in the UK; if you've never really understood how derivatives work or why they matter, or what a Collateralised Debt Obligation actually is, this is a good overview. Lanchester is one of the most intelligent critics writing in English today (as well as author of the viciously clever Debt to Pleasure); his earlier pieces for the LRB are also available on their website for those new to his work.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Got this in an e-mail from a friend just before I went to America. He'd been to a concert performed by Thomas Ades, which included pieces by a composer he (and I) didn't know:

Conlon Nancarrow, an American composer who was born in 1912,
lived mainly in Mexico, and who died in 1997. Apparently he mostly wrote
for player piano, since he felt that no human performers could produce the
sorts of complex sounds at high speeds that he was interested in. But then
in old age he started writing for pianists again, and this piece - called
Three Canons for Ursula - was one of its fruits. It is what it claims to be
- three canons. But the canons are all expressions of mathematical
relationships: one is called Canon 5/7, the second Canon 6/9/10/15, and the
third Canon 2/3. With each the principle is the same: he starts a melody
(generally a very expressive and tonally intricate one) in the left hand,
and then joins it with the same melody in the right hand played at a faster
speed (in the ratio 5:7 or 2:3, for example), and they then catch up with
one another. The second movement has the left hand playing two melodies in
canon in the ratio 2:3, then joined by the right hand playing the same two
melodies in the ratio 2:3, but with the relationship between the left hand
and the right in the ratio 3:5. Oh, and the melodies in the different hands
are sometimes in different keys.

FWIW, 'Listen to at least one composition by Conlon Nancarrow' strikes me as both a more interesting New Year's Resolution than the normal vows to exercise more, drink and smoke less, and (ahem) spend no more than two hours a day online - and one with better chances of success. So that's mine.

Monday, December 24, 2007

amj tomorrow, amj yesterday but never amj today?

In bed with bad cold. 11am the doorbell rings. Ich komme, ich komme, I cry, rolling out of bed, pulling on trousers, ich komme (which may not be what a native speaker would say in the circs, just a handy phrase I picked up from Johann Sebastian). I open the door, it's the Postlieferin with two packages. One is a Portugese dictionary because I wanted to say something about Bernardo Moraes' Minimundo last week and kept getting stranded at key points in the text. The other is Adam Mars-Jones' Blind Bitter Happiness, a collection of the incomparable AMJ's essays which I discovered online the other day.

Sample (from a memoir of his mother, an anecdote about his grandmother):

Their mother had been all but bald, at least until the day of her Transformation. One day Father had said, Your mother has had a Transformation, and when Mam had come downstairs, radiantly smiling, the top of her head had a quite different aspect. No one in Llansannan used the word wig. Perhaps no one even thought it. It was always: 'Your mam's Transformation is so smart', 'Doesn't your mam look magnificent in her Transformation?' The sudden change in Mrs Jones's appearance was received in that Chapel community like a biblical miracle. It was not to be questioned. Lazarus was dead and just now came stumbling from the tomb. Mrs Jones was all but bald and has a fine head of hair.

Also an interview, sort of, of Mick Jagger at which Ian Botham turned up:

The phone rings. It's someone called Ian, not from Hollywood. Jagger talks to him. 'Yeah...yeah. Come on over. Yeah. See ya.' He rings off.
'My God,' says Charlie. 'I.T. Botham. I.T. fucking Botham. He's like W.G. Grace, you know, fucking W.G. Grace. I've never met thim.' Awe-struck.
'I have,' says Mick. 'Twice, three times.'


Charlie reminisces about his love of cricket and music. Since the age of eight. Hutton. Bradman. Well, not Bradman in the flesh. 'I.T., it's the same as Coe and Ovett. Thirty thousand people'd come and see you any day of the week. But you belong to a club, to a club of old colonels, and what do you get out of it?'
Botham doesn't mind this line of argument. 'Appearance money, that's about it.'
'That's how it was for us when we started. It was 10-90. A dollar for you, a few cents for us. Then we got a dollar each. And now it's 90-10. We hire a stadium -- say, we hire Wembley for 15 per cent of the gate. Nobody hires us.'
'I know. So what do we do about it?'
'There msut be something. Because fuck it, you're like W.G. Grace. You're one of the greats, I.T.'
'Right,' says Mick.
Charlie turns to Vic again. 'You and me, Vic, we're close. Can we be alone?'
Vic laughs.
Botham takes a deep breath. 'Well, there's one thing you can do, and that's play a gig for me in my benefit year, that's 1984. Say I put up the expenses,, and we share the profits.'
'Where?' says Charlie, sarcastic. 'Taunton?'
'Glastonbury, more like,' says Botham. 'Do it proper. Make it a good show.'
'I dunno,' says Jagger. 'I dunno about that.' The atmosphere isn't what it was. 'I dunno about that, even in terms of the business.'
What can he mean? Surely he can't mean Keith and me aren't what you could call chums and he thinks cricket's a joke, so why would he play guitar for you? Would I do a benefit for a retiring distiller?

[From Tatler 1982. It's more moving now, a quarter of a century later: the Stones can still fill a stadium. One of the great cricketers of the 20th century is unlikely to command much in appearance money today.]

The book has pieces on cinematic representations of disability, many pieces on gay rights and writing, including a savage analysis of Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal. In one respect it has dated in a way that's encouraging: Mars-Jones thinks the battle for same-sex marriage rights takes on so entrenched a position as to be a lost cause, also that it is some kind of betrayal of the alternative forms of relationship that gays have developed outside the framework of institutionalised monogamy. Neither position looks as plausible as they must have done 20 years ago. The suggestion that gay couples should go after the benefits offered by formal adoption just looks like the clumsy workaround that it is.

It's perfectly true that in the United States the prospect of same-sex marriage has aroused such horror that its elimination has trumped states' rights - a significant number of legislators have been willing to override the constitution to ensure that every marriage should boast at least one and at most one Y chromosome. Throwing the constitution overboard has found a significant fanbase in one other realm - fighting terrorism - though here it has actually been less of a crowdpleaser. The overwhelming response of gay couples to the windows of opportunity that opened, however, made it only too obvious that separate but equal translated into secondclass citizenship; the crackdown has at any rate encouraged more principled nations to examine their principles.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


It's the time of year when one tries to deal with unfinished business. Do nasty little jobs one has been putting off. Starting with a clean slate looks so good.

One thing I have been putting off is updating the website. Just before I went to Morocco I tried to post an ad which Mellel had taken out in n+1; Dreamweaver claimed that I had no home page specified but it was not clear what it wanted in the way of a home page so I sent Johanna a 5am e-mail asking if she could upload the attached image instead. She was able to do this, but the page did not make clear that the book had not been published, simply excerpted in n+1, so I got lots of e-mails from people keen to buy the book. So here was this bit of unfinished business, cleaning up the website so that the homepage made it clear &c &c.

I kept putting this off. Today I told myself not to be an idiot. Don't be a coward. Just do it. Do it. COME on.

So I opened Dreamweaver and opened the relevant page. Placing and formatting the bit of text which was to link to n+1 was actually MORE fiddly than my worst fears, which is saying something, but after about 4 hours of trying things out, checking them in the browers and trying again there was something that looked good on all browsers. Good. So I copied the updated page to the server, and on typing in got a page which had a menu and the instruction: n+1. Submit Query. No picture. Bad news.

I tinkered with the page but got nowhere. Best just to leave it, perhaps? I clicked on a menu item and got a 404 message, Page Not Found. So now the whole website was down. Johanna is once again having a look at its directories. Update, Johanna has restored it to its former state. And we will meet and clean up directories. Poor tired head. Try to be sane.

sadly for simple piety

Various prominent members of German churches are extremely annoyed. German shopping hours have gradually been relaxed over the years (it was once the case that shops were open 9-6 Monday-Friday, 9-1 on Saturday). Sunday trading was the sticking point. More recently, though, the decision was made to leave this up to the individual Länder. Berlin has been especially aggressive in taking advantage of this, passing a law permitting shops to remain open 17 Sundays a year. Needless to say a large number of merchants have picked the Sundays in the run-up to Christmas as the most profitable. One churchman complained: When it comes to staying open on Sunday during ADVENT it's simply the last straw.

Meanwhile I've been reading the manuscript of THE SKEPTICAL SYNAGOGUE-GOER'S GUIDE TO JEWISH HISTORY, by David Levene of the NYU Classics Department. It is a book offering ammunition for the sort of person who goes to synagogue, sits through a sermon in growing indignation at the ludicrous stories passed off as historical fact, thinks "This is absolute bollocks" and wants to share this point of view with the rabbi later over a thimbleful of kosher wine - but doesn't have the evidence to back him (or, of course, her) to back it up. While aimed primarily at a Jewish audience, the book is obviously of interest to anyone who has ever wondered vaguely, as it might be, Did the Assyrian really come down like a wolf on the fold?

The book sets out the accounts of various supposedly historical events as presented in the Tanach and Midrash, then looks at these in the light of historical evidence and considers the question of how far the evidence bears out the traditional version. In some cases, the answer is, not terribly far. The reasoning by which the Seder Olam Rabbah concluded that there were only four Persian kings, and that the Persian Empire lasted 52 years (as opposed to the span of 539-331 BCE favoured by most historians) has a charm all its own. In other cases the traditional version holds up surprisingly well.

To come clean, I tend to steer clear of the type of place where people bundle up moral arguments and historical fabrications. I converted to Judaism in 1987, but I seldom go to a service. Before conversion I was an Episcopalian who avoided services with the same assiduity.
Nothing I have seen of Islam makes me think it would have more to offer than the competition. It's still a pleasure to have the evidence in one place for anecdotes dimly remembered from religious texts; it's a pleasure to see how the chronology of Persian kings can be worked out from Babylonian astronomical calendars showing lunar eclipses, confirmed by legal documents of the time and other sources. Books aimed at a general audience tend to skimp on quotations and references, so that the interested reader has no way of following up something that sounds interesting; it's a pleasure to read one that's an exception to the rule.

DSL is currently looking for a publisher for the book (it is under consideration by an editor as I write); I trust he will find one soon.

Friday, December 21, 2007


I was going to write a post on the Accents series I bought in Oxford, but it needed a lot of space to do it justice; as so often, the thought of moving to another blog host looked good, as did putting Movable Type on my webserver, much tinkering, all boring and a stupid use of time. Meanwhile I came across a podcast in the Guardian of John Mullan and audience throwing questions at Philip Pullman. I think if anyone wanted to study English accents they would do well to start with something like this podcast, which gives one a variety of accents to compare - but as boring technical problems remain unresolved I leave this large topic for later. Meanwhile, a sample of this interesting interview:

Q (Very Young Reader): Why did you choose to put the religious plot in The Amber Spyglass?

A (Pullman): Well it was there from the beginning actually because it was always the power

I mean the power that has dominion in that world is a religious power and I wanted that to be there because um that's the most dangerous sort of power it seems to me

A power that rules in the in the in the name of something that may not be questioned

Religion um -- and this is something I've said a good few times -- religion is something that is very good when it is far away from power, when it concerns itself with the poor, with the suffering, with the oppressed, with injustice, with that sort of thing, with the sick, religion does good things.

When you give it political power, when you give it the power to send armies into war or to order people to be executed or to to reach into our lives and tell us what to to eat and drink, what to wear and so on, when it has that sort of power, the power of punishing people basically, it goes bad very very quickly

and I wanted to I wanted to see what it would be like to imagine a world in which religious power had that sort of authority. That's why I put it in.

Q (Older Reader): I was just wondering about whether you, the characters in the book are predestined at all, with the daemons for example, servants all have dogs as daemons, and I wondered whether the daemons are a sort of view of the predestination of these characters or whether the daemons are dogs because they have become servants

A (Pullman): That's a question that other people have wondered about so perhaps I didn't put it very well in the book

It's not a it's not a it's not a limiting thing, it's not a determining thing.
If your daemon is a dog it means that you're happy in the sort of in the sort of structure where you know who has the authority, where you know who's the boss,
dogs like to know who's in charge,

and if you have a group of dogs, a pack of dogs, there's a top dog and there's a bottom dog and there's a, they all know their place in the order, they like that, it keeps them happy, they know where they are.

And it seemed to me that if your daemon was a dog it would tell you that you'd be happy working in a sort of structure where there was someone in charge and you were happy to obey orders and carry them out. It doesn't say anything about your character apart from that, it doesn't say whether you're good or bad or strong or weak or clever or silly it just says that's the sort of person you are and you'd be happy in that sort of structure.

So it would probably turn out as I said in the story that if your daemon is a dog you'd be quite happy being a servant and there are some people who I've no doubt would be happy carrying out orders and making sure things are all right for the person in charge and so on.

That's why but it doesn't say anything more about you than that.

Q (Young Reader): I was quite intrigued about the concept of dust and how it's like so complex and you use it to portray so many things like puberty and the universe and everything really

(John Mullan): It's one of those all-purpose symbols

A (Pullman): It means -- well, now here I'm wondering whether I should interpret my own work and tell you what it means

I'm kind of reluctant to tell you what things mean because as I'm the chap who wrote it that gives me a sort of authority in this field

but I'm not sure that I do have that sort of authority because

If you think, if you've got a theory of dust and you've worked it out you have every right to do that.

When the book, when the book is finished and published the autocracy of writing, which is an autocratic procedure, I'm a despot, I'm a tyrant when I write because I have absolute power of life and death over every sentence, every comma, every, every character, I can kill them, I can bring them to life, I can cut off the end of this chapter and start somewhere else, I'm the authority and no one can tell me not to do it.

Once the book is published the autocracy of authorship comes to an end and the democracy of reading begins, and that's the point when I cease to have any authority.

I can't tell you what it means.
I can tell you what I think it means -- and so can anybody else.
But if I tell you what I think it means that'll, because I wrote the book people might think that that is what it really means,
and there's no more argument about it,
but I don't want that to to happen, I want there to be discussion about it,
I want you to think about all the things it might mean --
You've come up with a good few things there
If I if I

But you have asked me a question and it's unfair to evade it so I'll just say the word 'consciousness'. And leave it at that.


If Pullman has always had undisputed control of the text that appeared in the published books he is a very lucky man. Especially the commas.

On the subject of intentionalism, it's interesting to look at PP's answer to the last question in light of his comments on daemons as dogs. The dog-daemon reply struck me as a flagrant piece of question-begging -- after all, an animal with strongly hierarchical instincts might just as well want to be top dog, the one giving the orders. (Cf. Robert Altemeyer's work on the authoritarian personality, most recently in The Authoritarians.) So it would be reasonable to find such daemons accompanying persons in all sorts of positions - for example, in all ranks of the military, or a hierarchical Church. The sort of person who wants to know his/her place in a system needs other people above, below and on the same level forming that sort of system. We may note, for example, that someone like Pullman would not satisfy anyone with that sort of personality: he would be reluctant to exercise authority over someone who wanted orders to follow, but equally reluctant, as far as one can see, to accept a position requiring obedience. What he likes is to exercise authority over a text, a non-human object, and to abjure authority over what other humans do with the object once it exists.

Pullman thinks a disposition to obedience says nothing about your moral virtues or vices. Sadly, Bob Altmeyer has yet to write a series of bestselling children's books culminating in a movie starring Nicole Kidman. Altmeyer:

Don’t think for a minute this doesn’t concern you personally. Let me ask you, as we’re passing the time here, how many ordinary people do you think an evil authority would have to order to kill you before he found someone who would, unjustly, out of sheer obedience, just because the authority said to? What sort of person is most likely to follow such an order? What kind of official is most likely to give that order, if it suited his purposes? Look at what experiments tell us, as I did.

If that isn't a moral issue it'll have to do, until the real thing comes along. Links for the lazy repeated: Pullman, Altmeyer.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

the other side of the fence

Somewhat overwhelmed by end-of-year getting into position. Came across a rabblerousing analysis of the music industry by David Byrne (Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists -- and Megastars) on Wired, courtesy of 3quarksdaily:

What is music?

First, a definition of terms. What is it we're talking about here? What exactly is being bought and sold? In the past, music was something you heard and experienced — it was as much a social event as a purely musical one. Before recording technology existed, you could not separate music from its social context. Epic songs and ballads, troubadours, courtly entertainments, church music, shamanic chants, pub sing-alongs, ceremonial music, military music, dance music — it was pretty much all tied to specific social functions. It was communal and often utilitarian. You couldn't take it home, copy it, sell it as a commodity (except as sheet music, but that's not music), or even hear it again. Music was an experience, intimately married to your life. You could pay to hear music, but after you did, it was over, gone — a memory.

Technology changed all that in the 20th century. Music — or its recorded artifact, at least — became a product, a thing that could be bought, sold, traded, and replayed endlessly in any context. This upended the economics of music...

The rest here.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Came across a review article on things by Jessica Helfand of Design Observer, taking in Perec, Dr Seuss, Buy Nothing Day, the Addams Family, Sherry Turkle's Evocative Objects, and other, ahem, things too numerous for a half-awake blogger to mention. Just in time for the Christmas season.

In George Perec's first novel Things, published in 1965, the protagonists are a pair of disillusioned dropouts who are quickly revived when they join the (then-newly minted) field of market research — a choice that ultimately traps them in a kind of closed loop of consumer greed. It's easy to perceive this story as a fictional depiction of bourgeois culture (the characters become puppets in a modern retelling of an ancient parable, proving that no good ever comes of wanting too much) when, in point of fact, Perec's narrative is stunningly, even disturbingly accurate as a modern-day portrayal of capitalist greed.

The rest here.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Greening of books again

I recently thought I'd try out an online bookswapping site, Bookmooch. You sign up; you list some books you'd like to get rid of, for each of which you get 1/10th of a point; if someone asks for one and you send it you get 1 or 3 points, depending on whether they're in your country or another; if you mooch a book you pay 1 or 2 points, depending on whether it's a national or international mooch.

Bookmooch has been fretting over the free rider problem: some people sign up, mooch lots of books and are never heard of again. Quite why this came as a surprise is anybody's guess. On listing my books and getting requests for them, I found that the postage was on my nickel - in other words, having paid for the books once, I must then pay again to give them away. It's true that if I sent them internationally I get 3 points - in other words, I can get 3 books locally for every book I give away - but the last thing I want is to end up with three times as many books as I started with. I'm trying to FREE UP shelfspace.

In other words, other things being equal I would happily be adding more books to the system than I took out of it. On my last trip to London I hauled a whole suitcaseful of books to the Idea Store formally known as the local library. I don't really want to replace them with competitors for restricted shelfspace; at the risk of stating the obvious, releasing them into the Bookmooch pool, when postage for 50+ books had to be paid by me, was not in the realm of the possible. So Bookmooch, bless it, is selecting for free riders and selecting against altruists because they're not altruistic enough. In rewarding people for sending books internationally it's also doing its bit to promote global warming.

Having said all that, it would be possible to use the system to encourage local exchange of books. It's possible to browse books by location - in the US not just by city but even by ZIP code, in the UK by city, in France by department, in Rest of World by country. It would be perfectly possible to encourage people locally to sign up, and to make a point in 2008 of looking first for the books one wanted locally. It wouldn't help authors pay the rent, no, but it would help to reduce one's carbon footprint. From that point of view it's A Good Thing.

Friday, December 14, 2007

money shots then and now

Infinite Thought posts her recent paper on the history of cinematic pornography, of which this is an excerpt:

Despite the overwhelming ‘choice’ of contemporary pornography, certain aspects present in earlier porn are generally forbidden in the mainstream (though they may appear separately as a ‘kink’). These include body hair for women and increasingly for men; physical unfitness (especially for women), and physical ineptitude of any kind. Even those forms of porn that attempt to naturalise its expression, and I’m thinking here of sites like Abby Winters, which shoots in natural light girls without make-up in a particularly intimate way stress the physical superiority of their subjects – it’s all jumping up and down and turning cartwheels. One of the crucial differences between vintage and contemporary porn is the repeated presence of physical failure in the former, and particularly the inability of men to keep it up or to regain their virility fast enough. These physical factors are woven into the plots, such as they are, of some early porn films, lending an air of Beckettian comedy to proceedings. As the appropriately-named Gertrud Koch puts it: ‘we cannot assume that these comic aspects of old porn movies are merely an effect of historical distance.’ Though our retrospective gaze will perhaps add a layer of nostalgia, not least for the poor quality of the footage, we should not imagine that due to some sort of spurious contemporary wisdom about what porn ‘really is’, we are in any position to feel fondly about earlier kinds of erotic material.


Cahiers du Cinema has a video clip of an interview with Jean-Luc Godard here. I'm afraid I found this unenthralling and stopped watching after a few minutes, but fans might like to see it.

hangul to hanja

A reader asked whether one could do this in Tiger. I think so, I think the instructions were simply offered in Korean before the release of Leopard, in which Help Input says:

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


I bought a MacBook in the States (against stiff opposition from Chase Bank): you can run Windows programs, something last offered in a shortlived model of the Performa, and I want to try Bissantz's Sparklines software (won't run on a Mac).

I also very much wanted to upgrade to Leopard; a few months ago a reader who works at Apple had sent me a private communication explaining that Leopard would be offering English-language Help for Japanese, Korean and Chinese input; sure enough, I try out the Kotoeri and Hangul Input Help and get:

which is deeply thrilling for anyone who has struggled along for years with nothing but the instructions Apple used to provide for CJK input, couched in Chinese, Japanese or Korean depending on the language one hoped to use. The funny thing is, though, that this development was not advertised as one of the glories of Leopard - in fact, the reader explained that the reason he was sharing this by e-mail was that he couldn't mention it in a comment on the blog. I felt bad about keeping this to myself, frankly, because I was sure many other Mac users would love to know the ease with which they could soon be inputting away in C, J or K (or all of the above) - but if someone tells me something in confidence I don't think I should be broadcasting it to the blogosphere. Why Apple would want to keep this fabulous news a closely guarded secret is another matter, but let's not be churlish. I assume we can now reveal.

Of course (OK, let's be churlish), the fact that you can run Windows programs on the new Intel-based Macs with OS 10.5 is offset by the fact that you can't run OS 9 and all the applications you have that run in OS 9. Apple tells you sweetly that you should upgrade all your OS 9 applications to versions that run on OS X, which would be a doddle if Adobe out of the goodness of its heart offered free upgrades; Adobe being a nasty, grasping, mercenary sort of company, the sort of company that sees OS X without benefit of OS 9 as a windfall, you're looking at a couple of thousand dollars, at a guess, if you don't happen to have a very dear personal friend who will give you a free installation. Being of a somewhat cynical, pessimistic (not to say churlish) disposition I hung onto the laptop that ran only OS 9 (with the excellent Nisus), but it's now a leetle tricky: that laptop now won't connect to the Internet. So there's probably some sort of lumpen workaround, saving files to a CD, transferring them to the new hard drive . . .

In a separate but not unrelated incident I talked to my father about journals to which he might submit articles, and he was doubtful because they seemed not to say they would accept documents in WordPerfect, and he then opened a document to show me what he had and awwwwwwwwwww. He was still using WordPerfect 6.0 for DOS. Which he had installed in 1986. On the one hand I naturally reflect that Hemingway and Faulker could just buy a typewriter and use the same damn typewriter for the next 50 years. Hemingway's first wife lost a suitcase containing all his early stories, leaving them accidentally on purpose behind on a train because Hemingway had been a shit, but Steve Jobs and Bill Gates do all writers this kind of friendly turn every couple of years or so. But on the other hand my father is now pretty much housebound, and yet he has access to an immense range of scholarly articles through JSTOR. You win some you lose some.

Doris Lessing recently complained about what she saw as the lower level of intellectual engagement which came of spending time on the Internet rather than reading books - and books, she said, were about telling stories. It's not quite that simple, because some stories need images, some stories require more than one language - War and Peace does have upperclass Russians speaking a great deal of French, but it would really be very difficult to get such a book published. Even academic publishers often put pressure on writers to omit quotations from languages other than that in which the book is written - OUP asked Toril Moi to omit quotations from Ibsen in Norwegian in her book on the playwright because the book would otherwise be prohibitively long and expensive. Whereas, for instance, Language Hat often gives generous quotations in Russian from books he has come across. You do win some.

Monday, December 10, 2007

inanity, inanity, all is inanity

Sankt Oberholz is a café on Rosenthalerstraße. It has a blog with a somewhat Alexandrian aesthetic: that is, it has turned the Lost and Found notice into an art form. Berlin is papered with poignant descriptions of missing animals, primarily cats, and Sankt Oberholz has brought this poignancy to plastic folders, CDs, sunglasses, clogs and Ritter sports chocolate.

Gestern wurde eine Tafel Ritter Sport vergessen. Es handelt sich um die Sorte “Pfefferminz”. Es lässt sich deutlich erkennen, dass diese Tafel Schokolade mindestens einmal, eher mehrmals, warm und damit weich und danach wieder kalt und damit fest wurde. Die Verpackung wurde vermutlich während eines dieser Vorgänge im Bereich der beiden rechten Rippenreihen auf den Inhalt aufgedrückt und klebt nun immer noch dort fest.

Yesterday a bar of Ritter Sport was forgotten. It is the 'Peppermint' variety. One can see clearly that this bar of chocolate became warm and soft and after that cold again and hard at least once, more likely many times. The wrapping was presumably pressed against the contents in the area of both right rows during one of these events and is now permanently stuck there fast. [roughly - there's actually more but I am so demoralised by my plodding translation I can't bring myself to include it]

I'd love to be able to write lighthearted yet poignant squibs about Ritter Sports chocolate. In German. What I'd like to do is pay Sankt Oberholz a deposit of 30 euros. Each day I would write a German blog post (yes, time for another blog, 2008 is almost upon us); each day a random Germanophone stranger could correct the post and collect a free coffee and cake at Sankt Oberholz.

When a German cat is striped, by the way, it is 'getigert' (pr. geTiggert). 'Grau getigert' - with grey stripes. I imagine a verb, 'tigern', to give the tiger his stripes (argument from Intelligent Design lurking in the background, Tyger! Tyger! burning bright! In the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry? - I think of Blake whenever I see the word). According to Pons, 'tigern' actually means to mooch, saunter around, like a tiger on the prowl.

I called LottoTeam about the 160 euros. It turns out this is the result of an ill-judged move in early November: the phone was plugged in for some reason, it rang, I answered it. A flood of German poured from the earpiece of the phone; I couldn't make head or tail of it. The speaker seemed to be saying that I was in a draw for Win-A-Cabrio, and this did ring a bell, I seemed to remember entering this free draw online at some earlier date, which must have been when I inadvisedly gave my phone number. The speaker kept talking, and I kept saying, Entschuldigung? And out of the mists came a comprehensible request for my bank details. The point is not that it did not seem a stupid idea to give out bank details over the phone, the point is just that this is exactly the sort of thing that always happens when I get on the phone (which is exactly why I don't like to do business on the phone) - and also, anyway, I had no idea someone could take money from my bank account even if they had the account number unless I actually signed something saying they could.

This is all exasperating, yes, but on the other hand the girl I spoke to today said she would stop whatever it was so no further payments would be taken, and I could write an e-mail explaining the circumstances & requesting a refund, and oddly enough this conversation was beautifully comprehensible. I think it was obvious to the first person I spoke to that I had no idea what was going on, so this was undoubtedly the sort of dodge Mamet dreams up - but then, frankly, 160 Euros is nothing if one has come up through the Miramax school of talent management. And I did get to practice speaking German.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

there's no place like kansas

My stepmother used to share an e-mail address with my father. Then she set up her own e-mail address and he would tell her when people wrote to her and what they had said. I thought she should set up another e-mail address. She said she had no secrets from my father.

I realised that I did not really want to write in English any more. I would feel safer writing in German. I would feel safer still writing in Hungarian.

When bad things happen, the sentences that bring them about are written or spoken in English by people who describe themselves as close personal friends. Unfortunately there is no separate set of articles, pronouns, prepositions, modal verbs and common vocabulary in which people doing ugly things express themselves; they use everyday language, and after a while the words are poisoned. It's stressful to hear people speaking English, which my family naturally do. It's pleasant to read French or German, it's pleasant to hear French or German or Spanish or some other language, one rinsed of bad associations. It's pleasant to be exposed to a language where one is for the most part an eavesdropper, a bystander, anything but a participant.

My parents learned Spanish and Portuguese through the course developed by the Foreign Language Institute. The course permitted no discussion of grammar, the student was required to memorise a series of dialogues and then practice endless variations in phrasing, the idea being that the various structures would become second nature and one would never stop to think about the correct form. As one progressed through the books one achieved a level of fluency which would permit one not only to question a visa applicant but even to utter polite veiled threats, as well as, of course, to give cocktail parties and charm businessmen, politicians and journalists. (The courses are available gratis at , so if there's a language in which you would like to utter suave veiled threats you know where to go.) My stepmother, who is Brazilian, has not had the benefit of this sort of programme; she has lived in America for 17 years without achieving the iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove level of proficiency. My father and stepmother speak English in the home; my brother, who's twelve, doesn't speak Portuguese. There's a point, though you might not think so.

It seems to me that one is often drawn to a language that offers an escape from what one knows. One resists languages that seem to drag one back. So David hated Yiddish, loved American literature, especially Faulkner and Melville, was drawn to Latin, Greek, German, Old Norse. Hassan says his parents tried to force him to learn Ghanaian languages but he escaped into English. I loved French when I was a child because it had no conceivable use in any of the places I happened to be; this was also part of the appeal of Latin, Greek, Italian. My mother disapproved of the sort of person who learns a lot of different languages instead of leaning one extremely well; when I was 18 I decided to learn German, which I knew was simply inadmissible on top of all the others, so when I bought a dictionary I pretended I was buying it for a friend.

I came across that dictionary - a very bad one - while I was going through my storage unit in London. When I bought it I thought that all serious intellectuals read foreign literature in the original language; one day I would meet these people and it would be embarrassing to have grown up in places where that was not the norm. When I was in high school I thought everyone in college would be like that; the people at Smith were not like that, but I then imagined that people at Oxford would be like that. Years later I was talking to my Oxford tutor about Proust, whom I had naturally read in French under the impression that this was something all serious people did, and he said, 'Oh, you have time to read novels in French.' By this time I had read so many novels in French it took no more time to read one in French than in English. How long ago that seems.

It surprises me when someone like Doris Lessing, an expat like me, complains about the Internet. If you grow up in the provinces, where it's hard to get books, you never get over the early sense of scarcity, of being in a place where a single paperback by Simenon might be the only French book. It's hard to get used to the wealth of books which can either be read online or ordered. You can read Ibsen in Norwegian online. You can read the Norse sagas. You can read a facsimile of the first edition of Montaigne. You can read most of Greek and Latin literature and click through to the lexical entries. You can read the Hebrew Bible. When people complain it's as if it never occurred to them in the first place that one might want to do any of these things.

It's late. I'm not sure that my German is up to an argument with LottoTeam.

ups and downs and ups and

Got back from the gym this morning (good) resolved to get a new bike basket (the last stolen while I was in Morocco). Was not sure whether there was enough money in my Postbank account. Went online. My Postbank account asked me to activate my new TAN list (a list of 100 numbers you use to authenticate online payments). I did. Recent activity was displayed. There was a debit of 160 Euros from LottoTeam.

I'm baffled. There was a letter from LottoTeam when I got back offering a 32 Euro voucher in return for taking out a three-month subscription to the Lottery, which I naturally don't want, with all my bank account details and a blank line for a signature. No idea how they got my account details, but surely (I thought) they can't take money from my account if I don't sign anything? I now look more closely at this letter. It says they tried to reach me by telephone twice without success, and the debit for the lottery is made monthly, and they will charge me 160 Euros unless I notify them to the contrary by postcard or fax. I naturally failed to notify them to the contrary, since I was in Florida, so they have taken 160 Euros from my account. Um. Are they really allowed to take money from my account if they simply tell me they will unless I tell them not to?

Anyway, I send them a fax, and I suppose I shall have to call them, and this is stressful so I turn in my hour of need to Bremer Sprachblog. In the comments section it emerges that Anatol Stefanowitsch is considering his options. The blog was started last January as part of the Jahr der Wissenschaften; it takes a lot of time; it may not continue in its present form. Say it ain't so, Anatol, say it ain't so! (What he in fact says is that Unesco has declared 2008 the Jahr der Sprachen, so there may be a reprieve.)

All this while I am mulling over my outraged response to LottoTeam. I have a quick glance at the Guardian; they have published Doris Lessing's acceptance speech for her Nobel Prize - a speech whose nearest rival for sheer idiocy is Paul Auster's speech for the Prince of Asturias Prize earlier this year. Auster's line was that no book had ever stopped anyone from killing anyone, never saved a child's life, never changed anything, a line which, even applied only to novels, could sound plausible only to someone who had never heard of Harriet Beecher Stowe. I had thought no one could top Auster for portentous intellectual laziness; I was young and naive. Lessing begins by talking about the desperate hunger for books in Zimbabwe, moves on to the indifference to books of boys at an upmarket North London school, moves on to sweeping comments about technology:

What has happened to us is an amazing invention - computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked: "What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print?" In the same way, we never thought to ask, "How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?"

They say you're as old as you feel, which would make me about 963, and that was before Lessing went on to privilege books over oral composition, a move which might look plausible to anyone who a) thinks The Da Vinci Code is better value than the Iliad or b) has never come across Milman Parry's work on Homeric epic and oral composition. It's entirely possible that the book-filled mud hut of Lessing's childhood had a copy of the Iliad but missed out on Parry's classic papers in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 1930 and 1932, and entirely possible that Lessing never happened to come across developments in Homeric scholarship on leaving home, one would be rather less likely, one might think, to preserve this unselfconscious ignorance if brought up on, um, the inanities of the Internet. If you're as old as you feel then discovering that a Novel Prize acceptance speech can underperform the sort of blog post one dashes off in half an hour (without bothering to check Wikipedia) would make me about 1097.

Which might explain why I have yet to adjust to the telephone, that instrument of the Devil.

votes for sperm

In 1984 Gerald Ford chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. I thought it was pretty exciting, the prospect of a woman as VP. My father did not think this was exciting; he also commented that he thought no woman could be elected President.

On my recent visit to see my father he commented on a reader's report to his publishers on his book on Brazil. The report was unfavourable. My father imagined the reader as a dandy with a mustache who taught at a women's college. He apologised for this in an afterthought, remembering that I had gone to Smith. I went to Smith because I thought it would be full of hardcore intellectuals who were not interested in a social life; I dropped out because it wasn't.

My father also went to a single-sex institution, the Naval Academy.

Sperm sperm sperm sperm Sperm sperm sperm sperm SPERM wonderful sperm.

I don't know whether a candidate's ability to be a good president is irredeemably compromised by the means it takes to get into office. JFK overcame the handicap of Catholicity with more than a little help from the less famous Joe. HRC has certainly jettisoned rather a lot of scruples over the years. I have no idea what she would do with power if she had it. I see no reason to think she would have even the longest of shots at power if she had stuck to her scruples. I'd love to think my father is an outlier.

Friday, December 7, 2007


Levitation aside, there is a vocabulary test engine called Lavengro that is written in Python (one you can use, in other words, to build your own vocabulary tests); I started learning Python months ago and then something came up, but I'd like to go back to it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Dick Van Dyke, Rod Steiger, someone was watching

In Oxford to see my dentist, Roz Tritton. Or rather, in Oxford to see my dentist's hygienist. I would just as soon not make a special trip to Oxford to see a hygienist, but dentists don't like patients who cherrypick - you can't have your teeth cleaned locally and then make special trips to see the Best Dentist in the World.

Went into Blackwell's Language Department. Methuen has produced a series called access accents, developed by actors by accent coach Penny Dyer: they have London (Cockney), American, Geordie, Yorkshire, Welsh and Received Pronunciation. The thing that's odd, of course, is that this is a series aimed at actors who are native speakers but want to master a range of accents - as far as I know there's nothing like it for language learners, though regional accents are one of the biggest obstacles. But it's a fabulous idea; I have bought 4 (London/Cockney, American, Yorkshire and RP). Perhaps I can do something similar for German on Garageband.

And now I am late for my bus, half an hour to get up to Headington.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

long ago and far away

Drove through the streets of Gainesville with my father, who talked about a book he is writing about Brazil. He said when he was in Brasilia as a political officer in the mid-60s he had no idea what was going on, and neither did the other political officers (Purdy, Lavitsky). Herb Okun [head of mission] might have known something, he had contacts, he spoke excellent Portuguese, but he did a terrible job. He should have been having cocktail parties, inviting his contacts to meet the junior officers. 'I don't know what he did all day, probably sat at home in his apartment reading Edmund Wilson.'

I said I was surprised, I had always though of Mr Okun as a great socialiser.
My father: Maybe he was when he was down in Belo Horizonte, he did a good job in Belo, he knew all kinds of people, in fact through one of his contacts he heard early that the military were marching on Rio, so he was able to tell the Embassy they were coming. He didn't do any of that in Brasilia. In fact, the best contacts we made were through Mary [my mother], she was teaching English at the Binational Center and she had all these deputies in the class, there was Bernardo Cabral who later became Minister of Justice, X [forget name], there was a very right-wing guy, there was a governor, I guess there were five in the class. So we had these guys over to the house and got to know them. Some of the other wives were also teaching English, but Mary had the most interesting students.
He explained: Anyway, we didn't know what was going on, sometimes Fred Purdy and I would say, Hey, let's go over to Congress and see if we meet anyone! and sometimes we would.
He said: It should have been easy to meet people in Brasilia, the deputies were there three days a week, anyway, even if they were away on weekends, they were away from their families, some of them left their wives at home, they were bored, but Herb just sat at home reading Edmund Wilson.
He explained: Well, the problem was, Herb was brought back en route to Moscow. He did a very good job in Belo, and then he spent a year in Brasilia, and then he was appointed to Moscow. So he actually left, and then the Ambassador decided he couldn't afford to let him go. The guy who was supposed to replace him was a very nice kind of guy but ineffectual, and it was a sensitive time, and they didn't think they could afford to have him in place, so the Ambassador called the State Department and they sent Herb back. And he bitterly resented it. They gave him a second title, he was also Political Counsellor for the whole of Brazil, you'd think it would have meant something to be indispensable but he bitterly resented it. So he didn't do anything. There was a special suite at the Embassy where you could give dinners for 12, it would have been perfect for inviting deputies to meet people, but Herb didn't use it once. He just sat in his apartment reading Edmund Wilson, and then he and Loraine went to Moscow and Steve Lowe came, and he didn't know anybody and didn't speak Portuguese. So nobody knew anything.

In a separate but not unrelated incident my father explains that he is finding all kinds of information about the activities of the CIA at the time. He expresses horror at the current practice of waterboarding, he can't believe these are AMERICAN CITIZENS. I remind him that his career advice to me was to join the CIA. My father: You'd have been good in the CIA. (My comment at the time of the advice was that I did not like the idea of going around assassinating people. My father: You would probably not be in the field. You would probably be analysing data.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

shape and strength

Eliot said it was the poet's job to purify the language of the tribe. Philosophy has sometimes shared that ambition. The bidding systems of bridge offer a different model for the way language might be made to work. It's sometimes hard to see this clearly, because for the most part people who write on bridge simply describe one or more systems, or list hundreds of conventions. Came across a very good bridge blog yesterday, DavidC's Bridge Blog, which discusses bidding systems from first principles. This is extremely interesting (a much longer post lies hidden in the drafts folder), but I am packing to catch a plane in the morning so can only mention it in haste.

Monday, November 19, 2007

never trust a widget

Level of education required to read


cash advance


cash advance

According to critics rant

I know I know I know

The "blog which is an art project which is disguised as a blog"
and which has, literally, changed names a couple hundred times
but which has always been some arrangement of either:
"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT
just had its thousandth post this morning.

It is like one of those stupid effing truck commercials where they ask
"where were you when you hit 100,000 miles?!"
Well, Iäm/was at work, and thought: "whoa, shit. -crrrazy. I could've
written a book or
done something which aspired to be truly great with all that time and
effort-but instead...
I did THAT-"

Nevertheless, 1,000 is a LOT of loading adn linking and reading adn
writing and haphazard
researching and cheesy reminiscing and venting venom and mispelling things
- a lot of time and effort ...and I could have done sooo many
other things with all that time and effort (which I will never get back)
- well, "but" nothing, blogging just happens to be the perfect
platform for a lifelong
journal-writer / image and news/info junkie - especially when trapped
behind a computer full-time, weird things happen, what can I say-? and
that IS the blog, that's it, that's all really, just something that

I type QWERTY you type QWERTZ let's call the whole thing off

SMB said in a recent comment that if I were to have a shopping basket on the website it should definitely be in Flash. (SMB disapproves of selling stories on the website in principle - a while back she offered to go out and earn $1000 or so, whatever it would take, and give me the money so that I did not disgrace myself by this shameful practice. I only wish Lewis Lapham felt that strongly about it.)

Meanwhile Bremer Sprachblog has been discussing the question of languages that 'don't have a word for X' - for instance, the folk myth that the Finns do not have a word for Amoklauf (running amok). It struck me that we are missing a word for something that is now very common, which I shall call DVORAKracy. I explain.

The term 'QWERTY lock-in' is commonly used to refer to the way a particular technology achieves dominance when it is used by a sufficiently large number of people, to the point that it makes introduction of something better impossible. It has been claimed that the DVORAK keyboard layout is in fact more efficient, but in the days when typewriters were all we knew it was not worth a manufacturer's while to construct typewriters with that configuration, and today, though one can easily switch virtual keyboards, the physical keyboard in anglophone countries tends to stick to QWERTY.

People then get into arguments about how hard it is to adapt to a new virtual keyboard, how long it would take to get used to DVORAK. It would not be worth a typist's time, is the argument, because it would take so long to get back up to the original speed, let alone improve on it. As far as I can tell, this is not true.

I learned to type at the age of 13, at the Centro Colombo-Americano de Cali. I was 13, my best friend and her twin sister were 13, my sister was 10, and we used to go down and work our way through classes with young Colombian secretaries-in-training, beginning:

Index finger:

fff jjj fff jjj fjf jfj fjf jfj

Next finger:

ddd kkk ddd kkk dkd kdk dkd kdk

4th finger:

sss lll sss lll sss lll sls lsl sls lsl

5th finger, aaa ;;; aaa ;;; and so on, and then it got exciting, because g and h were introduced - letters which were struck by moving the left index finger to the right, the right index finger to the left:

ggg hhh ggg hhh ghg hgh ghg hgh AND, more importantly,
fgf jhj fgf jhj fgf jhj gfg hjh gfg jhj (so that one got used to this tricky manoeuvre, moving the finger one key over and back again)

gh were, in fact, well placed for a typist of English; the index fingers, thanks to their placement on the hand, have the most room to move around, and striking two keys with the index fingers in quick succesion feels very easy.

Once you're used to typing this way, minor variations can be picked up quickly. Germany does not have QWERTY lock-in, it has QWERTZ lock-in (the Z is where the Y was found on the Remingtons and Olivettis of the Centro Colombo-Americano), and a German keyboard has ö ä ü and ß where we had ; ' [ and -. A French keyboard has AZERTY lock-in; it also has the most common combinations of letter-plus-diacritical mark on the numbers row, numbers being typed by using the shift key. Both are EXTREMELY convenient, and it does not take long - perhaps an hour or so - to adapt to either if one is typing in the relevant language. That's if one is doing what I do most of the time, thinking as I type. I expect it would take longer to achieve a good copy-typing speed, but that's partly because when one types in one's native language one has typed most of the words many times before - thousands of words are in muscle memory. In a new language one is typing most of the words for the first time; the hands don't know where they're going to go as soon as the word presents itself.

I tried DVORAK at one point, and it didn't look as though it would take long to get back to my normal speed - and there would be good reason to switch, or rather to switch between DVORAK and QWERTY, because if one spends a lot of time at a keyboard typing the same words with the same patterns of movement there probably is a danger of repetitive strain injury. Yes. Sloth has prevented me from doing so, but I don't think the investment of time would be significant.

The fact is, though, that no one is going to come along, install the DVORAK virtual keyboard and delete QWERTY, so that I have no choice but to use the new one.

Unfortunately the equivalent of this does happen very frequently with software. Someone decides to design my website in software I don't own and have never used; I can then choose between making all updates by proxy and learning a new software program. But the latter really is time-consuming, not least because the quality of documentation is generally very poor. So I leave the website untouched. The blog gets hundreds of posts, but the website is virtually static because the designer used software she knew and loved.

Now, there are software programs that do well things I might want to be able to do - LaTeX, for instance, does do a wonderful job with equations. Everyone who has ever used LaTeX, though, admits that it takes a long time to master it; someone once told me he thought his thesis had taken an extra year to write because he spent so much time wrestling with LaTeX. In other words, it is a fact of modern life that at some point or other one will be forced to spend a lot of time on some piece of software that is crucial to a project one badly wants to do. Since this is unavoidable, one would like to avoid adding yet more software programs to the To Do list if they are not strictly necessary. Not least because one knows very well that the new program will itself be superseded within a few years; knowledge of the program is a rapidly depreciating asset.

The conviction that a task will be much better accomplished in software unknown to the primary user seems to be very common. If there were a word for it, I sometimes think, it might not go so absolutely unchallenged.


SMB has left another comment expressing incredulity at the idea that one might buy Flash. The thing to do is get it illegally. Did I buy my copy of Office, anti-virus software etc? (Um, yes, actually. Legal copy of Office. Legal copy of Mellel. Legal copy of Illustrator. Legal copy of Dreamweaver.) It could be that nobody buys software any more. It does strike me as a leetle odd that helping myself to illegal software would be morally acceptable, while selling stories on a website looks bad.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

inscrutable occidentals

Was watching Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More again for a piece I'm writing for The Believer on sequels. The DVDs have interviews with Christopher Frayling, Leone's biographer; Frayling talks about the acting style of Gian Maria Volonte, the bad guy. Volonte, he says, had had a distinguished career on the stage and had an extremely theatrical, flamboyant style which stood in sharp contrast to the laconic, understated style of Eastwood; by the time Leone made For a Few Dollars More he was starting to get irritated by the excesses of Volonte, to the point of having him make multiple takes of the same scene to wear him down. I'd always heard the same thing of Leone's method in directing Rod Steiger in Fistful of Dynamite: Steiger would put in an explosive performance and Leone would say: That's amazing, Rod, absolutely amazing, could you do that for me just one more time? And he would have Steiger do the scene again and again until he was worn out and the performance was what Leone was looking for.

Interesting because so radically different from Kurosawa's use of Mifune (star of Yojimbo, the film which inspired Fistful of Dollars). When Kurosawa first saw Mifune's audition for the studio's talent search Mifune was hurling himself around the stage in a frenzy, like a wild animal; Kurosawa knew he would offend the studio aparatchiks and made a personal appeal to the jury to give this extraordinary talent a chance. When he used Mifune in Drunken Angel, with Shimura Takashi, he commented that Mifune's performance threw off the balance of the film - Shimura, as the alcoholic doctor, was excellent, but Mifune was completely overpowering.

And yet a film director can rejoice over a marvelous asset only to have it turn into a terrible burden. If I let Mifune in his role of the gangster become too attractive, the balance with his adversary, the doctor played by Shimura Takashi, would be destroyed. If this should occur, the result would be a distortion of the film's overall structure. Yet to suppress Mifune's attractiveness at the blossoming point of his career because of the need for balance in the structure of my film would be a waste. And in fact Mifune's attraction was something his innate and powerful qualities pushed unwittingly to the fore; there was no way to prevent him from emerging as too attractive on the screen other than keeping him off the screen. I was caught in a real dilemma. Mifune's attractiveness gave me joy and pain at the same time.

Drunken Angel came to life in the midst of these contradictions. My dilemma did indeed warp the structure of the drama, and the theme of the film became somewhat indistinct. But as a result of my battle with the wonderful qualities called Mifune the whole job became for me a liberation from something resembling a spiritual prison. Suddenly I found myself on the outside.

The drunken-doctor performance Shimura gave was a superb 90 percent, but because his adversary, Mifune, turned in 120 percent I had to feel a little sorry for him.

(Something Like an Autobiography, p 162)

One we made earlier

I got an e-mail from Rafe Donahue a couple of months ago with two plots that I couldn't get to display properly, and so time passed, time passed, but I am now having another shot at it, including also Rafe's comments:

...logistic regression allows one to predict a categorical outcome as a function of other variables. The output is typically a cumulative logit (log-odds), which is linear, but those are hard to understand. So I drew the probabilities and their confidence intervals.

So, you can see that as your TAC score goes up, you are less likely to be in the No Disease group, and if you have a TAC score of about 10,000 you have about a 50-50 chance of being in the Rutherford 1,2,3 club (disease) or the Rutherford 4,5,6 club (very bad disease).

I did the analysis in SAS and drew the plot in R.

Also is a plot that shows how to predict TAC score from disease group. This one shows the means, confidence intervals for the means, and prediction intervals for the individual scores.

Meanwhile Rafe has sent another e-mail with his thoughts on the study of biostatistics, it's not all cool plots was the gist, I know, I know, I know . . .

Friday, November 16, 2007

Word from Q

I asked Hassan whether it was really necessary to have a shopping basket in Flash and he said Yes. He explained:

What I have in mind is something where a short story title lies on top of a
long underlining line with a synopsis underneath, perhaps the whole thing
enclosed in a rectangular border, not sure, but anyway when you click on it,
the synopsis text rolls up into the line to fall back again as the extract
of the story with scroll/page flip buttons on the bottom or the side of the
text, as the entire unit moves to take over the page. Sort of see the
picture? And then that allows this to be visually related to the shopping
basket that will faithfully maintain the HoV ideal, which unfortunately is
offline at the moment so I can't refresh my memory.

Now all I need is the Aston Martin and the vodka martini.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


I got an e-mail a few days ago from Mithridates. He said if Tender Only to One was what he thought it was it should go public because it might help people who were close to the edge.

Also an e-mail from someone whose son had read The Last Samurai many times many years ago.

Also an e-mail from Hassan Abudu, who in the midst of jobhunting has grappled with PHP and MYSQL and produced a map for the website where readers can mark their location.

Also many e-mails from Mark Greif of n+1, who is seeing Your Name Here through the last stages before the magazine goes to print.

Among others.

So I have been discussing vexed questions by e-mail. Is it kosher to talk about bad things people do when one is fresh from a psychiatric ward, I say, citing the example of X. Mith: Yes, you should definitely use this. ... Check with Rawls; I'm sure of it!!! It's in the chapter called "Fuck Him": Rawls uses Grotius in a really
interesting way there....

And what would be good headings for the map app, says Hassan. What would make speech bubbles less lame? What would make the forms look good? And what about a shopping cart for the website?

I was not sure this was such a good idea; there are more stories, yes, but they are on hard drives on three or four laptops, or a pile of plastic folders somewhere, and they would have to be cleaned up, and in short this looked like a good way not to finish a book.

I then remembered the website I had asked my first webdesigner to use as a model 3 years ago. Haunch of Venison. I thought, Yes, maybe we could pirate the design of the HOV website for the map page. So I had a look, and I suddenly realised that if I could have a shopping basket like the HOV shopping basket it would be worth digging up 5 stories to have something to put in it. I passed this on to HA, who writes:

laaaaaaaa ilaha illallah... You know, when I first read you'd consider digging through terabytes of data and kilograms of paper to get 5 short stories together just so you could have an online store like this HoV thing, you had me wondering what sort of shopping basket could be that cool, I mean, it's just a freaking shopping basket, anyway, it's also just a webpage, how bad could it be. Sweet Jesus and Mary Poppins I will never doubt again. Next time I will show Faith! Holy fucking cow, where on earth did you find that thing? How am I also going to fully communicate the full scale and magnitude of my awe, and of course my newfound respect for web designers who take pride in their work, I mean, who'd ever think to do that to a freaking *shopping basket*, canonically the shittiest part of any website?! OK, now I see where the bar has been all along, I see I'm going to have to step it up a notch now. *stretches fingers*
Which may sound irrelevant, or anyway irrelevant to thoughts of suicide, but the thing is, I've spent the last 12 years working on books where the look of the page was essential to the narrative. (I can't stand to look at the Greek and Japanese in The Last Samurai; I remember the way this was meant to look on the page, I think of the designers who fought successfully to achieve something amateurish, I don't want to think about it.) I told agents: I want to work with an editor who's interested in design, who'll let me work with a designer, who's interested in the technical side, and they all said: You're never gonna get that, you're wasting your time, you'll go barmy if you try, no editor is interested in that, you'll drive yourself mad. My website was supposed to achieve all the things I was told No Publisher Will Allow in books, so I hired a designer in Berlin 3 years ago and asked for something like the Haunch of Venison site, only with Jim Rose's kanji stroke diagrams, and No Webdesigner Will Allow.

Spolsky's criterion for good hires is Smart, Gets Things Done. It's strange to stumble across people who are SGTD not by sending out manuscripts, not by recruitment, not by paying people, but just by swapping e-mails with people who happened to read a book. If I'd been dealing with people like Mith and Hassan for the last 12 years I would have spent the time writing and publishing books, what larks. Meanwhile Hassan is full of ideas:

Oh, but I have reworked the database design so that a social networking book
exchange webapp should just fall into place naturally. ... What I changed: the user data we'll now be able to store when I'm done are: name, password, town, country, picture, books you own, books you desire, and an message section where you can send and receive messages. Anything else come to mind?

I could say more, much more, but I am meeting someone in Rosenthalerplatz in 15 minutes, so I am already late. The beta of the map app is here:

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Imran sent off

"I am not a dictator, I want a democracy," he told Britain's Sky News. "The day when there is no turmoil in Pakistan, I will step down."

General Pervez Musharraf, shortly after the arrest of Imran Khan. (Arresting popular former cricket superstars: just another innovative approach to the tricky question of how to end turmoil in Pakistan.) "Safe Pair of Hands" Musharraf has explained that he feels the state of emergency is crucial to fair elections; its purpose is simply to ensure that elections proceed in an undisturbed manner.

Declan Walsh in the Guardian

Saturday, November 10, 2007

impossible negative

From Good Math, Bad Math

The British lottery put out a "scratch-off" game called "Cool Cash". The idea of it is that it's got a target temperature on the card, and to win, you need uncover only temperatures colder than the target. Simple, right?

Since Britain is on the metric system, they measure temperatures in Celsius. So naturally, some of the temperatures end up being below zero. And that's where the trouble came in. So many people didn't know that below zero, larger numbers are lower and thus colder, that the lottery had to withdraw the game!

To quote one of the "victims":

On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won, and so did the woman in the shop. But when she scanned the card the machine said I hadn't.

I phoned Camelot and they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher - not lower - than -8 but I'm not having it.

Edy Poppy

While in Morocco I got an e-mail from Rose Merrill, an American who does I forget what in Berlin, announcing the book launch of Edy Poppy. According to Ilya, Poppy has been called the Norwegian Marguerite Duras. Her book, Anatomy. Monotony, has been published in Norwegian, Italian and now German. I said I would not be able to make it to the launch but Rose could post the announcement on the blog; I had a shot at making her a contributor, which did not work, so I gave her my password and said she could log on as me.

[It is snowing heavily. First snow of the year.]

I kept checking the blog for the announcement but there was no sign of it. I needed to check something today on Tender Only to One, a blog which is currently under wraps with classified posts in the drafts folder. Shock horror. The Edy Poppy announcement was on the secret blog!

The launch has come and gone, but I have imported the post for German, Norwegian or Italian readers who may want to know more about the Norwegian Duras.

Book launch at FUCHSBAU

a brand new bar at: Planufer 95, 10967 Berlin-Kreuzberg, tel: 030 691 75 95

From 7 pm till you drop ...

Ragnhild Moe (Edy Poppy) invites you to the launch party of her debut novel: Die Hände des Cellisten(original title: Anatomy. Monotony.), by Goldmann Verlag

Rose Berlin will introduce the author, who will read an extract from her book in English.
The actress Nora Linnemann will read an extract in German.

PS: To support the heroine of the book, Vår, we request that all girls and boys with long hair wear braids wrapped around their head or coiled at the side – milkmaid style.

Also: Don’t judge a book by its cover!
Behind Ragnhild Moe is in fact the Norwegian writer Edy Poppy, author of Anatomy. Monotony. for which she received the Gyldendal prize (for best “fucked up” love story). The novel has also been translated into Finnish (Otava) and Italian (Bompiani). However, Poppy feels she has been cheated by her German publisher, Goldmann. Without consulting the author, they changed her title into a cliché and made the cover look cheap and kiosk-like, claiming the original was too shocking for the German sensibility. She says, “It feels like having plastic surgery while asleep and waking up with a face that doesn’t belong to you anymore.”

SO PLEASE COVER IT UP! - As one would do in the old times: putting grey paper over the offensive image to censor pornography.

In collaboration with
Gartenstudio Gallery
Naunynstr. 53
10999 Berlin
tel. 030-22 16 222 97

We ask those of you interested to create your own cover: photographs, drawings... anything goes. Send, hand deliver or e-mail your proposal, from now until the 15th of January, to Gartenstudio Gallery, or to the author herself: There will be an exhibition of the best entries at the end of January 2008 and publication in a literary art magazine.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Our Man in Port Moresby

IG is about to head off for Papua New Guinea, having been made AAP correspondent in Port Moresby.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

the new new grub street

Gabriele Bärtels, award-winning journalist, founder and editor of the now defunct online magazine Frida, had a remarkable piece in last week's Zeit on the financial difficulties facing journalists in Germany today. I say remarkable because there is no reason to think Die Zeit is any better than any of the other papers in its treatment of freelancers - the editors who don’t reply to submissions, accept a piece after months of silence, decide not to publish but don’t bother to tell the author are no doubt as much a fact of life at Die Zeit as anywhere else, as, I assume, are the cheques which mysteriously take further months to materialise thanks to helpful accounts departments. Bärtels’ hand-to-mouth existence, avoiding her landlord when she can’t pay the rent, staying in bed when she runs out of money, coaxing and cajoling her bank manager not to close down her account because look, a national newspaper has accepted a substantial piece of work, the money is in the pipeline if not the post, is not the predicament of someone just starting out, with no credentials and no contacts, but someone with an impressive history of publications and awards. It’s as bad as it is because of the capricious behaviour of those who buy her work. So hats off to Ms Bärtels for having the chutzpah to write about it and send the result to Die Zeit, and hats off to Die Zeit for putting it on the front page of Chancen (‘job opportunities’ would be the English equivalent, I think, but German trounces English in capturing the lottery that is the modern job market).

I can’t imagine any English-language paper of comparable stature publishing a piece that exposes the machinery behind its own publishing practice. Back in the mid-90s David Foster Wallace wrote an essay for Esquire on the Canadian Open; he spent a lot of time on the obstacles the system places in the path of talented players not yet in the top 10. It’s an extraordinary piece of work - but if DFW has written anything comparable about the system confronting writers like himself it’s never been published by Esquire or anyone else.


Bah. Many hours have passed. My start-up OS 9 disk has arrived, ordered off Ebay so I can install Language Kits for a version of Photoshop ME that only works in Classic. I wanted to say something about Adorno, I wanted to translate passages from GB's excellent article, but the phone rang and it was a friend who had been out of town, visited by another friend from out of town, we should have coffee, he said, so I joined them for coffee and was told no names could be named, Whatever you do don't mention this in your blog, my wife will think we're having an affair. Adorno. Dead giveaway. Hm. German readers can check out the piece here, those unfamiliar with the language can curse jealous wives and nameless friends.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Readers of The Last Samurai may remember that I spoke in the acknowledgements of my friend Ann Cotton, who had started raising funds in 1990 to help girls in Zimbabwe finish secondary school. Their reputation for exceptionally effective work in this field continues to grow; just found this excellent news on the Camfed website:

President Clinton Highlights Camfed Commitment for Girls’ Education in Africa

The 2006 CGI Annual MeetingBill Clinton highlighted Camfed’s work for girls’ education in Africa during a plenary session of the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York on Friday. Choosing Camfed as just one of three Commitments to be highlighted by the former US President, Clinton spoke about the importance of girls’ education, and Camfed’s efficacy in delivering its maximum returns:

(the rest, including a video of Clinton talking about Camfed, here)

Camfed has also been chosen for the Financial Times Christmas appeal for the second year in a row (last year $1.2 million dollars were raised). More about this year's appeal here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


It's 6.50 am. I got up at 6.02 to put more coal in the ovens before they went out. It's tricky because you have to leave the flu open for a while to get the carbon monoxide sucked out, but it can't be open too long or all the heat leaves and the coal burns down. TAR ART RAT has given me a number to call for compressed wood briquettes.

Johanna Thompson likes the idea of the pret-a-parler language lessons, though our meetings lately have been taken up with abortive attempts to get me signed up for health insurance. Since April having health insurance has been a legal requirement in Germany, and insurance companies are legally required to provide insurance to people who have jobs that offer benefits, but they are not required to insure people who are self-employed.

We talked to the DAK, her insurance company, and they said that they could not insure me because I was self-employed, but if I signed on with the Kunstlersozialkasse they would then be able to provide insurance. The KSK paperwork takes 6 months to process, but the longest journey starts with a single step; we got the forms, which required a survey of my employment history from the time I finished my doctorate to the publication of my first book; they also required a form from the insurance company I proposed to use. So Johanna got the form from DAK, and we filled it in and went back, and they explained that they could not sign off on it unless I was already insured. If I took out private insurance they could then sign the form; otherwise not. If I had been overseas and had proof of insurance there that would be all right. So it might be necessary to go back to Britain and get a certificate from the NHS. Or it might be possible to sign on with Sozialhilfe, claiming phobia of the spoken word as a mental disability presenting obstacles to employment (this is not a dodge, just a statement of fact, but that does not necessarily give it a better chance of making the grade).

I once knew a woman who wrote a novel about German bureaucracy. She had been knocked off her bicycle at Checkpoint Charlie and had had to go through a complicated procedure to get compensation. For some reason there were penalties associated with not claiming compensation.

The next room smells strange. I open the windows. The air is fresh and sweet.

Mark Greif has been sending the proofs for the excerpt from Your Name Here which will appear in the next issue of n+1. The designer has not yet finalised the Arabic so it's hard to tell what it will look like.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Scott Adams reveals some

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, agreed to take part in a Q&A session on Freakonomics. On blogging:

It’s the best creative outlet I’ve ever had because I can write whatever I want, as often as I want. No editor gets between me and the reader. As a writer, you can’t beat that. It’s highly rewarding from a creative standpoint.

more on schmoozing

DSL said he was sure schmoozing meant simply social talk rather than sycophancy; I said I had always thought of it as social with talk with connotations of a possible pay-off; D said:

I'm not sure about that. I've certainly seen synagogues here advertising
social evenings involving "schmoozing", and I don't take the implication to
be that lots of business deals will be conducted on the premises.

I then checked out the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary online, which says:

to talk informally with someone, especially in a way that is not sincere or to gain some advantage for yourself:

He spent the entire evening schmoozing with the senator.

This certainly tallies with my first instinct, which was to associate it with the sort of thing Bill Clinton and Tina Brown do so well. I do wonder, though. It could be that in the Jewish community the word is used simply as a synonym for 'chat', while in the larger pool of English speakers it carries with it the idea of chatting with ulterior motives. Or perhaps there is a pattern of usage but it does not fall along confessional lines. Hm.

Be that as it may, Pons seems to be decidedly unhelpful to Germans who come across Yiddish terms in common English use: nebbish, mensch, schlemiel, kibitz, kvetsh, shtik and chutzpah are all beneath the radar. 'Chuzpe' does turn up in my Deutsch-Englisch für Schule und Studium, defined as 'gall'. The thing that has dropped out, obviously, is that in English we have the word 'gall', which is pejorative, and we have the word 'chutzpah' which is a term expressive of admiration referring to the same thing. Many centuries ago the English responded to the Norman invasion by enriching the language: we have cows, pigs and sheep (the animals downtrodden peasants raise by the sweat of their brow) and we have beef, veal, pork and mutton (the comestible version that turns up on the oppressor's plate). Thanks to Yiddish we now have affectionate lexemes for all sorts of things for which the language already had unamused equivalents. This is exactly where one looks to a dictionary for guidance: if Chuzpe is pejorative in German, the user needs to know that it is in common use in English but does not have pejorative connotations.

There is another twist, though, which is that English-speakers often perceive Germans as brusque and unpleasantly direct. In other words, while 'gall' is undoubtedly pejorative in English, it's entirely possible that Chutzpe is not actually pejorative in German, it's simply the 'Let's call a spade a spade' term for the quality. In other words, it could be that it is only the English-speaker's search for the impossible dream, the perfect euphemism, that perceived 'gall' as harsh in the first place and felt a need for a friendlier term.


I had a quick look at the Cambridge American English Dictionary online.

schmooze, shmooze
verb [I]
to talk informally with someone
Mike's out on the porch schmoozing with the neighbors.

So does this mean that, in the view of Cambridge lexicographers, schmooze means 'talk informally especially with an ulterior motive' while in American English it just means 'talk informally'? (But DSL is British.)

Curiouser and curiouser.


The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary offers this for chutzpah:

imaginative and shocking behaviour, involving taking risks but not feeling guilt

(And is there really no German word for this?)


The Cambridge American Dictionary defines chutzpah as

noun [U]
behavior that is extremely confident and often rude, with no respect for the opinions or abilities of anyone else

The movie was made with a little money and a lot of chutzpah.
I wonder who had the chutzpah to disagree with him?


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Robert Donat Lookalike?

A reader has sent me a link to the Daily Mail which reports on Arpan Shama, a 10-year-old resident of Edgbaston who speaks 11 languages, but does not mention resemblance to Robert Donat as a boy.

inbox zero

This morning I did not even bother to clock into Fogbugz because, I forget, anyway it suddenly occurred to me that I had not checked out the Juice Analytics blog for a long time. So I checked out the blog and the most recent entry was a set of tips for a maps mashup, with a link to another maps mashup, both of which I have passed on to Hassan who is jobhunting so probably has no time (but looking at the tips I thought I might be able to tackle this myself if the world of gainful employment claims HA). In the sidebar was a link to Michael Lavine's free e-book Introduction to Statistical Thought with examples using R (it has been out since December 2006, so I'm a bit late, but it looks great and this is really not too bad). There was also a link to a video, Inbox Zero, a talk given by Merlin Mann to Google. I do think I need to do something about Inbox management, but this has to be the worst advice I have ever seen - bad advice for anyone with an Inbox, and exceptionally stupid given the audience (who are, at the risk of stating the obvious, exceptionally smart people). I give you the link so you can judge for yourselves if you want to:

Inbox Zero

Mann's advice amounts to this: you should try to check e-mail less often (turn off Autocheck if you have it (I don't), try to keep checking down to once an hour), and act on all incoming e-mail as soon as you check it, with one of the following responses:

Delete (includes Archive)
Respond (preferably with a maximum of 5 sentences)
Do (take an action that solves the problem)

All these responses, as I say, should be done immediately so that the Inbox is not used as a To Do list.

Now, Mann does not talk about the problem of a Drafts folder whose contents are up in the triple digits, and you might think someone whose Drafts folder is overflowing is even worse than someone with an Inbox that's overflowing. That's not really true.

As any fule kno, Google has a policy of allowing its very smart staff to spend 20% of their time on a personal project. What this means, of course, is that each member of staff is spending 20% of his or her time on a cool project which he or she hopes ONE day to be spending 100% of his or her time on - a cool project that will take off. But if you work on something new you often have to get advice or information from other people - and each time you have some new brilliant idea the temptation is to fire off an e-mail to someone who might have the answer.

This is ordinary practice even for someone like me, who works independently. You surf around online, you discover the existence of someone you don't know from a bar of soap who would naturally be only too THRILLED to help, dash off a quick e-mail or maybe just capture the e-mail address for future use... If you're at Google, though, this element of working on a project is also (I assume) a way of persuading other people that the project is cool, getting other people excited about it so that it stands a better chance of being adopted by Google. Well, obviously, if EVERYONE at Google is spending 20% of their time on a pet project they think incredibly cool, the potential for everyone to be buried under an avalanche of e-mails is very high - and that's before you take into account the 80% of time that's spent on Google-approved projects.

What this means is that one very good way to keep the general volume of e-mail down is for people to be much more ruthless, not with the e-mails that come in, but with those that go out. You have a brilliant idea, you want quick answers, you dash off an e-mail - and put it in the Drafts folder. Sometimes the answer to the question turns up in a few days or a week. Sometimes you go back to the e-mail which is full of last week's brilliant idea and meanwhile you have moved on to another brilliant idea. If you have a lot of these ideas you will end up with a Drafts folder with 177 e-mails, but you have kept them out of someone else's Inbox. You can be selective about the people you do write to, you can think through your questions properly, you can provide whatever information is necessary so people can answer once rather than engage in e-mail ping pong.

Mann thought one way to keep volume down was to write brief replies. Someone sends me a 25-paragraph e-mail, I can't write a 25-paragraph reply... This is actually silly. If a point or question can be made briefly then of course there is no virtue in length. If an issue is complex, though, if several options must be considered, each with different implications, it is more helpful to have everything set out in a single message. Each paragraph should not need a paragraph in reply; a good reply will respond point by point, with perhaps a sentence or two per paragraph, interpolated into the original text. You then have all relevant information and responses in a single document, which is much easier to consult if you have to go back to it in 6 months than a series of e-mails with the same title prefaced by Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

There are people who can't cope with anything more complicated than an exam with T/F and multiple choice questions. It's very hard to do business with that kind of person, because you have to boil everything down to the type of question that has simple answers. Things go horribly wrong because you can't discuss problems at the level of complexity required. I find that as a writer of fiction; it strikes me as unlikely that high-powered software developers have simpler problems than mine.

At the beginning of his talk Mann said one should look at how one spends one's time and think about how well it matches the priorities one claims to hold. One might claim, he said, that family and religion mattered most; if those were one's priorities, were they reflected in the distribution of e-mails? The time spent on e-mails rather than other things? Again, this was someone who had not bothered to spend three seconds thinking about what Google claims to be about.

We may certainly feel that the way Google handled its dealings with China is at odds with the moral position it claims to hold. It's still not unreasonable to think that many people working there think they can come up with ideas whose implementation will make the world a better place. They don't necessarily put religion high (maybe anywhere) on their list of priorities, but they might put making the world a better place high on the list; quite a lot of them might subscribe to the hacker principle, for instance, that the world would be a better place if good solutions to problems only had to be discovered once for everyone to have access to them. It's not clear that the distribution of e-mails in Inboxes (assuming a good spam filter) would be wildly out of sync with this; the challenge would be to make this form of communication more effective in promoting goals it to some extent already serves.

I don't know whether there is a one-size-fits-all system for managing e-mails. I don't know whether the recommended system would be more helpful in a workplace where life was what happened outside office hours. It was interesting to see what a bad fit was achieved under the assumption that this was the only possible type of workplace.