Tuesday, April 29, 2008

how many is a cohort?

Andrew Gelman very kindly sent me a link to his post of 25 April at the highly addictive Statistical modeling, causal inference and politics blog, on a story by William Saroyan, "70,000 Assyrians", in which the Armenian narrator gets into a conversation with his Assyrian barber. The narrator is in the habit of trying to work out how many Armenians there are in the world (he has seen estimates of a couple of million); he asks the Assyrian how many Assyrians there are, and is told 70,000. Neither group has a country of its own; the narrator thinks better things may come. The Assyrian says no, not for the Assyrians, 70,000 is not enough. Gelman comments:

This is the numeracy: 70,000 is a large number, a huge number of people. It's crowds and crowds and crowds--enough for an entire society, and then some. But not enough for a country, or not enough in a hostile part of the world where other people are busy trying to wipe you out. The idea that 70,000 is a lot, but not enough--that's numeracy.

I thought this was an interesting example. I then thought: Hang on a minute, what's the population of Andorra? I turn to Dr Wiki, who alleges that as of 2007 the principality had a population of 71,822, occupying a region of 468 square kilometres. It adds:

Responsibility for defending Andorra rests with Spain and France.
[Against whom, we might ask? France and Spain?] Andorra currently has no military force.

Andorra also lacks a currency of its own, using those of the two neighbouring countries; before 1999, it used pesetas and francs. Since 1999 it has used the euro. (It is not a full member of the EU; it just has a special relationship.)

Dr Wiki adds:

Andorrans are a minority in their own country; Spaniards, Portuguese, Frenchmen, Britons and Italians resident in Andorra make up 67.7% of the population.

The language is Catalan. Catalonia, which has scraped through to achieve the status of Autonomous Community of Spain, has a population of 7,210,508, of which some 12% are immigrants. (If I were a Catalan I'd be mad as hell.)

The 'Basque Country', an area of seven regions falling partly in France partly in Spain, has a population of some 3,000,000. A portion of Spain is now recognised as the Autonomous Basque Community. Basque nationalists have expressed a strong preference for having an actual country at their disposal.

A Kurd I spoke to in Istanbul a few years ago told me there were some 60 million Kurds; it was absurd that they did not have their own country. Figures from the CIA World Factbook (again courtesy of Dr Wiki) suggest that the population is somewhere between 27 and 36 million. The Kurd spoke angrily of the fact that for many years Kurdish was forbidden in schools; it was illegal for Kurdish children to be educated in their own language. As a boy he had made money by going over the mountains into Iran and smuggling carpets back into Turkey; looked at in another light, he remained in Kurdistan throughout, and the illegality of the enterprise was simply a consequence of the fact that Kurds on either side of the border had no political entity of their own.

What the numbers show us is that there is something that needs explaining. Why is it easier for the 23,199 realio trulio Andorrans to have a country of their own than for a few million Basques, several million Catalans, or tens of millions of Kurds? And if you can actually get by as a country without an army and without a currency, two common concurrents of nationhood, what do you need one for? It's not that the answers are far to seek, but the numbers are what make us think some explaining needs to be done.

Since this is the Week of Endangered Languages, we might remember that those who are forced to emigrate, whether for economic or political reasons, often find their descendants cut off from their culture of origin within a generation. America, for all its supposed emphasis on family values, provides little support within its educational system for enabling the children and grandchildren of immigrants to achieve mastery of the language or languages of their forebears. With their linguistic competence, immigrants bring to the country a wealth of cultural capital (the last time I looked, some 250 languages were spoken in New York alone); it's routinely squandered. But Saroyan's preoccupation with finding other Armenians, with finding places where Armenian could be spoken, reflects in part the fact that the language found no place in the institutions of intellectual formation of the country in which he found himself.

Well, I was going to go on to talk about Harry Potter and the X-Men, but it is 3:34 pm. Where has the day gone? This was supposed to be the year of Internetting in moderation.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Endangered Languages Week

The Endangered Languages Project at SOAS is holding Endangered Languages Week starting April 30, something to look into for those in the London area. The Project has its own website with a checklist for What is Your Language Footprint? Its recommendations for action struck this reader as singularly ineffectual, but others may be more optimistic.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Winnie der Pooh

I went to a 2-hour Artikelkurs at Hartnackschule toward the end of April. As it turned out, the course was not really about articles at all, it was about grammatical gender: it offered an introduction to mnemonic techniques that would help one remember whether a noun was masculine, feminine or neuter. The technique was essentially that of the art of memory as practised in antiquity, one I've heard of but never bothered to try: one assigns an image to the thing to be remembered. So one might assign the image of water to 'das' and then, to remember the gender of a neuter noun, assign a mental image to the noun and associate this with water. One assigns the image of a woman to 'die' and then, to remember a feminine nouns, assigns it a mental image and associates this with a woman. In one's mind, then, one might have a sofa, a book, a knife, floating in a pool. And so on.

At the beginning of the class the teacher did an experiment to see how well students memorised things using the techniques they already had. Students were given a list of 20 words, each of which had been assigned one of three articles invented for the occasion (fif, led, had). They were given three minutes to memorise the articles; asked to chat among themselves for two minutes; then given a test on the articles.

The number of correct replies reported was:

2 6 6 7 8 8 9 9 13 14 14 15 15 16 16 17 18 19

(I got 15.) The teacher asked those who got 15 or better what they did. One girl said she memorised the nouns for 2 articles, because everything else would take the third. (This was esentially what I did: write down two lists and memorise those.) Another (who got 19) said she constructed a story using images from one group of nouns, another story for another.

The teacher spent the rest of the class explaining how the visualisation technique worked. At the end he gave another test, again with 20 nouns and 3 invented articles, asking us to try the visualisation technique. I got 20. The results for the class were

(pairing results with original results):
18 20 20 20 20 18 20 19 19 18 17 20 20 19 20 20 19 19

or (in ascending order)

17 18 18 18 19 19 19 19 19 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20

We can summarise by saying that on the first text only 3 people got a score of 17 or higher, while on the second test no one got a score below 17; on the first test no one got 20 right, while on the second 9 (almost 50%) did. But it's easier to see the dramatic shift in the distribution of scores with a couple of graphs:

(Yes, yes, the information definitely could be better presented, but there is work to be done.)

Now, we can't be sure the improvement was entirely due to use of the visualisation technique. I used a combination of visualisation and the two-lists trick (i.e. bothered to visualise only two sets). Since another member of the class had mentioned this trick, it's quite possible that others in the class were also combining the two. Still, it's pretty impressive. The only problem is, the technique is of limited use in mastering the art of German articles.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it's fairly straightforward to correlate a mental image with the article 'der' and then associate this images for appropriate nouns. It's not at all straightforward to come up with a system of mental images such that 'der' is associated with masculine singular nouns in the nominative, feminine singular nouns in the genitive and dative, and plural nouns in the genitive. It's by no means obvious how to organise one's mental images so that 'den' is associated with masculine singular nouns in the accusative and plural nouns in the dative.

Now, recycling is a very good thing when one is dealing with scarce resources. It's not obvious that articles, whether definite or indefinite, fall in that category. Instead of cunningly reusing 'der' (so that it turns up not in one case but three), why not use it exclusively for the nominative masculine singular? And have a unique form for the genitive feminine singular? And another for the dative feminine singular? Go on, you want to say, be a devil!

The problem is, natural languages are not like programming languages. There's no one issuing a beta release and then fixing all the things that interfere with performance (for instance, by slowing down processing, taking up too much memory to store...). We can't fix the languages, so we have to fix the learners.

The interesting thing about the class was that it showed the (to a foreigner) peculiar German reluctance to help those grappling with the system of articles. It's not peculiar that the man in the street has better things to do with his time, of course, but schools are unanimous in shying away from the dreary task. This school was unusual only in ducking the issue in a course specifically advertised as addressing it.

Friday, April 25, 2008


I got an e-mail from Rafe Donahue with a fabulous work-in-progress attached, a piece he has been writing on the importance of not letting summary measures conceal what's interesting about a body of data (for example, distributions). He talks about various ways one could use graphics to display data so that important patterns can be discerned. (Rafe has typeset the piece in InDesign; a second e-mail talked about all the amazing things one can do with InDesign, making me glad I managed to pick up a student edition on the strength of my weekend course back in January. )

I then got an e-mail from a writer suggesting an interview, and asking for my version of my departure from the States a few years ago. I'm perfectly happy to talk about how I came to Berlin, but it's hard for me to see leaving the States as a radical departure from the norm. Having bought Microcharts only a couple of weeks ago I naturally saw this as a good time to play with it: I put together a table showing time spent in and out of the US from birth to now and converted these into a table of miniature pie charts. If I had ever worked out how to get Parallels up and running again I could have taken a pretty screenshot on my Mac; instead I've had to put Microcharts on the Brontosaurus (aka the Sony Vaio), take a screenshot and paste it into Paint, with this somewhat dowdy result:

For purposes of Mac-Windows comparison, here's a nice clean little screenshot of a couple of pie charts cobbled together in Excel on my MacBook, showing amount of time spent in/out of US a) up to the age of 20 and b) thereafter:

A cursory glance at these graphics shows that the thing that needs explaining is the brief return to the US in the last decade. (Long story. Don't ask.)

While the data may or may not show a strong preference for expatriate life, anyway, the presentation certainly demonstrates a strong preference on the part of the author for telling a story using miniature pie charts. We know this not merely from the use of a handful miniature pie charts, but from the fact that the author has gone out and paid good money for an Excel plug-in which generates miniature pie charts. (That's not all it does: it also generates miniature columns, miniature bar charts, miniature line charts, miniature win-loss charts and a couple of others that I forget.)

This is a preference that actually says quite a lot about a character: the character may be unable to explain things in words, not because she is inarticulate but because patterns of data are better presented in a graphic array. We don't see graphic arrays very often in modern fiction, which means a) that we literally don't see patterns of data about characters that can best be presented in graphic array and b) that texts don't represent a mode of thinking that is characteristic of the type of person who thinks in terms of patterns of distribution.

This is actually rather odd. There are other styles of thought and communication that can't get far using words - music is one very striking example. Musicians can play together without speaking a word of each other's languages; it's very powerful. But that's something one could only represent in a medium that made use of sound; you can't get sound off the printed page. Graphic arrays, on the other hand, are made to be seen; we just never see them.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

a long and winding road

I wrote to my American publishers a few weeks ago asking for the reversion of rights to a book they bought in 2003. This was all messy and complicated; in 2003 the Weinstein brothers were in the middle of the wheeling and dealing that would end with their leaving Disney, and the staff of the little publishing imprint that was part of Miramax were looking for other jobs. The book has been under contract ever since, initially to Miramax Books, subsequently to Hyperion. Anyway, Hyperion agreed to allow the rights to revert, which means I can now take it to other publishers. They sent a letter agreement, I signed and returned it, they countersigned and sent it back, and now it is here. Good.

Monday, April 21, 2008

here we go gathering nuts and may

I'm getting to the point where I'd rather castrate myself than talk to H. We work together at the tutoring center...

Mithridates brings sweetness and light to his fellow man.


I took the TestDaF (Deutsch als Fremdsprache) back in February and was told the results would be ready in 6 weeks. Heard nothing so wrote to the head of the school on Friday; got an e-mail saying the results had come 2 weeks ago and had to be collected.

The school is in the former East, reachable only by tram (trams being, of course, one of the great things about East Berlin). Took the U6 up to Oranienburger Tor, the M6 tram over to Landsbergerallee, the M8 tram into the wild (corner of Siegfriedstraße and something), and presently walked out clutching my certificate.

The good news is, I passed. Leseverstehen 5, Hörverstehen 5, Schriftlicher Ausdruck 4, Mündlicher Ausdruck 3. (5 is the top mark; 3 is the minimum for passing.) The bad news is, the Humboldt Universität requires a minimum of 4 in all sections of the test, so if I wanted to enrol there I would either have to take the test again or do some fast talking. So I am somewhat aggrieved; the parts of the test that went best were the ones calling on skills I had before I bothered to take a course (I could ALREADY understand the written and spoken language), while the weaker ones were precisely the ones I had hoped to strengthen by taking the preparatory course advertised online, only to be told I must take some other course instead. (Yes, this does seem petty. Well, I'm not all THAT aggrieved.)

I think this falls in the 'you don't need a brain, you need a diploma' category. It feels very good, having a certificate, much better than having to blather on about my familiarity with the German prose of 19th-century Prussian philologists. I wish I had more certificates. The head is filled with straw.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood are starting up a new project, Stackoverflow.com, meant to be a resource for the arrogant programmers - the type of programmer (the norm, according to Spolsky) who doesn't bother buying computer books, learns by trial and error, does theodd online tutorial and then turns to Google when there are problems native genius can't solve. The point being that solutions often end up being buried in forums or accessible only on payment of $12.95, or sometimes just turning up far far down the Google hit list, while the early throng of queries rank high. There will be a weekly podcast; the first has just gone up.

In the course of the podcast Spolsky and Atwood started talking about Firefox's market share, which Atwood said was now very big, he didn't want to quote a number because he'd be wrong, but he'd say between 10 and 20%. I don't know what the actual figure is; for this blog it's closer to 45%:

(pie chart courtesy of Sitemeter)

The OS breakdown, since you ask, looks like this:

30% seems like more Mac users than one would find in the computing population at large. Not sure what this says about the PP readership. Perhaps a disproportionate number are susceptible to inputting more languages than they actually know (Azeri! Armenian! Tamil!).

intellectual property wars

Over on the Guardian, a commenter noticed that SOMEONE WAS WRONG ON THE INTERNET:

1) The reason Apple cannot stop anyone installing a retail copy of OSX on anything they want is the same reason Microsoft cannot stop anyone running a retail copy of Office on anything they want. It is also the reason Black and Decker cannot stop you using DIY drills in the way of trade, and the reason why Vauxhall cannot stop you installing after market parts in your old Cavalier, and the reason why Faber and Faber cannot stop you reading the Collected Poems of TS Eliot in the bathroom by making it a condition of sale that you agree not to.

It is because post-sales restrictions on use are not enforceable in the EU. Not by EULA, not by signed document at time of sale, not if you have to dance it to a jig and sing your agreement in Mandarin before leaving the store. You cannot relinquish your statutory rights as a condition of buying a product, and one of them is freedom from post sales restrictions on use. Read those guarantee forms vendors invite you to send in sometime. See that part about your statutory rights not being affected? Think that's there out of the goodness of their hearts? Its not, its there because its the law.

2) And no, you did not just license it, you bought a copy. As when you bought your copy of the Collected Poems. Or you bought that copy of the Rasumovsky Quartet. Or you bought that drill. Calling something a license not a sale does not make it so. If it walks and quacks like a sale, that is what it will be held to be.

3) And come out of your dream world about "OSX is written for the hardware, and consequently it is far more reliable. OSX is basically a hand tailored suit made in Hong Kong whilst windows is a mix clothes from Marks , Oxfam and things left on a bus. Nothing quite fits...."

OSX relates to its perfectly standard though mostly mid range hardware in exactly the same way any other OS does. It uses drivers. You may not be familiar with these things, they are bits of software written mostly by vendors which permit an OS to address the hardware in question. Driver quality is important. But there is no material difference in how any modern OS relates to hardware and drivers. Thinking that OSX has somehow a more intimate relationship to an nVidia graphics card than Windows or Linux is idiotic. And by the way - its not that the OS was written for the peripheral hardware. Its that the drivers were written for the OS.

Or maybe you are thinking of the processors? Cannot be. Surely you do not think that OSX was written for the Core 2 in some different way than Windows or Linux was?

Please wake up there!

The rest of the comment (yes, there's more) here; Jack Schofield's article, OpenMac advertised for $399.99, here.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

it's not over till the android sings

The alien has been evacuated from a mainstream pop now largely given over to blokish conviviality and female hypersexuality. Pop now performs a kind of hyperbolic version of normality in which the most conventional roles have returned, re-naturalised even as they are digitally enhanced. Performers are celebrities rather than stars: they are just like us, but with more money, bigger houses and more access to parties. Numan inherited and exaggerated the very different equation of pop with the alien that had dominated Glam and Punk in the 1970s. Needless to say, it was Bowie – with his look as much as his music – who had done most to popularise this alien chic. The pop star was the man who fell to earth, an extraterrestrial existentialist thrown into a world that was both fascinated and appalled by him.


In the end, though, it wasn’t the alien so much as the android’s sense of alienation that was central to Numan. He felt most affinity with the fiction of Philip K Dick, with its themes of replication, simulation and commodification. (J G Ballard was another author with which Numan, like many other postpunk artists, was preoccupied. Heathrow and aeroplanes recur in Ballard’s work and, as an aviation-obsessive who was the son of a Heathrow bus driver, Numan might himself almost have been a Ballard invention.)

K-Punk on Gary Numan, on Fact

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Salesman

There are millions of people who would give anything to be in your shoes. How badly do you want this? Enough to step out of your comfort zone and go get it? Enough that you don’t want to have to start this process over again because you were too afraid to promote your first book and it’s failing? If you want it, if you want this life as an author, if you ever want to sell another book, your goal needs to be this: You must do everything in your power to make this book succeed, because if you don’t, and this book fails, nobody gets fired…except you. The ultimate responsibility lies with you. Sure, books still fail even when an author does everything he can. But if you did everything you could possibly do and the book still fails, at least you will never look back on the experience with regret and say, “I wish I had tried harder.”

Lisa McMann

Friday, April 18, 2008

Berlin sublet

A rare opportunity has come up to sublet a room from one of Berlin's GRRRRRRRRREAT bloggers, TARARTRAT. TARARTRAT lives in Graefekiez, a part of Kreuzberg to which I would move at the drop of a hat; he describes the deal as follows:

The largest room in my apartment on Schönleinstraße in Kreuzberg is currently free and will be available until the very end of May. I am asking €235 a month, which is a good price considering the size and location. There is a large 3-panel bay widow looking out on a tree and the street below, high ceilings and antique double-doors. Apartment is fairly nice part of Kreuzberg* on the edge of the Graefe Kiez, an area full of great cafes and restaurants. Wireless internet is available for an extra €15/mo, and there is currently a daybed to sleep on as well as a hammock (hangematte) in the bay window (can be easily taken down) and a small table. The kitchen is large with plenty of storage space and the living room has a table, chairs, recliner an television with DVD player but I don't get any channels. The apartment is about 30 seconds walk from the Schönleistraße U-Bahn stop, which will get you to Mitte via the U8 in a matter of minutes, so that is very convenient.

I am an American Journalist, male in my late 20s, fairly laid-back, enjoy culture and music and whatnot- I stay out late on weekends, but am fairly calm during the week due to my work schedule.
I would prefer someone who wants to stay for at least several weeks, but if you are only in town for a little while then we can discuss that as well. Smoking is permitted in the apartment to an extent (i.e. please no hotboxing the place with chain smoke) - I prefer that people keep it to the kitchen or at least open windows. There will be a subletter arriving on June 1, so the room must be vacant by then. That's all that I can think of at the moment, so if this sounds good hit me up and I will send you a foto of the room and we can talk. Animals ok.

*[editor's note, NO, this is a GREAT part of Kreuzberg, NB nearby Cafe Zitron includes the Guardian among its free papers, as I learned a few months back from Justin Smith of 3 Quarks Daily]

So if you're in London, paying 400 quid a month for a bedsit in the wilds of Cockfosters, this is a great chance to take Ryanair over to Berlin with a great place to stay lined up. You can contact TAR ART RAT here.

[Update, 24.04: a subletter has been found...]

Thursday, April 17, 2008

not a nice man

Courtesy of JD, a link to Mark Brown's peculiar comments, in the Guardian, on a CD including a radio interview of Evelyn Waugh by a panel of three. Brown's take on the release: Although fascinating, the interview does not disabuse listeners of Waugh's reputation as a brilliant, yet slightly mad and combative reactionary. His reasons are, it seems: that Waugh approved of capital punishment, would have performed the task if required to do so, but would not have enjoyed it; that he did not like playing with his children when small and was glad they were at school; that he did not think there was such a thing as a man in the street.

Waugh is pushed on whether he interacts with real people and is asked: "Do you find it easy to get on with the man in the street?" "I've never met such a person." What about on buses or trains? "I've never travelled in a bus and I've never addressed a stranger on a train," he says, testily. The interviewer says surely Waugh cannot go about in a Trappist condition. "The prospect of just being introduced to somebody as just a person, a man as you might say in the street, is entirely repugnant."


By the end of the interview Waugh becomes exasperated. Asked about different nationalities, Waugh laments: "I clearly can't make myself understood. There is no such thing as a man in the street. There is no ordinary run of mankind, there are only individuals who are totally different. And whether a man is naked and black and stands on one foot in Sudan or is clothed in some kind of costume in a bus in England, they are still individuals of entirely different characters."

I can't quite see the madness in all this. The etiquette of the interview requires the victim to be pleasant in the face of inanity; Waugh violated it, but hardly without provocation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

don't fence me in

I was listening to the access accents CD for General American which I picked up in Oxford several months ago. The dialect coach's account of how a Brit gets to grips with this accent (sorry for lazy uncapitalized unpunctuated transcription, was going to clean it up but if it waits for housekeeping it will spend a long time in the drafts folder):

so when you’re in the states and you’re on the east coast you’re looking out across the atlantic to the old homeland and the british isles

the minute you turn your back on the east and you face towards the pacific you’re obviously not going to be thinking about little old england or little old british isles or europe you’re sort of starting to head out and look west and across the pacific to what is offered there so my feeling is when the pioneers really started to move form east to west and started to settle the wst which was sort of from the early 1800s onwards the further west they travelled the wider the horizons and the more spread out and open the landscape became so the vowels widened and flattened and the words rolled into each so the more in a way the more atypically American the voices became and then you can start hear where those influences in Texas and California start come from

if you look at america it’s huge it’s a hell of a size isn’t it
and if you look at americans they allow themselves to spread, release, relax, there’s a lot of air under the armpits, you know the english people always work from the elbows have you ever noticed that, it’s because there’s so many of us in such a small country so we do everything like we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves
but the american will put that air under the armpits use the whole arms gesticulate and generally take up space

and so in a way before you start doing the accent i think you have to think like that

(gives new meaning to 'divided by a common language' )

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


(Three readers of this blog may find this funny)

Der Spiegel has a piece on a community in Texas descended from German immigrants in the 1840s. The original settlers came from 5 regions of Germany, with the result that their descendants speak a mixed dialect which makes use of many loan words :

Dazu kommt die Verwendung von englischen Lehnwörtern, wie bei 'Dann sind wir nach Boerne gemoved' oder 'Wir meeten uns heute in town'."

Das texanische Deutsch ist reich an solchen sonderbaren Sätzen wie "Die Kuh ist über die Fence gejumpt!" oder "Wasever, ich muss die Pick-up da erst mal greasen und das Oil changen".

TARARTRAT, LH and DSL can check out the rest here.


C21 epic

The greatest consequence of The Wire (and its companion long-arc shows, many of them having seized the advantage of cable programming to risk the experiment) is a historical inversion. For a long time it was the case that movies were long and television was a short form. The TV show had 23 or 46 minutes for a narrative to complete itself; a movie had 90 minutes, two hours, three! Movies haven't changed (indeed, uncoincidentally, the Hollywood length creep of late-century seems to have begun to reverse itself), but The Wire is about 65 hours long, divided graciously into five location-based chapters. Movies are now the short form, television the long form. About the experience of narrative duration in video games, the results aren't yet in.

Even this is not the greatest achievement of The Wire; that is its incomparable casting of African-American actors (and in at least one case, African-British). It remains a mystery why Hollywood, with its vast budgets, reach, and expertise, can't catch up or even approximate the show's achievement. Except that it's no mystery at all, but rather a fact inseparable from that of duration: because the actors on The Wire will have many hours to develop their characters, they have no need to employ telegraphic acting devices to define their characters within a brief few minutes — a set of stock signals known to every Hollywood performer and ticket-buyer, and in the case of non-white actors, generally referred to as "stereotypes."

Jane Dark again, here

paradoxe du bouquiniste

I'm reading Dominique Urvoy's Les penseurs libres dans l'Islam classique (Albin Michel 1996/Flammarion 2003), which I picked up at the airport in Casablanca.

Urvoy points out an oddity which he calls the paradoxe du bouquiniste. Anyone who spends a lot of time at secondhand bookstalls finds an image of the history of French thought in the 18th century quite different from what he was taught. In his studies they would have talked only of thinkers who were opposed to established religion, above all to religious orthodoxy; but in the bookstalls one finds a vast army of defenders of the faith, names one has never heard of, or heard of only as someone who criticised Rousseau... Since the Renaissance, he suggests, we have placed emphasis on originality, on individualism, so our intellectual history devalues whatever was typical of its time, rates highly whatever was at least self-proclaimed as original. Books offer us chapters on great individuals, with perhaps a dutiful chapter on background which the reader feels free to ignore.

In the history of Arab thought, on the other hand, the opposite is true. It has been written not by philosophers but by historians, and they privilege "representative" authors. The Arab philosophers who drew on the Greek philosophical tradition have just about managed to get taken seriously because of their immense influence on Scholasticism - but many Islamic scholars regard them askance as marginal thinkers. Attention was concentrated on the religious apologists, who were seen as expressing the essence of Arabic-Islamic thought. [I am writing this awkward English because paraphrasing DU, something I do very badly.]

Urvoy comments: the enterprise of setting out a collective structure of thought, with occasional detailed studies of individuals, is entirely legitimate. But isn't there something odd about this radical antithesis between the study of Western and of Arab thought? Can it really be right for the Arabist to concentrate solely on writers whose equivalents he would despise if he were a specialist of the 18th-century in France?

The wider relevance of this point speaks for itself.

I have posted DU's text in French on PP's sister blog over on Wordpress (here), which I now use for texts that interest me which I don't have time to translate/comment on properly.

darkness made immanent

Immanent critique is, thus, in no way proposed as a way of understanding art, much less poetry, in particular. And it surely doesn't mean to understand art as art, as self-sustaining and autonomous object. A central goal of immanent critique is rather to uncover the internal contradictions of a philosophy or text objectively, rather than incidentally imposing the inherent contradictions of a pre-determined method or ideology. This uncovering is done exactly so as to reveal the impress of social conditions on the reputedly but not actually objective or autonomous philosophy or text (and specifically, as articulated by Marx, Lukacs, Adorno & Horkheimer et al., the contradictions and deformations of capitalist relations). "As pointed out by Lukacs in his History and Class Consciousness, the essence of immanent critique is therefore dialectics." Which reminds us that it means to understand its object not as an aesthetic object but a historical process.

The frictionless, immediate, and unremarked slippage from
immanent critique to intentional fallacy is a useful index of the problematic of enlisting partial concepts from one philosophical practice to bolster a quite different aesthetic claim.

from If You're Scoring at Home on Jane Dark

pity the meat

'Pity the meat! Meat is undoubtedly the chief object of Bacon's pity, his only object of pity, is Anglo-Irish pity. . . . Meat is not dead flesh; it retains the sufferings and assumes all the colourings of living flesh. It manifests such convulsive pain and vulnerability, but also such delightful invention, colour, and acrobatics. Bacon does not say, "Pity the beasts", but rather that every man who suffers is a piece of meat. Meat is the common zone of man and the beast, their zone of indiscernibility; it is a "fact", a state where the painter identifies with the objects of his horror and his compassion. The painter is certainly a butcher, but he goes to a butcher shop as if it were a church, with meat as the crucified victim.'

Gilles Deleuze

From a post on Voltaire's Monkey on Francis Bacon, the rest here

Saturday, April 12, 2008

any ideas?

I wanted to install Microcharts on my MacBook, which can run Windows XP, hence Office for Windows. I am using Parallels because it allows you to copy from Windows documents to Mac documents. I had not yet installed antivirus software but thought I'd better. So I buy the Norton Dual Antivirus package for Macs which are also running Windows; there are two downloads, one for the OS X package, one for the Windows (setup.exe). Symantec does not explain whether one has to go into IE and Windows to download and run the latter, or whether, if downloaded within the Mac OS, clicking on it will automatically start up Parallels and do what's needed. I try first going into Windows IE but can't get access my account in Symantec, so I go back to Firefox and download Norton for Windows, start up Parallels again, click on the setup.exe icon.

In the past Parallels has run Windows XP and Office quite happily. What it now does is bring up a Windows desktop with no taskbar, no start menu, nothing. So not only is it not possible to install the antivirus software, it is also not possible to run Windows XP. I'm at a loss. I try uninstalling and reinstalling Parallels, which doesn't work. I wonder whether I can reinstall Windows XP, but when I put the CD in the drive and click on Setup.exe I get the same thing I was getting before:

(As you can see from the menu at the top, it is not possible to get the Windows Desktop or Taskbar; what you can't see is that if you try Start Menu nothing happens.)

I think about 35% of readers of this blog use OS X. If any of you are using Parallels and have run into this problem and found a fix, I hope you will let me know. (It shouldn't be necessary to say this, but Yes, I have checked the FAQs and Forums on Parallels and hunted around online; I won't say the answer is nowhere to be found, but I didn't find it.)

Friday, April 11, 2008

more damned misconceptions

Over on the new improved Wordpress-hosted Language Log, Mark Liberman has a post on the danger of misunderstanding medical statistics, especially if care is not taken to unpack the concept of false positives. (This was the type of example that first made me think I would like to use statistics in fiction.)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Oxford & Columbia dinner

I went to a dinner last night at the Brasserie am Gendarmenmarkt held by the local Oxford and Columbia Societies. Met a physicist who had recently finished her doctorate at Oxford and is now doing research on substances that become magnetic at very low temperatures. She bombards them with neutrons; interesting things happen. If I got this right, she was able to bombard them neutrons in Oxford, but the equipment in Wannsee is more powerful. She explained that it was a pleasure to work here, because the technical side is handled by people who are themselves scientifically trained, people with doctorates; in Germany the practice is to do everything possible to facilitate research. In Oxford the technicians are not usually scientists; things go wrong. You have to book time for your experiment; if the experiment is a failure, if the thing you were looking for doesn't happen in the allotted time, it's a disaster - and this does happen sometimes if the technicians have made mistakes. The people she is working with here are excited about getting down to very low temperatures - that is, they are not simply technicians providing support, but people with projects of their own which happen to be useful for what she is doing.


In December 2006 I had a party to celebrate the completion of YNH. I invited lots of people, including a reader who had sent me an e-mail, a Russian punk rock musician living in Berlin. X has just been ringing at the door downstairs. I don't need to look. X rings again. X rings again. Time passes. X rings at the door of the apartment (someone must have buzzed him in). X rings again. X rings again. X bangs on the door. Sometimes X calls on the phone. I never answer the phone.

I often go out and forget to turn the lights off. The thing to remember is that, if you don't move, you can't be heard; you might perfectly well not be at home.

X can't really use e-mail, he got a friend to write the e-mail for him. So I can't send him an e-mail telling him to stay away. I have tried to explain on the phone and in person that he must stop coming. Well, it's tiring.

Some time ago I came across a post on an agent's blog, a type of post that's very common on agents' blogs: a be-nice-to-assistants-or-else post. (I will track down the link if I'm not too lazy.) I sometimes think agents have an odd idea of a writer's life. People write. A was thinking of jumping off his 56-floor balcony, came in, read the book, still wants to jump. B is going off his head in Iraq. C is going off her head in the Israeli army. D says he will do anything to help and is never heard from again. E says he will do anything to help and is never heard from again. I was once attacked in a park near my house in London by someone I met in a pub. People write in quite a friendly way and then turn abusive. Something gets under the skin. I can't believe I'm that interesting, but books should be that interesting. Anyway, one wants a business representative, an agency, that is a haven of professionalism and efficiency.

I was going to write about something different, YNH. People write to me under the impression that YNH is a work of fiction on which the world of commercial publishing has turned its back. This is not really the case. The problem is just, I hired an agent early last year who claimed to be enthusiastic, but who proved not to be a haven of professionalism and efficiency. I couldn't deal with it. If a book has no agent to send it out it is unlikely to find a publisher.

It's been quiet for some time now. I think I'll go to Yorckschlosschen for a coffee.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

more inspiration

Boris Johnson's surprising early poll ead over Ken Livingstone in the run-up to the London mayoral election next month could be a headache for the makers of this excellent motoring accessory, the KenBuster. This automatic device senses when you stray into the congestion charge zone and pays the relevant charge for you. You might well ask how a device that pays the charge for you constitutes busting anyone, but that would be to forget the nature of the modern bureaucrat who, of course, pefers you not to pay such fees so he can hit you for even more via fines. Acording to the KenBuster people over 25 per cent of Transport for London's income comes from congestion charge fines, with about 4,500 people being stung every day.

So is now a good time to buy a KenBuster? Johnson promises only to "reform" the congestion charge. My guess is that a notional Mayor Johnson (a keen yclist) will steer clear of abolition, especially once he's seen the books. So it's all clear, I suspect, to buy a Ken/BorisBuster. £200 to buy outright, or £50 with a 12-month contract of £8 per month, from www.kenbuster.com.

(From the FT's How to Spend It magazine)

Saturday, April 5, 2008

this YouTube life

One way the reader can tell Humbert Humbert is not Vladimir Nabokov: 'At one point he confuses a hummingbird and a hawksmoth[?], now I would never do that.'

Nabokov and Trilling on Lolita, Parts 1 and 2, mentioned in passing in Languagehat's post 'On Last Looking into A la recherche du temps perdu'.

Where you do get your inspiration?

In a Pythonesque podcast on man's battle with the Inland Revenue, Andy White and Darren Fell of Freelance Advisor analyse an interview with accountant Steve Crouch (Five Questions You Always Wanted to Ask Your Accountant, Part 1):

Andy: Now Darren I know that we sort of hijacked the episode with IR35 and that's completely my fault but I believe you've got some thoughts on the subject as well

Darren: Yes, as I said right at the beginning IR35 is such an interesting area, nobody's quite sure, in fact the Inland Revenue isn't quite sure what they can get away with with people, it's a scare tactic, so that really got me interested.

And Steve, although I've been through it with Steve already about me being a freelance to Crunch, he made me worried that if I was present at a desk in the office 5 days a week and if projects you know overran I'd stop being paid if I was a true freelancer well this isn't the case with Crunch so that concerned me

So one thing I see as a categoric way of getting around IR35 is something I can do with Crunch and that is employ other people through me so as soon as I am, say if I need to employ a copywriter say I need to employ others services from other people and I'm running it through the business I am obviously taking a risk but I then turn from a freelancer or contractor into an agency setup and there the Inland Revenue cannot complain because I am offering a whole business service to Crunch... but do that and I think it is absolutely categoric from Steve that there is very little the Inland Revenue can do with IR35

Andy: Some interesting thoughts there Darren on IR35. Now, Section 660, you got some thoughts there on that business, you know spouses, and shares, things like that?

Darren: Well (laughs) you can get tax-avoidant and then you can just be downright silly...

Andy: Wise words Darren. What about VAT?

Darren: Yes, some very interesting words from Steve on VAT, I mean it's all simple stuff, he was promoting flat rate in there, flat rate is an excellent way of actually making money out of the Inland Revenue because you only pay back say 13% if you're say a PR business but you all the time consistently claim 17.5% ...

Andy: Now in that interview with Steve I have to admit I got so enthused about IR35 that I didn't have time to ask the last 3 questions but we will be doing that in Part 2 with Steve in the next episode, so Darren let's just go through the next questions

Darren: Well I'll let you off on that Andy because I knew you went off in a tank ship with all your questions on IR35 but I actually got stuck into that conversation because I was so intrigued, and I think everybody is, and I think to that point we ought to do an IR35 special in the podcast series, because we all need to know a definitive line of attack to get past Inland Revenue, so I think an additional question to Steve about doing an IR35 special I will have to place

(You can hear the whole podcast, including what Steve actually said on the intriguing subject of IR35, here.)

[Update. Well, you actually can't hear the podcast, because Freelance Advisor has apparently taken it off the site, so if you click on the link you get a 404. As of 23.04.08 you CAN read Darren Fell on IR35 here, though for all I know it too may soon vanish into the Twilight Zone]

Friday, April 4, 2008

Every Day is for the Thief

A couple of years ago I mentioned "teju cole, a temporary blog reporting on a visit home by a Nigerian long resident in the U.S.; it's full of beauty, sadness, and keen observations on life in Nigeria and in general," adding "I recommend it to your attention before it vanishes away at the end of the month." Towards the end of the month I provided a few extended quotes in this post, and I figured that would be the end of it—anyone who didn't catch it during its brief run was out of luck.

But Cassava Republic Press, based in Abuja, Nigeria, and aiming "to make quality contemporary literature available to the West African market at an affordable price," has published Every Day is for the Thief, a novel based on the contents of the blog, and I'm here to report that it holds up excellently well in permanent form (with lovely photographs presumably by the author). The publisher says "His subtle and nuanced prose explores themes as diverse as the minor joys of daily Lagosian existence to the crudities of contemporary forms of corruption"; the Author's Note says "What could possibly be said about this most complex of cities that could compete with the reality?... I have sought to capture a contemporary moment in the life of the city in which I grew up."

As so often, Languagehat got there first...

(The book is now available on Amazon)