Thursday, May 29, 2008

GTM Logistics

is bringing everything I own in Britain out of storage and over to Berlin. This means I shall soon have a couple of hundred copies of John Chris Jones' The Internet and Everyone. I think.

I'm hoping GTM Logistics is not outraged when they see the number of boxes to be brought over. The form I filled in for a quote simply asked the size of one's house (2 bedroom, in this case, back in 1999) and the things to be transported (boxes of books, piano). If you use a shelving system of garden blocks, bricks and planks you can get an awful lot of books in two bedrooms; I had one bedroom used for nothing but floor-to-ceiling shelves of books.

I tried to post a comment on Night Hauling and got this capcha

which I apparently failed to decipher (to me it looked like iiipq, but perhaps it was ijjpq or iijpq), so I then got this capcha

The wheelchair always makes me laugh. I suppose an eyepatch would be tactless.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

play up play up

Mogwai is cutting down the time he spends playing World of Warcraft. Twenty hours a week or less now, compared to a peak of over 70. It's not that he has lost interest—just that he's no longer working his way up the greasy pole. He's got to the top. He heads his own guild, has 20,000 gold pieces in the bank and wields the Twin Blades of Azzinoth; weapons so powerful and difficult to acquire that other players often (virtually) follow Mogwai around just to look at them. In his own words, he's "e-famous." He was recently offered $8,000 for his Warcraft account, a sum he only briefly considered accepting. Given that he has clocked up over 4,500 hours of play, the prospective buyers were hardly making it worth his while. Plus, more sentimentally, he feels his character is not his alone to sell: "The strange thing about this character is that he doesn't just belong to me. Every item he has he got through the hard work of 20 or more other people. Selling him would be a slap in their faces." As in many modern online games, co-operation is the only way to progress, with the most challenging encounters manageable only with the collaboration of other experienced players. Hence the need for leaders, guilds—in-game collectives, sometimes containing hundreds of players—and online friendships measured in years. "When I started, I didn't care about the other people. Now they are the only reason I continue."

Rage against the machines, Tom Chatfield on gaming in Prospect

too soon it is too soon

There’s a reluctance to accept Kelman for what he is, a perfectionist and a radical Modernist writer of exceptional brilliance, and this reluctance is not just bourgeois superciliousness. There’s a generous but misdirected romanticism, too, which would like to imagine Kelman warbling his native fucknotes wild, simply sluicing a measure of his authentic working-class soul onto the page without the mediation of rational thought: a one-shot exotic. The real reason Kelman, despite his stature and reputation, remains something of a literary outsider is not, I suspect, so much that great, radical Modernist writers aren’t supposed to come from working-class Glasgow, as that great, radical Modernist writers are supposed to be dead. Dead, and wrapped up in a Penguin Classic: that’s when it’s safe to regret that their work was underappreciated or misunderstood (or how little they were paid) in their lifetimes. You can write what you like about Beckett or Kafka and know they’re not going to come round and tell you you’re talking nonsense, or confound your expectations with a new work. Kelman is still alive, still writing great books, climbing.

James Meek in the LRB on Kelman's Kieron Smith.

by popular demand

Readers who have seen the online YNH forum have been asking whether it is possible to buy a copy of Your Name Here in PDF.

Your Name Here currently includes a large number of images for which permission has not been cleared. It's normally not possible to clear permission until a publisher has been found for a book, so it shouldn't be sold in that form in PDF in the meantime. TARARTRAT suggested some time ago taking the images out and giving people the links to places where they could be found online. I've been trying to do this. Unfortunately some of the links I have no longer work; I am posting these images on the blog in the hope that someone may recognise one or more and know the source.

This is the list of images. A copy of YOUR NAME HERE with placeholders for the images is now available for $8 by PayPal, payments to be sent to; readers can decide for themselves whether they want to track down the images and see what should go in the finished book.

p 49 Adorno on Beckett on the Deformed Subject on YouTube
p. 124 poster of Mastroianni in 8 1/2, 8 times, cover of Criterion Collection edition, here
p 137 still of Mastroianni on the beach from magazine (I think Paris Match)
p 168 still of woman answering the phone 1948, here
182 another still from the video of Adorno on YouTube

231 electoral map of US from al-Hayat, 2004

245 image of Fellini holding hand against the world, here

256 image of some masks, source required, see below

271 image of Marcello M and Ekberg from la dolce vita, here

333 image of Marcello smoking, here

370 image of Bob Hoskins and Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? here

388 image of knife, here

444 image of Michael Redgrave and ventriloquist's dummy from Dead of Night, here

473 image of a different poster of 8 1/2 repeated 3 times (over text from Terry Gilliam), here

487 another image of Adorno from the YouTube video

511 image of elevator shaft at KaDeWe, source required, see below

519 image of Mastroianni followed by Fellini in 8 1/2, here

557 image of woman's face from ukiyo-e, source required, see below

580 image of Tom Cruise waving, source required, see below

Picture permissions

As I've explained, I need to find the owners of the following images (the links I kept to the sources don't work, so I don't know how to track them down). If you happen to recognise one or more and know where it came from please let me know.

Monday, May 26, 2008

your talk here

Neil Gorman has set up a Ning forum for readers who would like to discuss Your Name Here. The link is here.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

the catcher in the s-bahn

Took the S5 out to Frederdorf to ride my bike to Strausberg, using a map that had been sold as a bike map.

A few boys who looked about 9 years old were lying stretched out on the pull-down seats in the bike section. Four or five more were forced to sit on regular seats. A girl in her early 20s was taking individually-wrapped Raffaello chocolates from a box, sometimes eating them, sometimes tossing them to the boys across the aisle. A boy came down the train and held out his baseball cap; she lobbed a Raffaello, which he fielded. Another boy came with his baseball cap. She said That was the last one. Rummaged in a big wheeled bag. Pulled out another box! Went on tossing chocolates across the aisle.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Kapitalismus, Kommunismus, Klutter

Came across an interview of Peter Walsh, a clear-clutter guru, on Galleycat. He talks about people with too many books, there are people who read a book that changes their life and don't need to own the book any more, others who think of the book as containing information, if they get rid of the book they are divesting themselves of this. Ron Hogan, the interviewer, says this helped him to get rid of many books.

Walsh, it seems, has won a wide audience through Oprah.

When I first came to Berlin I spent a few thousand dollars a year on books ordered online. I had a reader's card for the Staatsbibliothek, but I had not registered with the police which meant I could not get the kind of card that entitles you to borrow books. A couple of years ago I forced myself to go to the local authority, which is about 500 metres from my house, and register with the police. I was then able to upgrade to the reader's ticket which lets your borrow books. A reader's ticket costs 25 euros a year, with or without borrowing privileges; to borrow you need to register with the police.

In 2005 I bought 140 books online. In 2006 90 (registered toward the end of the year). In 2007 60. Some of these books are not in the collection at the Staatsbibliothek.

If I could get everything I wanted from the Stabi I would have far fewer books in my apartment. If I could keep my books in some kind of books cooperative, where I had 24-hour access, I would hand them in like a shot.

The problem is, I spent my teens in places with tiny libraries. At 16 I lived in Guayaquil, Ecuador; the only source of books was a room in the consulate filled with cast-off paperbooks, a collection determined by the wisdom of crowds. People in places with small libraries find themselves spoilt for choice if they want the works of Mazo de la Roche, turn to Amazon if they want Bolano. [sorry, enye not working in Blogger] If they want to refer to a text, they have no choice but to give it shelf space in the home.

The odd thing about the people who specialise in decluttering people's lives is that no one ever talks about the possibility of (shock horror) communal ownership. The alternatives offered are a) private ownership and b) divestment. So you have to choose between having a Greek-English Lexicon in the home, which you consult a few times a year, or not having access to one at all. The idea that you might be better off as a member of a group, so that you all paid once for a book you all might occasionally have use for, and all clubbed together to pay for a place to keep the collection... well, it's not that it smacks of Communism. It's not that it's unAmerican. It's so absolutely alien it's not even considered as a possibility.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

we want umlauts

Bewteen games ish hab gefragt: "Woher kommst du eigentlich?"
"Ish? Ish bin Türker. Komm' aus Istanbul. Dub bis Amerikaner?"
"Ursprunglish, ja- Kalifornien.- aber ish hab schon lange Zeit in Deutschland gelebt."
"akso, und was machst du hier? Erasmus?"
"nee- bin kein student mehr- also, beruflich bin ish journalist-"
"aksooo, journalismus- große zeitung- ? New York Times??"
"nööööö, das wäre sau toll, aber nee- nix so wie New York TImes"

the one and only TARARTRAT, the rest here

Berlin for Paris apartment swap

I'd like to swap my apartment in Berlin for one in Paris for July and August, or July OR August. I've posted a description of the apartment on Craigslist, with more pictures on pp at Wordpress.

the rise and fall of the genitive case

On Bremer Sprachblog, Anatol Stefanowitsch has an interesting post on the aspects of language that interest scholars, in particular the way grammatical structures offer points of comparison between languages - AND an amazing atlas of languages which presents this highly complex subject visually, now available online at the World Atlas of Language Structures:

What is WALS?

WALS is a large database of structural (phonological, grammatical, lexical) properties of languages gathered from descriptive materials (such as reference grammars) by a team of more than 40 authors (many of them the leading authorities on the subject).

WALS consists of 141 maps with accompanying texts on diverse features (such as vowel inventory size, noun-genitive order, passive constructions, and "hand"/"arm" polysemy), each of which is the responsibility of a single author (or team of authors). Each map shows between 120 and 1110 languages, each language being represented by a symbol, and different symbols showing different values of the feature. Altogether 2,650 languages are shown on the maps, and more than 58,000 datapoints give information on features in particular languages.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

FBI tackles language exam cheats

FBI visits Cambridge University to discuss beating language exam cheats

7 April 2008

An FBI specialist is to address European language experts on new forensic technology for detecting cheating in language exams.

The presentation, held at the international conference of the Association of Language Testers in Europe (ALTE), will outline how, as language tests become increasingly important for employment, study and immigration, they also become the target of cheating.

Rachel Lunde Brooks from the FBI in Washington is an applied linguist who has studied forensic linguistic techniques. She will explain how, even if cheating is undetected in the exam room, responses can be analysed by computer using sophisticated authorship attribution formulae. This can indicate whether a candidate’s answers have been the result of cheating.

the rest here


Kevin Connolly has very kindly sent me a new improved plot of the gender mnemonics data using Excel 2007

which really is awfully nice.

would they had blotted a thousand...

Barbara and I eventually reconciled ourselves to the fact that in buying our tickets we had sent about $20 to a place from which it would never return, and agreed that walking home and talking to each other would be much more interesting than struggling on with the film-watching. And our topic as we walked home was a linguistic one: What exactly was the line of dialog that should have first alerted us to the fact that we were going to have to write off our $20 and the whole cinematic evening? For it was almost entirely the dialog that stuck in our respective craws.

Was it when the mustachioed detective gave the speech that began "Let me see if I've got this straight…", and tried to grasp the fact that he was being told that the serial murderer was going to strike again?

Was it when Professor Arthur Seldom (played by John Hurt) said "I doubt if Heisenberg would have agreed" and Martin the graduate student (Elijah Wood) perked up and said "The physicist?" (No, you dork; Luther Heisenberg, the lawnmower repair guy in the village.) Surely we should have left earlier than that bit.

Maybe the bit where Kurt Gödel's name comes up, with the professor and the student utterly failing to separate the concepts of (i) falsity, (ii) unprovability, (iii) incompleteness, (iv) paradoxicality, (v) improbability, and (vi) unknowability?

No, before that; when Elijah stands up to interrupt a lecture about there being no certain truth and says "I believe in the number pi." That is where we should have stood up and said "I believe my partner and I are going to leave this cinema and walk home."

Geoff Pullum on The Oxford Murders, the rest here

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Gute Bücher

Walked toward Mehringdamm planning to buy plastic sandals. Stopped by the new used book store, Gute Bücher, in what used to be the Thai grocery store, near the corner of Mehringdamm and Yorckstrasse. The owner was opening up for the day, setting out books on tables outside. I said I had finished the book I had bought the other day and would bring it back so he could sell it again.

'Which book was that?'
'Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel.' It's not exactly the case that I couldn't put it down, since I had to put it aside for all kinds of reasons, but I finished it, which is more than can be said for most of the books I start. It has a glowing comment on the cover by Philip Pullman, 'one of the greatest ghost stories in the language,' which seems strong for a book that gets steadily less frightening as one reads on. The story is that of a medium who is pursued by fiends.

The owner and I, anyway, talk on. His name is John Russell. He explains that he wanted to live in Germany, and it's hard for Americans to get permission. So for a while he and his friends ran an online bookstore, and they all managed to survive selling books online. He then got the idea of having a small shop, which you can afford to do here, he explains, because it's so cheap: he's paying 500 euros a month for the shop, on a year-and-a-half contract. He's not sure if it was a good idea, it's just about breaking even but it's much more work. The main thing is, though, that it allows him to stay in the country.

I am very impressed by this. Every so often I pass empty commercial premises for rent and think of opening a shop and then don't.

   Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

I come home and get an e-mail from a reader asking why there is little display of emotion in The Last Samurai.

mens conscia something something something tristatur

Monday, May 19, 2008

Best excuse ever

My dear friend Rafe Donahue has sent many helpful suggestions with regard to ggplot2. He comments:

Don't think of the ± of 0.2 to each of the data at the repeat
locations as modifying the data. You are not modifying the data, you
are providing a different plotting algorithm for those points that share
a location with other points.

a line of argument which it is hard not to love. I'm not saying it's not valid, no... and yet I see myself, down the years, explaining innocently that I was not actually modifying the data as such, I was just providing a different plotting algorithm etc. etc.

Meanwhile Hadley Wickham very kindly sent the correct line of code to change the y axis. I type this in, and by the simple procedure of providing a different plotting algorithm for those points that share a location with other points produce

which really is terribly nice. Further information on ggplot2 is available here.

Readers who have not spent much time with Excel charts may be inclined to accept uncritically the complaints of PP; a wealth of information on what can be achieved is available at Peltier Technical Services, here.

On the subject of providing a different plotting algorithm for data whose points overlap, Rafe reminds me that

As I said before, we did this in the
baseball plot data y putting them in little boxes. Of course, you need
to decide on the size of the box, etc, but that is the price to pay.

For those who missed the great bivariate baseball score plot the first time round, this enables the user to select a team and one or more aspects of its game history and generate a bivariate plot, for example

You can create your own plots here.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

losing the plot

In the previous post I mentioned the results of a couple of tests on memorisation of articles in a language class. A reader pointed out that the plots given separately could be combined in a bivariate plot. Too true. This was weighing on my mind even as I posted the simple pair of plots in the last post.

The results, I remind you, were:

Test 1: 2 6 6 7 8 8 9 9 13 14 14 15 15 16 16 17 18 19
Test 2: 18 20 20 20 20 18 20 19 19 18 17 20 20 19 20 20 19 19

Since the data are currently in Excel, I run them through the chart wizard to generate a scatter plot and come up with:

which is not at ALL what I want. Why does the y axis start at 16.5? Why is it broken down in increments of .5, when the number of correct answers was always an integer? I want a chart that shows the area that's blank because NOBODY got a second score below 17.

The Excel Chart Wizard does not offer the option of customising the y axis. Since I always expect the worst of Excel, I assume there is nothing to be done. In my hour of shame, I come up with the dodgy solution of, ahem, adding a dummy set of results at 0,0. This produces

which is an improvement, but I am, needless to say, deeply mortified by the false result at the lower lefthand corner. I suddenly think: But what if I double-click on the y axis! Sure enough this brings up a dialogue box which lets me set the y axis to my own specifications, and...


There's just one slight problem. I know this tiny database, which means I know that 9 people got 20 on the second test, whereas the line at 20 shows only 7 results. The chart has fallen victim to overplotting; the two people who got 6 on Test 1 and 20 on Test 2 have been collapsed into a single dot, as have the two who got 15 followed by 20. Excel has come through once, but I can't believe there's a way to jitter the plot points. I retreat cravenly to inserting bullet points by hand in the basic grid:

This is clunky, no doubt about it, but since I've been doing it all by hand it's easy to see the two people at 6 who got 20 and the two at 15 who got 20:

I then realise that I can achieve a similar result in the charts feature by tampering, yet again, with the data: if I replace the pairs (6,20; 6,20) with (5.8,20; 6.1,20) and use the same dodge on 15 I come up with

Good. Good. (I mention all this because Excel is what most readers are likely to have in the home; it's easy to assume that feeding data into a chart will generate a chart that displays all the data.)

At this point, needless to say, I do not feel happy about a chart that depends on fudging the data. I now do what I should have done in the first place, which is to take it all into R. How much better it would all look, I think, if I used Hadley Wickham's ggplot2 package!

So I put the data into R. Vanilla R produces a plot which throws up a y axis that starts at 17 and moves by increments of .5 to 20, which means it is necessary to rifle through much PDF documentation (which is, of course, why I did not take this very simple task to R in the first place). ylim produces the right axis but doesn't look very nice, so I load ggplot2 and get this

which is very pretty but has yet another y axis starting at 17 and going up to 20 in increments of .5. There passed a weary time, each tongue was parched and glazed each eye, in other words ylim does not do the business in ggplot2, some other method of tinkering is called for, I spend much time rifling through the documentation of ggplot2 both in PDF and at geom_point
(I knew this would happen) trying to work out what to do. Wickham's work is inspired not only by Tufte but by Lee Wilkinson's Grammar of Design, which means that the documentation discusses the rationale underlying the package, which is, of course, both interesting and admirable but unhelpful if you just want to know how to do in ggplot2 what ylim does in vanilla R. Finger in the page. geom_point does make it easy to jitter, so I try that out and get

which is actually not what I want at all, because I only want to jitter the four points where there is overlapping. I think there is a way to fix this (I think it is possible to select horizontal jitter), but how late it is, how late.

At this point, naturally, I begin to wonder whether it is not somewhat infra dig to put all this low-level milling about on display; how much better just to relegate it all to the drafts folder! Wait till I have worked through ggplot2 properly and at some later date post a series of handsome plots, drawing on a more interesting range of data sets, with an air of effortless ease. Yes.

(I revert to my paltry little Excel chart. Wouldn't it be better to have gridlines that divided the area in four? Would it be better if the numbers on the x axis were closer to the points, i.e. at the top of the plot?

Well, maybe. It's clear that about half the participants got under half the answers right on Test 1, and everyone got better than 75% right on Test 2, so that's quite nice. And it does look somewhat like a Smeg refrigerator into the bargain.)

One problem with writing novels is that you often find that there is some software somewhere that looks as though it might do some specific thing that you need for some particular chapter, which may well never be needed again. So you find yourself simultaneously at the embarrassing amateur stage of, who knows, maybe 10 or 15 different programs. So what you would really love to have is the literary equivalent of a director of photography - a technical advisor whose job it is to answer questions like 'How do I fix the axes in ggplot2?' But this is really at odds with the whole Weltanschauung of the publishing industry. But enough, enough.

I then think, but maybe it would be nice to see the two sets of data in a line plot. I am somewhat demoralised by my adventures with ggplot2, so I run them through Excel and get

which is, of course, hideous.

But also enlightening.

Participants got 3 minutes to learn the genders of 20 words. Pre-technique, half remembered fewer than half. Post-technique, half remembered 100%; all remembered 80% or better. ONE PERSON, who started with a score of 19, failed to raise the score. In a word unknown to the immortal bard, blimey.

I don't know how well they would have performed if they had been tested again after half an hour, or 5 hours, or 5 days; this is, one would have thought, an obvious question, but it was one that was not answered in the class.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes... I draft an e-mail to Hadley Wickham, pleading for help. I then realise that my dear dear friend Rafe Donahue, despite his exasperation with the sort of person who is seduced by pretty plots, is still my dear dear dear dear friend. I send an e-mail to my dear friend...

And meanwhile, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a newsletter from Linotype celebrating the birthday of Adrian Frutiger. I mooch around the Linotype website, checking out the Akira Says column: the most recent essay is on Frutiger, but there are also essays on dashes (hyphens, en-dashes, em-dashes), small caps...


because the thing is, when you see a book into print, an 'expert' will be given a month or so to go through the text to introduce 'correct' dashes, capitalisation and so on, which the author can then spend up to 6 months trying to remove

but the thing is, let's be sane. Fine-tuning the dashes and caps is never going to achieve significant improvement in the reader's grasp and retention of the text. When I say 'significant' I'm not poaching on statistical preserves, I'm talking about the kind of improvement displayed in a pair of tests on memorisation of gender. Text A gets 50% of readers, we'll say, getting things wrong 50% of the time; improved Text B gets 100% of readers getting things right 80% of the time or better. You're not going to see that, because, um, text has an extremely limited capacity to convey information in the first place. Whereas, of course, if you start with two sets of numbers

Test 1: 2 6 6 7 8 8 9 9 13 14 14 15 15 16 16 17 18 19
Test 2: 18 20 20 20 20 18 20 19 19 18 17 20 20 19 20 20 19 19

and convert them to some kind of graphic display (as above), you can dramatically improve your chances of conveying a pattern of change. And if the graphic display has the allure of a Smeg, it will dramatically improve the chances that the sort of reader who has hitherto loathed graphs will suddenly be downloading R, braving PDF documentation, collecting data on self, friends and relations for the sheer entertainment of turning it all into graphs.

The point being, if publishers hired statisticians instead of copy-editors and designers, so that the author spent a few months going over the text with a statistical expert instead of the sort of person who knows his en-dashes, it would still be a lot of work, but it would be worth it.

Meanwhile it's a dark, gloomy day.

Thursday, May 15, 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.

[reposted because Blogger put it in the wrong place chronologically. ]


Garamond fonts are nearly as plentiful as mosquitoes in August. There’s a version from International Typeface Corporation (ITC)®, a version developed for Adobe Systems®, one produced by the Monotype® foundry, another drawn for Simoncini™ and still another for Berthold™. Linotype® has two versions (three, if you count the Stempel™ Garamond design). And this doesn’t even take into account Garamond faces that use different names, such as the Sabon™ and Granjon® designs.

Since Claude Garamond made his first font more than 450 years ago in France, there have been so many versions of this typestyle that it’s a challenge to know them all without a full-scale database. In foundry type, machine-set type, phototype, and now in digital form, literally hundreds of Garamond designs have graced pages over the centuries.

From the first issue of Illuminating Fonts, a new series from Subscribers to the newsletter can receive future issues by e-mail; also available in PDF download here.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

year of languages

UNESCO has decided 2008 is the Year of Languages.

I called my stepmother earlier this afternoon. I had sent her an e-mail expressing regret that the English course she took when she first came to America was very bad - confidence counts for so much in learning a language, and if you start with a bad course it's easy to lose heart. She explained that she had been able to take the course because she had a scholarship; my father was not willing to pay for an English course. (My father was born in 1934; his earliest memories were of life during the Depression; he felt poor all his life.) She then explained that she now speaks Portuguese to my brother, but the language he is dying to learn is Italian. He saw the Rosetta Stone course online and wants it. Her view is that the language he should work on is Spanish, because a) it is used everywhere in Florida and b) it will help him with his Portuguese.

This all sounds terribly familiar. The last thing a child wants to learn is a language that shows some prospect of being useful. Sheer impracticality is one of the strongest points in a language's favour for the young learner. The main reason my French is so much better than my Spanish or Portuguese is, naturally, that I grew up in countries where there was no use for it. Hassan Abudu speaks of being forcefed various Ghanaian languages which the resentful brain declined to admit to long-term memory. My ex-husband David is an exceptionally gifted linguist; his parents knew a smattering of Yiddish, it was more widely spoken in the older generations; it comes as no surprise that DSL, while quite unable to bear the (to him) unspeakable tedium of Yiddish, was just waiting to be seduced to Old Norse, Arabic, Akkadian...

I can't help feeling that the project of saving languages starts from the false premise that the likeliest prospects for preservation are those with some sort of family connection to the current population of native speakers. We may need a different paradigm. We need to take in each other's washing.

pin factories and such

Via Marginal Revolution, came to a post by Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics on specialisation -- linked, on the one hand, to our failure to see a connection between our patterns of behaviour and (say) global warming, and, on the other hand, to the system which enables one to fritter away hours, days, weeks, months at the keyboard snacking on food produced by the sweat of someone else's brow.

Dubner quotes the Babylonian Talmud:

Ben Zoma once saw a crowd on one of the steps of the Temple Mount. He said, Blessed is He that discerneth secrets, and blessed is He who has created all these to serve me. [For] he used to say: What labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained bread to eat! He ploughed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound [the sheaves], he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground [them], and sifted [the flour], he kneaded and baked, and then at last he ate; whereas I get up, and find all these things done for me.

And how many labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained a garment to wear! He had to shear, wash [the wool], comb it, spin it, and weave it, and then at last he obtained a garment to wear; whereas I get up and find all these things done for me. All kinds of craftsmen come early to the door of my house, and I rise in the morning and find all these before me.

I come across this while trying to sort out logistics for bringing things out of storage in the UK and transporting them to Berlin; have been putting this off for 4 years, because the piano needs a Luton van with a tail lift. A Luton van is the smallest available size of box van, a size just manageable for someone who has never driven anything larger than a car; I have driven one before (this was how I got the piano from London to the North in the first place), but that did not involve taking it on a ferry and driving a vehicle from drive-on-the-left Britain across drive-on-the-right Europe and back again.

The things in London went into storage when I went to NY in 2003; my editor had said I could work directly with the designer on my poker book, but he wanted to use his own designer. So I went to NY, and we negotiated a contract, and I could not get my publishers to provide the designer. The things in Leeds went into storage in 2000; my second agent, Andrew Wylie, had made tough noises when we met, claiming that the agency would bring ruthless efficiency to bear on -- this is the kind of thing that makes that book by Graham Greene look so good. Don't tell me about the past, tell me about the future.

It's a glorious day.

I had been thinking a while back that I would like to do an intensive course on driving an HGV, which can be done in Britain in a month for about £800, thinking how exceptionally helpful it would have been if I had been able to learn this at school. Thinking how much better off just about everyone would be if they were taught how to drive large vehicles with manual transmission at school. Asking myself: who expects to get through a lifetime without transporting stuff?

I've been spending a lot of time on Powerpoint, which the sort of job I might apply for tends to require. It makes driving an HGV look good, but the kind of job that calls for Powerpoint pays better. Have also been spending a lot of time on Excel pivot tables. These are moderately entertaining, especially when combined with MicroCharts, but I then get distracted and start playing around with Hadley Wickham's ggplot2. Had faintly hoped Powerpoint would look less deeply silly if I got to grips with it but it doesn't. Spent a long time working with hangul in Adobe Illustrator. Any wp program will let you select text and format it (Mellel will let you do more than most), but you can't select one element of a syllable in hangul, which the program perceives as a single unit: you must go into Illustrator, create a text box, type hangul, select with the Select tool, convert to outlines, select the element using the Direct Select tool, create a new layer, move the element to the new layer, and hey presto! format it. Question not the need.

This is what the hangul looked like when I was cutting and pasting and colouring in by hand back in 2005, pre-Illustrator:

There is one slight problem, which is that the font directly above (Seoul) is on my old Mac but not the new one and allegedly cannot be installed there. In a separate but related incident InDesign crashes when I try to open it in Leopard, but can't be installed on the old Mac (still on Tiger) because it does not have enough RAM. It will be obvious to the meanest intelligence that the author of this blog is precisely the sort of person who should leave design to the sweat of someone else's brow.

It's a glorious day.

You can type Chinese, Japanese and Korean in vanilla Illustrator, but it can't handle Greek, Russian, Arabic or Hebrew: you need the Eastern European version for the first two, the Middle Eastern version for the second. Same for InDesign. Poor head.

I read an agent's blog a while back (never a good idea); he thought query letters should not pose a problem for writers, because the query letter should simply express the writer's passion for the book. This is always hard to deal with. Quite a lot of working on a book feels pointless and stupid. Why am I sitting inside on a glorious day working on the deeply silly Powerpoint, mildly amusing pivot tables, delectable ggplot2 or possibly useful Illustrator? It's a glorious day. And even if (as I think) all these socially embedded means of presenting information show something interesting, and even if something even more interesting were to emerge if I dug deeper, how exactly is all this supposed to work in a book? This is the question I should be thinking about, no doubt, but instead I am wondering how long it will take to get Leopard on speaking terms with InDesign and whether it is worth adding more RAM to the old Mac.

So time goes by, and perhaps, in the end, there is a book for which hundreds of practical problems have been resolved - a feature that took hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to fix, maybe, turns up on two or three pages. And other features that took hundreds of hours to get right turn out to be wrong for the book, but there was no way of knowing that ahead of time. The author is about as likely to be enthusiastic as a marathon runner who has just collapsed at the finish line. And the author is likelier, unfortunately, to like dealing with technicians - people with some kind of expertise, people obsessed with details, people who can reduce the amount of time it takes to get something right, freeing up time to go outside on glorious days.

Too much shadowboxing. Mr Ilya is seeing the world.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


I’m incredibly egoistic in a concert hall. I really want to experience the pieces.”

In order to achieve this, Zimerman explains, he has a simple technique: that of not practising.

“Often I don’t work on a piece at home. I know what I want to do. I look at some fragments. I work on the craftsmanship, and on the piano. And then I play the piece for the first time in the concert hall. It’s very dangerous, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. But for me it keeps the music fresh. The moment I start to practise something, I kill it.

Krystian Zimerman interviewed in the FT.

Friday, May 9, 2008


What Prokofiev did have was an extremely dry wit, which occasionally results in some fine, bitchy one-liners, from his disdain for Mahler's Seventh Symphony ("like kissing a stillborn child") to his fear of the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky ("I always wonder: is he going to hit me, not for any particular reason, just because?") to his pride at being proclaimed "best-dressed man in Chicago". At his best he has a gift for the surprising phrase, the unexpected insight and the occasional laugh-out-loud bon mot. It appears much of his time was spent reading German idealist philosophy and "destroying" or "annihilating" various unfortunates at chess.

Owen Hatherley reviews Sergey Prokofiev, Diaries (1915-1922) ed. Anthony Phillips, at the New Statesman. The rest here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


SuperMemo is a program that keeps track of discrete bits of information you've learned and want to retain. For example, say you're studying Spanish. Your chance of recalling a given word when you need it declines over time according to a predictable pattern. SuperMemo tracks this so-called forgetting curve and reminds you to rehearse your knowledge when your chance of recalling it has dropped to, say, 90 percent. When you first learn a new vocabulary word, your chance of recalling it will drop quickly. But after SuperMemo reminds you of the word, the rate of forgetting levels out. The program tracks this new decline and waits longer to quiz you the next time.

However, this technique never caught on. The spacing effect is "one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning," the psychologist Frank Dempster wrote in 1988, at the beginning of a typically sad encomium published in American Psychologist under the title "The Spacing Effect: A Case Study in the Failure to Apply the Results of Psychological Research." The sorrrowful tone is not hard to understand. How would computer scientists feel if people continued to use slide rules for engineering calculations? What if, centuries after the invention of spectacles, people still dealt with nearsightedness by holding things closer to their eyes? Psychologists who studied the spacing effect thought they possessed a solution to a problem that had frustrated humankind since before written language: how to remember what's been learned. But instead, the spacing effect became a reminder of the impotence of laboratory psychology.


"Piotr would never go out to promote the product, wouldn't talk to journalists, very rarely agreed to meet with somebody," Biedalak says. "He was the driving force, but at some point I had to accept that you cannot communicate with him in the way you can with other people."

The problem wasn't shyness but the same intolerance for inefficient expenditure of mental resources that led to the invention of SuperMemo in the first place. By the mid-'90s, with SuperMemo growing more and more popular, Wozniak felt that his ability to rationally control his life was slipping away. "There were 80 phone calls per day to handle. There was no time for learning, no time for programming, no time for sleep," he recalls. In 1994, he disappeared for two weeks, leaving no information about where he was. The next year he was gone for 100 days. Each year, he has increased his time away. He doesn't own a phone. He ignores his email for months at a time. And though he holds a PhD and has published in academic journals, he never attends conferences or scientific meetings.

Amazing piece on Wired about Piotr Wozniak, inventor of SuperMemo, the rest here.
(courtesy of Mithridates at Night Hauling)

Monday, May 5, 2008


"Thinking back to my own life, I also hadn't forgotten my own experiences as a conscientious objector 10 years earlier. I had two tribunals and trials and expected to go to prison. I was saved only by my father paying the fine. But I remember being defiant at the time. No one wanted me to be a conscientious objector. My parents certainly didn't want it. My teacher and mentor, Joe Brearley, didn't want it. My friends didn't want it. I was alone. That was the point. Whatever his vices and failings, Stanley represents that spirit of defiance. He's not a passive victim waiting to be destroyed, but someone who puts up a fight. In that sense, the play derives from my own experience."

In the end, that is what makes The Birthday Party so unsettling: it combines the structure of a rep thriller with the guilt mechanisms of Kafka's The Trial and a deeply felt rebellion against what Pinter, in a much-quoted letter to Peter Wood, called "the shit-stained strictures of centuries of tradition".

Michael Billington in the Guardian on The Birthday Party, showing this month at the Lyric Hammersmith 50 years after it opened and flopped.

wotthehell wotthehell

For those who missed it first time round, "Cormac McCarthy and the Semi-Colon" has just been republished by Art Nouveau magazine with an illustration by Kaia Finn, here.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Socratic wisdom

Ben Goldacre at Bad Science draws attention to a paper on being too incompetent to assess your own incompetence:

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
1999, Vol. 77, No. 6. ] 121-1134
Justin Kruger and David Dunning
Cornell University


“People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.”

Available in PDF here