Sunday, December 28, 2008

Camus wins Nobel prize

Le président du comité émet son avis : on attendait du nouveau dans la manière d'Hemingway, et "c'est arrivé avec Le Vieil Homme et la mer", paru deux ans plus tôt. Certes, il y a du cynisme et de la brutalité dans son écriture, ce qui s'accorde mal avec l'idéal Nobel, remarque Herr Österling, l'homme fort du comité. Mais il y a indéniablement une forme d'héroïsme qui le séduit. Hemingway, alors ? Ce n'est pas gagné. Herr Siwertz, un autre pilier du comité, objecte : Hemingway "n'a pas besoin d'un Nobel pour devenir célèbre ou riche". Il ajoute : "J'ai de plus en plus le sentiment que depuis trop d'années nous nous en tenons au baromètre de la célébrité."

Camus ? "Son dernier livre, L'Eté, a des pages d'une beauté classique, écrit Österling. Son nom peut être à nouveau actuel. Camus représente toujours l'une des meilleures promesses de la littérature française, et encore une oeuvre de la même qualité que La Peste mettrait sûrement sa candidature dans une position plus favorable." Comme avec Malraux, on sent que le jury Nobel n'attend qu'un "petit" effort de l'écrivain. Dans le secret du vote, Hemingway finalement l'emporte.

Le Monde on Camus's long and winding road, here.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Beast

The last post was No. 666. Dan Visel has just written to say that our interview is now online on Future of the Book. FOTB has a spectacularly handsome website which is, apparently, powered by Movable Type ; it's sad, sad, deeply sad that I don't have the technical expertise to move up to MT. Link

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

assessment exercise

The 2008 university Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), whose results have been announced with a mixture of fear, loathing and exhaustion, is a classic example of the self-defeating performance-management drive that is overwhelming the public sector.

RAE results determine the research funding allocated to institutions by the Higher Education Funding Council, according to a formula that changes each time. The official line is that the assessment - 2008's is the sixth since 1986 - is a success. It is "important and valuable", to quote one vice-chancellor, in providing an accepted quality yardstick and a means of promoting UK universities abroad. Others argue that it helps to ensure accountability for £8bn of public funding, the largest single chunk of university income. That sounds plausible: but as usual it conveniently airbrushes out other costs and consequences.

The first and most obvious of these is colossal bureaucracy. Government blithely assumes that management is weightless; but the direct cost of writing detailed specifications and special software, and assembling 1,100 panellists to scrutinise submissions from 50,000 individuals in 2,500 submissions, high as it already is, is dwarfed by the indirect ones - in particular, the huge and ongoing management overheads in the universities themselves. As with any target exercise, the RAE has developed into a costly arms race between the participants, who quickly figure out how to work the rules to their advantage, and regulators trying to plug the loopholes by adjusting and elaborating them.

The result is an RAE rulebook of staggering complexity on one side and, on the other, the generation of an army of university managers, consultants and PR spinners whose de facto purpose is not to teach, nor make intellectual discoveries, but to manage RAE scores.

Simon Caulkin in the Observer, the rest here.

Monday, December 22, 2008


1. Roz Tritton. Best Dentist in the World.
2. Julien Kwan. Best Apple Service Provider in the World.
3. Ed Park. Best Editor in the World.
4. Joey Comeau. Best Interviewer in the World.
5. Dan Visel. Second Best Interviewer in the World.
6. Extremely Fabulous Esmond. Bester Schlusseldienst in der Welt.

1. 2007 was a baaaaaaaaaaad year and 2008 was another baaaaaaaaaaaad year. Which meant that chunks fell out of teeth at times when the mind, maddened by publishing wankage, could not address tooth-related problems. For month after month after month after month. A filling came out at one point, and it was not possible to get to the Best Dentist in the World, so I went to a local provider, who said helpfully in German that there were two possibilities, one was that he could smooth out the tooth, the other would cost 50 euros, instead of elaborating on the 50-euro alternative (replacing the filling) he just ground down the tooth.... Time passed, time passed, I knew I should floss, I flossed and a chunk came out of said tooth. So then there was just a HOLE, and the tongue could feel gum, and this is the Beckettian life, the Beckettian tramplike life where teeth fall away and you accept that George Washington had a wooden tooth, but fortuitously I had booked an appointment with the Best Dentist in the World.

So I went over to Oxford, and the Best Dentist in the World did not put in a wooden tooth. She confabulated with Lucy, Best Dentist's Assistant in the World, and Lucy had a clever idea, and she manage somehow to build up this non-tooth and bond the build-up to the gum, using the substance proposed by Lucy (BDAITW), and miraculously there was an actual tooth in a place where no tooth was to be seen again. A second appointment was magicked out of thin air a week later, and another hole was transformed into tooth.

So, well. A commenter asked recently whether a writer needed an income and a room of one's own. What a writer needs is the ability to summon at will, for a book, the equivalent of the Best Dentist in the World AND the Best Dentist's Assistant in the World. You heard it here first.

2. Yeeeeeeeeeeears ago YT attempted suicide and was called back from the brink by heartrending messages on her cellphone. (She now has no cellphone.) She explained to her mother and sister that when things were very bad it was impossible to talk, but textual communication was still possible, it would help if reliable e-mail communication was in place. YT's mother has a horror of computers. Four years went by and e-mail communication was not in place. But MEANWHILE YT had accumulated many laptops (2C2E). What if YT's mother could use one of the laptops, whose only flaw was a damaged screen? YT persuaded her mother to come to Berlin, and meanwhile asked Julien Kwan, of, AKA, whether he could fix the dodgy laptop.

JK said, There'd be no point buying a new part, which would be 500 euros or so, but if you could get a defekt iBook off eBay I could swap the screens for about 70 euros.

So I checked out and bought a defekt iBook for 38 euros and took it in to Mr Kwan. Who turned it around in an hour and a half for 75 euros.

When I first met Mr Kwan, I was in Hornstrasse and his premises were the souterrain of a building in Grossbeerenstrasse. I sublet my apt in Hstrasse and moved to Crellestrasse, Mr Kwan coincidentally moved to Vorbergstrasse, just around the corner. So the Best Apple Service Provider in the World is just around the corner.

3. In autumn 2007, I think, Ed Park asked whether I would like to write something for The Believer about statistics. We talked back and forth and a film issue was in the works and I volunteered to write about Sergio Leone, having once spent 7 years on a book about a character obsessed with Leone. The piece was harder than envisaged, and my father was dying, and I proposed to Ed a different piece on the Realpolitik of the film industry. I sent the piece in, Ed liked it, had worries about word count, made suggestions, I revised, he rethought, the final piece was close to the submitted piece but better. Ed's first child, Duncan, had recently been born; he was fielding this among sleepless nights; remained helpful, charming, intelligent throughout. Wow. Wow. Wow. Pre-Ed I'd assumed there was no point trying to publish ANYTHING, EVER, because all editors were short-cuts to the cuckoo house. Post-Ed I misguidedly allowed many editors to see new work, under the impression that other Eds might be out there. Sadly, I think there's only one Ed. Ed, Ed, Ed, Ed, Ed, why don't they give YOU the top job at HarperCollins/Bertelsmann/Bla? We live in hope.

Ed's oulipian novel, Personal Days, has recently been published. Ed contributes to a blog, The Dizzies, Personal Days has its own blog, Personal Days, but if there are other Eds out there we have yet to be informed. (PD has had many, largely favorable reviews; bafflingly, none mentioned Oulipo. Was this because they thought readers would be put off by mention of Queneau, Calvino, Roubaud & gang or did they simply not notice? We think we should be told.)

4. Late last summer, I think, I got an e-mail from Joey Comeau of A Softer World, asking if I would give him an interview. Unusually for an interviewer, Comeau had read The Last Samurai AND Your Name Here. He sent four interesting questions. So giving this interview involved thinking at leisure about four interesting questions from a reader who had read two (count them, 2!) books. A Softer World is also an indispensable webcomic. Charmed, disarmed.

5. Later last summer I got an e-mail from Dan Visel, asking for an interview. Visel had also read The Last Samurai and Your Name Here, and he also sent some interesting questions. So giving this interview involved thinking at leisure about interesting questions. BUT Visel, who is allied with Institute for the Future of the Book, is hosted by NYU; there was some sort of problem; so the interview, to the best of my knowledge, has yet to appear. (In other words, things have gone wrong that are not DV's fault, so he is still Second Best Interviewer in the World, comes in handily ahead of the kind of interviewer who hasn't read anything I've written and knows nothing about me, but is sadly pipped to the post by Mr Comeau, who has total artistic control.)

6. Extremely Fabulous Esmond. Crossed my path, if memory does not deceive, back in 2007. When I had locked myself out of my apartment for the, hm, who's counting, well, latest of many times. Esmond cracked the lock of the apartment and was unimpressed, anyone could break in any time. He then saw that there was a better lock, a lock with a bolt. Asked if I had the key. I did. Spent about 20 minutes gouging detritus out of the hole in the floor where the bolt was supposed to go, lubricating, facilitating, end of story there was a bad-ass lock in place which no casual burglar was going to mess with. Charmed, disarmed.

Want to see my blacklist? Want to know how LONG it is? No, no, no, no no.


Great extended quotation from Jonathan Culler on Edmond Caldwell's Contra James Wood, here. Culler's comments are also pertinent to Zadie Smith's discussion of Netherland and Remainder in the NYRB a couple of months ago (here). (I am a great admirer of Remainder, but the fact is that its central device would have been familiar back in the day when Structuralist Poetics was young; it's hard to agree with Smith that it shows us something new.)

always the last to know

I have a feeling everyone else already knows about CapitalOne. No one else would have been stupid enough to sign up for a credit card with them in the first place. But no, that's paranoid, CapitalOne couldn't possibly survive on the ignorance of a single consumer, there must be other people who, for one reason or another, blunder into the tar pit.

Several years ago I had a credit card account with CapitalOne. I didn't use it much, but at some point I put a lot of things in storage in London; Big Yellow did not have a facility for payment by direct debit, so the only means of payment it would accept was a standing order on a credit card, and I misguidedly gave them the CapitalOne card.

Big Yellow rented out its unit in four-week increments, which meant that it charged the credit card every four weeks rather than at a fixed time every month. It was not straightforward to remember when they would be making a charge on the card. The way I generally found out was that a statement would arrive from CapitalOne listing the charge and giving the date for a minimum payment - a date which had already passed. On the next statement CapitalOne would levy a late fee of £20 for the late payment. I then came up with a cunning plan for outwitting CapitalOne: I would simply make a payment, out of the blue, without waiting for a statement! I would then be SURE to be in time for the minimum payment date, because I would have sent out the payment before CapitalOne even sent out the statement. Ha ha! Ha ha! Little did I know.

Sadly, these payments - even when covering the full outstanding charge from my storage facility - did not count as early payment toward the next statement. So a new statement would be issued; in the meantime the storage facility would have charged the card again; and CapitalOne, despite a recent payment of £80 or so, would once again levy a late payment fee next time round.

This was all pretty exhausting, and Big Yellow had a complicated procedure for changing card authorisations, so it dragged on, but I did finally switch the authorisation to Egg (who have, by the way, always been a pleasure to deal with). I was now living in Germany; it was inconceivable that CapitalOne would ever send me a bill in time for it to be paid on time, which meant that any time I used the card I might as well add an automatic £20 late fee, which meant, naturally, that this was a card I would never use again. So I did what any rational person would do: I terminated the other standing payment on the card, paid off the balance in full on May 9 2007 and terminated the account. (When I say 'paid off in full' what I mean is that, to the best of my recollection, I made a payment £20 over what I knew I owed them, to be sure of covering any fees that CapitalOne might have thrown in under its arcane accounting system.)

I then didn't hear from CapitalOne for over a year.

A few months ago I got a statement from CapitalOne. They had apparently made a payment of £12.83 or so to some entity or other under the account which had been closed the previous year; they wanted to be paid. Another statement came demanding payment and levying the familiar CapitalOne late fee. Letters came from Valerie Lipton, Director of Collections, threatening legal action. I wrote pointing out that I did not have an account with CapitalOne and had not had one for a very long time. A letter came from Sven Lagerberg, Customer Relations Manager, saying how sorry he was that I was closing my account, but pointing out that I could not close the account without paying the balance in full. Also further letters threatening legal action from Valerie Lipton, Director of Collections, and Michael Woodburn, Vice President of Collections. Today brings yet another letter from Valerie Lipton, Director of Collections, and a letter from Greg Mrkusic, Director, Debitas Legal Services, stating:

Capital One Bank - Account Number: 5460965760131389

Outstanding Balance: £77.43

We have been instructed to collect the outstanding balance you owe on the above Capital One credit card account.

Clearly, having an outstanding debt and a Default recorded on your credit file is upsetting. We understand that for many people the stress of having bad debt is a heavy burden and the stress this causes can be difficult to deal with.

Our aim is to help make sure that this situation does not get any worse. We want to work with you to resolve this situation as quickly as possible. From now on, we will be managing your account.

&c &c &c

The letter (dated 3/12/2008) goes on to say:

You must take one of the steps listed above within the next three days.

Ah, CapitalOne, CapitalOne, feels just like old times.

Anyway, I have already pointed out to Ms Lipton, Mr Woodburn and Mr Lagerberg that the account has been closed for over a year and there have, naturally, been no new transactions; if they have made a payment to some entity on an account which their former customer has not used for over a year it is, necessarily, unauthorised. What will they say if this goes to court? "We never received the notice of termination; the fact that we stopped sending statements for a year is just a coincidence." "The transaction for which we are billing the customer, one year after the alleged closure of the account, is NOT unauthorised. We don't have any independent proof that it was authorised, but LOOK, you can SEE it was authorised, it says so right here on our bill!!!!!"

And they want to run up legal costs chasing this?

Now, one of the threats brandished by CapitalOne is that they will destroy my credit rating. They will send details of this "unpaid" bill to Experian and all the other credit agencies, and if I ever need approval for a mortgage or some such thing I will look like a bad risk because, um, I didn't pay CapitalOne £77.43 when their computer made a mistake. I don't think this is an empty threat; on the contrary, I think it's the easiest thing in the world for CapitalOne to pass this garbage on to the credit rating agencies, and a really messy, long-drawn-out business to get something off your credit rating once it's on the record. But I don't take kindly to extortion. Not only do I not take kindly to extortion, I also don't hand over £77.43.

Anyway, as things stand CapitalOne has nothing to lose by firing off threats of legal action. I can't MAKE them look through their records for proof that the recent charge was authorised; I can't MAKE them spot the absence of authorisation and retract their bill. All I can do is watch them escalate their threats of legal action, until, presumably, we all go to court. Which is pretty tiring.

Mr Mrkusic does not mention the stress of being dunned by a credit card company to whom you don't actually owe any money. If I owed them money it would not actually be stressful, because I could just, you know, pay the bill. Hey ho hey ho hey ho.

Friday, December 19, 2008


In a café with a Hotspot that supposedly closes at 5. It's 3am. Someone is going around putting chairs upside down on tables.

How this happened.

I went to my gym at 12.30. The guy said the strom was kaput. (Roughly.) My gym has machines and also Internet access. Deprived of access to my cross-trainer I went to Kleisther, a café which advertises itself as closing, as I say, at 5.

And NOW look.

But I did catch the latest xkcd.

I am not getting as much work done as I thought because, as Maureen Howard once said, life gets in the way, but I have been reading a shockingly slipshod book on Durkheim on suicide and rereading Orlando Paterson's brilliant Slavery and Social Death. SSD came out in something like 1982, roughly the publication date of other books that dazzled me (Riddley Walker, Hawksmoor, An Insular Possession, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller), but I only discovered it in 1998 and now can't live without it. And I am not linking to anything, obviously, because someone is going around putting chairs upside down on tables.

I am not wanted. They want to close up. They want to go home.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

For one thing, it worked

Owen Hatherley of Nastybrutalistandshort on Shirley Porter, Tesco heiress, gerrymanderer, Kissinger manquee, here.

Realising that Labour's base in Westminster's council estates meant that this 'flagship' council had a distinct possibility of 'going socialist', she undertook a systematic policy of emptying estates in marginal council wards of their working class tenants, moving yuppies in to take their place, or simply boarding up and refusing to re-let old properties until said yuppies showed an interest. The homeless were dumped in other boroughs or made to live in uninhabitable buildings. This policy, which she systematically recorded in endless communiques and minutes, was called 'Building Stable Communities'.

Yet it seems that her legacy has been remarkably unchallenged. For one thing, it worked - Westminster has, for years, been as safe as Tory councils get. And more to the point, without ever using her sledgehammer-unsubtle methods, local government has been emptying council estates of their tenants and getting in the young professionals for the last couple of decades.
[Since you ask, I came into Yorckschlößchen to see Mimi, because I have to go to London for a week and she's about to go to Australia, but she isn't here, so Claudius brings me a Jever without being asked, awwww, and here we are, dipping into the WWW and the indispensable OH]

OH goes on, indispensably

Yet the key, and very weird, point is one made early on in the book [Nothing Like a Dame - the Scandals of Shirley Porter, by Andrew Hosken] by one of Hosken's sources: the municipal politics of 1980s as a bizarre and unique time when class war was fought using housing as an instrument, with the GLC and other 'loony left' councils like Liverpool on the one side, and Porter's Westminster on the other. This use of housing as a party political instrument is akin to something BLDGBLOG might write about, the use of space in a strange, non-architectural manner, something only supported by the achingly bland non-architecture that both sides were producing - none of it even remotely as aesthetically interesting as the stylistic and political warfare of 1920s Berlin.

tulips, art, bubbles

Modern Missives on tulips and art and markets, here.

In the winter of 1636-37, ownership of tulips bulbs sometimes changed hands up to 10 times a day. But then the crash came from a single ill-fated auction in Haarlem, when the precious bulbs failed to fetch their running price. Panic spread throughout the lowlands, and the market instantly evaporated.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Arabic dictionary

A reader contacted me recently in connection with the mooted list of Top 1000 Words in Literary and Philosophical Arabic.

Those who have tackled Arabic will know how much time a novice can spend trying out one root after another in an attempt to track down a word. Rob Sides has responded to this annoyance by setting up a searchable Arabic dictionary in Excel, based primarily on Wehr (though other lexicographical contributions are welcome). The dictionary can be seen here; anyone interested in helping to add entries can contact RS here.

over there

Came across a fabulous blog, Humor Vagabundo, written by Luis Moreno Villamediana, a Venezuelan poet; here's part of his description of writing a journal in German for a class:

Nunca escribí en mi apartamento una sola línea de ese cuaderno. Lo extranjero no es un acto privado. Cada encierro consiste en una pila de gestos cuya repetición confundimos con la definición de pertenencia; únicamente afuera nos damos cuenta de los cambios de nacionalidad o de costumbres. Prefería caminar como veinte minutos a una cafetería y aplicarme a escribir con todos los ruidos de un lugar compartido. Las máquinas de espresso y su ecosistema tienen sonidos propios. En la preparación, el operador debe deshacerse de la borra con golpes secos en el pipote de basura; de inmediato debe pulsar algo parecido a un gatillo y volver a llenar, con café nuevo, el recipiente de metal; a eso se añade el siseo del vapor: todo un sistema de códigos fácilmente legibles. Allí escuchaba, además, retazos de inglés, cachos de charlas que no me importaban y acababan en polvo. Sobre esa superficie enredada pretendía sustentarse el idioma alemán.

No me afectaba usar una lengua extranjera para aprender otra. Usaba una gramática escrita en inglés y un diccionario inglés-alemán; de esa manera acentuaba la natural extrañeza de esa instrucción, y con ella mi concepto de idioma nativo. Era un exilio doble, sin heridas ni arrepentimientos. Eso no me hizo más fácil la escritura, como puede entenderse. Para llenar un par de páginas cortas me tardaba al menos dos horas. Era una empresa flaubertiana en busca del mot juste. Necesitaba confirmar cada palabra, cerciorarme de la corrección sintáctica, asegurarme de mostrar cierto humor, ser, incluso, coherente. Me gustaba entretener a Frau Angelika con historias ligeramente absurdas; según sus comentarios, la cosa cumplía con su objetivo.

The rest here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

man is the measure

Came across a post on Infinite Thought on, or rather quoting from and referring to Massimo de Angelis' and David Harvie's paper on [the road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began], immaterial labour and the measurement of academic productivity in the UK. OK, borrowing shamelessly, slothfully, here's, first, IT quoting from: ‘inefficient’ lecturer becomes one who is unable to meet or beat the norm, one who spends more than, say, two-and-a-half hours preparing their lectures, or someone who assigns ‘excessive’ value to the relational practices with students who do not match standard academic background and so need particular attention. An ‘efficient’ lecturer is one that uses the pittance of her research allowance and produces ‘measurable output’ without asking for more time off teaching. It goes without saying that unless such a lecturer is able to beat norms elsewhere, and recuperate time in this way, then they will be forced to extend their own working day and week. In this way, a quantitative definition of socially necessary labour time (SNLT) for the labour of a lecturer emerges as the result of ongoing process of norm definition.
["Cognitive Capitalism and the rat race: How capital measures ideas and affects in UK Higher Education" by Massimo de Angelis and David Harvie, 2006, available here]

[in fact I'm unable to refrain from quoting at greater length from MdA and DH]


To obtain a bachelor’s degree in a UK university one needs to achieve 360 ‘credit points’, i.e. 360 credit points = 1 degree. At least 120 of these credit points must be at ‘level 3’ (i.e. third year) and a further 120 must be at ‘level 2’ (i.e. second year). Degree courses (or ‘programmes’) are further broken down into ‘modules’ of between 10 and 40 credit points, depending upon the university. So, for example, in each of three years a student might study six 20-credit modules. The content of both a specific degree in a HEI and each module is framed by a set of ‘indicative learning outcomes’ (ILOs), [6] which take the form of statements ‘On completion of this degree/module, the student will …’ ILOs can be either ‘subject specific’ (e.g. ‘… have attained a knowledge of the ways in which social struggles drive capital’s development’) or ‘generic’ (e.g. ‘… be able to work cooperatively within a small rhizomatic network’). The set of ILOs for a particular module must be appropriate to that module’s ‘level’, while the learning outcomes for a degree must satisfy so-called ‘subject benchmark statements’. So ILOs for level-1 modules, for instance, tend to emphasise mere ‘knowledge’ of theories, whilst at level-3 students are expected to be able to ‘critically engage’.

Subject benchmark statements are produced by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), which specifies the types of skills and ‘competencies’ which an economics graduate (say) should have acquired The amount of work required to attain a certain number of credit points is standardised across any particular institution. For example, a 20 credit-point module will be taught via two weekly one-hour lectures plus a fortnightly seminar over the course of two semesters, and will be assessed by a two-hour exam and a 2,500-word assessed essay.

OK, so cut and paste is not a girl's best friend, had we but world enough and time I would reformat. And reading on in MdA and DH I am unable to refrain from quoting further, because this is the kind of thing that drove a very close, very brilliant friend out of Britain, because he was so good he could get a job in America

Surveillance and standardisation

An elaborate set of procedures exists in order to allow the monitoring of these and other norms. For instance (and note that these are examples only):

* For each module, the ‘module leader’ (ML, i.e., lecturer) must complete various paperwork, in particular a ‘module specification’ (at the module’s start) which lists the module’s ‘aims and objectives’, ILOs, ‘modes and methods of assessment’, amongst other information; and a ‘module review’ document (at the end of the module), in which the ML reports their own assessment of the module’s strengths and weaknesses and their suggested changes for the following year; a summary of student feedback; and average marks and their dispersion.

* Across a degree programme as a whole (say BA (Hons) Economics) this information is collated into two important documents with similar structures. First, a ‘programme specification’, which will include the module specs for all of a programme’s constituent modules, plus rationale for the degree as a whole, its overall ‘aims and objectives’ and learning outcomes, and an inventory of the resources (academic staff, library and other facilities, etc.) available to ‘deliver’ the programme, Second, annual programme reports, which collate module reviews and summarise overall performance of a cohort of students, in terms of ‘progression rates’, ‘withdrawal rates’, location and spread of marks, etc.

My friend had, in the first place, the bad manners to ask what precisely the difference was between an aim and an objective. If funding depends on identifying your aims and objectives, surely the people asking for this information should be able to explain what they mean by terms which, to the untutored eye, look much of a muchness. Answer came there none - all the OTHER academics had just started out, it seemed, with a list of things that would be A Good Thing, tossed a coin for each Good Thing and allocated it accordingly to Aims or, as it might be, Objectives. (This is where all that training in analysis comes in handy.)

My friend had, in the second place, an objection to specifying learning outcomes. My friend's position was that no scholar with any claim to intellectual integrity can lay hand on heart and state that he knows the TRUTH. The scholar is not in possession of a body of wisdom, some of which he can impart in an undergraduate course, mastery of which portion constitutes the desired outcome of the course. It's possible to present material in lectures; it's possible to give reading lists and hand-outs; it's possible to explain methods of assessing evidence, go through some basic requirements if an argument is not to be logically incoherent - but the fact is, the instructor, no matter how brilliant, cannot specify what the learning outcomes of the course should be, because it is not in his or her power to assert that measuring up to his or her understanding of what is the case is the best outcome for the course. He or she may be wrong. It may be that providing tools for analysis will offer students the means to show that 75% of the instructor's lectures were WRONG. But if this were to happen, this would not mean that the course was a bad course, or the lecturer incompetent; it would simply mean that the lecturer had enabled students to take part in the business of academic inquiry, whose ends no one is in a position to foresee.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

the trouble with informants

My friend Ingrid is in Berlin. We were going to go to Badeschiff, a swimming pool-cum-sauna floating in the Spree, but she had to see her doctor and it was too much. So we met at Kleisther, a café down the street from my new apartment which has a Hotspot.

I had a grammatical question. Words like 'Wohnung' and 'Nutzung' are, of course, feminine, so the genitive looks just like the nominative. But if they're put in a compound an s is added: 'Nutzungsdauer'. What's going on? Other things being equal, I would have thought the compound required the genitive form (cf Altertumswissenschaft), but this isn't actually the genitive, so wha-?

Informant: Hm. I don't know.

We discussed an exhibition Ingrid had seen on political minimalism. I had another grammatical question (it's hell being an informant).

Why do you say KotbussER Tor but SchlesischES Tor? Tor is neuter, so Schlesisches Tor makes sense, but why is it Kotbusser Tor?

The informant mulls this over. She says: Well, Kotbuss is a town, Potsdam is a town (Potsdamerplatz), if you were putting Köln in a compound you'd say Kölnerstraße. Dusseldorferstraße. But it's Kleistpark and Alexanderplatz without an ending because they're people, Schlesisches Tor, well, schlesen is a verb.

This reminds me strangely of an episode in Winnie the Pooh.

Christopher Robin explains that the name of his bear is Winnie the Pooh.
Narrator: But I thought Winnie was a girl's name?
Christopher Robin: But it's Winnie THER Pooh.
Narrator: Ah. NOW I see.

(Note to American readers: THER: Brit for Thuh. The r is silent. Similarly, when the girls in Little Women call their mother Marmee, the pronunciation is, mirabile dictu, Mommy. The little women have a Boston accent. We thought you should be told.)

I say: OK, well, what about the sechsigER Jahre? (i.e. the 60s) Why is it 'er'?

Informant: Well, if you were talking about 60 years you'd say sechsig Jahre, but here you're talking about something in the past.

I say: So you wouldn't refer to the 60s of the 21st century that way? You wouldn't say 'In den sechsiger Jahren des 21. Jahrhunderts'?

Informant: It would sound funny. Maybe because we're used to using it of the past. You might say that, but it would sound funny.

I'm disheartened, demoralised. I completely forget to ask my informant whether she shares my instincts re the Australopithecus effect.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Books of the Year

Garth Hallberg of The Millions invited me to write about best books I'd read this year. He has just posted the result, here.

definite descriptions and such

I was having another look at Gerhard Antretter's Deutsch zu Zweit, and decided to see what he had to say about articles. The index gave only a single page for the subject, so I feared the worst.


Der Artikel

Was die Artikel ein und der betrifft, so stellt für bestimmte Lerner nicht deren Deklination das Hauptproblem dar, sondern die Tatsache, dass es sie überhaupt gibt. Neben sehr vielen anderen Sprachen kommt beispielsweise das Russische ohne solche Wörter aus und erfahrungsgemäß ist es das größte Einzelproblem russischer Lerner, sich auf die Notwendigkeit ihrer Verwendung im Deutschen zu besinnen. ... Wenn Ihr Partner zu diesen schwierigen Fällen zählt, suchen Sie sich gute Übungen zum Thema und legen Sie große Beharrlichkeit an den Tag. Wir gehen wegen der großen Komplexität der Materie und des im Verhältnis dazu doch nicht so großen Gewichts der Fehler nicht näher darauf ein. (!!!!!!!!!)

That is [rough and ready translation],

As far as the articles ein and der are concerned, it's not their declension that presents the main problem for certain learners, but the fact that they exist at all. Among many other languages Russian, for example, has no such words, and experience has shown that the single greatest problem[!!!!!!!] for Russian learners is remembering the need to use them in German. If your partner is one of these difficult cases, look for some good exercises on the subject [!] and show great perseverance [!!!!!!!]. Because of the great complexity of the material [?!] and the relative unimportance of the mistakes [hm], we shall not deal with this in greater detail. [punctuation fails me]

Now the thing is. The point of Deutsch zur Zweite was to provide a book that couples could use as a resource when one was German, the other not, so that the non-German could improve by practising with someone who was (probably) not a trained language teacher. A very large proportion of foreigners in Germany come, as it happens, from Eastern Europe; another substantial number come from Turkey; both groups have a first language in which articles are not used. And Antretter's right - for someone who is used to surviving quite happily without any articles at all, working out where to deploy them in a language which uses them with gay abandon is probably the single greatest problem they will encounter. So, um, wha-?

If your native language uses articles, TEACHING someone how to use them is probably one of the trickiest things you can tackle. It's not easy for professional language teachers; for an amateur it's unbelievably hard. So hard, in fact, that it's precisely the sort of topic the amateur might hope to find covered in, um, a book about teaching your partner to learn German. (Telling the reader 'Well, this is incredibly complicated and we can't be bothered so we'll just leave you to your own devices' is, to put it mildly, unhelpful.)

Is it really the case, anyway, that these mistakes don't matter much? In English, in popular imagination, the linguistic development of mankind matches that of the English speaker. Once, in the dawn of time, hominids roamed the earth, using primitive implements of flint. They had primitive terms with which to identify objects in their environment, yes: stone, knife, woolly mammoth. But not only did they have no notion of modern dentistry and supersonic flight, they also lacked the technology for definite and indefinite descriptions. The definite and indefinite article are the products of thousands and thousands and thousands of years of linguistic evolution... And in our infancy we retrace the linguistic development of the race. We too start with simple nouns and adjectives, the odd verb, and work our way up to articles, adverbs, tenses and other jollities. The non-native speaker who dispenses with articles sounds like someone at the stage of linguistic development of (at a guess) a two-year-old. Or Australopithecus.

Adam Smith, I think, said the basic requirements for human life include what is necessary to participate in society without shame. If you live in a society where all men wear hats, a man who does not have a hat lacks a necessity - he cannot appear in public without shame. Similarly, if failure to use articles slashes your apparent intellectual age to that of a toddler, the use of articles is a necessity; a book for couples confronting an article-heavy language ought to tackle them.

(It may be, of course, that the omission of articles in German does not have the Australopithecus effect. I've noticed, though, that Germans have a pronounced antipathy to teaching their system of articles to outsiders - it's always either jam yesterday or jam tomorrow, something either so simple you should have covered it in a beginners' course or so complicated it must be gone into at great length some other time.)

DzZ does have a good section on separable verbs, also normally jam yesterday/tomorrow.

Monday, December 8, 2008

new game new game new game

Language Hat quotes Remy de Gourmont in a post on The Writer's Capital Crime:

Conformism, imitativeness, submission to rules and to teachings is the writer's capital crime. The work of a writer must be not only the reflection, but the larger reflection of his personality. The only excuse that a man has for his writing is to write about himself, to reveal to others the sort of world that is mirrored in his own glass; his only excuse is to be original; he must speak of things not yet spoken of in a form not yet formulated...

(LH also gives the original French and a link to the post where he came across it.) One commenter asked how you can break the rules effectively if you have not mastered them first - a very common response to the sort of position Gourmont sets out, and one that misses the point.

Suppose I grow up in a family where people obsessively play Hearts. We switch around between different versions of the game - sometimes we play Black Maria, where the Queen of Spades costs you 13 points and you pass on three cards to the left before you begin play, sometimes we invent twists of our own. I also have four friends: A lives in a family of chess fanatics, B lives in a family of bridge fanatics, C lives in a family of go fanatics, D lives in a family of poker fanatics.

What I see at once is something remarkable. Languages are translatable, more or less; it may be more or less tricky, but it's intelligible to speak of Chinese being translated into Turkish AND Arabic AND English. Games are not translatable. Chess is a game for two players with complete information; you can't "explain" what's going on in a chess game in terms of bridge, which is a game for two sets of partners with imperfect information, a mixture of skill and chance which depends on skilful sharing of information between partners. And you can't "explain" either in terms of poker, which is a game for an indeterminate number of players, a mixture of skill and chance in which sharing of information between players would in fact be collusion and outlawed. A game is intelligible on its own terms - which means, paradoxically, that you can play a game with someone whose language you don't know, provided you both know the rules of the game.

You don't understand a game in terms of some other game, you understand it by learning to play it - but the more games you play, the more you will understand about the radical otherness of games. And this, it seems to me, is the sense in which Gourmont thinks each writer will develop his own aesthetics.

We don't have to agree with this position - it's perfectly possible to believe that a great writer may, on the contrary, be like a great chess player or a great bridge player, someone supremely gifted within the constraints of a particular established form. If originality is seen in terms of breaking rules, though, that presupposes that art is still comprehensible only in terms of constraints which already exist - originality is to be embedded in the sort of Oedipal drama at the heart of Bloom's Anxiety of Influence. It's as if one is actually incapable of understanding a form in which the rules one knows have no purchase. ("Yes, I realise it's a game for four people with cards, I know you don't have a board and you don't have pieces, but how can you expect to invent a game effectively if you haven't got the hang of the King's Indian?")

Monday, December 1, 2008

Lexique Pro

I sent an e-mail to Languagehat asking advice on elicitation for a book I was writing. LH passed the e-mail on to Claire Bowern of Yale, who has made many helpful suggestions and in particular called my attention to a program for creating your own lexicon, Lexique Pro.

A quotation from the homepage of the site gives some idea of the appeal of this resource:

You've spent years working on your dictionary, but how easy is it for others to make the most of it? Are the speakers of the language getting any benefit from it? Is it user-friendly enough for a non-linguist to look at? Are translators making the best use of it? Are partner organisations using it? Do university professors have it on their computers? Is it in local schools, government offices and cyber-cafés? Can people download it from your website? Or is it just lying on your hard disk or hidden away gathering dust in the corner of a library somewhere?

Needless to say, in my case the answer to all questions after the first is No, since I have not, as it happens, spent years working on a dictionary (how much more profitably the last 9 years might have been spent if I HAD, but regrets are vain). The site also includes a list of various languages for which dictionaries are available in Lexique Pro; I'm not sure how many of them can be opened at will in cybercafés. This is, obviously, great.

As it happens I've been working through Elisabeth Kendall's The Top 1000 Words for Understanding Media Arabic; I was thinking of compiling a similar work (1000 Most Important Words in Literary and Philosophical Arabic) for DSL, and frankly this is the sort of thing that is likelier to happen if one has the chance to play around at the same time with a new piece of software. (Lexique Pro is not currently available for use on a Mac; this is the one thing that gives me some chance of actually getting some work done before frittering away the hours on philosophical Arabic and Lexique Pro.)