Friday, December 18, 2009

open paprika

A bad year ends. A worse is coming.

One funny thing. When I wrote The Seventh Samurai, to give it its correct title, I imagined that a man might be driven to despair by all the ugliness he had seen and want to see some unprompted dazzling act of goodness. I think this may not have been right. What I find is that if you deal with bad people for long enough you treasure even trifling acts of courtesy. If I go to a café and order an espresso, I'm charmed, disarmed, speechless with gratitude if the waitress brings an espresso.

Ben Birdsall, anyway, has drawn to my attention his excellent blog, There Are No Fours, a sports blog which makes use of Adorno and Marcuse. It would be stretching a point to say that it makes life worth living, but it's a terrific blog.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Writing & That Clinking Clanking Sound

Great piece by Michael Greenberg on the Electric Literature blog.

electric literature

Scott Lindenbaum (my partner at EL) and I worked on The Brooklyn Review, a literary magazine published out of the MFA program at Brooklyn College. One day I spoke to a distributor who told me only 40 independent bookstores in the US carried literary magazines. "That can't be true," I said, "every store I go to carries them." "Where do you live?" he asked. "Brooklyn." "12 of them are in New York," he said.

Interview of Andy Hunter of Electric Literature at The Rejectionist.

Friday, December 4, 2009

rogue hypnotists foiled

Back when I was working for the Indiana General Assembly, one member (and not the member who was, no lie, a radio psychic) became convinced that it was crucially important for the state to address, via statute, the problem of rogue hypnotists travelling the land, preying upon unsuspecting Hoosiers. He wasn’t anti-hypnotist, mind you–he thought the government needed to protect people from unqualified hypnotists. If you ask me, real hypnotists are the ones we should be worried about (You want…to give me…your credit card…information…) but then I’m not a duly-elected public servant.

So the state passed a hypnotist licensing law, complete with the requisite boards, professional standards, forms to fill out, fees to pay, and so on...

Then, after the law was enacted, a funny thing started happening: The state began receiving license applications from people who didn’t live in Indiana. People who lived in states (i.e. most states) that didn’t require hypnotist licensing of any kind. Some were from as far away as California. It turns out they were doing it so they could advertise in the yellow pages and on bus-stop billboards as “state-licensed.” They would just neglect to mention which state.

On The Quick and the Ed, hat tip Marginal Revolution, hat tip Matthew Yglesias. (Hard to believe I have any readers who read neither MR nor MY, but could naturally not pass up the chance of a post on rogue hypnotists.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Joe Sacco

Rachel Cooke interviews Joe Sacco in Guardian Review.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

more is more

The second edition of The Elements of Statistical Learning (Trevor Hastie, Robert Tibshirani, Jerome Friedman) is available as a PDF download here.

R in Action

On One R Tip A Day, an early review of Ron Kabacoff's R in Action.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


wir haben es endlich geschafft einen Online Poker Raum zu hacken.
Nie mehr bezahlen !!! Nach monatlicher Hackerei mit unserem Profi Hacker



Interview of Cormac McCarthy in the WSJ.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Zwei Herzen schlagen also in der Brust des passionierten Krimi-Sehers.

Susanne Beyer in Der Spiegel

Friday, November 13, 2009

by other means

n 1969, Britain lost a 25-year business war it had been fighting with America for control of the UK film market. In 1969, the British government capitulated to Washington in a secret deal, and removed the protections that, until then, had sustained British Cinema. When these protections were removed (primarily certain tax breaks and the Eady Levy) the British film studios were doomed. Associated British Pictures and the Rank Organisation quit film operations in 1970, and British Lion scaled back, hanging on by its fingernails, until giving up the ghost in 1976.

Since 1970, Britain – a nation of over 60 million – has released an average of 6 British films per year. Denmark, a nation of only 5.5 million, has averaged 29 films per year over the same period. How is it possible that tiny Denmark can generate almost five times our movie output?
Simple: in Denmark, 12% of the market is protected for Danish films by the government.

The French government protects the French film industry in the same way. In France, 12% of the market is reserved exclusively for French films. Since 1970, this policy, combined with certain production subsidies, has enabled France to have a thriving indigenous industry turning out an average of 102 movies per year.

France’s population, at 63.4 million, is comparable to Britain’s, so it’s reasonable to assume that, if our government protected 12% of the UK film market for UK films (easily done with the stroke of the pen) we, too, could be putting out a hundred films a year.

Jonathan Gems on Clausewitz and the London Film Festival, at Pure Movies.

I got you babe

As part of the application to my screenwriting course at Harvard I ask the students to ask me a question. Most of the questions I’ve received are just fine – good indicators of what the student hopes to learn and sometimes what they misunderstand about what screenwriters do. Yesterday I got this question and it simply blew me away:

“Would you write a feature length screenplay if you knew it would not be produced?”

Oh my. That gets to the heart of so many things.

My immediate response is, without a doubt, no. Of course not. Why would I do that?

And then I hear my impassioned lecturer voice telling the students to pursue screenwriting not because they expect to “win the lottery” – make a million dollar script sale – but because they really love to write screenplays. After all, if you spend most of your time writing screenplays, that is your life. Why would you want your life to consist of something you didn’t want to be doing?

In point of fact, most of the screenplays that screenwriters write are never produced. More than most. So how is knowing that your work is very unlikely to be produced different from knowing that it will never be produced?

Answer number one: Hope. Faith. Belief.

Who knew that screenwriting was such a religious experience?

Danny Rubin (author of Groundhog Day), When A Screenplay Falls in a Forest, at Pure Movies.


An important question, surprisingly often overlooked, is how you want to actually spend your time, day by day and hour by hour. In academia, you will immediately be plunged into hands-on science, and your drivers will be to start out on your career by getting results, publishing, networking, and building your reputation with a view to impressing your tenure committee. A career in industry may put more of an early emphasis on your organizational aptitude, people skills, powers of persuasion, ability to strategize and execute to plan, etc.; in terms of growing your reputation, your audience will be the rather narrower community of your immediate management. A somewhat more cynical view would be that in business you will spend seemingly endless hours in meetings and writing plans and reports, while in academia you will spend all that time and more in grantsmanship—in this regard, you must pick your poison.

Finally there is the elephant-in-the-room question: Do you want to make money, or to help people? This is, of course, a false dichotomy, but many people consciously or unconsciously frame the decision in just this way, and you had best deal with it. Try thinking of it not so much in terms of the profit motives of the respective institutions, but in terms of the people with whom you would spend your career. You should have encountered a good sampling of scientists from industry during meetings, internships, collaborations, interviews, etc. (or in any case you should certainly try to do so before making judgments). If you are left in any doubt as to their ethics or sincere desire to relieve human suffering as efficiently as possible, or if you feel these are somehow trumped by the corporate milieu, then by all means choose academia—but only after applying analogous tests to the academics you already know well.
Courtesy MR, David B Searls on Ten Simple Rules for Choosing between Industry and Academia.


Or take a sentence like this one, from Barthes’s first book. He is not talking about a writer or a text or a style or an image or a story, but about … a tense. This is the preterite, the past historic, which in French exists only in written texts. It is, Barthes says,

the ideal instrument for every construction of a world; it is the unreal tense of cosmogonies, myths, history and novels. It presupposes a world which is constructed, elaborated, self-sufficient, reduced to significant lines, and not one which has been sent sprawling before us, for us to take or leave (jeté, étalé, offert). Behind the preterite there always lurks a demiurge, a God or a reciter. The world is not unexplained since it is told like a story; each one of its accidents is merely a circumstance, and the preterite is precisely this operative sign whereby the narrator reduces the exploded reality to a slim and pure verb without density, without volume, without spread.

Michael Wood on Barthes in the LRB.

Monday, November 9, 2009


I firmly believe that a person such as myself who can't make music (aside from drumming, tuneless singing, etc.) can't understand it in the way that a practitioner can. In general, I think it's hard to understand a system that you can't perturb.

Andrew Gelman, in a comment on a comment on a post on Joshua Clover's 1989.


“Can you see any clippy bits?” my son asked his friend. The friend was flummoxed. “Do you mean handy bits?” he asked, pointing.

“Yes,” replied my boy. “Clippy bits.”

Of course! This language of Lego isn’t just something our family has invented; every Lego-building family must have its own vocabulary. And the words they use (mostly invented by the children, not the adults) are likely to be different every time. But how different? And what sort of words?

Languagebuilding in Legoland, Giles Turnbull's piece in the Morning News, courtesy Languagehat.

(I'll be spending the next three months with my mother, who has undergone surgery and must have more, in Leisure World, a retirement community in Silver Spring. Whether its closest affinities are to Legoland, The Stepford Wives or Westworld remains to be seen.)

Friday, November 6, 2009


Gordon Darroch interviews Wu Ming 1 in the Herald Scotland:

GD: So are you using historic warfare to raise a point about modern warfare and the way it’s been sanitised and turned into an export industry? Is that why the description of the violence is so explicit? I found some of the battle scenes had an epic, Virgillian quality in the way they described every slash and thrust.

WM1: Thank you for calling our writing “Virgilian”, I’m a big fan of the Aeneid. The difference with the ancient classic epics is that we try to stress the sense of loss and waste in every single death. There’s no glory in Manituana, even heroic deeds are impregnated with sorrow, they leave a bitter taste in the characters’ (and the readers’) mouths. We tried to describe the acts of dying and giving death with utter honesty. Violent death is always disgusting. Sometimes it may be necessary (for self-defence etc.), but that doesn’t make it less disgusting. Dread Jack’s death is disgusting, even if it’s told in a farcical way. And think of the way we describe torture in Manituana.


GD: What are the problems – or challenges, if you prefer – involved in writing a novel with four people? How do you resolve disputes? Is there a set structure and editing process? How do you ensure cohesion of style, narrative and character – or am I wrong to suppose these are important to you?

WM1: You aren’t wrong at all, they are extremely important to us. We have no fixed method, the way we work evolves with every book, because we evolve, our lives evolve. For example, when we wrote Q none of us had children, now three of us are fathers. That doesn’t only change your perspective, it also changes your days, the way you have to organise your time etc. Of course, the most important thing is that we’ve been friends for so many years, we’ve shared so many experiences that there’s almost telepathy between us. The methods we adopt for writing together wouldn’t work for anyone else, that’s the reason it is difficult to explain them. We usually resort to two examples: collective improvisation in jazz and 1970’s “Total Football”. We’re a cross between a jazz combo and one of those old Dutch football teams.

GD: Hang on – you’re from a country that’s won the World Cup four times and you’d rather play like the Dutch? To a Scot, that just sounds perverse!

WM1: Italy stole the 2006 World Cup. Australia deserved to win the second-round match. Grosso dived to win the penalty, Totti scored it, Italy reached the quarter-finals. I was so ashamed, I wrote to all my Australian friends and acquaintances to apologise.


Owen Hatherley reviews Joshua Clover's 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About in the New Statesman.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

6 cents a word

For example, here’s one fun fact: The engine of Fitzgerald’s income (at least until he went to Hollywood) was not his novels but his short stories. He considered them his “day job,” a thing to be endured because writing them would allow him the financial wherewithal to write the novels he preferred to do. And how much did he make for these short stories? Well, in 1920, he sold eleven of them to various magazines for $3,975. This averages to about $360 per story, and (assuming an average length of about 6,000 words) roughly six cents a word.

To flag my own genre here, “Six cents a word,” should sound vaguely familiar to science fiction and fantasy writers, as that’s the current going rate at the “Big Three” science fiction magazines here in the US: Analog (which pays six to eight cents a word), Asimov’s (six cents a word “for beginners”) and Fantasy & Science Fiction (six to nine cents a word). So, sf/f writers, in one sense you can truly say you’re getting paid just as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald did; but in another, more relevant, “adjusted for inflation” sense, you’re making five cents to every one of Fitzy’s dollars. Which basically sucks. This is just one reason why making a living writing short fiction is not something you should be counting on these days.

Scalzi on Fitzgerald.

secret centre

This Space on The Turn of the Screw and Blanchot.

under the net

In the belly of the beast. C'est à dire, striving for a semblance of professionalism within a profession where a culture of secrecy trumps a mere way with words. Hence, naturally, catching up on Dinosaur Comics. As one does.

lrb 30th

The London Review of Books is celebrating its 30th anniversary by making the entire issue available online. John Sutherland has a piece in the FT on the history of the paper; like the NYRB, it was founded when a printers' strike left the public clamouring for book reviews.

Sutherland says that, just as the NYRB is not much read in the UK, the LRB is not much read in the US. Does this mean you, Paperpools majority? Sitemeter tells me that 51% of you are in the US; 57% of you are Mac users; 53% of you use Firefox; it doesn't know whether you are checking out the LRB every other week to see if John Lanchester has a new piece. (He does, as it happens, on Lehman Brothers. Where have you been?)

Possibly in an attempt to outflank the NYRB, the LRB offers a US subscription of $42 a year, which looks good compared to the NYRB's $109 a year, and a source of grievance compared to its rate for UK subscribers (£63.72). If you're in the UK or EU you can game the system, obviously, by taking out a subscription and having it sent to a US address. That's what I did, anyway - took out a "gift" subscription to be sent to my mother, registered online with the customer ID, and had immediate access to Leofranc Holford-Strevens' review of The Oxford Handbook of Case

English-speakers who have not had the good fortune to be exposed early to Greek or Latin, or even to their own language as it existed before the Norman Conquest, tend to find the notion of grammatical case baffling despite the survival in English of a genitive case (renamed possessive) and the distinction between subject and object pronouns in the first and third persons. Evidently, the alleged Irish saying that when it comes to politics the English are born three whiskeys down applies no less to grammar.

(I'd been frustrated in the past by pieces available to subscribers only, but it was LH-S's piece that settled it - my mother must have a "gift" subscription instanter.)

There's another way to game the system which, as far as I can see, has not yet caught on. Say you're in the UK and want a subscription to the LRB. You have a friend in the US who also wants a subscription to the LRB. The friend in the US takes out a sub for $42 a year, getting the hard copy; you send your friend $21 by Paypal (£12.70 - yes, that's right, a saving of a handsome £51 on the UK subscription) and register online under the name of your helpful friend.

What's love got to do with it? Or, why does it have to be a friend? On the one hand, there must be any number of UK readers who would happily pay a paltry £12.70 for full online access; on the other hand, surely, plenty of American readers who'd think twice about a sub of $42 a year, but would happily take one out for a laughable $21. A certain lack of enterprise, can't help but think, among the book-review-reading classes.

Friday, October 30, 2009

the red and the green

Behind that ugly outward face lay van Gogh’s resolute schedule of artistic self-education – he would reason out each procedure in a letter as he executed it, giving 19th-century art theory a test report. But behind that, the correspondence pivoted on a deeper contradiction. Artists – pre-eminently Millet, the great programmatic painter of 19th-century peasantry, the compassionate visionary who ‘reopened our thoughts to see the inhabitant of nature’ – were founts of self-will, imbued with genius: if that art theory had Realist trappings, its core was wholly Romantic. Having studiously admired that role from without, he had now taken it to heart. But the same picture-trade education also told him that what mattered was the market-worthy product, not the producer. In that light, how could he hold his head up, at once unemployable and unsaleable, a puppet on a remittance? What did this inner authorial voice amount to, first whispered into his ear by his brother?I am trying to analyse why the second and third sections of this six-volume set contain some of the most uncomfortable reading I can remember undergoing. ‘If it’s at all possible send me another 10 francs, say. A week’s work depends on it.’ ‘I promised to pay my landlord 5 guilders … I hope you’ll send me what I so greatly want.’ ‘In a few days, you understand, I’ll be absolutely broke’. That juncture was one that nearly all the letters, however long, eventually came round to. Was it – so both writer and reader must have wondered – what all the verbalising eventually boiled down to? Was the driven man of vision no more than a beggar with an act? And therefore, since the mirage of commercial viability – ‘It won’t be long before you no longer have to send me anything’ – never seemed to draw any closer, Vincent flailed.

Julian Bell
in the LRB on the new translation of Van Gogh's letters.

so glad you came

Behind a glass wall there was that bank of recording equipment you see in pictures. In the main room, where we were, there were some mikes, a set of drums, a fridge and a sofa. I said that I was only 14 and he laughed. No, I wasn’t, he told me. I was, I said. He pushed me on to the sofa and I repeated that I was 14, and – I was pleading now, knowing I was in trouble – I was a virgin. I was at any rate young enough to think that telling him that would give him pause. No, I wasn’t, I was not 14 and I was certainly no virgin, he laughed, as he pushed up my skirt. I have no idea whether he believed what he was saying or not.

Jenny Diski on Polanski at the LRB

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Wondering if Boulez has ever been to a dog show, I leave early in the morning with Eloise sound asleepLink on the back seat and a bag of pricey dog food in the trunk.

John Adams

  • Try not to panic if you can’t recognize that noise coming from the stage as something you wrote. The players, even those who’ve seriously practiced their parts, are nonetheless holding on for dear life. From their vantage point inside the churning machine they very likely have no idea at all what you mean nor how what they are playing is supposed to fit into the grand plan. They have only their individual parts, which are strange and incomplete road maps full of rests, occasional notes and then more rests. Even the very best of them will miscount on a first encounter.
also John Adams

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

some exercise of power

Ana Maria Pacheco's Some Exercise of Power will be in a show at the Mascalls Gallery in Paddock Wood, Kent from Nov 2 to Nov 19. (Paddock Wood is apparently somewhere in the neighbourhood of Tunbridge Wells.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

arga warga revisited

Courtesy Janet Reid, MOMA's Warhol Not Wanted letter on the Rejectionist.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Tony Harrison on sculpture:

There is a monument to Heine in a park outside the Frankfurt Opera which is used by heroin addicts. Heine's hair was covered in blood sprayed from the veins of junkies when their injections went wrong. Another Heine was in Corfu in the palace of Sissi, Empress of Austria, who adored the poet. At her assassination the palace was bought by the German kaiser, and his first act was to get rid of what he called that "syphilitic Jew".

Saturday, October 24, 2009

the subversive scribe

On Words Without Borders, María Constanza Guzmán interviews Suzanne Jill Levine, whose The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction has recently been published by Dalkey Archive.

MCG: North American translators are subject to what Lawrence Venuti has called the "canon of fluency," i.e., to certain standards and norms of English writing. How do you negotiate market demands, translation demands, and publishing demands, in the English in which you render your works, how do you deal with questions of readability and smoothness? What would or wouldn’t you compromise?

SJL: That is a complex matter. With all my books, including the biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, and in general with any book that anybody writes, there is someone who mediates between you and the reader, and that’s the editor. Depending on the editor’s culture and the culture of the publishing house itself many things can happen. I have worked with publishers accustomed to dealing with experimental fiction, but nonetheless sometimes they had questions or they wanted to use a solution for something that seemed to me like a conventional compromise. It was a back and forth. And you accept some compromises and not others, but you definitely want to get the book out there. One of the most interesting experiences I had in that regard was when I worked with Simon and Schuster, a big commercial house. I was doing the last novel of Puig’s. My editor at that time said to me, "there is a problem because we don’t know who is talking." I explained that this was part of the style, but she said "Well, can’t we put names?" I said: "Definitely not," and there was a huge battle, but I won. Because part of the point is that in the novel Puig is using film script format but without the names. It is very important how he plays with that, and it is up to the reader to find out who the speakers are. In a way you are what you speak. So that was the story, and I thought it was rather interesting; it was quite invasive of the editor; I had never encountered that before. Then again, the book wasn’t exactly a runaway bestseller either. I think that sometimes I’ve really taken control of the text and sometimes the editor might have been right.

(Much, much more in this extremely interesting interview, the rest here)

arga warga

Daniel Maia has started up Arga Warga (courtesy of Russell Hoban) to publish graphic novels and art books; his blog (in Portuguese) tells more.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

lots and lots of fried ants revisited

Andrew Gelman links to this article by Gretchen Chapman and Jingjing Liu

Previous research has demonstrated that Bayesian reasoning performance is improved if uncertainty information is presented as natural frequencies rather than single-event probabilities. A questionnaire study of 342 college students replicated this effect but also found that the performance-boosting benefits of the natural frequency presentation occurred primarily for participants who scored high in numeracy. This finding suggests that even comprehension and manipulation of natural frequencies requires a certain threshold of numeracy abilities, and that the beneficial effects of natural frequency presentation may not be as general as previously believed.

Fans of Gigerenzer's Reckoning with Risk take note. (This is exactly what I need for book 7.71, so unbelievably great. Thanks, Andrew! And thanks, Keith, who told Andrew!)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Also courtesy MR, Cory Doctorow on a publishing experiment. Including, among other things, a limited hardback edition with a cover illustration by Randall Munroe. Form an orderly queue.

invisible hand and the economics of economics departments

Courtesy MR, article by Daniel B. Klein on The Ph.D. Circle in Academic Economics.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Award in Environmental Journalism for Ilya Gridneff

Ilya has just received an award in environmental journalism for his reporting on the carbon trading market, story here.

Friday, October 16, 2009

unaccustomed as i am

TARARTRAT has posted an audio clip from John Chris Jones' talk about the Internet and Everyone at café ck on 2 October, with a brief introduction by me. John Chris is poised, self-possessed, articulate; I, on the other hand, seem to have entered the 2-minute 'you know I mean' babble competition. (Just how many times is it possible to say 'you know' in a single sentence? Hard to say, but I think Caroline Kennedy's record has been beaten handily.)

So this is, of course, horribly embarrassing - I need to take lessons, clearly, from the pro - but John Chris is worth hearing.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

the 140-character solution

Alan Rusbridger on Twitter and Trafigura and John Wilkes. (Trafigura tried to have the Guardian silenced by injunction.)

But the plan began to unravel rather rapidly on Monday when it transpired that an MP, Paul Farrelly, had tabled a question about the injunction and the awkward document in parliament. That was bad enough, what with the nuisance of 300-odd years of precedent affirming the right of the press to report whatever MPs say or do. There was a tiresomely teasing story on the Guardian front page. And then there was Twitter.

It took one tweet on Monday evening as I left the office to light the virtual touchpaper. At five past nine I tapped: "Now Guardian prevented from reporting parliament for unreportable reasons. Did John Wilkes live in vain?" Twitter's detractors are used to sneering that nothing of value can be said in 140 characters. My 104 characters did just fine.

By the time I got home, after stopping off for a meal with friends, the Twittersphere had gone into meltdown. Twitterers had sleuthed down Farrelly's question, published the relevant links and were now seriously on the case. By midday on Tuesday "Trafigura" was one of the most searched terms in Europe, helped along by re-tweets by Stephen Fry and his 830,000-odd followers.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Got this email today from Camfed

Dear Helen DeWitt,

On Wed., Oct. 7, the Case Foundation, Parade Magazine and launched America's Giving Challenge, a competition designed to encourage more people to participate in philanthropy. Don't worry, you don't have to be in America to participate, and we're calling on our supporters worldwide to join in!

The terms are simple: The charity on with the most individual donations by Nov. 7 wins the $50,000 prize. In order to send more girls to school in Africa, Camfed is participating in this challenge, and we need your help!


To win $50,000, between now and November 7th we have to get more people to donate $10 to our Cause than any other. (Each person can donate once per day and have it count as a unique donation.) We can also win daily awards of $1,000 if we can get the most people to donate in any 24-hour period.


1) Donate $10, which will provide a year's worth of school supplies-notebooks, pens, pencils-to a girl in Africa. To donate, visit

2) If you can give more, take the time to donate once a day throughout the competition-your generosity will greatly increase our chances of unlocking the $50,000 prize.

3) Forward this email, post a message on Facebook or Twitter, or simply talk to your friends about this competition and Camfed. Ask them to get involved and make a donation.

If you've never given on Facebook Causes before, now's the time. Your $10 donation may be worth $50,000, which would provide a year's worth of school supplies to 5,000 children. One person really can make a difference.

Thank you for all your support!

The Camfed Team

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sweet Thames, flow invisibly

Design Observer on the Tube map sans Thames. Ken Garland's book, Mr Beck's Underground Map, is one of my favourites, by the way - a must-have for design fanatics.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Does anyone know what the hourly rental charge would have been for an IBM Selectric Composer?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

sweetness & light

Mithridates Agonistes.

not in the room

A C Danto has a new book out on Andy Warhol, review of this and others by Richard Dorment at the NYRB.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Edmond Caldwell on Contra James Wood has a piece on The Millions' new Top 20 list for the new millennium.

I think EC has slightly missed the problem.

I got an email a while back from The Millions asking me to nominate my top 5 books for the new millennium, with the following constraints: they must be fiction, they must be available in English. The idea was, The Millions would then tabulate all votes and come up with a top 20.

So. If some of the most interesting writing I've read has been in a blog, or a pdf, or a webcomic, or just in emails, I can't mention it - it has to be writing that been legitimised by a book deal. Also, if I've read someone brilliant in a language other than English - someone who hasn't happened to sell English-language rights - I can't mention that either. So I can't use this to give interesting writers a better chance of attracting notice and getting an English-language book deal, I just have to endorse the status quo.

Well, let's say I play the game and I just pick 5 novels published in English since 2000; I might still think this was a chance to draw attention to undeservedly neglected writers. Fact is, it can't work that way.

The only writers who stand any chance of making it into the top 20 are going to be writers a significant number of other contributors have also noticed - which means they are wildly unlikely to come from the undeservedly neglected. They will come from the pool of writers who got promoted, who won acclaim, in other words from the much smaller pool of writers many of us have happened to hear of.

On these terms, the only book I can think of that stands a chance of making the cut is Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang - which, as it happens, didn't get onto the list. Possibly because it never did get my vote, because I thought this was silly.

Something that would not have been silly would have been to let people nominate whatever they wanted, and then publish two things:

1. The top 20 list on the original criteria

2. A list of ALL nominations, with the names of the people who put them forward.

We might expect, after all, that writers would read more widely than the general public; we might expect the most interesting contributions to be, precisely, all the nominations that only a handful put forward. The amount of weight we gave to such nominations would, unsurprisingly, be governed by what we thought of the individuals who made them.

(But. You know. Someone is WRONG on the Internet...)

the internet and everyone

Freitakt #5 ::: i + e _ v e r n i s s a g e ::: john chris jones on Friday, October 2 at 8:00pm.

Event: Freitakt #5 ::: i + e _ v e r n i s s a g e ::: john chris jones
"Take a Penny, Leave a Penny."
What: Opening
Start Time: Friday, October 2 at 8:00pm
End Time: Saturday, October 3 at 1:00am
Where: Café CK

rabbit: eats only the tasty bits

sheep: grazes only on cultivated pasture for which it has developed
tastes and habits

goat: can eat anything but refuses what is not sensible or of poor quality

Animal reading paths from John Chris Jones' The Internet and Everyone, a
book like nothing you've ever seen.

A show dedicated to this undeservedly obscure object of desire will be
opening at Café CK on

Friday October 2
8pm / 20 Uhr
Marienburgerstr. 49

Copies of the book will be available for sale or barter : if you have a
work of your own creation you can exchange it on the spot for a copy of
i+e. Whatever is traded will remain on the walls of the cafe for others
to encounter and enjoy for the duration of the show.

The show will open with a rare appearance by John Chris Jones, author of
the pioneering Design Methods and Designing Designing, who has come to
Berlin for the occasion. JCJ will be reading from i+e, with audience
participation from rabbits, goats, and the odd sheep that has decided to
break the habits of a lifetime and be a devil.

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

John Chris Jones

TARARTRAT is organizing an installation centering on John Chris Jones' the internet and everyone, which will kick off on, I think, October 2. John Chris has generously agreed to come to Berlin for the opening; he describes his ideas as follows:

When i read a book in public i like to make it a shared reading with the audience... i have often done this with the help of a video projector, as follows:

...i sit facing a video projection screen (or wall) with a lectern or music stand to hold the book while someone with a video camera (both on tripod and hand held) focuses on the words as i read them from the screen (which can also show views of any of us now and then)... this turns the private act of reading a printed book into a shared activity (as when one reads a story book to a child who is also looking at the words while you speak them)...

...of course if you do not want to use a video projector i can just as easily read from the printed book without electronics! Helen is keen on the 'animal reading paths' (pages 12 to15) i might ask you or others to read from the sheep and goat paths while i read some of the rabbit path (using a random number table to select pages and paragraphs)...

...this needs a little rehearsal to get the pages in focus etc and i would enjoy collaborating with you and the djs or musicians to relate the reading to their performance, and vice versa... on the friday or earlier in the week perhaps...

...if Helen arrives while we are there i think it is we who should couch surf... or else move to an hotel...

[to the last I say NO, NO - but in fact I am in New York and may not be able to get back in time]

Cory, who is hosting the installation, told me his space was across the street from St George's (which is at Worther Strasse 27). It would be better to post with more accurate information, but I'm somewhat exhausted. Still, if anyone would like to participate in the reading of an animal reading path, drop me a line and I will pass it on. Go on, be a devil.

over there

Owen Hatherley will be talking about his new book, Militant Modernism, on Thursday the 24th, 6.30pm, at 1 Bloomsbury Street, London. The event is free but call 020 76371848 or email to reserve. Londoners take note. (I'm in New York, worse luck.)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

words fail

Nothing remarkably incisive to say about all of this beyond the capsule rendition of how it works. It is an engine of professionalization, though. American job candidates, almost all of them, spend an entire year focused almost exclusively on this sort of thing – well, save for any teaching they might be doing, and frantic nighttime dissertation finishing. You enter into your first year on the market a kid who likes to read and write; you exit a fully fledged professional academic. Don’t get me wrong – there are good and bad things both about this sort of professionalization. But it is something to note, and perhaps something worth thinking and writing about a bit more, what effect the rhythm of the market has on intellectual life in the academy. Of course it’s always present, informing the decisions that people make about their work etc. But it becomes profoundly present, definitive, in bursts. There the struggle to get into a PhD program, and then relative calm for a few years. Then a frantic burst of market-awareness, then a bit of calm (at least on that front) as you start your job. Then the tenuring process, and after that, if you’ve made it, calm again… until you decide to look for another job… Goes on and on.

Ads Without Products on the MLA job list.

Friday, September 18, 2009

send in the robots

...there is now a first generation of cheery looking robots intended to interact with autistic children, and save on the inevitable burn-out of many teachers.

Ian Hacking, review in LRB of The Science and Fiction of Autism (Laura Schreibman) and Send in the Idiots: How we come to understand the world (Kamran Nazeer)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

risk is what keeps us alive

Terrific interview of Peter Carey about his new novel, Parrot and Olivier, at Granta.

Monday, September 14, 2009


A reader writes in response to my thoughts on the admissions criteria set out on the website for the Oriental Institute at Oxford (which, as you'll see, would appear to have suffered from a severe shortage of relevant information):

One quick fact-check-ish thing:

The written work submitted with an Oxford application generally isn't
written specially for that application - usually it's one or two
coursework essays, written as part of AS or A-level requirements.
Coursework is required at GCSE, as well: teachers may not want to set
their classes writing assignments that will demoralise and be
difficult to mark, but nevertheless they will have done so. I think
coursework is externally moderated, though a lot of it might be marked
in-school initially. I'm sure there is a set marking scheme applied
nation-wide (which of course has its own problems). It would probably
take more than just coherence, correct spelling and a grasp of grammar
to get an A in e.g. your English Literature coursework, no matter what
people say about modern grade inflation.


I've taken part in the interview process for Oriental Studies at
Oxford - I mean, I did so twice, once as a candidate and then some
years later as a quite junior panel member. The state-school question
was pretty pronounced in my mind: my year in my subject (i mean
'cohort', i suppose) was a third international-school (so-- private,
but of a certain kind), a third UK private school, a third UK
state-school. It's not a brilliant rate. At least one of the state
school students took a long time to produce essays of the kind being
asked for-- but then so did a couple of the international school
students. On the other hand, coming out of the gate as it were, in the
first two years when past academic/social lives still affect one's
work most heavily, the state school students were the ones with the
strongest work ethics, the ones who'd been used to having to work
without guidance, make their own revision timetables, study in an
atmosphere of discouragement (I'm sure you've noticed the way Oxford
students have a tendency toward the maintenance of a front of doing
absolutely no sustained work).

Of course all this means is that this sampling of state school
students at Oxford were the kind of people who found themselves
identified as clever and fought to keep that status, despite bullying
and distraction and all the rest. Not much space for the clever kids
whose brightness led them into boredom and doing the minimum. On the
other hand-- learning a new foreign language ab initio really requires
you be the kind of person who can make their own study timetable and
stick with it. If you get distracted, you start forgetting.

One thing that's worth comparison is the difference in intakes between
SOAS and other places that do Oriental Studies, or at least the
version of events I've heard - it's said that SOAS has the lowest
grade requirements for entry, and takes a lot of students in, but
their rate of attrition is very high. As students find themselves
unwilling or unable to do the work, they drop out or are encouraged to
leave. So people who just didn't enjoy what was demanded them at
school can discover that they really enjoy the intellectual demands of
university, and do well. On the other hand it's worth noting that this
sort of thing looks very bad on league tables. There might be
financial problems involved, too-- I know that FE colleges often get
allotted government money based on the number of students left in the
course at the end of a term or a year, not on the number who started.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

this sounds great!

Characters wander around aimlessly, do things for no reason, vanish, reappear, get arrested for unnamed crimes, and make wild, life-altering decisions for no reason. Half a paragraph is devoted to describing the smell and texture of a piece of food, but the climactic central event of the film is glossed over in a sentence. The death of the hero is not even mentioned. One sentence describes a scene he's in, the next describes people showing up at his funeral.

Josh Olson, however, was unimpressed.


I was having a look at the admissions criteria for undergraduate degrees at the Oriental Institute in Oxford. Each year Britain goes through a crisis of conscience because about 50% of undergraduate admissions are students from fee-paying schools, who represent some 5% of the student population; I wondered what the requirements were for degrees which can assume virtually no relevant work at secondary level.

My vague assumption was that they would be looking for students with strong evidence of linguistic aptitude - in other words, it would be the elimination of the language requirement at GCSE, with consequent fewer numbers taking a language A-level in state schools, which would be the biggest obstacle for candidates from the state sector. This seems not to be the case.

According to the relevant page on the OI website, even an A-level in an Oriental language offers no significant advantage:

All undergraduate degrees in Oriental Studies involve the teaching of difficult languages from scratch, since only in exceptional cases will students have studied the languages before coming to Oxford. Our experience has been that an A level in an Oriental language does not give significant advantage to a student, since the Oxford courses involve such a broad range of cultural elements in addition to language study. The progress of language learning from the start of the B.A. course is so intensive that the majority of students beginning from scratch find that they quickly catch up with those who may have some knowledge of the languages from school or family background.

In other words, you might think, this could be a good choice for a student from the state sector, because the Oriental Institute has had to assume responsibility for teaching all students to a high standard from scratch. Students are offered a linguistic aptitude test which you can try out here (solutions here); the test seems to be designed to test whether you can get the hang of an inflected language in which word order is no guide to sense, a challenge for which five years of French, say, would offer no great advantage.

Oddly enough, though, the things that really count seem much harder for someone from a school for students of widely varying abilities to demonstrate.

We judge whether you should be offered a place to study an Oriental subject at Oxford according to the evidence presented to us in your admissions documents: your UCAS form and the written work which you submit, plus our assessment of your potential during your interview. (Some subjects may also set an informal test during the interview.) We would expect successful candidates to demonstrate the following: high academic achievement, great potential for the intended course of study, good work habits, international outlook and strong motivation. Oriental Studies courses require a) a capacity for hard and well-organised work; b) the motivation to tackle languages which in most cases will be radically different from languages learnt previously and c) skills of analysis, argument and description for essay writing on an unfamiliar culture.

When I say it's hard for someone from a school with a population of widely varying abilities to demonstrate these qualities, I'm looking back to the schools I went to along the way; in this sort of school, if you hand in a piece of written work that is coherent, correctly spelled and grammatical, you will get an A.

Teachers are not going to give challenging assignments, because they don't want weaker members of the class to be demoralised. They are not going to hound the A student for inadequate skills of analysis, argument and description. And they're unlikely to set large numbers of written assignments in any case - the kind of thing that would require a good student to develop excellent work habits - both because, again, they don't want weaker students to be demoralised, and because it's hard work labouring through large numbers of papers that are incoherent, poorly spelled and ungrammatical.

A student in this kind of environment who has high academic potential is not necessarily going to have much in the way of a track record of achievement; he or she is likelier to do what I did, hand in schoolwork as required, be very bored, spend a lot of time reading. Such a student would be doing well to achieve the necessary A grades at A-level; I don't know that he or she would be likely to offer anything very impressive as supplementary material for an application.

I do realize, of course, that a university must have some criteria for selection. It may be that it's simply more straightforward to devise a programme for intensive language teaching from scratch than it is to teach, I don't know, excellent work habits, an international outlook and powers of analysis and argument. And yet...

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Anatol Stefanowitsch is back!

express lanes

You have here a simple question that anyone can access. Doesn't matter that you've never run a linear regression in your life. If you've ever shopped for groceries, if you've ever stood in line with a candy bar, a soda bottle, and a matinee starting across town in ten minutes, you have an opinion here.

Courtesy MR, Dan Meyer's post on queuing speeds in grocery stores.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Just got this newsletter from Camfed.

Can a book change lives? We believe this one can.

Drawing on years of rich and varied reporting experience in Asia and Africa, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's new book Half the Sky chronicles the stories of women who have escaped from slavery, narrowly evaded death in childbirth, and hoisted themselves out of the depths of poverty.

Among the women they profile is Angeline Murimirwa (née Mugwendere), one of the first students to be supported by Camfed. Growing up in Zimbabwe, Angeline was so determined to attend primary school that she persuaded her teachers to let her wash their dishes in exchange for school supplies. A brilliant student, she graduated at the top of her sixth-grade class-but her parents didn't have the resources to send her to secondary school.

When Angeline's path crossed with Ann Cotton's, the founder of Camfed, she had the opportunity to return to school. Today, Angeline is the Executive Director of Camfed's Zimbabwe program and an inspiration to her community and country. Read an excerpt of Angeline's story here.

Half the Sky concludes with a call to action to end injustices against girls and women worldwide through a massive grassroots campaign for education and empowerment. We were thrilled to see that the first thing Nick Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn call for is a $10 billion investment over five years to educate girls and reduce the gender gap in education.

Half the Sky is an inspiring and compelling collection of stories, but it is more than that. It is a passionate reminder that giving women the resources to fight their oppression and bolstering their potential to succeed will not only benefit their families and communities-it will sow the seeds for a healthier, more peaceful, and more just and prosperous world.

Available from Powell's, here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

isn't science amazing

"The feedback we are getting says what inspires young people is the chance to do hands-on experiments and tackle real-world problems. Health and safety regulations have limited schools' ability to do this. We need to maintain an excitement in science and show it's not about learning dull facts."

Molotov cocktails for GCSE! You know it makes sense.

Britain struggles with the perennial problem of getting students to see that science is not boring, here. (But things are getting better! 5% more students studied physics A-level this year than last, so A-level physics, we're told, is on the rise. Thank goodness for that!)

I'm reminded, for some reason, of my favourite scene in Tarantula, Clint Eastwood's first film.

Man looks with dismay at sinister-looking test tube: It looks like an isotope.
Scientist: It is. A radioactive isotope.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Did you know?

You can read an interview of Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comics fame) by Joey Comeau on A Softer World.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Things are still a bit tricky. I write posts and put them in the drafts folder. I told someone the other day that I would try to write a review and not put it in the drafts folder, but I have failed; there were larger implications. It's very bad. Still, I'm definitely catching up on Dinosaur Comics of yesteryear.

If I'm not careful I will end up just embedding the entire Dinosaur Comics oeuvre, which is not really a solution for Drafts Folder Syndrome, but anyway, Pi Approximation Day, wish I'd thought of that.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

secondhand sales revisited

Nathan Bransford, an agent at Curtis Brown, urges his readers to buy new books because authors don't get money on secondhand sales. We-e-e-e-l-l-l-l-l......

I'd just like to take this opportunity to thank all the readers who bought secondhand copies of The Last Samurai and sent a token of their esteem to the author via PayPal. I'd especially like to thank the reader who generously sent $150, thereby enabling me to buy a decadent sofa on eBay (you know who you are) and the five readers who sent donations of $50, enabling me to splash out on Michael Crawley's The R Book, Deepayan Sarkar's Multivariate Plots in Lattice and other indispensable works of reference. But I'd also like to thank the hundreds of readers who took the time to send a donation of a dollar or so, when it would be easy to think the amount was so small it would make no difference. It does make a difference. In this case, the difference between buying BonaVista's MicroCharts and prudently deferring in the interest of more or less manageable credit card debt.

I seem to have fallen into a humorous tone which does not really express my feelings. I'm always touched when a reader takes the trouble to do this. You didn't have to do it. It's completely optional. You're absolutely entitled to buy a secondhand book; it's not obligatory to send something to the author, it's just an unbelievably nice thing to do. So thank you all very much.

[For those new to the topic, the original post on secondhand sales, global warming and authors' finances is here.]

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Things are a bit tricky at the moment. Andrew Hussie's guest post on Dinosaur Comics captures the mood.

Monday, August 31, 2009

survival tip

A recent paper* turns the modern spotlight of statistics onto that pressing issue of how best to survive a big cat attack. The authors analysed data from 185 puma attacks on humans in North America over more than 100 years. The response was severity of injury, ranging from no injury to death. The predictors were age, group composition and behaviour. I am not sure about age but I am guessing that you shouldn’t go walking by yourself in puma country for a start. The modern data crunch used to reveal the elusive truth was multinomial regression.
Chris Lloyd on Core Economics, the rest here.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

the story behind the election

Andrew Gelman and John Sides have an article in the Boston Review analyzing Obama's victory, here.

radical thought

Probably the most noble thing a publisher can possibly do is provide cheap paperback editions of important texts. All the first editions and Folio press embossed hardbacks in the world are, culturally if not financially, worth less than a single bundle of 1960s Penguin Classics, and the line of low-budget purveyors of enlightenment is a worthy and laudable one. From the Everyman’s Library editions of the 1900s-40s, with their arts & crafts aesthetic, aimed clearly at autodidacts rather than scholars, to the more famous and, recently, highly fetishised Pelicans and Penguins of the 40s-70s, this is a story of profit, no doubt, but also of human emancipation through mass production. ...

Owen Hatherley on Verso's Radical Thinkers: Series 4 in 3:AM Magazine, here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

that clinking clanking sound again

Greg Butler has drawn my attention to an article in the NYT on Kickstarter, a new method for raising funds for the arts, here.

Why didn't they ask Gelman?

Reformers like Cerf, Klein, Weisberg, and even Secretary Duncan often use the term “value-added scores” to refer to how they would quantify the teacher evaluation process. It is a phrase that sends chills down the spine of most teachers’-union officials. If, say, a student started the school year rated in the fortieth percentile in reading and the fiftieth percentile in math, and ended the year in the sixtieth percentile in both, then the teacher has “added value” that can be reduced to a number. “You take that, along with observation reports and other measures, and you really can rate a teacher,” Weisberg says.

Steven Brill, The Rubber Room, in the New Yorker.

A student. Well, no, Mr Weisberg, you really can't.

One can't help feeling that Mr Weisberg, Mr Brill and the New Yorker would all benefit from the services of a statistician. (Not that they actually need someone like AG for this kind of thing, but it would be infra dig, presumably, to call on someone who had merely mastered the material in an introductory course for undergraduates.)

Sunday, August 23, 2009


He tried to show what it was like to read a book and what the thinking mind looked like in the act of writing.

He wrote compellingly about effort, about difficulty, about struggle, about failure, about incoherency, about instability, tension, waste, self-consciousness, incompleteness, process . . .

Mithridates on the critic Richard Poirier, who has just died.

codes of the underworld

The signaling problems faced by criminals are unusual in the following regard. On one hand they wish to signal a certain untrustworthiness, namely that they are criminals in the first place. This is useful for both meeting other criminals and also for intimidating potential victims. On the other hand, the criminals wish to signal that they are potentially cooperative, for the purpose of working with other criminals. Sending these dual signals isn't easy and Gambetta well understands the complexity of the task at hand.

Tyler Cowen of MR, on Diego Gambetta's Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

proportioned like an egge

In the river of Panuco there is a fish like a calfe, the Spanyards call it a Mallatin, hee hath a stone in his head, which the Indians use for the disease of the Collicke, in the night he commeth on land, and eateth grasse. I have eaten of it, and it eateth not much unlike to bacon. From thence we were sent to Mexico, which is 90 leagues from Panuco. In our way thither, 20 leagues from the sea side, I did see white Crabs running up & downe the sands, I have eaten of them, and they be very good meat. There groweth a fruit which the Spanyards call Avocottes, it is proportioned like an egge, and as blacke as a cole, having a stone in it, and it is an excellent good fruit. There also groweth a strange tree which they call Magueis, it serveth them to many uses, below by the root they make a hole, whereat they do take out of it twise every day a certaine kind of licour, which they seeth in a great kettle, till the third part be consumed, & that it wax thick, it is as sweet as any hony, and they do eat it...

At this time, and in this ship, were also sent to be presented to the king of Spaine, two chestes full of earth with ginger growing in them, which were also sent from China, to be sent to the king of Spaine. The ginger runneth in the ground like to liccoras, the blades grow out of it in length and proportion like unto the blades of wild garlicke, which they cut every fifteene dayes, they use to water them twise a day, as we doe our herbes here in England, they put the blades in their pottages, and use them in their other meates, whose excellent savour and tast is very delightfull, and procureth a good appetite.

The Travels of Job Hortop, in Hakluyt's Voyages

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

mind the gap

American conservatives have, I gather, been attacking the NHS. (Guardian)

There's something they somehow miss.

If you live in America and happen not to have health insurance, it's complicated to organise treatment. By 'complicated' I mean that you might well be able to clear the bureaucratic hurdles if you had spent the last 6 months training for a marathon, were in peak physical and mental condition - but if you are, um, you know, sick, you are unlikely to have mental and physical stamina required.

In 2000 I had a breakdown. I lay on a bed in my mother's house, unable to move. What was needed was, I suppose, some sort of medication. I had no health insurance in the US. To organise the required medication it was necessary to make phone calls. Phone calls I might well have been able to make had I not been in the middle of a breakdown. I did not have the necessary social skills to take this on from a state of insanity, but there was something I could cope with. I could book a ticket online to Britain; I could get on the plane. Once in Britain, all I had to do was walk into a clinic.

The treatment offered by the NHS was flawed. I was living in short-term accommodation. I had no permanent address. I was offered cognitive therapy at the Whitechapel, in addition to the medication prescribed; by the time I turned up for my first appointment for cognitive therapy, I had moved. As it turned out, I had moved out of the district covered by the Whitechapel; I was no longer eligible for its cognitive therapy programme; it was necessary to start again from scratch. It would have been simple enough for the clinic to give me a map with the boundaries of its district; if they had done so, I would have taken care to find a new room within its boundaries. They didn't; the results were not good.

If I'd stayed in the US, on the other hand, I would not be alive today.

eliminative naturalism

K-Punk on Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint.

Some of Dick's most powerful passages are those in which there is an ontological interrugnum: a traumatic unworlding is not yet given a narrative motivation; a unresolved space that awaits reincorporation into another Symbolic regime. In Time Out Of Joint, the interregnum takes the form of an extraordinary scene in which the seemingly dull objects of quotidian naturalism - the gas station and the motel - act almost like a negative version of the lamp-post at the edge of the Narnian forest. Unlike Lewis's lamp-post, these objects do not mark the threshold of a new world, a new Symbolic system; they constitute instead staging posts on the way towards the desert of the Real. When the edge of town gas stations come into focus, the background furniture of literary realism suddenly looms into the foreground, and there is a moment of Harmanian object-epipany, in which ready-to-hand, peripheral vision-familiarity transforms into uncanny opacity:

    The houses became fewer. The truck passed gas stations, tawdry cafes, ice cream stands and motels. The dreary parade of motels ... as if, Ragle thought, we had already gone a thousand miles and were just now entering a strange town. Nothing is so alien, so bleak and unfriendly, as the strip of gas stations - cut-rate gas stations - and motels at the edge of your own city. You fail to recognise it. And, at the same time, you have to grasp it to your bosom. Not just for one night, but for as long as you intend to live where you live.

    But we don't intend to live here any more. We're leaving. For good.

It's a scene in which Edward Hopper seems to devolve into Beckett, as the natural(ist) landscape gives way to an emptied out monotony, a minimal, quasi-abstract space that is depeopled but still industrialized and commercialised.

The rest here,

Advantage Goliath

Tesco maintains that it will buy local produce "wherever possible". But when its representatives were challenged on this point, they said that local suppliers would have to sell their produce to the company as a whole. It would be trucked to the nearest distribution centre – now 120 miles away in Avonmouth – and then trucked back across Wales to Machynlleth. Incredibly, Tesco proposes that its new store will reduce traffic on our congested roads. It appears to be relying on a radical misinterpretation of the evidence.

But the real issue is this: if the county council turns it down, Tesco can appeal. The cost to the council would be astronomical. As John Sweeney, leader of North Norfolk district council observed, Tesco "are too big and powerful for us. If we try and deny them they will appeal, and we cannot afford to fight a planning appeal and lose. If they got costs it would bankrupt us." Hardly any local authority is prepared to take this risk. Tesco can keep appealing and resubmitting, using its vast funds until it gets what it wants. Objectors, by contrast, have no right of appeal. The inequality of arms means that we scarcely stand a chance.

George Monbiot on the irresistible rise of Tesco. In this case in Machynlleth, a small market town in mid-Wales.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


I vividly remember playing in Mayflower Park, the windswept public space that divides the city's dead and 'alive' docks, on my birthday. I was, being a child of the 80s, fairly obsessed with robots, specifically Transformers. My parents, were they contributors to my comments box, would tell you, unprompted, the story about me coming home from nursery school claiming we'd been told about 'this robot called God' (well how else to explain it?).

Owen Hatherley (in a longer piece on the architecture of Southampton), here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

fourth seeks three

I may have to retract my dismissal of bridge as a game with relevance to the world of finance. Warren Buffett apparently thinks otherwise.

On one occasion [Buffett] is reported to have said: "I wouldn’t mind going to jail if I had three cellmates who played bridge".

[know the feeling - thought it would depend how well they played bridge]

Buffett himself says about bridge: "It’s got to be the best intellectual exercise out there. You’re seeing through new situations every ten minutes…In the stock market you don’t base your decisions on what the market is doing, but on what you think is rational….Bridge is about weighing gain/loss ratios. You’re doing calculations all the time."( Forbes June 2,1997)

On another occasion he described the similarities between bridge and investment as follows: "The approach and strategies are very similar in that you gather all the information you can and then keep adding to that base of information as things develop. You do whatever the probabilities indicated based on the knowledge that you have at that time, but you are always willing to modify your behaviour or your approach as you get new information. In bridge, you behave in a way that gets the best from your partner. And in business, you behave in the way that gets the best from your managers and your employees."

Commenting on the new challenge match in June, Buffett said: "I spend twelve hours a week - a little over 10% of my waking hours - playing the game. Now I am trying to figure out how to get by on less sleep in order to fit in a few more hands.

2006 interview quoted by Jonathan Davis at

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

less unprintable than previously supposed

Languagehat has buried a terrific offer in the Comments section.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the US publishers of Uglier than a Monkey's Armpit did manage to include the names of both authors of on the cover of a book with two authors (a feat we might once, in our innocence, have taken for granted), but absentmindedly forgot to include the introduction by Steve "Languagehat" Dodson - a feature unique to the US edition, which for fans of LH's indispensable blog must be one of the chief attractions of the book. The introduction will appear when the book is reprinted; a slight problem with this is, of course, that it offers a strong incentive to fans to wait for the reprint, thereby, presumably, postponing the appearance of this highly desirable edition.

Dodson, anyway, has now generously offered to send a copy of the missing introduction as a Word document to anyone who buys the book (he can be reached, obviously, via the blog). Not only is this a great offer, it is a chance for readers to pick up a collector's item! The first US edition, minus the introduction, augmented with a genuine Word document from Steve Dodson! Our very dear friends at Amazon can provide the first half of this dynamic duo for the unbeatable price of $10.15, here.

(The name of that book in full, with full complement of authors: Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit: Untranslatable Insults, Put-downs, and Curses from around the World, by Stephen Dodson and Roger Vanderplank.)

Some examples of entries can be found in an earlier post on LH, here.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

life, the universe and everything

A friend of mine once put it succinctly: “Physics is all about findingout which variables you know and which variable you want, and then searching through your formula sheet for an equation that has all of those letters in it.”


Explaining that, for those who immediately liked physics in high school, this was what they liked about it.

When G&L went to college he began to find that what interested him was the picture that began to emerge of how the universe worked. Hence this terrific blog. Here's G&L on the most important idea in science according to Feynman, who said: I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

(Those who love physics for the fun of hunting for the variable will be aggrieved, very aggrieved.)

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Infinite Thought is off-message. Here, here.

Do I need to have a kid to understand Antichrist properly? I'm not sure. But I don't think procreation is a topic that should be solely restricted to those who happen to have done it. I may not understand the desire to have my own kid, but I do understand the human need to look after someone, believe it or not. If I move somewhere bigger than a shared one-bed flat (soon), I hope in a while (if I pass the tests) to be in a position to foster whoever could use it. No doubt I've been corrupted by the abstractions of my discipline or am monstrous, or something, but I can see no good reason to have one's own child if there are other children already existing in the world who need looking after. I'm not even talking about adoption, where so often it seems that parents, perhaps understandably, often seek to replicate the genetic-parent newborn situation as closely as possible - I'm talking about helping, as realistically as possible, and with as few illusions as possible, existing, troubled, human beings out for a period of time, the kind of child people don't generally want much to do with, older, unwell or troubled. I've no doubt that in its own way this is just as ideological as having your own kid, but it just makes so much more sense to me. If you care about humanity at all - and in a convoluted combination of intuition and rationalism I most definitely do - then why not do this, given that it's a situation that exists for lots of kids. There simply aren't enough people there to look after people that are already in the world. Couldn't we, as best as we could, sort this out, well, first?

Jenny Turner is off-message. Here.

Adrienne Rich was never more prophetic than when she wrote, in 1977, that for her, pregnancy was like being "a traveller in an airport where her plane is several hours delayed, who leafs through magazines she would never normally read, surveys shops whose contents do not interest her"

Sara Megilbow, a literary agent in Boulder, is not. Here.

“The blessing isn’t that I was willing to help,” Sara says. “The blessing is that they’re getting their genetic child. Details be darned, they wanted this child.”

how to build a better blog

Maira Kalman at the NYT on Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Uncle Cobbley and all, why is here no match for there? anyway, over there.

Friday, July 31, 2009

ineffable words

About a year ago Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit, a book on untranslatable insults, put-downs and curses from around the world, was published in the UK. Author, according to the cover, Robert Vanderplank.

Nothing odd about that, except that the book had two authors, one of whom was Steve Dodson of Language Hat fame. (Note that it seems not to have occurred to OUP* that mentioning LH might actually bring hordes of readers clamouring for the book. Some believe in God without knowing whether one exists; some know the Internet exists without believing in it.)

Now a new version is upon us. The American edition of Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit has come out, and, mirabile dictu, the name of Stephen Dodson appears on the cover. Sadly, the book does not include the introduction by Steve Dodson. (He has been told it will appear in the next printing.)

Mr Dodson would seem to have a disposition of unnerving saintliness. This is a man who could, if he so chose, vaporize his publishers with insults, put-downs and curses from around the world. His comments on the matter remind the reader of nothing so much as Superman in the guise of mild-mannered Clark Kent.
(The only reasonable inference is that the insults and put-downs are of such power they would destroy anyone on whom they were deployed.)

Of the UK edition, he merely commented that his own name appeared only in tiny print on the copyright page, and added

The US edition will feature my lively introduction, in which I quote Pushkin, Mark Liberman, and my nonagenarian mother-in-law; the editions available now carry an introduction by my coauthor, Robert Vanderplank.

before offering various attractive entries from the book.

Now that the US edition has come out, minus the promised lively introduction, he merely mentions its absence and comments that the packager, not Penguin, is to blame.

The reader who wants to know more about Pushkin, Mark Liberman and Dodson's nonagenarian mother would appear to have only one course of action: buy the book now, minus the introduction, in the hope that doing so will bring forward the reprint. He or she will, at any rate, be able to curse those responsible with rare cosmopolitanism.

[When I said "OUP" I meant, of course, "Boxtree". Boxtree, as UK publishers of the book, might reasonably have been expected to take into account LH's popular blog; since OUP did not publish the book, they presumably had no say in the matter. Vanderplank is director of the University of Oxford Language Centre, hence, probably, the careless blogger's muddle. Also I am in the middle of moving from one apartment to another. But as Mies said, Die Seele ist in den Details; it's bad to find one's Seele so threadbare.]

Thursday, July 30, 2009

why the nhs looks like a friend in need

Kwak’s parenthetical about how insurers can’t examine applications before they’re approved on the grounds that that would be “impractically expensive” misses the true evil here: the insurer wants to cash the insurance-premium checks of people who made fraudulent applications. Those are the most valuable insureds of all, because the minute they make claims which cost more than their premiums, their policies can be immediately rescinded. As Taunter puts it, you are free to play, you just aren’t free to win. And that’s why you get people being denied breast-cancer surgery on the basis of having had acne in the past.

Felix Salmon on Conditional probabilities and evil insurers, the rest here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

easily bored

Before the Revolution, Danton was doing well; he was not one of the people with nothing to lose. He had a wife, a comfortable home, and an established legal practice; many of the men who were his future comrades had nothing but sheaves of unpublished poems, unsung operas and unapplauded plays. But he was restless and perhaps, as Büchner suggested in his play Dantons Tod, he was easily bored. Revolution offered him five years of diversion and aggrandisement, and amplified his voice to the whole of Europe; in quieter times, 30 years of plodding application, bowing and scraping to his intellectual inferiors, would perhaps have taken him into the lower ranks of the establishment.

Hilary Mantel in the LRB on David Lawdry's Danton: The Gentle Giant of Terror

sans phones, sans tables, sans chairs, sans all

[yes. the HTML is up the creek.]

From Self-Divider, a translation of Haruki Murakami's afterword to Norwegian Wood for the Korean edition:

3. This novel was written in the southern Europe. I started writing in a villa located on the island of Micene in Greece, on December 21, 1986, and finished writing it on March 27, 1987 in a hotel apartment on the periphery of Rome. It is difficult to figure out if my writing outside of Japan had any bearing on the novel itself. It might have had some effect, or it might not have had any effect at all. I only remain thankful that I could concentrate purely on writing due to the fact that I had no visitors or telephone calls. Aside from these facts, there weren’t such big changes in my writing environment.

The first part of Norwegian Wood was written in Greece, the middle part, in Sicily, and the last part, in Rome. In the cheap hotel room in Athens, there were no tables or chairs. So I went daily to a pub and listened to the cassette tape of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on my walkman repeatedly, about 120 times, and wrote this novel. To that end, I can say that I received a little help from Lennon and McCartney.

The whole thing here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

why does no one lash out at rave reviews? discretion is the better part, but still

One thing that does emerge from all of this: is it appropriate for artists to respond to reviews? I sort of think yes, because reviews, like art, can be good and bad regardless of their content, and people need 2 know. One of my least favorite things to receive, for instance, is a badly-written rave; it makes me hate my music. Don’t you ever see those restaurant reviews that are total raves but written so weirdly that you never want to go to the restaurant? On the other hand, I’ve gotten my share of terrible reviews that were well-enough written and actually reviews rather than (and this is where the wording gets tricky) loaded descriptions of things that are simply True. Those reviews I welcome; somebody up in the Times was all, his music is “arbitrarily episodic” and I read that shit, and was like, oh my God! That’s actually completely right. Now, I think I’ve moved on to Episodic but Organized, like a meal of tapas. In 2001, it was very much like a delicious buffet raided by a crazy person.

Nico Muhly on responding to reviews and (in organized tapas mode) much more, here.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Does he play multi-coloured 2 diamond? I think we should be told

Malcolm Gladwell (I know, I know) on the psychology of overconfidence, courtesy of Languagehat:

Jimmy Cayne grew up in Chicago, the son of a patent lawyer. He wanted to be a bookie, but he realized that it wasn’t quite respectable enough. He went to Purdue University to study mechanical engineering—and became hooked on bridge. His grades suffered, and he never graduated.

He got married in 1956 and was divorced within four years. “At this time, he was one of the best bridge players in Chicago,” his ex-brother-in-law told Cohan. “In fact, that’s the reason for the divorce. There was no other woman or anything like that. The co-respondent in their divorce was bridge. He spent all of his time playing bridge—every night. He wasn’t home.” He was selling scrap metal in those days, and, Cohan says, he would fall asleep on the job, exhausted from playing cards. In 1964, he moved to New York to become a professional bridge player. It was bridge that led him to his second wife, and to a job interview with Alan (Ace) Greenberg, then a senior executive at Bear Stearns. When Cayne told Greenberg that he was a bridge player, Cayne tells Cohan, “you could see the electric light bulb.” Cayne goes on:

[Greenberg] says, “How well do you play?” I said, “I play well.” He said, “Like how well?” I said, “I play quite well.” He says, “You don’t understand.” I said, “Yeah, I do. I understand. Mr. Greenberg, if you study bridge the rest of your life, if you play with the best partners and you achieve your potential, you will never play bridge like I play bridge.”

Right then and there, Cayne says, Greenberg offered him a job.

Always wondered how DSL and I managed to get doctorates. Presumably because we never played bridge as well as Jimmy Cayne.

It makes sense that there should be an affinity between bridge and the business of Wall Street. Bridge is a contest between teams, each of which competes over a “contract”—how many tricks they think they can win in a given hand. Winning requires knowledge of the cards, an accurate sense of probabilities, steely nerves, and the ability to assess an opponent’s psychology. Bridge is Wall Street in miniature,

Wha-? Winning requires, among other things, a good bidding system for communicating with one's partner, and mastery of the system - which is why the Italian Blue team wiped out the opposition in the 70s. A Strong Club system enables a partnership to signal a strong hand at the lowest, cheapest possible bid, thus leaving maximum bidding space for determining whether game or slam can be made, and if so what what the trump suit should be; the partnership outflanks the opposition by getting better contracts for its cards.

In bridge, a partnership normally demonstrates its superiority in duplicate bridge: pairs in a whole roomful of tables play identical hands, and the one that gets the best results wins.

In bridge, the value of a hand is relatively fixed. An Ace is an Ace is an Ace, can be beaten only by a player with a void in the Ace's suit and a trump in hand. The value of hands depends, not on confidence, but on the rank of the cards and the trump suit.

What Gladwell says:

It isn’t, however. In bridge, there is such a thing as expertise unencumbered by bias. That’s because, as the psychologist Gideon Keren points out, bridge involves “related items with continuous feedback.” It has rules and boundaries and situations that repeat themselves and clear patterns that develop—and when a player makes a mistake of overconfidence he or she learns of the consequences of that mistake almost immediately. In other words, it’s a game. But running an investment bank is not, in this sense, a game: it is not a closed world with a limited set of possibilities. It is an open world where one day a calamity can happen that no one had dreamed could happen, and where you can make a mistake of overconfidence and not personally feel the consequences for years and years—if at all.

This sounds like the pronouncement of someone who knows nothing about the game in question. It would be perfectly possible to devise a game that presented similar challenges to those involved in running an investment bank; bridge happens not to be that game. Which may very well be what Cayne liked about it.

But this is silly. Someone is Wrong on the Internet. Here.

debt collection

Bailiffs are not, you might suspect, a group for which society has a particularly high esteem. We have an image of them as being thugs who take things away from people who already have very little - a furtive profession, which likes to keep itself to itself. Or at least that's what you'd expect - instead, you click on the site and you have four wankers auditioning for bit parts in American Psycho, lined up inside a glass and steel atrium, all criss-cross trusses and 24 colours, shot from below so that they appear to be looking down upon the unfortunate sods who click on the website to make payment (or, equally, declare to the people looking for jobs in Debt Recovery and Civil Enforcement that you too could look this hard)

Owen Hatherley discovers the wonderful world of the modern bailiff, here

Friday, July 24, 2009

a supposedly unfun thing

It goes like this: there's something you want to estimate and you have some data. Maybe, to take my favorite recent example, you want to break down support for school vouchers by religion, ethnicity, income, and state (or maybe you'd like to break it down even further, but you have to start somewhere).

Or maybe you want to estimate the difference between how rich and poor people vote, by state, over several decades--but you're lazy and all you want to work with are the National Election Studies, which only have a couple thousand respondents, at most, in any year, and don't even cover all the states.

Or maybe you want to estimate the concentration of cat allergen in a bunch of dust samples, while simultaneously estimating the calibration curve needed to get numerical estimates, all in the presence of contamination that screws up your calibration.

Addictive post by Andrew Gelman on That Modeling Feeling, the rest

Robert Donat lookalike

There has been some discussion in the blogosphere about the cover of the US Advance Reading Copy of Justine Larbalestier's Liar, which shows a white girl with glossy straight hair (in the book the narrator is "black with nappy hair, which she wears natural and short"). JL's comments (via Jenny Davidson) here.

This made me laugh. When I wrote The Last Samurai, I wanted Ludo to be someone who could reasonably imagine that a very wide range of men might be his father; his appearance is never described in detail, but a Zoroastrian from the city formerly known as Bombay, a Robert Donat lookalike, says Ludo looks exactly the way he himself looked at that age.

Robert Donat in his prime:

Cover of first edition of Le dernier samourai:

Which just goes to show how blinkered we can be by our preconceptions.

I should emphasise that Laffont went to extraordinary lengths to publish this technically challenging book well, and used a translator, Pierre Guglielmina, of exceptional gifts. And also came up with this terrific cover for the livre de poche:

All the same, I loved the cover by Egil, the Norwegian designer:

His father could be just about anyone.

(My Norwegian editor, Birgit Bjerk, told me that Egil loves brown; every once in a while she persuades him to let her have a flash of blue, but for the most part Egil's passion for brown-dominated colorways prevails. I can see how this could be demoralising for an editor, but I did think it was a wonderful cover.)