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.