Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Readers of pp will know that this time last year I was staying in Silver Spring with my mother, who had had an operation. She went in for a second operation toward the end of January, four days before I was due to go back to Berlin. We had been told this would be very simple and straightforward; she was in surgery 6 hours, and after one night on the regular ward was moved to intensive care. I asked my agent again for the ARC of his memoir, which he had been promising to send; he said none were left as he had been keeping his distance from that side of things. I pressed the point, and he resigned. It has been a long bad year.

I went over to New York at the end of September for a few weeks in the hope that I could talk to some editors. I'd been told there were a lot of people who liked my work; I didn't know who they were but hoped something might turn up. People were extraordinarily generous with their time.

There have been some developments; as always, it takes reserves of patience and goodwill for things to work out.

It seems as though I sometimes say things on the blog that provoke hurt feelings among readers. I try to explain that there are things I can't deal with at a bad time, and get e-mails from people whose feelings have been hurt because things they thought were helpful were the kind of thing I couldn't deal with.

In the past, this kind of thing that has made deals fall through. It seemed best not to say anything for a while, and try to take things forward as best I could.

When I was at Oxford we were dragooned into answering the question we had been asked, rather than some other question we happened to find easier to answer. When my agent resigned I could not see a way forward and thought suicide the only solution; card-carrying rationalist that I am, I thought he might see a solution I did not and that therefore the rational thing to do was ask. So I wrote an e-mail. I did get a reply, but it did not answer the question. I then got several e-mails from the reader who had introduced us, which also did not answer the question. If I had known that going to New York to talk to people would be so helpful and productive I would simply have taken a plane to New York.

I have been rereading Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death, a superb work of scholarship which no home should be without.

I wish you all a very happy and prosperous New Year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

care to share

A reader sent me a link to a video of a poem he wrote and performs.

Friday, December 17, 2010

To mark National Poetry, Day Nick Rennison, who compiled the Waterstone's Guide to Poetry, and Michael Schmidt, editorial director of Carcanet, invited a number of contemporary poets to select work by poets of the past, beginning in the late fourteenth century and ending in the early twentieth, and to provide brief headnotes to describe their choices. The result is an anthology with a difference. From Gower to Yeats, from the old and the new worlds, the selectors and the selected converge in a volume of wonderful poetry and rich surprise.
Nick Rennison and Michael Schmidt, in association with Waterstones: Poets on Poets, Carcanet, 1997.

A wonderful book, available for download [at a site which I'm now told installs a virus. Gawd. OK, link deleted, but the book is also for sale, see below.]

[Sorry, should have been clear: the book is also available for purchase on, here.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The most extraordinary detail that's actually still there is the tube. The fact that people don't look at it is proof of its efficiency, perhaps, but that aside it's the most beautiful urban public transport system anywhere outside of the former Soviet Union, and I've often taken friends around just to see specific things on the Underground—the futurism of the Jubilee Line extension, the seedy, Lavatorial art nouveau stations of Leslie Green, the themed tiles on the ‘60s Victoria Line, Paolozzi's murals at Tottenham Court Road, the capacious arches of the original 1860s cut-and-cover stations like Baker Street, the doorless trains on the East London Line extension, and most of all the interwar stations of Charles Holden, from St James' Park with its mini-skyscraper and Epstein's sculptures above, to the gorgeous little brick cathedrals of Oakwood or Sudbury Town. It's a whole city in itself, and despite the lack of loos, the privatization and the lamentable lack of solidarity shown by commuters towards tube drivers when they go on strike, sometimes I think it's a better city than the one above it—certainly a more egalitarian one.

Owen Hatherley interviewed by Nathalie Handal on Words Without Borders

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

under the hood

“You say autism, or Down syndrome, and people know somebody,” said Ms. Dopp, who stays home with Jackson and his three siblings. “When you try to explain 7q to people and they barely know what a chromosome is, it’s hard.”

via MR, here

Thursday, November 4, 2010

black swans

Andrew Gelman revisits his review of Taleb's The Black Swan.

And then there are parts of the review that make me really uncomfortable. As noted in the above quote, I was using the much-derided "picking pennies in front of a steamroller" investment strategy myself--and I knew it! Here's some more, again from 2007:

I'm only a statistician from 9 to 5

I try (and mostly succeed, I think) to have some unity in my professional life, developing theory that is relevant to my applied work. I have to admit, however, that after hours I'm like every other citizen. I trust my doctor and dentist completely, and I'll invest my money wherever the conventional wisdom tells me to (just like the people whom Taleb disparages on page 290 of his book).

Not long after, there was a stock market crash and I lost half my money. OK, maybe it was only 40%. Still, what was I thinking--I read Taleb's book and still didn't get the point!

Actually, there was a day in 2007 or 2008 when I had the plan to shift my money to a safer place. I recall going on the computer to access my investment account but I couldn't remember the password, was too busy to call and get it, and then forgot about it. A few weeks later the market crashed.

If only I'd followed through that day. Oooohhh, I'd be so smug right now. I'd be going around saying, yeah, I'm a statistician, I read Taleb's book and I thought it through, blah blah blah. All in all, it was probably better for me to just lose the money and maintain a healthy humility about my investment expertise.

Andrew was kind enough to have me to dinner (along with Jenny Davidson) while I was in New York; Andrew is probably one of the few who are more charismatic in person than in avatar (possibly because backed up by the exceptionally charismatic Caroline, Jakey and Zach). This in itself would be sufficient justification for blogging (at a purely personal level); the thing that is of real significance, though, is the fact that AG was able to write a review with self-determined word-count -- and then revisit it in light of events. Show me the paper publication that lets reviewers write a review of the review years later, at a word count dictated by developments in the world rather than by paper constraints-- I don't think so.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tabarrok on Arrow

Arrow showed that when a group chooses, there are no underlying preferences to uncover--not even in theory. In one sense, the theorem is trivial. We know or should always have known that a group doesn't have preferences anymore than a group smiles. What Arrow showed, however, is that without invoking special cases we can't even rationalize group choices as if leviathan had preferences. Put differently, the only leviathan that rationalizes group choice has the preferences of a madman.

the whole glorious thing here


I gave an e-interview to Mike Lee a while back for his website, GGGOZU.COM. His photographer turned up shortly before the Elevenses at Three at McNally-Jackson. The whole thing here.

Monday, October 4, 2010

elevenses at 3

Sara Ortiz of McNally Jackson Books has very kindly offered to let me turn up there and see if anyone else turns up. Had been thinking of something along the lines of brunch but it looks as though the afternoon of Saturday the 9th works better (it's understood in civilised society, of course, that a matinée takes place in the afternoon), so:

I'll be turning up at the café at McN J at 3pm on Saturday Oct 9, and if anyone else wants to come it will be great to see you.

The address is

McNally Jackson Books
52 Prince Street

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Things have been rather difficult lately for various reasons.

I'm going to New York tomorrow to talk to some people; I'll be there until the 14th. Was thinking it might be nice to have an open brunch somewhere or other to meet any readers who'd like to show up; if anyone has suggestions for a venue I'd love to hear them.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Aeschylus's Oresteia is held up – again in spot-on fashion – as a template for an anti-humanist worldview: what matters is not the individual but the house, or oikos, from which he emerges and of which he forms no more than an iteration. It's an insight that helps us to understand (although Josipovici doesn't mention him) why that arch-modernist William Faulkner delves, in Attic style, through generations of the Compson family, trawling their dwindling estate for residues of buried history. From that other Greek unit of measure, the polis or city-state, Josipovici derives a modern aesthetic of interconnectedness, of man as a diminished agent operating within systems that exceed him.


Adopting the vocabulary of the middlebrow in order to legitimise the vanguard merely robs it of what animates it most. Rather than celebrate the subversive energies of Luigi Nono's opera Prometeo, for example, he tries to sell it to the Glyndebourne crowd by claiming that it leaves us "with a sense of sorrow and of wonder and, at an even deeper level, a sense of having bathed in the waters of life". The sentiment is just that: sentimental. While the impetus behind it is profound, it ends up sounding trite.
Tom McCarthy on Gabriel Josipovici's Whatever Happened to Modernism?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Their research is responsible for one of the most distinctive features of Yakutsk. The majority of its large buildings are raised three or four feet from the ground, standing on dozens of concrete stilts: local government offices that take up an entire block, six-storey apartment buildings, a sizeable new Orthodox seminary currently under construction, even a hulking factory at the city’s edge. It gives the place a tentative feel, as if it were perching on the soil like a bird on a branch. The purpose of the stilts is to prevent heat from the buildings warming the ground, since this would melt the icy soil on which their foundations rest, causing them to sink. The wooden houses that remain in the centre of the city, and the many more that make up its poorer outskirts, show the wisdom of the new pile technique: you can tell the age of a building by how close to the pavement its windowsills have sagged. Snaking in between the buildings, throughout the city, are pipes carrying gas and steam from the centralised heating system; these too are carried above the ground on concrete piles, bending into improbable shapes to arch across streets.
Tony Wood at the LRB

Friday, August 27, 2010

"Tadzhik is Persian-Farsi transliterated with Russian letters," Safar replied. "But nothing good ever came of it. They took away the old alphabet and thus cut the Tadzhik people off from their ancient history and culture. This monstrously sly Bolshevik act did terrible damage to the national culture of the Tadzhik people. Why? Because letters are culture-producing for a Tadzhik. Can you imagine Pushkin writing in Russian but with Arabic ligatures? That would be crazy, wouldn't it? But this nightmarish experiment was conducted in the U.S.S.R. on many peoples, Tadzhiks among them. I believe that it was a cunning policy."
Languagehat on Marat Akchurin's Red Odyssey: A Journey Through the Soviet Republics, the rest here.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


A nationwide hunt was launched today for a tiny Mediterranean snail which has turned up in the UK after stowing away on stonework imported as Victorian "bling" more than a hundred years ago.

The snail, which has no English name, hitched a ride from Europe on statues, rocks and brickwork in the 19th century – but remained hidden from naturalists until recently.

It was discovered at the National Trust's Cliveden estate in Buckinghamshire by volunteers cleaning statues in the gardens in 2008.

The snail, Papillifera bidens, was thought to have arrived on a balustrade from the Villa Borghese in Rome in 1896, and with suitably snail-paced progress seems to have taken more than a hundred years to reach stonework 60 yards away.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

vive la différance

As for the French writers, artists and actors who mixed in German circles, what comes across most strikingly is their ­vanity, self-centredness and lack of deeply held convictions about anything. In this sense they seem not too different from the Paris brothel-keeper who, once the war was over, reflected: “I am almost ashamed to say it, but I never had so much fun in my life. But it is the truth, those nights during the Occupation were fantastic.”
Tony Barber on the French Resistance at the FT


Already a cult text among gold enthusiasts and inflation phobes (old copies of the original hardback were until recently trading at up to £1,800 each on the web), it received a further boost when it was revealed in a Sunday newspaper at the time of the relaunch that the book was admired by the US investor, Warren Buffett, and recommended by him to others. It seemed to confirm Fergusson as the sage to whom the Sage of Omaha himself turned.

The claim guaranteed the book a lot of attention and Fergusson found himself being summoned to give his views about the economic situation on the BBC’s Today programme and the television news. This did not abate even after Buffett told CNN that he had not actually read the book. When Money Dies continues to be well-­reviewed and the sales pile on.

Fergusson is embarrassed and amused by the Buffett story which, it should be said, has never been repeated by him or his publisher to market the book. “My daughters call it Buffettgate, which I like very much,” he says. The claim, he tells me, came from a Dutch hedge fund manager who attended the launch party, having purchased 200 copies, which he said he would give to every member of the Dutch parliament and some top-flight bankers.

“He told me that it was a cult among high-powered financiers,” says Fergusson, who remains mystified how the story found its way into the paper. “Buffett does now have the book and has thanked my publisher for sending it to him,” he adds. “He may now have read it; we can only guess.”

Adam Fergusson, author of When Money Dies, has lunch with the FT.

Friday, August 20, 2010

There remains, however, William H. Gass’ Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation; Roger Hahn’s painstakingly-researched Pierre Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Determined Scientist, for some reason apparently only available in hardcover at the embarrassingly low price of $33.60. There remains Schonberg’s Lives of the Great Composers, something no self-respecting music-lover should be without; Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, something I should apparently have read at least twice by now; Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace; Ilya Prigogine’s End of Certainty. Not to mention the necessity for a solid French dictionary in order to begin remedying the great embarrassment of having some command of French and three well-worn volumes of Proust on the shelf in English translation. And of course the Proust in French, then. And if that, then also Les Essais de Montaigne and Jacques Le Fataliste. There is Kотлован, there is белый. There is the fact that some sort of small book-light must be bought if I am to continue being able to see at all.

Dedicated Bookstore Employee at Etrusk

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Unlike most authors I find that the date of publication invariably coincides with the moment when my loathing for my book reaches its maximum intensity; I should prefer everybody to ignore it, and this time it seems probable that I shall get what I want. But real writers probably do not have, and in any case couldn’t afford, this kind of stage-fright.
Frank Kermode contemplating the suspension of the TLS in a piece that prompted the founding of the LRB

(Breaking the habits of a lifetime, that's KERmode, not KerMODE.)
I'm barely fifty pages into Terry Martin's The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 and it's already clear to me that this is one of those basic works of scholarship that everyone dealing with the field has to come to terms with. As Raymond Pearson writes in his detailed review (which, along with Martin's response, I urge anyone interested in the topic to read): "The Affirmative Action Empire is overwhelmingly a product of archive-based research. Martin's positively Herculean labours in six historical archives in Moscow and another two in Ukraine have been rewarded with a rich and abundant harvest of hitherto-inaccessible primary documentation." And the picture he puts together as a result is astonishing. Like everyone who's studied the Soviet Union at all, I was aware that each official nationality was awarded its own territory in which its language would be taught and its customs maintained, but I had no idea how complex the system had been. How many such territorial units do you think there were? Fifty, a hundred, a few hundred? At its peak, tens of thousands.
Languagehat on rainirovanie

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Liège is, however, very much the sort of city I like - sombre, industrial, topographically melodramatic, utterly modern, and, occasionally, revolutionary, with a tendency to Jacquerie, General Strikes and such. None of these things are very popular at the moment, alas, so Liège is undergoing some tentative attempts to pull architecture tourists. And so there I went.
Owen Hatherley in Belgium
Obituary of Frank Kermode in the Guardian.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Statisticians hate small numbers (samples); now there is another reason to hate small numbers. In one word, scams.

The FTC has shut down a scam in which the crooks have sneaked through 1.35 million fraudulent credit-card charges, each valued at $0.25 to $9 -- after letting it run for four years. What's shocking is that less than 5% of the victims (78,724) noticed and reported the charges. So, instead of stealing $1 million from one person, steal $1 from a million.

Kaiser Fung on Small Numbers and Scams
Granger causality is a standard statistical technique for determining whether one time series is useful in forecasting another. It is important to bear in mind that the term causality is used in a statistical sense, and not in a philosophical one of structural causation. More precisely a variable A is said to Granger cause B if knowing the time paths of B and A together improve the forecast of B based on its own time path, thus providing a measure of incremental predictability. In our case the time series of interest are market measures of returns, implied volatility, and realized volatility, or variable B. . . . Simply put, Granger's test asks the question: Can past values of trader positions be used to predict either market returns or volatility?
A report on Granger causality, discussed by Andrew Gelman at Statistical Modeling...

I have nothing to say on the particulars, as I have no particular expertise in this area. But in general, I'd prefer if researchers in this sort of problem were to try to estimate the effects of interest (for example, the amount of additional information present in some forecast) rather than setting up a series of hypothesis tests. The trouble with tests is that when they reject, it often tells us nothing more than that the sample size is large. And when they fail to reject, if often tells us nothing more than that the sample size is small. In neither case is the test anything like a direct response to the substantive question of interest.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

the pooch in the hall

In short, for a serious cartoonist, a dog is not so much a warm, cuddly comfort as a self-inflicted wound.
Joe Sacco at NY Times Book Review on his four-legged 'friend'.
But if it can’t be said exactly how Shakespeare happened, there are contexts that help to throw light. I want to glance at two of them here. Sixteenth-century Europe was changed by two movements: Shakespeare was the product of both Renaissance and Reformation. If his extraordinary generation of writers was not mute and inglorious, some of the credit has to go to the heroic humanist educators, headed by Erasmus and More. The New Learning, reaching back to classical literary and linguistic resources, and taught in grammar schools and universities, brought into Tudor life a formal principle of reasoning intelligence, mediated through language. In the course of the century, literacy in England rose sharply and hugely. In its immense effectiveness, this educational change could even be said to have exceeded its ends: first in the rhetorical and stylistic games of patterning that took over the writing of the time, and second in the fact that many graduates could find no employment. The 1590s, plague-struck and famine-ridden, saw university-trained men moving faute de mieux into the new London theatres, underpaid but not (most of them) actually starving.
Barbara Everett on Shakespeare at the LRB
There is much more of interest here. I would describe this as a major, still uninternalized lesson of the recent crisis, with its roller coaster-rapid dips. In a highly specialized modern economy, it is much easier to prevent jobs from being destroyed than to create them again, at least assuming those are "good" jobs in the first place. (Yes, people thought they knew this but it's an even stronger difference than had been believed.) The U.S. auto bailout, for instance, worked better than did most of the stimulus program.
Tyler Cowen on Nicholas Kulish at the NYT, on recent German economic success and expansion of a program to keep workers employed, rather than dealing with them once they'd lost their jobs
Trevor Butterworth interviews Lorin Stein, editor of the Paris Review, at Lunch with the FT.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The books continued not to appear

Trevor-Roper was captured by the second, and married into the first. Enemies invariably called him ‘arrogant’. But it seems that he was never quite confident that he belonged in either world; he took on their manner with an exaggerated relish that suggests insecurity. In this, he was unlike the much tougher A.J.P. Taylor, who came to Oxford from middle-class Lancashire and was able to view the place with affectionate detachment. Taylor got on sturdily with his work. Trevor-Roper let himself be drawn into energy-sapping college intrigues, academic beauty contests and professional vendettas. Other scholars took part in all that, but still managed to finish their books. For all his brilliance, and his bursts of intensive research, Trevor-Roper allowed his diligent affectation of an Old Oxford style to dilute his sense of purpose.
Neal Ascherson at the LRB on Hugh Trevor-Roper

Gay liberation made its way, strangely, into the seminaries. I have a letter from a friend, an Irish writer, sent in response to a piece I wrote for this paper about the Ferns Report, describing his visit to an Irish seminary in the 1980s.[*] Since the Church was liberalising at that time, it would not have been unusual for writers to be invited to seminaries to speak. My friend had no intention of being shocking, or amusing. He spoke about literature, choosing the dullest subject for the seminarians. What he noticed among them, however, was anything but dull; and it surprised him greatly. He saw an immense amount of male fluttering; he listened as young candidates for the priesthood, boys from rural Ireland, attempted Wildean witticisms; he noticed them wearing specially tailored soutanes, moving around each other, excitedly, like a flock of girls. Here it was, and he was not the only one to witness it: ‘the takeover of the seminaries by homosexuals’.

But this was merely what it looked like. What such a seminary would have looked like a generation or two earlier, or indeed a century or two earlier, was as much an illusion as what my friend witnessed. Before the creation of a post-Stonewall gay identity and the presence of gay role models on television and in the movies, most gay men worked out a strategy, in early adolescence, to do a perfect, lifelong imitation of a straight man, to move around in that gruff, rangy way straight men had invented for themselves. For many homosexuals, the stereotype of the mincing, high-pitched queen was the most frightening idea that ever walked towards them. They hated it and feared it and worked out ways not to look like that themselves, or to be invisible when they did so.

Colm Toibin at the LRB on The Pope is Not Gay, by Angelo Quattrocchi


But it’s a fact of life, in your late teens and early twenties, that’s just what people do: they go out.

Taylor Plimpton, at the Paris Review blog

Sapir-Whorf and ggplot2

To some degree, we are constrained in our ability to solve problems if we only know a single language. This situation has been recognized different ways by the programming community. The Logo programming language was built based upon constructionist learning theory and was intended to provide a “mental model” for children to come to understand mathematical constructs. In recent times, many programmers have committed to being polyglots, learning new languages as a part of professional development. Their concern is not always to learn the latest language that they will need to work, but to find out new ways of conceptualizing problems and structuring solutions.
R Chart on language and thought and ggplot2
ESPN's Bill Simmons (aka The Sports Guy) recently suggested that the primary cause of dwindling interest in Red Sox games by fans is that baseball games these days are too long. "It's not that fun to spend 30-45 minutes driving to a game, paying for parking, parking, waiting in line to get in, finding your seat ... and then, spend the next three-plus hours watching people play baseball", he says.

Erm, I always thought the reason I thought baseball games were too long was that I was not interested in baseball. Had not considered the possibility that a 3-hour game might put off people who actually liked the game.
Revolutions (New about R &c) offers a plot in ggplot2 to determine, anyway, whether the data support the claim that games are getting longer.

that clinking clanking sound

In a letter to the editor in 1988, literary critic Eddie Dow tried to set the record straight:

In 1926 Fitzgerald published one of his finest stories, ''The Rich Boy,'' whose narrator begins it with the words ''Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.''

Ten years later, at lunch with his and Fitzgerald's editor, Max Perkins, and the critic Mary Colum, Hemingway said, ''I am getting to know the rich.'' To this Colum replied, ''The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.'' (A. Scott Berg reports this in ''Max Perkins, Editor of Genius.'') Hemingway, who knew a good put-down when he heard one and also the fictional uses to which it could be put, promptly recycled Colum's remark in one of his best stories, with a revealing alteration: he replaced himself with Fitzgerald as the one put down.
Kottke, ht MR

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Richard Morgan on freelancing at The Awl.
Via MR, video of British town that turned its traffic lights off:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

doing the decent thing

Colleen Lindsay wraps upat FinePrint Literary Management.

Thank you

When I got home from my German class today an envelope had come in the post. I opened it. An anonymous reader had sent me many, many, many, many euros.

This is unbelievably kind of you. Thank you very much.

My other Carter story comes from a conversation I had a couple years ago with an economist who's about my age, a man who said that one reason he and his family moved from town A to town B in his metropolitan area was that, in town B, they didn't feel like they were the only Republicans on their block.

Anyway, this guy described himself as a "Jimmy Carter Republican."

Me: You mean you liked Carter's policies on deregulation?

Him: No. I mean that Jimmy Carter made me a Republican.

Andrew Gelman at Statistical Modeling

Sometimes when I do turn it over, the situation actually get worse, because that's God's plan for their lives. They may need the pain in order to learn and to realize the problem. They may have to get worse in order to reach out for help.

So, now when I turn a situation over and it gets worse, I don't have to rush in and try to "save" the day. I can sit back and say, "Go, God... do your thing!" Because I know he's got a better plan, and His plan is better for them than anything I ever came up with and He can put that plan in to work very nicely without my help or interference!

Al-Anon Topic: Control

Monday, August 9, 2010

Amazon has some terrific podcast interviews of Joe Sacco, whose Footnotes in Gaza has recently been published.
In his interview with Robert McCrum of the Guardian, DeLillo said his parents came from the Abruzzi, they wanted him to be an American, they had no desire for him to learn Italian.

In A Hermit in Paris, Calvino includes an essay on his visit to the United States. It was at the time when, he told his minders at Einaudi, people were excited by a book about a teenage boy by a writer called J D Salinger. He comments on the books available to immigrants. Some immigrants come from educated backgrounds; they end up having a bookstore to serve their needs. There are no Italian bookstores, he says: the Italian immigrants were illiterate peasants, they were excluded from literary culture in their country of origin and have no stake in participating in it in the new country.

If I remember this correctly, Jonathan Galassi, President of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, first engaged with Italian literature at Cambridge; this was a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. (Galassi has now translated the work of both Montale and Leopardi.)

This looks like a failure of -- something. I would have said, it is not the business of, as it might be, the modestly aspiring parents of DeLillo to offer their son the sort of opportunity Galassi got as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge. It is the business of the educational system to offer students access to the life of the mind, regardless of what their parents may be able to offer; this ought to include access to great works of literature in a language from whose cultural resources their parents had been excluded.
- His friends and loved ones wonder why he has such a complexly dark relationship to his own physicality, even his corporeal mortality. If in an interview he were to be asked about it, he would simply say “Try growing up deep in the shadow of a degenerative disease and then get back to me.” He would then pause, take a drink, and then continue: “Oh, and Roman Catholicism.”


- Now the relationship to the television in the corner. Think of the television people, where they are, the studio, the cameras, the air conditioning. All only to place a human animal, animals in pairs, to chat silently above the scrolling sports scores here.

ads without products
Courtesy MR, Keith Hennessey on The Roles of the President's White House economic advisors. Tyler Cowen is right to say: to excerpt would be to diminish the impact. Read the whole thing.
Literature helps me to live, but wouldn’t it be truer to say that it furthers this sort of life? Which of course doesn’t imply that my life is any better when I don’t write. On the contrary, then it’s much worse, quite unbearable, and with no possible remedy other than madness.

Kafka to Brod, courtesy ads without products

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Frederick Brooks, author of The Mythical Man-Month, talks about his new book, The Design of Design, on Wired:

Brooks: Great design does not come from great processes; it comes from great designers.

Wired: But surely The Design of Design is about creating better processes for great designers?

Brooks: The critical thing about the design process is to identify your scarcest resource. Despite what you may think, that very often is not money. For example, in a NASA moon shot, money is abundant but lightness is scarce; every ounce of weight requires tons of material below. On the design of a beach vacation home, the limitation may be your ocean-front footage. You have to make sure your whole team understands what scarce resource you’re optimizing.


Wired: You’re a Mac user. What have you learned from the design of Apple products?

Brooks: Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera, once said that his method of design was to start with a vision of what you want and then, one by one, remove the technical obstacles until you have it. I think that’s what Steve Jobs does. He starts with a vision rather than a list of features.

Jacket copy has a list of 20 classic works of gay literature. Renaud Camus's Tricks and Robert Gluck's Jack the Modernist are nowhere to be seen. As far as I can see, rather a lot of books on the list made the cut because they figured in obscenity trials, rather than because they were actually good. Nicht zu fassen.
Extraordinary portfolio of photographs by R. Kolewe.
David Levinson on editors who edit the book they wish they'd bought.
Robert McCrum interviews DeLillo at the Guardian.
With seeming effortlessness, Keilson performs the difficult trick of showing how a single psyche can embrace many contradictory thoughts, and how naturally extreme intelligence and sensitivity can coexist with obtuseness, denial and self-deception. To say that reading this novel makes it impossible not to understand how so many European Jews underestimated the growing menace of ­Nazism is to acknowledge only a fraction of its range. In fact the novel shows us how human beings, in any place, at any time, protectively shield themselves from the most frightening truths of their private lives and their historical moment.
Francine Prose at NY Times Review of Books on Hans Keilson's The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key.

valedictory address

I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer - not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition - a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave.

Valedictorian speaks out

“The historian’s task is not to disrupt for the sake of it, but it is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly,” he told Historically Speaking. “A well-organized society is one in which we know the truth about ourselves collectively, not one in which we tell pleasant lies about ourselves.”

Tony Judt
, who has died at 62, quoted in the NY Times Book Review

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Narzißmus der kleinen Differenzen

This is one of the most intense, bitter and personalized exchanges that I've ever seen in the scientific or technical literature. And it doesn't fit either of the usual explanations for such debates.

Since the subject matter is mathematics, it seems to contradict Benford's Law of Controversy: "Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available". And since neither Simon nor Mandelbrot represented a grouping or sect, whether mathematical or social, there's no evidence here for Freud's "Narzißmus der kleinen Differenzen" (Chapter 5 of Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, translated as Civilization and its Discontents, 1930)

… it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other — like the Spaniards and Portuguese, for instance, the North Germans and South Germans, the English and Scotch, and so on. I gave this phenomenon the name of 'the narcissism of minor differences', a name which does not do much to explain it. We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.

Mark Liberman
at Language Log on Herbert Simon & Benoit Mandelbrot, re HS's paper "On a class of skew distribution functions"

Lunch with the FT: Emily Stokes has lunch with Lydia Davis.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

What “Mentor” is really about, though, is the slow-motion derailment of Mr. Grimes’s own once promising literary career, a process that took his pride before it took his sanity. This is a book about striding up to the brink of success, only to have success disembowel you with a dull steak knife, bow, and then skip away, cackling.
Dwight Garner at NYT on Tom Grimes
Once I began to take Prozac, I lost my ability to make metaphors. My thinking became literal; I couldn’t make connections between seemingly disconnected phenomena. The voices grew silent. Now that I’m on three psych meds -- two mood stabilizers and an antidepressant -- sustaining a fictional mask is more difficult for me. Over the course of several years, I had to invent an entirely new style, or voice, that was in synch with my new brainwaves. Nonfiction, particularly the personal essay and, of course, the memoir, seem much more suited to my psyche’s newfound “stability.” My moods no longer swing drastically. Now, I know who I’ll be the next day. For a long time, I didn’t. Once the internal voices were silenced, my voice was all I had left. Applying it to nonfiction suddenly clicked for me. I understood how I needed to write. My previous style is history.
Tom Grimes at Bookslut
Imagine that French were a dead language.

I could just as well have said: Represent that to yourselves, French, a dead language.

And in some archive of paper or stone, on some roll of microfilm, we could read a sentence. I read it here, let it be the opoening sentence of this introductory address, for example this: "One might say that we represent something (nous sommes en représentation).

Are we sure we know what this means, today? Let us not be too quick to believe it.

ht Woods Lot, the rest here ht aaargh

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

And then, between 1929 and 1932, he was sent on a number of journeys through central and southern Russia. Other writers who visited collective farms did so as members of Writers' Brigades—and they, of course, were shown only a few model collective farms. Platonov, however, was sent by the People's Commissariat of Agriculture, and he saw what was really happening.
That experience complicated his optimism. He seems still to have retained a belief that the shining communist future was a possibility, but having seen the stupidity, inefficiency, corruption, and brutality that were everywhere on the ground, no matter what the Kremlin planners might intend, he had to respond, to tell the truth as he saw it, and that response involved a complex and brilliant manipulation of the very language the Kremlin used to propagate its ideas. Characters are always talking about "directives" and "backwardness" and "tempo," regurgitating the catchwords that ceaselessly bombard them from Party organizers, "plenipotentiaries," and other emissaries from officialdom. One of them asks: "Is it really sorrow inside the whole world—and only in ourselves that there's a five-year plan?" The five-year plan inside us is one of the things the novel is about; some of the characters are trying to fulfill it by constant work, others by denunciations and violence, and the main viewpoint character, Voshchev, by questioning and introspection, irritating pretty much everyone else (as Platonov irritated the Party, despite his professed devotion to its ideals). By the time the novel heads into increasingly surreal-seeming and deadly territory, you're so accustomed to the strangeness of the telling that you can't escape its spell.
Languagehat on The Foundation Pit

Monday, August 2, 2010

Rajiv Sethi has a terrific post on David Blackwell, of whom the Texan wife of the department head at Berkeley said: I'm not having that darky in my house.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

More conversations and emails.

I say the wrong thing.

Life is unfair.

People who work very hard and do the right thing sometimes go under: the systems that are in place don't always ensure that people who have done the right thing will survive. We can then decide to try to do something about it or look the other way. If we do something about it we may ourselves end up in the position of going under: the cost to an individual of rectifying an injustice is often prohibitive.

Life is unfair.

Back in late 2001 my publishers made a terrifying $150,000 accounting error in their own favour on my royalties statement. I had just had a meeting with an agent who had said she would introduce me to new editors. My publishers had offered $500,000+ for a new 2-book deal including world rights; this terrifying royalties snafu was one of the reasons this was non-negotiable. I hired the agent and when the dust had settled I had met no new editors and also had no deal and it was pretty messy. I managed to get the royalties mistake sorted out so I did have money in the bank. I was doped up on anti-depressants.

I got an email saying one of my cousins was dying of lung cancer. I did not know him well; I was not sure whether it was sentimental to go and see him, but my cousin's family said they thought it would be a good thing. So I went out to California to see him.

This would have been, I think, early 2002 (anti-depressants not so good for the memory). My mind was in a a dull, quiet state where it was impossible to read. I think the flight was 22 hours; I sat in the seat looking quietly at the seat ahead. I wasn't bored, or restless, or impatient; it felt good to sit quietly.

Kelly had been a surfer when young. After too many arrests for DUI he lost his licence and I think was made to go to AA. He stayed sober for 20 years; we discovered after his death that he had been a popular, charismatic speaker within AA. In one recording he talked about discovering that he had a brain tumour as well as lung cancer. He had been staying at my uncle's house and had no transportation. He said he sat on the steps outside, saying: How can I get to AA. How can I get to AA. I've got to get to AA. After a while he decided to go back to the beginning and go through the 12 Steps. He worked through to Step 3 and resolved to leave everything in the hands of a Higher Power.

When I got there he was staying with his twin sister and her boyfriend, a vet, who had a house on the side of a mountain in an avocado grove. They had set up a hospital bed on the ground floor with an oxygen mask and a TV with a 24-hour golf channel.

If you've ever been very very sick you know what it's like to be very weak: you don't actually have enough energy to lie in bed, it's just that lying in bed takes less energy than anything else, so you lie in bed, exhausted by the effort of lying in bed. That was the state he had reached. He had no health insurance. Robin and John were looking after him; he was now increasingly weak and confused because of the brain tumour, so he could not be left alone. John was an overworked, debtridden vet; the twin, Robin, worked in the practice; they were both overextended, but they were also looking after Kelly. Everyone was worried and exhausted.

A problem had come up. John's partner wanted to retire, so he wanted to be bought out of the practice. Under California state law, the value of the practice was assessed on gross rather than net income. The practice showed no profits - they had taken on a lot of debt to invest in new equipment - but that did not, of course, affect the value of the practice under law. So John needed to come up with a lot of money he did not have to buy out his partner, and it looked as though they would simply need to sell out and John would lose his business and have to start from scratch.

I did not really want to do another deal with my publishers, who had been so bad to work with in the past, but in the circumstances this seemed self-indulgent: $525,000 had been their opening offer. So I said I would be happy to help if necessary. I went back to Berlin, and then to London. Since things had gone badly wrong with the last agent I was nervous of bringing in a new one; I asked a friend connected with Miramax, someone I knew my editor liked, to talk to my editor, and I told her what to say. (I was worried about handling this myself because I was doped up on anti-depressants and barely able to talk.)

My cousin died shortly after I returned to England. I was still in talks with my friend when I got an emergency email from John. His partner had kept such bad records that the practice was not in a position to get financing from a bank, so John would in fact need to find funding elsewhere. The CPA handling the transaction now said that it would fall through if the money was not on hand by the end of the week. John's uncle had offered to put up half the money; John asked if I could put up the other $100,000.

I would, of course, rather have waited until my deal was solidly in place, but I had been told this was an emergency. So I sent John a cheque for $100,000, which left me with a few thousand. Meanwhile my friend talked to my editor.

For reasons that remain unclear, my friend decided to replace the things I had asked her to say with something completely different. (She told me this after the meeting, when it was too late to do anything about it.) There were all sorts of misunderstandings which I won't go into, the deal fell through again, and everyone was outraged.

This was very bad news, because tax had not been paid on the money I had sent John and there was no way of knowing when more money would come in. In the long run this would turn out to be a professional disaster from which (as it looks now) I would never recover. I talked to an agent about the books I wanted to write and what I needed for them and he said No Publisher Will Allow, I would have to self-publish. The Inland Revenue started demanding taxes and threatening legal action and insisting that if there was a problem I must come in and talk to someone. I was not able to talk. I sent my accountant an email explaining that I was clinically depressed and at risk of suicide and he said he did not think the Inland Revenue would be sympathetic. I made enquiries about getting committed to a mental institution and was told it was difficult to get committed to a residential facility.

It seemed to me that the best plan might be to commit a crime, some sort of crime that would entail a prison sentence, as one does not generally need to go through a lot of red tape to go to jail. This struck me as an absolutely brilliant idea (presumably the Inland Revenue would not pursue me in jail), but at the same time I could not help being aware that many people would see this as insane, and I could not help feeling that the very fact that the idea struck me as absolutely brilliant, the solution to all my problems, might in itself be a mark of insanity. Barclaycard sent me some credit card cheques with 6 months interest-free credit; I called them and got them to raise my credit card limit and sent Inland Revenue a cheque. (I could not quite see why Inland Revenue could not just charge me 29.4% APR or some such thing.) I came off the anti-depressants and went back to secretarial work. So it was rather unfortunate that my friend had felt unable to say what I had asked her to say.

I did, as I've said, end up negotiating a new deal with my editor in 2003, he promised a designer, I moved to New York, he refused to honour the contract. Bad news.

Now, sending John a cheque for $100,000 would have been generous, but not insanely generous, if my deal had gone through. It would was an act of hypererogatory virtue - but he himself had done something much harder, much more generous, which was to look after someone dying of lung cancer. Kelly was a close friend of John's, but this was still an act of extraordinary generosity. The burden would not have been so heavy if the US had a proper healthcare system; John stepped in to fill that gap, and he now stood to lose everything he had worked for. He was an absolutely amazing guy, and I did not want to see that happen.

Talking to my editor, on the other hand, and relaying accurately the things I wanted in the deal, do not strike me as particularly taxing, let alone examples of exceptional generosity. It was not complicated; it came at no cost to the person concerned; had my friend felt able to do as she was asked, I would have had to work with people who were hard to work with, but I would not have faced financial disaster. So, you know, life is unfair.

Honouring the terms of a contract, again, is not an example of hypererogatory virtue. This is not an example of my editor doing me a favour, or showing exceptional generosity: this is an example of my editor complying with terms that are legally binding. Breaking the contract is an example of my editor being not just an unmitigated little shit but grossly dishonest. Life is unfair.

Paying royalties on sales of hardback books, again, is not an example of hypererogatory virtue. The publishers had made a profit on the book before it was published; they had sold 20,000 or so copies in hardback and owed me money. Paying it is not an example of doing me a favour, let alone exceptional generosity: this is an example of someone in the bowels of the royalties department accurately inputting data in a spreadsheet (which is what people in royalties are paid to do), rather than making a complete cock-up of it, so that a cheque in the appropriate amount is generated when the statement is sent out. Thereby obviating the need to hire an agent just to get paid. Life is unfair.

Life is really unfair, because we have before us an example of a much better career move.

Comparisons are odious.
Invidious comparisons are especially odious.

Let's not be odious.

The problem is.

There are forms of generosity I am able to recognise as improbable.

It would astound me if a reader were to write and offer me $100,000.
It would astound me if a reader were to offer me a year's accommodation, rent-free, in a second home that's unoccupied.

I am able to recognise these as offers that are wildly unlikely to come my way.

There are other forms of assistance that strike me as well within the realm of possibility.

If a reader recommends an agent, it seems straightforward for the reader to provide all information known to the reader. This looks like something that would take 10 minutes of the reader's time.

This turns out to be as wildly improbable as making me a gift of $100,000. I didn't know that.

Suppose I have, on the one hand, readers blundering into my life with unhelpful suggestions and, on the other hand, readers making me a gift of $100,000. The blunderers are not a problem.

But suppose I have a string of blunderers and no gifts of $100,000. Each blunderer wipes out a couple of years.

It's hard to be sane.

This is, without a doubt, unspeakably dull. I apologise. There's the faint hope, I'm afraid there really is the faint hope, not that a reader will give me $100,000, but that the blunderers might, with a rare glimmer of compassion, refrain.
What children, in fact all of us at any age, find frightening is unreliability and emotional coldness. The idea that you can't affect someone, that you can't see where they're coming from and can change tack at any moment.

Tilda Swinton on the White Witch of Narnia

I’ve remarked before that, once I became a practicing scientist, I realized I had taken all of the wrong courses as a student. Although I started out as a classical literature major, because I was interested in science, I took math, physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry, biophysics and so on. I should have taken business administration, elocution, basic accounting, creative writing, speed-reading, politics, sociology and abnormal psychology. Now that I’m chair of a department, I really wish I’d taken abnormal psychology.

Greg Petsko, Plus the secret handshake

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Andrew Gelman on statistical fallacies in baseball reportage.

Friday, July 30, 2010

My landlady has gone on holiday to Italy.

I'm here with the cats.

One of which likes to spend the day out in the street.

As it turns out, the cat needs to be lured home again at night: one must go out into the street and meow loudly: MEOW. MEOOOOW. MEOOOOW.

The cat doesn't seem to be very discriminating. It doesn't need its mistress's voice. It just needs a human meowing loudly at midnight to call it home.

The two cats are now chowing down on a tin of petnatur 100% Bio (HERZRAGOUT).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

I recognize that "language exams" can be (and sometimes are) designed to test something other than language proficiency. When I was a graduate student, we needed to demonstrate proficiency in two languages other than English. In principle, all that was required was the ability to translate a linguistics article, with access to a dictionary. Having achieved roughly that level of competence in German, I was planned to take the German exam. Then one of my fellow grad students, a native speaker of German who had an undergraduate degree from a well-regarded institution in Austria, told me that she had failed that exam.
Mark Liberman at Language Log, Language Tests for Immigrants to Canada

The first rule is an "internal" one: it has nothing to do with your relation with others, it concerns you yourself in isolation. It is as follows:

"Raise your quality standards as high as you can live with, avoid wasting your time on routine problems, and always try to work as closely as possible at the boundary of your abilities. Do this, because it is the only way of discovering how that boundary should be moved forward."

This rule tells us that the obviously possible should be shunned as well as the obviously impossible: the first would not be instructive, the second would be hopeless, and both in their own way are barren.

E W Dijkstra, Rules for Successful Scientific Research (ht Aleks Jakulin at Statistical Modeling)

Burkett & Griffiths (2010) go a long way to applying populaitonal thinking to language evolution. They describe a Bayesian model of language acquisition that takes into consideration multiple teachers and multiple languages. They point out that a learner who is trying to settle on a single grammar which fits data from multiple speakers violates the principle of Bayesian rational analysis. Burkett & Griffiths rectify this problem by defining a model in which a learner takes into account that the data it receives may be generated by different speakers who may speak more than one language.

Doing this involves a lot of complications. Here’s a list of things I had to look up before coming close to understanding the paper:

  • Bernoulli distributions
  • Beta distributions
  • Hyperparameters
  • Wright-Fisher model of genetic drift
  • Kroenecker’s delta function
  • Dirichlet process
  • Gibbs Sampler
  • Chinese Restaurant Process
Yes, probably dirt basic for mathematicians, but terrifying to us mere linguists. This took me about a month to get to grips with...

(Learning Multiple Languages from Multiple Teachers, at replicated typo
ht MR)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Terrific piece by Jonathan Franzen on Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, at the NY Times Book Review.

From Randall Jarrell's introduction:

Louie is a potentiality still sure that what awaits it in the world is potentiality, not actuality. That she is escaping from some Pollitts to some more Pollitts, that she herself will end as an actuality among actualities, an accomplished fact, is an old or middle-aged truth or half-truth that Louie doesn't know.

With the advent of swift and easy electronic transmission of written messages (e-mail, STM, etc.), the opportunity for Cantonese speakers to write Cantonese (in contrast to simply speaking that language) expanded vastly. The ease and speed of electronic communication of written messages encouraged a casual, conversational tone, so the old notion that writing was restricted to Mandarin began to break down much more rapidly than before. The problem, though, is simply that — even though they may want to write the way they speak — most young people are not adequately equipped with the special script resources necessary for writing the full range of spoken Cantonese. Consequently, there has arisen a clever style of writing Cantonese in a combination of the 3 languages and 2 scripts mentioned above.

Here is an example of how complex this style of written Cantonese can be (bear in mind that even this is not as "Cantonesey" as one might be if one pullled out all the stops): 好5舍得大学生活,E+就要离开了,有D接受5到呢个事实~~"

I will transcribe and translate this later on. For the moment, please note that the writing is a combination of Roman letters, Arabic numerals, a mathematical symbol, and simplified characters, all representing Sinitic morphemes.


Only specialists in the writing of Cantonese can accurately convey the full range and nuances of relatively pure Cantonese, and even for them it is a challenge to find means to write (and especially to type) all the unique Cantonese morphemes that are regularly used in speech. Consequently, for those who are not specialists in written Cantonese, but only dabble in it, no matter how fluent and comfortable they may be in speaking Cantonese, they are likely to have to resort to such alphanumericized, Mandarinized hybrids as the one with which we started: 好5舍得大学生活,E+就要离开了,有D接受5到呢个事实~~"

Victor Mair at Language Log

Monday, July 26, 2010

In 1994 Ginsberg sold his archives to Stanford University for a million dollars, but after all the deductions for the auction house, his agent, and taxes he only had enough money left to buy his New York loft and was back to square one. His photos brought him some income in his last years, though he insisted that most of the profits were plowed back into his work, for hiring an assistant and maintaining a lab.
NYRB blog, Beats & art market

From David Markson's edition of The Waste Land, recently bought by some lucky bugger at the Strand.

My friend Ethan paid not enough money for a heavily annotated edition of Hart Crane’s poetry, an even more heavily annotated T.S. Eliot, and a beautiful volume of Melville’s shorter works, with every one of Bartleby the Scrivener’s ‘I would prefer not to’s underlined. (‘Melville, late along, possessed no copies of his own books,’ Markson wrote in Vanishing Point.)
In summer 2000 I explained to an editor at Grand Street that this epigraph to The Waste Land was the source of the name of Sibylla, and that features of the text marking the fact that the character was an Anglicised American influenced by Eliot, including influence of Silver Latin on Donne, were essential to the book, had been established in the version approved for publication in volume form, and were not to be removed. He explained that American readers would not recognise the allusions and therefore the text must be altered for the benefit of American readers.

Since my arguments carried no weight I hired the Wylie Agency to fight my corner (Andrew Wylie told me he could settle the matter with a phone call). This went badly wrong.

Is this dull? Yes, this is dull.

Was this a long time ago? Yes, it was a horribly long time ago.

Markson books on sale at the Strand, story at LRB blog, here.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The only time I ever thought of suicide was in a graduate program -- not at Cornell, fortunately, so no bridge available. Every other time I found myself in a bad situation, I could think of ways to get out of it. Find a better job. Break up with an obnoxious boyfriend. Change majors. Move. There's almost always a regular, non-suicidal way out of things. But that graduate program -- I had so much of myself invested in it that I couldn't just drop out when it turned toxic. Or rather, death and dropping out seemed like equally devastating options, so there wasn't much to choose between them.

I did get help that let me muddle through and finish, but it took me a couple of years to recover afterwards. No need to either drop out or die, it seems, but finishing was the hardest thing I ever did. The jury's still out on whether it was worth the trouble.

What made it so ghastly? I think that it was a "closed environment" where anything that went wrong would fester and intensify. Switching to another program was very difficult. People who had borrowed money to attend would have a hard time paying back if they didn't get degrees that let them work in the field. And so if anyone wanted to bully you and make your life hell, you had to take it for the duration. People were caught in a trap.
Commenter on The suicide conundrum, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Atlantic Monthly

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Last Samurai will be the Fall Read at Conversational Reading , starting September 19. More here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Up in Prenzlauerberg visiting David Levinson. I called David this morning and asked if I could come up and stay with him for a week and he said yes, so here I am. David is reading out, incensed, from a book by Annie Dillard.

David: I don't know. I don't know what to say any more.

David reads an interview he gave on the Prairie Schooner blog.

D says he talked to a writer who said You know Helen DeWitt! and said everyone in New York loved The Last Samurai. I subject David and Gerrit to the Broken Record.

Realise that I have been posting on blog in ratty frame of mind and should probably not have made unkind comparisons between John Sullivan and Leonard Woolf.

Emily Horne of A Softer World has agreed in principle to collaborate with me on a project on Photography and Prose for SF Cameraworks.
The Confederacy, McCurry writes, was conceived as a "republic of white men." But since of its 9 million people more than 3 million were slaves and half of the remainder disenfranchised white women, the new nation faced from the outset a "crisis of legitimacy." However much the law defined white women as appendages of their husbands, entitled to protection but not a public voice, and slaves simply as property, Southern leaders realized early that they would have to compete with the Union for the loyalty of these groups, treating them, in effect, as independent actors. The need to generate consent allowed "the Confederate unenfranchised" to step onto the stage of politics, with their own demands, grievances and actions.
Eric Foner, Restless Confederates, at the Nation

The most daunting real-world problem Roth has solved so far: New York City's high school match, which he tackled in 2003. While many American kids simply attend their neighborhood high school, eighth graders in big cities like New York face a staggering number of choices. In theory, at least, each of the city's 80,000 eighth graders has the option of going to any one of 700 high school programs. The right match can be especially meaningful for kids who live in impoverished neighborhoods with lousy schools.

Before Roth got involved, the matching system was so screwed up that a third of the city's eighth graders didn't even participate. "It was like a crowded, crazy bazaar somewhere in the Middle East," recalls Neil Dorosin, a former New York Department of Education official.

Roth, aided by a Harvard graduate student and a young economist at Columbia, redesigned the system using a version of what's known as a deferred-acceptance algorithm. Roth has used modified forms of this same algorithm to design matching systems for Boston's public school system and for placing medical school graduates with residency programs.

Susan Adams, Forbes (ht MR)


A long time ago I was invited to submit some short stories to Harper's. The editor who wrote to me loved the 2 stories I sent in. She said the committee thought one was opaque but liked the other (Harley), though John Sullivan had one minor editorial comment.

She then wrote explaining that she was leaving Harper's to concentrate on her own writing, but Sullivan would birddog the story. New verb to me, but OK.

Time passed. No word. I wrote.

Sullivan said the story had gone missing. I resent. (Re-sent.)

Time passed. I wrote.

Long silence. I wrote.

Long silence. I wrote.

Sullivan explained that the story had been looked over by the committee who did not think it was right for Harper's.

I learned much later that Sullivan had been working on a book. He had not been in the office much. 'Bird dog' should have alerted me to possible problems: who doesn't know a goofy Lab?

Much, much later I met Wyatt Mason, a friend of Sullivan's. I shared this story. Mason explained that this was why you needed an agent. Sullivan could naturally not be expected to do his job without assistance. Professional writers understand this: they put an agent in place to enable a salaried editor to do the job he is notionally paid for. (I paraphrase, needless to say.)

Somewhat unfortunately, I once read the autobiography of Leonard Woolf as light reading during an Easter vacation when I was supposed to be reading the Aeneid. Woolf was sent out to what was then known as Ceylon and spent several years as a colonial administrator; he came to an office with a backlog of years. The backlog never got any bigger, it simply went back for years. Woolf saw that there was no reason the office could not respond to new queries within 24 hours; it should do this, and meanwhile tackle the business of cutting down the backlog. By the time he left all queries were being answered within 24 hours. (I am probably getting this slightly wrong - read it a long time ago - but this was the gist.)

So when I was told that Mr Sullivan required an agent to assist him in performing the job for which he was paid, I reflected on the fact that Leonard Woolf had walked into an office whose unanswered correspondence went back for years, and I concluded that Mr Sullivan was no Leonard Woolf. Might it not be possible, was the natural thought, to give the job to a Woolf?

It might very well be possible, but it is more desirable than likely, which is, of course, why one tries to put an agent in place.

At some point, anyway, I put the couple of stories on my website. Anyone who wanted to do so could buy them for $5. Some have.

My impression is that a paywall looks like bad form on the Internet. That's just the way it is. No one expects to get a copy of Harper's for free, but if a story is online it ought to be free. Now that the stories have appeared online, anyway, they can't be submitted to magazines. So I give the link for anyone who would like to read them but was put off by this ignorance of Internet protocol. Samizdat here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

“There would be a package of seeds for a pumpkin, and there would be a picture with the word ‘PUMPKIN,’” said Blackwell. “That’s how I learned to read.”

Daniel Cattau at Illinois Alumni Magazine
(ht Andrew Gelman)
The judge, who said Jacques had no mitigation, told him: "You are a Cambridge graduate and should know better, I suppose.
Book thief brought to book, Guardian
Twitter also seems to have an interesting property: the limited message size lends itself to informality so people are less concerned, and indeed, less able to be 'self-important' and so will post about their own work and opinions more than in other mediums. For example, imagine you're working with someone who makes a point of telling you every time they have an article published or read something they found useful. You'd probably get pissed off with them pretty quickly. But for some people, I would like to know this information. Sophie Scott (on Twitter as @sophiescott) is a good example of this. She's a professor of neuropsychology at UCL who studies speech and language - an area I'm by no means an expert in. When Sophie Scott thinks a new study is important, I'd like to know that. Twitter is the internet equivalent of making these announcements by writing them on post-it notes on your office door. We all know people who have expertise we value - whether that includes neuroscience, football or new music, and I want to read their post-it notes, but without breaching social etiquette and hassling people. Like all communication technology, it's useful primarily because it addresses a social issue.
Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks

(I have a Twitter account. I have Followers. Je ne tweet jamais.)

Monday, July 19, 2010

After being awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship, established by the clothing magnate Julius Rosenwald to aid black scholars, he attended the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton but left after a year when, because of his race, he was not issued the customary invitation to become an honorary faculty member. At Berkeley, where the statistician Jerzy Neyman wanted to hire him in the mathematics department, racial objections also blocked his appointment.

Instead, Mr. Blackwell sent out applications to 104 black colleges on the assumption that no other schools would hire him. After working for a year at the Office of Price Administration, he taught briefly at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and Clark College in Atlanta before joining the mathematics department at Howard University in Washington in 1944.

Obituary of David Blackwell, NYT, ht Andrew Gelman
People who don’t do statistics are usually drawn to individual stories or scenarios. I look for scenarios which are informative about risks that might be mitigated in some way. It’s frustrating for everyone involved if they believe what you are presenting, but then can’t do anything about the risks or other problems.
Calculated Risk


Alex Tabarrok on bird death.

How Stuff Works on statistics of bird death. (Wind turbines 10,000-40,000; power lines 130-174 million...)

Altamont Pass is different for two main reasons: turbine location and turbine design.

There are more than 4,000 wind turbines at the Altamont Pass energy farm in California. It's one of the first wind farms in the United States, and its 20-year-old turbines are accordingly out-of-date. Their design has long since been abandoned: Latticework blades with small surface area are far from efficient for energy generation, and far from safe for birds. The lattice structure actually attracts large birds, because the frame makes for an excellent perch. Large birds like raptors are drawn to the blades, and collision rates are high as a result.

The other design issue is the blades' low surface area, because less surface area means the blades have to spin faster to turn the electricity-generating turbines. The faster the blades spin, the more dangerous they are to birds flying near them. It's unlikely that a bird that finds itself in the vicinity of the blades could ever make it through when they're spinning so fast.

As if this weren't enough to make old wind farms a bird nightmare, the Altamont Pass power plant was built smack dab in the middle of a major migratory route for large birds. The area also houses the world's largest single population of golden eagles [source: USA Today]. With thousands of dated wind turbines sprawling across a super-high-population bird area, it's inevitable that birds and turbines will meet. A current estimate puts the number of birds killed by turbines at Altamont Pass to be about 4,700 each year, several hundred of which are raptors [source: USA Today].

The Altamont Pass wind farm kills far more birds than any other farm in the United States. The total at that single wind farm with 4,000 turbines is 4,700 fatalities; the total for all wind farms in the United States, with more than 25,000 turbines in operation at any given time, is 10,000 to 40,000 per year [source: Reuters

Internet as Consolation

Joshua Cohen has asked me to write a piece on Internet as Consolation for the Dalkey Archive's Review of Contemporary Fiction.

What about God? Well, he works in mysterious ways, as we all know. I already wrote a whole post about that here. Most likely, if you are feeling strongly called by God to write your story, and even if you feel like he's telling you in no uncertain terms to share the message with the world, it still doesn't mean God has promised you a commercial publishing contract. Because in my humble opinion, if God truly intends for you to share your book through traditional publishing, he'll also give you the talent and the persistence to become a good enough writer. If you're writing non-fiction, he'll give you the credentials and the platform to sell your particular book, or at least the drive and seriousness to make it happen.





“There are two schools of thought as to why the Germans love board games,” says Martin Wallace of Warfrog. “The Germans are of the opinion that it’s down to their superior education system. We English are of the opinion that it’s because German TV is shite.”

Tim Harford on German board games, FT

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Typical of the African situation were the Mende, who kept considerable numbers of slaves for both social and economic reasons and on the whole treated them well, so well indeed that it was difficult for an outsider to distinguish between free and slave. The primary social difference between the two groups was the honorlessness of the slaves, a condition that the free man was reluctant to point out in the presence of strangers, knowing how crushing it would be to the slave.... The loss of honor was most evident among aged slaves. In no other part of the world was age more respected and honored than in traditional African societies. But old Mende slaves never received this respect. They were minors who would never receive the respect due to a mature adult.

Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (83)
The class of the lowly is the source from which the master class draws its livelihood and leisure. Thraldom is a degree of cannibalism. It is a system of man feeding upon man. The master is a human parasite, who, by the right of might, has secured his fellow-men in the bonds of thraldom in order to feed upon them and to use them for the satisfaction of his appetite.
C.O. Williams, Thraldom in Ancient Iceland, p. 133 (via Patterson, Slavery and Social Death)
Let us begin with the Tupinamba of South America, a primitive, warlike group among whom slavery existed in its most elementary for. Economic motives were wholly absent in the enslavement of captives. Slaves were kept for two purposes only: as a living exhibition of the master's honor and valor in war, and ultimately as meat for the cannibalistic orgy that might take place as long as fifteen years after capture. Between being taken prisoner and being eaten, the captive "recognize[d] himself as a slave and a defeated man, he follow[ed] the victorious man, serve[d] him faithfully without having to be watched."

The slave among the Tupinamba was constantly aware of the fact that he was a doomed person. Even if he escaped, his own tribe would not take him back. His sense of degradation was as intense as his master's sense of glory. A Tupinamban slave told Father Evreux that what really bothered him was the prospect of being eaten,
but not to be able to take revenge before dying on those who ware to eat me. I remember that I am the son of an important man in my country... Now I see myself as a slave without being painted and no featheres attached to my head, my arms, around my waist, as the important people of my country are decorated, then I want to be dead.
Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study

Saturday, July 17, 2010

For all of Timoney’s messianic zeal, his efforts instilled little faith in the loose confederation of addiction counselors and rehab providers I met in the Badlands. Their budgets had been gutted by some technicality of welfare reform, the heroin seemed to be getting purer and more noxious every week, and they could not handle the drastic influx of court dates and bail demands they faced as a result of Operation Sunrise’s indiscriminate sweeps. A distressing new book on the drug war called The Fix illuminated their struggle; although numerous studies had estimated that every dollar spent in the attempt to constrain the demand for drugs—especially if those efforts focused on drugs’ most conspicuous consumers—was worth ten spent trying to stamp out its supply, the supply-siders had won the debate again and again. 


What I couldn’t understand, though, was why they killed the story. Sure, it wasn’t Blackwater, but this was a store that at least half our readers’ kids would have killed to work for, and it was being run by some racist, frat-boy cult, and the suburban teenagers it hired and fired so mercurially were going to grow into adults who thought this was . . . normal? That in the modern American workplace, this sort of Lord-of-the-Flies management strategy was just par for the fucking course?


The stranger thing about phone sex, though, was that the training program was more rigorous and extensive than any I’d encountered in journalism. There was a day and a half in a classroom learning such phone-sex fundamentals as the “hot statement” and the “ego stroke,” daily feedback sessions with supervisors who listened in on calls, a mandatory creative-writing contest for the best Halloween-themed fantasy scenario, refresher courses to hone fluency in more exotic proclivities, individual binders in which we recorded our progress in this stuff and collected, as per instruction, magazine clippings—Penthouse letters, perfume advertisements, etc.—whatever we found erotically inspiring. When my supervisor’s boss learned I was writing a story, he unfurled all the usual legal threats, but when it was published, the company ordered hundreds of reprints to dispense to new hires at orientation. They did not expect you to be some innate phone-sex genius, but they had full faith that you could get immeasurably better, especially if you wanted to, and they genuinely seemed to take it as a given that people wanted to become better at things they did.

Maureen Tkacik at Columbia Journalism Review

that clinking clanking sound

With the explosion of the Internet and the ease of downloading music onto your computer, a whole new royalty arena has opened up in recent years. Record companies usually treat downloads as "new media/technology," which means they can reduce the royalty by 20% to 50%. This means that rather than paying artists a 10% royalty on recording sales, they can pay them a 5% to 8% rate when their song is downloaded from the Internet. In the case of downloaded music, although there is no packaging expense, many record company contracts still state that the 25% packaging fee will be deducted.

How Stuff Works on music royalties

Friday, July 16, 2010

Farrar, Straus and Giroux has decided to let readers peek behind the scenes at one of the most delicate parts of the publishing business: the writing of books, as they happen. Talk to any writer after a book has been published and she'll be able to detail every wrong turn, every failed plot attempt, every character that had to be killed off, all the pages that were written and ultimately discarded. All those false starts have a shape -- stubby, unfruitful branches hacked off a healthy tree -- once the book is finished. But while it's a work in progress? Well, then they're growing and budding and also dying. Sometimes painfully, one word at a time.

Yet Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of FSG, is pulling back the covers on his authors who are in that very work-in-progress state. A new website (and also monthly newsletter) is called, with editorial exactitude, FSG Work in Progress.

Carolyn Kellogg at Jacket Copy