Saturday, July 31, 2010
Friday, July 30, 2010
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
E W Dijkstra, Rules for Successful Scientific Research (ht Aleks Jakulin at Statistical Modeling)
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.
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:
Yes, probably dirt basic for mathematicians, but terrifying to us mere linguists. This took me about a month to get to grips with...
- Bernoulli distributions
- Beta distributions
- Wright-Fisher model of genetic drift
- Kroenecker’s delta function
- Dirichlet process
- Gibbs Sampler
- Chinese Restaurant Process
(Learning Multiple Languages from Multiple Teachers, at replicated typo
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
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.Commenter on The suicide conundrum, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Atlantic Monthly
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.
Friday, July 23, 2010
Thursday, July 22, 2010
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
Susan Adams, Forbes (ht MR)
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.
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
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
Obituary of David Blackwell, NYT, ht Andrew Gelman
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.
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
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
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."Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study
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.
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
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
Thursday, July 15, 2010
The adolescent purgatory of FaceBook — with its castings into the Eternal Now of instant praise, acceptance, and rejection — reflects, magnifies, and acerbates the perpetual adolescence of the contemporary culture of the United States, intensifying its shallow longings and displaced panics, its narcissistic rage and obsession with the superficial. It devours libido, by providing a pixilated facsimile of the primal dance of human endeavor, leaving one’s heart churning in thwarted yearning, locked an evanescent embrace with electronic phantoms, as one, paradoxically, attempts to live out unfulfilled desires by means of hollow communion with the soul-negating source of his alienation. (....)A Heap Of Broken Images: Social media and the architecture of anomie
ht woods lot
They say that if you love something you should set it free. And if it returns it’ll be yours forever.
I’m starting to find that this may actually be true.
If by ‘love’ they mean ‘are quite used to having around’. And if by ‘quite used to having around’ they mean ‘is a District Council-mandated necessity’.
And if by ‘set it free’ they actually mean ‘wonder where the fuck it’s gone.’
The wheelie-bin for my recycling went missing didn’t it.
Tired Dad (who would never have been whipped through the BC revolving door because he would never have got a foot in the door in the first place, O Britain Britain Britain)
New Labour’s policy on celebrity sheen - populism without popularity - was part-and-parcel of a well-documented world of spin, shady unelected advisers, myriad consultants and a pernicious hyper-real feeling that politics was all about being seen to do something, but not actually doing it. Whether we think that New Labour was a continuation of the Thatcher project, or, alternatively, that the Cameron-Clegg axis is a continuation of the New Labour project is perhaps less important than the fact that this unpopular populism is still guiding policy. Alongside the interminable restructuring of public services, particularly education and health, we have flashy, gimmicky one-liner celebrity interventions whose supposedly popular appeal is, at the end of the day, profoundly mysterious, if all pervasive.Infinite Thought
The recent announcement that Niall Ferguson has been invited to ‘revitalise the curriculum’ for history is very depressing but entirely in keeping with this tendency. Ferguson proposes to introduce a ‘world war two-based video game designed for use as a classroom aid’, but promises he’ll avoid Eurocentrism by claiming that he is also interested in ‘the stagnation of China, the underachievement of Mughal India, and why the Ottoman empire – despite its good mathematics and good-ish astronomy – ultimately failed. It just failed to be part of the scientific revolution.’ May I not-very-controversially suggest that avoiding Eurocentrism isn’t best served by misrepresenting the supposed ‘underachievements’ of other parts of the world. ...
So if a certain disease is more common in rich people within a country, that's big news because it suggests that something unusual is going on. Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have long been known to show this pattern, at least in some countries, but this has often been thought to be a product of diagnostic ascertainment bias. Maybe richer and better-educated parents are more likely to have access to services that can diagnose autism. This is a serious issue because autism often goes undiagnosed and diagnosis is rarely clear-cut.
An important new PLoS paper from Wisconsin's Durkin et al suggests that, while ascertainment bias does happen, it doesn't explain the whole effect in the USA: richer American families really do have more autism than poorer ones. The authors made use of the ADDM Network which covers about 550,000 8 year old children from several sites across the USA.
Autism and Wealth at Neuroskeptic, ht MR
I think some of the confusion that has arisen from Ed Tufte's work is that people read his book and then want to go make cool graphs of their own. But cool like Amis, not cool like Orwell. We each have our own styles, and I'm not trying to tell you what to do, just to help you look at your own writing and graphics so you can think harder about what you want your style to be.
Andrew Gelman at Statistical Modeling...
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
It is said that analysts of the fighting in World War Two, concerned at the apparent reluctance to participate or even fire their weapons of so many of the Western armies’ combat soldiers, tried to figure out what characteristics marked the born warrior. Were they big macho types? Little guys overcompensating? Well-educated men with a strong belief in their cause? Or hooligans like the ‘dirty dozen’? The only feature they could find which seemed to have strong predictive power was that effective fighters had a strong sense of humour. And that is one of the really distinguishing features of Old Norse poetry, legend and saga: grim gallows humour. It is always a bad sign in a saga when someone cracks a joke.
Tom Shippey at the LRB
Lydia Davis’s mysterious, uncomfortably intimate short stories are often read as the working out on paper of her own very ordinary difficulties in managing life. When I suffered my flat tyre and her book saved the morning, I thought she would be pleased, because of the ordinariness of the problem she had solved, which nevertheless is exactly the kind of problem that, as one after another accumulates in a day or over a week, can come to make you feel that life is too overwhelming in its minutiae, too mundanely cumbersome to bear. I think one of the reasons her work is so powerful – though before this collection she was mostly known as ‘a writer’s writer’, someone you were introduced to in an undergraduate lit class if you were lucky, but more likely in an MFA programme – is this gift of making our unconscious or semi-conscious struggles visible, in stories that are rarely longer than a page or two.
Clancy Martin at the LRB
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Sleede took his measures: silently, as was his way. He vanished one day in search of a rare component of Damascus ink that was believed to induce erotic needs in the user and thus, when palmed on some lascivious Abwehr agent, to weaken willpower and concentration. Sleede was next heard of having left Beirut in a caique for the distant island of Crete, a destination now within our network of clandestine communication. Back in Cairo malicious tongues inevitably wagged. Fresh jealousies were aired. A squalid spy from another organisation even claimed that the bottles, when analysed in Sleede’s absence, were found to contain no more than coloured water.
Basil Davidson on SOE, LRB
"A good photograph," he said, "will prove to the viewer how little our eyes permit us to see. Most people only see what they've always seen and what they expect to see. Whereas a photographer, if he's good, will see everything."
"You gotta be alone and work alone," he said. "It's a lonely occupation, if you wanna call it that."
Levinstein lived loneliness to the extreme: never married, had few friends, and alienated those who wanted to advance his career. Yet that same independent spirit informed the way he saw the world. He could skulk though crowds, blend in, observe things that others would miss. The very traits that alienated him from the world also allowed him to see it in a unique way.
- Claire O'Neill
Levinstein interview, HT Woods lot
Monday, July 12, 2010
Okrent can't claim to have discovered Prohibition; Michael Lerner's recent Dry Manhattan is another good entry in a well-tilled field. What elevates Last Call is, among other things, a clear explanation of the unique confluence of events that caused it. The introduction of the income tax made Prohibition fiscally feasible. Women's suffrage made it politically feasible. World War I created a surfeit of patriotism, a willingness to sacrifice, and an embrace of the expansion of federal power. By 1920 everything was in place for a bold new government intrusion into everyday life.
Here is Okrent on Prohibition and the income tax:
By 1875 fully one-third of federal revenues came from the beer keg and the whiskey bottle, a proportion that would increase in the years ahead and that would come to be described by a temperance leader in 1913, not inaccurately, as "a bribe on the public conscience."
...it would be hard enough to fund the cost of government without the tariff and impossible without a liquor tax. Given that you wouldn't collect much revenue from a liquor tax in a nation where there was no liquor, this might have seemed like an insurmountable problem for the Prohibition movement. Unless, that is, you could weld the drive for Prohibition to the campaign for another reform, the creation of a tax on incomes.
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty
The City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning. Silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open to the fields and to the sky
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill
Ne'er saw I, never felt a calm so deep
The river glideth at his own sweet will
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep
And all that mighty heart is lying still
[checking online, I first come across a couple of sites that give the line as given as 'never did the sun more beautifully steep' - I think: can that possibly be right? the prosody is all wrong... find other sites which offer the line as remembered, but also have the line 'This City now doth like a garment wear' - which feels completely wrong because I have been misquoting the poem for 30 years but is probably right.]
[I once talked to a woman at Oxford who said Wordsworth was her favourite poet. I made some sort of appalled noise, thinking of the acres of dreary verbiage Ww had written, and she said, Yes, but you don't judge a poet by his worst work, you judge by the best. ]
The reason I did not know what to do when I went to college was that I had been an avid reader and majoring in English looked the obvious thing to do but I thought picking apart texts would destroy the thing I loved. It's not that I don't like picking things apart - this is what I like about philosophy - but I did not like - the thought of deploying a discourse on this poem is pretty horrible. If I am in a big city and cross a bridge at dawn the poem comes to mind. It seems to me that it could be embedded in a different social practice, something like the Japanese tea ceremony. The purpose of the Japanese tea ceremony was to have a social occasion where rank, wealth were set aside: when first introduced, at any rate, it was very simple. So one could have a social occasion where people turned up and each person recited a poem. (Any kind of literary discourse, these days, is obviously embedded in a system of social signifiers: the economy of academia means every discourse arrives with its obsolescence on the horizon.)
I talk too much.
He said I hunt for haddock's eyes
Among the heather bright
I make them into waistcoat buttons
In the silent night
And these I do not sell for gold
Or coin of silvery shine
But for a copper halfpenny
And that will purchase nine
I sometimes dig for buttered rolls
Or set limed twigs for crabs
I sometimes search the grassy knolls
For wheels of hansom cabs
And that's the way-- he gave a wink--
By which I get my wealth,
And very gladly will I drink
Your honour's noble health
I heard him then, for I had just
Completed a design
To keep the Menai Bridge from rust
By boiling it in wine
I thanked him much for telling me
The way he got his wealth
But chiefly for his wish that he
Might drink my noble health
And now if e'er by chance I put
My fingers into glue
Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot
Into a left-hand shoe
Or if I drop upon my toe
A very heavy weight
I weep, for it reminds me so
Of that old man I used to know...
The hapless WWw here
She thinks of herself as someone who never reads poetry. Then she realises that she takes the OCT of the Iliad with her on even short trips. She's lazy, it's true: she should be more adventurous. She has poems in her head: lines flash through the head throughout the day, if she has to wait at a bus stop, at the hairdresser's, in a supermarket queue she will go through some of the poems she knows. So of course most of the poetry she encounters during a year is the stuff in her head. She learnt 'Courage! he cried, and pointed toward the land' sitting through a boring English class in 9th grade, leafing through the anthology: if idly standing at a bus stop 'Courage! he cried...' is the poem likeliest to come first to the mind.
'Courage!' he cried, and pointed toward the land;
'This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.'
In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemèd always afternoon...
She thinks she learnt 'The White Knight's Tale' around the same time :
I'll tell thee everything I can, there's little to relate,
I saw an agèd agèd man, a-sitting on a gate.
'Who are you, agèd man,' I said, 'and how is it you live?'
And his answer trickled through my head like water through a sieve.
He said 'I search for butterflies that sleep among the wheat;
I make them into mutton pies and sell them in the street;
I sell them unto men,' he said,' who sail on stormy seas,
And that's the way I get my bread, a trifle if you please.'
But I was thinking of a plan
To dye one's whiskers green
And always use so large a fan
That they could not be seen
So having no reply to give
To what the old man said
I cried, 'Come tell me how you live!'
And thumped him on the head...
[She had been reciting the poem for years before she realised the agèd man was angling for a tip. 'I thanked him much for telling me the way he got his wealth, But chiefly for his wish that he might drink my noble health' is the sort of mistake she makes all the time.]
This often flashes into the head unprompted. Also 'That is no country for old men', 'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan', 'Earth has not anything to show more fair', 'My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains', 'Carecharmer sleep, son of the sable night' - it's not that these are her favourite poems (she's not sure which those would be), they're just the poems that come to mind most often. (How often depends more on how much time she happens to spend in queues than on an inclination to 'read' poetry; this is, obviously, why she should be more adventurous.) If she has a long wait she brings up more. They are not very recherché, the selection being strongly influenced by a couple of anthologies and a few other fairly predictable sources. When she checks them against the original text, which she seldom does, she finds that mistakes have crept in.
Poems recited 10.00-10.55 am, 23.09.09, 1325 Avenue of the Americas
Come my Celia, let us prove...
Carecharmer sleep, son of the sable night...
Sailing to Byzantium
Ode to a Nightingale
We stood by a pond that winter day...
(The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird awing...)
Wind, wind, wind in the old trees
The White Knight's Tale
Wild Swans at Coole
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought...
Tender only to one
Why dost thou dally, Death, and tarry on the way...
Song of Wandering Aengus
The Lotus-Eaters (Courage! he cried, and pointed toward the land...)
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day...
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes...
Earth has not anything to show more fair...
The world is too much with us, late and soon...
With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!
Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part...
Beginning of Apology of Socrates (ὅτι μὲν ὑμεῖς, ὦ ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι, πεπόνθατε ὑπὸ τῶν ἐμῶν κατηγόρων οὐκ οἶδα. ἐγὼ δ᾽οὖν καὶ αὐτὸς ὑπ᾽αὐτῶν ὀλίγου ἐμαυτοῦ ἐπελαθόμην...)
Now she is like the white tree rose
Ode to Autumn
The Walrus & the Carpenter
Time will say nothing but I told you so...
This lunar beauty...
Margaret, are you grieving...
These are not the only poems & passages she knows, but they are the ones she thought of on 23.09.09 between 10.00 and 10.55 am.
O Sunflower, weary of time
That countest the steps of the sun
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done
Where the youth pined away with desire
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow
Climb up from their graves and aspire
Where my sunflower wishes to go
[In her 2nd (and last) year at Smith she was assigned a paper on this poem and O Rose, thou art sick. She was then very ignorant. She thought that it would be cheating to read anything anyone else had written about the poems. She went to the college library and found the books on Blake and looked at books and essays on other poems, to get an idea of the sort of thing that was wanted: she felt rather guilty about this, but she eased her conscience by reading only work which made no mention whatsoever of the assigned poems.
[When she was at Oxford, a sign in the Examination Schools said Gowns Shall Be Worn In All Lectures. With the exception of Andrew Mason of Corpus, no one wore a gown to lectures. Everyone knew that this rule was not enforced.
When she began her D.Phil., she made a mistake. It was common knowledge that Oxford had only introduced the doctorate to appease Americans, who needed the degree if they wanted to pursue academic careers in the United States. At Oxford, it had been standard practice for those who stayed on to spend several years reading widely, rather than immediately locking themselves into a highly specialised research topic: this was the system which had produced great scholars like Peter Brunt and Sir Ronald Syme.
She knew perfectly well, of course, that the rubric in the Examination Regulations and Decrees specified that a candidate for the D.Phil. must submit a piece of work which represented a 'substantial contribution to knowledge'; this presupposed that the candidate would identify a topic and carry out original research on the topic. Since everyone knew that this was all nonsense - this was not the way scholars like Brunt and Syme were produced, the degree was merely a convenience for Americans - it had never occurred to her that anyone would take it seriously. When she got a note in her pigeonhole assigning a supervisor and asking her to arrange a meeting, when the supervisor expected her to find a topic of research, this came as an unpleasant surprise. A topic? She had taken it for granted that she had been given 3 years' funding to read widely and lay down a solid basis for a life's work as a serious scholar.
[She expects to get things wrong. She expects things to go wrong.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
She gets an email from a reader, who has a brilliant idea. She can turn to the Awesomeness of the Internet.
Email from another reader. Have you thought of the Awesomeness of the Internet?
Emails from several editors of radical new magazines taking advantage of the Awesomeness of the Internet. Asking for stories for which they can't pay.
More emails from readers espousing the Awesomeness of the Internet.
Email from reader requesting a blurb.
Email from reader re Awesomeness of Internet.
Interviews, profiles of her former agent in the NY Times, New York magazine, Vogue, di da, on Today Show, &c, each whitewashing in ignorance of Awesomeness of Internet.
Lecture from reader on Awesomeness of Internet.
Friday, July 9, 2010
Overall, I found the experiments fairly convincing. I do worry a bit about what some colleagues and I used to call "the paper airplane effect": At one point we thought we had discovered that a certain fraction of the population is surprisingly deaf to certain fairly easy speech-perception distinctions; the effect, noted in a population of high-school-student subjects, was replicable; but observing one group of subjects more closely, we observed that a similar fraction spent the experiment surreptitiously launching paper airplanes and spitballs at one another.
Mark Liberman at Language Log
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Daniel sends link to California Psychics
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Wednesday, July 7, 2010
A friend told her about a friend who had an old Cadillac. The engine was, it was so big, there was space under the hood to put a chair and sit inside, working on the engine. You could see how it worked. You could buy a book and sit on the chair and fix the engine, following the book.
People read the blog. They read about the bad times. People send emails. People talk. People say two kinds of thing.
They say: I wish I could do something (but there's nothing I can do).
Or they say: Someone I barely know knows an agent I know nothing about! I could put you in touch!
She lies on the bed.
She turns her face to the wall.
She's been dealing with the biz for 14 years.
She showed someone 2 chapters of a book in May 1996. He got very excited. He showed it to his wife. The wife got very excited. The wife had a half-assed idea. The wife wanted to option the book on the basis of two chapters. There was an an agent the wife barely knew. The wife made an introduction to the agent. It went horribly, horribly wrong, as half-assed ideas tend to do.
There have been many, many people with half-assed ideas over the years. It gets worse every time. She is older every time. She is tired. She is always trying to recover from the last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. And because she has seen so many half-assed ideas, she tries to think ahead, she tries to get information, she tries to do things differently. Causing endless offence.
She'd like to write a post. She has written a post and put it in the drafts folder. A post explaining why a half-assed idea is worse than nothing. A post explaining how much time and energy it takes up. A post explaining. A post explaining that when a half-assed idea goes horribly wrong, the person who came up with the idea never fixes the damage. Someone came up with a half-assed idea last July. It went horribly wrong. Little half-assed has naturally gone missing. They always do. She puts it in the drafts folder because it does no good.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
The new captain jumped from the cockpit, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the owners who were swimming between their anchored sportfisher and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife. They had been splashing each other and she had screamed but now they were just standing, neck-deep on the sand bar. “We’re fine, what is he doing?” she asked, a little annoyed. “We’re fine!” the husband yelled, waving him off, but his captain kept swimming hard. ”Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not ten feet away, their nine-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”
How did this captain know, from fifty feet away, what the father couldn’t recognize from just ten? Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that’s all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew knows what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” she hadn’t made a sound. As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I wasn’t surprised at all by this story. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for, is rarely seen in real life.
Drowning Kid? Not Likely, g.captain.com, ht janet reid
Saturday, July 3, 2010
Some common abuses of arsenic were a good deal grimmer even than real and fictional characters doing away with their unwanted spouses (at least as often for financial convenience, surely, than as Orwell suggests, passion). Many infants and children died from intestinal infections, an unknown number of which were actually deliberate arsenic poisoning. In 1849, Rebecca Smith was executed for killing eight of her babies after birth, having claimed in her defence that her husband was an alcoholic and that she feared her children ‘might come to want’ and die of starvation anyway. According to Whorton the poisoning of children ‘underwent a growth spurt’ when for a halfpenny a week ‘burial clubs’, an offshoot of the friendly societies, paid out for funeral expenses so that the children of the poor could avoid a pauper’s grave or being carved up by anatomists after death. ‘Manchester clubs, for example, paid out £3 as a rule, but some paid £4, or even £5; a basic funeral for a child could be financed for only £1 or £2. There was a saying among women in the Manchester tenements: “Aye, aye, that child will not live, it is in the burial club!”’ Membership rolls were known as ‘catalogues of the doomed’.
Jenny Diski at the LRB, Toxic Lozenges
In “Planet Trillaphone,” Wallace puts that “opening” to indicative use. As the narrator divulges the precarious details of his depression and how the drugs he’s on both keep him from suicide and produce a new species of intolerable feeling, the reader is run up against the story’s surprising final sentence—”Except that is just highly silly when you think about what I said before concerning the fact that the Bad Thing is really”—a sentence that doesn’t conclude. Without outlet, the flow of the story ceases midstream. What has happened? One can’t know such things, the story would argue, just as when, without warning or explanation, we receive news that a friend has committed suicide, we can’t know precisely what has happened: we’re left with the shock of a life cut short and for which there can be no reassuring resolution. Life is regularly all beginning and middle; why should fiction be any different?
I don't know the story. I do know that Wallace was not only a writer but a mathematician and modal logician. I read Mason with furrowed brow, thinking, what can this possibly mean? I write:
All sorts of things might have happened to the narrator: he might have been knocked down by a car, stung by a bee, kidnapped by pygmies, or just realised suddenly that it was time for the Simpsons. Or he might have jumped off a cliff. It's not easy to see how these are in principle unknowable (we can't know these things?), nor why breaking off in mid-sentence should imply that they were. If a friend commits suicide, whether with or without warning, I presumably do know, at any rate, that s/he has committed suicide (that is, I have the sort of fact Wallace withholds); in the absence of this sort of knowledge I would have no reason to speculate about motives. And life is not regularly all beginning and middle: humans are begotten, born, and die. (I am not enough of a mathematician to be sure of this, but is it actually possible for something to have a beginning, a middle and no end? The interior of a sphere could perhaps loosely be described as all middle but has neither beginning nor end. The set of positive numbers has a beginning, no end and no middle. Could there - well, Wallace would know, but in any case, even if such a thing is logically possible it is hardly true of life as we know it.) (When I say I find myself wondering what it means, I mean that the things it seems to mean are both false and inconsistent with each other.)
So, yes, this is me, writing merrily along without ever having read the story. This is precisely the confrontational, argumentative tone which provoked the resignation of my agent, it wins me no friends and alienates people disposed to help; I put it, as one does, in the drafts folder.
Some time later I have a radical idea. Why not, erm, read the story?!!!!
Some quotes from the story (here in PDF):
And you start thinking about this pretty vicious situation, and you say to yourself, "Boy oh boy, how the heck is the Bad Thing able to do this?" You think about it -- really hard, since it's in your best interests to do so -- and all of a sudden it sort of dawns on you... that the Bad Thing is able to do this to you because you're the Bad Thing yourself! The Bad Thing is you.
That's when the Bad Thing just absolutely eats you up, or rather when you just eat yourself up. When you kill yourself. All this business about people committing suicide when they're "severely depressed;" we say, "Holy cow, we must do something to stop them from killing themselves!" That's wrong. Because all these people have, you see, by this time already killed themselves, where it really counts. By the time these people swallow entire medicine cabinets or take naps in the garage or whatever, they've already been killing themselves for ever so long. When they "commit suicide," they're just being orderly. They're just giving external form to an event the substance of which already exists and has existed in them over time. Once you realize what's going on, the event of self-destruction for all practical purposes exists. There's not much a person is apt to do in this situation, except "formalize" it, or, if you don't quite want to do that, maybe "E.C.T." or a trip away from the Earth to some other planet, or something. (pp 29/30)end of story:
The big question is whether the Bad Thing is on the planet Trillaphon. I don't know if it is or not. Maybe it has a harder time, in a thinner and less nutritious atmosphere. I certainly do, in some respects. Sometimes, when I don't think about it, I think I have just totally escaped the Bad Thing, and that I am going to be able to lead a Normal and Productive Life as a lawyer or something here on planet Trillaphon, once I get so I can read again.
Being far away sort of helps with respect to the Bad Thing.
Except that is just highly silly when you think about what I said before concerning the fact that the Bad Thing is really
All right, class.
What did he say the Bad Thing was earlier?
And what was the logical conclusion?
And what has he just realised?
One can’t know such things, the story would argue, just as when, without warning or explanation, we receive news that a friend has committed suicide, we can’t know precisely what has happened
A point of contention between me and my former agent was that I thought maybe the NYRB would like me to write something for them.
Moving right along, here's something I don't get.
Mason talks about Wallace's decision to use the vernacular, which he thinks creates an intimacy between writer and reader: given the atomization and loneliness of contemporary life, that's our opening.
Well . . . the vernacular in this story is straight out of Salinger, and the odd thing about Salinger is, he used it, on the one hand, for the voice of an unintellectual prep school drop-out (Holden Caulfield) and, on the other, for the allegedly exceptionally intelligent, more or less suicidal Glass family. So whatever Wallace is doing, it isn't new. I slightly get the sense that what the vernacular is really doing is giving an anti-intellectual intellectual (the equivalent of a self-hating Jew or homophobic homosexual) the chance to build some kind of bridge to people he perceives, at any rate, as unintellectual. It's hardly surprising that this dodge doesn't succeed in reducing the writer's sense of isolation and alienation. All it really manages to do is persuade a certain sort of reader that he doesn't have to pay attention (which, again, is hardly likely to reduce feelings of isolation and alienation).
I've been clinically depressed. Wouldn't have described it the way Wallace does. Maybe not talk about that today.
Thursday, July 1, 2010
... I started out in the 1950s like many young experimental artists with a strong commitment to most of the received ideas of early 20th century modernism, the most important of which for a functioning artist was the idea of the exhaustion, experiential and esthetic, of representation in all its forms. For a language artist this mostly meant the uselessness of narrative.
I held this view for a long time, inconsistently I suppose, because I made use of some kinds of narrative anyway, but I continued to hold this view till some time in the early 1970s, when it became apparent to me and a number of other writers and artists that abstraction and collage, the modernist alternatives to representation had also become exhausted, perhaps through their success in advertising in magazines and on television. But for whatever reason, by the beginning of the 1970s both abstraction and collage appeared even more hopeless as signifiers of human experience and seemed reduced to conventionalized signifiers of style.
Any transformation, no matter how promising, contains the threat of destroying its desiring subject in the magnitude of fulfillment. But what the beggar wants is to remain the beggar inside the life of the king, or to hold on to that subject position from which the life of a king would be a sufficient satisfaction to at least offset the gravest problems of statecraft, which the beggar has most likely never counted on. And it would be in the interest of the king, who is suffering from all the anxieties of kingship and in whose state of mind the beggar remains only in threads of nostalgia and anxiety, to build a bridge from his present life to his past. As it would be in the interest of the beggar to build a bridge from his present to his possible future, to imagine the speculative consequences of his transformation.
This bridge building across change is what I would suggest is the central human function of narrative.
David Antin, On Narrative: The Beggar and the King (Part One)
ht Wood's Lot, ht Jerome Rothenberg (Poems and Poetics)