Wednesday, September 26, 2012



(No idea why this came out this way. Leaving for DC, taxi coming in 40 minutes.  Anyway, this was Kate Lilley on Frank O'Hara & Mad Men, the whole thing here.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bunkers, cellulose, get thee behind me Internet

Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame is frittering away his time on Twitter instead of doing the decent thing, i.e. posting on his blog. SHAME, Ben, SHAME.

With the unsurprising result that the hardcore fan ends up following Dr Goldacre on Twitter.

Thereby discovering, for example, a link to a fabulous post on Churchill, bunkers and the chemical composition of wood, of which this is a sample:

Wood is made principally of cellulose, which is the same stuff from which cotton clothes and paper are constructed. Cellulose is difficult to break down, as the individual molecular strands are tightly packed together by hydrogen bonding, making a near-crystalline material that is very impermeable to water, and even more impermeable to digestive enzymes. Most herbivorous animals subcontract out the work of breaking-down cellulose to the bacteria and fungi that live in their guts.
Cellulose [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]
Cellulose consists of thousands of glucose molecules chained together.
Although cellulose is difficult to break down, the other main component of wood, lignin, makes cellulose look positively fragile. Plants make lignin by secreting phenolic alcohols into their cell walls, and then semi-randomly polymerising these alcohols together using free-radicals. The mechanisms of lignin synthesis and its global structure are still areas of active research (or furious argument, depending on your point of view). From the plant’s perspective, lignin is a marvellous glue: it creates a substance that cannot be broken down by conventional enzymes, as you’d need hundreds of them, one for each of the many kinds of linkage found in the lignin.

(Note that it would be impossible to quote this splendid post, with diagram of cellulose, on Twitter. SHAME, Ben, SHAME.)

The rest, anyway,  here.  (Yes, I know the font has changed. And if I went into HTML I could fix this. But I am catching a plane at 7 am, so sloth prevails.)

I have now sublet my apartment in Berlin and am going back to the States for a while. I will be spending 2 months in Vermont in a place with no Internet access, with the faint frail hope of finishing a book. After that, who knows? As Bialystok says in The Producers, in the months to come you will hear little of me.  But I leave you with a link to an excellent blog, and those who have hitherto sneered at Twitter may like to follow the feckless Dr Goldacre, @bengoldacre.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

loosely based on...


Do people in your books ever come up to you and say, I recognize myself?


They certainly do, but they’re usually so far off, it’s ridiculous. I remember a great tax lawyer, Norris Darrell, a very literal man with a marvelous mathematical mind, who accused me of putting him in a story. The story was about a passionate diarist. Eventually, the man comes to live for his diary; his whole life is oriented around seeking items for it. It is the tail wagging the dog. I asked Norris, Why would you assume you were that character? Do you keep a diary? He said, Heavens no! I asked, Then what was it in the story that made you think you were the character? He replied, He was the senior tax partner in his firm. Well, that’s usually the sort of thing a writer runs into.
George Plimpton interviewing Auchincloss for the Paris Review, the rest here

Monday, September 17, 2012

Yes or No?

My proposal went something like this: "It looks as if we are going to lose the war, and if it comes to the point of the Honorable Death of the Hundred Million, we all have to die anyway. It's probably not a bad idea to find out what married life is like before that happens."

The answer was that she would think about it. To ensure that things would go smoothly, I asked a very close friend to intercede with her on my behalf. I waited and waited and no reply came. I got fed up with trying to keep cool. Finally I went to her and demanded, "Yes or no?" like General Yamashita Tomoyuki demanding surrender as he occupied Singapore in 1942.

She promised that she would reply very shortly, but the next time we met she handed me a thick stack of letters. She told me to read them and said, "I can't marry a person like this." They were all letters from the man I had asked to plead my case with her. I read them and couldn't believe my eyes. I was horrified.

All these letters contained were slanderous statements about me. The variety and caliber of the phrasing of these terrible things were positively ingenious. The fullness of the hatred for me expressed in these letters sickened me. This fellow, who had accepted the job of aiding me in my suit, had been doing his utmost to ruin my chances. And on top of that, he had frequently accompanied me to the Yaguchi home and sat at my side wearing an expression of sincerest concern and cooperation in my efforts to persuade Miss Yaguchi to marry me.

Apparently Miss Yaguchi's mother had observed all this and said to her, "Which are you going to put your faith in, the man who slanders his friend or the man who trusts the person who slanders him?"

Kurosawa, Something like an Autobiography

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Eat this chair!

[Kurosawa has to undergo a directing test upon completion of Sugata Sanshiro; the examiners include the censors of the Ministry of the Interior, but also other directors, including Ozu.]

When the test finally began, it was horrible. In a room with a long table, the censors were all lined up on one side. Down at the very end were Ozu and Tasaka, and next to them an office boy. ...

The point of the censors' argument was that almost everything in the film was "British-American." they seemed to find the little incident of the love scene" between Sanshiro and his rival's daughter on the shrine stairs -- the censors called this a "love scene," but all the two did was meet each other for the first time there -- to be particularly "British-American," and they harped as if they had discovered some great  oracular truth. If I listened attentively, I would fly into a rage, so I did my best to look out the window and think of other things.

But I reached the limits of my endurance with their spitefulness. I felt the color of my face changing, and there was nothing I could do about it. "Bastards! Go to hell! Eat this chair!" Thinking such thoughts, I rose involuntarily to my feet, but as I did so, Ozu stood up simultaneously and began to speak: "If a hundred points is a perfect score, Sugata Sanshiro gets one hundred twenty! Congratulations, Kurosawa!" Ignoring the unhappy censors, Ozu strode over to me, whispered the name of a Ginza restaurant in my ear and said, "Let's go there and celebrate."

Something like an Autobiography, Kurosawa


Rereading Kurosawa's Autobiography.

(re editing Uma [Horses]):

There is one place in the story where a foal has been sold and the mare frantically searches for her baby. Completely crazed, she kicks down her stable door and tries to crawl under the paddock fence. I edited the sequence most diligently to show her expressions and actions in a dramatic way.
But when the edited scene was run through a projector, the feeling didn't come through at all. The mother horse's sorrow and panic somehow stayed flat behind the screen. Yama-san had sat with me and watched the film as I was editing it any number of times, but he never said a word. If he didn't say, "That's good," I knew it meant it was no good. I was at an impasse, and in my despair I finally begged his advice. He said, "Kurosawa, this sequence isn't drama. It's mono-no-aware."  Mono-no-aware, "sadness at the fleeting nature of things," like the sweet, nostalgic sorrow of watching the cherry blossoms fall -- when I heard this ancient poetic term, I was suddenly struck by enlightenment as if waking from a dream. "I understand!" I exclaimed and set about completely re-editing the scene.

Friday, September 14, 2012


Thinking of applying for a residency in France. They want a 'letter of motivation'. I look around online and find a site with 50 examples, of which this is one:

Monsieur le Maire,

Suite à un entretien téléphonique de décembre 2009 avec votre secrétariat, je vous confirme ma proposition de services pour surveiller l’une des plages de votre ville en qualité de sauveteur en mer pour le mois d’août 2010.

Forte de plusieurs expériences dans ce domaine et d’une formation "côtes dangereuses", je souhaite très vivement intégrer votre équipe de sauveteurs saisonniers.

Volontaire et rigoureuse, je mets un point d’honneur à respecter les missions de surveillance et de sauvetage qui me sont confiées.

Une remise à jour de mes diplômes du CFAPSE et du BNSSA est d’ores et déjà programmée pour mai prochain, ainsi que l’obtention du TGO organisé par les pompiers.

Veuillez trouver ci-joint mon CV.

Restant à votre entière disposition, je vous prie de croire, Monsieur le Maire, en mon réel engagement.


More excellent examples here.

(Of a subsequent letter we are told: Raison et passion se conjuguent harmonieusement.  Only in France. Needless to say, I long to write a letter in which I express my desire to write a book in a country where one commends a job application by saying: Raison et passion se conjuguent harmonieusement.)

Thursday, September 13, 2012


 Through the incomparable Languagehat, I discover that there is a new website, Lexicity, with resources for learning a wide range of ancient languages. Some of these are well known and have a wide following (the Perseus project, say); others are older or more obscure and are therefore buried many, many hits down the results of a casual Google search. So now, anyway, you can tackle Old Norse or Old Church Slavonic or Akkadian, the only obstacle being such challenges as the language presents, rather than the challenges offered by our very dear friends at Google.

missed it by that much

It turns out that while FedEx will gladly offer to let you pay 4x over what you otherwise would, they’ll still group your separate packages together and make just one attempt. You’re literally paying extra money for nothing. And here’s where the magic happens: because the dude came to my door only once, these four separate packages had to share, and they got just a quarter of a delivery attempt each. And in talking to the FedEx manager, he said that the number of packages sent in parallel doesn’t matter: they’ll still get grouped together.
So 1 package gets 1 attempt. 2 packages get 1/2 an attempt each. 3 packages get a 1/3 of an attempt each. This allow us to construct an equation:
The number of delivery attempts FedEx makes per package is defined as
where x is the number of packages. [excellent graph follows]

Ryan North on the mathematics of FedEx deliveries. The whole thing here.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

wie immer

Increasingly, restaurants are recording whether you are a regular, a first-timer, someone who lives close by or a friend of the owner or manager. They archive where you like to sit, when you will celebrate a special occasion and whether you prefer your butter soft or hard, Pepsi over Coca-Cola or sparkling over still water. In many cases, they can trace your past performance as a diner; how much you ordered, tipped and whether you were a “camper” who lingered at the table long after dessert. 

Susanne Craig at the NYT, the rest here.

The cafés and restaurants I go to aren't that hi-tech - but wherever I go, the staff say "Wie immer?" ("As always?") I don't have the same thing everywhere I go, but in each place I have a preference, and the staff remember it. The reason I go so often, too often, is precisely because people I barely know pay attention to my preferences - they WANT me to come back.  Whereas in every interaction with the biz I get people doing whatever they happen to want to do, whenever they happen to want to do it.

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, I care about my books a lot more than I care about my cappuccino & pain au chocolat, or my glass of rosé, or my green curry with tofu. In every single interaction on the path to getting a text out to readers (with, natürlich, the glorious exception of this blog), I have people blithely putting forward their OWN preferences for the text, and long-drawn-out arguments to reconcile said persons to sharing the (whisper who dares) author's preferences with the public. What would actually be so terrible about a publishing process where people were ANXIOUS to discover your preferences?

Be sane, be sane, be sane.

Sublet in Berlin

I am looking to sublet my apartment in Berlin from October 1 for 5 months or longer.  Pictures and details here.

The rent is €600 a month including most bills (electricity, gas, phone, DSL) and a half-ton of coal. (After the first half ton coal needs to be ordered by the tenant, 1 ton costs about €300 and lasts a couple of months.)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

only one

Why does no one send ME these witty rejection letters?  Publisher to Gertrude Stein, here.
The Spanish men’s intellectual disability basketball team was stripped of its gold medal after it emerged that many of its members were not intellectually disabled at all.

ht MR, the whole thing here

Monday, August 27, 2012

that clinking clanking sound

Weird piece in NYT on private schools. Though expensive ($40,000 or so a year), they can't cover their costs by tuition -- donations must fill the gap.

The author of the piece claims that, if tuition doesn't cover costs, the gap must be covered by past and present donations; that this is both financially unviable and unethical.

Sorry, but I don't get it.  My understanding is that  David Swensen, who manages the endowment for Yale, is seen as a financial wizard - if donations give him serious money to play with, he turns this into super-serious, or even super-super-serious, money. He doesn't mainly spend his time wheedling more money out of alums; he spends it gaming the market.

So. Um. If you've got a private school that is allegedly the fast track to being a hot shot like Dave Swensen, over time you should have a crop of alums some of whom are hot shots like Dave Swensen. But, um, Yale only needs ONE such hot shot to multiply its endowment to the point where savvy investors are following Dave Swensen. So, um. If the school is REALLY the fast track it claims to be, it can deploy the brilliance of a single alum, no? Or, ahem. If the school is NOT the fast track it claims to be, it could just buy in outside talent. If its best plan is to bully parents into donating over and above tuition, this suggests a level of-- That is, the reasonable inference is, not only has no alum EVER achieved the gifts of Dave Swensen, but the people running the school are so stupid they're not smart enough to buy in an alum of some other school with Swensen-calibre alums.

Anyhoo. There's all this browbeating about the hideous costs, bla. Seriously?  A few years ago I tried to get some kind of teaching job at Northfield Mt Hermon, which I attended in 12th grade. I was very strapped for cash; I just needed accommodation and a little money for expenses. My contact sounded people out. If I had really PUSHED for a job maybe I could have wangled something, but I was very tired, in no position to push. So it fell apart.  A reader who had been to Phillips Exeter Academy, gone on to Harvard, had corresponded with me for years; I put out feelers for a possible job; no interest. So, OK, fine. I have a doctorate in classics from Oxford; I'm what I'm told is a critically acclaimed novelist; and I am very, very cheap because I am very strapped for cash.  Is there any sign that the schools facing this alleged gap between tuition and costs are open to overqualified cash-strapped staff? Ääääääääähm.....

take that!

The site is simple to use, just sign in with Twitter via Oauth and then your off. Once logged in you can do the following tasks. You can manually check who has unfollowed you every 15 minutes, call out your unfollowers for unfollowing you, view people you are following that are not following you back and view a 7 day unfollower history.

Once you have checked who is not following you back on Twitter, you can then unfollow them, if you want to, or even post a tweet saying that tweeter isn’t following you any more.

(Details of this invaluable resource here.)

[This strikes me as very, very strange. I think Evan Soltas is very clever, for instance, so if he bothers to post on Twitter I would like to know, but I can't for the life of me see why he would want to follow me. If he were to do so on impulse he would soon discover his mistake. The idea that it would be rude of Mr Soltas not to follow me back, or that I might call out the hapless Mr Soltas for unfollowing me, seems completely ludicrous. Still, it's cheering to see that there is a whole miserable way of life out there that I have effortlessly avoided.]

[PS - Oh, er, yes, it is possible to follow me on Twitter. I am clearly not taking this seriously enough; otherwise I would presumably have been chivvying readers of pp into following me. (But, um, why?) Anyone who wants more ways to fritter away their time, though, would do better to follow Anatol Stefanowitsch (@astefanowitsch), who has a real genius for the medium.]

taking responsibilities seriously

I'm reading Gordon Leff's Heresy in the Later Middle Ages.  The phenomena described are terrifyingly familiar - the malaise which affects so many academics, so many writers, seems to arise from very similar developments. It is as if one were a Franciscan, drawn to a life of poverty and prayer, and put suddenly in charge of the inquisition...

In 1227 cardinal Ugolino, protector of the Franciscan order, became pope Gregory IX and within five years he had entrusted the Dominicans and Franciscans with the working of the papal inquisition. These responsibilities, and sheer numbers, transformed the mendicants from wandering bands of preachers into highly organized orders extending over Christendom: mendicant poverty gave way to property and buildings, libraries, study, and the paraphernalia of government. It was their revulsion at the change which led the Franciscan Spirituals to demand a return to the simple apostolic precepts of their founder; but, as we shall see, in vain.  To have done so would have been to dismantle what had become an indispensable part of the church. Here we come upon one of the constant factors in the tension between the demands of Christian first principles and institutional responsibility. It was not that the Franciscans and Dominicans, any more than the church as a whole, became morally degenerate in abandoning their early rigours. They had taken on a new role. They had now to fulfil an office and no longer merely to observe their own practice. The majority continued to preach and when necessary to beg; but they did so by the second half of the thirteenth century as some activities among many rather than as a way of life. (16)

It was the gradual constitution of the two mendicant orders into regular full-time inquisitors which marked the full-fledged emergence of the papal inquisition. (!!!!!) (43)
Judaism has the institution of the bar or bat mitzvah, which marks the passage to adulthood, often accompanied by a party and lots of presents. If some such ritual were the norm for all children around the age of 13, I would want every person leaving childhood to be given a copy of Leff, a copy of Patterson's Slavery and Social Death, and a copy of Goffman's Asylums. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

always the last to know

Reading an interview of Christopher Tolkien which appeared in le Monde last month.

French readers, it seems, meet Bilbo and Frodo Baggins only if they read the original texts. If they read in translation, they get Frodon Sacquet, Bilbon Sacquet.  The French title of The Hobbit, though, is apparently Bilbo le Hobbit, so I'm confused.

(There is an English translation of the interview here.)

either either

"You've no idea how much email I get telling me how wrong every single thing in the book is. There are a lot of very specific things that Americans don't say and English people don't realise … Also New York has enough writers, and I don't think I need to add to them," she said.

Zadie Smith says she will never write another book set in the US, because she got so many complaints about On Beauty.  Well, I can see it would be annoying if peevish emails kept turning up in one's inbox. We can only hope Lee Child does not follow her example.

Sometimes, of course, one is bad. One knows one is in the wrong and goes on regardless.  Someone pointed out to me some time ago that "in no very good mood" is not American usage. I kept trying to think of a replacement that I liked and couldn't.  Finally I thought, Well, it may not be American usage now, but who's to say? Maybe Americans will see it and like it and start using it, and then this instance in my book will simply be the first attested case in American English.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Every oral-sex seminar, “every masturbation how-to session, every tip I heard on how to stimulate the anus — each of these seemed to be mocking the greatest achievement of my life up to that point, which was that somehow I, a home-school dropout with a G.E.D., had clawed and scratched and fought my way into Yale,” he writes. “Yale had been like some kind of drug. It was a blast, and then I came down with a crash.”

review of Sex and God at Yale, Nathan Harden, by Hanna Rosin, the rest  here

over there

Part of a series begun in World War II for American GIs going abroad, A Pocket Guide to Vietnam was intended to introduce them to the customs, and, rather lightly, the dangers of the place where they were headed. First issued in 1962, it was revised in 1966 and has now been republished by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, with an introduction by Bruns Grayson, a veteran who arrived in Vietnam in 1968 and was given the booklet. Grayson describes the average soldier handed the Pocket Guide as “about twenty years old, not well-educated, not wily enough to avoid the draft in most cases, very often on his first trip away from the United States. I don’t know what the Vietnamese equivalent of ‘overpaid, oversexed, and over here’ was…such a phrase would have described almost all of us.”
But the young, uneducated soldiers described by Grayson also had to be told why they were going to Vietnam, from which, after all, they might not return. “It is interesting,” Grayson writes, “that the booklet accurately and briefly describes the history of the Vietnamese resisting outsiders—the Chinese and others—while assuming that we could never be cast in this light.” 

Jonathan Mirsky at NYRB blog, the rest here

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dr. Mutti

Was checking in on Twitter with the usual shame and self-loathing, when what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a retweet from Anatol Stefanowitsch! Linking to a terrific new blog, Dr. Mutti (Wer die Kinder hat, hat die Zukunft), run by Juliana Goschler of the University of Hamburg.

I gather there has been furore in the ether on the subject of sexy teenie girlies, now known as Pornoelfen, as the prize in one in every 7 Überraschungseier (surprise eggs) from Ferrero.  And I missed the whole thing! Which is good, because it suggests I have not been frittering away my whole life online after all. At any rate, Dr. Mutti has a series of excellent posts, with discussion of research on, e.g., the high proportion of women who described themselves as having been tomboys, rejecting what they perceived as gender stereotypes, as children. Like Stefanowitsch, Goeschler does not suffer fools gladly - it is a lucky thing that the blog only dates back to June 2012, at least for those who are trying to cut down the time they spend online.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The stalker came again and rang the bell at the house door for a long time. I sat silently at my desk in case someone let him in and he came to the apartment door.  Someone asked him what he wanted from a window; I heard him explaining; they didn't buzz him in.  He went back to ringing the doorbell. After a while he stopped. I assume he has gone away. I do need to leave Berlin.

It seems to me that life would be impossible if one went around anxiously wondering whether it was safe to let people know where one lived, but this is pretty tiring.

best text

I got an email from David yesterday.  He has been having a book copyedited, and had had to explain the meaning of "best text":

I mean by “best text” the same thing as classical scholars have meant by it for the last 200 years or more. The “best text” is the one which (in my opinion) is likely to represent most accurately what the author originally wrote, ideally making the basis for editorial judgement clear via an apparatus criticus which succinctly reports significant manuscript variants and proposed emendations.
Ah me, ah me. 

[Have just written and deleted lengthy discussion of You Know What.]

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


When I first started blogging I was young(er) and naive.  I linked blithely away, confident that whatever I linked to would always be there.  I now know that other bloggers selfishly take their blogs private.  Voltaire's Monkey. Night Hauling. (Yes, YOU, Mithridates, I'm talking to YOU.) The Big Side Order.

From time to time I think of Gary James' great post on the Action Man dollhouse. It would cheer me up to click back to the post, but TBSO has gone private. No links today, because everyone I might link to has gone private. Bastards. BASTARDS.

(The Wayback Machine apparently only crawled TBSO once, back in 2006, before the great Action Man dollhouse post. BASTARDS.)

monkey biz

A while back I read a post by Sarah Manguso on the FSG blog: How to Have a Career: Advice to Young Writers.  There were points that could have been made which it seemed best not to make...

Today I came across this clip from a TED talk by Fans de Wall, Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay. HT MR, HT Greg Mankiw.

This does not really encapsulate the challenges that face you as a writer.  The problem is not that you get a cucumber while the other monkey gets a grape for the same work.  You write a book from scratch of 80,000+ words; you'll be lucky to get a cucumber.  Your agent/lawyer/accountant/other, meanwhile, is OUTRAGED if the book can't be crammed into a boilerplate - and lives on a lovely steady diet of grapes. If you are one of the lucky sods who got a cucumber, they will also be OUTRAGED if you fling that cucumber away and shake the walls of your cage.

Monday, August 20, 2012

possible worlds

In learning languages, at first everything is repulsive and burdensome. If one were not encouraged by the hope that, after having accustomed his ear to the unusual sounds and having mastered the strange pronunciation, most delightful ways would be opened up to him, it is doubtful that one would want to enter upon so arduous a path. But when these obstacles are surmounted, how generous is the reward for perseverance in overcoming hardships! New aspects of nature, and a new chain of ideas then present themselves. By acquiring a foreign language we become citizens of the region where it is spoken, we converse with those who lived many thousand years ago, we adopt their ideas; and we unite and co-ordinate the inventions and the thought of all peoples and all times.

Radishchev, quoted by Language Hat

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Nomination Whist

Was rereading David Parlett's History of Card Games today.

I've come across critics who say morosely that, while people often SAY a book was laugh-out-loud funny, very few people literally laugh out loud reading a book, and they themselves never do.  Possibly because they have never read Parlett's History of Card Games?  I sat at a café reading Parlett's account of the history of whist and kept shouting with laughter - the people at the next table kept looking around and laughing sympathetically.  OUP has apparently allowed the book to go out of print (what were you THINKING, OUP, what were you THINKING?) but no doubt secondhand copies are floating around online.

Nomination Whist, anyway, was not one of the funny bits, just a game that sounded terribly attractive:

In Nomination Whist -- much played in the Royal Navy, according to my correspondent Rodney Jones -- whoever bids the highest number of tricks announces trumps and names a card, the holder of which becomes his partner in the contract but may not reveal himself except by means of play. The bidder may alternatively play a secret solo by naming a card held in his own hand.

[italics mine. It's enough to make one want to join the Royal Navy.]

Friday, August 17, 2012

baby it's cold inside


Behavior of young children in a situation simulating entrapment in refrigerators was studied in order to develop standards for inside releasing devices, in accordance with Public Law 930 of the 84th Congress.
Using a specially designed enclosure, 201 children 2 to 5 years of age took part in tests in which six devices were used, including two developed in the course of this experiment as the result of observation of behavior.
Success in escaping was dependent on the device, a child's age and size and his behavior. It was also influenced by the educational level of the parents, a higher rate of success being associated with fewer years of education attained by mother and father combined. Three major types of behavior were observed: (1) inaction, with no effort or only slight effort to get out (24%); (2) purposeful effort to escape (39%); (3) violent action both directed toward escape and undirected (37%). 

ht @felixsalmon, more here

why a lion and emus?

I wrote to [his American publishers] expressing (with moderation) my dislike of the cover for The Hobbit. It was a short hasty note by hand, without a copy, but it was to this effect: I think the cover ugly; but I recognize that a main object of a paperback cover is to attract purchasers, and I suppose that you are better judges of what is attractive in USA than I am. I therefore will not enter into a debate about taste -- (meaning though I did not say so: horrible colours and foul lettering) -- but I must ask this about the vignette: what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs? I do not understand how anybody who had read the tale (I hope you are one) could think such a picture would please the author. ...

the rest here

a skilful negligence

After the failures of the Pamela sequels, Richardson began to compose a new novel.[1]:73 It was not until early 1744 that the content of the plot was known, and this happened when he sent Aaron Hill two chapters to read.[1]:73 In particular, Richardson asked Hill if he could help shorten the chapters because Richardson was worried about the length of the novel.[1]:73 Hill refused, saying,
You have formed a style, as much your property as our respect for what you write is, where verbosity becomes a virtue; because, in pictures which you draw with such a skilful negligence, redundance but conveys resemblance; and to contract the strokes, would be to spoil the likeness.[1]:73–4
In July, Richardson sent Hill a complete "design" of the story, and asked Hill to try again, but Hill responded, "It is impossible, after the wonders you have shown in Pamela, to question your infallible success in this new, natural, attempt" and that "you must give me leave to be astonished, when you tell me that you have finished it already".[1]:74 However, the novel wasn't complete to Richardson's satisfaction until October 1746.[1]:74 Between 1744 and 1746, Richardson tried to find readers who could help him shorten the work, but his readers wanted to keep the work in its entirety.

From our friends at Wikipedia.  (Depending on your point of view, you may feel that Richardson was born too soon, or David Foster Wallace too late. I know very little of Michael Pietsch, but I feel he would be unlikely to tell an author that 'you have formed a style, as much your property as our respect for what you write is, where verbosity becomes a virtue.')

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Scott goes home.  He gets a thing of bacon out of the fridge.  Fries four or five slices.  Butters two slices of Wonder Bread, places two slices of Kraft's American Processed Cheese between, adds the bacon, inserts the result in the sandwich toaster deal.  (It sounds crazy, probably, but he did in fact stock up on Kraft's American Processed Cheese, buying 100 72-slice packs @ $9.95 for a total of $995.00 (at 2 slices per day, a 10-year supply).  Toasted cheese sandwiches are Ralph's favorite food.)  Ralph is nuzzling his legs all this time, purring like a steam engine.
Um, okay, no, not purring like, obviously, producing a sound that is more reminiscent of steam engine FX than your typical purr.
Cruel to be kind, Scotty forces the cat to wait till the sandwich has cooled; no way should a cat eat a piping hot toasted cheese sandwich with the liquid cheese close to boiling.  Ralph meows pitifully. 

Electric Literature has posted one of my stories, "Recovery," here.

(Er, as so often, this is in fact part of a longer work, a 61,000-word draft of which sits on my hard drive.  Bah.)

Monday, August 13, 2012

MS Wha-

He had good reason to fret. Signs that Microsoft would be missing the boat in the next decade were already emerging. That very moment at Microsoft’s headquarters, in Redmond, Washington, a group of executives were developing a device that, in 10 years’ time, would transform a multi-billion-dollar industry: an electronic reader that allowed customers to download digital versions of any written material—books, magazines, newspapers, whatever. But, despite its multi-year head start, Microsoft would not be the one to introduce the game-changing innovation to the market. Instead, the big profits would eventually go to Amazon and Apple.

The spark of inspiration for the device had come from a 1979 work of science fiction, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. The novel put forth the idea that a single book could hold all knowledge in the galaxy. An e-book, the Microsoft developers believed, would bring Adams’s vision to life. By 1998 a prototype of the revolutionary tool was ready to go. Thrilled with its success and anticipating accolades, the technology group sent the device to Bill Gates—who promptly gave it a thumbs-down. The e-book wasn’t right for Microsoft, he declared.

“He didn’t like the user interface, because it didn’t look like Windows,” one programmer involved in the project recalled. But Windows would have been completely wrong for an e-book, team members agreed. The point was to have a book, and a book alone, appear on the full screen. Real books didn’t have images from Microsoft Windows floating around; putting them into an electronic version would do nothing but undermine the consumer experience.

The death of the e-book effort was not simply the consequence of a desire for immediate profits, according to a former official in the Office division. The real problem for his colleagues was that a simple touch-screen device was seen as a laughable distraction from the tried-and-true ways of dealing with data. “Office is designed to inputting with a keyboard, not a stylus or a finger,” the official said. “There were all kinds of personal prejudices at work.”

Kurt Eichenwald on Microsoft's Lost Decade

Thursday, August 2, 2012

ich wünschte ich wüßte...

Cathy and Cosma both feel that knowing specific programming languages is not essential. To quote Cathy, "you shouldn’t obsess over something small like whether they already know SQL." To put it politely, I reject this statement. To apply to a data science job without learning the five key SQL statements is a fool's errand. Simply put, I'd never hire such a person. To come to an interview and draw a blank trying to explain "left join" is a sign of (a) not smart enough or (b) not wanting the job enough or (c) not having recently done any data processing, or some combination of the above. If the job candidate is a fresh college grad, I'd be sympathetic. If he/she has been in the industry, you won't be called back. (One not-disclosed detail in the Cosma-Cathy dialogue is what level of hire they are talking about.)

Why do I insist that all (experienced) hires demonstrate a minimum competence in programming skills? It's not because I think smart people can't pick up SQL. The data science job is so much more than coding -- you need to learn the data structure, what the data mean, the business, the people, the processes, the systems, etc. You really don't want to spend your first few months sitting at your desk learning new programming languages.
Both Cathy and Cosma also agree that basic statistical concepts are easily taught or acquired. Many studies have disproven this point, starting with the Kahneman-Tversky work. ..

Terrific post by Kaiser Fung (of Junk Charts and Numbers Rule Your World) - not least for thrill of discovery that Cosma Shalizi is, er, aggressively discussing...

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Ratio of published posts to drafts: 1149:636.


Gestern wurde ein Humalog KwikPen vergessen. Gestern wurde ein Mammut vergessen. Gestern wurde ein Ring vergessen.  Gestern wurde ein Gebilde aus Kunststoff vergessen.

Went back to check out the Sankt Oberholz blog, which gives poignant yet witty descriptions of items left at the café.  As so often, think some of the books I would like to write can only be written in German.

Monday, July 16, 2012

ipse dixit (allegedly)

1. Mr. Chicago Hates Hyphens

What’s wrong with hyphens?  Mr. Chicago hates them, loathes them, despises them.  He hates them so much that he wouldn’t let me refer to Jesus’s original audience as “Palestine-dwellers,” but instead insisted on “Palestinians.”  (Palestinians?!  I’ll get hate mail!)  He also wants me to use “words” like nonmoral, nonillusionistic, nonmagical, noncomic, noncraft, nonformative, noncentrality, nonmythical, semimythical, counterposition, antireferential, pseudoimmortality, and selffashioning (all of which get squiggly red lines from Microsoft Word.)  I sometimes think he has a secret desire to turn English into German.  An Englishintogermanconvertingdesire.

Then again, he regularly wants me to glue the prefix onto the word, even where the resulting monster looks like it should sound different: firsthand, preemptively, preexisting, preestablished, cooperative.  (Yes, I know what the New Yorker does with those; the hörror, the hörror.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

found in translation

James Morrow on a new translation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic:

In the case of Roadside Picnic, the improvements wrought by Olena Bormashenko over Antonina W. Bouis’s earlier version lie more in the realm of artistic integrity than verbal felicity. Upon submitting their manuscript for publication, the Strugatsky brothers inevitably endured censorship from their Soviet editors, who confronted the authors with not only “Comments Concerning the Immoral Behavior of the Heroes” but also “Comments about Vulgarisms and Slang Expressions.” In both these domains—immorality and vulgarisms—I can best communicate Bormashenko’s accomplishment by adducing Michael Andre-Driussi’s “Notes on the New Translation of Roadside Picnic,” his splendid article that appeared in the June 2012 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction.
In the matter of “immorality,” Andre-Driussi cites this moment from the older Bouis translation, in which the protagonist, Redrick “Red” Schuhart, ruminates on a pleasure-seeking young woman named Dina.
He was repelled by the thought and maybe that’s why he started thinking about Arthur’s sister. He just could not fathom it: how such a fantastic-looking woman could actually be a plastic fake, a dummy. It was like the buttons on his mother’s blouse—they were amber, he remembered, semitransparent and golden. He just wanted to shove them in his mouth and suck on them, and every time he was disappointed terribly, and every time he forgot about the disappointment.
Andre-Driussi then gives us Bormashenko’s rendering of the unbowdlerized text.
Thinking about it was repellent, and maybe that was why he starting thinking about Arthur’s sister, about how he’d slept with this Dina—slept with her sober and slept with her drunk, and how every single time it’d been a disappointment. It was beyond belief; such a luscious broad, you’d think she was made for loving, but in actual fact she was nothing but an empty shell, a fraud, an inanimate doll instead of a woman. It reminded him of the buttons on his mother’s jacket.

The whole thing here.  (He also discusses a new translation of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, but we don't want to appropriate the whole essay.)

Saturday, June 30, 2012


The position of the Department for Education is that while it would like to see a library in all schools, "this should be a local decision, not one mandated by government", and it is "up to schools to target resources appropriately".

British authors campaigning to make it a legal obligation for every school to have a library.  The whole thing in the Guardian, here.

(I'm afraid it had simply never occurred to me that any school could not have a library.  Many of the schools I went to overseas had SMALL libraries.  I remember exhausting the resources of the Escuela Americana in Brasilia, reading everything I might LIKE to read and then going desperately on to Davy Crockett, Frontier Boy and such; going up and down the shelves at the Colegio Americano de Guayaquil, searching for something to read or trying to dredge up material for a paper in 11th grade. The idea that one might need to pass a law to REQUIRE schools to provide-- )

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Found in Translation

“I read foreign novels because they’re better,” was a remark I began to expect (surprisingly, a senior member of the Dutch Fund for Literature also said this to me). I asked readers if that could really be the case; why would foreign books be “better” across the board, in what way? As the responses mounted up, a pattern emerged: these people had learned excellent English and with it an interest in Anglo-Saxon culture in their school years. They had come to use their novel-reading (but not other kinds of reading) to reinforce this alternative identity, a sort of parallel or second life that complemented the Dutch reality they lived in and afforded them a certain self esteem as initiates in a wider world. 

Tim Parks at the NYRB

Friday, June 8, 2012

perfective vision

I call it the pederasty of autobiography; the older self actually loves the younger self in a way the younger self never could have felt or accepted at the time. There is a kind of lapse in time in self-approval. One is filled with self-loathing at sixteen but when one is forty one can look back with this kind of retrospective affection at the younger self—which is very curative.

Edmund White interview at the Paris Review (long time ago), the rest here

White goes on to say:

Piaget makes a very good case for the fact that the language, and even the concepts and the thoughts we have as adults, really don’t fit with childhood experience. There is a radical discontinuity between childhood experience and adult experience. We complain of a kind of amnesia, that we don’t recall much of our early childhood, and Freud of course said that this was because we were repressing painful or guilty desires. But Piaget argues this couldn’t be true, because otherwise we would forget only those things that were painful but remember everything else—which is clearly not the case. We have an almost blanket amnesia, and Piaget argues that the terms in which we experienced our childhood are incommensurable with the terms in which we now think as adults. It’s as though it’s an entirely different language we knew and lost. Therefore I feel that any writer who is writing about childhood, as an adult, is bound to falsify experience, but one of the things you try to do is to find poetic approximation; an elusive and impossible task. It is like trying to pick up blobs of mercury with tweezers—you can’t do it. You nevertheless attempt to find various metaphorical ways of surprising that experience. I think you oftentimes feel it’s there, but you can’t get at it, and that’s the archaeology of writing about childhood.

It seems a lot less complicated to me.  I was given a diary for my 8th birthday, and I decided to write in it, because I thought from what grown-ups said that they forgot.  I thought that I would grow up and forget how miserable I was, so I was going to write it down to make sure I never forgot.

I don't think I do now think of my childhood in terms incommensurable with what I felt at the time, because many of my memories are linguistic memories, memories of what people said, what I said, what I felt I could not say.  I can remember adults saying things to me, announcing the death of a relative, say, knowing I was expected to react in a particular way, trying to work out what would be appropriate, sobbing and being comforted and feeling that I had acted in the appropriate way (this at the age of 7).  I can also remember, a bit older, finding books on child development on adult's bookshelves and reading them to find out what the adults thought was going on.  I don't mean that I accepted what I read - I read these books the way a Chinese dissident might read Mao's Red Book.  A friend of mine said a while back that he could never see the point of a diary; I felt that I was embedded in a world of people who were rewriting history, rewriting events at which I was present to construct stories they thought better than what actually happened, and so felt I must have a record, what I had seen must be set down somewhere even if it was absolutely inadmissible. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

over the rainbow

1. We tried to follow Y Combinator’s advice to minimize time fundraising and get back to work. Our goal was not to die from lack of funding or die from losing focus on the product. All $1.5 MM was committed within 10 days of YC demo day. Once we hit that number, we got back to work on the product.  When we were fundraising, it was actually hard to work on the product.

Priceonomics on time allocated to raising money/work, the rest here

(Have been trying to convey this point of view to the publishing industry for 16 years, with signal lack of success.)

Friday, May 25, 2012

--and there's more!

Anne Strainchamps interviewed me a couple of weeks ago for "To the best of our knowledge," for Wisconsin Public Radio, as part of a program on the surreal in literature.  This is now available online.  Others interviewed include Etgar Keret (Suddenly, a Knock on the Door), Mark Leyner (The Sugar Frosted Nutsack), Gerald Nicosia and Al Hinkle (One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road) and Ryan Boudinot (Blueprints of the Afterlife). List of links here, my segment here.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Dead Sea Scrolls

HT Languagehat, a fabulous site with Digital Dead Sea Scrolls.  Given that a typical volume of Discoveries in the Judaean Desert costs £100 or so, this is very good news.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

modern times

But, more than the data-compressed brevity and just-the-facts utilitarianism forced on us by our times, it's the etherealization of written communication, and its subsequent ephemeralization, that ensure the demise of correspondence as a social art form. All that was ink on paper has melted into air, and who archives air? For all we know, emails or — less likely — texts worthy of the Golden Age of Letter Writing may be whizzing through the Wi-Fi all around us, but the Elizabeth Bishops and Robert Lowells of the Digital Age — or the Eudora Weltys and William Maxwells, or Walter Benjamins and Theodor Adornos, or Hannah Arendts and Mary McCarthys, or whomever you prefer — are probably hitting the DELETE key after reading, as most of us reflexively do.

That's what many of them were doing before the advent of social media, When Email Ruled the Earth. According to a 2005 New York Times article by Rachel Donadio, writers such as Margaret Atwood, T.C. Boyle, Rick Moody, and Annie Proulx saved their emails only desultorily. Zadie Smith said she kept "amazing e-mails from writers whose hem I fear to kiss" but for whatever odd reason imagined they would one day "go the way of everything else I write on the computer — oblivion," presumably because that's what our prosthetic memories do: inscribe our thoughts on thin air.

Mark Dery on Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer, at the LA Review of Books.

Er, wow. Hitting the DELETE key after reading?  As most of us reflexively do?  I delete offers of penis enhancement and other spam.  Apart from that, I never delete ANYTHING. Why would I? It's not as though my hard drive is short of space. I have have folders and subfolders in my email program (currently Thunderbird); a few people have folders all to themselves (correspondence with David is in the thousands), others are filed in subfolders of Headhunting, Degrees of Separation, Agents, Publishers, Press, DeWitt (members of my family), R, Samurai and so on.   An e-mail comes with the following cheering remark:

 Your comments on your blog did remind me rather of Cicero's Fifth Verrine on the power of the phrase "civis Romanus sum": "apud barbaros, apud homines in extremis atque ultimis gentibus positos, nobile et inlustre apud omnis nomen civitatis tuae profuisset". Go out into the wilds of the barbarian poker players, and one still receives more respect and recognition than you did from Bill Clegg et al. 

How could I possibly delete it?  (Whenever I think of Bill, of course, the regular association of ideas will now bring to mind the phrase 'apud homines in extremis atque ultimis gentibus positos.'  Apud barbaros, Bill, apud barbaros.)

For all we know Mithridates may be one of the great writers of the 21st century - how shocking if I were to destroy our early correspondence.  He may, of course, have saved it himself, but how much better if everything is kept in two places.  Somewhat startled, to tell the truth, to find that my fellow writers are taking such a cavalier approach to the preservation of documentary evidence.

Friday, May 18, 2012


These are very important for the writer today. For they are probably the way the writer may still be independent. You asked me before whether I ever change anything in one of my novels commercially. I said, “No.” But I would have to do it without the radio, television, and movies.

Simenon (from interview at the Paris Review)

report a problem with this poem

 The Day Lady Died

tip of the day

If you know French, this is a wonderful series - available at or

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

ancient moderns

Going through notebooks, too lazy to translate. Coming across passages I read in the mid-80s (!), thinking How lovely!  And because this was so very long before Tumblr I copied them into a notebook.

Etre avec qui on aime et penser à autre chose : c'est ainsi que j'ai les meilleures pensées, que j'invente le mieux ce qui est nécessaire à mon travail. De même pour le texte : il produit en moi le meilleur plaisir s'il parvient à se faire écouter indirectement ; si, le lisant, je suis entraîné à souvent lever la tête, à entendre autre chose. Je ne suis pas nécessairement captivé par le texte de plaisir : ce peut être un acte léger, complexe, ténu, presque étourdi...

Barthes, Le plaisir du texte

Le Nouveau n'est pas une mode, c'est une valeur, fondement de toute critique : notre évaluation du monde ne dépend plus, du moins directement, comme chez Nietzsche, de l'opposition du noble et du vil, mais de celle de l'Ancient de du Nouveau ... Pour échapper à l'aliénation de la société présente, il n'y a plus que ce moyen : la fuite en avant : tout langage ancien est immédiatement compromis, et tout langage devient ancien dès qu'il est répété.


Il faut cependant fair droit, hors narrativité, à l'éventuelle fonction immédiate du discours motivant. Une motivation peut être onéreuse du point de vue de la mécanique narrative, et gratifiante sur un autre plan, esthétique par exemple: soit le plaisir, ambigu ou non, que le lecteur de Balzac prend au discours balzacien...

Genette, Vraisemblance et Motivation

Monday, May 14, 2012

prime time

It’s one of the most meticulously covered stories of the moment, except for one its more particularly disturbing implications:  Amazon‘s announcement that it has “licensed the right to lend digital versions of all seven volumes in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series in the U.S.” — meaning that people who have ponied up $79 to join the Amazon Prime cult — is a huge step forward in the privitization of the American public library system.

Dennis Johnson at Melville House blog, the rest here.

Monday, May 7, 2012


it's a risky view of things for the tragic, in a sense, gives up on 
justice. This is what happens in ancient Greek tragedy: the gods get 
away with it. There is no justice for humankind. In place of justice, 
what individual human beings can aspire to is the condition of the 
heroic - a noble embrace of their tragic predicament. It was said that 
the gods envied humans the opportunity to be heroic, as they could not 
be so, never being powerless, and so never victims of injustice. In 
fact, sometimes the gods were shamed by heroes, and so tried to rectify 
the injustice. The tragic, then, does, just about, hold onto the hope of 
redemption, though only at great personal cost. Someone usually has to die.

I came across this in an e-mail I wrote a while back, but I don't know where I first found it. Does anyone know?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

the stork brought it

LM: What gave you the initial impulse to make Severian a torturer? Was it that abstract notion of wanting your hero to deal with the nature of pain and suffering?
Wolfe: No, the possibility of having a character who was a torturer was one of those initial ideas that wasn't tied to anything for a while. It first came to me during some convention I was attending at which Bob Tucker was the guest of honor. For some reason Bob felt obliged to go to a panel discussion on costume, and since he wanted someone to accompany him, I went along (otherwise I wouldn't ordinarily have gone since I'm not a costumer). So I went and heard Sandra Miesel and several other people talk about how you do costumes—how you might do a cloak, whether or not it's good to use fire as part of your costume, and so forth. As I sat there being instructed I was sulking because no one had ever done one of my characters at a masquerade. It seemed as though I had done a lot of things that people could do at a masquerade; but when I started to think this over more carefully, I realized there were few, if any, characters who would fit in with what Sandra and the others were saying. That led me to start thinking about a character who would fit—someone who would wear simple but dramatic clothes. And the very first thing that came to mind was a torturer: bare chest (everybody has a chest, all you have to do is take your shirt off), black trousers, black boots (you can get those anywhere), black cloak, a mask, and a sword! Here was an ideal, easy SF masquerade citizen.

Gene Wolfe (in conversation with Larry McCaffery) on the inspiration for Severian in The Book of the New Sun

Friday, May 4, 2012

go away

David Graeber: An anthropologist who studied people in central Nigeria showed us how we were completely clueless. She doesn’t really speak the language and she gets a house, and immediately women start showing up from the neighborhood and dropping off little baskets of stuff: somebody bringing some okra, somebody bringing some fish. And she doesn’t know what to do so she takes out her little notebook and eventually somebody takes pity on her and starts explaining how things work. The person says, “Well, you know, you give something back to these people. But the key is you have to figure out exactly what it’s worth, and then give them either something slightly more valuable, or slightly less valuable. So if it’s worth twelve shillings, you give them something worth eleven or thirteen, never give twelve. Because if you give twelve, that’s like saying, ‘go to hell, I don’t ever have to see you again.’” So everyone has to be a little bit beholden.

DG at Guernica,  the rest here

per ardua ad astra

The first known recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was published in 1901 in The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics. The author suggested pairing peanut butter with crab apple or currant jelly, which was unusual for the time. Peanut butter, which was considered a delicacy, was usually served as a savory food. New York’s Vanity Fair Tea-Room served its peanut butter with watercress while Ye Olde English Coffee House had a peanut butter and pimento sandwich on the menu.

more on pbj's here

Thursday, May 3, 2012

maybe I need to start a webcomic...

Skullkickers is now also a webcomic. I started serializing our early issues, one page every weekday, so that readers could discover us, start from the beginning and grow attached to the series, giving us outreach far past comic shop shelves and retailer ordering concerns. I’m thrilled to say that over the past 3 months we’ve generated 1.7 million+ pageviews to 96,000+unique visitors. That is about twenty times our monthly issue audience and reaches people in places that don’t have comic shops at all.

So, reaching people is great and all but how does that translate to actual sales? If most are getting the milk for free, will they buy the cow?

Good news: Serializing the issues hasn’t negatively affected our sales one bit. Our trade sales through comic and book stores are up, steadily climbing. Making more people aware of the series has made them want the current material more, not less. Quality and good word of mouth is helping build our readership in shops bit by bit.

Better news: At conventions I’m selling a lot more. I’m not twice the sales person I was last year, but I’m selling more than double the number of books since we started serializing online. 9 times out of 10, I’m selling it to people who read the series online. I asked almost every person who came to my table if they’d heard of Skullkickers before. No word of a lie, when they said “yes”, 90% of those folks also said they were reading it online. It shocked me.

the rest here, HT @ryanqnorth

history of surgery

The horror of great darkness, and the sense of desertion by God and man, bordering close on despair, which swept through my mind and overwhelmed my heart, I can never forget, however gladly I would do so. During the operation, in spite of the pain it occasioned, my senses were preternaturally acute, as I have been told they generally are in patients in such circumstances. I still recall with unwelcome vividness the spreading out of the instruments: the twisting of the tourniquet: the first incision: the fingering of the sawed bone: the sponge pressed on the flap: the tying of the blood-vessels: the stitching of the skin: the bloody dismembered limb lying on the floor.

(Professor George Wilson on undergoing amputation at the ankle without anaesthetic in 1843)


It would take a little while for surgeons to discover that the use of anesthesia allowed them time to be meticulous. Despite the advantages of anesthesia, Liston, like many other surgeons, proceeded in his usual lightning-quick and bloody way. Spectators in the operating-theater gallery would still get out their pocket watches to time him. The butler's operation, for instance, took an astonishing 25 seconds from incision to wound closure. (Liston operated so fast that he once accidentally amputated an assistant's fingers along with a patient's leg, according to Hollingham. The patient and the assistant both died of sepsis, and a spectator reportedly died of shock, resulting in the only known procedure with a 300% mortality.)

Atul Gawande, 200 Years of Surgery, in the New England Journal of Medicine. The rest here. (HT @ezraklein)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

split or steal

HT Ben Goldacre, amazing display of psychology and game theory on a game show, here.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

et tu, Brute?

I received this email from an eighth-grader: “Listen, I love your work, but seriously? Selling out to the state test?
“Also, before my class goes crazy, which was the wisest animal in ‘The Hare and the Pineapple’?”
You bet I sold out, I replied. Not to the Department of Education, but to the publisher of tests, useless programmed reading materials, and similar junk. All authors who are not Stephen King will sell permission to allow excerpts from their books to have all the pleasure edited out of them and used this way. You’d do the same thing if you were a writer, and didn’t know where your next pineapple was coming from.


But it did not stop with emails. I was directed to a Facebook page in which the kids griped and groaned and made some pretty funny jokes about the dumb test. And then, after 40 years of authoring, and more than 100 books, I got interviewed by all the major newspapers in New York City. About a story under my name, of which not a line was written by me, which was like a paragraph from a novel I wrote in 1998, and which had appeared on a test with unanswerable questions following.

Daniel Pinkwater on "The Pineapple and the Hare," the rest  here


Friday, April 27, 2012

talk the talk

At the end of the 18th century, Nazarene painter Eberhard Wachter rejected a position on the staff of the Stuttgart academy, noting that ‘there is too much misery in art already; I do not want to increase it.’1 Wachter uttered his sullen epigram on art education well before the development of postgraduate programmes in studio art, but the weariness of his tone would have only increased if he had read the raft of ‘written components’ – usually in the form of an exegesis – that are now mandatory in art school submissions. Examiners do their best to maintain fresh eyes in front of works that groan under pointless descriptions of dull making processes, overblown and unconvincing attempts by artists to write their own work in an art historical tradition, or perhaps worst of all, interesting practices (de)formed into ‘research questions’ that the works are then supposed to answer. Duchamp did his best to dissuade such thinking, believing that ‘there is no solution, because there is no problem.’2 Now the need to find problems to satisfy a demand for academic rigour seems to be the problem.


As Dieter Lesage has argued, to require an artist to adopt a particular form of writing is precisely to fail to recognise their status as an artist.3 Artists also seem to recognise that the university exegesis yields little aesthetic or professional reward: the market seeks the artist as a producer of mystery, rather than an explainer.

Danny Butt, The Art of the Exegesis, Mute, the rest here


Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, to take the most pervasive of these models, had been a highly popular way to theorize the internet in the years before many people used it, and by doing so understood it.

Mute may in many ways be seen as Wired’s antithesis: leftist, not libertarian; more interested in communal action than in individualist competition; asking critical questions about the effects of new technology rather than celebrating it with a reflex technophilia; and being a magazine of dialogue rather than consumer marketing. The contrast was also formed by the magazines’ different geographical bases. Wired is published from San Francisco, with Silicon Valley hard by, and it is marked by a fascination with the vast spending and bizarre projects of by far the most technologically advanced military machine on the planet. Mute is based in London which, dominated by the City, with its weak local government and run-down infrastructure, offered fertile opportunities for the symbiosis between high-tech cultural workers, finance capital and speculation in real estate. The association with the Financial Times thus made a certain ironic sense. 

Julian Stallabrass of the New Left Review on Mute magazine

Monday, April 23, 2012

read 'em and weep

Went to Vogt's Bier-Express for a Duckstein.  They had two poker tables set up at the back of the room. A guy told me the tournament started at 8: 25€ buy-in (3000 chips), with an hour during which 20€ rebuys got you 6000 chips. No-limit Texas Hold 'em.  I don't have much experience of live games, and when I play online I normally play limit games, which is safe though not very exciting. He said it did not matter, and the dealer explained how the system worked. 

I played with extreme caution, apologetically.  Another player said encouragingly that it was fine to fold, this was good tournament play in the early stages. This player also advised me to be more careful in looking at my cards, because otherwise people could see them - no one would do so intentionally, but sometimes they could not help seeing.  Another player explained that if I was still in the game I must put my cards back on the side of the table, rather than holding them, because otherwise people would not know I was in the game. Toward the end of the first hour I got a pair of Aces which won several thousand chips, and then an Ace and a King which won a few thousand more.  Much later I went all in with K8 of clubs, winning a few thousand chips.  The net result (mainly because the other players were much more aggressive) was that I came third in the tournament, winning 130 euros.  Each time I won a hand the other players congratulated me, and at the end they all congratulated me on coming out ahead. There was a pause during which we were brought a complimentary meal from the Currywurst place next door; then the players settled in to play a cash game.  They explained that I could play if I wanted to but I did not have to, so I watched for a while.  They were betting as much as 100€ on a hand, which wasn't money I would be happy to have at stake with only my modest skills to defend it.  The player who had advised about care in looking at my cards told me kindly that it was dangerous to play in cash games.  The general ambience, in case you're missing this, was one of care for an inexperienced player.

In my admittedly limited experience this is typical of the world of poker.  The object of the game is to take money off other players, but within that context there is a code of honour which includes not taking advantage of the inexperienced. 

I came to poker after having a book published; this world stood in startling contrast to the world of publishing.  To the uninitiated, it is in the interest of everyone involved in a book to explain how things work to the novice.  The publisher has tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake; the writer, her entire livelihood. But there is no analogue for the code of honour of the world of poker. There is no one to explain how the system works, or where you might put yourself at a disadvantage by showing your cards.  If you ask questions, people lie to you.  The terms of your contract are words on a piece of paper.  If you bring in an agent you don't get someone who will give you a truthful explanation, the kind of thing you might get from a group of strangers at a poker table; you get another round of the runaround. 

Most people in this business seem to be in denial about the writer's exposure to risk.  I think I imagined, when I was put in touch with Bill Clegg, that he would have a clearer view of this; having left so many writers high and dry, he would naturally be anxious to protect new clients from risk. This point of view turned out to be not only wrong but offensive. It's probably impossible to convey how touching it is to find so much concern among people who profess not even a trace element of interest in literature.

In patriotic duty bound, the Cambridge of Newton adhered to Newton's fluxions, to Newton's geometry, to the very text of Newton's Principia; in my own Tripos in 1881 we were expected to know any lemma in that great work by its number alone, as if it were one of the commandments or the 100th Psalm.

.... Finally, in the earlier section of the Tripos Examinations (officially described as "qualifying for honours", commonly known as "the three days"), there was a rigid rule against the explicit use of a differential coefficient and of an integration-process: we might substitute x+h for x and subtract, dodging onwards to the satisfaction of the examiner; we might use a Newton curve, if we could devise it, to effect a quadrature; but never might we use d/dx or the ∫-sign of integration which were taboo. 

A R Forsyth, Old Tripos Days at Cambridge, The Mathematical Gazette, Vol 19, No 234, July1935 (at JSTOR, unfortunately)
It’s salutary to remember that the C.I.A. poured hundreds of millions into culture. For example, there was a festival of atonal music in Paris in 1950, entirely funded by the C.I.A. Can you imagine a less attractive festival? They paid for tours by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Abstract Expressionist art exhibitions. The aim was to persuade especially left-of-center European intellectuals that the United States was a powerhouse of culture, because there was a widespread assumption, so the C.I.A. believed, that Europeans thought America was just an empty-headed place of money and loudness, with no depth.

Ian McEwan talks to Deborah Treisman at the New Yorker Book Bench, the whole thing  here

Sunday, April 22, 2012

dutch day 3

Our teacher explains today that Dutch is much fonder than German of Verbalisierung.  (Our teacher switched happily back and forth between German and Dutch, which was naturally also good for my German.)  So the following are verbs:  tennissen, voetballen, sporten, fitnessen, computeren.  You can say: ik heb getennist.

Ga ik beter tennissen als ik met het racket van Kim Clijsters speel?  (more here)

Our teacher explains something else that's very nice.  Just as in English it's common to say, for example, 'You can say...' rather than 'One can say...', so in Dutch the second person singular, 'je', is used rather than 'man' (though the latter is also correct).  There's one difference.  In English, of course, we no longer distinguish formal and informal second person singular; Dutch still has a formal form (u).  To the Dutch ear, it's obvious that 'je' used in the context of generalisations is not actually the informal second person: you can use it while addressing someone as meneer or mevrouw (formal).  You would still use 'u' in sentences where the pronoun genuinely referred to the addressee.  I was charmed.

So perhaps I should do an apartment swap and live in Amsterdam, where these and other features of grammar are in daily use.