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