Saturday, December 23, 2017


Many, many months ago I met a reader who commented that I never seemed to write on my blog.  I said all kinds of bad things were happening and I was dealing with difficult people.  He seemed to think I could find something else to write about.  I think if you're struggling to keep your head above water you can't think about anything else.

A long time ago my ex's mother had breast cancer.  That is, it had been in remission and came back. The thing I remember about Norma is that she never talked about it, never complained. 

One problem with dealing with difficult people is that it takes up a lot of energy.  It's hard to force yourself to do more than tackle immediate problems.  But in late summer/early autumn I forced myself to write some applications - one for a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, one for a Stipendium in Berlin for writers in a language other than German, one for a grant from the Society of Authors.

It looks as though I didn't get the stipendium (the announcements were to go out in December).  The Radcliffe fellowships won't be announced until March.  But today, when I came in from doing a load of laundry, I found a letter from the Society of Authors and a cheque - they'd given me a grant which will let me replace my ailing MacBook.  (Its keyboard died in July 2016; I've been nursing it along with an external keyboard every since.)

So that's the good news for the year, because I was wondering what I should do.  I could definitely cut costs by switching to a PC - it's not nearly as worrying if a $300 laptop suddenly has to be replaced. And it's not as though I'm a fan of Macs - I loathe Apple with every fibre of my being.  But it would limit the kinds of book I could write.  I would have to leave all my Mellel documents behind.  I had the feeling that it would be bad to sit down and try to think of a book that did not require X, Y and Z, and talk myself into it. 

So now I don't have to make that decision.  Thank you, Society of Authors!

Friday, August 25, 2017

Sexual Codes of the Europeans in Evergreen Review

A long time ago I started thinking about a book of sexual codes, inspired by Calvino's Invisible Cities. What if cities had sexual codes - that is, systems of conventions for communicating sexual preferences, like the bidding systems of bridge? Travel books would include a brief overview of the relevant codes, the way they now sometimes include useful phrases for ordering a meal or finding the way to the train station.

I was thinking how odd it was: endless ingenuity has been spent developing bidding systems, to the point where if you play bridge with a new partner you always start with a conversation where you ask whether they play Acol, Standard American, Precision or some other system, and where, if you're playing a natural system, you ask whether they use standard conventions (Stayman, Blackwood), whether you will play weak or strong no trump, weak jump overcalls, what system of discards you'll use, and much more. If you play duplicate, everyone has to fill out a preprinted (!) card setting out the conventions they play for the benefit of opponents. The hanky code is the closest thing to this that I've heard of in the sexual realm, but a) it was always pretty simple and b) I'm told it is now passé. For the most part, the rules for communication never get past NO MEANS NO and YES MEANS YES. 

Bridge players are obsessed with finding a good fit, and they understand that no system is perfect. (Hence the restless search for workarounds.) But the outcome is not the only thing that counts. It's boring to get a strong well-balanced hand. Sometimes you pick up a hand that's not very good and get wildly excited, because it gives you the chance to deploy a convention that rarely comes up. Preferably a really complicated convention. A rare, complicated convention that both partners have probably half-forgotten - the Multi-Colored 2 Diamonds is best of breed. The partners bid on, gazing at each other with a wild surmise...

Anyway, I thought about this as the basis for a book, and sometimes talked about the book, and most people (not, perhaps, being bridge players) looked at me no so much with wild surmise as with blank incomprehension. But I went to New York several years ago and had dinner with Dale Peck and began talking about bridge and sexual codes, and Dale understood instantly! Dale had willfully revived the hanky code in his youth; Dale had been a fanatical bridge player; we talked and talked.
Dale is now editor of the Evergreen Review, an online magazine, and he has published "Sexual Codes of the Europeans: a Preliminary Report" in the latest issue. It's here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

shoulder to shoulder

Today I got an uplifting email in an account I rarely use for registrations.  I'm not convinced this will rate as Good News for Modern Man for anyone I know, but it cheered ME up.  This, mind you, on a day marred by the Hardyesque twists of fate which technology has made so commonplace (and no, I DON'T want to talk about it).  Excerpt from cheering email:

Exciting News - ShareLaTeX is joining Overleaf!

We've got some exciting news — Overleaf and ShareLaTeX are joining forces, and we will be bringing our teams and services together as we continue to build the best tools for collaborative writing.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


@DegenRolf posted this on Twitter:

He apparently came across this in Pharaoh's Land and Beyond, ed. Pearce Paul Creasman (Ch. 11,
The Flow of Words: Interaction in Writing and Literature during the Bronze Age) and then performed various arcane manipulations to come up with a quotation that blithely bypasses the 140-character limit.  My sister spends much of the school year initiating small children into the mysteries of a writing system only loosely connected with how words are pronounced (but is beautifully functional as a mainstay of our new scribal culture) - so lovely to be reminded of how it all began.

(If you are not following @DegenRolf on Twitter, you should, and if you are not on Twitter you could do worse than sign up and follow only the incomparable @DegenRolf.)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

accents of Colombia

HT Margaret Sherman, video on BBC Mundo.  (Yes, there probably IS a way to embed this video.)

Monday, May 8, 2017

what is (and is not) to be done

My initial prejudice against Facebook took a dent when I managed to get in touch again with Margaret Sherman, who was my best friend in Cali, Colombia when I was 13.  If the Internet (and email) had existed back in the day we would not have lost touch, but it didn't.  Both sets of parents moved frequently; we weren't good correspondents; we had no contact for (at a guess) 40 years.  
Margaret has now put up a post on influencing Congress which is largely useless to me (I'm based in Berlin, none of the US ZIP codes with which I might claim affiliation entitle me to vote in the relevant state).  I'm copying it here because, erm, I probably have more in common with the readers of PP than with my miscellany of FB friends. The post told me something I didn't know; I wish it weren't true (given my anomalous status), but I'm still glad to know it.  So I think some readers of PP will be glad to  know, which I can't necessarily assume of my FBFs.
What Margaret has sent my way:
From Damsels in Defiance: "This post is long because of all the practical information. Only those who are trying to actively speak out on the political scene need read it.

Reposting advice from a friend who knows how things work in DC. Please heed this guidance from a high-level staffer for a Senator: You should NOT be bothering with online petitions or emailing. Online contact basically gets immediately ignored, and letters pretty much get thrown in the trash unless you have a particularly strong emotional story - but even then it's not worth the time it took you to craft that letter.

There are two things that everyone opposing what is happening in DC should be doing all the time right now, and they're by far the most important things:

Thursday, May 4, 2017

a jar in Tennessee

My inbox is flooded these days with appeals from PEN, the Authors Guild, all sorts of people who want me to agitate against (among other things) cuts to the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts.  I have mixed feelings about this (quite apart from the cluttered-inbox factor), because many of the things that bother me most about the forms taken by support for the arts are off the agenda of every single one of the entities availing itself of my e-mail address.

Having said that,  I was moved and impressed by a piece I read today by Margaret Renkl on LitHub. Renkl talks about the virtual collapse of (what shall I call it?) a public books culture (a hideous phrase, so I wish I weren't settling for it) during and after the recession - newspapers cutting book coverage, bookstores going bankrupt, and the role of the NEH and Federal Government in turning this around. 

Renkl has done such a splendid job of sketching out the importance of regional reviews, of local independent bookstores, and how these fit into the bigger picture (national press, publishers' support), that no isolated quote can do it justice.  It is hard not to warm to a piece, though, which includes the following:
The publication Humanities Tennessee dreamed up is called Chapter 16: A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby. (The name is a reference to Tennessee’s history as the 16th state to join the union.) They built the site in-house by reading a book called Drupal for Dummies, and they hired me to run it.
The whole thing here.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017


Amazing news.

I make myself miserable these days by following people outside the anglophone world on Twitter (publishers, newspapers, magazines, writers, others).  I have already done much to make myself miserable by signing up for newsletters from various online bookstores, also outside the anglophone world.  The source of misery is that I hear of all sorts of books that sound interesting, but which would be prohibitively expensive once shipping costs were added in.  (In the past, when I've succumbed to temptation, I've often found that the cost of shipping was as much as the cost of the book.)

I had often thought how much simpler it would be if I could buy the e-book instead.  But if you are in the wrong territory for a digital product Amazon thwarts you at every turn.  Amazon had refused to process orders for so many other things that I'd never bothered to see if this applied to, as it might be, Italian e-books.  Today I suddenly thought: Wait. English-language books are sold in different markets, territorial rights to which are fiercely guarded; if an e-book is only sold in one territory, and you are in another territory, you may not be allowed to buy it.  But maybe it doesn't work that way for other languages, or at least some other languages.

So I put in a trial order for Calvino's Le città invisibili, Kindle edition, and lo and behold, though I am in Berlin the order instantly went through!  (Not that this book is new to me, but it was the first to come to mind when I wanted something for the trial.)

I don't know whether this would work for books in every language that might interest me, and I don't know whether Amazon would be so accommodating if I were in a different country.  If it really is possible to buy foreign-language e-books in the US, though, this would radically change one's access to  non-English literature.  I understand why books in other languages are thin on the ground in bookstores and libraries, but it's terribly inhibiting to have to figure in obscenely expensive shipping charges every time one wants a book.

This does only help, of course, if an e-book is available, but  it still the good news of the day.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

consider the Yeti

Engagement with readers, your soon-to-be readers, is key. It’s essential to have some semblance of an organic footprint (via social media, writing and publishing pieces, etc.), many months—no fewer than eight to twelve—in advance of your book’s publication date.
Semblance of an organic footprint.  So lovely.

From a piece on Lithub in which publicists offer advice to the hapless author. (Moral: Never publish a book.)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

more fine print

Just how much is school going to cost? It sounds straightforward enough.

Every university applies outside scholarships their own way. Some have a policy that’s favorable to the student where they create financial aid packages without factoring in outside scholarships. If you attend such a university, you could end up like this student who graduated with $16,000 left over from scholarships, which the university paid out to her after she finished school. It makes for a juicy story, but one you won’t hear too often.

Far more common is that the university will use your outside scholarships to reduce your aid package.

Terrific piece on financial aid by Melissa Mesku at the Billfold.  It would be fatally easy to quote the whole thing, but it's here.

Monday, April 24, 2017

faith in small print

If you’ve ever granted permission for a service to use your Twitter, Facebook, or Google account, you’ve used OAuth.
This was a radical improvement. It’s easier for users, taking a couple of clicks to authorize accounts, and passwords are never sent insecurely or stored by services who shouldn’t have them. And developers never have to worry about storing or transmitting private passwords.
But this convenience creates a new risk. It’s training people not to care.
It’s so simple and pervasive that even savvy users have no issue letting dozens of new services access their various accounts.



This is from a piece by Andy Baid on Wired from way back in 2012, which I have come across, late in the day, thanks to a tweet by Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror.  (All right, not just of Coding Horror; Atwood is probably, actually, more famous for teaming up with Joel Spolsky to launch Stack Overflow.  The blog did come first, and his Twitter handle is @CodingHorror, Moving right along...)

I'm completely baffled by this.  "Even savvy users?' 

Baid goes (went?) on to talk about the large number of apps to which he has granted access to, among others, his gmail account, and to mention other savvy users (including Anil Dash, now CEO of Foggbugz) who have done the same.

And, um--

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Vector wars

“The Vector Wars” as we have started calling them have been raging for 29 years. They will, no doubt, continue to rage for years to come. The demise of FreeHand left a large hole in the market that despite Adobe’s efforts, Illustrator has not been able to fill. Though it should be mentioned that even today, in 2016, FreeHand is still available for purchase at and Adobe still provides technical and customer support, even if they are not updating the code (Note: FreeHand is not compatible with the most recent versions of Mac OS X). This is, we believe, to their credit and rather unprecedented in the software industry to continue to sell and provide support, if not updates for an application that was at end-of-life before Adobe acquired it and has been frozen for nine years.

Iconfinder on Affinity Designer (which I discovered because Edward Tufte was asking on Twitter about Affinity Photo) - as part of a comparison of AD, Adobe Illustrator, and Sketch.

A reader who has recently moved to Berlin came to dinner and asked why there was not much on the blog lately.  I tend to think "writers are fucked" has limited appeal as a recurring theme.

My Middle Eastern edition of CS Studio (from the days before Adobe moved to a subscription business model) has gone missing, and was last installed on a laptop that is dead, and if I were to find it I'm guessing it would not be compatible with the latest version of OS X.  The same is true of the version of Dreamweaver with which I cobbled together my website (which I can now update by wrangling with raw HTML in Textwrangler, which has, however, been rendered obsolete and replaced by a text editor that does not support my current version of OS X).

This is all stupid and boring. I gather Affinity Designer doesn't currently support RTL (right-to-left) text, so it's not the perfect replacement for my CS Studio ME.  It does support Japanese. It's available for €49, so it is, at least, affordable even for a writer who spent months fighting off eviction rather than finishing a book.  The review of Affinity Designer here.

Affinity Photo and Designer (available for Macs & Windows) here.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Google Books reviewed

After the settlement failed, Clancy told me that at Google “there was just this air let out of the balloon.” Despite eventually winning Authors Guild v. Google, and having the courts declare that displaying snippets of copyrighted books was fair use, the company all but shut down its scanning operation.

It was strange to me, the idea that somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them. It’s like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie where they put the Ark of the Covenant back on a shelf somewhere, lost in the chaos of a vast warehouse. It’s there. The books are there. People have been trying to build a library like this for ages—to do so, they’ve said, would be to erect one of the great humanitarian artifacts of all time—and here we’ve done the work to make it real and we were about to give it to the world and now, instead, it’s 50 or 60 petabytes on disk, and the only people who can see it are half a dozen engineers on the project who happen to have access because they’re the ones responsible for locking it up.

James Somers at the Atlantic on Google Books, the whole thing here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

fixing it

What can you say about the movement towards writing in a regional dialect, rather than in Modern Standard Arabic? Is it very common, and has it affected the audience or marketability of the texts in question? What about logistical issues, like accurately representing a spoken dialect in the Arabic alphabet given the presence of non-standard phonemes?

This is such a meaty question! We could do a whole interview on this topic. I'll try to hit some of the highlights.

[Children's literature] is a thorny issue. Some authors want to write picture books in spoken dialect—and some have, like Sonia Nimr—but publishers tend to be very opposed, as they want to be able to sell into multiple markets and submit to prizes. Unfortunately, this even goes for dialogue. I loved Rania Amin's Screams Behind Doors, which won the Etisalat Prize for best YA novel last November, but it felt weird to have these girls speaking to each other in Modern Standard Arabic. Rania told me she'd written the dialogue in Egyptian, but the publisher “fixed” it, worried they couldn't otherwise submit to prizes and suchlike. A bit galling.

Henry Ace Knight interviews Marcia Lynx Qualey, blogger at ("Arabic literature in English").  The whole interview is terrific, with many new names (to those, anyway, hitherto unfamiliar with to follow up.  The rest at Asymptote, here.

allegedly salubrious

Burger’s second novel, Die künstliche Mutter, is significantly more autobiographical than one might suppose, given its fantastic setting. In this glum but sardonic account of a specialist in German Literature and Glaciology, Burger took up the theme of his own psychosomatic affliction, his “genital migraines,” as the protagonist terms them. The book takes place in an otherworldly institution where patients, lying on beds in tunnels carved in a massif, absorbing the heat and moisture, are subjected to a battery of bizarre therapeutic measures. To devise his hero’s elaborate medical history, Burger devoured reams of psychiatric literature and even took a cure himself near Bad Gastein, in Austria, where guests rest in underground caves to enjoy the allegedly salubrious effects of the area’s high radon concentration.

Uwe Schütte (translated by Adrian Nathan West) on Hermann Burger.  This sounds amazing, I thought, and would have wondered why I had never heard of Burger if Schütte had not helpfully explained:

Hermann Burger (Menziken, 1942) is one of the truly great authors of the German language: a writer of consummate control and range, with a singular and haunting worldview. Yet it is not surprising that he fell into obscurity after his death, from an overdose of barbiturates at age forty-six. He shares this fate with many of the most august names from the peripheries of German-language literature who, never managing to escape from the ghetto of Austrian or Swiss publishing, either gave up in exhaustion, or went on writing and were forgotten nonetheless.

I have not yet renewed my membership of the Staatsbibliothek, but perhaps the Gedenkbibliothek will have Burger even if he is only on the periphery of German-language literature.

The whole thing at Asymptote, here.   (HT @timesflow RTing @a_nathanwest)

je n'interviens pas

Rodin, l’exposition du centenaire, dans les galeries nationales du Grand Palais, n’évite pas entièrement l’écueil. Chronologique et thématique, elle constitue sans doute une bonne introduction, un rappel des fondamentaux pour les néophytes. Rigoureuse d’un point de vue académique, pertinente dans sa progression, l’exposition échoue pourtant à recréer la magie qui caractérise l’œuvre rodinienne, ce parfum de scandale et de radicalité. La faute aux lieux, sans doute, ces immenses galeries froides, difficiles à investir quand on est habitué au sublime et intemporel musée Rodin, qui semble pénétré par l’âme de l’artiste.
Aucune mention de la réception presque traumatisante de ses premiers chefs-d’œuvre ici exposés, entre incompréhension, malaise et sidération. Ces Bourgeois de Calais qui choquèrent par leurs corps décharnés et misérables, aux antipodes des héros courageux et fiers qu’espéraient ses commanditaires de la municipalité. Ce Balzac qui fit d’abord ricaner, avec sa redingote informe et son aspect massif, presque monstrueux, sans bras ni jambe apparente. Cette Porte de l’Enfer enfin, matrice d’où il tira la plupart des grands motifs de sa carrière à venir, œuvre maudite jamais exposée de son vivant. C’est un Rodin trop propre sur lui, sans porosité, qu’on nous présente ici. Officiel.
Yann Perreau at Les Irrockuptibles on the Rodin centenary exhibition, the whole thing here.

Discussing the Kiefer-Rodin exhibition at the Musée Rodin, Perreau quotes Rodin:

“Je sais pourquoi mes dessins ont cette intensité (…) déclara Rodin avant de mourir. C’est que je n’interviens pas. Entre la nature et le papier, j’ai supprimé le talent. 
My collection of the essays of Rodin is unfortunately in storage in New Jersey.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

get me out of here

For 26-year-old Guillaume, the trade-off is all too easy to understand. In May 2016 he finished his graduate-school training in business law. A few months later, he decided he didn’t want to work in law after all; he wanted to play video games. Guillaume likes adventure games, which allow players to immerse themselves in fantastic and foreign worlds. During his studies, he could only spare a couple of hours each day for his habit. Now he can slip into his video-game worlds for five or six hours at a time. A law career would have meant more money. Yet it would also have meant much more time spent at law.

(Mutatis mutandis, this is the world-view of many writers. Except, did they but know it, they could probably drastically diminish their real-world exposure if they ditched writing and focused on video games.)

Terrific piece in the Economist's 1843 magazine, the whole thing here.

HT @TimHarford

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Tim Harford on facts, damned facts

Terrific piece by Tim Harford in the FT on The problem with facts. (So terrific it is terrifyingly tempting to purloin the whole text from the FT.)  Harford talks about the lessons learnt from the response of the tobacco industry to evidence connecting cigarettes with lung cancer, how frequent attempts to discredit a claim unsupported by facts only make it lodge more firmly in the minds of casual onlookers, how the current obsession with bubbles ignores the fact that very few people read serious news (of any ideological tendency) at all. 

A couple of quotes:

OK, an attempt to copy and paste a brief quote has, not unfairly, elicited this response from the FT:

High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our T&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email to buy additional rights.

It's possible that if I checked out the T&Cs I would find a brief quote was acceptable, but sloth prevails.  The whole thing here.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Truer words

If you want to attract and keep developers, don’t emphasize ping-pong tables, lounges, fire pits and chocolate fountains. Give them private offices or let them work from home, because uninterrupted time to concentrate is the most important and scarcest commodity.

Joel Spolsky on Geekwire.  (Mutatis mutandis...)

on not being hated

"Most tech company execs will do anything to keep their engineers happy."

Anil Dash is talking about what SF techies could do to stop being hated.

I came to AD via Joel Spolsky (whom I have been following for years); Dash is the new CEO of Fog Creek.  The idea that companies want to attract and keep good software engineers is a familiar theme in the annals of Spolsky.  It's bad and good for me to look over the fence.

Not to be unkind, I'd like you to imagine translating this sentence to a different sphere.

"Most publishers will do anything to keep their writers happy."

This is not that world.

Writers sometimes get asked whether someone who wants to be a writer should persevere, and they tend to sound rather curmudgeonly in their replies.  It sounds churlish to say something like "If you have to do it, you'll do it. Don't do it if it's not impossible to do anything else."  It sounds like the lucky few depressing the aspirations of the young and hopeful.

It's not really like that.  Writers know they don't live in a world where company execs, or, indeed, the lowliest intern, will do anything to keep writers happy.  They don't even live in a world where agents, or, indeed, the lowliest intern, will do anything to keep writers happy.  So they live in a world where the odds are heavily stacked against doing their best work, and actually, if you have a choice, you're probably better off being a dev.

It's not that devs don't live in a world where people drive them crazy.  Recruiters drive them crazy.  Management drives them crazy.  Open plan offices drive them crazy.  People calling them on the PHONE drive them crazy.  They may be required to write code in PHP when every fiber of their being revolts. (There are many languages which may prompt every fiber of their being to revolt.) But -- well, for example, they are not asked to wait months for a program to be debugged by someone who is not a programmer.

I was probably going to say more, but I think I'll stop now.