Friday, April 30, 2010

Under the banner of the financial crisis, recent months have seen management threaten departments and jobs in post-92 and Russell group universities alike. Although no clear national pattern of cuts has emerged, philosophy has been singled out by several institutions. Threats to philosophy at Liverpool and King's College London were greeted with international outcry and management retreat. Recent news that philosophy recruitment at both undergraduate and postgraduate level at Middlesex University will be terminated is a particularly terrible blow, both to the standing of philosophy in the UK and to the future of critical thought in our universities as a whole.

Nina Power of Infinite Thought at the Guardian Comment is Free, the rest here

Thursday, April 29, 2010


The most interesting thing I’ve ever read on the subject of linguistic diversity has nothing to do with immigration; it’s in the late historian Eugen Weber’s 1976 book “Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914.” There, Weber (who died in 2007) cited France’s catastrophic defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 as a key factor in its modernization. Weber sketches a nineteenth-century France where dozens of regional patois were spoken in lieu of French—as a result of which, soldiers in the same outfit couldn’t communicate with each other; in which illiteracy was rampant—as a result of which, soldiers couldn’t read maps or manuals; in which most general education was religion-centered—as a result of which, France’s military technology was vastly inferior to Germany’s. As a result, France’s new postwar regime, the Third Republic (which lasted until Germany’s 1940 invasion), instated a policy of free, mandatory, secular education in the French language, by means of a unified national educational bureaucracy that prevails to this day
Richard Brody at the New Yorker

While staying with my mother I watched all 5 seasons of The Wire: to begin with I got my mother a 3-DVD subscription, but she wasn't enjoying some of the things I ordered so I took out an extra subscription of my own. We watched the first few episodes of The Wire together, but she didn't like it much. She found the dialogue of some of the black characters hard to follow and was depressed by the poor ungrammatical English. I talked about the political history of standardization of languages/legitimacy of one form of a language following centralization of power / unification (with reference to Britain, France, Germany, Italy), the pedagogical enforcement of a particular form as legitimate obliterating the means by which the categories of standard and nonstandard have arisen.

(King Charles' Head. Yes.)

I've had people shrug at what they saw as trivial disagreements over the copy-editing of The Last Samurai. For better or worse, my approach to the text came after a lot of thought on purity of language. I think I can understand a wider range of Englishes than many people - I have British friends who find American regional dialects hard to follow, American friends who can't understand British regional dialects, I've never had a problem with any spoken English I can remember hearing. N. F. Blake, Non-Standard Language in English Literature makes an obvious point: the conventions of standard written English are not an accurate representation (phonetic, syntactic, other) of the way English-speakers of some approved category actually speak. That is, it's not the case that, as it might be, properly educated speakers generate spoken language of which this standard written English is simply a transcription. This is a fiction which literary representation of dialect encourages: nonstandard versions are spelled phonetically, standard English is spelled conventionally. Similarly, an acceptably nonstandard writer - a small child who can't be expected to have mastered the conventions - can be allowed to write unconventionally, while an educated adult, it seems, must have even scribbled notes cleaned up before they go into print. I don't like that convention, and I tried in writing the book to be closer to what felt right. (That is, you don't wait to make written language closer to speech or thought until you have need to mark a character as a nonstandard user of English.) I can see that to someone who hasn't thought about it details of commas, italics, capitalization and so on might look trivial, but that was roughly why it mattered.

(King Charles' Head.)

If there were three simultaneous vacancies on the Supreme Court, Washington would be a war zone, and the volume of direct mail would solve the post office's financial problems. Not so with the Federal Reserve. When the Fed is discussed in a political context, the talk normally comes from the fringe (as in the Ron Paul fan club's chants of "End the Fed"). Yet its decisions powerfully affect everyday life in a way that's rare for a court decision. ...

For all that elected officials talk about how their policies will create jobs or their opponents' policies will destroy them, in normal times it's the Fed -- not the White House, not Congress -- that determines the pace of job creation. (Its dual mandate from Congress, after all, is to promote stable prices with maximum employment.) When the Fed's Open Market Committee wants the economy to grow faster, it reduces interest rates. When it wants to slow things down, it raises them. The committee's willingness to cut rates to historically low levels in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and the dot-com bust helped avoid a severe recession -- but many also think that its willingness to hold them so low for so long fueled the credit boom that led to our current bust.

Matthew Yglesias via Ezra Klein

Save Middlesex Philosophy

I've just learned that Middlesex University has decided to close its philosophy department. Those familiar with the distinction of the department will, I know, be as horrified as I am. A campaign to save the department is underway (successful campaigns have already saved philosophy departments at King's and Liverpool, so public outcry may work where the department's mere demonstration of excellence has not); the petition can be signed here.

code like a girl

Mooching around online as one does (reculer pour mieux sauter) I find

a) a somewhat unfocused piece on the PEN website on a recent conference session, originally entitled Women, Sex, Fiction, renamed Gender, Translation, Diversity, contemplating the fact that women are 80% of readers of fiction but are underrepresented in the Library of America (3%) and win fewer literary prizes.

b) a piece in the Guardian by Kira Cochran on women and depression


c) a piece in the Guardian by Zoe Williams on a successful class action against Birmingham County Council for pay discrimination

The tribunal's finding is this: women employees have been systematically underpaid and discriminated against by this council, for as long as the Equal Pay Act has been in force. Female staff on the same pay grade as men (cleaners versus bin men, for instance) could expect to earn much less, to start with, and go on to be paid much less in bonuses. The starkest example given was one case of a refuse collector taking home £51,000 in one year, while women on his level received less than £12,000.

Paul Doran, of the firm Stefan Cross that successfully brought this case, told me: "The bonuses were a sham, there was no monitoring, they were paid simply for men turning up to work, doing their jobs properly."

I've always been partial to the theory that depression is suppressed rage.

With regard to literary honours, the question seems to me to be not merely whether the women nominated are unfairly treated; there is a larger question relating to obstacles confronting ambitious women writers. If we look at the last three women to win the Nobel Prize, Lessing, Jelinek and Müller are all strong, angry, aggressive - and it does seem to me that ambitious work calls for a certain ruthlessness. The culture of publishing, especially American publishing, selects for niceness - this applies to men as well as women, but behaviour that is perceived as hostile and confrontational in a woman would not necessarily count against a man, and polite requests from a woman get waved aside. Loyal readers will remember the great copy-editing saga, in which the hapless author made two trips to New York to try to avert possible problems, politely reminded everyone of the terms of her contract, and had the copy-edited version reinstated behind her back...

My impression, unfortunately, is that both men and women feel more comfortable asking women to make allowances when family life interferes with work -- agents, editors, producers, directors, lawyers tell me they will take care of something, don't, then explain that they couldn't get around to it because they were having a baby, or had just had a baby, or had to do something or other with their small children, or had to go out of town on long weekends to stay with a retired parent, or, you know, just had to leave the office to take their dog for a walk. It's one of the things one has to bear in mind when one thinks of publishing an ambitious book: the more demands it makes on other people involved, the more vulnerable it will be, and the higher the requirement for niceness reserves.

Monday, April 26, 2010


The Schöneberger Kiez is not the prettiest part of Berlin. In fact, you could say it's downright ugly. The streets are full of betting shops, all-night Köfte joints and Döner Kebab restaurants. On Kurfürstenstraße, prostitutes ply their trade day and night. Sex shops stand next to pawnshops. Outside the Turkish supermarkets, hawkers sing the praises of their produce: "Strawberries, strawberries, €1. Tasty, tasty strawberries. Ladies and gentlemen, only €1." This is the Schöneberg 'ghetto'. And right in the thick of it, on Potsdamer Straße near Bülowstraße, is IsiGym Boxsport Berlin, one of the city's most famous boxing clubs - the hangout of such renowned pros as Oktay Urkal and Cengiz Koç, and the breeding ground for a new generation of Berlin boxers.

[Robert Rigney, Exberliner, English-language magazine, not online]


PP is currently camping out at Steinmetzstraße 3, in the heart (we now learn) of the Schöneberg ghetto. We are HERE:

Um. Who writes these things, anyway?

Look. Unusually for Berlin, there are stores open 24 hours, or close to. Just around the corner, on Potsdamer Straße, is a huge (shock horror) Turkish grocery store with fruit and veg piled high on the pavement which is open (shock horror) 24 hours except on Sunday. The produce is not, admittedly, as beautiful as the fruit and veg you would find on display in Paris - but that, sadly, is Berlin. Inside are (apart from the usual grocery store offerings) 20 varieties of olive, 10 of feta, stuffed vine leaves, stuffed artichoke hearts, humus, pureed avocado, all sorts of delicacies. Outside, yes, the horror, the horror, men offering sliced watermelon and such at a knockdown price.

And yes, other places are open 24 hours or close to. Places selling, shock horror, döner kebab. Pastries. Chinese takeaway.

At 2am, if you go out for Chinese noodles, a girl in shorts and thigh-high boots may be in the queue. At other times of day, if you go under the elevated rail of the U2, a girl in shorts and boots may be standing by the road. Ye-es.

It's also maybe 5 minutes by bus up to Potsdamerplatz, with the Staatsbibliothek, the Philharmonie, the Neuenationalgalerie, the Sony Center, the Arsenal (Institute for Film and Video Art).

Now, it's not much like my mother's old neighbourhood in Chevy Chase; no. It's also not much like her new place in Leisure World. But, um, a ghetto? Or even 'ghetto'? Äaaaahmmmm...

inside out

Not a very appropriate fear for a ballerina, for whom dancing is, by definition, a conscious act of loss. A ballet dancer goes onstage on a given night, in a specific theater, in a specific ballet and executes, in a specific fraction of musical time a movement that is already past just as it appears. And it takes far more than 10,000 hours of practice and repetition to make this movement exquisite, worthy. A dancer’s entire career consists of these moments of non-existence; they are not even fleeting, they are, somehow, never there at all, a shadow in someone else’s mind at best.

Toni Bentley at NYRB blog

quo vadis

The most relevant criticism of the U.S. military's Arabic language training would not, I think, be the quantity or quality of Arabic-language students, but rather a decision made a long before the first Gulf War about what language to teach them. Rather than learning one of the various regional colloquial versions of Arabic, students were only taught Modern Standard Arabic. From a linguistic point of view, that's roughly like teaching people Latin and then sending them to duty stations in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

I was once told by someone at DLI that they used to teach several different "colloquials", but found that the various military branches were not able to keep the differences straight, and would assign someone who had learned Moroccan Arabic to the gulf, or vice versa, so that DLI gave up and went with MSA alone, since that's the standard written form which students need to learn anyhow. According to the website of the DLI's Middle Eastern Schools, they now once again teach Levantine, Egyptian, and Iraqi "dialects", "in the third semester of instruction, after students have gained a solid foundation in MSA".

Mark Liberman on Language Log

Sunday, April 25, 2010

the subject is (no subject)

Dear ClustrMaps user,

Many thanks for being a loyal ClustrMaps user for the past year. Now that a year has elapsed since your account was registered or archived, we are writing just to let you know that an annual automatic 'archive' of your red dots has taken place, meaning that all your 'other' (previous) red dots are safely stored in the Maps Archive, which you'll find by clicking on the Maps Archive link immediately above your large full-size world map.

Although the map archive has already happened, your existing map will stay displayed until the NEXT update of your map. This helps to avoid displaying a totally empty map until there are fresh dots to show.

We sincerely hope this has not caught you by surprise, BUT we fully appreciate that it may have come at an unexpected moment! You may not have been aware of this, although we do explain this on our Products page listing on

and also on our Frequently Asked Questions page, in particular at the following part of the page:

The above item in turn contains links to deeper explanations such as

We know that people always like to have ever-more-dots, but the regular archive is the only way we can avoid having the maps turn into a 'giant red smear', and continue delivering the scalable service that everyone has come to expect.

The good news is that all of your totals are stored correctly, i.e. the new maps include the old archived totals in the grand 'running' total. If it helps to explain things to your own readers, you can always copy and paste the archive map referred to above (right-click and Save as... or right-click and View Image and note the URL and use that), and add that in to the appropriate page near your current active ClustrMaps thumbnail map with a suitable commentary (e.g. "Last year's totals:").

If this has caught you out by mistake, then we apologise and will endeavour to make this action much clearer in the future.

In the meantime, here is wishing you all the best, and thanks again for using ClustrMaps!

-The ClustrMaps Team

you can check in any time you want...

The first press accounts of the Apple iPad have been long on emotional raves about its beauty and ease of use, but have glossed over its competitive characteristics—or rather, its lack thereof. Some have characterized the iPad as an evolution from flexible-but-complicated computers to simple, elegant appliances. But has there ever been an “appliance” with the kind of competitive control Apple now enjoys over the iPad? The iPad's DRM restrictions mean that Apple has absolute dominion over who can run code on the device—and while that thin shellac of DRM will prove useless at things that matter to publishers, like preventing piracy, it is deadly effective in what matters to Apple: preventing competition.

Cory Doctorow at Publishers Weekly

Saturday, April 24, 2010


In starting our new publishing company we looked hard at what Amazon costs a small publisher, and what it provides in return. We decided it wasn't worth it; that we would be better off on our own.

To sell our titles, Amazon would require a discount of 55% or even 60%, that's $11 or $12 on a $20 book. Amazon would use some of this money to discount the book to its customers -- that's what gives it its edge. If, as a publisher, you try matching their reduced price, Amazon will insist your new, lower price is the basis for their discount, so they can cut their price still further. That makes it pretty much impossible for you to compete with direct sales to your customers.

For their very substantial take on a book, Amazon will rarely do more than simply make it available. Rather than going out and finding customers, it waits for them to come to it. And, of course, plenty do -- received 615 million visits in 2008; the company has 50 million customers annually.

Colin Robinson of OR Books on their reasons for not selling through Amazon (Huffington Post March 22)
Danta A. Ciampaglia at Forbes on the NYRB Classics.

the hero is a man who becomes

As a young man, Obama searched for clues to his own identity by very purposefully reading his way through WEB Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Malcolm X. He has also mentioned texts by Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Martin Delany and a range of novelists – in particular, Toni Morrison. In fact, reading as a way of becoming is a feature of African-American autobiography, as it is of so many outsider-memoirists of any ethnicity: Malcolm X, for one, provides an extended account of his self-education.

Extract from David Remnick's biography of Obama, The Bridge, in today's Guardian


On The Casual Optimist, a Q&A with Peter Mendelsund and Tom McCarthy about the cover for McCarthy's new book, C

DW: And were you familiar with Peter Mendelsund’s design work before this book?

TMcC: When I learnt he was designing it, I looked at his other books and was very excited. It strikes you straight away how encyclopaedically visually literate he is. For example, he makes use of all these Constructivist and Bauhaus and generally high-Modernist motifs, but overhauls them and gives them a whole new life in the transformation: it’s the exact visual correlative of what I think contemporary literature should be (but usually isn’t) doing.



After discussing the book with Tom I felt like I had a pretty solid grasp of what should happen cover-wise. But the conversation with Sonny put the insta-freeze on that direction. Basically I started to think about what kind of cover I would make for this book if it were what the publishing industry felt like it was. So I thought about character. And I thought about setting, and I though about big typography.

I started to wonder, “so, who, after all, IS this Serge fellow” aside from his various meanings? I found this incredible painting…it’s in the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth of all places. It’s by Frank Brooks, a classic turn of the century English School painter from Salisbury. His dates would have been roughly similar to Serge’s. And he made lots of portraits of Whitehall luminaries and WWI brass — which also seemed fitting.

So here’s this boy with this haunted gaze. I printed him out lo-res and wrapped him around a book and then affixed these black plastic bands and dot things to it, and it just sat on my desk tormenting me for a while.

the rest here (courtesy Bookforum)

Friday, April 23, 2010

An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly on the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stone, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.

Lydia Davis, "The Outing"

in Almost No Memory, in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

Thursday, April 22, 2010

« J'aimais éperdument la comtesse de ... ; j'avais vingt ans, et j'étais ingénu ; elle me trompa, je me fâchai, elle me quitta. J'étais ingénu, je la regrettai ; j'avais vingt ans, elle me pardonna : et comme j'avais vingt ans, que j'étais ingénu, toujours trompé, mais plus quitté, je me croyais l'amant le mieux aimé, partant le plus heureux des hommes. »

from Vivant Denon's Point de lendemain, quoted in French Wikipedia

which I have come to from reading the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

the score is as three-dimensional as a sculpture

Terrific interview at the Guardian (from July last year) by Paul Morley, after a year studying composition at the Royal Academy of Music, with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Christopher Austin. Morley couldn't read music when he started; Austin said there was often a tendency to tell the student that it didn't matter, but he had been adamant, if you're going to be serious about this we have to address this. Morley said once he started he became completely obsessed, realised the score was this wonderful, magical thing...

I found this moving, a reminder of the value of demanding teachers, the who don't settle for the limitations 'imposed' by a student's lack of preparation.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

can we say this

The internet’s greatest achievement is to level, somewhat, traditional divisions of status and authority. Till a few years ago, we were led by a priesthood of journalists and editors, even after the time when because of the internet, anyone and his brother were learning to communicate ideas just as well in social media. That was an insupportable structure. Having made a good living in that priesthood for 25 years, I can summon the decadence of the old order in countless ways, but the picture that leaps to mind is of a group of fact checkers and lawyers and editors gathered around any story of importance that was about to be published, and one looked to the other who looked to the other and said, “Can we say this?” That question was asked again and again in corporate media, because there was too much riding on one article, too much money, too much reputation, too much power and status for anyone to be allowed to say what they really thought; and so the imperative that a good writer is supposed to feel, Is this an accurate expression of my thoughts? was crushed under a lot of external pressures.

Philip Weiss at Mondoweiss: The internet is great for journalism but it's also destroying our lives. The rest here.

19 May in Berlin (a friend sends this)

Musikbühne: Rufus Wainwright

Seine grandiosen Shows am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz zählen zu den Höhepunkten der Musikbühne, und sie haben eins gezeigt: Berlin liebt Rufus Wainwright, und Rufus Wainwright liebt Berlin. Während der Aufnahmen seines Albums „Release the Stars“, entstanden im ehemaligen DDR-Rundfunk-Studio in Köpenick, weilte der Kanadier gar mehrere Wochen in Berlin. Nachdem er in der Volksbühne zuletzt mit großer Bandbegleitung zu erleben war, gibt es diesmal Rufus Wainwright pur: nur Stimme und Flügel. Ein Soloprogramm, mit dem er die Songs seines neuen Albums „All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu“ vorstellt und gewiss seine Fangemeinde ein weiteres Mal von den Stühlen reißen wird. Präsentiert von radioeins.


rumour abides no contestation

Assuredly, opinion is nothing but a semblance, a caricature of essential relation, if only because it is a system organized on the basis of utilizable means, instruments of the press and pressure, the broadcast media and centers of propaganda that transform into an active power the passivity that is its essence, into a power of affirmation its neutrality, into a power of decision the sense of impotence and indecision that is opinion's relation to itself. Opinion does not judge or opine. Radically unavailable because foreign to any position, it is all the more at one's disposal. This justifies every criticism. Nevertheless, its panic movement escapes those critics who stress precisely opinion's seductive and tranquilizing alienation, for its movement constantly dissipates this power by which everything is alienated into a nullity or an inalienable indetermination. He who believes that he has rumor at his disposal rapidly loses himself in it.

Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, tr. Susan Hanson,, via wood s lot

But the core finding is that most Internet users do not stay within their communities. Most people spend a lot of time on a few giant sites with politically integrated audiences, like Yahoo News.

But even when they leave these integrated sites, they often go into areas where most visitors are not like themselves. People who spend a lot of time on Glenn Beck’s Web site are more likely to visit The New York Times’s Web site than average Internet users. People who spend time on the most liberal sites are more likely to go to than average Internet users. Even white supremacists and neo-Nazis travel far and wide across the Web.

David Brooks on Cass Sunstein, polarization, the Internet. new research by Gretzkow & Shapiro, at the New York Times


But the debate has completely changed these numbers. The Tories aren’t the money favourites any more. They and the hung Parliament have effectively changed places. That £100 would now earn £172 if the Tories win, £73 for no overall control, and £2700 for Labour. Even the Tory-favouring spread betting is suggesting 307-312 seats, ie a Tory minority of 36-26. The polls suggest a hung Parliament with Labour the biggest party, 39 seats short of a majority.

Wow! Inside the two big parties, quite a few people are going to be doing a lot of Told You So – remember, one of the big parties’ main reasons for not having these debates was the advantage it would give the Lib Dems.

John Lanchester on betting sites and the British election

Monday, April 19, 2010

the audacity of Clegg

The Lib Dems are now at 30% according to recent polls - and Linux users are 12% of visitors of PP:

Rimsky-Korsakov helps Mussorgsky, oder?

Book Editor discovers a first book with tantalizing possibilities, but clearly, it’s a mess. The novel it will become exists as much in Book Editor’s imagination as it exists on the page. She buys it for a nominal sum. She works many hours (mostly nights and weekends), over several drafts to coax out of Writer the best book it can be. She closely line edits the final draft. Then she goes into marketing mode, making sure the book is titled, positioned, packaged and presented properly. She makes an obsessive pest of herself, both in and out of house, in the service of the book. But in the end her and Writer’s long labors are rewarded! The novel becomes a major bestseller, launching a long career for Writer, bringing the company years of pure profit.

Three years later Book Editor is fired, with three month’s severance pay.

A book editor should participate in such a bonanza along with the publisher, agent and writer. When a book editor’s work is extensive (re-structuring, re-plotting, re-writing) and substantially contributes to the final book, a one or two or three percent royalty is not too much to ask. If a book editor is on staff at a company, such a royalty should begin only after the advance has earned out, or after some number of copies which insure the company’s target profitability have sold.

Ann Patty proposes.

Once upon a time, Best Beloved, Mussorgsky couldn't get his work put on. Rimsky-Korsakov thought he was a genius. Reorchestrated Boris Godunov so it could be appreciated by the audiences of the day - the result was, to modern ears, a good piece of work which fits nicely into the conventions of 19th-century opera. Modern audiences tend to prefer the Boris Godunov of Mussorgsky. Without Rimsky-Korsakov, of course, the work could never have been performed back in the day, and perhaps might never have survived to be known when the original could be admired.

Writers might well be willing to accept the help of a Rimsky in the short term, if this got them some money, some recognition, time to produce new work - if the work adapted to the public did not permanently displace the original version. (A book that is 'clearly a mess' at Time A may be something readers at Time B see as brilliant. Could a mass audience in the 1940s have coped with Pulp Fiction?) A slight problem is, Mussorgsky could assess the talent of Rimsky-Korsakov, because R-K was a gifted composer in his own right; writers don't normally have a chance to assess the ability of editors. If Ms Patty is the equal of Rimsky-Korsakov and doesn't get a royalty, she is certainly being short-changed.

what an attractor is all about

It appears that the eigenvalue distribution is an attractor. That is, for a broad range of different input models (distributions of the random matrices), you get the same output--the same eigenvalue distribution--as the sample size becomes large. This is interesting, and it's hard to prove. (At least, it seemed hard to prove the last time I looked at it, about 20 years ago, and I'm sure that it's even harder to make advances in the field today!)

Now, to return to the news article. If the eigenvalue distribution is an attractor, this means that a lot of physical and social phenomena which can be modeled by eigenvalues (including, apparently, quantum energy levels and some properties of statistical tests) might have a common structure. Just as, at a similar level, we see the normal distribution and related functions in all sorts of unusual places.

Consider this quote from Buchanan's article:

Recently, for example, physicist Ferdinand Kuemmeth and colleagues at Harvard University used it to predict the energy levels of electrons in the gold nanoparticles they had constructed. Traditional theories suggest that such energy levels should be influenced by a bewildering range of factors, including the precise shape and size of the nanoparticle and the relative position of the atoms, which is considered to be more or less random. Nevertheless, Kuemmeth's team found that random matrix theory described the measured levels very accurately.

That's what an attractor is all about: different inputs, same output.

Andrew Gelman on random matrices, the rest here

great minds think alike

Two Argentinean convicts who escaped from jail evaded capture after disguising themselves as sheep, it was claimed.

[Having read the Odyssey at school? But perhaps native ingenuity sufficed. Over there, ht MR]

Riders of the N8

Clegg promises to make the drivers of night buses let you get off between stops...

Consider the Obama-Clegg parallels. Obama's sensibility developed during a childhood dominated by the absence of his father and his struggles to fit into communities in Hawaii and Indonesia; Clegg's outlook was forged in the crucible of his hardscrabble origins in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, his education at Westminster School in London, and his degree in archaeology and anthropology at Robinson College, Cambridge. Obama had "Yes, we can". Clegg has "I agree with Nick". Obama, as a youth, flirted with hard drugs. Clegg set fire to a cactus.

These parallels aren't perfect, of course. They may even strike some readers as absurd. But what Clegg's rightwing and leftwing critics miss, as do predictably sarcastic journalists, is that this is precisely the point. To say that Nick Clegg is the British Barack Obama is not to suggest that he is an exact duplicate of the original, American Obama, transplanted to our shores. He's a British version. The US likes its heroes to be inspiring underdogs who battle vast forces to realise their dreams. We like ours to be not-particularly-inspiring underdogs who never do quite realise their dreams – think Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, or Mallory on Everest, or the Beagle 2 Mars probe. Thanks to various unfortunate psephological realities, Nick Clegg almost certainly won't realise his dreams either.

(Nick Clegg, The British Obama, from Oliver Burkeman in today's Guardian)

how to say it

On Language Log, Mark Liberman gives clips of people gamely attempting to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, then a couple of Icelandic speakers pronouncing the word with aplomb. HT Language Hat.

beach reads revisited

My ex-husband David, hero of our earlier post on A Beach Read of All Times, draws to my attention a number of inaccuracies. It's not exactly, or rather not entirely, that I misremembered his account of being promised unlimited books for a beach vacation: I misremembered one thing (number of books read before the deal collapsed), remembered no details for other aspects of the incident (time, place, weather), and (I maintain) followed an example common in ancient historians, fleshing out according to probability.

For the record, David was indeed 13 when hauled off volens nolens (or rather, emphatically nolens) on a beach holiday, with the sweetener of as many books as he could read. David did, and indeed does, have two younger sisters. The rest is an example of everything that is worst about the novelistic approach to history. Superficially plausible, but wrong. For the record (and this is, of course, why the ability to read primary sources is so invaluable to the historian):

right that I was 13 at the time, but my mother didn't buy me five books for
the first day. She bought me two books, and I finished them by early
afternoon (and so probably could have read five books in the whole day if
I'd had them, but I didn't). Anyway, I suppose that shows just how
unrealistic my mother was - that she assumed that a mere two books would
keep me going for any length of time (in the absence of grammatical
commentaries on Homer and Kurosawa, that is). I suspect the problem was
that no one in my family, even my mother, paid sufficient attention to what
I was reading to appreciate how fast I was reading it. Which is why, even
four or five years after that, I could still encounter amazed scepticism
from relatives when they saw me do my party trick of looking briefly at a
page of text and then answering questions on its contents.

The two books, by the way, were both by Daphne Du Maurier: Jamaica Inn and
The Scapegoat. My mother selected them, of course - not that I actively
disliked Daphne Du Maurier (though I much preferred Jamaica Inn to The
Scapegoat), but I don't think they would have been close to the top of my
list had I been choosing for myself.

Also, your comments on British beach holidays, however just in general, are
in fact misplaced here. This was the summer of 1976, famous as the hottest
of all British summers. We had three weeks of unbroken sunshine, with
temperatures regularly in the 80s. And we spent our holiday in Perranporth
in north Cornwall, which has extensive sandy beaches - if only one likes
sandy beaches. And the heat of the sun made it all the more attractive to
simply stay in the shade and read.
I think there are lessons to be learnt (sorry, been watching too much South Park), with wider implications than whether The Last Samurai can/should be kept in print.

My impression is that it's common for parents not to pay much attention to what their children are doing unless it's likely to cause problems. A child quietly reading in a corner is A Good Thing. A parent - especially a parent with two smaller children, two less easily entertained children - is likely to feel that Child A has been taken care of. There's no pressing need to think about what would be best for Child A to read next. And it's not necessarily easy for a parent to know what to get Child A even if they bother to think about it.

To take an example, many teenagers love The Lord of the Rings. (David Foster Wallace mentions, in David Lipsky's new book, that he liked reading Tolkien; it was more of a publishing phenomenon in the 70s than now, but the films have given it a large new audience.) For many, the linguistic elements of the book are part of its charm. To me, obvious recommendations for such a reader would be Malory's Morte d'Arthur with the original spelling

The text is unabridged, with original spelling and extensive, easy-to-use marginal glosses and footnotes. No other edition accurately represents the actual (and likely authorial) divisions of the text as attested to by its two surviving witnesses—Caxton's 1485 print and, especially, the famous Winchester Manuscript. The Winchester Manuscript is now generally agreed to be the more authentic of the two surviving manuscripts. The Norton Critical Edition is the first edition of Malory to recover important elements of this manuscript: paragraphing, marginal annotations, hierarchies of narrative division as signaled by size and decorative intricacy of initial capitals and font changes. The Norton Critical Edition also represents, in black-letter font, the striking rubrication of proper names in the Winchester Manuscript, reconstructing for readers something of an authentic medieval reading experience, one which gives visual support to Malory's extraordinary representation, in character and setting, of a chivalric ideal. No other student edition of Malory contains such extensive contextual and critical support.

Icelandic sagas in translation

There was a man named Mord whose nickname was Gilja. He was the son of Sighvat the Red, and he lived at Voll in the Rangarvellir District...

It was in the days of King Harald Fine-Hair that a man called Hallfred brought his ship to Iceland, putting in at Breiddale east of the Fljotsdale district. On board were his wife and their fifteen-year-old son Hrafnkel, a handsome and promising youngster...

There was a man by the name of Odd Onundarson living in Borgarfjord, at Breidapolstad in Reykjardal. He was married to a lady called Jorunn, a shrewd woman of fine breeding, and they had four children, two fine sons and two daughters. One of their sons was called Thorodd and the other Thorvald, and their daughters were called Thurid and Jofrid. Odd was known as Tungu-Odd, and had no great reputation for fair dealing.

[If you have never read or liked Tolkien you may not see why a book that opens this way would look so appealing]

- and Gordon's Introduction to Old Norse, currently available new on Amazon for a heartstopping $76.78.

[back cover: This comprehensive book provides the student with everything he wants to get a good working knowledge of Old Norse]

DETAILS of Snorri's life are known from the history commonly called Islendinga saga, written by his nephew Sturla Þórðarson. It forms part of the long Sturlunga Saga which follows through many generations the history of the great family to which Snorri belonged. Snorri´s age was a time of uncontrolled ambition and faction among Icelandic chiefs; and Snorri was as ambitious and grasping as any of them. Though less treacherous and violent than most, he was not a scrupulous politician. He has even been called a traitor, because he promised the king of Norway to bring Iceland under his rule. But this was a diplomatic promise which he did not try to fulfil; he gave it to save Iceland from invasion...

Gylfaginning (The Beguiling of Gylfi) is so named from the device which forms the framework of this part. Gylfi, a king in Sweden who dealt in magic, heard of the great cunning of Æsir and set out to discover the secret of their power. He travelled in disguise and gave his name as Gangleri (Wayworn)...

Þat var snimma í ondverða bygð goðanna, þá er goðin hofðu sett Miðgarð ok gort Valhóll, þá kom þar smiðr nokkurr ok bauð at gøra þeim borg á þrim misserum svá góða at trú ok ørugg væri fyrir bergrisum ok hrímþursum, þótt þeir kœmi inn um Miðgarð...

[If you have ever had the childish tastes which annoyed Christine Brooke-Rose in readers of Tolkien, you'll know that you don't actually need to know what the last paragraph says to find it irresistible. Þat! ørugg! Miðgarð! But how could a parent be expected to know?]


The Nibelungenlied

of which Yale University Press aays

No poem in German literature is so well known and studied in Germany and Europe as the 800-year-old Das Nibelungenlied. In the English-speaking world, however, the poem has remained little known, languishing without an adequate translation. This wonderful new translation by eminent translator Burton Raffel brings the epic poem to life in English for the first time, rendering it in verse that does full justice to the original High Middle German. His translation underscores the formal aspects of the poem and preserves its haunting beauty. Often called the German lliad, Das Nibelungenlied is a heroic epic both national in character and sweeping in scope. The poem moves inexorably from romance through tragedy to holocaust. It portrays the existential struggles and downfall of an entire people, the Burgundians, in a military conflict with the Huns and their king. In his foreword to the book, Michael Dirda observes that the story “could be easily updated to describe the downfall of a Mafia crime family, something like The Godfather, with swords.” The tremendous appeal of Das Nibelungenlied throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is reflected in such works as Richard Wagner’s opera tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, Fritz Lang’s two-part film Die Nibelungen, and, more recently, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
I've embedded images of these books because they offer, in various ways, some of the visual appeal which takes hold of readers of LOTR, The Hobbit and so on; Tolkien was susceptible to the paraphernalia of scholarship, to maps, manuscripts, the annotations which triangulate desire on such artifacts as objects of retrospection to a more heroic time - one constructed as real through the survival of such relics. For a certain sort of reader, scholarship is glamorous because reinforcing l'effet du réel. I note that our society does not encourage us to think of children or teenagers as having a longing for scholarship, or to encourage them to pursue the sort of scholarship they could enjoy; OUP, which publishes Gordon, gives no sign of seeing itself as having a potential readership in the region of 1%, or even .1%, of Tolkien's hundred million. (At $76.78 it is, of course, out of the price range of all but the most indulged or indulgent.)

Not sure what to do about this, but it is one reason I'd rather see a different cultural practice, such that the books visible to the public were not confined to bookstores and libraries, and individuals who saw that a certain sort of book was likely to appeal to certain sorts of readers were more active in getting it out in the world in unconventional places.

David asks, anyway, whether one couldn't just buy a few copies of The Last Samurai on Amazon and give them to friends, and of course one could.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mike Burns is hosting a discussion of The Last Samurai on Facebook at Ostraca from today to April 24.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Contenders, Accountants & the Men Who Taxed Them

It's now on the periphery of sporting awareness or interest, but there was once a time—and a very long time it was—when there was no bigger event in sports than a heavyweight title fight. And no bigger pay day. That's where taxes come in.

For a very long time, boxing was the only really big-money sport for athletes. Not for nothing did Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy regret taking the dive that cost him "the title shot outdoors in the ballpark" in On the Waterfront. At a time when Babe Ruth was being razzed for his $80,000 salary (more than the President of the United States, it was pointed out, to which Babe supposedly replied in 1930, "Well, I had a better year than he [President Hoover] did"), heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey made about nine times as much—over $700,000, for his unsuccessful title defense against Gene Tunney in 1926. And Tunney made $990,000 when he defended the title (and survived the infamous "long count") against Dempsey the next year. Between the two of them, they earned more than the entire 1929 payroll of baseball's American League in their two championship fights.

Where big money was being minted (and in full and very public view), the tax man inevitably followed. With no sadder result than the ordeal of Joe Louis.

[heartrending story followed by the prizefighting economics of the 90% tax band, Henry Fetter on How Taxes Changed Boxing, ht MR, ht Andrew Sullivan...]

Singh & the BCA

But most damnable is that this case should have taken place in the arena of medicine, where reasonable criticism of each others practises should never be stifled, for one very simple reason: it’s possible, in medicine, to do enormous harm, even when you set out with the best of intentions.

Anti-arrhythmic drugs provide a chllling example. For a few years in the 1980s these were prescribed to everyone who had a heart attack. It made absolute sense in theory: people who’ve had heart attacks often get abnormal heart rhythms, these irregular rhythms can often finish you off, but anti-arrhythmic drugs prevent them. Why not just give these anti-arrhythmic drugs to everyone who has had a heart attack, on the off chance? They were safe and effective when given to people who had abnormal rhythms, after all. But when prescribed preventively, to everyone, after a heart attack, they turned out to increase your risk of dying, and because so many people had them – because so many people have heart attacks – the deaths were on a biblical scale, killing as many Americans as died in the whole of the Vietnam war, before anyone had a chance to notice that something was wrong.

Ben Goldacre on Simon Singh's victory in the libel suit by the British Chiropractic Association, the rest here.

sun & sand & skarp hedin

A reader in the Netherlands has a friend with a bookstore who might be willing to stock The Last Samurai if an overseas number can be found for Harper Collins.

A reader in Australia has asked whether the 800 number works for Australia. My guess is Australia needs the overseas number. There was a separate printing in Australia, but I have never had any direct dealings with Random House Oz.

The Last Samurai is already out of print in the UK, but I think the UK publishers might be touchy about infringement of their territorial rights (i.e. sale of UK edition on British soil). Could be wrong.

A commenter points out that people could simply walk into their local library and urge them to buy a copy. Good point.

A commenter points out that one could simply urge friends to buy a copy. Yes, I just feel bad about telling people to lean on their friends.

A reader has offered The Last Samurai to his class (with blog/marketing frills) as an extra-credit project.

There have been other helpful suggestions; many thanks to everyone, and, of course, sorry to impose.

[Update: My understanding is that Patricia Kemp at HarperCollins Special Markets, 212 207-7104, can take care of a credit card order. Sorry this is not an 800 number.]

Friday, April 16, 2010


A friend writes:


I have several calls into the publisher(s). The minute I get it figured out, I'll let you know. The customer service number led me to several other numbers which led me to several people of which I should hear from hopefully today. I'll try to streamline the process once I know which route to take.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

à la recherche de marcel proust

James McGirk has a Q&A with Lorin Stein, the new editor of the Paris Review, on the Economist's More Intelligent Life blog, here.

MIL: Who do you read for pleasure these days? Which authors, literary magazines, blogs or books would you recommend?

LS: I just reread "Swann's Way" for a class I'm teaching (I got to choose the subject of the class) [The class is called “How Proust can change your length".] It's the first time I've read Lydia Davis's translation. It's a revelation. I love Scott Moncrieff as much as the next guy, but this is something else. I don't see how any fair reader can compare the books and prefer his. Davis lets you see the workings of her text, she lets you feel the French through the English, her Proust isn't just "Proustian," he's funny sometimes, modern sometimes, decadent sometimes, archaic sometimes, economical, sharp, plainspoken and fancy whenever he needs to be. Saturday I overheard a customer asking the clerk at Saint Marks Books which translation he should buy and I couldn't help butting in.

I can't comment on these translations; happy to believe that both have much to offer. The one thing I'd say is, if you're thinking of reading Proust and you've studied any French at all, do order Du côté de chez Swann from so you can read at least a few of Proust's sentences in French.

People often say: "Well, I had a couple of years of French in high school but I've forgotten it all." What they mean is not normally, "I had a couple of years of French in high school, but when I looked at the first paragraph of Du côté de chez Swann I couldn't understand a word," what they mean is, "If I cast about in my mind the only French sentences I come up with are 'Bon jour' and 'Comment-allez vous?' so there's no point in even looking at a difficult writer like Proust."

The fact is, they may or may not have enough latent memory of the language - they actually don't know. They may or may not have enough latent memory so that a little help from a translation brings more back - they actually don't know. But it's entirely possible that the reason they gave up French was that they were forced to exchange banalities in the language and got bored; if they had been introduced to Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud early on, if they had been introduced to Proust, it might not have seemed so dreary and pointless.

If I may speak from my own experience, one of the reasons I now read French fluently is that I decided, when I was 19, to try to read A la recherche du temps perdu and kept going: it is sometimes magical, sometimes exasperating, but I found it impossible not to keep going back - and if you read a novel of a million-odd words you are likely to find that you know the language better than you did when you began.

It's not, of course, compulsory to read the whole thing, but it seems a shame not to see what this extraordinary prose is like. Davis, after all, cannot have undertaken the labour of translation if she did not love Proust; the translation is not meant to stand in the way of reading the original text, it offers a chance for those with no French to get some idea of what the book is like, and an invitation for those with some French to go further. (I feel silly making a self-evident point; the problem is, translations as generally published often do assume that the point is self-evident (and therefore need not be made in an introduction), while readers often take the existence of the English text to imply something rather different.)

Here's Davis, with interpolations

For a long time, I went to bed early.

Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.

Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: 'I'm falling asleep.'

Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n'avais pas le temps de me dire : « Je m'endors. »

And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try to sleep would wake me;

Et, une demi-heure après, la pensée qu'il était temps de chercher le sommeil m'éveillait ;

I wanted to put down the book I thought I still had in my hands and blow out my light;

je voulais poser le volume que je croyais avoir dans les mains et souffler ma lumière ;

I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn;

je n'avais pas cessé en dormant de faire des réflexions sur ce que je venais de lire, mais ces réflexions avaient pris un tour particulier ;

it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about:

il me semblait que j'étais moi-même ce dont parlait l'ouvrage:

a church, a quartet, the rivalry betweem François I and Charles V.

une église, un quatuor, la rivalité de François Ier et Charles-Quint.

The difference between the two is that of the difference between musical instruments. If French were a piano, it would be a Pleyel. Here's the whole passage:

Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n'avais pas le temps de me dire : « Je m'endors. » Et, une demi-heure après, la pensée qu'il était temps de chercher le sommeil m'éveillait ; je voulais poser le volume que je croyais avoir dans les mains et souffler ma lumière ; je n'avais pas cessé en dormant de faire des réflexions sur ce que je venais de lire, mais ces réflexions avaient pris un tour particulier ; il me semblait que j'étais moi-même ce dont parlait l'ouvrage: une église, un quatuor, la rivalité de François Ier et Charles-Quint.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

rendering unto Caesar

About 90% of Americans used either tax preparers or tax-preparation software in 2009. That's insane, particularly when you realize that a substantial minority of Americans either don't pay income taxes or have a very simple filing. But when people talk about the need for tax simplification, they overestimate the complexity of many people's taxes and they underestimate the role that fear and anxiety play in the process. People are terrified that they'll get something wrong, or trigger an audit, or miss a rebate. They're intimidated by the tax system itself. You may think you can do your taxes, but why take the risk?

The 15th draws near. Ezra Klein comments.

Er, wow.

I'm not quite sure why tax preparation software is lumped together with using a tax preparer, to tell the truth (on following Klein's link one finds 29% are using tax preparation software, and 2/3 of low-income families are using a tax preparer). I just bash out my accounts in Excel and then do the return by hand - it's not a pretty business, and I can well imagine that some sort of software would simplify the process. Especially if it takes care of depreciation, which is a headache. Had no idea, anyway, that this was so rare.

A popular response seems to be that tax laws should be simplified, but I wonder how much that would help. The problem seems to be in part learned helplnessness (the conviction that mistakes will be made), in part an exaggerated fear of failure (you will be punished horribly for getting it wrong). It would be better, I suspect, to tackle the latter. Look, you work through the form, giving it your best shot. If you make a mistake, the IRS notify you of the fact. If you've made an error in their favour, they give you a refund; if you've made an error in your own favour, they tell you how much you owe and charge a fine - the interest on the amount you underpaid.

I would rather hand it all over to someone else, on the assumption that writing would be a more profitable use of the time, but having an accountant never seemed to reduce the work I had to do and produced a false sense of security. I would ask the accountant a question with serious tax implications and assume I could rely on the answer - and then find, too late, that the accountant was wrong. Wrong in the sense of landing me with registering for VAT and filing VAT returns when I wasn't liable for VAT. Wrong in the sense of changing my residence for tax purposes, so that it was suddenly necessary to file two sets of tax returns and draw up accounts for two different tax years (the tax year in the US coincides with the calendar year, that in Britain from April 6 to April 5 of the following year). Wrong in the sense of making a completely unnecessary estimated tax payment for the following year of $17,000. The great thing about dealing directly with the IRS, in case of doubt, is that you have obviously done everything you reasonably can to get it right: if the official you deal with gives you the wrong answer, you can say you were just following instructions.

NB, though. If the US Government is worried about the complexity of its tax returns, the IRS should get a set of the UK instructions and forms and learn from their example. The UK tax returns are extremely well designed, exceptionally easy to follow. (As Edward Tufte says, confusion and clutter are not features of information but of design: the US might get more mileage out redesigning the forms than changing the law.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

iPad replaces Julie Andrews

Joshua Gans talks about terrific uses of the iPad for children learning to read, learning about music, learning about the periodic table and so on, at Game Theorist.


Andrew Gelman casts a critical eye on John Lanchester's analysis of UK electoral districts and supposed advantage to Labour of these as currently drawn up. (Er, we at paperpools blithely linked to the post on the theory, to which we are still partial, that we can never get too much of John Lanchester.)

Theophrastus & electioneering

John Lanchester has been writing regularly on the LRB Blog in the run-up to the UK election; today he describes Mosaic, a package used by the Tories to get insight into the electorate:

Mosaic is well worth a look, and is very striking for its mixture of first hand research and thundering clichés. The population of the UK is represented by 15 groups, broken down into 67 household categories – one of which will be applied to you, whoever you are, by Mosaic’s all-knowing postcode-centred database. The categories are accompanied by little character sketches. So who are you? At the top is ‘Alpha Territory’ consisting of groups such as ‘Global Power Brokers’, ‘Voices of Authority’, ‘Business Class’ and ‘Serious Money’; its members include Piers and Imogen: ‘If not found on their own private yacht, then they are most likely to be seen in the business or first class cabins of airlines, to holiday in their own foreign property and to enjoy the service of exclusive hotels and restaurants.’ They sound lovely. Group C for ‘Rural Solitude’ consists of five subgroups: ‘Squires among Locals, Country Loving Elders, Modern Agribusiness, Farming Today, Upland Struggle’.

The whole thing here.

dolce vita ist vorbei, iii

got the following enchanting announcement from Wu Ming:

Questa è l'ultima mail che riceverete perché vi siete iscritt* a Giap, ormai tanto tempo fa. Stiamo per cancellare l'intero indirizzario. Quindi, se avete qualcosa di cui lamentarvi (ricezioni multiple etc.), potete lasciar perdere. La lista non esiste più.

Da oggi poniamo termine alla "crisi" di *Giap* e alla frammentazione dovuta al proliferare di blog e siti tematici dedicati a singoli libri (*New Thing* , *Stella del mattin*o, *Altai*).

*E' finalmente e ufficialmente on line... GIAP *, redivivo, trasformato. D’ora in avanti, sarà l’epicentro della nostra presenza in rete. Qualunque argomento che ci riguardi verrà trattato o linkato su *Giap*. Come ai vecchi tempi, ma con nuove modalità.

Indirizzario - this is so much nicer than Address Book. "l'epicentro della nostra presenza in rete' - the epicentre of our web presence - this is the sort of thing that makes e-newsletters worthwhile. Though I gather no more are to come.

[Newcomers to paperpools: Wu Ming is the name under which an Italian group of writers publishes work written in collaboration; last time I looked the website had an English version.] [Having confirmed English version of site, I find there are also versions in Spanish, Portuguese and French.]

Sunday, April 11, 2010

ben arrivati ad Hameln

Jonathan Galassi has a post on the FSG poetry blog about poetry in translation.

Galassi has just finished translating the poems of Leopardi, a project which has taken 10 years (in part, no doubt, because he is also President of Farrar, Straus & Giroux); the book is due for publication in the fall.

The blog tells us Mr Galassi will be adding occasional thoughts on poetry during the course of National Poetry Month. When we note that the date of the initial post was 1 April, and that the 11th is upon us, we can't help feeling that we are in the presence of the highly effective habits we should very much like to acquire.

national poetry month

Farrar, Straus & Giroux are sending out a daily poem through the end of April. You can sign up here.


Selfishness, good health and stupidity are, Flaubert suggested, the prerequisites of happiness. But without the last, he added, happiness is unattainable. How then do we get happy? Isn't it obvious? We must cultivate stupidity.

Stuart Jeffries on Michael Foley's The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy, Guardian Review

eheu fugaces labuntur anni

The bigger, more headache-inducing Atari programming challenge was dealing with the TV. The cathode ray tube screens of the late '70s and early '80s used an electron gun that drew individual scan lines on the screen. To create something as simple as a tank or a pong paddle, Atari programmers had to choreograph an intricate timing dance between their code and the electron beam. The most basic accomplishments on the 2600 could take months of solo work. The famous programmer of Adventure, Warren Robinett, describes the process of developing a cartridge as essentially a form of folk art:

In those old far-off days, each game for the 2600 was done entirely by one person, the programmer, who conceived the game concept, wrote the program, did the graphics—drawn first on graph paper and converted by hand to hexadecimal—and did the sounds.

Michael Agger on the Atari 2600, Slate

do you admire the view?

Peter Singer, for his part, showed some flexibility when I e-mailed him about this piece. "I've gone back and forth on this over the years," he said. "Perhaps there is a scintilla more doubt about whether oysters can feel pain than there is about plants, but I'd see it as extremely improbable. So while you could give them the benefit of the doubt, you could also say that unless some new evidence of a capacity for pain emerges, the doubt is so slight that there is no good reason for avoiding eating sustainably produced oysters." Here's to the vanquishing of hobgoblins—the first plate is on me.

Christopher Cox, Consider the Oyster, at Slate the rest here.

to say nothing of salad bars

Let's get something straight: A vegetarian is someone who doesn't eat meat. It's not someone who loves vegetables.

Ezra Klein on the GVP.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The individuation begins as soon as the sound waves conveying the gunshot traverse the two meters or so between the speakers and the ears of the men. Reaction times differ. The theoretical limit of reaction time in this race, taking into account the time it takes for the sound waves to reach the ears of the sprinters and the time it takes for their brains to process those sound waves and send a signal to their muscles, is 0.1 seconds. The starting blocks each contain Omega-built pressure sensors, and if these sensors detect a push from the foot of any runner beginning less than 0.1 seconds after the gunshot leaves the speaker, that runner is tagged with a false start and the racers must line up and begin again. There is no false start this evening, August 16, 2008, deep in the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing. It is the 100-meter finals of the XXIX olympiad, and the first man off the blocks, 0.133 seconds after the shot, is Richard Thompson, of Trinidad and Tobago. He is followed less than a thousandth of a second later by Walter Dix, of the United States. In the next three hundredths of a second, four more runners shove off against their pressure sensors. And then, finally, 0.165 seconds after the start of the race, in second to last place, Usain Bolt of Jamaica begins to run.

Luke Dittrich on Usain Bolt, at Esquire, courtesy Marginal Revolution, the rest here.

hand me the ritalin

(If the idea of a comic about Spinozism and lycanthropy in eighteenth-century central Europe sounds the least bit interesting, you really need to read Family Man.)

Cosma Shalizi at Three-toed Sloth


The Last Samurai is now a "New and Noteworthy" book at the [bookstore] in the [x] Building!
I had to move the new DeLillo book to the bottom "New and Noteworthy" shelf to accomplish the feat, but sacrifices must be made, and if they are someone else's then they are not so painful.
The Guerilla Merchandising Department

e-mail from a friend who has been promoted from 'friend' to 'very dear friend' at a stroke

moral hazard cashed out

This objection errs in assuming that the moral hazard problem requires an explicit intention on the part of economic agents to take on more risk and maximise the free lunch available courtesy of the taxpayer. The essential idea which I outlined at the end of this post is as follows: The current regime of explicit and implicit bank creditor protection and regulatory capital requirements means that a highly levered balance sheet invested in “safe” assets with severely negatively skewed payoffs is the optimal strategy to maximise the moral hazard free lunch. Reaching this optimum does not require explicit intentionality on the part of economic actors. The same may be achieved via a Hayekian spontaneous order of agents reacting to local incentives or even more generally through “natural selection”-like mechanisms.

Let us analyse the “natural selection” argument a little further. If we assume that there is a sufficient diversity of balance-sheet strategies being followed by various bank CEOs, those CEOs who follow the above-mentioned strategy of high leverage and assets with severely negatively skewed payoffs will be “selected” by their shareholders over other competing CEOs. As I have explained in more detail in this post, the cheap leverage afforded by the creditor guarantee means that this strategy can be levered up to achieve extremely high rates of return. Even better, the assets will most likely not suffer any loss in the extended stable period before a financial crisis. The principal, in this case the bank shareholder, will most likely mistake the returns to be genuine alpha rather than the severe blowup risk trade it truly represents. The same analysis applies to all levels of the principal-agent relationship in banks where an asymmetric information problem exists.

Self-Deception and Natural Selection

But this argument still leaves one empirical question unanswered – given that such a free lunch is on offer, why don’t we see more examples of active and intentional exploitation of the moral hazard subsidy? In other words, why do most bankers seem to be true believers like Tannin and Cioffi. To answer this question, we need to take the natural selection analogy a little further. In the evolutionary race between true believers and knowing deceivers, who wins?
Between a CEO who is consciously trying to maximise the free lunch and a CEO who genuinely believes that a highly levered balance sheet of “safe” assets is the best strategy, who is likely to be more convincing to his shareholders and regulator? Bob Trivers’ work shows that it is the latter. Bankers who drink their own Kool-Aid are more likely to convince their bosses, shareholders or regulators that there is nothing to worry about.

Macroeconomic Resilience on Natural Selection, Self-Deception and the Moral Hazard Explanation of the Financial Crisis, the rest here.

Friday, April 9, 2010

let's call the calling off off?

[There] are many... cases where competition does not restrain monopoly as it is supposed to, but comforts and bolsters it by unburdening it of its more troublesome customers. As a result, one can define an important and too little noticed type of monopoly-tyranny: a limited type, an oppression of the weak by the incompetent and an exploitation of the poor by the lazy which is the more durable and stifling as it is both unambitious and escapable.
More generally, the performance of near-monopolistic service providers may be worse than that which would prevail if monopoly power were absolute. This has enormous and wide-ranging implications. The poor performance of a national railway system might persist indefinitely if the most demanding customers also have recourse to road transportation. Public schools might deliver worse learning outcomes if private or parochial options are available to the most quality conscious parents. A small decline in neighborhood quality could turn into a precipitous collapse if those most affected by it simply move elsewhere. And the ease with which common stock can be sold implies that the most vigilant shareholders will liquidate their holdings rather than attempt to improve the performance of management.

Rajiv Sethi on Albert Hirschman's Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, via Andrew Gelman

town and country

The Tories won’t have forgotten one of the most amazing facts about the 2005 election. In England they actually beat Labour by 57,000 votes – but ended up with 93 fewer seats. That isn’t especially fair, but it should make things interesting.

John Lanchester, LRB blog, on constituency distribution, 'votes in the country worth less than votes in the city', the rest here.

talking points

This kind of interviewing, in my view, is broken. Apart from the pointless rudeness, Kinnock can’t possibly answer the question by saying a. proposed tax rises did me in (because Labour today are offering tax rises), b. 1992 was a long time ago, so who cares? and c. I was perceived as a Welsh windbag, which is a different thing from a Scottish miserabilist. Because he can’t say those things – which would immediately take on a life of their own and derail the election launch – he has to cling to his talking points. Utility and informativeness of the exchange: zero.

John Lanchester on John Humphrys' interviewing style, on the LRB blog, the rest here.

i don't want a holiday in the sun

Video clip on the Guardian of Tim Jonze talking about Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols.

Jonze says he once interviewed McLaren, thinking it would be a 15-minute telephone conversation. About an hour in he thought it might be a good idea to try to put his second question.

I happened to deal with McLaren while clearing permissions for The Last Samurai. One of my few good memories, actually, of the business of seeing the book into print.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

St T

I think something short-circuits inside a kid when his parents abandon him to a whole lot of other kids.

Rupert Everett, interviewed by Carole Cadwaller in the Observer (Nov 2009)

ego glue

For many years I have worked with children and their families as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. Before that however, I worked in the psychiatry of adulthood where the core disorder upon which the chronic hospital wards were established was schizophrenia. It was 'first philosophy* in psychiatry. Beneath its multifarious and often alarming presentations a central feature was though to inhere - a disturbance of the sense of self. Somehow, the self of the schizophrenic had become fragmented, porous and permeable to the selves of others, its secret thoughts available to the mind-reading abilities of the neighbours and its bony vault a useless barrier to the infestation of other people's thoughts. Indeed, the antipsychotic medications used in those days were rather scurrilously referred to as 'ego-glue* by some practitioners, insofar as they stuck the self together again or built up the boundary between oneself and another. Nowadays we are less vulgar with our terminology, but the self remains a critical venture for psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists

Deleuze and Ricoeur: Disavowed Affinities and the Narrative Self
Declan Sheerin

at aaaarg, courtesy wood s lot (free registration required)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

possible worlds

While in Boston I had dinner with a friend who teaches philosophy.

My friend had told me a long time ago that she had taught her children to spell their names in Greek. She liked The Last Samurai for other reasons, but one thing that appealed to her was the presentation of the teaching of Greek to a small child.

For those who haven't read the book, the method was to start by spelling very short English words in Greek letters. So, even if you've never contemplated learning Greek, you can probably see that this looks pretty manageable:

ατ βατ ιτ βιτ οατ βοατ ουτ αβουτ

Greek diphthongs are quite different from English diphthongs, so there's a certain amount of fudging, but you do realise that, how can I put it, you can actually read some recognisable words in a form you're not used to - and the first hurdle, the squiggly alphabet, is often the one at which many people fall. Most of us have learnt one alphabet by the age of 6, so you'd think a slightly different alphabet would not present problems - but the fact is, for English speakers, learning the protocol for representing spoken language in written letters is traumatic, and to the extent that we become literate we repress the trauma.

There was more Greek in the book, but this was the starting point. My thought was that we couldn't really know how exceptional Ludo was, and readers needed to see that there was no way of knowing. There's no doubt that every reader of the book could have learnt Greek from an early age if it had been properly presented; we have no way of knowing how many would have wanted to do so, or how far they could have taken it, but it mattered that something that looks daunting should be revealed as approachable if the first steps made use of things the reader already knew and had mastered by the age of 6.

My friend, anyway, said that her daughter had read the book and had wanted to learn Greek and had been told she could learn Greek when she started college. This is perfectly comprehensible to anyone who knows what it takes to make a career as a professional academic. My friend also said that her daughter, who was in her first year at university and had taken Greek, had refused to take her final exam in Greek because this seemed false to what study of the language was about. My feeling was not that my friend had let her daughter down - that she could have magicked time out of thin air to teach her daughter Greek. My feeling was that the publishers of the book had let them down, as they had let down other readers of the book who responded to this element of the book. The book could have been useful, among other things, as a starting point for readers who wanted to pursue this path, if additional materials had been available on a website. For this to be put in place, someone -- presumably the author -- would have needed to spend extra time preparing materials. A publisher committed to the concerns of the book might certainly have made all sorts of resources available, but this was not necessary. The crucial thing was that the publisher should have set value on the author's time.

I've seen a new discussion online of an old post on this blog, the post on copy-editing (Cormac McCarthy and the Semi-colon). As so often, there is no understanding of the concept of opportunity cost. If the editor is 8 weeks late with comments, if the lawyer refuses to clear permissions, if the copy-editor makes hundreds of gratuitous changes and reinstates them, against authorial veto before sending the book to press, they use time that could be spent finishing other books. A year is spent getting The Last Samurai into print, destroying all other books in the process. If that time had to be spent on Samurai, it might better have been spent, for example, preparing additional materials to assist the kind of reader who wanted to learn Greek. By comparison, months spent wrangling over whether numbers under 100 should be spelt out don't strike the author, at any rate, as a particularly good use of time.

¿Ana María Khan, where are you?

Happy to give an interview, but got this unenthusiastic response from the Mailer-Daemon:

This is the mail system at host

I'm sorry to have to inform you that your message could not be delivered to one or more recipients. It's attached below. For further assistance, please send mail to postmaster. If you do so, please include this problem report. You can delete your own text from the attached returned message.

The mail system host[] said: 550 User quota exceeded (in reply to RCPT TO command) (expanded from host[] said: 550 User quota exceeded (in reply to RCPT TO command)
If you have spare User Quota on another e-mail address, let me know...

moral hazard revisited

Alex Tabarrok draws attention to a paper by Richard Squire in the Harvard Law Review:

If liability on a firm’s contingent debt is especially likely to be triggered when the firm is insolvent, the contract that creates the debt transfers wealth from the firm’s creditors to its shareholders. A firm therefore has incentive to engage in correlation-seeking — that is, to incur contingent debts that correlate, or that through asset purchases can be made to correlate, with the firm’s insolvency risk. The consequence is an overuse of contingent debt that destroys social wealth through overinvestment, higher borrowing costs, financial distress, and potential systemic risk. Correlation-seeking is especially pernicious because, unlike other forms of shareholder opportunism such as asset substitution, it can reduce risk to shareholders even as it increases shareholder returns.

AT: It's long been known that a firm close to bankruptcy has an incentive to gamble because if the gamble pays off the shareholders prosper and if the gamble fails then the shareholders are no worse off (since the firm was already close to bankruptcy). But gambles like this add to shareholder value primarily by transferring wealth from the creditors who bear the downside risk without any hope of upside gain.

Squire shows how this idea is magnified when we add contingent debt and correlated asset returns. A contingent debt is one that must be paid only in certain states. If the shareholders take on contingent debt and at the same time buy assets with low or negative payoffs in the same set of states then the shareholders can focus the downside risk into the states in which they are bankrupt anyway - thus focusing the downside risk onto unsecured creditors. (the rest here)

[a commenter adds: As firms get closer to insolvency, managers and directors become exponentially more sensitive to risk of personal liability and thus much more conservative. Further, creditors' monitoring increases exponentially as said risk rises (gambles always need a counterparty and they disappear in insolvency situations). The gambles by large firms occur more during times of complacency. -- MR, as so often, indispensable for supposedly unfun things]
Q&A of David Lipsky discussing his five-day interview of David Foster Wallace, Mark Athitakis' American Fiction Notes.

Another great Q&A on the Howling Fantods.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

And an amused...a kind of amused attempt to separate what's good, what of the fuss has to do with the book, and what of the fuss has to do with the sort of enormous engine, um, started by Little, Brown. But which now clearly seems to be humming in and of itself. Y'know, when somebody asked somebody in New York, had they read Martin Amis's The Information, the person said, "Well, not personally."

David Foster Wallace in David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, to be released 13 April.