Monday, December 31, 2007

Light reading

on the road:

Jess Walter's The Zero (good book, interesting mix of satire and noir, I enjoyed it, yet it is in the end not at all my kind of novel--shade of DeLillo looms too large, metaphysical strain unfortunately survives inoculation with satire...)

Simon R. Green's Something from the Nightside (hmmm, had a hasty emergency trip to Borders yesterday morning in Chicago, sudden vision of possible airport delays & memory of true fact about me which is that as long as I have a stack of the right kind of trashy novels, flights can be delayed for hours or even overnight and I hardly notice--I found this guy's books and was, like, how did I never hear of him?!? These sound exactly what I like! I bought three--but after reading this one, am not so sure I will give benefit of doubt, very derivative--however possibly he will find his stride in later books, will wait and see...)

Terry Pratchett's Reaper Man (did not examine this closely enough in the store, of course really I have read it before! But it's a good one, the ones with Death are all on the short list of most appealing ones and the wizards of Unseen University also feature in a big way, as I have often said before I do not think there really is a better depiction of academic life with the possible exception of Diana Wynne Jones's wizard universities...)

Good-quality light rereading trumps average light reading every time...

And on this note, I will sign off for 2007.

(Unless I see something interesting first thing in the morning before I leave for the airport, that is--I'll be offline in South Carolina through the morning of the 2nd--but this is not likely because one annoying thing about holidays is extreme scarcity of interesting literary stuff in the papers, it's all best-of reprises and other padding!)

Hmmm, other random notices, if you have any urge to come and see "This situation" (Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 West 57th St.), and feel that it would augment your experience of the piece to catch the Light Reading-inflected iteration, my last two shifts are Thursday, Jan. 3 from 10-2 and Saturday, Jan. 5 also from 10-2. It really is an amazing thing, I will write more about it at some future date...

Best wishes for a happy and healthy year in 2008!

Sunday, December 30, 2007




Adela on interspecies relations. The paragraph that particularly caught my eye and made me smile, since it combines two different things I like (I am fonder of lizards than Adela is--and in fact I have often since wondered if the amazing and quite huge boa constrictor called Mr. B. who lived in the elementary-school science classroom where I helped take care of the animals when I was a little kid might have been named by someone who had read Richardson's Pamela!):
I've never really understood why anyone would want a pet boa mainly because I have yet to develop a relationship with reptiles. I generally do not like them except as momentary curiosities, like lizards when they do push-ups in the sun. As a child I got to see lots of lizards exercising while they caught some rays since my parents' garden was, and still is, a nice haven for them. In Spanish, push-ups are actually called "lizards" (lagartijas) and I was thrilled when I realized this was not a purely arbitrary name but actually referenced what lizards do when they push up and down.

A dormant plastic descant recorder

Barbara Trapido offers a particularly lovely instantiation of the Guardian writers' rooms feature. (No cats, though!) Here's a nice bit:
The way I work is to bed down in here two nights a week and rise at 3 or 4am. Then I write, cross-legged, in bed with an A4 pad on my knee until about nine. The mini-kettle and the Mr Illy tin of biscuits are because I can't leave the room, or I get that Xanadu moment and my fantasy life flies away. Writing novels is like dreaming. My real life returns with breakfast and the room goes back to playing dead. All I use it for after that is email.
I love Barbara Trapido's books, she's on my short list of particularly favorite novelists (the world of her novels is magical, but it's also got exactly the feel of what life is like, i.e. my life--it is a totally counterintuitive connection, and I actually fear that there is probably not a single reader in the world who will share my opinion on this because it is a strictly personal one, but Iain Banks' novels give me this feeling also--their protagonists [partly, I suppose, because they think more than most protagonists in novels?] have inner lives that seem recognizable to me in a way that the protagonists of, say, oh, what are good examples--it must be writers I like or the comparison loses its purpose!--novels by Jonathan Coe or Claire Messud do not...)

My inner fish

Science books to look forward to in 2008. The one I particularly must get, I think, is Richard Fortey's Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum (hmmm, that might be Amazon UK-worthy, I see it is not published here till August...).

(Updated: also, love and sex with robots!)

Plus robot fights

The year in movies at Jane Dark's Sugarhigh!.

And at the Dizzies, Devin McKinney considers the Blade Runner briefcase set...

(I have not forgotten your request for the usual year-end book roundup, Doctor D., but I am not sure when I am going to have time to do it, in spite of the job being easier than usual because of paucity of books read--this might tide you over?!?)

Friday, December 28, 2007


"They had a little picnic set up in there. . ."

Hair-related frivolity

Several different prompts recently reminded me of an anecdote which I now feel licensed to relate, somewhat at my brothers' expense (but they will forgive me, it is an older sister's prerogative, just those couple years' advantage leads to all sorts of unfair benefits like always being the one to win at monopoly, at least until a brother who shall remain nameless would grow so frustrated--all our games ended this way!--that he threw the board up in the air and scattered money and houses and hotels across the floor--not to mention it really is a charming tale)...

The prompts:

1. I was having the ritual fend-off-haggardness winter haircut the other day (hmmm, not very successfully fended off, I fear I might have to soon take the plunge and actually get some of the kind of makeup that you, you know, like, wear on your skin as opposed to lipstick or eye stuff or whatever, this is mildly alarming, I am largely ignorant of the world of what my mother's sisters all scathingly call "lotions and potions"!), and the static electricity was making strands of hair stand up like crazy...

2. And Christopher Smart's lovely lines about the cat (which have provoked some delightful e-mails from readers especially struck by one or another phrase!) include that amazing series of words For by stroking of him I have found out electricity...

In the introduction to my new academic book, I talk about my childhood love for Franklin Court:
Growing up in Philadelphia, I loved visiting the underground museum below the Ghost Structure, a steel skeleton designed by Robert Venturi to mark the dimensions of Benjamin Franklin’s house, razed in 1812. The museum had a sort of phone bank that allowed one to telephone a huge number of different eighteenth-century figures whose names and numbers were posted across a banner like the menu at a fast-food restaurant. Once the call was put through, I would listen to the recording of what Washington or Mozart or whoever I had chosen to dial up that day had to say about Franklin: history as spiritualism-inflected gossip!

But we also passionately loved the Franklin Institute, a museum that I have not revisited as an adult but that I have designs upon (it's the swim fin project). It had all sorts of amazing things (the giant heart!), but one of them was the sort of device many of us got to play with as scientific-minded children, the magical Van de Graaff generator.

(Oh dear, this is a more roundabout story than I imagined, I am longwinded this evening!)

My brothers were very eager for me to be the demonstratee--this seemed unusual, but whatever, I was excited! I had my hair as always in two very tight long neat braids (or "plaits," as my English mother would call them--I don't think I ever wore my hair down a single day in my life, the elementary-school morning kitchen scene involved her undoing one plait and very stringently and painfully brushing it with a Mason Pearson hairbrush and tightly braiding it back up, and then doing the same for the other!), and I touched the apparatus and the hairs of my head did indeed dance up into the air.

But my brothers were very disappointed--and when our mother asked why, it became clear that they had imagined both braids sort of jumping up into the air like muscular pythons...

(And another good hair story--our mother had very bright red hair as a child and young adult, most distinctive, only many people in her family had it also and so it was annoying to her when strange ladies on the bus told her what unusual and lovely hair she had. And one day one brother finally said, "But mom, how could you have had red hair when you were little? When you were little, everything was in black and white!" Which indeed it was, if you went by the pictures...)

Stegophiles and graffers

At the Telegraph, Sukhdev Sandhu contemplates Whipplesnaith's Night Climbers of Cambridge.

Here's the Night Climbers book blog, and here's the visual evidence (I have borrowed the illustration from that site).

Thursday, December 27, 2007


A good list of year-end favorite books.

(I'll definitely do some kind of end-of-year round-up, only I'm too busy to do it quite yet and also I hardly read any books this year! I think I can safely say that my own personal most-anticipated read for 2008 is this--with this running a very close second...)

I read an awfully trashy book on the train home last night from Philadelphia. I was eyeing it covetously in the inferior station bookstore and thinking how much I wanted to read it, I had done exactly the same a week or two ago at a Barnes and Noble and then regretfully concluded that I could not justify spending full hardcover price on something so junky. But finding myself in thrall to it again, and with the special circumstances of holiday train travel, I decided it was a justifiable extravagance. It was actually quite enjoyable--it had a talking cat, which I like, and also Mozart transplanted into the body of a gray parrot as punishment for revealing Masonic secrets!--Mercedes Lackey's Reserved for the Cat. This series is a great idea--vaguely alternate Edwardian England, sort of Little Princessish, with magical Elemental Masters fighting villains of various kinds, lots of good animal stuff--but rather poorly executed, so that the books themselves are almost always a disappointment; this one, however, I found quite satisfactory.

(In retrospect it was certainly worth the money as the journey passed by in a flash, and with the added bonus that I ended up terribly fondly reminded of my beloved English grandmother. It was by sheer virtue of a train of verbal associations--I was thinking to myself that the only word for this kind of book was "pap," a word she always used to describe [as it were!] 'modern' bread--"Awful pappy stuff!")

Spraggle upon waggle

Sam Jordison blogs at the Guardian about a radio broadcast of Christopher Smart's lovely Jubilate Agno.

I first encountered this poem in high school while singing Britten's also quite lovely (this is an understatement, I should not be so free with my hyperbolic adjectives!) Rejoice in the Lamb, and it is still one of my absolute favorites. Here are the famous lines about the cat Jeoffry--I am not even going to paste in any lines, because I love them all so much and I want you to go and read them...

Monday, December 24, 2007

Enviably cerulean males

Natalie Angier has a rather lovely piece in this week's Science Times concerning nature's own doping problem:
Like athletes who toy with drugs, animals are constantly, if unconsciously, performing the basic calculus: How much of my long-term health am I willing to sacrifice for the sake of short-term glory? Male cardinals and house finches become obsessed each fall with eating berries and other ruddy fruits, not for their nutritional value but for their carotenoids, the red and orange pigments the birds must acquire if their new crop of feathers are to beam brightly come spring. “Fruit is a poor-quality food in general, just a lot of sugar and water, and it would make more sense for the birds to ingest grain instead,” said Geoffrey Hill, an ornithologist at Auburn University in Alabama. But female birds are drawn to the most brilliant males, he said, so during the molting period, “if you don’t get carotenoids, you’ve got no hope.”

Moreover, colorful male birds may divert so much of their ingested carotenoid into their plumage that they have none left to act in the chemical’s other capacity, as an antioxidant vitamin — a resource allocation decision with possibly lethal consequences. Researchers monitoring bird populations around Chernobyl in Ukraine recently found that in highly radiated areas, brightly colored birds were significantly less abundant than drab birds. The scientists proposed that the drabber species, whose coloring relies on internally generated melanin pigment rather than consumed carotenoids, were freer to use their dietary vitamins to help mop up the cellular damage that radiation can spark.

Glazing over at the sight of a bonnet

At the Scotsman, Andrea Mullaney sensibly rails against the reduction of Jane Austen's novels to Darcy, dating and wet shirts.

What literary theorists call an "empty signifier"

Hmmm, I try and avoid these very cliched sort-of-pop-cultural expressions, and it is not really very polite in any case, but it seems to me there's no other way to put it: at the Times, Zizek jumps the shark...

Bar briefs

Adam Sage interviews Jean-Paul Gourio on his best-selling series chronicling the conversational style of the French bistrot. Samples:
"White wine is bad for the nerves but what’s even worse for the nerves is when there’s no white wine"

"The Channel Tunnel, if it’s to go to England, no thanks"

"The advantage of pure malt whiskey is that you can work afterwards"

Rabbits, cats and gardens

I don't know that I'd recommend the strategy widely, but Richard Taylor has a nice story at the Ottawa Citizen about a bold stroke he took as a young writer to get the attention of his literary hero. Heartwarming!

(And better, I think, than the Dr. Who story at the Telegraph...)

(Thanks to Wendy for the link.)

Two books about swimming

The first, Charles Sprawson's Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer As Hero, is full of lovely things, and I have read it in dribs and drabs over the past month or so.

Many people I have encountered during this period have had to listen to me rhapsodize about how the Boys Own Paper of 1879 directs the aspirational breaststroker to "place a basin half-full of water on the floor, put a frog in it, lie face downwards over a stool, and try and imitate its movements." The book's a loving anthology of swimming-related passages in literature, and has given me lots of ideas for further reading: how have I never read Swinburne's unfinished swimming novel Lesbia Brandon?!?

Sprawson, in a characteristic vein (swimming is heavily sexualized throughout the book): "Flogging and swimming became for Swinburne closely associated. Both experiences were more intense at Eton than anywhere else. Perhaps the liquid resonance of the savage rite contributed to his confusion, as the lash of the thick bunch of birch twigs applied to bare buttocks is reported to have sounded 'like the splashings of so many buckets of water.'"

Or quoting a satirical remark by the Victorian poet Clough: "'the world--at least the genteel part of it--acts very wisely in setting its face against swimming: for to swim you must be naked, and how would many a genteel person look without his clothes.'"

Also some lovely illustrations (this one is Hokusai's "Diving Girl and Octopuses" [1814], courtesy of a reader's blog):
However though Sprawson's is indeed a most lovely book, and has my high recommendation, it is too hedonistic in the end for my northern European soul, and the swimming book I have absolutely fallen in love with and devoured this weekend between stints of paper-grading is "Doc" Counsilman's quite, quite divine The Science of Swimming. This is a most enchanting book, I have never read such a thing, I was transported!

Everything about it is quite delightful, I am completely in love--the sequence of illustrations for the backstroke is pricelessly good (I am glad I waited to read it till I actually somewhat understood the stroke myself), the chapters on pace and training techniques are extraordinarily illuminating and in general it is full of priceless gems that made me strongly imagine my alternate-universe self as an undistinguished but enthusiastic collegiate swimmer with a subsequent career as a successful swimming coach at a Midwestern women's college...

Really it is just full of all sorts of good things, I can hardly select, but here are a few of my particularly favorite passages:
The experience of the Australians was all that was needed to send American and foreign coaches into the battle of the training schedules. Some figured if a little bit of interval training was good, and a lot was better, a tremendous amount would be best. Unfortunately, this attitude displayed more enthusiasm than discretion. During the late 1950's and early 1960's the battle ensued, with more and more emphasis being directed toward the number of repeats rather than to their quality. Such workouts as sixteen 440's with one to two minutes' rest were reportedly used by some world class swimmers; forty 100's with one minute rest between efforts by the German swimmer, Gerhard Hetz; and one hundred 50's with 30 seconds' rest by Hetz and others. In the summer of 1961 the writer tried the latter workout with his team on two occasions and, although two trials do not constitute a fair trial, decided that if it took this kind of workout for a swimmer to get in top shape, his team would have to remain mediocre. It did not seem logical that in order to train for a 100-, 200-, or 400-meter race, a swimmer should have to swim such workouts as 100 x 50. This workout, aside from being monotonous, could not be tolerated over a long period by athletes of normal intellect or above.

A swimmer uses not only his body, but also his mind while swimming. If he leaves his career in competitive swimming prematurely, it is usually for one of two reasons: lack of success or boredom. Many swimmers train and compete for as long as ten years or more. However, if a swimmer is exposed to the same type of routine day after day, year after year, he will not always be challenged either physically or intellectually. A coach should not be merely a person who assigns the difficult work that brings about maximum physiological adaptation; he should also be a person who educates and challenges his swimmers. He may be considered to be a teacher who always has a bag of tricks, and can approach the problem of training with intelligence and enthusiasm.

In order to illustrate best the different physiological changes which occur with the use of the different methods of training, let us turn to animal research. The superiority of animal research to determine the effects of various types of training programs over using only human subjects is obvious, inasmuch as we can dissect the animals to measure and observe physiological changes. Prokop, in experimenting with hamsters swimming with varying loads of 18 per cent, 36 per cent, 70 per cent, and 100 per cent, discovered that an experimental animal's heart developed to its maximum size when as little as 36 per cent of maximum training load in terms of intensity was applied to the animal in an interval training manner. When the load was increased to 70 per cent and then to 100 per cent (repetition training) there was no additional hypertrophy of the heart. In applying this animal research to human training for swimming, it would indicate that, so far as conditioning the swimmer's heart is concerned, a series of short swims at a moderate speed, such as the 24 x 50-meter swims with 10 seconds rest between each, described above, would condition the heart as well as would swimming the 50's at 70 per cent effort or at an all-out pace.

A review of the literature on dry land exercises for swimmers reveals a list of over 500 exercises. One book lists almost 200 such exercises. Most of them are of doubtful value; certainly the average coach or swimmer does not have time to wade through this miasma. Almost any form of exercise will contribute to the organic fitness and general strength of an individual, but the Herculean task of running through a long series of daily exercises which may or may not contribute to a person's speed and endurance in the water lacks appeal for the average competitive swimmer. He is interested in getting the most benefit from the time and effort invested, and for this reason should not engage in exercises of dubious merit.

In many respects age-group swimming is a preparation for life. The hardest worker in the pool does not always win the race, any more than does the student who studies the hardest always make the best grades. Every age-grouper can learn, however, that to get the most from his potential he must apply himself and work hard, intelligently, and consistently. The transfer of this principle to everything he does and will do later depends on the effectiveness of the program in which he is involved in achieving the objectives described above.

The important concept that conditioning is nothing more than physiological adaptation to the stress of exercise is constantly repeated to the swimmers. To get maximum adaptation the swimmer must, therefore, expose himself at least occasionally to near-maximum stress. In order to put across this idea, the terms hurt-pain-agony are used. For example, a swimmer must begin doing a set of repeat swims, such as 15 x 100, at a fast speed. These will hurt him at first, but after he does a few it will become even harder to keep each 100 at the same speed as he progresses into the pain area; finally, at the end of the repeat swims, it will be so hard to swim these repeat swims in the prescribed time that the swimmer will be in the agony phase of exertion. These terms are not scientific, but they do convey the idea of putting forth a hard effort, and they provide the mental attitude needed for this approach. We try to build pride in the ability of the swimmers to push themselves hard in this manner when it is requested of them. The other team members have contempt for a laggard or a person who does not put out in practice. Social pressure is thus imposed on him to produce in practice or be ostracized.

It is extremely difficult for an intelligent, mature athlete to form an identification with a coach who sets himself up as a dictator, and whose authoritarian manner must be accepted unquestioningly. Athletes of low intellect, weak or unstable personality, or those who are lacking in maturity, may respond to a martinet, but if, in a free world, we do not look upon such tactics with favor in other aspects of human relationships, certainly we should not in athletics.
It is strange to say, but something about Counsilman's writing reminds me of Leslie Farber, whose essays made the same kind of impression on me when I first read them...

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The naked Sarpedon

At the Guardian, James Fenton considers the allure of museum collections of arms and armor (I quite agree, by the way, paintings are all very well in their way but armor is more exciting!):
It is highly unlikely that the coveted showpiece of any museum's collection - a complete set of armour with a complete set of horse armour to match - will be entirely genuine. The odds are heavily weighted against such a survival. And, indeed, one might well wonder how many warriors went out with such a complete matching set in the first place (the kind of people, perhaps, who travel with complete sets of matching luggage today).

The word composite is used to cover sets of armour made up of pieces from disparate sources. Where a museum has a striking composite set that makes historical sense, it would seem a misplaced purism to break up the set and display only its oldest pieces. On the other hand, with this subject as with so many others, only what is true is truly interesting. A museum may set out to inspire the imagination of a child, but must never forget that what it is promulgating should be genuine. And besides, armour was mostly for adults, and armour as a subject of inquiry should be an adult subject, too. But this has not always been the case: the stately home with its ghost and its suits of armour has been a byword for bogusness. To show an interest in armour has been a sign of a certain infantility.

It is estimated that 95 per cent of existing armour post-dates the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Most of it is later than we think. The expression "a knight in shining armour" refers to a system of body protection that was developed only after 1350 (to replace chain mail). There is very little Roman armour because it was not buried with the dead. It was taken back to the depot, repaired and reissued. Armour would always have had a scrap value, whatever metal it was made of.

Mowgli children

Nico sends a disturbing but fascinating story about a Moscow "werewolf boy".

I have read many very interesting books about feral children, but I do not think there is a better one than Harlan Lane's The Wild Boy of Aveyron. That book was a huge influence on me, I read it at a formative age!

His rising sign was Gemini

The next time I am at the British Library I am so going to look at Conan Doyle's horoscope...

(Needless to say, I am a total astrology skeptic, I do not read my horoscope regularly and as a child I was always very regretful that I was not born a few days later, since Leo seemed a much more attractive personality type than Cancer--my birthday is July 21. However in adult life I am compelled to admit that the Cancer description is indeed more appropriate to my personality, and given the recent swimming obsession and my lifelong love for water it is very suitable to have a watery sign...)

(I am not sure this is so likely to apply to boys as it is to girls, such things were surely not made for or given to boys as commonly, but are you not mildly nostalgic for those childhood diaries that had printed lists of birthstones and which is the paper anniversary at the front?!? I had a little red one, with a lock and key, that was my very precious possession until my brothers pillaged it and scribbled on every page! I was six and they were four, they could not read yet--their wicked friend was the instigator!--so my secrets such as they were remained more or less safe but it gave me a pathological need for privacy that basically could not be satisfied within the confines of family life!)


In the NYTBR, Leah Price considers the NEA's doomsdayish report on American readerly habits:
We’re not the first generation to invest reading with miraculous powers. But until radio and television dethroned the book, social reformers worried about too much reading, not too little. Advice about when and where not to read was once a medical specialty. In an 1806 diagnosis, a British doctor hypothesized that the “excess of stimulus” produced by reading novels “affects the organs of the body and relaxes the tone of the nerves.” Reading at the table interfered with your digestion, reading before lunch with your morals. Another expert, in 1867, warned that “to read when in bed ... is to injure your eyes, your brain, your nervous system, your intellect.” Cue to the other in-bed activity that makes you go blind. Like masturbation, reading was too pleasurable for its own good; like masturbation, it threatened to upstage real human contact (messy, tedious, disappointing) with virtual pleasures.

In 18th-century paintings, the reader sprawls on a sofa or lolls at the hairdresser’s; in 19th-century magazines, those characters shown reading are the least likely to engage in any exercise more strenuous than turning a page. One English journalist in 1874 worried that frequent readers “are defrauded out of their proper amount of exercise, get their muscles relaxed and their health out of gear.” In 1835, Balzac addressed his reader as “you who are holding this book in your fair hand, you who sink down in your soft easy chair.” Reading drove Madame Bovary to adultery, debt and rat poison.

Friday, December 21, 2007


At the Telegraph, Michael Bywater reviews Dario Maestripieri's book on monkeys behaving badly.

(How did I miss Baboon Metaphysics, though?!? Now that is a book I must read...)


At the FT, Alexandre Svoboda tells Anna Brooke what it's like to make one's living as an electrician at the Eiffel Tower:
My favourite part of the job is working outside. If a bulb needs changing or there’s a short circuit on the structure, we get out our harnesses and climb out on to the girders. Nobody has ever had an accident because we are always very vigilant, but you do need a good head for heights and excellent balance. It is scary at first, but once you get used to it, it’s invigorating. In fact sometimes I feel like a superhero, watching Paris from above, waiting for something to happen.
When I talk to British people, they always ask me how many people it takes to change a light bulb on the tower.

I think it’s their sense of humour.

If a bulb has blown – and there are more than 20,000 of them – it first shows up on a centralised circuit-board, linked to a computer. Then we go up in twos – one to locate and change the bulb, the other to chase off the pigeons. No, I’m joking – the second person is there to make sure that everything is secure: the ropes, material and his workmate of course. There are 43 of us in total, so I suppose that you could say that it takes 43 people to change a light bulb. Each person has a specific role in keeping the tower in working order and lit up like a 324m-high Christmas tree, 365 days a year. It’s this teamwork that makes the Eiffel Tower such a special place to work.

A dissertation on the crawl

From James E. Counsilman, The Science of Swimming (1968):
The Utopian view of an existence without any form of stress, either physical or mental, is not conducive to the development of a person well prepared for existence in a competitive society.

"Not in New York!"

At the LRB, Julian Bell considers the latest installment of John Richardson's Picasso biography:
[T]o Richardson’s regret, the Parade project binds Picasso to Cocteau, a person for whom the biographer possesses a principled disdain. Taking pot shots at this clever, silly literary poseur becomes one of his favourite pastimes – an amusement evidently shared by all who came across him, Picasso included. Cocteau is a man who’s almost too scared to climb the gangplank onto a party boat, yet as soon as he’s aboard he’s running round yelping, for the sheer hell of it, ‘We’re sinking!’ – he really does cut a figure of Withnail-like poltroonery. Though, as with Withnail, his daft flamboyance proves irresistible and Richardson ends up chasing his story wherever it may head (through Catholicism and into opium addiction), handing him the mike for by far the liveliest account here of Picasso at work.

This preposterous flibbertigibbet may be the wrong kind of friend for his Modernist hero to hang out with, but at least he’s not a previous occupant of the writer’s own barstool. Time I declared an interest. The butt of Richardson’s most loaded derision throughout this volume is an English critic who paid court to Picasso some thirty years before Richardson and his onetime boyfriend Douglas Cooper moved in on the great man: namely, my grandfather Clive Bell. As a matter of fact, I don’t find it impossible to reconcile the snobbish and aesthetically obtuse ‘toady’ that Richardson delineates with the sagacious, genial old gent of my own rather dim childhood memories. Richardson never disguises the fact that he writes with a certain generational partiality and a distinct personal animus; each to his own. Slashing typecastings are integral to his style: ‘the loathsome Wildenstein’; the ‘notorious battle-axe – said by Cooper to have run a brothel’; ‘the creepy, unctuous seminarian Maurice Sachs’, who is one of the ‘fawning homosexuals’ in the fan club of that ‘rich, spoiled, homosexual narcissist’ Jean Cocteau. Tricky character, Richardson – at once out and a bit of a gay-baiter. Still, one hardly wishes him to be other than he is, and he so relishes having the last word. On Germain Bazin, a critic who became ‘one of the Louvre’s least distinguished directors’ after writing that Picasso’s ‘downfall is one of the most upsetting problems of our era’, he remarks: ‘Much the same could be said of Bazin’s rise to the top.’ Defensible statements, all of these, I dare say: still, it’s a little strange to hear Richardson berating Clive Bell for ‘cattiness’.

Faces, traits; this man’s indiscretions, that woman’s backstory: this is how Richardson’s world is structured, and what he makes it his business to know. And if he trusts to his own rapport with his hero, that is because he sees Picasso as very like him in these matters. When Richardson first set to work, nearly fifty years ago, he thought of ‘charting’ Picasso’s ‘development through his portraits. Since the successive images Picasso devised for his women always permeated his style, I proposed to concentrate on portraits of wives and mistresses. The artist approved of this approach.’ That explanation appeared in the introduction to his first volume, published in 1991, 18 years after Picasso’s death. And while the scope of the project vastly expanded during that interval, its procedures remain fundamentally unchanged 16 years further on. Richardson habitually unravels the artist’s purposes in terms of personas recollected in his imagination. For instance, the 1921 Three Musicians constitutes a rueful apology to the poet Max Jacob, an old bohemian friend banished by his prim new wife; the 1925 Woman with a Tambourine (Odalisque) is ‘a message to Matisse . . . a rebuke and tease’; while Mercure, the most radical of the ballet projects, is a riposte to both Cocteau and the Surrealists. But over and above such nods and winks to fellow cultural operators, any discussion of the work must, for Richardson, return to the question of women.

"I need the cat, and the cat needs a home"

A pleasant cat story at the New York Times.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Graduate-student types?

At the Voice, Leslie Camhi visits "This situation" and finds it to her liking.

(Hmmm, I do not dwell in the art world, but I am tempted if I find myself in the neighborhood to go and see Urs Fischer's hole in the ground!)

The dreaded occasion of reading over the work

In the latest issue of the NYRB (subscribers only), Colm Toibin had a rather lovely piece about Tennessee Williams
The entries we have begin when Williams was twenty-five and living with his family, struggling under considerable pressures to find a voice as a poet, short-story writer, and playwright. These pressures might explain the tone of self-obsession, self-pity, and despair. The entries seem to have been written at night and he himself became alert to their morbid self-indulgence, quoting Nietzsche: "Do not let the evening be judge of the day." While he was trying to impress everyone in his creative work, in these pages he wished to impress no one and thus could be brutally honest about his own failings. It is interesting that when he found success and fame the tone did not change much, even when he had many lovers, enough money to travel, and many friends and admirers. He still, when he came to write in his notebooks, felt at times sorry for himself but at other times something more interesting and convincing, a huge unease about being in the world at all, which nothing, no matter how thrilling, could lift or cure.

There is never a moment in his Notebooks when he congratulates himself on mastering the structure of a new play or creating a new and memorable character or on that precise day writing a speech that worked wonders. Only a few times did he write about technical problems. (His observation that "the tragedy of a poet writing drama is that when he writes well—from the dramaturgic technical pt. of view he is often writing badly" stands out in this book.) He did not note down ideas as they came to him, as Henry James did, so we do not see in these pages the growth of his most important plays from a single entry. Instead, Williams noted what he was creating as a burden or a dull fact, including scenes he was rewriting or demands from directors and producers. Often, on rereading work in progress, he noted its badness. Precisely how his creative process operated he kept to himself. Instead, he wrote about who had irritated him or pleased him during the day, or how nervous he felt, how many pills he took or how much alcohol he consumed, or how many lengths of the pool he swam. He noted his fears and dreams.

It is strange how out of all of this mostly inchoate and random writing, a sense of a personal vision emerges that would make its way into the very core of Williams's main characters and scenes. These entries capture an authentic voice, an artist alone and deeply fearful and unusually selfish. Many of his most whining entries were written on the very days when he was producing his most glittering work. His whining was not a game or done for effect; it seems, indeed, a rare example of whining both sincere and heartfelt. Even when he was at his most successful, he could, for example, write: "Today the dreaded occasion of reading over the work and the (almost but never quite) expected fit of revulsion." Tennessee Williams meant business when he whined. And thus somehow he managed to connect his own dark and obsessive complaints about his works and days, his own dread of life, to his characters and their fate. These notebooks, precisely because they were not intention-ally created as raw material for work, now seem to be the rock on which his creations, sparkling and vivid versions of himself, were built.
Cautionary, eh?!?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

La plus belle plume

At the TLS, Matthew Cobb considers the life and work of the French naturalist Buffon:
Buffon’s first passion was mathematics, and in 1733 he solved a major problem in probability and geometry, now known as “Buffon’s needle”. This involves calculating the probability that a needle, dropped on to a surface covered with parallel lines, will cross two lines, and requires an estimation of the value of pi. Buffon’s interest in this problem was prompted by trying to work out the odds of winning at a popular gambling game. Given his subsequent conversion to natural history, he would no doubt have been pleased to learn that in the ant Leptothorax albipennis, the workers appear to use a variant of his solution to estimate the size of potential nest-sites by measuring the frequency with which they cross pheromone trails they have laid.

Buffon’s continuing interest in numbers is shown in some fascinating, but depressing, pages of L’Histoire naturelle where he tallied the ages at which people died in and around Paris, and calculated life expectancies. Most children who reached the age of twelve could expect to live until their late thirties, while most of those who made it to fifty could hope to live another sixteen years and seven months. Resolutely cheerful, Buffon claimed that we only start to live morally when we can order our thoughts, and that therefore the first fifteen years of our existence should be discounted. As a result, a twenty-five-year-old would have lived only a quarter of their life, even though they could expect to die aged fifty-six.

"Probably he's got a lot of firewood"

Much linked to already (I was most immediately reminded by a post at Educating Alice), but Caleb Crain has an interesting piece on reading in this week's New Yorker. It includes some useful discussion of Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid, which I wrote about here--here's a funny bit I especially liked:
The squid of Wolf’s title represents the neurobiological approach to the study of reading. Bigger cells are easier for scientists to experiment on, and some species of squid have optic-nerve cells a hundred times as thick as mammal neurons, and up to four inches long, making them a favorite with biologists. (Two decades ago, I had a summer job washing glassware in Cape Cod’s Marine Biological Laboratory. Whenever researchers extracted an optic nerve, they threw the rest of the squid into a freezer, and about once a month we took a cooler-full to the beach for grilling.)
(At his blog, Caleb promises a series of supplementary posts on the matters discussed in the article--I very much like this approach, it's a good way for a professional critic to supplement what he publishes in print with the more extensively illuminating and informative stuff that can be linked to online. My only complaint about Caleb's blog is that he doesn't post often enough--but he had a beautiful one recently about his beloved and recently deceased dog, and he's also just published a novella in the latest issue of n+1.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A gingerbread slum

At the Guardian, reflections on holiday baking by Augusten Burroughs, Lionel Shriver and Kate Mosse.

Posting will continue light the rest of this week (also, there's little good books stuff online during the holidays, most annoying!), but I'll definitely do some kind of a "light reading in 2008" roundup this weekend--rather swimming-oriented this year I foresee...

This month I have had some funny miscellaneous holiday entertainment of one kind or another. The Moscow Cats Theatre on Sunday, which is basically my favorite thing ever (go and watch one of those YouTube videos, they really capture the flavor!); the Cirque de Soleil Wintuk show, courtesy of a generous student (the storyline and music stuff were not to my taste, but there were some spectacular acrobatics in the second half, those gymnasts are extraordinary--I would like to see one of the all-on circus-type shows, I have never been to one); a novel here and there of course (Steve Hamilton's latest, which I did not think quite up to the admittedly high standard of the earlier ones in the series, and Julie Kenner's Demons Are Forever, which I bought this weekend when the light reading fit fell hard upon me and devoured--great voice, great premise, altogether extremely enjoyable); what else? Oh, yes, Michael Clayton, which I thought was extremely good. It's appropriately titled, it's a real character study as well as a thriller; also it's the movie to see with a friend regretful about not having chosen a career in corporate law...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Ahoy, ahoy

A funny story at the Economist on the etiquette of telecommunications. (Thanks to I. for the link.)

A life of restless travelling in a Bedford Dormobile

A rather wonderful obituary in the Telegraph for Anthony Burgess's widow, Liana Burgess. A taste of it:
Liana's sister, Grazia, died young in a mountaineering accident, and her mother, who claimed to be descended from Attila the Hun, spent years mourning her dead daughter by painting countless portraits of her and writing bad poetry in her memory.
And this:
When she read A Clockwork Orange and Inside Mr Enderby (published under the pseudonym Joseph Kell), she believed that she had discovered two novelists of genius. She wrote enthusiastically to both authors and was surprised to discover that they were the same man.

They arranged to meet for lunch in Chiswick, and immediately began a clandestine affair. "I fell in love with the work," she said later. "Anthony was never a good-looking man."
(Thanks to Non-Dizzies Ed for the link.)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Sitting on eggs

At the Times, Joshua Yaffa considers New York's racing pigeon clubs.

28 points on a double word square

James Meek ruminates appealingly at the Guardian on the effects of his decision to begin looking up words he didn't know when he came across them in a book. Here's the last bit:
In the early 1990s, when I lived in Kiev and was sending despatches from the city, I sometimes mentioned the monumental sculpted figures buttressing lintels and balconies on the Silver Age tenements in the centre of town. And that was how, in some form or another, I described them. A couple of years ago I was reading an English translation of Andrei Makine's A Life's Music and came across this, about Leningrad:
Where space is curved by architecture, curved inwards by the speed of a motorway, humanised by the smile of a caryatid whose face can be seen from the window of my flat, not far from the Nevsky Prospekt.
I reached for the dictionary, and found that those beefy neo-Classical brutes of stone, whom I'd laboured to describe in Ukraine in 1993, could be nailed in one word, caryatid. I felt a moment of foolishness which must be very old; whoever invented fire, I suspect, quickly lost ground to the man who found a name for it. But I also felt a loss of innocence. I'll probably end up using caryatid if I find myself describing the old east-central European world where they are numerous. I can't unlearn it. And in some obscure, irrational way, that seems like a betrayal of the younger me, and people like me then, who don't know what a caryatid is. A rich vocabulary is like a scalpel, which can dice the world into tiny components with exquisite precision; but you don't want to end up with a mess of mince. Sometimes, when you look at a building through the eyes of a writer, it is right to to be urged to see the caryatids, the loggia, the narthex, the parterre, the pilasters, the squinches; sometimes it is better to read "house" or "cathedral", and be left to construct the rest yourself.
It's an interesting set of questions. I found myself at a young age with a strangely full vocabulary, partly no doubt from my youthful addiction to Anthony Burgess. (In fact certain words of this polysyllabic ilk still impossibly remind me of reading Burgess circa 1985 or so--crapulous; inspissated...) But I remember the one book that really made me aged fifteen or sixteen get a little notebook and write down the words I didn't know and look them up in a dictionary, I cannot think of a single other novel that ever made me do such a thing (and of course, annoyingly in those days though it is better in the age of the internet, if you read a work of literary theory and it had words you did not know you were likely to find that there were no entries for them in the dictionary!): Gravity's Rainbow...

Friday, December 14, 2007

A little ox

Jan Dalley lunches with Umberto Eco for the FT:
There will be nothing to write in the menu box on this page, he says as we sit down – he has no appetite. So he will just have a lobster. (He has glanced at the menu for a matter of seconds.) Could he have it, he asks the maitre d’, cooked with no oil or butter? Impossible, comes the dignified reply: it would burn. Garlic? There follows a brief comedy of miscomprehension that would easily be solved if they spoke to each other in the native tongue they clearly have in common; they don’t. Water comes, and Eco says he will have a large whisky (doctor’s orders: there is no sugar in whisky).

Du lait et du sucre

At the Beinecke Library blog, reflections on situationist coffee-drinking habits:

A cerebral encounter group

In the Times, a very nice review of "This situation".

(I was there several times when the critic came, and it is true, she was getting a lot of flak for the notebook!)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Son, you have an ob-leek sense of humor"

I'm coming off a couple of virtually book-free months--very disconcerting for me, since I am usually reading books in vast quantities (I am slightly having withdrawal, I am thinking I am going to read a lot of novels in January!).

I've got a heap of stuff sitting around half-finished, books I hope to attend to once I'm a bit less busy and blog about here. And a lot more books unopened. But the book that crossed the threshold and that simply couldn't wait was Steve Martin's Born Standing Up. As soon as I read the New Yorker piece a month ago (I blogged a bit of it here), I knew I had to read the whole thing...

(I'm relatively ignorant of comedy, by the way, but I'd put this with Stephen King's On Writing as just one of those books that you should read if you want to learn how to write or indeed to make anything good in the artistic line--both are very enjoyable reads for their own sake but also quite illuminating when they come to discuss the process of making things. The chapter in this one that's titled "The Road" should be required reading for anyone trying to figure out how to make something really good, especially if you are not quite sure yet what sort of thing it is you are going to make...)

Three paragraphs I particularly like (bonus swimming-related reference!):
Because I was generally unknown, in the smaller venues I was free to gamble with material, and there were a few evenings when crucial mutations affected my developing act. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, I played for approximately a hundred students in a classroom with a stage at one end. I did the show, and it went fine. However, when it was over, something odd happened. The audience didn't leave. The stage had no wings, no place for me to go, but I still had to pack up my props. I indicated that the show had ended, but they just sat there, even after I said flatly, "It's over." They thought this was all part of the act, and I couldn't convince them otherwise. Then I realized there were no exits from the stage and that the only way out was to go through the audience. So I kept talking. I passed among them, ad-libbing comments along the way. I walked out into the hallway, trying to finish the show, but they followed me there, too. A reluctant pied piper, I went outside onto the campus, and they stayed right behind me. I came across a drained swimming pool. I asked the audience to get into it--"Everybody into the pool!"--and they did. Then I said I was going to swim across the top of them, and the crowd knew exactly what to do: I was passed hand over hand as I did the crawl. That night I went to bed feeling I had entered new comic territory. My show was becoming something else, something free and unpredictable, and the doing of it thrilled me, because each new performance brought my view of comedy into sharper focus.

The act tightened. It became more physical. It was true I couldn't sing or dance, but singing funny and dancing funny were another matter. All I had to do was free my mind and start. I would abruptly stop the show and sing loudly, in my best lounge-singer voice, "Grampa bought a rubber." Walking up to the mike, I would say, "Here's something you don't often see," and I'd spread my mouth wide with my fingers and leap into the air while screaming. Or, invoking a remembered phrase from the magic shop, I would shout, "Uh-oh, I'm getting happy feet!" and then dance uncontrollably across the stage, my feet moving like Balla's painting of a futurist dog, while my face told the audience that I wanted to stop but couldn't. Closing the show, I'd say, "I'd like to thank each and every one of you for coming here tonight." Then I would walk into the audience and, in fast motion, thank everyone individually. My set lists, written on notepad paper and kept in my coat pocket, were becoming drenched with sweat.

The new physicality brought an unexpected element into the act: precision. My routines wove the verbal with the physical and I found pleasure trying to bring them in line. Each spoken idea had to be physically expressed as well. Mt teenage attempt at a magician's grace was being transformed into an awkward comic grace. I felt as though every part of me was working. Some nights it seemed that it wasn't the line that got the laugh, but the tip of my finger. I tried to make voice and posture as crucial as jokes and gags. Silence, too, brought forth laughs. Sometimes I would stop and, saying nothing, stare at the audience with a look of mock disdain, and on a good night, it struck us all as funny, as if we were in on the joke even though there was no actual joke we could point to. Finally, I understood the cummings quote I had puzzled over in college: "Like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement." Precision was moving the plot forward, was filling every moment with content, was keeping the audience engaged.
(Thanks to Gautam for making the book magically appear in my mailbox!)

The search for a mate

Jerry Coyne has a good piece in the TLS about the latest installment of James Watson's autobiography:
There is some overlap between this book and Watson’s two earlier autobiographical works, but there is much that is new and interesting. We learn about the perks that accompany a Nobel Prize, including a living alarm clock in the form of a white-robed soprano sporting a tiara of lit candles. And Watson tells for the first time the story behind the writing of The Double Helix and its famous opening sentence, “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood”. Crick, understandably, was initially unenthusiastic, though the passage of time seems to have dulled his ire.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"True eloquence has no use for eloquence"

Alan Gilbert reviews "This situation" at TEWTSNBN.

I have been finding the whole enterprise quite stimulating, only the hours are slightly nervous-breakdown-inducing (since I am largely unwilling to compromise on the exercise schedule and largely unable--rightly so!--to compromise on the work end of things, the time has been steadily borrowed away from sleep). Some of the conversations make me want to kill somebody. Others are remarkably enjoyable. I have learned a number of interesting things, but my favorite ongoing conversation touches upon the question whether it was a turtle or a lobster that the prototypical Parisian flaneur would have taken for a walk in the nineteenth century.

Also, I learned a funny joke:

Q: What does the O say to the 8 as they walk through the desert?

A: It's so hot, why don't you take off that belt?

This is a sad tale

but I am not one to resist the allure of a short news item that includes the words "wayward panther".

"That is a Rolls Royce"

It's a strange thing, I really love Adorno's cultural criticism--it speaks to me!--and yet he always makes me want to laugh, most inappropriately. Here's a bit from "On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening":
The more inexorably the principle of exchange-value destroys use-values for human beings, the more deeply does exchange-value disguise itself as the object of enjoyment. It has been asked what the cement is which still holds the world of commodities together. The answer is that this transfer of the use-value of consumption goods to their exchange-value contributes to a general order in which eventually every pleasure which emancipates itself from exchange-value takes on subversive features. The appearance of exchange-value in commodities has taken on a specific cohesive function. The woman who has money with which to buy is intoxicated by the act of buying. In American conventional speech, having a good time means being present at the enjoyment of others, which in its turn has as its only content being present. The auto religion makes all men brothers in the sacramental moment with the words: "That is a Rolls Royce," and in moments of intimacy, women attach greater importance to the hairdressers and cosmeticians than to the situation for the sake of which the hairdressers and cosmeticians are employed. The relation to the irrelevant dutifully manifests its social essence. The couple out driving who spend their time identifying every passing car and being happy if they recognize the trademarks speeding by, the girl whose satisfaction consists solely in the fact that she and her boyfriend "look good," the expertise of the jazz enthusiast who legitimizes himself by having knowledge about what is in any case inescapable: all this operates according to the same command. Before the theological caprices of commodities, the consumers become temple slaves. Those who sacrifice themselves nowhere else can do so here, and here they are fully betrayed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Elizabeth Hardwick sentence

At the PEN America blog, Wayne Koestenbaum considers Elizabeth Hardwick's diction:
How to explain or summarize the Hardwickian tone? It offers tenderness where another critic might offer trenchancy. Its every gesture is gloved. From her introduction to The Susan Sontag Reader:
Essays lie all over the land, stored up like the unused wheat of a decade ago in the silos of old magazines and modest collections. In the midst of this clumsy abundance, there are rare lovers of the form, the great lovers being some few who practice it as the romance this dedication can be.
Strange syntax that second sentence has. I love, in this opening salvo, her articles, their proffering of a misleading specificity. “Essays lie all over the land...” Which land? Another piquant “the”: “like the unused wheat of a decade ago...” Her use of this (article? adjective?) astounds: “this clumsy abundance”; “the romance this dedication can be.”

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Preventing error

Atul Gawande had an interesting piece in last week's New Yorker on the power of the checklist to transform hospital outcomes. He likens modern critical care to the Boeing Model 299 test plane, which crashed on an important early outing due to a complexity-induced pilot error, but would later become, by virtue of a pilot's checklist, an important asset to the US Army in WWII as the B-17 bomber:
Medicine today has entered its B-17 phase. Substantial parts of what hospitals do—most notably, intensive care—are now too complex for clinicians to carry them out reliably from memory alone. I.C.U. life support has become too much medicine for one person to fly.

Yet it’s far from obvious that something as simple as a checklist could be of much help in medical care. Sick people are phenomenally more various than airplanes. A study of forty-one thousand trauma patients—just trauma patients—found that they had 1,224 different injury-related diagnoses in 32,261 unique combinations for teams to attend to. That’s like having 32,261 kinds of airplane to land. Mapping out the proper steps for each is not possible, and physicians have been skeptical that a piece of paper with a bunch of little boxes would improve matters much.

In 2001, though, a critical-care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost decided to give it a try. He didn’t attempt to make the checklist cover everything; he designed it to tackle just one problem, the one that nearly killed Anthony DeFilippo: line infections. On a sheet of plain paper, he plotted out the steps to take in order to avoid infections when putting a line in. Doctors are supposed to (1) wash their hands with soap, (2) clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic, (3) put sterile drapes over the entire patient, (4) wear a sterile mask, hat, gown, and gloves, and (5) put a sterile dressing over the catheter site once the line is in. Check, check, check, check, check. These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. So it seemed silly to make a checklist just for them. Still, Pronovost asked the nurses in his I.C.U. to observe the doctors for a month as they put lines into patients, and record how often they completed each step. In more than a third of patients, they skipped at least one.

The next month, he and his team persuaded the hospital administration to authorize nurses to stop doctors if they saw them skipping a step on the checklist; nurses were also to ask them each day whether any lines ought to be removed, so as not to leave them in longer than necessary. This was revolutionary. Nurses have always had their ways of nudging a doctor into doing the right thing, ranging from the gentle reminder (“Um, did you forget to put on your mask, doctor?”) to more forceful methods (I’ve had a nurse bodycheck me when she thought I hadn’t put enough drapes on a patient). But many nurses aren’t sure whether this is their place, or whether a given step is worth a confrontation. (Does it really matter whether a patient’s legs are draped for a line going into the chest?) The new rule made it clear: if doctors didn’t follow every step on the checklist, the nurses would have backup from the administration to intervene.

Pronovost and his colleagues monitored what happened for a year afterward. The results were so dramatic that they weren’t sure whether to believe them: the ten-day line-infection rate went from eleven per cent to zero. So they followed patients for fifteen more months. Only two line infections occurred during the entire period. They calculated that, in this one hospital, the checklist had prevented forty-three infections and eight deaths, and saved two million dollars in costs.

Pronovost recruited some more colleagues, and they made some more checklists. One aimed to insure that nurses observe patients for pain at least once every four hours and provide timely pain medication. This reduced the likelihood of a patient’s experiencing untreated pain from forty-one per cent to three per cent. They tested a checklist for patients on mechanical ventilation, making sure that, for instance, the head of each patient’s bed was propped up at least thirty degrees so that oral secretions couldn’t go into the windpipe, and antacid medication was given to prevent stomach ulcers. The proportion of patients who didn’t receive the recommended care dropped from seventy per cent to four per cent; the occurrence of pneumonias fell by a quarter; and twenty-one fewer patients died than in the previous year. The researchers found that simply having the doctors and nurses in the I.C.U. make their own checklists for what they thought should be done each day improved the consistency of care to the point that, within a few weeks, the average length of patient stay in intensive care dropped by half.

The checklists provided two main benefits, Pronovost observed. First, they helped with memory recall, especially with mundane matters that are easily overlooked in patients undergoing more drastic events. (When you’re worrying about what treatment to give a woman who won’t stop seizing, it’s hard to remember to make sure that the head of her bed is in the right position.) A second effect was to make explicit the minimum, expected steps in complex processes. Pronovost was surprised to discover how often even experienced personnel failed to grasp the importance of certain precautions. In a survey of I.C.U. staff taken before introducing the ventilator checklists, he found that half hadn’t realized that there was evidence strongly supporting giving ventilated patients antacid medication. Checklists established a higher standard of baseline performance.

These are, of course, ridiculously primitive insights. Pronovost is routinely described by colleagues as “brilliant,” “inspiring,” a “genius.” He has an M.D. and a Ph.D. in public health from Johns Hopkins, and is trained in emergency medicine, anesthesiology, and critical-care medicine. But, really, does it take all that to figure out what house movers, wedding planners, and tax accountants figured out ages ago?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The hunger for books

Doris Lessing's Nobel speech.

Cockleshell anti-heroes

At the Guardian, Robert Macfarlane has a lovely piece about walking the perimeter of the site of London's Olympic development with Iain Sinclair (some pieces of writing just give me that good yearning desire to try and write something interesting myself, this is a perfect example!). Here he considers Stephen Gill's new book Archeology in Reverse, which I feel I must obtain instantly:
For about a year - between the beginning of work and the completion of the fence - Gill haunted the Lower Lea on bike and on foot, watching as the first stages of the Olympic vision were rolled out. The result is a remarkable book that, in Gill's phrase, records the "traces and clues of things to come". His subject is the imminence of mass construction, rather than its realisation.

Among the first signs were the Compulsory Purchase Orders, which began to be served to the residents of the Olympic Park site soon after London won the Games (around 1,000 people have now been moved). The opening photograph in Archaeology in Reverse is of a CPO, plastic-wrapped and strung to a drainpipe. The string has worked loose, and the package has slipped to the ground. It resembles a body executed by firing squad: bound to the post and slumped.

After the CPOs came the surveyors and the labourers. Dozens of images are of men at work: planners, drillers, diggers, drivers, banksmen and the other footsoldiers of large-scale "regeneration". A man in a boilersuit bags and tags soil samples. A surveyor squints, sniper-like, through a theodolite's crystal. Another holds an 8ft spirit-level vertically, measuring what appears to be empty air. A pair of men in an inflatable dinghy attempt a landing on a canal island.

Concentrated on by Gill, these figures become eerie. Their tasks are mysterious, of inscrutable purpose. There are hints of fetish from the rubber of the dinghy and the gloves, to the Hi-Vis jackets and the hard hats. His images also invoke the police procedural: these men seem engaged in acts of forensic analysis, delving at an unspecified crime scene. The most memorable of these "workmen" photographs shows four dirty orange boiler-suits that have been hung on a wire fence to dry. Slung there, sagged and grimy, they look like four human skins: whole-bodied, flensed with intricacy and skill, then displayed as warnings to others.

Surveyors are of particular interest to Gill, as are the street graffiti of surveying. You will know this graffiti, though it is unlikely that you will be able to read it. Alpha-numeric sequences scrawled onto asphalt. Arrows and rings dashed down with a spray-can onto brickwork or paving slab. Repeatedly in Archaeology in Reverse, Gill records these sigils. A single white 'O' on a bridge, circling a rivet. A red paint stripe smeared across a stone in the undergrowth, like the residue of an orderly murder. Woadish blue paint slathered onto the wreck of a willow tree. Seen in serial, these marks become disconcerting. You become suspicious of their heavy encryption, the landscape interventions that they annotate and enable.
Here is Stephen Gill's website.


At the LA Times, my former student David Sarno considers the Kindle e-reader. Some very funny quotations there...

(I want a really good e-reader that will let me have the riches of Gale's Eighteenth-Century Collections Online at my fingertips for convenient reading delight, so basically a PDF reader--I am still thinking that if only Apple would make one it is kind of more likely to be the device that everyone will fall in love with...)

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Blog frequency

Time Out New York does an extended feature on how criticism will be affected by the widespread practice of blogging. My advice about how to get heard as a critical blogger: "Write well, write regularly and write over a longish period of time." Noticeable, though, that as more people move to reading blogs through various feeds that it matters a bit less to write so often...

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Monday, December 03, 2007

Davy Jones's locker

At the New York Review of Books, Tim Flannery has an extraordinarily lovely piece about two new books on the vasty deep (I must get those books, I am having an underwater obsession these days). It is a must-read, you will be enchanted, but I will paste in a few paragraphs just to make sure you see the allure:
In what might be called the oases of the deep, life takes on a very different appearance. Among the most interesting and little known of such oases are the seamounts. These places are, as their name suggests, mountains in the sea, and because currents speed up as they pass over and around them, bringing nutrients closer to the surface, here there is a greater availability of food. Mention corals and most of us think of tropical reefs, but the seamounts are home to an astonishing variety of corals that never see the light of day. Known as black, golden, and red corals, the bony skeletons of these organisms are considered gemstones. But who, wearing such gems, is aware that they come from coral forests that can reach sixty meters in height, and support an abundance of life that rivals a tropical rainforest?

The life supported by these coral forests ranges from the exquisite to the nightmarish. Red and white crabs crawl through the coral glades, as do medusa sea-stars, their arms twining restlessly like miniature serpents. And at the very bottom of some seamounts in the Pacific Ocean can be found the blobfish. This creature, with its pale, floppy flesh, comical W.C. Fields–like nose, piggy eyes, and broad, downturned mouth complete with "cigar," looks like a cartoon character. Its "cigar" is in fact a parasitic crustacean known as a copepod, but no one knows what the blobfish does with its comical nose.
Here's the Amazon link to Claire Nouvian's The Deep--I have already shopping-carted it, because it seems like an extremely sensible and affordable way to take a science-fictional trip to another planet...

Update: A public-spirited commenter provides an excellent link to pictures of deep-sea species. The photographic evidence more than supports the lovely description provided above:

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Uncle Billy in a red, white and blue jumpsuit

Phil Nugent contemplates the life and times of Evel Knievel.

Bonks Hill and Slutshole Lane

At the Independent, Rob Bailey and Ed Hurst consider Britain's rudest road signs.

Single white female

At the Observer, Louise France has an extraordinarily interesting piece about a pair of identical twins who were separated at birth:
'You look like twins,' I tell them. 'But do you feel like sisters yet?'

The reply is complicated.

Paula: 'As soon as we met it was clear we were sisters but it has taken time to figure out what that means.'

Elyse: 'We knew we were linked by blood but what did it take to make us family?'

They describe their first meeting as 'falling in love at first sight'. However, over time the elation of recognition was replaced with something more fraught. Their bond seemed to be muddied, not simplified, by the similarities. Separately they both cite the psychotic character played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the film Single White Female - someone looking and acting the same way can be spooky, unnerving and overwhelming. 'If we had been united as sisters,' says Elyse, 'it wouldn't have been so hard. There wouldn't have been all these assumptions about each other.'

The conventions of sibling relationships didn't seem to fit - they fantasised that they had found their soulmates but at the same time they did not have the easy banter that comes from growing up together. The notion that they might not be unique was distressing but any differences between them felt like personal failures. In a culture where women have more choices in life than we've ever had before, we may not own up to comparing ourselves to one another but we do it all the time. Suddenly each twin had someone with the same DNA to measure themselves against and both felt as if their choices and achievements in life - everything from whether to have children to their taste in shoes - were amplified.
Paula and Elyse's book is Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited.

Friday, November 30, 2007

His rocking horse is making excellent progress

Maev Kennedy profiles Philip Pullman at the Guardian.

Bonus link (thanks to J. and L. for--independently!--sending): find out the nature of your daemon at the official movie website (hmmm, I disapprove of getting sucked in on what are essentially promotional materials, but it's appealingly well done--click through to the "Daemons" quiz...).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The moving toyshop

At the Poetry Foundation website, Alice Boone interviews Sophie Gee about her novel The Scandal of the Season.


No time to read the rest of the story now, since the whole point of getting up evilly early is to grade papers and prepare lecture, but as I ate my evilly-early-morning oatmeal for breakfast my eye did run over the opening paragraphs of Michael Specter's story in this week's New Yorker, and I must say that I cannot imagine a more alluring start to a story, it seems perfectly tailored to my interests:
Thierry Heidmann’s office, adjacent to the laboratory he runs at the Institut Gustave Roussy, on the southern edge of Paris, could pass for a museum of genetic catastrophe. Files devoted to the world’s most horrifying infectious diseases fill the cabinets and line the shelves. There are thick folders for smallpox, Ebola virus, and various forms of influenza. SARS is accounted for, as are more obscure pathogens, such as feline leukemia virus, Mason-Pfizer monkey virus, and simian foamy virus, which is endemic in African apes. H.I.V., the best-known and most insidious of the viruses at work today, has its own shelf of files. The lab’s beakers, vials, and refrigerators, secured behind locked doors with double-paned windows, all teem with viruses. Heidmann, a meaty, middle-aged man with wild eyebrows and a beard heavily flecked with gray, has devoted his career to learning what viruses might tell us about AIDS and various forms of cancer. “This knowledge will help us treat terrible diseases,” he told me, nodding briefly toward his lab. “Viruses can provide answers to questions we have never even asked.”

Viruses reproduce rapidly and often with violent results, yet they are so rudimentary that many scientists don’t even consider them to be alive. A virus is nothing more than a few strands of genetic material wrapped in a package of protein—a parasite, unable to function on its own. In order to survive, it must find a cell to infect. Only then can any virus make use of its single talent, which is to take control of a host’s cellular machinery and use it to churn out thousands of copies of itself. These viruses then move from one cell to the next, transforming each new host into a factory that makes even more virus. In this way, one infected cell soon becomes billions.

Nothing—not even the Plague—has posed a more persistent threat to humanity than viral diseases: yellow fever, measles, and smallpox have been causing epidemics for thousands of years. At the end of the First World War, fifty million people died of the Spanish flu; smallpox may have killed half a billion during the twentieth century alone. Those viruses were highly infectious, yet their impact was limited by their ferocity: a virus may destroy an entire culture, but if we die it dies, too. As a result, not even smallpox possessed the evolutionary power to influence humans as a species—to alter our genetic structure. That would require an organism to insinuate itself into the critical cells we need in order to reproduce: our germ cells. Only retroviruses, which reverse the usual flow of genetic code from DNA to RNA, are capable of that. A retrovirus stores its genetic information in a single-stranded molecule of RNA, instead of the more common double-stranded DNA. When it infects a cell, the virus deploys a special enzyme, called reverse transcriptase, that enables it to copy itself and then paste its own genes into the new cell’s DNA. It then becomes part of that cell forever; when the cell divides, the virus goes with it. Scientists have long suspected that if a retrovirus happens to infect a human sperm cell or egg, which is rare, and if that embryo survives—which is rarer still—the retrovirus could take its place in the blueprint of our species, passed from mother to child, and from one generation to the next, much like a gene for eye color or asthma.
Mmmmm.... viruses....