Archive for the ‘books’ Category

The mockery pervading human affairs in all their aspects

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

tacitusFrom Tacitus, on the eventual rise of Claudius to Roman emperor, from The Annals of Imperial Rome (Penguin Classics, p127):

The more I think about history, ancient or modern, the more ironical all human affairs seem. In public opinion, expectation, and esteem no one appeared a less likely candidate for the throne than the man for whom destiny was secretly reserving it.

The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus (p169) translates as follows:

The more I consider recent events or those in the distant past, the more I am confronted by the mockery pervading human affairs in all their aspects. For in public opinion, expectations and esteem, no one was less likely a candidate for the throne than the man whom fortune was secretly holding in reserve.

The love of pleasure and the love of action

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

There are two very natural propensities which we may distinguish in the most virtuous and liberal dispositions, the love of pleasure and the love of action. If the former is refined by art and learning, improved by the charms of social intercourse, and corrected by a just regard to economy, to health, and to reputation, it is productive of the greatest part of the happiness of private life. The love of action is a principle of a much stronger and more doubtful nature. It often leads to anger, to ambition, and to revenge; but when it is guided by the sense of propriety and benevolence, it becomes the parent of every virtue, and if those virtues are accompanied with equal abilities, a family, a state, or an empire, may be indebted for their safety and prosperity to the undaunted courage of a single man. To the love of pleasure we may therefore ascribe most of the agreeable, to the love of action we may attribute most of the useful and respectable, qualifications. The character in which both the one and the other should be united and harmonized, would seem to constitute the most perfect idea of human nature. The insensible and inactive disposition, which should be supposed alike destitute of both, would be rejected, by the common consent of mankind, as utterly incapable of procuring any happiness to the individual, or any public benefit to the world. But it was not in this world, that the primitive Christians were desirous of making themselves either agreeable or useful.

Edward Gibbon
From Chapter XV: Progress Of The Christian Religion.

A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.

From Gibbon vol 1 ch 15.

The ruling passion of his soul

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Yet Commodus was not, as he has been represented, a tiger born with an insatiate thirst of human blood, and capable, from his infancy, of the most inhuman actions. Nature had formed him of a weak rather than a wicked disposition. His simplicity and timidity rendered him the slave of his attendants, who gradually corrupted his mind. His cruelty, which at first obeyed the dictates of others, degenerated into habit, and at length became the ruling passion of his soul.


It is almost superfluous to enumerate the unworthy successors of Augustus

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

It is almost superfluous to enumerate the unworthy successors of Augustus. Their unparalleled vices, and the splendid theatre on which they were acted, have saved them from oblivion. The dark, unrelenting Tiberius, the furious Caligula, the feeble Claudius, the profligate and cruel Nero, the beastly Vitellius, and the timid, inhuman Domitian, are condemned to everlasting infamy. During fourscore years (excepting only the short and doubtful respite of Vespasian’s reign) Rome groaned beneath an unremitting tyranny, which exterminated the ancient families of the republic, and was fatal to almost every virtue and every talent that arose in that unhappy period.

From Gibbon, Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire (vol 1).

The Grapes of Wrath & Occupy Wall Street

Monday, October 31st, 2011

I’m reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. I can’t believe it took me so long to finally read it. It’s great.

Below is a section I just ran across that I imagine will resonate strongly with the people involved in Occupy Wall Street. I’ve long been fascinated to watch how power tries to maintain itself by attempting to enforce isolation and to restrict information flow, and, on the contrary, how increased information flow between the subjects of power naturally undermines this basis. Awareness of these opposing forces, even if not explicitly understood, is what I think accounts for the tenacity and ferocity on both sides of the OWS (and many other) movements, even (especially) when the movements are still only tiny. The occupiers experience the surge of energy and determination and self-identification that comes from solidarity, while those in power recognize the danger and act in heavy-handed ways to try to crush it, usually after trying to ignore and then ridicule. The consistent characteristic of the reaction against these movements, as Steinbeck notes, is that those in power do not understand what’s going on. So in their efforts to snuff out the protests they instead fan the flames, which they then have to react even more violently to. It seems an extraordinarily difficult task for power to successfully manage to defuse a popular movement without resorting to extremes. Hence the absurd justifications of needing to clean (often already cleaned – by the protesters) public spaces, to make the public spaces once again available to the public, etc. Disperse, ridicule, isolate. If the gentle pretenses do not work, then we’ll do what we can to get rid of or evade the media (in all its forms), and then come in and beat the shit out of you.

So for all those out there in the OWS camps around the world (don’t forget there were protests in almost one thousand cities worldwide), and especially for those in the US, here’s some beautiful Steinbeck:

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the West. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I’m alone and I am bewildered. In the night one family camps in a ditch and other family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here’s the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate — “we lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from his first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing; “I have a little food” plus “I have none”. If from this problem the sum is “we have a little food”, the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two-men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mothers blanket — take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning — from “I” to “we”.

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I”, and cuts you off forever from the “we”.

The Western states are nervous under the beginning change. Need is the stimulus to concept, concept to action. A half-million people moving over the country; one million more restive, ready to move; 10 million more feeling the first nervousness.

And tractors turning the multiple furrows in the vacant land.

La Storia di San Michele

Monday, August 8th, 2011

Image: Villa San Michele

[Written in 2003, as the first of a two-part story of a remarkable connection. Here’s part two.]

Axel Munthe

In 1928, Axel Munthe, a Swedish physician living on the isle of Capri, published The Story of San Michele. Munthe’s villa on the slopes of Mount Barbarossa stands on a site chosen almost two thousand years earlier by the emperor Tiberius, who from tiny Capri held sway over the entire Roman empire. Extraordinarily beautiful, the island passed at various times through the hands of the Greeks, the Romans (Caesar Augustus was captivated), the Dutchy of Naples, the Saracens, the Longobards, the Normans, the Angevins, the Aragonese, the Spanish, and the Bourbons.

On completing his medical studies, Munthe was the youngest physician in Europe. The Story of San Michele describes his time in Paris and Rome, his years as the physician to the Swedish Royal family and later his years as private physician to the queen of Sweden, who had also taken a liking to Capri. Written in English, The Story of San Michele, which remains in print, was an instant success, becoming the best-selling non-fiction book in the U.S. in 1930. Munthe’s novel approach to medicine and the book’s mixture of adventure, treasure, and royalty continue to inspire. The Story of San Michele was the mysterious target of one Henry Arthur Harrington, a petty thief who crisscrossed the UK, stealing 1,321 copies from second-hand bookstores before his eventual arrest in 1982. Even in 2003, Munthe’s contributions are the subject of learned attention: the Second International Symposium on Axel Munthe’s life and work will be held in Sweden tomorrow (September 13).

With the rapid success of The Story of San Michele, the book was a natural target for would-be translators. Editions in several languages were soon completed. Given its origin, it was odd that such a popular book was not more quickly translated into Italian.

Patricia Volterra

Living in Florence, Patricia Volterra was fascinated by the book and was eager for her husband Gualti to read it too. A minor obstacle: Gualti did not speak English. Undeterred, Volterra decided to translate the book into Italian. She wrote to John Murray, the publisher, requesting permission. To her surprise, she received a reply directly from Munthe. From Volterra’s diary, Munthe told her that:

the book had already been translated into several languages and was selling like wildfire. To date he had refused offers for it to be translated into Italian as, he wrote, this language, when written, was apt to become too flowery and overloaded and that he had written the book in an extremely simple style which he wished to retain. However, he continued, he suggested I should translate the last chapter, which he considered the most difficult, and send it to him to the Torre Matterita at Anacapri. He would then let me know whether he thought he could permit me to translate the rest.

Volterra sent off her translation of the final chapter and spent several weeks waiting for an answer. Finally her manuscript was returned “with an extremely complimentary letter from Munthe, telling me to proceed to do the rest.” Later she wrote that at that time nothing seemed impossible to her but that now she wouldn’t have even considered the translation.

While working on the translation, she had lunch with Munthe in Rome when Gualti, an Italian concert pianist, was playing at the Augusteum. Munthe was staying at Villa Svezia, the Queen of Sweden’s residence on the Via Aldovrandi. When Munthe saw her he exclaimed ‘My goodness, how old are you?’ She: ‘Twenty three.’ He: ‘And you are translating San Michele!’ Munthe was over 70 at the time.

Volterra sent the work to an Italian publisher, Mondadori, who refused her. “Their great loss,” she wrote. Another, Treves, accepted. Munthe “had decreed that the entire royalties should go to the Society for the Protection of Animals in Naples.” Volterra was to sell her translation for whatever she could get for it. This amounted to the equivalent of 50 pounds sterling for 8 months work.

Later that spring, Volterra traveled to Capri. In a horse-drawn cab they drove to Anacapri where they visited San Michele. From there on foot through the olives to the Torre di Materita to have lunch with Munthe. A variety of his dogs scampered round his heels as he showed them the old tower which was then his home. They had a vegetarian lunch served by Rosina, so affectionately mentioned by Munthe in his book.

The Volterra translation ran quickly into 35 editions and was still selling well when she left Italy in 1938. Mussolini was so impressed by La Storia di San Michele that he passed a law prohibiting the shooting of migratory birds on Capri.

Volterra saw Munthe one final time, in Jermyn Street, London. Munthe died in 1949, leaving the villa of San Michele to Sweden. Owned today by the Swedish Munthe Foundation, it is home to an ornithological research center and is open to the public.

[Continued in part two, "Bob Arno".]

Bob Arno

Monday, August 8th, 2011

Image: ABC Tasmania

[Written in 2003, this is the 2nd part of the story of a remarkable connection. You’ll need to read part one for the set up.]

For the last seven years, I’ve kept a web page full of people’s email about street scams they’ve been involved in (as victims) in Barcelona.

In the beginning I just wrote down brief descriptions of things that I saw or was involved in soon after moving to Spain. I’d seen hardly any street crime in my (then) 33 years and I found it fascinating to watch for. It certainly wasn’t hard to find. Often it came right to my door or to the street under my balcony. Before long I began to receive email from others who had visited or lived in Barcelona, each with their own story to tell. I put the stories onto the web page and they soon outnumbered my own. I continue to receive a few emails a month from people who’ve read the web page (generally after being robbed, though sometimes before leaving on a trip). I don’t often reply to these emails, apart from a line or two to say thanks when I put their messages on the web page, often months after they mail me.

For whatever reason, I’ve never been very interested to meet these people, though I’ve had plenty of chances to. In general I don’t seem to have much interest in meeting new people – it’s quite rare that I do. I should probably be more sociable (or something) because once in a while the consequences are immediately extraordinary.

Among my email, I get occasional contacts from people in the tourism industry. Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, people writing books or running travel services or web sites. Mainly they want to know if they can link to the web page, or to use some of the content in their own guides. I always agree without condition. After all, the main (but not the only) point is to help people be more aware, and besides, the majority of the content was written by other people who clearly share the same advisory aim. With this attention from various professionals who are trying to pass on the information, I began to wonder how many such people there were. Maybe there were other people with web sites devoted to street crime. So once in a while I’d do a web search on “street scams”, or something similar, just to see what came up. It’s usually interesting.

On July 30th 2001, I went looking around for similar web sites and ran across Bob Arno. I took a quick look around and fired off an email to say hello, and offered to buy him a beer the next time he was in Barcelona:

    Hi Bob

    I was just having a wander around the web when I ran into your
    pages about pickpockets. They look good, very useful.

    You might be interested to see a page of my own:

    All about things that have happened to people in Barcelona. It's
    not too well organized, but there's a lots of it. Most of it falls
    into well known classes of petty crime. Things are getting worse
    here, with the most recent tactics being strangulation from behind
    and squirting a flammable liquid onto people's backs and then, you
    guessed it, setting them on fire.

    Let me know next time you're in Barcelona and I'll buy you a
    beer. I'm also in Manhattan very often.

    Terry Jones.

Bob looked very interesting, and we seemed to have the same point of view on street crime. He’s a seasoned professional, a Vegas showman, and is constantly traveling the world studying many forms of crime and passing on his knowledge. Check out his website.

I sent mail to Derek, passing on Bob Arno’s URL. I said a little of how funny and random it seemed to me, of how over all the years of doing different things and meeting any number of famous and high-powered academics and intellectuals etc., and not really having much interest in any of them, that I’m sending email to this Bob Arno guy suggesting we meet up.

The next day I read more about Bob’s exploits and interests and I guessed that we would probably get on really well. I sent off a longer email with some more of my observations about Barcelona:

    Hi again.

    I sent off that first email without having looked at more than a
    page or two of your web site.

    It's very interesting to read more. I spend far too much time
    thinking about and watching for petty thieves in Barcelona. I've
    thought about many of the issues touched on in the interview with
    you by your own TSJ. The whole thing is very intriguing and lately
    I've begun to wonder increasingly what I can do about it, and if I
    want to do anything about it. I have tended to act to try to stop
    pickpockets, but I've also seen things many times from a distance
    or a height, read many things, seen freshly robbed people weeping,
    talked to many people who have been robbed, thought of this as an
    art (I'm interviewed in a Barcelona newspaper under the headline
    "Some crimes are a work of art" - I'm not sure if they understood
    what I meant), etc. I've never tried filming these people. But I
    know how they look at you when they know they have been spotted,
    how their faces look when the wallet hits the floor, how they prey
    on Western or "rich" psychology, and so many other things.  My
    focus has been Barcelona, after coming to live here 5 years ago
    and (at that time) having an apartment 1 floor up about 100 meters
    from Plaza Real. If I had had a net I could have caught people
    several times a day.

    I recently got a video camera and was thinking of interviewing the
    woman on my web site who was strangled here earlier this month. By
    the way, the papers reported up to 9 cases of such stranglings in a
    single day. I wasn't quite sure what to do with the tape. It hadn't
    occurred to me to film the thieves, but it would be so easy.  In
    Barcelona it's trivial to spot these people, and also feels very
    safe since many of them have been arrested literally hundreds of
    times.  There is basically no deterrent. There are undoubtedly more
    sophisticated pickpockets here too, but there is little in the way
    of evolutionary pressure to make them improve their methods. The
    tourists are too many and too unaware, the police are too few, and
    the laws are too slack. Why would you even bother to improve or

    I also know the boredom that comes with professional acts. I used to
    do a lot of juggling and unicycling, practicing 6 hours a day for a
    long time. But I could never stand to have a canned show that I did
    time after time - it was just too routine to have a routine. So I
    refused and eventually drifted into other things.

    How can I get a copy of your book? It doesn't seem to say on the web
    site. Also, the menu of links at the top left of your pages looks
    extremely garbled under my browser (Opera).


As it turned out, my timing was perfect. I got a mail back the next day from Bob’s wife Bambi (yes, really). She said they’d be in Barcelona in just 5 days time and that they’d love to meet up.

And meet up we did!

They came to our apartment and we all hit it off immediately. As I’d thought, we did have a lot in common, both in terms of what we had done and in outlook. They told me they also get lots of email through their web site and hardly ever reply. Ana and I took them out for food. We sat outside at the nearby Textile Museum. Later, Ana went home to look after Sofia, and I stayed with Bob and Bambi. In the end I was with them about five hours and I had a really good time. We arranged to meet the next day to go hunting for thieves on the Ramblas. In one sense, “hunting” isn’t at all the right word: the thieves are typically very obvious to anyone who’s actually paying attention. But there’s a lot of subtlety in tracking and filming them, so it really is something like a hunt. I’ve since spent many hours, on several occasions, in action with Bob and Bambi in Barcelona. But that’s another story.

After getting home that first night, I went back to Bob’s web site and read more of his pages. He’s had a pretty colorful life. Actually, it’s extraordinarily colorful by almost any measure. “Who is this Bob Arno?” I wondered. Fortunately, Bob has a “Who is Bob Arno?” page, which I finally got around to reading.

Halfway down… unbelievable… I want to cry.

    Born in Sweden, Bob Arno is a great-grandson of Dr. Axel Munthe,
    who is most famous for his novel The Story of San Michele.

Patricia Volterra was my great aunt.

Faulkner on splendid failure

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

I always enjoy running across writing that is not about entrepreneurialism but which seems directly relevant. A couple of snippets that I’ve blogged before are The entrepreneurial spirit in literature (from Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness) and Orwell on T. S. Eliot and the path from existential angst to serial entrepreneur.

Here’s another. It’s Faulkner’s address upon receiving the National Book Award for fiction in 1955. Taken from William Faulkner Essays, Speeches & Public Letters. Random House 1965, pp 143-5.

It makes me think about what I consider Faulkner’s crowning masterpiece, Absalom, Absalom! and the effort that must have gone into its creation. It also puts me in mind of Tim O’Reilly’s exhortation to entrepreneurs to “work on stuff that matters”.

By artist I mean of course everyone who has tried to create something which was not here before him, with no other tools and material than the uncommerciable ones of the human spirit; who has tried to carve, no matter how crudely, on the wall of that final oblivion beyond which he will have to pass, in the tongue of the human spirit ‘Kilroy was here.’

That is primarily, and I think in its essence, all that we ever really tried to do. And I believe we will all agree that we failed. That what we made never quite matched and never will match the shape, the dream of perfection which we inherited and which drove us and will continue to drive us, even after each failure, until anguish frees us and the hand falls still at last.

Maybe it’s just as well that we are doomed to fail, since, as long as we do fail and the hand continues to hold blood, we will try again; where, if we ever did attain the dream, match the shape, scale that ultimate peak of perfection, nothing would remain but to jump off the other side of it into suicide. Which would not only deprive us of our American right to existence, not only inalienable but harmless too, since by our standards, in our culture, the pursuit of art is a peaceful hobby like breeding Dalmations, it would leave refuse in the form of, at best indigence and at worst downright crime resulting from unexhausted energy, to be scavenged and removed and disposed of. While this way, constantly and steadily occupied by, obsessed with, immersed in trying to do the impossible, faced always with the failure which we decline to recognize and accept, we stay out of trouble, keep out of the way of the practical and busy people who carry the burden of America.

So all are happy—the giants of industry and commerce, and the manipulators for profit or power of the mass emotions called government, who carry the tremendous load of geopolitical solvency, the two of which conjoined are America; and the harmless breeders of the spotted dogs (unharmed too, protected, immune in the inalienable right to exhibit our dogs to one another for acclaim, and even to the public too; defended in our right to collect from them at the rate of five or ten dollars for the special signed editions, and even at the rate of thousands to special fanciers named Picasso or Matisse).

Then something like this happens—like this, here, this afternoon; not just once and not even just once a year. Then that anguished breeder discovers that not only his fellow breeders, who must support their mutual vocation in a sort of mutual desperate defensive confederation, but other people, people whom he had considered outsiders, also hold that what he is doing is valid. And not only scattered individuals who hold his doings valid, but enough of them to confederate in their turn, for no mutual benefit of profit or defense but simply because they also believe it is not only valid but important that man should write on the wall ‘Man was here also A.D. 1953, or ’54 or ’55’, and so go on record like this this afternoon.

To tell not the individual artist but the world, the time itself, that what he did is valid. That even failure is worth while and admirable, provided only that the failure is splendid enough, the dream splendid enough, unattainable enough yet forever valuable enough, since it was of perfection.

So when this happens to him (or to one of his fellows; it doesn’t matter which one, since all share the validation of the mutual devotion) the thought occurs that perhaps one of the things wrong with our country is success. That there is too much success in it. Success is too easy. In our country a young man can gain it with no more than a little industry. He can gain it so quickly and easily that he has not had time to learn the humility to handle it with, or even to discover, realise, that he will need humility.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

To read of Eleanor and Franklin is to weep at what we have lost. Gone is the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action. Eleanor never stopped believing this. A simple faith, no doubt simplistic – but it gave her a stoic serenity. On the funeral train from Georgia to Washington: “I lay in my berth all night with the window shade up, looking out at the countryside he had loved and watching the faces of the people at stations, and even at the crossroads, who came to pay their last tribute all through the night. The only recollection I clearly have is thinking about ‘The Lonesome Train,’ the musical poem about Lincoln’s death. (‘A lonesome train on a lonesome track/Seven coaches painted black/A slow train, a quiet train/Carrying Lincoln home again…’). I had always liked it so well – and now this was so much like it.”

I had other thoughts in 1962 at Hyde Park as I stood alongside the thirty-third, the thirty-fourth, the thirty-fifth, and the thirty-sixth Presidents of the United States, not to mention all the remaining figures of the Roosevelt era who had assembled for her funeral (unlike the golden figures in Proust’s last chapter, they all looked if not smaller than life smaller than legend – so many shrunken March of Time dolls soon to be put away). Whether or not one thought of Eleanor Roosevelt as a world ombudsman or as a chronic explainer or as a scourge of the selfish, she was like no one else in her usefulness. As the box containing her went past me, I thought, well, that’s that. We’re really on our own now.

The above are the last 2 paragraphs of Gore Vidal’s November 18, 1971 essay “Eleanor Roosevelt”. NY Review of Books.

Finishing Proust, redux

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Back in December 2006 I wrote about finishing Proust and made a rough argument about how often anyone on earth finishes the whole thing. The argument was a bit subtle. I was never 100% convinced it was sound, but no-one I showed it to found a hole in it. I still think about the question from time to time. The other day I mentioned the original post to Tim O’Reilly. Later that day, I realized there’s a much simpler way to get an estimate, with far fewer assumptions.

The new approach is simply to divide the number of hours that have passed since In Search of Lost Time was published by the number of people who’ve ever finished it. That average is a crude measure, but it may be nevertheless quite accurate and it’s irresistibly interesting to me to see how it compares to my original 2006 estimate of 2.19 hours.

So, assume 2B people were alive in 1927 when the final volume was published, and 6.4B alive at the end of 2006 (source).

Assume that no-one alive in 1927 was still alive in 2006 (obviously not the case, but not unreasonable and not a significant error). I.e., there were 4.4B births in those 79 years. Note: This is ignoring a significant number of people who were born after 1927 and who died before 2006. But it is including everyone born from 1990 onwards, essentially zero of whom would have read Proust by 2006.

In my original post I estimated that one person in 10K actually finishes the whole book. So that’s 4.4B/10K = 440K people who read the book during the 79 years.

79 years is 28,835 days, or 692,040 hours. Doing the division, 692,040 / 440,000 = 1.57 hours.

I.e., by the above rough reasoning, someone, somewhere on earth, finishes Proust every 1.57 hours, on average.

I find the closeness of the two estimates quite remarkable. There’s only one shared assumption (1 in 10,000 finishes). Both estimates are quite crude, yet there’s only about a 30% difference in the answers. I was expecting them to be much more divergent.

Crowdsourcing Arabic-to-English translation in the Geneva airport

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

Today I met an extraordinary Iranian man in the Geneva airport. He’s written a 1000 page book in Arabic about (at least in part) his experiences in Cyprus. He approached me, asked if my English was really really good, sat next to me, and started pulling out several pages of hand-wrtten uppercase English. He had me go over them, improve them, write some new text as he read his Arabic in halting English, told me exactly how he wanted it to sound, pressed me to find shorter ways to say things, and finally got me to write out (for his next helper, no doubt) a clean copy of all my work. He had me go look up a recent paper dating the evolutionary split between humans & chimpanzees and to confirm that it didn’t contradict his text (another fragment thrust importunately into my hands). He was about 75. We spent 90 mins together, smiling and congratulating each other over a few sentences that turned out particularly well. Told me he’s going to have it published by Oxford – that’s his aim anyway.

I thought to myself that we each have our own mountain to climb – or at least those who have a taste for years-long patient endeavors, but how different his from mine. We parted and he went off to approach another stranger. He’ll get the whole book done a few pages a day in the Geneva airport, I’ve no doubt. “It’s the perfect place” he told me. Amazing, extraordinary, humbling, etc…

Full tilt at the center of the earth

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

It was cold that morning, the first winter cold-snap; the hedgerows were rimed and stiff with frost and the standing water in the roadside drainage ditches was skimmed with ice and even the edges of the running water in the Nine Mile branch glinted fragile and scintillant like fairy glass and from the first farmyard they passed and then again and again and again came the windless tang of woodsmoke and they could see in the back yards the black iron pots already steaming while women in the sunbonnets still of summer or men’s old felt hats and long men’s overcoats stoked wood under them and the men with crokersack aprons tied with wire over their overalls whetted knives or already moved about the pens where hogs grunted and squealed, not quite startled, not alarmed but just alerted as though sensing already even though only dimly their rich and immanent destiny; by nightfall the whole land would be hung with their spectral intact tallowcolored empty carcasses immobilised by the heels in attitudes of frantic running as though full tilt at the center of the earth.

From William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust.

The first loud ding-dong of time and doom

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

But not for a little while yet; for a little while yet the sparrows and the pigeons; garrulous myriad and independent the one, the other uxorious and interminable, at once frantic and tranquil – until the clock strikes again which even after a hundred years, they still seem unable to get used to, bursting in one swirling explosion out of the belfry as though the hour, instead of merely adding one puny infinitesimal more to the long weary increment since Genesis, had shattered the virgin pristine air with the first loud ding-dong of time and doom.

The final paragraph of Act 1, (The Courthouse) in Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun.

Sack the golden towns of Montezuma!

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

“My dear fellow,” Burlingame said caustically, “we sit on a blind rock careening through space; we are all of us rushing headlong to the grave. Think you the worms will care, when anon they make a meal of you, whether you spent your moment sighing wigless in your chamber, or sacked the golden towns of Montezuma? Lookee, the day’s nigh spent; ’tis gone careening into time forever. Not a tale’s length since we lined our bowels with dinner, and already they growl for more. We are dying men Ebenezer: i’faith, there’s time for nought but bold resolves!”

From: The Sotweed Factor, by John Barth.

The entrepreneurial spirit in literature

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

Once in a while I run across a piece of writing that has little or nothing to do with being an entrepreneur, but which reads as though it did. I posted an example in 2007: Orwell writing about and quoting T.S.Eliot: “Each venture is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment always deteriorating“.

Below is one I encountered a few days ago. Can you place it? You can find the answer on Google in a flash.

The glamour of youth enveloped his parti-coloured rags, his destitution, his loneliness, the essential desolation of his futile wanderings. For months — for years — his life hadn’t been worth a day’s purchase; and there he was gallantly, thoughtlessly alive, to all appearances indestructible solely by the virtue of his few years and of his unreflecting audacity. I was seduced into something like admiration — like envy. Glamour urged him on, glamour kept him unscathed. He surely wanted nothing from the wilderness but space to breathe in and to push on through. His need was to exist, and to move onwards at the greatest possible risk, and with a maximum of privation. If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it ruled this be-patched youth. I almost envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame. It seemed to have consumed all thought of self so completely, that even while he was talking to you, you forgot that it was he— the man before your eyes— who had gone through these things.

Rupert Brooke and Sep Kelly

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

My great grand uncle was Frederick Septimus Kelly (aka Cleg or Sep):

On 22 April [1915] Kelly became aware that Rupert Brooke was dangerously ill. The following day Brooke died and was buried on Skyros by his close circle, the officers known as the Latin Club – the critic and composer, W. Denis Browne; Arthur (Ock) Asquith (later Brigadier-General Arthur Asquith); the scholar and son of Lord Ribblesdale, Charles Lister; Patrick H. Shaw-Stewart, scholar and, at the age of 25, a director of Barings Bank; Bernard Freyberg (later General Lord Freyberg VC and Governor-General of New Zealand); and ‘Cleg’ Kelly. Kelly’s measured description of both the death and burial of the poet have been extensively quoted in the Brooke literature. It was W. Denis Browne and Kelly who sorted Brooke’s belongings as their ship left Skyros for the Gallipoli peninsula, and it was Kelly, methodical as ever, who copied the contents of the poet’s notebook against its loss in transit to his family. After the Hood Battalion left England, the friendship between Kelly and Brooke had deepened. There are frequent references to their being together on group outings on leave, nights spent together at the dinner table, of W. Denis Browne and Kelly entertaining their fellow officers with Brooke to the fore and, towards the end, accounts of Brooke coming alone to Kelly’s cabin to read his poems and to discuss literature. Brooke’s death was a personal loss. Kelly is said to have begun composing his Elegy dedicated to Brooke as the poet lay dying nearby.

Taken from page 36 of “Race Against Time: the Diaries of F.S. Kelly”, selected, edited and introduced by Therese Radic. Published in 2004 by the National Library of Australia.

I have an MP3 of Kelly’s Elegy to Rupert Brooke in case anyone wants it.

Sequoia Capital is the new Delphic Oracle

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

Consulting the OracleIn a belated attempt to educate myself by reading some of the things that many people study in high school, I’m reading The Histories of Herodotus. It’s highly entertaining and easy to read. I read The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides a few years ago and enjoyed that even more. Herodotus is the more colorful, but the speeches and drama in Thucydides are fantastic.

There were lots of oracles in classical Greece, and elsewhere.Of the Greek oracles, the Delphic Oracle was, and still is, the best known. People (kings, dictators, emperors, wannabees) would send questions like “Should I invade Persia?” to the oracle and receive typically ambiguous or cryptic responses. We have a large number of famous oracular replies. Herodotus recounts how Croesus decided to test the various oracles by sending them all the same question, asking what he was doing on a certain day. The oracle at Delphi won hands down. Croesus then immediately put more pressing matters to the Delphic oracle, famously misinterpreted the pronouncements, and was duly wiped out by the Persians.

Imagine yourself in the position of the Delphic oracle. You’ve got all sorts of rulers and aspiring rulers constantly sending you their thoughts and questions, asking what you think. You’re in a unique position, simultaneously privy to the most secret potential plans of many powerful rulers. You really know what’s going on. You know what’s likely to succeed or to fail, and why. You get to give the thumbs up or thumbs down. By virtue of your position and the information flowing through your temple, you can direct traffic; you can shape and create history. You might even be tempted to profit from your knowledge. Your successful accurate pronouncements invariably reap you rich tribute.

OK, you can see where this is leading…

Sequoia Capital, and other well-known venture firms, have a somewhat similar position. They have thousands of leaders and wannabee leaders bringing them their detailed secret plans, proposing to mount armies, found cities, build empires, to attack the modern-day Persians, etc. By virtue of their unusual position they probably have a pretty good idea of what might work, and why. Using this knowledge, but without necessarily revealing sources, they can cryptically but assuredly state “oh, that’ll never work” or they can encourage ideas that are new and which they can see will somehow fit and succeed. If company X has consulted the oracle, disclosing a detailed plan to go left, and company Y plans to attack from the right, well…. why not?

Entrepreneurs beg an audience, get a tiny slice of time to make their pitch, and occasionally receive rare clear endorsements. Much more frequently they are left to scratch their heads over cryptic, ambiguous and unexplained responses (and non-responses). You can bet the Delphic oracle didn’t sign NDAs either.

It’s stretching it too far to seriously claim that Sequoia is the modern-day equivalent of the Delphic oracle. But on the other hand, over 2500 years have elapsed, so you’d expect a few changes.

Finishing Orwell’s Essays, Journalism and Letters

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

George OrwellI’ve just finished the final volume of George Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (that link is to volume 1).

I don’t have anything much to say, but thought I’d include a few fragments while I still have this volume (which belongs to Russell).

We’re lucky to have 1984 at all. Orwell was quickly running out of strength when finishing it, and was reduced to working about an hour a day. He then had to type the whole thing up himself, in bed and on the sofa. Towards the end he was barely capable of any physical activity at all – even getting out of bed to walk around. It’s amazing to look back at his struggles to bring the book into existence. He couldn’t even get a stenographer to Jura to type it for him. What a trivial amount of logistical help and money it would have been to get someone up there to help him, if only anyone had known what he was preparing and how desperate his condition was becoming. He thought 1984 might sell 10,000 copies. Until just before it was done he was still trying to decide between the name 1984 and “The Last Man in Europe”.

There’s some controversy over the influence of Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s novel We on 1984. I don’t think there’s any skulking around the literary woods, in least in the case of Orwell. He reviewed the French translation. He also mentions We in several letters, and had arranged to review the English translation in the Times Literary Supplement (but the translation didn’t happen or wasn’t published). He also wrote suggesting Zamyatin’s widow be contacted to see if there were more manuscripts that could be published. In another late letter he talks about We having an important place in the “chain of utopia” novels. So it seems very clear that Orwell had nothing to hide on that front. I also find it interesting that Wikipedia quotes Orwell as saying Brave New World “must be partly derived from” We. In fact, Orwell’s letter to Fred Warburg of March 30 1949 says “I think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be plagiarized from it to some extent”. That’s a rather stronger word. Maybe Huxley’s apologists are keeping close watch on Wikipedia.

One late essay I really enjoyed was Writers and Leviathan. From which:

And most of us still have a lingering belief that every choice, even every political choice, is between good and evil, and that if a thing is necessary it is also right. We should, I think, get rid of this belief, which belongs to the nursery. In politics one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the lesser, and there are some situations from which one can only escape by acting like a devil or a lunatic.

I guess I’ve been in something like this position just once, and the best that can be said is that I ended up with a couple less enemies than I had expected.

From a letter to Michael Meyer in Sweden:

I always thought Sweden a dull country, much more so than Norway or Finland. I should think there would probably be very good fishing, if you can whack up any interest in that. But I have never been able to like these model countries with everything up to date and hygienic and an enormous suicide rate.

From extracts from a manuscript note-book:

It is now (1949) 16 years since my first book was published, & abt 21 years since I started publishing articles in the magazines. Throughout that time there has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, & that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working 10 hours a day on a book, or turning out 4 or 5 articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time. I can never get any sense of achievement out of the work that is actually in progress, because it always goes slower than I intend, & in any case I feel that a book or even an article does not exist until it is finished. But as soon as a book is finished, I begin, actually from the next day, worrying because the next one is not begun, & am haunted with the fear that there never will be a next one—that my impulse is exhausted for good & all. If I look back & count up the actual amount that I have written, then I see that my output has been respectable: but this does not reassure me, because it simply gives me the feeling that I once had an industriousness & a fertility which I have now lost.

This resonates strongly with me too.

From a letter to Richard Rees (3 March 1949) after trying to follow one of Bertrand Russell’s logical arguments regarding the antithesis of the statement “some men are tailless”, and suggesting “all men are tailless”, he concludes:

But I never can follow that kind of thing. It is the sort of thing that makes me feel that philosophy should be forbidden by law.

Which is similar to my feelings about the pursuit of Artificial Intelligence.

That’s enough for now. There’s so much more. You’ll have to go read it for yourself though, I guess.

San Diego ramblings

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

bonobosA few more rambling thoughts.

I’m wearing glasses today, for the first time in 6 years. It’s really really weird. They’re “progressive” bi- or tri-focals. It turned out one of my eyes was great for distance, one great for close ups, and both with an astigmatism. The glasses fix everything – provided you look through the right part of the glass, which also implies turning your head more than usual. I’ve tried wearing them around, and it’s very odd. Among the oddities is a huge improvement in depth perception. Everything seems so 3D, especially things at a distance. But the buttons on my Mac UI seem to be popping out of the screen too.

I’d forgotten how many pan-handlers there are in San Diego. I sometimes give money to people, and sometimes quite a lot: $150 once, $80 once, over $20 several times, and I once gave a homeless guy my bicycle to his great surprise. But 99% of the time I say no and keep walking. You can’t give money to everyone. They need it, but I need it too. Once a guy used to follow me and get a couple of dollars every day on my way to Sydney Uni, back in ’84 or so. I eventually changed routes to avoid him.

I went to Border’s books on 6th and G. I bought Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq by Michael Scheuer, The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography by Christopher Hitchens, and a boxed set of 5 Jigsaw Jones stories by James Preller (to read to the kids).

I read Scheuer’s then-anonymous Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror and enjoyed it. I know I own, and think I also read Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America. He’s certainly no shrinking violet liberal! I learned a lot about Afghanistan reading his analysis. Russell knows ten times more than I do about almost everything, and agrees that Imperial Hubris is good. We also both like Hitchens a lot. Give me someone who thinks clearly, sincerely tries to weigh evidence, writes well, and speaks his mind any day, no matter how controversial their opinions are. The more the better, in fact. And so I enjoy Orwell, Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes.

I keep meaning to go see the Bonobos in the San Diego zoo. I like Bonobos. There’s a good TED video here, though with an annoying voice-over and somewhat manipulative-sensationalist background music. I’ve been here multiple times, and I lived here for nearly a year, but have never made it to the zoo.