Friday, August 25, 2017

Sexual Codes of the Europeans in Evergreen Review

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

shoulder to shoulder

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

Exciting News - ShareLaTeX is joining Overleaf!

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

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


@DegenRolf posted this on Twitter:

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

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

accents of Colombia

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

Monday, May 8, 2017

what is (and is not) to be done

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

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

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

Thursday, May 4, 2017

a jar in Tennessee

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 3, 2017


Amazing news.

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

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

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

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

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