I’m insatiably curious about how writers write — and accordingly loved this section of Tyler Cowen’s interview with Masha Gessen:

COWEN: What is your most unusual writing habit?

GESSEN: I write by hand.

COWEN: You write by hand?

GESSEN: I write by hand. I write longhand.

COWEN: And someone types it into a computer? Or that never happens?

GESSEN: [laughs] No, I write books longhand, and then I type them up chapter by chapter. I write a chapter out longhand and then type it.

COWEN: Why is that good for you?

GESSEN: Because I think that the process of writing longhand is more linear. If you ever look at how you write, or if I ever look at how I write, if I just write on a computer, unless it’s . . . A column is also pretty linear. I outline it, and then I just fill in every paragraph, and I do that on a computer.

But if I write a very long piece, I don’t notice how much I jump around when I’m writing on a computer. You can’t do that on paper. You have to keep going. Then it poses a narrative structure that is unbreakable. One sentence has to follow the previous sentence. You can’t go back and reinsert it. It keeps me very focused, I find.

The other thing it does is that when I’m typing it up, I’m reading it on paper, and I think that there’s a difference. When the book is ready, I will then print it out and edit it again on paper. But every time you read, when you’re reading on paper and you’re reading on screen, you’re seeing completely different things.

Interesting. Maybe I should go back to writing longhand.

Denmark offers to buy US — with some conditions

From the New Yorker:

COPENHAGEN (The Borowitz Report)—After rebuffing Donald J. Trump’s hypothetical proposal to purchase Greenland, the government of Denmark has announced that it would be interested in buying the United States instead.

“As we have stated, Greenland is not for sale,” a spokesperson for the Danish government said on Friday. “We have noted, however, that during the Trump regime pretty much everything in the United States, including its government, has most definitely been for sale.”

“Denmark would be interested in purchasing the United States in its entirety, with the exception of its government,” the spokesperson added.


Consider the Tardigrade

From a remarkable Aeon essay on ‘extremophiles’ (creatures that can survive in extreme conditions) by the evolutionary biologist David Barash:

Typical extremophiles specialise in going about their lives along one axis of environmental extremity – extreme heat or cold, one or another heavy metal, and so forth – tardigrades can survive when things get dicey along many different and seemingly independent dimensions, simultaneously and come what may. You can boil them, freeze them, dry them, drown them, float them unprotected in space, expose them to radiation, even deprive them of nourishment – to which they respond by shrinking in size. These creatures, also known as water bears, are featured on appealing T-shirts with the slogan ‘Live Tiny, Die Never’ and in the delightful rap song that describes their indifference to extreme situations, entitled Water Bear Don’t Care.

Tardigrades might be the toughest creatures on Earth. You can put them in a laboratory freezer at -80 degrees Celsius, leave them for several years, then thaw them out, and just 20 minutes later they’ll be dancing about as though nothing had happened. They can even be cooled to just a few degrees above absolute zero, at which atoms virtually stop moving. Once thawed out, they move around just fine. (Admittedly, they aren’t speed demons; the word ‘tardigrade’ means ‘slow walker’.) Exposed to superheated steam – 140 degrees Celsius – they shrug it off and keep on living. Not only are tardigrades remarkably resistant to a wide range of what ecologists term environmental ‘insults’ (heat, cold, pressure, radiation, etc), they also have a special trick up their sleeves: when things get really challenging – especially if dry or cold – they convert into a spore-like form known as a ‘tun’. A tun can live, if you call their unique form of suspended animation ‘living’, for decades, possibly even centuries, and thereby survive pretty much anything that nature might throw at them. In this state, their metabolism slows to less than 0.01 per cent of normal. Compared with them, a deeply hibernating mammal is living at lightning speed.

In the bad old days of the Cold War, we used to think that the only living things that would survive a nuclear holocaust would be beetles. Now that we are headed for a climate catastrophe, my money’s on the tardigrades.

Finally, a use for a Boris Johnson

Here’s a thought. Well, two thoughts.

  1. If Boris Johnson does indeed become Prime Minister then his photograph will be permanently on the front page of newspapers. This will be depressing for those of us who cannot stand the sight of the creep.

  2. On the other hand, the no-deal Brexit after which he lusts will result in — among many other things — a national shortage of toilet paper. Resourceful citizens will — like Leopold Bloom in Ulysses — cut up these newspapers into neat squares and hang them on hooks near their toilet bowls. Thus will the citizenry finally discover a use for their new Prime Minister.

Security-theatre dialogue

From Tyler Cowen:

At Colorado Springs airport, on my way to Denver:

TSA official at security [pre-check, for that matter]: “We have to search your carry-on, it is suspicious that you have so many books.”

They searched every book.

TC: “Thank you, sir!”

I had fewer books in my carry-on than usual.

The heaviest book I had was Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, which is why I had fewer books than usual.

Tyler reads more (and more quickly) than any person I know —with the possible exception of Diane Coyle.

The consolations of ageing

From The Economist:

Among the compensations of ageing is the right to bore youngsters with stories of the prices of yesteryear. Once upon a time a ticket to the cinema cost just five quid, and a hogshead of mead but a farthing. Of course, savvier youths know how to debunk such tales. Adjust for inflation and many things are cheaper than ever. Since 1950 the real cost of new vehicles has fallen by half, that of new clothing by 75% and that of household appliances by 90%, even as quality has got better. Tumbling prices reflect decades of improvements in technology and productivity. But the effect is not economy-wide. Cars are cheaper, but car maintenance is more expensive, and costs in education and health care have risen roughly fivefold since 1950. Though no mystery, this rise is often misunderstood, with serious economic consequences.

There are as many explanations for the ballooning cost of such services as there are politicians. But as a newly published analysis argues, many common scapegoats simply cannot explain the steady, long-run rise in such prices relative to those elsewhere in the economy. In “Why are the prices so damn high?” Eric Helland of Claremont McKenna College and Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University write that quality has improved far too little to account for it. Administrative bloat is not the answer either. In America the share of all education spending that goes on administration has been roughly steady for decades. Health-care spending has risen faster than gdp in rich countries, despite vast differences in the structure of their health-care systems….

Subtle messages

Hmmm… I found this mong the junk mail in our letterbox. Is someone trying to tell me something? Years ago I remember a comic giving out ‘life tips’. One was: “the last cheque you should ever write should be to the undertaker. And it should bounce!”

Happy Bloomsday!

It’s Bloomsday — June 16 — the day when all the action in James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place. For years — since the early 1990s — I’ve celebrated it by giving a lunch in my college at which guests have Gorgonzola sandwiches and drink Burgundy (same as Leopold Bloom did in Davey Byrne’s pub in the novel) and read from the great book. I can’t hold the lunch this year because of coincidental diary conflicts, but the lovely Bronac Ferran, a regular attendee, sent me (as a consolation prize) this photograph she’d taken recently while on a trip to Zurich — the city where Joyce died and is buried together with Nóra, his wife, and Giorgio, their son.