A Child's Book of Scorpions of Medical Importance

Things that may one day save your life

Krampus Hates Hipsters

One of 1000s of vintage Krampus postcards you can hotlink from your lazy, seasonal blog.

One of 1000s of vintage Krampus postcards you can hotlink from your lazy, seasonal blog.

As an American, the things you own and consume are your identity.  Your place in society is defined by your ability to acquire, and the discernment you apply in choosing, your stuff.  Even hipsters and self-exiled outliers who pride themselves in cocking a snook at American consumerism play a full role:  their rejection of the consumerist formula always involves a loud avoidance of the first part of the equation, and a whole spirited devotion to the second.  And because the premise of America requires the destruction of the old, and the constant, grinding acquisition of the new, the refinement of consumer taste must be eclectic and seasonal.  Even American intellectuals are constantly on the hunt for novelty, and the vast space between ‘intellectual’ and ‘hipster’, the seething, chaotic, meaningless reality of the ‘cultural critic’, is heavily populated.  Are you old enough to recall a time when sophistication in America meant a passing familiarity with Kabbalah, an ironic, encyclopedic knowledge of 70s sitcoms, and the ability to pronounce ‘Côtes du Rhône’?  Where is your truth now, hipster?

Google tells me that American interest in Krampus began in December 2010 with a groundbreaking survey of the Krampus phenomenon by professional blogger ‘TeenAngster’ (Real name:  Alison; Location: Brooklyn, NY; Turn-ons: folk art, vintage oddities and other stuff discovered in her first year as a ‘Lit Major’ at University of Iowa, then pared and refined obsessively during three years in Williamsburg).  Her survey sets the formula for American discoveries of Krampus over the last two years:  Krampus is a vaguely goth, anti-Santa Claus;  Krampus adds some edgy thrills (and lazy blog copy) to the hackneyed, consumerist Christmas myth.  Krampus is cool, and he comes with many sets of vintage postcards that are easily scanned or hotlinked.

But there is a problem.  Krampus is also fucking terrifying.  And he hates hipsters.  I have friends who grew up with the myth of Krampus, and, at best, they would find Brooklynites’ glib, seasonal fascination annoying.  One such friend spent his life in a Hapsburg satellite state.  On the evening of the Nikolo (December 6, the St. Nicholas festival), his grandfather would prowl around the house after bed time, scratching windows with thorny twigs and rattling heavy chains.  My friend would cower under his bed for hours, having wet himself, sobbing for the intercession of St. Nicholas before Krampus made it into the house; because if Krampus did find him, he would be roughly tossed into an excruciating basket made of thorns and TAKEN STRAIGHT TO HELL.  (Some myths claim children are taken to Krampus’s lair, but, whatever.  It’s all the same to a six-year-old Slav).

‘OK,’ you might write in your next Gawker article.  ‘Old world parenting techniques aren’t the best.  But Krampus is still über-cool.  Check out these hotlinked photos from a Krampuslauf, which means ‘Krampus run’ in German, and occurs during the month of December in Austria, Hungary, Northern Italy and…’

Let me stop you right there, Alison.  Have you ever been to a Krampuslauf? Have you ever been to Carinthia, the glorious Texas of Austria?  Those JPEGs you cut-and-pasted are from the Disney ‘Main Street Parade’ of Krampusläufe. Your goth alternative to mall Santa has a mundane reality:  on the morning of December 5th, Austrian ‘bros’ get wasted on beer and schnapps, they don shitty monster masks and fur suits, and then use the occasion and the anonymity to wander the streets of Eberstein or Treffen harassing girls and beating the crap out of fags and pussies with sticks.  Things usually get a little out of hand, but, like the high spirited fraternity ‘rager’, it’s allowed to pass and is quickly forgotten.

If you want to understand better what Krampus is all about, spend a few winter months in Carinthia or south Tirol.  Learn German.  Attend a local Nikolo evening.  And head out to a small town Krampuslauf to survey the action.  But leave the skinny jeans in Brooklyn, and be forewarned:  Krampus is an old world allegory that doesn’t make for easy or frivolous consumption.  Krampus can smell irony from 200 metres.  He’s drunk on schnapps, swinging a spiny pine sapling at your head, and, above all, Krampus hates hipsters.

What to Look for

Two Scorpions Kissing

Scorpions Kissing

We have all had that uncomfortable conversation, where we try to explain the complex beauty of scorpions to an acquaintance only to be confronted with indifference:

‘I hear they’re just primitive arachnids.  What’s the big deal?’

‘Well, morphologically, they appear to be primitive, but if you study the composition of scorpion venom, you will find that evolution has exercised a long and powerful…’

‘Whatever.  I think they’re creepy.’

And this is usually where the conversation ends, and not only every conversation about scorpions, but many conversations about other, less important, things.  People struggle where there is no comfortable frame of reference.

Scorpion venom is remarkably intricate, and bears the mark of hundreds of millions of years of ceaseless evolution;  as though the original, outward design was sufficient, but the scorpion’s rich cocktail of organic materials, mucous, salts and long- and short-chain peptides, each perfectly targeted to the species of prey or enemy, quickly became an obsession for Nature; like Proust, who lay in bed for the last three years of his life pouring every ounce of energy into extending a single novel that would test the limits of human stamina.  The beauty of scorpions is thus easy to dismiss, much like the three-and-a-half thousand pages of stuff someone remembered because of a soggy cookie.  And, yet, beautiful and essential in spite (and perhaps because) of its obscurity.

When I first visited France, I was disappointed.  The cosmetic Bohemianism I had known in California seemed richer than what I perceived there.  The French were homogeneous.  They spoke in the same tiresome idioms, repeated the same idées reçues, and their cuisine was surprisingly repetitive.  How much daubemerguez or choucroutte was a student required to stomach?  But the strength of France wasn’t in the breadth (although the breadth was there once I learned to see it), but in the deliberate, thousand-year refinement of its arts.

My heart recently went out to a friend who is trying to pursue a career in France, but his first three months have been excruciating.  Barnaby, a young orchestra conductor, searches for the familiar, and is endlessly disappointed.  The French are less forthcoming than the Americans.  They are lazy.  Parisians are assholes.  He doesn’t have time for museums.  The language course was a waste of money.

‘I can’t wait to get home.  Coming to Paris was a mistake.’

‘It wasn’t a mistake, but perhaps it was the wrong thing for you.  There is beauty there.  Everything worthwhile is in France.  But you have to want to see it.  You won’t have the tools to discover it unless you are there for more than a year, and unless you try to find it.  Unless you allow it to change the way you think, and only then you will recognise the importance is in the details.  The many, many vast details that were invisible before.’

‘What the fuck are you talking about?  Details?  I have to stand in line for everything!  The university course is like a pretentious high school!’

‘You need to step outside yourself.  You need to get out of your “comfort zone”!’ (I had to put the phone down briefly and gag after repeating these words, but I knew they were the only way to convey my urgent warning).  ‘You need to explore what you really want.  Are you doing what makes you happy?  You can’t expect to find beauty if it isn’t fundamentally what you love.  Maybe you need to look more deeply inside yourself.’

‘Are you saying I should start dating men?’

‘Yes.  That is exactly what I’m saying.’

Balkan Travel and Gay Space Aliens

I travel frequently.  More on this later, but ‘picture thousand words, .etc.’ and I leave you with a summary of my adventures this week, and an excerpt from a book I wrote to keep you busy until Interpol  loses the trail and I can settle in to write again.

I will be here for a few days.

Then here.

And then, in all reasonable likelihood, here.

In the meantime, I would like to draw your attention again to the Balkans.  The story is called ‘Gay Aliens Invade Dubrovnik’, and follows the making of a disastrous film about Dubrovnik, a once glorious city-state on the Dalmatian coast.  Many of the events in the book are true, although they defy belief.  Read it.  It’s funny.


“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” – Ambrose Bierce

“The little Republic of Ragusa [Dubrovnik] is rather little known.  It has experienced, like other states, the alternatives of good and bad fortune; but since its most brilliant periods have never permitted it to play a certain role among the other nations, it has not sufficiently excited the curiosity of historians or politicians to obtain a distinguished place in the annals of the world.[1]

This story begins and ends in Dubrovnik, a once-glorious city-state on the very southern coast of Dalmatia. Dubrovnik flourished as an independent republic, respected for centuries for its wealth, architecture, culture and its willingness to trade with neighbouring states.  It produced mathematicians, musicians and artists, but has recently fallen on hard times.  Once a proud Republic, claiming much of the Balkan Adriatic coast, Dubrovnik was the focal point for rivalries among Montenegrin princes, Hungarians, Turks, the Venetians and French, but descended swiftly into obscurity in the twentieth century.  Croatia lost its statehood, absorbed into the fitful anonymity of the Yugoslav socialist republic, and the spectre of Soviet dominance meant that few in the Western world bothered to explore the territory or the rich history of a Republic whose name, if it evoked any recognition at all, bore a mystical, distant familiarity, like the names ‘Atlantis’ or ‘Carthage’.

Not only had Dubrovnik lost its wealth, and perhaps its soul, it also faced a public relations disaster.  Its obscure struggles behind the Iron Curtain led the world to forget; and the few recent glimpses of a nation emerging from a long nightmare of war and relative isolation were too easily subject to misinterpretation.  Liberated countries of limited means, spurred by their desire to take their places on the international stage, fell easy victim to the wanton bullying of more popular states, and to the humourless and paranoid vestiges of their own authoritarianism.

Even during those rare, blissful moments when history began to smile on Croatia, or rather, when its perennial frown would start to soften, the tragic conspiracy would quickly regain hold.  In many instances, the culprits were the Croatians themselves – the damage done to their national esteem by centuries of subjugation having left them with a propensity for self-sabotage.  If an external enemy wasn’t ready to spoil the plans, corruption or self-doubt would lead quickly to an internal collapse, and the Croatians were once again near the bottom of the international pecking order.

It all struck home one summer afternoon as I watched the Sydney Olympics with my old university chum, Dobriša.  Being patriotic, he was excited to learn that a Croat had gained the 62kg-class weightlifting final, but his enthusiasm turned to horror as Nikolay Pechalov took the stage.  I laughed aloud the moment I realised, upon glimpsing the swarthy, bouffant-mulleted gremlin and ethnic Bulgarian who now faced the camera, that the world would quickly assume Croatia was an impoverished, land-locked, ex-Soviet republic, before everyone hastily changed the channel.  Dobriša wept with bitter joy as Pechalov took home the gold medal, while his hairstyle and demeanour forever ruined what little credit Croatia had with the industrialised world.

Considering this incident, I realised the world needed to find a deeper regard for the Croats, whom fate has conspired, again and again, to assure remain misunderstood or overlooked.  In the summer of 2002, I was drawn to a film project intended to portray the enduring soul of Dubrovnik, its spirit of tolerance and independence, and the cultural riches it fostered.  An unfortunate crew joined me:  Dobriša, a neuroscientist and would-be actor; Dan, an aspiring Croatian film director and childhood friend of Dobriša; Richard, a jobless, medieval Latinist; all of whom worked to change Dubrovnik forever.

Unfortunately, our plans to capture the essence of Dubrovnik, the warmth and achievements of its people, reviving its well deserved place in the modern imagination, didn’t go as planned.  They fell prey to the sort of historical entanglements that make Balkan history such a hornets’ nest. Dubrovnik is impossible to capture without the interweaving stories of its Balkan neighbours and partners, whose conflicting viewpoints too easily muddy the waters.  Any artistic portrayal of the place requires unflinching honesty, without which, as Croatian history has proven inevitable, recriminations quickly follow, a lot of people die, and many significant monuments are destroyed.

In this book, I have taken considerable care to recount not only the story of our film, ‘Gay Aliens Invade Dubrovnik’, but also to portray the Croats and their Ragusan brethren with the affectionate detail they so deserve.  In addition, the careful reader will gain many practical things from this book:  numerous helpful moral lessons, a rudimentary understanding of finance, and an incautious glimpse of the international sex trade.

In fact, the whole experience taught me a number of valuable things that I am now compelled to share.  Many of these lessons will be familiar to the reader.  And many of these lessons are included in the body of common sense that most people have acquired upon leaving school.  It will certainly be exasperating to some readers who, cleverer than I, feel they will have anticipated the sorry outcome of our plot.  But I beg the reader’s patience, and I ask only that he keep in mind certain factors that would cloud our view of the tragic outcome toward which we hurtled ourselves despite cautious planning and absolute good faith.  Less wholesome motivations can quietly consume the best intentions while still inhabiting their skin.  I ask the reader to keep this thought in mind.  And I pray that the reader might understand in advance that many small, anticipated outcomes can drive toward a climax that is wholly unexpected.


We were confronted with the familiar, softly luminescent, black screen, the whir of fans and the smell of burning dust as the projector awoke.  A brilliant, 1980s, techno pastiche, composed by Dan in the early hours of the previous morning, provided tempo to the flight of a bright, pink unicorn that tore shuddering across the screen, shitting a trail of silver stars in its arc that fell like glitter and conjured the film’s title ‘Gay Aliens Invade Dubrovnik’ in a glaring, neon, rainbow font.  We had spent most of the production money on costumes and alcohol, and couldn’t afford a graphic artist.  Dobriša had carefully traced each frame of the exuberant, trembling unicorn, adapted in childlike scrawl from a toy box.

‘I want my fucking money back!’  Our meetings with Ribaric, our main financier and head of the Croatian National Office for the Protection of the Family, Motherhood and Youth (NOPFMY), had long ago ceased being cordial.  ‘I want my money back! I don’t even want to see the rushes!  Do you think I can fucking sell this?  Who made these titles?  A fourteen year-old girl?’

Dobriša raised his hand sheepishly.

Ribaric was an ambitious civil servant who jealously controlled the ample NOPFMY film budget.  He ripped the projector’s electrical cord from the wall.  We were suddenly blinded by the fluorescence of the hall lights, and terrified to see Mr. Grgic, a hulking ex-non-commissioned officer from the Croatian armed forces who now served as production supervisor, standing at the door holding a baseball bat.

‘You assholes are going to make some big changes, starting with those faggy titles.’

‘Kitsch is very fashionable these days…’

‘Shut up!’  Ribaric grabbed the baseball bat from Grgic’s paws.  ‘I’m not going to sell this.  It looks like garbage!  You want the world to think Croatians can’t use digital design tools?  I’ve seen Romanian studios produce better crap than this!  I want it sexy!  I want it modern!’

‘Sir, I think I have a compromise; you can have your sexiness and your modernity while we maintain…’  I was quickly silenced as Ribaric prepared to swing the bat.

‘Here is your compromise:  use those fucking iBooks I paid for and re-do the whole goddamn thing!’

Ribaric punctuated his demand with a hissing swing.

‘I want it professional!’  Another swing.  ‘And I want it gripping!’  Another swing and he took a step closer.  ‘And it’s going to be sexy…but tasteful.’  He cocked the bat as if to swing again, but paused on the word ‘tasteful’.  ‘And it has to grab the audience, from the first second!  Right from the titles!’  He began to swivel the bat in small circles, warming up for another dramatic swipe.  ‘From the start it has to tell a story!  A story about Croatia!  And about Love!’

And with the word ‘Love’ he swung with full force, aiming for a glass paperweight, an abstract and upward sweeping wave representing the élan of the new Croatia.  Unfortunately, years of bureaucratic struggle had left him ill prepared to make such a precise and physical point.  He clipped the top of the wave, and a dagger sharp sliver of glass flew toward the wall, while the bat continued downward, unimpeded in its poorly aimed trajectory with the corner of his desk.  It rebounded suddenly, wrenched itself from Ribaric’s hands and flew spinning from his grasp.

We all ducked, and Ribaric’s physical menace evaporated in an instant, as the glass shard ricocheted in a vengeful arc and nicked his skull.  The bat clattered on the floor.

‘Ow!  Romance! Fuck! And I want some production value!’  Ribaric massaged his scalp and checked his fingers for blood.

Dobriša was the first to regain his composure.  ‘Sir, if I may point out:  the unicorn is a symbol of love…’  Dobriša’s earnest attempt to find a middle ground between Ribaric’s incoherent, violent recipe for popular appeal, and our hastily composed, but inspired, title sequence made things worse.  While the immediate physical threat was gone with Ribaric’s sudden loss of control, he quickly assumed a more abstract, and mortal line of attack.

‘I didn’t ask for an opinion!  This is shit!  This is bad filmmaking.  If you can come back here in three days with a title sequence that doesn’t embarrass me, or Croatia, then I might not kill all three of you!’

Unfortunately, the series of events that would finally convince Ribaric to try to kill us were largely outside our control, and had little to do with unicorns, production value, or the quickest way to lure an audience with a sexy yet tasteful narrative of thrilling romance.


[1] I am indebted to Robin Harris and his recent history of Dubrovnik (SAQI: London, 2003) for this quotation from ‘Izveštaj gosp. La [sic] Maire, francuzkoga konsula u Koronu o Dubrovačkoj Republici’, JAZU Starine, xiii (1881), 40.

O Albania!

My understanding of Albania was the consequence of a research project on the near Balkan states, and arrived, suddenly, with no warning, like norovirus on a cheap, Adriatic cruise:  you purchase a berth and follow a moderately educational itinerary in the hope of disease-free cultural exposure, but instead gain unwanted insight into the shared, 3rd-class toilets and the biology of your fellow passengers, something that can never be un-learned.

It’s hard to point fingers.  Can we blame the Albanians themselves?  The toxic, Balkan, political soup whose recipe dates to the rift of the Roman Empire?  The injurious influence of neighbouring, Slavic states who have made it their mission to slap the luckless Albanians down whenever history begins to smile on this ancient and chronically subjugated people (or, rather, when history’s perennial frown begins to soften)?  I am going to play it safe, and point a couple of fingers, in the shape of automatic pistols, while noisily strafing the entire room and mouthing the sounds of gunfire.

Few dare shine a light on this dark spot on the European map.  But when your attention is unwillingly captured, between bouts of dry heaving, a remarkable and tragic picture emerges.  Albanians are ferociously patriotic, and not without reason.  They are also ferociously antipathetic to outsiders, also not without reason.  Please, read on, be forewarned, and realise you cannot blame me for any unwanted, chronic symptoms.

The Albanians are an ancient people, the most ancient in southeast Europe by some estimates, and were among the first inhabitants of the Illyrian-Pelasgian peninsula.  A few ethnologists consider them to be some of the earliest migrants from the Caucasus, and the roots of the modern Albanian language predate Latin and Ancient Greek.   Significantly, many linguists, and all Albanians, believe their language is the basis of Greek mythology:  a convincing example shows modern Albanian words of ancient origin to form the roots for the names of deities such as ‘Zeus’, ‘Athena’, ‘Thetis’, and nearly every other proper noun in Greek legend.

Thus Albania’s relationships with its neighbours and, to a lesser extent, with distant powers, are subject to two considerations:

1)      Albanians were the original inhabitants of the modern Balkan states, and thus have legitimate claim to all of the land from the Adriatic and the Ionian Seas, in the west, to the shores of the Black Sea in the east.

2)      Albania is the source of all Western civilisation.

Albanian contact with the world beyond has long been under the injurious influence of adjacent, Slavic states, who have stifled its efforts to promote its legitimate interests outside the Balkans, and thus Albania has adopted a rather risky diplomatic strategy which has, as its primary focus, the elimination of all peoples who would stand in the way of its claims, in addition to those who have systematically taken advantage of the Albanians’ trusting and peace-loving nature.  In distinct contrast to nearby states (i.e. Croatia) whose best approach is to minimise the risk of untimely conflict with bigger neighbours and ingratiate itself through convenient alliances (Danke Deutschland!), the Albanians have put all of their lekë together in an enormous pile and purchased one, giant, geopolitical lottery ticket[1].  In fact, the stunning propensity of the Albanians to take enormous, and tragic, risks is well documented – http://bit.ly/bNuYSN

Any sensible person must agree:  they have little to lose. Every book I had ever read concerning Albania was careful to point out the staggering dearth of reliable historical records.  The Greeks recorded the presence of Illyrian tribes, and they  are known through coinage and the few ruins that remain of their inadequately fortified cities.  In the 3rd century BC the northern Illyrians at Shkodra,  close relations of the modern Albanians, embarked on the first of a small number of remarkably ill-planned but daring gambits by launching a suicidal naval attack on Roman ships.  The Romans, then emerging as the most powerful city-state on the Italian peninsula (something the Albanian forefathers seem to have overlooked), quickly gained a foothold in Illyria and, a few generations later, had managed to assume control of the entire civilisation, defeating king Gentius, sacking his castle and pre-empting any Albanian ambitions of self-determination for the next two millennia.  The whole of the comparatively little history recorded on the Albanians from that moment onward reads like a plaintive, American slave hymn.

Now, before you light that torch and reach for your pitchfork, may I ask you to read the other posts in this ill-spirited blog? I sincerely love the Adriatic Balkan states (big shout out to my ‘domies’ Professor Dobericious, Ivo, Dan, Igor, Marin, Minister Mršić ), and I would gladly leave my home in the withering, cultural desert of California to join my spiritual brothers on the other side of the earth where hospitality, drinas, and rich, rustic wine flow freely.  I have never met an Albanian whom I didn’t like; not least for the comically large, pendulous, brass balls that every citizen of that country assumes as a birthright.  It’s more than I can say for Californians, and, at least, for future Adriatic visits, I am now armed with the necessary, cultural prophylactics.

[1] The lek (plural lekë) is the primary unit of Albanian currency.

Why am I not allowed to dress like this every day?

What does it say about our society that the words ‘Gay Prussian’ never seem to pop up anymore?  I’d like you to take a moment to think about that.

Publish and be damned!

My fiancée was tonight questioning my commitment to blogging, posterity, etc., because I hadn’t touched my stony, fallow patch of the blogosphere in five months.  And I was all, ‘Fuck blogging!  I wrote a bunch of great stuff, and I’m not even famous yet, let alone rich.  I hate the internet!’

As I uttered these words, I was in New York, cultural centre and de-facto capital of the United States, preparing a meal that included lacinato kale, hand roasted hazelnuts and mimolette cheese for a bunch of local sophisticates.  NPR droned in the background, and a young, nasal critic hailed the latest product of the grinding, senseless (and enormously profitable) New York publishing machine as ‘richly textured’, in the signature monotone of US public radio.  I nearly stepped on the dog as I dove for the laptop to login to my WordPress account.

Firstly, the regime that would rule the US in my darkest and most triumphant fantasy would pay particularly close attention to the publishing sector, and would have an exhaustive list of capital offenses, at the very top of which would be the juxtaposition of the words ‘richly’ and ‘textured’, or ‘deeply’ and ‘felt’ in any context outside of my own writing.  (The reader can be assured that any use I might make of these dismal phrases would ONLY be in the interest of national security).

This led me to think about publishing, the internet, and my own, recent, heartbreaking experience.

‘Wait a minute!’ say my Brooklynite friends, almost spilling their glasses of absinthe while pausing the latest episode of ‘Oddities’.  ‘I am, like, totally underpaid.  How can you say our industry is profitable?’

Anyway, by locking myself in the library and stuffing throw pillows under the door, the smell of burning dinner quickly dissipates, and I can hear the yelling and sirens only as echoes through the garden window.  You can whine about your parasitic industry in your own time, hipsters.  This is my blog.

Secondly, let me share a few facts with you.  Nature Publishing Group (NPG – a subsidiary of MacMillan) and their villainous cousins Reed Elsevier (Elsevier), are running a remarkable scam, which is exemplary of the problems with publishing everywhere.  Both of these houses publish top-tier scientific research, in Nature and Cell, respectively;  which would be fine if it weren’t for the way they go about it.

The hard truth hit me as I sat in one of the world’s best neuroscience laboratories and quizzed a group of researchers about their business with the aforementioned publishers.  (NOTE – these people all have PhDs from places like Princeton and Oxford).

‘How much does NPG pay you for the paper?  Do you receive an advance?  Royalties?’

‘Pay us?  What do you mean?’

The moment of disillusion that followed was second only to discovering the lie of Santa Claus.  I won’t go into the details, but here is how it breaks down.

a) Scientist are born defenceless introverts, and remain that way through their adult lives.

b) They conduct research funded by the taxpayer and private grants.

c) Elsevier and NPG charge the scientists for the privilege of publishing in their journals.

d) Legions of salespeople from Elsevier and NPG, who are highly paid and incentivised (and many of whom seem, mysteriously, to have backgrounds in jurisprudence) sell the journals back to the universities and scientists for many, many thousands of dollars for an annual subscription.  They are aided in their salesmanship by the very public nature of university budgets in most countries.  Further pricing advantage is created by a) above. 

This scenario raises a few questions:  what do Elsevier and NPG do to deserve their money (their business margins approach those of the Beloved Goldman Sachs), and how does this relate to publishing generally?

Answers:  ‘nothing’, and ‘in a lot of ways’.

There was a time when publishers performed many valuable services for their clients, and a few less valuable, but that seemed quite good anyway when tied in a bundle with everything else.  They offered essential printing and distribution, and less essential editorial and promotion.

But what do authors require today?  Certainly not physical distribution.  Written content flies around the internet more quickly (and more freely) than is comfortable for many.  Perhaps if the publishers specialised in digital rights management, and could bring order to the piratical free-for-all.  But nearly none of them does (with the strange exception of  those rascals Elsevier and NPG).  And who cares about printing?  It can be had cheaply and on-demand, if required at all.  And as for the promotional efforts of major publishing houses, I’ll let this satisfied customer explain it all: http://tcrn.ch/yQ2M1P

I would estimate that a little money spent on SEM and social media marketing with an expert agent would make more financial sense than leaving your nest egg in the hands of a comp lit major from Wesleyan.

So, what advice am I giving to authors (and researchers) in light of these disheartening facts?  Get a job with Elsevier.  They’re hiring:

Reed Elsevier
125 Park Avenue
23rd Floor
New York, NY 10017
+1 212 309 5498

How I Squandered my Youth

I did a lot of bad stuff when I was younger.  I rolled with some pretty heavy dudes:  catty French scholars; a mediaeval Latinist who could take your eye out with ‘crane spears the toad’ or any number of balletic Chinese manoeuvres gleaned from a dog-eared book on kung-fu.  But the worst of the lot were the Rhodes Scholars.  And their dark lord and master was Bill Clinton.

Cecil Rhodes had designed the scholarship to instil the best (read – ‘worst’) of English culture into the brightest minds from the remote colonies.  You might remember Cecil Rhodes as the pasty omnivore who failed to take his degree from Oriel College, Oxford, and went on to destroy any hope of self determination in southern Africa for over a century.  The pre-requisites for the scholarship, as he dictated them to a brow-beaten secretary in 1902 who can take no other shape in my mind than Mr. Smithers from ‘The Simpsons’, demanded, in order that all candidates:

‘[…] shall not be merely bookworms […] in the the election of a student to a scholarship regard shall be had to […] (ii) his fondness and success in manly outdoor sports such as cricket, football and the like (iii) his qualities of manhood’

There followed some blathering about truth, courage, sympathy for the weak and the esteem of performance ‘in public duties as his highest aim’.

If you juxtapose these noble thoughts with his other writings, the goals of the Rhodes Scholarship become clearer:

‘I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race […] if there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible’

‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.’

‘Equal rights for all civilized Men South of the Zambezi’.  [The emphasis is my own]

I would like to think that my laziness and distinct unmanliness as an undergraduate (thus precluding me from consideration for his filthy, blood money) was an unconscious, if deeply noble, political gesture.

Unfortunately, I found myself face-to-face with Bill and Hillary on the lawn of Rhodes House in 1994.

If we were to use no other criteria than the physiognomy required by Cecil, then both aspiring leaders would have failed election to the Rhodes before the first interview began.  Bill Clinton is an enormous man, shaped like a wobbly pear, and standing at least six feet, four inches tall.  He towers over his awkward wife, and your attention is immediately captured by his head, the size of a watermelon.  His huge, ruddy, libertine face indicates a man who rarely passes up an indulgence, and he maintains a blissful grin, as if he were absolutely replete, and had just cum all over you.  He commands even more space than his tottering frame could require, and he radiates heat, charm and compulsion.  He hardly moved through the crowd, but eager Rhodes Scholars flocked around him.   He gave an insipid and hasty speech about ‘people being our most important commodity’  (perhaps it is now less puzzling that he won the Rhodes) and how ‘we’ all represented the future of America.

Hillary played no role in the ceremony, having recently endured the debacle as the public face of her husband’s failed health care reform.  She shook hands and greeted ambitious young Americans, but maintained no presence, and left no impression on her audience.  I recall she was much shorter, and very much wider than I ever imagined, and her face was deeply lined, as if she had carried for many years an inordinate share of the worry in their partnership.

No one spoke about the speech afterward, although I did compare notes with a few Canadian Rhodes Scholars, who all agreed that it had been no illusion:  his face was enormous, and bright red.

The whole episode only took on broader significance years later when the Clinton administration’s unholy collusion with the forces of Goldman Sachs became clear, and when, in perspective, the economic miracle of the 1990s (or its ‘irrational exuberance’) could be traced as much to the unsteady foundation laid by Ronald Reagan, as to any conscious decisions by Bill Clinton.  Dear reader, don’t get me wrong!  The idiocy of George W. Bush is more to blame than any factor for the pickle we now find ourselves in, but I learned from an early age, and under the tutelage of the delinquent academic characters portrayed in this post, to ‘keep it real’ above all else.

I have since wondered if the American people wouldn’t benefit if Cecil Rhodes’ stamp of approval were quietly retired, and the remaining money disbursed, in his name, among the people he enslaved.

There is an article in The New York Times, published in 1913, that raises questions that are just as relevant today [http://bit.ly/nECqHJ].  Why would America send some of its best young scholars (or those who perform particularly well in interviews and show a propensity to boss everyone else around) to England for years?  Is the arrangement good for Oxford?  Stanley Went, an old Rhodes Scholar, argues convincingly that it isn’t necessarily so.  Oxford remains largely unchanged.

In my own experience, US Rhodes Scholars had no particular interest in England, and would never have attended Oxford had they not won.  They stuck together, and fumbled impatiently through a degree that meant little in the end.  Few were true academic standouts in their new environment, and many harboured a bitter taste for Oxford that took years to sweeten, and rarely turned to nostalgia.  They would sneak into the Middle Common Room in the early morning, to help themselves to the free coffee and steal newspapers, avoiding interaction that wasn’t immediately relevant to their planned congressional campaigns once the annoyance of a second BA in politics, philosophy and economics was finished (the philosophy or economics curriculum would be quietly dropped at the beginning of the second year as the workload began to pile up;  and the candidate would slink away later with a half-hearted 2.1, somewhere between a ‘B’ and a ‘B+’, and would mutter for months on the unfairness or inadequacies of the Oxford degree exams until a new job with McKinsey in New York quickly led him to forget his two years in purgatory).

They would tiptoe into the computing lab late at night, greeting no one, and spend hours on instant messenger, lamenting to friends in Arkansas or New Jersey that there was no platform in England to continue whatever local flavour of community activism had underpinned their Rhodes candidacy.  They shunned alcohol and scoured the internet for news of their favourite baseball teams. They would occasionally reach out with a half-articulated complaint about Oxford, England, the food, the heating, or any subject that might serve as a common enemy when they recognised that I was American, and a possible refuge from their isolation.

I’m not sure if there is a real lesson to be learned here, but, like I said, when I was younger, I rolled with some pretty bad dudes.



Why is tonight’s Chablis different from all other nights’ Chablis?

My fiancée, a swarthy heathen who covets life’s luxuries, reminded me this evening that in between the plagues, visited upon Pharaoh and his luckless subjects, there must have been a few moments of respite, when everyone took a break for lunch, and the afflicted might even have been distracted enough to believe their boils were subsiding.

Living in a dismal, seaside town in California, blighted by rampant crime, untreated mental illness, and an abundance of shitty wine, I face similar dilemmas.  There are tortuous moments of hope, when a local merchant (the single local merchant whose staff are not perpetually high) might come to the rescue.  Tonight is an example:  a beautiful 2006 Sancerre from the ‘Monts damnés’ vineyard accompanied the sunset, and the warm, summer air, and I thought for a moment this might actually be a nice place to settle down and raise children.  The police raid on the meth-amphetamine dealers encamped  in the flop house across the street jolted me back to despairing reality like an unexpected swarm of locusts just when the pustules seemed to be itching less.

The momentary shock reminded me of an experiment I conducted over a decade ago that calls into question our understanding of winemaking, culture, and even ‘intelligence’.  In 1988, I had purchased two bottles of wine that should have been, chemically, very similar.  I did this in full awareness of the opportunity for future mischief.  One bottle was the 1988 Bonny Doon Vineyard ‘ Le Cigare Volant’ [sic]; the second was Guigal’s 1988 Châteauneuf du Pape.  I even set aside a bottle of Guigal’s generic 1988 Côtes du Rhône as a control.  Six years later (and I was assured by the Bonny Doon Vineyard staff that this was near the height of the Cigare’s ‘drinkability’) I tasted all the wines.

The Guigal Châteauneuf du Pape was delicious.  The Guigal Côtes du Rhone was drinkable, even good.  The Cigare was a lifeless shadow.  The bright, sunny fruit, characteristic of Californian wines, and that is required by the domestic market, had died quietly in the bottle.

The Cigare was the product of the University of California at Davis oenology department, a school that has attempted to codify the best winemaking techniques in a single generation.  But I wondered if anyone could capture the subtleties of a millenium of viticulture across regions as diverse as the Rhône river valley, the entre deux mers, the Kamptal, Slavonia, Tuscany, and even the Bekaa Valley, and a thousand other places where the alchemy of apparently irrational tradition rules the production of wine that slaps any California vintage to the mat, then rolls the mat up and smokes it like a delicious Oakland blunt.

What was missing from the Californian recipe?  And could Californian winemakers exercise the patience to defer the imperatives of their consumers, to experiment, to set aside vintages for comparison a decade later and possibly gain an understanding of the subtle interplay of terroir and artistry that creates a great wine?

I wondered how intelligence develops among species we would otherwise never consider as sharing our gifts for rational and long-term planning.  The anthropological world went figuratively ‘ape shit’ when it was discovered that chimpanzees could fashion and utilize tools, such as a twig, whittled to fish termites from a hole.  But what about spiders and their gossamer?  An individual spider is far less adaptable than a chimp, but there is an astonishing variety in the use of gossamer as a tool.  A species of spider creates a webbed net that it affixes to its feet, and uses with pinpoint accuracy to fish insects from the air.

I can imagine a Slavonic winemaker who farms, year after year,  the same hillside that his great-great grandfather had farmed, who himself had long forgotten why his own great-great grandfather had chosen this spot.  The modern Slavonian spoliates the vines in a very particular way, a practice for which he can offer no scientific explanation.  But the end result is magical, as the master sommelier at the Hotel Esplanade in Zagreb led us to know by simply pointing at the menu:  ‘This one is good,’ he affirmed, without embellishment.

Perhaps the local, Californian wine market doesn’t know what it wants.  And perhaps the frantic efforts of the academics at Davis to address the desires of wine consumers won’t get us any closer to a cure for the plague of mediocre vintages.  Perhaps complex and dynamic systems develop an intelligence that outstrips the understanding of rational, individual actors.  And perhaps ‘revolutionary praxis’ (to borrow the hideous, clumsy term of a local professor of the ‘History of Consciousness’) can be discovered in a wholly unexpected context, far removed from the meta-discourse of semiotic frippery, or the énoncés of a slap-headed, French S&M enthusiast.   I am a revolutionary, after all, and despite a rhetoric and sub-text that would raise the hives on any cultural studies professor like a persistent, Old Testament curse, our language is not so different.    Perhaps achieving the cure is less tortuous, and less remote than we believe.


Richard’s Brilliance, Berkeley’s Shame

My friend Richard is a genius.  The nature of his genius will become clearer at the end of this post.  First, let me say a few things about California, and Berkeley in particular.

When our ancestors abandoned the security of Europe and stumbled beyond the Mississippi following the lunatic visions of Joseph Smith, or racing as fast as thirsty cattle could carry their wagons ahead of the law and debtors’ prison, they forgot a few things on the long journey west.  And what they did remember were pieces of patchwork:  meaningless, disembodied and quickly mislaid by their feral offspring.  But humans need culture; to tell them who they are; to allow them to live happily together; and, in the best possible cases, to show them the marvelous, unexpected limits of human achievement.  In the last case, even with the intercession of genius, it often takes more than a few generations to create something profound.

Those near relations of ours, who dropped their cultural inheritance like used tissues somewhere on the trail from Boston, were only recently scratching out a meagre living in the San Joaquin or Salinas Valleys, dying of whooping cough, and crying themselves to sleep after ‘Pa’ had told them they would have to shoot Old Yeller.  Or, like my own close relations, fishing for sharks in the Gulf of California in the quixotic struggle to ‘strike it rich’ in the days before synthetic vitamin A.  So you wouldn’t expect much from California today.  But Berkeley?  Berkeley?  Seriously.

Admittedly, the strong local weed and clumsy application of 19th-century utopianism were bound to hold things back, but I expected, at this stage, Berkeley would have produced at least two good restaurants.  We ate at Gather which embodies perfectly the blind, Californian eclecticism that outsiders, and particularly Europeans, find so liberating, until they have to live with it for more than twenty minutes.

When Californians didn’t need to worry so much about rabies or diptheria, they turned their attention to rebuilding a few of the things that make life worthwhile, if not possible.  Hmm… Where to start?  I seem to recall that my great-grandfather had a small library, and a collection of French portraiture, but we had to sell those when cousin Silas got the gangrene and couldn’t farm no more.  But with the money I earned pan-handling, I bought this didgeridoo, and I invented a dance cobbled from the vague memories of a Javanese Gamelan production I saw as an undergraduate.  We are as close to Asia as to Europe, after all, and this seems to make sense.

Culture requires a language that suits.  Of course, it will never be perfect; like the small bright spots that illuminate pieces of a vast reality, physics, chemistry, biology, and which are all synonyms of each other.  The French have their portraiture, their philosophy, even their philosophy of portraiture, which runs in parallel to, and competes viciously with, its sister German or Italian schools.

But in California, and in Berkeley, this language has been re-developed quickly, and in isolation.  If there were a genius who could intercede, and help to make sense of a fathomless problem, here, on the edge of the world, where civilisation has been sadly suspended, his name is probably Ajithkumar;  he lives far away, in Fremont, and devotes his intelligence to system architecture for application hosting ‘in the cloud’.  I doubt he wastes much time with the philosophy of portraiture.

And so Gather assembled the best local ingredients, in the hands of the best local cooks, to create an eclectic blend of vegan charcuterie juxtaposed with meat-heavy dishes such as pork belly and hamburger, to cater to a clientele who exist only in the fever dreams of a weed-addled executive chef.  Admittedly, some dishes, on their own, were delicious.  Some ingredients, on their own, were also delicious.  But the combination was a mystery.  And the wine list made us all want to cry:  old-world varietals, combined in new and exciting ways under the guidance of a recent graduate of the University of California at Davis’s Oenology department who felt he could improve upon the millennia of French (or Italian, or Austrian) viticulture by serving a sunny, ‘fruit-forward’ Malbec on its own.  Malbec, known as Côt in Cahors, was, until recently, only seen fit for export in bulk to Russia for Orthodox religious ceremonies on a budget.

We nibbled at the bright plates and wondered how to make sense of a cuisine that married the purest vegetarianism with an incoherent blend of sour wine and fried flesh.  Perhaps there was a statement that brilliantly captured the absurdity of ‘vegan charcuterie‘ or the heartbreaking betrayal of an ethical convert to vegetarianism who now had to share his table and cutlery with gruesomely braised pigs’ feet.

During a long pause in the conversation, as I peered daydreaming through an untouched glass of cloudy wine, Richard remarked, while I picked up a forkful of apparent flesh from the charcuterie board, and as my expression fell when I realised it was thinly sliced, Japanese eggplant.

‘Man, you just kissed a dude!’