Law Thirty-Six

You gotta go with what works

September 9, 2014
by Jon

Cause for complaint

I am not one of these people whose job regularly requires them to spend nights away in hotels. Occasionally, I set my alarm clocks for 4am and 4.10am and while away a fun day in London, a trip made all the more enjoyable by the prospect of changing trains at Wolverhampton. For my trips to Leeds, I have a long-established routine of falling off the train at Manchester Piccadilly, breezing through Sainsbury’s for breakfast, wafting through Starbucks for a Venti Latte and the opportunity to test whether iPhones bounce on tiled floors (they do, but it’s not good for the screens), and then gliding over to Platform 1 to catch the train to Leeds, offering my seat to another passenger, and then ceremonially tipping the coffee all over my trousers.

It’s true that I occasionally get to travel to places like Cleveland, Ohio – a city that reminds me of Wolverhampton except with better beer and opportunities for water sports. But generally, my working life sees me back at home at the end of each day.

Tonight is different, and I’m sat in a hotel in Leeds having just completed a “staying away from home on business” ritual, with disappointing results. Back before a time of hotel Internet, decent hotel TVs, and laptops with enough CPU strength to play a DVD without stuttering, I got into the habit of sweeping hotel rooms for things that previous occupiers had left behind and a succession of cleaners had missed.

The Crowne Plaza in Leeds is normally good for at least one sock and a TV remote control under the bed. In fact, I was finding remote controls under beds with such regularity there that I began to suspect they kept a stock of them on the cleaners’ trolleys, alongside fresh towels and those pointless little bottles of mutli-functional liquid –interchangeably bad as shampoo, conditioner, shower gel or shoe polish. The found socks were invariably black but covered in enough dust to make them look uniformly grey.

It was in the Leeds Crowne Plaza that I discovered three condoms on top of a wardrobe. Being of abnormal height, I didn’t even have to hunt for them – they were at eye level and caught my attention every time I went in or out of the room. Fortunately, they were unused and still in their foil wrappers, otherwise this would probably have brought a rapid halt both to my hobby and to my stays at the hotel.

Last week’s visit to the Leeds Radisson Blu yielded a plastic fork (clean-ish), a tissue or two (left in situ just in case), and the elusive room service menu that I’d been unable to find when I checked in, starving and in dire need of a disappointing burger delivered to my door. The menu was somewhat soiled, hopefully because of a tipped beverage but I took no chances and nudged it out from under the bed and into full view using two Radisson-branded pens as makeshift chopsticks.

Those fine people at the Radisson Blu enjoy setting up their bedrooms as obstacle courses, much fun when you flop into your room at midnight plus or minus an hour having once again made the mistake of thinking that you could match your colleagues drink for drink on an empty stomach. Much fun when you stumble from the bed to the bathroom at oh-five-stupid o’clock in the morning via wherever the hell it was you left your mobile phone dangling a foot off the ground from the only normal three-pin socket in the whole place, its alarm shrieking at you at what seemed like a quiet setting last night but which now hits you like a defibrillator. Amusing as their room designs are, they make it almost impossible to remove the all-important bottom drawers from furniture. This was a trick I learned after early success in a hotel in Liverpool turned out two porn mags carefully hidden (and left in place for future guests, a gift presumably courtesy of a rebel arm of the Gideons).

So the New Ellington hotel in Leeds is something of a disappointment. Using my iPhone as a torch, I’ve scoured the room. Nothing behind the desk except two sticks of Nescafe and a network cable. Nothing under the cushions of the sofa bed or its matching pair of chairs. Nothing – not even dust – under the bed. Not a sock in sight.

I shall have to complain.

June 22, 2014
by Jon

I’ve staked my crew’s life on the theory that you’re a person, actual and whole, and if I’m wrong you’d best shoot me now



…or we could talk some more.

June 11, 2014
by Jon

If the wind changes, your face will stick like that

My last post tried to put the case for e-Readers. I aimed for an argument in favour of e-Readers in general rather than Kindles specifically, but it’s hard to separate the two. An August 2013 survey by the Book Industry Study Group suggested that over 60% of people who read e-books own a Kindle or Kindle Fire; just over 30% own an iPad or iPad mini; those owning a Barnes & Noble Nook or Nook tablet make up around 15%.

The Kindle is a great piece of hardware. I’ll admit that I’ve not spent any time at all investigating the Kindle Fire, but the ‘e-Reader only’ Kindle versions do their job very well: clear, legible screen; good battery life; and contract-free 3G was a great option to add to the device. When you combine that with seamless integration with Amazon’s e-book sales system, both on the device itself and online, you have a killer proposition. It’s the same achievement that Apple had when they coupled the iPod with iTunes (horrible software, but great concept) for music, and then again with iDevices and the App Store.

Today, the players in the e-Reader field are Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Sony, although the last of these seems to be shrinking rapidly out of the market. But the way that these devices are tightly coupled to book sales platforms and to proprietary e-Book formats isn’t helpful for consumers. This is not like buying a DVD player today, where if your hardware fails you have a free choice of brands and models from the marketplace, knowing that your existing DVDs will work with whichever player you choose. If you drop your Kindle in the bath, you are tied in to getting another Kindle if you want access to your existing library of books. Whatever competition there was between the first companies to bring DVD players to market, they realised that the end point had to be accepted standards and compatibility between players. The e-Reader market doesn’t work like that.

e-Reader devices should be cheap and interchangeable. You should be able to sign up to a range of online retailers’ services, buying books from whichever retail gives the best deal that day. You should be able to swap your e-Books seamlessly and easily between devices. We’re not there yet.

The position we’re in today is that we have a dominant product in the market place – the Kindle – backed by a dominant player in a number of markets – Amazon. In the year to September 2013, Inc’s revenue was a staggering $17.09 billion (although it made a loss of $41 million). With that kind of size comes the potential to abuse that market dominance at the cost of its suppliers.

Last month, Amazon’s contract negotiations with the publisher Hachette spilled out into the press. The details of the disagreement between the two companies have not been made public, but it’s thought to surround the percentage that Amazon takes from the cover price of e-Books, with the whole system of pricing for e-Books having been the subject of a US Department of Justice investigation recently. Amazon chose to fight back by stopping pre-orders for Hachette’s books. Since the Hachette group includes the publisher Little Brown, this will impact the June release of Robert Galbraith’s new novel – and you’ll remember that Robert Galbraith is the pseudonym of a somewhat famous bestselling author. I don’t know if Amazon were going for the publicity of having top titles disappear from Amazon searches, or whether pre-orders are a publisher’s weak spot: the whole concept of pre-ordering something that will be readily available on its release date makes no sense to me, but I can see why it helps a book publisher enormously. Hachette are also suffering shipment delays when their titles are bought through Amazon, because although Amazon’s systems are tuned to have stock in place in anticipation of the customer’s order, they’ve switched to a more reactive model for Hachette.

With Amazon inviting the public to buy Hachette books from other sources in their press release, Hachette has turned this into a battle between independent booksellers and the multi-national retailer, taking the PR angle. Another of Hachette’s authors is US satirist Stephen Colbert, and that’s not helping Amazon to stay on the right side of public opinion.

Today we learn that Amazon is trying the same thing with Warner Home Video in the US. Amazon’s pre-orders have ceased for the June release of The Lego Movie and other Warner titles. I for one will be buying my copy of that film from our local HMV, since we’re one of the few places that still has one.

Ultimately, I am not overly concerned about Hachette or Warner Home Video – these are big companies that can look after themselves. But one of the other things that has come out of the e-Reader revolution has been the opening up of new ways for authors to get published. Perhaps more so that independent print on demand companies like Lulu, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service has provided authors with a rapid route to get their books to their audience. At present, authors receive a high percentage of royalties from these sales. This is not just a way that authors (not all of whom are E.L. James) can find their way to a traditional publisher and agent. It is also a significant way of ‘being’ a published author in its own right, and a way that some can make six figures per month or more (although half of those taking this route will bring in less than $500 per year). But even the highest earners in this field are nothing when stacked up against Amazon. What if Amazon chose to alter the deal and adjust the royalties paid by Kindle Direct Publishing to something substantially more in its own favour?

Amazon may be overly complacent of its dominant position and too ready to ignore the potential of a public backlash against them. Starbucks found themselves in a similar position after it was highlighted that they paid minimal tax in the UK. Bad publicity and boycotts may well have played a part in the £14 million drop in revenue for the year to April 2014, after 16 years of consistent growth. This came even after Starbucks had agreed voluntarily to increase their UK tax contributions and to move their European headquarters from the Netherlands to London.

Maybe we won’t all stop buying everything under the sun from Amazon, but if public opinion turns against them, it could develop into something they notice in their balance sheet.

June 7, 2014
by Jon

Unnatural obsessions with physical objects

A few days ago, Becky and I chanced upon The Town that Loves Books on BBC 4, accidentally re-opening our debate over the merits of physical, paper books versus e-Readers like Kindles. The TV programme centred on Hay-on-Wye, a town built around second hand bookshops and book festivals. That the town has come down against e-Readers is not surprising: there is no second hand trade in e-Books.

Becky must be the target reader that companies had in mind when they started marketing e-Readers. A prolific reader, she prefers buying books to borrowing them from a library. She travels with a book in her hand even if she’s just going round the corner to the shop, and who on longer trips will take a book, spare book and spare spare book.

We have a house full of books, proving the rule that the quantity of books in a house will increase to fill the available shelf space. No matter how quickly you screw wood to wall, there will always be that untidy pile of books that doesn’t fit on any of the shelves. Naïvely, I’d hoped that when shelf space ran out, this would act as some kind of brake on Becky’s book buying. I’ve learned.

For the sake of the remaining storage space in our house, I’ve been trying to convince her of the virtue of e-Books. There has been, to say the least, some resistance. Over the years, she’s fielded a number of arguments against Kindles and their like.

I might drop it in the bath

It’s entirely possible, yes. In our near fourteen years of marriage, Becky has dropped two books in the bath. One was a Zadie Smith book, hardback, dropped in the bath in a hotel in Bath.

Let’s ignore the fact that for less than five pounds you can get yourself a waterproof cover for your e-Reader. Let’s also ignore that there are companies out there that can make your Kindle waterproof to a depth of 210 feet – something I might mention to my mum, who sends her e-Reader for a spin in the washing machine with a regularity bordering on obsession.


One of the good things about e-Readers is that if you lose or damage the device, you don’t irretrievably lose your books. You buy another e-Reader and you download the books again. You don’t need to buy them all over again. So let’s do some maths.

The paperback version of Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man has a cover price of £8.99 and you can currently pick it up for £6.20 from Amazon. The Kindle edition is £3.99, so you’re going to save £2.21 on this book by buying it for the Kindle. With the basic Kindle currently costing £60, you can afford to drop one in the bath every 28 books and still come out on top. If you’re about to buy the excellent David Mitchell’s no doubt excellent forthcoming book The Bone Clocks, the Kindle version will save you £11.52 over the hardback edition – if you bought a Kindle and six similarly priced hardback books in electronic format, then ground your Kindle into dust by running over it repeatedly with a steam roller, you’d still be better off.

So the whole “I might drop it in the bath” argument isn’t going to wash.

It doesn’t feel like a real book. It doesn’t smell like a book

She wants to feel a book in her hand and turn its pages rather, not just swipe the screen. She wants a book that smells like a real book and doesn’t just smell of plastic. I use Becky as an example, but to be fair to her and to avoid any ritual beatings that may follow if she thinks I’m picking on her, this is a common objection to e-Readers, and it’s about the experience that people have when reading a book. If we’re talking about something like Damien Hirst’s A B C, I completely accept that the experience of reading this on an e-Reader would be nothing like the experience of reading a physical edition. Unsurprisingly, there is no Kindle edition available (although I have clicked the link to tell Amazon that I’m interested in a Kindle release. What can I say – little things amuse me).

Authors want readers to have a relationship with their books, but I suspect the relationship they’re thinking of is with the words inside the book, rather than a physical relationship with the packaging. When Haruki Murakami sits down to plan his next book, he decides to write a book that involves a man who lies on a sofa all day eating spaghetti and listening to jazz, a woman with strange ears who goes for walks on the motorway, and a cat that gets lost at the bottom of a well and gets sucked into another dimension. I don’t think he plans to write a book that will be released in a little box with two volumes, one red and one green. Generally speaking, the author is interested in the cover and binding because they set the tone for the words inside the book and help to market it.

If people really bought books because of the way they smelled or felt, Amazon would have found some way of previewing book odour over the Internet. You’d be offered books with a range of different smells: 1950s American pulp paperback, or newsprint flavour, or perhaps you’d get novelty books that smelled of vanilla or strawberry or tatami mats. What would you think of a book review that talked about what the pages felt like, whether the book was heavy enough in the hand, and what the smell of the book reminded the reviewer of, but didn’t mention anything about the words that the author used. Are writers just wasting time crafting the perfect sentence, tightening up plot and enriching their characters through successive drafts? Should they instead be seeing whether their book is better if it smells of lavender or if they print it on heavier paper? Would you shop in a book store that arranged its books by the colour of their covers or by size, where you went in and ordered two metres of blue hardbacks or half a kilo of B-format paperbacks?

People can’t see what you’re reading

This one is easily dealt with. They should ask.

I want people to be able to look at my book shelves and have a conversation with me about books

This argument is actually the same as the last one but with more words.

Going back to an earlier point, authors want readers to have a relationship with their books. Having people discuss an author’s work and their reaction to it is surely a good thing. Much can be learned about a person through scanning their bookshelf. This does seem to be a disadvantage of e-Readers, which hide away your electronic library within their digital interior. It’s one that’s easily solved, though. I have now posted a list of all the titles on my Kindle on the wall for all to see.

Book list

Hopefully, we can now close the book on this argument.

May 26, 2014
by Jon

Start and start again

Earlier this week, I opened up Skritter for the first time in about eight months and, not for the first time, deleted my progress and started again.

Shortly after moving house, about six years ago now, I’d decided to get serious about learning Japanese. The original though that I might learn Japanese is over twenty years old now. Both timescales are frightening when you write them down.

I signed up for evening classes at the local college, and dug through the books still sat in packing boxes in the cellar for the ones my wife had brought back with her from Japan. She had most of the basics I’d need: a selection of dictionaries, basic and intermediate text books, some books on learning kanji – one of the Japanese character sets – and a few other books that would come in useful. I started trawling the Internet for resources, and before too long, that lead me to a three volume guide called Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig.

Japanese school children have to learn around 2200 kanji characters, and the order in which they learn them is set out by the Ministry of Education and is based on how complicated the meaning of the kanji is, rather than how complicated the character itself is. Each kanji may have several different ways of pronouncing it, and may have several different meanings. The need for learning kanji is that it’s the gateway to being able to read Japanese. Without this, even if you have mastered speaking and listening, you are illiterate in the language and that stops you from fully immersing in it.

The traditional approach would be to learn multiple readings and meanings for each character more or less at once. Heisig proposed a different idea. He ordered the 2200 kanji based on their component parts (called radicals). So, you learn the kanji character for sun,日, then you learn a series of character that include that radical, such as white (白), hundred (百) or sparkle (晶). Heisig proposed that you learn just one meaning for each kanji to begin with – it might not even be the most common meaning. Instead, this meaning would act as a keyword that you would associate with that kanji. In the Heisig world, you do not learn any pronunciations when you’re learning these characters initially. Finally, Heisig provides you with images or stories to help you associate each keyword with the component parts of the kanji character, and then encourages you to construct your own stories or images for the rest. Putting all this together, Heisig’s method aims to put you on a fast track to being able to recognise these 2200 kanji, so that you can then use this as a foundation for learning everything else.

I also came across a site known as AJATT (All Japanese All The Time), written by the motivational Khatzumoto, who pushes an immersive approach to language learning. And step 1 in his guide is to learn the 2200 basic kanji.

I started off with a couple of packs of plain index cards. I came up with a way of feeding them through a laser printer without them getting lost in its innards, and printed myself out the first two hundred kanji in the sequence, with the keywords printed on the reverse. My daily commute would be spent working through the cards, committing them to memory, and then testing myself, writing them out again on square paper. From there, I progressed to Anki, a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) that allows you to say how well you do in remembering each kanji. If you do badly, it would schedule the character to appear again soon; if you do well, it would increase the length of time before the character would be presented again. When I got an iPhone, my first app was Anki for iOS. Eventually, I moved on to Skritter, another iOS app, which allows me to do away with the squared paper: you draw the kanji characters on screen. Skritter provides prompts if you’re stuck, makes sure your stroke order is correct, and also helps you to improve your handwriting.


I got used to curious fellow commuters asking me if it was Chinese I was learning, chatting briefly about how hard it was, and then asking if I was learning it for work or if I had any plans to visit Japan. Given that the answers to those last two questions were “no” and “no”, I would then receive a puzzled look, followed by the question “So why are you learning Japanese?” This was a question I should really have had a good answer for given the number of hours I put into it my studies.

After a little under 18 months’ of study, I took and passed the Level 4 (now known as N5) Japanese Language Proficiency Test, the easiest of the exams they run. On the train back from London after that exam, I probably knew more Japanese than at any other time in my studies. I’d been listening to basic Japanese conversations on my iPod whenever I could, reading paragraphs of text in a mixture of kanji and the Japanese phonetic alphabets, and had the basic grammar rules under my belt.

And I was burned out.

I’d put my all into the exam, pushing the number of hours per day I studied as far as I could, and I needed a break. It was early December. Christmas was approaching, and Number 3 son was just a few weeks’ old and more than a bit of a handful. I stopped being able to go to classes at the college, and I spent increasing amounts of time on the train trying to catch up with lost sleep. When my brain was tired, I knew it wasn’t worthwhile trying to push more Japanese into it.

I just about managed to get to the 1000 kanji mark – never did quite get to the half way stage. But then came a stretch of several months where I didn’t look at it at all. SRS works on the basis that if you keep reminding yourself about characters just at that point where you’re likely to forget them, you’ll push them gradually into long term memory. By not at least doing my top up ‘reps’ (or repetitions) on a daily basis, even if I wasn’t going to add new kanji, I was allowing all that knowledge to drift out of my head.

About a year later, I decided to pick up my studies again. I wiped my existing progress in Skritter and started again with the kanji for the numbers 1 to 10, then sun, moon, mouth and all the basics from Chapter 1 of Heisig. The first few days were fairly straightforward, and kanji I’d forgotten didn’t take long to re-learn. But it took weeks and months to get up to the 700 mark before work monopolised my time and energy, and I stopped. The daily habit was broken, and it was a year before I looked at Skritter again, by which time I needed to start from scratch again. Slightly easier to get started this time, although I still struggled with 肖 (resemblance – from one of the first Heisig chapters).

And then I stopped again.

And again.

And this week, I started once more.

Trying to understand Japanese text when you have fewer than half of the kanji characters under your control is like trying to read English when you only know the letters a to j. There’s no reading material available for people with the first 500 kanji in Heisig order, just as there are no books out there written for people who never got to the letter k. Heisig’s method is great, but only if you get to the end of it. If you’re only ever plan to learn (say) 200 kanji, there are plenty of books out there that will help you and will offer you the 200 most useful kanji in Japanese. If you’re learning for an exam like the JLPT, Heisig is no use – many of the basic kanji don’t appear until near the end of Heisig’s sequence. Heisig is for those who aspire to learning all 2200 characters.

Around about the same time I started my serious Japanese learning, Number 2 son was beginning his serious study of English. As he got older and he and I started working through Jolly Phonics flash cards, with actions to help reinforce each letter sound, I was reminded of sitting on the train with my home made kanji flashcards. Watching him struggle with identifying each letter and its sound, painfully working through a sentence letter by letter, reminded me of what it’s like when I’m trying to read even basic Japanese. These days, Number 2 son is reasonably fluent, whereas I’m still stuck with Biff, Chip and Kipper.

Khatzumoto (the man behind the AJATT website) has come up with a simple, two step plan for learning any language:

STEP 1: Start.

STEP 2: Don’t stop.

I’m getting pretty good at Step 1. I just need to work a little harder on Step 2…

April 5, 2014
by Jon
1 Comment

My brain just doesn’t work like that

Sometimes when I sit down to write, it’s because there’s an idea bouncing around inside my head demanding to be committed to virtual paper, and I know that it won’t let up with its bouncing until I do so. I get the impression that the beginning, middle and end are all in there, and all I need to do is to let them pour out in something resembling the right sequence, put a full stop at the end and click ‘Save’.

This isn’t one of those times. This idea has been sat waiting for the ending to arrive for weeks now, and I’m sitting down to write in the vague hope that I can finally squeeze the idea into some kind of shape through the discipline of staying at the keyboard until my head gives up and surrenders the conclusion. And then maybe my brain can move on to something else.

The beginning presented itself in an Italian restaurant in Leeds after a good meal, a non-trivial amount of wine, and as we passed three varieties of grappa around the table. This was slightly before the three NHS Administrators sat at the next table got themselves all confused by asking the Californian who lives in Prague I was with whether he came from these parts.

“What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen?” the American asked. “Family excluded.”

Talking about the birth of children or wedding days would be too easy. He was looking for some kind of physical thing – a view of the natural world or something like that.

My mind emptied. It wasn’t that I was competing between the different entries in my Top 10, trying to work out which one I’d select as the ultimate most beautiful thing of all time. I had nothing. You’re sat there now, reading this, asking yourself the same question, and you probably have an image in your head of what you would have said. Not me – rabbit in headlights, seven year old child being asked for the square root of minus three hundred and nineteen, no idea at all, panic setting in.

The person to my right had an answer immediately to hand. I wondered whether he’d been prepped earlier. He described a tree near where he lived – the branches, the way it looked in the landscape. I could appreciate it as a beautiful thing. The questioner had two suggestions, both cityscapes. He talked about Warsaw, seen from the forty-fourth floor. Low cloud settling over the city below, and a rainbow stretch over the city. He talked about waking up in Tokyo and catching a far off glimpse of Mount Fuji across the city haze.

I appreciate these things as being beautiful. And if I’d seen them myself, and someone had asked me whether I thought they were attractive views, I’m sure I would have agreed that they were. But would I have filed them away as a candidates for the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen? Probably not.

“A really nice equation doesn’t count,” I was told. I’d been caught out earlier in the evening carefully stepping on paving stones in an L-shaped knight’s move. I’d shared the fact that I’d scored 38 on an Asperger’s test – ‘normal people’ score about 16. Neither had been surprised by my score. In fact, they hadn’t been surprised that I’d taken the test either, although that was probably just a combination of watching too much Parenthood and reading The Rosie Project.

I deflected the conversation – it moved on to less aesthetic matters – but I kept thinking about what the most beautiful thing I’d seen was. Never mind that – what was the last beautiful thing I’d seen? I thought about my walk to the train station that morning, looking out at the clear sky and seeing a moon sat low, just above the horizon, and a star (planet?) hanging just alongside. I’d been fascinated by it, glancing across repeatedly as I marched to the station. But had I found it beautiful? No. Just intriguing.

So we have the beginning, and there’s a bit of middle in there, if a little confused. And I know what the ending should be: a few weeks later, I’m looking at <insert beautiful thing of your (or rather, my) choosing> when I finally come to the realization that I’ve found it.

Except here I am, weeks later, and I still don’t have it.

And I’ve been looking really hard.

Plastic figure with biro stuck in it

January 11, 2014
by Jon

Why is it okay to be rude to authors?

I came across an article by Dr Alison Baverstock in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (and let’s just pause for a second to admire the apostrophe use in that title – if you’re into writing, you’re hopefully into grammar, and those two possessives give you a warm feeling of confidence about the book even before you open it).

She opens her article:

“One of the most disappointing things about finally getting a book professionally published is the reaction of other people. You might have imagined they would be impressed by your achievement. Think again. The reality is that most will use your success as a spur to their own aspirations, and rather than even pausing to admire what you have done, they will most likely come straight out with one of the following comments: ‘That’s something I have always planned to do’; ‘I’ve always felt there was a book in me too’; or even more frustratingly, ‘Lucky you to have the time’.”

(Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2014, p148)

Based on a completely random sample of the four published authors I know, at least 25% of writers have had this happen to them. And it seems that it’s not just the unpublished masses that have these thoughts. Even for writers who can point at their name on a book on Amazon, there’s always someone doing better than them critically or financially, someone who made out their advance, earns better royalties, has had their work translated into Icelandic, or whatever it is that they’re using today to measure success today.

But there’s a difference between thinking jealous thoughts and opening your mouth and saying these kinds of things to someone just as they come bursting out with their good news. If your relative is telling the family that they’ve just got engaged, social convention dictates that this is not the time to reveal that you’re into your second trimester. You don’t jump on someone’s “my life sucks so badly today” forum thread by commenting on how your own life sucks even more badly. Not unless you’re Doc Daneeka, and I don’t think he’s on Facebook. So why is there an exception to these social norms for when you’re talking to writers?

The response belittles the achievement – casting it aside as pure luck or making it sound like something that anyone could do if only they could be bothered. Unhelpfully, ‘They’ say that everyone has a book inside them. Despite many, many minutes of Internet research, I’ve not been able to find out who ‘They’ are, or why they are so sure, but I’m guessing that vanity publishers have been around long enough to have started the rumour. Most sources reciting this saying now quote Christopher Hitchens, who clarified: “Everyone has a book inside them, which is exactly where I think it should, in most cases, remain.”

I’m not even sure what the saying really means. Everyone has a book inside them could just be a way of saying that everyone’s life is important, and that the story of one’s life is a story worth telling. Or that we are all experts in some particular niche, whether that’s potty training five-year-olds, troubleshooting HP printers without the use of a steamroller, or finding interesting things to do in Wolverhampton – and that this information is worth sharing. Perhaps we do all have a story inside us just waiting to be crafted into a work of fiction.

Becoming a writer can sound like an easy way of making money for little effort. Get up, write a thousand words before breakfast, read for the rest of the morning and call it ‘research’, then spend the afternoon looking up new and obscure words in the dictionary (if you’re Will Self) or snoozing (if you’re any other author). In the same way, film actors spend a few weeks calling each other ‘darling’, eating cakes, and talking deeply about their characters’ motivations before standing in front of a camera for 30 seconds at a time and picking up a $15 million pay cheque.

Authors like Stieg Larsson don’t help here. The superficial version of Larsson’s story is that, in a financial pinch and needing to secure his retirement, Larsson set out to write a best-selling thriller, and so The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
was born. Except it wasn’t really like that. Larsson had been writing since he was twelve, and his day job was as a journalist. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t his first book, just his first novel. And he didn’t just sit down one day and start writing the Millennium series: like many other novelists, he wrote in his spare time around his day job over a course of years.

It comes down to the same thing that Craig Damrauer said about Modern Art:

Modern Art = I Could Do That + Yeah But You Didnt

(More New Math)

Telling the newly published that they’re lucky isn’t really just. Sure, there can be luck involved in the same way that the world can be an unfair place for us all: talent and hard work do not always get rewarded or recognised as they should. The manuscript that finally got picked up by a publisher was probably preceded by a series of similar manuscripts that did not, and more still that were locked away in the author’s drawer based on their own ability to self-criticise. It’s not through luck that someone sits down on a regular basis and writes: that’s cultivating a habit, stringing two sentences together and then doing it again and again until they’ve got 90,000 words down on electronic paper.

To an extent, I can understand why so many people think that they can or one day will write a book – not having tried to do something makes it so much easier to believe that when you do try it, you’ll be exceptional at it. What continues to puzzle me is why so many aspire to it enough for this jealous reaction to pass their lips when they talk to authors. If we’re thinking about works of fiction, then perhaps it’s just that everyone wants to be thought of as a creative person, and to leave their mark on the bookshelf. Or do we all just have our own pet ideas about how we will one day achieve the fame and fortune that we’re surely destined for, and for some that’s through writing a bestseller?

Whilst we’re off puzzling that last question, let’s keep this in mind: don’t be rude to authors – it’s not nice, and they can’t help it if they published a book.

Ketchup bottle

January 8, 2014
by Jon

Virgin train toilets talk to you

Our often litigious society means that we are surrounded by unnecessary warning messages. For example:

Takeaway coffee cup with several lines of warnings

Interesting reading

And also:

Sign saying 'Do not breathe under the water'

Don’t even try to

Or the very handy:

Sign saying 'Hot water is hot'

So true

I also came across reference to some hair straighteners with the warning ‘for external use only’, but without an image of the actual packaging, I can’t prove that one is true.

Once you start from the premise that people are unable to function in every day life without being told what to do all the time, it’s hard to know when to stop. So we get these things:

Ketchup bottle

Just for my wife, this one

Door buzzer and sign saying 'please buzz'

Actually, could do with one of these signs myself

Instructions for opening and closing a tap

Sorry – a bit fuzzy

Sign saying 'add ice for cold drink'


And it’s only one short step from here to Humphrey Lyttelton explaining the game ‘One Song to the Tune of Another‘ on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

If you need more instructions than that – well, there’s something wrong with you.

My wife is in London today for a 大会議, and since she doesn’t travel to London very often, I sent her on her way with instructions on which trains to catch, how to top up her Oyster card, how to walk from the tube station to where she was going, etc. Unfortunately, I forgot to include the instruction to lock the toilet door on the train before doing your business. Big mistake.

And then I remembered that Virgin Trains are already on the case with this, and that newly refurbished toilets talk to you with helpful advice. Here’s a recording I made back in November.

Always helpful, those Virgin people…

12 eggs in a tray

December 31, 2013
by Jon

Maintaining proper standards for egg arrangements

Maintaining some semblance of order in the chaos that is our household is a constant battle for me. Despite several attempts at explanation, sometimes with diagrams, Becky still refuses to arrange her book shelves with the books in descending order of height. In fact, there is no discernible strategy to the way in which she stores her books. She sometimes claims to be following Rob Fleming‘s dubious autobiographical approach, but I haven’t once observed her auditing the her book sequencing. Indeed, it’s over a year now since I transposed two Murakami books on the shelf just above the TV, and they’re still out of place today.

I have at least been able to put my foot down with regard to DVDs/Blu rays, which are sorted alphabetically by title. I can tell you’re wondering about the details, so I’ll elaborate – and please feel free to use or share the following (with attribution):

  • Titles that begin with an actual digit are shelved first and in numerical order. Hence we have 8 Mile sat next to 27 Dresses.
    • (500) Days of Summer presented an interesting challenge, and after some debate and research on the matter, I decided to shelve it under 500 rather than have to come up with a sort order for punctuation (whilst BODMAS might have sufficed in this case, I would probably have chosen UTF-8 if I’d taken that route, putting this film before 8 Mile).
    • I think you’ve all understood by now, but just for absolute clarity, Four Weddings and a Funeral is shelved between Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Season 1 of Friends, and not just before 8 Mile, because that would be silly.
  • Film/TV collections are sorted chronologically, based on the title of the first volume if necessary. So Batman Begins is followed by The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises rather than shelve the latter two titles under ‘D’.
    • Star Wars presented an interesting choice, and I relaxed my rule and went for the perhaps controversial decision to place The Phantom Menace comes first and Return of the Jedi  last (followed by The Clone Wars film, then the TV series in season order), rather than the more obvious approach of putting A New Hope first and Revenge of the Sith last.
    • I further court controversy by placing The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King between Looper and Lorenzo’s Oil, not to mention that the first volume of The Hobbit is sandwiched between Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Horrible Bosses.
  • Japanese DVDs are most often sorted by the English translation of their title. So, はねるのトびら (haneru no tobira) is shelved under the translation You Knock on Jumping Door!
  • Generally, we shelve the children’s DVDs separately. Star Wars is an exception, because the boys aren’t allowed to watch Revenge of the Sith.

Okay, glad we got all that sorted.

Admittedly, not everyone subscribes to Sheldon Cooper‘s theory that breakfast cereal should be arranged based on fibre content. The cereal shelf in our food cupboard is often very full, and even I’ll admit that order has to give way to practicality sometimes – Law Thirty-Six applies. But I think we can all agree on the need for proper standards in the arrangement of eggs in an egg box. Now if you’re just dealing with a standards six-egg carton, the appropriate layouts for different numbers of eggs is so straightforward that I won’t even bother to go through it here – there are plenty of other resources on the Internet and I won’t teach you to suck eggs.

But earlier this year I was given an egg tray that holds twelve eggs in a 4×3 arrangement, and the question of how to arrange the eggs in this larger tray is clearly one of import. Experience to date has been that my family are woefully ignorant of the correct layouts for all but the most straightforward of cases. They can deal with n=12 and n=0, but everything else comes out scrambled. For their benefit, and in the interests of documenting this for the general good, here’s the proper way to arrange your eggs in a 4×3 tray.

The layouts below are for use where your egg tray is arranged as 4 rows of 3 eggs (‘portrait style’, if you like), and clearly do not translate with ease if your egg tray is arranged as 3 rows of 4 eggs. That more complex arrangement is left as the topic for another post.

First of all, the starting layout of n=12, a full tray of eggs:

12 eggs in a tray

12 eggs

Even where to place the gap in n=11 when the first egg has been consumed seems to elude my family. The best layout is this one:

11 eggs in a tray

11 eggs

From here, n=10 should be easy to deduce:

10 eggs in a tray

10 eggs

Unsurprisingly, the leap to n=9 does trip up a few people. Those who consume eggs in even numbers may not even come across this layout very often, as they skip merrily from n=10 to n=8.

9 eggs in a tray

9 eggs

How often have we seen this mistake? It’s shocking that some people think that this might be acceptable:

Incorrect layout of 8 eggs in a tray

8 eggs – incorrect layout

In fact, the correct layout for n=8 is:

8 eggs in a tray

8 eggs

For those needing some kind of aide memoire, 9 eggs is often seen as a wine glass arrangement, and 8 eggs is clearly a short-stemmed wine glass.

It’s a short leap from there to n=7, which is a cocktail glass:

7 eggs in a tray

7 eggs

We break the sequence with n=6, which is a simple layout that most can master with ease:

6 eggs in a tray

6 eggs

Some textbooks still show the following for n=6, but this has now been deprecated:

Deprecated layout of 6 eggs in a tray

6 eggs (deprecated)

The easiest way of remembering n=5 is a flux capacitor:

5 eggs in a tray

5 eggs

The debate around n=4 seems to be over, and we can all safely use the following without fear of ridicule:

4 eggs in a tray

4 eggs

For completeness, although I think the rest of the sequence is now obvious, here is n=3:


3 eggs in a tray

3 eggs


2 eggs in a tray

2 eggs

and n=1:


1 egg in a tray

1 egg

For some reason, many people get n=1 wrong still, assuming it to be an inverse of n=11, although they don’t seem to apply this mistaken rule to any of the other layouts. It’s puzzling the things that confuse some people.

Ultimately, when the last egg has been consumed, we’re left with n=0:

An empty egg tray

0 eggs

Hopefully, this should explain in sufficient detail for all. As far as I’m concerned, this is one French egg — un oeuf.

And so the challenges presented by this are left as an exercise for the reader: