Descent on deadline day

Wednesdays are our deadline days at The Economist. This means that correspondents have filed their copy to editors, who are subbing the pieces and going back and forth with correspondents and fact-checkers.

Every now and then it gets hairy, but most of the time it just means lots of overeducated people sitting around doing the same thing and needing relief.

And then these grown men and women–senior editors, book authors, award winners among them–will descend into activities such as the email trail below, which is unfolding right now, in real time, and which I reproduce here without further comment:

Email 1: … A quick request from the kitchen…if you have a fork from upstairs (the stainless steel ones with beading) please could you return it….

Reply 1: Forking hell.

Reply 2: As Yogi Berra once said: when you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Reply 3: It’s a tiney problem in the big scheme of things.

Reply 4: May the forks be with you, always.

Reply 5: Just a reminder: Guy Forks night tomorrow.

Reply 6: Well, the fork is strong with this one.

Reply 7: Saw one of these acting suspiciously outside the building [attaches picture of fork lift]

Reply 8: There both is and is not a fork in my office, depending on which path we are on in the garden of forking paths

Reply 9: Oh, fork crying out loud, everyone…

Reply 10: No more! You’re driving me forking crazy!

Reply 11: fork give us

Reply 12: Stick a fork in it. It’s done.

Reply 13: These jokes just don’t cut it. 

Du or Sie? A tale of awkwardness

Sprechen Sie Du?

What happens when a sort-of German dude, softened by years of Californian informality, returns to Germany and encounters the natives?

Why, it’s friggin’ awkward, of course. Just one aspect: When meeting different kinds of people, should I use Sie or Du, the formal or the informal version of “you”?

The resulting contortions, as I tell them in The Economist’s sister publication Intelligent Life, are meant to be amusing. So go be amused, please, and have compassion with me.

(BTW, the English “you” is actually the formal second person, which completely replaced the informal “thou” centuries ago.)

Hannibal and Me … and Mr Crotchety

There are reviewers, and then there are reviewers. And then there is … Mr Crotchety.

Who is Mr Crotchety?, you ask.

He (and I am reasonably confident that he is indeed both human and male, as allegedly pictured above) first presented himself to me in 2008, when he wrote a reader letter to The Economist about a piece I had written (about “Slow Food”). Here is that letter:

Date: 16 September 2008


Subject: slow food

Regarding: (11 Sep 08) Revolutionaries by the Bay

Many years ago I sat down in a Slow Food restaurant in New England. It seems like only yesterday when I walked out. The food was not memorable, but the service was glacially slow and inattentive (this was before global warming). Does the service have to be European also?

Mr. Crotchety

That set the tone for all that was to follow. Mr Crotchety, possibly encouraged by me, poured himself into the blogosphere and, under his increasingly notorious nom de guerre, began spreading his wit more widely.

Here on The Hannibal Blog, for example, we were soon turning the epic tale of Hannibal the Carthaginian into its … limerick version. (Read through the comments in that post, too: We expanded the mission to Zen Senryus.) In retrospect, it is hard to believe that both Polybius and Livy overlooked such an obvious literary device.

But Mr Crotchety never over-indulged himself with his blog commentary. Sometimes he crotched, sometimes he didn’t. Over time, I became aware that an entire subculture of the blogosphere was secretly yearning for one of his ambushes. They bestowed the ultimate kudos.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that this same Mr Crotchety has now, via Sprezzatura, written his own and inimitable review of Hannibal and Me. Follow the link, and may the kvetching and crotching continue over there….

Bill of Rights for Friends of Authors

1) Thesis

I was talking to my boss the other day about my imminent book launch. After a few glasses of wine, and in the company of other writers, he, an accomplished serial author with a very British sense of humor, told me, claiming to speak from experience, that

the only thing you’ll ever regret is that you didn’t prostitute yourself more.

He meant, of course, that I (and all authors) should, at least this once, get over the discretion that is native to people of manners, and just … market (verb). Because if we authors don’t, nobody else will, and we authors will be angry with ourselves later.

2) Antithesis

On the other hand, I have been around some authors who, for a period lasting months, turn into book-marketing robots, to the point where I can no longer have a normal conversation with them.

And so I understand fully the humanitarian need for limits.

3) Synthesis

So, in the spirit of mutual empathy between Authors and Friends of Authors, I (pictured above, seated) hereby promulgate a Bill of Rights — nay, a Magna Carta — to protect … you.

(Whoever you might be. But especially if you happen to be somebody I know, like, owe, am married to, have fathered, have been friends with…..)


  1. There shall continue to be, as there have been since time immemorial, topics of conversation that have nothing whatsoever to do with the Author’s Book, and the Author shall respect said topics as such — ie, as inviolable.
  2. If the Author happens to moderate a panel about an interesting (or even a boring) topic unrelated to his Book, the Author shall refrain from name-dropping his Book in introducing the Panelists or while moderating their debate. If the Author violates this rule, the Audience shall be within its rights to boo Him off the stage, with the physical assistance of the Panelists.
  3. If thou had, in thy previous dealings with the Author, the sort of relationship in which thou could call Him a wanker, or to cast other aspersion upon Him with impunity and to humorous effect, thou shalt retain said privileges in perpetuity, whether that friggin’ Book of His is a hit or a flop, because that’s really not thy problem.
  4. When meeting the Author socially, especially if the meeting involves a Honig Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, thou mayest, with impunity, assert thy right to have a pleasant evening without being reminded of the darned Book at all.
  5. Thou shalt not blame, loathe or disdain the Author merely for marketing His Book to Others, being mindful that the Author is a prostitute only temporarily and on good advice, as wouldst thou be in His stead.
  6. Finally, thou hast the right, should thou find the Author’s presence insufferable nonetheless, physically to evade the Author for a period not exceeding the two months around the launch date, provided thou welcome the Author back into human society after the whole silly spectacle passeth into oblivion (which, remember, is a lot sooner than the Author thinks).

The making of corny subtitles

The Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator may not be uproariously funny, but after clicking through a few iterations I had to concede that it is at least moderately amusing.

The Generator is, of course, a spoof. You start with the cover of Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and then click on Generate New Bestseller. With each new cover, you realize how tritely manipulative the formula is.

Did I say “formula”? Oops. But yes, that’s essentially what it seems to be: the marketing department‘s (as opposed to the author’s) idea of a catchy title and subtitle. As the Generator puts it in one iteration (pictured above):

Subtitles: How Secondary Titles Inflate a Sense of Importance

Now, as it happens, I have been meditating on this subject in recent weeks because I am, right now, in the process of finalizing a title and subtitle for my own forthcoming book.

We seem to have decided on a title (which I will announce as soon as it is official), but we’re still bouncing subtitles back and forth.

Who is “we”?  Well, we includes me, of course, and my agent, and my editor at Riverhead, and the marketing and publicity departments at Penguin (which owns Riverhead), and possibly lots of other people. Lots of folks in lots of meetings, in other words. Meetings that I don’t get to sit in.

The result is quite interesting. Each “faction”, if I may call it that, seems to have a very different sense of linguistic aesthetics. Or possibly a different sense of strategic objective.

For the record, I am not slagging off the marketing folks — they’re bringing a vital perspective to this, and their suggestions have been good. But authors and marketers do appear to perceive the effects of word combinations in different ways.

So one might speculate, while browsing a book store, which side prevailed in which Title/Subtitle decision on display. There are fantastic titles and subtitles out there. And there are the others.


Click on the links below* for my other posts on:

Hayek & Keynes rap again

Remember that little rap, literally, by Friedrich von Hayek and John Maynard Keynes?

Well, my colleagues at The Economist got them (ie, Hayek and Keynes) to rap again, for one of our conferences. Afterward, our editor, John Micklethwait, (ie, my boss) interviewed them about how they came up with the idea. Video below.

My slightly more serious treatment of the subject, from the “continental” point of view (which produced Hayek, but not Keynes) is here.

More British humor from The Economist

From time to time, I try to give you glimpses into the most distinctive aspect of our corporate culture at The Economist, which is, of course, humor.

So yesterday I received an email. A colleague had sent it to “All Editorial”, requesting some help with what appears to be a story idea he or she is developing. Here it is:

Dear all,

I’ve noticed a tendency for companies to expect/demand that their employees enjoy their jobs, and give visible signs of so doing–being happy, wacky, fun and funny…

Has anybody else come across examples of this depressing and obnoxious trend? I’d love to hear from you if you have….

Greatest thinkers: Greeks or Germans?

The Hannibal Blog has featured many thinkers — in the threads on Socrates and Great Thinkers among others.

Inevitably, Greeks and Germans have been somewhat disproportionately represented.

So it is time to revisit the most scientific and conclusive confrontation between Greeks and Germans to date.

Not new but timeless:

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Hair in politics

Credit: Bloomberg

Here is a little relief on the light side, reblogged from my post on The Economist’s Democracy in America:

NO SOONER had Carly Fiorina won the Republican nomination to challenge Democrat Barbara Boxer for her Senate seat than the race became hair-raising. Probably unaware that a microphone was on, Ms Fiorina relayed “what everyone says” about Ms Boxer, which is, of course: “God, what is that hair. So yesterday.”

Hair has factored in politics at least since the Roman Republic. The enemies in the Senate of an up-and-coming young general, Publius Cornelius Scipio, tried to derail his rise by implying that he grew his hair un-Romanly long, in the Greek style that seemed soft and suspicious; Scipio went on to defeat Hannibal anyway and, balding, became Rome’s saviour. Julius Caesar was famously touchy about his receding hairline. And Julian the Apostate, Rome’s last pagan emperor, grew a shaggy beard to make an anti-Christian statement which became so controversial that Julian wrote a satire called Misopogon, “The Beard Hater”, in his own defence.

Hair remained political for the Holy Roman Emperors, from Charles the Bald to Frederick I Barbarossa (“red beard”). In the modern era, Kaiser Wilhelm II twirled his mustache just so. China’s top Communists have always amazed with hair that is ink-black at any age. Ronald Reagan’s was impressive, though he is now arguably outdone by Mitt Romney, who during the 2008 campaign warned fellow Republican Mike Huckabee “Don’t touch the hair.”

Women have it harder. Their hair, above all Hillary Clinton’s, is more analysed and yet they are not supposed to bring it up, lest they seem petty or catty. This was the charge against Ms Fiorina last week. Please. “My hair’s been talked about by a million people,” responded Ms Fiorina defiantly. Of late, that’s because she lost all of it while fighting and beating breast cancer. Her hair is now growing back. It is a short, strong statement.

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Nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn

Climbing, flying ...

For the time being, I have a new favorite phrase:

Nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn

It’s Yiddish and means “didn’t climb up and didn’t fly.” (The German spelling would be nicht gestiegen und nicht geflogen.)

OK, but so what?

Well, it’s a very witty and slyly subversive way of saying


and I feel that we all could use new and innovative ways to express this necessary reaction to so much in life.

You can read about the historical and linguistic context of the phrase here. Basically, it’s what Jews, living in an overwhelmingly Christian society, said to each other to mean Bullshit. It was implicitly understood among them that the individual who neither climbed nor flew was, well, you know…

Let everybody make a fuss, the phrase seems to imply, but we don’t necessarily have to buy into it.

And yet, the phrase is also obscure enough to give its user deniability should he need it. The mainstream Christians were not likely to be offended about somebody saying that something neither climbed nor flew. It’s really an inside joke, nudge nudge.

PS: This post is not about you, or him

Usually, when the subject of religion comes up, I get a spike in traffic and everybody blows a fuse. This post is not even tagged religion. Instead, it is once again about intellectual conformity.

As you know, I value non-conformity but simultaneously appreciate how difficult it is to be non-conformist constructively, as Socrates illustrated.

So this great phrase might suggest the solution: to be non-conformist and simultaneously non-confrontational, and to have a bit of fun all the while.

Next time you hear that talking head on cable TV going on about, oh, death panels and what not, next time you feel overwhelmed by the truthiness and non sequiturs all around us, join me in a cavalier smirk and mutter

nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn.

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