Category Archives: books

Diagram Prize update

A few posts ago, I wrote about the Diagram Prize, awarded for “the book carrying the oddest title of the year”. There was a shortlist of six titles, and members of the public were invited to vote on which should win.

Book cover showing a crocheted hyperbolic plane

Winner of the 2009 Diagram Prize

The 2009 winner has now been announced on The Bookseller‘s website, and is Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes by Dr Daina Taimina.

If you read the article, be sure to scroll down to the comments—the first is from Dr Taimina herself and gives her response to winning.

Another crocheted hyperbolic plane

If you want to know more about the the book and its author, visit her blog at

Further update: When I wrote that, Daina Taimina had only just started her blog. Now that it’s been going a little longer, it’s showing signs of becoming a fascinating blog about art and mathematics, with a strong personal slant too. I do urge you to visit it.

Images © Daina Taimina and used with permission.

Your vote is needed!

A while ago I subscribed to emails from The Bookseller, the trade magazine for publishing in the UK. I did this for the worthy reason that it’s a good place to look for opportunities for freelance proofreading and copy-editing.

Today they sent me a very nice change from the usual email full of publishing jobs. It invited me to “Vote on the world’s most prestigious literary prize”. The Diagram Prize, to be precise. I confess that I’d never heard of it, however prestigious it may be.

I read on:

The Diagram Prize is an annual award bestowed upon the book carrying the oddest title of the year . . .

Run by The Bookseller magazine, the prize was first awarded in 1978 – to Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice – and was conceived to alleviate boredom during the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Ah. So  prestigious is being  used somewhat loosely, to mean entertaining. Rather as an IgNobel Prize is the world’s most prestigious science prizes.

There was a list of book titles, and finally an invitation to forward the email to “any odd friends that like books or friends that like odd books”. But blogging about it seemed more fun, so I’ve done that instead.

The books in this year’s shortlist are:

  • Collectible Spoons of the 3rd Reich, by James A Yannes
  • Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter, by D W T Crompton
  • Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots, by Ronald C Arkin
  • The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease, by Ellen Scherl and Marla Dubinsky
  • Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes, by Daina Taimina
  • What Kind of Bean Is This Chihuahua?, by Tara Jansen-Meyer

Titles from the “very longlist” which sadly didn’t make it to the shortlist include How YOU™ Are Like Shampoo and Map-based Comparative Genomics in Legumes. Last year’s winner was The 2009–2014 World Outlook for 60 mg Containers of Fromage Frais by Prof. Philip M Parker.

Clearly this is an important award. I didn’t see any mention of what the winner receives—a 60 mg container of fromage frais, maybe?—but the stakes are high.

Winners are announced on March 26th. You can vote by visiting and scrolling down to just below Blogs in the left-hand column. You can read more about the shortlisting  in Spoons, Chihuahuas, and Autonomous Robots make Odd Title shortlist, and more about the prize in general by using this search on their website.

I voted for the spoons.


The winner has now been announced. It is Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes by Daina Taimina, and you can read about it here. Scroll to the comments section to see the author’s response to winning.

Some John Cage anecdotes

The avant-garde composer John Cage is, of course, best known for his “silent piece”, 4’33”. This involves collecting together some musicians and an audience, and requiring them to sit in “silence”, hearing nothing but ambient sounds, for four time periods (“movements”) totalling four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

A performance at the Barbican, part of which I saw on TV, made it clear that this is more than just some kind of stunt. The audience was large; one does not usually have the experience of being with such a  large number of people in such focused silence for so long. The silence was intense, even experienced second hand through the broadcast. And it’s more than twice as long, for example, as the two minute silence we observe on Remembrance Day.

I’m not concerned about whether 4’33” is music or not: the important thing is the experience, not what label we give it. Maybe really it’s theatre. Maybe it’s something else.

It seems everyone has heard of  4’33’.

But maybe less people are aware of John Cage’s writings. Like his music, they too are idiosyncratic. They include a Lecture on Nothing which is really a kind of meditation leading into periods of extended silence. The one I want to give a sample of here, though, is called Indeterminacy. In it, he took up a friend’s suggestion of giving a lecture consisting entirely of stories. He gave the lecture at least twice: a 30 minute version and (with different stories) a 60 minute version.

The catch was that in delivery, each story had to last exactly one minute. But they were of quite wiidely varying lengths, so he had to speak very slowly in telling some of them, and very quickly for others.

But—and here’s the point—many of the stories are very entertaining and well told. And having written ninety anecdotes for the two versions of the lecture, John Cage didn’t stop there. He continued writing them as he thought of them. In his collection of writings Silence, stories that aren’t included in the printed version of the lecture are as he says “scattered through the book, playing the same function that odd bits of information play at the end of columns in a small-town newspaper”, so every so often you’ll find an anecdote instead of blank section of a page.

Here are several of my favourites. The first concerns Xenia, who was his wife for about ten years:

Xenia never wanted a party to end. Once, in Seattle, when the party we were at was folding, she invited those who were still awake, some of whom we’d only met that evening, to come over to our house. Thus it was that about 3:00 A.M. an Irish tenor was singing loudly in our living room. Morris Graves, who had a suite down the hall, entered ours without knocking, wearing an old-fashioned nightshirt and carrying an elaborately made wooden birdcage, the bottom of which had been removed. Making straight for the tenor, Graves placed the birdcage over his head, said nothing, and left the room. The effect was that of snuffing out a candle. Shortly, Xenia and I were alone.

An unintended consequence of his interest in wild fungi:

When Vera Williams first noticed that I was interested in wild mushrooms, she told her children not to touch any of them because they were all deadly poisonous. A few days later she bought a steak at Martino’s and decided to serve it smothered with mushrooms. When she started to cook the mushrooms, the children all stopped whatever they were doing and watched her attentively. When she served dinner, they all burst into tears.

Hearing a lecture without absorbing it:

I went to hear Krishnamurti speak. He was lecturing on how to hear a lecture. He said, “You must pay full attention to what is being said and you can’t do that if you take notes.” The lady on my right was taking notes. The man on her right nudged her and said, “Don’t you hear what he’s saying? You’re not supposed to take notes.” She then read what she had written and said, “That’s right. I have it written down right here in my notes.”

These can be found on pages 271, 95 and 269 respectively of John Cage, Silence, Marion Boyars, 1978 (reprinted several times since).


In this clip you can hear part of Indeterminacy, as delivered by John Cage. Many thanks to Nanette Nielsen for the link. (Note that this features a different set of anecdotes from the ones above—and they’re every bit as worth hearing.)

From Ursula le Guin

Half an hour or so ago I read a tweet on Twitter from someone wondering why he, in Britain, was receiving emails about events in an American university. “Don’t they realise that I live on a different continent?”

One possiblility, I suppose, is that someone got confused about what .uk at the end of an email address stands for. Believe it or not, I heard a while back of people who genuinely thought that it meant University of Kentucky. It stands, of course, for United Kingdom. It’s quite startling to hear your country confused with a university.

Whatever the reason for the emails, it set off a train of thought about the insularity that seems to be springing up as a reaction to the “recession”, “economic downturn”, “credit crunch” or whatever term or euphemism you care to use for it.

And that reminded me of this section of Ursula le Guin’s story “The Royals of Hegn” in Changing Planes. It describes a society where virtually the entire population is a member of the royal family. Their knowledge of the outside world is somewhat limited.

There are 817 kings in Hegn. Each has title to certain lands, or palaces; but actual rule or dominion over a region isn’t what makes a king a king. What matters is having the crown and wearing it on certain occasions, such as the coronation of another king, and having one’s lineage recorded unquestionably in the Book of the Blood, and edging the sod at the annual Blessing of the Fish, and knowing that one’s wife is the queen and one’s eldest son is the crown prince and one’s brother is the prince royal and one’s sister is the princess royal and all one’s relations and all their children are of the blood royal. [ . . . ]

Such questions are not of interest to everyone, and the placid fanaticism with which the Hegnish pursue them bores or offends many visitors to their plane. The fact that the Hegnish have absolutely no interest in any people except themselves can also cause offense, or even rage. Foreigners exist. That is all the Hegnish know about them, and all they care to know. They are too polite to say that it is a pity that foreigners exist, but if they had to think about it, they would think so.

They do not, however, have to think about foreigners. That is taken care of for them.

The worrying thing is, I think there might be a little bit of the Hegnish in all of us . . .

Books I ought to finish reading

Just for fun, here’s a list of them. As it happens, they’re also books I want to finish reading but keep forgetting to, or doing something else instead. In no partcular order (actually, the order in the pile):

Books to finish

  • Miles Kington, How Shall I Tell The Dog?
  • Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain
  • Stephen Fry, The Book of General Ignorance
  • Stephen Fry, The Book of Animal Ignorance
  • Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: the origins of music, language, mind and body
  • Robin Dunbar, The Trouble with Science
  • Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe: a quantum computer scientist takes on the cosmos
  • John D Barrow, Impossibility: the limits of science and the science of limits
  • Rodney Huddleston, English Grammar: an outline
  • Barry Green, The Inner Game of Music
  • Andrew George (trans.), The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Eknath Eswaran (trans.), The Upanishads
  • Stephen Fry, Stephen Fry’s Incomplete and Utter History of Music
  • Roger McGough, Collected Poems

Some of those are books I’ve started, some I’m half way through, some I’ve nearly finished . . . and maybe some aren’t exactly for finishing, since really they’re for dipping into.

Actually, one of the most interesting of those is also one of the most demanding to read: the grammar book. It’s not, as you might imagine, a guide on how to write; it’s a very concentrated analysis of how English grammar works, and I see that on the next page I have a section which starts

Constructions involving a non-finite as complement of the predicator exhibit a great deal of diversity and complexity; they present formidable problems for the analyst—and it is not surprising that widely varying accounts are to be found in the literature. One problem is this. The prototypical complement is an NP, which is why we speak of the occurrence of non-finites in complement function as involving nominalisation.

All of which does in fact make sense, but it’s not the kind of material that effortlessly goes into the brain, especially if it’s a few months since you were last reading the book and need to remind yourself what a predicator is and what is or isn’t being nominalised, i.e. being treated like a noun. Let’s just say that once we start looking at how English grammar actually works, it makes languages like German with nice, rigid, clearly-defined rules start to look a lot more straightforward than English.

Maybe I’ll focus instead on the Miles Kington book, which has stuff like this coming up (see, I can’t help reading ahead):

Dear Gill,

People are making a lot of money out of self-help books these days, and I would like you to be one of those people.

By helping to promote my new self-help book.

Which would be about self-pity.

Did you notice in my first letter that I referred to the jumble of self-pitying thoughts I first had when I was diagnosed with cancer?

My immediate response was to be apologetic for this stance, because we are always taught not to be sorry for ourselves, as if there were something dreadfully feeble about it. There are no nice words in English at all for ‘self-pity’. There are lots of disapproving ones. Whingeing, sulking, moping, etc., etc.

(Personally, I think we are entitled to indulge in a little self-pity when we are told we have cancer, as long as we disguise it as something else. Shock, a nervous breakdown, long sobbing fits. Something like that.)

But self-pity is so common that it earns no respect at all, only disapproval, as in phrases like: ‘Sitting around all day feeling sorry for herself,’ or ‘You’d think he was the only one who had ever had leukaemia.’ Which quickly leads to phrases like: ‘Why doesn’t she just pull herself together?’ and ‘Cheer up dear—it’s only bi-polar disorder!’

My brilliant idea would be to turn it all round and treat self-pity as a potentially positive force.

This certainly seems to be a brilliant book, from the 40% or so that I’ve read in its intended order. Miles Kington wrote it in the last months of his life, when he knew that he did in fact have cancer and might well die from it. It takes the form of supposed letters to his literary agent about ideas for books he might write about the situation, but is really a humorous but heartfelt look at attitudes encountered and so on. Very entertaining, but also thought-provoking.

But that’s just one list of books. Here’s another:

Books to start

The main reason I haven’t started the books in this list is that I don’t have them. They’ve been recommended, or mentioned, by other people:

  • Paul Davies, About Time
  • [I don’t know the author], The Universe is a Green Dragon
  • Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods: the remarkable story of risk
  • Daniel M Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will

Now that’s a much shorter list, but I’ve a nasty feeling that’s simply because of having forgotten to make a note of them all . . . Oh dear. I wonder what’s missing . . .