Opinionated Rant

Mau-mauing the awkward squad

Knocklofty’s outreach counselling service deals with many harrowing cases of authors, editors and designers bedevilled by intractable clients.

This one, from the bizarre and exotic island of Tasmania, arose from a client — a caving organisation — insisting on being awkward just once too often by requiring the acceptance of material by an unacceptable means. We were able to intervene and create an outcome characterised by renewed amity rather than extreme prejudice. This is the edited correspondence between the client, identified here as AJ, and the victim, who chooses to hide behind the unoriginal pseudonym of Jim Crint:

AJ: I don’t do FTP for many reasons which can be explained if necessary, including Tasmania’s crippled ‘broadband’; none of the printers I deal with here and overseas do it any more — too much trouble and confusion, especially with replace versions of files. Physical media — CD or DVD — are preferred, as is transmission of files by email. It may seem to be a time-saver but it ain’t.
Sorry to seem awkward, but this is experience speaking. — Jim Crint

JC: I’m used to you being an old curmudgeon pain in the arse, so no worries. I can’t see it being any harder than email (with the bonus of not having emails rejected for being too big, or having to split stuff up and send it over 10 emails to keep size down). I was mainly hoping to use it for the initial glut of info (save me burning a cd and then driving to West Hobart – save the planet and all that).

I don’t just sit at home (when I’m not at the pub) like you so I thought being able to transfer stuff this seemingly quicker way would be much easier for me (who cares if it’s easier for you?) — AJ
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Ambrose Bierce on capitalism

The author of The Devil’s Dictionary always got it right. This quotation should be flashing in forty-foot high red neon letters over Wall Street, the City of London and other panic-stricken bourses around the globe which seem to have been less well managed than the average Saturday night poker school:

“The form of gambling known as business looks with austere disfavour on the form of business known as gambling.”

The Knocklofty Catechism of Cliché

Everyone knows what a cliché is: a tired old phrase or expression dropped in thoughtlessly by speakers or writers who are either too lazy to express themselves properly or, much worse because it is intentional, so cynical that they know exactly what button it will push in their ignorant audience.

Take, for example, just elected or re-elected politicians who claim to be ‘humbled’ by their success. They have been selling their almost always aggressively ordinary personalities with a bag of catch-phrases, denigrating the opposition and generally bamboozling the electorate into polishing their hypertrophied egos with their votes.

This requires a more than usual degree of arrogance, hypocrisy and bumptiousness. The prize of power for which they have connived, plotted and overspent finally falls into their slavering jaws — and they’re humble? Always suspect anyone who makes a public virtue of humility.

Politics and journalism are the factories of cliché – Fox News is only the most egregious — and the history of the word itself is telling. In nineteenth-century France, when newspapers were even more astonishingly venal than they are today (hard to believe, we admit), the compositors who set the type by hand, letter by letter, would save time by reaching for a phrase or expression which, because of its familiarity, they had caused to be set against inevitable need in a single slug: a cliché, from the verb clicher, to cast, in this case appropriately in lead.

Technology has done little to battle the cliché, as a cursory glance at most blogs will show. But there is some hope. Editors of the Tasmanian Hansard, the reports of parliamentary debates, have developed a set of macros which will eliminate such expressions as ‘at the end of the day’ (voted most annoying cliché of 2006) with very few keystrokes.

Knocklofty intends to keep an eye on fashions in cliché. Many Australians will recall a period in which politicians, prominent usurers and other dubious public figures would regularly ‘refuse to resile’ from whatever position they had felt it expedient or profitable to adopt for the nonce. The expression fell out of fashion round about the end of the day.

A case of coprolalia

tantrumFew nations can do the storm in a teacup style of controversy better than the English. The loathly Giles Coren, long a restaurant reviewer for The Sunday Times in London, recently threw a tantrum over the removal by a sub-editor of an indefinite article in one of his reviews.

As we eschew coprolalia at Knocklofty, we aren’t going to quote from such an intemperate vomit of bile and arrogance, but you can read it here and follow a number of links and comments through this silly and delightfully trivial spat.

Our Department of Literary Taxonomy classifies restaurant reviewers as a parasitic form of life very low down on the food chain of journalism; the most complimentary description it could come up with is ‘a salaried glutton employed to write thinly disguised puffery, usually as part of a commercial conspiracy with the advertising sales department.’

The point missed by nearly everyone who jumped into the tiff sparked by Coren’s outburst is that most newspapers these days are full of the sort of highly mannered tosh he writes; it is often hard to distinguish where journalism leaves off and advertising takes over in the welter of so-called ‘lifestyle’ sections, which occupy far more space than serious news and opinion.

If the print media are serious about reducing their carbon footprint they might contemplate giving narcissistic trendoids like Coren the bum’s rush and save readers the chore of having to dispose of three quarters of the great slabs of newsprint that newspapers have become.

Just keep reading

There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.
Will Rogers

Literature and liquor

boozerAt Knocklofty we have long been aware of the intimate connection between books and booze. Few good books, and no amusing books at all, have been written by ascetics or teetotalers.

That is why our writers’ suites at Knocklofty Towers all have a small adjoining room with seldom-used equipment for making tea and coffee and a rather large refrigerator which is kept stocked by the management with the writer’s preferred beer.

In some cases the room may be a small bar with a favourite keg beer on tap and there are eccentrics who use the space to make their own often highly potent and occasionally explosive brews.

Others have wine cellars stocked gratis from the firm’s vineyards; Knocklofty Fourpenny Dark, renowned for its minimal delay between cause and effect, is popular with the more robust novelists and the staff philosophers, while effete poetic types favour the Knocklofty White Infuriator, a deceptively delicate wine credited with mild hallucinatory properties.

The relationship between literature and liquor is so ancient that our scholars believe that the two probably came into existence virtually simultaneously. The arts of writing — writing, that is, for the purposes of story-telling rather than for cuneiform accountancy — and brewing are both a little more than five thousand years old but we have been unable to determine which led to which.

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Greed and fear

reading machineThe endless eBook debate grinds on and on and we do not propose to rehearse it yet again here: a host of sites are already doing that and the best illustration of the confusion and despair it provokes we have yet seen is this from Maria Langer.

Knocklofty sees two obstacles to the progress of the eBook which need to be overcome if it is to begin to fulfil its promise. The first is the need for a reader device which will do for books what the iPod did for music.

A number of devices, all with more than a degree of clunkiness, are beginning to contend for a share of an embryonic market bedevilled by incompatible formats and anachronistic business ideas. The device we would most like to see is this suggestion to Apple and we hope Steve Jobs’ wisecrack about nobody reading any more is, as is widely speculated, a ruse to conceal what may be going on in the back room.

The problem of the reader will eventually be solved. But the second obstacle is in the minds of publishers. One large Australian bookshop chain is offering a proprietary reader and a range of eBooks to go with it, but the eBooks themselves are priced at only a little less—about $5 less—than their printed equivalent. On top of that, the eBooks are subject to a digital rights management system which is as absurd as that promoted by the dinosaurs of the music industry.

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The trouble with writing

Writing cannot be done in a loud café or in a house chaotic with children and the plaints of a neglected spouse. Too frequently it is done in stolen moments under the pressure of avoided duty or furtively at an office desk while a supervisor is distracted.

The legends of Grub Street, a lane in Augustan London now vanished beneath the Barbican and the last resort for writers down on their luck or insufficiently talented or well-connected to do any better, are replete with tales of starving hacks, hung over from too much cheap port, scribbling frantically in a squalid garret for a grudging publisher’s guinea, surrounded by hungry brats, a wife at the end of her tether and creditors pounding on the door.

Writers need time, space and—ideally—some degree of freedom from the necessity of a disagreeable job to support themselves, as well as the willpower (or the obstinacy) to induce others to take writing seriously. The trouble with writing is that it doesn’t look like work and family and friends have no compunction in interrupting it.

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Quotable 4

Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
—Dr Samuel Johnson

Authors are easy to get on with — if you’re fond of children
—British publisher Michael Joseph

There can hardly be a stranger commodity in the world than books. Printed by people who don’t understand them; sold by people who don’t understand them; criticised and read by people who don’t understand them; and now even written by people who don’t understand them.
—German physicist and writer Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742—1799)

Look out! The eBook is coming…


When papyrus was introduced by progressive scribes in ancient Egypt, it is certain that the more conservative elements in the profession held that it would never replace the clay tablet.

In medieval times, the printed book was regarded as a frivolous innovation which could never replace the hand-made book. The spasms of persecution following its introduction are commonly attributed to the church’s fear of the spread of independent thought, but another underlying reason was annoyance at the loss of the considerable revenue derived from its monopoly on the production of books.

Much later, it was asserted that television would never catch on because no-one would want to sit at home watching a little box in the corner. A chairman of IBM estimated the world market for computers at about a dozen machines.

Something similar is happening again, according to members of Knocklofty’s eBook development division. At parties and other gatherings, many of them now tell fibs about what they do.

“It’s worse than admitting you’re a doctor,” one of them complained. “Every time I say ‘electronic book’, back comes the riposte ‘Ah, but it’ll never replace a real book’, or ‘I don’t want to sit at a computer to read a book’. So now I just say I’m an actuary; they lose interest at once and I can get on with some serious drinking.’

Others say it’s like trying to explain the virtues of soap to those brought up to believe that the wire brush and carbolic method is the last word in personal hygiene.

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