Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Bookshelf Riddle

The essay "Extra Shelves" in Clive James's Latest Readings begins
When is a bookshelf not really an extra bookshelf? When you don't have to build it.
The extra shelves he first mentions are kitchen counters, and the tops of kitchen bookshelves. As it happens, we have no room above the one bookshelf in our kitchen, and only a foot or so of books one counter. But there are stacks of books on two tables in the living room, and before the doors of a china cabinet in the dining room. I suppose that we could with more discipline thin the shelves to make room for the four or so feet stacked on tables. But how long would that last us?

We do not measure on a Jamesian scale, though. In looking through Latest Readings, I was constantly reminded that the man who reads an hour or two per day will never catch up with the man who reads six or eight hours per day. At twenty or twenty-five this reflection might have made me want to rearrange my life to manage that six or eight hours. Now I shrug: I have accumulated more compelling causes of regret.

I wonder about some of James's judgments in the book and have no way of evaluating others. I do agree with him on Ford Madox Ford and Parade's End:
Tietjens, as a character, is the merest wish fulfillment, the  self indulgence of a mendacious, chaotic, casually womanizing author who would like to project himself as a pillar of integrity and self-sacrifice, the honest master of his feelings.
 Yet he immediately follows this with
(In this respect, Tietjens is a prototype for Waugh's Guy Crouchback, the author's daydream about what he would like to have been, instead of a portrayal of who he was.)
Probably Waugh would have liked to have come from old Catholic gentry.  But in other respects it is hard to see how Crouchback could represent Waugh's wish fulfillment.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A co-worker brought me the print-out of some email traffic: somebody had been unable to send email to a government office. The email gateway of this office said that our domain did not exist. Well, it did and does.

The rest of this post requires some knowledge of domain name service (DNS). Briefly, DNS is what turns symbolic names such as into numeric addresses, and lets us all send email, browse web sites, etc., without needing to have many four-octet physical addresses memorized. You could think of it as the equivalent of a system for turning "The White House" into "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW" or "Carnegie Hall" into "881 Seventh Avenue". The internet has a number of "root servers". These know where to forward queries for different domains: "", "", "". In every case, there will be a server or servers responsible for providing the authoritative information. Other servers hold and supply the information, looking up the information at the authoritative source, caching it for some period, and responding to inquiries.

Evidently the government email gateway looked up the mail exchanger (MX) record for our organization, could not find it, and rejected the email. We could not imagine why. The authoritative name servers for our domain are at Cloudflare, the mail exchangers are at Google. Hundreds if not thousands of other organizations must have the same arrangement. During the period that we could not send to this domain, we sent email to dozens or hundreds of other domains.

It was not clear how we could follow up. The government web site had no technical reference listed. The server rejecting our email was in the domain, for which I could find no information at all. The physical address belongs, ARIN says, to the Department of Defense: but the persons I spoke to at the number ARIN gave could do nothing to help me, though they tried. The co-worker's contact in the government said that he would inquire. A technical manager I found through LinkedIn asked a few questions.

About a week after we discovered the problem, the email started to go through. The last change that we made on our side was to make to set our  preference10 MX records according to Google's recommendations. It seemed implausible that this change could have removed the difficulty, since
  1.  Our preference 1 and preference 5 MX records were according to Google's recommendation, and the lower the preference number, the higher the priority.
  2. The preference 10 MX records that we had used were the names of machines owned and operated by Google, and accepting email.
But after at least a week of inability to send email, we were relieved to have email go through, and closed the help desk ticket.

Were the rejecting domain one used for private email, we would not have gone to the lengths we did in trying to troubleshoot this: we would have sent an email through another domain to the recipient, suggesting steps that the recipient's system administrators might try. In this case, that response was not good enough, and we kept up our (futile) troubleshooting. Ten minutes logged in to the government server, or five minutes' conversation with a system administrator might have resolved the difficulty, but neither was possible.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Carpe Librum Is Closing

Carpe Librum, on 17th Street NW between K and L Streets, will close on December 21.  The building where it now is will be torn down or at least renovated. I believe that it was only the prospect of this that made it impossible for the landlords to find paying tenants and so induced them to give away the space to Carpe Librum. It had a good four-year run here. Before 2013, it was a "pop-up", and a week was a good run for it.

Until it closes, the prices are halved: a hardbound volume or trade paperback goes for $2.00. If you can get to 17th and L Streets, you might find something you want for ridiculously little money. And that little money will go to a good cause, Turning the Page, an organization that promotes the engagement of parents in their children's education.

During these four years, it has served as a fine place to browse at lunchtime or after work, and the $4 maximum price has encouraged me to buy quite a few books, in quite a few categories:
  1. Diaries: of Evelyn Waugh and of Count Harry Kessler.
  2. Dictionaries: of French, Italian, and German, the first two fat and the last skinny; and dual-language dictionaries of English and each of French, German, Latin, and Spanish.
  3. Essays: on education by Diane Ravitch, on literature by Henry James.
  4. Histories: Die Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit by Egon Friedell.
  5. Memoirs or autobiographies: of Anthony Burgess, August Fruge, Henry James, George Kennan, Wright Morris (both Will's Boy and A Cloak of Light, the latter twice), and Wilfrid Sheed.
  6. Novels: by Benjamin Constant, James Fenimore Cooper, Michael Frayn, Henry James and Dawn Powell
Those are the books that I remember. No doubt there were others.

I would not be surprised to see Carpe Librum reappear in May in one of the open spaces at George Washington University. I hope that they will come back, and hope that they will find another space to use for a long stay.

Monday, December 4, 2017


Noticed this weekend in Chateuabriand's memoirs:
Incompetence is a freemasonry that has its lodges in every country; and this brotherhood has dungeons of which it springs the trap doors, and in which it causes governments to disappear.
Chateaubriand had just been visiting the court of exiled Bourbons in Prague, and the grand master of this lodge may have been the Baron de Damas or the Prince de Polignac.

Daniel Halévy's The End of the Notables ends, as I recall, with the refusal in 1871 of the titular Henry V to accept the throne of France unless the tricolor were replaced with the Bourbon lily. Halévy observes that this refusal had no relation to the essentially realistic approach of the French kings; he refers to Henry V as a nostalgist, a reader of Chateaubriand. Certainly Henry V was a nostalgist, and certainly Chateaubriand knew how to sound the nostalgic note; but from all that I can tell, Chateaubriand was far more realistic than that.