Archive for November, 2010

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Matins ¶ Kathleen Seelye’s excellent story about controversial celebrations of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War — there’s going to be a “fun” Secession Ball in Charleston — serves as a semi-official reminder that the aftermath of the War of Northern Aggression remains problematic at best. The concept of celebrating “soldiers’ right to defend their homes” without reference to the casus belli that made such defense necessary — secession from the Union, occasioned by the (likely) preclusion of slavery in the nation’s new territories — will strike Yankees as odd, if not positively hypocritical; but it would be well for northeastern liberals to spend the anniversary mulling over not the old enemy’s “bigotry” but the their own condescension toward the South, which, as you might expect if you bothered to think about it, has made many old Confederates feel bound to a republic that does not really welcome them. Ms Seelye refers to the conflict as the Civil War throughout her article. (NYT)

Lauds ¶ We haven’t seen either of the movies that Dan Callahan pitchforks in his “rich girl cinema” piece at The House Next Door, but we’re certainly going to see Sophia Coppola’s Somewhere, and Mr Callahan has sold us, however inadvertently, on Lina Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. We’re amused by Mr Callahan’s blithe assumption that rich people are not interesting (we take the opposite view), and we’re touched that, at the start of Ms Dunham’s movie, the critic “found it difficult to focus because Dunham looks and sounds and acts exactly like a girl I used to know in college, a rich girl who wrote poetry, plain-faced but magnetic, who always was taking up with pretty boys who treated her badly.” That kind of fresh and immediate personal association makes moviegoing sweet indeed.

Prime ¶ In an important essay that you will be glad that you read, “A Client Is Not a Counterparty,” The Epicurian Dealmaker draws a line between “proprietary trading” and “proprietary investing” that is clear enough to expose the perniciousness of the latter practice, which almost everyone who hasn’t gotten rich working at Goldman, Sachs (and the lesser firms of its ilk) agrees ought to be stopped.

Tierce ¶ There are two things to cherish about Susan Dominus’s nature tale, “The Mystery of the Red Bees of Red Hook.” The first is the given name of one of the beekeepers embroiled in the mystery, which turns out to be funny on a level that Ms Dominus either missed or was too kind to mark. The other is the unexpected reminiscence of St Augustine that floats up when Cerise Mayo laments her swarm’s “unnatural” fondness for the maraschino cherry syrup, loaded with Red Dye Nº 40, that the bees have discovered at a nearby factory. Like romanticisers of the savage from Montaigne’s day to our own, she is disappointed to learn that bees are no less fallen — er, driven by their appetite for instant gratification — than the children of Adam and Eve, whose lust for pleasure Augustine could explain only by means of his egregious invention, original sin. (NYT)

Sext ¶ If our friend George Snyder is not sitting by the phone waiting for a call from the producers of The A List, that’s because he has a rather more regal sense of what “A List” means. We only wish that Patrick Dennis were still around to correct George’s misapprehension that “being followed about New York City with multiple cameras while you smoke and drink and work out is hardly natural.” (1904)

Nones ¶ Jonah Goldberg dumps on President Obama, in the wake of the Wikileaks release, for relying on “engagement, dialogue, kumbaya” to solve international problems. More specifically, he blasts the president for failing to secure a favorable trade treaty with South Korea. There is a great deal of offstage saber-rattling in Mr Goldberg’s paragraphs, but no specific recommendations, not even an explicit demand that the president “get tough” with America’s antagonists. (LA Times; via Real Clear World)

Vespers ¶ Ben Hamilton makes a persuasive case for not treating rap lyrics as “high poetic art” — and he means no disrespect to either art form. His most forceful objection comes early on: “rap lyrics just do not work on the page.” We found  this to be true of a little volume of Cole Porties verses, which in many case don’t even scan without musical support. Mr Hamilton also worries that the equation of Ice Cube and Wallace Stevens will work to the detriment of the latter. (The Millions)

Compline ¶ Don’t miss Robert McCrum’s account of a spirited talk with Margaret Atwood that conveys the impression that Ms Atwood is one of the great minds of our time, and only incidentally a poet and a novelist. She is the rare person whose interest in the environment has not pushed her into the abyss of misanthropy. “We shouldn’t be saying ‘Save the planet’; we should be saying: ‘Save viable conditions in which people can live’.”

Have a Look

¶ Our great friend, JRParis, is in town, and as always he is taking great photographs, several of which he has already posted. (Mnémoglyphes; [oldest permalink]) 

¶ “Crumpled City” maps. (GOOD)

Noted

¶ “Radiation Rings Hint Universe Was Recycled Over and Over” (Wired Science)

Morning Snip:
Picture This

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Oh, dear, how keen we’d have been to be there, when George Castro was arrested in his home, in connection with a crime that’s still pretty unclear. It involves the siphoning of Columbia University millions into a bank account in the name of “IT Security Solutions” — how perfect is that — for which Mr Castro had signing authority. (NYT; via The Morning News)

Mr. Castro, 48, was charged with first-degree grand larceny and criminal possession of stolen property.

When investigators went to Mr. Castro’s home on Wednesday to arrest him, they found him with a bag containing $200,000 in cash, the complaint said. They also seized a car, an Audi worth more than $80,000, according to the complaint.

“The money just appeared in my account,” Mr. Castro told the authorities at the time, according to the complaint. “I got greedy. I bought the car with money from the account and made other purchases.”

The picture of a man holding a bag of cash and claiming that it “just appeared” in his bank account is as delicious as wickedness gets.

Daily Office:
Monday, 29 November 2010

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Matins ¶ Cory Doctorow asks: “What Do We Want Copyright To Do?” Putting the question that way cuts through the self-serving claims of “content providers” and the radical eyewash of those who claim that “information wants to be free.” Mr Doctorow offers no detailed proposals, but he argues persuasively that any reasonable copyright system will be (a) based on actual evidence of need and (b) balanced between remuneration and inconvenience. We’re inclined to believe that the question ought to be, “How Do We Want Copyright To Work?” — meaning how, exactly, revenue streams from consumers to creators. But a moment’s thought suggests that this is just another way of framing Mr Doctorow’s call for balance. (Guardian; via 3 Quarks Daily)

Lauds ¶ One of the first things that we read on our return from vacation was Peter Schjeldahl’s report on van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, “The Flip Side.” [P] The amount of information packed into this extremely readable account of the panels’ current conservation project is astonishing profuse but never miscellaneous; every sentence is informed by Mr Schjeldahl’s understanding thatt the Altarpiece is, above all, a beautiful thing. We also shared his outrage that the masterpiece is a hostage of the Ghent cathedral’s dependence upon gate receipts; it ought to be in a proper museum. (The New Yorker)

Prime ¶ Is Felix Salmon biting the hand that feeds him? We don’t have any idea, to be sure, of how much revenue  Thomson Reuters pulls in from retail market reports (possibly none), but the idea that individual investors “ should probably check up on the value of their investments no more than twice a year (and even once every two or three years is fine)” seems radically contrarian, at least for anyone who isn’t Warren Buffett. As if that weren’t renunciation enough, Felix wishes that the White House would release the daily report that Treasury prepares for the Oval Office. “I’m sure that the product would be extremely popular on Wall Street and beyond, and help build a fair amount of free goodwill for the White House.” And it would render television’s moronic market reports superfluous.  

Tierce ¶ More from Ed Yong about the strange phenomenon of stereotype threat — strauge because it is really the opposite of a phenomenon, because it is invisible alike to those whose performance falls off simply because they believe that they’re thought to be incapable of doing better, and to those who thrive on the stereotyping, almost always white males. In this double-blind experiment, women taking a university physics course narrowed the gap in gender performance when they completed a writing exercise before the course commenced. Byaffirming their own ideas of what’s important in life in a brief essay, they created a foundation of self-confidence that negated the stereotype threat.

Sext ¶ Bob Cringely has some thoughts about the death — or dying, if you prefer — of email. We thought that it was just us. To the list of factors that Cringely lines up as rendering email less enticing than it used to be, we would add a certain sense of surfeit; those of us who are old enough to have done so certainly gorged on email for about a decade before other media (blogs, social networks) began to alter Internet communication. We said everything that we had to say, and then we said again — and the bums got into the White House anyway. Also unmentioned, and not entirely irrelevant, is the anecdotal evidence that smart people have come to detest phone calls.

Nones ¶ Timothy Garton Ash is astute about the Wikileaks release of US diplomatic cables, noting that State Department officials come off looking pretty capable. What we’re hoping for is that this heap of clear-eyed analyses of foreign affairs will make it more difficult for our politicians to support bankrupt governments and indefensible regimes. (Guardian; via Real Clear World)

Vespers ¶ Emma Garman writes intriguingly about the last NYRB republication of a Stefan Zweig title, Journey Into the Past. Zweig is one of those mitteleuropäisch writers whose name we’ve always known but whose work we’ve never read. This novella, translated by Andrea Bell (and introduced by Andre Aciman), promises an agreeable corrective. (Words Without Borders; via Conversational Reading)

Compline ¶ Bill Morris is one of those guys who like to type — on a typewriter. The way he talks, you’d think that the typed letter was at some point in the past considered to be “correct,” but that’s not how we remember it. Just as condolence notes and love letters are not supposed to be conveyed via email today, so they weren’t supposed to be typed when we were growing up, either. We’re amused by the romance of Mr Morris’s reflections, but we fail to see an intrinsic difference between letters composed at typewriters and with word processors. The fact that many writers don’t take the trouble doesn’t delete the fact that computer-aided writing is vastly easier to polish. (The Millions)

Have a Look

¶ Ancient Madder. (Ivy Style)

¶ The Espresso Book Machine — a reprise. (via HTMLGiant)

Noted

¶ Alexander Chee: Thoughts on writing in a land where it is safe to write anything because writing has been discredited and is considered unimportant. (Koreanish)

Morning Snip:
Pleasing Stream of the Old Rancid

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Some holiday thoughts from Jim Quinn, at The Burning Platform (via Naked Capitalism):  

Becoming educated, thinking critically, working hard, saving money to buy what you need (as opposed to what you want), developing human relationships, and questioning the motivations of government, corporate and religious leaders is hard. It is easy to coast through school and never read a book for the rest of your life. It is easy to not think about the future, your retirement, or the future of unborn generations. It is easy to coast through life at a job (until you lose it) that is unchallenging, with no desire or motivation for advancement. It is easy to make your everyday troubles disappear by whipping out your piece of plastic and acquiring everything you desire today. If your brother-in-law buys a 7,000 sq ft, 7 bedroom, 4 bath, 3 car garage, monolith to decadence for his family of 3, thirty miles from civilization, with no money down and a no doc Option ARM providing the funds, why shouldn’t you get in on the fun. It’s easy. Why sit around the kitchen table and talk with your kids, when you can easily cruise the internet downloading free porn or recording every trivial detail of your shallow life on Facebook so others can waste their time reading about your life. It is easiest to believe your elected leaders, glorified mega-corporation CEOs, and millionaire pastors preaching the word of God for a “small” contribution to their mega-churches.

Democracy is hard. Doing what’s easy doing what “everyone else” is doing — that’s not democracy.

Vacation Note:
Happy Thanksgiving
25 November 2010

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, all! Christmas is a month away.

In an unexpected treat, Cruzan guitarist Steve Katz will be playing at the Terrace Bar this evening, before dinner. I have never heard a more accomplished musician. I vividly remember waking up to his being much, more more than a lounge musician (not that all the people who play at the Terrace Bar aren’t truly excellent): one night, on our first visit to the Buccaneer, I realized that I was hearing one of John Dowland’s laments, exquisitely played. It was late, and the bar was almost empty — Steve was sneaking in something from his classical repertoire. We went over to speak to him after his set. This year, he came over to us.

The weather is magnificent for a second consecutive day; there is not a cloud in the sky at the moment, and St Thomas and St John ride the horizon like ghost battleships. The breeze is cool and dry, leaves lapping over the surf and the reassuring sound of distant tennis.

I’d love to report that I’m relaxed, but the relaxation portion of this vacation ended days ago. I’m boiling over with plans for regular life.

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Matins¶ It’s not so much who (Nick Hornby) as what is behind Hoxton’s Monster Supply Shop: the London correlative to 826 Valencia, the flagship of Dave Egger’s fleet of after-school literacy enhancement centers. In London, it’s the Ministry of Stories, and the well-polished modesty of Mr Hornby’s account at FT does not obscure his contribution to the project. (We’d probably be killed for putting it that way, but we’re on vacation.) (via 3 Quarks Daily)

Lauds¶ In a fine jeremiad that, in lesser hands, would be overkill, Chris Lehmann hurls the shattering wisdom of Max Weber at the celebrity accumulators of kidcult dreck featured in the current issue of Vanity Fair.It would be stupid to complain that Mr Lehmann is cranky, because jeremiads are supposed to be cranky. Not that we expect Amy Sedaris won’t be pleased, but, gee, she gets off with a much lighter spanking than “tedious Upper East Side candy baron Dylan Lauren.” (Somebody really ought to have urged the baroness to pine after bedsheets other than her dad’s.) “After all, as the consummate sociological professionals at Conde Nast remind us, yesterday’s stable of meticulously choreographed taste preferences are merely fodder for tomorrow’s ironically packaged crafts-for-the-poor insta-book.” (The Awl)

Prime¶ We”ll be damned if we can think of a more eloquent denunciation of the soulless agglomeration of local businesses — most of it written in the villain’s own hand — than Thomas Cox’s tale of the client whom he had to advise not to buy a cord of firewood for her soon-to-be-repossessed home. With its crap talk of “committing to providing excellent service” and “responding to your concerns with quality integrity,” Key Bank’s inhumanity makes us wonder if genuine robots would be worse. Mr Cox is the attorney who elicited confessions of “robo-signing” from a GMAC functionary earlier this year. (Naked Capitalism)

Tierce¶ Maria Popova writes up the findings of a new Pew study on marriage, which, as you’ve already elsewhere, is taking on a class-bound coloration, favored by the educated by shunned or indefinitely postponed by the proles. We like the summation that Ms Popova claims that she would make if she were cruder: “So, Americans are still sexist homophobes who believe money buys happiness and human beings are innately evil.” (Brain Pickings)

Sext¶ In a piece that’s much too amusing for Prime, Felix Salmon throws us two tasty bones: Benjamin Wey, soi-disant China finance expert, and 5WPR, a flacketeria that Gawker has been following. The moral of the story? “You really shouldn’t listen to people quoted in the media just because they’re quoted in the media.” But you knew that, right?

Nones¶ What is the French for “brain drain“? You won’t hear us crowing that American higher education is so much better than French higher education that fully 27% of those who left France for the United States from 1996 to 2006 have been academics. You probably won’t see us shedding any tears for France, either. You will see us doubled over at this claim, made by an economist whose only regret is that he didn’t cross the Atlantic sooner: “US universities are havens of knowledge.” Havens — that’s the very word that comes to our lips when we think of Columbia and MIT. (Warning: given that this story appeared The New York Times — albeit based on a study by the Institut Montaigne in Paris — it may be debunked as a “nonstory” any minute now by The Nytpicker.)

Vespers¶ We think that Darin Strauss does a great job of handling the delicate issues of privacy and honesty that bedevil the writing of memoirs, and maybe you will, too, after you’ve read Sari Botton’s interview with the author at The Rumpus — although we must caution that the book itself, Half a Life, is inevitably more satisfying. “She was well liked and pretty, but she wasn’t the prom queen, and it was disrespectful, I think, to pretend she was because that, because that’s mourning someone who didn’t exist.”

Compline¶ A jaundiced view, possibly tendentious, of the “Chinese middle class,” dismissed in this article from the Japanese magazine, Sentaku, as a “mirage” created by the Communist Party that is “on the verge of disintegrating.” (via Real Clear World)

Have a Look

¶ Slimbo’s roof (eave).

¶ Corona: the morning rush. (MTA; via The Infrastructurist) In other subway news…

¶ Bernhardt-Sessions show at Cuchifritos: “Milk is the Morandi Message.” Cheese shop next door. (ArtCat)

Noted

¶ The Better Business Bureau: A ratings agency for the people! (Weakonomics)

Housekeeping Note:
Wednesday already?
24 November 2010

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Happy as I’ll be to return home, I wish that we were staying a few more days. It seems as though we just unpacked! And why is that? We’ve done nothing but the same thing, day after day, since we got here. We’ve had breakfast; then we’ve read (feeds, in my case — but no more until I’m back in New York) until lunch. After lunch, more reading (or, in Kathleen’s case, stitching; Monday, she did a bit of lawyering). One day, we walked on the beach; on all the others, Kathleen took a pre-dinner nap. Then dinner, all but one nights in the bar. A bottle of wine. Back in the room, I’ve been sleepy earlier each night, turning it at the amazing hour of 9:30 New York time.

A most unexpected pleasure: “reading” The Ambassadors on the iPad. I put it in quotes because I began with Book Third, and have not committed to reading straight from there.

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Matins¶ At The Baseline Scenario, guests Mark Paul and Anatasia Wilson wring their hands about the unemployment of college grads and other young people. We agree that there’s a problem, but we don’t believe that current economic structures can be repaired. The sad or lucky truth, depending on how you think about it, is that this country has never had had to re-consider any of its initial arrangements — with the single and rather baleful exception of slavery. What we need to do for young people today is to provide them with whatever they ask for to meet the challenge of developing new ways of doing business. At a minimum, we need to make it very clear that creating an economy that will employ them is entirely up to the youth of America.

Lauds¶ Jim Emerson calls for all serious moviegoers to run out and buy a copy of David Thomson‘s New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Is it encyclopedic? No, but that doesn’t matter, and the review is sprinkled with enough nuggets to show why. On Francis Ford Coppola: “There is a talent in American films that makes for adolescent attitudes, veiled fascism, and a work that leads one to recognize the proximity of talent and meretricious magic.” Bring it on!

Prime¶ In the current New Yorker, John Cassidy asks “What Good Is Wall Street?” Not much, it turns out, in an atmosphere governed by the idea that financial markets, if left to themselves, are efficient. On the contrary, they’re as stuffed with “cotton, hay, and rags,” and impervious to sound advice, as Henry Higgins thinks women to be. Toward the end of the piece, Mr Cassidy visits with The Epicurean Dealmaker, who had the good sense to prepare for a lot of first-time visitors.

Tierce¶ There’s at least one thing to take away from Elizabeth Day’s look at reality television, in The Guardian. And that’s that nobody, except possibly a few clueless wannabees, is being exploited by this kind of entertainment. It may give us hives, but there’s no call for looking down on those who enjoy it; and it seems that nobody is taken in by the pretense of artlessness. We do stick to our belief that people who turn to television for a sense of belonging are fleeing the complications of reality community. (via MetaFilter)

Sext¶ Jean-Louis Gassée’s eloquence on the Third Lie of Computers (“You Can Do It”) brought tears to our eyes — we’d thought that it was just us! Mr Gassée wanted to set up a simple site using a simple app, and, hey, if Google isn’t simple, what is it? Impossible, that’s what. The bingo comes toward the end of the piece, where it is discovered that “the big guys” — the Times, the Journal — have given their glowing new-product reviews ZERO long-term follow-up. Hey, they don’t have to pay for anything, right? Men may come from Venus, but Google’s engineers come from a planet known only to Roz Chast. Payoff joke: “In the meantime, while Google has been preoccupied with “killing” Microsoft, Facebook has grown to become the Internet’s most frequented site.” We couldn’t like it more.

Nones¶ At A Fistful of Euros, P O’Neill pens a piece with a title, “Ireland: The timidity of the lawyers,” that seems quite completely controverted by what follows. For the only reasonable conclusion that one can draw coming away from the essay is that Irish lawyers — the Irish lawyers who serve the governments, whether as ministers or advisers — are a bold lot, happy to let the Irish taxpayer shoulder the bust of Ireland’s property bubble. In Mr O’Neill’s Irish turn of phrase, “Somehow the country never rose in importance as the client compared to the party.”

Vespers ¶ The Millions points us to Seth Colter Walls’s absorbing overview of David Foster Wallace’s papers at the Harry Ransom Center. It seems that Wallace followed in Trollope’s footsteps (see: The Eustace Diamonds ) in at least one way: he obtained detailed information from a tax attorney about “the single most confusing sentence in the tax code.” (There was a contest?) This has entirely reconciled us to the posthumous publication of Pale King. (Newsweek)

Compline

¶ The Nytpicker magnanimously calls on the Pulitzer Prize judges to give Frank Rich a prize. Hear, hear! Of all the major writers who are out there arguing for an America that we can be proud of (as distinct from the America that would like to kick us out), Frank Rich is by far the most scrupulous examiner of his own party’s shortcomings — its snotty condescension in particular. The Nytpicker allows that Mr Rich “preaches to the choir,” but we think that he does something much more important: he scolds it.

Have a Look

¶ Just about the silliest things we’ve ever heard of: Map of the World’s Countries Rearranged by Population. We link to it because — finally! — it proves American exceptionalism. American’s are the only peoples of the world who would not have to move! (Strange Maps)

¶ Coralie Pickford-Brown‘s lovely cloth-bound Penguin Classics covers. We’ve linked to them before, but now we own one. (Guess) (Brain Pickings)

Noted

¶ Dance troupe on the run — in the Lincoln Tunnel. (Mail Online; via ArtsJournal)

Rumination:
Change: Scale and Choice (I)
23 November 2010

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Re-reading The Keep this morning, I reached the scene (Chapter 6) in which Danny, the fictitious protagonist — he’s a fiction within Jennifer Egan’s fiction — encounters the baroness in the eponymous tower. The baroness, who appears to be a maiden at a distance, gradually ageing as Danny gets closer, spouts a lot of clever, snobby insults, which Danny, being the good “number two” that he is, takes in stride. “The oldest thing in your family closet is a tennis racket from 1955, whereas I have a thirteenth-century sarcophagus in my basement.” The put-down seems terribly familiar. By now, the stock European conviction that Americans are unsocialized savages seems itself to date from the thirteenth century, as does the Wildean waspishness. It’s no surprise that the baroness turns out to be a fabulous creature. She’s expansively unreal.

So are the underpinnings of her orgulous attitude. In the scheme of things — but I ought to tell you that, for me, the scheme of things is about 170,000 years in length. I read somewhere that human beings have been human beings — vulgo, we’ve been us — for about that long; and I’m sticking with it. Let’s not trouble our little heads with the age of the planet, or the dating of the earliest fossils, or the millions of years — millions — that were spent by dinosaurs romping and pillaging. Let’s leave “Lucy” and her toolkit out of it. It’s enough to ponder the figure, in the lower six digits, within which the number of years of actual history — written records of one kind or another — shrivels almost to invisibility: the low four figures. It’s a stretch to say that there are more than three thousand years of human history. By history, I mean the sense that things change on a linear, irreversible scale.

Bishop Ussher famously dated creation to 4004 BC; he worked it out, one supposes, from the proliferation of genealogies laid down in the Hebrew Bible. I suspect that even the most scientific minds, when they’re out of the laboratory anyway, settle on a six-thousand year time-frame for human affairs: it’s what we know. We infer a good deal about what happened earlier; carbon dating has allowed us to place cave paintings in France and arrowheads in America on a time-line. But we don’t really know anything about the people who made those paintings — I like to think that they were sportive adolescents, without a spiritual thought in their heads — or who crossed the Bering Strait so that those arrowheads could be manufactured in what would much, much later, when the experience had passed completely out of mythology, be called “The New World.” The way in which we know about prehistoric human beings is qualitatively different, and distinctly less vivid, from our imaginative access to the lives of our oldest writers, among them the poet of the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). However archaic its style and patchy its narrative, we know what the Song of Deborah is all about.

We — mankind, human beings; what will be the next term? — face a barrage of challenges in our time, many of them old challenges that we’ve only just awakened to. We’ve imposed huge burdens on our notions of a just society, which, as recently as two hundred years ago, had nothing to say about universal health care. Two hundred years! How does that relate to a hundred and seventy thousand? It doesn’t; we can’t make it. But we’ve got to learn how. We are not going to deal with the problems that face us in an intelligent way until we grasp the scale of our past: how long it has taken us to get here, but how rapidly the pace of change has increased. Again, everyone is aware that things change faster today than they used to do. (There is actually a growing chorus of observers who point out that the pace appears to have slackened, and that this is a sign of decadence or benightedness.) But compared to what? To life forty or fifty years ago, when today’s boomers were children? To fans of popular culture who think back to the early days of the movies? To students of the Industrial Revolution, which begins in earnest at some point in the middle of the Eighteenth Century (not quite three hundred years ago). If you consider the pace of change on my time scale, and we play the game of stretching it onto the scale of a minute, then everything happens — now together with the reference points from which we gauge all change — within a second or two.

We need to change the way things change. That’s what I’ll take up in the second part of this rumination.

Daily Office:
Monday, 22 November 2010

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Matins¶ Harry Cutting’s “Ode to a Flat Place” is an amazingly well-packed trip to the high plains of Kansas. Lots of information, lots of atmosphere. And then, boom, a picture of two weatherbeaten men (father and son) all but waving good-bye. One farmer worries about the image that the rest of us have of today’s farmers. When we learn that today’s irrigation rig can be controlled by BlackBerry; it also sends all sorts of feedback to the farmer’s computer, we see his point.

Lauds¶ Morgan Meis’s writes drolly about the new must-have, The Classical Tradition, a guide for the perplexed. The comparison to Maimomides is just about the funniest thing in the in classical laughs. Far from being an encyclopedic introduction to Greece and Rome that’s aimed at people who can’t tell their Hera from their Juno, The Classical Tradition is designed to help sophisticates regain “the sense of wonder” that, we too often forget, was at least as salient in the ancient world as the passion for ration.  (The Smart Set; via 3 Quarks Daily)

Prime¶ Repeat after us: “Sunk costs are lost costs. Sunk costs that aren’t lost are called “investments.” We like to keep things serious at our financial hour, but the story of Deutsche Bank’s “investment” in Las Vegas’s Cosmpolitan Hotel is too funny to pass over. If ever a hotel deserved to take its name from the great river of Egypt, this is it. Felix Salmon tells it well, but it wasn’t until we got to Bess Levin’s mention of the matter that we learned just how “cosmopolitan” the hotel was intended to be, with its “entry hall featuring 28-foot robots programmed to box, dance and play 12-foot Stratocaster guitars.”

Tierce¶ First, the good news: we’ve got thirteen million tons of the stuff! Bad news: start digging, yesterday. What are those rare earths, anyways (they’re the “lanthanides“), and who needs ‘em (you do). Worse news: China has 97% of the earth’s rare-earth reserves. (New Scientist. )

Sext¶ The saga of Elif Batuman’s (Turkish?) towels, or How to Cut Through Red Tape in Istanbul. (My Life and Thoughts; via The Morning News)

Stepping back a moment from the scene, it occurred to me how remarkable it was that fate had brought me face to face in this way with the author of my bureaucratic troubles. All too often, such struggles just wind to an end without you ever finding out what the deal was, or what human interest was concealed in the heart of the machine.  And the nature of such ordeals is that, by the end, you don’t care anymore, anyway. What a rare treat then for me, as a writer, to actually meet my secret opponent, and to thereby be able to contextualize my own particular situation within the broader field of human activity—within, for example, the life-story of a purple-faced man whose mission was to shut down smugglers, and who believed that I was trying to sell my used towels to the Turkish people without paying import taxes.

Nones¶ Kenyan Mwangi Kimenyi lays out what an independent Southern Sudan is going to need in order to come into existence, with an accent on help from the West — and how important, especially for Kenya, it is that Juba gets what it needs. (LA Times; via Real Clear World)

Vespers¶ At The Millions, Colin Marshall bestows informally magisterial consideration upon the novels of Nicholson Baker, from The Mezzanine to The Anthologist — all of them intimate studies of consciousness, rendered palpable in keenly wrought prose. We’ve read almost anything, and what we hugely admire is Baker’s patient willingness to wait for his material to blossom; nothing is forced.

Compline¶ Our subtitle for a book called Manthropology would be quite different from the one that author Peter McAllister has given us; our view is that, the sooner people shut up about “masculinity” and “manliness,” the happier most men would be. But there’s no gainsaying that Mr McAllister has some sharp insights about a range of topics that stretches from the gene pool to sacrificial sports. (On second thought, that’s not much of a stretch, because almost everything tinctured with “masculinity” connects more or less directly with death.)(Salon; via 3 Quarks Daily)

Have a Look

¶ HTMLGiant’s Index. (After Harper’s)

Noted

¶ via Tyler Cowen: Your (lack of) rights as a cruise ship passenger.

¶ Important advice from Mark Lilla: “To understand someone like Beck, and the people who love him, you need to stay on the surface, not plumb the depths or peek behind the curtain.” (NYRB)

Vacation Note:
Evening on the Patio

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Monday. <sigh> It’s not so much that vacation is just about halfway over; it’s Monday. Kathleen is going to have to work today: read a document and then participate in a conference call. And I’ve got lots of things to do as well. (The difference is that no one will mind very much if I don’t do any of them; but I’ve internalized my self-employment to a grueling pitch.) I’d like to compile a Daily Office for tomorrow, if only because I’ve come across a lot of interesting things. At the same time, I’d rather not work. I’d certainly rather not think about the WiFi connection.

As part of the packing process, I decided not to bring many books. Aside from Jennifer Egan’s oeuvre (I do love it, but — work), I brought along the Ethan Mordden book that I was talking about the other day and that I really ought to write up while it’s fresh in my mind (work), and Alan Riding’s book about the arts under the Occupation, And the Show Went On. Now that’s a fun vacation read, eh? The first chapter gets things off to a depressing start. Riding writes about the failure of France’s political class between the wars in a way that makes it sound frighteningly reminiscent of what’s happening in the United States today; and then there’s his description of Paris as a site for “elite divertimento”:

The majority of Parisians were poor, but they had long been evicted from the elegant heart of Paris by Baron Haussmann’s drastic urban redesign a half century earlier. This “new” Paris was the favored arena of elitist divertimento, drawing minor royalty, aristocrats and millionaires to buy art, to race their horces in the Bois de Boulogne, to hear Richard Strauss conduct Der Rosenkavailier at the Paris Opera, to party in the latest Chanel and Schiaparelli designs.

That sounds awfully familiar, too. For “Haussmann’s redesign,” read “Robert Wagner’s determination to banish industry from New York City.” (That’s why the naked city, when it woke up, clutched at that filmiest of vestments, “the financial industry.”)

Anyway, I figured that I’d just download books to the iPad if I needed more to read, and notwithstanding connectivity issues, that proved to be a good idea. I bought and blazed my way through the new Cynthia Ozick novel, Foreign Bodies. (This made me want to download The Ambassadors, an old favorite, but I haven’t gotten round to that yet.) Then, yesterday at lunch, our favorite waiter  (she knew what I’d be ordering when we walked in on Thursday) mentioned a book that she’s finding very funny, Bitter Is the New Black, by Jen Lancaster, so I downloaded it then and there, as much as a party trick as with any intention of actually reading it. It is funny, and I wonder why I’ve never heard of it before. Lancaster writes of herself in almost grotesquely unflattering terms — but that’s what dealing with a world of incompetent boobies will do to you. The book remained funny even after Kathleen remarked that Lancaster’s diatribes sound just like mine.

During the night, I woke several times to howling winds and rain. The weather this morning is partly sunny but clearly unsettled. I’m going to step outside to the patio and read feeds. (The iPad, by the way, works perfectly well outside, as long as I’m not sitting in the sun, which, believe you me, I never am.)

Vacation Note:
Settled In

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

We had a spot rain yesterday. Actually, it came down in torrents for about ten minutes. Later in the afternoon, gusts of wind would whirl through, making me feel somewhat chilled, even though it is nowhere near cold here.

At lunch, a fortysomething fellow stopped at our table and asked if we were the So-and-so’s. When we told him that we weren’t, and who we were, he explained his asking. No sooner had he arrived with his family the day before, than the front desk called to say that the car was ready to take them all into town. It seems that another party of the same name — So-and-so — was staying at the hotel. This sort of mixup had occurred on earlier visits, which, it just so happened, coincided with ours — Mr So-and-so remembered that I wore a neck brace a few years ago! — so he thought that maybe we were the other So-and-so’s. A recent family trip to the Waldorf-Astoria and all the sights of Gotham was described. I handed over a card and asked to be allowed to take the So-and-so’s on a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art next them they’re in town. “Is that what you do?” he asked.

What was going through both of our minds during this conversation was another amusing coincidence: “So-and-so” happens to be the name of a doubly-fictional creation, a character in a notoriously celebrated espionage thriller who does not, in fact, exist. Having been mistaken for “So-and-So” was the very opposite of rotten luck.

When Kathleen woke up from her afternoon nap, and we decided that neither of us was up for a walk on the beach — gawd, we’re tired — I read three stories from Emerald City aloud. Immersing myself in Jennifer Egan’s writing puts me in a very strange place. Egan reminds me of the whip-smart girls from private Catholic schools who always seemed to know ten times more about how the world works than anyone else, all the while conducting unexceptionably virginal lives. In Egan’s books, people can be very, very bad without ever breaking a law, or even driving over the speed limit — and that’s the point. So many of her characters seem to be looking for a line of sin that won’t get them in trouble with the police. It’s not that they do bad things that happen to be sins, but that they look for sins, sins that won’t too badly inconvenience their living arrangements. In short, Egan makes most students of evil look incredibly naive.

I’ve been reading Foreign Bodies on the iPad. In the Times digest that the hotel distributes every morning, I saw that it’s the subject of today’s book review. I think I’ll wait to finish the book before seeing what Thomas Mallon has to say.

Housekeeping Note:
Learning Curve

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

At breakfast, this morning, the Air Force people were holding a meeting in the bar — a space that is nothing like a bar during daylight hours. By day, it’s a covered terrace, open arches giving out onto the Caribbean, with here and there some rattan chairs and tables. It was fairly clear from what could be overheard in passing that the unit’s work is medical in nature; one could also surmise that a recent exercise was being evaluated. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the tone was that of your run-of-the-mill middle-management powwow, but the military character of the gathering seemed to have been left back in the room, on coat-hangers.

I’m going to spare you all the things that we’re learning about WiFi connections and iPads and whatnot, not because I really want to spare you, but because I know all to well what that sort of thing reads like in a week or so, not to mention a year later. It reads like something that a toddler hollers for while holding on to the crib railing. When the child has been gratified, everyone wants to forget the hollering — the little one most of all. That would be me.

Since nothing whatsoever has happened since I struggled to upload the previous entry, late last night (when the learning curve is always steepest), I have nothing to report save that Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies is at least this good: you loathe the narrator’s brother immediately upon reading two or three sentences of a scolding missive that he sends her, not ten pages into the book. Marvin Nachtigall will be instantly recognizable to anyone of a certain age who grew up on the East Coast. He’s exploits the unsocialized manners of his Jewish-immigrant forebears to make his worldly success obnoxiously clear. He knows better; his rudeness is a calculated pretense. That’s what makes it loathsome. Foreign Bodies also has going for it the Ambassadors puzzle: how will this novel turn out to be like/unlike the most accessible of Henry James’s grand finale trio?

As soon as a staff person brings round a patio chair that I can sit on — the stylish new lounge chairs proved to be dreadfully hard on my backside — I shall join Kathleen outside. She is embroidering an alphabet book for Will. I brought some stitching, too, but I haven’t felt moved to pick it up yet. I do hope that we’ll feel up to taking a walk this afternoon. In other prospects, I lined up an interesting clutch of links for Monday’s Daily Office. Step one, so to speak. We’ll see.

Vacation Note:
Comme ci, comme ça

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

Just to have something on hand that I don’t have to read if I don’t want to, I’ve downloaded Emma onto the iPad. Also Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies, a new book that the Times compares to The Ambassadors but that sounds to me, on the basis of three pages, like something that Elaine Dundy’s sterner, better-schooled older sister might have made of The Dud Avocado. As for Emma, I almost packed a slim leatherette Collins edition, printed on onion skin in tiny print; but I forgot. The next time I read Emma, whenever that happens, will be the eighth. Much as I adore it, I notice that I’m fonder and fonder of Persuasion. And I really ought to re-read Northanger Abbey, which I haven’t read since my teens.

Dinner was a bit raucous. There was a contingent of Air Force servicemen — we think that some were officers, and we overheard at least one man remark that he had been a medic in the same unit for seventeen years — and we realized that we don’t know much about the Air Force, except that it turns out airline pilots. We know that the hotel bivouacs the occasional airline crew, but a crowd of men and women in uniform — somewhere between twelve and twenty — was a bit of a surprise. As we worked our way through a bottle of cabernet, the new arrivals filtered back into the bar in shorts and polo shirts that would have made them look like everyone else if they hadn’t — the men, anyway — been tonsured (too much hair to be stylish; too little to be civilian). The youngest person in the party had to be thirty, and a few of the seniors had clearly seen fifty. They were a genial crowd, even if they were much louder than the Buccaneer’s regulars (and I’m referring only to speaking voices here). But it took a moment, as we walked in, to realize that these people in uniform were not armed, and not about to frisk us or take away our water bottles.

We meant to take a walk on the beach this afternoon, but neither of us was up to it: we could do no more than sit outside on our little patio and read. I glanced over about fourteen hundred feeds during the course of the day. After the nth sighting of the same headline, I had to tell Kathleen about Professor Bilal of NYU, the filmmaker (?) who has “implanted” a camera in the back of his head. Aghast, Kathleen simply repeated what I’d said in the interrogative mood. It’s so NYU: the students are worried about their privacy, but nobody questions Dr Bilal’s right to mutilate himself in the name of art.

Kathleen got a call from a partner this afternoon, and it’s now definite that she’ll be working on Monday and Tuesday. She expected as much, but still. Assuming that the connection problems really do straighten themselves out, Kathleen’s working may shame me into producing a Daily Office or two. Meanwhile, I am reading Jennifer Egan’s stories, and taking lots of notes. But, d’you know what? I’m on vacation, it seems, and not at all in the mood to work. (In the alternative, I’m so old that two days of travel rubbled my ways and means.) Ethan Mordden’s Guest List was almost demoralizingly agreeable — why can’t every book be like that? My guess is that Foreign Bodies won’t be. But I’m looking forward to it just the same, and, come to think of it, now I know why God invented bed time.

Vacation Note:
First Aid

Friday, November 19th, 2010

My promise not to discuss connection problems notwithstanding, I want to note that Brady, the Buccaneer’s IT director, has assured me that he wants to do everything necessary to make my stay “perfect.”

In a related development, Kathleen is unpacking, having been assured by me that we are staying in this room no matter what. I will work around whatever problems there are. “I can’t wear these clothes any longer,” Kathleen sighed happily, when we got back from breakfast.

So I’m settling down to a regime of reading feeds and reading Jennifer Egan’s short story collection, The Emerald City. It’s the only bit of her book-form work that I haven’t read, and it is stimulating reminders of the four novels that followed, some if not all of which I’ll be re-reading. I hope to come home with a sheaf of notes, if not a finished essay.

Absolutely nothing has happened.

Housekeeping Note:
Erratic

Friday, November 19th, 2010

If you ask me, this is the cliché to beat all clichés.

I have made a pact with the gods of connectivity: I am not going to discuss my issues with them until I return to New York. If you check out the site and don’t see anything new, you’ll know why. There: done.

Nor, I think, am I going to share the secret of my equanimity on this junket. I have been calm and collected most of the time, even when I was certain that the plane was about to blow up for who knows what reason (the flight was one of the most turbulence-free that I have ever enjoyed). The only loss so far has been my water-bottle, which I neglected to empty before security at San Juan this morning. I forgot to remember to do something about it. They wouldn’t let me drink what was in the bottle, by the way, so as to save it. I had a choice: either I lost it or I returned to the back of the line and went through all the screening lines again. Hey, I’ll live without my Rubbermaid quart. The agent was kind enough to strip off the ragg wool sock that serves as insulation. I still have that.

I’ve done little with my time but read The Guest List, a new book by Ethan Mordden that I didn’t know anything about until the other day when I saw it in the window at Madison Avenue Books. It has filled me with the desire to know more about Dorothy Thompson, Sinclair Lewis’s sometime wife but more importantly the model for Katharine Hepburn’s Woman of the Year. There are some wonderfully dishy lines — extraordinary, really; Brendan Gill is dismissed as a “lavish nonentity,” a phrase I’m furious with myself for never having thought of, à propos of anybody. I’ll have more to say about the book later, but for the moment I’ll report with relief that it is a book, as monumental as any. While it would be deeply wrong (and stupid) to say that the book is about Ethan Mordden himself, it does remain a magnificent vehicle for his sensibility, which happens to be one of the very important ones.

 

Vacation Note:
Paradise Lost

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Well, connectivity anyway. The management is talking about moving us to another room, because all of a sudden none of the three machines that we’ve got with us can hold a connection — to the MiFi cards, either. (Which are blue — does that mean I’m roaming? Such an ignorant, I am.) With luck, we’ll find that it’s an atmospheric glitch. Ora pro nobis.

It’s still heavenly to be here. The air is soft and pleasant, slightly cool but very balmy. Everything is familiar, me especially: two waitresses and a sales clerk welcomed me back, very clearly remembering me, even though I haven’t been here in two years. I have never enjoyed unpacking quite so much!

Reading Note:
Three Novels of Different Vintage
The Lady Matador’s Hotel; The Dud Avocado and God on the Rocks

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Cristina García’s novel, The Lady Matador’s Hotel, is pretty plainly not my sort of book, but there was a line in John Vernon’s fairly nice review the Book Review that I took to be a bit more declarative than it was. “García … attempts to deepen her characters with each successive pass of their stories.” Attempts! I’ve just re-read the review, and I might as well just refer you to it again. The writing is very good, but the characters and situations have a stock feel to them — and I really haven’t read very much Latin American fiction! Set in a hotel in what feels like Guatemala or El Salvador, the chapters follow a band of initially unrelated characters through a tumultuous week. It is difficult not to think of Grand Hotel, not only because of the slice-of-life feel to the glimpses into the characters’ lives, but also because those lives are lacking a certain inner substantiality. I can’t say that I cared for any of them. A hotel waitress referred to as “the ex-guerilla” is perhaps the most sympathetic, but she’s troubled by the bitterness of her activist history (and the ghost of her brother). A lady lawyer of German extraction who arranges for the sale of infants to prosperous Americans is agreeably hate-able. The story of the sad-sack Korean factory owner comes to a surprisingly happy ending. There — I oughtn’t to have said that. I’m glad that I read the book, mostly because I can say that I did, and didn’t mind doing so. But I’m constitutionally unable to relish the highly-colored narrative arabesques that threaten to send Ms García’s stories over the top.

Much more sympathetic were two novels that I read over the weekend. Yes, two. One was Jane Gardam’s God on the Rocks, and the other was Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. Both books are astringently funny, but the one is as English as the other is American. The spirit of Ivy Compton-Burnett hovers over God on the Rocks, which came out in 1978 and has only now made its appearance in the United States. There’s a hyper-real feeling to the dialogue, as if every remark not only carries several levels of meaning but is also directed at interlocutors unseen as well as seen. This is another way of saying that the dialogue does not feel straightforward — which is precisely what Sally Jay Gorce’s tumble of talk feels like. Sally Jay is Ms Dundy’s ingénue, in her third month in Paris just out of college. It’s difficult to believe that Jean-Luc Godard did not pattern Patricia Franchini, the Jean Seberg role in A Bout de Souffle, after Sally Jay; but then Sally Jay is an avatar of sorts, an embodiment of postwar American larkiness. Her picaresque adventures have the rough cut of memoir that has been only slightly touched-up, and indeed the author remarks in an afterward that “all the impulsive, outrageous things my heroine does, I did. All the sensible things she did, I made up.”

The novel is narrated in the first person throughout — Sally Jay’s voice is as distinctive as Auntie Mame’s — but the third part of the novel is told as a series of diary entries, in which the heroine does not know what’s going to happen the next day. Here she recounts an exuberant evening spent with a matador/film star and his entourage.

Dinner was a riot. We threw pellets of bread across the tale at each other and made airplanes out of the menus and sent them sailing around the dining room. Then we had a really great idea. We were going to put a pat of butter on the end of knife and use the knife as a catapult to see if the butter wouuld stick to the ceiling. But Larry stopped us, so we flipped water at each other with our spoons instead.

Bax and Larry thought we’d gone crazy. I don’t know what the Quadrille thought, except it was clear that anything old Wheero wanted to do was OK with them. They were all twice his age, but if he’d been the King of the Underworld, they couldn’t have been more under his thumb. Unwritten law of the bullring.

We drove off to Bérobie in the lavender Cadillac with the hood down, Wheero and I sitting on top, our feet on the back seat, waving to the cars that passed and nearly falling off at every corner.

We found the little bar we’d been to the other night and started playing some more games. We took the labels off beer-bottles and put them on everybody’s wallets, sticky side up, and thre them at the ceiling so that the labels stuck there and the wallets came clattering down all over the drinks on the table.

I can’t say that such high jinks are to be found on every page of The Dud Avocado, and the madcap reminiscence of Robert Benchley is pretty much unique to this passage. But the novel is almost always this much fun to read.

“Fun” is decidedly not a word that comes to mind in connection with God on the Rocks. Set on the eve of World War II, in a Yorkshire sea-side town that’s so middle-class respectable that even the weather seems bourgeois, it’s a story of lost loose ends being tied up and then tied up again. At the heart of the narrative, a cold and ambitious woman has long before forbidden her son to marry the daughter of a local shopkeeper whom he has known since childhood. Now, in the novel’s present, the mother is an invalid, and to spite her socialistically-inclined children she has turned her home into a lunatic asylum, where one of the patients is a painter who will some day be recognized as great — or at any rate one of those blue plaques will be mounted on a nearby wall. Now the old lovers reconnect, and turn out to be somewhat different from what they might have expected. The shopgirl has married a religious bank manager, with whom she has two children. Indeed, what keeps all of this information from coming straight to the fore is Gardam’s focus on eight year-old Margaret’s impressions, which underscore the futility of trying to “protect” intelligent children from the facts of life (in the broadest sense of that term). Only gradually do the adults achieve the spotlight.

I can imagine someone’s coming away from God on the Rocks with the impression that it’s about the strangeness of love, but to my mind it’s not about love at all, but rather about the things that often stand in the place of love — desire, affection, duty, failure of imagination. As for love, it’s what’s really on the rocks.

At a tea to which Margaret is taken by her mother, the unprecedentedness of which is obliquely but almost oppressively apparent, the adults suddenly fall into a puzzling exchange of remarks.

Margaret looked from face to face like a person at a tennis match. She knew — though heaven knew how — that this game had been played before and very often and very happily. The tennis match idea stayed with her and she had a queer picture of her mother and Mr Frayling playing tennis with careful slow strokes on a summer evening with the shadow of the net growing long across the grass. Some people stood watching from a distance. Perhaps some old photograph.

“Do you and Mummy play this?” Charles Frayling asked her with his head on one side, as if to catch her answer exactly. sToll muddled with tennis, she looked at her mother.

“I don’t think we do, do we, dear?” Elinor said.

“Not ever.”

“Try,” said Charles. “It’s called the grand great word game.”

“The great grand word game,” said Elinor.

Later, Margaret informs the company that her father does not like to hear her mother addressed as ‘Mummy.’

It’s easy to see why God on the Rocks wasn’t brought out over here in the late Seventies. Its Englishness is an acquired taste, its indirectness a jeux d’esprit that might strike the uninitiated as merely withdrawn. It is impossible to imagine Sally Jay Gorce reading it without wondering if it might make better sense if she held the book upside-down.

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Matins ¶ Dominique Browning asks the two questions that plague all consideration of environmental degradation: how is it possible to be hopeful, and what can any one person do? Commendably, she offers no answers. Our own far from comforting thought is that global warming is only the latest of countless ways in which human beings have inflicted pain and misery upon each other. We’re also aware that much of the panic has roots in complacency: most people over fifty grew up without the shadow of a doubt about fossil fuels. The Editor remembers being far more concerned about the exhaustion of fossil fuels — which, one way or another, with more or less inconvenience, will inevitably solve the problem. (Slow Love Life)

Lauds ¶ The Addison Gallery of American Art has been spruced up, with a green wing and revived exhibition spaces, the better to house a collection that is almost uncertainly unparalleled in the world of — prep schools. The Addison, you see, is attached to Philips Andover, in Massachusetts. Karen Wilkin makes it sound extremely enviable, but we’d really be much happier to pick up the Editor’s grandson at the doors of, say,  Stuyvesant High and take him through the Metropolitan. Much cheaper. (WSJ; via ArtsJournal)

Prime ¶ With rueful but not unbecoming glee, “Thorstein Veblen” tips us off to Revivial, a new book about the Obama White House that shines a glaring light on its most inexplicable denizen, Larry Summers. (We’re not sure that we’re interested anymore to know what made Mr Summers attractive to the President.) Veblen lists three strikes against the outgoing adviser that the HuffPost piece omits, whether because “ the people who are dishing on Summers now don’t realize these were mistakes, or else they too were on the dumb side of these horrific lapses in judgment which have helped to make Obama the great failed hope of our generation.”

Tierce ¶ At the LRB, Peter Campbell presents a brilliant essay on escalators — specifically, the 4o9 moving stairs that operate in London’s Underground. What causes them to break down? Stuff falling in the 4mm gap between steps, mostly. We sat up sharply at the reminder that the Underground runs for only twenty hours a day — “only.”

Sext ¶ It’s not difficult to imagine how the citizens of a modest Midwestern town would have dealt, 150 years ago, with a raving atheist who insisted on denouncing God from the courthouse steps. Such a lunatic, like Waleed Hasayin in today’s Palestine, would certainly have been locked up “for his own protection.” The analogy is imperfect; a blog does not have the nuisance value of an unwanted orator; no one has to read Hasayin’s diatribes. But the offence is the same: how does a town live with someone who vehemently repudiates its core values, and urges others to do the same? We wonder if our compromise — Hasayin ought to be banished, not punished — would suit anyone involved. (NYT)

Nones ¶ As Robert Reich sees it, the reason that the G20 meeting at Seoul didn’t get anywhere is because of income inequality in China as well as in the United States. Wealth in both countries pools at the top, making exports doubly crucial. For the same reason, each country wants to have the weaker currency, because cheaper exports means greater employment. In theory, that is. In a long and somewhat rambling Times article, Motoko Rich and Jack Ewing report that the weakness of the dollar is unlikely to spur exports/job creation to any very significant extent. For one thing, multinational corporations, wherever nominally headquartered, are designed to play around currency imbalances. We wish that Mr Reich had said more about why he’s opposed to “outright protectionism.” (Christian Science Monitor)

Vespers ¶ Romain Gary (1914-1980) was a writer of many names, so it’s no surprise that one of his best novels, La vie devant soi, has been published under two other names, Momo (that’s how the Editor read it, in English) and Madame Rosa, the latter also the title of the film adaptation starring Simone Signoret — still not out on DVD. La vie devant soi won a second Prix Goncourt for Gary, which was a big no-no — that’s a one-per-customer award. Born Kacew de Gari in Vilnius, Gary signed the book “Émile Ajar,” and got a cousin to do the photo-ops for him. Back in the days when novelists were real men, Gary was a Free French hero; he later ran off with Jean  Seberg, and the two made glamorous work of making one another miserable. At the Telegraph, David Bellos writes up the subject of his new biography. (via ArtsJournal)

Compline ¶ Jessica Olien has been living in the Netherlands for a few months now, and she’s scratching her head. “Have we gotten it all wrong?” (Meaning: American women.) Relatively few women work full-time, even when encouraged to do so; and only a quarter of Nederlander women earn enough money to support themselves. Somehow, it seems, the business of making money — a veritable game, if truth be told, for most successful men — has been detached from questions of gender equality. We wonder if it’s really true that Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed — the title of a book, sadly unavailable, by Ellen de Bruin. (Slate; via MetaFilter; NYT)

Have a Look

¶ Ten centuries of Europe — in five minutes. (GOOD)

Noted

¶ How today’s Wii may make tomorrow’s work more fun. (Wired Science)

Morning Snip:
Worth Doing

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker about yet another memoir by Dick Cavett, recalls the time that Norman Mailer showed up drunk.

As any sort of intellectual exchange, the show was a disaster. But it was great television. It gave viewers what they want from a talk show: the sense that anything might happen.

Elsewhere in the current issue, David Denby complains that Becky Fuller, the news producer played by Rachel McAdams in Morning Glory, “doesn’t do anything worth doing,” and, indeed, as we recall, Becky makes strenuous efforts to prevent her new co-anchor from showing up drunk.