Daily Office:
Monday, 1 November 2010


¶ At Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith is persuaded by a commenter to retrieve, from one of her daily roundups, a link to Johann Hari’s persuasive essasy on the efficacy of protests and demonstrations. The most curious thing is that it’s the powerful, the exponents of policies that demonstrators are protesting, who appear to be the most sensitive. And — a point that Anthony Trollope would appreciate — protestors may never know how effective they’ve been.

And protest can have an invisible ripple-effect that lasts for generations. A small group of women from Iowa lost their sons early in the Vietnam war, and they decided to set up an organization of mothers opposing the assault on the country. They called a protest of all mothers of serving soldiers outside the White House – and six turned up in the snow. Even though later in the war they became nationally important voices, they always remembered that protest as an embarrassment and a humiliation.

Until, that is, one day in the 1990s, one of them read the autobiography of Benjamin Spock, the much-loved and trusted celebrity doctor, who was the Oprah of his day. When he came out against the war in 1968, it was a major turning point in American public opinion. And he explained why he did it. One day, he had been called to a meeting at the White House to be told how well the war in Vietnam was going, and he saw six women standing in the snow with placards, alone, chanting. It troubled his conscience and his dreams for years. If these women were brave enough to protest, he asked himself, why aren’t I? It was because of them that he could eventually find the courage to take his stand – and that in turn changed the minds of millions, and ended the war sooner. An event that they thought was a humiliation actually turned the course of history.


¶ In today’s Times, two pieces on ephemeral art. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Starn brothers are dismantling Big Bambú, while at an undisclosed,abandoned subway station somewhere in the city, an exhibition of graffiti closes immediately upon opening, and not because the MTA shut it down, either.

They hadn’t planned, for example, to have bamboo cup holders, which sprouted throughout the piece (the climbers put them in), or the cresting wave of bent bamboo at the top, or the spontaneous wind chime that turned up toward the southern end. They could not have predicted that the roof’s wisteria would wend its way all the way up the piece; that the red-tailed hawk Pale Male would regularly circle overhead; or how breathtaking Central Park would look from “Big Bambú” as the seasons changed. The installation had to close every time it rained and the climbers and the Starns had to stop work for a week when the artists ran out of cord, which was used to lash the poles together.


They set some ground rules. Since bringing artists in and out of the space required careful planning — by now they had figured out that the active platform was emptiest on late nights early in the week — and since one or both of the curators had to be on hand, Workhorse and PAC set strict schedules and limited each artist to one visit, with four hours of working time. The artists were not allowed to go out for more materials if they ran out. (Workhorse and PAC supplied lighting in the form of camping lanterns. “We went through hundreds of batteries,” Workhorse said.) And in addition to their materials, the artists had to pay for their transportation, regardless of the distance.

Of the international artists approached, most were from Europe. (Banksy, the most famous of this group, turned them down: He was promoting his film “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” Workhorse said, and told them through a mutual friend, “ ‘Great project, love it, but I can’t risk going in.’ ”) But more contributors were American, among them well known names like Ron English (whose most recent work has been priced at up to $200,000), Swoon and Revok.


¶ At Felix Salmon, Barbara Kiviat weighs and considers the utility of legal vagueness: Paul Volcker believes that financial regulations ought to be vague, to make gaming them difficult; but Michael Lewis thinks that they ought to be starkly unambiguous. Her conclusion:

If you have little faith in regulators’ ability to keep up with Wall Street behavior and to use flexible rules to their fullest, then maybe Lewis’s approach is the smarter one. I’m sympathetic to that argument; I’ve voted to chop up overly large and entwined financial institutions before. But I don’t know if at this point that path is politically feasible. Dodd-Frank could have broken up the banks, but it didn’t. And I’m not sure that since the bill passed, the political clout of the be-tough-on-Wall-Street camp has grown.

Yet that camp is, admirably, still fighting. A group of senators, led by Carl Levin, recently wrote a letter to the new Financial Stability Oversight Council, urging regulators to really crack down and not let Dodd-Frank get watered down in the rule-making. It’s a good thing for people to hear, but so is Volcker’s message—that often the toughest rules are the ones that specifically prohibit the least.


¶ Anybody who types will be fascinated to read about the two independent feedback loops that alert us to typographical errors. The first, surprise surprise, is called “proofreading,” but there doesn’t seem to be a name for the second, unless it’s “You can just tell.” Ed Yong reports at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

According to Logan and Crump, this “illusion of authorship” reflects the fact that typing involves two different groups of skills that spot mistakes in different ways. The “outer loop” involves the language centres of the brain and is involved in producing the words that we type. It detects errors by checking what appears on the screen and matching it to our original intentions. If what turns up looks right, the outer loop thinks all is well and if what appears is wrong, the outer loop raises the alarm. The outer loop falls for the illusion.

Meanwhile, the “inner loop” sets up the right sequence of hand movements that type out the words put forward by the outer loop. It detects errors by checking the feedback from the fingers and no matter what Logan and Crump do on the screen, it knows what the typist actually typed. The inner loop sees through the illusion but it operates at a largely unconscious level. It’s the one that slows down the typists’ fingers when they sense that the wrong keys were pressed.


¶ Have you seen the Feltron Annual Report before? In it, Nicholas Felton (note the interpolated “r” in the report’s title) compiles masses of mundane data about how he has spent a given year. Then he works them up into a spankingly handsome, beautifully printed object. Would you pay for hard copy ($23)? Sean Patrick Cooper does, hopeful that the Report will achieve, one of these years, genuine narrative thrust. That hasn’t happened yet, though. (The Rumpus)

That said, there’s something worth taking at face value from the statement Felton released just prior to the publication of his ‘09 Report and from something he said in a conference talk not too long after the publication. The former, “I have strived to sort and collate the data in a clinical and repeatable manner that could be reproduced by someone looking for the same stories I have selected.” The latter, “As a graphic designer, I’d been searching for a while for means of telling stories.” Implicit in both statements is that Felton fashioned his Reports to contain what are essentially stories. If we look at the Reports this way, the data is not simply numbers and stats about Felton life; the data becomes a mode of stories about Felton’s life. The distinction is small but significant. It’s a matter of elevation and orchestration. If Felton transforms the raw data (1.5:1::social dinners:solo dinners | Report: 2006 Page 6) into the frame for a story: In 2006, Felton spent more time eating in the company of others than eating in solitude—then Felton has orchestrated an elevation of the data to a level of story telling. Despite what Felton has stated as his intent, the orchestrated elevation does not occur. The data never communicates anything beyond what it is. The frames are never built. It never tells more than it shows.

If Felton wished for the graphs, charts, and lists of his Reports to become stories, he would have to provide some context to give them meaning. Otherwise, the data acts much as a photograph does—and, as Susan Sontag said, “strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.” The Report data is in many ways a context-free snapshot of a very particular part of Felton’s behavior. In 2007, Felton traveled 7.4 miles over the course of 5 bus trips via the M15 route. Sontag again, “In contrast to the amorous relation, which is based on how something looks, understanding is based on how it functions. And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand.” The data on Felton’s bus activity over the course of the year amounts to nothing more than data about Felton’s bus activity over the course of a year. A Report Owner cannot understand anything more about Felton’s life if the Report Owner does not know how these bus trips functioned within Felton’s life. Were these bus trips taken to visit an aunt recovering from surgery in a hospital uptown? Were these bus trips taken to see a favorite painter showing for a limited time in a gallery downtown? The data never reveals the context that embeds that data with significance and the Report Owner is left with only a photograph of a very particular part of Felton’s activity.


¶ Simon Johnson’s essay on the background of the now-averted “currency wars” has our heads spinning, largely because we can’t believe that a respectable columnist asserts that the emerging-markets portion of the G2o is in better economic health than the 0ld G7 rump. The problem that interests Mr Johnson, however, is the EMs’ determination to keep their currencies cheap and their reserves “safe.”

This is exactly the kind of issue – inherently cross-border and very political – for which a structure like the G-20 is needed. But it will do nothing about these flows for three reasons:

1. The emerging markets want to save in this fashion, thinking they can dodge the consequences.
2. The United States needs to borrow, big time. Our politicians refuse even to think about the first-order causes of our recent fiscal disaster; they would rather just continue to borrow (at least as long as interest rates remain low).
3. The big banks like this approach. Their influence is in no way diminishing, and there is nothing about their recent track record that has diminished their appeal in the eyes of policy-makers (just this week, for example, the I.M.F. appointed a senior Goldman Sachs executive to head its high-profile European Department).

Accommodating emerging markets in global governance structures is appealing; their aspirations are legitimate, and the G7 looks outmoded. The profound instability of global financial structures and the broader “doom cycle” today is not the fault of emerging markets – the blame lies squarely with the United States and Western Europe, which have consistently failed to rein in their global megabanks.  (For an 8-minute primer on the “doom cycle,” if you are not familiar with the concept, try this video.)


¶ Sonya Chung offers an appealing modest defense of teaching the writing of fiction. At no point is it a rebuttal of Elif Batuman’s thunderclap, but this only makes it more eloquent. (The Millions)

When you teach writing, you have to have a sort of world-view about it, or else you’ll go a little nutty. Here’s mine: at a certain level, there is pretty-good writing (“capable,” in Emily [St John Mandel]’s words), there is really-good writing, and there is great writing. Those of us who set ourselves to the work of writing well will move among these categories throughout our lives; we’ll aim for greatness and more often than not land somewhere along the way. If you are earnest in this endeavor, if you understand that your pretty-good writing can and must always be getting better, then I can’t see why I, as a teacher, shouldn’t encourage you and help you along as best I can.

The truth is that your pretty-good writing may very well get published and make you famous; it’s happened before. Your great writing may never see the light of day. Your really-good writing may get published and be read by very few. You may write something great this time around and something pretty-good next time around and something not-very-good-at-all a few years down the road and never get published at all. It’s happened before. (Read this, and this, if you don’t believe me.) I don’t decide these things. I’m only here to help you write better, because I think it’s important and worthwhile.


¶ “If television is, indeed, our art form, we need to start treating it as such.” So says Daniel D’Addario, who proceeds to demonstrate why we can’t. (The Bygone Bureau)

Like baseball broadcasts, a season-long narrative with jolts and twists for each team’s partisans, television knows how to give its viewer what he or she wants. For instance, when Mad Men began, Joan Holloway was a delightful supporting character whose presence alerted the viewer to all manner of uncomfortable prejudices in the 1960s. In a book or film, her evolution would have taken place in the viewer’s mind, turning over all of her complex valences, rather than at the hands of producers who turned her into something out of fan fiction. Consider the conversation between Joan and her fiancé in the season-four finale: the revelation that Joan has kept her baby says nothing more about her character. It’s just an OMFG moment, capped off with the campy and tonally bizarre “Yes, they’re bigger” comment. Whoever’s putting words in Joan’s mouth knows how the audience feels about actress Christina Hendricks’s breasts.

Have a Look

¶ Steerforth visits the second-oldest building in Britain. (The Age of Uncertainty)

¶ The photographs of Evan Leavitt. (A Continuous Lean)


¶ Khoi Vinh’s iPad Magazine Stand. (via kottke.org)

¶ Hungarian is just, what with everything else on one’s plate, too Hungarian. (Sore Afraid)