Daily Office:
Tuesday, 2 November 2010


¶ At The New Yorker Online, Eric Osnos posts a bracing Letter from China: what we look like to the Chinese as we thrash through the midterms. Actually, it makes more sense to us than anything we’ve heard here.

Bottom line: All in all, the Chinese have been left puzzled by the midterms, which appear, from afar, to be defined by a kind of cognitive dissonance. From the Chinese perspective, Americans appear to be thrashing against the realities of a new era: faced with a sudden sense of weakness and global changes in power, Americans look unable to summon the energy or unity to make even the simplest self-sustaining choices, and instead, are seeking refuge in the tinny appeals and false comfort of demagogues. “Americans are feeling quite contradictory,” as a piece in the Southern Daily put it recently. “[T]hey want to build more railroads, train stations and schools, they want to use clean energy, but they don’t want to pay higher taxes in order to do all of these. They are the offspring of immigrants and feel very proud of that, and yet they also oppose the idea of immigration.”


¶ Via Arts Journal, a couple of pieces about classical orchestras that, taken together, show us where we’re going (compact, traveling jazz-like bands) and what we’ve left behind (city-centered behemoths).

Comparing the Kremerata Baltica with the Knights of the Many-Sided Table, Mark Swed writes (LA Times):

It would be easy, on the basis of these performances, to write off the Knights as a kind of club experiment. These hapless Knights in a battle of the bands with the deep, technically superb Kremerata would seem almost Pythonesque.

But not so fast. The Knights brings out a dazzling spectrum of color in Frank’s “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout.” And in Osvaldo Golijov’s “Last Round,” which rounds out the CD, the band reveals a level of sizzle that even Kremerata can’t match in its Piazzolla.

Maybe the Ives and Copland aren’t so bad either when you consider that the Knights so often need to cut through a background of food, drink and talk. Their rough-and-ready CD, moreover, seems equalized for the iPod. It sounds better through ear buds or cheapo computer speakers than it does on a stereo. And as much as “Appalachian Spring” captures the spiritual essence of America for many of us, the Knights remind us that Copland did write it for the dance.

Coincidentally, the Kremerata and the Knights also have recent Mozart. Evgeny Kissin leads the Kremerata from the keyboard in sublime performances of the Piano Concertos Nos. 20 and 27 ( EMI Classics). The Knights back up the Canadian violinist Lara St. John in excitable performances of the First and Third Violin Concertos as well as the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola (with her brother, violist Scott St. John).

Meanwhile, Mark Stryker writes from Detroit:

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra strike has reached day 28 with the parties no closer to a settlement than when talks stalled in July.

The sides have not met since Aug. 27, no bargaining sessions are scheduled, concerts are canceled through Nov. 7 and feelings remain raw. Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant, said if neither side substantially alters its position, and the players stay unified through the holidays, the entire season could be lost.


¶ At 3 Quarks Daily, Nick Werle explains the preference for fiscal austerity or Keynesian stimulus in terms of Foucault’s distinction between discipline and security. And he’s perfectly lucid, too, so once you’ve finished throwing up your hands, give his page a read.

Political economy first entered the realm of security when Keynes invented macroeconomics as a way of managing unemployment and taming the business cycle. For the first time, economists could attend to a population and direct their policies at the economy as a whole. Indeed, the concept of unemployment only makes sense for a whole economy; it has no microeconomic analogue. In his General Theory, Keynes shows how governments can use fiscal policy to keep their unemployment rates within reasonable bounds, consistent with long-term economic growth and social stability. Government’s deficit spending is the distinctive technique of this regime of Foucauldian security. An economic stimulus is not intended to help any particular individuals – though some sectors certainly benefit more than others – but rather boost aggregate demand. Its target is the whole economy, the population. Indeed, classical economics did not admit the economy per se as an organic object, since it was seen as merely a large collection of individual, rational actors. Insofar as macroeconomic policy has this population as the target of its interventions, Keynes can be said to have invented the economy as an object.

It is easy to see where austerity fits in Foucault’s taxonomy: It is a disciplinary force exerted against free-spending governments. Just as the structures of school buildings make rambunctious children into docile bodies, pressure to embrace public austerity is an effort on behalf of international capital to restrain the free-spending tendencies of welfare states. This fiscal discipline, sold as a virtuous and commonsensical “pain after the party,” is intended to produce chastened governments, which maintain capital-friendly tax policies at the expense of social services and in the name of stability, predictability, and job creation. Even though newly streamlined corporations are again flush with cash but have not rehired the workers laid off during the worst of the financial crisis, business leaders continue to argue for an emergency loosening of labor laws that would allow them to fire employees more cheaply. 


¶ A study of the bluffing brain, reported simply at the Times, a bit more richly at Not Exactly Rocket Science. Are you a strategic deceiver? If so, there are three parts of your brain that will give you away to a mind-reader.

As the players made their moves, the brains of the strategists were more active than those of the other groups in three areas. The first – Brodmann area 10 (BA10) – sits at the very front of the brain. It has been implicated in many complex behaviours including keeping our goals in mind and looking ahead to the future. Both are important to the strategist, who must bear in mind the long-term goal of making as much money as possible, while playing the short-term tactic of building up the seller’s trust.

The second – the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) – also sits to the front of the brain, but slightly off to the side. It’s active during tasks that involve memory, complex decision-making, mental control and social understanding. Again, all are important to strategists; they need to remember their previous suggestions, while holding back the impulse to play a simpler strategy. The more deceptively the players played, the stronger the blood flow in both BA10 and the DLPFC.

The third area – the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) – runs down the middle of the brain and has been implicated in understanding other people’s beliefs and switching attention between different goals. It was unique in that its activity also depended on the value of the different objects. The greater the value and the higher the prize at stake, the greater the activity in a strategists’ TPJ. It’s in these rounds when the ability to know what the seller is thinking really matters. By contrast, the different stakes had no influence on the TPJs of conservatives and incrementalists.

We threw in the mind-reader bit only because Ed Yong predicted that we would.


¶ We love  Ted Wilson — or whoever it is who writes under his name for The Rumpus; he is a breath of fresh air on the Internet, because you don’t have to wonder if he’s out of his mind. He is out of his mind. And yet he is much too funny to be suffering from actual dementia. His gift for dropping deadpan bombs reminds us of Robert Benchly; perhaps Ted Wilson has tacked down a Mergenthaler Laugh Detector!

I searched a thrift store for the cheapest costume available. Between a box labeled “sexy nurse” and another labeled “sexy cat” I found one labeled “used Borat” for only $1.50. There were dozens of them. The costume revealed a bit more skin than I would have preferred, so I wore a pair of evening gloves I found with a pair of panty hose. Halloween isn’t Halloween without a mask, so I also threw on an old homemade Howdy Doody mask I had in my attic.

No one had invited me to a party, so I drove my van all over town until I found one. I had to drive very slowly, because it was hard to see through the mask, but I eventually found a big party. Unfortunately, the partygoers didn’t have the Halloween spirit. Whenever I asked any of them to trick or treat me – instead of offering candy – they would say things like, “Did George invite you?” or “Ew.”


¶ The always-provocative Bob Cringely has a theory about India and China. It’s crazy, but so crazy that we’re inclined to agree.

China has the population, the will, the educational system, the foreign currency reserves — everything to make it the next global superpower except two things: 1) an emerging middle class generation comparable to our Baby Boomers, and; 2) a functional diaspora (look it up, I’ll wait).

In contrast to China, India has only those two things: 1) a real Baby Boomer class, and; 2) a functional diaspora (did you look it up?). Nothing else about India works at all — nothing. India is corrupt and divided. While India has a commercial tradition it isn’t an especially functional one. Fractionalism and factionalism, whether economic, social, or religious, will keep India from ever truly pulling together. But that doesn’t matter because my two original points are enough.


¶ We almost forgot! Cathleen Schine wrote a terrific review of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad in the NYRB. It works especially well as an appreciation of the book, to savor after it has been read. How’s this for a tight little wow:

If all the characters in A Visit from the Goon Squad are inevitably on their own Suicide Tour—where else are we all headed, after all?—they are also, some of them, survivors who, after so much running away, so much drunken stumbling, so much ambitious clawing, and so much aimless yearning, have found what they didn’t know they wanted where they least expected it. It is this sense that distinguishes Egan’s book from one more clever piece of prose about disconnected and dissipated young people in New York City and makes it a rich and unforgettable novel about decay and endurance, about individuals in a world as it changes around them, as grand in its scope as, say, Buddenbrooks or Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters.


¶ We don’t want to carp, but there is something a trifle disingenuous about Cornell University president David Skorton’s plea for humanities funding. Forgetful, anyway. Swamped by “theory” and other deconstructive programs, the liberal arts curriculum has tended more to undermine civility, in the past thirty-odd years, than to bolster it. (Inside Higher Ed; via Arts Journal)

He would make the case this way: “You can’t recreate the past and relive it again, but we can understand so much more,” he said, and that can be to the benefit of American goals. “When I hear military leaders talking about winning the so-called hearts and minds of people in other countries, the way I translate that is all based on humanistic and social science disciplines. That requires that we understand the language, the culture, the religion, and the values of those societies — and that is the humanities.”

Turning to current headlines, he said that the lack of civility in society points to the need for the humanities. “Watching the midterm elections, they seem nasty to me, not civil. The tragedy at Rutgers — isn’t that a lack of civility and a lack of values?” Skorton said. If people want to restore civility to public life (a goal of James Leach, the NEH chair), then “the values of the humanities need to be emphasized.” He also argued that ethics problems in the business world and in academic research (with recent misconduct scandals) illustrate the importance of the critical thinking that is taught in the humanities.

Have a Look

¶ Edward James, rememberd at Mondoblogo. (Note: Monkton is a Lutyens house.)


¶ The John Evelyn Institute of Arboreal Science. (BLDGBLOG)