Daily Office:
Thursday, 4 November 2010

{The next Daily Office entry will appear on Monday, 8 November.}


¶ We’ve looked at Sabrina Tavernise’s story about Washington’s storeys, but we can’t find what triggered it. As you know, an old Act of Congress limits the height of buildings in the nation’s capital to a multiple of the width of the street on which they stand. This most excellent law is not about to be repealed or seriously amended — or is it?

Now, on the act’s centennial, a small tribe of developers, architects and urban experts are questioning the orthodoxy of the rule’s application. A modest change, they argue, would inject some vitality into the urban scene, would allow for greener construction, and could eventually deliver bigger tax receipts for the badly pinched city budget, currently in a hole of about $175 million.

But raising the limit is nothing short of sacrilege for preservationists here, who fear that any change, however slight, will open the door to more.

“I don’t think you get it — it’s a very special place,” said Ann Hargrove, a resident and ardent defender of the limit. “Our capital was designed in such a special way to be different. One great feature is its height.”

It is an emotional debate, largely because the limit has defined Washington’s character for generations. Its original designer and planner, Pierre L’Enfant, came from Paris, another low-built city, and Washington residents say they love its light, airy quality, contributing to the city’s “livable” feel.

For some, that is a dubious distinction, not unlike calling a woman you went out with for one date, and one date only, “nice.” Without high-rise residential buildings to sustain a vibrant shopping and restaurant scene, downtown D.C. tends to empty out at night and on weekends.

If there is a movement to change the law, Ms Tavernise is helping it to keep a low profile.


¶ Here’s good news: HM Government have postponed the grant of an export license for JMW Turner’s Modern Rome — Campo Vaccino, to give British buyers a chance to meet the Getty Museum’s winning auction bid. Campo Vaccino is a pendant to Turner’s Ancient Rome, and it belongs alongside it, at the Tate. (LA Times; via Arts Journal)

The Getty had bid for the Turner knowing that the sale could be negated, as happened in 2004, when the National Gallery of London was able to match the $46.6 million price the Getty had agreed to pay  to buy Raphael’s “Madonna of the Pinks” from the Duke of Northumberland. In 2005, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge balked the Getty’s bid to acquire the Macclesfield Psalter, a medieval illustrated manuscript, for $3.2 million.

“We anticipated there would be a decision to delay the export license,” David Bomford, the Getty Museum’s acting director, said Wednesday in a prepared statement. “We greatly respect the export process in the U.K. and look forward to the possibility of having this masterpiece in our collection.”

In a 2005 commentary for The Times, James Fenton, a trustee of the National Gallery of London, noted after the failed bids for the Psalter and the Raphael, that “it makes sense for the Getty to have a go at bidding for the probably unobtainable, on the principle that you never know your luck.”


¶ For the most concise account of the pros and cons of Quantitative Easing II is, predictably, Yves Smith’s, at Naked Capitalism. But Felix Salmon makes a important general point about the way in which the plan was announced by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.

So while I welcome Bernanke trying to explain his actions in the form of an op-ed, I’d be much happier if he did so in the form of a press conference, or some other place where people could ask him questions. He’s good at communicating; why doesn’t he use those skills better?


¶ From the Dept of Whizbang (meaning, don’t hold your breath), researchers have brought the refresh rate for holographic teleprojections down from four minutes to two seconds. Thet’s about two-thirds of the way  to an acceptable rate of 30 times per second. The secret ingredient is a new type of plastic. (Wired Science)

Then the researchers trained the laser onto a newly developed plastic called a photoreactive polymer, which is coated with a material that converts light into electrical charges that create and store the image. The charges move around the plastic in such a way that when light bounces off the material, it reaches your eyes as if it had bounced off the toy plane or the researcher’s head.

“With this material, since you can move the charge around, you can erase the hologram and write another hologram on it,” Blanche said.

Two years ago, Peyghambarian’s team made a similar material that could only refresh the image every four minutes. The images in that material were also disturbed by vibrations and temperature changes, so the screen had to be kept in a highly controlled box.

The new material rewrites every two seconds, a 100-fold improvement, and isn’t bothered by changes to its environment, the researchers say.


¶ Even more whizbang: James Somers imagines the Deskotron, the perfect personal assistant. The bit at the end would be the beauty part. (jsomers.net)

He would understand strategic relationships between tasklets. By that I mean that he would understand which tasklets feed well into one another. For instance, I might write better after perusing my Google Reader queue, or I might write worse; deskotron would know which. He would know how many programming tasklets I can do before getting exhausted, and how to stagger hard and easy tasklets to squeeze the most effort out of me. He would know that I don’t like to read too many serious magazine articles in a row, and that I have to be primed in a certain way before I want to solve a Project Euler problem.

deskotron would be like a good personal trainer, demanding nearly too much of me, holding me to my commitments, pushing me when I falter, and knowing when to give me a break. He would monitor my mood and gauge my engagement. He would be like the logical extension of that Mercedes feature that wakes you up when you doze off.

With all this, deskotron would be able to dynamically pack my days. He would turn me into one of those high-powered guys who’s scheduled down to the minute, except that I wouldn’t feel constrained by him. Instead, I’d feel like he had the perfect answer every time I asked, “What’s next?” 


¶ In Hanoi, last weekend, the members of ASEAN held a summit meeting with China. China continues, however, to insist on treating its South China Sea claims as bilateral agreements with ASEAN members. Simon Roughneen reports, at Asia Times.

In recent months, China has alarmed countries in Southeast and East Asia with some remarkably strident Freudian slips, which wary neighbors have interpreted as the hegemonic aspirations behind Beijing’s “peaceful rise” rhetoric. Some influential commentators, including American Walter Russell Mead, have made the historical analogy with post-Bismarck Germany, which famously, and disastrously, abandoned the Iron Chancellor’s relatively cautious diplomacy for a more strident and clumsy approach under Kaiser Wilhelm II.

In July, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reminded Southeast Asian countries that China is a big country. This not-so-subtle language amplified alarm bells set off when US officials leaked Chinese statements that the South China Sea is viewed by Beijing as a “core interest”, a term usually used to describe its claims over Taiwan and Tibet. ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and non-ASEAN Taiwan, all have competing claims in the maritime area.


¶ We thought that the VQR was in abeyance, but Kyle Minor caught an extraordinary interview with Alice Munro (with Lisa Dickler Awano) that, among other things, explains that blush-making dinner-for-two in the celebrated story, “Wenlock Edge.”

LDA: At one point in the story, while the student is at the home of a near-stranger, an older man named Mr. Purvis, she finds herself complying with his wishes, although they make her feel uncomfortable. Mr. Purvis, who is fully dressed, desires that she sit naked at his dining room table while they eat together. Later, while she is still undressed, he leads the way into his library, where he asks her to sit in a revealing way while she reads poems to him from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Although he doesn’t use force to win his way, the student doesn’t refuse him.

AM: Actually that was something someone told me that had happened, but I wanted very much to use it in a way of finding out why the girl would do that, and what she would feel like before and afterwards. So I put myself in that position, thinking it out.

After that story was published, I was at a party, and the men there all thought it was unrealistic; they thought it would never happen. And the women all said, “Oh, yeah?” I think (the men) wanted to think that way. Because what the student does is her own investigation, which she doesn’t realize the implications of. She really thinks that she is in power, even though it’s a thing she has to force herself to do. She doesn’t realize actually how much power Mr. Purvis has over her and her mind and her future until it’s all over.

LDA: Both the student protagonist and her roommate, Nina, seem like victims to me.

AM: The student has all kinds of smarts to keep her afloat in the world. But Nina is totally a victim because she has nothing. And Nina finds an implausible sort of romance that she is nevertheless willing to invest in and our heroine doesn’t even allow her to keep that. So in a way, it’s a bleak story. But I don’t think it’s bleak in terms of being not what people would do. “Dimensions,” the first story in the book is fairly unusual—it’s an extreme story—and I don’t think “Wenlock Edge” is extreme.


¶ Simon Johnson hopes that President Obama will boldly confute incoming House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s claim to be a fiscal conservative, which Mr Johnson challenges on three grounds (Mr Ryan wants to cut taxes, has no spending cuts in mind beyond the blather of the “Pledge to America,” and has yet to say anything about Medicare’s future). (The Baseline Scenario)

Mr. Ryan has an important job in the next Congress and will no doubt have great influence on Republican policy in the run up to the 2012 presidential election.

The White House would do well to take him and his colleagues on directly.  We should have the debate about our long-term fiscal future and lay out a path to sustainability that is consistent with an economic recovery. 

It is up to the Obama administration to explain clearly and widely why Mr. Ryan’s proposals do not deal with the first order problems that have increased government debt dramatically in the past decade and that threaten future fiscal stability.  Let us hope the White House has learned from the midterms that there are dire electoral consequences when the president shrinks from directly confronting misleading ideas.

Have a Look

¶ Sketches from Chris Roth’s jury duty. (The Rumpus)

¶ Written in stone. (Letters of Note)

¶ “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” for our whatevs times. (GOOD)


¶ Google’s “creepy line.” (Short Sharp Science.)