Beachcombing:
Blocking Coalition
February 2012

¶ At Grantland,Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier foresee the death of the NFL over the next ten to fifteen years. (via Marginal Revolution; 2/13)

This outcome may sound ridiculous, but the collapse of football is more likely than you might think. If recent history has shown anything, it is that observers cannot easily imagine the big changes in advance. Very few people were predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, or the rise of China as an economic power. Once you start thinking through how the status quo might unravel, a sports universe without the NFL at its center no longer seems absurd.

¶ Whatever else you make of it, we think that Maureen Tkacik’s consideration of Walter Isaacson’s book suggests that the hitherto much-admired biography is not likely to be the last word about Steve Jobsor the manufacturing practices that made him rich. Tkacik also sounds a new alarm (Reuters; via The Millions) :

t gradually dawned on me after this encounter that much of the cultural nonsense I presumed had died with the tech bubble was alive and well. Especially wherever brands had adequately inoculated themselves against the threat of the proverbial “burst,” which in this case just happened to involve a ban on bubblegum. And the nonsense was proliferating. It occurred to me at some point that exploitation would be accepted as so fundamental to the general “lifestyle” that slavery itself could be recast in the jargon of “aspiration.”

¶ What’s the most exciting part of Jonah Lehrer’s piece about “obliviating potions” at Wired? It’s hard to say, there are so many. This long read about the latest thinking about the nature of memory, plus treatments that have chemically enhanced the talking cure to free some patients of intolerable PTSD, suggests, even more than Mr Lehrer’s reports usually do, that we are speeding down the Informatioin Superhighway toward unimaginable destinations. (via The Browser; 2/20) ¶ On the occasion of what would have been David Foster Wallace’s fiftieth birthday, Letters of Note publishes an anguished plea for advice sent to Don DeLillo when Wallace was 33. (2/27)

This is not coming across like I want it to; I can’t make this clear. Maybe your work is this form of profound marriage only to and for me; maybe it’s some weird subjective misprision that has to do with me and not your fiction; maybe you have no thoughts on how you’ve come to make (apparent) Respect and Dedication seem so fuck-all much (apparent) Fun. If you do have any thoughts — together with a couple minutes to rub together — I’d be grateful for them. I’m about as professionally flummoxed as I’ve ever been.

¶ The Economist reviews the new Charles Murray book. “Your own columnist, a jaundiced Brit residing temporarily in a SuperZip, wonders how the lower class will respond to hearing that the main help it needs is an infusion of its betters’ morals.” Indeed. (2/8) ¶ Axel Preston considers four new novels inspired by Trollope’s classic, The Way We Live Now, and argues that they do indeed have to be set in London. We can’t wait for the Lanchester! (Guardian; via Arts Journal; 2/13) ¶ Andrea Scrima writes about Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods as the political tract that, however funny, it really is. (The Rumpus; 2/17)

When Renée says: “You could argue that a deal that asks you to do something physically disgusting for a limited period, and gives you free use of your own mind in exchange, is actually not such a bad bargain,” what DeWitt really seems to be addressing is the agony of not having free use of your own mind, of being hindered by the exigencies of making a living, trapped in stupefying wage-earning work and forced to perform a mundane function that serves someone else’s purposes. In an America obsessed with success and failure, with getting a shot at the ever-elusive American dream, it’s the plight of a brilliant mind with a set of skills not immediately convertible into currency—damned to being part of the ant colony, the beehive, to eking out the hours in a task far below its capacities—that pains us the most.

¶ Not so fast, cautions Tyler Cowen, reviewing ballyhooed experiments showing that rich people are more likely than others to cheat and to steal. We didn’t buy it, either, but Tyler does a better job than we could of putting the “results” where they belong. (2/28) ¶ Why this is a good time to invest; no, seriously. (Abnormal Returns, 2/29)

¶ Don’t be surprised if the permanent title of this month’s edition of Beachcoming (affixed when it is no longer a page in progress) turns out to be ”Blocking Coalition.” We’ve just come across the term in an entry at Overcoming Bias. Robin Hansonasks why companies pay consultants so much money for what is basically the advice of recent college graduates. He answers that the prestige of the consulting firms enables CEOs to undermine the “blocking coalitions” that in any large organization emerge as a mutual-protection society among senior bureaucrats. We’re not persuaded that consulting firms contribute anything of actual value, but we’re delighted to have such a sterling addition to our collection of reasons why large corporations make no sense. When Mr Hanson writes, “My guess is that most intellectuals underestimate just how dysfunctional most firms are,” we hope that he’s right, and we hope that they’ll wake up. (via The Morning News; 2/3) ¶ According to Farhad Manjoo, even without a Facebook IPO, Mark Zukerberg has made Silicon Valley’s engineers richer — by refusing to cooperate in an anti-poaching scheme currently in anti-trust litigation. (Pando daily; via Abnormal Returns; 2/6) ¶ We don’t allow New York Magazine in the house, and Chris Lehman’s dismantlement of Gabriel Sherman’s intellectually vegetative report from a Wall Street “emasculated” by financial regulation reminds us why. (The Awl) ¶ Although he recommends reading the Sherman piece, Joshua Brown retains our trust with his complaint that “No One Is Ever Wrong Anymore.” (The Reformed Broker; 2/7) ¶ Too brilliant for words: an unprecedented way of making schoolwork benefit everybody!

According to the Wikimedia Foundation blog,professors from nine nations are participating in the two-year-old Wikipedia Education Program, which allows them to assign articles to their students. In the United States, about 50 classes are participating in the editing effort. Student contributors “are expected to put in as much work into the Wikipedia assignments as they would put into a term paper or other large assignment,” the program’s founders say.

We think that this is only marginally less amazing, and vastly more useful, than squaring the circle. (GOOD; 2/23) ¶ Nick Paumgarten went to Davos this year, and Felix Salmon assures us that he got it more or less right the first time, even though that’s not supposed to happen. From this week’s New Yorker (2/28):

People like to project onto Davos their fears and fantasies about the way the world works. Right-wingers see insidious, delusional liberalism, in its stakeholder ethos and its pretense of world improvement. They picture a bunch of Keynesians, Continentals, and self-dealing do-gooders participating in some kind of off-the-books top-down command-control charade. Left-wingers conjure a plutocratic cabal, a Star Chamber of master puppeteers, the one per cent—or .01 per cent, really—deciding the world’s fate behind a curtain of heavy security and utopian doublespeak. The uninvited, the refuseniks, and even many of the participants see a colossal discharge of hot air, a peacock strut.

¶ Jonathan Franzen may be convinced that serious readers will always prefer books, but Avi Steinberg, exploring the latest developments in librarian porn, reveals apocalyptic misgivings. (The Paris Review; via MetaFilter; 2/1) ¶ Writing about Pulpheadwith great élan, M Rebecca Otto asks, “The question facing us at millennium’s end was: how can we possibly survive all this goddamn freedom?” Indeed. (The Rumpus; 2/1) ¶ Reif Larsen writes about infogasms; the powers and pitfalls of visual storytelling. (The Millions; 2/8) ¶ Catching up with Levi Stahl’s blog, we came across some invaluable musings about Barbara Pym, Iris Murdoch, and Anthony Powell, dating from the middle of last month. Our apologies! (I’ve Been Reading Lately) ¶ Abby Mims, surrounded by cancer, appreciates Joan Didion more than ever. “I feel I will live much the same haunted way when my mother dies.” (The Rumpus; 2/13) ¶ Do not fail to read Maria Bustillos’s amused but fertile essay on romance fiction, which contains one of the clearest analyses of genre fiction that we’ve ever come across. Hint to male would-be romance writers: women do not appraise themselves admiringly in the mirror. No, sir. (The Awl; 2/14) ¶ At The Point, a lengthy, anti-”liberal” defense of David Foster Wallace in particular and the experimental novel in general, by Jon Baskin. Or is it an attack on Jonathan Franzen and the anti-American novel? Whichever, it’s quite well-written and -thought-out, even if it does almost completely overlook both writers’ problems with American family life. (via 3 Quarks Daily; 2/20) ¶ An anonymous philosophy grad student appraises Jane Austen as a moral philosopher and finds that she’s very good at it. Curiously, he seems to believe that Austen’s fiction is unrealistic, and that her plots and characters are mere confections designed to illustrate her philosophy. We suppose that it is a lot to ask, to expect a philosopher, especially one in graduate school, to understand the comic. (The Philosopher’s Beard; via The Browser) ¶ Colm Tóibín speculates on the role of parental death or frustration in the making of a writer. “…the idea that I was writing, pushing myself to work, almost because they could not or did not…” (Guardian; via The Browser; 2/27) ¶ Lisa Peel reminds us of the strange career and luminous work of Walker Percy, whose The Moviegoer we’re thinking of re-reading as a result. (The Millions; 2/29)

¶ A brief but sobering essay on how persistent racism in America can ”grind a man or woman down in horrible ways,” by James McBride, who is not best pleased that Oscar nominations are still being handed out to black actors who play housemaids. (40Acres; via MetaFilter; 2/1) ¶ Jason Kottke notes what looks to us like a Jobs Hangover: a minitrend of entrepreneurs who have slowed down since Steve Jobs died. Was Jobs “the John Henry of our time?” The exciting thing is realizing how unimaginable such misgivings among men would have been a generation ago.(2/8) ¶ Choire Sicha implores the young people of Gotham to “put a fucking boot in the face of the soulless careerist.” Don’t let the vampires, the drama queens, and the bitter underminers distract you from the real wickedness! Choire throws in a picture of Tracy Flick as a reminder. (The Awl; 2/13) ¶ Emma Garman discovers that her inborn rejection of all things princess has been overcome by the delight of watching tabloid hacks tear their hair out waiting for Kate to do something wrong. As for Uncle Gary, “perhaps it’s not too much to hope that he’s been taken under the wing of Prince Andrew.” (The Awl; 2/17)

¶ It’s sweet to think that Verdi’s greatest contribution was the Casa di Riposoin Milan, a retiremement home for musicians that’s still going. But of course it’s not. We can’t think of any other philanthropists who gave us the likes of Don Carlo. (LA Times; via Arts Journal; 2/6) ¶ Simon Schama’s visit with Cindy Sherman yields a dandy preview to the coming MoMA show. “Hers is the real Facebook (the one we all mistake for human connection, she avoids like the plague).” (FT Magazine; via The Morning News; 2/10) ¶ Jonathan Blumhofer’s review of The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras, by Stanford professor Robert Flanagan, covers all the bases in the world of arts financing, and raises good questions about arriving at the right dollar figure to attach to the living of a highly-trained professional musician. (The Arts Fuse; via Arts Journal; 2/17)

¶ Jim Emerson almost says that The Artist is fun — but he stops at calling it an interesting movie to watch. Same thing, in our book, but we like the great critics to spell it out now and then. Maybe next time. (Scanners; 2/6) ¶ Sonia Saraiya watches Atonement on a gloomy day, and learns that her own just-ended romance “had a great trailer, but the movie never worked right.” (The Awl; 2/17) ¶ Have you got all day? Jim Emerson has rounded up some corking reviews — analyses, really — of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that establish the film as the best-made movie of 2011. (Scanners; 2/17) ¶ We think that it was ill-advised of James Fenton to make use of the jump-the-shark trope when dismissing Downtown Abbey, but we were still secretly pleased that we hadn’t tuned in. (LRB; 2/20) ¶ What is the mot juste for Maria Bustillos’s enthusiastic piece about The Artist? “Sprawling” — that’s the word for it. But enthusiastic! Liberté! Fraternité! Amitié! (The Awl; 2/23) ¶ Bill Morris identifies himself as an anti-Kaelite film viewer. It all comes down to whether you prefer blinking or thinking. He’s a thinker. Kael, famously, boasted of never seeing any movie more than once — the most asinine claim that any critic has ever made. Morris is only too happy to let Geoff Dyer’s new Zona guide him through Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. (The Millions) ¶ Virginia Postrel has three very interesting ideas for improving the Academy Awards show. Although we’re very happy about The Artist and all, we do agree that commercial popularity deserves its own Oscar spotlight. (Bloomberg; via Arts Journal) ¶ Charles McNulty fesses up to his “Meryl Street problem.” We know what he’s talking about, but we suspect that he’s thinking too hard about Ms Streep’s talents. She always makes us forget who she is; she also makes us forget that the person whom she’s impersonating is not “her.” (LA Times; via Arts Journal; 2/27)

¶ What we wouldn’t give to hear Greta Gerwig do a podcast of Logan Sachon’s dating tips for men as compiled from 2,208 questionnaires. “Girls are really, really, really sick of wasting first dates talking about The Wire and Game of Thrones.” (The Awl; 2/15) ¶ Stephany Aulenback makes Impossible Pie with such intellectual excitement that you never wonder “why?” (The Awl; 2/17)

Have a Look: ¶ Eye candy for the non-squeamish: “Aspergillius fumigatus botrytis mucor trichoderma cladosporium.” (via MetaFilter; 2/1) ¶ “Judging Books By Their Covers” — last year’s dust jackets from both sides of the pond. (The Millions; 2/8) ¶ Jean Dujardin To Star In Everything. (Funny or Die; 2/10). ¶ Michael Cunningham’s bath room. (via The Morning News; 2/15)

Noted: ¶ We’re old, but not this old:  “Six Things That Are Dead, According to Harold Bloom.” (Big Think; via 3 Quarks Daily) ¶ Movies that all at The Awl will drop everything to watch on TV. Groundhog Day is a clear favorite. (2/1) ¶ Top 5 regrets of the dying. (Guardian; via MetaFilter; 2/6) Gillian Steinhauer on lists: “We risk becoming masters of our own triviality.” (The Awl; 2/8) ¶ Open Stax College, a line of free textbooks from Rice University. (GOOD; 2/13) ¶ Shocking art more shocking if shock precedes art. (Miller-McCune; via Arts Journal; 2/15) ¶ 2012 doomsday nonsense is scaring kids, and may trigger suicides. (Bad Astronomy; 2/23) ¶ Should 3 year-olds learn computer programming? (GOOD; 2/27) ¶ McDonald’s fries at home. (Serious Eats; via The Morning News; 2/29)