Daily Office:
Tuesday, 29 June 2010



¶ A warning, from Andrew Bacevich, about the danger to the Republic of a volunteer army fighting a long, indefinite war. (Washington Post; via  The Morning News)

To be an American soldier today is to serve a people who find nothing amiss in the prospect of armed conflict without end. Once begun, wars continue, persisting regardless of whether they receive public support. President Obama’s insistence to the contrary notwithstanding, this nation is not even remotely “at” war. In explaining his decision to change commanders without changing course in Afghanistan, the president offered this rhetorical flourish: “Americans don’t flinch in the face of difficult truths.” In fact, when it comes to war, the American people avert their eyes from difficult truths. Largely unaffected by events in Afghanistan and Iraq and preoccupied with problems much closer to home, they have demonstrated a fine ability to tune out war. Soldiers (and their families) are left holding the bag.

Throughout history, circumstances such as these have bred praetorianism, warriors becoming enamored with their moral superiority and impatient with the failings of those they are charged to defend. The smug disdain for high-ranking civilians casually expressed by McChrystal and his chief lieutenants — along with the conviction that “Team America,” as these officers style themselves, was bravely holding out against a sea of stupidity and corruption — suggests that the officer corps of the United States is not immune to this affliction.

We’re glad that we don’t have to explain to any soldiers’ families why their men are fighting and dying in Afghanistan, but we wish that no one had to.

¶ Reading Prof Bacevich’s admonition ought to put you into a state of keen appreciation for Robert Dreyfuss’s appraisal of the looming showdown between the commander in Afghanistan and the Commander in Chief. When you get to the end, though, try not to stare at the last paragraph as long as we did. (Mother Jones) 

The only silver lining in the Petraeus cloud is that the general has close ties to the military in Pakistan who slyly accept U.S. aid while funneling support to the insurgency in Afghanistan. If Obama decides to pursue a political and diplomatic solution between now and next July, Petraeus’s Pakistan connection would be useful indeed. Time, however, is running out.


¶ Wesley Morris wishes that Hollywood stars would at least make movies as exciting as their Broadway appearances. (Boston Globe; via Arts Journal )

If theater is being treated as a rejuvenating sabbatical away from the deadening effects of Hollywood, it’s hard not to see adult moviemaking (films made for, by, and about grown-ups — although not called “Grown Ups,’’ please) as chopped liver. Worse, actually: the greasy deli wrapping some chopped liver comes in.

I’m not yet tired of contemplating the nuances of Jonah Hill or how much he’s built like a soccer ball. I’m this close, though. The best (and most) acting Cate Blanchett has been asked to summon lately was for Liv Ullmann’s revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire.’’ The movie business may not need her, but we in the audience certainly do. Caaaate! Caaaaate! (It doesn’t sound quite as good as “Stelllla,’’ but you get the idea.)

Mr Morris overlooks one detail: stage acting is about a million times more exciting (challenging, terrifying, exhilarating) than performing in front of camera and crew. Not to mention that applause!


¶ Mrs Cringely stands on line for a new iPhone (then wishes that she hadn’t), prompting some intriguing cerebration in her husband.

And get ready for a big leap of strategic thinking from Cupertino.

The number one game console in the USA is Nintendo’s Wii, primarily because it has a Bluetooth-connected motion-sensing remote control. Well iPhones and iPod Touches have Bluetooth, too — and WiFi, accelerometers, and now even gyroscopes. A Mini-turned-AppleTV controlled by the installed base of tens of millions of iPhones and iPod Touches is a game market waiting to be exploited. Yes, the “console” costs more (for now) but thanks to the App Store the games can cost less, making the total user expenditure the same or less. It’s the old Return-On-Investment (ROI) argument only applied to games.

Video games are the one huge market Apple has yet to touch and the last one where Microsoft can still pretend to contend for technology leadership. A $299 AppleTV that has a serious content strategy, HD-Wii performance, and good games priced from $2.99-$6.99 would kick ass at Christmas. Yes, it is too expensive and the games are too puny for real gamers, but not too expensive or too puny to sell the 2-4 million units Apple likes when entering any new market.

That’s $1 billion in easy Christmas revenue for Apple from what’s essentially a marketing head feint.

Although we never owned an Apple product (other than a Nano) until this April, we conur with Mr Cringely’s appraisal of the Apple outlook:

Competitors that still think strictly in terms of individual features and form factors won’t grasp the significance of what’s going-on here. Steve is out to make them obsolete. Apple has mothballed the whole notion of vying for computer market share and is instead moving as fast as it can to redefine the whole computing model for consumers using networked mobile devices.

Remember when Ballmer talked through his hat a few years ago about how Microsoft was headed to a model of Windows based primarily on ad revenue? There’s no way in Hell that business model can be sustained for Windows or the PC (or for Macs, either). But make the platform cost $199 and be replaced every 24 months, build-in mobile subscription revenue, MobileMe subscription revenue, content revenue, app revenue and ad revenue, with none of those involving much effort or expense on Apple’s part at all and the future becomes clear.

And Apple plans to own it


¶ The most exciting thing about being alive today is watching the development of a cohesive new theory of intelligence, covering everything from the nature of memory to the fundamentals of ethics. We don’t know where to begin talking about it; we didn’t even know that it was happening until we picked up Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong and Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works — we’re in the middle of Being Wrong and suffering Most-Important-Book-Ever seizures — but Jonah Lehrer’s patient critique of the IQ test’s shortfall seems a very good place to begin. (The Frontal Cortex)

Here’s where the data gets really interesting: These individual differences in unconscious processing correlated with academic performance on a wide range of subjects, from foreign language to math. In other words, students who did better on the seemingly mindless implicit learning task were also better at conjugating French verbs, even when controlling for the effect of “psychometric intelligence”. This clearly demonstrates that much of our intellectual variation has nothing do with the intellectual skills we measure and valorize. Instead, our intelligence is deeply influenced by all sorts of subliminal talents that we can’t control, influence or directly access.


¶ A mash note from Ellen Moody to Joan Rivers is not something we were expecting to see, ever. Which just makes it all the more impressive. (Ellen And Jim Have A Blog, Too)

Joan Rivers lives high and luxuriously and this takes money. She calls her home (very fancy) a kind of Marie Antoinette place, evoking her understanding of how envy and resentment towards a woman who flaunts her riches easily rises. At the same time she has never managed to achieve the status of any of the men nor the kind of teams they have. We see how she goes anywhere — including a devastating gig in Wisconsin to a fundamentalist (Republican) type audience.

Her raw comedy is still daring for a woman and she is admonished on HBO for her use of “fuck” — which I loved her for ignoring. The men utter it all the time.

She manages to get 17 people on thanksgiving and gets in a big table. She has her few close relatives, close staff and brings in people in her building who she knows have nowhere to go and some street people she passes regularly. Before that she goes round giving out meals on wheels. She supports the children of her staff members by sending them to the best private schools.

Although the discourse is not explicitly as this is a woman’s life in the comedy business and outlook on life itself, that’s what is at its core. She’s aware of this and how as a woman she’s been in the paradoxical position of suffering from the very things she advocates.


¶ We hadn’t realized how much we missed the Cold War!

The story has all the elements of a thriller or, considering some of the details described in court documents, a sitcom about people who had fraudulent passports and used code words. The suspects had learned enough American slang to get by — enough, anyway, to start a sentence with the words “Everything is cool.” They had also been taught lines to recite, lines that only another spy was supposed to recognize and respond to, although some of those lines apparently came from an undercover F.B.I. agent who was pretending to be an employee of the Russian Consulate in New York. (NYT)

“Donald Heathfield” of the Boston couple does seem to have talked to some well-connected Americans, but that is not hard to do, and claimed to have spoken to an expert on nuclear “bunker-busting” bombs.

But you do not know if this was an exaggeration – and reminiscent of the hapless non-agent Jim Wormold in Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, who made up agents and information and passed off drawings of the vacuum cleaners he sold as secret weapons.

In one conversation, a couple is heard complaining that Moscow was demanding sources for their information. In fact, Moscow seemed desperate enough to ask in one message for “tidbits”. (BBC News)

It is heartening to know that even alleged Russian spies have problems with their computers. Anna Chapman complained about the difficulties she had establishing a private wireless local area network to her handler UC-I, so that she could communicate with the van parked outside the coffee shop. Suspicions were mutual. C or Moscow Centre never quite understood why the couple who went under the name of Richard and Cynthia Murphy had to buy that house in New Jersey: “We are under the impression that C views our ownership of the house as a deviation from the original purpose of the mission,” they said in an intercepted message.

The Murphys told C, perhaps somewhat defensively: “It was a convenient way to solving the housing issue, plus ‘to do as the Romans do’ in a society that values home ownership.”

What did C expect? If they want 11 “illegals” to go native in America in order to establish a long-term, deep cover, then obviously home ownership in New Jersey beckons. Mrs Murphy did a good job. She certainly fooled the neighbours. “They couldn’t have been spies,” said Jessie Gugig. “Look what she did with the hydrangeas.” (Guardian)


¶ Tim Parks tackles the bugaboo of America’s literary provinciality: we don’t read enough in translation, goes the complaint. Fine and good, but, having read his way through Best European Fiction 2010, edited by Aleksandar Hemon (no less), Mr Parks (unsurprisingly) comes to a surprising conclusion.

I have no problem with this. All the contributions are interesting and some impressive. That is enough for me. But it does make one wonder whether we are learning much about other cultures from this venture, whether it is true, as Hemon claims, that “ceaseless” and “immediate” translation of literature from abroad is a “profound, non- negotiable need.” Similarly, as if in response to Grossman’s concerns about eventual conflicts brought on by cultural isolation, frequent references here to the recent wars in the Balkans remind us that familiarity with each other’s literatures has never prevented Europeans from slaughtering one another. Remarking, in her short preface, on this reluctance of the anthology’s contributors to be identified with their national cultures, Zadie Smith nevertheless feels that

if the title of this book were to be removed and switched with that of an anthology of the American short story, isn’t it true that only a fool would be confused as to which was truly which?

Truly, truly, aside from superficial markers like names and places, or the fact that it is fairly easy to distinguish translated texts from those in their original tongue, I am not sure that Smith is altogether right. It seems to me rather that as we tackle intriguing stories from Latvia and Lithuania, Bosnia and Macedonia, we are struck by how familiar these voices are, how reassuringly similar in outlook to one another and ourselves.


¶ Who knew? New Yorkers live longer. Not by much, but measurably. Why? Harvard’s Edward Glaeser looks into the numbers and finds — murk. One thing’s for sure: Gotham is much, much safer for young people. (NYT)

It is easiest to understand why New York is less deadly for younger adults. About 81 of every 100,000 New Yorkers aged 25 to 34 died in 2006, as opposed 106 out of every 100,000 in the nation. Accidents and suicides are the two leading causes of death for these younger people. The suicide rate in New York City among this younger group is substantially less than the rate in the nation as a whole. Ten years ago, David Cutler, Karen Norberg and I studied youth suicides. We noted the tendency of suicide rates to be highest in low-density areas, which may be explained by the strong relationship between suicide and gun ownership, as measured by hunting licenses per capita.

The gap in accidents between city and country is even larger. New Yorkers between 25 and 34 are more than 75 percent less likely to die in a motor vehicle accident than their counterparts nationwide. Driving drunk is far more deadly than taking the bus while tipsy.

But the bulk of the mortality difference between New York and the nation occurs among older cohorts, and here the situation is far murkier. The death rates in the nation are 5.5 percent higher for 55-to-64-year-olds than in New York, 17 percent higher for 65-to-74-year-olds and more than 24 percent higher for 75-to-84-year-olds. There is no single smoking gun for these groups. Deaths from cancer are lower for these groups, but deaths from heart disease are not.

Have a Look

¶ At Good, the most interesting (and certainly one of the most beautiful) graphic renderings of a piece of music that we’ve ever seen. Stephen Malinowski’s rendering of Debussy’s “Clair de lune” makes it possible for people who don’t read music to reap the surprising rewards of “following the score.”

¶ In case you think that BP’s no-problemo initial response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster was at all uncharacteristic of corporation behavior, consider the telegram that White Star Lines sent to England’s General Post Office (for which it contracted Transatlantic mail service) on a long-ago April 15th. (Letters of Note)