Archive for the ‘The Hours’ Category

Daily Office: Matins
In Threes
Monday, 14 March 2011

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Japan’s quake-damaged nuclear power plants could be taken as warning against future nuclear projects, but we hope that they will instead provide a learning experience for engineers. The catastrophe at Fukushima does not in the slightest alter our available energy options.

Three of the world’s chief sources of large-scale energy production — coal, oil and nuclear power — have all experienced eye-popping accidents in just the past year. The Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia, the Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan have dramatized the dangers of conventional power generation at a time when the world has no workable alternatives able to operate at sufficient scale.

The policy implications for the United States are vexing. “It’s not possible to achieve a climate solution based on existing technology without a significant reliance on nuclear power,” said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and an energy and climate change adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign. “It’s early to reach many conclusions about what happened in Japan and the relevance of what happened to the United States. But the safety of nuclear power will certainly be high on the list of questions for the next several months.”

“The world is fundamentally a set of relative risks,” Mr. Grumet added, noting the confluence of disasters in coal mining, oil drilling and nuclear plant operations. “The accident certainly has diminished what had been a growing impetus in the environmental community to support nuclear power as part of a broad bargain on energy and climate policy.”

Daily Office:
Friday, 15 October 2010

Friday, October 15th, 2010


¶ You can almost hear the screenwriters cranking away in Marina del Rey: David Streitfelt’s front-page story about Nicolle Bradbury’s foreclosure and Thomas Cox’s successful attempt to halt it at the eleventh hour — thereby shutting down millions of such procedures across the country — must be sparking all the synapses nurtured by Erin Brockovitch. We’re sure that there is more  to Mr Cox’s story.

Mr. Cox, 66, worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s for Maine National Bank, a subsidiary of the Bank of New England, which went under. His job was to call in small-business loans. The borrowers had often pledged their houses as collateral, which meant foreclosure.

“It was extraordinarily unpleasant, but it paid well,” he said. “I had a family to support.”

The work exacted its cost: his marriage ended and a serious depression began. He gave up law and found solace in building houses. By April 2008, he said, he was sufficiently recovered and started volunteering at Pine Tree Legal.

By the time Mr. Cox saw Mrs. Bradbury’s case, it was just about over. Last January, Judge Keith A. Powers of the Ninth District Court of Maine approved the foreclosure, leaving the case alive only to establish exactly how much Mrs. Bradbury owed.

Mr. Cox vowed to a colleague that he would expose GMAC’s process and its limited signing officer, Jeffrey Stephan.


¶ The trial of Getty Museum curator Marion True has been terminated on technical grounds by Italian judges. While this leaves Ms True in a limbo of allegations, the shock of her indictment has eliminated many dubious practices in the field of museum acquisitions. (LA Times; via  Arts Journal)

Observers said the trial has succeeded in changing American practices and
signals the end of an era of unbridled American collecting.

Over the five years that her trial spanned, several of America’s most prominent museums — the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and others — forged settlements with Italian and Greek authorities, returning more than 100 looted antiquities in exchange for loans and cultural cooperation.

In 2007, the Getty agreed to return 40 objects to Italy, including its heralded statue of Aphrodite, and led the reform effort by adopting one of the strictest acquisition policies in the country. It requires that ancient art considered by the museum have a clear ownership history placing it in the United States in 1970, the year of an international treaty on the protection of cultural property. The association of art museum directors followed suit not long after, marking a dramatic change in the collecting practices of America’s leading museums.


¶ At the head of his list of bad long-term investments, Philip (of Weakonomics) places the 30-year US treasury bond. Philip is not yet 30 years old himself. Does the rising generation regard Old Faithful with new skepticism?

 Eventually the US will default or cease to exist.

All great empires die. And the sad truth is they die when no one is really expecting it. If you invest in shorter term bonds you may see the payoff in time to collect before our beloved country falls apart. But if you bought a 30 year bond there is a risk that over those 30 years the bond could become worthless. You might sell it off for a small loss, but the likelihood is that prices would fall faster than mortgage bonds did. Sure you’re paid a premium for the risk you take on, but you know and I know that 30 years is a long time (seeing as I’m not even 30).


¶ A new study finds a correlation between the amount of walking an American is likely to do and the presence of a local rail network: convenient trains make for active pedestrians. (The Infrastructurist)

The researchers found no association between daily steps and living environment (e.g. urban, suburban, or rural), which is a bit hard for this New Yorker to imagine. It also doesn’t quite square with a fascinating statistical breakdown of commuting methods done by Yonah Freemark over at the Transport Politic. Using Census data, Freemark charts how people got to work in America’s 30 largest cities between 2000 and 2009. We’ll focus on changes in the percentage of people walking to work during this time, although the chart compares all types of transportation modes:

  • All cities experienced a slight increase in commuter walking, at 1.8 percent
  • Cities without rail had a 2.7 percent decrease
  • Cities with rail but no major new rail investments saw a 1.7 percent increase
  • Cities with major new rail investments jumped 4.2 percent

So Americans in general don’t walk much, but something about a good rail system seems to bring them to their feet, if you will.


¶ Sal Cinquemani has some question about the “It Gets Better” campaign, in which (successful) adult gay men assure teens that their hassles will pass. All well and good, but hardly enough to make it better. (The House Next Door)

Gay teens aren’t killing themselves because being a “gay teen” in America isn’t easy. They’re killing themselves because being gay in America isn’t easy. Justin Aeberg, Cody Barker, Asher Brown, Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh, and the countless others whose stories we haven’t heard yet had plenty to live for. But despite brave testimonials like the one shared this week by Forth Worth, TX city councilman Joel Burns, who is married to his husband and who has ostensibly been accepted by his 67-year-old “tough-cowboy”-of-a-dad, things getting better isn’t guaranteed to everyone—or anyone.

In New York City, one of the safest cities in the country for gays, three separate alleged hate crimes against adult gay men were reported over the course of just a few days earlier this month. October also marks the 12th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder. These are stark reminders that violence against gays isn’t simply a teenage epidemic.

When we’ve created an environment in which discrimination, bigotry, and violence are accepted, how can we expect our children not to follow suit in our schools and in our streets? It Gets Better is a beautiful campaign, and a necessary one, but it’s one that can only work in conjunction with real, fundamental change: change in our schools; change in our churches, synagogues, and mosques; and change in our government. To the president, I say: You claim you want to see an end to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but you refuse to do it by executive order out of some pass-the-buck ideal that the body that legislated it should also be the one to repeal it. But I say that all three branches of government are equal. It’s clear where the judicial branch is coming down on the issue, but your Department of Justice insists on appealing those decisions—partly made possible by gay Republicans, to boot—for that same idealistic reason.


¶ Why China is so upset about Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize, even though there really are no (or not many) “dissidents” in China: in a land where history has a more cyclical look than it does almost anywhere else (with dynasties toppling every two hundred fifty years or so), elites try to forestall the seemingly inevitable. (LRB blog)

So why has Beijing’s reaction to Liu’s winning the prize been so extreme? One thing Beijing fears at times like this is division within the ranks of Chinese leaders: authoritarian regimes generally fall when those at the top are divided, and global attention has a tendency to bring out dissent – in the wake of Liu’s win, a group of veteran Party members have written a letter calling for greater freedoms of speech.

More generally, Beijing could be said to be excessively scared of history repeating itself. China’s leaders have studied in detail the mistakes that their predecessors made prior to 1949, and that Central and Eastern European Communists made in the late 1980s. The 1989 protest movement reminded them of Solidarity; Falun Gong resembled the syncretic sects whose risings unseated (in the case of the 14th-century Red Turbans) or nearly toppled (in the case of the 19th-century Taipings) dynasties. The response to Liu’s co-authorship of Charter 08, a document that could be seen as merely an expression of concern by a relatively powerless set of individuals, fits into this pattern. Twelve years after Charter 77 was published, Václav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia.


¶ M Rebekah Otto just bought a lot of books at a library book sale. Now she faces the familiar quandaries. (The Rumpus)

And I can’t help but wonder – will I read them? I started Oliver Sacks’ The Anthropologist on Mars ($4) on the bus ride home. Perhaps I need a plan. Chronologically: all of them – even The Gulag Archipelago ($5). Or by topic. An experimental literature syllabus: Three Lives by Gertrude Stein ($2), then B.S. Johnson, then John Barth, George Saunders. The Paul LaFarge fits in there, too. Then a late-20th and early-21st century literature class. Then a Woolf-Didion-Mary McCarthy class. I don’t know if William Safire’s On Language ($2) will fit with any other book in this bizarre collection. I could have a misfits streak where I unite the Safire with The Letters of Abelard and Heloise ($2) and the Oliver Sacks book.

In early encounters with these piles, I have gravitated towards the essays on literature rather than the literature itself. Mary McCarthy’s On the Contrary ($2) and Donald Bartheleme’s Not-Knowing ($3) both discuss the state of the novel and the role of fiction. And these two estimable thinkers reach more or less the opposite conclusion. In her essay “The Fact in Fiction,” McCarthy makes clear that the novel is a fact-filled product. She defines it as: “A prose book of a certain thickness that tells a story of real life… The distinctive mark of the novel is its concern with the actual world, the world of fact, of the verifiable, of figures, even, and statistics.” Bartheleme tells me, “Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. We have all heard novelists testify to the fact that, beginning a new book, they are utterly baffled as to how to proceed…” Not McCarthy’s novelists, I suppose, not Melville or Tolstoy or Faulkner. When Bartheleme condemns “work that rushes toward the reader with outflung arms” as irrelevant, I see McCarthy scoff.

Of course, these two critics come from different generations, McCarthy being twenty years Bartheleme’s senior, not to mention divergent literary lineages. This is also to say nothing of the immense volumes of scholarship and criticism on this subject by other writers. But their arguments are beside the point, or beside my point at least, which is to say the relationship between the ideas is as important as the ideas themselves. I can have it both ways, factful and factless, and they both lend a new and useful lens to my reading.


¶ Applying the principles of phylogenetics (evolutionary relatedness) to languages, and mapping social forms over the findings, yields controversial findings that Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel hails “the best method to solve questions about the evolution of political complexity.” (Nature; via 3 Quarks Daily)

But the data used by Currie and his team relate instead to the spreading out of people and their languages over a wide geographical area — so the ways in which societies might change structure in that situation might be rather different. For example, a small group breaking away from the mainland is a different case to a large state falling apart into several smaller groups, each of which remain in the same area.

Some anthropologists might also lack familiarity with these heavily statistical methods taken from genetics. “Even supposing I knew these statistical techniques, just how you get from a linguistic phylogeny to political evolution, I don’t know,” Carneiro says.

Diamond defends the method. “The languages are not used to derive any results at all about societies, but to work out the phylogenetic tree. And once that’s worked out, you can use that tree to study — in this case — political evolution. So the only question would be ‘are languages a good way to work out relationships between societies?'” In general, Diamond says, languages do fit the bill.

Have a Look

¶ Steerforth’s Greatest Hits. (The Age of Uncertainty)

Daily Office:
Thursday, 14 October 2010

Thursday, October 14th, 2010


¶ We don’t have a problem with ebooks, probably because we’re sure that books will continue to be produced — just as, digital cameras notwithstanding, we’re living in a golden age of archaic film revivals (callotype, &c). But book production will probably be a top-of-the-line affair, though, something that Joe Moran perhaps inadvertently hits on in his low-key jeremiad against ebooks. Hint: we remember when station wagons still had real wooden panels — to simulate the coaches that they permanently and utterly displaced.

The valedictories for what is now disdainfully called “dead tree publishing” may be similarly premature. The lessons from history are that technological progress is uneven, that consumers are often sceptical of techno-hype, and that new technologies do not supplant old ones in linear fashion. Look at the iPad’s ebook reader: your book purchase is stored on a real-looking wooden bookcase and you take it off the shelf and flip its virtual pages over with your fingers. Why, it’s exactly like … reading a book! So long as the ebook continues to pay it the compliment of mimicry, I suspect that the printed book need not fear for its life just yet.


¶ We were just this minute shocked to read that there’s a critic out there who regards Eve Harrington and Addison deWitt as gay characters in Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. Happily, this idea was immediately refuted by The House Next Door‘s Odienator.

Speaking of Addison, he is my favorite character in All About Eve. Like Bette Davis, George Sanders was introduced to me by Disney. He also showed up 8 million times on Channel 11’s endless loop of 1972’s Psychomania. Addison lives up to the last syllable of his name, upping his Kinsey Score with every wonderful, malicious and catty remark. Sanders uses his voice to brilliant effect, turning even Mankiewicz’s cheapest lines into comic and Oscar gold. How can anyone not love a man who uses his charm like a razor? According to Wikipedia, Roger Corber has no love for my dear Mr. DeWitt. Corber writes:

“The nurturing heterosexual relationships of Margo and Bill and of Karen and Lloyd serve to contrast with the loveless relationship predation and sterile careerism of the homosexual characters, Eve and Addison. Eve uses her physical femininity as a weapon to try to break up the marriages of both couples, and the extreme cynicism of Addison serves as a model of Eve’s future.”

I will concede that several lines of dialogue do lean toward a reading of both Addison and Eve being homosexual: Eve says yes to taking off all Margo’s clothes and tucking her into bed, and Addison describes his desire for Eve as the “height of improbability.” I’m just not convinced that their sexuality, whatever that may be, is the cause of their unwholesome actions; they are both mad with power and ambition. Besides, a truly gay version would have had Addison trying to be Margo, Eve running off with Birdie and Bill running off with Darryl Zanuck. (Carol Burnett certainly had that last idea…) What would Mankiewicz’s point be in putting Eve and Addison together and implying that Addison is nailing her if he wanted to slam gays?


¶ Adam Gopnik’s review of Nicholas Phillipson’s new biography of Adam Smith, in the current issue of The New Yorker, sums up the latest scholarly thinking about the father of Anglophone economy, and suggests how much better off we would all be if we had really paid attention to what Smith actually had to say about the role of government in commercial affairs, instead of taking the free market fanatics’ word for it. [P] 

Smith believes, in a way that few neoclassical economists seem to accept, that there is a “natural” price for goods — a price that takes in the cost of making them and a profit for the makers — and a “market” price, and that these two are not always the same. The market is susceptible to pressures from the masters and dealers to keep prices unnaturally high. Smith does not think that “government is the problem”; he thinks that the producers’ compact against the consumers is the problem, and that the producers, because they are concentrated and rich, are usually able to make the government take their side. Itt is the proper function of the state to prevent the dealers from ganging up on the customers: “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.” For Smith, the market moves toward a monopoly; it is the job of the philosopher to define, and of the sovereign state to restore, free play.


¶ BPA has been declared “toxic” by Canadian authories. It’s a great first step, in the face of commercial resistance to the ban, which has held back state action in the United States in Europe. (See Adam Gopnik, Prime) (NYT)

The compound, commonly known as BPA, has been shown to disrupt the hormone systems of animals and is under review in the United States and Europe.

Canada’s move, which was strenuously fought by the chemical industry, followed an announcement by the government two years ago that it would eliminate the compound’s use in polycarbonate bottles used by infants and children.

The compound was formally listed as being toxic to both the environment and human health in an official notice published online by the government without fanfare, a noticeable contrast to the earlier baby bottle announcement, which was made by two cabinet ministers.

George M. Enei, the director general of science and risk assessment at Environment Canada, one of two government departments that made the designation, said the move would make it easier to ban the use of BPA in specific products through regulations rather than by amending legislation, a cumbersome and slow process.

But he said the government’s first step would probably be to set limits on how much BPA can be released into the air or water by factories that use the compound.


¶ Jan Freeman looks into the pressing mystery of why we don’t say “governatorial.” (Globe; via The Morning News)

And so we could. In fact, English has tried out a number of variations on the ”governor” word family. In the 13th century, it borrowed govern from Old French, which eventually gave us governance, government, and, briefly, governator (insert Schwarzenegger joke here). Then, in the 15th century, English went back to the Latin gubernare to form another set of ”govern” words–gubernate, gubernatrix–of which the sole survivor is gubernatorial.

One obvious reason is that Americans had increasing numbers of state governors, and thus of elections in need of an adjective. As early as 1848, John Russell Bartlett, in ”Americanisms,” listed gubernatorial among words ”whose origin has grown out of our peculiar institutions, and which consequently are of a permanent nature.” (Caucus, lobby, mileage, and bunkum also made his list.) If the British had shared our need for gubernatorial, they too might have kept it current. But this commonsense analysis seems to have eluded the mavens.

We really can’t call it archaic–gubernatorial is only 300 years old, and thriving–but American critics have called it some other names along the way. Richard Grant White, a hugely popular 19th-century language maven, denounced the word in 1870 as ”a clumsy piece of verbal pomposity…pedantic, uncouth, and outlandish.” Thirty years later, Ralcy H. Bell told his readers that only ”pedants and ’small potatoes’” flaunted this big word. And Ambrose Bierce, in 1909, called gubernatorial ”needless and bombastic.” ”Leave it to those who call a political office a ’chair,’” he urged. ”’Gubernatorial chair’ is good enough for them. So is hanging.”

Why the ferocity? One possible reason is that gubernatorial was probably coined, and certainly embraced, by Americans. That would have tainted it in the eyes of our insecure language police, who were often anxious about our divergences from British usage. If England had given up on all its gubernator-derived words, why were we sticking with gubernatorial?


¶ George Clooney, diplomat. (Washington Post; via Real Clear World)

So what can the administration do? Clooney and Prendergast advocate a stronger mix of incentives and disincentives for Bashir. They point out that much stronger sanctions are possible, including the targeting of bank accounts and companies linked to the regime and its senior figures. More controversially, they say the United States should be prepared to normalize relations with Bashir and even consent to the suspension of his indictment by the International Criminal Court, if he makes peace with both southern Sudan and Darfur.

In the worst case, Prendergast said, the United States should be prepared to prevent the North from using its air force to indiscriminately attack the civilian population of the South, as it did in Darfur. That implies military intervention.

Though he spent the day meeting high level officials, Clooney said one of his aims was to motivate as many average citizens as possible to contact the White House and Congress and support aggressive U.S. action to prevent a war. “I don’t think of myself as a journalist and don’t pretend to be a journalist,” he said. “My job is to show up, because cameras follow me. That is the best way to spend my celebrity credit card.”


¶ Laura Miller gives us Michel de Montaigne — the patron saint of ruminative, unreliable bloggers. (Salon)

Montaigne’s essays can be meandering, yes, and often only tangentially related to their supposed themes. He filled them with anecdotes and examples collected from classical literature but also stories he got from friends and the peasants on his estate. In this and other qualities, he probably had more influence on the free-form English essay than on the lofty, abstraction-prone style of Académie française-sanctioned French. And even back in the day, people complained that he shared too much trivial detail, such as his preference for white wine over red; “Who the hell wants to know what he liked?” one crabby scholar retorted. In the 19th century, Montaigne’s candid discussion of carnal matters led concerned editors to produce a bowdlerized version of his works, more suitable for the tender minds of young ladies.

In short, Montaigne was accused of every sin attributed to today’s memoirists and bloggers, whose literary great-grandfather he is. Nevertheless, you will find “Essays” in every one of those collections of great books you used to be able to buy by the set, bound in “full genuine leather,” with gold lettering. This suggests that the line between trash and literature may be less firmly drawn than some would have us believe, a notion that would probably please Montaigne himself. Or perhaps the real lesson here is that it doesn’t really matter what you write about, provided that you do it well.


¶ Roger Cohen talks to Christiane Lagarde, French minister for the economy, about the need for retirement reform. (NYT)

“This is a key test of France’s ability to be sensible about its public finances, sensible about grabbing the future and not taking it on credit,” Lagarde, 54, said, dismissing some Socialist Party opposition as “totally irresponsible.” She sighed: “I hope we can demonstrate that France can actually change without breaking its chemistry and its culture and its intricacies.”

Aaah, French chemistry and culture and intricacies! Lagarde, whose elegant professionalism has proved an essential foil to Sarkozy’s explosive restlessness, spoke in the lovely Hôtel de Seignelay overlooking the Seine. On a mantelpiece lay the gravestone of Coco, “the favorite dog,” the inscription says, of Marie-Antoinette, who entrusted the pet to a friend before her execution in 1793. The stone has been uprooted from the garden because the property is for sale. The state needs cash, and not just from asking people to work a couple of years longer.

I believe France can change and preserve its social-market balance-cum-essence. The trouble is Sarkozy’s unpopularity is such that the reform has become a lightning rod. The left loathes his policies; many on the right loathe his style.

But he’s right. Lagarde estimates the reform, expected to get final parliamentary approval this month, would add 0.3 percent to annual G.D.P. growth and cut the deficit by 0.5 percent (beginning in three years).

That’s critical to a fragile recovery not helped by the clouds over America. “I am more concerned about the U.S. economy than the French,” Lagarde told me, citing the “structural de-leveraging” that is hitting a “world economy that had been driven by high U.S. consumption.” Add to that U.S. unemployment trends that are “not reassuring” and a low-interest U.S. monetary policy that’s “understandable” but “not helping developing countries or emerging markets or anyone.”

Have a Look

¶ The Procrastinators. (Brain Pickings)

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010


¶ At You’re the Boss, Jay Goltz tells the remarkable story of a “social entrepreneur,” Seth Weinberger. Mr Weinberger, partner at a major Chicago law firm by day, developed a handheld teaching device that really works — in his spare time (and with some help from clients).

He has gotten major grants from foundations and companies, including JPMorgan Chase Foundation, which has given him $500,000 thus far and has connected him with the Urban Education Exchange, a New York nonprofit that is focused on reading comprehension; and Teach For America, which will use TeacherMate in kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade classes in Phoenix and Chicago this year.

Is Mr. Weinberger doing social good? Obviously. Is he an entrepreneur? Well, he’s not taking financial risk, and he’s not making any money off of this venture. But he clearly has passion, vision, tenacity, and the ability to solve problems. And he’s capable of manic behavior. Sounds like an entrepreneur to me.

But whatever you call him, I take my hat off to him. It has been a long and difficult journey, and the road ahead looks no easier and no shorter.


¶ So, now it’s called “time shifting.” (How would we know? We have yet to crack a single disc from the past-season sets of Mad Men.) How does Nielsen keep track of this phenomenon, and how long can the current commercial-advertising model support “television”? (Yahoo; via  Arts Journal)

The upward trajectory of DVR ownership has been well chronicled, but fewer people are aware of how quickly on demand viewership is catching on, Kerekes said. Comcast, which has 23.2 million customers, gets some 350 million orders of VOD programming a month, she said. Television shows now surpass movies, music video and children’s programming, she said.

One heartening sign for networks could be that time-shifting will make many customers apt to try something new. Kim Cooper, an online support specialist from Charleston, S.C., said that’s one thing on her mind when she sits down on a Sunday and programs each of her two DVRs for the week.

“If you see something coming up you’ll say, `Do you want to give it a shot?'” Barcroft said. “We decide in the first five or 10 minutes whether we like it or not.”


¶ According to a report by P O’Neill at A Fistful of Euros, a great swathe of Ireland’s private sector is being run directly by banks in possession of foreclosed concerns, and the government does not contemplate any immediate action to curtail this curious way of dealing with “troubled assets.” In other words, wait and see.

And yet it’s not clear that the worst is over.  The banks haven’t yet made a big move on distressed home mortgages and no one is clear what will happen when forebearance is no longer a viable strategy.  Notwithstanding the government’s attempts to compare tax revenue to “profile” (i.e. a very recent projection), the fact is that tax revenue is stagnant at last year’s depression-like levels despite an apparent recovery in economic statistics.  And while there are those desperate hotels, the tourists (or at least those who stray from the cautiously priced package tours) will still find fussy and expensive restaurants (plus VAT).

Are there any tricks left in the bag?  The government is looking at privatization, most likely as a way to realize a large amount of cash at fairly short notice — essentially a portfolio switch of state-owned companies for all the bank liabilities it has taken on.  And there are some bizarre Thatcherite echoes in the possible appearance of a poll tax by the end of the year (dressed up as a “flat rate” water charge or property tax).  The public sector unions are back onside for now with a deal guaranteeing no further pay cuts and postponed pension reform for incumbents, so some semblance of the “social harmony” (i.e. lack of riots) that has so impressed international commentators is still there.

But, if you don’t work for the government directly or indirectly (as with the doctors and lawyers) or for some type of export operation, do you have any firm idea what you’ll be doing 3 years from now? For a country facing such inponderables, the statis in its politics is remarkable.  But that’s for another post.


¶ At Gene Expression, Razib Khan enthusiastically reviews Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Lamguage History of the World — and at truly informative length. Although the “rice/empire” theory of language spread occupies the center of attention, what caught our eye was the “conventional wisdom” (which we didn’t share until we read it) about the prevalence of Greek in the Eastern Roman Empire.

But one point which the author mentions repeatedly is that the rise and fall of languages of great expanse and utility is the norm, not the exception. In particular, Nicholas Ostler takes time out to emphasize that languages which spread via trade often do not have long term staying power. Portuguese, Aramaic, Punic and Sogdian would fall into this category (the later success of Portuguese was a matter of rice and empire in Brazil). It seems that mercantile communities are too ephemeral, that successive historical shocks inevitably result in their decline when there isn’t a peasant demographic reservoir or imperial power which imposes it by fiat. Even those languages which eventually spread beyond traders and gain cultural and political cachet may fall from grace. Greek is the best case of this. It was the dominant language of the Roman East, and spoken as far as modern Pakistan, and studied in Dark Age Ireland. By the early modern period it was a strange and foreign language in the West, and with the rise of Islam in the east it lost its cultural glamor, and even those Christians in Arab lands who were Melkite, Greek Orthodox who adhered to the theological position of Constantinople, became Arab in speech and identity (in greater Syria the Greek Orthodox have been instrumental in the formulation of Arab nationalism).

And yet to some extent one must be cautious about over-reading the recession of Greek in the face of Arabic after the rise of Islam. Ostler repeats the conventional wisdom that the predominant vernacular in the Roman East was never Greek, but rather Semitic dialects descended from Aramaic. This is manifest in the fact that the Oriental Orthodox churches do not use Greek in their liturgy, but forms of Syriac. Their root is in an alternative intellectual tradition from that of the Greek Church. The transition to Arabic was then predominantly from a closely related Semitic language, not from Greek. One of the theses to explain the spread of Arabic across North Africa, but not into Persia, is that Arabic found it easier to replace other members of the Afro-Asiatic language family. I can accept that people can intuitively perceive differences of language family without a deep knowledge of said languages. In Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World it is recounted that an ambassador to the court of the Hapsburg Emperor in Vienna communicated to the Sultan that apparently the locals spoke a dialect of Persian! Persian and German are of course both Indo-European languages, and set next to Turkish they may sound vaguely similar.


¶ Joe Moran gets lost — under the highway. Encouraged by French theorists, Joe explores the world of stilts below a huge highway interchange outside of Birmingham, UK. (via Mnémoglyphes)

I had read that in the mid-1990s the council created a gravel beach here, with brave locals bathing in the network of canals underneath the junction. I now wondered if this was an urban myth, a joke designed to lure unsuspecting tourists into this wasteland. There was some sand and gravel, but no evidence that it had been placed there on purpose. I wandered around the whole 30 acres of the junction, and I saw some strange human remains – a Loohire chemical toilet turned on its side, some ripped hi-vi trousers – but no actual human being.

After a few hours I realised I was lost. My atlas was, naturally, no help, because it only showed the roads looping above me. When I tried to retrace my steps I kept encountering unpassable pylons crackling with electricity. Eventually I scrambled through a gap in a fence and walked across a mudbath of football pitch which led me back on dry land recognised by the Birmingham A-Z.


¶ When the dictator — oops, president — runs the country from home (and nobody’s talking about a “home office”), you can’t be surprised when he proposes doing away with the pesky legislature, if that’s what business leaders want. (Miami Herald: via  Real Clear World)

Ortega wheels around Managua in a Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle, and his offspring are known to enjoy luxury cars.

“His sons have already savored the money. Many of them drive Range Rovers, Mercedes and BMWs in Costa Rica. They like what the oligarchs have. Ortega is starting to enjoy it, too,” said Eduardo Montealegre, a center-right politician who lost the 2006 presidential vote to Ortega and plans to challenge him again in 2011.

Curiously, Ortega doesn’t rule from a government building. He presides from his one-story home in a walled compound along Managua’s Parque el Carmen.

“The presidency, the headquarters of the front and his private home are all there. It is a trio: family, state and party,” said Moisés Hassan, a physicist who belonged to the front’s ruling revolutionary junta in the early 1980s.


¶ Our first response to news that Jonathan Franzen will be appearing on the cover of Time Magazine was a sharp regret that the writer’s father did not live to see the manifestation of his son’s achievement that, we suspect, would have meant more to him than all the glittering prizes. Our second thought was that Earl Franzen would almost certainly have asked Jonathan if he needed a little financial help, say, to buy a razor.

Craig Fehrman’s more productive response, at The Millions,  is a history of literary recognition on the Luce-id covers of Time. The biggest surprise — or at least the most indigestible one — is the discovery that the honor, such as it was, was bestowed upon Virginia Woolf, a writer who killed herself rather than contemplate exile in the New World.

Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.

Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time’s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.


¶ We’re not so crazy that we hate it when Republican Party eminences do the right thing — as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has done, admonishing his confrères against using a “wide brush” to taint all Muslims with anti-American bias. (Politico; via  The Morning News)

Christie said he agrees that some degree of “deference” must be paid to victims’ relatives, but added, “But it would be wrong to so overreact to that, that we paint Islam with a brush of radical Muslim extremists that just want to kill Americans because we are Americans. But beyond that … I am not going to get into it, because I would be guilty of candidly what I think some Republicans are guilty of, and the president is now, the president is guilty of, of playing politics with this issue, and I simply am not going to do it.”

“All people in our country suffer when those kind of things happen,” he said.

It’s a stunning departure from the national party line, delivered best by National Republican Senatorial Committee head Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) who said on “Fox News Sunday” that Obama’s comments defending freedom of religion in the case of the mosque show he is “disconnected” from voters around the country, and that it was the wrong place for a mosque to exist. Others have raised questions about the beliefs and funding of the imam involved in the project, and suggested that he has radical ties.

Have a Look

¶ Humanoid high-tension pylons. (Wired Science)

¶ A Night-Club Map of Harlem — from when there were night-clubs. (Strange Maps)

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010


¶ Sheril Kirshembaum, who writes the Intersection blog with Chris Mooney, was included on a list of “sexy scientists” at Common Sense Atheism, and, boys being boys, this created a “stir,” with some of the boys wanting to know if they were behaving badly. Ms Kirshenbaum’s response was swift and sensible.

Returning to the hullabaloo over last week’s “sexy scientists” list, I honestly don’t think any real harm has been done to me personally. And it’s worth pointing out that in 2005 when Chris was named one of Wired Magazine’s “Sexiest Geeks,” no one complained. So while this may not be the way I’d most like to be featured, far worse items pop up across the Internet about me on a regular basis. To survive in the blogosphere, you grow a thick skin and keep in mind that there’s more to life than what happens online.

That said, I would like to see Luke, and others, think more carefully about the ripple effects of such posts. He can moderate his own site, but also doesn’t have to deal with the related extended commentary now percolating about the web because of his actions. For example, I’m currently receiving comments such as “I’d hit that,” which are promptly deleted, but do make me uncomfortable regardless. And since I can only filter content here, who knows what else is being added to message boards and websites elsewhere. In other words, it’s important to remember that words travel well beyond one’s own blog and can quickly get out of hand. That’s the nature of new media communication–you can’t control or keep up with what’s out there. So it’s important to acknowledge that there are often unintended consequences down the line for those unknowingly involved.

When she says that “no one complained” about Chris Mooney’s unsolicited honor, I think that Ms Kirshenbaum really means that no wild and crazy comment thread spooled out from the “Sexiest Geeks” post (if it was a post, but no matter). The sad truth is that sexual arousal puts many men in an offensive frame of mine — just as (and here we refer to the Op-Ed gender imbalance report that got Ms Kirshenbaum started) intellectual debate makes them defensive. It’s a pity that women can’t demand more attractive men.

¶ At least there’s a forum for complaints: My Fault, I’m Female. (via MetaFilter)


¶ We try to be nice, at this hour especially; and we’re well known for our disapproval of negative reviews. But we can’t resist Lauren Wissot”s efficient dismissal of Neil LaBute’s twenty years of dramaturgy. (The House Next Door)

Not that LaBute, with his gift for snappy dialogue, doesn’t have anything to say—it’s just that all his ideas can pretty much be summed up in his tour de force In The Company of Men, and since then, he’s merely been repeating himself in variations on the theme of how men and women do wrong by each other. Because the playwright has been stuck on a loop for the past decade without challenging himself, how can he possibly challenge his audience? Interestingly, this goes a long way to explaining why he’s a darling of theater critics to this day. In essence, LaBute serves up classic comfort food for the academically inclined. We’ve come to expect LaBute characters to have the self-control of a five-year-old, thus every mean-spirited thing they say and do becomes wearily predictable. As familiar but no deeper than an episode of Friends. His stage work is only a blank canvas onto which an audience can project its own insights, making them feel self-assured, smug knowing that they’re better people than his immature characters.


¶ When CNBC runs a “documentary” about the costs of couterfeit luxury goods, Felix Salmon’s eyebrows disappear beneath his hairline.

The show never does those sums; instead, it goes to a big warehouse with “just over $200 million of seized cargo,” adding that “there are 12 more like it around the country.” Hm, that would make $2.4 billion of seized counterfeit goods, if true — but when were they seized, given that ten years ago, customs was only seizing $47 million a year in such material?

And that’s not the only quantitative dissonance. “This year alone, counterfeited medicines will be a $75 billion industry,” says a representative of Big Pharma; there’s no indication that that number comes form a mysterious report which no one can ever seem to produce, which was published in 2005, and which projected the number basically out of thin air. Meanwhile, CNBC’s own slideshow puts the volume of seized counterfeit drugs at just $11 million last year.

But what caught our eye was a link at the end that goes to a piece that Felix wrote before we started following him: the “costs” may be negative.

It seems that fake luxury goods are pretty much the best form of advertising out there: people who buy them and live with them have a very high probability of being converted to the brand and then going out and buying the real thing. What’s more, every time they go out with their fake item, they’re publicly displaying the desirability of the brand.

This explains why smart companies like Dolce & Gabbana refuse to get involved in prosecuting counterfeiters.


¶ Don’t ask us how they figured this out with only twelve microphones, but Scientists Have Discovered that bats lower their voices when swooping in for the kill because “lower echolocation frequencies provide a a wider field of view.” (Wired Science)

“A lot of insects can hear ultrasound. If it’s really close to them, they do evasive maneuvers. Fold their wings up, go into power dives,” said biologist Lasse Jakobsen of the University of Southern Denmark. “We thought this could be a way for bats to counteract this.”

In the Daubenton’s Bat species tested by Jakobsen in a July 19 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, call frequency drops by a full octave as bats approach insects. That’s typical of the roughly 500 bat species who use echolocation to snatch insects on the wing, but scientists haven’t known why.

“People thought they couldn’t maintain the high frequencies, or that it had something to with bandwidth,” Jakobsen said.

Something about this stunt deeply appeals to us. We’re filing it away in case it comes in handy.


¶ The Bygone Bureau anticipates the fourth season of Mad Men. Kevin Nguyen interviews Mad Men Unbuttoned curator Natasha Vargas-Cooper, who claims to watch the episodes as sparingly as possible.

But I don’t watch entire episodes that often because I do not want to ruin the magic of it for me. I’m like this with movies and TV shows I love. It’s a treat, it’s special. And I want things to remain special to me.

The reason why I started [the blog] was because even before the third season started, I had lost my dog and I was really upset. So I thought, “Fuck I really need something to keep my mind off it. Oh you know what, I’ll re-watch Mad Men.” I’d only seen season one and two once through and I really loved it. So I sat down and restarted watching and thought, “Oh this would make a cool blog” and so I started the blog.

Mad Men gives me comfort because it still feels very new… I’d much rather watch specific scenes to get specific details when I need them. But other than that, I like that it exists in the periphery a little bit. Like, I never watch the commentary. I never watch the commentary or the special features on any DVD because I grew up doing theater and I know how messy things are backstage. The second I hear that they were going to say this line instead of that line, that’s the only thing I think of whenever I see that scene again.

(Ms Vargas-Cooper never found her dog, but adopted a new one.)  Meanwhile, Darryl Campbell savors the mysteries of Don Draper.

At the same time, if you try to pin Don Draper down, he comes off as downright confusing. After all, the audience is just as hoodwinked by Dick Whitman’s past as his contemporaries are. We know just enough to feel sympathy for him — that Dick was an orphan, that his adoptive parents were cruel and abusive, that he drove his younger brother to suicide — but not enough to understand how his past affects his motivations or intentions. Except in the pitch for the Kodak Carousel, we never see the Draper family in happier moments, so it’s easier for us to excuse his philandering because we only ever associate Betty with fighting and general misery. And we see Don’s aggressive, bull-headed streak succeed in the conference room and bedroom so many times that we consider it an asset, even though it alienates his wife and children at home.

So when Don drowns his ennui, we the viewers slide into stupor along with Don. We know what he’s escaping from, but not why; in fact, we know so little about Don Draper’s inner life — except through the odd non-verbal metaphor, such as his Christ-like bath in the ocean towards the end of season two — that we can never quite see what makes him tick.


¶ Tariq Ali explains why no one outside of Kashmir gives a damn about what’s going on there. He’s especially interesting about Pakistan’s indifference. (LRB)

The Zardari government is silent on the issue of Kashmir and there has been little media reaction in Pakistan to the recent killings. For the ruling elite Kashmir is just a bargaining counter. ‘Give us Afghanistan and you can have Kashmir’ is the message currently emanating from the bunker in Islamabad. Zardari, it’s worth recalling, is the only Pakistani leader whose effigy has been burned in public in Indian Kashmir (soon after becoming president he had seriously downplayed Kashmiri aspirations). The Pakistani president and his ministers are more interested in business deals than in Kashmir. At the moment this suits Washington perfectly, since India is regarded as a major ally in the region and the US doesn’t want to have to justify its actions in Kashmir. Pakistan’s indifference also suggests that Indian allegations that recent events in Kashmir were triggered by Pakistan are baseless. Pakistan virtually dismantled the jihadi networks it had set up in Kashmir after the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan not long after 9/11. Islamabad, high on the victory in Kabul, had stupidly assumed that they could repeat the trick in Kashmir. Those sent to infiltrate Indian Kashmir were brutal and mindless fanatics who harmed the Kashmiri case for self-determination, though some young people, tired of the patience exhibited by their elders, embraced the jihad, hoping it would bring them freedom. They were wrong.


¶ Patrick Kurp discovers Rosamond Purcell’s Owls Head. Now we want to do the same.

“I spend most of my life surrounded by man-made objects. I am familiar with the surface of things. To find them embedded in the natural world was a newfound pleasure—still—I had never seen so much stuff to which so much had happened. Fraying, tattered, cracked, flattened, swollen, dried, scrawny, collapsed, shredded, peeling, torn, warped, weathered, faded, bristling, moldy, clenched, tangled, punctured, battered, bashed-in, scooped-out, withered, engorged, trampled, toppled, crushed, bald, listing, leaning, twisting, hanging, buried, wedged, impaled, straggling, stretched, disjointed, disembowelled, skinned, docked, gnawed, entrenched.”

Purcell isn’t transcribing a thesaurus. Her prose is precise and pared-down, and she never shows off. She’s replicating with words the myriad ways in which Buckminster’s countless tons of castoff objects (the book bears the Lucretian subtitle On the Nature of Lost Things) flourish in decay.


¶ At The Survival of the Book, Christopher discovers the London Library, and asks: would you pay a membership fee to support your public library? If so, what provisions would be made for lowe-income readers? (We think that libraries ought to be free to anyone under the age of 25, but nodoby’s asking.)

For now, I understand the value of the free public library system but sometime in the not too distant future there will be a reason to start instituting a yearly membership fee to guarantee the survival of these institutions. The notion of government support-from local to national-is under siege and it is not out of the realm of possibility that one day libraries won’t be supported by the municipalities in which they are located. When that happens they will either shrivel up and die or find a new way to survive.

Have a Look

¶ Cool party; even cooler invitation. (Mad Men Unbuttoned)

¶ “I would like to examine, however, a very obscure item on her resume, the lost television series The Avengers.” Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel was the first television character that we hopelessly lusted after. “Obscure”? We didn’t know about the fire. (Hilobrow)

Daily Office:
Thursday, 15 July 2010

Thursday, July 15th, 2010


¶ The Asia Society and the Spence School have declined to refund gifts made by Ponzi fraudster Hassan Nemazee. No doubt they’d have done so eagerly if times weren’t so bad, but neither gift was large enough to be worth the bad smell. (NYT)

Both the society and the school argued in letters to the government that they did not know at the time they received the donations that they were the product of Mr. Nemazee’s criminal activities.

“Moreover, the funds were spent long ago, and therefore, are no longer available for forfeiture in any event,” Gary Stein, a lawyer for Spence, wrote in a letter to the government.

The government contends, however, that both institutions have ample resources to pay the money back. The Asia Society had over $8 million in cash, according to its 2009 annual report. And the Spence School had an endowment of $85 million as of January 2009, according to the Manhattan Guide to Private Schools and Selective Public Schools.


¶ A fine appreciation of the late conductor, Sir Charldes Mackerras, by Rupert Christiansen. (Sir Charles died yesterday at the age of 84.) (Telegraph; via  Arts Journal)

The music of two composers preoccupied him for over sixty years. One was Mozart and it was fitting that his career should finish a few weeks ago when he conducted Così fan tutte at Glyndebourne. Mackerras pioneered a more ‘authentic’ approach to eighteenth-century opera, and he had a scholar’s knowledge of Mozart’s manuscripts and contemporary performance practice. Yet there was never anything academic about the way he conducted this music: it always had a spring in its step.

The other composer was Janacek. Mackerras studied in Prague when he first came to Europe after the war, and drew on his experience there to introduce Janacek’s operas to England during the 1950s. His readings of these masterpieces are still considered unsurpassed, even in eastern Europe, and they continued to change and develop: there was a new glow and gentleness to The Cunning Little Vixen when he conducted it at Covent Garden last March.


¶ We read “Economics Behaving Badly,” an Op-Ed piece in today’s Times by George Loewenstein and Peter Ubel, with great interest and no little mystification. The thrust of the piece appeared to be that policy-makers are mis-using the findings of behavioral economics. And perhaps they are. But the examples given all testified to another, more sinister policy drift: blame the consumer. This is right-wing “personal responsibility,” positioned to take the hit for stringent regulations and tax provisions that politicians lack the will to implement.

Or take conflicts of interest in medicine. Despite volumes of research showing that pharmaceutical industry gifts distort decisions by doctors, the medical establishment has not mustered the will to bar such thinly disguised bribes, and the health care reform act fails to outlaw them. Instead, much like food labeling, the act includes “sunshine” provisionsthat will simply make information about these gifts available to the public. We have shifted the burden from industry, which has the power to change the way it does business, to the relatively uninformed and powerless consumer.

The same pattern can be seen in health care reform itself. The act promises to achieve the admirable goal of insuring most Americans, yet it fails to address the more fundamental problem of health care costs. Instead of requiring individuals to pay out of pocket if they choose to receive expensive and unproven interventions, the act tries to lower costs by promoting incentive programs that reward healthy behaviors.

Prevention is certainly a worthy goal; it is much better to prevent a case of lung cancer than to treat it. But efforts to improve public health, even if enhanced by insights from behavioral economics, are unlikely to have a major impact on health care costs. Studies show that preventive medicine, even when it works, rarely saves money.


¶ So much for fooling the Blogosphere with the disguise of a cherished persona: we’re betrayed by our language. This comes as no surprise at all, of course, only now it has been demonstrated in a study conducted by Tal Yarkoni at Columbia. (Research Digest Blog; via Marginal Revolution)

Some commentators have suggested that the internet allows people to present idealised versions of themselves to the world. Contrary to that idea, Yarkoni found that bloggers’ choice of words consistently related to their personality type just as has been found in past offline research.

More neurotic bloggers used more words associated with negative emotions; extravert bloggers used more words pertaining to positive emotions; high scorers on agreeableness avoided swear words and used more words related to communality; and conscientious bloggers mentioned more words with achievement connotations. These were all as expected. More of a surprise was the lack of a link between the Big Five personality factor of ‘openness to experience’ and word categories related to intellectual or sensory experience. Instead openness was associated with more use of prepositions, more formal language and longer words.


¶ Mig brings some sourdough starter home to Austria from the Pacific Northwest. After many digressions, bread is baked. This is not to say that it is eaten.

  • At home, pop the sourdough starter into the fridge and google instructions.
  • is good.
  • Follow the directions inexactly. Here is a fact about bread making: if it were such an exact science, wheat-based societies would have died out thousands of years ago.
  • Result: two flat loaves no one in the family wants to eat because the crust would stop a .22 and the bread is extra, extra tangy.
  • Sour dough bread baking is a slow process which you can’t hurry. There is something exhilarating about this. Those bacteria there can’t be rushed. It takes the time that it takes.
  • We need more of this sort of thing.
  • Nones

    ¶ Simon Johnson calls for an international treaty on finance, and claims that there is more support for the idea than there has been in the past. (Baseline Scnario)

    All this heads in the right direction but does not yet reach a definite conclusion.  In the last chapter, Peter Boone and I argue that we need an international treaty organization – along the lines of the World Trade Organization, but for finance.  We have to decide, by mutual agreement, what is and is not allowed in the international exchange of financial services – with a view to making the system dramatically safer.

    If that sounds too complicated or not appealing for any reason, consider the implicit liabilities that underpin our current arrangements – and the cases (in our chapter) of countries devastated fiscally by their financial misadventures.

    If we continue to allow the free international flows of capital alongside national (and antiquated) regulatory systems, the world’s banking system will get out of control repeatedly.  Increasingly, influential people in London and other financial hubs outside the United States begin to see the issue in these terms.


    ¶ Jennifer Jefferson is captivated by C K Williams’s new book of verse, Walt, and her enthusiasm is infectious. It reminds us that Williams is himself an enthusiastic poet. (The Rumpus)

    Many of the poems are like short stories or essays, but with the music, language and shapeliness of poetry—there is a narrative arc and unique characters. In “On the Metro” the narrator has to ask a young woman to move her packages to make room for him—

    she’s reading, her foot propped on the seat in from of her,
    and barely looks up as she pulls them to her.
    I sit, take out my own book—Cioran, The Temptations to Exist—and no-
    tice her glancing up from hers
    to take in the title of mine, and then, as Gombrowicz puts it, she “affirms
    herself physically,” that is,
    becomes present in a way she hadn’t been before

    How much we learn in those eight lines! It is easy to picture the scene—the book the glance, his awareness of her presence—that phrase, “becomes present in a way she hadn’t been before” succinctly characterizes something I too have experienced but never captured conceptually. That is perhaps my favorite thing about the poems of C.K. Williams, dating back to Tar—his ability to paint a very particular moment that can blossom into something personal and meaningful. James Joyce described epiphany as when a piece of art reveals “its soul, its whatness leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance.” Williams’s poems have an abundance of soul, of whatness.

    (Mr Williams has just published a book about Walt Whitman as well.)


    ¶ Glen Newey, at the LRBlog, poses that perennial existential chestnut: Why golf?

    Why does the world contain golf? The question is strictly analogous to asking why it contains evil. Like chess or darts, golf is clearly not a real sport, which I define as an activity that you can only be any good at with a BMI of less than 35. At school, golf was offered to us as a ‘games’ option in the sixth form. Then, as now, I had no interest in bashing a dimpled pill towards a tiny and distant hole. But it looked less nasty than waddling through sludge in frozen mist after a leather ball, or getting the club-end of a hockey stick in the nuts. I was beguiled by the golfing scenes, in TV soaps as much as sportscasts, where the players were conveyed between strokes in electric buggies, alighting only to swoosh a lazy approach shot to the green. Reality bit when I found that I had to lug the bag of clubs myself, blasted by wind and rain, for a nominal five miles – a purely theoretical figure, bloated by the constant need to divagate onto the beach or into tussocks of marram to track down my wayward ball. It was with relief that I switched the year after to another non-sport, snooker, where you could at least stay in the warm and get a drink.

    Have a Look

    ¶ Jonathan Callan’s used books, at The Best Part.

    ¶ Three Percent‘s Translation Preview.

    Daily Office:
    Monday, 12 July 2010

    Monday, July 12th, 2010


    ¶ Frédéric Filloux has a blast with US v Defendants, the DOJ case against the Russian spies. Well, before having a blast he clearly had to do some homework (er, reading the whole thing) — so now, you don’t have to! “Free Spy Novel,” he calls it. We’re not so sure about the “spy” part.  (Monday Note)

    For us geeks, the amusing part is the collection of hackerdom gems contained in the DOJ file. From social engineering to ad-hoc WiFi networking, MAC-address filtering, steganography, and unsecured passwords, these supposedly “highly trained” individuals looked more like Keystone Spooks than Hollywood superspies.

    A good example of social engineering is described when one of the culprits experiences unspecified software problems with a laptop. (Sound familiar? We’ll refrain from the easy jabs.) Enter an FBI agent passing as a Russian Consulate employee, “I’m here to help”, who borrows the laptop with a promise to fix the problem. The machine is broken into, fully explored, and yields a rich trove of unprotected files.

    In another case, the Feds, while “inspecting” a home (legally, of course), find a password left in the open, helpfully written down on a plain piece of paper.


    ¶ In one of those entries that makes us wonder if the site ought to be called 3 Quirks Daily, Ashley Mears compares supermodels to toxic assets. Behind that somewhat puzzling overstatement, however, lies an elegant insight: in financial bubbles, the players are tempted to forget that assets have intrinsic, objective values by the cascade of interest in a partcular asset, one that comes into such demand that its objective value is swamped. This is harmless in the choice of supermodels (Coco Rocha, in the case of Ms Mears’s essay), but disastrous in financial markets.

    In fact, the economist John Maynard Keynes likened finance markets to casinos, in that both are based in speculation. To illustrate, Keynes drew on newspaper beauty contests from the 1930s, where readers were asked to rate the contestants, but with a catch. The prize would go to the reader that could guess the highest ranked winner. So readers would rate not what they themselves thought was personally beautiful, but what they thought other readers would find beautiful. The sociologist would add that beauty is always in the eye of the socially-dominant beholder, but as a metaphor for financial markets, it should worry us, as it worried Keynes: Finance assets accrue profits not according to their actual worth, which, at the height of the housing boom we know now were vastly inflated; rather, their worth is generated in how speculators perceive what other speculators will perceive. A finance market, like a fashion market, consists of speculators chasing each other’s tails in disregard for what things are really worth.

    But perhaps most worrisome in the fallout of the economic crisis is our ongoing commitment to an ethos of individualism to make sense of it all. We chalk the crash up to a few bad apples and “greedy” executives gone astray—not far off, by the way, from rhetoric in the fashion press celebrating the genius new beauty of Coco. Without a view of the market as a social body—composed of individuals acting in concert with each other, aided by financial models, and bound together by conventions to help them anticipate one another’s actions—we can’t see how participants act together. Yet their collectively attuned steps can inflate or deflate the value of assets, thus building economic values from cultural ones. Don’t take Fashion Week at face value; the catwalk delivers an important sociological lesson for free market enthusiasts.

    This point is well taken. Wall Street is no less susceptible to the allure of fashion than any other high-strung environment.


    ¶ Much of the material in Sarah Lyall’s Times piece on safety problems at BP (to which several other reporters made contributions) will be familiar to our readers, but we were grabbed by a passage describing the “achievement” of Tony Hawyard’s predecessor, John Browne.

    But even as he became the toast of Britain’s business world and was made a knight and member of the House of Lords, Mr. Browne was ruthlessly slashing costs. He outsourced many operations and fired tens of thousands of employees, including many engineers.

    Tom Kirchmaier, a lecturer in strategy at the Manchester Business School, said that Mr. Browne tried to run BP like a financial company, rotating managers into new jobs with tough profit targets and then moving them before they had to deal with the consequences. The troubled Texas City refinery, for example, had five managers in six years. [emphasis supplied]

    Mr. Browne, now advising Britain’s coalition government on its cost-cutting campaign, declined to comment for this article. In his new autobiography, “Beyond Business,” he said, “I transformed a company, challenged a sector, and prompted political and business leaders to change.”


    ¶ We’re linking to Joe Keohane’s Boston Globe piece, “How Facts Backfire,” only because we CANNOT BELIEVE that a reporter researching the subject of intellectual obstanacy would overlook Kathryn Schulz’s incredibly important book, Being Wrong.

    And if you harbor the notion — popular on both sides of the aisle — that the solution is more education and a higher level of political sophistication in voters overall, well, that’s a start, but not the solution. A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong. Taber and Lodge found this alarming, because engaged, sophisticated thinkers are “the very folks on whom democratic theory relies most heavily.”

    In an ideal world, citizens would be able to maintain constant vigilance, monitoring both the information they receive and the way their brains are processing it. But keeping atop the news takes time and effort. And relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting. Our brains are designed to create cognitive shortcuts — inference, intuition, and so forth — to avoid precisely that sort of discomfort while coping with the rush of information we receive on a daily basis. Without those shortcuts, few things would ever get done. Unfortunately, with them, we’re easily suckered by political falsehoods.

    If she has not actually invented a cure for wrong-headedness,  Ms Schulz has outlined the psychological and ethical nature of the problem.


    ¶ Imagine our delight, this morning, reading through the feeds, and coming across a sweet mention of Ms NOLA!  (Slow Love Life)

    The editor of my new book, Slow Love, Lauren LeBlanc, is not only talented with words; she is adept with needles as well. She sews and she knits, and she gives her friends (and lucky writers) gifts she has made. Last winter, I got a pair of gloves without the fingertips, for those cold mornings at the computer. (I think she wanted me to finish the book!) She recently wrote to me about one day having a sewing room, and that sent me into a reverie. I would love a sewing room. Not because I sew, but because I would like to be the kind of person who sews. And weaves. And knits (something other than scarves). And throws pots. And bakes bread. (Oh yes, I already have one of those rooms. That would be the kitchen.)


    ¶ Here’s a grease-trap of a story that Graham Greene would have liked. It has got oil, drugs, two layers of colonialism, and a particularly obnoxious populist dictator. The only things missing is a babe. Simon Romero in the Times: “Curaçao Faces Friction With Chávez Over U.S. Planes.”

    In Hato, the hulking Awacs and P-3s share the tarmac with Venezuelan airlines, which have flights daily to and from Caracas, Venezuela’s capital.

    Some friction with Mr. Chávez’s government might be inevitable since Venezuela emerged in recent years as a major narcotics transshipment point. The United Nations said last month that Venezuela accounted for over half of all detected maritime shipments of cocaine to Europe.

    At the same time, Venezuela and Curaçao are important, if uneasy, partners in trade. The rusting refinery here is one of the largest employers on the island; of the 150,000 residents, about 1,000 work at the refinery.

    In March, Rafael Ramírez, Venezuela’s oil minister, threatened to abandon the refinery if Venezuela detected signs of aggression from the American planes, and yet the site provides crucial refining capacity for Venezuela’s national oil company, which leases it from Curaçao.


    ¶ At The Millions, Edan Lepucki profiles Jennifer Egan, our very favorite author at the moment. Her lead-in paragraphs are particularly Egan-esque in content, although the author of A Visit From the Good Squad would probably render it in darker prose.

    On a recent Saturday, back in Los Angeles, I held a writing class, and one of the students looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place him–had I seen him at Skylight?  On my coffee table was an advance copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad.  “Is this out yet?” the student asked, and I explained it wasn’t yet, not until June.  “But I’m interviewing her,” I said–bragged, probably. “I am so excited!” I said.  “Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers.”  The student smiled and just then I realized, Hey, he’s on that TV show.  “Jenny’s my sister’s oldest friend,” he said.  This was Paul, of course, Sally’s little brother. Just like that, Paul, Jenny and I were connected, and it felt like a tiny miracle.

    It also felt like a page from A Visit from the Goon Squad, where characters move in and out of one another’s lives, and where a minor character in one chapter becomes the protagonist in the next.  When I met Egan for our aforementioned interview, she told me the story of how she knew Paul, saying that seeing him on TV was “the kind of odd surprise that I was trying to capture here,”–she pointed to her book–”the completely unexpected ways that people encounter and see each other over many years.”  We were sitting at a round picnic table outside Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood, where she would be reading that afternoon.  I was born and raised in L.A., but I’d never been here before.

    For Jennifer Egan’s extremely interesting remarks about online connections, The Sopranos, and the importance of a good story, you’ll have to click through.


    ¶ Following the Carr-Shirky debate about modern media, Elizabeth Drescher found that she “couldn’t help but think about medieval manuscripts. Since the early 1990s, both medievalists and electronic media theorists have pointed to the hypertexted quality of medieval illuminated manuscripts in making complementary claims: medievalists to continuing cultural relevancy and electronic media theorists in continuity to literary tradition.” We immediately donned our anti-cuteness custard-filled armor; only then dared we to read further. (religion Dispataches; via  Marginal Revolution)

    But the physical format of medieval books is not the only way in which they seem familiar to many contemporary users of digital media. Medieval reading as a practice was deeply social. Indeed, long after the invention of the printing press, until rather late in the 18th century, reading was a communal affair, with a group of hearers gathering around a reader to engage a book, letter, or other textual production. If the claims of medieval mystic and pilgrim Margery Kempe to have shared wisdom with the priest friend who read “holy bokys” to her or the dramatic relational reading in the novels of Jane Austin are any indication, such bookish encounters were not centered on didactic performances for passive listeners, but were rather fully interactive engagements that enlarged any given book into a much wider social “text.”

    That is, as scholars have been reminding us for a very long time by now, private reading and the linear thinking that Carr so values as essential for deep, contemplative thought did not feature much in the lives of the people who pretty much brought us the contemplative tradition. Rather, sorting though the mix of images and ideas, arguing with friends over meanings and interpretations, and mullying it up again with a new bit of this or that seem to have been very much at the center of the thought world of ancient philosophers and medieval mystics.

    “So there!” I thought to myself this morning, as I mulled over another pointcounterpoint on the issue. “I am absolutely willing to be no more brain addled than Chaucer and no less reflective than Julian of Norwich!” And for good measure, as I headed online to find links to the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, I reminded myself that I have the advantage of not drinking a gallon of high octane ale each day from a vessel infused with lead!

    Have a Look

    ¶ 3 Quarks Daily‘s Abbas Raza is spending the summer in Karachi, the city where he was born, and, in addition to some interesting thoughts that we’d like to follow up on, he shares a collection of interesting photographs.

    ¶ Jean Nouvel’s Serpentine Pavilion. (Gabion; via City of Sound)

    Daily Office:
    Friday, 9 July 2010

    Friday, July 9th, 2010


    ¶ Is Starbucks poised to bring good wine to a corner near you? At The Awl, Nilay Gandhi reads some very tender tea leaves — we’re only talking about a couple of locations in Seattle so far — but sees a juggernaut at the bottom of the cup  — er, stem.

    According to the Seattle Times, future stores will be branded Starbucks. The ungendered PR entity behind the curtain added that the next iteration of Olive Way, Seattle’s next store to transition to alcohol, “will be a traditional Starbucks location that will reflect the character of the surrounding neighborhood and help to reduce environmental impacts.” I didn’t really ask about the environment, but it’s nice to know they care.

    You can see the dissonance building, even from their language. How could such a powerful, 18+ billion-dollar company often more concerned with sounding right than being right, possibly pull this off? They have enough money to do whatever they want, but why?

    Here’s where I start to buy the corporate speak. They’re doing it because we need it. Because wine bars outside of wine country in America generally fall into two categories: terrible and privileged.


    ¶ The BAM retrospective of Cary Grant’s movies spurs Aaron Cutler to post some interesting commentary on Grant’s physicality — his command of space. (The House Next Door)

    David Thomson is right when he claims that Grant was Hepburn’s best screen partner, as they dash like Formula One cars trying to outrace each other (by contrast Hepburn’s later costar, Spencer Tracy, moves like a Winnebago). Grant’s tendency to flip his lid and flee, and flee expressively—leaping full into the air spread like a trampoline—made him ideal for screwball comedies, one of the most popular film genres of the ’30s and early ’40s, whose essence consisted of strong women assaulting men. Grant and his best screwball partners—Hepburn, Irene Dunne, and Ginger Rogers—altered each other physically, and the physical shifts suggest relationship shifts. (An example from Monkey Business: Grant stands above a seated Rogers, dictating, until she gets up dancing, and he bends a little following her.)

    In film, the way that people move in relation to each other often suggests the power between them. The tension of watching Grant in comedy comes from watching him try to control space, and the joy comes from watching him adjust or even break his space once another person invades it. The fact that the other person is usually female makes the threat explicitly sexual, but a physical relationship is always simultaneously a sexual one, especially for someone both as free in his movements and as possessive of his clothes as Grant is. Pauline Kael once noted that the most tender relationship in a Cary Grant movie—and, by no coincidence, the most harmonious sharing of space—isn’t between Grant and a woman, in fact, but between Grant and his Indian manservant in the adventure film Gunga Din.


    ¶ Simon Johnson puts his finger on the reason why the United States is not a good environment for globally competitive American banks. (The Baseline Scenario)

    The problem with this approach is that there is a fundamental and widening gap between how banks are seen in the United States compared with other leading countries.  To some extent this is about tradition – from the early 19th century the US has a long history of suspicion regarding the political and economic power of banks, whereas Germany has tended to have a more cooperative relationship between the state and big banks.  It is also about what we think government should do – our “pro-banking” group in government draws a lot of support when it insists that the federal authorities should not run banks, but in France there is much less reluctance to mix politics and financial business.

    Government support for big American banks is unstructured and unofficial. This means that problems can get very big before bankers call for help. It also explains why so few Americans understand the “bailouts,” why they were necessary, and how they could have been more effective.


    ¶ Fruit flies are adapting to the threat of parasitic nematodes, but the adaptation is parasitic as well, and does not involve the flies’ genes. It’s a  bacterium called Spiroplasma, long resident in fruit flies, that has undergone the evolution. Brandom Keim reports on the findings at Wired Science.

    The pattern fits with what’s predicted by traditional evolutionary theory: A beneficial mutation arises, confers a reproductive advantage, and over time spreads through a population — except that the adaptation isn’t genetic, but bacterial. Microbes can be passed from mother flies to offspring, but also carried by mites between flies, and even between species.

    This kind of evolution “allows an adaptation in one species to be moved to another species,” said Yale University evolutionary biologist Nancy Moran, who was not involved in the study.

    According to Moran, the spread of beneficial bugs gives animals a version of the horizontal gene transfer present in ultra-adaptable bacteria, which can pick up new genetic material over the course of their lives. “This is a way that animals can steal adaptations from each other and from other branches of the tree of life,” she said.

    The point of this hour’s link is to remind you of the difficulty of thinking about evolution.


    ¶ In “Dictionary Therapy,” Dominique Browning captures the “torpor” and “lassitude” of Northeast Corridor weather this week — and finds solace in the pages of a book that we used to take for granted. (Slow Love Life)

    And lassitude–a feeling of weariness, diminished energy, or listlessness. Well, I did stay up until 2 in the morning, reading Patricia Cornwell and eating graham crackers. Then I woke at 5:30, wondering how men become murderers and torturers of women. And, I was annoyed by the sharp crumbs in my bed. No wonder I am listless, and becalmed. But there on the page before me is a picture of a white-haired gent working wood with a lathe; his concentration is admirable, and so are his glasses. This picture must be from the fifties or sixties. He looks nice, not at all like a murderer, but like the sort of guy who might make a table for his children, a table that they would pass on to their children. They would reminisce about his workbench, and how neatly organized it was, and how he took such care of his tools…and now that he is too frail to make furniture, they have no idea what to do with all that equipment, those jars of nails, the thirty different screwdrivers. Why didn’t they learn more from him when he was around to teach them?

    But there, hovering over the man and his lathe, is lateen, (rigged with a triangular sail), for those days during which one is not becalmed. Meaning, there’s hope for me yet. But better words–and better bedtimes, and better eating habits, and better reading habits–would help. For now, the dictionary is a good start.


    ¶ How Thaksin Shinawatra ruined Thailand for democracy — in one (longish) paragraph. James Stent reflects, at Reuters. Be sure to read the italicized section at the beginning, in which Mr Stent lays out his thinking in the 1990s, when it didn’t see anything like Thaksin coming.

    Many of the elite of Thailand, believing in Thai particularism (of which more later), does not reflect on the implications of these historical processes of other countries. Thousands of Thais, mostly drawn from the elite and middle classes, were willing to devote their time and money to the illegal occupation of Government House and Bangkok’s two international airports. They felt that they “know better” what is good for the country, and that therefore an illegal coup and illegal take-over of public property were justified in the cause of preventing Thaksin and his supporters or nominees from ruling the country. When I suggested to some of these people that they were attempting through force to repudiate the results of a properly elected and constituted government, they would retort, “But, Jim, those voters are uneducated,” implying that one cannot leave decisions on who should run the country up to uneducated farmers. Of course, being uneducated does not equate to being stupid, nor does it mean that one is not capable of recognizing where one’s interests lie; moreover, if the majority of the country is uneducated, it makes one wonder what the government of the country had been doing over the previous half century if, in the course of economic development, it had neglected to direct sufficient resources to properly educate the majority of the country’s citizens. When pressed, these yellow shirt supporters would finally say to me, “Well, if democracy means that the majority of the people elect the government, then I am not in favor of that sort of democracy in Thailand.” At least that statement has the virtue of being candid, and it is exactly what the most right-wing faction of the yellow shirts, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), favors—curtailment of the political rights of the majority in favor of democracy guided by the elite. After all, this was arguably what had worked reasonably well over the previous half century prior to Thaksin, and probably was most successful under the leadership of Prime Mininster Prem in the 1980’s, when the country was peaceful, stable, and everyone was optimistic about the future of the country and in agreement on the directions of development under capable technocrats.


    ¶ On the off-chance that you’ve never given blurbs much thought, and still believe that the bits of puffery that well-known writers often write for their less well-known brethren are meaningful, Laura Miller has the antidote.

    Most of the people involved in this system are well-meaning: Blurbers want to help other authors, publishers want to win more attention for their books, and authors want to do everything they can to prove that their publishers’ faith in their work has been justified. The result, however, is broken and borderline (sometimes outright) corrupt.

    A few celebrated authors have made a point of regularly seeking out and championing books by writers with whom they have no connection — Stephen King is the most prominent example. (That said, I haven’t found King’s recommendations particularly useful.) But overall, blurbs just aren’t very meaningful. Yet, apart from a minority of skeptics, much of the public still seems to take them at face value. One British publisher claims to have seen research showing that as many as 62 percent of book buyers choose titles on the basis of blurbs.

    Anecdotal evidence from online discussions and personal experience confirms this baffling preference. “I liked [Sara Gruen’s] ‘Water for Elephants,'” said a woman I spotted studying a copy of Lynn Cullen’s “The Creation of Eve” at my local bookstore, “so maybe I’ll like this one, too.” (Gruen called Cullen’s book “enormously satisfying.”) I haven’t read either book myself, so I can’t weigh in on any similarity between them; for all I know Gruen meant every word of that praise. But when I suggested to this reader that blurbs can be unreliable, she glanced at me as if I were the one with the ulterior motive, nodded vaguely and drifted away, book in hand.

    Oh, well, maybe the antidote only works on readers.


    ¶ The crux of Arthur Kleinman’s achingly lucid essay on caregiving in general and his wife’s Alzheimer’s in particular is that we have to stop thinking of care as something that we’d rather not be bothered with. (Harvard; via  The Morning News)

    Economists configure caregiving as “burden.” Psychologists talk about “coping,” health-services researchers describe social resources and healthcare costs, and physicians conceive it as a clinical skill. Each of these perspectives represents part of the picture. For the medical humanities and interpretive social sciences, caregiving is a foundational component of moral experience. By this I mean that we envision caregiving as an existential quality of what it is to be a human being. We give care as part of the flow of everyday lived values and emotions that make up moral experience. Here collective values and social emotions are as influential as individual ones. Within these local moral worlds—family, network, institution, community—caregiving is one of those things that really matters, but usually not the only thing.

    As a scholar, I engage with other medical humanists to understand the dimensions of this moral activity—how it is experienced and organized. In part, I hope it can be better taught. I believe that what doctors need to be helped to master is the art of acknowledging and affirming the patient as a suffering human being; imagining alternative contexts and practices for responding to calamity; and conversing with and supporting patients in desperate situations where the emphasis is on what really matters to the patient and his or her intimates. A program of medical training that makes this happen, however it is innovated, should combine practical experience of caregiving for health catastrophes in homes and institutions, where students actually do those things that families do, with the knowledge that stands behind the art of medicine.

    But here, I am writing principally about people like me who give care to loved ones who suffer the infirmities of advanced age, serious disabilities, terminal illnesses, and the devastating consequences of such health catastrophes as stroke or dementia.

     Faced with these crises, family and close friends become responsible for assistance with all the mundane, material activities of daily living: dressing, feeding, bathing, toileting, ambulating, communicating, and interfacing with the healthcare system. Caregivers protect the vulnerable and dependent. To use the experience-distorting technical language: they offer cognitive, behavioral, and emotional support. And because caregiving is so tiring, and emotionally draining, effective caregiving requires that caregivers themselves receive practical and emotional support.

    Have a Look

    ¶ “Columbia? They let him teach at Columbia?!” The hilarious “trailer” for Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story. (via  The Morning News)

    Daily Office:
    Thursday, 8 July 2010

    Thursday, July 8th, 2010


    ¶ No one is excited about it but us: we’ve brought the Web log to the iPad. We’ve simplified the design, enlarged the text pane to dimensions that look imbecilic on a conventional monitor, and even closed comments (because who wants to write on an iPad?) At this moment of novelty, then, it’s more interesting than it might be to read The Economist about the slowdown of the Blogosphere, and about how, on the “personal” front at least, it’s losing ground to other media. (via

    The future for blogs may be special-interest publishing. Mr Kelly’s research shows that blogs tend to be linked within languages and countries, with each language-group in turn containing smaller pockets of densely linked sites. These pockets form around public subjects: politics, law, economics and knowledge professions. Even narrower specialisations emerge around more personal topics that benefit from public advice. Germany has a cluster for children’s crafts; France, for food; Sweden, for painting your house.

    Such specialist cybersilos may work for now, but are bound to evolve further. Deutsche Blogcharts says the number of links between German blogs dropped last year, with posts becoming longer. Where will that end? Perhaps in a single, hugely long blog posting about the death of blogs.

    Not that “the death of blogs” will mean “no more blogging.” That’s never how it works.


    ¶ The fund-drive to buy the Eighteenth-Century portrait of a slave/slave trader shows how Britain’s wonderful National Portrait Gallery is different. (BBC; via Arts Journal )

    The painting according to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is the first known portrait that honours a named African subject as an individual and an equal, and thereby gives a useful insight into Britain in the 18th Century.

    This statement tells you all you need to know about what makes the NPG different from and, from the perspective of social history, more interesting than other art galleries. It makes clear that the sitter is more important than the artist. The NPG doesn’t want this painting because it’s an exquisite example of 18th Century British art, but because the story of the sitter and its significance is so compelling.

    We don’t believe that the line between aesthetics (the painting’s formal qualities) and reference (the sitter’s identity) is clear at all. To be sure, the NPG contains works by second-rate artists. In many cases, it’s likely that the sitters would not have found first-rate painting to their taste. What’s clear is that, with the exception of a handful of masterpieces, a portrait gallery is a showcase for history.


    ¶ We admit that we’ll be going over Tyler Cowen’s mini-treatise, “Why Corporations Matter,” with a gimlet eye. The first installment is certainly full of interesting things. But we’re not surprised by the clever resort to early capitalism, when investors knew where to find the managers to whom they’d given their money, as an explanation for what’s going on now with colossal business organizations that can expand only by resorting to cannibalism. (Zero Hedge)

    It was quite normal, before the VOC and corporations, for a business to rise, plateau, then decline, and then ultimately vanish—along with all of the business’s accumulated expertise. That is, presumably, what happened to the makers of the Antikythera clockwork. Ambitious men have been forever trying to get their sons to follow the family business they spent so much time, effort and tears nurturing and growing—only to have their hopes dashed when their sons turned out to be uninterested, or even worse, incompetent.

    But starting with the Dutch East India Company’s stock, people could take an active interest in a company for a limited time, before passing on the ownership of the corporation to someone else by way of the sale of stock.

    Who would take over the corporate entity? Obvious: Someone who was interested in building it up.

    People are not single-minded. People like to talk, hang out, fuck, laugh, play, read a book, etc. But corporations are productivity engines. They are supposed to do one thing: Carry out the business of the corporation.

    When people are interested in the business of a corporation, they participate in it via stock ownership. The corporation’s interests and the stock owner’s interests align, and both benefit. When the stock owner’s interest flags for whatever reason, they can sell off their ownership in the corporation to someone else.

    Thus the corporation and the owners are meeting each other at the moment when they are of most use to one another. And when the owner leaves the business (ie., sells his stock shares), it’s not just that the owner is “cashing out” when he’s no longer interested in the business: It’s that the corporation is continuing on with a new and interested owner, who will use his best efforts to maximise the business of the corporation.

    The benefit of the stock sale is not only to the stockholder, but also to the corporation. Because the corporation is leaving behind an uninterested owner, and continuing on with a new stockholder—a new owner—catching this individual at the peak of his interest in the business of the corporation.

    Be sure to ask about our ideas for safe-guarding the relics of bygone technologies.


    ¶ The Dunning-Kruger Effect has been in the news a lot lately — you know, the “fact” that stupid people are too stupied to know how stupid they are — and, not surprisingly, it’s being misinterpreted pretty freely. Tal Yarkoni, a graduate student at Columbia, has compiled a painstaking corrective that, at a minimum, you ought to bookmark for future reference. (Citation Needed; via  Marginal Revolution)

    As you can see, the findings reported by Kruger and Dunning are often interpreted to suggest that the less competent people are, the more competent they think they are. People who perform worst at a task tend to think they’re god’s gift to said task, and the people who can actually do said task often display excessive modesty. I suspect we find this sort of explanation compelling because it appeals to our implicit just-world theories: we’d like to believe that people who obnoxiously proclaim their excellence at X, Y, and Z must really not be so very good at X, Y, and Z at all, and must be (over)compensating for some actual deficiency; it’s much less pleasant to imagine that people who go around shoving their (alleged) superiority in our faces might really be better than us at what they do.


    ¶ Poor Levi Johnson! You wonder if he can actually read the press releases being issued in his name. Gail Collins is right to wonder if he actually hopes, in so many words, that the Palins will “forgive my youthful indiscretion.”

    Last year, when his illegitimate fatherdom fame was at its height, Levi had acquired management and was talking about writing his memoirs or pursuing an acting career. But it appears that he has not actually been able to turn his failure to use a condom into a permanent job.

    Funny as this story is, it brings huge relief. We must not be speeding toward Idiocracy quite as fast as we feared.

    ¶ At the opposite socio-economic pole, there’s Mad Hattery!, “bringing you the very best in ridiculous royal hats.” Recently resurfaced Muscato, whom we thank for the link, writes,

    …what I really want to do is call attention to one of my favorite recent blog-finds, Mad Hattery! A lighthearted, possibly borderline-obsessive look at topper trends among the titled classes, MH! is presided over by the almost impossibly knowledgeable hostess Ella, and she and her coterie of fascinator-followers make for very good company indeed.

    Among other things, we share a level of despair over the sartorial choices of the Princess Royal, a healthy disdain for Princess Michael of Kent, and an unbridled fondness for the slightly demented charms of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, a lady to whom the MH! generally refers to as “Cake,” for reasons obvious to anyone who studies her very distinctive hatting tendencies. Further afield, MH! takes aim from time to time at the studiedly dull dressing of the Japanese Imperials, looks now and again at such regional favorites as Princess Haya of Jordan (and Dubai) and the colorful Sheikha Moza of Qatar, and is now gearing up for the August nuptials involving the erstwhile Greek royals. It’s all in excellent fun, and I really can’t recommend it enough.


    ¶ At the Times, Wayne Arnold reports on Vietnamese inflation — fueled by a government that, in classic command-economy mode, wants to hit growth targets in time for a party congress.

    Inflation, meanwhile, has been the all too common side effect of Vietnam’s emergence. A recurring feature of the Vietnam War, hyperinflation returned in the late 1980s and early 1990s along with an investment boom that followed doi moi. Now any new sign of it sends the public scurrying for more dollars, creating a vicious circle that puts downward pressure on the dong and pushes prices even higher.

    In the past two years, the Vietnamese currency has fallen 15 percent amid such concerns. The local version of the TV game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” offers a top prize of 120 million dong — a potential windfall equivalent to only $6,300. The result is what economists refer to as the dollarization of Vietnam’s economy. Things as varied as hotel rooms and cameras are priced in dollars.

    Where do all those greenbacks go? Many go into low-yielding U.S. dollar deposits at banks. But another portion — no one knows how many dollars are circulating in Vietnam — gets stashed at home.


    ¶ Almost unwittingly, Survival of the Book‘s Brian has hit upon the terrible chain that binds high productivity to high unemployment. He is looking at the world of publishing — specifically, the triumphal superiority of Amazon over Barnes & Noble — but what he says is true for most mature corproations, and the net net is more money for the Jeff Bezoses of the world.

    I know I’ve gone on and on about labor before, but it does worry me. And something not addressed here is the massive amount of accumulated wealth in this country – the rich have become much, much richer – and yes, I’m looking at you, Mr. Jeff “$4.3 billion worth” Bezos. It’s time to DISTRIBUTE that WEALTH, billionaires! It’s hard to look at that amount of wealth alongside struggling independent bookstores and important independent presses that are getting by on nothing, with employees making pennies (trust me, I speak from experience) and having to cut corners while fatcats question their bottom lines, telling them they should dry up and die if they can’t find a market. That’s not even to mention public libraries facing horrible cuts, to employees, to hours, to branches. I know this is simplistic but on some level, so is the problem: $4.3 billion here and bookstore or library closing there (or here or there), it doesn’t take a math genius to find imbalance.


    ¶ Jonah Lehrer campaigns, eloquently, for the rehabilitation of LSD for experimental purposes. (The Frontal Cortex)

    This is an elegant experimental paradigm. But it’s also profoundly limited. Even if we can locate the cells that govern binocular rivalry, that’s only a single “neural correlate of consciousness”. It remains entirely unclear if those to-be-determined cells in the visual cortex govern all visual experience, or just the contradictions between our eyeballs.

    And this leads me back to LSD. Here’s a compound that can consistently alter our entire sensory experience, so that the brain is made aware of its own machinery. We see ourselves seeing the world. (I wish Kant had tried LSD – he would have loved it.*) From the perspective of neuroscience, the hallucinogen is like a systematic version of binocular rivalry. If we knew how LSD worked, we might also gain insight into how ordinary experience works, and how that chemical soup creates the feeling of this, here, now. In other words, the molecular “joints” tweaked by the illegal compound can tell us something very interesting about the source of our unjointed stream of consciousness. Cary Grant was on to something.

    *Kant: “The imagination is a necessary ingredient of perception itself.”

    We couldn’t agree more. The Editor dropped acid an untold number of times in his misspent youth, and never found it to be what anybody would call “recreational.” Also the kids turned out okay.

    Daily Office:
    Wednesday, 7 July 2010

    Wednesday, July 7th, 2010


    ¶ In the Washington Post, education columnist Jay Matthews shares the experience of an Advanced Placement chemistry teacher who was surprised to find that four serious underachievers (“‘Angry’ threw rubber snappers and tried to burn random things in lab.”) were learning all the same. (via Good)

    Angry said he never had to study for Chemistry, unlike his roommates. Sweetie said she learned so much in AP that her Chem class is easy now. All the students reported that they had been unmotivated for one reason or another in my class in 2004. Some had family or medical issues that interfered with their learning, some said they were just lazy.

    My main point is that they ALL reported that they learned a ton in AP Chemistry, even though their performance in the class did not indicate such. They told me that their performance in college Chemistry was due to what they learned in AP Chemistry. They shared that their classmates who never had AP Chem in high school were really struggling with the college content and the way it was taught. But for my students, the content had finally “clicked.”

    Surely the best thing that our most exclusive colleges and universities could do for the United States would be to favor applicants with International Baccalaureates.


    ¶ Rome in the Age of Berlusconi… sigh. Michael Kimmelman, deftly treating the Eternal City as a work of art that’s in grave need of a curator, notes that .21 % of the government’s budget is spent on cultural maintenance; perhaps UNESCO ought to take over. (NYT)

    This area where the Pigorini is, by contrast, never took off as it was meant to before the war. Most Romans don’t venture to the ethnography museum after grade school, although they’ll wax nostalgic when reminded of it. Mr. Fuksas’s building adds a giant bauble in what’s still the middle of nowhere, albeit it’s too early to say for sure what this stretch of suburb will become when the congress hall opens, and housing arrives. What’s clear is only that the effort to push Rome’s livable, cultural space outward from the center is a step in the right direction. Just a step.

    Or, as Mr. Fuksas phrased it, “Architecture is interesting, but by itself it means nothing.”

    Especially when some of the best of it is falling down. Exhibit A: the Domus Aurea, the Golden Villa that Nero built near the Colosseum, where a vaulted gallery fell this spring. Nobody was hurt, fortunately. That’s because the place has been closed since 2008, plagued by structural problems and humidity, which threatens the frescoes. To much fanfare, the city opened part of the site for tourists in 1999. Then heavy rain collapsed a section of roof, the site was closed, reopened a while later, then closed again.

    A commission assigned to address the problem spent millions but didn’t forestall the latest mishap. Construction workers were fussing with earthmovers, bits and pieces of ancient columns, broken pots and scaffolding one recent morning. Fedora Filippi, a veteran archaeologist lately put in charge, pointed out where the roof gave way in what is actually an adjacent gallery built under Trajan, after Nero. Rain seeped from a park above, she said. Everybody has known about the leaking for ages. But the park is city-owned, and the Domus Aurea is national property, so the problem is no one’s to solve.


    ¶ Felix Salmon is delightfully unimpressed by Sebastian Mallaby’s claim that the quants at Renaissance Technologies are too, too special to suffer regulation, and he makes short work of that. And, furthermore….

    Besides which, I’m not at all convinced that the best way to deal with investment risk is to start paying billionaires 2-and-20 to manage your money for you. For a good example, look at RenTech itself: the funds which are available to the public, RIEF and RIFF, have dropped to $6 billion of late, down from $30 billion in 2007; they might be closed down altogether. Clearly, RenTech’s management are better at enriching themselves than they are at building a long-term franchise for stewarding other people’s money.


    ¶ What language instinct? At Northumbria University, Ewa Dabrowska makes the shocking discovery that many high-school dropouts really don’t understand English grammar. (via  The Awl)

    “Of course some people are more literate, with a larger vocabulary and greater exposure to highly complex literary constructions. Nevertheless, at a fundamental level, everyone in a linguistic community is supposed to share the same core grammar, in the same way that given normal development we can all walk.”

    The supposition that everyone in a linguistic community shares the same grammar is a central tenet of Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar. The theory assumes that all children learn language equally well and that there must therefore be an underlying common structure to all languages that is somehow “hard-wired” into the brain.

    Dr Dabrowska has examined other explanations for her findings, such as limitations to working memory, and even so-called “test wiseness,” but she concluded that these non-linguistic factors are irrelevant.

    She also stressed that the findings have nothing to do with intelligence.

    ¶ At the Telegraph, a rather sweet interview with Noam Chomsky, in London to give a talk. It’s interviewer’s Nigel Farmdale’s perspective that’s interesting. (via  3 Quarks Daily)

    Having said there would be no more linguistics, I find myself back on the subject. What does Chomsky make of stories about undergraduates at British universities having to be taught grammar in their freshman years? To a linguist, one whose own literary style favours phrases such as ‘generative transformational grammar’, that must seem an abomination.

    ‘Yes, there is that. It is probably down to the texting culture. The use of textonyms and so on. But it is also to do with the way young people read on screen. The digital age cuts back reading and, as a consequence, young people are losing the ability to think seriously. They get distracted more easily, breaking off to check an email. Speed-reading is exactly the wrong thing to do. You have to think about what you are reading.’ He gives me his sideways look. ‘You have to ponder.’


    ¶ Yesterday, The Bygone Bureau took us to India. Today, it’s New York. Laura Yan writes about growing up to become something like the woman she hoped to become when she arrived as an NYU student — only now she understands that the glamour and excitement are a bit besides the point.

    I think of the parties, the concerts, the strange performances in Brooklyn warehouses or costumed affairs in antique mansions. I think of the days wrapped in the covers of my bed, weekend nights spent reading by a soft lamplight. I think of the countless people I’ve met, personalities I never expected. I think of the places I’d worked and the things I encountered, and the adventures I’ve yet to write. I think of how, still, when the city does its worst and failures dance on tense strings in my mind, I can step outside for a walk, and the silky blue green of the water, the orange sunset cast against the rafters of the Williamsburg bridge will remind me of the beauty that is worth all the sacrifice.

    And I think, yes, but better. For though I came to New York in part for that elusive inspiration, and that mystical love of the city, I found something far more complex. Bleak in a way, hopeless in a way, but beautiful. And this, as with all love affairs, is endlessly complicated, heavy, wrought with conflicts and dangers at every turn. But as with all affairs worth keeping, when it does go right, it’s the same delirious ecstasy I found on my first day in New York alone. Only this hardly requires elaborate occasions, forced effort. This is a love affair that carries on whether I ask for its attention or want it to slide by. Anyway, when that skyline calls, who am I to resist its summons? I throw on a dress and Ferragamo flats, swing the purse strap over an shoulder, and walk, waiting for New York to answer the prayers I’ve yet to speak.


    ¶ Barbara Demick’s harrowing piece about the collapse of North Korea’s economy — not much helped by a shotgun devaluation last autumn — is available online only to New Yorker subscribers, but perhaps this passage will convey the sense of a social catastrophe.

    Before the devaluation, the Korean won had been trading on the black market at thirty-five hundred to one US dollar. The devaluation would close the gap between the black-market rate of exchange and the official rate, which was about a hundred and sixty won to one dollar, by knocking two zeroes off its value. The economists Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard, who write frequently about North Korea, point out that this is a credible method of shorting up a weak currency; in recent years, Turkey, Romania, and Ghana have executed similar currency devaluations to give their weak currencies respectability. In those cases, though, there was a transition period. In Ghana, the government began a campaign to inform the public seven months before the 2007 changeover took effect, and both the old and the new currency circulated in tandem for six months.

    Many North Koreans were given less than twenty-four hours’ notice. Some were informed around noon, and had until 5 PM that day to take their money to cashiers at their workplace. The exchange limit was set at a hundred thousand won, roughly thirty dollars. Panic spread throughout North Korea’s cities. “High-ranking officials with connections changed their money first, and let their relatives know,” Song-hee said. They rushed to get rid of their Korean money, either converting to foreign currency or buying up whatever food or merchandise they could at the market. “But ordinary people — those who live not too well but not too badly, either — they were the ones who were hurt. They all went bust. I don’t know how to explain it. It was as though your head would burst. In one day, all your money was lost. People were taken to the hospital in shock.”

    ¶ In the Times, Martin Fackler writes about the one remaining link between the two Koreas, the industrial park at Kaesong.

    Still, the managers’ biggest difficulty has been a decline in orders from South Korean buyers, who they said had stopped buying from Kaesong factories for fear the complex might suddenly be closed down for political reasons. They also said they were worried that the North would close the complex if the South resumed its political broadcasts.

    “We are being used as bargaining chips in a political game,” said Jimmy Bae, director of strategic planning at Cuckoo Electronics, a South Korean electronics company that has a $10 million factory in the complex.

    While discerning the North’s intentions is always a challenge, South Korean officials say North Korea has made it clear that it wants to keep the complex open. In late May, North Korean officials told South Korean Ministry of Unification officials that they still wanted to develop the complex, the ministry said. North Korea also announced new rules to restrict the ability of South Korean companies to remove equipment from factories in Kaesong — a move that the South Korean news media interpreted as an attempt to discourage companies from pulling out.


    ¶ What could be more refreshing than previews of coming literary attractions. From The Millions, the big names: Franzen, Petterson, Shteyngart, Moody, Cunningham, and many others. Anne Yoder’s thumbnail sketch of Antonya Nelson’s new book, Bound, certainly got our attention.

    If two women can bond by mutual disdain for a third, then reading Antonya Nelson’s fiction is like being the second woman listening as Nelson dishes tales of family, friends, and small town life with precision, venom, and humor. Typical to Nelson is a swift and biting portrait that’s as honest as it is unsentimental–consider this line from her story “Incognito” for example: “My mother the widow had revealed a boisterous yet needy personality, now that she was alone, and Eddie, least favorite sibling, oily since young, did nothing more superbly than prop her up.” Nelson’s latest novel, Bound, returns to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and depicts the turmoil of a couple on the rocks–the wife haunted by her past and the husband a serial adulterer–while a serial killer, the BTK (Bound Torture, and Kill), reappears after a long silence, taking vicious to a new level.

    Meanwhile, at The Second Pass, a quieter list, modestly described as a “Supplement” to the Millions‘. We chuckled:

    The Instructions by Adam Levin (November 1)

    Levin’s debut novel runs to more than 900 pages, and chronicles four days in the life of Gurion Maccabee, a 10-year-old with a messiah complex. The publisher (McSweeney’s) says the novel combines “the crackling voice of Philip Roth with the encyclopedic mind of David Foster Wallace.” So, no pressure or anything.


    ¶ At The Infrastructurist, Melissa Lafsky picks up on the story that the Times ran the other day about movie theatres in small Midwestern towns.

    Take movie theaters. Towns with a single movie house have long been a symbol for closed-minded intolerance and resistance to change, not to mention the inexorable decline of the small-town lifestyle (think of the dusty, dying Anarene, Texas in The Last Picture Show). But despite the seeming-unstoppable rise of home theaters, cable, and Netflix, the local movie theater is enjoying a revival, maintaining its grasp as a powerful place in rural American communities.

    As New York Times reports, these theaters are reclaiming their throwback role as vital community centers — the Saturday night destination for teenagers and couples seeking quality time together, as well as the meeting place where locals can discuss farming practices and watch highlights from the high school football game.

    If this is a trend, it will be interesting to watch, because it suggests a profoundly communitarian shift in the heartland of rugged individualism. If you want to live in a small town, you’re going to have to help make it viable.

    Have a Look

    ¶ “10 Crazy-Looking New Deep-Sea Creatures.” (Wired Science)

    ¶ Project Doodle: Summer in the City. Also: BP’s 1970 board game, Offshore Oil Strike. (Good)

    ¶ Reports on the relief wells at Zero Hedge, The Oil Drum.

    Daily Office:
    Tuesday, 6 July 2010

    Tuesday, July 6th, 2010


    ¶ Like so many New York Magazine must-read articles, Jennifer Senior’s piece on unhappy parents, “All Joy and No Fun,” is touched by depravity. (“Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.”) But she seems to miss the connection between the problem (too many choices) and the solution (socialized child care).

    One hates to invoke Scandinavia in stories about child-rearing, but it can’t be an accident that the one superbly designed study that said, unambiguously, that having kids makes you happier was done with Danish subjects. The researcher, Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he originally studied this question because he was intrigued by the declining fertility rates in Europe. One of the things he noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children—and happier parents.

    Of course, this should not be a surprise. If you are no longer fretting about spending too little time with your children after they’re born (because you have a year of paid maternity leave), if you’re no longer anxious about finding affordable child care once you go back to work (because the state subsidizes it), if you’re no longer wondering how to pay for your children’s education and health care (because they’re free)—well, it stands to reason that your own mental health would improve. When Kahneman and his colleagues did another version of his survey of working women, this time comparing those in Columbus, Ohio, to those in Rennes, France, the French sample enjoyed child care a good deal more than its American counterpart. “We’ve put all this energy into being perfect parents,” says Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, “instead of political change that would make family life better.”

    Of course we love our children because they’re ours. But burdening oneself with full responsibility for how a child turns out is as fantastical — and as true-blue American — as believing that “self-made men” really are self-made.


    ¶ The wonderful thing about “con” (“confidence man,” swindler) is that all you have to do is italicize it to produce an apt name for the victim. Michael Grann’s jolly good piece about Peter Paul Biro, a Montreal expert who authenticates art works by means of fingerprint identification (how scientific is that), suggests a story with a few as of yet unwritten chapters. (The New Yorker) 

    Biro soon asked Ken Parker—whose late father and stepmother had won several million dollars from the New York Lotto—to make a much larger investment. Biro was part of an effort to launch a venture named Provenance, which would provide, as he put it, the “clever strategy” necessary to sell “orphaned” paintings for tens of millions of dollars. According to a business prospectus, marked confidential, Provenance would acquire art works that had been forensically validated by Biro and several colleagues, and sell them in a gallery in New York City. The company chose a thumbprint for a logo. The driving force behind the venture was Tod Volpe, an art dealer who had once represented celebrities, including Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand. Biro, who had suggested that Volpe might serve as the Parkers’ dealer, described him, in an e-mail, as “brilliant, resourceful, and extremely well connected.” Biro said that his brother, Laszlo—whose “knowledge was invaluable”—would also be a central part of the company. Once Provenance was established, Biro told the Parkers, “there really is nothing we can no[t] do.”

    The plan called for raising sixty-five million dollars from investors, part of which would go toward buying J. P. Morgan’s old headquarters, on Wall Street, and turning it into a palatial arts complex anchored by a gallery. Surprisingly, at least five million dollars of investors’ money would also go to purchasing Teri Horton’s painting—even though Biro had authenticated the work and Volpe had tried to sell it. By capitalizing on the media interest surrounding the painting, the plan said, the work could be resold for between forty and sixty million dollars, maybe even a hundred million. Although Biro has always publicly maintained that he had no financial stake in Horton’s painting, Horton sent an e-mail to the Parkers saying that after the sale of her painting Biro would “collect” and that it would “set him for life.”


    ¶ Chicago’s Raghu Rajan makes a good case for the Fed’s raising interest rates soon. (And a quieter one for printing money to fund unemployment benefits.) (via  Marginal Revolution)

    What many people forget is that interest rates are also a price, and shape not only the level of economic activity but also the allocation of resources and the relative wealth of buyers and sellers of financial savings. A sustained period of ultra-low interest rates will favor the segments of the economy that took us into the crisis – housing, durable goods like cars, and finance. And it will encourage households to borrow and spend rather than save. With policies focused on reviving the patterns of behavior that proved so costly the last time around, it is ironic that President Obama wants the rest of the world to change and spend more to displace the United States as spender of first resort, even while the United States is unwilling to make any changes itself.

    Put differently, aggregate demand is indeed insufficient to restore the economy to old patterns of production. But that production was absorbed only through an unsustainable debt-fueled, asset-price-boom-supported consumer binge. And even if we think U.S. consumers have become excessively cautious (it is hard to see a savings rate of 5 percent as excessive caution, except in relation to the extravagant past), moving them back down the same path seems unwise.

    More important, the United States also has a problem of distorted supply. Prices in the economy should reflect the past misallocation of resources and move resources away from areas like housing and finance. A lot of people have to be retrained for the jobs that will be created in the future, not left lamenting for the jobs they had in the past. A Fed that keeps real


    ¶ We haven’t been following Felix Salmon on the subject of wine, but his recent post, “The more you know, the better it tastes,” accords with Paul Bloom’s essentialist theory of pleasure.

    That’s why so many wineries put so much effort into wine tours and that’s why you’re much more likely to enjoy your bottle of pinot noir if it has been preceded by a short explanation from the sommelier of who the winemaker is, where they’re from and what exactly they’re doing. There’s really no way of telling how or whether any particular part of the story affects the taste, but the simple telling of the story makes an enormous difference.


    ¶ Kassia Karr is no match for the wily chancellor of an aspirational engineering college in Tamil Nadu. Having asked her to speak to “ten or twenty” students, he hauls her up before two hundred, and proceeds to translate her multicultural politeness right into thin air. (The Bygone Bureau)

    Finally, a young man in the audience stood up.

    “Why do you think the American way of eating food is better than the Indian way?” he asked.

    For a half-second I was baffled — when had I said that? I quickly realized that the chancellor had been putting opinions in my mouth when he was translating for me. I went to the mic to try to clear up the confusion. “I do not think America’s customs are better than Indian customs! I like them both the same,” I said, almost pleadingly, trying to indicate the mix-up with an exaggerated expression of worry. But then the chancellor started translating for me again, and I did not return to the podium again as he regaled the students with his opinion on why eating with a fork and spoon, American style, was more proper and more hygienic than the Indian way of eating with hands.


    ¶ Landon Thomas reports on Turkey’s healthy economy — more Euro-worthy than many in the Eurozone itself. It’s only initially surprising that the boom  is attributable in no small part to the socially conservative but more sincerely democratic administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party.

    Mr. Ak, the car leasing executive, exemplifies this new business elite of entrepreneurs. He drives a Ferrari to work, but he is also a practicing Muslim who does not drink and has no qualms in talking about his faith. He is not bound to the 20th-century secular consensus among the business, military and judicial elite that fought long and hard to keep Islam removed from public life.

    On the wall behind his desk is a framed passage in Arabic from the Koran, and he recently financed an Islamic studies program just outside Washington at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where Mr. Erdogan recently spoke.

    Whether he is embracing Islam as a set of principles to govern his life or Israeli irrigation technology for his sideline almond and walnut growing business, Mr. Ak represents the flexible dynamism — both social and economic — that has allowed Turkey to expand the commercial ties with Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria that now underpin its ambition to become the dominant political actor in the region.


    ¶ We’re not running out and buying every cool-sounding novel anymore, but we’ll be watching to see what other people have to say about Jenny Hollowell’s Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe. Valerie Brelinski’s somewhat uneven review is studded with memorable images. (The Rumpus)

    In L.A., Birdie meets her match in Redmond, a man even more coolly pragmatic and self-protective than she, who wisely refuses to sleep with Birdie, all the while recognizing her unusual beauty or star-quality. Redmond becomes her agent—he finds her work and a place to live, he takes her to important parties and makes sure she meets the right people. These star-lit parties are almost Gatsby-esque in both their descriptive glamour and frantic unhappiness. It is in these scenes that Hollowell frequently does her best writing, infusing the gorgeous California evenings and the beautiful people drifting through them with a sadness as palpable as the lemon-scented air.

    Hollowell also perfectly captures the humor and the horror inherent in Birdie’s climb toward fame. During her nine-years sojourn in L.A., Birdie makes the requisite sacrifices required of young attractive females in Hollywood. She laughs at unfunny jokes and performs at humiliating auditions and fucks unfuckable men, all for the dubious honor of starring in a tampon commercial (“Ultra-extra-mega-dry”) and as an “ass double” for more famous actresses. Though Redmond keeps promising that soon, soon she’ll land the part that will change everything, all Birdie knows is that she is getting older. And sadder. And less marketable.


    ¶ Evgeny Morosov. reviewing The Shallows, Nicholas Carr’s alarmist book about the Internet, echoes our thoughts about the drift of the Web, from geeks’ toy to social resource. (Prospect; via  Marginal Revolution)

    Then there is the question of the internet’s political economy—a subject that, judging by his blog, Carr understands well, and yet The Shallows fails to analyse in any real depth. Internet users spend their time clicking on link after link, but this is not an inevitable feature of the web. Google and other companies create these “link traps” to entice us to click again and again, as the more is known about what interests us, the better the companies can customise adverts and other services. Our distraction is not pre-determined; it is the by-product of a bargain in which we have agreed to become targets of aggressive and intrusive advertising in exchange for free access to the internet’s goodies. In the future one could imagine Google offering a premium version of its service, where users would be charged a penny for each search but wouldn’t be shown any of the ads. Similarly, one can imagine the website of the New York Times that did not include links to external sources. This, in fact, is what it looked like ten years ago—and how the Kindle edition of the newspaper still looks today. For all his insights into the plasticity of the brain, Carr is blind to the plasticity of the internet itself. Today’s internet—with its profusion of hyperlinks, widgets, tweets, and pop-ups—is only one of the possible “internets” in the future. Equally, the level of concentration we can expend on reading the New York Times only matters as long as there is someone willing to publish it. To attack the net for ruining our concentration while glossing over how it disrupts the economics of publishing is like complaining about too many calories in the food served on the Titanic.

    Have a Look

    ¶ Time‘s Best Blogs.

    ¶ Tyler Cowen on Hamburg’s HafenCity. (Marginal Revolution)

    ¶ Dead Malls. (The Morning News)

    ¶ Being Tyler Brûlé junkets at Schloss Hubertuslöhe. (Audio alert!)

    Daily Office:
    Friday, 2 July 2010

    Friday, July 2nd, 2010



    ¶ We can’t remember when it was that we first read some politician’s eyewash about old manufacturing jobs being replaced by technologically advanced new ones — with workers taking some time out for “retraining.” We can’t remember reading such a story without raising our eyebrows. Motoko Rich’s front-page story in today’s Times, “Factory Jobs Return, But Employers Find Skills Shortage,” serves as a kind of hangover-update.

    For now, the company urgently needs six machinists to run what are known as computer numerical control — or CNC — machines. An outside recruiter has reviewed 50 résumés in the last month and come up empty.

    The jobs, which would pay $18 to $23 an hour, require considerable technical skill. On an afternoon last month, Christopher Debruycker, 34, was running such a machine, the size and shape of a camper van parked on the factory floor.

    Mr. Debruycker, who has been an operator for 15 years, had programmed the machine to carve an intricate part for a flight simulator out of a block of aluminum, and he monitored its progress on a control pad with an array of buttons.

    “We need 10 more people like him,” Mr. Peterson said.


    ¶ W S Merwin has been named Poet Laureate — about time, you might say. Mr Merwin is 82, and he lives in Hawai’i, so it’s unlikely that he’ll be commuting to Washington with any frequency. Libarian of Congress James Billington, who oversaw the appointment, is considering remote communications hookups that will allow the poet to entertain Americans with, if not his poetry, his important work with endangered species (Mr Merwin has repopulated a “denuded plantation” with plants at risk). But don’t expect the new laureate to take to digital composition. (NYT)

    Mr. Billington said he is confident that Mr. Merwin can broaden the audience for poetry through technology, if not in person: “We even discussed the possibility of doing something using remote technology from Hawaii.”

    Mr. Merwin moved there in the mid-1970s to study Zen Buddhism, and now lives with his wife, Paula. He said he has cultivated more than 700 endangered species of indigenous plants on the formerly denuded plantation, including the hyophorbe indica, a palm tree he helped save from extinction.

    Using his home as a backdrop would illustrate the connection between Mr. Merwin’s work and “his extraordinary interest and devotion to the natural world,” Mr. Billington said, adding that no definite plans have yet been made.

    A high-tech solution to the geographical problem is somewhat unexpected for Mr. Merwin, who said he has never composed a poem on any sort of mechanical or electronic device, preferring a small spiral notebook or even a paper napkin. “It’s the nearest thing to not writing,” Mr. Merwin said. “The more self-conscious it gets, the stiffer it gets.”


    ¶ In the wake of Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings, the government’s handling of AIG’s collateral crisis has attracted attention. We’re in complete accord with Felix Salmon with regard to the very divided loyalties of Dan Jester and Henry Paulson, Goldman alums who appear to have put their old firm’s interests ahead of all others.

    Essentially what happened at AIG was that it bought subprime assets high and was forced, by the government, to sell those same assets low. In doing so, it lost so much money that it had to get bailed out by the government.

    Now if the government was going to put up all that money anyway, why not simply lend it to AIG and then let AIG post it as collateral? Or better yet, just provide a government guarantee on AIG’s CDS exposures, in return for a fee, which in turn would keep AIG’s counterparty risk at AAA levels, and would mean that AIG didn’t need to post any collateral at all.

    ¶ Here’s a new one (insofar as there can be anything new under the sun): a handful of British firms have taken to funding their employees’ pension funds with illiquid assets that, in the case of Diageo, maker of Johnnie Walker, are all-too-liquid.

    As part of the deal, Diageo agreed to pay the pension partnership £25 million a year as it sells the recently distilled whiskey once it matures after three years and replaces it with new stock. The agreement would expire after 15 years, at which point Diageo would buy back the whiskey, which comes from distilleries such Oban on the west coast of Scotland.


    ¶ We’re not surprised to learn that national IQ scores correlate with rates of infectious disease, given that “children under five devote much of their energy to brain development.” (Guardian)

    The scientists found that the level of infectious disease in a country was closely linked to the average national IQ. The heavier the burden of disease, the lower the nation’s IQ scores. Thornhill believes that nations who have lived with diseases for long periods may have adapted, by developing better immune systems at the expense of brain function.

    “The effect of infectious disease on IQ is bigger than any other single factor we looked at,” said Chris Eppig, lead author on the paper. “Disease is a major sap on the body’s energy, and the brain takes a lot of energy to build. If you don’t have enough, you can’t do it properly.”

    “The consequence of this, if we’re right, is that the IQ of a nation will be largely unaffected until you can lift the burden of disease,” Eppig added

    We hope that this story will come home, as it were. It applies to poor families everywhere.


    ¶ Who better to capture the anomie of Pride weekend than Eric Patton? (SORE AFRAID)

    Asaph had not wanted to go because he felt that the pier dance is never a fun event, and also that he had too much schoolwork to do.  I have had plenty of terrible times at that dance — in fact, I think I only had fun once, and maybe not even that.  But I had felt like I was missing out last year when I didn’t go.

    Darius and I headed over to the pier, where we were first forced to wait in an extremely long line to get in.  Then, once we were inside the pier, we had to wait in another long line to buy drink tickets, and then in another long line to obtain the drinks.  It was like the entire thing had been designed by refugees from the Soviet Union.  I suspected the pornographic director and anti-Muslim advocate Michael Lucas, né Andrei Treivas.

    The event was fine, although, in addition to waiting in lines, another key feature is getting lost from everyone you know and experiencing profound alienation and loneliness while surrounded by thousands of euphoric and shirtless men.

    This reminds us of what Jonah Lehrer was saying about prediction error. Age seems to be the key. One of the great consolations of old-farthood is that anxiety of maybe missing something evaporates entirely.

    The last line of Eric’s entry caused guffaws. We’re sure that we’re seen the joke before (what joke?), but on Eric it looks fresh.


    ¶ The name of Harlan Ullman, a Washington think-tanker, is new to us, and we have no idea what sort of sharp knives might line his sleeves. But we agree with his “9 Reasons US is Losing in Afghanistan.” From what we can tell, each and every one of the reasons is good, but we especially like the first and the last, which are deeply complementary. (Atlantic Council; via  RealClearWorld)

    First, the so-called AfPak strategy is backward. It should be called PakAf as Pakistan is the strategic center of gravity, not Afghanistan. Yet, virtually all of our energy and resources are going into Afghanistan.

    Finally, the strategy assumes a largely bilateral approach. Yet, only a regional solution that engages Afghanistan’s neighbors is likely to produce a lasting effect.

    Mr Ullman’s list reminds us that our engagement in Afghanistan is doomed only to the extent that it’s basis is stupid.


    ¶ John Self’s enthusiasm for a book that arrived unsolicited, and that he almost cast aside, is invigorating, even if we’re not sure that we would respond to Greg Baxter’s A Preparation for Death (not a novel) quite so positively. (Asylum)

    A Preparation for Death is an account of the frustrations and consolations of literature. In struggling to do it justice, or at least explain its seduction (how it had its easy way with me, as I blushed and giggled like a teenager), I am reduced to impersonating Martin Amis on Saul Bellow, and just quoting paragraph after paragraph.

    There are too many days in the week. Too many weeks in the year. Too much space to fill. I would like to have lived for an afternoon only, born at the age of twenty, dead eight hours later, experienced life, all by myself, in a corner apartment with a high view of a busy junction, an ambulance route, a metro entrance, the back of a restaurant, warring neighbours in the corridors, a broken television, an empty bookshelf, and learned only sensitivity, because I would have missed nothing, gained the same experience of life, and would not have grown so addicted to existence that the thought of not existing gives me indigestion and bad dreams.

    This passionate ambivalence is all through the book, yet we keep getting trills of warning toward the end that it all might be altering forever. Baxter, we learn, is to become a father. That is why, on the penultimate page, “I plan to separate the self that I shall leave here from the self that will return: to cast the author of this book into a condition of permanent aimlessness,” for fear that otherwise “he will forget the perfection of inexistence. He will grow out of the despair that he worships.” This is the only indication we get of the tsunamic changes parenthood painfully brings. This is not a book about redemption or epiphany. There is light at the end, but it is still around a corner. The book is not about a triumph from disaster; the book is the triumph.


    ¶ The good folks (kids, sorry) at The Bygone Bureau look back into the distant past… sometime in the Nineties, from the look of it, and remember the creative things things that they used to do with their dial-up connections to the Internet. (Note to Editor: there’s a missing “/” tag somewhere.)

    My dad spent a long time on the phone with Mindspring tech support (an ISP that would later merge with Earthlink) while we tried to figure out how to upload Isle Net to our family’s five megabytes of webspace. By the time we had gotten everything up, I had become so enchanted by the idea of making websites that I had decided that I wanted a real domain name. Back then, domains cost $50, and I’ll never understand why my dad spent that money and still let me pick

    Have a Look

    ¶ Jay Sauceda’s glorious captures of bygone adverts painted on brick walls. That these signs are still as vividly-colored as they are is amazing. (via  The Best Part)

    ¶ 8 Fitzroy Street. (The Persephone Post)

    Daily Office:
    Tuesday, 29 June 2010

    Tuesday, June 29th, 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)

    Monday Scramble: Spring Break

    Monday, May 24th, 2010


    As announced at the beginning of the month, we’ll be taking a break from the Daily Office for a few weeks.

    At first, we’re just going to take a break. There will be daily entries during the week, and perhaps even the introduction of a new feature, to be called something like “Noteworthy,” in which we’ll mention items of interest that we may or may not follow in the Office itself. For example: Martin Gardner just died at the age of 95. We don’t really have anything to say about Mr Gardner (except that we enjoyed his “Mathematical Games” columns in Scientific American even though they were always over our heads), but we can’t leave his passing unmentioned.

    Over the past year, we’ve learned that the Daily Office is not a news feature. It’s a collection of links to reflecions on current events. Nothing interests us quite so much as linking to a series of reflections on the same topic, one a day for several days. As we did, for example, with “denialism,” following Mark Lilla’s widely-read essay on libertarian populism. Or as we did when the iPad came out, and we saw early users discover, to their own surprise as well as to ours, what the device is really good for — what it allows that conventional computers do not. (Reading lengthy hyptexts in comfort.) We’d like to do more of that, but we think that it’s going to require a sift in mentality, and another step away from traditional blogging.

    (That was fun: “traditional blogging.”)

    Once we’re through taking a break, we’re going to pursue the new mentality that we think suits The Daily Blague. One thing seems almost certain: the entire four- (and eventually five-) day cycle of weekday Daily Office entries will be largely composed a week ahead of time.

    And of course we’ll be working on the new, iPad-apecific version of The Daily Blague — where less will be plenty.

    Daily Office: Friday

    Friday, May 21st, 2010


    ¶ Matins: A final word on “denialism,” this time from the New Humanist. Keith Kahn-Harris writes comprehensively about the matter, citing, among other things, the danger of mistaking diverging views from denials, and he enumerates five characteristics that make the difference. What we hope for is an essay that will address the other side of the problem, which critical thinkers are too apt to overlook: the problem of expertise without authority. Mr Kahn-Harris’s word is “sanctimony,” which speaks volumes.

    ¶ Lauds: Elise Nakhnikian makes a very compelling case for watching Bout de souffle this weekend. (The House Next Door)

    ¶ Prime: One nugget to carry away from the entry by Peter Boone and Simon Johnson at The Baseline Scenario, “The Very Bad Luck of the Irish,” is the alarming jump in the relative size of Ireland’s budget deficit when the Gross Domestic Product metric is replaced by the Gross National Product.

    ¶ Tierce: “Tell me why this wouldn’t work!” demands Tim Carmody, referring to his really rather brilliant idea, Showroulette. (Snarkmarket)

    ¶ Sext: At The Millions, Nell Boeschenstein writes with heartbreaking restraint about being fired at a job that, although she wasn’t cut out for it, she took because she couldn’t make a living as a writer: “Skills and Interests.”

    ¶ Nones: n case you’re just tuning in, Joshua Kurlantzick explains “What the Heck Is Going on in Thailand” — at Foreign Policy, for a change. Mr Kurlantzick’s sketch of a solution to Thailand’s impasse is elegantly stated and, even if, as he says, looks to be “very far away,” it is not by any means idealistic.

    ¶ Vespers: You don’t have to be particularly interested in poetry to be absorbed by “The Other Mother Tongue,” Michael Scharf’s review of a new anthology of Indian verse in English. (Boston Review; via 3 Quarks Daily)

    ¶ Compline: Lest you regard denialism as an American problem only, here is Timothy Garton Ash’s cry from the wilderness for a second Churchill to lead Europe out of its doldrums. Almost every public figure named in the following paragraphs is an expert without any widespread authority. Churchill, famously, was an authority without expertise whom the experts tried ceaseless to sideline. (Guardian; via RealClearWorld)

    Dear Diary: Authority

    Thursday, May 20th, 2010


    Topic A, chez moi, is of course the angel of grace whom I get to hold in my arms once or twice a week. Never have I felt my incapacity as a writer so thoroughly proved as it is by Will, with his unbeatable smile (Kathleen claims that it will be more effective than her own, which is saying something) and the extraterrestrial curiosity about the world that gives him the air of a higher being on assignment who only seems to be a baby.

    And then there are his sighs. Oh.

    Topic B is this other thing that I’m interested in: expertise without authority. The developed nations are ubiquitously captained by bright men and women who nonetheless lack authority. No doubt they trained themselves as such! Nobody understands authority anymore, and rightly: it needs a complete reinvention, a re-think that will clearly distinguish between “authoritative” (good) and “authoritarian” (bad).

    An authority, first of all, believes in itself, and, second of all, behaves in a manner that’s consistent with its programme. It’s very important for authorities not to be chargeable with hypocrisy, with saying one thing and doing another.

    So much for the essential prelimiary. The essential superstructure is the authority’s belief in a vision of life as it might be lived. This is what today’s meritocrats lack altogether: they’re successes at living life as it is lived right now, a life to which most people have no attachment. Testing well breeds a horrible complacency, but most of today’s leaders never meet anybody who isn’t just like them — other successful testers.

    We were right to reject the vagaries of hereditary aristocracy (of which heredity monarchy is essentially the pimple), but we have not come up with a good replacement. Let’s just meditate on that for a while, calmly ad quietly.

    Daily Office: Thursday

    Thursday, May 20th, 2010


    ¶ Matins: Yesterday, in this space, we quoted Jenny Diski; last week, we began with Mark Lilla. Today, a piece in New Scientist links “denialism” with the urge — common among Tea Partiers — to push back against the wisdom of the elites.

    ¶ Lauds: Anthony Lane sweetens his review of the rather dreary-sounding Ridley Scott Robin Hood with a truly unforgettable crack.

    ¶ Prime: At Fortune, Daryl Jones sounds an alarm about inflation in China. (via Abnormal Returns)

    ¶ Tierce: Two notes on that very gloomy subject, dementia (whether Alzheimer’s or not). The failure of the mind strikes us as the worst possible personal tragedy, because it entails the premature death of the self (and not in a nice way, either). It’s not surprising to read, at Wired Science, that “Dementia Caregivers [are] More Likely to Also Get the Disease” — not that it’s necessarily catching: there might be a “tendency of people who are prone to distress or mental illness to find and marry one another. Second, and even less surprising, Simon Roberts catches mention in the Times of studies showing that, as was the case with Iris Murdoch, the mental decline of Agatha Christie was palpable in her work prior to diagnosis.

    ¶ Sext: The always-entertaining Dave Bry explains the attractions of Red Bank, New Jersey to its newest celebrity resident, Jon Stewart. (The Awl)

    ¶ Nones: At The Bygone Bureau, Peter Braden recounts his trip to Bosnia last year, and how a visit to Mostar left him feeling “a little bit Bosnian.”

    ¶ Vespers: We had not really registered the existence of The Nervous Breakdown, a site that we are not even going to attempt to categorize just yet, but we agree with J E Fishman that there’s something wrong with the way books are handled at The New York Times if 13 of the 29 book-related alerts that Mr Fishman has received from the Times since late April relate to the work of dead writers. (via The Millions)

    ¶ Compline: At The Second Pass, John Williams shares a snippet from a friend’s interview with New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore. Just when you think that our schools might as well be closed, a flash of eccentric brilliance glimmers in the rubble.

    Daily Office: Wednesday

    Wednesday, May 19th, 2010


    ¶ Matins: In the current issue of the London Review of Books, Jenny Diski’s “Short Cuts” will have you wondering whether to laugh or to cry. Her breezy write-up of crazy wingnut Melanie Phillips’s The World Turned Upside Down makes you ask just whose world has  been turned upside down.

    ¶ Lauds: We don’t want to sit through Hank the Cinq, no matter how young and fresh the cast, but we can’t wait for the Laurent Cantet movie. (; via Arts Journal)

    ¶ Prime: Curiouser and curiouser: Goldman Sachs seems to have been left standing after a round of musical chairs. Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story (in the Times) and Felix Salmon note that Goldman is no longer the King of Cool.

    ¶ Tierce: At Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer discusses the psychology of the “near miss” — and how Las Vegas exploits it.

    ¶ Sext: The Editor went to a book event last evening; Slow Love author Dominique Browning was interviewed by a sometime protégée who is still very much an admirer, Grace Bonney of the elegant Design Sponge. Ms Browning, speaking about her new Web site, Slow Love Life, confessed that she felt “born to blog.” At the signing part of the evening, the Editor acknowledged that he had made the same discover, and the author was kind enough to ask for a card.

    ¶ Nones: As of last night, it seems that no major American newspaper was interested in a story carried by BBC News: “Bolivia’s Morales urges Pope Benedict to scrap celibacy.”

    ¶ Vespers: At Survival of the Book, Brian writes one of those dispirited entries that are so invigorating. If publishers are as demented as Gallery Books’s Louise Burke seems to be (if only to associate her name and reputation with Jersey Shore), then who needs ’em? But we do need Brians.

    ¶ Compline: Alex Balk lifts The Awl into the pundit zone with a relatively august piece about Richard Blumenthal, the Nixon White House alum and (improbable? but hitherto presumable) Democratic candidate to replace Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodds.

    Daily Office: Tuesday

    Tuesday, May 18th, 2010


    ¶ Matins: We found Paul Girolamo’s contribution to this week’s Metropolitan Diary hard to believe — are Park Avenue doormen really such material guys? — but Quatorze insisted that it’s the way of the world. (NYT)

    ¶ Lauds: It’s a nasty job, but someone’s got to do it: the Chicago Trib‘s John von Rhein finds fault with Wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel’s leading of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (his own orchestra), on a visit to the Windy City. (via Arts Journal)

    ¶ Prime: We had a very long day yesterday, helping the Editor out with his new bookcase, and perhaps that’s why we can’t, no matter how many times we re-read it, understand Felix Salmon’s commentary on James Surowiecki’s Financial Page.

    ¶ Tierce: At Wired Science, Owen Jones, a law professor at Vanderbilt, recounts his impressions of a hearing of arguments for and against fMRI evidence of credibility — the new lie detection.

    ¶ Sext: In “The Night Visitor,” Brooks Peters posts a candid but really rather delightful entry about the trauma that inevitably enfolds certain boys at summer camp. (Not Brooks himself, mind.)

    ¶ Nones: Over the weekend, Seth Mydans and Thomas Fuller collaborated on an important story about the long-last failure of royal authority to settle disputes in Thailand.

    ¶ Vespers: One of the deeper mysteries of literary achievement is our loyalty, helplessly divided, to prolific successes on the one hand and to one-off wonders on the other. Robert McCrum considers the latter at the Guardian. (via The Millions)

    ¶ Compline: Again, it was a long day. We thought long and hard about Ross Douthat’s critique of the meritocracy, but couldn’t decide if we agreed or disagreed. To the extent that meritocrats are people gifted at taking examinations, we agree. (NYT)

    Daily Office: Friday

    Friday, May 14th, 2010


    ¶ Matins: The plight of Cynthia Norton, 52, sometime star secretary, currently unable to find anything better than Wal-Mart, is ably captured in Catherine Rampell’s Times story, “In Job Market Shift, Some Workers Are Left Behind.”

    ¶ Lauds: At WSJ, Marc Myers writes about the model jazz widow, Laurie Pepper. She’s not alone; you can read about Dexter Gordon’s widow, Maxine, not to mention Sue Mingus. (via Arts Journal)

    ¶ Prime: Hilarious: Five “new action items” for Lloyd Blankfein to keep in mind, courtesy of “trader” Michael Lewis. (Bloomberg; via Zero Hedge)

    ¶ Tierce: Philips has unveiled the “World’s First LED Replacement for Most Common Bulb.” With luck, it will be in stores toward the end of this year. (Inhabitat; via Felix Salmon)

    ¶ Sext: A partial account of the production of “Issue Zero” of 48 Hour Magazine — partial because the author, Lois Beckett, one of the magazine’s editors, took time off to sleep, have a life. (SF Weekly; via Snarkmarket)

    ¶ Nones: Robert Parry’s exposé of the shell game that Rev Sun Myung Moon played so well for decades, but that’s falling apart now that he’s too old to play, is certifiably cranky, but fascinating withal. A very long read — perfect for your iPad. (; via MetaFilter, The Morning News)

    ¶ Vespers: We missed Kirsty Logan’s Millions droll piece on reasons for not reading books in her own library, so we’re grateful to Michael Berger, at The Rumpus, for tipping us off. 

    ¶ Compline: The super thing, in our view, about Frederic Filloux’s sketch of “Profitable Long Form Journalism” — inspired by his experience so far with the iPad — is that it doesn’t involve advertising. He has the idea of aggregating news stories into e-books. (Monday Note)