Archive for June, 2010

Gotham Diary:
My Two Brains

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

The weather was glorious this morning — that is the only true word for it. Cool and clear and breezy and bright. To run an errand before lunch, I wore what I like to wear when I go out: pleated slacks, a colorful shirt, a light sports jacket (you might call it a “coat,” as in “coat and tie”), and an Ivy cap. It is grand to be comfortable in town clothes.

Walking out of the building onto the driveway, I felt so on top of things that it scared me: surely such an access of serenity must herald a disaster. But as I made my way up 86th Street — I was toting a bag of dry cleaning to Perry Process — I felt that the disaster was all behind me. I believed that I had earned this sense of being right with the world — finally. Most people enjoy it when they’re young, in the first flush of adulthood. But it seemed to me not only that fifty-odd years of poking and questioning and falling all over myself was enough, already, but that it had finally yielded results. My life felt like the clearest of fountains.

Of course, I tremble to write any of this down. Am I crazy? Do I crave a visit from the gods of irony — or, for that matter, from the Old Testament divinity who took everything away from Job? I know that everything in my life could go spectacularly wrong right this second, beginning with sudden physiological failures and working outwards toward mischiefs like identity theft. The horror of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man is never far from my imagination’s grasp — something that may explain my perennially guilty conscience.

But I’m learning, from Web sites like Jonah Lehrer’s Frontal Cortex, and books like Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong, that it’s a mistake to confuse the belief that things are going well with the knowledge of their frailty. These rival and inconsistent states of mind cohabit the cranium with frictionless ease. That’s because they inhabit different regions of the brain. I’ve learned, just in the past couple of days, to think of myself as a “frontal agnostic.” The advenced — perhaps “pre-frontal” is the word — regions of my grey matter (evolutionarily recent puddles of intelligence shimmering in the folds somewhere just behind my eyebrows) know that — well, the whole point is that they don’t know anything. Here, life is a matter of working hypotheses and go-bags. It’s in the vaster, richer interior of the old bean that I savor life’s pleasure with a constitutional inability to imagine its being taken away.

The big challenge of this wonderful new way of being intelligent is keeping the agnostic brain from spoiling the back-brain’s fun, while at the same time making sure that the pleasure centers never get their hands on the car keys.

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010



¶ At The Oil Drum — our tickertape for the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe — retired geographer Gary Peters states the case for reducing the human population on Earth — soon. (Note that he brushes aside all optimism triggered by “declining growth rates.”)

Both population and consumption are parts of the problem–neither can be ignored and both are exacerbating the human impact on Earth. More distressing, however, is that many among us don’t even see that there are problems created by both growing populations and increasing affluence bearing down on a finite planet. To pretend that another 80 million people added to the planet each year is not a problem because they are all being added to the world’s poor nations makes no sense at all. Many of them will end up in rich nations by migrating, legally or illegally, and all will further compound environmental problems, from strains on oil and other fossil fuel resources to deforestation and higher emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. As Kenneth Boulding noted decades ago, “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

To us, the Fact of Facts here is that it would be difficult to sustain a population 1/7 the current size on First World terms.


¶ Mozart, Vivaldi singlehandedly clear a London library’s entry of loitering teens. And we say “singlehandedly” by design: the repellent sound track run through the library’s tinny tannoys consists of a movement from The Four Seasons and “Voi che sapete.” Period. We’re not sure that the librarians like classical music any more than the clotted teens do. (London Free Press; via  Arts Journal)

Back at the library entrance, the opera music might not be hostile, but it is loud, and pumped through the tinny-sounding speakers it’s a little hard to take.

And it’s not just the teeny bopper set that’s feeling repelled.

After five minutes under the speakers, even Mitchell started to crack.

“Oh my god. It’s the opera now,” she said, as the two-song rotation came around to the beginning.

At 25, library patron Sean O’Connor is in the target demographic for the aural assault.

Along with some friends, he kept a safe distance from the music as he enjoyed a smoke.

“The music could be better,” he said before acknowledging, “it’s a good idea.”

His friend, Frank Gribbon, 58, was less equivocal.

“It’s piercing. It’s annoying,” said the library regular.

He agrees it’s a good idea but he’s skeptical the plan will work in the long term.

“The kids, they’ll find a way around it,” he said.

“They’ll come down here with amplifiers twice as loud or something.”

It’s easy to read teenagers’ dislike of serious music as a dreadful portent of cultural collapse, but, really, it couldn’t be healthier. Can you imagine how creepy it would be to stand amidst a herd of young people surrendering themselves to music’s charms?


¶ Maura Johnston composes a rueful, appropriately snarky obituary for NewsLabs, the late, self-styled “platform for new journalism.” (The Awl)

What was NewsLabs again? A puff piece on it from the Nieman Journalism Lab makes it seem like a slightly classier or Associated Content — journalists, some of whom brought long, storied careers to the table, were given the technological platform to run free (with no assignment editors or pesky copyeditors!). Once the journalist’s “personal brand” was done being built, the money would come in via ad revenue….

But the quality of content, as any journalist who’s been employed by a web-based publisher can tell you, is actually never the case when it comes to ultimately deciding a publication’s success or failure — because marketing an online venture is a much more difficult affair than simply throwing up a few articles and a couple of Tweets and asking the interns to start multiple Digg accounts. Even the most entrenched online brands out there have stumbled when launching new sites in recent months; take a look at, the fashiony spinoff of Technicolor-haired Internet scourge Perez Hilton’s eponymous size that atracted some 160,000 unique readers in May. That’s a paltry number when you notice that the big P’s flagship site ranges from 1.7 million to 2.3 million uniques. (And don’t get me started on his dismal track record when it comes to promoting music.) It is very difficult to get readers regularly returning to any site; it takes a blend of pumping out the content and getting linked by high-profile sites both in and out of its immediate topic — and a not-insignificant amount of luck — in order to do so. Internet behaviors can be very entrenched things!


¶ In today’s strapped economy, making smarter use of what we already have ought to be everybody’s Step One. At The Infrastructurist, Melissa Lafsky reports that the freight railroads are beginning to deploy significantly more powerful software in routing trains.

The software works by syncing train schedules and traffic control across the entire network (which can be up to 2,500 trains a day), and creating an optimized traffic plan that tells trains exactly how fast they should travel. Freight train schedules are more labor-intensive to create, and are less predictable than passenger rail. As such, the new software automates and optimizes the dispatch and travel process, from the moment trains are loaded to the moment they reach their destination.

RailEdge is already being put to the test by Norfolk Southern, and the company plans to expand its use of the technology to its entire 22-state rail network by 2012. Who knows — maybe by then we’ll have similar software for Amtrak.


¶ Grad Night at Disneyland — one of those Southern California experiences that could never, ever, not in a million years take root in the Northeast. Maria Bustillos reports, ambivalently, at The Awl. Her epigram is taken from Shirley Hazzard: “There is no arguing with exultation.”

Grad Nite started in 1961, just a few years after Disneyland opened. It’s a very complicated business to arrange, with all sorts of extra security precautions and elaborate paperwork, dozens and dozens of chartered buses from all over California and even as far away as Arizona, and so on. Our kids, on fire with the excitement of their graduation ceremony that afternoon, departed from school on three buses, each with a few wary chaperones on board. We had all kinds of stuff we were supposed to read to them about throwing out all their drugs and booze in the parking lot, OR ELSE. They were all way too wound up to give a damn what we said, naturally. I wandered through the bus, handing out colored wristbands and exhortations to simmer down, would you for pete’s sake. One kid was yelling very loudly about that South African artificial vagina dentata condom-thing. “It will cut your balls right off!” he shouted, suddenly catching my eye and shooting me a guilty look.

“Oh, I read all about that,” I said. “Indeed, you’d best watch yourself. It’s a dangerous world. ”


¶ Following a link from Marginal Revolution the other day, we stumbled on to Let a Thousand Nations Bloom, and while much of the conversation there has a takes-our-breath-away strangeness, this is more a matter of style than content. We actually agree with a good deal of Brad Taylor’s “Liberal Nationalism in a Competitive Market for Governance” — although not with the choice of title.

While parochialism might always cause problems, its harm is amplified in the large democracies we see today. As Bryan Caplan has argued, democracy provides no check on our evolved xenophobic prejudices. Politics isn’t about policy, but status: we vote to increase the status of our tribe at the expense of the other guys. Democracy tends to exacerbate this tendency.

Given that our parochial stone-age brains are here to stay, we should prefer those institutions which minimize the costs of the people’s romance. Rather than fighting nationalist movements seeking to align state borders with the boundaries of group identities, we should be supporting them.

We’ll be puzzling over the site for a while.


¶ Lesley Chamberlain contemplates Vladimir Nabokov’s sojourn in Berlin, the first stage of his life-long exile from a vanished Russia, and reminds us that Nabokov was a first-rate recorder of a vast and aimless émigré community. (Standpoint; via  3 Quarks Daily)

Perhaps tying works of art to their originating topography is vulgar and needs to be kept discreet. But history needs Nabokov. During the artistically formative years, he lived here in the 1920s and 1930s, he peerlessly described how Berlin’s 300,000 Russian émigrés endured life after the Bolshevik Revolution. A city “swarming with ragamuffins” (Despair) and here and there “an urban vagabond with an early evening thirst” (The Fight, 1925). Here were thousands of lonely people haunted by poverty and nostalgia. Divorce or widowhood sealed their fate. In An Affair of Honour (1927), the cuckolded Anton Petrovich went through the motions of a classic Russian duel only to find himself stuck in a shabby Berlin hotel after his opponent didn’t show. “He looked at the moth-eaten plush, the plump bed, the washstand, and this wretched room…seemed to him to be the room in which he would have to live from that day on…[With] the door shut, he grabbed [a] sandwich with both hands, immediately soiled his fingers and chin with the hanging fat and, grunting greedily, began to munch.” So the writer imagined the crude Germanisation of a lost man. Nabokov, for whom all life after 1917 contrasted with his childhood on a Russian country estate, was a perfectionist, who noticed how even his own mother fell from wealthy grace. Miraculously, his brutal insights produced their own kind of beauty on the page.


¶ Although we’re pretty rigid about the difference between listening and reading, we don’t see any harm in finally polishing off a few of those unread classics with audiobooks. Laura Miller sketches a pretty accurate picture of what’s available these days. There certainly ought to be more. (Salon)

I first turned to audiobooks because I get motion sickness from reading in cars, buses and other moving vehicles. I soon graduated to listening as I cooked, cleaned house, ran errands, worked out and, of course, drove. As someone who reads for a living, I’m eager to get out of my armchair and give my eyes a break after a long day’s work, but with audiobooks I’ve been able to squeeze in a lot of recreational reading around the edges.

Audiobooks are, furthermore, an ideal way to finally get to those bypassed literary classics. I was never going to find the time to sit down and read all 1,072 pages of “Don Quixote,” but I listened to the whole thing over the course of a month’s worth of waiting in post-office lines and doing lat pulls. With the advent of downloadable digital audiobooks and portable MP3 players, it’s possible to keep recordings of several titles on hand at all times, snatching 15 minutes of Balzac here and there. Still, a long car trip accompanied by an audio version of a Dickens or Austen novel may be the most sublime use of the form.

Have a Look

¶ Designer Mirko Ilic’s collection of posters and other illustrations featuring the salt and pepper of punctuation marks. (via  Hilobrow)

¶ Not surprisingly, William Steig dreaded public speaking (but was very good at it). (Letters of Note)

¶ A French Ivy site — pourquoi pas? Greensleeves to a Ground. (via  Ivy Style)

Editorial Note:
Blow It Up!

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010


Fortunately, I was never a big fan of Barak Obama. He’s a smart guy, certainly, but even before he was elected — even before he campaigned for the presidency — he took prudence to the point of vice. Did anyone hear from him in the ethnic-cleansing aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? Let me know if you did.

No, all I cared about was his party affiliation, because all I cared — and care — about is fixing the Supreme Court, which is gushing toxic opinions at a clip to rival the Macondo well’s. As currently constituted, the Roberts Court poses a greater ecological threat to the United States than twenty broken wells. It won’t be happy, I think, until it has rearranged the population into two groups: wealthy rentiers and the people who service them. If you’re not working for somebody rich, you probably won’t be working at all.

Even so, although I’m not disappointed by President Obama, I am genuinely alarmed by his quiescence. The oil pours on and on and he does nothing. What can he do? He can order the Navy to demolish the well with conventional explosives, that’s what he can do. Or, in the alternative, he can explain to me why he doesn’t want to do that. But the proper course of action seems barred to him not because he’s unaware of unusual military solutions but because he still thinks that, as the private property of a group of corporations (each pointing fingers at the others), the well is beyond his reach. For him, that seems to be the end of the story. The well is dealing incredible damage to large swathes of this country, devastating livelihoods and destroying habitats — but he does nothing because, it seems, the well is private property. Nocando.

Correct me if I’m wrong, please! And please tell me how the president’s reaction is different from expecting homeowners to extinguish their own conflagrations in case of fire. Four alarm blaze : fire department :: Macondo disaster : naval intervention. Yes? Correct me if I’m wrong!

President Obama’s agenda is littered with murky problems — a monstrously uncertain war in Afghanistan, economic instability at home, an increasingly dysfunctional Congress — but this is not one of them. The only thing that’s murky about the Macondo well disaster is what it’s doing to the Gulf of Mexico.

Just ask Bill!

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)

Gotham Diary:

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

The missing package is either a Borsalino cap that I bought at a clearance sale from Hartford & York, or the complete works of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, for I forget how much money. Under $200, though! Jillions of discs at practically pennies per! Will the performances (or the recordings) be terrible? Who knows? I don’t much care. I bought the set pretty much for its index. I know almost everything in Mozart’s catalogue that’s at all famous, and I know it pretty well. But there’s lots of stuff that isn’t well known. Not that we’re talking about hidden diamonds. Mozart wrote a lot of okay-rate music that is fairly forgettable. He wrote less and less of it as he grew older, and after 1783 he wrote nothing that isn’t worth listening to. But he was no child genius as a composer. (That said, I’ve always found the six minuets that are now catalogued as K 61 — I think; it used to be 65 — to be especially delightful. Mozart wrote them on the eve of his thirteenth birthday. They’re no more routine than the great Clarinet Quintet, from the other end of Mozart’s life.)

Buying this complete set of Mozart required cutting through a web of taboos. Way back in — when was it, 1991? the bicentennial of Mozart’s death? Maybe it was long before that, when LPs were still the default — the prestigious Philips label (part of the Polygram complex that also owns prestigious labels Deutsche Gramophon and “English Decca”) issued a series of boxed sets, numbered as volumes, in a “Mozart Edition.” I do not believe that it was intended to be exactly comprehensive, but I may be wrong about that. If someone had given it to me, I don’t know what I’d have done with it. The main thing wasn’t the quality of the performances, which was excellent but not really to my taste, but the packaging. Jewel boxes take up so much room! If the Edition were to come out today, it would arrive in the same sort of box as my cheapo set (I’m guessing), with each CD in a sleeve of some kind. I can certainly live with that. A treat that I still haven’t tired of is a Complete Brahms (Deutsche Gramophon). It sits atop my vestigial stereo system, a cube with Brahms on every face.

As I write this, I’m listening to Van Cliburn’s Cold War recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, the one that was So Famous that nobody else recorded it for ages. Again, I’ll beg your pardon regarding the details. The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto has endowed me with one of the many entries in my Modern Jackass portfolio. Long ago, when I had just enough knowledge to be dangerous, I castigated Tchaikovsky for not developing the magnificent opening theme of the concerto. Magnificent yes; opening theme, no: it’s a classic introduction, or what snazzy music writers about Haydn and Mozart’s opening gambits might now and then call a “propyleia.” Meaning a porch. But it was fashionable to dump on Tchaikovsky in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Which turned out to be not all bad: I had to discover for myself a composer who had become so cliché-popular that nobody really heard him anymore. I still hear André Previn’s recording of Sleeping Beauty as a revelation of how incredibly gorgeous music can be, without a hair out of place.

As I’ve gotten older, all my time-machine speculations have come to involve Mozart. If I could go back in time, I’d check out one of Mozart’s extravagant costume balls — he had a flat with a ballroom for a while — and ask the guests what they thought of their host. People like to think of Mozart as a droll wraith, shyly seeking a quiet corner in which to dash off the odd Requiem. Nothing could be further &c. The man went in for loud clothes and big jewels. He made so much money, for a few years at least, that he could carry on like an aristocrat, and quite alongside the brilliance of his music there is the cunning of his parody of patrons. I’d like to know more about that. I don’t think that I’d have anything to say to Mozart himself, unless I thought that a request for three more string quintets might bear fruit.

If the time machine worked the other way, of course, I’d drag Mozart up to my place in Yorkville, where I’d worry about which was more likely to give him a heart attack, the taxis down in the street or the Brahms on the Nano. What am I saying? Haydn’s London Symphonies would be shocking enough. You know, of course, that the people in London asked Mozart first, right?

The Daily Office:
Monday, 28 June 2010

Monday, June 28th, 2010



¶ As proponents of the idea that “building to last” is nowhere near as desirable as “building to upgrade,” we’re piqued by Robin Sloan’s Snarkmarket entry, “Only Crash.” What begins as a sort of hygeinic principle for writing code swells out into this:

What else could we apply crash-only think­ing to? Imag­ine a crash-only gov­ern­ment, where the tran­si­tion between admin­is­tra­tions is always a small rev­o­lu­tion. In a sys­tem like that, you’d opti­mize for revolution—build buffers around it—and as a result, when a “real” rev­o­lu­tion finally came, it’d be no big deal.

To this tempting pipe dream, Robin’s colleague Tim Carmody administers a well-chilled (if largely implicit) reminder (see the Comments) that most politicans are in it for the long haul, outcomes be damned.

Speak­ing of pol­i­tics, this reminds me of some­thing Ezra Klein said back dur­ing HCR debate, although I can’t find the link. Polit­i­cal par­ties like to try to engi­neer “per­ma­nent majori­ties.” And all the struc­tural incen­tives, from politi­cians to staffers to lob­by­ists and fundrais­ers, push you in that direc­tion. But if you look at his­tory, every party that has a major­ity loses it, and loses it pretty quickly. The idea he pushed is that majori­ties aren’t to be kept, but to be gained, used in the ser­vice of long-term goals of your party, and then lost. You lose seats, maybe you even lose power for a while, but you get health-care reform.


¶ All we can think of is the Emperor’s New Clothes: Terry Teachout, having gotten his hands on a 1988 study entitled “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems,” began thinking that Modernism’s more complicated masterpieces might “never find an audience” because they take too long to apprehend. (About Last Night)

It immediately occurred to me when I read his paper that the same inborn limitations on intelligibility might apply to practitioners of other art forms–and no sooner did I come to that conclusion than I felt the first stirrings of a “Sightings” column for The Wall Street Journal.

Do click through to the WSJ piece. You wouldn’t want to miss the zinger at the end, James Joyce’s astonishing demand. We can remember when such imperatives were intimidating. Now, like those “new clothes,” they only seem grandiose.


¶ A Federal Reserve economist, Kartik Athreye, has brought down the wrath of the Blosophere upon himself by suggesting that “economics is hard” — and therefore not to be trusted to hoi polloi without advanced degrees. From the ensuing kerfuffle, Tyler Cowen sounds a truly grown-up note.

My view is a little different than Brad’s. I would say that economics is really, really, really, really, really, really, really hard. And that’s leaving out a few of the “reallys.”

It’s so hard that experts don’t always do it well. The experts are constantly prone to correction by non-experts, by practitioners, by people who are self-educated economic experts but not professional economists, and by people who know some economics and a lot about some other field(s). It is very often that we — at least some of us — are wrong and at least some of those other people are right. Furthermore those other people are often more meta-rational than a lot of professional economists.

That’s why, Mr Cowen concludes, he be lost without the real-world input of amateurs.


¶ A word about “blind taste tests.” (You Are Not So Smart)

At first, the researchers thought they should put some sort of label on the glasses. So, they went with M and Q.

People said they liked Pepsi, labeled M, better than Coke, labeled Q.

Irritated by this, Coca-Cola did their own study and put Coke in both glasses. Again, M won the contest.

It turns out, it wasn’t the soda; people just liked the letter M better than the letter Q.


¶ Gen McChrystal seeks the Directorship of the Institute of Dead and Dying Languages. (Emdashes)

A little about my background: in 1972, I founded and led the Dampal, Adynyamathanha, and Matagalpa Platoon, or DAMP, at West Point. We celebrated our appreciation of these dying languages by kidnapping pledges in the dead of night, throwing them in the back of a ice truck, and handcuffing them to an oil rig in their underwear.

They had to find their way back by following instructions written in Dampal, Adynyamathanha, and Matagalpa. The guys who made it back became full members of DAMP. That’s the kind of idea and initiative your Institute needs.

I also actively use Pig Latin, which not too many young people know these days, which qualifies it as an endangered language.


¶ Now that there is talk of a pipeline running from Iran to Pakistan, it’s really time for the United States to develop a policy that comprehensively ecompasses Afghanistan and the western Muslim rump of India. And to begin, we might listen to Pakistanis themselves. Cyril Almeida, writing at Dawn, does not seem to be sure of very much, but perhaps that’s the point. (via RealClearWorld)

The other example of strategic confusion is how the dots may be connected in GHQ over the McChrystal firing. A common fear among long-time observers of security policy here has been that the army has still not ‘got it’, that it still has not understood the nature of the beast that is militancy, that it still has not understood the potential for Afghanistan to destabilise Pakistan, the notion of ‘reverse strategic depth’.

True, the generals are aware of the dangers, but they seem too quick to discount them and focus too much on the ‘opportunity’ side of the threat coin. And few in GHQ would ever admit to confusion, least of all of the strategic kind. They believe they know what they’re doing, as surely as they have over the last 62 years.

But that, as the rest of us know, doesn’t mean there isn’t confusion. Already there was talk that there was something in Afghanistan before the Americans arrived and there could be that same something, with necessary adjustments, after the Americans leave. If you were a Pakistani general and that’s what you believed, then how could you connect the dots after the McChrystal debacle? Surely catching a glimpse of the disarray would reinforce your beliefs.


¶ One paragraph of Richard Eskow’s “appropriating” review of David Schields’s Reality Hunger stands out, not because it’s the funniest, but because it handily dispatches the entire book-review problem. We refer to the paragraph numbered 18. (3 Quarks Daily)

At the end I sorta liked the guy. He sounds like a lot of my friends, some of whom can be irritating sometimes too. So I either need to give this book a better review or find new friends. I was entertained by the book, for sure. It helped me survive a cross-country flight, even if it had fewer insights per mile than I expected. Still, it was awfully hard to see past the over-reaching and excesses. It almost seemed as if someone decided it would be a good idea to write a provocative book about our appropriating mashup culture, wrote a successful proposal, then retrofitted the whole book to the marketing proposal-ish concept.


¶ Dick Cavett remembers Arthur Godfrey. We remember Arthur Godfrey, although we’re not sure why. We’d forgotten, though, how sharp he was. His faintly sidelong manner is hard to describe, but easy to see in the video that accompanies Mr Cavett’s reminiscence. (Which — and why is this still disappointing — turns out to be mostly about Mr Cavett’s relationship with the Nixon White House.) (NYT)

He was a colossus of the entertainment world to a degree that may never be equaled; if only for the fact that he had — count ‘em — three network shows at the same time on CBS: a simulcast talk show in the morning, and not one but two (live) prime-time shows every week, consistently in the top ten.

Arthur Godfrey was not just an entertainer. If the phrase ever applied to a human being, he was an industry.

That must be it. There was a time when Arthur Godfrey was more inescapable than McDonald’s, Julia Roberts, and Apple all rolled into one.

Have a Look

¶ Catalog Living: why bother with Sims or Second Life, when you can spend well-appointed hours with Gary and Elaine? Who knows what tragedies — not to mention inconveniences — lurk in their airbrushed interiors? (via MetaFilter)

Weekend Open Thread:

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Photo: Kathleen Moriarty. To post a comment, visit The Daily Blague)

Must Mention:
25 June 2010

Friday, June 25th, 2010



¶ What kind of a nation is Pakistan? Islamabad professor Pervez Hoodbhoy professes to be hopeful, but he’s honest about foundational tensions that make it difficult for Pakistan to behave like a nation. (Himal; via  3 Quarks Daily)

Dangling the utopia of an Islamic state raised expectations but did little else. To the chagrin of the political and army establishment, it ultimately backfired and became the cause of infinite division. The post-Zia generation – which believes that every issue would be solved if the country were to go back to the fundamentals of Islam – muddles on in a state of deep confusion and deadly divisiveness. It believes that adherence to ‘true Islam’ will solve all problems and lead to a conflict-free society. But, in reality, the Quran and Hadith can be interpreted in multiple ways, and ‘Islamic fundamentals’ can be defined in many contradictory ways. These differences fuel violent political forces, each convinced that they alone understand god’s will. Murderous wars between Sunni and Shia militias started during the late 1980s. Today, even those favouring the utopian vision of an ideal Islamic state are frightened by the Pakistani Taliban, which seeks to impose its version of Sharia through the Kalashnikov and suicide bombings.

All this was easily predictable, as sectarian divides are almost as old as religion itself. Basic questions are fundamentally unanswerable: Which interpretation of Islam, for instance, is the ‘right’ Islam? Of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence (Hanafi, Shafii, Maaliki, Hanbali), which version of the Sharia should be adopted? Will all, or most, Pakistanis accept any non-elected amir-ul-momineen (leader of the pious), or a caliph? And what about the Shia? Democracy is excluded in any theocratic state, which, by definition, is a state governed according to divinely revealed principles wherein the head of state, elected or otherwise, interprets such principles and translates them into practical matters of the state.

Meanwhile, Arnaud de Borchegrave takes a look at Turkey’s rapidly-reconfiguring alignments, and goes so far as to assert that the Turkish government sees its American counterpart as “in decline.” (Washington Post; via  RealClearWorld)

Mr. Erdogan, like most world leaders, had high hopes for President Obama. But now they see he is unable to master a dysfunctional system of government; that he may lose one or even both houses of Congress in November; and that Afghanistan appears to be headed for another debacle comparable to Vietnam circa 1975 (when Congress stripped South Vietnam of military aid, in effect inviting North Vietnam to administer the coup de grace). Turkey still maintains 1,750 soldiers in Afghanistan, albeit in a noncombat role to train Afghan soldiers.

One cynical Turkish ex-foreign minister, speculating about the Afghan war, confided, “The way things are going, your Congress will have made Afghanistan secure for China to make a deal with a new Taliban regime to exploit the $3 trillion worth of minerals verified by U.S. intelligence.”

Turkish officials who see the global balance of power trending eastward also can see over the horizon a great Turkic nation that spans most of Central Asia. For them, this is a more exciting vista than a slow NATO retreat from Afghanistan. Or a European Union, where Turkey’s nemesis, Greece, the sick man of Europe, almost collapsed the painfully erected House of Europe.


¶ At The Survival of the Book, Brian considers the possibility that the iPad is a great resource for mid-list books.

Ihara goes on to explain why this happens, that we all want to feel we’re moving forward and the endless march of exciting new fiction and revelatory new non-fiction is evidence that yes, there are yet new things to explore and discover. But then he does his magic trick, throwing together the sound argument he has just made – luring us bookie technophobes in with that line about the bookstore, that dog! – by bringing up the opportunity offered by the digital future:

The potential for the iPad to contemporize and repackage novels is endlessly exciting. Novels could get the full “Criterion Collection” experience and come with a wealth of supplementary information: a comprehensive history of a novel’s covers, links to online book communities, reviews, biographies, photgraphs, authors interview, short stories, etc. Zeitgeist would come included.

While We’re Away

¶ From You Are Not So Smart, a word of caution about Confirmation Bias to Internauts and other consumers of I-Know-What-I-Like.

Confirmation bias is seeing the world through a filter, thinking selectively.

The examples above are a sort of passive version of the phenomenon. The real trouble begins when confirmation bias distorts your active pursuit of facts.

Punditry is a whole industry built on confirmation bias.

Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck and Arianna Huffington, Rachel Maddow and Ann Coulter – these people provide fuel for beliefs, they pre-filter the world to match existing world-views.

If their filter is like your filter, you love them. If it isn’t, you hate them.

Whether or not pundits are telling the truth, or vetting their opinions, or thoroughly researching their topics is all beside the point. You watch them not for information, but for confirmation.

This is sadly true. We like Rachel Maddow, a lot. But she’s no less a cheerleader than Rush Limbaugh.

¶ So, you wish you could have gone to Shakespeare and Company’s fourth biannual literary festival? What with all the World Cup metaphors, not to mention the usual floods of high-minded eyewash, we don’t. But this passage from Lauren Elkin’s account (at The Millions) gave us a pang:

Saturday night, we headed to the very exclusive private party at an hotel particulier in the 7th.  Kristin Scott Thomas is there, in sky-high Louboutins.  Jeanette Winterson wears a dress. All the big writers and big sponsors are here.  We underlings are thrilled to be at this kind of event: everyone is nervous; everyone is on their best behavior.  Some of us congregate outside in spite of the unseasonable chill.

“What is this place?” Nam Le asked, fresh off a plane from Italy, looking up at the house.

The girl who fetched him from the airport took this as a sign of Nam’s unfamiliarity with Parisian geography, and launched into an explanation. “Well you see if someone were to frown” — she frowned — “then the frown is the Seine, it goes like this, see?” and she began to point out all the monuments of Paris on her face. “So we’re here,” she said, indicating a point right under the middle of her frown.

“Oh,” Nam said. “I was actually wondering about the history of the mansion.”

Kristin Scott Thomas sat on the floor while Natalie Clein gave a transcendental cello performance; meanwhile the kids in the crowd passed around a piece of wood on which someone had painted the words “post-cello dance party!” Natalie eventually finished playing but no one danced.

Have a Look

¶ Another great Volkswagen romp. We think that this is not something that anybody outside of Germany ought to attempt. Joe Jervis writes,

Man, I’d love to see this next to that horrid six-story monster at Lex and 53rd.

Er, all we can conjure is a scene drawn by R Crumb.

Gotham Diary:

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

This evening, we had our first family dinner. I didn’t cook, but that’s beside the point. We all sat round the table — Megan, Will, Ryan, Kathleen, and I — and carried on like a family that has been eating together forever. We joked, we complained, we forgot that there was anywhere else to be.

We have enjoyed such evenings before, but tonight, for the first time, Will set the tone. In doing so, he marked what Henry James used to call an era. He had been devouring spoonfuls of banana-rice cereal. I can’t decide whether to tell you about the evolution of this evening’s plat, because, like most baby-food stories, there’s an unavoidable impasto of ick. This one involved my ricing a banana onto Megan’s open palm. (She’ll always be able to say that she had Will eating out of her hand, technically.) Later, the banana was mixed with rice cereal and water and no forumula just like I said but we’ll let that pass. Will joined the Clean Plate Club with flying colors. But then he did something remarkable. Really!

He picked up a paper napkin and dabbed his lips. Then he put the napkin back down on the table, without having tried to eat it as well. He indicated that he was ready for another spoonful of ambrosia.

Ryan, seated to Will’s right, was initially horrified — how could he have overlooked such a shredable menace right alongside Will’s dish? It was only when Will didn’t eat the napkin that his father could appreciate what had happened. (Or so it seemed to me; in this Rashomon moment. Ryan is more likely to be a Responsible Dad than an Impressed Dad.) But Megan and Kathleen were jolted by the composure of Will’s gesture, and they both jumped as if shocked. They cried out, even. And that’s what shocked me. What were they upset about? I saw what Will had done, but it didn’t seem at all odd to me.

I must have been getting tired. We all knew that Will hates to have his mouth wiped; how nice, I thought, that he had decided to take care of it himself! If he had started quoting Shakespeare’s sonnets, I’d probably have taken that in stride as well. Addled with admiration for my grandson as I am, I’m not one of those DID YOU SEE WHAT HE JUST DID grandfathers. I’m the more maddening kind. I smile sweetly, as if to say, “What did you expect?”

What I did actually say, though, was “You know, of course, that he’s not going to do that again until he’s six.” He has five and a half years to prove me wrong.

Must Mention:
24 June 2010

Thursday, June 24th, 2010


For the second week in a row, a late night out after the theatre bumped up against an early morning with Will. We beg your pardon.


¶ Friday thoughts on how cars have made us stupid: At Good , Rosie Sparks picks up Treehugger‘s urban-sprawl feedback loop.

A roundabout connect the dots: Sprawling urban areas mean more trees cleared –» with larger housing spaces, increasingly cooled by air conditioning powered by greenhouse gas spewing sources –» means increasing average temperatures –» means more air conditioning usage –» [repeat]. Time to rethink this norm from both an energy and architectural/urban planning perspective.

Meanwhile, Felix Salmon wonders why “minimum parking requirements” still figure in urban planning.

For me the biggest and most invidious cost of parking lots is also the most difficult to measure: the way that they kill any attempt at decent architecture, both on the level of individual buildings and on the level of city development more broadly. Your favorite buildings, your favorite cities, and your favorite vacation destinations all have one thing in common: a distinct absence of massive parking lots. So why are these things mandated by zoning regulations across the U.S.? It makes precious little sense, and it’s high time that minimum parking requirements died a long-overdue death.


¶ Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is such a cool novel that even non-fiction editor Ms NOLA is reading it. You’ll want to, too, after you read Ms Egan’s incredibly smart Rumpus interview, in which she supplies a way of thinking about some novels that seem to be more than just stitched together from short stories: the fiction album. Why didn’t we think of that?

It evolved very organically. I started with the first piece, “Found Objects.” At the time, I was between projects and thought I’d just write a story. I had gone in to a bathroom and seen a wallet lying under the sink, and I found myself pondering the wallet and postulating an alternate version of myself who would take the wallet. Who would that person be? Why would she take the wallet in the bathroom? That’s where I started writing out of, and then there was a mention of the wallet-thief’s boss, Bennie Salazar. I write pretty instinctively, so it’s not like I was thinking about it much, but at the time I intended it as a humorous sketch about a neurotic record producer, who sprays pesticide under his arms and sprinkles gold flakes in his coffee as an aphrodisiac. You know, these decadent rock-and-roll habits. But then I found myself thinking who is Bennie Salazar? Why does he do that stuff? Which prompted me to write the next chapter. And the same thing happened again: a minor character would catch my eye, and I’d want to crack them open. I knew pretty early that it wasn’t a conventional novel, or a story collection—it didn’t fit into the standard literary genres that were available to me, so I thought, well, it’s a record album.

While We’re Away

¶ Choire Sicha apanks the gays. (This is FYF; via  The Awl)

Once upon a time, people built daring, gorgeous houses in the Pines. Horace Gifford, an architect, now deceased, who seems to have worked very infrequently off Fire Island, built a number of houses in the Pines and they are some of the most exceptional, handmade, faggoty modernist homes in the world. He built them, big and small, for men who believed in the value of the craft of a house, not so dissimilar from the way that straight people built their houses a hundred years ago. (“Horace was a friend, and he and I had a great working relationship. He would come up with ideas and I would draw them.”)

I’m sure it was something of a competition back then, one’s residence. Can you imagine commissioning Eero Saarinen to build you a small shack on the beach? But someone did, and it’s still, largely, standing, toward the west side of the Pines. It is of course a gorgeous swooping thing. Sometime after the original house was built, someone crammed a second floor atop the building, and now it looks like some giant asshole took an enormous wooden dump on it. Each turd is in the shape of squared-off Burger King paper crowns.

The structures being built there now, though, makes that addition look like John Lautner‘s best. They are garbage, made out of garbage; tiny plastic pools sunk into crappy decks in the glare of horrid, boxy, dumb houses that most likely will never survive their first tropical storm. And in the houses, the plates are plastic and the glasses are plastic and the clothes are plastic and the music is plastic and the drugs, especially, the drugs are plastic.

Have a Look

¶ An unidentified strange man spanks himself. (via Joe.My.God)

Must Mention:
23 June 2010

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010



¶ Maureen Dowd has made up her mind about Gen McChrystal. (NYT)

So the commander in chief can be bad-mouthed as weak by the military but then he can’t punish the military because that would make him weak? It’s the same sort of pass-the-Advil vicious circle reasoning the military always uses.

At Snarkmarket, Tim Carmody suggests that the general had made up his mind. (Snarkmarket)

There’s been a lot of noise about Gen. Stan­ley McChrystal’s Obama-badmouthing can­dor with Rolling Stone, but besides per­haps Col­son White­head (“I didn’t know they had truf­fle fries in Afghanistan”), Andrew Fitzger­ald at Cur­rent has dis­tilled it to its essence bet­ter than any­one on the net: first sub­stance (“Focus­ing on the few con­tro­ver­sial remarks misses the point of this RS McChrys­tal piece. Really tough look at Afg.”), then snark (“Let’s say McChrys­tal is fired… How long before he shows up as a com­men­ta­tor on FNC? Is it months? Weeks? Hours?”).

While We’re Away

¶ How to make people dependent on you, against their own interest: creating a sick system. (Issendai’s Journal; via

Keep the crises rolling. Incompetence is a great way to do this: If the office system routinely works badly or the controlling partner routinely makes major mistakes, you’re guaranteed ongoing crises. Poor money management works well, too. So does being in an industry where the clients are guaranteed to be volatile and flaky, or preferring friends who are themselves in perpetual crisis. You can also institutionalize regular crises: Workers in the Sea Org, the elite wing of Scientology, must exceed the previous week’s production every single week or face serious penalties. Because this is impossible, it guarantees regular crises as the deadline approaches.

Regular crises perform two functions: They keep people too busy to think, and they provide intermittent reinforcement. After all, sometimes you win—and when you’ve mostly lost, a taste of success is addictive.

But why wouldn’t people eventually realize that the crises are a permanent state of affairs? Because you’ve explained them away with an explanation that gives them hope.

Now that we have the blueprint, let’s take it to work and share!

¶ Nige visits The Book Shop in Wirksworth, Derbyshire — not to for the first time.

On my last visit, I once again saw half a dozen and more books that were hard to resist, but I restricted myself to two titles – George Thomas’s biography of Edward Thomas for myself, and William Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It for my Derbyshire cousin. She, bless her, returned the compliment by buying me two others that had caught my eye – Richard Mabey’s Gilbert White, and R.S. Thomas’s No Truce with the Furies. This collection – the last published in his lifetime – contains his heartfelt, insightful, long-matured Homage to Wallace Stevens, which I pass on…

I turn now
not to the Bible
but to Wallace Stevens.
Insured against
everything but the muse,
what has the word-wizard
to say?

This is the quiet richness of the lucky reader’s life.

¶ A brief history of American payments systems, from cash to PayPal. The entry is actually part of an interblog argument about “interchange regulation,” so skim past the opening blockquote. (Felix Salmon)

Every so often, non-bank players like Diner’s Club or American Express would come up with a bright idea in the payments space, and some of them made good money for their owners. More recently, PayPal took advantage of the fact that, unlike Europe, the U.S. has a very antiquated and expensive system for moving money directly from one bank account to another. (In Europe, it’s as easy as a phone call, or hopping online; there’s no fee.) So PayPal set up shop in the U.S. to facilitate payments directly between individuals, taking a small cut for itself along the way. But PayPal wasn’t an improvement on the simple European system: it was merely an “innovation,” if you want to call it that, born of sclerosis and greed in the U.S. wire-transfer system.

While we agree that AT&T oughtn’t to be in the payments business, the telcos have more experience with micropayments than any other group, and they’d have much to teach a bank that wanted to mine this territory. First, we need a bank to offer PayPal’s services. (TD, anyone?)

¶ At Discover, Ed Yong takes up the riveting linguistic case of Nicaraguan Sign Language, which is not (among other things) a dialect of Spanish.

The grand idea behind all of these singular observations is that as human language evolved, our mental abilities became increasingly entwined with linguistic devices. Those devices are part and parcel of modern language, and thus modern thought. NSL, being a new language, is the exception that proves the rule – as it developed, so did the abilities of those who learned it, from their skills at visualising objects in space to their capacity for understanding the minds of their peers.

Have a Look

¶ God Almighty Action Figure — complete with AK-47! (FAIL)

Gotham Diary:
Reading Under the Weather

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

A grey day, never quite hot enough for air conditioning but too unsettled to do without it. I was tired in the afternoon, partly from the weather and partly from an approaching cold. The day was not wasted, but I spent a good part of the later afternoon and early evening reading Colum McCann’s Letting the Great World Spin.

This isn’t a book that I planned to read; I bought it because Crawford Doyle had a signed copy. Thick, really. But I was a different reader then. I was a different reader until a few weeks ago, when I realized that I don’t want to read so much new fiction anymore. I want to re-read books that I’ve loved. The idea of keeping au courant because I keep a blog no longer requires piling up so many shiny new books.

So this is different: this isn’t a decision to buy fewer books. The buying fewer books will take place naturally, because what I’ve decided is to read less new fiction. And to wait until it’s not so new. In any case, I wouldn’t buy a signed copy of a book that I hadn’t been planning to read, not any more.

I didn’t like Mr McCann’s book for most of the first section. There was a faint, almost occult streak of the Celtic sentimentality that put me off Irish fiction as a matter of course for over twenty years, making me come late to Colm Tóibín’s table. The second section — the one about Claire, the reluctant Park Avenue matron who has joined a support group of bereft Vietnam mothers — was even harder going: the last thing I want to read about now, with my little grandson nestled in my heart, is senseless war. But the third section filled my sails, and I was sorry when it ended.

Mr McCann writes very well, but he doesn’t write about the things that interest me. For example, I find his descriptions of a Bronx housing project, in which a number of lives intersect, disappointingly impressionistic and even somewhat lifted. He seems to be relying on a pool of common knowledge, gleaned mainly from the movies but also from novels such as Underworld, to set the scene. Not that I want to spend time in a housing project! But if that’s where a novelist takes me, he’ll have to provide a full tour. Instead of which I sensed anxious discussions with friends and perhaps even editors and agents about how little descriptive passage-work might suffice, all in the interest of keeping readers amused.

What I am not interested in is reading about bodies. We all occupy bodies during our time on earth, and nothing can be done without them, but of course what I’m talking about is the sheer physical activity, say, of tightrope walking, in which the brain plays an important but subsidiary (“integrated”) role. When I think of the time devoted to acquiring acrobatic expertise, I want to cry: if you must do something with your body, at least make beautiful music! I know that physical activity brings great satisfaction to many people. It has never done so to me — never brought more than short spasmodic states of lighthearted vacation that compare unfavorably with the rapture of a relieved itch — and I have certainly never enjoyed thinking or reading about it. Now I’m going to stop.

And sex! Reading about sex was ruined for me by Philip Roth, in an excerpt from Sabbath’s Ghost that I’ve never forgiven The New Yorker for publishing. In it, the protagonist masturbates upon a rival’s grave. I was amazed that this gesture, by any literary accounting, could be summed up as anything but deranged and disgusting. I’ve been heartened to find a new warning on the Internet lately, reminding readers, before they click through, that dire images cannot be “unseen.” The idea that The New Yorker would print anything that I’d be sorry to have read never occurred to me before that episode. In any case, I’m going to bail before the old ban on “plumbing” becomes absolute, and novelists take to describing their characters’ colonic upheavals.

While I’ve been writing, the clouds have broken, and a quantity of rain has fallen, but the air is still thick with wet and anything but refreshing. My favorite childhood song is the one about the old man snoring through the pouring rain: I think that I always wanted to grow up to be that guy. But I would never want to sleep through rainfall. Rest, perhaps, but held on the edge of sleep like a leaf upon a grate. (22 June 2010)

Must Mention:
22 June 2010

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010



¶ How do we launch a campaign to implement Christopher Brownfield’s proposal for the Macondo (Deepwater Horizon) well? A former submarine captain, Mr Brownfield wants to demolish the well with non-nuclear explosives, and he wants the Navy to oversee the project. (NYT)

But control of the well itself should fall to the Navy — it alone has the resources to stop the flow. For starters, the Office of Naval Research controls numerous vehicles like Alvin, the famed submersible used to locate the Titanic. Had such submersibles been deployed earlier, we could have gotten real-time information about the wellhead, instead of waiting for BP to release critical details.

The Navy also commands explosives experts who have vast knowledge of underwater demolitions. And it has some of the world’s finest underwater engineers at Naval Reactors, the secretive program that is responsible for designing nuclear reactors for nuclear submarines. With the help of scientists in our national weapons laboratories and experts from private companies, these engineers can be let loose on the well.

To allay any concerns over militarizing the crisis, the Navy and Coast Guard should be placed in a task-force structure alongside a corps of experts, including independent oil engineers, drilling experts with dedicated equipment, geologists, energy analysts and environmentalists, who could provide pragmatic options for emergency action.

While We’re Away

¶ Anthony Lane’s searingly funny report from the Eurovision Song Contest. There cannot be an absurdity about this festival of dreckulacious and inauthentic music that Mr Lane has missed. (The New Yorker, available to subscribers only; just think of the retyping that we had to do and go buy a copy!)

Not a bad idea. Whether you’re presenting, performing, attending, or watching at home, alcohol is essential for getting through the Eurovision Song Contest, and the Norwegian pils served at the concession stands, as weak as fizzy rain, was simply not up to the job. How else could one face an opening band, from Moldova, who rhymed “We have no progressive future!” with “I know your lying nature!,” and who had taken pains to ensure that their violinist’s illuminated bow matched the bright-blue straps of the lead singer’s garter belt? A deranged Estonian smacked his piano with one raised fist, like a butcher flattening an escalope of veal. A pair of ice-white blondes, one with a squeezebox, decided to revive the moribund tradition of oompah-pah — or, presumably, since they were Finnish, oom-päa-päa. A Belgian boy came on to croon “Me and My Guitar,” otherwise known as “Him and His Crippling Delusion.” Three female singers from Belarus sprouted wings for the final chorus of “Butterflies.” A smirking Serb of indeterminate gender, wearing a tailcoat, sang flat, hiccupping now and then for dramatic effect. Order was at first restored by Marcin Mrozinski, from Poland, who was backed by five demure women in national dress, and then destroyed as two of the women tore the white blouse off a third, to reveal a sort of peasant boob tube. An old Eurovision trick this: the mid-song strip, timed to coincide with musical fatigue.

¶ Nicholson Baker would go on to write a lovely little book about his platonic, literary crush on John Updike, but the gist of it is captured in a letter that he wrote in 1985, on his Kaypro. (NYRBlog)

I thought this because I had just read a charitable review by you of a book I probably will never read by Andre Dubus, and this had made me go through the pile of magazines to find your story, which my girlfriend had mentioned: there was something wonderful about having this story of yours waiting there, in a wicker basket of magazines, indifferent to whether I read it or not, yet written by a writer whose personality and changes of mood I felt I had some idea of in a way you can only have of a writer who has written a great deal, lots of which you have forgotten, only retaining a feeling of long-term fondness which is perhaps the most important residual emotion of the experience of literature. And I thought all this in a second, pleased with myself, and then, as I passed out from under the brief shade of the tuxedo shop awning and diagonally crossed Route 9, I thought that you probably had written all this in some other book review or essay that I hadn’t read, or had read and forgotten; and this pleased me too, because after all it is a simple thought, mostly compounded of gratefulness and the pleasure that Sunday mornings have, and the good thing about Mr. Updike is that he is a true writer, and writes out the contents of his mind, and that idea occurred to him once, no doubt, suggested by some book he was reviewing, and he wrote it down; and that was what being a man of letters was all about.

¶ “Pearl Hawthorne” explains the importance of hand-written thank-you notes in professional life, and lays out the kabuki. (The Awl)

Third, wording: You do not have to go fancy. If you called the person by their first name in emails, then use their first name. If not, stick with the formal: Mr. or Ms.

Do not use Mrs. or Miss. This is not elementary school.

For the body of the note, all you need to do is thank the person for taking time to meet with you. And if you want the job, if there is a job, say you are excited about the possibility of working with the aforementioned addressee. Do not use the note to re-promote yourself, or reiterate your accomplishments. That is obnoxious. We already talked to you. We have your resume.

Remember: Thank you notes are humble—they show you are taking the time to thank someone for taking their time out for you. This is what the email can’t accomplish: emails are a dime a million. We write them all day, we know they take five seconds (and the really good ones take about ten.) We also write thank you notes, so we know they take time
and focus and involve hand cramps. We know it’s a pain in the ass for you to write them, look up our addresses, track down a stamp that is actually of the correct value…. But that’s the entire point.

¶ What Berlin’s lack of visual grandeur (ugliness? non-descriptness”) tells Tyler Cowen, and why he likes it. (Marginal Revolution)

I like that it’s ugly, because it keeps the city empty and cheap and it keeps away the non-serious.  There are not many (any?) splashy major sights.  Even the Wall is mostly gone.  The way to see and experience Berlin is to do things.  The ugliness selects for people who want to enjoy the city’s musical, theatrical, museum, and literary treasures.

Berlin is evidence that most tourists don’t actually care so much about history, culture, and museums, as it is not for most people a major tourist destination, despite having world-class offerings in each of those areas.  Mostly tourists like large, visually spectacular sites, or family activities, combined with the feeling that they are taking in culture or seeing something important. 

Have a Look

¶ Adolf Hoffmeister. Was it something in the Czech water supply? (The Rumpus)

Gotham Diary:
Known Unknowns

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

When I was young, I didn’t understand inertia, the juggernaut tendency of things to go on as they are. Most young people have no desire to reckon with inertia, but I wasn’t one of them; I’d have been relieved to know how powerful it is. Now that I do understand it, it’s my only hope for the future of civil society. The other difference between then and now is that the world was so much less self-conscious fifty years ago. Attention is being paid, and in spades, these days — but to what? I’m astonished and appalled to see how many bright young people still believe that the contemporary corporation, no matter what its line, can be meaningfully checked by law. But I don’t shout about it too loudly, because I wouldn’t like to encourage the idea that corporations are bad and must themselves be outlawed. Nothing is so simple, one way or the other.

For the next few days days, maybe longer, smart people are going to betray themselves by talking about Errol Morris’s new suite of entries at Opinionator. This time, his topic is “unknown unknowns” — the things that people not only don’t know about but aren’t aware of not knowing. Mr Morris’s example is the melting point of beryllium: he doesn’t know what it is, but he knows that. Many people don’t know about beryllium or even melting points. What, for smart people like Mr Morris, Jason Kottke (who picked up the first entry), and me, constitute the unknown unknowns? It seems to me that Errol Morris has bumped into a perfect description of the learned mind: one that’s aware of the unknowns. The smartest person is the one who can demonstrate that he or she knows less than anybody else, simply by rattling off a list of known unknowns.

Right there, you can see why I’m pinning my hopes on inertia to prevent a general psychosis, as bright people everywhere completely rejigger their idea of what it means to know about the world, effectively repolarizing it: it’s not what you know, but what you know you don’t know. Crazy!

The other day, I linked to a very long discussion at The House Next Door, about the merits of two classic films about the agony of ageing, Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve. Given the drift of their discussion — they preferred Wilder to Mankiewicz — I was not surprised that neither of them had felt obliged (or cautioned) to look into the identity of Sarah Siddons, after whom the theatrical society so prominent in the movie’s framing device is named. If they had, then they might have had an idea of who is represented in the picture on the wall that seems to have puzzled them. The Wikipedia entry for Sarah Siddons would have shown them: Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse. In that case, their conversation would not have been saddled with this wrongfooted rambling:

It’s entirely possible, of course, that the painting is quite famous. I freely admit that my knowledge of that art form is limited. Furthermore, I recognized Toulouse-Lautrec’s Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret hanging in Margo’s living room (hence, she likes famous art). So perhaps you know exactly what that slow zoom reveals, and maybe I should, too, and maybe that’s why neither of the two commentary tracks on my DVD makes any mention of the zoom or the painting. Then again, unless the painting is as recognizable as Mona Lisa, I find the haste with which Mankiewicz cuts away from the painting, after going through the effort to (a) hang it there and (b) zoom in on it, to be baffling. Giving Mankiewicz the benefit of the doubt—and thanks to my close examination of the painting on my computer—I’ll assume that the painting symbolizes Karen’s place between an angel she sees (Eve) and a kind of demon she doesn’t (Eve again). Still, I think it’s telling that one of Mankiewicz’s few attempts at cinematic storytelling is essentially mumbled.

The painting may not be as well known as Mona Lisa, but it was certainly familiar to the sophisticated members of the audience to whom All About Eve is pitched. The people who, afterward, would have been able to explain to anyone not only the identity of the painting but its bearing on the drama. Who was Sarah Siddons? What is the Tragic Muse? Why not a comic muse? Tastes change, certainly, it’s perhaps unlikely that today’s sophisticated viewers (under forty) will be familiar with this painting. Jason Bellamy is aware of that. His known unknowns include the identity of this painting, which might be “quite famous.” It’s his unknown unknowns that bother me: he doesn’t seem to know that the name of the Sarah Siddons Society might mean something in a movie about actresses. When I was in school, we were taught to treat such crumbs of information as clues, because, in a successful work of art, every detail was made to tell.

Then along came the booming racket of mass culture, which is interesting only to the extent that sophisticated youngsters have ironized it. (Even then, not so much; there’s rueful note of “you had to be there” to the satire). I am not going to unpack Joseph Mankiewicz’s references, scattered there and there, to a great Eighteenth-Century actress (the first century in which there were great actresses). There is nothing occult about them, really, once you stop to think and tease things out. Just for starters, the painting underlines the tension between an actor’s private and professional lives, a tension so sprung on what seemed to simple minds to be lying and deception that actors were denied Christian burials until fairly modern times. This tension electrifies every moment of All About Eve. Surely the great satisfaction of the movie’s climax (set in New Haven) is the discovery that Eve Harrington has been even more deformed  by it than has Margo Channing.  

Once upon a time, it would have been depressing to learn to learn that, in effect, you didn’t know anything. After all that schooling! It wasn’t easy to find things out, and it was rarely interesting. Today, however, that’s less true — less true than it was yesterday, and a lot less true that it was before the Internet was developed. What may keep us from completely losing our minds, as we tune in to a world of known unknowns, is the search engine, which has already acquired a formidable inertia of its own.

Must Mention:
21 June 2010

Monday, June 21st, 2010



¶ Deepwater Horizon notes: rig worker Tyrone Benton tells BBC News that one of the “pods” on the blowout preventer was known to be defective days before the disaster.

He said he did not know whether the leaking pod was turned back on before the disaster or not.

He said to repair the control pod would have meant temporarily stopping drilling work on the rig at at time when it was costing BP $500,000 (£337,000) a day to operate the Deepwater Horizon.

This is important because — as it only just occurred to us (you get what you pay for) — the relief wells currently being drilled will also have to be equipped with blowout preventers. Profit motives must have no place in evaluating their safety! We can see no reason why some sort of American military team should not be drafted to oversee the completion of the first relief well, which is still weeks away.  

Don’t miss “Boom,” Sean Flynn’s riveting countdown-to-disaster piece in GQ.

¶ Quaint old Japan: “For a variety of reasons, cultural as well as economic, the digital revolution has yet to wreak the same havoc on the news media here that it has in the United States and most other advanced countries.” Martin Fackler writes about JanJan, an alternative news site shuttered in May for lack of revenues. (NYT)

Mr. Motoki and others say that another reason for Japan’s resistance to alternative sites is the relative absence of social and political divisions. In politically polarized South Korea, OhmyNews thrived by appealing to young, liberal readers.

“It is only when the society sees itself as having conflicting interests that it will seek out new viewpoints and information,” said Toshinao Sasaki, the author of about two dozen books on the Internet in Japan.

Media experts say Japan has yet to see such critical questioning of its establishment press. They say most Japanese remain at least passively accepting of the nation’s big newspapers and television networks.

While We’re Away

¶ Which type of mobile browser are you?

A. “Repetitive now”
B. “Bored now”
C. “Urgent now”

The “repetitive now” user is someone checking for the same piece of information over and over again, like checking the same stock quotes or weather. Google uses cookies to help cater to mobile users who check and recheck the same data points.

The “bored now” are users who have time on their hands. People on trains or waiting in airports or sitting in cafes. Mobile users in this behavior group look a lot more like casual Web surfers, but mobile phones don’t offer the robust user input of a desktop, so the applications have to be tailored.

The “urgent now” is a request to find something specific fast, like the location of a bakery or directions to the airport. Since a lot of these questions are location-aware, Google tries to build location into the mobile versions of these queries.

That’s Stephen Wellman reporting on a Google presentation in April; Jason Kottke picked it up this weekend, adding his thought that this tripartion applies to the Web generally. Needless to say, we’re hoping that tablets will encourage a fourth class: “Reflective now.” (Information Week; via

¶ President Obama’s heartbreaking medical secret: he suffers from antidrenalin, which leaves him “hopelessly crippled by clear, logical thinking at all times.” (The Bygone Bureau)

“My antidrenaline disorder has been tough for both me and my family,” he said at the press conference. “As a husband and father, it is something I am constantly dealing with. And that makes me frustrated.”

“No it doesn’t,” he added….

“Going into my first term as president, I knew that my antidrenaline disorder would be an obstacle,” the President concedes. “So to balance out my thoughtful, composed temperament, I brought on Rahm Emanuel.”

Kevin Nguyen’s spoof raises a question: why is it that the only alternative to Spock-like rationality that we can imagine is rage? Have the good ole’ disenfranchised white boys really hijacked the Zeitgeist? Can’t we think of some other passions? How about hope?

¶ Will memorizing poetry make a comeback in elementary schools? It’s hard to know where teachers bound to leave no children behind will find the time for recitations of whatever has replaced “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” as a classroom staple. But we’ll allow ourselves a heartening moment. (Associated Press; via  Arts Journal)

Though slow, or close reading, always has been emphasized at the college-level in literary criticism and other areas, it’s also popping up in elementary schools, Miedema said.

Mary Ellen Webb, a third-grade teacher at Mast Way Elementary School in Durham, N.H., has her students memorize poems upward of 40 lines long and then perform them for their peers and parents. She does it more for the sense of pride her students feel but said the technique does transfer to other kinds of reading — the children remember how re-reading and memorizing their poems helped them understand tricky text.

“Memorization is one of those lost things, it hasn’t been the ‘in’ thing for a while,” she said. “There’s a big focus on fluency. Some people think because you can read quickly … that’s a judge of what a great reader they are. I think fluency is important, but I think we can err too much on that side.”

¶ Deanna Fei’s ninetysomething grandmother haunted the writing of her first novel, A Thread of Sky, but that wasn’t the worst of it. (The Millions) 

Then, a few days before my book launch, my grandmother flew into town. She hadn’t said that she was coming for my book launch, only that she would be present at it. I took this to mean that the purpose of her visit was not support, but supervision.

When we spoke on the phone, she sounded benevolent, like a prison guard offering a cigarette on the eve of an execution. She said that she was eager to see me and that the book cover was pretty.

“I won’t be able to read your book. The English is too difficult,” she said. “So tell me the conclusion.”

“What do you mean?”

“What did you conclude? What is the outcome?”

I feigned a sudden inability to speak Chinese and got off the phone.

In a panic, I scanned the excerpt I’d selected for my first reading. It described ragged beggars and worldly entrepreneurs and earnest students, a sandstorm and drifting catkins and starless nights, desperate peasants and gleeful swindlers, the click-clacking of mahjong tiles in a teahouse and the serpentine stretch of the Great Wall, elderly calligraphists in Tiantan Park and young prostitutes in a karaoke club.

I imagined my grandmother jumping up in the middle of my reading with a pointed finger to denounce me: “You wrote bad things about China!”

Have a Look

¶ Weird Beards. (Dave Mead; via  MetaFilter)

¶ Neat Napkins. (Oddee)

¶ Something that did not happen to us yesterday. (FAIL)

Gotham Diary:
God and Self

Saturday, June 19th, 2010


A certain off-putting jokiness seems the only explanation for publishing “Silence,” Michael Symmons Roberts’s account of a retreat at Pluscarden, “the oldest working monastery in Britain,” in an issue of Granta devoted to Sex. Mr Roberts is not only a poet but a professor of poetry, and while his descriptive prose is lean and full of tact, and although he never encapsulates the object of his visit, there is nothing unconsidered in the thirteen short chapters. His tone of voice evokes monastic austerity as powerfully as any remark that he makes. But this is no sentimental journey. A Catholic married man with sons, he is honest enough to make the following confession:

I think about my own sons, and what I would do if one of them wanted to take up this life. I do believe that the constant prayer of these monastic communities is important, more vital than anything that goes on in the Pentagon or the UN. I like to think that I would support my sons in testing their vocation, and encouraging them to follow it through it is is real. But in reality, I would be heartbroken.

Once I’d read “Silence” all the way through, it persuaded me that curiosity about what Mr Roberts expected to find at Pluscarden could only be idle. What I backed up to was the relation between faith in God, which for Mr Roberts appears to be a completed gift, and the problematization of the self that has sent pious people into monastic seclusion since long before Benedict of Nursia regulated the practice with his famous Rule.

“Without a name or history I wake / Between my body and the day.” Auden was right. That is the chasm here, the tension. When everything that “self” means in the world is called into question, all that remains is the space, the tension between your body and the day. The monks have no career structure, no lovers and no children. I have all those things, but they mean nothing here. I think I’m losing myself. And of course, this is the point. You lose a sense of self in order to find God. “Always let go,” Father Benedict said to me, “never cling on. John of the Cross is fierce about this, and we strive for it, a constant letting go, to come closer to God.”

I heartily recommend Mr Roberts’s limpid and extremely sympathetic memoir. But nothing in the paragraph that I’ve excerpted makes sense to me, except the words. I come away from it, in fact, with a suspicion that the simplest way to build up an oppressive sense of self is to believe in God.

In my old age, I am coming to doubt the existence of the self, largely but not entirely for the reasons that cognitive scientists are advancing to discredit the concept. This isn’t to deny that I don’t come along bursting with needs and desires. But these seem to fall under two headings — wants of the body and demands for social status — that have little to do with some interior construction, known only to me, that we might call the self. My ideas about physical comfort are all too well known to everyone around me — and I am quite unashamed of them. When they become inconvenient, I blame the world, not my body. And nothing could be more public, or less interior, than my desire, such as it is, for respect and admiration. Or anybody else’s. The only thing that a putative self might do to affect my social standing is to interfere with my grasp of what it really is — to the extent that social standing can be grasped.

If I’m “conflicted” about anything in this life, it is not about how my self feels about my id. It’s rather about the difficulty of squaring the pursuit of social status with the gratification of material desire. Again: nothing about this could be less peculiar to me. Every healthy human being labors with the tension between various lacks and gaps that can’t be easily squared. And allow me to conclude with a short word about love: what’s “self” got to do with it? We’re too accustomed to talking “realistically” about the “failings” into which our longings lead us, and not nearly accustomed enough to remember our natural generosity — which may be considered, if reductively, as a desire, the desire to give. Just because evolutionary biology hasn’t so far explained altruism to anyone’s satisfaction doesn’t make it imaginary.

So: what’s left? The Benedictines of Pluscarden are obviously hostile to desire, but where is the self that they claim to be letting go of? What would it be doing if they gave it free rein? Why isn’t it enough to live the simple monastic round of hours and plainsong that they have chosen as a way of honoring their Creator? Why must there be a struggle — even in the most secluded cloister? And what is the struggle about, really?

Weekend Open Thread:

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

(To post a comment, visit The Daily Blague.)

Friday Movies:
Coco and Igor

Friday, June 18th, 2010


Jan Kounen’s Coco and Igor is a superb homage to modernism at its zenith, and ought to be seen by anyone with the faintest interest in cultural history. (Which ought to be everybody!) Deploying two such iconic figures in the movement that it is hard to say which of them, in the end, amounts to the bigger hill of beans, the film underscores the pre-eminence in modern art of surface and style, its conviction that the best surfaces and styles hide nothing that’s important. In the process, this tale of a little-known amour demonstrates the connection between wilful candor and cruelty. The two protagonists, who believe in themselves as absolutely as it is given to human beings to believe in anything, are certainly aware of their impact upon public life, but that is not their primary consideration. They’re remaking the world to suit themselves, and the better they get at this, the worse it is for the people around them. It is almost ridiculous to speak of love between them.

Mr Kounen has been blessed with three superb principals: Anna Mouglalis never stops reminding us that Coco Chanel inaugurated an entirely new way of being a woman (which is why I’m inclined to award the palm to her character). The story adds that Chanel figured out how to make this new manner accessible to women who weren’t rich enough to be fashionable. That is the whole point of Chanel Nº 5, the promotion of which is nicely staged for us. (Not the discovery, by any means: the toiling of Dr Beaux and his staff at their airy laboratory in Grasse; that would detract from the toilings of Chanel in her Paris atelier, which are presented with an air of fey sorcery that breezes over the real designer’s hard work.)

Mads Mikkelsen is a touch too burly to be an altogether persuasive Stravinsky, but he certainly looks exotic in more or less the same way that the composer did. He is also a bit more sentimental around the edges than Stravinsky seems to have been. It’s hard to imagine Stravinsky’s having burst out, post-coitally, that his lover was only a “vendeuse” — a shopwoman. There’s a lèse-majesté in this insult, the majesty’s being Stravinsky’s own: what on earth would he be doing accepting the bounty of a shopwoman? The role of silently brooding musician is never lifted, here, out of its winding sheets of cliché, but, if we have to watch it, then watching Mr Mikkelsen’s screen presence causes the price to pay for this pleasure to evaporate.

The interesting role is the one that you think you’re going to dislike, that of Igor’s wife, Katarina. Yelena Morozova is the real reason to see Coco and Igor. The character of the wife who is not only wronged but forced to live under the same roof with her adulterous husband’s paramour is not perhaps such a cliché as we might think it to be, but one does dread the whining and the self-pity. Instead of which, Ms Morozova delivers a remonstrance to the couple’s amorality: she doesn’t just say that they’re wrong, she makes you agree. As the film rolls on, Ms Morozova’s forehead becomes higher and paler, to the point where she might sprout fiery wings and visit justice upon the sinners. Once Stravinsky has delivered that insult to Chanel, you have to wonder what the point of all this selfishness might be.

The scene which ends with this sour note is an interesting contrivance. We see, from above, the naked Mr Mikkelsen covering Ms Mouglalis, their brawny sinews constrasting sharply with the black-and-white and stylized floral décor of their lovenest. As the camera descends, the disorder of the actor’s hair strikes an ever blowsier contrast with the room. There appears to have been no way to modernize the surface of carnality — which may be why, after several decades of trying, the mandarins gave up hoping that it would make for a better world.

There is actually a second reason to see this film, and that is the opening episode, which, like so many opening episodes these days, isn’t at all essential to the story; powerful as it is, I’m not even sure that it sets a tone for what follows. The story of Coco and Igor takes place in 1920, when Chanel was becoming truly rich while Stravinsky was impoverished by the Russian Revolution. There is no need to recreate the premiere, seven years earlier, of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, an enormously famous cultural event. But Mr Kounen has recreated it so well that it is more shocking that you expect it to be. The eerie music begins, and the odd choreography bewilders the audience; but gradually, and horribly, the action moves into the house, as partisans of and against modernism all but bring the gutter into the theatre. As a scene of social disaster, I have never seen the like. Tendentious as Mr Kounen’s narration might be, it impossible to come away without backdating the outbreak of World War I by a year.

Must Mention:
18 June 2010

Friday, June 18th, 2010



¶ A thoughtful reminder that individuals and institutions ought to pursue rather different investment strategies. (Abnormal Returns)

Individual investors have some distinct advantages over institutions.  Most institutions need to be acutely aware of the indices against which they benchmark.  Individuals, on the other hand, are beholden only to themselves.  The performance of the S&P 500, for example, should be but a data point to an individual.  Many institutions need days to enter (and exit) their equity positions so as not to move a stock’s price.  An individual can do this (usually) in seconds.  Maybe most importantly individuals don’t have clients breathing down their necks.  As an individual investor you are your own client.

The point is that individual investors should look less at trying to invest like an institution and focus more on the advantages of their situation.  Most institutions can’t meaningful positions in small cap stocks.  Individuals can. Most institutions can’t undertake options strategies.  Individuals can.  Most institutions can’t day (or even swing) trade.  Individuals can.  Maybe most importantly an individual doesn’t need to trade (or invest) if the set-up isn’t right.  Most institutions are hemmed in by their need to “fully invested.”

¶ Dan Kois sees Toy Story 3, weeps copiously, sings praises. (The Awl)

Certainly you know, from the trailer and from general cultural osmosis and from that horribly depressing Times piece about how kids who were five when the first Toy Story came out ARE NOW TWENTY, that in Toy Story 3, little kid Andy is now college boy Andy and all his favorite toys face obsolescence.

But what you don’t know yet is that Toy Story 3 is totally bonkers. It has a mushroom cloud made of a trillion plastic monkeys, and it has a scene in which Buzz Lightyear is tortured under a bare light bulb. It has a terrifying horror-movie flashback. It has the best escape sequence since The Great Escape (or maybe Chicken Run). One of its heroes is a creepy walking, talking tortilla. It features an agonizing scene in which our favorite toys, facing a roaring inferno, close their eyes, hold hands and make peace with death. It makes an adorable teddy bear the terrifying villain and a baby doll his henchman. It toys with the old gag about the sexual identity of the Ken doll, deftly sidestepping offense and instead presenting the most surprising portrayal of gender fluidity in a 3-D family movie since Johnny Depp played the Mad Hatter as Madonna.

While We’re Away

¶ Seth Godin explains the Ace Hotel Lobby — that’s how as Felix puts it.

¶ At The Millions, Yevgeniya Traps writes rather well about her disappointment with a book that we nonetheless heartily recommend, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists.

Some of the stories are more successful than others in conveying the final insight, though most fall somewhat short of the Joycean epiphany that is the prototype. (The most compelling of the chapters in this respect is, to my thinking, the story of the paper’s CFO Abbey Pinnola, who finds herself seated next to a recently fired employee on a long plane ride; the ensuing account of their tentative flirtation is genuinely revelatory, its conclusion unexpected in the best possible way, simultaneously surprising and, in hindsight, inevitable.) The short stories are meant to tie together through collision of characters, the intersection of themes, the classical unities of time and place; under the auspices of these commonalities, they are, we are lulled into believing, something greater than the sum of their parts. But where this is true in Dubliners, whose deceptively delicate particles, when assembled together, produce a surprisingly robust total, this is rarely the case in The Imperfectionists. The characters—coming in and out of focus, growing more or less important—do not really develop, and the new information we glean about them from story to story is not always illuminating. The change in perspective tends to come off as artificial, lazily telling what was not convincingly shown. Individually, as a short story, each chapter leaves just enough unsaid: we know something of a character’s experience as it is experienced, asking us to imagine beyond the story’s parameters. The revelations in subsequent chapters, matter-of-fact as they are, do little to truly complicate our perceptions. Presumably intended to magnify, the accumulation of detail, in the form of minor references to characters we thought we knew, instead reduces and flattens, unconvincingly extending the storyline. This is particularly glaring in the final summing up, a last entry in the newspaper’s history amounting to a perfunctory conclusion.

But then, we read this novel as an intensely refreshing fiction not so much about characters as about “the business of journalism” — it certainly evolves!

¶ At New Scientist, an entertaining if somewhat overstated piece about coral reefs, the rate of evolutionary change, and conservation efforts. At the end, a skeptic agrees that new findings suggest a change in the formula.

Malcolm McCulloch, an oceanographer at the University of Western Australia, isn’t so sure. The study’s Caribbean corals have evolved as the environment around them changed slowly over the past 6 million years – the very rapid environmental changes happening now may be too much even for the creative fringes of coral reefs, he says.

But he agrees with the implications for conservation. The limited resources of most conservation efforts are put towards protecting central reefs, “because they were thought to have the best chances of survival”. This finding questions that logic, he says.

¶ Although the piece is pretty wild and unruly, we’re in almost complete accord with Gonzalo Lira’s engaging tirade about corporate anarchy in the United States, at Zero Hedge. We only wish that we could argue more forcibly against the following:

My own sense is, there will be no revolutionary change. The corporations won. They won when they convinced the best and brightest—of which I used to be—that the only path to success was through a corporate career. No necessarily through for-profit corporations—Lefties never seem to quite get how pernicious and corporatist the non-profits really are; or perhaps they do know, but are clever enough not to criticize them, since those non-profits and NGO’s pay for their meals.

Obama is a corporatist—he’s one of Them. So there’ll be more bullshit talk about “clean energy” and “energy independence”, while the root cause—corporate anarchy—is left undisturbed.

Once again: Thank God I no longer live in America. It’s too sad a thing, to watch while a great nation slowly goes down the tubes.

Have a Look

¶ More beautiful photographs from Touraine. Also, the charming portrait of an eighteen-month-old girl who in a phase “de vidage et de remplissage de contenus et de contenants. Vider un contenant quelconque et le remplir pour le vider à nouveau, ranger soigneusement les choses dans une boite, des cubes par exemple, vider et transvaser du sable ou de l’eau, ça l’occupe des heures..” (Mnémoglyphes)

Gotham Diary:
Our Poseidon Adventure

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

At the risk of making a hash of the story, I’m going to try to tell you about this afternoon’s Poseidon adventure.

Megan and I were talking in the bedroom. Megan was leaning against the bed, having stood up to tend to Will, who is at the age of requiring a lot of maternal tending. As in, why should he settle for less. Nonetheless, at the moment the story began, I was holding him. I was seated in my reading chair, and Will was seated in my lap.

On the mahogany tea table next to me, there was the nice plastic tray from Feldman’s that I’d used, that morning, to serve Kathleen’s tea and toast. The breakfast things had been removed long since, but the tray remained, and it was now laden with Will’s things. There was the velvet rabbit-in-a-hat that Quatorze found three exemplaires of, all of which send Will into paroxysms of delight when his mother uses them to play hide-and-seek. There was Sophie Vulli, or Vulli Sophie; I’m never quite sure which it is — the French teething giraffe. And there was a baby-bottle cap, which out of context looks like a small clear bucket without a handle. The cap was lying inverted on the tray, its top down.

Will decided to exert his godlike physical powers on the tray, which of course slid over the mahogany surface like a piano on lard. The thing that I forgot to tell you about the tray, but which of course you’d have taken for granted if you, too, had some nice plastic trays like it from Feldman’s, is that it has a sort of rim or lip. Once Will began playing God, this rim was powerless to prevent the overtipping of Sophie and the rabbit, but but it checked the bottle cap’s toppling, notwithstanding the vertiginous angle. Will assessed the damage that he had done and decided that It Was Good.

“Poseidon Adventure! Poseidon Adventure!” I blurted in a mock-radio voice. Assuming the role of a sportscaster, I told the listening fans that the poor folk huddled in that bottle cap were in mortal fear for their lives, hoping against hope that they would not be tipped over the rim of the tray and into the abyss of the carpet. Then Will jerked the tray with a spasmosis befitting his age, so that it was suddenly at a different, equally precipitous, angle. The bottle cap had held on, amazingly. In my sick, downtown manner, I announced that cries of “Shoot me now” could be heard from the surviving passengers. Megan and I were chuckling mightily. But Will, who, holding the tray at the angle of dispose, seemed to have decided that It Was Not Good, burst into tears.

While we were quick to comfort him and to silence his sobbing (he was smiling in an instant), we burst out laughing. “He’s seen the movie!” I declared.

I wonder now if Megan was aware that the first Poseidon Adventure came out when she was rather radically younger than Will is now: still, that is, in utero. At least that’s what I recall. What I recall most clearly about the experience of seeing the movie was that I could hardly bring myself to fill pasta pots with water for weeks.