Archive for July, 2010

Weekend Open Thread:
Stormy Weather

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

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Daily Office:
Friday, 30 July 2010

Friday, July 30th, 2010


¶ At The Infrastructurist, Scott Huter, author of On the Grid, argues that life “off the grid” is a mirage.

I found myself on a radio show one day with someone who wrote a book about going off the grid, and before even going on the air he told our host he didn’t wish to be identified as speaking from the United Kingdom. He was in London, the host was in Massachusetts, and I was in Raleigh. We spoke to one another as though we were in the same room – and he was arguing against the grid. I’ll leave you to determine whether there’s irony there, though I’ll point out that data centers, filled with the computers and air conditioners that run the communications grid, are enormous industrial users of grid power.

I’m not against sustainability – I’m for anything that saves resources, improves systems, and may save our planet before we fry it in its own petroleum-based oils. But driving your grid-produced pickup to get your grid-produced lumber at a big box store, driving on grid-paved highways to your mountain acres whose streams are protected by multiple layers of grid-powered government, and then using your grid-supplied plans to build a windmill to power your grid-produced computer as it gathers its information from grid-produced satellites? And then pointing at your windmill and your satellite dish and your septic tank and saying, “Look at me! I’m off the grid!”

I don’t buy it.

We don’t, either. We want very smart, well-maintained grids.


¶ “It’s not our issue.” Marc Wolf, writer and performer of the one-man show, Another American: Asking and Telling (appearing Off Broadway through the end of August) pinpoints the socioeconomic divide that has deprived gay men and women in the military from the support of the gay-rights movement. (NYT; via  Arts Journal)

Most gay people that I know here in New York City have no interest in serving in the military nor have any idea why a gay person would want to serve in the military. And the gay civil-rights movement, at both national and grass roots levels, has only recently embraced the issue.

An example of this: A straight couple came to see “Another American” and, after the performance, the woman asked if she could approach the gay and lesbian Center in the Ohio city where she lived to see if they would present my show. I agreed, and she called me in shock a few days later. The center had told her: “It’s not our issue.”
Why is that? Randy Shilts points out in “Conduct Unbecoming” that the gay civil-rights movement was heavily influenced by the peace movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

As a result, there has always tended to be an anti-authoritarian and anti-militaristic slant to the gay-rights movement. Couple this with the fact that most gay people in the military do not come from the higher socio-economic, more urban communities that traditionally have staffed the national gay rights organizations, and you begin to understand why this has not always been our issue.


¶ Joe Quinn’s eloquent denunciation of “the elites,” at Zero Hedge, seems straightforwardly populist — but this is not the universal populism of popular theory (pitting millions of “little people” against the “fat cats”). It’s rather the indignation (populism is always indignant) of the non-professional middle class. There is also a certain slippage in the address: we suspect tha Mr Quinn’s most enthusiastic readers will not have piled up consumer debt, piling up rather contempt and pitilessness for those who did.

Here is the message from the ruling elite to you ignorant masses: Debt got us into this mess and it sure as hell is going to get us out. They have convinced the mainstream media that the reason the economy is sputtering is because the average Joe is not doing their part. This crazy concept of saving for a rainy day seems to be catching on. This is very dangerous. Savings could lead to investment and long-term stability. The ruling elite will have none of that foolishness. The mainstream media is telling you that this new found austerity will push us back into recession. The talking heads continue to pound away that you have reduced your spending too much, when anyone with a calculator and half a brain (Krugman doesn’t make the cut) can determine that the decrease in consumer debt outstanding is completely the result of write-offs by the mega elite banks. Consumers are living off their credit cards at this point.

The military industrial complex continues to do the heavy lifting for this economy. If they weren’t blowing up bridges, power plants and orphanages in foreign countries and then rebuilding them at ten times the expected cost, how would they possibly spend $895 billion per year. It ain’t easy to waste that kind of money annually. Whenever some crazy dude like Ron Paul questions the need to spend as much as the rest of the world combined on the military, some potential terrorists are captured in the nick of time and the threat level is raised to Orange (thanks Tom Ridge). The “professional” journalists on the major networks then do their part in this farce by spreading fear among the general population. Rinse and repeat.


¶ First, the good news. Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson has determined, from computer simulations, that reducing soot would work an immediate reversal of global warming. (Wired Science)

“If you just eliminate soot, you get a significant climate benefit, and you can do it on a short time period, because soot has a life of just a few weeks,” said Jacobson. “You don’t get the full response for a while, as there are deep ocean feedbacks that take a long time, but it’s a lot faster than controlling CO2.”

Jacobson simulated the effects of curtailing soot from fossil-fuel emissions, something that’s already possible with tailpipe and smokestack filters. He simulated the effects of replacing wood- and dung-burning cookfires with clean-burning stoves. And he simulated both advances simultaneously.

If soot disappeared overnight, average global temperatures would drop within 15 years by about 1 degree Fahrenheit, maybe a little more. That’s about half the net warming — total global warming, minus cooling from sun-reflecting aerosols — experienced since the beginning of the industrial age. The effect would be even larger in the Arctic, where sea ice and tundra could rapidly refreeze.

Our rapture is somewhat moderated by our suspeicion that conservative funding at Stanford might have influenced these quietly pro-business findings.

¶ Now, the bad news. China’s filthy air. We passed over this Times story yesterday, because it’s not really news to anyone who has been awake for the past ten years. But in conjunction with the Jacobson simulations, it shows how difficult any kind of soot clean-up is going to be.

The quality of air in Chinese cities is increasingly tainted by coal-burning power plants, grit from construction sites and exhaust from millions of new cars squeezing onto crowded roads, according to a government study issued this week. Other newly released figures show a jump in industrial accidents and an epidemic of pollution in waterways.

The report’s most unexpected findings pointed to an increase in inhalable particulates in cities like Beijing, where officials have struggled to improve air quality by shutting down noxious factories and tightening auto emission standards. Despite such efforts, including an ambitious program aimed at reducing the use of coal for home heating, the average concentration of particulates in the capital’s air violated the World Health Organization’s standards more than 80 percent of the time during the last quarter of 2008.


¶ Our Man in Manila, Migs Bassig, has set up a new blog, Oh, Dear!, and we see in an instant how right he was to disregard our advice (develop the new writing, then move the blog). Sometimes the medium and the message are in bed together!

The new blog’s first post concerns a very popular television show, Wowowee.

One of these segments was called “Hep Hep, Hooray”. Twenty random audience members lined up on the kindergarten-colored stage (the Wowowee set is in Quezon City) for a simple elimination game. The rules were simple: they had to complete the title phrase once it was their turn to cheer. If the host put the microphone right in front of one contestant, that contestant had to say “Hep Hep” while clapping his or her hands below the waist, or “Hooray” while raising his or her hands. Contestants who broke the cheer or made a mistake with the gestures were eliminated. The grand prize was ten thousand pesos; the nineteen losers, meanwhile, each walked away with a thousand pesos and a gift pack containing deodorants.
Another segment was called “Questune”, where contestants had to guess the titles of songs. Until they pressed the buzzer, however, they had to keep their hands below their chins, so that they looked as though they were mimicking monkeys.

In a future entry, we hope to learn why Wowowee was canceled.


¶ At The Bygone Bureau, a further dispatch from Pohnpei, in Micronesia, where Jonathan Gourlay has gone native, to the extent that witches’ spells and brews really do “work.”

The Pohnpeian secretaries at the college where I work are hatching a plan to slip some magic in our coffee pot. They cast a little spell into eight mashed leaves. The spell causes divorce. But, they think, what if other people drink the magic coffee? There would be a divorce epidemic among coffee drinkers in Faculty Building B. They can’t think of a way to make me think clearly.

The cleaning crew, librarians, secretaries and even various vice presidents are all united in hoping that I can break the spell that Popo’s mother has cast upon me. This spell causes me not to understand what is going on. Popo runs around every night and yet I don’t seem to register this fact. I’m in a daze where what is normal keeps shifting around. It just seems natural that my fate is to be sucked dry of money, thoughts, dreams, while Popo spends her nights partying at the Skylight Hotel, crashing our car. More than once she has ended up in jail, where she likes to yell at the guards about the affairs she knows they’re having. They’re glad to be rid of her in the morning.

There was no magic, no remedy, no special herbal concoction that caused my mind to realize what I surely already knew. No, it was an American who has that direct quality of Americans that is the opposite of magic. He said that he was my friend and therefore could no longer listen to people laughing at me because my wife is running around with some guy and spending all of my money. He said it in simple sentences that I could understand. I had to leave. Take my daughter, Peanut. Say goodbye to Polynn. Run away.

The coffee was suspiciously bitter that morning.


¶ At the Guardian, English literature professor Gabriel Josipovici lets loose on the lions of modern English literature. Born in 1940, Mr Josipovici is no young Turk, but his views appear to have currency among the Man Booker judges. As everyone and his aunt has observed, this year’s list is missing the once-great names of Amis, Barnes, Rushdie, McEwan, &c. (via 3 Quarks Daily)

While great novels deal with complex events beyond the full understanding of both the characters and the reader, too many contemporary works follow traditional plots with neat endings, he said.

Referring to graduates, like McEwan, of the University of East Anglia’s famous creative writing course, Josipovici said: “They all tell stories in a way that is well crafted, but that is almost the most depressing aspect of it — a careful craft which seems to me to be hollow.”

He singled out The Comfort of Strangers, McEwan’s story of obsession, as easy to read but lacking “a sense of destiny, of other worlds suggested but lying beyond words”, unlike that experienced through Proust or Henry James. McEwan’s novel is read “to pass the time”, he said.

Such novels had a “lack of vision and limited horizons”.

“One finishes them and feels, ‘So what?’ – so very different from the gut-wrenching experience of reading Herman Melville’s Bartleby or William Golding’s The Inheritors,” said Josipovici.

We disagree on the sole point of Ian McEwan, beneath the banked fires of whose brilliantly poised prose we sense a throbbing companionship of grief.


¶ The confessions of a one-time “warblogger” — remember them? (Remember paying attention to them, that is.) A reminder that a life built on anger and hostility really does work for some people, some of the time. Michele Catalano at This Ia a Thing. (via The Awl)

People would say, how could you align yourselves with them? How could I still say I was anti-religion and for gay rights and all that other stuff I stood for, how could I say that if I was part of the other side now? And I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to answer that. I didn’t know how to say “I have no idea what I believe I just know that if I stop screaming I might end up killing myself so I’m going to stay here with the screaming people.”

Do you know how easy it is to lie to yourself? Do you know how easy it is to make yourself believe all the things you want to believe like, your life is good and you’re happy and carefree and everything is really fucking great? Lying to yourself with ease makes it so much easier to lie to everyone else. Oh yes, I’m perfectly happy being a bitter, angry blogger. I’m perfectly happy having 20 anxiety attacks a day. I’m perfectly happy living in a basement apartment with two kids and a second husband who makes me feel like my soul has sprung a leak. Happy. Happy, happy, happy. Life is good. And so is gin.

And so it went. I went on appearing to everyone online (and at this point my blog had about 10,000 hits a day and I was doing interviews with the BBC and such) like I was some rabid warmonger and as my old friends left in droves most of my new friends proved to be nothing more than sharks who were all too happy to feed off of me.

Gotham Diary:

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Never have I felt quite so foolish as I do now, waiting for someone young to take over. But that’s the only hope left.

The prospect of a GOP recapture of both houses of Congress in November is not only depressing but unreasonable: Republicans have done nothing (absolutely nothing) to earn voter support. The midterm election will be a windfall for them because there is no one else to benefit from electoral reproach of the Democratic Party. And, indeed, the Democratic Party deserves that reproach. Even if Congressional Democrats had done their best, the White House’s leadership failures alone would signal the need for a regime change. Whatever the shortcomings of the men and women who hold office, the problem of the Democratic Party is embedded in the class of advisers that its elected officials listen to, the Axelrods and the Summerses, the Emanuels and the Holbrookes, not to mention anyone and everyone who has ever advised the Clintons. Democratic advisers are largely indistinguishable from their Republican counterparts; they certainly share the conservatives’ contempt for John Q Public. They’re largely conservative themselves, made so by their terror of being mistaken for “socialists.” They may have a few genuinely liberal objectives, but a difference in programs does not amount to a political difference. Those liberal ideas simply make Democrats look less disciplined and organized than Republicans. If there is one thing that Republicans know how to do, it is singing Americans to sleep every night — in close harmony, if necessary. When Democrats tuck us in, they hand us a teacher evaluation form and remind us of their record. We don’t sleep so well under the Democrats.

And we never will. This is not the place to lay out my thesis that the Democratic Party destroyed itself — heroically, like a soldier throwing himself on a live grenade — in the Sixties fight for civil rights, but perhaps it will suffice to remind younger readers that, until that campaign, Southern whites and Yankee labor constituted the backbone of the Party. Neither of those constituencies remains in the Democratic camp today. The Nixonian “Southern Strategy” took care of Dixie; globalization finished off the industrial unions. Back in the Fifties, the kind of man whom Clint Eastwood portrays in movie after movie was a Democrat. Since the Sixties? Not so much.

So who are the Democrats? They’re people who ought to have formed a new party forty-odd years ago, but who didn’t, because they hardly knew who they were. “Liberated” working women. Opponents of American imperialism. Immigrants. And — of course — those former Republicans who happened to be black, as most blacks happened to be. The Democratic Party, beginning in the Seventies, was the party of the formerly marginalized. From such an organization we expected leadership? Such leadership as the Democratic Party has offered, since the days of Lyndon Johnson, has been rented from men with no personal stakes in the party’s projects, men whose lofty and somewhat gratuitous ambition to do good has increasingly alienated ordinary Americans.

The world has turned a good deal: the children of the formerly marginalized are not themselves marginalized. Barack Obama may be a black American, but there is nothing marginalized about him; he springs from the heart of the meritocracy that runs the United States. Runs the country — but does not, can not, lead it. For leadership, we must hope for visionaries who may not necessarily have tested well or shown the impressive organizational acumen that’s required to get to the top of the heap today. We must hope for someone smart and capable who is also graced, not so much by ideals of what we might become as by understanding of what we are and what we’re capable of right now.

This leader whom I’m hoping for must be young for another reason: the capabilities of information technology must be an open book. He or she must see the world through its capabilities, instead of trying to harness them to serve the world as it is. Almost every institution that flourished in the age of the modern nation state has suffered massive blows, and almost none deserve to be saved or salvaged. I say this not because I welcome, with immature recklessness, the excitement of social chaos. It’s for precisely the opposite reason that I call upon the young to see what can be made of still abundant resources, human and material, in the development of new institutions. I pray for smooth transitions. I know that no one my age is competent to imagine them.

I’m hoping for an old soul in a young frame.

Daily Office:
Thursday, 29 July 2010

Thursday, July 29th, 2010


¶ At BBC News Magazine, an anecdotal report on women who choose not to have children. Friends and acquaintances continue to believe that this is their business.

But it can be the most passing of acquaintances who pass comment.

“Many people assume if you a single and child-free that you haven’t met the right man yet. But if you are in a relationship, they ask ‘when are you taking the next step?’ A woman’s fertility status is still very much considered public property. There are still assumptions about women’s role in society, about families and about family size.”

Lisa Davies, 38, says the assumption is often that she cannot have a baby. “What I’m unhappy about is people looking at me and speaking to me – very often unashamedly – as if there is something wrong with me. As with other choices that you make, the key is it’s not for everyone.”

In the United States, New Yorker Melanie Notkin, founder of the Savvy Auntie website, wants a national day to celebrate child-free women who are loving aunts or godmothers.

“It would be a chance for these women to feel whole, for everything that they are, instead of having to focus on all the things they’re not – ie mothers.”

We’re appalled by the idea that anyone would think it a good thing to have a child in order to fulfill one’s personal destiny.


¶ Of a exhibition of paintings by the women of the Hudson River School, the museum director says,

 “The number one question we’ve been asked is ‘why hasn’t anyone done this before?’ I don’t know how to answer that,” she says.

That’s probably the most politic answer.

Though their paintings were largely left out of the story of American art, the exhibition displays work that reflects the same romantic sensibility, respect for balance, luminosity and love of picturesque landscapes as those of artists like Cole, Asher B. Durand and Frederic Church. “These paintings aren’t particularly feminine; they’re not flowery,” Jacks says. “If you walked into the show, you’d just say these are a group of Hudson River school paintings. They are part of the movement. It’s our own problem that we haven’t included them in the history of the Hudson River school.”

We hope that this show travels, in some form, to our fair city at the mouth of the Hudson. (Smithsonian)


¶ Gregor Macdonald considers California’s State of Emergency: “Collapse is a process.” What really astonishes him is the persistence of elderly economists who don’t understand the new economic order. (via Abnormal Returns)

As if to add a touch of comedy to this news, Alan Blinder and Mark Zandi are out with a Mission Accomplished paper today, which details how the FED and the Government saved the US from a depression. Perhaps a short walk through San Bernardino County (picture above) or several other California counties with their white paper in hand might be in order, as a way to augment some of those views. I would suggest that the US Dollar is probably indicating already some of what lays ahead, here. California’s broad unemployment figure at nearly 22.00% is yet another new high, and indicates the trend is still in place. While Blinder and Zandi are stuck in post-war recession-land, the US Dollar is pointing towards California.


¶ At Replicated Typo, Hannah is reading a book about psychosis and the “social brain.” The question is, where did madness come from?

Our hominid ancestors evolved a sophisticated neural network supporting social cognition and adaptive interpersonal behaviour (in other words the social brain). This has been identified, using functional imaging, to be comprised in the fronto-temporal and fronto-parietal cortical networks. Psychosis (and schizophrenia in particular) are characterised by functional and structural deficits in these areas and hence the term ‘social brain disorders’ are fitting.

Schizophrenics display abnormalities in a wide range of social cognition tasks such as emotion recognition, theory of mind and affective responsiveness and as a result individuals with schizophrenia find themselves disadvantaged in the social arena and vulnerable to the stresses of their complex social environments.

So, since there is such evidence to support that the areas which comprise our ‘social brains’ are the same regions which contribute to the disorder of schizophrenia when functional and structural deficits are present it becomes clear that schizophrenia exists as a consequence to the complex social brain.


¶ You’d think that, if anyone, Dave Bry would be able to coax an apology from the Swastika, now that it’s no longer considered exclusively anti-Semitic. Far from it. (The Awl)

Do you feel that perhaps your best days are in the past? That you may in fact be losing some of that power by spreading yourself too thin?

Please, baby, there’s enough of me to go around! But seriously, no. Not at all. Did you see what Rabbi Abraham Cooper said, from the Simon Wiesenthal Center? “The swastika is shorthand for every racist and bigot on the planet.” That’s right! I’m worldwide now. He said that it was amazing that 70 years after the holocaust, I hadn’t lost any of my potency. That is pretty amazing, when you think about it. They’re no dummies, those Jews. I’m taking it to a whole ‘nother level.


¶ Maybe now that it has appeared in Time, it’s official: Afghanistan is a sideshow. Thanks, Joe Klein.

Are you confused yet? Let me make things more complicated: Afghanistan is really a sideshow here. Pakistan is the primary U.S. national-security concern in the region. It has a nuclear stockpile, and lives under the threat of an Islamist coup by some of the very elements in its military who created and support the Taliban. The one thing the U.S. can do to reduce that threat is to convince the Pakistanis that we will be a reliable friend for the long haul — providing aid, mediating the tensions with India; that we will help stabilize Afghanistan; that we will support the primacy of Pakistan’s civilian government. Over time, this could reduce the extremist influence in the military and Pakistan’s use of Islamist guerrillas against its neighbors. If it does not — well, the alternative is unthinkable.


¶ Seth Colter Walls was late to the fair, but he managed to pick up a few items from David Markson’s library at the Strand, including an annotated Sartre. (“Dear Jean-Paul — how can you be sometimes so smart and sometimes so stupid?”) (Newsweek; via The Awl)

Passages like this get at the underlying tragedy of Markson’s scattered library. It’s not just about his fans’ emotional attachment to his legacy (though it’s also about that). What’s really at stake here is the chance to glean more information about his famously allusive late style. While he started out writing entertainingly pulpy crime and Western stories (one of which was turned into a movie starring Frank Sinatra), the final postmodern works for which he is best known were all built from a personal library of culled aphorisms, anecdotes from the lives of artists, and literary quotes. In The Last Novel, the unnamed narrator (called “Novelist” by Markson) quotes both Elie Wiesel and Hitler on the subject of Jewishness. Thus, Markson’s reactions to Sartre’s writing on anti-Semitism are frankly worth a hell of a lot more than the $10 I paid to acquire them.

We’re heartened to read about the Facebook group that is compiling an online catalogue of Markson’s books.


¶ It’s official: the Tower isn’t going to Lean any further. English soil engineer John Burland not only saved the Pisan campanile from toppling over but drained the water table in a way that stablizes the tower permanently. (Since 2001, there has been no movement.) Not everybody’s happy. (Telegraph; via The Morning News)

The Pisans, though, are a hard people to please. Some accuse Burland et al of sterilising their tower – for, part of its old mystique had been the possibility it might collapse at any moment, the frisson that a voyeuristic visitor might witness such a fall. ‘You can’t please all of the people all of the time,’ Burland shrugs.

He’s fascinated now by architectural advances in the UAE, where developers are striving to surpass each other with ever-taller, and ever-tiltier, buildings. Last month, the gravity-defying Capital Gate tower in Abu Dhabi – a giant, computer-concocted web of steel diagrids, which leans four times as far as Pisa’s belfry – entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most inclined building.

‘It’s amazing that the Tower of Pisa should remain so fashionable, even at 800 years old,’ Burland smiles. Not bad for a building that was never meant to lean to begin with.

Have a Look

¶ two very dissimilar treats from The Best Part: Jake Hakenwerth and Trey Speegle. Both are very colorful, though!

Gotham Diary:

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Today, on my Wednesday errands — a routine that has only recently emerged from the cloud of dust and gas that I’ve been living in since I decided, last October, that I really must put my house in order and keep it there — I stopped in at Crawford Doyle, my neighborhood bookshop. I’m making a point of buying new titles there whenever possible, and today I was after the new Gary Shteyngart. I hadn’t planned to read Super Sad True Love Story; in fact, I had planned not to read it. But I decided to buy the book all the same, as a gesture of support for an author who graces Manhattan’s literary scene with a bubbly naughtiness that I find delightful, even if he writes with a brush that’s a tad broad for my taste. Crawford Doyle had a small stack of Super Sads. What it did not have was any books by Jennifer Egan other than her new hit, A Visit From the Goon Squad, which I’ve got two copies of, having bought the one that I read at right there, at Crawford Doyle, and having bought another for the author to sign at Barnes & Noble. So I asked Dot McCleary to order a copy of Look at Me, and while we were doing that I spied an appealing little book on the counter — little books are always appealing, but this one was by Jenny Diski, so of course I had to have it. Dot thanked me for that; I was sparing her the effort of reshelving it.

The first thing that I do when the London Review of Books arrives is scan the contents for Jenny Diski’s byline. I’m a huge fan. She always makes me laugh, because she’s impatient with importance but charming in exasperation. In the book that I picked up, there are slightly rueful hints that this outlook has given her an unexpected sympathy for the elders whose prim caution she so detested when she was a teenager, in the Sixties. That’s the title of her little book, The Sixties.

The easy availability of social security and the dole are a forgotten but vital factor during the whole of the Sixties, and well into the Seventies. Unconsciously, as it might have been, the welfare system that the newly elected government brought in after the war in order to ensure a fair and just society was also the way in which the older generation were to indulge their post-war children. The Forties turned into the Fifties, the Fifties became the Sixties, and the Sixties seemed to go on forever, but even then, as the old ones gnashed their teeth and tore out their hair at the goings-on of their wild, rebellious young, they continued to pay them a state stipend, unemployment benefit, or a generous student grant, underwriting, as it were, their worst fears.

You have to be something of a curmudgeon to see that. You have to have come to grips with the fact of Thatcher and Reagan in order to understand that gnashing and tearing. At the time, nobody under 30 would or could have bothered to connect the dots.


It was in the late Sixties — on a particular day in 1967, I should think — that I first felt the chill of time’s inexorable passage. I was too old, I realized, too old ever to be invited to serve as an escort at a debutante party. There would be no going back, no new cycle of pre-deb dances leading to the real, white-tie deal. This was very bad news indeed, because I was just learning how much I liked escorting girls to debutante balls. I liked the dressing up, and the playing at being grown-up (the drinking, the driving, the smoking). Lust had nothing to do with it, which kept things clear and pleasant, especially since the girls were usually more than a little interested in the other escort. I had crushes on girls, but I was unusually immature, far from developed sexually. I had a nine year-old’s horror of sex well into my college career. (That changed quite suddenly.) I know that this backwardness is unusual, but I wonder how unusual it is; when I think of the Sixties, I resent having grown up in such a rank, libidinous climate. I was a romantic in those days. I liked holding girls tight when we danced the denatured fox-trot of the day, but I liked to move. I liked to cross the floor without appearing to look where I was going, all the while keeping up a stream of talk that, when I was lucky, elicited real laughter from my partner. Fox trots, denatured or not, were on the way out throughout the Sixties: the world that I thought I preferred — the world that I liked the look of, without understanding what it cost — was in a recessional from the moment I realized that I’d miss it.


I remember reading Ellen Willis, writing about rock in 1970 or so, in The New Yorker, and pronouncing it dead. Dead? I wondered. But it just got started. She was right, though, and what was dead was specifically what I had disliked about rock: its terrible manners. I gave terrible manners a try in the late Sixties — this would be after the sex change — but the shame of it nearly killed me. I don’t have the body for bad manners; my good manners are all that keep me from seeming overbearingly oafish and self-involved (and of course I’m not entirely sure that they do).

What it came down to was not having the body for youth. I wasn’t cut out for it at all. My childhood was a physical misery from beginning to end, even though nobody mistreated me and I was in fact indulged as a matter of course. Still, I was existentrially itchy until about the age of fifteen. Being comfortable in my own skin (and I’m never quite sure that this has happened, either) was unknown to me until I was nearly sixty. I’m not inclined to look back with nostalgia.

So I’m reading about the Sixties only because I know that Jenny Diski is going to make them far more entertaining on the page than they were in real life.

You really couldn’t be seen wearing a skirt that was a couple of inches too long. It made you feel wretched. On a camping holiday in Assisi I was persuaded to be sensible and to lower my hem two inches, still short enough for me to be refused entry to the Basilica of St Francis, and felt for the entire two weeks like an old woman shuffling about in widows weeds. As far as I was concerned, only a properly minuscule skirt could distinguish me from the nuns queuing up to see the Grotto.

Whereas, as far I was concerned, a woman was never so beautiful as when her skirt bloomed out and grazed the floor. That hasn’t changed.

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010


¶ We’re frowning deeply, but trying not to scowl, over Peggy Nelson’s “post-Enlightenment” apologia for texting at the dinner table. Her scenario sounds like one of those glamorous movies that you wish you could inhabit — but can’t. Which is not to say that Ms Nelson is entirely wrong about the increasing fluidity of social context, or about the significance of a shift from points (you and me) to connections (us). But the promised land that she claims to inhabit lies very far from where we’re standing. (Nieman Storyboard; via

Eventually I learned to stop worrying and love the flow. The pervasiveness of the new multiplicity, and my participation in it, altered my perspective. Altered my Self. The transition was gradual, but eventually I realized I was on the other side. I was traveling with friends, and one of them took a call. Suddenly, instead of feeling less connected to the people I was with, I felt more connected, both to them and to their friends on the other end of the line (whom I did not know). My perspective had shifted from seeing the call as an interruption to seeing it as an expansion. And I realized that the story I had been telling myself about who I was had widened to include additional narratives, some not “mine,” but which could be felt, at least potentially and in part, personally. A small piece of the global had become, for the moment, local. And once that has happened, it can happen again. The end of the world as we know it? No — it’s the end of the world as I know it, the end of the world as YOU know it — but the beginning of the world as WE know it. The networked self is a verb.

We’re beginning to inhabit ad hoc, overlapping, always-on virtual salons — you’re talking to someone, and then you both get pulled off into different directions, to form different shapes and vectors within the conversations, and then come together again, having never really been apart. You can even have multiple conversations via multiple media with the same person in the same span of time. Single conversations are one-dimensional chess; our language games have increased in complexity. And, potentially, in reward. Because with its ability to feel distant stories in a more personal manner, the expanded self points a way towards those stories becoming more relevant, and perhaps more actionable.


¶ How does James Franco do it all? A portrait of the movie star as a performance artist, Sam Anderson’s New York piece has us wondering about what goes up… Having servants who masquerade as pals helps. (via MetaFilter)

Franco’s main artistic obsession—the subject that echoes across all of his various media—is adolescence. This seems appropriate on several levels. His own adolescence was unusually formative: It turned him from an obedient young math prodigy into a turbocharged art fanatic. His defining characteristic, as an actor, is an engaging restlessness—adolescence personified. In fact, you could say that Franco’s entire career is suspended, right now, in a kind of artistic adolescence. We’re watching him transition, a little awkwardly, from one creature (the Hollywood-dependent star) to another (the self-actualized, multiplatform artist). Like real adolescence, it’s a propulsive phase in which energy exceeds control. It’s about extremes—the hysteria to distinguish oneself, to break the rules, to leap into the world and do impossible things. Franco is developing all kinds of new strengths, but at the cost of some of his dignity: His intellectual skin is a little spotty, his artistic legs are suddenly too long for the rest of his body.

It’s the kind of ragged transition that most actors pay good money to have smoothed over by publicity teams. Yet Franco is making a spectacle of it. Which is, in a way, brave. One of the central points of Franco’s art and career, as I read them, is that adolescence isn’t something we should look away from, a shameful churning of dirty hormones. It’s the crucible of our identity, the answer to everything that comes later, and we need to look long and hard at it, no matter how gross or painful it might sometimes feel.


¶ James Kwak suggests another reason why Elizabeth Warren would be a great consumer advocate: she doesn’t believe in “Mickey Mouse economics.” That would be the generation of “facts” about economic behavior that are squeezed from unrealistic assumptions about homo economicus. Mr Kwak refers to a blog entry in which Ms Warren complained about a contracts class of first year law students at Harvard that talked itself into believing that the following analysis (of a forum-limiting clause as a benefit to consumers) actually made sense — which it does, but only if you’re in a law-school classroom trying to sound sharper than everyone else. (The Baseline Scenario)

(We repeat: the following is nonsense.)

Forcing people to sue in Florida (or to accept binding arbitration in the forum of the company’s choice) deters frivolous lawsuits and lowers costs for the company, and it can pass those savings onto consumers. Why does it pass those savings onto consumers instead of putting them into shareholders’ (or managers’) pockets? Because in a perfect competitive market, if Alpha Cruise Lines doesn’t, then Beta Cruise Lines will, and Beta will underprice Alpha, . . . Consumers will read the fine print and can make an informed choice between the lower price with the forum selection clause and the higher price without the forum selection clause.


¶ At You Are Not So Smart, a helpful word about the The Anchoring Effect.

When you need to choose between options, or estimate a value, you need footing to stand on.

How much should you be paying for cable? How much should your electricity bill be each month? What is a good price for rent in this neighborhood?

You need an anchor from which to compare, and when someone is trying to sell you something they are more than happy to provide one. The problem is, even when you know this, you can’t ignore it.

When shopping for a car, you know it isn’t a completely honest transaction. The real price is probably lower than what they are asking for on the window sticker, yet the anchor price is still going to affect your decision.

As you look over the vehicle, you don’t consider how many factories the company owns, how many employees they pay. You don’t pore over engineering diagrams or profit reports. You don’t consider the price of iron or the expensive investments the manufacturer is making into safety testing.

The price you are willing to pay has little to do with these considerations because they are as far from you at the point of purchase as the population of Venezuela.

At last we have a term that explains the difference between describing someone as “wise but irritable” and as “irritable but wise.” The term that follows the conjunction is the anchor.


¶ Theo discovers Joni, causing “awash” of memories in his mother, Dominique Browning. (Slow Love Life)

This week I’m going to listen to all the Joni discs I own; as I sit here, I’m playing Clouds, from 1969. (And yes, I know, that means the music is in the background, but I was so moved to write that I couldn’t help myself. I’ll listen to the record again after I publish the post. And take Theo to the grocery store. And finish the laundry.) She sings the anti war anthem, The Fiddle and the Drum, with no instrumentation at all–that’s how strong is her voice–and her confidence. “Can we help you find the peace and the star…” Joni Mitchell’s songs have always had a profound moral decency–in the political, do what’s right, sense. Even the wild abandon with which she lost her heart seemed important, to me, in my twenties. That she has been able to accompany those of us who love her through our entire lives–and through hers–must be one of the miracles of our days.

Another is watching a new generation discover, and appreciate, the beauty that our generation can bequeath to them–in some enormous, global ways, we are leaving our children such a mess, that it helps to think also about the great things we have given them. Joy began to flicker through my aching sadness. There is nothing lovelier than sharing moments of transcendent beauty. I yearned to reconnect with the girl that I once was, the girl who believed that art would burn through grief, and that love was transformative. “Songs to aging children come; Aging children, I am one.” 

We like nothing better than listening to all three performances of “A Case of You” — Blue, Miles of Aisles, Both Sides Now — in a row, especially because we like the last one best.


¶ Niall Ferguson on the sudden setting of the United States’s imperial sun. Nobody knows when our overstretched economy will “go critical,” but we have a fairly clear idea why it will. (Real Clear World)

For now, the world still expects the US to muddle through, eventually confronting its problems when, as Churchill famously said, all the alternatives have been exhausted. With the sovereign debt crisis in Europe combining with growing fears of a deflationary double-dip recession, bond yields are at historic lows.

There is a zero-sum game at the heart of the budgetary process: even if rates stay low, recurrent deficits and debt accumulation mean that interest payments consume a rising proportion of tax revenue. And military expenditure is the item most likely to be squeezed to compensate because, unlike mandatory entitlements (social security, Medicaid and Medicare), defence spending is discretionary.

It is, in other words, a pre-programmed reality of US fiscal policy today that the resources available to the Department of Defense will be reduced in the years to come. Indeed, by my reckoning, it is quite likely that the US could be spending more on interest payments than on defence within the next decade.

We do not believe that a drastic reduction in American military forces is possible or even desirable: the United States is socializing and upward-mobilizing thousands of young people with no occupational alternatives other than crime. But it is clear that military expenses and commitments are going to have to be reconsidered from the ground up, with arms manufacturers and other contractors forced to fold their tents.


¶ We wish that Dylan Suher had published his appreciation of the classic Chinese Novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, back in the spring, because then we would have planned a summer re-read. Here is a novel that makes Proust sound like Elmore Leonard. It’s not too late! (The Millions)

What is most striking to me about the experience of reading this book, however, is not the length. It is the vast distance between The Dream of the Red Chamber and the modern sensibility. In the post-Lish verbal economics of the contemporary novel, where every word has to count, the dramatic waste of words in Red Chamber is astoundingly alien. I am aware, of course, that not every novel is plot-driven, but most novels do tend to have some sort of force propelling them forward, some sort of urgency, whether that urgency is derived from the events, the character, or themes alluded to by the work. Dream of the Red Chamber, on the other hand, is unbelievably comfortable with its own languor. It is often content to bring the story to a complete standstill while it explains the minutiae of household management. The novel often seems to proceed only with a great reluctance.

I won’t tell you it isn’t occasionally boring to read this novel. I also won’t tell you that it isn’t maddening. Or that, after reading every excruciating detail of the umpteenth drinking game, I didn’t want to angrily trample it, like an apostate stomping on the cross. But the extravagant waste of the prose is also part of the overall design of the novel. The low signal-to-noise ratio causes the mind to actively search for the tiny anomalies that reveal the profundity behind the endless series of parties.


¶ Jesse Smith deconstructs that snappy but meaningless phrase, “state of the art.” Who knew that its first use, a century ago, was apologetic? “In the present state of the art, this is all that can be done…” (The Smart Set; via  Arts Journal)

Of course the phrase is used for much different purposes today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “state of the art” as “the current stage of development of a practical or technological subject; freq. (esp. in attrib. use) implying the use of the latest techniques in a product or activity.” Nothing about “current” or “latest” is inherently qualitative, and yet over the last century, the phrase itself has taken on an almost exclusively positive connotation.

Nobody, for example, describes the Gulf oil spill as a state-of-the-art environmental disaster, even though the deepwater drilling technology that made such an event possible is as state-of-the-art as it comes (according to Oxford’s official definition). But take a refrigerator ad: “The GE Profile refrigerator has a state-of-the-art 3-stack drawer system with a deli drawer, a fresh food drawer and a CustomCool™ drawer that can thaw meat in hours or chill a bottle of wine in minutes.” GE doesn’t describe its refrigerators as being state-of-the-art to suggest limitations or any possible technological glitches that could come with so new a technology as the CustomCool drawer. The phrase instead implies that you can’t do any better than a GE refrigerator — what with its ease of thawing meat and chilling wine — and isn’t doing better the whole point?

Have a Look

¶ Check out the buckle. Check out the story. (NYT)

¶ Fabien Clerc. (via The Best Part)

¶ “Inside the Glenn Beck Goldline Scheme.” (Good)

¶ The late novelist David Markson’s library, on sale at the Strand. (LRBlog)

Winter’s Bone

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010


What struck me first, when Winter’s Bone came to an end, was that Americans don’t make pictures like this. Largely silent, intently focused, and hugely reliant on the viewer’s empathy, it is one of those movies about common, even primitive people that are doomed to find their most appreciative audience among metropolitan types. When they succeed, as Winter’s Bone certainly does, it’s in the teeth of a defiance that’s aimed mostly at the hero’s adversaries but also in part at the audience, forbidding it to condescend.

This is a movie without a background; aside from some vaguely-sketched family history, time exists only as the medium in which the story is told. But the story begins with the wreckage wrought upon the heroine’s family by a plague of methamphetamines that began long before the she was born, and Debra Granik, who has no intention of cluttering her spare film with generalizing backstory about the plague, leaves it to us to make sense of the wreckage. From Nick Reding’s inestimable Methland, I had learned that methamphetamines, like all opiates and their synthetic kin, destroy families in two ways. The drug itself is toxic to character, but so is the traffic. The money that sprouts in the corruption of drug-dealing seems almost an embodiment of the euphoria that spurts amidst somatic degradation. What distinguishes methamphetamines from so-called “recreational” drugs is that it begins as crutch for overworked laborers, enabling them, initially at least, to put in enough hours to put food on their families’ table. The irony of this metastasized work ethic is crushing.

The story that Winter’s Bone has to tell is very simple. Jessup Dolly, a crack methamphetamine cook, has pledged his home as collateral for a bail bond — and then disappeared. This home is all that Ree, his seventeen year-old daughter, has in the world, which would be bad enough if she did not have the care of her broken-minded mother and her two younger siblings, both still children. Her only other resource is her extended family. But the ties that bind this clan have been corroded by drugs. Ree needs to find her father, dead or alive, in order to keep a roof over her charges’ heads, but her cousins are conflicted about helping her. It’s never spelled out why they’re conflicted; that would only make for more clutter, distracting us from experiencing Ree’s ordeal as closely as she experiences it as possible. Old people might be interested in long-standing grudges, but young people find family history suffocating. Ree couldn’t care less about her father’s fallings-out. She doesn’t care very much about him. All she wants is a home for her family.

Ree’s doggedness eventually creates a scandal: why is no one helping the poor girl? That one of her aids is the woman who has subjected her to a savage beating isn’t at all, by the time it happens, surprising. Warned off from the search for her father, Ree isn’t the slightest bit pig-headed, but she has no other options. And she has never been in a position to compromise — she has never had any negotiating chips. Her father’s improvidence gives her her first counter in the wearying game of dead-end adulthood: she can give up on her mother, her brother, and her sister. Her refusal to do so eventually reminds everyone else of what’s good about the human heart.

Ms Granik’s cast is never less than persuasive, but to assist her young star, Jennifer Lawrence, she has two fantastic supporting actors, John Hawkes, as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop; and Dale Dickey, as Merab, the most baleful challenge to Ree’s ordeal. Ms Lawrence’s performance is so transcendent that it withers the full bouquet of laudatory adjectives. That’s part of the un-American-ness of Winter’s Bone: it demands an un-American reticence.   

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010


¶ We did not read the justly-praised Washington Post story about the nation’s topsy-turvy, unaccountable security system, any more than we’re going to read the Wikileaks papers about Afghanistan. We don’t claim to know everything that’s in these reports, but we are certain that both are stuffed with evidence that unreconstructed masculine types have all too naturally found refuge behind weapons of one kind or another — rifles or surveillance cameras, it doesn’t matter which — from which it will be difficult to dislodge them. But if confronting these nightmares directly cripples us with despair, we can at least welcome the esteem with which they have been greeted, and join a bit in the applause. Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker:

The story the Post tells is not about criminal conspiracies or rogue elements or corruption in the usual sense. No one’s dedication to the cause of protecting America is questioned. The tale has no villains—unless you count the pathologies of secrecy and bureaucracy and the panicky bravado that led the White House, Congress, and the public to frame the response to Al Qaeda as an essentially unlimited War on Terror. It is an exposé about a secret world, but it exposes no secrets. Interviewees who asked for anonymity did so not in order to “leak”—to reveal classified information—but to express judgments that their bosses and colleagues might hold against them. Virtually all the data that the paper collected in the two years it took to prepare the series was already in the public record.

And the bulk of the public record is no longer to be found in library stacks, dusty courthouse files, and microfilm rolls. Just as its subject is a new kind of bureaucratic enterprise, “Top Secret America” is a new kind of journalistic enterprise, pairing expert reporting of the traditional shoe-leather variety with the information-gathering power of the Internet. One of the series’ lead writers, Dana Priest, is a winner of two well-deserved Pulitzer Prizes, for her stories on abuses at Walter Reed and the C.I.A.’s overseas “black sites.” The other, William M. Arkin, is that despised creature, a blogger—or was until he put aside the national-security blog that he conducted on the Post’s Web site to begin his collaboration with Priest. While she worked the phones and racked up the miles, he sat in his converted barn in Vermont, surfing oceans of data. The result is a portrait of a problem. Laying it all out is a start. Reining it all in will be harder.

¶ Another unsurprising story: “US ‘fails to account’ for Iraq reconstruction billions.” (BBC News)


¶ At Dance Magazine, Wendy Perron cautions choreographers against writing up their creative process — “You should be utterly at a loss for words…” — but what she says has very wide application. It serves equally as a caution to readers who imagine that artists can tell us “how they do it.”

I think this rush to explain is part of a larger trend of people thinking a simple how-to set of instructions can make them into an artist. In The Atlantic’s Fiction 2010 annual issue, the novelist Richard Bausch says, with dismay, that there are 4,470 titles under the rubric “How to Write a Book.” He thinks they are pretty much useless. “One doesn’t write out of some intellectual plan or strategy,” he says, “one writes from a kind of heartfelt necessity.” (Click here to read his essay.) 

And no one can tell you how to transform that necessity into art.


¶ Joshua Brown writes about “Recovery Apartheid“: businesses without comfy cash cushions to protect them from spotty consumer demand — that would be small businesses — are doing the opposite of thriving. (The Reformed Broker; via Abnormal Returns)

Imagine if, instead of Earnings Season for the S&P 500, we had a 4 week stretch in which we heard from a different sector of Small Business each night on a series of conference calls.  Imagine, if you will, that Monday night we heard from local restaurant and catering companies throughout the nation, then on Tuesday night we heard from auto dealerships, Wednesday night was machine repair shops, Thursday was real estate agencies, etc.

With my hypothetical Small Business Earnings Season in mind, I ask you the following…would the stock market have just posted an almost 4% gain since July 13th had that have been the case?  Would anything said by a majority of America’s business owners on conference calls each night even come close to matching the positivity on the Alcoa ($AA) and the Intel ($INTC) calls that kicked this earnings season off?

Probably not.  Because away from the S&P 500, record-breaking cash hoards are not the norm for business owners, nor are trips to the Fed’s discount window or financings done in a bond market voracious for yield of any kind.


¶ Someday, it will be understood that truly great conversation is better than sex,  but for the moment we’ll have to be satisfied with some preliminary findings: when two people are talking and they “click,” feeling that they’re on the same “wavelength,” that’s not an illusion. Something measurably correspondent is probably occcurring in their brains, namely, similar blood flows. Brendan Keim at Wired Science:

They found that speaking and listening used common rather than separate neural subsystems inside each brain. Even more striking was an overlap between the brains of speaker and listener. When post-scan interviews found that stories had resonated, scans showed a complex interplay of neural call and response, as if language were a wire between test subjects’ brains.

The findings don’t explain why any two people “click,” as synchronization is a result of that connection, not its cause. And while the brain regions involved are linked to language, their precise functions are not clear. But even if the findings are general, they support what psychologists call the “theory of interactive linguistic alignment” — a fancy way of saying that talking brings people closer by making them share a common conceptual ground.

“If I say, ‘Do you want a coffee?’ you say, ‘Yes please, two sugars.’ You don’t say, ‘Yes, please put two sugars in the cup of coffee that is between us,’” said Hasson. “You’re sharing the same lexical items, grammatical constructs and contextual framework. And this is happening not just abstractly, but literally in the brain.”


¶ Our friend Jean Ruaud has been writing about his corner of Touraine. He is currently vacationing at a family member’s home outside Chinon, where he grew up. St-Benoît-la-Forêt, the town where he’s staying, stands in a clearing carved out of the Forét de Chinon about a thousand years ago, perhaps longer. You can survey the area here. Don’t forget to zoom in on Rochambeau Village, the American suburb built for GIs stationed at the NATO base in the Forêt. De fil en aiguille…

Les soldats allaient parfois dépenser leur paye le jour du “pay day”, dans les bars des villes du coin. La MP (Military Police) qui était autorisée à patrouiller dans la ville de Chinon était crainte par tout le monde, soldats et civils. Quand j’étais enfant j’étais particulièrement impressionné par les MP, mon souvenir en est très vif. Je les revois encore aujourd’hui, assis dans leur jeep au coin de ma rue à Chinon, des gros noirs très costauds qui mâchaient du chewing-gum d’un air nonchalant en reluquant les filles, avec un casque vert foncé et brillant sur lequel étaient peintes les lettres MP et deux bandes blanches qui faisaient le tour du casque et le colt à la ceinture.

Certains soldats US sont restés en France, d’autres ont marié une fille du coin et l’ont emmené aux States, d’autres ont fait des enfants aux filles du coin mais ne les ont pas toujours reconnus (j’avais en classe avec moi au lycée un métis qui s’appelait Jones de son nom de famille, j’ai connu aussi dans mon jeune temps un Franky Lee Pierce qui vivait avec sa mère qui était Française mais s’appelait d’un autre nom de famille, son père était retourné aux US mais l’avait reconnu).


¶ Secretary of State Clinton has turned up the heat under Chinese claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea, a bit of overreaching that has China’s neighbors looking to Washington to broker a resolution. This makes for an interesting counterpoint to the Korean minuet. Willy Lam reports at Asia Sentinel. (via Real Clear World)

While individual countries, in particular the Philippines, had in the past indicated a willingness to hold bilateral talks with the Chinese over joint development of disputed islands in the Spratly chain, Asean members are now convinced that internationalizing the talks – possibly under American auspices – is the best way to safeguard their interests. Some confrontations have already taken place, including an incident in 2009 when Chinese naval vessels intercepted a US spy ship near a Chinese submarine base on Hainan Island. The US ultimately sent destroyers to escort the spy ship out of the area and no escalation took place.

Meanwhile, rivalry between China and the US has manifested itself on another front: Beijing’s opposition to joint U.S.-South Korea sea-and-air military drills which started July 25. While the maneuvers were meant as a warning to Pyongyang, which is accused of torpedoing the South Korean warship Cheonan in late March, Beijing has fingered Washington for exacerbating its “anti-China containment policy.”


¶ It’s the talk of the town: Michiko Kakutani LOVES Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story. (NYT)

Gary Shteyngart’s wonderful new novel, “Super Sad True Love Story,” is a supersad, superfunny, superaffecting performance — a book that not only showcases the ebullient satiric gifts he demonstrated in his entertaining 2002 debut, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” but that also uncovers his abilities to write deeply and movingly about love and loss and mortality. It’s a novel that gives us a cutting comic portrait of a futuristic America, nearly ungovernable and perched on the abyss of fiscal collapse, and at the same time it is a novel that chronicles a sweetly real love affair as it blossoms from its awkward, improbable beginnings.

Whenza last time that happened?


¶ Huge fans of micropayments that we are, we perhaps read more into Melissa Lafsky’s piece about tolling roads than we were meant to do. (The Infrastructurist)

While many might leap to shoot down any pro-toll movement, there’s some evidence that American drivers are far more likely to pay more tolls than they are more taxes. The latest America THINKS poll by HNTB Corp. found that the 1,005 people surveyed supported tolls on roads and bridges to generate transportation revenue, especially those that save them drive time. And when given a choice between 1) new roads funded by a higher gas tax, 2) new roads funded by new tolls, or 3) no new roads at all, the survey respondents preferred tolls (41%) or no new roads at all (41%) over increased gas taxes (18%).

Granted, this potential love for tolls isn’t unlimited — 61% of respondents said they’ve purposely avoided a road or bridge with tolls at least once. The reasons are what you’d expect: 43% felt that tolls are too expensive, and another 24% think of most toll plazas as high-traffic areas. The latter assumption is often true, and could be a barrier to adopting the more-tolls-less-taxes model of transportation funding. But then, if we collect more cash through tolls, then perhaps we can devote more money towards fixing the larger problem of congestion as a whole. The bottom line is that we need to figure out a way to refill the Highway Trust Fund and drag our infrastructure out of the proverbial stone (or gravel) ages. If that means doubling toll plazas in the country’s most congested areas, well, perhaps American drivers can stomach it.

As we’ve seen in New York, transponder-based automatic toll-paying systems like E-Z Pass take the congestion out of tolling. Nor do tollgates have to be few and far between. It also occurs to us that lower-income drivers could be relieved of tolls altogether with special accounts — a very important benefit as American cities revert to the historic urban norm, pushing the poor toward the outer suburbs.

Have a Look

¶ Mila’s Daydreams. (via; The Awl)

¶ “Confessional can’t become sauna, church rules.” (via Marginal Revolution)

Daily Office:
Monday, 26 July 2010

Monday, July 26th, 2010


¶ At the Monday Note, Frédéric Filloux unpacks a recent study of “Digital Natives,” 18-24 year-old French people. No surprises, but some very interesting nuances — especially concerning the concentric groups to which Digital Natives belong.

The Group they trust. The Digital Native does not rely on a single group but on several, each with a different degree of trust. The three concentric circles are : close friends and family as the core, a group of 20 to 30 pals whom they trust, and the “Facebook friends” of 200 or so, which acts as an echo chamber. Beyond these groups, behaviors such as elusiveness, temptation to trick and circumvent the social system will prevail.

How do they get the news? No wonder why the group is crucial to the Digital Native getting his information. First of all, the fastest is the best. Forget about long form journalism. Quick TV newscasts, free commuter newspapers, bursts of news bulletins on the radio are more than enough. The group will do the rest: it will organize the importance, the hierarchy of news elements, it will set the news cycle’s pace.

More chilling: the group’s belief in its power to decide what’s credible and what’s not. Truth – at least perceived truth – seems to emerge from an implicit group vote, in total disregard for actual facts. If the group believes it, chances are it is “true”. When something flares up, if it turns out to be a groundless rumor, it’s fine since it won’t last (which is little consolation for the victim of a baseless rumor); and the news cycle waves are so compressed that old-fashioned notions such as reliability or trustfulness become secondary. Anyway, because they are systematically manipulated, the Digital Natives don’t trust the media (when they themselves are not the manipulators).


¶ The Kids Are All Right is going Brokeback — maybe. (Speakeasy)

The independently produced dramatic comedy, about a lesbian couple and their two offspring, is quickly becoming the indie hit of the summer. When the film opened three weeks ago on seven screens, per-theater ticket sales averaged $72,127, the highest for any movie this year. This weekend, after growing from 35 to 201 venues, “The Kids” continued its winning streak, generating more than $2.6 million (with another robust per-theater average of $13,173, the best of any film in release), bringing its cumulative box-office to just under $5 million.

Acquired at the Sundance Film Festival for a reported $4.8 million by Universal subsidiary Focus Features, the film has benefited from excellent reviews (”universal acclaim,” according to; 96% on and early award-season chatter, pegged to stars Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Ruffalo as well as director/co-screenwriter Lisa Cholodenko.

Like past summer sleepers “(500) Days of Summer” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” the film is rolling out gradually, building on word of mouth and hoping to play in theaters for months. In another sign of its forward momentum, sales over the weekend increased significantly from Friday to Saturday by a sizeable 57%. (As comparison, the new Angelina Jolie action vehicle “Salt” increased just 6%.)

When we saw the movie a second time over the weekend, our normally sleepy nabe was packed.


¶ At The Awl, a pseudonymous corporate bond analyst writes about fictive nature of “restructuring charges” — and what they suggest about the (ill) health of the economy.

Just as an aside here, there’s a reason for them breaking it out like that as a separate line-item in their expenses: that way, they can present it as a “one-time charge”. Analysts like me are supposed to discount it in looking at their “real” underlying cash flow and in forecasting their financial futures. It’s a one-time charge. Trouble is, it almost never is a one-time charge. That line, Restructuring Charges, appears, for most of my companies, every single quarter. Sometimes you begin to wonder what’s left to restructure.

Most CEOs and CFOs on earnings calls are not taking the big-picture view. They’re focused on the details of their own particular business. Still, I often ask myself if they see the connection that’s staring you right in the face: when is “the consumer” going to start spending again? Well, maybe when you stop firing him.

This really seems to be the root of the problem here in the US, and these earnings calls are like a microcosm of the whole US economy. You’ve probably read a hundred times that consumers are responsible for about two-thirds of GDP. (In the last four quarters up to 3/31/2010 it was close to 71%). So if they don’t have any spendable money because they’ve been fired (or are afraid they’re going to be fired), demand will be weak.

In other words: If I  fire everybody, then who is going to buy the stuff I make? You can see how this turns into a vicious circle.

Our idea: the deliberate “inefficiency” of more, smaller employers. As we see it, the only impact of “economies of scale” in the information age is inordinate executive compensation.


¶ For Jonah Lehrer, the “mystery” of Inception is no mystery at all: the movie is a dream that evokes the dream-like mentality with which we watch movies.

What these experiments reveal is the essential mental process of movie-watching. It’s a process in which your senses are hyperactive and yet your self-awareness is strangely diminished. Now here’s where things get interesting, at least for this interpretation of Inception. When we fall asleep, the brain undergoes a similar pattern of global activity, as the prefrontal cortex goes quiet and the visual cortex becomes even more active than usual. But this isn’t the usual excitement of reality: this activity is semirandom and unpredictable, unbound by the constraints of sensation. (This is usually blamed on those squirts of acetylcholine, an excitatory neurotransmitter, percolating upwards from the brain stem.) It’s as if our cortex is entertaining us with surreal cinema, filling our strange nighttime narratives with whatever spare details happen to be lying around. Furthermore, the dreaming state is accompanied by an increase in activation in a wide range of “limbic” areas, those chunks of the cortex associated with the production of emotion. This is why even the most absurd nightmares cause us to wake up in a cold sweat. We care about what happens in our dreams, even when what happens makes no sense.

I’d argue that Inception tries to collapse the already thin distinction between dreaming and movie-watching. It gives us a movie in which most of the major plot points are simultaneously nonsensical – Why are we suddenly watching a thriller set in the arctic? Why are all the subconscious mercenaries such bad shots? Why don’t Cobb’s kids ever age? – and strangely compelling, just like a dream. And so we bite our fingernails even though we “know” it’s just a silly movie. Thanks to the subdued activity of the frontal lobes coupled with the over-excitement of the visual cortex, we sit in our plush chairs munching on popcorn and confuse the fake with the real. We don’t question the non-sequiturs or complain about the imperfect special effects or shallow characters. Instead, we just sit back and watch and lose track of the time. It’s almost as if we’re being manipulated by Dom Cobb himself, as he effortlessly travels deep into our brain to plant an idea. But this Dom Cobb – we’ll call him Christopher Nolan – doesn’t need a specially formulated sedative. He just needs a big screen.


¶ Steve Almond’s new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, got a dismissive review in this week’s New York Times Book Review. Steve’s not happy about it, and, like us, he wishes that the editors at the  Book Review took their jobs (instead of themselves) more seriously. But his ultimate response is acceptance.

Books – especially literary books – should be filled with smart, provocative ideas that deserve a response. They are intended to initiate a conversation about what it means to be human. A good review enlarges that conversation.

But it’s a loser move – an imitative fallacy, actually – to dismiss a bad review. As unpleasant as it’s been to read the assessments of my work in the NYTBR, both of the reviews in question had something to teach me – about dumb decisions I made at the keyboard, about the limited appeal of my sensibility, about certain habits of excess borne of my own doubt.

So, yeah, it’s okay to get pissed, maybe even inevitable. But we must not stop learning as writers. Even our least sympathetic reader has something to offer.

Second, as writers (of whatever sort) we should discuss books as seriously as we want ours to be discussed. I truly believe this. And not just in print, but in our daily lives, in how we talk about books with friends and colleagues, on our blogs, or even within some aggrieved comment thread. To degrade another writer without a respectful consideration of his or her intent and labor is to degrade our own vocation.

It would be wonderful if the NYTBR had a bunch of editors who held themselves to this standard. But that’s not really their job – as much as they might think it is. Their job is to drum up interest in a cultural artifact (the book) that keeps sliding further out onto the margins of our frenzied visual culture.


¶ We’re always delighted when Strange Maps turns up something piquant for this hour, even if it does involve Switzerland. Who knew that there are no fewer than three movements to expand the Alpine federation? But of course there would be three, just as there are three languages.

Although it doesn’t take in all the areas covered by the first and second proposal, the third plan is the most ambitious one. Launched in June of 2010 by the right-wing populist Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP), it would expand Switzerland into all its neighbours–except tiny Liechtenstein, which would be enclaved inside a truly Greater Switzerland. “We’re always discussing Switzerland joining the EU, never the other way around,” said SVP-president Toni Brunner, approving of to the proposal by one of his party-members. SVP-parliamentarian Dominique Baettig said he would neighbouring regions that “suffered under their national and the European political classes” to join the Swiss “democracy with a human face.” Ideally, he would like to see Switzerland snatch the Land Vorarlberg from Austria; the province Aosta, Varese, Como and Bolzano (‘Bosen’ in German) from Italy; the départments Jura, Ain, Savoie and Haute-Savoie and the région of Alsace (‘Elsass’ in German) from France. The single biggest chunk would be the German Bundesland of Baden-Württemberg, bringing in almost 11 million new Swiss citizens. If all went according to the Mr Baettig’s plan, the new, Greater Switzerland would count around 25 million inhabitants and would be a mid-sized European power to be reckoned with… at least by the Libyans.

The crack about Libya refers to the beginning of the entry, which discusses Muammar Gadaffi’s “crackpot” desire to liquidate the Confoederatio Helvetica.


¶ At The Millions, Darryl Campbell presents George Orwell as a pamphleteer — Orwell thought of himself as such — whose references to the essentially ephemeral controversies that inspired his work fade and (much like some hyperlinks) break. This makes it possible for people to make whatever use they want to of his work, and now Tea Partiers decry anything vaguely socialist as Orwellian — notwithstanding Orwell’s strong socialist sympathies.

Never mind that, for most of his life, Orwell advocated nothing short of a socialist revolution in England! As far as these people were concerned, Orwell’s works amount to nothing more than an anti-government, anti-change screed.

Overuse on the one hand, distortion on the other: what perversely fitting tributes to a writer who underscored the dangers of reductionism, revisionism, and willful ignorance. Clearly, George Orwell is a victim of his own success, and in a peculiar way – there are no public fights over the legacy of Hemingway or Joyce or even over other midcentury political writers like Hannah Arendt that rival the ones for Orwell’s posthumous stamp of approval.

So Orwell was right to consider himself more pamphleteer than novelist. Many critics have dismissed this as a kind of false modesty, but in this case, Orwell was not merely managing expectations. Pamphlets are designed to make a specific point to a specific audience, and then to be thrown away because they can no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended. Orwell’s works are ephemeral too, in the sense that they cannot really be understood without some semblance of historical and intellectual context. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of reading, and a lot of extracurricular effort to do so, however. Obviously, many readers simply find it easier to shout down any opposite political position with Orwell’s own words – Big Brother, thoughtcrime, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others – than to really understand what these words, in context, were supposed to represent….

Until Orwell’s readers bother to do so – which, as a rule, they don’t – then we can look forward to another sixty years of use and abuse.


¶ At a local library’s used-book sale, Michael Blim picks up Robert Sherwood’s Hopkins and Roosevelt, a book as old as we are. (We haven’t read it, alas.) The shift in political vision twixt then and now is depresing. (3 Quarks Daily)

Sherwood cites a passage from a remarkable speech Roosevelt as Governor of New York gave to an extraordinary session of the state legislature on August 21, 1931. I quote it at length because of its germinal significance for the political beliefs of Roosevelt the man, before he became Roosevelt the president:

“What is the State? It is the duly constituted representative of an organized society of human beings, created by them for their mutual protection and well-being. ‘The State’ and ‘The government’ is but the machinery through which such mutual aid and protection are achieved. The cave man fought for existence unaided or even opposed by his fellow man, but today the humblest citizen of our State stands protected by all the power and strength of his Government. … The duty of the State toward the citizens is the duty of the servant to his master. … One of these duties of the State is that of caring for those of its citizens who find themselves the victims of such adverse circumstance as makes them unable to obtain even the necessities for mere existence without the aid of others. … To these unfortunate citizens aid must be extended by Government, not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of social duty.” (Sherwood, 1948, 31)

Roosevelt’s beliefs seem almost embarrassingly simple. The state serves the greater social purpose of protecting and supporting all of its citizens, but most especially those in need. Full stop.

For reasons that continue to be perplexing and profoundly enraging, neither the Administration nor the Democratic Party in Congress seems capable of upholding this one basic proposition under which they were rewarded with power in the first place. 

Have a Look

¶ Superlative Mad Men recapping at Tony & Lorenzo. (via MetaFilter) Ben Zimmer on Mad Men-ese. (NYT)

¶ The pancake-flipping robot (on the off-chance that you haven’t seen it already; the iPad wouldn’t let us watch it, and we kept forgetting to check it out at the computer.) PS: we wish we were as coordinated as the robot. (at

¶ “Just How Bad Is the Summer Air Quality in Your City?” (The Infrastructurist)

Weekend Open Thread:

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Daily Office:
Friday, 23 July 2010

Friday, July 23rd, 2010


¶ People who wonder why bullying is suddenly such a big issue may be encouraged to remember that there came a day when the drawing and quartering of criminals seemed wrong somehow. We seem to have arrived at a similar moment regarding schoolyard cruelty among children. Susan Engel and Marlene Sandstrom caution against glib, one-size-fits-all approaches.

But our research on child development makes it clear that there is only one way to truly combat bullying. As an essential part of the school curriculum, we have to teach children how to be good to one another, how to cooperate, how to defend someone who is being picked on and how to stand up for what is right.

To do this, teachers and administrators must first be trained to recognize just how complex children’s social interactions really are. Yes, some conflict is a normal part of growing up, and plenty of friendly, responsible children dabble in mean behavior. For these children, a little guidance can go a long way. That is why the noted teacher and author Vivian Paley once made a rule that her students couldn’t exclude anyone from their play. It took a lot of effort to make it work, but it had a powerful impact on everyone.

Other children bully because they have emotional and developmental problems, or because they come from abusive families. They require our help more than our punishment.

The kind of bullying, though, that presents the most difficulty in figuring out how and when to intervene falls between these two extremes: Sometimes children who aren’t normally bullies get caught up in a larger culture of aggression — say, a clique of preadolescent girls who form a club with the specific function of being mean to other girls. Teachers must learn the difference between various sorts of aggressive behaviors, as well as the approaches that work best for each.

Ms Engel and Ms Sandstrom also note that a successfull anti-bullying program in Norway involves all school personnel, including janitors and bus drivers.


¶ Sally Potter and Tilda Swinton have done a lot of talking lately about their collaboration on the recently-re-opened Orlando (1992). Much as we adore Ms Swinton onscreen, we’re worried about the transponder that’s relaying her remarks from orbit. If you can figure out, from the following, why she gave up stage acting, please let us know. (The House Next Door)

GR: When did you decide on Tilda Swinton for the part of Orlando?

SP: I can’t remember the exact point. What I did know in the early treatments was that the most important, the overarching task actually, was to find a key collaborator who could embody Orlando’s entire journey. People proposed to me at the beginning that we have two people to play the part and that was absolutely a non-starter. So finding that person was obviously crucial.

I saw Tilda in Man to Man [the solo play by Manfred Karge, in which Swinton played a woman who adopted her late husband’s identity in order to keep his job] and I also saw her in a film called Friendship’s Death made by Peter Wollen, and of course knew Derek’s films. There were a couple of things: In Friendship’s Death there was, let me put it this way, evidence of extreme presence. Okay, that was ding. The second thing, in Man to Man, there was this moment, at the very end of the show, Tilda had to take off this wig thing and take a bow. I remember sitting bolt upright in the theater, because there was that presence again and in a twinkling of a flash, there was, first of all, an absolute radiant connection with the audience, and then a coming into the present moment from the play. It was those two things that in my mind added up.

TS: It was the only way that I could imagine taking a bow standing in front of the audience without the disguise, because it was an encounter between me and the audience. I suppose that was the very beginning of the idea of Orlando [addressing the audience]…at that stage, it so happens, I don’t think I had made a film in which I didn’t look into the camera. The very first film I was in, Caravaggio, I remember asking Derek if I can look into the camera, because I was negotiating this relationship with the camera at the time. I was not completely comfortable at being watched, so I wanted to make friends with the camera full on. That also went into my performance work doing Man to Man. That’s one of the reasons why it was the last piece of theater that I ever did. I loved the relationship with the audience so much that I’ve never been a great one for the fourth wall ever since.

SP: The lens is the portal, a very intimate portal to the gaze of the audience, so negotiating that portal is key.

Also: did it really take seventeen years to make and release I Am Love?


¶ Simon Johnson surmises that the most effective regulation under the Dodd-Frank banking reform act may occur in Congressional hearings. (The Baseline Scenario)

The final way in which regulation could actually make progress would be through continued congressional pressure.  It is slightly too early to discern the exact contours of what may be possible, but early discussion suggest we will see established a series of revealing oversight hearings in both the House and the Senate.

Just as the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board appears at regular intervals to explain and elaborate on monetary policy, the chair of the Systemic Risk Council (i.e., the Treasury Secretary) may soon be appearing to discuss the level and determinants of risk in the global financial system.  This is a central concept for the Kanjorski Amendment, the radical language within the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that gives regulators the right and the responsibility to break up big banks when they pose a “grave risk” to the financial system.

Such congressional hearings could become a vague or meaningless discussion, of course.  But the early indications are that there is likely to also be a great deal of substance, e.g., about new methodologies, global developments (such as in China), and even incidents when major firms with “state-of-the-art” risk management systems manage to lose a great deal of money (e.g., as with Goldman Sachs’ equity trading in the last quarter).


¶ In “The Future of Rocket Scientists,” Brandon Keim talks to Chicago’s Andrey Rzhetsky about — well, how it’s the computers that will decide what robots will do, not humans. Sitting down recommended. (Wired Science) Cornell’s Hod Lipson designed a program that discovers equations to explain relationships between data. Researchers then have to figure out what the equations mean. It’s like interpreting an oracle’s pronouncements. Is that the role of the human in all this?

Rzhetsky: It’s an interesting question. I talk to electrical engineers who use genetic algorithms to design circuits, and the circuits end up being completely alien to humans. They’re very robust, but designed in such a way that it’s not obvious how to understand them. That’s similar to what Lipson discovers: non-human logic. In Lipson’s analysis, he wants to make it transparent and understandable to humans. I’m not sure that’s necessary. Some scientists say that being able to crunch huge datasets makes hypotheses obsolete — why worry about testing when you can find connections. You don’t like that idea, though. Why not?

Rzhetsky In the movie Memento, a man has only a short-term memory. Every 15 minutes has to reconstruct causal relationships. He observes people talking to him, and doesn’t know who’s a friend and who’s a foe. That’s my metaphor for abandoning hypothesis and context.

There are a lot of approaches claiming you can reverse-engineer the world from the flow of data. With an infinite dataset, the statement probably gets close to truth. But I don’t think it’s true for individual datasets. Prior hypotheses and contextual knowledge need to be used. So is the role of human scientists to come up with hypotheses?

Rzhetsky: The tools can come up with hypotheses, too.


¶ The wonders of the Internet! A story that we missed earlier this week (you might say that we miss stories for a living) has been picked up by Jenny Diski, at the London Review Blog. You will recall that Ms Diski recently wrote about arsenic; this story involves cyanide.

Moving on from arsenic, we come to cyanide. Is that a kind of maturity? Like going from cheesy triangles to morbiers? What I know about cyanide comes from Agatha Christie or somesuch and is, in totality: smells like bitter almonds. So, you think, why would anyone drink it in their coffee without first wondering if their nearest and dearest were trying to kill them. Answer: because almost certainly Starbucks has an almond syrup latte that has breathed new life into the wife-poisoning industry. Then again people are always knocking back cyanide in their champagne in Christie without complaint, until their hand flies to their throat, their face contorts into a hideous mask and they fall writhing and then lifeless to the ground. Miss Marple and M. Poirot only have to bend their heads down to the lips of the corpse to get a whiff of almonds and know exactly how, why and who done the deed. I suggest you just say no if your beverage smells of bitter almonds.

The wonder of the literary imagination is that Ms Diski easily and amusingly spins a story that’s vastly longer than her source.


¶ A complex referendum system is about to be implemented in Europe, giving half a billion people supernational rights. Will this make people from Poland and Portugal work closely on common causes? Will there be common causes? Note to California: there’s a built-in filter that protects the EU from frivolous fads. (NYT)

The final step is to amass the one million signatures. At that point, the commission would be obligated to propose legislation or give a reason why not within four months. Alain Lamassoure, a French member of the European Parliament who fought to include the initiative in the Lisbon Treaty, said many of the proposed restrictions were reasonable, though some fine-tuning might be needed.

He believes that citizens can make important legislative contributions in areas that are sometimes overlooked, like the complications couples from different European countries face getting a divorce in the European Union, or difficulties transferring education credentials across borders.

But Mr. Lamassoure does not want to hear too much from the citizenry. “Once a month is about right,” he said. “The risk is too little or too much. Once every two years would be too little.”


¶ The Millions has a new intern (?), Ujala Seghal, and she débuts winningly with the confession that she has always been motivated to read books so that she can show off having read them.

It wasn’t that I didn’t care for reading. There were many other proper, compelling books that I had proper, compelling reasons for wanting to read. But I didn’t want to read the books I wanted to read. I wanted to read the books I didn’t want to read. Let me rephrase: There was a divide between the books that I wanted to read, and the books that I wanted to want to read.  And the latter category won over the former time and time again.

No doubt the years have stitched up the gap between what I want to read and what I want to want to read, because only children have that much to prove – right? We’ll see. Several years later, in high school, my English teacher assigned Gravity’s Rainbow to our class. This may come as a shock to no one, but about 100 pages or so in, she gave it up as a bold experiment gone hideously awry. Still, she was an unconventional teacher (there was a sign on the classroom ceiling that said, “If you can’t eat it, smoke it!”), so she gave the few of us who wanted to keep reading the option to form a satellite class. In exchange for being able to skip school, set our own assignments and conduct this “class” at our leisure (responsibilities we handled with unwavering diligence, if I recall), we had to successfully convince her why we wanted to continue with this mad novel when (in what I assume to have been her subtext) we had already demonstrated ourselves to be Pynchon-unworthy morons. ….

I want to read the harder stuff, too. I don’t exactly recall what I wrote to my teacher about Gravity’s Rainbow in school. I probably breezed over the fact that I didn’t understand it much, and that I was intimated both by its size and by the bizarre labels it seems to generate, like: “Requires Proficiency in Calculus for Even Elementary Understanding.” But I do remember writing to her that although I wasn’t quite sure what sort of reader I was yet, I wanted to read Gravity’s Rainbow because I knew that was the sort of reader I wanted to be.


¶ We don’t know whether to laugh or to cry: Rentafriend. (; via The Morning News)

Rentafriend receives 100,000 unique views every month and has almost 2,000 members who pay $24.95 a month, or $69.95 a year, for a log-in and password so they can peruse the photos and profiles of 167,000-plus possible pals.

Christopher Barton, 31, of Boulder City, Nev., first tried Rentafriend about six months ago during a business trip training clients for an online university. Living on the road, he hates to eat alone in restaurants and wants to make the most of his downtime.

“I’m in different cities all the time,” he said. “You kind of get a tour guide to a certain extent.”

He chooses young, attractive women because “I’d just feel weird paying to go out with a guy.” A rent-a-pal in Chicago took him to a fun, hole-in-the-wall restaurant that he never would have found himself. In New Orleans, he and another rental hit Cafe du Monde in the French Market and Jackson Square.

Have a Look

¶ Felix Salmon decodes Jamie Dimon.

¶ How to walk through Grand Central (if it’s not nearby to teach you). (Wired Science)

¶ This just in: the Library of America has a blog. (Thanks, LJL!)

Reading Note:
The Two Georges
Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

I’m reading A Single Man, the Christopher Isherwood novel that Tom Ford turned into a movie. It’s a beautiful book, but it’s cattier and less elegiac than the movie. This has everything to do with the difference between reading a book and watching a movie. It’s difficult to be intimate with movie characters, even when you’re taken to the very center of their turbulent hearts. That’s because they live in such powerfully rendered locations, places (usually) utterly unlike the ones in which you spend your time. The George of the movie inhabits an incredibly stylish house, a real work of architecture, and not the upper-Bohemian treehouse of the book. As Tom Ford’s provisional alter ego, George dresses with the maximum of easy but disciplined self-consciousness. Isherwood’s George probably owns a caftan or two — something a bit ratty from Morocco. On film, George is a grand figure, and his plight is tragic. But precisely because it is catty rather than monumental, the book brings home the full weight of George’s loss, the absence of his one and only love. In the movie, Jim is already dead, a creature of occasional flashbacks. In the book, he still bumps into George in the narrow doorways.

Also, because it is cattier, the novel is better at explaining George’s loss. The movie really can’t do more than attest that George and Jim were very much in love. It’s horrible to lose someone you love. But the book shows why George is one of those people who isn’t going to move on, who’s going to be stuck with his loss. That’s because losing Jim confirms something that George learned early about life, something we’re told about at the beginning of George’s day.

He fixes himself a plate of poached eggs, with bacon and toast and coffee, and sits down to eat them at the kitchen table. And meanwhile, around and around in his head goes the nursery jingle his nanny taught him when he was a child in England, all those years ago:

Poached eggs on toast are very nice —

(He sees her so plainly still, gray-haired with mouse-bright eyes, a plump little body carrying in the nursery breakfast tray, short of breath from climbing all those stairs. She used to grumble at their steepness and call them “The Wooden Mountains” — one of the magic phrases of his childhood.)

Poached eggs on toast are very nice,
If you try them once you’ll want them twice!

Ah, the heartbreakingly insecure smugness of those nursery pleasures. Master George enjoying his eggs; Nanny watching him and smiling reassurance that all is safe in their dear tiny doomed world!

There is an Englishness about this pessimism. You run into it in the odd highly stylized American, but it’s rare. Why it should have become common among the scions of England’s upper classes I have no idea. George Eliot’s contemporaries, no matter how prone to despair, never sulked, and not just because it was ill-mannered. What happened? The end of empire? The vulgarity of democracy? The nihilism of the Flemish trenches?  Somebody is going to raise is hand to remind me that George is a homosexual in an intolerant era. But it’s not that. Everyone in the novels of John Fowles is similarly disaffected, notwithstanding plenteous access to sanctioned booty. It’s as though an intelligent person would be insulted by promise.

Anyway, Jim’s death just proved what George always knew, which is that life sucks. George isn’t going to stick his head out a second time (or so he thinks). There’s nothing particularly homosexual about this “lesson,” either. There are obvious reasons for George’s finding it easier to stick to his resolve than for a straight man’s doing so. Finding a lover whom the world will join you in celebrating is tough enough. Finding a forbidden one has got to be daunting. 

The curious thing about the movie — well, it’s about movies generally. In the book, George is a gay man. In the movie, he’s a man who happens to be gay. There’s a real difference, whether or not there ought to be. You might say that “gay man” is a type of homosexual, in the way that “Don Juan” is a type of heterosexual. Actually, if any straight profile comes to mind in connection with George, it’s Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, not because the men share any kind of erotic interest — they certainly don’t — but because of the fastidiousness of their resentment.

It would have been unappealing to watch Colin Firth impersonate Isherwood’s George. But that’s my point about the movies. So far as I know, a gay man like the George of Isherwood’s novel has never been the protagonist of a conventional feature film, even though that’s not what “conventional” means anymore. If I’m not complaining that Tom Ford failed to do justice to Isherwood’s novel, it’s because I’m not sure that I want to watch a movie about Isherwood’s George. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that I’m very happy to read about him.

Daily Office:
Thursday, 22 July 2010

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010


¶ The good news about a New Scientist roundup of AIDS-fighting developments is that there’s good news — especially about that vaginal gel. The bad news is that AIDS is slipping into company with all the other diseases that disproportionately victimize the poor.

In covering the microbicidal gel results, the NYT also mentions a study of 3800 Malawian girls that finds that small cash payments to them and their families – between $1 and $10 per month – reduce HIV infection rates. Just 1.2 per cent of the girls who received cash contracted HIV after 18 months, compared to 3 percent of the girls who did not receive payments. The larger the payment the less likely the girls were to turn to older men for sex, cash and gifts, underscoring the link between poverty and HIV.

That connection holds in the developed world, too. In a study of urban heterosexuals living in the US, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found high rates of HIV infection among the poorest. Those living below the poverty line were twice as likely to have HIV than better off people living in inner cities – 2.4 percent versus 1.2 per cent, Reuters reports.


¶ We don’t know anything about “pedigreed” film critic Armond White (or, if we did, we forget), but his brazen dismissal of Roger Ebert brought on one of those Stop And Think moments that make our day. (/Film; via The Awl)

I do think it is fair to say that Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism. Because of the wide and far reach of television, he became an example of what a film critic does for too many people. And what he did simply was not criticism. It was simply blather. And it was a kind of purposefully dishonest enthusiasm for product, not real criticism at all…I think he does NOT have the training. I think he simply had the position. I think he does NOT have the training. I’VE got the training. And frankly, I don’t care how that sounds, but the fact is, I’ve got the training. I’m a pedigreed film critic. I’ve studied it. I know it. And I know many other people who’ve studied it as well, studied it seriously. Ebert just simply happened to have the job. And he’s had the job for a long time. He does not have the foundation. He simply got the job. And if you’ve ever seen any of his shows, and ever watched his shows on at least a two-week basis, then you surely saw how he would review, let’s say, eight movies a week and every week liked probably six of them. And that is just simply inherently dishonest. That’s what’s called being a shill. And it’s a tragic thing that that became the example of what a film critic does for too many people. Often he wasn’t practicing criticism at all. Often he would point out gaffes or mistakes in continuity. That’s not criticism. That’s really a pea-brained kind of fan gibberish.

Aside from the silliness of the “pedigreed” claim — liberal arts degrees carry no authoritative weight with us (although we believe that everyone ought to have one!) — we do see a good point lurking in Mr White’s invective. A good critic is someone who helps you to understand something that is otherwise a bit out of your understanding’s reach. A fan is someone who tells you that the movie is worth the price of a ticket — and here’s what you’ll like about it. In that sense, Mr Ebert is a fan. But he talks to people who want to hear from a fan. He is a maven, an unprofessional expert. Most people don’t want a critic’s help. To the extent that understanding something new involves changing anything fundamental about your way of thinking, most people are rosoundingly not interested in the service, thank you very much. And that’s just how it is.

Mr White can’t have it both ways, though: Roger Ebert can’t have destroyed film criticism if he never engaged in it.


¶ What we can’t help loving most about Felix Salmon’s thinking is his optimism about smaller institutions prevailing over larger ones. Yesterday, Felix tackled a story, by colleague Matt Goldstein, about how big retail banks believe that they ought to be allowed to become even bigger. Having noted that he has seen no evidence that economies of scale increase beyond a $10 billion asset level has been passed (and he notes that one Wall Street branch of Citibank alone — and not its principal one, either — carries $1.5 billion in deposits), Felix turns his attention to an Accenture report that notes consumer disinterest in “one stop shopping.”

This says to me that there’s a big opportunity right now for smaller banks to capitalize on the unhappiness that the big banks’ customers are feeling. (Not many holders of WaMu checking accounts are exactly overjoyed right now to be banking with Chase.) And as free checking slowly disappears, there will surely be a move to consolidate the many different accounts that people are now opening into one relationship institution. While there are reasons to use a big bank for such purposes, there are also reasons to use someone more local, where they know you personally, and where you’re not at the mercy of some balky computer.

One of the things I’m looking forward to finding out about BankSimple is the degree to which they’ll interact with their customers personally, over the phone, via email, and via Twitter and Facebook, applying human intelligence on a case-by-case basis. It’s high-touch, but also high-reward, if customers end up essentially giving them all their money as a result. What’s more, that kind of thing very hard to scale to a monster organization, the hiring of Frank Eliason by Citi notwithstanding. Small banks can be nimbler and more responsive, and can become very profitable for their owners in that sweet spot between say $1 billion and $10 billion in assets.


¶ Ed Yong sends his sputum to 23andme; a month later, he receives his DNA analysis. How cool is that? What’s cool is, precisely, Ed’s very grown-up assessment of the service, which, despite its designer’s best efforts, is not, in his view, for everyone — or possibly even for most people. All the information in the world does not make us better at assessing risk. (Not Exactly Rocket Science)

These problems are inherent to the different companies, the tests they use and the information they provide. But further problems arise when that information enters the brains of the customers, where it often comes crashing against an inability to process information about risk. For all the careful phrases around risks and uncertainties, some folks are going to treat their report as nothing more than a sophisticated horoscope, given extra weight by the spectre of genetic determinism. For example, one brown-eyed community member was told that their genes predicted a high probability of having blue eyes with just a 1% chance of having brown eyes. They found the results “unsatisfying” and “confusing”. And this is a trivial example – the emotions that accompany a risk prediction for a severe disease must be even more potent, and especially so for people who aren’t well-versed in genetics.

Clearly, some will need more help than others at interpreting their results and that help will come at a premium. Not every jobbing health professional will have the knowledge to advise people about the implications of their genetic tests. Specialised genetic counsellors exist and 23andme will refer you to one, but you pay for the service out of your own wallet. This comes on top of the standard cost of the test, which would set the average customer back by $499.

I have mixed feelings about whether the cost is justified. The results are wonderful fodder for the curious and the confident but their limitations (especially for non-white ethnicities) prevent them from being of any obviously practical value to your health. This may change over time as more data flood in and the price starts to fall. But this doesn’t feel like a technology where there is a real benefit in being an early adopter.


¶ We think that John Koblin’s story about Gerry Marzorati and the Times has all of the essential ingredients for a multi-planed meta-loaded novel about Gotham hipsterissimo. A bunch of people edit a chic magazine for a living (the Sunday Times), and of course they’re good at that, for a while at least (nothing lasts forever). But how good at they are presenting themselves to outsiders who ask “What Went Wrong?” The issue of whether Megan Liberman is an “abrasive woman” or a smart cookie who can see the bullshit in “bookish” could take up chapters all by itself. A gifted novelist — calling Jennifer Egan! — could look into Lynn Hirschberg’s eyes when she says, “It makes me sad. I don’t dislike or hate Gerry at all. I feel things went wrong somehow.”  In other words: don’t expect Mr Koblin’s story to clear up a thing. (The Observer; via The Awl)

When looking back at his tenure, Mr. Marzorati twice made the point that he served longer than his predecessor. Yet Adam Moss, the current editor of New York magazine, had a celebrated tenure at The Times Magazine and also had a markedly different style than Mr. Marzorati’s. He was hands-on and wanted to be involved with every decision. There were lots of meetings, and lots of conversations about nearly every page. Mr. Marzorati, who was Mr. Moss’ deputy, has had a different style: He likes to delegate power and puts a lot of trust and authority in his deputies and story editors.

“I think Gerry is a very democratic person,” said Stefano Tonchi, the former editor of T Magazine, who took over Condé Nast’s W Magazine earlier this year.

When all the magazines at The Times were doing well, staffers saw Mr. Marzorati’s approach as a blessing. But by the time budgets started to dwindle, his style was reinterpreted. “When there’s a hands-off approach, when things are going well, everyone’s happy,” said one former staffer, “and when things aren’t going well, it feels like no one cares.”

During the difficult time, some staffers said, Mr. Marzorati seemed to lose some of his energy. “I think I and others felt that Gerry was less ambitious and less engaged in those last couple years,” said a former staffer.

“I don’t even know if he changed, or the situation changed, but that enthusiasm that he had for contemporary culture and art and design and fashion and music somehow was still a part of his life, but not in his magazine,” said Mr. Tonchi.


¶ In The Nation, Eric Foner reviews two books about the Confederacy and its aftermath that constructively disrupt a few assumptions that were lying around in our attic. It turns out that, as a polity — as distinct from a fighting machine — the Confederacy was not as unifed as we Yankees might have thought — or been encouraged to think when the War was over.

McCurry begins by stating what should be obvious but is frequently denied, that the Confederacy was something decidedly odd in the nineteenth century: “an independent proslavery nation.” The Confederate and state constitutions made clear that protecting slavery was their raison d’être. Abandoning euphemisms like “other persons” by which the US Constitution referred to slaves without directly acknowledging their existence, Confederates forthrightly named the institution, erected protections around it and explicitly limited citizenship to white persons. McCurry implicitly pokes holes in other explanations for Southern secession, such as opposition to Republican economic policies like the tariff or fear for the future of personal freedom under a Lincoln administration. Georgia, she notes, passed a law in 1861 that made continuing loyalty to the Union a capital offense, hardly the action of a government concerned about individual liberty or the rights of minorities.

The Confederacy, McCurry writes, was conceived as a “republic of white men.” But since of its 9 million people more than 3 million were slaves and half of the remainder disenfranchised white women, the new nation faced from the outset a “crisis of legitimacy.” However much the law defined white women as appendages of their husbands, entitled to protection but not a public voice, and slaves simply as property, Southern leaders realized early that they would have to compete with the Union for the loyalty of these groups, treating them, in effect, as independent actors. The need to generate consent allowed “the Confederate unenfranchised” to step onto the stage of politics, with their own demands, grievances and actions.


¶ At The Millions, J P Smith writes about how he set about reaching his goal of reading Proust in the original, with only three years of (forgotten) high-school French — via, interestingly, the work of Patrick Modiano, which inspired his own first novel.

Adopting French as a second reading language gave me two worlds through which my own work could be filtered. As a novelist (far less so as a screenwriter), I find that reading in two languages has a way of enriching one’s own work. When reading in French I’m really stepping beyond myself and my world, and it’s this tiptoeing into another culture and another way of viewing things, that allows me to look back over my shoulder and find perhaps a whole new way of telling my own story.

¶ Meanwhile, Jean Ruaud muses about “moins” — less — so suavely that we daydreamed that he has kitted out his Paris flat not with stuff but with information. (Mnémoglypes)

Donc l’information, j’aime. Envoyez à pleins tuyaux. Par contre plus ça va plus je pense à me dépouiller du maximum de biens matériels. Les biens matériels ne me rendent pas plus libres, ils m’encombrent, ils m’attachent. Ne serait-il pas mieux de les réduire au minimum de confort dans la société moderne? En restant bien sûr relié au reste du monde et aux sources d’informations via les gadgets informatiques qui me sont devenus indispensables. Plus j’y réfléchis plus je pense qu’on peut se passer d’un tas de choses et en particulier de la consommation effrénée de trucs qui ne servent à rien sinon à affirmer un statut et à calmer notre anxiété. L’informatique moderne et l’Internet et les trucs comme l’iPad et/ou l’iPhone pourraient nous y aider.

Needless to say, we are dying to hear that our friend has acquired an iPad!


¶ When we were students, teachers were like nannies: if they had personal lives, we never saw them, and we assumed, thinking back later on, that many of them hadn’t had personal lives, just to avoid the complications. Like so much else in the world, that is changing. Not so long ago, we’d have read Josh Barkey’s account of tacitly sharing the breakup of his marriage with his private-school students with a toss of our head: what was he thinking? But we can’t bring ourselves to conclude that, just because he’s a teacher, Mr Barkey has no right to write his life in blog form. Perpend. ( Good)

By that time, I had completed the rough draft of my memoir and had removed it from the internet to begin the laborious process of rewriting until my forehead bled. The administration stood by me but, sadly, the student in question was withdrawn from the school and I was left with a melancholic taste in my mouth and a whole lot of questions in my mind: Did I do the right thing, posting such an intimate, personal story on a public forum my students could access? Could/should I have done more to keep them from finding it? When I knew that they were reading it, should I have changed the content, or even taken it offline?

I don’t know. It has been a struggle, all this year, to search for the balance between honesty and professionalism. While I feel that the students crave reality and that it is my obligation as an art teacher and a human to try and give it to them, I understand that I am a representative of my employers both in and out of the school building. In a private institution such as the one where I teach, I do not believe I have the right to say and do whatever I darn well please when I walk out the doors at the end of the day.

Have a Look

¶ Does this make us laugh because we’re big fans of Mike Judge’s Extract, and couldn’t help thinking of Beth Grant’s character? (FAIL)

Gotham Diary
Old or New?

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

New slipcovers arrived today, and were fitted on the pair of love seats that belonged to Kathleen’s grandmother. I had the idea, which Kathleen (and Quatorze) went right along with, of not covering the love seats as a pair. So the sofa under the window is covered in the Elsie de Wolfe fern-patterned linen that The Aesthete wrote up several months ago, while the love seat with its back to the door is covered in a thick, almost quilted mint green cotton, with pink piping.  The linen slipcover fits its love seat like a glove, but the chintzy cotton is bulky and non-conforming, too tight here and too loose there — obviously a slipcover. As Quatorze put it, we’ve got a Newport/Palm Beach situation going.

When the man from the upholsterer was through, Quatorze and I went out for lunch, and then I went to the barbershop for a trim. I had planned to walk over to Agata & Valentina afterward, but it was so hot and humid when I stepped out of the barber shop that the next stop had to be home. In the evening, after a Chinese dinner from Wa Jeal (Wu Liang Ye that was), Ms NOLA and I walked over to Carl Shurz Park, where The New Yorker and Penguin Books were showing Little Miss Sunshine. There was a strong breeze by the river, and it didn’t seem particularly hot or humid, but the three-block walk home left me near to soaking. We watched about half an hour of the wonderful film; tumblers of white wine on the rocks at dinner meant that I couldn’t do without plumbing for very long.

In the Times this morning, I read that Apple has sold more than three million iPads. The figure is strangely weightless, like how old Will is, or, for the matter of that, how old the iPad is. Will is nearly seven months old, which seems like a lot most of the time but which often seems ridiculously too-short, as if life only seven months ago, without Will, were reclaimable. Life without Will is as departed and gone as it would be if he were my age. Similarly: life without the iPad. I can think of nothing that has ever changed my every day life with anything like the speed of the iPad. So, the fact that 3.3 million iPads are out there seems like a lot, for about a nanosecond. 3.3 million is about 1% of this country’s population; it’s vanishingly small in terms of the world’s. The main thing is, though, that I’m ready. Ready for there to be thirty or three hundred million iPads.

Or so I tell myself.

The funny thing about the new slipcovers is that they make the living room look the way it used to look, long ago — long long ago, before we actually lived here, it must be: the for the living room has never like this during our tenancy. But it looks like it has looked like this before. It most certainly does not look new.

Which may explain why it no longer seems quite so desperately important to repaint the room, or to replace the draperies. The usual consequence of putting something new in a room is to make the stuff that was already there look worn and dowdy. Not so this time. It’s as though the new slipcovers arrived in some prewashed, well-worn condition.

I don’t think that we had any conscious of plan of reviving a room that we remembered from the past. But that is the effect, at least for me. I feel, sitting in here this evening, that something has been restored.

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010


¶ The first three paragraphs of Jeff Bezos’s remarkable commencement address to Princeton’s Class of 2010. A clever man talking to clever kids draws a vital line. (via

As a kid, I spent my summers with my grandparents on their ranch in Texas. I helped fix windmills, vaccinate cattle, and do other chores. We also watched soap operas every afternoon, especially “Days of our Lives.” My grandparents belonged to a Caravan Club, a group of Airstream trailer owners who travel together around the U.S. and Canada. And every few summers, we’d join the caravan. We’d hitch up the Airstream trailer to my grandfather’s car, and off we’d go, in a line with 300 other Airstream adventurers. I loved and worshipped my grandparents and I really looked forward to these trips. On one particular trip, I was about 10 years old. I was rolling around in the big bench seat in the back of the car. My grandfather was driving. And my grandmother had the passenger seat. She smoked throughout these trips, and I hated the smell.

At that age, I’d take any excuse to make estimates and do minor arithmetic. I’d calculate our gas mileage — figure out useless statistics on things like grocery spending. I’d been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. I can’t remember the details, but basically the ad said, every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off of your life: I think it might have been two minutes per puff. At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per days, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on. When I was satisfied that I’d come up with a reasonable number, I poked my head into the front of the car, tapped my grandmother on the shoulder, and proudly proclaimed, “At two minutes per puff, you’ve taken nine years off your life!”

I have a vivid memory of what happened, and it was not what I expected. I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and arithmetic skills. “Jeff, you’re so smart. You had to have made some tricky estimates, figure out the number of minutes in a year and do some division.” That’s not what happened. Instead, my grandmother burst into tears. I sat in the backseat and did not know what to do. While my grandmother sat crying, my grandfather, who had been driving in silence, pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. He got out of the car and came around and opened my door and waited for me to follow. Was I in trouble? My grandfather was a highly intelligent, quiet man. He had never said a harsh word to me, and maybe this was to be the first time? Or maybe he would ask that I get back in the car and apologize to my grandmother. I had no experience in this realm with my grandparents and no way to gauge what the consequences might be. We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

Mr Bezos’s grandfather’s timing could not have been better.


¶ Philip Bell’s plea for more musical education will probably fall on deaf ears — the deaf ears of older people. We must hope that younger people are listening! It strikes us that, as a fundamentally social act, music-making ought to be more prominently features than individualist-oriented “art.”(Nature News; via 3 Quarks Daily)

Yet all these benefits of music education have done rather little to alter a common perception that music is an optional extra to be offered only if children have the time and inclination. Ethnomusicologist John Blacking put it more damningly: we insist that musicality is a rare gift, so that music is to be created by a tiny minority for the passive consumption of the majority8. Having spent years among African cultures that recognized no such distinctions, Blacking was appalled at the way this elitism labelled most people ‘unmusical’.

Kraus and Chandrasekaran rightly argue that the marginalization of music training in schools “should be reassessed” in the light of the benefits it may offer by “improving learning skills and listening ability”. But it will be a sad day when the only way to persuade educationalists to embrace music is via its side effects on cognition and intelligence. We should be especially wary of that argument in this age of cost-benefit analyses, targets and utilitarian impact assessments. Music should indeed be celebrated (and studied) as a gymnasium for the mind; but ultimately its value lies with the way it enriches, socializes and humanizes us qua music.


¶ John Cassidy’s excellent piece on Paul Volcker reminds us that the former Fed chairman is arguably the most authoritative voice in American economics. No quant he! (The New Yorker)

Volcker’s skepticism about bankers and other financiers dates back to his days at the Fed, where he opposed the Reagan Administration’s efforts to deregulate the banking system. In 1982, Congress passed the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act, which gave struggling thrift banks (also known as savings and loans) the right to make commercial loans. (Previously, they had been restricted to residential lending.) The legislation was intended to enable thrifts to earn higher profits, and it was strongly supported by Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, the former head of Merrill Lynch. Volcker repeatedly disagreed with Regan and with other members of the Administration. Referring to the S. & L.s, he told his staff, “Give ’em commercial lending power, and they’ll end up with all the bad loans.”

This is precisely what happened, and Volcker regards the S. & L. crisis, which ended up costing taxpayers about a hundred and eighty billion dollars in today’s money, as a template for the financial catastrophe of 2007-08. Unlike many economists, who regard financial innovation as generally a good thing, he is suspicious of many things that today’s big financial institutions do, such as creating complex securities and building elaborate mathematical models. Last December, at a conference in England for banking executives, he said that the most important banking innovation of recent decades was the A.T.M.

Volcker is driven by a sense of moral urgency. For years, financiers motivated by the prospect of short-term gains—traders, investment bankers, quantitative analysts, hedge-fund and private-equity-fund managers—have been extracting outsized monetary rewards, while insisting that they earned them by creating wealth for their clients and making markets more efficient. Then came the crisis of 2007-08, in which misguided financial engineering brought down the entire economy. Speaking to the conference in December, Volcker said, “Wake up, gentlemen. Your response, I can only say, has been inadequate.” In an era accustomed to the circumlocutions of Alan Greenspan and the anodyne public statements of Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Volcker’s outspokenness insured that his statements were widely noticed. “He’s got a well-defined view of finance that is very refreshing,” notes Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago professor who is the chief economist of the White House advisory board that Volcker chairs. “He says, ‘You’ve gotta keep an eye on these guys. If you give them the chance, they will use their market position to line their pockets.’ That’s an important world view.”

It’s also an attitude that Volcker extends to his family. A few years ago, Volcker’s eldest grandson, who is a math whiz, informed him that on graduating from college he was planning to become a financial engineer. “My heart sank,” Volcker told me. (After working for a couple of years


¶ We love Google to pieces &c &c, but we have to insist that Google’s “renewable energy” deal is far more virtual than actual. (Good)

When a wind farm generates X units of clean electricity, it gets two valuable things. First, it gets the electricity itself, which can be sold out on the market alongside electricity generated in other ways. But it also gets “Renewable Energy Credits,” which are certificates that those X units of energy are clean. An energy consumer can buy those renewable energy credits from the renewable energy producers (or on an open market) to satisfy requirements they’re under to use a certain amount of renewable energy. When that happens, the buyer has, essentially, bought the right to call X amount of energy use “renewable” (and the seller loses that right). This system achieves a few goals. First, it puts a special premium on clean energy. Second, it allows energy consumers who are far away from the sources of renewable energy to still “use” renewable energy by buying RECs.

Who’s stopping Google from moving its servers to North Dakota?


¶ It seems only right that the magazine for those who read it “for the articles” is aiming to become “the go-to site for those who are bored at work.” Please weldome — Playboy made SFW! From Don Babwin’s AP report at Yahoo:

The site, named after one of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s favorite pieces of clothing ( was taken), won’t include the long interviews or in-depth articles found in Playboy.

Instead, it’s meant to be decidedly un-serious. Or, in the parlance of its audience, ROFL — rolling on the floor, laughing. And cool, “basically a juke box of cool,” said Jellinek.

Among the original content visitors to the site will see is a list of signs that show a man has given up trying to attract women. They include wearing Velcro sneakers and pants with elastic waistbands — clothing Hef wouldn’t be caught dead in, if he thought of wearing anything but his trademark jammies.

The site will dip into the Playboy archives with photographs like those from the 1983 Playmate Playoffs, in which bathing suit-clad women competed in games such as a tug-of-war. There will be links to the kinds of things people are already e-mailing their friends, from funny moments on television shows such as “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show” to a Korean Parliament brawl that’s been a big Web hit recently.

(via The Morning News)


¶ Meanwhile, in Managua, Daniel Ortega throws a party for himself, celebrating what former colleagues but now disenchanted opponents dismiss as a “retro-tropical dictatorship with a God complex,” in the words of reporter Tim Rogers. It is sad to read how democracy works in Nicaragua today. (Real Clear World)

Though the Sandinistas represent only 35 percent of Nicaragua’s population, the military discipline and ideological fanaticism make them the most tenacious political bloc in the country. So much so that an M&R Consultants poll released last week shows that if the 2011 presidential elections were held today, Ortega would win with 54 percent of the vote, thanks to a 100 percent Sandinista turnout and an abstention rate that could reach as high as 50 percent among the rest of the population, which has little faith in the country’s election process.

For many ex-combatants who fought to defend the revolution against U.S.-funded contra invaders in the 1980s, defending Ortega’s continuity in power now is part of the same struggle that has shaped their lives.

“For us, the re-election of Daniel is necessary so that there will be continuity in his revolutionary project,” said former Sandinista combatant Santos Abaunza, a jovial man who turned out to the plaza wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and a red-and-back Sandinista bandana. “I think Daniel needs at least another two terms in office (10 years) so that the revolutionary project will be firmly installed.”


¶ Tim Parks’s forthcoming memoir, Teach Us To Sit Still, sounds like a fascinating study in holistic illness. Here’s tantalizing tidbit from his Foreword. (Guardian; via The Second Pass)

To date I have written twenty books, with this twenty-one. I may have shaken off my parents’ faith, then, but not the unrelenting purposefulness they taught me, that heady mix of piety and ambition. And like my father I have lived under a spell of words. He read the Bible and wrote his sermons. He told you what was true and how you mut behave. Rhythmically, persuasively, the way politicians do, and the pundits of opinion columns; the people who know everything and are sure of themselves. My novels have tended the other way, suggested how mysterious it all is, how partial anyone’s point of view, how comically lost we are. But even this is preaching of a kind. The fact is, as soon as you start with words you’re locked into a debate, forced to take a position with respect to others, confirming or rebutting what has been said before. Nothing you say stands alone or is complete in the present: it has its roots in the past and pushes feelers into the future. And as we grow heated, marking out our corner, staking our claim, we stop noticing the breath on the lips, the tension in our fingers, the presurre of the ground under our toes, the tick of time in the blood. None of my father’s admirers noticed how tense his jaw was, how much his hand shook when he raised a glass or microphone, what an effort it was for him to assert assert assert, to keep the 2000-year-old faith, giving encouragement to the doubters, finding clever arguments to confound the devil’s advocates. When I think back on Dad’s cancer and death — he was sixty and I twenty-five — there is a certain inevitability about it. Forever ignored, the carnal vessel cracked under strain. Sometimes I think it was the invention of language that started this queer battle between mind and flesh.


¶ If you don’t read anything else all week, make time for Kyle Minor’s interview with Greg McCaw at The Rumpus. Mr Minor is a straight man who lost his faith; Mr McCaw is a former music pastor who, because he eventually came out as a gay man, lost his job. The dignity, decency, and humanity of this conversation makes it a treasure. And the good news is that today’s young people are almost certain to make a better world.

Minor: Do you think evangelicals are starting to change their minds about issues related to gay, lesbian, and transgendered people? Do you think the evangelical movement as a whole will ever change its positions?

McCaw: Yes and no. Yes, in that institutionally churched people always mimic the general population. Look at any social issue: abortion, divorce, etc., the rate of incidence is the same in churches as it is in the general population. Of course, there are as many LGBT persons, percentage-wise, in the church, as there are in the general population. The increasingly strong trend is no doubt in favor of acceptance of LGBT persons at all levels in the West, and this is trickling into the churched population as well. The truth is that the entire world is changing around them, and they will have to change as well in order to survive. And that is the bottom line of any institution: Survival. Some people and some churches will, of course, never change, but they will be the vast minority. In fact, some of the best motivation toward change in faith is coming from inside faith groups themselves. I am encouraged by the attitudes of younger persons. Within the next ten years, these same younger persons will begin to take the leadership positions in all faith groups. This will lead to enormous changes. The modern mindset [ed.: It is common in contemporary evangelical discourse to speak of the “modernist” evangelical mindset giving way to the “postmodernist” mindset. These categories are mainly used to describe competing dominant generational ideas about the relationship between the church and the broader world, and they don’t seem to have much to do with the way these terms are ordinarily used in discussions of, say, T.S. Eliot or Robert Coover], while fighting to the death, is slowly giving way to a new era of thinkers. That is why I remain encouraged and dearly hope to be influential in this kind of change, not just about LGBT issues, but also about poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, and creation care. I believe that younger people of faith will begin to lead us back to some good news.

Have a Look

¶ “What You See When a Kingfisher Is About to Eat You.” (Visual Science)

¶ Felix Salmon’s Summer Book Giveaway.

Lisa Chodolenko’s The Kids Are All Right

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Lisa Chodolenko’s California comedy, The Kids Are All Right, runs a crack express train through a series of predictable plot points in order to delight us with some of the most extraordinary theatre that I’ve ever seen at the movies. She does not allow her film to clutter with questions about what’s going to happen next; she wants to create a stage on which to make us wonder what it feels like to be someone else when the usual things happen. If we’re sophisticated theatregoers, we may be forgiven for wondering just how Julianne Moore or Annette Bening will negotiate a sharp turn ahead, but both actresses do such a good job that it’s really very difficult to imagine them in other roles. Not that I didn’t try: I summoned Ms Moore’s quiet housewife in Far From Heaven, and Ms Bening’s exuberant actress in Being Julia, but all I got were ghosts. I had to forget about Moore and Bening and focus instead on Jules and Nic, the lesbian couple at the center of the movie, with their two children and some unexpected business with the man hitherto referred to as “our sperm donor.”

Jules and Nic are like any married people — different from one another. The fact that they’re both women means nothing, a point that this movie never lets us forget. People don’t come together and settle down because they have common interests, or because they share a common temperament, or for any other characteristic similarity. That’s not how love works. Over time, people rather helplessly grow, sometimes in painfully different directions; sometimes, as here, in an unconscious harmony that seems, in unforeseen crisis, both inexplicable and unlikely. People become middle-aged: tired of themselves, terrified by the collapsed panorama of the future, and desperate for reinvigoration. People make mistakes. In The Kids Are All Right, Jules makes a terrible mistake. It’s such a common human mistake that Ms Chodolenko is able to present it as a comic pratfall, and we laugh when it happens. But we’re not conspirators. The mistake has no importance aside from being a mistake. Thereafter, the movie becomes grave about the consequences of mistakes, and the difficulty of cleaning up after them. The triumph of it all is that we don’t mind this shift from laughter to gravity.

Jules and Nic are not even similarly sympathetic. We don’t side with either one of them when Jules’s mistake comes to light — a triumph for the actors and the director. Sure, we’re going to see Nic as a pain. But we’ll see Jules as a passive and irresponsible person as well. Because the women are so clearly presented as different people, we’re no more sure that they ought to stay together than they are. Atg no point does Ms Chodolenko allow us to root for “the couple,” that invisible third party to every marriage. It’s very clear that Jules’s mistake has destroyed “the couple,” so that if she and Nic do stay together, they’ll have to grow a new one. Which is just as well: “the couple” is what middle-aged married people are usually tired of most of all.

Jules and Nic are also “the parents,” but the permanence of this more material relationship is also opened to question. What does parenthood mean, exactly? Jules is the mother of Laser, a gawky fifteen year-old of whom she says at one point that it would be nice if he were gay, because then he’d be more sensitive. Nic’s daughter, Joni, is a bright but serious girl who is the film’s one unfailingly attractive character. But what about their father? Is a sperm donor a father? Perhaps. But the real question is this: does a sperm donor get a quick pass to join the family that wouldn’t exist without him? The film answers this question with a very firm negative.

Paul, the sperm donor, is of course the man with whom Jules makes her mistake. He’s a nice guy, but the sudden longing for personal wisdom that’s kindled by meeting his children does not mean that Paul can grow up fast enough to assume a place at the family table. He may have good advice for his kids, and they may take it to their advantage, but all the well-meaning in the world can’t compensate for Paul’s violation of the family’s integrity. It’s pretty clear that Paul doesn’t think much of lesbian relationships; he’s not offended by them, but he clearly believes that Jules’s demonstration of a taste for having sex with him means that she is ready to ground herself in a real relationship, with a man. This misconception does not make Paul a bad person, but it renders him a lousy family member, and we know what Joni means when, at the end, she says that she wishes that he had been “better.”

Mark Ruffalo is magnificently credible as a decent man who has committed a gross indecency. Perhaps it would be better to charge him with participating in one; it is always plain as day that Jules has succumbed to his charms without the benefit of overt invitations to do so. Certainly Paul sees himself as fundamentally innocent; he really believes that the four people whose lives he has derailed will accept his heartfelt apology and absolve him. Again, Ms Chodolenko shoots down the nascent ghost of the “couple” that Paul feels to be enveloping him with Jules. We are strongly discouraged from hoping that any relationships will survive simply because they have persisted for a time or, more germanely in a movie theatre, because they appealed to our ideas of what good relationships look like.

Because Ms Moore plays the sinning partner, we wouldn’t be surprised if she were otherwise perfect, the better to highlight her guilt. But Jules is actually something of an idiot. Whether or not there is justice to her complaint that Nic thwarted her career (whatever that might have been) because she wanted Jules to stay at home with the children, Jules is certainly a woman who has become unfamiliar with the kind of rigorous thinking that makes Nic a successfully obstetrician. Jules knows how to cajole approval out of Nic, but this doesn’t mean that she actually deserves it. She buys a truck for her new landscaping business (complete with handsomely signed doors) before she has any actual clients, and she fires a steady worker because she has embarrassed herself in front of him. Jules is also something of a slob, and like slobs generally, unaware of her personal carelessness. Nic tut tuts, plucking hair from their bathtub drain. It never seems to cross Jules’s mind to make sure that Nic won’t find her hair in places where it doesn’t belong.

Annette Bening fights very hard for Nic, just as Nic would fight hard for anything that she really believed in, and that’s what seals the success of Ms Bening’s amazing performance. We are always aware of Nic’s packeted consciousness: when she’s not entirely interested in what people are talking about, she tries, unsuccessfully, to hide her ennui; but when she is interested in the conversation at hand, she is, scarily, much too interested. Ms Bening gives us a woman whose belief that she doesn’t have to worry too much about what others think of her is an unholy compound of self-righteousness and contempt. Nobody — certainly nobody at home — is, in Nic’s view, entitled to have an opinion about her. And this turns out to be the strength that enables her to save her marriage. She is convinced that the world that she has built with her lover and her children is paramount, and it’s the force of this conviction that keeps Paul beyond the pale. Paul may be momentarily attractive, but that does not make him good or right — not for Nic’s family, anyway.

The scene in which Nic tries to digest what she has just discovered about her lover’s infidelity will have a permanent place in the gallery of great movie scenes. While Ms Chodolenko embalms Nic in a windy roar that blocks out what everyone else is saying at the dinner table, Ms Bening looks this way and that, and you hope that she is not going to stop and stare at you, because that would be a Medea moment. Without looking devastated or “old,” the actress gives us a middle-aged woman who has just suffered a terrible blow and doesn’t know how to respond. Will she expire on the spot, in apoplectic despair? Or will she rage ruinously with the crockery? It is wonderfully, horrifyingly open to question what she will do in this, the film’s one and only moment of unpredictability. Then the bubble bursts, and Nic is clinking glasses in a toast with everyone else. Whatever Nic is going to do about her fresh hell, she is not going to do it in front of Paul.

The full power of the scene will not be visible, however, when it is excerpted, for quite aside from what happens to Nic in this nightmarish minute, or what happens to everyone else as a result, there is the miracle of what happens to us. As I say, the scene transforms us from a laughing audience into a grave one. By taking us deep inside Nic’s furious confusion, Ms Chodolenko not only makes the very idea of comedy seem inappropriate but opens up the larger vistas of tragedy and redemption without making us feel that she has changed the rules. Rueful comedies often collapse into “serious” finales, which we endure with the grudging reluctance of a child being given a dose of something unpleasant. In The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Chodolenko transubstantiates that medicine into theatrical nectar.

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Have a Look

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

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

Reading Note:
Enough With the Cleverness
Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado

Monday, July 19th, 2010


As I was reading the last pages of Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, it occurred to me that the defining characteristic of literary fiction these days is cleverness. It’s not enough to tell a good story and to tell it well — if it were, then we’d have heard a lot more, in mandarin quarters, about the excellence of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. The mandarins want something more, a twist, a parable, a parody.

Vladimir Nabokov did cleverness very well, but what makes other writers want to imitate him? It must be the clean blue flame of Nabokov’s agility that lures them. For Nabokov is never a difficult writer. James Joyce is difficult: on the simplest level, it is not easy to know what he is trying to say. Nabokov’s writing, in contrast, is never opaque. His references are clear even if the referents are not. Whether or not you can follow them, you’re not stopped in your narrative’s tracks. It may sting a bit to register the presence of jokes and allusions that you don’t get, but the clever writer (unlike the difficult one) does not condition his text’s intelligibility upon his reader’s broad learning. You move along; you fall under the spell of Lolita.

I was thinking about cleverness because, when he stops being clever and settles down into straightforward prose, Miguel Syjuco is one of the best writers I’ve come across in ages, and certainly one of the top male novelists.

In the evenings we ventured beyond permission, three of us boys pressed together on my tiny motorcycle, our heads unhelmeted, our legs bent, our feet held an inch off the ground — to visit girls we planned to admire, to half dance, half pose at the open air discos, to marvel and pity and squirm at the freak shows in the fiestas with their naked bulb and the sounds of gambling and the scent of fallow fields. We courted our crushes. Brought them to movie houses that screened films without show time, coming in halfway through and watching the end, then the beginning, then the end again.

Oh, for a book written like this, from beginning to end!

Not that Ilustrado is a bad read. One you’ve penetrated its atmosphere — assuming that your interest hasn’t been toasted, first by a somewhat miscalculated Prologue, and then by the welter of ostensible extracts from fictional fictions — you grasp that the novel winds two narrative strands. two life stories that mirror one another. There is the biography-in-progress of Crispin Salvador, a Philippine writer living in artistic exile in New York City, written by one of his students, our narrator, (also) Miguel Syjuco; and there is the (longer) story of Miguel’s trip to the Philippines to research Salvador’s life. The would-be biographer and his subject, although a generation apart in age (if not more), come from similar backgrounds in the Philippine elite. The families of both are headed by politicians, both are and beset by epic, historic disasters. Both men are haunted by daughters with whom they are not in touch. The doppelgänger trope is worked through to its logical conclusion, with an Epilogue written in the voice of the Prologue’s subject, not that of its narrator. Strewn between these paired expositions are extracts from the work of Crispin Salvador. If I were better read in Philippine literature, I would describe these patches as a gallery of locally-inflected genre writing: folk tales, historical fiction, noir, comic book/science fiction — even literary autobiography. All very clever, needless to say, but hardly more welcome to the appreciator of Mr Syjuco’s default prose style than fallen timber on a remote roadway.

Not that Miguel’s cleverness — I speak of the book’s narrator — isn’t delightful. Mr Syjuco is fundamentally, I think, a humorist who genuinely likes the absurdities of homo sapiens sapiens; I can’t remember laughing so hard at no one’s expense. Unless of course, it is at the expense of the narrator himself, as he chronicles the breakup of a two year romance with a girl called Madison, half Filipina, half American.

For so long, we made plans. Being in love is all about making plans. Or maybe it was just us. Everything was outlined, researched, and refined. Our nonreligionist wedding ceremony. Our ecofriendly funerals. We wanted to be wed somewhere sacred, yet not under the eyes of any god except our love, our selves, and, as Madison said, the wonderful communion of the humanity close to us. We wanted to be buried outside of cemeteries, under trees, in muslin shrouds, close to the earth that would easily reclaim us; we wanted our relatives to avoid carbon emissions and instead hold secular memorials for us in the cities where they lived. We planned the sound track of our lives (Lakme’s aria for her matrimonial march; the bridge in Eric Clapton’s “Layla” for my funeral cortege). We talked about adoption as the only moral choice for the world today, and debated about which country we’d rescue an orphan from. Sometimes, though, Madison would say: Maybe I’d like to have one of our own; or, Maybe it would be nice to be married in a cathedral. To which I’d reply with logic and reason.

The charm of Mr Syjuco’s touch not only makes this harmless youthful narcissism amusing but also prevents our feeling superior to the the too-young lovers; if we’re at all honest, we remember being just like this, once. Ilustrado is shot through with a kindness that is sadly uncommon in men.

In the middle of the book, Miguel talks about Crispin Salvador with two older Philippine writers, each of whom has a different reason for deprecating Salvador’s output. That he wrote in New York City is a predictable offense; more subtle is the complaint that Salvador wrote “more about Filipinos than for Filipinos.” A besetting problem at the frontiers of Anglophone literature is the nationalist issue of cui bono: who is supposed to benefit? It is a false issue, of course, because the principal mission of modern Anglophone literature is its effacement of national boundaries, which it dissolves into cultural differences, and its insistence on a unified community of Anglophone readers. That’s who benefits: people like me, reading in New York City, at the heart, you might say, of the culture; my sensibilities tested and enriched by familiarization with the initially exotic inflections of English as it is spoken, written, and thought in by men and women in the Philippines. Paradoxically, it’s the capturing of what’s unique to foreign parts that situates a writer squarely within our literary tradition. The critic who wants more literature “for Filipinos” harbors the unconscious delusion that the opportunity to read about themselves would encourage more Filipinos to read. That this is nonsense is made clear in a very funny fight scene between Miguel and his grandparents, early in the book.

I steeled my voice. “This is about my short story. Right? I knew I shouldn’t have shown you the magazine. It’s always this way. Why do you think the father figure is always you?”

“I’ve never understood why you can’t just write nice stories. Stories your grandmother would like and can show off to her friends.”

“Granma, is that what this is all about?”

Granma spoke up. Her voice was surprisingly angry. “Why can’t you write nice things?” Her voice softened. “Why would anyone read your story and want to visit our country?”

“A writer has to talk about the things that go untalked about.”

Grapes banged his pillbox on the table. “Don’t argue literary aesthetics with your grandmother,” he said. “She’s right. You are always trying to shock. You have all this horrible stuff in your work. Not very Christian things. Not very patriotic. And you say things that are not yours to say.”

I pray that Miguel Syjuco will write more as a Filipino, with less regard for the current craze for cleverness. I’m happy to forgive the distractions of Ilustrado; the novel would never have attracted the attention that it did without the razzle-dazzle virtuosity. Now that he has demonstrated that he can write like us, however, let’s hope that he will write like himself. Finding out how to do that ought to keep him plenty busy. (July 2010)

Daily Office:
Monday, 19 July 2010

Monday, July 19th, 2010


¶ Over the weekend, Matt Bai published a thoughtful piece about the generational nature of Tea Partying. We love this kind of optimism — everything will be fine when we’re dead. (NYT)

But the insidious presence of racism within some quarters of the movement — or, maybe more accurately in some cases, an utter indifference toward racial sensitivities — shouldn’t really surprise anyone. That’s not necessarily because a subset of these antigovernment ideologues are racist, per se, but in part because they are just plain old — at least relatively speaking. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in June, 34 percent of Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 — and 29 percent of voters 65 and older — say they agree with the movement’s philosophy; among Americans 49 and younger, that percentage drops precipitously. A New York Times/CBS News poll in April found that fully three-quarters of self-identified Tea Party advocates were older than 45, and 29 percent were older than 64.

This does not mean that there aren’t hateful 25-year-olds coming to Tea Party rallies and letting fly racial slurs. What it does mean is that a sizable percentage of the Tea Party types were born into a segregated America, many of them in the South or in the new working-class suburbs of the North, and lived through the marches and riots that punctuated the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. Their racial attitudes, like their philosophies of governance, reflect their complicated journeys. (This is true for a lot of older, urban Democrats, too, who consider themselves liberal but whose racial commentary causes their grandchildren to recoil.)


¶ Anne Midgette talks to Naxos chief Klaus Heymann about the facts and figures of classical-music CD sales, which are about the only kind of CD sales that look better than half-dead. (Washington Post; via  Arts Journal)

[As for regular sales:] right now, in the first five months our recording of the Spohr concerto for 2 violins sold 7,000 worldwide. Then Vaughan Williams, “Dona nobis pacem,” 6,000 in only 3 months. 4,500 Vaughan Williams Sacred Choral Works. Alsop Dvorak Symphonies 7 and 8, 4,000 in only two months. Petrenko Shostakovich 8 Liverpool also about 4,000 in only 2 months. Khachaturian cello concerto also about 4,000. Haydn Stabat Mater from Trinity New York also 4,000, but that’s not selling so strongly any more. Roussel Symphony No. 4 also 4,000 in 4 months.

It’s a very odd repertory nowadays. It’s in many ways gratifiying that all this material [is selling]. Of course with sales of 4,000, you’re not making any money. [What really sell are things like] The Best of Chopin, which is is probably now up to 300,000 or 400,000 in total. Most of what is downloaded on iTunes is this kind of thing. They download the whole album. [As for our other releases,] many of these things will eventually reach 6, 7,000. Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem with orchestra and chorus, in copyright, probably loses us $10,000 or $15,000. But long term, with all our other revenue sources, we’ll probably break even.


¶ Even though we’re not entirely sure what Tyler Cowen is talking about here, we sense that he is correct to set the former productivity of currently unemployed workers at zero. (Output has recovered, but employment has not.)

Some people identify the zero marginal product hypothesis with the “hopeless dregs of the earth” description, but the two are not necessarily the same.  Complementarity, combined with some fixed initial factors, can yield zero or near-zero marginal products of labor.  (You’ll see the phrase “excess capacity” used in this context, though that matches the oligopoly hypothesis more closely.)  The “dregs of the earth” view is pessimistic, but the complementarity version of the zero marginal product idea can be quite optimistic, predicting a very rapid recovery in the labor market, once the interactions turn positive. 

The “dregs” and the “complementarities” views also have different policy recommendations.  The dregs view implies either hopelessness or a lot of fundamental retraining or ongoing assistance, while the complementarity view leads one to ask how we might mobilize positive complementarities (rather than leaving orphaned factors of production) more quickly.  Perhaps there are some fixed factors, such as managerial oversight, and entrepreneurs do not want to strain those fixed factors too hard.  How can we make such fixed factors more replicable or more flexible?

Clicking through, we also agree with Arnold King’s comment about unemployment among older educated workers. (Library of Economics and Liberty)

Older workers may suffer from a human capital vintage problem. Their education and experience may have become obsolete rather suddenly, because of globalization and technological change.


¶ Some of the most interesting psychological work being done today concerns pricing — always a mysterious subject. There’s something very heartening about the results yielded by Ayelet Gneezy’s theme-park experiment yielded. Of four pricing options — fixed price; voluntary price; fixed price inclusive of charitable contribution; voluntary price inclusive of charitable contribution — the last was the surprising winner, both with customers and for profitability.

But when customers could pay what they wanted in the knowledge that half of that would go to charity, sales and profits went through the roof. Around 4.5% of the customers asked for a photo (up 9 times from the standard price plan), and on average, each one paid $5.33 for the privilege. Even after taking away the charitable donations, that still left Gneezy with a decent profit.

The tastiest findings concerned freeloading:

There’s more evidence to back up this idea in the experiment – when Gneezy added a charitable donation to the pay-what-you-want scheme, fewer people bought the photo. The option to name your own price attracts a lot of cheapskate customers, who may not actually want the product very much, and who aren’t prepared to pay much, if anything, for it.

We missed this interesting piece at Not Exactly Rocket Science last week; happily, there’s Marginal Revolution to catch us up.


¶ The Epicurean Dealmaker (of all people) is piqued (by Peggy Noonan) into making some astoudingly assured remarks about wise men.

It is an old saying, but true nonetheless, that the wise person is certain of little but his or her ignorance. A wise man is wise enough to know what he does not know. He believes the world is too mulitfarious, changeable, and miraculous a place to put much trust in feeble humanity’s ability to comprehend and control it as we would wish. Therefore, a wise man counsels caution, and encourages us to pay attention to our ignorance—what we do not and cannot know—as we make our way through life.

A wise man does not provide answers. A wise man asks questions, and encourages us to ask questions of ourselves. For this reason, Peggy Noonan’s implicit identification of the Best and Brightest as “the wise men” of the Vietnam era is flat wrong both chronologically and conceptually. JFK’s whiz kids were a bunch of brilliant, arrogant young Turks, not a collection of grizzled old veterans of the Second World War or the Korean War. And they did not have or offer any questions at all: in contrast, they had all the (in retrospect, wrong) answers. They didn’t offer wisdom. They offered an agenda.

But here’s the rub, Dear Readers. If our beloved wise men, wherever we find them, cannot or will not provide the answers, then we must come up with them ourselves. We may value their sage counsel and radical skepticism concerning the source and security of our own apparent knowledge and opinions, but we’re gonna have to make the difficult decisions ourselves. Wise men counsel caution and care; we the living cannot help but act. If we are truly listening, our wise mens’ counsel will only make those decisions and actions harder to take.

Which is not to say we should not find them, and employ them, and value their advice. But we must understand that cultivating the path of wisdom does not lead to the answers to life—if any such childish fantasies exist. It merely allows us to test and practice our courage in the face of the ineluctable Unknown.

Never forget: every wise man started out a simple fool like you or me. He learned wisdom by questioning, by learning, and by doing. There is no secret stash of wise men waiting at WalMart for us to purchase.

It is time we manned up and learned to become our own wise men.

Hear, hear!


¶ Is Little England dissolving in Greater Anglophonia? That’s what we took away from Linda Colley’s arrestingly interesting coverage of two new books of “English History.” Boyd Hilton’s 1783-1846 contribution to the New Oxford History suffers by comparison with James Belich’s Replenishing the Earth. How can you write about England without taking into account the drainage of millions of its people, during Hilton’s period, to colonies and other parts of the world?  [P]

One of the major reasons why is brilliantly set out in James Belich’s Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1783-1939. Reading these two formidable and formidably long books back to back is to be alerted to how much the writing of British (and English) history has changed and diversified in recent decades. When the early volumes of the original Oxford History of England were published in the 1930s and 1940s, historians of Britain who hailed from other parts of the world, or worked there, tended usually to defer in their methods and interpretations to those prevailing in the ‘mother country’. Now, British-based historians are increasingly likely to find sections of their own past being rewritten and revised by overseas scholars in different, sometimes uncomfortable, but generally fruitful ways. Belich is a New Zealander of Croatian descent, and his book is an argument against both British and American historical exceptionalism and parochialism.

At one level, Replenishing the Earth helps to explain why the ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ people of England and its adjacent countries were usually kept within political bounds after the 1780s, despite exponential population growth and an explosion of new ideas and economic stresses. As Belich demonstrates, this was due not simply to the contrivances of political actors within Britain, but also to the fact that substantial numbers of its potentially ‘dangerous’ people moved somewhere else. Before the 1780s, British settlement overseas had lagged behind Spanish emigration to the Americas and elsewhere. But ‘after 1780, and especially after 1815’, ‘Anglos’ drew ‘ahead in the settler races’. Whereas some half a million souls emigrated from the ‘British Isles’ in the 18th century, at least 25 million did so between 1815 and 1924, of whom some 18 million never returned. A parallel mass movement of human beings occurred on the other side of the Atlantic. Before 1776, London had restricted westwards migration from its mainland American colonies, in the hope both of maintaining peace with indigenous peoples and of keeping a close eye on its own white settlers. But after the Revolution, American movement westwards surged, not steadily, but in explosive bursts. Between 1815 and 1930, 12 million American-born individuals migrated to the middle and western regions of their continent. So did millions of others born elsewhere. In 1830, Chicago contained half a dozen houses and a few Indian tepees. Sixty years later, it was home to more than a million people.


¶ At 3 Quarks Daily, Colin Marshall interviews David Lipsky, author of the recent David Foster Wallace book, Although Of Course You End Up Being Yourself. We liked these nuggets about the archaic period of DFW’s celebrity, when it was limited to a “campus following” (and to Pauline Kael!).

His first book came out my last year in college, and you’re always looking out, saying, “Hey, who else is publishing?” It was this giant book that was incredibly smart. I’m laughing because he had very mixed feelings about that book. He says to me, Broom of the System — that’s his first novel — “had a lot of fans, but unfortunately they’re all about eleven.” His book of stories came out about two years later, which he was much harder on than we were. When that book came out, I was in New York trying to find ways to write and also not feel incredibly tense and nervous in supermarket lines.

That book came out, and everyone passed it around; it was one of those books were other writers and other really smart readers would say, “Look, you have to read this.” I’d say, “Oh man, another Wallace book, this is great.” There stories in there that were just incredibly sharp. There’s a critic David really loves who we talk about in the book names Pauline Kael, the New Yorker‘s critic for a long time, really a brilliant writer. Wallace was making this march toward the capital city of readers.

About four years after that book came out, Pauline Kael was giving her last interview; she’d retired from the New Yorker. She just mentioned, kind of out of the blue, that her favorite two short stories by a young writer in the last couple of years has been two stores from that book: the story about Lyndon Johnson called “Lyndon”, and the story about a young actress going on the David Letterman show called “My Appearance”. At Rolling Stone there’s a thing we do every year called the “Hot List”, where we say, “Here’s what’s coming that you have to pay attention to.” It became a bit of a joke in the meetings we had every year: me and some other people kept saying David Foster Wallace. After a couple years, those meetings would begin with people saying, “Look, don’t say David Foster Wallace.” There was this great thing in late ’95 when his cruise ship piece came out and literally everybody in the city who read seemed to be talking about it. We could turn to the magazine and say, “Look, he’s great!”


¶ Ben Brantley remembers the thrill of bumping into Greta Garbo in Midtown (in 1985) — and rather misses the times when stars could be intensely private people. (NYT)

A hunger abides in us to see mere mortals approaching perfection and I, for one, would just as soon not be asked to separate the dancer from the dance, or for that matter the beauty from the beauty. (Imagine Garbo visiting “America’s Next Top Model” to give tips on eyebrow plucking.) Artists of any kind — and that includes pop stars — are almost never as interesting as their art. And those with a superstitious resistance to describing what they do professionally are not wrong. (Note to Lady Gaga: Keep the masks on and the interviews to a minimum.)

When we first fall in love with people, they always seem remote, unattainable. Holding on to love after you’ve crossed the divide between you and the object of your desire is a chapter in achieving maturity; it’s what marriage is supposed to be. But there’s a part of us that needs to keep falling in love with the girl in the mists in the distance or the boy riding away on a horse. You’ve been there, I’m sure, and you know what happens when these dream girls and boys open their mouths or scratch themselves. The mystery dissolves like fog at sunrise. [Emphasis supplied]

Gotham Diary:
Foreign Movies

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

Ms NOLA and I went to see Io sono l’amore (I Am Love) on Friday afternoon, and the movie stuck with me overnight and well into yesterday. I’m going to have to see it a few more times before I can speak intelligently about it, because it’s a High Italian work of art. By that I mean that its style is that of big, painterly canvases. It is not quite the glossy spectacular that the trailer and the news images suggested, but it is as distinctly and pervasively styled as a movie by, say, David Lynch.

It reminded me of the big mid-century Italian classics, by Visconti, Pasolini, and even Antonioni. Like an early Antonioni movie — Le amiche, say — the story was intelligible enough without being altogether straightforward. There was none of the grand mystification of the wonderful Monica Vitti movies — mystification that, if we’re honest, looks a lot like psychopathology now. (Shouldn’t she be on medication?) I was telling Ms NOLA about L’Eclisse; about how fascinated I was, watching the film for the first time in college, by the existential malaise of the breaking-up lovers at the start of the movie. They’re in perfect health, and they don’t have any money worries, and yet they’re wretched. I was green with envy! I wouldn’t have minded being wretched as I was, as an undergraduate, if only I could have been spared my fiscal woes (my allowance was never remotely adequate — I had a library to build!) and my anxieties about classes (which I more than once failed simply by not showing up for the exam). I accepted being a mess; L’Eclisse showed me that it was possible to be a very stylish mess. This is also a lesson of I Am Love.  

In the event, however, I stopped being a mess when I stopped having to worry about money and grades. I have no aptitude for angst. Not hearing from Kathleen when she’s traveling can send me to the inner circles of hell, but the agony vanishes without a trace the moment I hear her ring. And I no longer allow worries to fester. If something’s bothering me, I do what I can do to make it stop. This usually involves placing a call to Kathleen. (I need a new dentist, though.)

Luca Guadagnino, the writer/director of I Am Love, really knows what he’s doing. I’ve rarely tasted the irony-infused satisfaction that was sparked by watching an unwitting footman carry dishes of fish soup to a dinner table, knowing as I did that the principal ingredient of the broth was Disaster, and that it wouldn’t even have to be tasted to work its poison. Really, the moment was right up there with Dante and Boccaccio.