Archive for August, 2010

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010


¶ Much as we liked James Surowiecki’s column in this week’s New Yorker, “Are You Being Served?,” we wish that it were a tad more penetrating. Take the following incontestable observation:

For a start, most companies have a split personality when it comes to customers. On the one hand, C.E.O.s routinely describe service as essential to success, and they are well aware that, thanks to the Internet, bad service can now inflict far more damage than before; the old maxim was that someone who had a bad experience in your store would tell ten people, but these days it’s more like thousands or even, as in Carroll’s case, millions. On the other hand, customer service is a classic example of what businessmen call a “cost center”—a division that piles up expenses without bringing in revenue—and most companies see it as tangential to their core business, something they have to do rather than something they want to do. Although some unhappy customers complain, most don’t—one study suggests that only six per cent of dissatisfied customers file a complaint—and it’s tricky to quantify the impact of good service. So when companies are looking for places to cut costs it’s easy to justify trimming service staff, or outsourcing. The recession has aggravated the problem, as companies have tried to cut whatever they could—the airlines, for instance, have trimmed payrolls by sixteen per cent since 2007—but even in more prosperous times there was a relentless emphasis on doing more with less. That’s how you end up with overworked flight attendants, neglected passengers, and collective misery.

It seems pretty clear to us that “most companies have a split personality when it comes to” human beings. And this is only natural: the modern company, boosted by the extraordinary leaps in productivity that were realized by the Industrial Revolution, has always sought to employ as few human beings as possible. It is for the machines to do the work; in an ideal world, machines can run the factory as well. And who were the customers of large companies? Other companies. It is difficult to imagine, but until the Second World War, the different kinds of mass produced goods intended for the general public could all be sold through a few catalogues and some not-very-large stores.

“The Consumer Society” has been, by and large, a nighmare for the modern company. And, in the everlasting fashion of modern companies, it has simply passed on the headache of that nightmare (the cost of doing business) to customers and employees alike.


¶ Anisse Gross begins her interview with the incredible kinetic sculptor Arthur Ganson with what might be the stickiest question that one could ask: what distinguishes Ganson’s constructions from amusing toys? Be sure sure to click through to The Rumpus and enjoy the YouTube clips of Ganson’s art.

The Rumpus: I was thinking about something Hegel wrote about truth and the way truth impresses itself upon our consciousness and that it can’t happen unless it’s through an emotive or sensory experience.  I think that in your art there’s a deeply emotive place, and yet it walks a fine line, because some of your machines will have this tiny literal narrative but then it’s really just suggestive of this larger bigger mystery.  How do you walk that line and prevent your work from just becoming just a visual pun?

Arthur Ganson: Well, I feel very rooted in wanting to make work that exists purely in the physical realm but I see the physical object as a kind of a conduit, and this whole question of truth and what’s true. I can’t prevent anything and I don’t want to try to, so to whatever degree someone were to look at anything and have the sense that it was for them a visual pun and if that’s where it resided then that’s the truth of it.  And I feel very comfortable with any and all interpretations because I know that they are all personal.  I think when we talk about the truth I feel that whatever that truth is it has to be personal.  And there’s no right or wrongness to it.  There can’t be a right or wrongness to it, because the object itself is both clear and ambiguous.  I think that’s an interesting place, a catalyst, enough information to go from but not so much that it could define it.  I think it really depends on any person’s capacity to dream.  Because really it’s about dreaming.

(We think that it has something to do with his work’s blend of mechanical parts — cogs, rods, wheels, and so on — with more organic elements, such as the bentwood chair in Machine With Chair.


¶ At Baseline Scenario, guest Ilya Podolyako outlines the improvidence of relying, as the Dodd-Frank Act does, upon clearing houses to stabilize the market in derivatives. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Herein lies the problem. A clearinghouse is a private business that puts its own money on the line. It works by ensuring that its members are actually well-capitalized institutions capable of paying for bets they made, and thus closely scrutinizes the risk profile of each participant’s portfolio on an ongoing basis. This access permits a clearinghouse to observe otherwise opaque OTC markets with great precision and provide valuable data on concentration, exposure, and capitalization to regulators. Meanwhile, under normal circumstances, the clearinghouse can neither borrow from the Federal Reserve nor receive government backing for its capital. So what could go wrong with using these organizations to grab control over derivatives?

Well, while in theory the model sounds good, history has demonstrated that private sector risk aggregators routinely underprice systemic, correlated risk. AIG provides the most startling example of this behavior. From 2005 to 2008, its Financial Products group essentially acted like a clearinghouse gone mad, willing to become the counterparty to nearly every bet by writing billions of dollars (in then-notional, subsequently real value) worth of credit default swaps without holding on to capital or hedging its reference product risk. A similar tendency to charge too little for catastrophic risk undermined the finances of MBIA (initially formed by a consortium of principal insurance companies in a structure reminiscent of the OCC) and AMBAC, the main monoline insurers, whose credit ratings were rapidly cut during the credit crisis. Fannie and Freddie are even better examples, because government housing policy exacerbated their natural tendency to underestimate the likelihood of fat-tail events and charge too little for their guarantees of conforming RMBSs.


¶ In case you’re bothered this evening by a grouch who believes that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket &c, you might consider passing on this bit of news: archeologists working in Turkey have discovered evidence of “successful” brain surgery (ie, it didn’t kill the patient) among reamins of a Bronze Age settlement. (New Scientist)

You have found what appear to be scalpels.

That’s right. We have just found two cutting blades made of obsidian, a volcanic glass that forms a sharp edge when it fractures. The obsidian must have been imported from another region as there is no natural source of it in the area. We found the blades next to a circular clay platform that may have been used for religious ceremonies. The blades are double-sided, about 4 centimetres long, and very, very sharp. They would still cut you today.

What makes you think they were used for surgery?

We have found traces of cuts on skulls in a nearby graveyard. Out of around 700 skulls, 14 have these marks. They could only have been cut with a very sharp tool. At this time, 4000 years ago or more, it could only have been an obsidian blade. The cut marks show that a blade was used to make a rectangular opening all the way through the skull. We know that patients lived at least two to three years after the surgery, because the skull has tried to close the wound.

No evidence of Bronze Age anesthetics is mentioned.


¶ Having mistaken Elif Batuman, author of the wildly popular lit crit romp, The Possessed, to be a person of the masculine gender, Ujala Sehgal, our favorite Millions intern, attempts to make amends. As penance, the author suggests that she buy the book.

At first I couldn’t find The Possessed in the Barnes and Noble on 6th Avenue where I sought it, but the salesperson at the information desk, his eyes lighting up in recognition, walked me purposefully to its spot.

“It’s pretty popular for a book on Russian literature,” he remarked good-naturedly.

“Well, she’s very funny,” I agreed, possibly with an excess of familiarity.

“Oh, do you know her?”

“Well… you know… we’ve corresponded!” I trilled demurely, in a manner suggesting we’d been hand-writing deeply personal letters to each other for years and were practically the best of friends, instead of having emailed exactly once.


¶ Was anybody else surprised by the absence, from Steve Coll’s Pakistan piece in this week’s Talk of the Town, of the word “feudal“? It’s true that we’ve felt a bit wild throwing “feudal” around in our discussions of the broken rump of the Raj — or did, that is, until we read Sabrina Tavernise’s story in Saturday’s Times, “Upstarts Chip Away at Power of Pakistani Elite.”

In elite circles, Mr. Dasti is reviled as a thug, a small-time hustler with a fake college degree who represents the worst of Pakistan today. But here, he is hailed as a hero, living proof that in Pakistan, a poor man can get a seat at the rich men’s table.

Mr. Dasti’s rise is part of a broad shift in political power in Pakistan. For generations, politics took place in the parlors of a handful of rich families, a Westernized elite that owned large tracts of land and sometimes even the people who worked it. But Pakistan is urbanizing fast, and powerful forces of change are chipping away at the landed aristocracy, known in Pakistan as the feudal class.

The sooner American voters understand that our foreign policy has been propping up a “feudal class,” the sooner our foreign policy will make sense. (“Maybe yes, maybe no,” you counter; but you can’t profess a faith in democracy — American democracy in this case — without believing that it must be so.)


¶ At Good, Mark Peters laments the perverse misusage of the term “Orwellian” — “It’s as if we called criminal scum “Batmanistic” because Batman is so effective in beating them senseless” — but acknowledges that the pigs are out of the barn:

While I do think there is something sketchy about the many cries of Orwellianism, I believe there are three things that can be done about it: zip, nada, and diddly. Outrage at the watering down of “Orwellian” is not that different from other language peeves. For example, some folks cling to what was once the established meaning of “nauseous,” insisting that it can only mean something that causes the queasies. These quirky hardliners say it should never be used to describe a person who feels funny in the tummy, even though that sense has been common since the late 1800s, which hardly qualifies it as newfangled. More recently, look how this Jersey Shore doofus has basically ruined the word “situation,” or at least basted it with a mimbo-ish flavor. That’s the worst case of word abuse since Dubya ruined “Mission accomplished,” but these things happen.

Language change may make us nauseous, but complaining about it is as useless as a chimpanzee pundit saying chimps aren’t pant-hooting the way they used to, and that chimps these days don’t even know a pant from a hoot. Language evolves, and even the name of a great author isn’t safe.

Hopefully, Mr Peters’s piece will be read by all.


¶ It goes without saying that we had to read anything with a title as wrong-headed as this: “Urban Legends: Why suburbs, not cities, are the answer.” The further we got in Joel Kotkin’s piece, however, the righter it all seemed, provided that we understood it to be about the deleterious impact of unnecessarily large business organizations, not that of population densities. Cities don’t produce poverty. Mr Kotkin reverses his cause and its effect. (Foreign Policy: via Real Clear World)

Consider the environment. We tend to associate suburbia with carbon dioxide-producing sprawl and urban areas with sustainability and green living. But though it’s true that urban residents use less gas to get to work than their suburban or rural counterparts, when it comes to overall energy use the picture gets more complicated. Studies in Australia and Spain have found that when you factor in apartment common areas, second residences, consumption, and air travel, urban residents can easily use more energy than their less densely packed neighbors. Moreover, studies around the world — from Beijing and Rome to London and Vancouver — have found that packed concentrations of concrete, asphalt, steel, and glass produce what are known as “heat islands,” generating 6 to 10 degrees Celsius more heat than surrounding areas and extending as far as twice a city’s political boundaries.

When it comes to inequality, cities might even be the problem. In the West, the largest cities today also tend to suffer the most extreme polarization of incomes. In 1980, Manhattan ranked 17th among U.S. counties for income disparity; by 2007 it was first, with the top fifth of wage earners earning 52 times what the bottom fifth earned. In Toronto between 1970 and 2001, according to one recent study, middle-income neighborhoods shrank by half, dropping from two-thirds of the city to one-third, while poor districts more than doubled to 40 percent. By 2020, middle-class neighborhoods could fall to about 10 percent.

Cities often offer a raw deal for the working class, which ends up squeezed by a lethal combination of chronically high housing costs and chronically low opportunity in economies dominated by finance and other elite industries. Once the cost of living is factored in, more than half the children in inner London live in poverty, the highest level in Britain, according to a Greater London Authority study. More than 1 million Londoners were on public support in 2002, in a city of roughly 8 million.

Have a Look

¶ Ted Wilson, housesitting, kills the neighbors’ dog. (The Rumpus)

¶ Ask for directions and save thou$ands. (Good)

¶ Linda “Lovelace” declines to provide an autograph, but sort of does so, anyway. Good for her. (Letters of Note)

Morning Snip:
Days From Death

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Double Dangler: “Days from death, Fla. wildlife officials free plastic jar that was stuck on bear cub’s head.” At Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum pretends to scratch his head:

Who was just days from death? Well, this is a headline, so we have no prior context, so we don’t initially know. But we see that someone is days from death, and the comma tells us that this is an adjunct introducing a clause that is almost certainly going to tell us, so we read on, and we hit the main clause subject: Florida wildlife officials. We are all mortal, and some day every Florida wildlife official must prepare to meet the Creator of all wildlife, so it is the most natural thing in the world to take them as the target of predication that we need, and we fill it in: we understand (for a split second) that some Florida wildlife officials were just days from death. So now, what did they do?

And at that point we learn that they freed a plastic jar. Even though they were dying. The story is getting stranger and stranger. Next we learn that the jar was freed from the embarrassing predicament of being stuck on a young bear’s head. Still not a lot of sense to any of it. But we read on, and finally we encounter the explanatory sentence: “Biologists say the cub was days away from death because the jar made it impossible to eat or drink.” OK, puzzlement over. The cub was just days from death, the jar was on the cub’s head, the wildlife officials are fine, they freed the cub from its jar-imprisonment by freeing the jar from its bear-attachment, everything is now clear.

(via Felix Salmon)

Daily Office:
Monday, 30 August 2010

Monday, August 30th, 2010


¶ What’s this? Golf courses promote biodiversity? In England, it appears, a study that looked at over two hundred links found that a large majority were as ecologically beneficial as parks and preserves. The bottom line is, as usual, that we didn’t know as much as we thought we did. (via The Awl)

Not only is our knowledge of the totality of species poor, but so is our understanding of how species will adapt to environments altered by human intervention. While it may be true that the salamander would have been pushed to the brink of extinction had development proceeded unchecked around the Springs, this doesn’t mean that other species wouldn’t have thrived in unanticipated ways. One school of ecological thought rests on the premise that “biodiversity often peaks” in ecosystems that have been moderately disturbed by human development. Given this point, it’s worth noting that an influential land developer in Austin wanted to build a series of golf courses in the vicinity of the sacred pool. Could such an aggressive form of human intervention into the comparatively natural landscape have actually fostered species diversity?

The question seems heretical until you start looking into the research being done on golf courses and biodiversity. Writing in the journal Ecosystems, two Swedish scientists found that a large majority (63 percent) of the 200+ golf courses they studied in the UK “were found to have ecological values similar to or higher than nature-protected sites” such as forest areas, state parks, and biological preserves. They concluded that “golf courses play an essential role in biodiversity conservation and ecosystems management.” This is no anomaly. Other studies have found that golf courses can provide ideal ecological niches for a variety of species, that they are often a reservoir for bumblebee populations, and that “green keepers can contribute greatly to conservation by providing . . . habitats for endangered local species.” Habitats like that for the Barton Springs salamander.


¶ Although we’re still enthusiastic about going to the movies, we agree with Bob Lefsetz, writing at The Rumpus, that “If you truly want to succeed in the entertainment industry today, if you want to have a long career, you’ve got to think small.”

You’ve got to do exactly what you want, appealing at first to only those inside, who get it. Ratings/sales might start slow, but you’ve got longevity. Jay Leno reaches more people, but Jon Stewart means more. You believe in Jon Stewart, you tell your friends about “The Daily Show”. “The Tonight Show” is something you watch between your toes before you fall asleep and forget about as soon as you shut off the TV. Like the radio hits. Who wants to hear them once their time in the spotlight is done?

I can’t say that I watch a lot of TV. But I find it more satisfying than going to the movies.

The small records, released independently, are the ones that touch my heart, that I testify about.


Ever wonder why so many of the Top Forty wonders can barely play clubs? And acts most people have never heard of can work year after year on the road in theatres and arenas?

We don’t live in the mainstream world the mainstream news outlets tell us we do. We live in an alternative universe.


¶ At Weakonomics, Philip offers one of those contrarian, too-good-to-be-true solutions to an everyday problem — pet animal overpopulation, in this case — that really ought to be put to the test right away.

Instead of paying a fee to register your animal with the county, how about the county pay you a fee? A hypothetical budget of $200k a year goes to running an animal shelter. It can cost about $100 or so to fix a dog. Cats can be done for a fraction of that. The government will eat this cost and also give you a check for $100 for getting your animal fixed. They’ll also chip your animal in case it goes missing. At that price the county could fix 1000 animals a year with the same budget. But then that leaves no money for operating a shelter. The humane society is interested in taking over shelters in some areas. Some humane societies are no kill but others do put animals to sleep. But they have advantages that animal control does not. First, they operate with volunteers, which is much cheaper to run. Second, many have networks of foster parents, which can house animals with the facilities are over capacity. Third, they can raise money much faster than a county government can while still charging adoption fees.


¶ Jonah Lehrer writes about that most Proustian of science topics, time and memory. Why does time seem to slow down in a crisis? (The Frontal Cortex)

It turns out that our sense of time is deeply entangled with memory, and that when we remember more – when we are sensitive to every madeleine and sip of limeflower tea – we can stretch time out, like a blanket. This suggests that the simplest way to extend our life, squeezing more experience out of this mortal coil, is to be more attentive, more sensitive to the everyday details of the world. The same logic should also apply to our vacations. If we want our time off to last longer, then we should skip the beach naps and instead cram our days full of new things, which we will notice and memorize.

Furthermore, the link between the perception of time and the density of memory can also work in the other direction, so that it’s possible to increase our memory by speeding up our internal clock. In 1999, a team of psychologists at the University of Manchester demonstrated that it was possible to tweak our “pacemaker” by exposing people to a sequence of click-trains, or acoustic tones that arrive in rapid progression. It turns out that such click trains accelerate our internal clock – it beats a little bit faster – which means that everything else seems to take just a little longer. (Perhaps this is why, when companies put us on hold, they always play sluggish muzak – the adagio sounds might slow down our clock, thus making the frustrating experience of waiting on the phone pass more quickly.)

A new study, by the same Manchester lab, uses click trains to explore the implications  of this accelerated tick-tock. It turns out that when our internal clock is ticking faster, we don’t just perceive the external world as moving slower – we can actually remember more about it. In other words, our sense of time isn’t just a perceptual illusion, but instead seems to regulate the pace of information processing in the brain. When it ticks faster, we can process more. It’s like getting a faster set of microchips embedded in the cortex.


¶ From a site that we’ve begun following: I Like Boring Things. What to do when a conference called “Interesting” is canceled? There’s something almost daring about hosting a deliberately Boring Conference — considering all the inadvertent ones. 

So now I am having to think about numbers and venues and things. Interesting is held in the lovely Conway Hall. The first year they limited the tickets to 200 (which sold out immediately – I was lucky to get one) and I think they increased that to 350 for the later ones (which also sold out immediately – I was lucky again). The tickets were £20 each. Boring will be smaller, much smaller. I doubt we’ll sell more than fifty tickets, and I don’t think we could charge more than a fiver. That doesn’t give us (I keep saying “we” and “us”, at the moment it’s just me, I’m sure other people will help though, right? Guys? You’ll help, won’t you? Guys?) much money to play with. We’ll need a small-ish venue, preferably with some sort of projector to connect to a laptop. I can’t really think of anywhere suitable off the top of my head. I had considered The Mission Room in Exmouth Market as I once went to a thing called Crispival 08 (“the world’s first ever crisp festival”) held there and it was quite a nice place. Unfortunately, their website seems to have died and the place might not exist any more. Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club is probably too expensive. There must be other places. I don’t think it should be a pub though. This is a conference, after all. If you know any good venues, let me know.

I also need to think about who is going to talk, and what they are going to talk about. I have a few ideas, and might start emailing people soon, but if you want to talk about something boring, email me here.

It might be nice if we could get someone to film it, or record it in some way. Maybe even stream it live on the internet. I am not sure how complicated that would be.

If any grown ups want to get in touch with sponsorship ideas, or financial backing or whatever, I would be very grateful. Of course, it does mean your brand will be associated with the word “Boring”, which might not be ideal. Also, if any journalists or media type people want to get involved, please do.


¶ William James week at The Second Pass — last week marked the centenary of the philosopher’s death — has been extended a bit, to accommodate a guest post by James biographer Robert Richardson, who writes about James’s interest in finding a “moral equivalent of war.”

By the time he wrote “The Moral Equivalent of War,” James had dropped the idea of voluntary poverty or simplicity—the sort of thing advocated in Walden, and by Wendell Berry, and by the modern “freegans”—in favor of something very close to the modern idea of the Peace Corps. “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dish-washing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road building and tunnel making, to foundries and stoke holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youth be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

It was not an accident that when the Civilian Conservation Corps built a leadership camp in Sharon Vermont in 1940, it was called Camp William James. But many Americans still have an unshakable belief that violence is the only real way to settle disputes and is fundamental to manhood. James himself noted that the only tax we pay willingly is the war tax.


¶ Sonya Chung is re-reading The Great Gatsby — she’s going to be teaching it. Among the thoughts that a third reading has occasioned, the most intriguing, if somewhat irrelevant is that in Heath Ledger we lost an actor who might truly have realized the strange Mr Gatz. Her more classroom-appropriate observations are, even so, fresh and astute. (The Millions)

Gatsby is both skillfully, and conventionally, plotted.  The yellow car/mistaken identify device, upon which the story’s climax and resolution hinge, feels almost Hitchcockian in its nod to the murder-mystery mixup.  Who’s driving which car and why convincingly fuels (literally) Gatsby’s inevitable demise, Tom and Daisy’s flight, and Nick’s final revulsion towards the excesses of Eastern privilege. Fitzgerald also makes deft use of setting descriptions to evoke complex emotions, imminent conflict, and juxtapositions throughout; and his physical descriptions of characters are concrete and evocative, frequently making excellent use of similes and metaphors.  In other words, it’s no wonder the book is on class reading lists; it conforms to/exemplifies so many of our writing-craft tricks of the trade.


In Gatsby, Fitzgerald also gets the essential doubleness of human nature so terribly, perfectly right.   Every character is pulled in (at least) two directions; love and hate, admiration and disdain, are of a piece in almost every relationship.  And the reader ultimately feels an unresolved, and yet somehow perfectly coherent dividedness about each character.


¶ In an interview with Salon‘s Alex Jung, labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan makes some interesting points about the difficulty of comparing productivity in the US and in Germany. (via 3 Quarks Daily)

But the Germans have a lower GDP than we do. Doesn’t that mean that our quality of life is better?

One day we’ll get beyond that and see that the European standard of living is rising. You can pull out these GDP per capita statistics and say that people in Mississippi are vastly wealthier than people in Frankfurt and Hamburg. That can’t be true. Just spend two months in Hamburg and spend two months in Tupelo, Mississippi. There’s something wrong if the statistics are telling you that the people in Tupelo are three times wealthier than the people in Germany. Despite the numbers, social democracy really does work and delivers the goods and it’s the only model that an advanced country can do to be competitive in this world. I mean that not just in terms of exports, but in terms of being green at the same time. That we can raise the standard of living without boiling the planet shows how our measure of GDP is so crude.

What are we missing when we measure the GDP?

We don’t have any material value of leisure time, which is extremely valuable to people. We don’t have any way of valuing what these European public goods are really worth. You know, it’s 50,000 dollars for tuition at NYU and it’s zero at Humboldt University in Berlin. So NYU adds catastrophic amounts of GDP per capita and Humboldt adds nothing. Between you and me, I’d rather go to school at Humboldt.

So much of the American economy is based on GDP that comes from waste, environmental pillage, urban sprawl, bad planning, people going farther and farther with no land use planning whatsoever and leading more miserable lives. That GDP is thrown on top of all the GDP that comes from gambling and fraud of one kind or another. It’s a more straightforward description of what Kenneth Rogoff and the Economist would call the financialization of the American economy. That transformation is a big part of the American economic model as it has morphed in some very perverse directions in the last 30 or 40 years. It’s why the collapse here is going to take a much more serious long-term toll in this country than in the decades ahead.

Have a Look

Morning Snip:
Godliness, Indeed

Monday, August 30th, 2010

From Research Digest Blog:

As the dirt and germs are wiped away, we’re left feeling not just bodily but also morally cleansed – a kind of metaphorical virtuosity that leads us to judge others more harshly. That’s according to Chen-Bo Zhong‘s team, who invited 58 undergrads to a lab filled with spotless new equipment. Half the students were asked to clean their hands with an antiseptic wipe so as not to soil the shiny surfaces. Afterwards all the students rated the morality of six societal issues including pornography and littering. Those who’d wiped their hands made far harsher judgments than those who didn’t.

Reading Note:
Mistakes Weren’t Made
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Monday, August 30th, 2010

My instinct, diligent little reporter that I am, is to copy whole paragraphs into this entry, typing them all out myself, and to say, “Here, isn’t this amazing?” A weak but effective form of literary criticism. If I have nothing to offer, that simply makes more room for the author.

Is it as good as The Corrections? Yes, it is as good as The Corrections. It is as least that good — so fear not. The question is a dumb one, although I’d find it a lot more interesting if people asked, instead, “Is it as good as Strong Motion?” Strong Motion is Mr Franzen’s second novel. I’ve read it twice, and loved it twice. It is as good as The Corrections and Freedom and, just possibly, better: it is not in the least little bit satirical. There are no laughs in Strong Motion, except for the kind of laughs that Dostoevsky so unwittingly prompts. Ha ha.

Imagine that you’re the first person you know to have read Middlemarch. What on earth do you say? When we talk about Middlemarch, we assume that there are only two classes of readers in the world: those who have not read Middlemarch and those who acknowledge that Middlemarch is a great novel. The class of people who have not been impressed by reading Middlemarch is — for them — embarrassingly small. It will be a while before Freedom attains so serene a reputation; there are plenty of critics among us who argue that Jonathan Franzen is a bourgeois hack. But it seems that those critics all live in California, and that we’re not likely to run into them here in New York City. In New York, it will be as with Middlemarch. But what does one put forward in the way of praise? Virginia Woolf’s line about Middlemarch — that it’s a novel for grown-ups — is a marvel of stand-up comedy bravado. It applies just as well to Freedom, but it has been used. What do you say?

I’ve read the favorable reviews in the Times and in The Economist, but none of them quite reaches what I really liked about Freedom, which is also present in The Corrections: the seriousness of event that makes crime novels gripping, only without the crime. Freedom reads as though there were a body on the floor. And there is! It’s the body of dissapointed aspiration that embarrasses even first-years at UVa.

Later, as his troubles began to mount, it would seem to him as if his very good luck, which his childhood had taught him to consider his birthright, had been trumped by a stroke of higher-order bad luck so wrong as not even to be real.

Tell me that there’s not a murder in that thought! Freedom is as compelling as any first-rate whodunit, even though both the “who” and the “it” are as obvious as sunlight. It’s the “dun” that turns the pages. Actions open up into sub-actions like metastatically dividing cells. What, exactly, did Patty Emerson do to Walter Berglund when she took up with him, even though she had the hots for his best friend, the rock musician Richard Katz? That it was wrong, we’ll all — even Patty herself — agree. But how, exactly? And what did it amount to? Did Patty not love Walter? You have to read to the very end to find out, just as in life. Even more mysterious is what went wrong between Patty and her beautiful son, Joey.

In the end, though, I’m going to have to quote paragraphs, because the beauty really is in the writing, in the colossal success of Freedom‘s artistry. It has been nine years since The Corrections, and I like to think that the first half of the intervening time was spent dreaming up the Berglunds and the other people in their world, while the second half involved the arduous arrangement of brilliantly composed narrative blocks.

One of my tasks for the coming week is to translate (reformat) my close reading of The Corrections, a project that, embarrassingly, took years to complete, from Portico to Civil Pleasures. Poke me, please.Â

Weekend Open Thread:
Park Av

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

To post a comment, visit The Daily Blague

Daily Office:
Friday, 27 August 2010

Friday, August 27th, 2010


¶ With a manner only slightly less facetious than that of Gail Collins, Claire Berlinski holds Turkey’s Iran policy up to something like ridicule. The only way that she can explain it is by analogy to the Turkish preference for emotion over logic. Not safe for the politically correct! But good fun withal. (World Affairs; via Real Clear World)

Many in the West have interpreted the Turkish position as evidence that the place is under the control of Islamic crypto-fundamentalists. This is certainly part of the picture and a very important part, but do not make the mistake of thinking that’s all there is to it. The West is overlooking something both more subtle and more obvious: Emotions are running the show. The Turks have a good feeling about their recent encounters with Iran and a bad feeling about their recent encounters with Israel. Long-term, rational economic and geostrategic interests? To hell with those. The patient, subtle advancement of an Islamist agenda? To hell with that, too. This is a logic-free zone. Iran’s not a threat. No sanctions need be applied.

The only real material advantage that accrues to Turkey from the bargain is the chance to do trade with Iran—in the short term, at least. I single out Turkey for no special opprobrium in noting that its government finds it commercially advantageous to pretend there’s nothing going on in Iran requiring any urgent further attention from the world; France and Russia have long followed the same policy. But France and Russia are both nuclear powers in their own right. Should Iran acquire the Bomb, they at least have a deterrent. Turkey is not a nuclear power. Iran is a state with whom it has a very long history of enmity and quite a number of significant outstanding geostrategic and religious conflicts. The Ottoman and Persian Empires have been competing for regional hegemony since the Safavid and Qajar dynasties. As the nineteenth-century Ottoman statesman Fuad Paşa remarked, in comments no less true today,

The government of [Iran], which is in a state of continual disorder and in the grip of Shiite fanaticism, has always been at one and in agreement with our enemies. Even in the Crimean War, she came to an agreement with Russia and united her ambitions with hers. The fact that she was unable to bring her hostile calculations to fruition was due to the West’s prudent and vigilant diplomacy. Today, the Shah’s government follows in the wake of [Russia]. As long as the Ottoman government is not occupied elsewhere, the discredited Iranian government, being impotent, ignorant, and incapable of taking any initiative on its own, dares not quarrel with us. However, at the moment of our first confrontation with Russia, Iran will take her place among our most irreconcilable enemies, due to her political dependence and, more important, her blind jealousy, in spite of our cautious and well-intentioned attitude.

Russia’s fear of rising nationalism among its Turkic minorities gives it good reason to favor Iran. An Iran in possession of nuclear weapons would almost certainly cooperate with Russia to the detriment of Turkey, dominate Central Asia and the Caucasus, and put an end to Turkish aspirations to be a great power. A regional nuclear arms race would likely ensue. Iran has close diplomatic relations with Armenia; Turkey has no diplomatic relations with Armenia. Tehran has supported the Kurdish-separatist PKK, with which Turkey is at war. The Iranians are still Shiite fanatics who deplore both Sunni Islam and the Turkish secular state. There is no way whatsoever that it could be in Turkey’s long-term military or economic interests to live next door to a nuclear Iran, however impressive the short-term trade benefits of this deal might be—and they are not even that impressive.

¶ Writing about the extent of classical-music ignorance in Britain, Lynsey Hanley makes an eloquent plea for “a common culture, the riches of which are shared, rather than hoarded.” (Guardian)

Notions of what culture is remain fundamentally split between what we persist in regarding as high and low art. When we talk about a cultured person, it’s clear we’re also making an inference based on class. To use Tony Harrison’s words: Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those / Shakespeare gives comic bits to: prose! Britain’s ingrained economic inequality doesn’t help the cause of a unified culture one bit.

In such a context there’s no way that “we” – and I’m allying myself here with my social place of origin, rather than the easier place I inhabit now – can learn that we are also “kings”, as much the rightful readers of poetry as of prose. There’s nothing like being told, in any number of ways, how undeserving, how ripe for being patronised, you are to make you reject the lot.

At present it feels like there’s little useful communication between consumers of high culture and that third of Britain that has never listened to classical music – for reasons to do with mutual contempt, ignorance, and the accretion of privilege and disadvantage at opposite ends of the divide. There is a well-poisoning tendency towards saying that cultural choices are all about money – take Glyndebourne, or this weekend’s Serenata Glastonbury-style classical camping festival, with some day tickets at £295 a pop – when money forms only part of the complex knit of social relations. Our culture contains symbols less visible and more powerful: keys that can’t be bought, which gain access to rooms whose contents can’t be envisaged until entered.


¶ At The Awl, “Carl Hegelman” directs our attention to two goodly solutions to our economic disarray: Robert Reich’s proposal to turn defense contractors into infrastucturists, and Milton Friedman’s negative income tax. (If that isn’t one from Column A and one from Column B, we don’t know what is.)

Why bring this up now? Well, the creation of an egalitarian society is a worthy goal. It seems particularly pertinent now, at a time when the gap between The Rich and the Not Rich is as wide as it’s been since the Robber Baron days—the so-called “gilded age”—before Teddy Roosevelt was President. Politicians are arguing over the best way to tackle our current economic difficulties, and in November economic policy will probably be a key issue. It’s an opportunity for a creative restructuring which can both help us out of this mess and create a more equitable, less polarized society. In order to do it, we need to know what works and what doesn’t. The Reaganomics/Thatcherite/Free Market model didn’t work—is that pretty clear now?

But the English socialist model didn’t work, either. So what to do?


Really, it’s been one long battle between Left and Right for as long as most of us can remember. Can’t we just call it a draw and focus on fixing the mess?


¶ E O Wilson, once an early proponent of kin selection theory — an attempt to square the selfishness of natural selection with manifestations of altruism — now spearheads what he thinks is a better idea, which Brendan Keim, writing at Wired Science, never quite calls “colonial selection,” although that’s what it sounds like to us.

The researchers propose a theoretical narrative that begins with a primordial, solitary ant — perhaps something like the ancient Martialis heureka — that lived near a food source and developed genetic mutations that caused it to feed its offspring, rather than letting them fend for themselves. Called progressive provisioning, such nurture is widespread in insects.

Another mutation could result in offspring that stayed near the nest, rather than leaving. They would “instinctively recognize that certain things need to be done, and do them,” said Nowak, describing real-world examples. “Put two normally solitary wasps together, and if one builds a hole, the other puts an egg in it. The other sees the egg, and feeds it.”

That would be enough to form a small but real colony — and from there, eusociality could emerge from an accumulation of mutations that led to a hyper-specialization of tasks, limited reproduction to queens alone and favored the colony’s success above all else. Within this colony, a queen would be analogous to a human egg or sperm cell — a unit that embodies the whole. Worker self-sacrifice is no more nonsensical than that of a white blood cell.

The researchers called this series of steps a “labyrinth,” one that isn’t easily navigated. Hence the rareness of eusociality, which is believed to have arisen just 10 to 20 times in history. But their theory explains everything that kin selection does, plus what it doesn’t.


¶ Daniel Adler approaches comfort food from the vantage of a road warrior, and attempts to make bánh mì in his hotel bathroom. It’s all about process. (The Bygone Bureau)

The sandwich is awful. The marinade for the tofu is tinny and insipid; it tastes like it’s been soaked overnight in Mountain Dew. Too many seeds have been removed from the jalapenos, so there is not enough spice to draw my interest. Worst of all is the bread. It is soft and tacky, providing none of the resistant crackle that a decent baguette should have. The inner parts of the bread get mushy from being in contact with the daikon and carrots. As I finish off the sandwich in several more bland, matted mouthfuls, I think about going back to the Middle Eastern place.

To my surprise, over the next few days I make and eat the sandwich again and again. Even though I practically choke it down, even though added experimental ingredients (avocado, nori) can’t rescue it, I continue to suffer through until the package of six baguettes is finished. I just can’t pass up the chance to “cook,” even if the results are disappointing. The food itself might not be good, but every time I hunker over the fluorescent-lit bathroom counter, I am comforted, because I am making something, I am focused, and I forget I am alone.


¶ We continue to believe that the instability of Pakistan, brought to some sort of tipping point by dreadful flooding that has brought about a devastation that the government seems unable or unwilling to redress, is the most alarming crisis on the planet today. Of all the pieces to which we’ve linked in recent months, none has displayed the scope of Ahmen Rashid’s “The Anarchic Republic of Pakistan,” at The National Interest. (via 3 Quarks Daily)

However, no real change is possible without a change taking place in the army’s obsessive mind-set regarding India, its determination to define and control national security, and its pursuit of an aggressive forward policy in the region rather than first fixing things at home.

It is insufficient for the army to merely acknowledge that its past pursuit of foreign-policy goals through extremist proxies has proven so destructive; it is also necessary for the army to agree to a civilian-led peace process with India. Civilians must have a greater say in what constitutes national security. Until that happens, the army’s focus on the threat from New Delhi prevents it from truly acknowledging the problems it faces from extremism at home.

The army’s track record shows that it cannot offer political or economic solutions for Pakistan. Indeed, the history of military regimes here shows that they only deepen economic and political problems, widen the social, ethnic and class divide, and alienate the country from international investment and aid.

Like Burma, Pakistan appears to be a state that exists to serve military fantasies. At least Burma dispenses with the pretense of democracy.


¶ Michelle Dean unpacks the “Franzenfreude,” and shakes out the possibility that Jonathan Franzen is highly regarded by critics because he’s the best writer to cover what is uncritically understood to be the American Scene. She notes that Mr Franzen himself is not as deluded on this point as his admirers seem to be. (The Awl)

What collective American experience do these critics envision Franzen as describing? I have a suspicion they simply imagine their own white, male, middle class experiences as the “American experience,” because it’s always been presented that way to them, not least in the novels of Updike and Mailer and sometimes Roth that they so often list as favorites. And since Franzen does seem to have a knack for describing that particular strain of the American experience, the critics elide all the issues.¹ As an American resident for just five years, what I left there with was a profound sense that there was very little one could generally say about American culture without profoundly ignoring certain communities, without writing them right out of existence. And I lived in Brooklyn, which, it bears mentioning, is a far more diverse borough than these middle-class white narratives about it might have you believe. And I suspect there are a lot of people there, never mind in the rest of the country, who don’t relate to Franzen’s work, or Jonathan Lethem’s, or David Foster Wallace’s.

That doesn’t mean that people answering to other demographic characteristics can’t like these books. You can relate across chasms of experience and even prejudice—no one can tell you this better than, say, a person of color who’s spent her life studying and loving E.M Forster’s work. But should she always have to? Isn’t it fair for her to ask critics to value for something that speaks more closely to her actual life?

And of course it isn’t necessary, for an individual writer trying to write one good book, to make sure that it represents, in every significant respect, every experience out there under the sun. Yes that’s demanding too much. But it might, indeed, be the task of literary fiction as a whole to continually be revising it’s standards to be sure it’s being as inclusive as it can be. In the age after we’ve realized that white men are not the end-all and be-all of humanity, it seems worth trying to build a canon that says if we are separated from one another by class and race and gender and any number of things, the very least we can do is recognize that in a literature that’s really about “what it is to be human,” every single one of those experiences must be given airtime. It’s not a request; it’s a requirement.

Reading Freedom with the greatest relish, the Editor wishes that more readers would bracket Jennifer Egan with Jonathan Franzen as a smart, generous, comprehensive American writer with a first-class prose style. Ms Egan happens to be white, but even if you can’t have everything you can have a more inclusive pantheon.  


¶ Hats off Andrew Price, for asking “Does Anyone Know What the Point of Prison Is, Anyway?” It’s a very practical question, because only a clear and distinct idea of the point of incarceration will fix our bloated, if not entirely broken, prison system. (Good)

But what is the service that prisons are supposed to deliver? There isn’t much agreement on this question. Most people probably have a vague mix of ideas swimming in their head about what prisons should deliver. Prisons should sequester criminals to protect the public; prisons should provide a deterrent to potential offenders; prisons should rehabilitate; prisons should punish criminals by giving them an unpleasant experience that they “deserve.”

How the hell do we know if prisons are delivering with a mandate like that? The aims of prison, as understood by the public and articulated by politicians, are often contradictory, or at least apparently so. Do therapeutic rehabilitation programs compromise the deterrent effect of prison, or make the punitive element too weak? Do punitive policies make it hard to rehabilitate?


This total lack of clarity about the service prisons are providing, combined with the twisted economic incentives of guards’ unions and the opportunistic fearmongering of politicians, has created a system of punishment that’s totally divorced from the public interest. It’s a problem for public and private prisons alike.

Have a Look

¶ Flat Plans. (The Best Part)

Morning Snip:
Dry Tinder

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Nige gets wet, and aren’t we jealous..

Getting off the homeward train last night, I stepped straight into torrential, monsoon-style rain, coming down in sheets. As I strode away from the station, I found I’d been joined under my large umbrella by a cheery young lady of Chinese origin who happened to be going my way. She was visiting from Oxford, where she was studying for a PhD in mathematics. She already had a Masters, and her employers (in the City) were subsidising her PhD. Clearly a bright spark then – and she was a violinist, on her way to see a musician friend. The time passed agreeably enough under my umbrella (cue Hollies song). At the high street, our ways parted and she skipped off into the rain. By the time I got home I was soaked to the skin, the wake from a passing car having thoroughly finished the job. This morning there was a large garden snail asleep on the front door. On the inside.

Daily Office:
Thursday, 26 August 2010

Thursday, August 26th, 2010


¶ GOP panjandrum Kenneth Mehlman has come out as a gay man. (Atlantic)

Mehlman’s leadership positions in the GOP came at a time when the party was stepping up its anti-gay activities — such as the distribution in West Virginia in 2006 of literature linking homosexuality to atheism, or the less-than-subtle, coded language in the party’s platform (“Attempts to redefine marriage in a single state or city could have serious consequences throughout the country…”). Mehlman said at the time that he could not, as an individual Republican, go against the party consensus. He was aware that Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief strategic adviser, had been working with Republicans to make sure that anti-gay initiatives and referenda would appear on November ballots in 2004 and 2006 to help Republicans.

Mehlman acknowledges that if he had publicly declared his sexuality sooner, he might have played a role in keeping the party from pushing an anti-gay agenda.

We disagree. We believe that an earlier self-outing would have been self-defeating, in the sense that Mr Mehlman would have put an end to his career as a Republican Party operative. We like to think that this announcement is opportunistic — in the sense that it’s opportune, signalling a marginalizing shift in the role of homophobia in American politics. We do, however, share Joe’s exasperation.


¶ It’s a commonplace — at least among serious readers — that even the greatest novels change over time: the Emma that you read at sixteen is not the Emma that you’ll read at forty, even though not a single word in Jane Austen’s text has been changed. We do the changing. At The Online Photographer, Michael Johnston reports on an interesting variant of that phenomenon: you can never really go back to using equipment that you used to rely on every day.

Then it occurred to me…that always happens when I try to replace a favorite camera or lens from the past. I’ve done it at least six or eight times…tried to re-purchase a favorite camera that I let go at one time, but still miss. I sold my Leica M6 in 1993 and tried to buy another one in 1999—the lens design had changed, and the newer camera didn’t have the same feel. Wish I had just kept the first one. One of the best lenses I ever used was a Schneider lens on a funky old Practisix update called an Exakta 66. I got rid of that camera because of some anomalies that were purely user error, I’m embarrassed to admit. This gets worse: when I tried to replace it with another one, the brand-new camera came straight from the box with its focusing screen installed upside-down. Who knew? All I knew was that it didn’t focus right. I sold it. Only later did I find out about the upside-down screens. I even had a guy send me a beat-up old Spotmatic once so I could try the lens. I loved it. Did a lot of good work with it. Would you know, I never found another Spotmatic body that I liked as well as that first one. Go figure.

In fact, I think that every attempt I have ever made to re-purchase or re-acquire a fondly-remembered camera from my past has ended in failure or disappointment somehow.


¶ So, it has come to this, the current debate about unemployment: “Strucs vs Cycs.” Will “business cycles” restore jobs? Or is there a mismatch between jobs and workers that the market will not solve (in anyone’s lifetime, that is)? We agree (as usual) with Felix Salmon’s refinement on the structuralist position.

I also think it makes sense to break the Struc argument down into its component parts: the inability of the unemployed to find work, on the one hand, and the inability of employers to find good employees, on the other. The first part seems to be undeniable, and it’s surely getting worse as the length of time that people have been looking for work rises inexorably. The longer you’ve been without a job, the harder it becomes to get one, until you become unemployable.

Meanwhile, just because it’s hard to find good employees doesn’t mean that your business is booming and that there are lots of incentives for the unemployed to join your industry. The Cycs could well have a point here — if we get an uptick in total demand, then that might help increase employment in the parts of the economy with tight labor markets. But for the time being, employers who can’t find the employees they want seem to be resigned to simply keeping on going with the employees they’ve got: dreams of expansion have given way to grim survival and a refusal to take on extra debt or risk. And they certainly don’t want to risk raising their prices in this economy, even if they suspect they could get away with doing so.


¶ Jonah Lehrer writes about the crash in housing prices in terms of the cognitive bias known as “loss aversion.” Clearly, what’s needed is a positive rhetoric for freeing homeowners from albatross properties.

Classical economics assumes that people will adjust to the new reality. They’ll realize that the market has changed, and that they made a costly mistake. But that’s not what happened. In their paper, “Loss Aversion and Seller Behavior: Evidence From the Housing Market,” Mayer and Genesove found that, for essentially identical condos, people who had bought at the peak of the market (between 1989-1992) listed their properties for nearly 35 percent more than those who had bought after the collapse. Why? Because they couldn’t bear to take a loss.

The end result, of course, is that these overpriced properties just sat there, piling up like unwanted inventory. According to the economists, less than 25 percent of the properties bought during the condo bubble sold in less than 180 days.


¶ 4chan, a site that the Guardian calls “the id of the Internet,” is about to be transformed, via initial public offering, into Canvas. Julian Dibbell writes about Christopher Poole’s venture at MIT Technology Review. (via

It says something that investors in Canvas–who include Marc Andreessen (creator of the first graphical Web browser) and Ron Conway (an early Google backer)–would bet on a track record like Poole’s. For all of 4chan’s eye-popping traffic stats, it’s doomed to bare-subsistence revenue by the combination of its scandalous content (palatable only to low-rent advertisers like porn sites) and Poole’s profound discomfort with, as he puts it, the “tons of ways I could essentially rape the site for dollars” (including pop-ups, ads with sound, and other high-paying but obnoxious forms of advertising that would antagonize 4chan’s community). And whether it was the 2006 “dirty bomb” incident, in which 20-year-old Jake Brahm flooded /b/ with threats to detonate radioactive explosives at NFL games, or the harrowing of Jessi Slaughter this July, in which the troll hordes of /b/ rained death threats and other anonymous harassment on an 11-year-old Florida girl, the portrayal of 4chan in the national news has mainly reflected the image of a menace to be contained rather than an enterprise to watch.

And yet, many in the Internet business have been watching 4chan with interest. The steady growth of its traffic and the viral spread of its content, after all, represent the kind of social success that Web businesses require. “Getting engaged users is the tough part,” says David Lee, who invested in Canvas as a partner in Conway’s SV Angel firm. Profit or no profit, he explains, 4chan shows that Poole “is the rare entrepreneur who can get engaged users.” And given how firmly anonymity is held to be a recipe for social-media failure, it’s intriguing that the site works at all. 4chan “was a thing that challenged people’s assumptions in the Web industry,” says Jonah Peretti, CEO of the viral-media startup BuzzFeed and cofounder of the Huffington Post. “It was just so different from the way other people were thinking about community.”


¶ Tyler Cowen on Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel: “This is the book which everyone is reading…” Our copy is on order!

This is the book which everyone is reading, and reviewing, right now.  It has good coverage of Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, and the clash between religions in those areas.  I can definitely recommend it.  My major complaint has to do with framing.  The author reminds us that “the main fault lines are within Islam,” or something like that, etc., yet if you read only this book, or for that matter its subtitle, you would come away with a different impression altogether.  The very premise of the book selects for clash among the two major religions surveyed and I don’t think the author quite comes to terms with this fact.  She is torn by conflicting impulses to pursue her initial premise to its logical conclusion, and yet also to provide a more politically correct account than what she sees in front of her eyes.


¶ Richard Greenwald writes perceptively about the quest for authenticity in today’s urban writing, which, although he doesn’t mention them, clearly betray “out-of-towner” anxieties. The work of Jonathan Lethem is a perfect foil for this discussion, because the writer grew up in a gentrifying household: Is he really Dean Street?

New York City has witnessed rapid swings in fortunes during Lethem’s own lifetime that we are still trying to comprehend. The urban unrest of the 1960s sped up white middle-class flight, so that by the 1980s many cities saw increasing concentrations of poverty and people of color. With lower tax bases, services were cut and a cycle of decline seemed set. Cities like New York City seemed doomed. The summer of 1977 was the nadir for New York City. A time I know Lethem remembers, as do I. 1977 was the summer of the Son of Sam (the serial killer), a blackout with massive looting and lawlessness, and what has been termed “the burning of the South Bronx” as arson destroyed dozens of square blocks of the borough, and the bankruptcy of the city itself. But as thousands left, many stayed and “discovered” new neighborhoods that made them feel real rather than artificial (urban rather than suburban). Moreover, this first wave of counter-culture gentrifiers, on the Lower East Side, SoHo, or Lethem’s own parents in Brooklyn, committed themselves to an urban utopia where race and class disappeared in their minds as divisions (though we know it couldn’t ever disappear). These older artists and activists made a political and creative choice to stay in the city, to stand with it and therefore, the city’s culture became theirs and defined them. But this generation also made it easier some years later for others to join them, who were less idealistic, as they were ironically also the leading edge of gentrification.


¶ One of the Editor’s most electric memories is the look on his adoptive mother’s face when he announced, at the age of ten or so, that he was going to change his name when he grew up — anything but the name that he’d been given would be better. 

In those days, the routine, common among immigrants, of changing names, especially from foreign, difficult ones into tony English ones, was just beginning to fade. Now, Sam Roberts reminds us in the Times, it has become quite unusual.

The New York Times examined the more than 500 applications for name changes in June at the Civil Court in New York, which has a greater foreign-born population than any other city in the United States. Only a half dozen or so of those applications appeared to be obviously intended to Anglicize or abbreviate the surnames that immigrants or their families arrived with from Latin America or Asia. (A few Russians and Eastern Europeans did, but about as many embraced their family’s original surnames as adopted new ones.)

The vast majority of people with clearly ethnic surnames who applied to change them did so as a result of marriage (belatedly adopting a spouse’s surname or creating a new hyphenated one) or childbirth (because they were legally identified when they were born only as a male or female child or were adopting a parent’s name).

Iyata Ishimabet Maini Valdene Archibald of Brooklyn changed her name to Ishimabet Makini Valdene Bryce. Guo Wi Chan of Forest Hills, Queens, changed his to Ryan Guowei Chan. And after Jing Qiu Wu, the Flushing, Queens, mother of 5-year-old Star Jing Garcia, divorced, she renamed her daughter Star Rain Wu, dropping her husband’s surname.

Have a Look

¶ A project that perfectly captures the mentality of Ayn Rand’s fans. (Brainiac)

Morning Snip:

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

From “Goodbye, Children,” the latest entry at Dominique Browning’s Slow Love Life:

My younger son Theo, returns to California for one more year of college. He has spent much of the summer with me, so once again, as I wrote about in my book, Slow Love, I’ve been able to be a Stay at Home Mom with an actual child at home. It took some adjustment. Granola disappeared as if locusts had visited. “You’ve forgotten the way 21 year olds eat, Mom.” The photograph here–which I did not set up, but instead, came home to one afternoon–shows what passed for putting up clothes. In the living room. “But they’re up off the floor, Mom.” My five-year-old friend Sophia came to visit, clapped her hand over her mouth in mock horror and burst into giggles at the sight of his room. She dubbed him Messy Theo. I tried explaining the virtues of an ordered environment. He tried explaining the irrelevance of chores that were done only to be undone within the same day. And we had great talks, walks, swims, meals, and enjoyed one another’s company. We watched rainbows dissolve, and I got to wish him goodnight for weeks, the same way I did every night through his and his brother’s childhoods, the way my mother did in mine: “Fais de beaux reves.”

By the time you are reading this, I’ll be driving him to Providence. And I can promise you, the moment he and his backpack hit the lobby of the train station, I’ll be sobbing.

Reading Note:
The Ghost Writer, Freedom

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Does the principal action of Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer take four days or five? This is the question that I keep coming back to as I prepare to write a few remarks about the film, which I have been watching in an endless loop for four or five days.

Let’s see: on Day 1, the unnamed ghost writer is awarded the job of taking up where a previous ghost, whose corpse washes up on a beach in the film’s second scene, left off. The new ghost flies to from London to Martha’s Vineyard that night. On Day 2, he arrives at the seaside fastness belonging to publisher Marty Rhinehart, whose firm has paid former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang $10 million for his memoirs — a manuscript in serious need of ghosting. The ghost writer reads the manuscript and takes a walk with Lang’s wife, the acerbic Ruth Capel — clearly the political brains of this gang.

On Day 3, the ghost and Lang have their first (and only) session, interrupted by news that Lang might be prosecuted for war crimes: he has assisted American President Bush in the dark practice of extraordinary rendition. With the Lang household in an uproar, the ghost retires to his hotel to work. He has a strange encounter with an Englishman in the hotel bar, and finds that his room has been improperly entered. In the morning of Day 4, he is told to check out of the hotel, which is now the site of a media feeding frenzy, in anticipation of an ICC investigation of Lang’s conduct. Lang’s lawyer flies in and arranges for a whitewashing reception by the Secretary of State and the Vice President in Washington. After Lang’s departure, the ghost discovers interesting photographs in his room, previously occupied by his dead predecessor. An intimate evening with Ruth Capel ensues.

On Day 5, the ghost decides to go back to his hotel, but the GPS in the spare van that’s kept on for guests, and that was previously driven by the dead ghost, leads him on another mission altogether, to the Massachusetts home of a man who figures in one of those interesting photographs. On his way back to the island, the ghost worries that he is being followed by ill-intentioned men, and he seeks the aid of a Lang defector. Notwithstanding this, he is fetched by Adam Lang’s plane, en route from New York to the island. The ghost and his client have an argument about terrorism on the short flight. At the airport, Adam Lang is assassinated by the Englishman who accosted the ghost at the hotel.

What follows, through to the film’s end, occupies an indefinite extent of narrative time. In film time, however, exactly ten minutes elapse between Adam Lang’s death and the moment of Ruth Capel’s realization that her dreadful secret has been discovered by the ghost writer. The film itself is over within the following minute. 

I’ve had to work this out on paper because Polanski seems to be interested in effacing the boundaries between one day and the next: his action appears as a unitary affair that never sleeps, even when the characters do. But it has been very carefully thought out and very densely packed. There are all sorts of formal flourishes that won’t be noticed by most viewers until the fourth or fifth exposure. On Days 2 and 4, for example, Ruth and the ghost walk over the dunes, back from the beach, and Ruth expresses regret. First, that she would rather be in England. Second, that the previous ghost died “so far from home.” I’ve notice this, as I say, but I don’t yet know quite what to make of it.

Ever since Chinatown was released, in 1974, it has been hailed as a triumph of screenwriting. No less superb is its score, by the late great Jerry Goldsmith. Alexandre Desplat’s score for The Ghost Writer is equally intense. There is a wonderful Hitchcock moment, when the ghost is bicycling in the rain in what really does amount to a vintage Hitchcockian episode; I ought rather to call it a “Herrmannian” moment.

Just when I worry about getting a bit sick of The Ghost Writer, along comes Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, which somehow, I’m not quite sure why, came into my possession today. If Freedom came with a soundtrack, it would be every bit as sticky as Polanski’s movie. Considering that I haven’t read it through even once, it’s actually stickier.

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010


¶ In an Op-Ed piece in the Times, Christine Stansell reviews the rearguard — some would say shameful — history of Southern opposition to women’s suffrage, noting that Mississippi did not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984. (Why’d they bother?) We have now come to take the view that the American Civil War ended in an armed truce, not a Union Victory.

Female voters would also pose practical difficulties, described bluntly by a Mississippi man: “We are not afraid to maul a black man over the head if he dares to vote, but we can’t treat women, even black women, that way. No, we’ll allow no woman suffrage.”


Today the country is again divided over how far the rights of citizenship extend. In the controversy over same-sex marriage, the prospect of constitutional protection calls up truculence from one part of the country, approval from another. How remarkable, then, that a parallel conflict — one that similarly exposes the fears and anxieties that the expansion of democracy unleashes — is now largely lost to memory


¶ At The House Next Door, Elise Nakhnikian argues concisely that Swing Time is the best of the Astaire-Rogers movies.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of even the best of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies. When those two dance, or when Astaire sings (the rhythm that made him such a great dancer also makes him an excellent singer, although his voice was nothing special), they’re as elegantly expressive as anything ever captured on film, and as perfectly suited to their medium as Shakespeare was to his. But when they’re just acting, their movies go flat, as earthbound as the song and dance numbers are airy and uplifting.

Swing Time may be their best movie (it’s a toss-up for me with Top Hat). That’s mainly because it includes several of their best duets, but it also helps that director George Stevens makes us believe in their love for each other even between those magical numbers. That’s something no other director ever quite managed.

As always, Fred falls for Ginger at their first meet-cute encounter, but it’s hate at first sight for her. And as usual, their feelings are expressed most intensely through the singing and dancing with which he woos and wins her. This time, though, their feelings are also clear in their body language and their close-ups, particularly the gorgeous shots of Rogers’ guardedly softening face and widening eyes. (Yesterday for the first time, her dignity and understated humor reminded me of Jennifer Aniston, while Astaire’s hurt-puppy eyes and bowler hat under the gazebo where they sing A Fine Romance reminded me for the umpteenth time of Stan Laurel.) The nostalgia that Fred’s Lucky and Ginger’s Penny share for their love even as it’s just starting to bloom, since one or both of them always fears that it can never be, give this meringue of a movie a light dusting of melancholy.


¶ Gee whiz, here’s a great idea: let’s turn a major chain of department stores into virtual warehouses and fulfillment centers for online shoppers! That way, they can buy what they want and pick it up at a nearby location, checking it out in the process. It’s certainly working for Nordstrom. Stephanie Clifford reports, in the Times.

In September 2009, the company wove in individual stores’ inventory to the Web site, so that essentially all of the stores were also acting as warehouses for online.

Results were immediate. The percentage of customers who bought merchandise after searching for an item on the site doubled on the first day, and has stayed there (although, Mr. Nordstrom cautioned, that doubling was from a small base).

“Customers that were looking for an item, we had their size,” he said. That meant the company hired a few more shipping employees to wrap and send items from each store. But, he said, increased sales more than offset the cost.

It also means that inventory is moving faster, and often at higher prices. “If we’re out of something on the Web site, it’s probably late in the season and the stores are trying to clear it out,” he said. “By pulling merchandise from the store, you’ve now dramatically lessened the likelihood that you’ll take a markdown.”

You’d think that everyone would be doing this, but no:

“You’re talking about traditional retailers that have traditional ways of doing things, and sometimes those barriers are hard to break down,” said Adrianne Shapira, an analyst at Goldman Sachs.


¶ Finally! An explanation of TED! What “TED” stands for. (“Technology. Entertainment. Design.”) Who started it and who runs it. (Richard Saul Wurman; Chris Anderson). Who pays for what? (Fast Company; via The Morning News)

Think of online video and what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Piano-playing cats? Lady Gaga? Maybe Paris Hilton? The instant popularity of TED talks might say something more promising about both our collective consciousness and our collective attention span. Cohen tells me, “When we launched, the example I used to help size the opportunity was a Malcolm Gladwell podcast that had been downloaded 40,000 times. Actually, the talks were watched 10.5 million times in the first year.” People emailed Cohen from all over the world, saying that they had shared a video with their entire address book, or that they’d watched a video with tears running down their face. That passion reset TED’s mission. “Within three months, we relaunched and realigned the entire organization around this mission of spreading ideas,” says Cohen.

It was a risk. Would lecturers who typically pull down five-figure fees agree to sign release forms and give their speeches away online? Would attendees grumble about sharing the secret sauce? “Releasing all the content to the world for free had the potential to capsize our business model,” Cohen says. Not so. TED first put the talks online in 2006. “That year,” she says, “we increased the fee for the conference by 50%, and sold out in one week with a 1,000-person waiting list.”


¶ We hereby resolve to become better Netizens by following Slate‘s slayer of “bogus trend stories,” Jack Shafer. We like to think that we can smell an under-researched story, heavy on anecdotes contributed by the writer’s friends of friends, but doubtless Mr Shafer can teach us a thing or two. Here, he goes after a recent story in the Times that attributed a rising number of National Park Service searches and rescues to the misguided use of “technology.”

Heggie and Amundson chart the long-term NPS search-and-rescue trends, while Heggie and Heggie put a microscope to search-and-rescue operations conducted by the NPS from 2003 to 2006. Heggie and Heggie advocate preventive education for the most frequent clients of search-and-rescue services. According to their study, almost half of those requesting search-and-rescue were weekenders; visitors ages 20 to 29 years made up 23 percent of incidents in the study; and males (no surprise!) were the requesters in 66.3 percent of incidents. Day hikers, boaters, and swimmers were the most frequent classes of requesters, and it’s my sense that many of the crises they faced were self-made and could have been averted by securing the right equipment, the right clothing, the right training, and better provisions, and by applying a little common sense.

Similar instructions—minus the ones about clothing and provisions—could have rescued the Times from publishing this bogus story.


¶ It is regrettably difficult to interest Americans in the problems of campaign financing and political contributions (not the same thing), and Jane Mayer’s exposé (in the current issue of The New Yorker) of the activities of Charles and David Koch, oilmen whose businesses have only to lose from enhanced environmental protection, is unlikely to rouse an angry citizenry.

Of course, Democrats give money, too. Their most prominent donor, the financier George Soros, runs a foundation, the Open Society Institute, that has spent as much as a hundred million dollars a year in America. Soros has also made generous private contributions to various Democratic campaigns, including Obama’s. But Michael Vachon, his spokesman, argued that Soros’s giving is transparent, and that “none of his contributions are in the service of his own economic interests.” The Kochs have given millions of dollars to nonprofit groups that criticize environmental regulation and support lower taxes for industry. Gus diZerega, the former friend, suggested that the Kochs’ youthful idealism about libertarianism had largely devolved into a rationale for corporate self-interest. He said of Charles, “Perhaps he has confused making money with freedom.”

Some critics have suggested that the Kochs’ approach has subverted the purpose of tax-exempt giving. By law, charitable foundations must conduct exclusively nonpartisan activities that promote the public welfare. A 2004 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog group, described the Kochs’ foundations as being self-serving, concluding, “These foundations give money to nonprofit organizations that do research and advocacy on issues that impact the profit margin of Koch Industries.”

The Kochs have gone well beyond their immediate self-interest, however, funding organizations that aim to push the country in a libertarian direction. Among the institutions that they have subsidized are the Institute for Justice, which files lawsuits opposing state and federal regulations; the Institute for Humane Studies, which underwrites libertarian academics; and the Bill of Rights Institute, which promotes a conservative slant on the Constitution. Many of the organizations funded by the Kochs employ specialists who write position papers that are subsequently quoted by politicians and pundits. David Koch has acknowledged that the family exerts tight ideological control. “If we’re going to give a lot of money, we’ll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent,” he told Doherty. “And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don’t agree with, we withdraw funding.”

Given the thick enthusiasm of the Tea Party movement, it’s unlikely that David Axelrod’s proposed disclaimer would change any minds.

“What they don’t say is that, in part, this is a grassroots citizens’ movement brought to you by a bunch of oil billionaires.”


¶ Alexander Chee tops off an entry about being a published novelist who keeps a blog, and why he continues to keep a blog, with eight pieces of advice for anyone following a similar path. Especially if keeping a blog is the publicist’s idea. Mr Chee is on his second blog.

I began blogging to get over burnout after the publication of my first novel. I had debut author fatigue and had lost a sense of writing as being fun in any possible way, and this was alienating to me. Also, I had many former students and was tired of answering their questions via email one by one, and the blog seemed like a good place to put the answers to the FAQ.  I shut down that first blog and opened this one a few years ago, and what I have learned is that keeping a blog has helped me more than it has hurt me. It’s helped me get teaching jobs, kept me in touch with people and introduced me to new people I would never have met, people I wanted to meet. Also, it’s helped me drive traffic to online sites posting my work. All the same, there were many times I thought of just shutting it down in exasperation, like when I printed my first blog after closing it and discovered it was 723 pages long (one friend even said it had a narrative arc).


¶ A reader of Marginal Revolution asks Tyler Cowen what he thinks of the profession of diplomacy. Not much, is Mr Cowen’s unsurprising answer.

I see diplomacy as a stressful and unrewarding profession.  A good diplomat has the responsibility of deflecting a lot of the blame onto himself, and continually crediting others, while working hard not to like his contacts too much.  And how does he or she stay so loyal to the home country when so many ill-informed or unwise instructions are coming through the pipeline?  Most of all, a good diplomat requires some kind of clout in the home country and must maintain or manufacture that from abroad.  The entire time on mission the diplomat is eating up his capital and power base, and toward what constructive end?  So someone else can take his place?  And what kind of jobs can you hope to advance into?


Presumably diplomats either enjoy serving their country or they enjoy the ego rents of being a diplomat or both.  It is a false feeling of power, borrowed power from one’s country of origin rather than from one’s personal achievements.  For the spouse the required phoniness is even worse.

We see it very differently: diplomats are men of peace who work almost exclusively with other diplomats, with a professionality loyalty to the preservation of peace that imposes the supra-nationalist allegiance that rightly excites the suspicion of leaders back home.

Have a Look

¶ Tastes like chicken. (Discoblog)

¶ Central Asian majesty. (3 Quarks Daily; from Boston Globe)

¶ Pillar of Fire. (Telegraph; via Bad Astronomy)

Morning Snip:
Adult, Young

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

There was never any way that this feature wasn’t going to feature Choire Sicha during its first week. If we had our lives to live over again, we would come back as him. Why? Because Choire Sicha has perfected the illusion of appearing to say not just anything but everything that crosses his very critical mind. We suspect that he is actually a person of vast discretion. To appear to be shockingly candid, but without actually hurting the feelings of any truly nice people — that’s a trick that we’d like to know.

Here he is, on the thrills of reading Young Adult fiction (Mockingjay) — which right there makes you want to call the police, no?

This is also way more interesting than Harry Potter’s tiresome obsession with avenging his parents or whatever! I mean, that’s the kind of value system I want to inculcate in the young!

But similarly, the “Hunger Games” series is also very clean in that soothing YA way. Everything is clear—including our heroine’s romantic choices (there are two boys! Et cetera!)—and all is spelled out in fairly big block letters.

Is it making me stupider? Maybe! But only for a couple of hours. I mean, this kind of book goes down fast.

Though I can’t tell you for sure yet. It turns out that Amazon is a west coast company at heart. And their idea of a “midnight” release is what people over here on the real coast of America call “3 a.m.”? Only the kids can stay up that late to get their books. (Also? Check it out! Young people, staying up late at night for books again!) But from the first page, all I had time to scarf down over breakfast, I would say that the book is like totally awesome, you know?

Housekeeping Note: The Daily Office will appear at 6 PM.

Daily Office:
24 August 2010

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

This isn’t what we were planning for today’s Daily Office, but late-summer schedule changes required some last-minute flexibility, so Tuesday became Thursday, or the other way round. All we had to work with was this photograph, together with a note from the Editor.

The photo was taken just before Will and I set out for an indefinitely long walk. He had not so much as closed his eyes all day and needed to be rocked to sleep the modern way. A neighbor’s advice (“take small steps”) turned out to be helpful. Will turned into a sack of cement at the corner of 87th and Second and didn’t budge until we ran into a stiff breeze at the end of 91st and East End, hard by the FDR Drive. After looking round a bit, Will passed right out again, waking up for good in the playground at Carl Schurz Park. He remained quiet and grave until we walked in on his mother, who had gotten some work done while we were out.

Sorry for looking as though I’d just performed in one of Ingmar Bergman’s less cheerful dramas. Megan said, “But you always look serious.”

Morning Snip:

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

From the de profundis of reddit:

Last night, my adult kids and I were sitting in the living room and I said to them, “I never want to live in a vegetative state, dependent on some machine and fluids from a bottle. If that ever happens, just pull the plug.”

They got up, unplugged the computer, and threw out my wine.

They are such assholes.

Housekeeping Note: The Daily Office will appear at 6 PM.

Daily Office:
Monday, 23 August 2010

Monday, August 23rd, 2010


¶ We begin and end the day with pieces about the late Tony Judt. First, friend and colleague Timothy Garton Ash writes about the spectateur engagé at NYRBlog. (via 3 Quarks Daily)

Sharp and cutting his pen could be, but his work was always about seeking the truth as best we can, with all the search tools at our disposal—from the toothpick of Anglo-American empiricism to the searchlight of Gallic overstatement. Unlike the other kind of polemical intellectual, he was always in good faith. And he was always serious. Not drearily earnest—he enjoyed the acrobatics of intellectualism as others enjoy baseball—but morally serious. This was as true in private chat as in public discourse. In what he said and wrote, there was always that moral edge. He felt what he himself called, in a study of three French political intellectuals, the burden of responsibility.

Every stage of his biography contributed ingredients to a cosmopolitan mix. America was his last staging post, one of the longest and most enjoyable, but perhaps not the deepest influence. He delighted in the mega-Czernowitz that is New York. The New York Review and New York University, in particular, provided stages on which, and company in which, a talent already largely formed could flourish and expand. His personal discovery of Central and Eastern Europe, made while he was teaching at Oxford in the 1980s, was both passionate and formative. Before that, he was a West Europeanist, a specialist in the intellectual and political history of France, and especially of the French left. To this he devoted no fewer than five scholarly books, from the published version of his doctoral thesis on socialism in Provence to Past Imperfect, a carefully researched and acerbic reckoning with what he saw as the postwar failure of (most) French intellectuals.

Yet while he liked to contrast the political and moral responsibility of Central European intellectuals such as Václav Havel or Czesław Miłosz (the subject of one of his last short essays) with the irresponsibility of Jean-Paul Sartre or Maurice Merleau-Ponty (especially in relation to the horrors of Stalinism), the truth is that he found a great positive exemplar in France too—Raymond Aron—and the French influence on his way of thinking was profound. His conversational style, with its frequent use of paradoxes or near paradoxes of the form “this is at the same time X and Y,” sometimes felt like a translation from the French.


¶ At the Guardian, Stephen Emms makes a bold claim — but one with which we’re in complete agreement: the Pet Shop Boys’ “Being Boring,” twenty years old next month, is the best pop single of all time. (via  Joe.My.God)

None the less, certain factors are incontestable. Being Boring is a classic minor-key grower, its imprint on the soul deepens with repeated plays. Over to Tennant (in a 1996 BBC Radio 1 documentary) to shed some light: “We were always fascinated about the way Stock Aitken Waterman would change key for choruses. And so the verse of Being Boring was in A minor or D minor, maybe, after we went up a semi-tone into A flat for the chorus. Which we would never have done before. It wasn’t an attempt to be mature; it was actually an attempt to be like Stock Aitken Waterman.”

Intriguingly, what began as an attempt to do out-and-out pop (if we are to believe the sometimes disingenuous Tennant) morphs into something else. And it’s this juxtaposition, this delicate balance between disposability and maturity that forms part of the song’s elixir.


There are other factors that, like an elegant interior, don’t add anything structurally to my argument, but are still intriguing: the oddly successful (though often unscannable) rhyming couplets (“When I went I left from the station/With a haversack and some trepidation”); the sophisticated production; harp flourishes, wah-wah guitar, eerily extended opening note (from which the “overture” breaks out in an unexpected direction); the subtle irony of the title, with Pet Shop Boys playing on the perception of them as “boring”; and the black-and-white Bruce Weber-directed video, a thing of beauty, with its nudity, poodles, white horses, tap dancers, writhing couples and handwritten scrawl of intent: “The song is about growing up …”

The best single single of all time, however, is of course Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine.”


¶ The Reformed Broker (Joshua Brown) foresees civil strife in America arising from contention about public-sector pension benefits and other entitlements.

Pension funds are somewhere north of being $3 trillion underfunded.  Public sector union officials have learned a thing or two from the Captains of the Financial Services Industry in terms of throwing tantrums and making threats about the end of the world.  They will pull the same shenanigans and more for their own bailouts; sit-ins, walk-offs, freeze-outs, lock-outs and protests were not a part of the banks’ repertoire, but expect the public unions across the nation to engage in all of these activities.

And the majority of the people in the United States will be completely unmoved by their threats and their cries.  Taxpayers will tell their elected officials to simply find people who will do the job for a reasonable cost; there is a 17% under-employed labor pool in this country, after all.  There will be a push for privatization and outsourcing where the unions have priced themselves out of their own jobs.  The disparity between salaries and benefits of public employees vs their private counterparts (now at 3x according to some estimates) has probably peaked.

It’s over.

Our response to this scenario (which seems realistic enough) is that the public/private sectors ought to be largely if not entirely merged, into a third sector that is neither private nor public: highly regulated not-for-profit business organizations. We don’t see a reason for tegarding housing as a private good, but teaching as a public one; all we see on this point is sentimental muddle.

And when we say “highly regulated,” we don’t mean “by the government.” Even the regulators ought to be not-for-profit organizations. (How nice it would be if the Securities and Exchange Commission could be one!)


¶ At Wired Science, Duncan Geere writes about the first manned space ship that will be launched without the support of a government. Think on’t!

A team of Danish volunteers has built a rocket capable of carrying a human into space, and will be launching it in a week’s time. The project, which has been funded entirely by donations and sponsorship, is led by Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen.

The rocket is named HEAT1X-TYCHO BRAHE, and its first test flight will carry a crash-test dummy, rather than a human, so that the safety aspects of the design can be analyzed. It’ll launch from a floating platform that the team has also built, which will be towed into the middle of the Baltic Sea by a submarine called Nautilus that the pair built as their last project.

The creators are members of the SomethingAwful web community, and have been posting pictures and answering questions there. In response to one question asking what the chances of the person inside dying are, they replied: “Unlike Columbia we’re not moving at orbital speeds so ‘dying a gruesome death burning up on re-entry’ with our kit has a very low outcome probability.”

¶ Chris Lehmann’s Rich People Things is available for pre-ordering, if, like us, you’ve come to recognize in the Awl writer one of our more mordant social prophets. Today’s target is the vaguely-defined fear of a weak recovery and of “Obamanomics” that supposedly prevents firms from hiring.

And funnily enough, the leaders of the heavily unionized auto sector are managing to do what their anxious counterparts in Santelli-land still lack the stomach for: They’re adding jobs. While Michigan’s economy, which was in recession well ahead of the 2008 collapse, is still in desperate straits, the state led the United States in job growth last month, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Labor. More than 20,000 of the 27,800 new jobs in Michigan were in manufacturing, and the vast majority of those, of course, are in the auto industry.

Such suggestive, uneven regional trends in job growth and manufacturing again only strengthen the case for addressing the question of our sluggish overall recovery at a deeper structural level, beyond reporting that employers, like the rest of us, are easily spooked these days. Consider, for instance, the testimony of a recent New York Times op-ed contributor, who decried the influence of a “cadre of ideological tax-cutters,” “the vast, unproductive expansion of our financial sector,” and “the hollowing out of the larger American economy”; as we’ve “lived beyond our means for decades by borrowing heavily from abroad,” we’ve also “steadily sent jobs and production offshore.” The predictable results of all these trends, we learn, is that “we will not have a conventional recovery now, but rather a long hangover of debt liquidation and downsizing.”

That wasn’t Paul Krugman—we know that from a parting warning about “recycled Keynesianism” and a call for renewed fiscal discipline. But it was former OMB Director David Stockman. You might remember him from the Reagan Revolution.


¶ At The Wilson Quarterly, Daniel Akst writes about the friendship deficit in American life. We’re widely recognized as friendly people, but we’re not correspondingly committed.

Friendship can even prolong our lives. For loneliness, the experts tell us, has to do more with the quality of our relationships than the quantity. And we now know that loneliness is associated with all sorts of problems, including depression, high blood pressure and cholesterol, Alzheimer’s disease, poor diet, drug and alcohol abuse, bulimia, and suicide. Lonely people have a harder time concentrating, are more likely to divorce, and get into more conflicts with neighbors and coworkers.

But of course friends are not vitamins, to be taken in daily doses in hopes of cheating the Grim Reaper. The real reason to prize our friends is that they help us lead good and satisfying lives, enriched by mutual understanding. This special way of knowing one another was once exalted as “sympathy,” and Adam Smith described it as “changing places in fancy.” As Caleb Crain made plain in his excellent book American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation (2001), the 18th and 19th centuries were the heyday of sympathy, when the fervor of friends was evident in their letters as well as their comportment. Sympathy persisted in popular discourse and was studied as a scientific fact under various guises until, in the 19th century, Charles Darwin came along to replace cooperation with competition in the intellectual armament of the day.

Sympathy’s long-ago advocates were onto something when they reckoned friendship one of life’s highest pleasures, and they felt themselves freer than we do to revel in it. It’s time for us to ease up on friending, rethink our downgrade of ex-lovers to “just” friends, and resist moving far away from everyone we know merely because it rains less elsewhere. In Asimov’s vision, Solaria was a lonely planet that humans settled with the help of robots. People weren’t made to live there.


¶ In “Beauty, Youth, and Their Discontents,” Ujala Seghal ruminates on four beautiful protagonists who don’t end well, Julien Sorel, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Eustacia Vye. (The Millions)

Eustacia’s textual description is not exactly an exercise in restraint. On Hardy goes for two pages, describing the curve of her lips, her “pagan” eyes, the weight of her figure – and two paragraphs alone devoted to the sheer bounty of her dark hair, of which “a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.”

Like Julien Sorel, Eustacia Vye is naive, egotistical, self-serving, and obsessed with the idea of Paris, “the centre and vortex of the fashionable world.” She is far too human to achieve the Platonic ideal of beauty, “transcending sex, sensuality and ‘mere’ physical beauty” to “the region where gods dwell.” Nevertheless, Hardy gives a nod to “the fantastic nature of her passion, which lowered her as an intellect, raised her as a soul.”

And like Julien Sorel, Anna Karenina, and Emma Bovary, Eustacia – mired by the societal constraints on her free will – ponders:

“But do I desire unreasonably much in wanting what is called life – music, poetry, passion, war, and all the beating and pulsing that is going on in the great arteries of the world?”

Beauty calling out to beauty!


¶ At The Bygone Bureau, Darryl Campbell, who never met Tony Judt or even went to New York University, testifies to the impact that Judt’s engagement with the world had upon his intellectual (and professional) development.

Of all the arguments that Judt makes in Postwar, his criticism of intellectuals struck me the hardest. No serious engagement with the outside world, no real anger about contemporary issues, no general goal beyond self-replication on the one hand; too much “high-cultural pretension” and “hardening crust of knowing cynicism” on the other.

Well, that was me, wasn’t it? Part of the process of becoming an academic “lifer,” I thought, meant that you had to give up the active life in favor of the contemplative. I would condescend to set someone straight about medieval conspiracy theories (“You don’t actually believe what Dan Brown says, do you?”), but I couldn’t be bothered to care much about the modern Middle East. I rolled my eyes, as did many of my colleagues, whenever someone mentioned the name “Bush,” and could regurgitate received opinion about his policies if pressed, but I usually just kept my mouth shut about such things. As long as I wanted to be a professor, I felt that it was better to restrict myself to the library or the classroom.

Postwar began to draw me out of my complacent reverie. Over the next year or two, I took a particular interest in Judt, even though he was technically outside of my area of academic interest (of course, to a medievalist, much is proscribed). I read his book Reappraisals, a book of previously-published essays which again beat the drum of intellectual engagement. Alongside portraits of the select few leftist intellectuals who tried to make a difference in the postwar world — Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi — Judt also blasted people like Eric Hobsbawm who were too in love with ideology to see the world as it was, rather than as it should have been, and contemporary liberal “intellectuals” who failed to speak up against the Iraq war as “Bush’s useful idiots”. And, for the first time, I heard Judt’s voice, even though he was in Manhattan and I was in northern Indiana, thanks to NYU’s broadcast of his lecture “Disturbing the Peace: Intellectuals and Universities in an Illiberal Age.” I wrote down one passage in particular from his lecture:

“Those of my academic colleagues who spend their days substituting meaning for fact — “meaning,” with heavy scare quotes, and “fact,” with even more — cannot expect to be taken seriously at night when they condemn George Bush or some pompous neo-con for sneering at reality-based views of the Middle East. If we want to be taken seriously, we’d better stop talking about positional verities. If we want to be taken seriously, we should stop placing “truth,” “reality,” in witty scare quotes. And not just stop it when we walk out the doors of the campus, but stop it in the classroom too.”

Have a Look

¶ Bertrand Russell’s “Liberal Decalogue” — ten commandments for good wrongologists. (Common Sense Atheism)

¶ Quicksand: some people crave it! (via 

¶ Reddi-Bacon. (No, not a WIN)

¶ International Druthers List. (Let a Thousand Nations Bloom)

Morning Snip:
East Is?

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

From Philip Greenspun’s Weblog:

“Are you on the north or south side of the highway?” I asked the first clerk, a man.
“There is no north or south. We’re in the same shopping plaza as Bertucci’s,” was the reply.
“If Rt. 9 is oriented east and west, doesn’t that mean that there would have to be north and south sides of the road?” was my follow-up.
“I don’t know anything about north or south,” came the reply.
“Boston is to your east,” was my next attempt to orient the guy, “as is the Atlantic Ocean and Europe.”
“Now you’re being rude to me,” sulked the clerk.

Housekeeping Note: The Daily Office will appear at 6 PM.

Gotham Diary:

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Monday was the only entirely free day last week. On Tuesday, I paid an overdue visit to the podiatrist, and an even more overdue visit to Bloomingdale’s, where I replaced the tattered wallet that I replaced years ago but put back into circulation after my pocket was picked one overlubricated evening circa 2005. Then I went to Lady D’s for lunch. I tried very hard to leave before four o’clock, and managed to depart at half-past three. Lady D always claims to enjoy listening to me talk, a compliment that, while perfectly sincere, makes me feel slightly bilious — perhaps because I know that I could talk until six. The weather was so beastly hot that I did not stop in either at the storage unit or at Agata & Valentina, both on the way home, but took a taxi straight to the front door.

On Wednesday, something snapped in the tank of the commode in Kathleen’s bathroom. I called for the handyman, and proceeded to fret for him to arrive in time for my lunch and Wednesday errands. Most distracting! He came soon enough, but of course he realized right away that he would have to turn around and “get a part.” While he went out for the part, I got back to work in the blue room. When the handyman returned, he cried out. I still don’t know just what he had done or forgotten to do, but the bathroom was flooded, as was the corridor leading to our bedroom, and water was pouring over onto the foyer floor. About an hour later, all was more or less in order — although the carpet, of course, still stinks to high heaven. I mopped up a lot of the water while waiting for the handyman to come back a second time, with another handyman and a heavy-duty vacuum cleaner that sucked up the remaining water. I did get down to the Hi-Life for a club sandwich, and then I got a haircut, as I do now every other Wednesday. Then I ran a few errands on Madison Avenue.

On Thursday, of course, Will was here, bright and early. Kathleen was still asleep when he arrived, and I carried him to her bedside to wake her up. Will, who had a fit once when I assumed my faux sportscaster’s voice (something that anybody who has worked in radio can produce), smiled weakly at Kathleen for a moment and then burst into tears. Perhaps if Megan had been holding him at the time? I’m not sure: Will seems to have definite ideas about our appearance. He and his mother did not stay to dinner, because they were having a sort of party after work at Megan’s office, and she wanted to show off her boy. Had been truly conscientious, Knowing that I’d probably be out for most of Friday, I spent the evening composing the next day’s Daily Office.

Another doctor’s appointment kicked Friday off. It didn’t take long and I had plenty of time to make the first show of The Switch, which got a terrible review in the morning’s Times. I loved it. I can see why Steven Holden didn’t, but I took the movie on entirely different terms. Afterward, I had lunch with Quatorze, and then Ms NOLA came up for a cup of Summer Hours tea — after which we went to the Museum to see how the bambú was coming along. Then we walked over to Agata and bought the fixings for dinner, which Ms NOLA was graciously helped me to prepare. We settled on a risotto with shrimp, fennel, and cherry tomatoes. It was extremely yummy. There were only three of us at dinner — Kathleen came home at “a reasonable hour” — but there was enough risotto for six. Ms NOLA assured us that she would take the leftovers home and enjoy them for breakfast. Yes!

One of my newer routines is to tidy up the bedroom on Friday afternoons, so that it’s done in the event that Kathleen wants to sleep in on Saturday morning. Obviously, I never got to any of that on Friday, but there was no risk of Kathleen’s sleeping in, because we expected a business friend of Kathleen’s from Kuala Lumpur for tea at three. When our friend took off for Newark and the long flight home, I hunkered down in the kitchen and cleaned out the refrigerator. This has become an activity that reminds me of weeding the garden — when I had a garden. Then I did the same with the pantry.

None of foregoing activities is at all interesting to read about, I know, but they make a pile-up that explains, to me at least, why I didn’t get more done here last week. I’m trying to establish reasonable expectations, but budgeting one’s time is never fun. I long for the buffer of an extra day — a sixth weekday, say — but I know that it would very soon cease to be buffer, and the persistence of such foolish hopes has begun to annoy me. There won’t be any extra days any more than there will be extra millions or extra lifetimes. This. Is. It. What’s sad about it is that I went through nearly sixty years without any such sense of urgency.

Come to think of it, Monday wasn’t entirely free, either. Jason Mei came to install a backup drive — two backup drives, “mirrors” — for my ever-growing iTunes files. There was something going on every day of the week! And in the middle of August, too! Oy!

Weekend Open Thread:
Bigger Bambú

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

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Daily Office:
Friday, 20 August 2010

Friday, August 20th, 2010


¶ Colm Tóibín’s review of The Pope Is Not Gay is an eloquent discussion of the Church’s problem, not so much with pedophilia as with power as well as with homosexuality. As we read it, we began to think that the scandal of priestly abuse is coming to light now, and not at some other time, because it has only just ceased to be a double crime. If homosexual acts as such are no longer condemned by society, then that exposes the other half of the act — forcing minors to engage in them — as a crime with only one perpetrator, not two. As always, Mr Tóibín writes with wry generosity of spirit. (LRB)

It seemed interesting that Kevin Dowd felt as free as Bill Donohue and Tarcisio Bertone to mention the existence of homosexual priests and seminarians as a problem for the Catholic Church. And interesting too that, as quoted approvingly by his sister, he wanted a return to the time before the ‘takeover’ of seminaries by homosexuals; that he deplored the ‘shrinking’ of the ‘priest pool’ that had allowed ‘men confused about their sexuality’ to become priests. It seemed odd that he believed there really was a time when ‘men confused about their sexuality’ did not become priests, when other sorts of men, men not confused in this way, were ordained. He was filled with nostalgia for an earlier Church: ‘The Church I grew up in,’ he wrote, ‘was black and white, no greys. That’s why my father, an Irish immigrant, liked it so much. The chaplain of the Police and Fire Departments told me once: “Your father was a fierce Catholic, very fierce.”’

The issue of homosexuality and the Catholic Church about which Donohue, Cardinal Bertone and Maureen Dowd’s ‘conservative and devout’ brother seem so concerned is not likely to go away in the near future. For the many gay priests in the Church it is deeply disturbing and indeed frightening that their sexuality can be so easily associated with rape, sexual cruelty and the abuse of minors, and that there is a view that somehow before they came along the Church was just fine, and, indeed, if they could be rooted out, and the Church could go back to the ‘black and white’ days of Dowd père, then the problems would all dissolve.

There are very good reasons why homosexuals have been traditionally attracted to the priesthood. I know these reasons because I, as someone ‘confused about my sexuality’, had to confront and entertain the idea that I should join the priesthood. In 1971, aged 16, I gave up my Easter break so I could attend a workshop for boys who believed they had a vocation.


¶ Peter Campbell writes about the portrait art of Alice Neel so eloquently that we may just buy the catalogue of the exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. (LRB)

Andrew Neel, talking about his grandmother’s situation, says that ‘working on something which is unfashionable is hell.’ Those New York painters she spent time with who became successful in the 1940s and 1950s were mostly abstract expressionists. She was known, but not much shown. Later, she made an effort to do something about it: in the exhibition, the 1960 portrait of Frank O’Hara is evidence of that – he was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art as well as a poet – but he never helped her get shown or wrote about her. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when the rise of feminism led to revaluations of women who had been overshadowed in a male-dominated art world, that her profile rose. Her portrait of Kate Millett was on the cover of a ‘Politics of Sex’ issue of Time in 1970 and there was a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974.

In her best pictures faces are loaded with information about attitudes and emotions. They address you, the viewer (who stands where the painter did), and demand that you understand how they feel. Much of the time you confront trouble or anxiety. The 1966 portrait of her son Hartley shows him, hands joined over his head, looking straight at you while sitting slumped back in a chair. He had started medical school and had told Neel at the time she was painting it that he could not bear dissecting a corpse and would have to give it up. In the end he got his degree, but the sense of crisis is powerful. You wouldn’t be surprised if you were told he had been crying. The 1958 portrait of his father, Sam Brody, was painted in the year he and Neel ended a long, sporadic relationship. Arms crossed, eyes not meeting yours (hers), a strong crease created between frowning eyebrows: you read a troubled man who could also be trouble.


¶ The most obvious way in which the government can ease unemployment is to facilitate small-business credit with grants to banks that then make loans that, at first blush, sound vaguely sub-prime, but that wind up in paychecks, not worthless assets. Sounds great all round, and there’s a generous piece of legislation in the Congress. Whose against it? Big Oil. The money to fund the grants will come from the repeal of a discreditable tax boondoggle. Shamelessly, Big Oil has found cerebral prostitutes to argue plausibly that the repeal with “cost jobs.” Felix Salmon attacks.

Finally, the report’s intrepid author, Andrew Chamberlain, decides that for every $54,881 in reduced household earnings, a job magically disappears. It’s not remotely clear where that number comes from, but using it, Chamberlain manages to conclude that the $35 billion in reduced earnings means that total employment would shrink by 637,195 jobs.

All of this is profoundly silly. The report doesn’t even make an attempt to work through the effects of higher corporate taxes on oil-industry employment: instead, it basically assumes its conclusion, by starting from the assumption that there’s a simple and direct correlation between any kind of oil-industry tax hike, on the one hand, and job losses, on the other. Is there any particular reason to believe that repealing Section 199 “would trigger nationwide job loss of 637,000 workers”? Of course not. There is good reason to believe, however, that passing the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act would help create millions of jobs.

So let’s not let Big Oil, or anybody else, try to get away with saying that passing this act would cost jobs rather than save them. It’s a ridiculous argument, which deserves to go nowhere.


¶ At Science Not Fiction, Kyle Munkittrick retails the colorful analogy that Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden spins, between the layered history of our brains’ origins and an ice cream cone with three scoops. Lest this comparison sounds appetizingly luxurious, Professor Linden reminds us that evolution is “the ultimate tinkerer and cheapskate.” That ice cream has been previously owned — by lizards, mice, and apes. The cone? It’s a jellyfish. As the ancient philosophers understood so well, we fall in love because our brains are poorly designed.

According to Linden, the key separation between humans and apes isn’t brain type but size – Humans just got a super-duper-sized third scoop. Start with a jellyfish cone, add scoops of lizard and mouse, then a gigantic ape scoop, throw on some sprinkles for culture, and you’ve got the human brain. Most astounding, however, is not our closeness to animals, nor that the good-enough-for-now parts evolution decided to preserve hinder us from becoming hyper-logical super beings, but that our most human behaviors come from all our brains working together. Linden asserts that love – a mental state that requires instinctual emotion, higher understanding, and logical reasoning while simultaneously transcending all three – would not be present in human beings if our brains were not so poorly engineered by evolution.


¶ The sixteenth edition of Chicago Manual of Style is out, and principal reviser Russell David Harper talks about it with Carol Saller at her blog, The Subversive Copy Editor. One nugget shone particularly brightly for us, because it seems to glint with a new understanding of authority.

And finally, I worked hard for this edition to pare down our advice wherever practical in favor of single recommendations rather than a host of options and exceptions. Our readers have let it be known since the last edition that they are perfectly able to decide for themselves when it’s best to bend or break a rule. Most come to the Manual to find out what we would prefer rather than merely what we might allow.


¶ At the NYRBlog, Ahmed Rashid raises the topic that has worried us most about the aftermath of the flooding in Pakistan: the creation of ideal conditions for a fundamental Islamist takeover of significant parts of the country — if, indeed, not the whole. (More than religion would be at stake; a new regime would almost certainly dissolve the extensive feudal holdings of farmland.) We agree that, without super-fast responses by the West and the government that it supports, Pakistan as we know it is doomed.

In Balochistan, the large province in southwestern Pakistan that skirts Afghanistan’s southern border, the floods have deepened an already existing crisis. The country’s poorest region, Balochistan, has long hosted a separatist insurgency as well as Afghan Taliban bases (Quetta, the provincial capital, has been a haven for a number of senior Taliban leaders). Now, flash floods have destroyed infrastructure and what little was working in the region’s below-subsistence economy; the state’s fragile control of the region has become even more tenuous, as Baloch separatists, blaming the government for poor relief efforts, are urging a stepped up struggle for independence. (The last time such major floods hit the country in the late 1960s, the inadequacy of the government’s response led in part to the secession of east Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.)

Meanwhile, the floods have had little effect on the rampant violence by extremists and other groups that has been occurring across the country. The Pakistani Taliban continue to carry out suicide bombings and have vowed to wipe out the country’s government leaders while in Karachi, inter-ethnic violence between political parties representing the Pashtun, Sindhi and Urdu speaking communities has resulted in some 100 deaths in the past four weeks. Since the flooding began, the Taliban have also been seeking to prevent Pakistani non-governmental organizations from carrying out relief work by threatening their workers, while encouraging militant groups who have set up their own relief camps to expand.


¶ How richly just it will be if David Markson’s place in the literary firmament is nailed by the dispersal of his personal library at the Strand, a posthumous wake-up call unlike any other. Colin Marshall, already an admirer, takes us through Markson’s work as it progresses from ostensible (but intelligent) pulp to anti-fiction, and makes it clear that, while it is easy to read, it is easy to read only for erudite readers. It seems that the reading of all those books at the Strand was composted into the writing.

Whether you think Markson’s novels — “novels” — of the nineties and 2000s are his best or worst books, you’re right. You’d be forgiven for not being readily able to tell them apart. You can call them cranky if you like. Granted, few come crankier; if I never have to hear Markson’s ever-less-oblique inveighing against Tom Wolfe, Julian Schnabel, or “critics” again, would I really die unsatisfied? Certainly they’re both accessible and inaccessible; accessible always and everywhere as easily digestible, potato-chippy lists of fascinating facts — in this sense, they’re the finest example of plotless “page turners” — inaccessible without Western-canon grounding and the payment of supremely close attention on at their richest levels of pattern and allusion.

What’s not so up for dispute is that Markson accomplished what, by all rights, should be a literary impossibility. Novels not “about” anything precisely definable. Novels without more than one consciousness inhabiting them, if that. Novels without narrative. Novels built of seemingly unrelated snippets of information about coincidence, connection, poverty, probability, ignominy, ignorance, excretion, expiration. Novels that, over a four-decade career, approach nothing less than the purest time spent in the brain of another found on any page. What a shame David Markson never got to write, file, shuffle, meticulously order, and manually type a line about the death of David Markson.

Not to mention the ongoing library saga.


¶ We figured that Maud Newton was taking a summer break, but, no: her father-in-law, with whom she was close despite many ideological differences, died in June, a few chapters short of completing a book on Macbeth. Never have we read an “I’m back” blog entry that opened so many windows. It’s not long, either.

When your spouse’s parent dies, grieving is complicated. There is the grief you feel for yourself, for the loss of a person you (if you’re lucky) loved, and there is the grief you feel at seeing the person closest to you dealing with a nearly unfathomable loss. At times the sorrow is literally almost suffocating. These are clichés, but they are also realities, as is the fact that the passing of someone important to you causes you to think about the way you’re spending your own life.

Almost two months after Larry’s death, it’s still very hard to write about him. (Or to think about his book, which Max, Joseph, and I promised him we would finish. We have a lot of reading to do.) And it’s impossible to imagine ever returning to a life in which I treat my writing like a frivolous hobby or prioritize writing about other people’s novels over working on my own.

Have a Look

¶ $500,000 will buy you the world’s largest record collection. The seller, 88 year-old Murray Gershenz, wants to go into character acting full-time. (LA Times; via MetaFilter)

¶ Ryan Freitas’s 35 Life Lessons. (via  The Morning News)