Archive for August, 2010

Daily Office:
Thursday, 19 August 2010

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Thursdays with Will come to an end in a few weeks, so we’re making the most of the remaining ones.

Out & About:
Friday Movies
Dinner With Schmucks; Eat Pray Love

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

It was my firm intention to watch the DVD of Francis Veber’s Diner des cons before seeing Jay Roach’s Hollywood remake, Dinner With Schmucks. But it didn’t work out. The remake was the only film showing conveniently, so I fit it in. As it turned out, there was no need to compare and contrast, because the two movies have almost nothing in common. Oh, a lot of superficial story points. But nothing fundamental. Diner des cons is a classic mordant European farce, laughing truth to power. Dinner With Schmucks is a classic American folk tale, trumping intelligence with good-heartedness. The French film scolds its elitist snobs for not paying more attention to what they’re doing: they’re the fools in the end. The American film is all about being nice, and not hurting people’s feelings. While Diner des cons gives rein to some pretty unattractive impulses, Dinner With Schmucks suggests that American civics never really outgrows the priorities of kindergarten. It was bad enough that Hollywood producers didn’t understand Diner des cons well enough to know that they would never be able to reproduce it for Anglophone audiences. The actual adaptation is much worse, a deeply shaming infantility.

So much for Dinner With Schmucks as viewed in compare-and-contrast mode. I’d really like to know how many ticket buyers will have seen Mr Veber’s original. Another way of putting this: I’d like to know how many Americans wanted to see this picture even though they hadn’t seen, or known about, Diner des cons. Steve Carrell is a beloved comedian, sans doute, but how many of his fans want to see him with prosthetic teeth and a geeky haircut? He is genuinely unattractive in Dinner With Schmucks — unless, of course, you’re looking at him as a kind of persistent lapdog — but he is also not Jim Carrey, master of disguise. Of course, I’d also like to read somebody’s master’s thesis about Hollywood’s bizarre tennis match with French comedy, a game played by Pourquoi and Pourqois Pas. (Nobody ever wins.)

As a narrative comedy, Dinner With Schmucks is wholly without merit, even if you haven’t seen the original. It would bruise me to retail the shoddiness of its plot. Such charms as the movie blandishes are borne entirely by its cast. I will not comment on Mr Carrell’s appeal, as I’m not susceptible to it even when the actor plays nice guys. (I don’t think that I will ever be able to forgive and forget the stillborn Dan in Real Life.) I will say, though, that I’m deeply charmed by Paul Rudd’s increasing resemblance, not exclusively facial, to Paul Newman. Anyone who has seen The Oh in Ohio, or even Knocked Up, knows that Mr Rudd can be, well, distant. But he seems to be on a career-smart diet of fundamentally good-natured smart-asses who are the first to see the error of their ways. If it’s typecasting, bring it on. That anyone (okay, me) would want to see Role Models a second time is testament to Paul Rudd’s leading man magic.

Then there is Lucy Punch. I wish that there had been more of Lucy Punch in Dinner With Schmucks. I used to dislike Lucy Punch, but that was only because I disliked Avice Crichton, the opportunistic schemer in one of my favorite movies, Being Julia. By the time that I’d watched Being Julia for the twenty-fifth time, however, I’d come round to liking Ms Punch a lot, and I’m already looking forward to studying her work, so to speak, in Dinner With Schmucks, once the DVD comes out. I am going to come out and say that you really ought to see Dinner With Schmucks on the strength of her supporting role alone. You can shoot me if you don’t like it.

Well, no; you can’t.

Eat Pray Love is said to be a chick flick, but nothing could be further from the truth. Somehow, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, and who knows who else in Hollywood have managed to turn out a kind of movie that MGM could never figure out how to make in the old days and that Warner Brothers lacked the resources to attempt. We will call it the Diva Rapture. Julia Roberts bears a slight resemblance, in her acting, to Joan Crawford, and none at all to Bette Davis, but she carries her new movie with a triumph that they were never allowed. Eat Pray Love, for most of its run time, is a gripping movie about Julia Roberts — and we don’t mean this sarcastically. Forget Elizabeth Gilbert’s story, even if its scenery is honored. Eat Pray Love explores the existentialism of being Julia Roberts, a woman who is both the biggest female movie star going — a role that she has commanded for well over a decade — and yet also a mere human being just like the rest of us, subject to fits of loneliness and uncertainty and self-reproach. She is just like us in the privacy of her own selfhood, but her public aspect partakes of a Bourbon grandeur, not because she’s at all stuck up but precisely because she isn’t. It turns out that watching Julia Roberts contemplate the mysteries of life is genuinely riveting. She’s grave, she’s elegaic, she’s in tears. You don’t want it to stop; you want to go on feeling her pain. The gorgeous backdrops (once she leaves Manhattan), the convivial Italian dinners, the awesome Indian rigors — everything functions as a series of extraordinary lighting arrangements for the beauty of Julia Roberts’s character. To deny the grandeur of the first three-quarters of Eat Pray Love is to be blind.

But then — well, the movie doesn’t entirely crumble into tarballs when Julia is asked to fall in love with Javier Bardem. But it becomes pretty trite. Julia in love is a giddy schoolgirl, more gifted with snappy comebacks than you might expect (not all of them verbal) but hopelessly eager; the majestic restraint of the earlier film is smashed like a piggy-bank full of Krugerrands. It doesn’t help that Mr Bardem brings nothing to his performance that wasn’t on view in his trickster turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona; this has the effect of making Ms Roberts look a bit like a dope. Eat Pray Love would have been a masterpiece, if only it had ended on the same note as the first installment of Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth. Lets face it: you don’t have to be gay to understand that Diva Rapture requires Renunciation.

In closing, we must note that we are looking forward to seeing a lot more of Tuva Novotny. Maybe even a remake of Down With Love.

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010


¶ At Prospect, Richard Wilkinson defends The Spirit Level,  his eloquent demonstration of the advantages to everyone of social equality (co-written with Kate Pickett) against a refutation by the Taxpayers Alliance.

Again in contrast to our critics, we offer a coherent theory of why so many health and social problems are linked to greater inequality. Rather than being caused directly by material conditions or being simply a reflection of selective social mobility sorting the resilient from the vulnerable, the link with income inequality suggests that the problems associated with social status are responses to the stresses of social status differentiation itself.

We remain puzzled by the stance the Taxpayers Alliance has taken to our work. As we point out, greater equality need not depend on high taxation. Within the US the state of New Hampshire has amongst the lowest taxes. It has no income tax or state sales tax but, like other more equal states, it does well in terms of a host of social measures including rates of infant mortality, homicides, teenage pregnancies, imprisonment, levels of trust and children’s school performance. It stands as an example of the benefits of a fairer and more equal society.

This chimes well with what we’ve observed about the perception of status: differentials in status disappear to those at the higher end. People of high status become accustomed to deferential or respectful treatment by taking it to be “normal.” Conversely, people remain aware that they possess more in the way of material goods, and fret about theft and expropriation.


¶ Alex Balk’s recipe for Bolognese sauce, “passed down through an unbroken chain of Italian grandmothers,” is so delightful to read that we’re going to give it a try any day now, what with the comfortable temperatures. The ingredients are the same as in the recipe that we use (Giuliano Hazan’s), but the order in which ingredients are added is almost entirely different, and nobody ever told us to put the tomatoes in a blender.

Liquid time. Get a cup of dry white wine (if you don’t have any, a cup of dry vermouth will do. Hell, I’ve used a cup of red wine before and the difference has not been particularly notable.) and pour it in. Stir occasionally, but let the meat “drink” the wine so that it kind of evaporates into the mix. Figure a couple of minutes on this one. Next you’re gonna take a cup of milk and do the same thing. Here’s the part where the old Italian ladies will tell you that the milk should be hot, but I think this is something they make up just to keep you busy and show that they’re in control. It doesn’t matter what temperature the milk is, it’s all gonna wind up in the meat all the same. You hear that, nonna? It doesn’t matter. When the milk is gone (it’ll take longer than the wine did) add another cup of wine, same deal as before.

[A NOTE FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO DO NOT LIKE TO COOK WITH ALCOHOL: You’ve got your reasons, I guess. I’m not gonna judge. You can replace the wine with beef stock. BUT, the beef stock should absolutely be made fresh. Nothing from the store, got it? I would have given you my personal recipe for beef stock had I thought about this in advance, but the idea of a life without alcohol is so alien to me that I only just now remembered that there are some people who swing that way. I’m sure there plenty of good recipes on the Internet. Good luck.]

Because we’re probably closer in age to Alex Balk’s grandmother than we are to Balk himself, we’re going to heat the milk.


¶ Felix Salmon talks PIGS with Carlos Steneri, a veteran of Uruguays economic turnaround back in the 1980s, and suggests that European policy-makers might learn a thing or two from the South American’s experience.

But Carlos reckons that some kind of European Brady plan makes sense — he calls it the Trichet plan. Germany would take the lead in providing the collateral, in the form of zero-coupon 30-year notes — and get money back for issuing them, as well, so it wouldn’t lose out. The PIGS would at the very least be able to term out a bunch of their short-term maturities, dealing with their liquidity problems. And the new instruments, with embedded partial German guarantees, would be more palatable to investors than plain-vanilla Greek debt, making it easier for banks to offload the paper into the secondary market. That’s important, because a large part of the sovereign-debt problem in Europe isn’t the sheer size of the debt so much as it is the leveraged nature of the banks which hold it. If the debt can be moved off bank balance sheets and into the hands of bond investors, the amount of systemic risk would fall dramatically.

This is neither a necessary nor a sufficient solution to the debt problem, of course, but it might be a helpful step in the right direction, and at the very least demonstrate a willingness to face up to the magnitude of the crisis facing Europe. Carlos was adamant that muddling through is simply not going to work — and the longer it seems that Europe is trying just that strategy, the more painful the eventual crunch is likely to be.


¶ As concern about the health risks of professional sports in general and pro football in particular mounts, it’s not surprising to learn that Lou Gehrig, the “Iron Man” slugger who routinely “played through” his injuries, may not have had amyotrophic lateral schlerosis — “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” Alan Schwarz’s report on a study that does not in fact name Gehrig reminds us that there is such a thing as fashion in morals.

“Obviously he played in the days before helmets, and he led with his head and with his shoulders, certainly on the football field,” said Mr. Eig, adding that he found no record of brain injuries in news reports of Gehrig’s football career. “On the baseball field he got knocked around a bit because he could be klutzy. Given the barnstorming he did in the off-season and his football career and style, there’s no telling how many additional shots to the head he took.”

Gehrig’s handling of injuries inspired reverence among fans and the news media. Concussions then almost resembled cigarette smoking, in that what is now known to be harmful was in Gehrig’s time considered benign, even charming. An advertisement for Camel cigarettes that filled the back page of Life magazine included various testimonials to “Larruping Lou’s” playing through injuries, including the 1934 incident.

“Another time, he was knocked out by a ‘bean ball,’ yet next day walloped 3 triples in 5 innings,” the ad reads. “Gehrig’s ‘Iron-Man’ record is proof of his splendid physical condition. As Lou says: ‘All the years I’ve been playing, I’ve been careful about my physical condition. Smoke? I smoke and enjoy it. My cigarette is Camel.’”


¶ Welcome the Class of 2014: the annual Beloit College Mindset List. (Remember, today’s freshmen were born in 1992 — only yesterday! The Editor’s daughter was in college at the time. (via  Speakeasy)

The America they have inherited is one of soaring American trade and budget deficits; Russia has presumably never aimed nukes at the United States and China has always posed an economic threat. 

Nonetheless, they plan to enjoy college. The males among them are likely to be a minority. They will be armed with iPhones and BlackBerries, on which making a phone call will be only one of many, many functions they will perform. They will now be awash with a computerized technology that will not distinguish information and knowledge. So it will be up to their professors to help them.  A generation accustomed to instant access will need to acquire the patience of scholarship. They will discover how to research information in books and journals and not just on-line. Their professors, who might be tempted to think that they are hip enough and therefore ready and relevant to teach the new generation, might remember that Kurt Cobain is now on the classic oldies station. The college class of 2014 reminds us, once again, that a generation comes and goes in the blink of our eyes, which are, like the rest of us, getting older and older.


¶ At Foreign Policy, Peter Feaver implores us to stop arguing about the Ground Zero Mosque and start prioritizing aid to Pakistan. (via  3 Quarks Daily)

Yet, all of the focus on the Ground Zero mosque controversy may now be having the ironic effect of distracting us from a much more important and much more urgent issue in that ideological struggle: the vast humanitarian crisis caused by the floods in Pakistan. The human toll is staggering, and that alone ought to be enough to prompt an outpouring of generosity from the American people.

But if you are not moved by the human suffering, perhaps the national-security concerns will prompt you into action. Pakistan is at the epicenter of the war on terror, and it is hard to see how that larger struggle will turn out well if the Pakistani state collapses and the society plunges into anarchy. The country was already teetering on the edge with a bankrupt economy, severe food and water problems, and an ongoing insurgency in Balochistan. And, by the way, al Qaeda and other terrorist networks are primarily in Pakistan, not Afghanistan — indeed, several of the recent attempted terrorist attacks in the United States have originated from or had links to groups in Pakistan. Oh, and Pakistan has a sizable nuclear arsenal.


¶ At The Millions, Jessica Francis Kane worries a bit about developing “writer’s desk,” and learns to make do in libraries. We can hardly write a word when another person is in the room, but otherwise we’re in complete accord: trying to create a lovely working space can become a deadly distraction.

One day, complaining to my father about this lack in my life, he told me a story. He’d known a man—the father of a childhood friend—who spent his retirement building the studio of his dreams. His whole life he’d wanted to write and paint, and now he would have the time to do it. As soon as the studio was finished.

This sounded fine to me. Where was it? Were they still friends of ours? Could I rent it?

He designed it beautifully, my father continued; the man was a good carpenter, worked on it for years. Apparently he showed it to my father at one point. He walked him through this perfect backyard work space, but what struck my father was how the man talked on and on about all the things that weren’t quite right yet.

The story appeared to be over.

What happened? I asked.

He died before it was finished, my father said. Never wrote a thing.

I kept looking for a desk, but I can’t say I wasn’t rattled. I eventually found something I liked and could afford at a very depressing estate sale on the Upper West Side: an antique, Mission-style writing desk that probably should have been found by someone able to afford to have it restored. I brought it home as it was, rough and rickety, for $150 and used it for a year. When I left that apartment, I sold the desk to the next tenant because it wouldn’t have survived another move. She worked in publishing, too, and wanted to write, so it felt like the right thing to do.

But I also think my father’s story had taken root. I began to suspect I was too susceptible to the idea of the “writer’s desk” and decided it might be better to do without one.


¶ At The Morning News, Robert Birbaum talks with Jennifer Egan, and we’re not telling you this at Vespers because talking about her own work is only a part of what interests Ms Egan. The conversation is fresh from first to last, a makes-you-want-to-be-there exchange of thoughts and feelings, and we heartily recommend reading the whole thing. But what we don’t want you to miss is the sparkling exchange, toward the close, about celebrity. We’re delighted to hear one of today’s most important writers praising an important 50 year-old book.

RB: There is also a shift in the notion of celebrity—people famous for being famous.

JE: That phrase, “famous for being famous,” you know who coined it?

RB: I don’t.

JE: Daniel Boorstin in 1961, in The Image, a book that everyone in America should read every few years. That’s where he pinpointed that tendency, that possibility. This was really before even television had become a mass form. He predicted all of it.

RB: I haven’t read it—

JE: It should be required reading. It explains so many things about how our media has developed.

RB: How did you come across this book?

JE: I loved Boorstin, he’s written a lot of great books. I heard it referred to—Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle is better known, but it comes after The Image and The Image predicts what’s in there, also. It’s a really slim book—I highly recommend. It’s so smart. Anyway, he talked about the possibility of being famous for being famous—that was 1961.

RB: Now we are overwhelmed by those kinds of people.

JE: True, but how new is it, is the point I am trying to make. I wasn’t even born when he wrote that book.

RB: Perhaps it is the glut of everything.

JE: We see a lot more of this stupid stuff. That feels so true. It feels like we are inundated. It’s everywhere. At the same time, I am disgusted by my sense of myself as this middle-aged person complaining. For example, my older son has gotten really into pop music. He wants to listen to the hot radio stations all the time. My first reaction when he was doing this was, “Wow, pop music was a lot better when I was a kid.” But then I started listening and I realized it was no different, it was no better. It was just as silly. In fact, I have totally gotten into the groups he loves. I want to be connected to him. It doesn’t make any sense to stand there judging.

RB: I see pop music as always having a range from mediocre to brilliant. There was bubble-gum tripe like “Sugar Sugar” on the air with Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead.

JE: Exactly.

RB: Who are these women named the Kondrashians?

JE: I don’t know. I have no idea.

Have a Look

¶ The 25 Most Disturbing Films Ever. (Where’s Dead Calm?) (via  MetaFilter)

† Frank Kermode, 90. The London Review of Books, announcing Kermode’s death, published an online chronology of his contributions to the LRB, which range widely over thirty-one years, from a recent review of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity to a consideration of the Nabokov-Wilson estrangement in 1979.

Reading Note:
Fun Stuff
Muriel Spark’s The Abbess of Crewe

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

It’s actually rather refreshing not be entirely on the qui vive where Muriel Spark’s bizarre hommage to Watergate, The Abbess of Crewe, is concerned. I really don’t want to know! Don’t want to trace the connections among the references! Having put the book down only to wonder if Walburga is Ehrlichman and Mildred Haldeman or the other way round is nightmare enough. At the remove of over thirty-five years, I’m not going to spin an inch of exegesis: I’d only trip on it and break my neck.

Rather more frustrating: I haven’t been able to find a juicy-red quotation from fiction by Ivy Compton-Burnett — imagine Oscar Wilde come back as Florence Bates — that would prepare the ground for saying how very much the following sportif passage reminds me of her (Ivy Compton-Burnett, that is, not Florence Bates).

“It is useless to tell me not to worry,” the Abbess says, “since I never do. Anxiety is for the bourgeoisie and for great artists in those hours when they are neither asleep nor practising their art. An aristocratic soul feels no anxiety nor, I think, do the famine-stricken of the world as they endure the impotent extremities of starvation. I don’t know why it is, but I ponder on starvation and the starving. Sisters, let me tell you a secret. I would rather sink fleshless to my death into the dry soil of some African or Indian plain, dead of hunger with the rest of the dying skeletons than go, as I hear Felicity is now doing, to a psychiatrist for an anxiety-cure.”

Such literary revels! Alexandra, the slender, obelisk Abbess of Crewe, dances, to taped music, a triangular quadrille with her very anti-type, Richard Milhous Nixon, and his political heir, the lady groceress of Grantham.

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Have a Look

¶ Humanoid high-tension pylons. (Wired Science)

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

Out & About:
Mostly Mozart 2010 (II)
16 August 2010

Monday, August 16th, 2010

The second and final evening of this year’s rendezvous with Mostly Mozart — a recital by the Emerson String Quartet at Alice Tully Hall — was not as delightful as the first. I’m convinced that it was the sight of a Con Ed emergency van parked outside our building, over the subway station construction site, that made me fretful as I headed for the West side. What would I come home to? Walking up seventeen flights of stairs? When the concert was over, the first thing I did, after calling Kathleen, was to call home, and, hopefully, to hear my voice on the answering machine. Everything was fine. But fretfulness spoiled the concert a bit.

As did the couple seated to my left, who, just before the second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, moved over one seat. I have no idea why, but of course I assumed that there must be something offensive about my person. There was certainly something offensive about my sports jacket. I’d just had it back from the dry cleaner, and yet here was this strange blob of blue on the lapel.


The program began with five fugues from Bach’s second Well-Tempered Clavier collection that Mozart scored for string quartet in 1782, when he was new in town (Vienna) and a protégé of Baron van Swieten, possibly the most important connoisseur in the history of Western music. Mozart makes the point of the adaptation very clear: Bach’s dense polyphony is spaced out over four instrumental parts that make it much easier for fashionable listeners to grasp. I know more about this music than I know it itself, so I can’t say offhand if the fugues were played in a set order or simply chosen from a larger group. Either way, the sequence was satisfying, with the slowest and gravest of the fugues coming in fourth place, followed by something suitably finishing.

This was followed by one of Mozart’s best-known quartets, the Dissonant, in C, K 465. There is nothing at all dissonant about the music, once Mozart has had his fun in an edgy prologue that must have alarmed a few conservative listeners (Mozart was by now new-ish in town). Happily, I long ago recovered from the snobbish feeling that the Dissonant is too familiar to attend to (although I do still vastly prefer K 464, in A, but just as a matter of love). I have known every note since undergraduate days, when there was nothing remarkable about such a statement. Unfortunately, there was nothing remarkable about the Emerson’s performance. It was very good, and the audience loved it, but I wanted something more — edgy. Not more dissonant, saints preserve us. (There were at least two egregious out-of-tune notes as it was.) But more interesting dynamically. (Meaning: more sharply articulated variations of loud and soft, fast and slow, fluid and staccato, and all the other opposites that make Mozart so bottomlessly interesting.) The Emerson, frankly, looked old. They played a quartet that they have had down for too long.

After the interval, clarinetist David Shifrin brought the group to a more exciting prospect, for Mozart’s very great Clarinet Quintet in A, K 581 — as, perhaps, did a switch between the violinists; much as I hate to think so, the Dissonant may have sagged for me because second violinist Philip Setzer was given an ill-advised chance to play first. Certainly Eugene Drucker, the quartet’s usual primo, played with a melting beauty during the retarded section that precedes the zippy conclusion of the Quintet’s finale. As for Mr Shifrin, he reminded me from the get-go that the Quintet was a work that Benny Goodman learned to play in his Hull House youth and recorded in his jazz prime. Mr Shifrin’s execution perhaps a trifle too impeccable to bring the Battle of the Bands to mind, but he certainly winked and sparkled. As always, I was furious with Mozart for not repeating the sublime conclusion to the Larghetto’s exposition. I always look forward to hearing this music again at the end, and I am always madly disappointed.

Especially when I’m already fretful.

Daily Office:
Monday, 16 August 2010

Monday, August 16th, 2010


¶ At 3 Quarks Daily, Namit Arora writes about the caste system in today’s India, citing (and dismissing) many dim-witted objections to “reservations” (India’s affirmative action) that will be familiar to our readers but also distinguishing between the caste problem and our race problem.

It is often said that caste is to India what race is to America. Yet, the attitudes of the dominant social class in the two countries couldn’t be more different (it is instructive to compare them without subscribing to a singular conception of modernity). Since at least the 60s, debate on racial prejudice has been mainstream in America. Civic institutions began combating it as a social evil; whites confronted other whites in the public square; Hollywood, the media, and the elites made it uncool; law enforcement cracked the whip on race crimes; diversity and multiculturalism became priorities. Whites widely read black authors who write about their social milieus. Blacks are highly visible in popular culture, including sports, music, and films, and are fully integrated in the military. White majorities routinely elect black mayors, senators, and governors; a politician can be destroyed by the merest racial slur (recall the ‘macaca’ incident?).

Not so in India. Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, continues to thrive after calling the Dalits ‘mentally retarded children’ who gain ‘spiritual experience’ from manual scavenging. The media has little interest or insight into Dalit lives, nor hires low-caste journalists. Major atrocities against Dalits still go unreported. Law enforcement is often indifferent or worse. There is no effective prosecution for discrimination in employment and housing. A Dalit politician can’t get a majority of upper-caste votes even in South Mumbai. Even among those few elites who read books, how many have read a single novel or memoir by a Dalit? In what is perhaps the most diverse country in the world, there is no commitment to diversity in the elite institutions that decide what is worthy art, music, and literature, or what is the content of history textbooks. In book after book of stories for children, both the protagonist and the implicit audience are elite and upper-caste. Much the same is true of sitcoms, soap operas, and commercials on TV. Dalits are invisible from all popular culture that gets any airtime. The Indian army still has many upper-caste-only regiments. There is nothing like an Indian ACLU. Or a Dalit history month on public TV, or exhibits in museums, that seek to educate the upper-castes about a long and dark chapter of their past (and present). Unless a sizable proportion of elites, benumbed by privilege, open their eyes and learn to see both within and without, can there be much hope?


¶ An amusing, slightly flaky description of the art of lucid dreaming, made fashionable again by Inception. (Philosophistry)

When I asked the characters in my dream what they were, I was actually trying to grope at the ethics of the dream world. In my dreams, is it unethical for me to kill whoever I encounter? The answer is no, because they are not real. But assume for a second that you don’t know whether they’re real or not (which is often the uncertainty you live under in dreams), then under that cloud of ignorance, it isn’t okay to commit murder in dreams. I spend most of my dream time unaware that I’m dreaming, and so I try to lead an ethical life. I obey the Ten Commandments and am generally polite to the monsters and angels I meet. I see all sorts of villainous idiots flopping around, and I don’t stab or shoot them because I haven’t realized yet that they’re not real. But when I do recognize I’m dreaming, I become a total nihilist and sociopath. Which is really fun.

That is the scary implication of movies like Inception. If you get people to believe that nothing around them is real, then why not jump whole-hog into nihilism? I wonder if lucid dreaming will reach a moral-panic stage, with newspaper headlines like, “Kansas authorities warn that kids are getting high off ‘lucid dreaming.'” The article would talk about listless teenagers who sleep all the time so that they can get high off actuating their ultimate fantasies. The teenagers get so into it that they disregard the real world, doubting whether the adults in their house are their real parents, and disobeying all authority and rules. This epidemic was kicked off by the film Inception, which fetishized criminals who stole secrets in dreams. Writer/director Christopher Nolan claims that he was simply trying to reflect the beauty of dreams, but didn’t know his film would be a danger to society. And of course Sarah Palin and the Tea Party would come out and decry lucid dreaming, urging lawmakers to ban it.

We would not spend our lucid dreams caressing actresses or slaying dragons. We would try to clear all the junk out of our brain.


¶ Chopstick math: why China’s government wants to put a stop to disposable utensils. But, also, why restaurants and consumers want to keep throwing chopsticks away.  

With summer floods devastating southern, western and northeastern China, a massive oil spill smothering the Yellow Sea off the port of Dalian, 3,000 barrels of chemicals bobbing aimlessly but threateningly in the Songhua River in the northeast, and nearly half a million newly registered cars — just since January — on Beijing roads spewing who knows how much additional carbon dioxide into the air, you may think that the government is unnecessarily overreaching in waging a war on the disposable chopstick.

But start doing the math and the disposable chopstick, made largely from birch and poplar (and, less so, from bamboo, because of its higher cost) begins to look deeply menacing — an environmental disaster not to be taken lightly. Begin with China’s 1.3 billion people. In one year, they go through roughly 45 billion pairs of the throwaway utensils; that averages out to nearly 130 million pairs of chopsticks a day. (The export market accounts for 18 billion pairs annually.)

Greenpeace China has estimated that to keep up with this demand, 100 acres of trees need to be felled every 24 hours. Think here of a forest larger than Tiananmen Square — or 100 American football fields — being sacrificed every day. That works out to roughly 16 million to 25 million felled trees a year. Deforestation is one of China’s gravest environmental problems, leading to soil erosion, famine, flooding, carbon dioxide release, desertification and species extinction.


¶ At the Globe, Drake Bennett drops in on a conference of moral psychologists. What if our moral responses to things are merely “ornate rationalizations of what our emotions ineluctably drive us to do”? (

A few of the leading researchers in the new field met late last month at a small conference in western Connecticut, hosted by the Edge Foundation, to present their work and discuss the implications. Among the points they debated was whether their work should be seen as merely descriptive, or whether it should also be a tool for evaluating religions and moral systems and deciding which were more and less legitimate — an idea that would be deeply offensive to religious believers around the world.

But even doing the research in the first place is a radical step. The agnosticism central to scientific inquiry is part of what feels so dangerous to philosophers and theologians. By telling a story in which morality grows out of the vagaries of human evolution, the new moral psychologists threaten the claim of universality on which most moral systems depend — the idea that certain things are simply right, others simply wrong. If the evolutionary story about the moral emotions is correct, then human beings, by being a less social species or even having a significantly different prehistoric diet, might have ended up today with an entirely different set of religions and ethical codes. Or we might never have evolved the concept of morals at all.

Toward the end of his piece, Mr Bennett contacts a critic of Paul Haidt, a researcher who believes that morality is “simply an after-the-fact story we create to explain our instinctive emotional reactions.”

“What is it that people do day in and day out? They’re talking, deliberating, evaluating,” says Melanie Killen, a development psychologist at the University of Maryland. In other words, she argues, they’re really reasoning. “This is not something only philosophers do. There is tons and tons of evidence in the development literature of the ways that moral reasoning manifests in moral judgments.”

To separate out emotion and reasoning as Haidt does, critics charge, simply makes no sense; the two are part of the same tangled process. And Killen points out that much of what Haidt looks at are taboos, some of which can just as easily be understood as beliefs about societal norms as true moral judgments. Even if disgust shapes those social considerations, she says, there’s no evidence that it plays a role in broader moral debates.

“Incest, eating your dog — these are not the moral issues of today. The moral issues of today are the Gulf oil spill, the Iraq war, women’s rights in the Mideast, child malaria in Africa,” she says.

We wish that we could agree with Ms Killen, but we’re afraid that, if she were correct, there would no brouhaha about gay marriage.


¶ Over the weekend, we got wind of a British blog that’s kept by “a gentleman bookseller who works in a warehouse in Sussex processing lorryfuls of used books”: The Age of Uncertainty. It took a day or two to digest, but we are now members of the Cult of Derek. Derek (surname redacted) kept a diary for much of the second half of the last century, only to have it discarded by his heirs. Steerforth, the keeper of The Age of Uncertainty, has rescued it from oblivion.  

Derek is something of a Pooter, but only something; he is also keenly alert to what used to be called the existential crisis, the need to find a meaning in one’s life over and above (or perhaps beneath) the meaning of one’s faith — in Derek’s case, the Mormonism to which he and his wife converted. Here is Steerforth, in the initial comment thread:

I found three new folders today – all from the late 80s – and beyond the humorous elements, what struck me was how brutally honest he was about what it was like to be a man of a certain age and class, living in an age of changing values, with a strong religious faith that was continually tested by experience.

The more I read, the closer I feel to Derek and the idea of throwing his diaries becomes abhorent. But I don’t want to keep them in a cupboard. I think the diaries deserve a wider audience.

I’ll contact Sussex University. Perhaps the fact that I’m not a relative or friend will add weight to the case for preserving the diaries.

We quite agree — and we think that the Internet itself would be an ideal repository. (via MetaFilter)


¶ We wonder why India bothered developing a nuclear arsenal when, all along, it controls Pakistan’s water supply. Notwithstanding the dreadful flooding that is currently crushing the lives of millions of Pakistanis, Steven Solomon reminds us that the country’s more fundamental water problem is shortage, not inundation.  (NYT)

Like Egypt on the Nile, arid Pakistan is totally reliant on the Indus and its tributaries. Yet the river’s water is already so overdrawn that it no longer reaches the sea, dribbling to a meager end near the Indian Ocean port of Karachi. Its once-fertile delta of rice paddies and fisheries has shriveled up.

Chronic water shortages in the southern province of Sindh breed suspicions that politically connected landowners in upriver Punjab are siphoning more than their allotted share. There have been repeated riots over lack of water and electricity in Karachi, and across the country people suffer from contaminated drinking water, poor sanitation and pollution.

The future looks grim. Pakistan’s population is expected to rise to 220 million over the next decade, up from around 170 million today. Yet, eventually, flows of the Indus are expected to decrease as global warming causes the Himalayan glaciers to retreat, while monsoons will get more intense. Terrifyingly, Pakistan only has the capacity to hold a 30-day reserve storage of water as a buffer against drought.

India, meanwhile, is straining the limits of the Indus Waters Treaty, a 1960 agreement on sharing the river system. To cope with its own severe electricity shortages, it is building a series of hydropower dams on Indus tributaries in Jammu and Kashmir State, where the rivers emerge from the Himalayas.

While technically permissible under the treaty provided the overall volumes flowing downstream aren’t diminished, untimely dam-filling by India during planting season could destroy Pakistan’s harvest. Pakistan, downriver and militarily weaker than India, understandably regards the dams’ cumulative one-month storage capacity as a potentially lethal new water weapon in India’s arsenal.


¶ Rosecrans Baldwin, whose new novel, You Lost Me There, was published last week, began a “pre-publication diary” last March, and while most of the entries are a little bit too winning to be genuinely personal, there are plenty of nuggets of writerly insight. This is our favorite. (The Millions)

April 8, 2010

Got off the phone. It happened again. In conversation and correspondence with other writers, two books routinely come up from the last couple years, as in, Dude, have you read this yet? David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. To the list, I would add Chimamanda Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.

I find it weird to meet writers who aren’t also big readers. Met one the other day at a bar and I looked at him queerly. He said he couldn’t find the time. This reminded me that readers are probably my people first, before writers. Writers are more likely to be dicks. Look at all the thug authors, unsmiling and posing so hard on their book jackets. I spent way too many afternoons in seventh grade reading Piers Anthony and Dragonlance books (and every one of my sister’s Babysitter Clubs) to pretend I’m a thug.


¶ We’re running this story at the end as a way of pointing out that, notwithstanding its title, Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain, it is not a scientific report. Rather it’s an almost blushing account of some hard-nosed research scientists waking up, in remote surroundings, to cognitive insights  that most thinking people have long since ratified. (NYT)

Mr. Kramer says he wants to look at whether the benefits to the brain — the clearer thoughts, for example — come from the experience of being in nature, the exertion of hiking and rafting, or a combination.

Mr. Atchley says he can see new ways to understand why teenagers decide to text even in dangerous situations, like driving. Perhaps the addictiveness of digital stimulation leads to poor decision-making. Mr. Yantis says a late-night conversation beneath stars and circling bats gave him new ways to think about his research into how and why people are distracted by irrelevant streams of information.

Even without knowing exactly how the trip affected their brains, the scientists are prepared to recommend a little downtime as a path to uncluttered thinking. As Mr. Kramer puts it: “How many years did we prescribe aspirin without knowing the exact mechanism?”

As they near the airport, Mr. Kramer also mentions a personal discovery: “I have a colleague who says that I’m being very impolite when I pull out a computer during meetings. I say: ‘I can listen.’ ”

“Maybe I’m not listening so well. Maybe I can work at being more engaged.”

Have a Look

¶ The ghostly town of Cheshire, Ohio. (Visual Science)

¶ Eric Patton visits Petra. (Sore Afraid)

Civil Pleasures:
New Page Note
Week of 14 August reviews

Monday, August 16th, 2010

¶ Two pages have been added at Civil Pleasures, the Book Review review for 15 August 2010, and a Gotham Diary entry of the same date. (No link for the latter because the entry also appears here.)

Gotham Diary:
Why We Eat

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

The bacon at breakfast this morning was extra-delicious, doubtless because it had been cured by a special twenty-minute session in a cold oven.

Or, you could say that breakfast was twenty minutes late, because I forgot to turn the oven on when I slid the pound of bacon onto the middle shelf. In this alternative interpretation, the bacon was delicious because Oscar Meyer’s Hearty Thick-Cut is always delicious, even when the pieces are structurally unsound.

I got the trick of baking bacon from the Silver Palate girls. It’s very simple: line up the strips on a rack in a roasting pan and bake them in a 400º oven for forty minutes, turning once after twenty. When people ask me for this “recipe,” I say, as slowly as I can, “Forty. Minutes. at Four Hundred. Degrees.” The rule of fours, no? Of course, the advantage of cooking bacon the regular way, in a frypan, is that you know right away if it is “benefiting” from the “cold cure.” And you get your cooked bacon a lot faster, too — once you turn up the heat. But these are not advantages that the true bacon connoisseur will savor. Baked bacon is magnificently evenly-cooked and crisp, and there’s hardly any need to “drain” it on paper towels. Though of course I always do. Even when the bacon is twenty minutes late.

I coped with the delay by prepping a bunch of leeks and a packet of mushrooms for a quiche. And when the breakfast dishes were running through the dishwasher, I composed the tart, filling the sink with fresh dirties in the process. I baked the crust, purchased at Eli’s not long after Agincourt (and probably a “sweet,” rather than a “savory” shell), and let it cool. Then I tossed in the filling, beginning with the boring stuff, the mushrooms and the leeks. After this, I took a scissors to three slices of thick-cut bacon, and grated a passel of cheddar over the top. Then I stirred these ingredients, thinking how much easier it would have been to stir them in a bowl. Finally, hunted down a print copy of the recipe. I have most details of Julia Childs’s Quiche Maison in my head, but owing to age, and to the creation, by means of eminent domain, of vast new brain regions devoted to adoring my grandson, I couldn’t remember a) how many eggs or b) how hot or c) how long. (Answs: 3, 375º, 35-40 minutes.) Yes, the mushrooms are my interpolation, and, yes, I know that a proper quiche Lorraine has no cheese. Lots of places have no cheese. We don’t have to be like them.

Then I made lunch. It is my settled philosophy that Sunday lunch ought always to be grander than Sunday dinner. Not lunch but luncheon. My current idea of Sunday lunch is a salad of chicken or fish dressed with mayonnaise, avocado, curry and lemon. My ultra-current idea of additions to this mixture involves sautéed corn and steamed poivron (that’s “Bell pepper” you, bub). Today’s fish, which I poached on Friday, was salmon trout — a fish that always made me want to fret, “Make up your mind!” until I bought a piece by mistake two weeks ago, and found that Kathleen preferred it to just plain salmon. It makes a delightful, rather sweet, salad. The only thing that a cook needs to know, beyond what I’ve already rattled off, is that I blend half the avocado into the dressing and cube the rest. Avocado two ways, as they say in the garde-manger.

Along the way, I refilled the ice-cube bin. The bin holds six trays of ice cubes — it holds more than that, actually, but the freezer won’t take more than six trays. If you want to know how I’m doing on the domestic front, all you need do is check my ice-cube bin. If it’s full, I’m on top of things. If it’s half-full, I’m still fine. If it’s empty, I’m tired. If it’s full of items that are not ice cubes, I have abandoned domestic economy (temporarily, at least) and cannot be asked to do anything out of the way. That’s the freezer test. The refrigerator test, which is much easier, calls for a bottle of good Champagne. I’d fail that just now, but only because there is no room for a bottle of Champagne. This isn’t because the icebox is stuffed with incipient garbage. It’s because I’ve arranged things in neat bins that don’t allow for the deposit of a bottle of beer, much less something bigger.

We’re going to have the quiche for dinner, on trays, while we watch Rubicon and Mad Men. Comfort food! In contrast to which, the salmon-trout salad sparked a conversation that kept us at the table for an hour and a half. We talked about Mary (as in “BVM”), Augustine, and why college is so expensive these days, and a bunch of other things. When Kathleen left the table (to run an errand), I thought how odd and peculiar and absolutely wonderful it is that we two old married folks (29 years this October) can still have the kind of animated dinner-table conversation that two people have when (as it seems) they’re finding one another to be very interesting conversation partners but when (in fact) they’re also falling in love.

Weekend Open Thread:

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

To post a comment, visit The Daily Blague.

Daily Office:
Friday, 13 August 2010

Friday, August 13th, 2010


¶ Why professional football must change or die: the scandal of glossed-over concussions. Cord Jefferson, at The Awl, goes on to target the economic foundation of sports-pension inequities. (“Boxing, which drops the niceties of football and lets minorities and poor whites pound each other’s heads sans helmets, sometimes until someone dies, has no nationwide pension plan at all.”)

Exacerbating its unwillingness to accept that football can cause brain damage is that the NFL isn’t doing everything within its power to prevent head injuries in the first place. As recently as February, helmet-manufacturers were questioning the league’s helmet-testing program, worried that it was dangerously flawed. The tests proved so bad, in fact, that one manufacturer pulled out, with its CEO saying the NFL’s tests are “not deserving of credibility.”

For reasons that are obvious yet difficult to describe, the NFL’s policy of allowing its players to gradually destroy themselves would probably be less offensive were African Americans involved in ways other than just running, jumping and hitting. They aren’t. As of today, there are still no black majority owners in the NFL, and only one who comes close (Reggie Fowler owns 40 percent of the Minnesota Vikings). Out of 32, only six of the league’s head coaches are African American, a dearth that may be part of why blacks don’t even watch the NFL. According to an ABC study, less than 13 percent of the league’s viewership is black. Football fans are primarily white and relatively wealthy, earning $55,000 annually on average. 40 percent are over the age of 50. “Football has demographics that baseball would kill for,” said one CNN analyst, who, were he more direct, would have said, “White guys with hefty disposable incomes watch football.”

Maybe it’s a fair trade–black kids losing the ability to remember their mother’s name in exchange for a decade of big checks and fame amongst middle-aged white men. What’s not fair by any reasonable metric is what comes next, when players retire. Although the NFL recently started a fund that will give ex-players with dementia $50,000 a year for medical treatment, it’s also installed a byzantine bureaucracy between the patients and that money. Brent Boyd, a former Vikings lineman who now suffers from dizziness and chronic headaches, has been deemed ineligible for funds multiple times by league doctors, who say that one of his major on-field concussions “could not organically be responsible for all or even a major portion” of his symptoms.


¶ Ellen Moody writes so persuasively about the virtues of Alejandro Amenábar’s film, Agora, starring Rachel Weisz, that we’re going to make a point of seeing it while it’s still in the theatres; we had planned on waiting, but no longer.

It’s a parable which is intended to comment on theocracries in the middle east which (just yesterday it was reported) stone women to death for pregnancy outside marriage.

It does makes a strong use of ritual scenes and large crowd ones (part of the point) but these are made more interesting by also moving out to shoot the earth from a distance. We have a metaphysical take or perspective (dazzling visuals as Izzy says), and as in George Eliot’s films, intertitles (yes intertitles are used and skilfully) persist in framing these events as universal and felt somehow further off or in history (writing) as in Eliot’s poem (above).

But at its heart is something quiet: there are so many intimate quiet scenes of learning, of reading, and of teaching, thinking, trying to understand how the earth relates to the sun, and both to the cosmos. The script is intelligent and the acting subtle and vivid, the stage business filled with intensities, including Hypatia’s large sandbox where she traces out with her faithful servant different visions of the planet’s movements. There’s a sequence of Hypatia aboard a ship with Orestes on the water with Orestes in a classical kind of boat. I don’t know if historically accurate but it was visually stunning and I liked to see her enjoy herself out in the open too.


¶ At the end of a lengthy piece about deficits, fiscal austerity, and other bugaboos, Simon Johnson and James Kwak remind plutocrats that cake cannot be had and eaten — not even theirs. You say that tax cuts ought to be extended, as a form of drip-down stimulus. Well, this is probably idiotic, but assuming it’s not, then the tax cuts should be terminated as soon as the unemployment drops to healthy leavels. We think that you’ll have a lot of fun pondering this object lesson. (The Baseline Scenario)

What do matter are taxes and entitlements. Therefore, the coming battle over the Bush tax cuts is of real importance. According to the Congressional Budget Office, extending the Bush tax cuts would add $2.3 trillion to the total 2018 debt. The single biggest step our government could take this year to address the structural deficit would be to let the tax cuts expire. And a credible commitment to long-term fiscal sustainability should reduce interest rates today, helping to stimulate the economy.

Critics say that this amounts to increasing taxes at a time of high unemployment, and that instead the tax cuts should be extended as a stimulus measure. This overlooks the fact that tax cuts are an inefficient form of stimulus, because many people choose to save their additional income instead of spending it.

If the goal is to boost growth and employment immediately, it would be better to let the tax cuts expire and dedicate some of the increased revenue to real stimulus programs. Alternatively, if some tax cuts are extended – as it seems likely that at least those for the middle class will be – there should be provisions to eliminate them automatically when unemployment falls to a preset level. 


¶ At You Are Not So Smart, a frontal attack on the Hydraulic Theory of Anger — to which you are, in all likelihood, an unwitting subscriber. Far from dissipating toxic frustrations, it seems, catharsis — well, venting, anyway —creates a need for them.

Thanks to Freud, catharsis theory and psychotherapy became part of psychology. Mental wellness, he reasoned, could be achieved by filtering away impurities in your mind through the siphon of a therapist.

He believed your psyche was poisoned by repressed fears and desires, unresolved arguments and unhealed wounds. The mind formed phobias and obsessions around these bits of mental detritus. You needed to rummage around in there, open up some windows and let some fresh air and sunlight in.

The hydraulic model of anger is just what it sounds like – anger builds up inside the mind until you let off some steam. If you don’t let off this steam, the boiler will burst. If you don’t vent the pressure, someone is going to get a beating.

It sounds good. You may even look back on your life and remember times when you went batshit, punched a wall or broke a plate, and it made things better, but you are not so smart.


¶ Dear Choire Sicha: the Daily Blagueurs want you to know that they totally get you. We never, ever complain about how hard it is to do what we do here, never.

Behind the scenes, however, the controversy has not subsided.

In daily telephone calls, Fred Sainz, vice president of Human Rights Campaign, said he was talking with top Target executives about “making it right.”

“Among the bullets in our gun is their continued relationship with the LGBT [lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender] community,” Sainz said. “Gay and lesbian customers are among Target’s most loyal customer base.” The company is seen by many in the gay community as “the progressive alternative” to Walmart.

Human Rights Campaign has also targeted Best Buy Co., another company that donated to MN Forward.

Best Buy spokeswoman Sue Busch Nehring said the donation “was focused solely on jobs and an improved economy.…We’ve learned from this and we will review the process we use to make political contributions to avoid any future confusion.”

Never! Not ever. (If anything, our labors have made the Editor somewhat insufferable; he likes to boast to friends that “now,” (and this would be thanks to us), he’s “staggeringly well-informed.” (But then we’ve always known that his role model is the Jodie Foster character in Inside Man.)


¶ Why is Beijing cozying up to the PRC’s ancient enemy, the KuoMinTang party of Chiang Kai-Shek? Well, things evolve, and it’s the KMT’s opposition that China would like to keep out of power.  (It is our expectation that the democratization of China will be accomplished by a gradual Taiwanese takeover of the Mainland.) Nicholas Consonery at Foreign Policy:

The Chinese government is looking for ways to bolster support within Taiwan for Ma and the KMT — and, by extension, for the current direction of cross — Strait relations. Ma’s government has moved Taiwan toward ever-closer economic integration with the mainland and is probing the political implications of this integration. But Beijing is aware that skepticism of the mainland’s intentions remains strong in Taiwan, and that Ma must avoid being cast as overly solicitous of Beijing. 

That said, a major driver of Beijing’s approach is a trend I laid out on this blog last year: Beijing is seeking to avoid steps that create opportunities for Taiwan’s major opposition party — the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — and is working hard to avoid any risk of a DPP resurgence. The Chinese leadership does not want to revisit the lows reached during the presidency of former DPP head Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan.

Beijing is playing this game deftly. For the past year, Ma has promised Taiwanese voters that he would boost Taiwan’s international profile by signing the controversial Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China, a deal he said would open the door to trade agreements with other countries. If Beijing had pressured Singapore to back away from these negotiations with Taiwan after ECFA, it would not only have raised Taiwanese ire toward Beijing — it would have inflicted serious harm on Ma’s domestic credibility and strengthened DPP arguments that Taiwan should simply go it alone.


¶ Yes, yes, we ought to read The Huffington Post on our own more often, instead of waiting for other people to find the fun. It has been days and days and days since Anis Shivani published his list of the 15 most overrated American writers. but if his list is no longer news, exactly, it’s still a gas to read. Here he is on the last writer on his list — whom he rushes to insist is not a writer — the Times’s own Michiko Kakutani. Rude and impolite it may be, but we dare you to look away. (via MetaFilter)

Not a writer, by any stretch of even my novelistic imagination, but I include her here as the enabler-in-chief for the preceding mediocrities. Simply the worst book critic on the planet. Possesses only one criterion to judge fiction–does it fit her notions of the mid-twentieth century realist novel? No postmodern experiments for her, nothing radical that doesn’t fit her naive realist mold. If she loves a book, avoid it like hell (it’s bound to be banal). If she dislikes it, consider buying it. If she really hates it, run to the bookstore and get it, right now! Every good book is Chekhovian or Jamesian or Forsterian or Updikean–she has mastered the technique of saying nothing in a review by comparing books to an author’s previous books and to classics which have nothing to do with the book at hand. Judges books as if the entire modernist and postmodernist canon had never existed. One of the world’s great purveyors of mindless philistinism–it’s divine justice that she would be the New York Times‘s chief book critic (and soon to go behind the pay wall). Sample judgments: “What’s amazing is that Mr. [Denis] Johnson [in Tree of Smoke] somehow manages to take these derivative elements and turn them into something highly original–and potent.” “A Chekhovian sense of loss blows through these new stories: a reminder of Ms. Lahiri’s appreciation of the wages of time and mortality and her understanding too of the missed connections that plague her husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and friends.” I limn you, Michiko, lapidarily!


¶ The fracas ensuing from Target’s contribution to the campaign of a gubernatorial candidate with an anti-LGTB agenda has thrown an unholy practice into a new and probably darker zone. While Target has endeavored to make nice with gay activisits, many lobbyists feel that the affair will just push corporations to figure out more anonymous ways of giving. We hope that the Human Rights Campaign will seize the day by demanding verifiably transparent campaign-contribution disclosures from targeted companies. We heartily support business boycotts. (Los Angeles Times; via  The Morning News)

Behind the scenes, however, the controversy has not subsided.

In daily telephone calls, Fred Sainz, vice president of Human Rights Campaign, said he was talking with top Target executives about “making it right.”

“Among the bullets in our gun is their continued relationship with the LGBT [lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender] community,” Sainz said. “Gay and lesbian customers are among Target’s most loyal customer base.” The company is seen by many in the gay community as “the progressive alternative” to Walmart.

Human Rights Campaign has also targeted Best Buy Co., another company that donated to MN Forward.

Best Buy spokeswoman Sue Busch Nehring said the donation “was focused solely on jobs and an improved economy.…We’ve learned from this and we will review the process we use to make political contributions to avoid any future confusion.”

Have a Look

¶ Has somebody remembered Giambologna’s Marina from Art 101? Cool. (Mila’s Daycreams)

Daily Office:
Thusday, 12 August 2010

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Here’s a thousand words’ worth of explanation for why the Blagueurs took a holiday! Back tomorrow!

Civil Pleasures:
New Page Note
Book Review reviews

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

¶ Book Review reviews, in their umpteenth reformatting since the summer of 2005, have reappeared at Civil Pleasures. We’ve cut back on the block quotes and relaxed our tone of voice, turning up the smart-ass setting a bit — frankly, we couldn’t endure the project further without sounding the occasional note of s-ass.

The reviews will appear on monthly pages, with the oldest on top. After six years, we’re entitled to break with one tradition in favor of another, much older one.

Reading Note:
Vendler’s Dickinson

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

As it is, I can barely crawl. The book, manifestly superb, defies my attempts to crown it; any reaching toward grand transcendent pronouncements on my part will be flattened by obvious ignorance. I don’t begin to know enough about Emily Dickinson’s poetry to tell you how wonderful Helen Vendler’s new book is, or why it is wonderful. Attempting to praise the book would be, for me, essaying a swan dive into an empty pool: the risk of disaster followed by the certainty of it. I can barely summon the mettle to urge you to buy a copy, as soon as possible, of Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. But do — oh! — do. In Helen Vendler, Emily Dickinson has a reader who takes her with complete, exhaustive seriousness, unafraid to state the obvious if it throws (as it does here) Dickinson’s vision into “relief.”

To crawl, then. Before dinner — a chicken was roasting; water was coming to the boil for spaghetti; the table was set, and Kathleen was on her way home — I opened Dickinson and read two poems, together with the commentaries. The first choice was absolutely random, the first poem that i encountered. Entitled “Indian Summer” by Dickinson’s first publishers, it contains this amazing tercet:

These are the days when skies resume
The old – old sophistries of June –
A blue and gold mistake.

Here’s what Vendler has to say about these lines. 

But she cannot remain fixed in her “objective” critique of what she initially calls “The old – old sophistries of June – ” (as if June, seeming to promise eternal skies of blue and gold, were a philosopher manipulating the truth) and secondly names as “a mistake” (as though June were a prophet in error).

As if, as though: it’s wonderful. The final line, “A blue and gold mistake,” has thrown a shard into my heart, not least because blue and gold used to be the Notre Dame colors, before that nasty leprechaun inspired a change to green and gold, a detestable combination of two colors that I love. Yes, yes; Dickinson doesn’t say “green and gold mistake.” In poetry this well put-together, opposites are found to have been smoothly compressed into the barest phrases.

The second poem was chosen after some riffling of pages, probably because it’s quite short — eight lines in all. “This is my letter to the World.” I’m so ignorant that I didn’t know that it is a “justly famous poem.”

The sticky line for me:

The simple News that Nature told –

Vendler unpacks it magnificently:

Yet almost everything about both this Nature and this messenger puts into relief the maleness of God’s authoritative messengers, from Moses and the prophets to Jesus and his disciples. Jehovah is masculine, but Nature is feminine (by virtue not only of her Latin gender, but also of her ability to bear fruit). God’s “Majesty” is intimidating; Natures is “tender.” God gives a Decalogue; Nature gives “simple News.”

Everything that Vendler says is obvious — the moment you’ve read it. But the shock of the last sentence persists, as if it were the very opposite of common knowledge. There are big, important things that, until now, at least, men really haven’t bothered to think or talk about. Sometimes, understanding the world is a matter of listening to “simple news,” not interpreting codes.

I hope that I’ve kept it simple.

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010


¶ Pascal Bruckner’s The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism (translated by Steven Rendall) has just come out in the UK, and it tosses a smart hand grenade into the body of presumptions known in this country as “political correctness.” Eric Kaufmann reviews the book at Prospect. (via  3 Quarks Daily)

Substituting the complex reality of history for victimology, Bruckner’s spade turns up some awkward truths. For instance, there has not been one slave trade, but three: an Arab, an African and a European. The first two were more enduring and trafficked more people than the western variant. The west’s innovation was to end slavery on moral grounds, while it lingered in the Arab world until the 1980s. Despite these inconvenient facts, any questioning of the idea that slavery is a predominantly European crime immediately places one beyond the pale. On this note, Bruckner neatly juxtaposes the tirades of a contemporary professor who urges reparations for slavery from “the Christian nations” with the actual words of Frantz Fanon, the black intellectual whom the reparationists appropriate without a proper reading: “Don’t I have other things to do on this earth than avenge the blacks of the seventeenth century… I am not a slave of the slavery that dehumanised my ancestors.”

Bruckner seeks a more rounded history. Nations should celebrate their heroes and victories while acknowledging their stains, because there are “no angels and sinners among nations.” In the west, the balance needs to tilt back toward a celebration of achievements and heroes who have fought for freedom and equality. Elsewhere, a little self-criticism would go a long way.


¶ At The House Next Door, Tom Elrod goes over the films of Christopher Nolan with an appreciative eye. We hope that the talented director weighs and considers his fan’s astute perception. (By the way, we’d forgotten that the very cool, black-and-white Following is an early Nolan title.)

It comes down to this: Nolan may be not a great storyteller, but he is a great constructer of moments. When Batman first appears in Batman Begins or when Leonard decides to fake evidence that Teddy is his wife’s killer in Memento the “Holy Crap” feeling is genuine. I believe this is what attracts people to Nolan. He plots his films in such a way as to give maximum exposure to the handful of “awesome” moments throughout, allowing them to feel earned in a way they probably aren’t. In an age when Michael Bay can deliver an instinctual or visceral thrill, Nolan offers something just a little bit more: the sense that it’s not all chaos, that the story at least appears to be planned. Thus, when a big moment occurs, you feel the rush of being taken for a ride. It’s not quite the same thing as being told a well-crafted story: almost all of Nolan’s films fall apart or become scrambled at the end. But it’s better than being on a roller coaster with absolutely no sense of direction. In today’s blockbuster environment, that may be enough to turn you into an auteur.

The problem is that as Nolan’s career has progressed, he’s lost sight of how to make those moments feel organic. The moments are there, but how do they connect to the larger film? Nolan’s filmography can perhaps be summed up by the iconic shot of the Joker in The Dark Knight, sticking his head out the police car window, oblivious to the dangers around him—an image of freed chaos. It’s a small, lyrical moment, and it feels like it happened by accident. The shot is surrounded by so much plot detritus that it feels like a scream from a smarter, better film. Alas, such fleeting moments are perhaps the best we can hope for from Christopher Nolan, the plot-master.


¶ The look of our structural unemployment is beginning to set, and David Leonhardt sketches a few broad outlines. Wages, for those with jobs, are rising, not falling; the states in the dead center of the country, from the Dakotas to Texas, are holding their own (and, aside from Texas, using their enormously leveraged Senatorial power to minimize the expense of aiding the rest of the nation); and this is a white-collar slump. Education is still makes a difference, though; the unemployment rate for college graduates is only 4.5. (NYT)

¶ Of the long-term unemployed, Felix Salmon (back from vacation and most welcome!) writes:

The problem is that persistent unemployment at or around 10% is unacceptable in the U.S., especially with the social safety net being much weaker here than it is in Europe. Leonhardt is right that Euro-style safety nets aren’t particularly innovative, but they do at least keep people housed and clothed and fed and living outside poverty — reasonable expectations for anybody to have, I think, in the richest country in the world. If David Leonhardt can’t think of any bright ideas for solving the persistent-unemployment problem, then the chances are such solutions aren’t going to magically appear. Which means we need to help the long-term unemployed, rather than simply ignore and forget about them.

¶ We’re still pretty new at this, but we’re surprised to see that Tyler Cowen agrees.

Furthermore, I don’t buy the idea that so many of the unemployed are stupidly and stubbornly holding out for a higher wage than they can get, while at the same time they can be reemployed by a mere bit of money illusion.  There are so many blog posts written to the Fed, to Bernanke, etc. “Hey guys, goose up the money supply!  Bernanke, read your old writings!” 

Yet I have seen not one such post to the unemployed: “Hey guys, lower your wage demands!  It’s good for you!  You’ll get a job and avoid the soul-sucking ravages of idleness.  It’s good for the country!  It’s good for Bernanke, you’ll get those regional Fed presidents off his back!  Why not?  The best you can hope for is to get tricked by money illusion anyway!  Show up those elites and get to that equilibrium on your own!  Take control!” and so on.  If such posts would seem patently absurd, we should ask what that implies for our underlying theory of current unemployment.

I sooner think of these unemployed individuals as having gone down economic corridors which are no longer promising and not facing any easy adjustment to set things right again.  Furthermore I consider that portrait of their troubles to be more consistent with the general tenor of liberal, left-wing, and progressive thought, not to mention plain common sense.


¶ Anchoring update: birds do it, bees do it — sure they do! They must! Because Physarum polycephalum, a brainless, single-celled slime mold, does it! Ed Yong reports, at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Latty and Beekman did one such test using two food sources – one containing 3% oatmeal and covered in darkness (known as 3D), and another with 5% oatmeal that was brightly lit (5L). Bright light easily damages Physarum, so it had to choose between a heftier but more irritating food source, and a smaller but more pleasant one. With no clear winner, it’s not surprising that the slime mould had no preference – it oozed towards each option just as often as the other.

But things changed when Latty and Beekman added a third option into the mix – a food source containing 1% oatmeal and shrouded in shadow (1D). This third alternative is clearly the inferior one, and Physarum had little time for it. However, its presence changed the mould’s attitude toward the previous two options. Now, 80% of the plasmodia headed towards the 3D source, while around 20% chose the brightly-lit 5L one.

These results strongly suggest that, like humans, Physarum doesn’t attach any intrinsic value to the options that are available to it. Instead, it compares its alternatives. Add something new into the mix, and its decisions change. The presence of the 1D option made the 3D one more attractive by comparison, even though the 3D and 5L alternatives were fundamentally unchanged.

Be sure to click through, to see how it’s done!


¶ Having read that “local artisanal soda pop is the next hot food trend” (oy!), Chicagoan Claire Zulkey proceeds to palpate the difference that price makes in our moralo-nutritional calculations. (The Awl)

There’s a double standard when it comes to food that’s calorically bad for you. Hell, there’s a double standard even when it comes to food that’s good for you. Those of us who allegedly can afford it and “know better” aren’t supposed to eat baby carrots anymore: we’re supposed to go to the farmers’ market to purchase beautiful fresh-from-the-dirt carrots with green tops, or have them delivered to us in a weekly produce co-op box. You don’t cram them in your face to fill the void and grimly just take it because the food suits its purpose and is filled with these goddamn vitamins and nutrients—you thank Gaia for the soil and the sun that brought it to you and consider yourself one of the “good ones” next time you read a Michael Pollan article.

When it comes to people who live in urban “food deserts” though, we don’t expect that type of worship: they’re lucky to get frozen, even canned, produce. But junk food? That’s when we get snobbish. High-class cupcakes, local pop, hamburgers made by top chefs, these are little indulgences for foodies. But gas-station treats, Coke and Big Macs are part of the nation’s nutrition problem.


¶ Simon Tisdall’s report on the renewed violence in Kashmir makes us wonder: what if the wealthy nations of the world sat India down and asked what it would take to relinquish its claim on territory inhabited overwhelmingly by Muslims? What would it take? We suspect that the price would not be exorbitant. (Guardian; via Real Clear World)

But Delhi’s blinkered Kashmir policy since partition in 1947 – ignoring UN demands for a self-determination plebiscite, rigging elections, manipulating or overthrowing elected governments, and neglecting economic development – lies at the heart of the problem, according to Barbara Crossette, writing in the Nation.

The violence “is a reminder that many Kashmiris still do not consider themselves part of India and profess that they never will,” she said. “India maintains a force of several hundred thousand troops and paramilitaries in Kashmir, turning the summer capital, Srinagar, into an armed camp frequently under curfew and always under the gun. The media is labouring under severe restrictions. Torture and human rights violations have been well documented.” Comparisons with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians were not inappropriate.

India’s failure to win “hearts and minds” was highlighted by a recent study by Robert Bradnock of Chatham House. It found that 43% of the total adult population of Kashmir, on both sides of the line of control (the unrecognised boundary between Indian and Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir), supported independence for Kashmir while only 21%, nearly all of whom live on the Indian side, wanted to be part of India. Hardly anyone in Jammu and Kashmir wanted to join Pakistan.


¶ Getting a little ahead of ourselves, we want to talk about a book that the Editor picked up this afternoon at Crawford Doyle, never having heard of it before. It’s Helen Vendler’s Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. The word “magisterial” was invented to describe books such as this one, which will sit very nicely next to Ms Vendler’s edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

So far, there are no online reviews (that we can find), so we’ll have to make do with plush from the publisher, Harvard’s Belknap Press. It’s probably all true, though. If we weren’t so diligent about our duties here, you can bet that we’d be finding out.

In selecting these poems for commentary Vendler chooses to exhibit many aspects of Dickinson’s work as a poet, “from her first-person poems to the poems of grand abstraction, from her ecstatic verses to her unparalleled depictions of emotional numbness, from her comic anecdotes to her painful poems of aftermath.” Included here are many expected favorites as well as more complex and less often anthologized poems. Taken together, Vendler’s selection reveals Emily Dickinson’s development as a poet, her astonishing range, and her revelation of what Wordsworth called “the history and science of feeling.”

In accompanying commentaries Vendler offers a deeper acquaintance with Dickinson the writer, “the inventive conceiver and linguistic shaper of her perennial themes.” All of Dickinson’s preoccupations—death, religion, love, the natural world, the nature of thought—are explored here in detail, but Vendler always takes care to emphasize the poet’s startling imagination and the ingenuity of her linguistic invention. Whether exploring less familiar poems or favorites we thought we knew, Vendler reveals Dickinson as “a master” of a revolutionary verse-language of immediacy and power. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries will be an indispensable reference work for students of Dickinson and readers of lyric poetry.


¶ Slow Reading — we know that it’s what this site is all about; but what exactly is it? Forget “exactly.” In a Guardian piece from the middle of last month, Patrick Kingsley pins down some foundational differences of opinion.

“If you want the deep experience of a book, if you want to internalise it, to mix an author’s ideas with your own and make it a more personal experience, you have to read it slowly,” says Ottawa-based John Miedema, author of Slow Reading (2009).

But Lancelot R Fletcher, the first present-day author to popularise the term “slow reading”, disagrees. He argues that slow reading is not so much about unleashing the reader’s creativity, as uncovering the author’s. “My intention was to counter postmodernism, to encourage the discovery of authorial content,” the American expat explains from his holiday in the Caucasus mountains in eastern Europe. “I told my students to believe that the text was written by God – if you can’t understand something written in the text, it’s your fault, not the author’s.”

¶ We’re picking this up now because, yesterday, two blogs that we follow wrote about Slow Reading. At The Neglected Books Page, Brad Bigelow notes that while the environment has changed in a way that may make long-form reading more difficult, it has not changed that much — enough, that is, to render long-form reading redundant.

While I side with Darwin and believe that adaptation to its environment is a species’ greatest survival skill, I also believe that we have a tendency, at least in the U. S., to think that momentum carries us further than is the case. As Timothy Wilson shows in Strangers to Ourselves, when it comes to self-knowledge, we don’t know what we don’t know–but we’re finding out that it’s a whole bunch. So while some of us are Twittering into the future, we are still only a few steps from the cave in much of our unconsciously-driven behavior.

And our environment is not changing that quickly, either. Our culture still has strong roots going back thousands of years. Our institutions go back decades and centuries. And our knowledge is still deeply bound to materials, practices, and skills that cannot be mastered in a few clicks. I wouldn’t be too happy to learn that my surgeon earned his license by surfing through “Cardiology for Dummies.” There is a vast amount of information relevant to our world that offers almost nothing of value to a skimmer. I well remember highlighting sentences in my calculus of variations text in college that were grammatically correct and mathematically valid and utterly incomprehensible to a non-mathematician. I’m not sure I could even understand them now, thirty years later. There is no way to unlock material such as this aside from time and close attention.

¶ And Anne Trubek, as a person young enough to have been shaped by environmental changes, is beginning to worry about her reading proficiency.

I have been writing “Signatures,” this column, for almost two years now. Although the title is taken from printing technology, I have always championed digital technologies and gainsaid arguments like Carr’s that would have us believe reading and writing are deteriorating. But I must come clean: I am feeling increasingly worried about my reading capacity. My lifelong habit of reading a book before I fall asleep is turning into a new twitter scrolling habit. I am writing more than I ever have in my life, but I am reading less. I worry.

I still become absorbed in books (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad is rocking my world). But my attention wanders more quickly than it used to. Email, texts and, most distressingly, this really stupid Tetris-type game I downloaded onto my iPhone beckon. I am not ready to agree with Carr, but I am ready to take one day off the internet a week. I will turn on the perfectly named Freedom software for my Mac, delete that speed-reading email and hopefully find out how to  lose my self again.

¶ It’s customary in these discussions to make some sort of mention, however passing, about the future of books — codices, the things that you buy in a bookstore. In our view, all such talk is rendered moot by Coralie Bickford-Smiths designs for forthcoming Clothbound Classics editions of six Fitzgerald volumes. It’s obvious that, so long as books so lovely are produced, buyers will want them. They may even read them.

Have a Look

¶ Hat tips for ladies and gentlemen. (via  The Morning News)

¶ “Large puter angle – $15.” Now, what do you suppose a large puter angle might be? (You Suck at Craigslist)

Gotham Diary:

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Over the weekend, I said to Kathleen that I think that this summer, this summer of 2010, is the point from which we’re going to date the beginning of a very bad economic time, something at least as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s. The crickets have stopped assuring us that this would/will never happen again, which corresponds at last to what we’ve been seeing right in front of our eyes.

I’d like to think that, having stopped worrying that it’s coming, we’ll do something about making it not so bad. But what? What can one do? I can’t even find the old entries that scolded Barack Obama for not speaking up against the ethnic cleansing of New Orleans after Katrina. I know that I made a few; I also know that I muffled them a bit, kept them as low-key as I could without completely castrating my point. Mr Courage, eh? That was the most that I could do — words! I complained that Barack Obama was a savvy politician who would pick his fights shrewdly. Now, of course, I only wish that that were true. If he’s picking his fights shrewdly at the moment, then he must be so savvy that nobody else has the faintest idea what we’re in for. And perhaps we don’t.

“Structural unemployment.” Philip Greenspun wonders if today’s unemployed human beings aren’t the “structural equivalents” of the Nineteenth Century’s draft horses. Now, there’s an idea that will warm Middle America’s heart toward the élite! Have a look at something that I wrote in 2006, in response to a brief article in Foreign Affairs by Alan Blinder. What good did that do, my prescience about the outsourced economy? The structurally superfluous economy.

When I was young, the battle cry was “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!” It would be music to my ears to hear that now. Nobody over forty has a single good idea. (Except for me, of course; and what I’ve really got is a lack of bad ideas — I hope and pray! Oh, and my friend Joe Jervis.) Let me know if you encounter an exception.

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010


¶ Here’s a page to bookmark for ready-reference: Keith Hennessey, an economic adviser to George W Bush, outlines the roles of the various White House economic advisers. Now, you, too, can master the difference between the NEC and the CEA! In the alternative, you can see the fungal spread of medieval jurisdictional kudzu thick enough to forestall any and all presidential initiative! (via Economists For Firing Larry Summers)

Mr Hennessey sketches the mechanics of proposing a $1/gallon gasoline tax.

If you have two from NEC (running the meeting) and the Chief’s office, and only one from each other shop (don’t forget the other senior White House Advisors listed above), that’s at least 18 people in the room.  At least.  Each has a legitimate claim to be there, and each has a view on whether the President should support a $1 gas tax increase.

I would guess that in the Obama White House they would also include Carol Browner, who has a new role as an Assistant to the President for Energy & Environment Issues (one of the new czars), as well as Valerie Jarrett, who among other things handles State and local issues for the President.  If the Feds raise gas taxes, that makes it harder for the States to do the same.

On a straightforward question like a gas tax increase for which the substantive analysis is easy, there would probably be three meetings:  one of mid-level White House and Agency staff chaired by the NEC Deputy or the NEC Special who handles energy issues, a principals meeting of Cabinet-level officials and senior White House advisors chaired by the NEC Director, and then a meeting with the President.  I’d guess that maybe 200-300 man-hours (of very senior people) would precede a 45-minute decision meeting with the President.

(Hennessey post too long? Try Weakonomics.)


¶ At The New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones writes about the new Arcade Fire album qua independent label phenomenon. We think it’s totally cool that Arcade fire licenses its recordings to its CD producer, Merge Records. We’d also like to hear more of the sassy wit of Matador Records’ Gerard Cosloy.

Now that the outsized profits of the CD era have disappeared, the music business is rapidly retrenching. With a limited amount of money to make—a sum dwarfed by movies, video games, and sporting events—many bands may figure out that major labels’ publicity budgets are an unsustainable luxury.

The idea of the label as a tastemaker is not dead, though, regardless of size. The major labels will continue to feed hits to radio and, this October, Matador will celebrate its anniversary with an almost entirely sold-out three-day event in Las Vegas called “Matador at 21.” Cosloy wrote to me, “Record labels aren’t nearly as fucking smart as they think they are, otherwise they’d have found a way to have done away with these pesky artists. Conversely, who is actually thriving without the benefit of a trad record label?”


¶ In “I’m With the Brand,” Chris Lehman has a kind of hung-over fun with Paul Keegan’s advice for getting a job in today’s you-know-what. Chris has some sharp advice of his own — to employers. (The Awl)

Of course, the title “search-optimization expert” by itself is enough to make any chronically unemployed person despair that this economy will ever create a real job again. But all this dizzying comment-for-branding’s sake raises a larger question: Why would mastery of the time-killing canons of the blogging and social media worlds recommend anyone as a desirable worker in the first place? Why should a prospective employer assume that if you’re now furiously shoring up your reputation in blogland, then hieing over to Twitter and Facebook to boost your SEO quotient, you’d behave at all differently when he or she grants you a bit of scarce and valuable cubicle space? Transforming yourself into an online brand doesn’t mean you represent anything of real value, any more than commenting on a blog means you really have anything to say.

¶ To offset the foregoing levity (ha. ha.), read about the world’s longest garage sale. (Time; via  The Morning News)

Which leaves Johnston marching her daughters from yard to yard, as Brian follows behind in the family’s new Ford Expedition. “We’ve only spent $20 so far,” she says. “If I’d bought all these clothes in stores, I’d be out at least $250. We just can’t afford that anymore.” Johnston stands in the driveway of Stan Stevens, who tends his yard sale from the porch of a two-story house with new red siding. But the yard doesn’t belong to him. Until last year, Stevens owned the house next door. Then he was laid off from a factory that made gas tanks for minivans. His wife Michelle was laid off from her job as a hospice nurse. They lost the house to foreclosure and the minivan to repossession. Big crowds at the yard sale are the first good financial news that Stevens has received in months.

“This has been huge,” says Stevens, 46. “You can tell that with the economy people are shopping more at garage sales like this and less at stores.” In past years, many in Hudson say, buyers rarely haggled. This year, sellers were keeping their prices especially low, asking $2 or less for most items. Even so, shoppers were still looking for deals.

Great for aggregate demand, eh?


¶ Move over, you opposable thumbs! You depend upon — or from, actually — an equally distinctive human characteristic: the shoulder. (NPR; via  3 Quarks Daily)

To understand the shoulder, look at a human skeleton. What you see is an intersection. The head of your arm bone (the humerus) meets your collar-bone (the clavicle) and part of the shoulder-blade (scapula). They’re held together with tendons and ligaments. The whole joint angles out horizontally from the neck, like a coat hanger.

“Because it’s pointing straight out,” says David Green, an anthropologist at George Washington University who studies the evolution of the shoulder, “our arms are allowed to just kind of hang freely, and then we can flex our arms at the elbow and have our hands out front, and that’s useful for manipulation. In apes, the joint actually points almost toward the ceiling.”

The ape shoulder is good for hanging from a tree, but when our ancestors started walking on two legs, the shoulder started to change. Early on, the joint descended lower on the chest. For a while, the shoulder-blade was more on the side, over the rib cage. Then it moved onto the back.


¶ In case you’re still thinking of branding yourself, notwithstanding Chris Lehman’s caustions, be sure to know what you’re doing when you have your profile picture taken. Christian Rudder crunches the responses to thousands of okcupid photographs. People with iPhones have more sex it seems, but they don’t look as good as — surprise! — SLR subjects. And: “The flash adds 7 years.”  (oktrends; via  The Awl)

Soft light can hide wrinkles, blemishes, devil eyes. The hard light of a flash often brings them out. As I illustrate with the dotted lines below, you can calculate the equivalent “aging” effects of a flash by counting years horizontally between the ‘flash’ and ‘no flash’ lines. For example, a 28 year-old who used a flash is as attractive as a 35 year-old who didn’t.


¶ Wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to worry about was China’s claim to the Spratly Islands? This diplomatic skirmish is so agreeably reminiscent of the run-up to World War I that we feel an almost Edwardian placidity. “The other” Geoff Dyer refreshes the screen on the South China Sea hypocrisis. (FT)

China has been happy to engage with the US on economic issues, joining the World Trade Organisation and stockpiling Treasury bonds, but Beijing has also accelerated a military build-up that has the US in its sights. Rather than preparing for a fight with the US, Chinese planners want gradually to squeeze the US out of its dominant position in Asian waters by developing a series of missile systems they describe as “anti-access” weapons.

Yet in the last year or so, China’s charm offensive in Asia has run into trouble – not least in the South China Sea, which for many Asian countries is a barometer of how a powerful China might treat them. The Paracel and Spratly islands are claimed in full or in part by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei. On China’s maps, however, the islands are inside a U-shaped line of its territorial waters, which stretches down to cover most of the South China Sea.

Amid rising tensions, China has reportedly told other Asian countries not to discuss the issue among themselves. According to US officials, Beijing also now says it considers the area a “core interest”, alongside Taiwan and Tibet. Some push-back was inevitable. Sure enough, Vietnam – the one country in the region with a Leninist political system comparable to China’s – lobbied its old nemesis in Washington to get involved. (The USS George Washington aircraft carrier visited Vietnam at the weekend.) Even Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who has spent much of the past decade praising Beijing, called last year on the US to remain the Pacific’s “superior power”.


¶ Ron Rosenbaum writes with the greatest enthusiasm about a new edition of Pale Fire — just the poem. Illustrated by Jean Holabird, the boxed edition includes simulacra of the file cards on which John Shade wrote his 999 lines of iambic pentameter, and that Charles Kinbote stole from Shade’s widow. (If you haven’t read Pale Fire — as Vladimir Nabokov published it in 1962 — don’t try to make sense of this entry.) (Slate; via  3 Quarks Daily)

And then as I read and reread the novel, and sometimes just the poem, it began to dawn on me. Maybe the poem wasn’t meant as a pastiche, a parody, an homage to Robert Frost. John Shade refers to his reputation with characteristic modesty as being “one oozy footstep” behind Frost, but that doesn’t mean we should take his self-deprecation as gospel.) In fact, I must admit Frost has always left me cold, so to speak. And when I started asking myself what other American poet of the past century has done anything comparable in its offhand genius to “Pale Fire,” I could only think of Hart Crane, the Hart Crane of White Buildings.

Once it dawned on me that the poem might not be a carefully diminished version of Nabokov’s talents, but Nabokov writing at the peak of his powers in a unique throwback form (the kind of heroic couplets Alexander Pope used in the 18th century), I began to write essays that advanced this revisionist view of the poem. It was actually one of these that came to the attention of Dmitri Nabokov who seemed to indicate this was his understanding as well: That his father intended the poem to be taken seriously.

It would have been nice of Mr Rosenbaum to tease out some of the beauties of Pale Fire the poem, but he’s much too excited about his new toy.


¶ Nicholas Carr digests the latest Nielsen numbers: depressingly, we’re watching more television (or “consuming media”) than ever — surely more than Nielsen’s 5.6 hours a day. (Rough Type; via  Marginal Revolution)

To give an honest accounting of the effects of the Net on media consumption, you need to add the amount of time that people spend consuming web media to the amount of time they already spend consuming TV and other traditional media. Once you do that, it becomes clear that the arrival of the web has not reduced the time people spend consuming media but increased it substantially. As consumption-oriented Internet devices, like the iPad, grow more popular, we will likely see an even greater growth in media consumption. The web, in other words, marks a continuation of a long-term cultural trend, not a reversal of it.

(Well, of course we’re not. We’re in our two-hours-per-week season. Rest of the time, it’s zero.)

Have a Look

¶ Nederlands dectective-mystery covers. (The Rumpus)

¶ Kari’s bar-fight face. (Feel better soon!)

Gotham Diary:
Weekend in Five Parts
9 August 2010

Monday, August 9th, 2010

1. Friday night: Mozart Mozart at Lincoln Center. A smashingly good concert, which is all the more super because I chose only two events, and this was the only Avery Fisher night, the only “normal concert.” (Next week’s Emerson String Quartet recital at Alice Tully ought to be great as well, but I’ll always associate Mostly Mozart with Philharmonic Hall, as it was during the first season — when, as I recall, you could be a sort of book of chits, convertible into tickets at your pleasure during the Festival.

The concert began with Così fan tutte and ended with Don Giovanni. Well, you’ll see what I mean. I don’t know when I last heard the Così overture by itself. It’s a jolly, but rather brainless piece, repeating its two very simple themes over and over; as such, it’s perfect for the opera that follows, which is about very silly young people who don’t really notice much of anything. As a rule, I disapprove of playing opera overtures by themselves (Rossini’s excepted), but this one is a very old friend, and of course it does the job of warming up the orchestra very nicely.

Mozart’s 22nd Piano Concerto was the last of the great ones that I got to know. It’s big (plenty of trumpets and drums), but its middle movement is ruminative rather than tuneful, the very opposite of the previous concerto’s. The pianist was David Fray, who, unlike our conductor (see below) looks rather younger than his 29 years. He is an excellent pianist, with very fine ideas about the balance of Mozart’s compositional blocks, but I should like to hear a few recordings, because, in person, M Fray is a romantic poet, given to raptures and collapses. You’d never know it, but his fingers have a wicked sense of humor, and when I read the review in the Times I agreed with James Oestreich that he ought to write his own cadenzas — one just feels that they’d be interesting. (Edwin Fischer’s were played; I knew the concluding one, but I’d never heard the first movement’s.)

Lionel Bringuier is one of those men who look totally grown up when they’re fifteen. He’s twenty-three now, but he could pass for a youthful forty. I don’t mean to say that he looks old. He just looks fully formed, set. And he conducts like someone three times his age. His way with the Andante of the Prague Symphony was extraordinarily controlled but also, well, wise. I want to say “organic,” because it wasn’t at all mechanical. The music was regular in the way that breathing is regular. The orchestra respired, between passion and sweetness, in and out, with no jerking shifts of tone. It was the most natural thing in the world — and very beautiful. If you can make the Prague Symphony sound fresh at any age, you’re a genius. The outer movements were grand, too, with the introductory Adagio and the entire Presto finale deeply infused with Don Giovanni, the opera that Mozart wrote at about the same time. (Indeed, he wrote it for Prague, along with the Prague Symphony, because the music lovers of that town responded so much more favorably to Le Nozze di Figaro a year or so earlier.)

The fountain at Lincoln Center — I must write about that separately. I feel rather stupid, since it’s got to be at the top of anybody’s must-see list, and here I thought it was just a fountain. It was redone, when? Last year? And is now a computerized marvel cum water cannon. I can’t wait for Will to be old enough to join the children runnng back and forth, shrieking in joyous terror.

2. Saturday night: Deep-Fat Fryer Disaster, narrowly averted. I haven’t had the big DeLonghi deep-fat fryer out in a while, what with &c &c. Having experimented with every known oil, and combination of oil and lard, I’ve come to realize at last that, whatever else, Crisco doesn’t stink up the apartment. The problem is that it’s solid. Which is not a problem, except that you know what happens when you power electric heating elements that aren’t immersed in liquid. If it’s one of those little numbers that boils water in a mug, it’s not so bad; if it’s a DeLonghi deep fryer, you’re talking expensive replacement. I had the bright idea (o tremble!) of placing the frying tub, which can be lifted out of the insulating frame, on a low burner, and melting the Crisco that way. But, oh, why was it taking so much Crisco to cover the heating element? The answer to this question occurred to me in the nick of time. I’d left the little drain tap open, and the oil had just about filled the well of my stovetop, without reaching the burners or flooding the sparkplugs that ignite the gas.

Ladling the melted Crisco from the stovetop — which is basically a one-piece enamel basin, thank heaven — was tedious but not impossible, and it only felt as though it would take forever. When the level dropped below ladling range, I sopped up the remainder with paper towels, and then cleaned the basin with ammonia. All better!  But the French fries that I made for dinner weren’t very good; in the slight confusion of aftershock, I’d put the lid on the fryer while the potatoes were cooking, not a good idea.

If the disaster had to happen, Saturday night was the night. I was in a good mood, not too tired, and equipped, it turned out, to deal with the near catastrophe without raising either my voice or my arms. I’d say that it delayed dinner by no more than twenty-five minutes.

3. Sunday afternoon: Brunch at Orsay. The French fries were better, but not that much better. The croque monsieur was delicious, however. It was good to see our friends, a Brearley classmate of Kathleen’s and her husband.

Question that I keep forgetting to ask: is that what Mortimer’s looked like, or did they do the place over when it became Orsay? By the way, the banquettes have been removed from the larger dining room (the one without the bar). They probably did that months ago; it’s possible that I haven’t been to Orsay since we had brunch with the same couple last summer.

After brunch, we walked our friends toward their apartment, on our way to Gracious Home, where I picked up a brochure for an “ironing system” that costs $2500. You get the ironing board, the iron (which stores in a compartment) and even a tank of water. The whole thing folds up to a thickness barely deeper than the ironing board that I’ve got (also from Gracious Home, but a lot cheaper). Question: what’s the market for a $2500 iron & board? Even on the Upper East Side of Manhattan — who’s ironing?)

4. Sunday evening: Rubicon and Mad Men. When I got back from Gracious Home, I was too hot to do anything but shower and read. (See below.) As dinnertime approached, Kathleen suggested that we go out, and that sounded just fine to me. It was only at 8:30 that we woke up to the impossibility of going out, unless we wanted to miss Rubicon. So we called Gracie’s Corner for a burger and a grilled cheese sandwich, and we finished dinner just in time to turn on the Bravia. (This entails turning on the cable box as well; it must shut itself off after a day or so.)

Rubicon is a fairly dumb show with a great cast. I wonder if I’ve seen Dallas Roberts on the stage? I haven’t seen any of the movies listed at IMDb; nor, of course, have I seen the actor’s television shows. But Kathleen and I are both certain that we’ve seen him before.

Mad Men was good: lots of Don and lots of Joan — and no Betty. We really liked the goof-up on Lane’s flower orders, and we loved it when Joan fired the careless secretary who was responsible. More Peggy would have been great.

5. Every spare minute: Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me. I’ll have more to say about this masterpiece when I’ve knocked off Ms Egan’s first two books, The Emerald City and The Invisible Circus. Or at least I hope that I will; where I’ll find the time to write a comprehensive view of this amazing writer’s fiction I’ve no idea. Jennifer Egan is the only writer whom I would class with Jonathan Franzen: they can deploy technique in interesting, almost experimental ways that never, however, interfere with narrative thrust or threaten to degenerate into solipsistic moaning. (When he gets older, I may include Joshua Ferris in this small, expert group.)

In 2002, a year after Look At Me came out, Jennifer Egan appended an afterword to make it clear that her book was imagined in the “more innocent time” prior to 9/11. I think that she owes us another postscript, this time disavowing clairvoyant knowledge of Facebook. Uncanny!

Daily Office:
Monday, 9 August 2010

Monday, August 9th, 2010


¶ At The Morning News, Michael Dacroz compiles an Internet reading list as an admirably suitable memorial to Tony Judt, who died the other day, at 62, of ALS.

I think there’s great value in understanding the perspective of someone who’s seen combat (in the Seven Day war), experienced a debilitating disease, and spent his career trying to understand the failure of the left. If he can sustain optimism, not become cynical in spite of all that, and go on to propose a huge reimagining of what a fair society should look like, then I think he deserves our attention for longer than we’ll spend reading his obituary. Which I why I just brought his book “Ill Fares The Land.”

— A New York profile is full of juicy quotes and Judt offers an apt one to close:

The meaning of our life…is only incorporated in the way other people feel about us. Once I die, my life will acquire meaning in the way they see whatever it is I did, for them, for the world, the people I’ve known.

There you have Tony Judt, fairly confident of being remembered, but aware that it will be in that rememberance that his life acquires its meaning. Might we propose, as Judt’s Law, that “the meaning of (your) life is none of your business.”


¶ At City of Sound, Dan Hill shares his notes of the World Design Conference  that he attended in Beijing almost a year ago. At the beginning of his multi-part account, he tells us why it took so long to publish it.

I was in Beijing for the first time, for the World Design Congress conference – where I was a speaker on Tuesday and a panellist on Wednesday – and to launch the aforementioned ‘Designing Creative Clusters’ project. It’s my first visit of any significance to China and as usual I’m fascinated by a new city, a new map, but this is something else, as if I’d been waiting for years to experience this first hand (in truth, I had.) The flurry of thoughts and observations is proving almost impossible to pin down – and new reflections keep emerging, weeks later – so as usual please excuse the impressionistic jottings. This one is organised in broadly chronological order.

I’m also conscious of a note at the beginning of Thomas J. Campanella’s book The Concrete Dragon, regarding visiting academics “discovering” China.

Upon his first visit, the scholar is ready to write a book; after visiting a second time, he decides to settle for an article. By the third visit, our erstwhile academic realizes he knows next to nothing about China, and had better keep his mouth shut.

This is probably the first visit of three for this research project alone, and unfortunately I have new publishing platforms such as this at my disposal, so here goes. (NB. Re-reading this, months later, and a visit to Hong Kong and Shanghai later, I think Campanella’s anecdote is right, in that I already wouldn’t write in the same way about China. But this is the nature of first impressions, after all.)


¶ At the Opinionator, Allison Areff notes that the strange American practice of choosing a home for its resale value is waning, along with the idea of moving up to something bigger and better with every promotion/pay raise. What stands in the way can only be called regulatory prejudice. (NYT)

The 2009 Builder/American Lives New Home Shopper Survey showed a trend toward smaller house size in 2010. The “unprecedented housing bust, which brought about the largest loss of home equity in history,” the magazine reported, “has fostered fundamental attitudinal changes in new-home prospects…. The desire for a McMansion seems to have been supplanted by the desire for a more responsible home.”

People still want amenities, that same survey suggests, but they also want energy-efficient heating and cooling. Yet the status quo makes such greener options hard to come by: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac recently announced a decision to block green financing projects in California, for example, making solar and other energy efficiency projects nearly impossible to achieve. The state is suing to overturn the decision.

Perhaps recognizing that they’ll be staying in their homes longer, buyers are starting to look for universal design, ranging from wheelchair-accessible bathrooms to single-story homes — options that will allow them to “age in place” — in other words, move into a home they can grow old in. They want accessory dwellings (a k a granny flats) to accommodate rising numbers children moving home after college and aging parents needing care. So far, the market isn’t offering many of these, a lack one can chalk up somewhat to inertia but also to legitimate obstacles ranging from zoning and code restrictions to difficulties with financing.

Housing, like many econimic activities, needs to be seen less as a business and more as an amenity.


¶ First, the dish: Razib Khan doesn’t appear to like Jonah Lehrer, whom he entitles “the boy-king of the cognitive neuroscience blogosphere.” We hope that this resentful animus is strictly personal, and not a byproduct of different enlistements (Wired Science in MrLehrer’s case; Discover for Mr Khan).

Not that there appears to be a substantive disagreement in their responses to the entry at Neurocritic that’s the reason why, er, we’re here.

The latest search for genetic variants that underlie differences in personality traits has drawn a blank (Verweij et al., 2010). The researchers conducted a genome-wide association study using personality ratings from Cloninger’s temperament scales in a population of 5,117 Australian individuals:

Participants’ scores on Harm Avoidance, Novelty Seeking, Reward Dependence, and Persistence were tested for association with 1,252,387 genetic markers. We also performed gene-based association tests and biological pathway analyses. No genetic variants that significantly contribute to personality variation were identified, while our sample provides over 90% power to detect variants that explain only 1% of the trait variance. This indicates that individual common genetic variants of this size or greater do not contribute to personality trait variation, which has important implications regarding the genetic architecture of personality and the evolutionary mechanisms by which heritable variation is maintained.

We like the way Jonah Lehrer puts it at the end of his piece.

We’re trying to find the genes for personality constructs that don’t exist. It’s not that people don’t have personalities, or that these personalities can’t be measured – it’s that we aren’t the same person in every situation, which is what all these “tests” implicitly assume. It turns out that Shakespeare had it right all along. Just look at Hamlet – the Danish prince wouldn’t fit neatly into the categories of Myers-Briggs. He’s brooding and melancholy in one scene, and then violent and impulsive in the next. But this doesn’t seem strange to the audience. Instead, the inconsistency of Hamlet seems all too human.

We would go a bit further: we don’t believe that the language of humanist psychology — and the metrics, such as the Meyers-Briggs test, that have been built with it — corresponds with useful precision to neuronal events in the brain. It is, instead, a language of speculative ignorance.


¶ Thanks to Nige, we’ve come across a new blog, The Dabbler, and learned-something-new-every-day, in this case, about the “British Israelite movement” — don’t try to guess what that was! Frank Key reprints a supplicating letter (a true de profundis) written in Buffalo in the late Eighteen Eighties.

I am in great distress and know not my future. My failure is in Buffalo. I have been here so long because I have no money to move away. I have been evicted and have lost all my clothes and goods, am destitute, a stranger in a strange land, friendless, helpless and hopeless; have not had a full meal for a month, am dirty, ragged and in tatters; precisely in the condition that Joshua might be expected to be in, and do not know at all what is to become of me – all seems dark. I am aged, have grown infirm, and badly ruptured with always a swimming in my head. Walk about the streets ready to fall, inclined to think my mission in life has ended, and that this is my last letter… People at home have been secretly working against me. I am too honest to steal, too proud to beg, too old to work, and have no trade at my hands.

We are grateful that “swimming in the head” has not figured among our limited tribulations.


¶ Jon Lee Anderson’s report from Iran (in The New Yorker) prompts thoughts about the futility of middle-class revolutions. No one ever quite comes out and says so, but it seems to us fairly clear that the regime’s popular, almost semi-official Basiji militias are engaged in a class war against their “betters.”

Some analysts interpret this as part of Mousavi’s continuing attempt to present himself as an unflinching nationalist, in the hope of retaining influence in the reformist movement. But the Iran expert told me that, in the absence of strong leadership, the movement was splintering. He explained, “The Green Movement was made up of different kinds of people: those who hated the regime, those who were offended by the election fraud, and those who joined because they were offended by the treatment of the prisoners. Eventually, they began to separate out.”

One Iranian, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for his safety, described the movement’s status. “Despotism works,” he said. “That’s what this situation shows. The reformist movement is over. The middle classes aren’t willing to die en masse, and the regime knows this. It has killed and punished just enough people to send the message of what it is capable of doing. The reformist leaders and the regime have a kind of unspoken pact: ‘Don’t organize any more demonstrations or say anything and we’ll leave you alone. Do anything and we’ll arrest you.’ It’s over.”

But the members of the movement I spoke to have not changed their sympathies. In Tehran, I was invited to watch a televised soccer match in the home of an Iranian family. During a break in the action, someone mentioned that I had interviewed President Ahmadinejad that week. One of my hosts, a professional woman in her thirties, immediately put two fingers into her mouth and bent over in a pantomime of gagging. “Oh, how I hate him,” she said. “He makes my skin crawl. He is the worst kind of Iranian; he offends our dignity and our sense of ethics, and the worst thing is he thinks he is so clever.” The mere mention of his name, she said, made her feel depressed. In the crackdown that has followed last year’s unrest, she added, many of her friends and acquaintances—mostly other educated young professionals, of the sort that overwhelmingly supported the Green Movement—had fled the country, or were planning to. She did not plan to emigrate, but she understood the urge to do so. “The frustration is almost too great to bear. People feel so robbed, and their dignity and hopes are so offended. Every day, it is so painful. It hurts. This feeling will not just go away. The Green Movement represents this feeling, and it can’t just disappear. Somehow, maybe in another shape, it has to reëmerge.”


¶ A brief and jaunty encounter with Carl Hiaasen, whose latest entertainment, Star Island, has just come out. James Adams at the Globe and Mail (via  Arts Journal)

With the exception of his three novels for children and a smattering of non-fiction, most of Hiaasen’s oeuvre can be found in the crime or mystery fiction section of your favourite bookstore, racked like so many boxes of brand detergent in bright, candy-coloured covers. Yet it’s a berth Hiaasen finds rather, well . . . mysterious.

“My books are character-driven. They’re not driven by the story,” he explained. “There’s not this precise, linear plotting . . . And there’s no mystery really. If anything, the mystery is how are these people going to get out of this fix or end up.”

In the late 1980s, Hiaasen’s editor at Random House pressured the writer to take a character from his third novel, Skin Tight — a state’s attorney investigator — and hook all his future novels around the investigator’s exploits. Hiaasen begged off becoming a serialist, even though, sipping a big glass of Coca-Cola, he acknowledged it likely would have “made an easier road.”

But, as Mr Hiaasen doesn’t need to tell usw, he gets “bored so easily.”


¶ We don’t hear much about “cybernetics” anymore, possibly — it occurs to us this afternoon, reading Jaron Lanier’s Op-Ed piece, “The First Church of Robotics” — because the relationship between humanity and machinery implicit in that term has been reversed, so that “technology” is now the grander term, the source of metaphor for human cognition. Some old farts might find in this a worrying development, but we think, along with Mr Lanier, that it’s mostly froth. (NYT)

What bothers me most about this trend, however, is that by allowing artificial intelligence to reshape our concept of personhood, we are leaving ourselves open to the flipside: we think of people more and more as computers, just as we think of computers as people.

In one recent example, Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, has suggested that when people engage in seemingly trivial activities like “re-Tweeting,” relaying on Twitter a short message from someone else, something non-trivial — real thought and creativity — takes place on a grand scale, within a global brain. That is, people perform machine-like activity, copying and relaying information; the Internet, as a whole, is claimed to perform the creative thinking, the problem solving, the connection making. This is a devaluation of human thought.

A devaluation — but of course not a termination.

Have a Look

¶  Mig goes to Paris. (Metamorphosism)

¶ “Doing the Reactionary“: Barbra Streisand sings Harold Rome’s 1937 tongue-in-cheek novelty dance item. Thing is, she sounds as though she were singing in 1937. (via MetaFilter)

¶ “Ceremonial Esophagus — $40” (You Suck at Craigslist)

Kevin Nguyen’s “Domestic Conflict, Explained By Stock Photos” (The Bygone Bureau)

Weekend Open Thread:

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

To post a comment, visit The Daily Blague.