Archive for September, 2010

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Note: The Daily Office will resume on Monday, 4 October 2010.


¶ Although we stopped reading Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed pieces five or six years ago, something about today’s column caught our eye — we have a thing for actual tea kettles — and pretty soon we were reading this:

Democratic Pollster Stan Greenberg told me that when he does focus groups today this is what he hears: “People think the country is in trouble and that countries like China have a strategy for success and we don’t. They will follow someone who convinces them that they have a plan to make America great again. That is what they want to hear. It cuts across Republicans and Democrats.”

To me, that is a plan that starts by asking: what is America’s core competency and strategic advantage, and how do we nurture it? Answer: It is our ability to attract, develop and unleash creative talent. That means men and women who invent, build and sell more goods and services that make people’s lives more productive, healthy, comfortable, secure and entertained than any other country.

We stopped reading Thomas Friedman five or six years ago because we got tired of his fondness for cant phrases such as “core competency.” It seems obvious to us that the core competence of every nation is the same: ensuring the freedom and safety of its citizens. The United States’s “ability to attract, develop and unleash creative talent” is a special gift. It is no substitute for ensuring public welfare.


¶ Robert Levin, an accomplished man of music who has made a name for himself both as a concert artist and as a completer of unfinished compositions by Mozart and Schubert, among others, puts his fingers (all ten of them) on the jazz heart that beats inside “classical” music. (WSJ; via  Arts Journal)

In such instances, he says, his experience in improvising allows him to inhabit each performance as if he were creating in the moment.

“The most extraordinary benefit I received from those 1½ minutes of panic, fighting my way out of the gunny sack with those improvised cadenzas, is that you begin to see the crossroads everywhere. You see junctions where the composer could have done any one of five things and, whirling wildly, stuttering in panic, reaching for some means of support, veers to the left and then takes the consequences. For someone who just sees the text as something to be played as beautifully as possible, that sense of volatility, the sense of the composer having a choice, isn’t there.”

While he concedes that his approach is less likely to produce performances of Apollonian detachment and perfection, he thinks audiences are willing to trade these in for a unique and singularly live experience. When the orchestra stops before one of his improvised cadenzas, he says, “you can hear the intensity with which people listen. There’s a tension in the air because people know that anything could happen.

“Let’s face it,” he adds. “They’re not going to get Beethoven back. But why not try to get back to a feeling of danger, a feeling of this music being new?”


¶ Conor O’Clery reports that the inevitable has begun: in yet another Irish diaspora, talented people are leaving their debt-saddled land for brighter economic opportunities. (GlobalPost) 

The new wave of emigrants, however, is not composed of the poorest or most destitute. The best and brightest are leading the way, mainly young college graduates who cannot find work in a country that has lost one in eight jobs since 2007. Today, with U.S. work visas harder to obtain and a high unemployment rate in the United States, young people are looking mainly to other English-speaking countries for economic refuge, mainly Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. 

Laura Cross, a 22-year-old biochemistry graduate from Dublin, is typical of the emigrants. Cross has been seeking work in vain since obtaining her degree in May and is now heading for a new life in Canada. The only job she could find here was as a shop assistant working one day a week, she told the Irish Daily Mail, which on Sept. 22 devoted its front page to a splash heading: “Exodus of Our Young.”


¶ Ed Yong writes up a fascinating study about “stereotype threat” — anxiety about living up to the world’s expectations — that shows how crippling and unfair stereotypes really are. (Not Exactly Rocket Science)

The duo investigated a well-established phenomenon called stereotype threat, where stereotypes fuel themselves in a vicious circle. People exposed to a stereotype become so worried about conforming to them that they end up doing so. As an example, women do more poorly in maths tests if they have previously been reminded of the supposed male superiority in that subject or even, simply, if their gender is highlighted. Likewise, black schoolchildren do worse in intelligence tests if their race is drawn to attention, but they narrow the gap if they sit through an exercise designed to boost their self-worth.


The two researchers explain that our decisions are governed by both conscious, deliberate choices and unconscious intuition. Stereotype threat interferes with the former; it takes up valuable mental resources with stress and worry, leaving the intuitive side of decision-making to call the shots, and leading to more defensive behaviour. It’s this distraction that the Stroop test picks up on, which is why performance on the test explains the degree of risk aversion brought about by stereotype threat.

Carr and Steele write that “similar gender differences observed in previous studies may have arisen not from innate and stable factors, but from powerful but subtle cues of stereotypes embedded in the environment and task instructions.” The fact that gender stereotypes seem to affect men in the opposite way, as shown in the risk-aversion experiment, may help to widen the gender gap even further. Perhaps the knowledge that others are being negatively stereotyped, or that stereotypes don’t apply to you, makes people more confident.

What we see in this final paragraph is the benefit of positive stereotyping: men are supposed to be good at taking risks, and that stereotype is so much wind in their sails. 


¶ At The House Next Door, Aaron Cutler writes up the new Romanian movie, currently showing at the New York Film Festival, Tuesday, After Christmas; but his piece is really a heart-melting account of how his parents’ divorce made him into a moviegoer.

It was nearly a decade after their breakup when I saw Voyage to Italy. Roberto Rossellini’s film follows a couple on a trip: She wants to explore, he wants to drink and philander, and it grows obvious in a hurry that they never had much in common at all. The man says eventually that he wants a divorce, and I nodded and thought, “Yes that’s good, get away from each other, and get away soon before you fuck up the kids.” But the film ends in a crowded town square, where they lose each other, then find each other again, and embrace and promise never to leave each other while someone cries, “Miraculo!” I’ve grown more attached to this blatant fantasy since then, but on my first viewing I loathed it. It was too close to my dream, long harbored, that my parents would reassemble. Projected now, though, this vision looked fake.

A few years later, I came to Scenes from a Marriage. Rossellini in 1953 had shaken neorealism by shooting actors against documentary landscapes; Ingmar Bergman in 1974 had shot deep into psychological realism by following two people in a room as they argued for an hour. Sometimes they slugged each other, sometimes kissed each other, and the fact that the violence came from love struck me as right in a way I’d never thought. But by the time Bergman’s couple snuck off to the woods together, years after ending their union, and hid from their new spouses with each other in the storm, I’d stopped believing them. Bergman’s film, so honest, had cheated. “And that doesn’t happen in real life,” I thought.


¶ Reading John Tagliabue’s dispatch from Chur, Switzerland, this morning, we reflected on the plight of languages that are spoken by relatively few people — and even fewer people who speak only those languages. Elisabeth Maranta runs a bookshop in Chur, where she offers books of poetry in Romansh, the fourth language of Switzerland, a legacy of the Roman Empire that is distinct from the Italian that is spoken elsewhere in the mountain nation. (NYT)

Yet Ms. Maranta herself illustrates the fragility of Romansh. A native of Germany, she came to Chur 38 years ago with her husband, but does not speak Romansh herself, which is hardly a liability since virtually all Romansh speakers also speak German. While she is an ardent champion of Romansh, she can be bleak about its future. Asked why most of the books in Romansh she sells are poetry, she muses: “When a patient is dying, he writes only poetry.”

Romansh is the direct descendant of the Latin that was spoken in these mountain valleys at the height of the Roman empire, and shares the same Latin roots as French, Italian or Spanish. So isolated were the people who spoke it in their deep valleys that not one, but five, dialects grew up, though the differences are not substantial.

In the 19th century, monks in the region developed a written language. The valleys produced their own writers in Romansh, mostly poets, yet it was not until 1973 that portions of the Bible were published in the language. In 1997, the first daily newspaper in Romansh, La Quotidiana, appeared.

What will be lost when nobody alive speaks Romansh? While we hope that excellent records will be kept — including vital video clips of people reading that poetry — we can ‘t work up much enthusiasm for a vernacular language that is no longer growing.


¶ Getting back to Freedom, John Self’s neutral review is a concise example of what we’ll call the anti-phenomenal response to Jonathan Franzen’s novel. What readers who feel this way would have thought of the book if it had not been a hyper-mega publishing event will probably never be known, because the actual fiction was occluded for them by the trumpets of annointment. In the first paragraph that we’ve snipped, Mr Self considers the book through its title, which is to say, sociologically: Freedom as an “important” non-non-fiction public-affairs text. (Our favorite signal of this response is a phrase such as the one that we remember from Good: “devastating laceration.”)

Having read the book through this expository filter, Mr Self naturally finds himself underwhelmed by Franzen’s prose, which, as we have suggested elsewhere, is designed not to make a case against America today but to open out the well-intentioned dissatisfactions of a handful of smart, bemused characters.

Everyone wants freedom, he seems to say, but look what happens when we get it. The environment goes bang in the noonday sun. Families disintegrate, the responsibilities of parenting seeming to outweigh the prizes, the limitations of being a child viewed as an infringement of rights. Culture atrophies: “There’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. […] Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.” Freedom is simultaneously irresistible and unsatisfying, a point Franzen brings home right to the end of the book – an end which, if it didn’t fit in so neatly with the overall theme, would risk looking like a cop-out. “Freedom is a pain in the ass.”

Freedom is not a pain in the ass. It is not a bad book; it is a good book. There is much to see and do, though it drags at times, like a too-long holiday. The characters’ dilemmas are clearly presented and thoroughly explored. But the storytelling is often treated with disdain: Franzen despatches big events – a marriage, a death – almost as asides, as though such compelling human dramas are not worthy of his Big Literature. For the claims of Franzen being a great stylist (made by Ron Charles for one), I rarely found myself taking pure delight in the prose itself. It is a book which demands to be read largely because everyone else seems to be reading it – a quality which, rather than making this a timeless literary (or rather cultural) milestone, actually risks stamping it with a sell-by date. Many will find pleasure in the journey, but those bold enough to take a pass on it may, I feel, not find themselves missing all that much. The paradox is that I had to read it, and had some pleasure myself in doing so, to find that out.


¶ Ever since the days of the Sokal Hoax, we’ve had a bit of trouble taking Stanley Fish seriously (at the time, Professor Fish directed the Duke University Press, which published Social Text, the journal in which the hoax was perpetrated), but we can’t deny that we endorse his ideas about the counterproductivity of insulting rants in the Blogosphere.

Commentators who explain smugly that O’Donnell’s position on masturbation (that it is a selfish, solitary act) is contradicted by her Ayn Rand-like attack on collectivism, or who wax self-righteous about Paladino’s comparing Sheldon Silver to Hitler and promising to wield a baseball bat in Albany, or who laugh at Sharron Angle for being in favor of Scientology (she denies it) and against fluoridation and the Department of Education, are doing these candidates a huge favor. They are saying, in effect, these people are stupid, they’re jokes; and the implication (sometimes explicitly stated) is that anyone who takes them the least bit seriously doesn’t get the joke and is stupid, too.

We the people hear this and know who is being talked about, and react with anger: “Don’t presume to tell me what to think and whom to vote for just because you have more degrees than I do. I don’t know much about these people but if you guys are against them, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

And if they don’t exactly say that, the recently unveiled “Pledge to America” says it for them in its money quote: “An arrogant out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites make decisions, issue mandates, and enact laws without accepting or requesting the input of the many.” The many grow and become more robust every time a self-satisfied voice from the political or media establishment dumps on their spokespersons. Mayor Bloomberg may be right when he says (in explaining his endorsement of Cuomo over Paladino) that “anger is not a governing strategy,” but it sure is a campaign strategy and it is one the Tea Party and the Republicans it has tutored know how to execute.

What to do? It is easier, of course, to say what not to do, and what not to do is what Democrats and their allies are prone to do — poke gleeful fun at the lesser mortals who say and believe strange things and betray an ignorance of history.

As Tyler Cowen, who tipped us to this, says, the word “stimulus,” all by itself and no matter what the context, is probably always exactly that, to the influence of the Republican Party.

Have a Look

¶ Windsor Chairs. (Design Sponge)

Morning Snip:

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Henry Alford, never one for the simple life, decides to invite a restaurant inspector into his home while he prepares for a dinner party. His score: “Flunkadelic.”

Simultaneously, I was whipping up two corn soufflés. The trifecta of guest arrival, soufflé preparation and government-backed humiliation was, for this host, a lake of fire. Imagine that your war crimes tribunal is being filmed while you broil scallops. As guests spilled in and egg whites were whipped, Ms. Torin continued zealously snooping around the kitchen, brandishing a tiny flashlight to look for rodent excreta, and telling me that I should sand down my aged cutting boards and retrieve ice from my freezer with a scoop. I grimace-smiled like a polar bear at a world climate summit.

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010


¶ Malcolm Gladwell revisits the Woolworth’s lunch-counter sit in that kicked off the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s, at Greensboro, North Carolina, and argues that it was not the sort of event that might be condensed from a lot of Tweets. (The New Yorker)

These are strong, and puzzling, claims. Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet? Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all? As for Moldova’s so-called Twitter Revolution, Evgeny Morozov, a scholar at Stanford who has been the most persistent of digital evangelism’s critics, points out that Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist. Nor does it seem to have been a revolution, not least because the protests—as Anne Applebaum suggested in the Washington Post—may well have been a bit of stagecraft cooked up by the government. (In a country paranoid about Romanian revanchism, the protesters flew a Romanian flag over the Parliament building.) In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.


¶ How much did Lehman Brothers (and its subsidiary Neuberger Berman) pay for the all the art that sold for $12.3 million at Sotheby’s over the weekend? Just wondering about the ROI. (ArtInfo; via The Awl)

Prices went high and low for no obvious reasons, as when Mark Grotjahn’s color-saturated, roughly seven-foot-by-six-foot cover-lot canvas, “Untitled (Three-tiered Perspective),” from 2000 and estimated at $600-800,000, fetched $782,500, the third highest price achieved in the marathon sale. That buzz didn’t last: the next lot, John Currin’s dour “Shakespeare Actress” from 1991 (est. $500-700,000), sold for a scant $362,500.

Most likely, the reserves were pegged to a “global reserve” formula, so one over-achieving lot could compensate for an underperforming one, like the Currin. That formula also saved Richard Prince’s untitled 2003 joke painting, acquired in the year it was made from Barbara Gladstone Gallery, that sold to a telephone bidder for just $212,500 on a $300-400,000 estimate.

Still, that global formula could not save every underperforming lot. Damien Hirst’s uncharacteristic 1993 steel cupboard of ceramic pots, “We’ve got Style (The Vessel Collection-Blue /Green),” estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million, died without a single bid. The sculpture was acquired from London’s White Cube gallery in 1994.

John Currin, be it noted, doesn’t paint like that anymore.


¶ Felix Salmon isn’t particularly interested in Gawker Media baron Nick Denton, but he is intrigued by the implications what New York profiler Michael Idoff calls his “gravitating from the diary metaphor to the TV metaphor.”

If Denton somehow managed to find a way to produce just a few minutes of great video content for each of his blogs every day, that could mark the beginning of a game-changing move out of the world where the New York Times is a huge and awesome institution and into the world where it’s a media minnow.

So far, no one has cracked the question of how to succeed by producing video-based content which is designed for web consumption rather than for TV. There have been a few promising hopefuls, but they all fizzled out, even as video has become an ever-growing part of our online diet. It’s pretty clear that if Gawker is going to successfully navigate the transition from writing blog posts to producing video, its budget is going to have to grow a lot. And that’s why I think that Denton might be thinking about bringing in some strategic investors: people with video-production expertise, a real nose for what works online and lots of money.


¶ Joanne McNeil was in New York recently, and she lost her wallet, she thinks, to a pickpocket. Maybe it fell onto the sidewalk, and maybe she might have found it — if she had been using the Nike+ iPhone app that day. (She wasn’t, because it’s a drain on the battery.) We’re on the cusp, it seems, of an era in which records of the little things that we do are converted by devices of one kind or another into information, information that might be very useful to us. Or would it be just more “digital clutter”? (Tomorrow Museum)

The majority of us will never need to keep personal records. But the benefit is discovering patterns and optimizing with it. If I average more words written on Wednesdays than Thursdays, I’ll likely schedule lunch meetings and phone calls on Thursdays. And then there is the data that means nothing: why do I always eat soba noodles on Monday?

Would I like a version of Foursquare that is always on and doesn’t require me to login and check in anything? (Of course, hypothetically given the possibility of privacy when requested.) I’m not sure “always on” data tracking is what I want either. While I partake lightly, I also question the worth of it. Am I going to use this? Will patterns emerge or will it just factor in as more digital clutter in my life?


¶ We were saddened to learn, today, that George W S Trow died — nearly four years ago, a recluse in Naples. (No wonder we missed the news!) Trow was a New Yorker writer whose discomfort with developments in this country’s professional class was very congenial; his writing was driven to the conflicting aims of exactitude and comprehensiveness. To mark his birthday at Hilobrow, Joshua Glenn dances one of his mad cohort tangos, fitting Trow “on the cusp between the Anti-Anti-Utopians and Boomers.” A little rootling around brought up Brendan Bernhard’s 2007 memorial.

John Seabrook, author of the book “Nobrow,” wrote in 1997 that Trow “saw the future so long before it happened that he wrote about it in the past tense.” This judgment is founded principally on “Within the Context of No Context,” the elliptical and still occasionally baffling essay that appeared in the New Yorker on November 17, 1980.

Its opening paragraph attempts to take in all of American history, from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the dawning of yuppiedom, in a single glance:

“Wonder was the grace of the country. Any action could be justified by that: the wonder it was rooted in. Period followed period, and finally the wonder was that things could be built so big. Bridges, skyscrapers, fortunes, all having a life first in the marketplace, still drew on the force of wonder. But then a moment’s quiet. What was it now that was built so big? Only the marketplace itself. Could there be wonder in that? The size of the con?”

Trow asserted, in cryptic fashion, that size, or demography, had become the defining element of American existence, sweeping all other concerns aside, and he fingered television as the symbol of the new reality. “The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and chronicle it.”


¶ As with the Nile, so with the Colorado: great rivers flowing through thirsty sovereignties pose knotty allocation problems. In addition, the Colorado River is drying out. (NYT)

The impact of the declining water level is visible in the alkaline bathtub rings on the reservoir’s walls and the warning lights for mariners high on its rocky outcroppings. National Park Service employees have repeatedly moved marinas, chasing the receding waterline.

Adding to water managers’ unease, scientists predict that prolonged droughts will be more frequent in decades to come as the Southwest’s climate warms. As Lake Mead’s level drops, Hoover Dam’s capacity to generate electricity, which, like the Colorado River water, is sent around the Southwest, diminishes with it. If Lake Mead levels fall to 1,050 feet, it may be impossible to use the dam’s turbines, and the flow of electricity could cease.

The fretting that dominates today’s discussions about the river contrasts with the old-style optimism about the Colorado’s plenitude that has usually prevailed since Hoover Dam — then called Boulder Dam — was completed 75 years ago, impounding the water from Lake Mead.

The worries have provoked action: cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas have undertaken extensive conservation programs. Between 2000 and 2009, Phoenix’s average per-capita daily household use has dropped almost 20 percent; Las Vegas’s has dropped 21.3 percent.

Nonetheless, “if the river flow continues downward and we can’t build back up supply, Las Vegas is in big trouble,” Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in an interview.

We thought that Las Vegas was in big trouble already.


¶ Patrick Brown, surprised himself a bit ticked off by Flavorwire‘s list of “Top 10 Bookstores in the US,” gives the manner some thought and makes a very sound observation: there’s only one “best bookstore,” and it’s the one that you patronize whenever you can. (The Millions)

In the end, it’s irrelevant, as the only bookstore that anybody cares about is the one near them, the one whose staff knows their tastes, the one that hosts your favorite author when he or she comes to town.  For some of you, that’s no doubt a chain store.  I grew up outside Syracuse, NY, and I will absolutely shed a tear the day the Borders in the Carousel Center Mall closes, as it was place I remember visiting when I was in high school and just discovering the pleasure of reading.  The rest of the stores, though – the big, nationally known bookstores – exist for you, unless you live around the corner from one of them, more as monuments than as businesses.  They’re kind of like those iconic bars and restaurants that people make a point of stopping at every time they’re in New York or LA – they’re the McSorley’s or the Musso & Frank’s or the Rendezvous of bookstores. If they went away, you’d read about it in the paper.  It would be an “important moment,” but its impact on your life would be minimal unless they are your store. It’s the proverbial store around the corner that you care about, and if that store continues to serve you well, I think it will survive.  If it doesn’t, well, hopefully someone will put it on some sort of “best of” list before it goes.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to celebrate the fact that my local bookstore is still kicking.  Maybe you should do the same. 


¶ The upshot of Greensboro’s pivotal location in the civil-rights struggle may have turned it into a quiet place that’s just right for writers, as Bill Morris surmises. (The Millions)

Or maybe Greensboro’s exposures to the limelight have left its residents – writers and non-writers alike – relieved that the town is so rarely in the news.  It was in downtown Greensboro that four black students from N.C. A&T State University had the audacity to sit at the whites-only F. W. Woolworth lunch counter in February of 1960, a gesture that enraged many whites, inspired many blacks, and helped ignite the civil rights movement.  And it was in Greensboro in November of 1979 that five communist organizers were shot dead by Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis at a “Death to the Klan” rally, leaving the city deeply traumatized.  These two visitations of klieg-light glare were, respectively, noble and brutal; they were also utterly out of character in this city that has always prided itself on its willingness to compromise, to accommodate, and to get along.  Greensboro, after all, is the site of one of the South’s first universities built for African-Americans during Reconstruction, and it was one of the first Southern cities to willingly and peaceably integrate its public schools after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954.  Greensboro, as Marshall Frady wrote about South Carolina in a slightly different context, “seemed merely to lack the vitality for any serious viciousness.  It was as if its defense were a colossal torpor.”

Torpor is a funny thing.  While most people find it stifling, many writers find it alluring, even necessary.  The cliche of the writer toiling in his remote shack, much like the reality of Philip Roth toiling in his remote New England retreat, are two equally valid illustrations of the writing life’s solitary nature.  And Greensboro’s genial brand of torpor goes a long way toward explaining the place’s allure to writers – both to the young ones who keep coming here to launch their careers, and to the established ones who work here, quietly, often apart, usually alone.  There’s a sense here that if your writing is not always avidly read by your neighbors, at least its making is regarded with genuine respect by them.  Al Brilliant, owner of one of the town’s few surviving independent bookstores, expressed this perfectly: “People treat writers as workers here.”  Not as special aesthetic creatures, not as eccentrics or pariahs or freaks, but as people who work hard to make worthwhile things.  That’s an intangible but vital thing for any writer to feel, and I’ve lived in dozens of places in America where it was utterly absent, and sorely missed.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that in a country of flowering creative writing programs, UNCG’s is consistently ranked among the top 25 by Poets & Writers magazine.  While this is not the place to debate the merits of such programs – are they incubating genuine talent, or are they spawning a torrent of technically accomplished books that are devoid of felt life? – there is no doubt that the UNCG program’s rich history and its continuing reputation for quality are a spring that keeps replenishing the city’s literary life.

Have a Look

¶ How China blows up its GDP. (Zero Hedge)

Morning Snip:
Past Belief

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, when informed that atheists (along with Mormons and Jews) know more about religious matters than most Americans, was not surprised.

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Daily Office:
Monday, 27 September 2010

Monday, September 27th, 2010


¶ At The Economist, a knuckle-rapping for Constitution-worshiping Tea Partiers, who seem unaware of what manner of men wrote the document.

When history is turned into scripture and men into deities, truth is the victim. The framers were giants, visionaries and polymaths. But they were also aristocrats, creatures of their time fearful of what they considered the excessive democracy taking hold in the states in the 1780s. They did not believe that poor men, or any women, let alone slaves, should have the vote. Many of their decisions, such as giving every state two senators regardless of population, were the product not of Olympian sagacity but of grubby power-struggles and compromises—exactly the sort of backroom dealmaking, in fact, in which today’s Congress excels and which is now so much out of favour with the tea-partiers.

More to the point is that the constitution provides few answers to the hard questions thrown up by modern politics. Should gays marry? No answer there. Mr Klarman argues that the framers would not even recognise America’s modern government, with its mighty administrative branch and imperial executive. As to what they would have made of the modern welfare state, who can tell? To ask that question after the passage of two centuries, says Pietro Nivola of the Brookings Institution, is to pose an impossible thought experiment.

None of this is to say that the modern state is not bloated or over-mighty. There is assuredly a case to be made for reducing its size and ambitions and giving greater responsibilities to individuals. But this is a case that needs to be made and remade from first principles in every political generation, not just by consulting a text put on paper in a bygone age. Pace Ms Bachmann, the constitution is for all Americans and does not belong to her party alone. Nor did Jefferson write a mission statement for the tea- partiers. They are going to have to write one for themselves.


¶ In a lovely piece about James Franco that is really about staying true to yourself while being dazzled by somebody famous, Jeff Price acknowledges the scorn that his friends heap upon him when he tells them his story about not accepting Mr Franco’s invitation to get a cup of coffee for the good reason that celebrities are best appreciated at a distance. (The Millions)

When the fifteen-minute break arrived, I asked James Franco about the book he was carrying.  “It’s for… class,” he said, turning to smile on the last word before asking if I knew of anywhere nearby to get coffee.  His manner was bemused, a Jonathan Lethemcartoon man.  He was in his own synch, the pleasure of recognition trailing every gesture, consciousness of that pleasure gleaming in his eyes.  It was part and parcel to the thrill of his being there, the spectacle of someone who had believed in the love of an imagined audience, the romance of possibility.  There was just one thing: I didn’t drink coffee.

When I tell the story to friends, their faces invariably darken.  And I could have saved them that look by simply saying “Sure.” But then I would have been walking across campus in tow to James Franco to get a coffee I didn’t actually drink with James Franco for the sake of telling the story of how I got a coffee with James Franco.  So I pointed him in the direction of another student who was going to get coffee and James Franco turned away.  Then, just as quickly, turned back.  “Thank you,” he said, clasping two hands together, gesture performed as if in a vacuum, no eye contact, beatifically gracious.


¶ “Structural Unemployment” is the new “personal responsibility” — crocodile tears from the Money Party. It’s not that there aren’t any jobs, they say, it’s just that today’s workers lack the proper training to fill them. Such eyewash hardly deserves rebuttal, but it gets it anyway from Yves Smith, Robert Reich, and Paul Krugman.

Krugman : I’ve been looking at what self-proclaimed experts were saying about unemployment during the Great Depression; it was almost identical to what Very Serious People are saying now. Unemployment cannot be brought down rapidly, declared one 1935 analysis, because the work force is “unadaptable and untrained. It cannot respond to the opportunities which industry may offer.” A few years later, a large defense buildup finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs — and suddenly industry was eager to employ those “unadaptable and untrained” workers.

But now, as then, powerful forces are ideologically opposed to the whole idea of government action on a sufficient scale to jump-start the economy. And that, fundamentally, is why claims that we face huge structural problems have been proliferating: they offer a reason to do nothing about the mass unemployment that is crippling our economy and our society.

Reich : The issue isn’t just economic. We’re back to tough love. The basic idea is force people to live with the consequences of whatever happens to them.

In the late 19th century it was called Social Darwinism. Only the fittest should survive, and any effort to save the less fit will undermine the moral fiber of society.

Republicans have wanted to destroy Social Security since it was invented in 1935 by my predecessor as labor secretary, the great Frances Perkins. Remember George W. Bush’s proposal to privatize it? Had America agreed with him, millions of retirees would have been impoverished in 2008 when the stock market imploded.

Smith: “New normal” is particularly insidious, since it implies that we must accept current conditions, since they are “normal” hence it would be abnormal and/or require exceptional effort to experience anything else. “New” acknowledges things have changed, but “new” usually has positive connotations, and masks the fact that pretty much nobody except the banksters and some members of the top 1% are exactly keen about present conditions. It also had no footprint of how things changed; if you didn’t know what it stood for, it could just as easily be used to describe a dramatic natural shift, for instance, how the weather changed in the wake of the Krakatoa eruption.

“Structural unemployment” is not only sneaky, but also downright misleading. The catchphrase is meant to convey that unemployment just can’t be helped, it results from fundamental problems in the job market. Now since we have on average something like one job opening for every five unemployed people, even if structural unemployment was a real phenomenon, it is far from sufficient in explaining why we have U6 unemployment at over 16%.


The narrative behind the “structural unemployment” spin goes something like “there really are jobs, but those crappy workers, they don’t have the skills (i.e., as in they didn’t work hard enough at the right stuff earlier in their life) or they are in the wrong location.” We’ve seen the MSM dutifully take up this narrative, and had readers point out that in many cases, the “jobs are going a begging” is due to companies making such lowball pay offers that they are coming up short on takers.


¶ At Gene Expression, Razib Khan considers a recent paper arguing that ancient cities fostered the natural selection of an anti-tubercular gene. His thoughts about the populations of ancient cities leads to a different, and very interesting conclusion.

As I said before there are strong reasons to assume that natural selection reshaped the genomes of populations over the past 10,000 years. It really isn’t if, it’s how and what. The authors present some evidence for a particular variant of the gene SLC11A1 being the target of natural selection. To really accept this specific case I think we’ll need some follow up research. Rather, I want to focus on the narrative which is being pushed in the media that cities were the adaptive environments which really drove the shift in allele frequencies. I don’t think this was the case, I think the cities were essential, but I don’t think ancient urbanites left many descendants. Instead, I think cities, or urbanization, is first and foremost a critical gauge of population density and social complexity. Second, I believe that cities serve as facilitators and incubators for plague. In other words both urbanization and disease adaptation are derived from greater population density, while urbanization also serves a catalytic role in the spread of disease. This could explain the strong correlation we see.

I believe that the Eurasians who may have been subject to natural selection due to the rise of infectious disease are almost all the descendants by and large of ancient rural peasants, or, their rentier elites. These peasants were subject to much greater disease stress even without living in urban areas than hunter-gatherers and pastoralists because their population densities were higher, and quite often they were living a greater proportion of their lives snuggly against the Malthusian lid. Hunter-gatherers may have been healthier on average because of a more diversified diet as well as lower population densities due to endemic warfare. In contrast, agriculturalists lived closely packed together and were far more numerous than hunter-gatherers, and, their immune systems were probably less robust because of the shift away from a mix of meat, nuts and vegetables, to mostly grains.

A downstream consequence of agriculture was the rise of cities through the intermediate result of much higher population densities. I accept the literary depiction of ancient cities as filthy and unhealthful. There’s almost certainly a reason that pre-modern elites idealized rustic life, and had country villas. Additionally, though I assume that both the rural peasantry and urban proletarian led miserable lives, I believe that in terms of reproductive fitness the former were superior to the latter. From what I have read city life only became healthier than rural life in the United States in 1900, in large part due to a massive public health campaign triggered by fear of immigrant contagion. The high mortality rates and low reproductive fitness of urbanites implies that evolutionarily the more important role of cities were as nexus points for trade and the spread of disease. The book Justinian’s Flea chronicles the pandemic in the Roman Empire in the 6th century, in particular its origin in Constantinople from points east. We’re well aware today that a globalized world means that there’s an interconnectedness which can bring us strength through comparative advantage, but also catastrophe through contagion. This is a general dynamic, not simply one applicable to disease, but in the world before modern medicine the utility of trade networks for pathogens would have been of great importance.


¶ New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (author of The Orchid Thief) notes that the good advice that she used to offer to aspiring writers has “passed its sell-by date.”

So what happened? First of all, many of the medium-sized cities I used to recommend (say, Portland, Oregon) are now overrun with aspiring writers, and have gotten too expensive to qualify anymore as the place to go when you’re an aspiring writer with no hope for gainful employment. The newspapers—well, you don’t need me to tell you that the alternative newsweeklies have folded, the local rags have migrated online, and the community newsletters have been Craigslisted into oblivion. As for my admonition about graduate school, it turns out that if you get a teaching position as part of your deal, it probably pays better than many jobs you might get in that medium-sized city with the non-existent newspaper.

At Brainiac, Christopher Shea notes that Ms Orlean omitted her own solution.


¶ In the Times, Thanassis Cambanis writes about the potential for water wars up and down the Nile.

Ever since civilization first sprang forth here, Egyptians have clustered along the Nile’s silt-rich banks. Almost all of the country’s 80 million people live within a few miles of the river, and farmers like Mr. Sharkawi have hardly changed their farming methods in four millenniums. Egypt’s population is growing briskly, however, and by the year 2017 at current rates of usage the Nile’s water will barely meet Egypt’s basic needs, according to the Ministry of Irrigation.

And that is assuming that the river’s flow is undiminished. Under British colonial rule, a 1929 treaty reserved 80 percent of the Nile’s entire flow for Egypt and Sudan, then ruled as a single country. That treaty was reaffirmed in 1959. Usually upstream countries dominate control of a river, like the Tigris and Euphrates, which are much reduced by the time they flow into Iraq from Turkey and Syria. The case of the Nile is reversed because the British colonials who controlled the region wanted to guarantee water for Egyptian agriculture.

The seven upstream countries — Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda — say the treaty is an unfair vestige of colonialism, while Egypt says those countries are awash in water resources, unlike arid Egypt, which depends on just one.


¶ Now that everyone has had a chance to read it, Freedom is much in the Net news. This week, we’re going to collect a variety of responses to the novel (which we loved), beginning with Bookslut’sJessa Crispin’s principled refusal to read it. (Smart Set; via The Morning News)

There is no such thing as a canon — what you should read or want to read or will read out of obligation is determined as much by your history, your loves, and your daily reality as by the objective merits of certain works. If anything, the homogeneity of the responses to Freedom proves only the homogeneity we have in people discussing books in the U.S. It would take me, I’m guessing, four days to read Freedom, four short days out of my life. But here I am, refusing out of principle. I might think the book is a work of genius, the book of the century, but I’m willing to risk that loss, because the book I don’t read in place of Freedom might also be that book. I have always been bored by mysteries after I’ve figured out the ending, the who-done-it. The mystery of Freedom is solved: It’s a masterpiece. And so I’m bored.

Did Franzen write the most important book of the century? Of course not. A series of circumstances — the right gender, a progression of increased skill and style, a controversy that stoked sales, an aura of seriousness paired with an ability to capture certain things that critics and readers enjoy in their fall reading — put him where he is. He probably didn’t even write the best book of the year, as if that could even be determined. The madness created around his book will continue for the rest of the year, if not longer now that Oprah is involved again, choosing it as her next book club pick. That isn’t going to make Freedom any better, or more profound. It’s simply going to make it more difficult to avoid reading.

There may not be a canon, but there is a conversation, and the only way to join in is to understand the topic, which, in the case of Freedom, requires reading the book. Aside from that, however, we support Ms Crispin’s conviction that she ought to read books that seem more pressing and important to her.


¶ We can’t decide. Does Curtis Eichelberger’s Bloomberg story, “Ivy League Football `Mafia’ Gives Wall Street a Talent Pipeline,” tell us that Ivy League colleges are recruiting athletes with promises of post-graduate positions on Wall Street? You decide. But you should have heard the Editor’s lady wife snort when the following was read out to her. (via Dealbreaker)

Athletes can bring something extra that’s necessary for success in finance, Werner said.

“In a business where it tends to knock you down a lot, they tend to get back up,” he said. “That drive, that level of discipline, the rigor they have in their own personal lives and their willingness to take on hard challenges; a lot of that gets taught to you on an athletic field.”

Have a Look

¶ Ivy Style readers remember the clothes they wore in college, way back in the middle of the Twentieth Century — and, in many cases, still wear, as the Editor can attest)

Morning Snip:
That’s all right, then.

Monday, September 27th, 2010

Steven Lee Myers, in a Times article about 8000 personal computers that were supposed to go to Iraqi students but that “went missing” at the port of Umm Qasr, looks on the bright side:

Today’s Iraq may be corrupt, saddled with a bureaucracy from Saddam Hussein’s era that has changed little, and hobbled by a political impasse that has blocked the formation of a new government nearly seven months after parliamentary elections. But Iraqis — the media, politicians, average citizens — are freer than ever to denounce the wrongdoing of bureaucrats and thieves, even if to little effect.

Weekend Update:

Saturday, September 25th, 2010


“Then read from the treasured volume the poem of thy choice.” Thanks to the miracle of Google — and it’s still a miracle, on this unseasonably warm evening in September of 2010 — I now know, sixty years on, that the line comes from Longfellow’s “The Day Is Done.” Although I have provided a link to the poem, I’ve never read it. I knew that Longfellow wrote it, because his name, together with his profile, was incised above it on each of a pair of bronze bookends that came down to me before I was really a reader. I don’t know when I got rid of them. They were unattractive in the way of a late Nineteenth Century beaux-arts monument’s unleavened ponderousness. For the longest time, I had no idea what the line meant. The syntax was clear enough, but the significance, wrenched from its source, remained profoundly obscure. Nobody in the 1950s would have been caught dead speaking of “treasured volumes,” reading Longfellow’s sort of poetry, using the archaic second person singular, or beginning a sentence with “then” except in exasperation. “If they don’t have pizza, then order po’ boys!”

Significant or not, the line burrowed deep into my brain, in a slightly truncated form — I lost “the poem” — and it sprang readily to mind this evening as I was looking at the bookcase that’s full of art books — massive catalogues entitled “Watteau,” “Vuillard,” “Piranesi,” “Hans Holbein,” “Versailles,” and so on. I was finishing up my spaghetti alla carbonara and thinking of hauling down a tome. And that’s what I probably would have done, if the laptop hadn’t been up and running. Leafing through Degas would be all very well, but I’m in such serious arrears on the writing front that I might be arrested for loitering with intent to malinger. Still, the possibility was sweet: “then look at the treasured volume of thy choice.” Now that I’ve glanced at a few lines of the Longfellow, I know that post-prandial art appreciation is not what the poet was thinking about. He had something more erotic in mind: the next line reads, “And lend to the rhyme of the poet/The beauty of thy voice.” In Longfellow’s day, that sort of remark was intensely sexy. You could get arrested for making such a suggestion to the wrong person.

Longfellow — will we ever? It’s difficult to imagine that Longfellow will ever be read again, not by scholars but as he was read (and beloved) over a hundred and fifty years ago, unless and until his prosody chimes in nicely with some as yet unimagined dialect of a now-sprouting language. Admirers in those future days will recall, rightly, Longfellow’s immense popularity. They will not mention how utterly uncongenial he has sounded to English-speaking ears for nearly a century.

Hiawatha. Evangeline. These epics are almost party stunts. We had to read a huge chunk of the beginning of “Evangeline” in middle school. There was a reference to the sweet breath of kine (cattle) that I found so unspeakably revolting — all right, uncool — that I was obliged to bluff my way through the rest of the assignment. Yes, here it is. “Sweet was her breath as the breath of kine that feed in the meadows.” Is that not the most disgusting thing that you have ever read? Can you imagine being asked to parse such filth at the age of eleven or twelve? When the only breath smell is that of “bad breath”?

The other day, my grandson exhaled a puff of breath in my face, and it was — not unpleasant. It was very not unpleasant. My grandson is a festival of lovely smells, but this is something that I don’t talk about, for reasons that ought to be obvious in this world of rampant perverts (or perverts rampant, to give them their due), and I wouldn’t have brought it up if I hadn’t been talking babies with Kathleen’s cousin Tim, who is the father of first-grade twins. (That’s to say that, while they’re indeed tops, they’re six.) Tim brought up the smells. Since Tim is a mensch of an accountant who lives in Indianapolis, I decided that it must not be as deranged as I thought to celebrate the smells that emanate from my grandson’s person. Breath of meadow-feeding kine should be so sweet.

I saw Will today at brunch. We picked up Kathleen’s father, who’s finally paying a visit to Our Fair City, and taxied down to Avenue B between 11th and 12th, where there’s a justly popular restaurant called “The Back 40.” If you added up all of Will’s moments of fussing from the two hours that we spent at the table, they wouldn’t amount to sixty seconds. My besottedness as a grandfather has ascended to a new plateau of foolishness: I want to run off with Will to an ashram in the Himalayas so that he can teach me the Secret of Life. That Will is in possession of this Secret I have no doubt. Or perhaps it is I who am in possession. The Secret of Life is: Grandchildren.

What will be the rhymes to which Will first adds the beauty of his voice? Probably not:

And in silence all the warriors
Broke the red stone of the quarry,
Smoothed and formed it into Peace-Pipes,
Broke the long reeds by the river,
Decked them with their brightest feathers,
And departed each one homeward,
While the Master of Life, ascending,
Through the opening of cloud-curtains,
Through the doorways of the heaven,
Vanished from before their faces,
In the smoke that rolled around him,
The Pukwana of the Peace-Pipe!

But certainly it will be sweet as the breath of kine.

Weekend Open Thread:

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

Morning Snip:

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Sam Sifton, responding to a reader’s request for reasonably-priced steakhouses in Manhattan, reminds us why, romantic celebrations aside, good restaurants are often more agreeable than fantastic ones.

The easy answer is Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecôte , on Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street, where there’s an inexpensive prix-fixe steak-frites dinner available that is hardly top-tier but that certainly fulfills the mandate for a good steak dinner. It’s like eating in a Paris designed by the people who were behind Horn & Hardart. Another option, though, is to voyage south to the financial district, where you can reliably find a good steak dinner at Harry’s in the basement of the old India House on Hanover Square, and another at the blue-collar financial services tavern that is Bobby Van’s on Broad Street. These aren’t cheap restaurants, but they’re fairly priced and enjoyable ones in which you can have a good steak and a better conversation with your family. That is sometimes the whole and complete point of going out to dinner.

Housekeeping Note:

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

The Blagueurs apologize for today’s unscheduled non-postings. The Editor has been called away by various family commitments — in today’s case, off the Island of Manhattan itself, which, as regular readers know, he very rarely leaves.

On top of all that, our workspace is in overhaul. We have persuaded the Editor to remove personal and household files to another machine — or, rather, we have persuaded him to buy a new computer (an HP All-In-One — but not the one with the touch screen) for us. The new machine arrived today and will be installed tomorrow afternoon. We’re unlikely to get any work done until some of the dust has settled. The Daily Office will resume on Monday, 27 September.

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010


¶ Here’s a “big government” story for you: for over twenty years, the federal government has dragged its feet about Jack DeCoster’s atrocious record as an egg-poisoner, forcing the states to adopt a patchwork of partial solutions. Mr DeCoster has only now been summoned to account for himself before Congress. Whatever he has to say, it will be the testimony of a man with friends in “big government.” (NYT)

Mr. DeCoster’s frequent run-ins with regulators over labor, environmental and immigration violations have been well cataloged. But the close connections between Mr. DeCoster’s egg empire and the spread of salmonella in the United States have received far less scrutiny.

While some state regulators took steps to clamp down on tainted eggs, the federal government was much slower to act, despite entreaties from state officials alarmed at the growing toll.

Farms tied to Mr. DeCoster were a primary source of Salmonella enteritidis in the United States in the 1980s, when some of the first major outbreaks of human illness from the bacteria in eggs occurred, according to health officials and public records. At one point, New York and Maryland regulators believed DeCoster eggs were such a threat that they banned sales of the eggs in their states.

“When we were in the thick of it, the name that came up again and again was DeCoster Egg Farms,” said Paul A. Blake, who was head of the enteric diseases division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the 1980s, when investigators began to tackle the emerging problem of salmonella and eggs.

By the end of that decade, regulators in New York had forced Mr. DeCoster to allow salmonella testing of his farms and, along with other states, pushed the egg industry in the eastern United States to improve safety, which led to a drop in illness.

But the efforts were patchwork. For example, Iowa, where Mr. DeCoster has five farms tied to the current outbreak, required no testing.


¶ The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas is closing — as how could it not? Most Americans alive today can’t remember the phenomenon personally, and unless they’re charged by actual memories, the entertainer’s relics become lifeless dreck. Stephany Anne Golberg reanimates Liberace just long enough to remind us what he was really all about. (The Smart Set)

“Even in this abstract atomic age, where emotion is not fashionable, Chopin endures,” the acclaimed pianist Arthur Rubinstein once said, knowing that even when people are embarrassed by it, emotion never goes out of style. Liberace knew this better than anyone. He was never ashamed of emotion. Whatever his personal fears, onstage you saw a man almost completely devoid of shame. Because shame, Liberace knew, is death to magic. In a performance, shame breaks the spell, turns up the lights and exposes us all. When a performer feels shame, it takes us collectively outside the moment, makes the audience worry about tomorrow, fear what’s going to happen next. Don’t be afraid, Liberace told us when he performed. Everything that you want is here. Focus on the sparkles, the fairytale. Let’s not worry about tomorrow. Let us live in the enchantment of now. Scott Thorson, Liberace’s former companion and lover, once told Larry King that he believed Liberace’s fans wouldn’t have cared if he came out of the closet. I believe he’s right. To be ashamed of Liberace would have meant living outside his world, and his fans loved him too much for that.

In a way, Liberace the man was quite plain. Scott Thorson said Liberace spent his quiet time puttering about the house, picking up dog doo doo in the yard. If Liberace weren’t so genuinely private, I think he would have invited us all into his home. Instead, he created the Liberace Museum — a fantasy on the corner of East Tropicana Avenue and Spencer Street — and invited us into his dreams. Liberace made himself into a living present, like one of those ladies who jump out of a giant cake. He wrapped himself in ribbons, placed himself into a gift box — the Liberace Museum — and gave himself away. Liberace’s museum was never a memorial to his life, but an extension of it. Which is why, to those last few who care, its closing feels like a second (and likely final) death of the man himself.

Every time I listen to “Étude Op. 10, No. 12 in C Minor,” I hear the Funny Valentine in it. And every time I watch the Funny Valentine/Chopin Medley performance, I feel I am watching a complete expression of Liberace: funny, gaudy, sad, beautiful, stupid, simple, extraordinary. It is the denouement of an entire life’s work. In the Funny Valentine/Chopin Medley, Liberace shows us something quite rare: a performer who has given you his all, and has taken you to the end of himself.


¶ You may know that Jeffrey Stephan, a former executive at GMAC, has confessed that he “robo-signed” foreclosure-related affidavits despite the fact that he had none of the personal knowledge required to validate such documents. (This makes Mr Stephan one whopping perjuror.) GMAC’s successor, Ally Capital, has responded by halting foreclosures. Or has it? We’ve read Yves Smith’s probe of the fiasco with cold-fusion despair — what can be expected of financial companies, and yet how are we ever to extricate ourselves from their muck? — but we’re going to let Felix Salmon point the moral of the tale.

All of this is complicated, too, by the fact that the US Treasury owns 56.3% of Ally. At most banks, it’s generally assumed that the shareholders just want to see the maximum possible returns, over the long run. That’s not a safe assumption, however, when your shareholder is Treasury, which has been ploughing billions of dollars into schemes designed to prevent evictions.

It would be wonderful if GMAC could take the high road here, and act with full transparency in a manner consistent with the best possible practices that Treasury would like to see in the mortgage market. Judging by its press release, there’s not much indication that’s happening yet. But maybe a couple of phone calls from Washington might change its mind. I wonder how Elizabeth Warren is settling in to her new job.


¶ The idea of a self-organizing system of traffic lights — one that responds to actual traffic conditions instead of working from a timer — is very, very cool, of course. But marks the story for us is the deeper and wider trend that stories such as this reflect. We are moving away from the authority of binary systems (yes/no; right/wrong; on/off) and toward the understanding of live complexity. In other words, We’re learning who we really are, and not trying to be something that we think we ought to be.

Helbing and his colleague Stefan Lämmer from the Dresden University of Technology in Germany decided to scrap the top-down approach and start at the bottom. They noted that when crowds of people are trying to move through a narrow space, such as through a door connecting two hallways, there’s a natural oscillation: A mass of people from one side will move through the door while the other people wait, then suddenly the flow switches direction.

“It looks like maybe there’s a traffic light, but there’s not. It’s actually the buildup of pressure on the side where people have to wait that eventually turns the flow direction,” says Helbing. “We thought we could maybe apply the same principle to intersections, that is, the traffic flow controls the traffic light rather than the other way around.”

Their arrangement puts two sensors at each intersection: One measures incoming flow and one measures outgoing flow. Lights are coordinated with every neighboring light, such that one light alerts the next, “Hey, heavy load coming through.”

That short-term anticipation gives lights at the next intersection enough time to prepare for the incoming platoon of vehicles, says Helbing. The whole point is to avoid stopping an incoming platoon. “It works surprisingly well,” he says. Gaps between platoons are opportunities to serve flows in other directions, and this local coordination naturally spreads throughout the system.

“It’s a paradoxical effect that occurs in complex systems,” says Helbing. “Surprisingly, delay processes can improve the system altogether. It is a slower-is-faster effect. You can increase the throughput — speed up the whole system — if you delay single processes within the system at the right time, for the right amount of time.”


¶ This just in! Commander Lightoller’s granddaughter tells why the Titanic hit the iceberg! 98 years later, his coverup is revealed! (Guardian; via The Morning News)

That Titanic hit the iceberg could be down to a misunderstanding. Because the ship sailed during the transition from sail to steam there were two different steering communication systems in operation: rudder orders for steamships, and tiller orders for sailing ships. “The two steering systems were the complete opposite of one another,” said Patten. “So a command to turn ‘hard a-starboard’ meant turn the wheel right under one system and left under the other.”

The man at the wheel, Quartermaster Robert Hitchins, was trained under rudder orders – but tiller orders were still in use in the north Atlantic. So when First Officer William Murdoch first spotted the iceberg and gave a ‘hard a-starboard’ order, a panicked Hitchins turned the liner into the course of the iceberg.

“The real reason why Titanic hit the iceberg is because he turned the wheel the wrong way,” said Patten. By the time the error had been corrected, two minutes had been lost. Nothing could stop the iceberg breaching the hull.


¶ Times columnist David Leonhardt explains why the Chinese renminbi exchange rate is more important than the Chinese say that it is, if less important than American businessmen claim. It’s a matter of little stimulus packages — if $10 million is your idea of “little.”

The car business makes for a good example of what might change and when. The industry may not seem typical of the China story, because it has more to do with American exports than Chinese imports. But exports probably matter more for American jobs anyway, given that low-end toy manufacturing in Guangdong Province isn’t moving to Alabama or Michigan.

Like other first-time visitors to China, I have been struck by the number of Buicks on the roads here. In one Beijing traffic jam, three different Buick minivans were idling in the lane next to mine. When was the last time you were surrounded by Buicks?

Unfortunately for American autoworkers, though, none of those Buicks minivans was made in the United States. Buick exports only the high-end Enclave sport utility vehicle to China and makes the rest of its vehicles locally, with a Chinese partner. BMW, similarly, makes the 3- and 5-series here but ships in the costlier 7-series and Z sports cars.

With a stronger renminbi, you could see how carmakers might draw the dividing line in a different place, especially as the Chinese car market grows. The highest-margin vehicles would no longer be the only ones that could support the higher labor and shipping costs — not to mention China’s 25 percent vehicle tariff.


¶ Inspired by Blake Butler’s compendium of books that David Foster Wallace held in high regard, M Rebekah Otto shares her disappointment with books recommended by writers whom she admires. (The Millions)

I suppose if I can find an author and grow to love them outside of a direct inheritance, maybe, too, I could reject select elements of my more obvious literary heritage. Hesitantly, I have begun to dismiss other favorites’ favorites. When a former student of his published David Foster Wallace’s syllabus, I promptly downloaded the PDF. As I read the list, I was very self-assured: I’d been meaning to read Waiting for the Barbarians!  I loved the Flannery O’Connor story he assigned (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”). He boldly included young contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and Sam Lipsyte. But Silence of the Lambs. Really? I would not follow him there. Maybe I am only disadvantaging myself. Silence of the Lambs may be the literary masterwork that could forever change my outlook on literature and fiction, just like Updike was supposed to.

Where I formerly swallowed recommendations whole, I now cull through them – not exactly on my own but in a more independent fashion. I find books, I do not just receive them. Or, I try to.

I am not a bad reader nor am I intellectually and creatively deficient, or, if I am, it is not because I do not like John Updike but for entirely different reasons.


¶ At the end of her warm review of Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry, Connie Schultz offers some really, really good advice — plus a reminder that the young men who “radicalized” Traister’s feminism by denigrating Hillary Clinton are probably not themselves going to become any friendlier to the cause of women’s equality. (Washington Post)

Despite the setbacks and disappointments, Traister believes the 2008 presidential race breathed new life into the women’s movement, in part because a new generation came to own it. Such a youthful embrace of the women’s work yet to be done is exhilarating — for her generation and for mine.

And therein lies my only caveat, which Traister may see as a matronly reprimand: Do resist tagging all of us over-50 feminists as dour discards. Your youthful vision is better than our crinkled eyes for navigating the future, but we hold your history in our hearts. We are still in the fight, increasingly with men foolish enough to mistake a woman’s sags for surrender. We were once you, and one day you will be us.

Have a Look

¶ Seven Highly Effective Habits of Facebook. (PsyBlog)

¶ Der Tiefstapler. (Metamorphosism)

¶ Anti-Vampire gizmo. (Good)

Morning Snip:

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Tyler Cowen sums up the value of a liberal education quietly, succinctly, and inarguably. And at the expense of “testing,” to boot!

A liberal arts education helps us think with greater subtlety, even if it does not improve our performance on subsequent standardized tests.  I see an impact here even on the lesser students in state universities.  It also helps explain how the U.S. so suddenly leaps from having so-so high schools to outstanding graduate schools; how many other countries emphasize liberal arts education in between?

Liberal arts education forces us to decode systems of symbols.  We learn how complex systems of symbols can be and what is required to decode them and why that can be a pleasurable process.  That skill will come in handy for a large number of future career paths.  It will even help you enjoy TV shows more.

For related reasons, I believe that people who learn a second language as adults are especially good at understanding how other people might see things differently.

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010


¶ If a recession officially ends in a jobless recovery, do we need to overhaul the definition of a recession? (The new thing that we learned about today was the Business Cycle Dating Committee, a branch of the National Bureau of Economic Research that doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page yet.) We think not: we need a new scale that looks at employment regardless of other economic factors. Catherine Rampell reports at the Times.

This new pattern of jobless recoveries has led to some complaints that employment should play a more prominent role in dating business cycles and to criticism that a jobless recovery is not truly a recovery at all. Business Cycle Dating Committee members have been reluctant to change their criteria too drastically, though, because they want to maintain consistency in the official chronology of contractions and expansions.

While all three recent recoveries have been weak for employment, the job market has to cover the most ground from the latest recession.

From December 2007 to June 2009, the American economy lost more than 5 percent of its nonfarm payroll jobs, the largest decline since World War II. And through December 2009, the month that employment hit bottom, the nation had lost more than 6 percent of its jobs.

The unemployment rate, which comes from a different survey, peaked last October at 10.1 percent. The postwar high was in 1982, at 10.8 percent. But the composition of the work force was very different in the 1980s — it was younger, and younger people tend to have higher unemployment rates — and so if adjusted for age, unemployment this time around actually looks much worse.

While we don’t hold the government responsible for maintaining a supply of jobs — not yet, anyway — we believe that if unemployment figures were approached as a singular problem, rather than as a consequence of business conditions, then the government would develop more effective and intelligent forecasts and associated policies.


¶ By curious coincidence, adjacent Arts Journal feeds concern the problem with reality that today’s Americans seem to be having, thanks in no small part to something called, heaven knows why, “reality television.” First, in a piece that seems motivated largely by disgust over Casey Affleck’s faux documentary, I’m Still Here, Patrick Goldstein resigns himself to the sway of the “mythmakers.”

I don’t mean to put all the blame on filmmakers and publicity seeking scam artists. If you pay any attention to world affairs, you could easily argue that all too many people are no longer swayed by fact-based authority of any kind. They believe what they want to believe, facts be damned, which is why zealots can go around thinking that Barack Obama is a Muslim while untold numbers of people across the Middle East are somehow convinced that no Jews were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks because they were evacuated before the planes hit the Twin Towers.

When it comes to entertainment, we in the media are sticklers for attributable facts. When a Hollywood biopic stretches the truth, we are the first to raise a ruckus. But in Hollywood, the truth is seen as being much more elastic, in part because film and TV writers create drama for a living, in part because people in showbiz tell so many white lies every day that the notion of a bigger truth often eludes them.

For now, entertainment consumers have sided with the mythmakers. In today’s media-saturated age it is simply too bewildering to try to make sense of what is real anymore. If a reality TV show is totally manufactured–so be it. It doesn’t interfere with our enjoyment of the storyline or the characters. The lines between artifice and reality have become so hopelessly blurred that very few of us take offense at being manipulated anywhere. When it comes to entertainment, we’ve gotten into the habit of lying back and enjoying it.

Meanwhile, a study published in the Journal of Risk Research finds that everyone belongs to a choir and is looking for an agreeable preacher.

After surveying 1,500 people, the researchers found that those who were “egalitarian and resentful of economic inequality” were more likely to assume that there was scientific consensus that human activity is contributing to climate change, but not that it’s safe to dispose of nuclear waste underground. Those who were more “hierarchical, individualistic and connected to industry and commerce” were more likely to make the opposite assumptions.

According to reports from the National Academy of Sciences, human activity is contributing to climate change and nuclear waste can be buried safely in certain designated sites.

“It’s not that one group is paying more attention to what scientific consensus is,” said Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale and author of the study. But there’s a pervasive tendency to form perceptions of scientific consensus that reinforce people’s values.


¶ Perhaps we’re wanting in seriousness, but one of the things we love about Joshua Brown is his drolly jaundiced view of homo speculator. He gives great graph, too. (The Reformed Broker)

There is a pattern in place that you may want to familiarize yourself with as history has just repeated itself six quarters in a row.  The pattern has been a run up in stocks at the beginning of earnings season’s opening month followed by the almost inevitable denouement as hearts are broken and focus is diverted elsewhere.

In each of the last six quarters, the Dow Jones was up on average seven of the first ten days of the first reporting month (Jan, Apr, Jul, Oct).  Each of these rallies ended up succumbing to selling, even during quarters with high percentage beat rates.  This action is both a commentary on our Twitter-addled attention spans and a classic embodiment of a Wall Street law so old that Hammurabi himself may have written it -Buy on the rumor, sell on the news.


¶ At Wired Science, Lisa Grossman writes about clouds, and how they’re made up of — plants, mostly. Except, that is, when they come from man-made particulates. In which case, they’re bigger, whiter, more reflective and — get this — therefore tending to cooling the atmosphere.

The team also found that clouds and rain in the region mostly came from the plants. Plants emit gases from their leaves and sap, which is one reason why they have distinctive smells. When those gases interact with sunlight, their chemistry changes such that they condense from diffuse gas to liquid droplets less than one micrometer — a thousandth of a millimeter — in size. These droplets then serve as the nucleus of a cloud.

Particles larger than one micrometer, which are important in forming ice crystals, also came from plant matter like pollen, fungus spores and bits of crumpled up leaf.


¶ What we like most about the Internet is the way it captures what’s best about going to a good school: interesting people talk about interesting things that you may or may not ever know more about. It wouldn’t have occurred to us to say so when we were in school, but now we’d say that knowing someone like Steerforth, the English used book dealer who shares what passes through his hands, is a super way of expanding one’s mental map of the Known-About Universe — which in our humbler moments we call the Map of Ignorance.

The other day, or thereabouts, Steerforth encountered the journalist and novelist Philip Gibbs, who was born when Daniel Deronda was “recent fiction” and who died when the Beatles were getting going.

A liberal by nature who, in addition to his anti-war views, had also been a keen supporter of the suffragettes, Philip Gibbs was a controversial figure at times. But his prominence opened many doors and in the 1920s, he became the first journalist to interview the Pope (Gibbs was a Catholic, which must have helped).

By the time of his death in 1962, Philip Gibbs was one of the most well-known writers of his day. He left a huge body of work, consisting of over 40 novels and around a dozen non-fiction books, which in their day were bestsellers. So why has his name been forgotten?

It could be argued that Gibbs’ obscurity says more about the ephemeral nature of journalism than his gifts as a writer. But George Orwell didn’t suffer the same fate, so perhaps Gibbs’ books just weren’t that good.

During the last few months I’ve read two works by Philip Gibbs: a novel called Blood Relations and an autobiography called The Pageant of the Years. Both books were flawed, but highly enjoyable reads. Neither book deserves to be out of print.


¶ Status Update: European Royals, Scandals Notwithstanding, Aren’t Going Anywhere. (But they’d better be better at royalishness.) Monarchs are merrier (than politicians)! Patricia Treble, reporting at Macleans, finds that the Swedish crown princess’s consort has an ordinariness problem. (via Real Clear World)

The Swedish backlash, though, offers a surprising clue as to why neither the public nor politicians are throwing dust cloths over Europe’s thrones just yet. Asked why the royals were down in the polls, Joakim Nergelius, a constitutional law professor at Örebro University, suggests that one major problem was the groom. “He came from an ordinary Swedish family,” Nergelius says. “There is nothing special [about] him. He’s not extremely talented, so he’s too boring and people think it makes the monarchy less exciting.” The problem, in other words, was that in egalitarian Sweden, Westling, a gym owner and personal trainer, wasn’t aristocratic enough—not even with a new wardrobe and haircut, training in the crucial art of small talk and a fancy title, duke of Västergötland.


¶ As readerly people continue to ponder the fate of David Markson’s library (which also doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page yet — but that’s why there’s Google) — we begin to think that it’s the right fate.The books that Markson owned and annotated were cast to the winds, as it were (and not just after his death; he sold plenty of books just to raise pin money. Having passed through the hands of readers, some of whom will be enriched by having possessed the “Markson edition,” they’ll be collected, in a fine game of acquisitive scholarship, for some university library. Craig Fehrman reflects on authors’ libraries generally, and Markson’s in particular, at the Globe. (via The Morning News)

Selling his literary past became a way for Markson to sustain his literary future. In ”Wittgenstein’s Mistress” and the four novels that followed, Markson abandoned characters and plots in favor of meticulously ordered allusions and historical anecdotes–a style he called ”seminonfictional semifiction.” That style, along with the skill with which he prosecuted it, explains both the size and the passion of Markson’s audience.

But if Markson’s library–and a potential scholarly foothold–has been lost, other things have been gained. A dead man’s wishes have been honored. A few fans have been blessed. And an author has found a new reader. ”I’m glad I got that book,” Annecy Liddell says. ”I really wouldn’t know who Markson is if I hadn’t found that. I haven’t finished ‘White Noise’ yet but I’m almost done with ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’–it’s weird and great and way more fun to read.”

Markson’s late style also explains the special relevance of his library, and it’s a wonderful twist that these elements all came together in the campaign to crowdsource it. Through a Facebook group and an informal collection of blog posts, Markson’s fans have put together a representative sample of his books. The results won’t satisfy the scholarly completist, but they reveal the range of Markson’s reading–not just fiction and poetry, but classical literature, philosophy, literary criticism, and art history. They also illuminate aspects of Markson’s life (one fan got the textbooks Markson used while a graduate student) and his art (another got his copy of ”Foxe’s Book of Martyrs,” where Markson had underlined passages that resurface in his later novels). Most of all, they capture Markson’s mind as it plays across the page. In his copy of ”Agape Agape,” the final novel from postmodern wizard William Gaddis, Markson wrote: ”Monotonous. Tedious. Repetitious. One note, all the way through. Theme inordinately stale + old hat. Alas, Willie.”

Markson’s letters to and from Gaddis were one of the things he sold off–they’re now in the Gaddis collection at Washington University–but Johanna Markson says he left some papers behind. ”He always told us, ’When I die, that’s when I’ll be famous,’” she says, and she’s saving eight large bins full of Markson’s edited manuscripts, the note cards he used to write his late novels, and his remaining correspondence. A library like Ohio State’s, which specializes in contemporary fiction, seems like a good match. In fact, Geoffrey Smith, head of Ohio State’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, says he would have liked to look at Markson’s library, in addition to his papers. ”We would have been interested, to say the least,” Smith says.


¶ What’s the matter with populists, liberals are always asking. Can’t they see that the plutocrats who control the parties of the right are out to oppress them with monopolies and joblessness? In an astringent rebuttal, William Hoagland suggests that the only difference between liberals and plutocrats, in the populist view, is the liberal’s annoying sanctimony. (Boston Review; via 3 Quarks Daily)

The anti-intellectual evangelicalism that Hofstadter saw as inherent in populism and that so upsets liberals today may be witnessed in Bryan’s opposition to teaching Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species, a conservative position that brought Bryan’s career to a dramatic end in the famous Scopes “monkey” trial. Bryan’s antipathy toward teaching evolution—really toward evolution itself—might seem to foreshadow populism’s fateful shift from left to right, when populists began promoting cultural conservatism instead of economic fairness. That is the shift lamented by writers such as Frank and traced by Michael Kazin in The Populist Persuasion, Rick Perlstein in Nixonland and Before the Storm, and Joseph Lowndes in From the New Deal to the New Right.

For Bryan, however, there was no shift. His anger at corruption in entrenched capital was identical to his anger at blasphemy in Darwin’s theory. In Bryan’s populism, the plain people are by definition the last arbiters of truth. On monetary policy, the people rendered their judgment against gold and in favor of silver, and Bryan delivered that judgment to the establishment. On the nature of creation, the people judged against evolution and in favor of the literal truth of the Bible; Bryan delivered that judgment, too. His argument against Darwin’s theory also had an economic element. It outraged his sense of justice to imagine humanity ascending by the survival of the fittest and the destruction of the least fit, the strong forever preying on the weak, the endless quest for dominance he associated with human hatred, greed, and corruption. He saw scientific Darwinism and social Darwinism as one and the same, and he called for a society and a conception of creation based on love, not hate.

Have a Look

¶ Living in Io sono l’amore. (Design Sponge)

Morning Snip:

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

Bob Herbert in today’s Times, writing about the primary defeat of DC Mayor Adrian Fenty.

The idea that we had moved into some kind of postracial era was always a ridiculous notion. Attitudes have undoubtedly changed for the better over the past half-century, and young people as a whole are less hung up on race than their elders. But race is still a very big deal in the United States, which is precisely why black leaders like Mr. Fenty and Mr. Obama try so hard to behave as though they are governing in some sort of pristine civic environment in which the very idea of race has been erased.

These allegedly postracial politicians can end up being so worried about losing the support of whites that they distance themselves from their own African-American base. This is a no-win situation — for the politicians and for the blacks who put their hopes and faith in them.

Morning Snip:
A Boor and a Bore

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Felix Salmon, impressive in many ways, continues to astound us with his feet-on-the-ground optimism about the marriage of journalism and hypertext. He’s also adept at spotting quirky pockets of professional resistance to the digital way of doing things. In his view, new technology improves journalism by making it easy — and therefore obligatory — for reporters to read before they write.  

The reason, fundamentally, is that journalism is becoming much more conversational. It started with the rise of the blogs, and if blogs are now slowly dying out, that’s only because the conversation has overtaken them. It’s moved to Twitter, and Facebook, and many mainstream websites, too: the web is social now. You no longer need a blog to be part of the conversation; you don’t even need a Tumblr. Everybody is a publisher now, and all these new networks have helped to create a new vibrancy in public discourse.


Think about it this way: reading is to writing as listening is to talking — and someone who talks without listening is both a boor and a bore. If you can’t read, I don’t want you in my newsroom. Because you aren’t taking part in the conversation which is all around you. 

Weekend Update:

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Diarists have a habit of apologizing for not having written much of anything lately; they’ve been too busy, they say, or perhaps they haven’t been doing much of anything. I haven’t been writing much lately, diary-wise, but I’m not inclined to apologize; on the contrary, I think that I ought to be thanked. You really wouldn’t want to know what I’ve been up to. But don’t take my word for it! Let me give you an idea.

About a year ago, I suffered a tremendous nervous shock, something between a conversion experience and electrocution. I saw in a flash that the principles upon which I organized my domestic life were very broadly mistaken. I was running my home as though it were an information-age bomb shelter. I provided for every interest that I might conceivably have in the event of a connectivity blackout — or, in other words, the onset of what used to be called desert island conditions. What books and discs would I want to have on hand in case… but I never spelled out the ghastly eventuality that would throw me back upon the resources of my apartment. Part of last year’s shock — only part — was the realization that I am now quite at home in cyberspace. Without a connection to the Internet, the failure of my books and discs to amuse me would be total.

So, I started gettting rid of stuff — a lot of stuff. This was no orgy of disencumbrance. Oh, no. I’ve had that inebriated pleasure a couple of times in my life, but never again will I impetuously dump my possessions for the sake of feeling light and free for a week or two — only to have to buy them all back at twice the price. The reason I’m still getting rid of stuff a year later is that it can take a lot of time to determine the point at which the marginal utility of something faces to zero. Sometimes, the heave-ho is obvious, and that’s a great feeling. But it’s unusual.

(I haven’t started giving you the idea yet, just in case you’re wondering.) A few months ago, I bought an Aeron desk chair. Aeron desk chairs are completely passé now and not remotely cool — they always looked funny but now they look funny — but it turns out that the Aeron chair is the right chair for a man of my size. The problem was, the Aeron chair made it clear that my desk was also defective, because its drawers and such kept the chair from pulling underneth the work surface and allowing me to get close to (ie “read”) my computer screens. (Also, they pinched my legs.) So I had to find a new desk. The problem was: I liked my old desk. It might be that I couldn’t use it to write blog entries anymore, but I wasn’t ready to part with it, and this reluctance wasn’t just sentimental.

The new writing table, which arrived in a box from Levenger yesterday, has not been set up yet, because the old desk can’t be moved to where it’s going to go until the dresser in the corner finally moves on to wherever it’s going next — and now, I hope, you’re getting the idea of why I haven’t been writing more. The dresser is going either to charity or to my grandson’s bedroom — it’s his mother’s call. It happens to be the dresser that I grew up with, and I hope that its next stop will be Will’s. But if it’s not, I’m ready to let it go. My old desk, which was never meant for computers anyway, will serve me well at the many jobs that (alas!) aren’t yet digital. (Such as sorting the mail.)

D’you know, this is all so boring that even I can’t figure out where I’m going with it. More accurately: I can’t see what comes next if I’m not going to share with you this morning’s rapture, when I stood in the room and saw — another, milder nervous shock — that if my old desk went there, then I’d need to get rid of a wing chair as well as the dresser, but so what; the old desk really ought to go there. If that, then a thousand other small outcomes, most of them too microscopic to be described in the English language. Let me just tell you, though, that the old desk is going outperform the dresser as a dresser. It’s going to do a much better job of holding my socks and handkerchiefs — I can scarcely believe how much better a job. Aren’t you happy for me?

Or do you want to shoot me? If so, there’s a line.

Weekend Open Thread:

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Morning Snip:
Loyalties and Affections

Friday, September 17th, 2010

The following excerpt from Harper’s Magazine (October 2010) does not appear online, but we think that it’s too important to miss; in any case, it dovetails with something much on our mind. Reviewing Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, Terry Eagleton writes:

The upshot of all this is that market societies are plunged sooner or later into a crisis of legitimation. Authority and obedience, as Edmund Burke warned long ago, are too fragile a bond to hold social orders together for very long. We may fear the law, but we do not love it. Indeed, as this book argues, once we abandon the public for the private, there was scant reason why we should value law (“the public good par excellence”) over force. For lasting political stability, Burke thought, you need to engage the loyalties and affections of the populace as well; and that means culture and politics, not just economics. The problem with market societies is that they erode the symbolic, affective dimensions of social existence, and thus have little chance of grappling their underlings to them with hoops of steel. They rely instead on the self-interest of their subjects. But self-interest is a notoriously faithless, ficle affair. It may inspire you to kick someone in the teeth as much as vote him into power.

Without suggesting that the mid-century legislative and judicial activism that strove to achieve racial equality in the United States ought not to have happened, or that progressive objection to our Vietnam misadventure was wrong-headed, we believe that these movements alienated “the loyalties and affections of the populace” — of a very large part of it, anyway — and that the American fabric will not begin to be repaired until our belief is recognized as fact.

Daily Office:
Thursday, 16 September 2010

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

(Note: The Daily Office will resume on Tuesday, 21 September.)


¶ It’s our settled idea that the world would be a better, certainly safer, place if narcotic were regulated and not prohibited stands firm, but John Murray’s historical essay on the coincidences that have made Mexico a worse, certainly deadlier country remind us that globalism, like nuclear power, is complicated in ways that may exceed our powers of judgment. (The Awl)

The truth is that the rise of modern drug trafficking has in large part coincided with major changes in the Mexican economy that have displaced and altered the lives of many citizens. Looking at how events have unfolded, and considering widening income class disparity and slow job creation despite the promises of NAFTA, the past and future of drug trafficking in Mexico is in many ways linked directly to its economy and the ability of the government to provide social support for its citizens.

For decades prior to the 1980’s, Mexico’s economy grew under largely protectionist trade policies. While this caused Mexican companies to produce low-quality products with outdated technology at high prices, it also created millions of factory and industrial jobs and had a lot to do with Mexico’s economic growth over the middle part of the 20th century. With little to no foreign competition at the production and retail levels, nothing threatened Mexican businesses. However, the Latin American debt crisis of the 1970’s began to spur talks about moving Mexico further into the private sector and opening it up to international investment.

In 1986, the Mexican economy did just that, under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Tariff barriers were dropped, the market was flooded not only with American goods but cheap goods from Asia that were produced for a far lower cost, and Mexican companies were ultimately unable to compete. The aim of GATT was ostensibly to lower the price of goods and bring Mexican industry up to speed with the rest of the world technologically and in terms of productivity. In many ways it was an inevitable change. But the suddenness of the decision was resounding, and the immediate cost was millions of factory jobs lost over the next few years throughout Mexico.

Around this same time, as the Caribbean and Miami became increasingly policed and harder to navigate for smugglers, the cocaine trade was shifting out of its traditional routes and into Mexico. With cocaine came cocaine profits, which were astronomically higher than the marijuana and opium profits the Mexican smugglers mainly relied on. So, at the same time that millions of jobs were lost in Mexico, a multibillion dollar industry flush with liquid cash arrived.


¶ Whenever we have occasion to take a sip of New York Social Diary, we find that the cocktail’s bang bypasses elation entirely and goes straight to hangover. At the Obersver, NYSD Publisher David Patrick Columbia shares the current esprit de cour about David Koch, the billionaire benefactor whose family’s political activities have made a lot of New Yorkers sit up and take another look at the State Theatre.

“I wrote about how I knew him and what he’s done with his life, the evolution of his life since I’ve known him,” Mr. Columbia said over lunch, “and I’ve known him about 20 years now. He’s basically set up this public image that we call his life over that period of time. And now I can see that he’s done it somewhat deliberately and carefully with the intention—I could guess his overall intention is, like with a lot of people, political. Because he’s gained political power. By his cultural interests, he softens the edge of that objective. It doesn’t look so venal, greedy and ambitious. It looks communal and cultural, and therefore legitimate.”

As recent profiles made clear, Mr. Koch has indeed used his cultural philanthropy to “soften the edge” of his less publicized political activities. It is a reminder that there are multiple dramas playing out in these institutions, not all of them onstage. Opera may not be the compulsory activity it was for the city’s upper classes in the days of Edith Wharton, but it remains an arena where more complex battles are fought. Every major gift and every person recruited to join a board (and every person rejected: Mr. Columbia spoke of the financier Saul Steinberg, blacklisted from the Metropolitan Museum’s board, largely because he was Jewish) means something: an attempt to befriend or outman someone, a move in a larger game.

“What happens in all the philanthropies,” Mr. Columbia said, “is that people get involved through different channels—being recruited, wanting to know somebody—and lots of times they do become converted. They realize how important it is. They go to the performance, they see how people are responding, they see how great this is, they see how much better off the world is to have this. They start taking on more noble ideas of what they’re doing, which makes them feel better about themselves. Not a bad thing.”

That Mr. Koch’s gift was to City Ballet and City Opera, and not to the Met, was a statement. A huge gift to the Met would have offended other people, including, perhaps, the Basses, who give heavily to the Met and are active in the Republican political circles Mr. Koch seems destined to dominate.


¶ What’s the best way to monetize a blog? Felix Salmon doesn’t recommend trying this at home, but he’s impressed by John Hempten’s Bronte Capital entry about NYSE-listed Universal Travel Group, a Chinese outfit whose shares lost 20% of their value when Mr Hempten’s readers heard what he had to say about his troubles trying to use UTG’s online services, about his diligent inquiries into UTG’s dodgy financials — and about shorting the stock.

Historically, short-sellers have been shadowy types; they like to publicize their findings, but they tend to do so behind the scenes, giving journalists information and having very long conversations off the record.

Hempton’s different in that he’s happy, on occasion, to make his allegations in public, under his own name. He doesn’t always publicize his shorts, even when he suspects outright fraud, but his blog does have enough of a following now that he knows he’ll be widely read if and when he chooses to do so. After today’s big payday, I reckon he might try the tactic more often.

The story of Universal Travel is far from over: if Hempton’s right about the company, and I think that he is, then the SEC and the NYSE are both going to have to answer some very pointed questions about how and why they allowed the company to get this prestigious New York listing in the first place.

But I do love the way that the blogosphere is moving markets. Reading a blog entry from someone with real skin in the game is often a lot more fun than ploughing through “objective” journalism from someone who isn’t allowed to invest in or short what they’re writing about.


¶ Kyle Munkittrick argues beguilingly for pursuing the Transhumanist agenda, precisely because, as Francis Fukuyama has described it, it is “the most dangerous idea in the world.”  (Science Not Fiction)

Transhumanism is, at its artificial heart, a simple idea: humans should not be limited by our biology. We forget things, we are irrational, we are vulnerable, we get sick, we age, we die. But we don’t have to do or be any of those things. Science and technology from every branch and every direction is slowly chipping away at each of these problems. Each tiny step aggregates and converges towards a world in which humans are free to live as long as they want, to love and reproduce with whomever and however they choose, to be as smart, as strong, and as happy as possible. The suffering and death that accompany much of our very existence (and perhaps give it meaning) would be reduced and, maybe, just maybe, eliminated. Human nature would be fundamentally altered; which is why Francis Fukuyama has called transhumanism the “Most Dangerous Idea in the World.” I agree, and that danger, that essential threat to what we are, is why I believe we should, nay must, promote human enhancement.

To do so, we must raze human nature itself. Philosophy and religion have spent the past 10,000 years working to make virtues of the necessities of biological life; primal urges, emotional outbursts, problems of procreation, suffering, disease, and death are explained away as essential elements of humanity. But these ideas do not create the meaning and value in human nature. Instead it is human nature that has invested these terrors of the flesh with worth to make existence bearable.

Consider a war hero. In a brutal, hopeless battle, a single soldier rushes into danger, risking her life and limb to rescue a fallen member of her team. She returns with her comrade safely and is heralded, rightly, as courageous and moral. But none would argue that it was the war that made her courageous and moral, or, worse, that we should fight perpetual wars to give everyone an opportunity to exemplify their virtue. Yet that is precisely the logic that drives arguments like “death gives life meaning” and “suffering makes us value the good times.” These statements are backwards. We find life meaningful in spite of, not because of, suffering, disease, and death. If they were to be eliminated, life would not merely still have meaning but it would mean significantly more.


¶ Kevin Nguyen’s “Monophonic Memoir” about the major ringtones in his life has been around for a few days, but we keep coming back to it, because it captures the sweetness of youth’s dreams, which are vast because the world is so small. (The Bygone Bureau)

Although we got along well, Max and I never had much in common, except for the fact that we both entered freshman year of college with girlfriends from home. We both spent a lot of time that fall on the phone, trying to find spots in our basement dorm room with decent reception.

My girlfriend, who was at another school across the country, always adored Death Cab for Cutie, a band that I could barely stomach. But as a gesture of affection, I set her ringtone to a Death Cab for Cutie song. It didn’t occur to me that I was the only one who could hear it.

The day we broke up, not long after the end of the first semester, I changed the ringtone to a Belle and Sebastian song she didn’t like.

It seems worth adding that Max’s ringtone for his girlfriend was “Wanna Be a Baller” by Lil’ Troy. His relationship lasted about two years longer than mine did.


¶ The only curious thing about Rachel Donadio’s handy Lega Nord update in today’s Times, “New Power Broker Rises in Italy,” is its title, which the story itself contradicts.

The current political crisis is so complex as to confound even veteran political analysts, to say nothing of average Italians. But what is clear is that Mr. Berlusconi is struggling mightily to hold his coalition together. The restive co-founder of his center-right People of Liberties party, Gianfranco Fini, a former neo-fascist who is finding more support these days in the center, left the party in late July, arguing that Mr. Berlusconi was in danger of becoming a dictator.

The split also strengthened the Northern League’s point man in the government, Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, who is seen as a contender to one day succeed Mr. Berlusconi.

As the crisis expands, no one is forgetting that the Northern League, though a partner in every Berlusconi government, has not always been loyal. In 1994, Mr. Berlusconi’s first government collapsed after the party pulled out, and without its backing he lost the 1996 elections. With its support, he won again in 2001 and 2008.


¶ Lydia Davis’s remarks about her new translation of Madame Bovary are so concise that she doesn’t mention the translator whose version almost everyone alive today has read, Francis Steegmuller. (Paris Review; via The Rumpus)

But in the case of a book that appeared more than 150 years ago, like Madame Bovary, and that is an important landmark in the history of the novel, there is room for plenty of different English versions. For example, 1) the first editions of the original text may have been faulty, and over the years one or more corrected editions have been published, so that the earliest English translations no longer match the most accurate original; 2) the earliest translators (as was the case with the Muirs rendering Kafka) may have felt they needed to inflict subtle or not so subtle alterations on the style and even the content of the original so as to make it more acceptable to the Anglophone audience; with the passing of time, we come to deem this something of a betrayal and ask for a more faithful version. 3) Earlier versions may simply not be as good in other respects as they could be—let another translator have a try.


¶ The last of Scott Horton’s Six Questions for Julian Young (Reconsidering Nietzsche), at Harper’s. The topic is postmodernism and reality.

6. You treat postmodern readings of Nietzsche with some deference in your book, but you seem cautious about embracing them yourself. You form the conclusion that Nietzsche is a “plural realist.” What do you mean by that and how is it different from the postmodern interpretation?

I would actually describe myself as treating postmodernist readings with “restraint” rather than “deference.” Postmodernism has its origins in Kant’s observation that all experience is interpretation, that all experience is filtered through the particular structures of the human mind. To this, taking its lead from both Hegel and Nietzsche, postmodernism adds that the filters in question vary from language to language, culture to culture, angle of interest to angle of interest. And so, it concludes, since there are many equally good interpretations of the world, no single one can be picked as the uniquely correct interpretation. From this it follows, so it is claimed, that there can be no particular character that reality has, since to assign it any such character would be arbitrarily to privilege one interpretation over all the others. And if there is no particular character that reality has, then the very idea of “reality” makes no sense. The concept must be abandoned; there is nothing but interpretations.

We “plural realists”–Nietzsche, Hubert Dreyfus (who coined the term), and myself–agree that there are many equally valid interpretations of reality, that there is no uniquely correct interpretation. But from this it does not follow that there is no way reality is, since an equally possible inference is that there are many ways it is. And in fact it is pretty obvious that there indeed are many ways that reality is. Consider a rolling, Provençal landscape. To the property developer it shows up as “valuable real estate,” to the wine grower as a “unique terroir,” to the mining engineer as a “bauxite deposit,” to the cyclist as an “impediment and challenge,” and to the fundamental physicist as “quanta of energy.” We do not have to choose between these interpretations because, quite evidently, they are all true. Each interpretation truly describes reality from, in Nietzsche’s word, the “perspective” of a particular interest. Some interpretations of course we will want to reject as false. That we do, as it were, democratically. If someone claims that the landscape is a papier mâché construction on an alien film-set we will reject that on the grounds of its discordance with the coherent picture built up by all the interpretations we accept as true.

Have a Look

¶ Oddee‘s 10 Coolest Desks.

¶ Coming Soon: Dessicant air-conditioning. 90% more efficient, so they say. (Good)

¶ J Carter: What I Did This Summer. (NYT)

Morning Snip:

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Elif Batuman, in the London Review of Books, takes an elegant swipe at conceited, adolescent ignorantism.

Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them.