Archive for September, 2010

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010


¶ David Berreby writes about a intriguing phenomenon: a certain kind of terrorist is more likely to be an engineer. What kind? the ones that claim to fight for the pious past of Islamic fundamentalists or the white-supremacy America of the Aryan Nations (founder: Richard Butler, engineer) or the minimal pre-modern U.S. government that Stack and Bedell extolled.” Not leftist, in other words. (NYT; via The Morning News)

The engineer mind-set, Gambetta and Hertog suggest, might be a mix of emotional conservatism and intellectual habits that prefers clear answers to ambiguous questions — “the combination of a sharp mind with a loyal acceptance of authority.” Do people become engineers because they are this way? Or does engineering work shape them? It’s probably a feedback loop of both, Gambetta says.

Economic frustration also matters, Gambetta says. In their sample of militants, there was only one homeland out of 30 in which engineers were less common: Saudi Arabia — where engineers have always had plenty of work. But “engineers’ peculiar cognitive traits and dispositions” made them slightly more likely than accountants, waiters or philosophers to react to career frustration by adopting violent, right-wing beliefs.

William A. Wulf, a former president of the National Academy of Engineering, is, no surprise, no fan of the Gambetta-Hertog theory. “If you have a million coin flips,” he says, “it’s almost certain that somewhere in those coin flips there will be 20 heads in a row.” The sample of militants Gambetta and Hertog used was simply too small for them to be sure they haven’t stumbled into a meaningless numerical accident, he says. The theory, according to Wulf, misrepresents what engineers are about. “A person who is rigid,” he says, “is a bad engineer.”

Okay, a bad engineer.


¶ We’ve read through Anthony Grafton’s agreeable little disquisition on Paolo Veronese, the Inquisition, and Renaissance research into the details of Jesus’ life — did Jesus and the Apostles sit or stretch out for the Last Supper? — a couple of times, and we’re still not sure that we’ve grasped the point of it all. But we’re always charmed by Professor Grafton’s ability to make scholarship look interesting. (Cabinet; via 3 Quarks Daily)

But what should a Last Supper look like? What did Christ and the Apostles eat? And how much? When Jesus distributed pieces of bread, was it leavened or unleavened? What other foodstuffs had been on the table? Did the followers of Jesus eat lamb, as Jews normally did at Passover? Over the centuries—as an article in the International Journal of Obesity recently showed—artists made many different choices. Sometimes they put lamb on the table. But they also served fish, beef, and even pork in portions that grew over the centuries. Veronese could be forgiven, then, for thinking that he had some iconographic elbow room. In fact, though, what he encountered in Venice was something new. Presumably he knew that censors were taking more interest than they had in the past in religious paintings. What he did not—and could not—know was that scholars were beginning to look at the Last Supper in a radically new way.


¶ Yves Smith takes a moment out from banging her head against the wall — “Why Do We Keep Indulting the Fiction That Banks Are Private Enterprises” — to remark on blog entry (missing link!) by “Jay Rosen of NYU” that appears to substitute concentric circles for “frames.” Round or square, this is the kind of analysis that seeks to map and distinguish the discussible from the impermissible in general critical conversations.

3.) In the sphere of deviance we find “political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.” As in the sphere of consensus, neutrality isn’t the watchword here; journalists maintain order by either keeping the deviant out of the news entirely or identifying it within the news frame as unacceptable, radical, or just plain impossible. The press “plays the role of exposing, condemning, or excluding from the public agenda” the deviant view, says Hallin. It “marks out and defends the limits of acceptable political conduct.”

Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance—as defined by journalists—will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go; if you dissent from the “lockstep behavior of both major American political parties when it comes to Israel” (Glenn Greenwald) chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate.

How can we change this? How can we de-nuttify the propositions that pile up in the “sphere of deviance.” Do we begin by accepting that our notion about large corporations — that, in today’s world, they’re simply joysticks for a handful of CEOs — have to fight for attention alongside the tenets of creationism?


¶ Because 9/11 coincided with a new moon last weekend, and followed a week of turbulent weather (remember Hugh?),  thousands of migrating birds were thrown into confusion by the memorial Tribute in Light at the World Trade Center site. (Wired Science)

To navigate, birds rely on a variety of internal compass mechanisms, which are calibrated to Earth’s geomagnetic fields by sunlight, starlight and moonlight. On Sept. 11, the new moon was just two nights old, a thumbnail sliver. In such conditions, birds rely on starlight, but parts of the lower Manhattan sky were overcast.

The buildings resembled stars. Outshining them all was the Tribute in Light above Ground Zero.

Rowden estimates that 10,000 birds entered the beams, becoming confused and circling until the Municipal Art Society, working with New York City Audubon, shut the lights for 20 minutes, allowing the birds to leave. That happened five times over the course of the night.

The spotlights were not directly dangerous to the birds. Instead, risk comes from wasted time and energy needed for later.

“Birds do fly for extended periods of time. It’s not that they can’t do it. But they’re doing it to get south of here. If they spend all their time in that small area, they won’t get to good foraging habitat, and it will compromise them for later parts of their migration,” Rowden said. “But I feel that we did allow them to get out.”


¶ Kevin Hartnett reflects on the persistence of “friendships,” thanks to Facebook, beyond friendships’ natural life. (The Millions)

We all trail a line of relationships behind us as we grow older, and we all have our own standards that define when and how we let go of people who were once important in our lives (and when and how we accept being let go of ourselves). I could see why it might be rewarding or interesting or comforting to know that with Facebook you never really need to put a friendship to rest completely. But to me it’s comforting and disorienting in the way of ventilators and feeding tubes that sustain a narrow definition of life long after the real thing has run its course.

Ah, but you never know.


¶ Sudhir Hazaree Singh considers the burnished legacy of Charles DeGaulle, in Turkey of all places, at Foreign Policy. (via  The Morning News)

His political achievements notwithstanding, de Gaulle’s greatest talent was in developing and propagating myths that fortified the nation. By refusing to accept defeat in the depth of World War II and demonstrating a willingness to fight to the death to defend his homeland, he restored pride and grandeur after the disgrace of occupation. (He glossed over the fact that France was largely liberated thanks to U.S. and British armed forces; de Gaulle always preferred falsehoods that elevated the spirit to truths that debased it.) Yet, in a sense, he was France’s Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln all rolled into one — perhaps the only reason the Lincoln analogy is incomplete is that he survived multiple assassination attempts, lending him an additional air of invincibility.


Like all great leaders, de Gaulle was a complex figure: At his worst, he was contemptuous of elected politicians, authoritarian, and egotistical. Like an ancien régime monarch, he sometimes seemed to think he was France. But he was also capable of inspiring his people to achieve great things, and this is the most important reason why he remains an international icon, with broad appeal to political leaders across the globe. The general symbolizes a conception of politics that rejects all forms of fatalism — especially when this inevitability is presented as a justification for inequality. He also represents a nostalgia for a time when leaders stood for real principles, irrespective of the pronouncements of political spin doctors. When de Gaulle’s entourage brought in a professional election manager to advise him in the run-up to the 1965 presidential election, he was promptly shown the door. Simpler times, indeed. Yet above all, de Gaulle incarnates an ideal that has taken some battering in this age of globalization and hegemony, but that will remain central to world politics in the 21st century: the desire of peoples to determine their own fate entirely free from foreign intervention — whether economic, political, or military.


¶ Elif Batuman’s review of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing is a well from which we intend to drain many satisfying drafts. Indeed, her analysis of really rather odd graduate writing program priorities cleared up a number of perplexities that we didn’t even know we had — so accustomed were we to bumping up against them in the unlighted portions of the mind. (LRB; via MetaFilter )

Take Ms Batuman’s dismantlement of the two best-known writing program mantras, “write what you know” and “find your voice.” Try not to disturb the rest of the class with your snorts.

The discussion of Chief Bromden’s narrative ‘voice’ leads McGurl to a particularly ambitious defence of programme fiction (‘as rich and multifaceted a body of literary writing as has ever been’), wherein he decides to prove that the slogans ‘write what you know’ and ‘find your voice’ were enormously productive for 20th-century fiction. As it turns out, he views these catchphrases not as interchangeable exhortations to authenticity, but as philosophically opposed dictates. ‘Write what you know’ really does seem to mean ‘write what you know,’ but ‘find your voice’ actually means ‘find someone else’s voice’: thus Styron ‘found his voice’ in Nat Turner, reimagining ‘authorship as a kind of ventriloquism … which is an offence against the rule of writing what you know’.

McGurl never quite articulates the law that enjoins some writers to write what they know and others to find their voices…


There is no arguing with taste, and there are doubtless people in the world who enjoy ‘the virtuosity of Butler’s performance of narrative mobility’. To me, such ‘performances’ are symptomatic of the large-scale replacement of books I would want to read by rich, multifaceted explorations whose ‘amazing audacity’ I’m supposed to admire in order not to be some kind of jerk.

The law of ‘find your voice’ and ‘write what you know’ originates in a phenomenon perhaps most clearly documented by the blog and book Stuff White People Like: the loss of cultural capital associated with whiteness, and the attempts of White People to compensate for this loss by displaying knowledge of non-white cultures. Hence Stuff White People Like #20, ‘Being an Expert on Your Culture’, and #116, ‘Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore’. Non-white, non-college-educated or non-middle or upper-class people may write what they know, but White People have to find the voice of a Vietnamese woman impregnated by a member of the American army that killed her only true love.


¶ Brent Cox decides that, in the Age of the Internet, he’s simply not going to tell anyone — digitally, anyway — about this great place for dumplings that he has discovered. No coolhunter he. (The Awl)

My personal concern is that fetishization begins to replace the actual experience. Were I to opt to fully share my fried dumpling experience with the World of Foodies, then I would take notes on the meal, photograph every element and then spend a good chunk of time composing my initial post detailing the experience and then spend more time ensuring that the post is brought to the attention of the right people. Having done that, what portion of the event is comprised of “eating fried dumplings and finding them awesome”? And if I keep it to myself, or at least just tell friends and family about it with my actual mouth, what then is the portion of the event is “eating fried dumplings and finding them awesome”? See also: people who attend weddings and/or concerts and watch the entire thing through the screen of their mobile phone, which is being used to record, a kneejerk mediation of experience. There is something to be said for Just Experiencing something and letting the sole record of it be your memory. It’s worked for centuries.

It’s a question of coolhunting. The verb “coolhunt” is of course now an archaic term: “so [x] (where [x] = [some date a few years before now]).” But it lives on to this day. At this point, instead of an occupation that’s a subject of a Wired feature, it’s a game we all play at home, as the Internet shifts the load-bearing structures of cool away from the William Gibson protagonists to anyone with a WordPress username. We identify objects, in situ, and tag them. It is hunting, but, coming from a family of actual hunters, it is the lamest kind of hunting because the hunters are not eating what they kill. That sneaker, those vintage eyeglass frames, and, yes, those fried dumplings are definitely cool in the context of where you find them, but they will be less so once their heads are mounted in your study. The coolhunter destroys cool just by geotagging it.

Have a Look

¶ Close Calls. (

Morning Snip:
Peanut Butter Tin

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Nige reminds us:

It was on this day in 1885 that the famous T.P. Barnum elephant Jumbo was killed, struck by a locomotive while crossing the tracks in a marshalling yard at St Thomas, Ontario. The collision derailed the train, and it took 150 people to haul Jumbo’s body up an embankment… Barnum of course couldn’t leave it at that. In what was then the largest taxidermy project ever undertaken, he had Jumbo stuffed so that he could carry on touring with the circus. After four years, Barnum let Jumbo go, donating him to Tufts University, where he became the university’s much-loved mascot – until he was destroyed in a fire in 1975. His ashes are now kept in a 14-oz Peter Pan Crunchy Peanut Butter tin in the office of the Tufts athletics director, but his tail, which had been removed earlier, resides in the Tufts archives. That peanut butter tin troubles me – surely Jumbo deserves a more dignified resting place after all he’s been through…

Civil Pleasures:
New Page Note

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Regular readers will have noted, perhaps to their chagrin, that entires at The Daily Blague and The Daily Blague / reader have boiled down to two varieties, the Daily Snip and the Daily Office.

Everything else that we’ve been working on appears at Civil Pleasures. We’re still getting the hang of linking the the Web log to the Web site; we’ve only just begun to see that what’s holding us back is the rudimentary navigation at the site. The menus are paltry, and there’s no way to tell at a glance if there’s something new to read.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of links to recent pages: this week’s Book Review review (reviews have been condensed, with more — and sassier — writing by the Blagueurs, and fewer extracts from the reviews, onto monthly pages): the latest Gotham Diary; and a few (more) words about Freedom, which the Editor fancies only he understands.

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010


¶ James Surowiecki looks into how “stimulus” came to be a dirty word in Washington — despite the success of the actual Stimulus Bill. The accepted wisdom certainly places the American voter in an unflattering light, but the real default is in our leadership, which can dream up effective policies but can’t be bothered to sell them.

But the most interesting aspect of the stimulus’s image problems concern its design and implementation. Paradoxically, the very things that made the stimulus more effective economically may have made it less popular politically. For instance, because research has shown that lump-sum tax refunds get hoarded rather than spent, the government decided not to give individuals their tax cuts all at once, instead refunding a little on each paycheck. The tactic was successful at increasing consumer demand, but it had a big political cost: many voters never noticed that they were getting a tax cut. Similarly, a key part of the stimulus was the billions of dollars that went to state governments. This was crucial in helping the states avoid layoffs and spending cuts, but politically it didn’t get much notice, because it was the dog that didn’t bark—saving jobs just isn’t as conspicuous as creating them. Extending unemployment benefits was also an excellent use of stimulus funds, since that money tends to get spent immediately. But unless you were unemployed this wasn’t something you’d pay attention to.

The stimulus was also backloaded, so that only a third was spent in the first year. This reduced waste, since there was more time to vet projects, and insured that money would keep flowing into 2010, lessening the risk of a double-dip recession. But it also made the stimulus less potent in 2009, when the economy was in dire straits, leaving voters with the impression that the plan wasn’t working. More subtly, while the plan may end up having a transformative impact on things like the clean-energy industry, broadband access, and the national power grid, it’s hard for voters to find concrete visual evidence of what the stimulus has done (those occasional road signs telling us our tax dollars are at work notwithstanding). That’s a sharp contrast with the New Deal legacy of new highways, massive dams, and rural electrification. Dramatic, high-profile deeds have a profound effect on people’s opinions, so, in the absence of another Hoover Dam or Golden Gate Bridge, it’s not surprising that the voter’s view is: “We spent $800 billion and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”


¶ Jazz pianist Bill Evans died thirty years ago tomorrow. Doug Ramsay reminds us of his legacy and prompts us to pull out The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961. Jazz groups still go for the sound that Evans made with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. (WSJ)

Finally, in 1959 Evans formed a trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, who felt what Evans had been hearing in his mind for years. Their albums, notably “Portrait in Jazz,” “Explorations” and “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” (all for the Riverside label), set new levels of aspiration for pianists and new standards for interaction in jazz-piano trios.

Regiments of young bassists imitate LaFaro’s ability to play high and fast, but most do not or cannot begin to approximate his lyricism, timing or depth of tone, which Evans likened to the sound of an organ. Many new bassists emulate the technique they hear from LaFaro on the Evans recordings without understanding how it fits into the complex relationship among Evans, LaFaro and Mr. Motian. They miss how LaFaro’s note choices relate to the impressionistic chord voicings that give Evans’s playing so much of its character. Worse, they overlook at least half of what made LaFaro a great bassist: the power of his straight-ahead swing, which meshed with Evans’s own rhythmic concept.

In July 1961, less than two weeks after the trio recorded at the Village Vanguard, LaFaro died in a car crash at the age of 25. His death sent Evans into depression so deep that, according to Mr. Motian, he did not perform for six months. Gene Lees, a close friend of Evans, wrote in his book “Meet Me at Jim & Andy’s” (Oxford), “After LaFaro’s death, Bill was like a man with a lost love, always looking to find its replacement.” Evans’s bereavement over LaFaro affected him the rest of his life, but he went back to work with Mr. Motian and a new bassist, Chuck Israels. In succeeding trios, Eddie Gomez and Marc Johnson—virtuosi heavily influenced by LaFaro—had the bass chair. Evans recorded, unaccompanied and with others, for nearly two more decades.


¶ Joshua Brown’s piece about overpaid stockbrokers (“registered representatives,” in Wall Street parlance) caught our eye because… we’d forgotten about stockbrokers! And here’s why:

1.  Scarcity of Clean Licenses:  You have no idea how scared to death compliance officers are to bring in producers with multiple complaints on their CRDs.  Headhunters are told in no uncertain terms that in the post-crash, post-Madoff world, they shouldn’t even bother bringing in a candidate with multiple blemishes on their license, no matter how much revenue is on the table.  Compliance simply cannot bear the increased regulatory scrutiny in this environment.  This means that the advisor with both big production numbers and a squeaky clean history is worth that much more to the hiring firm.

2.  Aging Sales Force:  Industry-wide, the average age of financial advisors is in the 40’s!  This is remarkable and in reality, it means that firms are overpaying because of how limited the talent pool is at the up-and-comer end.  When there are fewer rising stars, firms must do what the NY Yankees do – sign aging veterans to massive deals.  We discussed the aging of the industry here at length, in case you missed it:  Why the Kids Don’t Want to be Financial Advisors

3.  Concentration of Millionaires:  There are fewer millionaire households in America post-2008 as a result of the decline of stocks and real estate.  According to the Registered Rep article,  the amount of millionaires peaked at 9.2 million in 2007 and is closer to 6.7 million now.  These millionaire households are also being consolidated at the advisor level as wirehouses prune the lower producing advisors from their ranks and help their top earners pad their books with even more assets – in other words, wirehouses have created their own compensation-hungry monsters by helping them get bigger at the expense of smaller producers.


¶ Did you know that Auto-Tune was invented to improve oil prospecting? We didn’t. (Live Science; via  The Morning News)

Auto-Tune users set a reference point – a scale or specific notes, for example – and a rate at which derivations from this point will be digitally corrected.

This rate can be carefully calibrated so a voice sounds “natural,” by tacking the voice smoothly back to the reference pitch. Or, artists can make the correction happen quickly and artificially, which results in the warbling, digitized voices now all the rage in pop, hip-hip, reggae and other types of music.

Auto-Tune’s invention sprung from a quite unrelated field: prospecting for oil underground using sound waves. Andy Hildebrand, a geophysicist who worked with Exxon, came up with a technique called autocorrelation to interpret these waves. During the 1990s, Hildebrand founded the company that later became Antares, and he applied his tools to voices.

The recording industry pounced on the technology, and the first song credited (or bemoaned) for introducing Auto-Tune to the masses was Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe.”

Although a success with audio engineers, Auto-Tune remained largely out of sight until 2003 when rhythm and blues crooner T-Pain discovered its voice-altering effects.


¶ One stop shopping: pro and con responses to Camille Paglia’s takedown of Lady Gaga can be had at The Awl. Truth to tell, Julie Klausner and Natasha Vargas-Cooper aren’t all that pro. Maria Bustillos is definitely con, reponding with a smackdown.

Because Paglia cannot understand the new voices, she claims they “have atrophied.” Because she doesn’t understand the subtleties of communicating via text message, she claims the youngs are “communicating mutely,” which, what? Was communicating by letter in the 18th century also “mute”, “atrophied”? What does that even mean? Because she must not know any, I guess, she supposes the kids have “abandoned body language in daily interactions.”

Then there is Paglia’s complaint that Gaga is not sexy, that drag queens are far sexier than Gaga. Does it not occur to her that our whole world is already awash in “sexy” young women, singers, dancers, models, actresses, who are trying and trying and trying to “be sexy”, and/or that the public is maybe really so sick of that? Or that Lady Gaga’s appeal relies, in part, on precisely the fact that she inflates and distorts that “sexy” iconography in order to force the viewer to question his assumptions about sexuality, performance, gender?


¶ At a site that’s new to us, Humble Student of the Markets, Cam Hui (a portfolio manager by day) writes an entry “Diagnosing America’s Ills.” We couldn’t agree more with this level-headed assessment.

I believe that America’s ills stems from neglect, largely from the short-term nature of American thinking. There has been a neglect of infrastructure, a lack of focus on basics of innovation and wealth creation, as well as an erosion of the advantages bestowed by education.

The most recent infrastructure report card gives American physical infrastructure badly failing grades: Aviation (D), Bridges (C), Dams (D), Drinking Water (D-), Energy (D+), Hazardous Waste (D), Inland Waterways (D-), Levees (D-), Public Parks and Recreation (C-), Rail (C-), Roads (D-), Schools (D), Solid Waste (C+), Transit (D), and Wastewater (D-). Fixing this shortfall requires spending of over $2T. Nevertheless, there are calls for greater infrastructure spending as a way to build an economic recovery.


¶ We can’t tell just whom Louis Menand is parodying in the third paragraph of his review of The Oxford Book of Parodies, but we’re sure that he’s parodying somebody. We’ll probably get the new anthology, but we won’t be parting with Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm, the still-better collection that Dwight Macdonald put out in 1960, back when, as Mr Menand nails it, “Modern Library Giants strode the earth.”

It is a characteristic of our top-rated species that any natural disposition will, over time, undergo development, variation, and refinement in excess of its importance to reproductive success. Evolutionary psychologists refer to the artifactual residue of this process, the biologically pointless stuff the organism compulsively churns out, as “culture.” In the making-fun-of-others department, the highest cultural rung — it is sometimes regarded as an art form — is parody.


¶ Regular readers know that we discuss books and bookish things at Vespers; that is why we’re mentioning Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of City Boy, Edmund White’s latest volume of reminiscence, here. The deadliest thing we’ve read in ages, the piece is almost too magisterial to show its claws. It is hard to tell whether Mr Mendelssohn holds Edmund White’s advocacy of “gay literature,” or Mr White himself, in greater contempt. The dishing begins with the title, “Boys Will Be Boys,” and every paragraph draws blood. Animus notwithstanding, the review is a cogent argument against the proposition that homosexuals are alien mutants. (NYRB)(P)

Our candidate for “most savage single sentence”: “It’s interesting to speculate how the young White, who was capable of an impressive elegance and was clearly preoccupied, as well, with interesting formal questions, would have evolved as a novelist.” The finale, however, takes devastation to artistic heights.

This is a far cry from the attitude of the young White who had once resentfully criticized Poirier and other gay writers he knew when he was starting out—even the ones who were unabashedly out of the closet, like Merrill and Ashbery—for wanting to assimilate aesthetically, as he saw it: to write for the larger world instead of—well, preaching to the converted, to that small “community [that] we want[ed] to celebrate in novels that would create our identity while also exploring it.” Hence although City Boy, like many a bildungsroman, ostensibly culminates in a happy attainment of maturity—the young man’s successful quest to be a published gay writer—there is another, deeper education that plays out in these pages: the one that leads, however disjointedly, to an apparent acknowledgment that real literature is neither a form of social therapy nor a vehicle for political advertising, but is, in fact, “universal,” and seeks to dissolve rather than create intellectual and artistic ghettos.

Still, you suspect that White, unabashedly a product of the era he recalls in City Boy, takes pride in the fact that what he has been writing all these years—the earnest if increasingly artless transcription of gay life and gay lives, of which City Boy is the latest installment—has aimed to fill a niche instead of a universe. What he wanted, after all, was to become part of a scene, to have a reputation, to be known as a writer, whatever the sentiments and ideas he wrote about. The niche he helped create allowed him to achieve all this; and who would begrudge him the satisfaction that he got exactly what he wanted?

Have a Look

¶ Stanford Kay’s Gutenberg Project, at The Best Part.

¶ At Strange Maps, the “Fool’s Cap” Map of the World.

Morning Snip:

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

¶ Clyde Haberman in the Times: “Everyone’s Really Mad; Almost Mad Enough to Vote.” The important line in this litany of iratitude is the last one.

Everybody seems to be mad as hell.

Carl P. Paladino, running as a Republican for New York governor, can’t stop saying how mad as hell he is.

Mark Levine, a Democrat running for a State Senate seat from parts of Manhattan and the Bronx, mailed a campaign brochure showing a man and a woman with faces hideously contorted by rage — that’s how mad as hell they are.

New Yorkers testifying at a series of hearings that began Monday night can be counted on to tell the Metropolitan Transportation Authority over the next few weeks that they are mad as hell over proposed fare increases.

Former Mayor Edward I. Koch, who has never found a limelight he cared to avoid, has gadded about the state telling the electorate to get mad as hell at Albany and “throw the bums out” if they don’t agree to a batch of political changes he proposes.

Out in Modesto, Calif., homeowners have banded together saying they are mad as hell over property taxes.

An editorial last week in The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle urged people to get mad as hell over their school system.

The title of a new book about the Tea Party is “Mad as Hell,” which is what Tea Party types keep saying they are.

Several groups unhappy with the blitz of new airline fees have proclaimed Sept. 23 “Mad As Hell Day!” Presumably, without that exclamation point we would not grasp how really and truly seething they are.

One group seems to be exempt as a target for this free-flowing rage. Nobody ever says to voters that it may be time for them to get mad as hell at themselves.

Daily Office:
Monday, 13 September 2010

Monday, September 13th, 2010


¶ When the serious overhaul of America’s health-care reform was first broached eighteen years ago, we were dismayed that health care insurance was being addressed before health-care costs. In our view, you ought to worry about price before you worry about payment. We remain dismayed. Only today, at the bottom of an entry at Naked Capitalism, do we catch the lightbulb’s sudden glow in another venue.

Yves here. It is hard to believe that the people in the Obama Administration tasked to develop a health care reform plan were not aware of this research. The failure to take on the core issues leading to health care costs run amok shows a lack of imagination and will. Admittedly, any solution to the problem would need to be far-reaching (for instance, the huge cost of often-student-loan-financed medical education would need to be addressed in parallel with efforts to restrict physician excesses). But a realistic problem is that most patients are unwilling to think that their doctor might be racking up unnecessary costs on their behalf, even when the evidence is compelling that that sort of behavior is widespread.


¶ Dominique Browning introduces her Beauty of the Beach Salon, where the pedicures are free.

First, there is the exfoliation factor. No razors, ever. Just nice, soft, crumbly sand, alternating between wet and dry. It is an excellent idea to dig your feet into the sand and get a real rub going, the way a dog does when she is wantonly digging for…well, what exactly are those dogs always getting excited about? Who knows, but they have a few things to teach us about having fun at the beach–in particular, we could all do with a few more leaps and bounds, to say nothing of licking faces and wagging tails. But I digress. The main thing for optimum exfoliation is to make sure you dig in your heels. Always a good idea, anyway, particularly if you are having an argument with a certain someone.

Next, the seaweed treatment. I have not a clue what seaweed does for the skin, or for most things, but there must be a reason people pay gazillions of dollars for beauty treatments containing seaweed. Or maybe not? Is seaweed part of the Weird Ingredient Racket? Anyway, I always let the seaweed squoosh between my toes because it is a delightfully childish thing to do. Children particularly, and men too, think you are quite brave if you touch seaweed, so this is an excellent way to score points.


¶ We are intrigued by the coincidence, in our Google Reader, of two items that aren’t so distantly related as their authors might think. In “Winner-take-all economics,” Alex Tabarrok blandly attributes the pile-up of huge fortunes to “the size of the market that can be served by a single person or firm.” (Marginal Revolution)

Rowling’s success brings with it inequality.  Time is limited and people want to read the same books that their friends are reading so book publishing has a winner-take all component.  Thus, greater leverage brings greater inequality.  The average writer’s income hasn’t gone up much in the past thirty years but today, for the first time ever, a handful of writers can be multi-millionaires and even billionaires.  The top pulls away from the median. 

This is not the end of the story, though, as a piece at The Baseline Scenario begs to remind us. James Kwak has just read a new book called Winner-Take-All Politics. What goes up, it seems, has an appalling tendency to come down into the pockets of political campaigners.

That shift occurred in the 1970s because businesses and the super-rich began a process of political organization in the early 1970s that enabled them to pool their wealth and contacts to achieve dominant political influence (described in Chapter 5). To take one of the many statistics they provide, the number of companies with registered lobbyists in Washington grew from 175 in 1971 to nearly 2,500 in 1982 (p. 118). Money pouring into lobbying firms, political campaigns, and ideological think tanks created the organizational muscle that gave the Republicans a formidable institutional advantage by the 1980s. The Democrats have only reduced that advantage in the past two decades by becoming more like Republicans–more business-friendly, more anti-tax, and more dependent on money from the super-rich. And that dependency has severely limited both their ability and their desire to fight back on behalf of the middle class (let alone the poor), which has few defenders in Washington.

At a high level, the lesson of Winner-Take-All Politics is similar to that of 13 Bankers: when looking at economic phenomena, be they the financial crisis or the vast increase in inequality of the past thirty years, it’s politics that matters, not just abstract economic forces. One of the singular victories of the rich has been convincing the rest of us that their disproportionate success has been due to abstract economic forces beyond anyone’s control (technology, globalization, etc.), not old-fashioned power politics.

Which sounds like what Mr Tabarrok was saying, doesn’t it?


¶ The sad news is that, if you’re going to take up a life of environmental depravity, you want to make sure to have dozens, if not hundreds, of victims. The more egregious an offense, the milder the penalty our all-too-human nature is likely to call for, according to a study of jury awards.

The bias, which the researchers named the scope-severity paradox, has implications for a wide variety of fields, including the politics and media coverage of large-scale issues such as climate change or mass genocide.

“It fits well with a line of research that shows that as the number of people who are victims of some problem — whether it’s a crime or a famine — the responsiveness to it, and the likelihood of taking action to reduce the problem, decreases,” said psychologist Paul Slovnic of the University of Oregon, who was not involved in the study.

It has to do with the way empathy works, Slovnic said. People empathize with people by putting themselves in the other persons shoes. The more shoes there are, the harder it is to empathize with any single individual. People don’t multiply their feelings of empathy by the number of people involved.

¶ Jonah Lehrer connects the “halfalogue” perplex, which makes it impossible to block out an overheard telephone conversation, with the delights of serious music. The difference between “too much” and “just right,” we think.

In other words, listening to Beethoven is the artistic form of the halfalogue – it is a sensory stimulus that draws us in precisely because of what it doesn’t tell us. The information is incomplete – we don’t know when, exactly, the tonic will return – and so we eagerly await its completion. Meyer would later apply this principle to all narratives. He pointed out, for instance, that the moment of most suspense in a movie is also the moment of peak unpredictability. We are riveted because we have no idea what will happen next.


¶ We were almost wondering how long it would take Chris Lehman, tireless cataloguer of Rich People Things, to tackle Penelope Green’s New York Times irony-laden visit to the Newport, Rhode Island mansion of Richard Saul Wurman, the genius behind TED.

But when Wurman hails her into the cavernous interior with the disarming greeting, “Isn’t it pretentious?” Green immediately takes the bait. Wurman may be grinning at his own excess, she writes, but “the joke’s not on him. It’s on his adopted city, its name still associated with the last vestiges of high WASP society.”

And how does that joke work, exactly? As Wurman’s designer confrere Massimo Vignelli explains things, the fusty smart set in Newport “need each other. They need their booze at 5, their costume parties. They need to know who is who, and who married what and how much money. It’s a kind of zoo. In that zoo, of course, Ricky has his own private pavilion, and he never goes out. I think he is considered an alien.”

In reality, of course, American prophets of social mobility have been marveling at the decay of the WASP establishment practically from the moment it first arrived on the Mayflower, not too far from the stately spreads of Newport. So it’s a safe bet that many diehard fixtures of the Newport scene, from to Caroline Astor to Claus von Bülow, haven’t imagined themselves born to those particular manors, either. Long before it became the province of hipsters and (what amounts to the same thing) TV writers, social irony was a diverting plaything of the members of the power elite—and they relished nothing more than the chance to deploy it on their own social backgrounds.

Mr Lehman even wraps up his entry with “plus ça….

¶ We’re reminded of a mordant piece about the “bit of a paradox” that TED helps to solve. It appeared at Stuff White People Like last week.

Sadly, TED Talks are not all roses and NPR approved comedians. For many white people, TED Conferences are actually a source of sadness and depression. This comes from their dreams to attend a future TED Conference in person. But with a price tag of $6000 and an invite-only policy, many white people are simply unable to attend. This is a new concept for white people as they have successfully been creating and joining expensive exclusive clubs for over one thousand years. Popular examples include: private schools, politics, and ice hockey.

Note: It is not advised to try to use sarcasm when trying to console a white person about their lack of an invitation to the TED conference.

“It must hard for you not being able to get into an expensive, invitation only club. As a non-white person, lets just say I have some experience in that field.”

“You didn’t get into MENSA either huh?”


¶ At Haaretz, Alon Liel writes an almost helplessly admiring portrait of Recip Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister who, flsuh with victory in yesterday’s constitutional referendum, seems set to leave an imprint comparable to that of Kemal Ataturk —”even if we in Israel are largely united by our distate for him.” A distaste shared by Turkey’s Kemalist elite.  

Many in Turkey and abroad view Turkey’s transformation – more religious, more eastward-looking – as cause for concern. But to the majority of Turks, the reforms have made the republic more democratic, more humane.

Erdogan will remain hated by the Turkish secular elite, which is concentrated in the army, universities and business community. But he is beloved by Turkey’s poorer, devout periphery. The prime minister has straightened the backbone of the marginalized, and in return has received their undying loyalty.

Fears that Erdogan will turn the country into an Iranian-style Islamic republic are unfounded. Support for the prime minister rests not only on ideology but also on modernization and the prosperity he has helped bring.

We in Israel know Erdogan primarily for his hard-line Mideast policy, less so for his economic platform. But the prime minister’s every step is taken with fiscal growth in mind. Erdogan will abandon neither modernization nor democracy, the system allowing his government to stay in power.

Mr Liel closes by charging Mr Erdogan with developing a solution to the demand for Kurdish autonomy — a project that may become more realizable if the Prime Minister holds on to his office in elections next July.


¶ At The Millions, Chris Graham rootles about in the rather absurd idea of “reading for pleasure” — by which he means not so much reading fun books (certainly not!) as reading books simply because you want to — and bumps up against the persistence of the bêtise that work and pleasure are incompatible.

The problem for the librarian, no less than for the career consultant, the occupational health and safety supervisor, and the beleaguered investment banker, is that the notion of a “work-life balance” is a terrible false dichotomy, the Marxist equivalent of giving all your chips away before the deck is even shuffled and then borrowing from the dealer to buy a round for the table. It is manifestly impossible to divide one’s life into neat or even approximately spherical compartments (how many New York Times crossword puzzles have been completed with a “Eureka!” exclaimed while on the family dog’s midnight promenade), and the decision to deny the obvious is generally employed by those who actually know better, which is why they are forever unsatisfied with the level of the scales. While it is plainly true that one can read a book more or less closely (substitute a beach blanket and a daiquiri for a pencil and a desk), it is equally true that something of everything we read is retained, to be recalled, by chance more often than design, on some or another future occasion, a dinner conversation, a tutorial essay, or a game of Trivial Pursuit. As every student who has written an examination knows all too well, it is impossible to predict when the most felicitous recollections  – legend has it, the essential ingredients in the making of a “Congratulatory First” – will occur, but the chances are most assuredly increased in direct proportion to the number of books we read.

Even, just for pleasure.


¶ The three final paragraphs of the late Tony Judt’s essay on Czeslaw Milosz’s classic study of intellectuals and totalitarianism, The Captive Mind, ought to chill every thoughtful reader of this site, suggesting as it does the lightning ease with which an ideology defeated in Eastern Europe transplanted itself to flourishing conditions in the United States.

Above all, the thrall in which an ideology holds a people is best measured by their collective inability to imagine alternatives. We know perfectly well that untrammeled faith in unregulated markets kills: the rigid application of what was until recently the “Washington consensus” in vulnerable developing countries—with its emphasis on tight fiscal policy, privatization, low tariffs, and deregulation—has destroyed millions of livelihoods. Meanwhile, the stringent “commercial terms” on which vital pharmaceuticals are made available has drastically reduced life expectancy in many places. But in Margaret Thatcher’s deathless phrase, “there is no alternative.”

It was in just such terms that communism was presented to its beneficiaries following World War II; and it was because History afforded no apparent alternative to a Communist future that so many of Stalin’s foreign admirers were swept into intellectual captivity. But when Miłosz published The Captive Mind, Western intellectuals were still debating among genuinely competitive social models—whether social democratic, social market, or regulated market variants of liberal capitalism. Today, despite the odd Keynesian protest from below the salt, a consensus reigns.

For Miłosz, “the man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.” This is doubtless so and explains the continuing skepticism of the Eastern European in the face of Western innocence. But there is nothing innocent about Western (and Eastern) commentators’ voluntary servitude before the new pan-orthodoxy. Many of them, Ketman-like, know better but prefer not to raise their heads above the parapet. In this sense at least, they have something truly in common with the intellectuals of the Communist age. One hundred years after his birth, fifty-seven years after the publication of his seminal essay, Miłosz’s indictment of the servile intellectual rings truer than ever: “his chief characteristic is his fear of thinking for himself.”

This has nothing to do with the ideology of communism or the pragmatics of capitalism. It is the dogma — inexorable to all those who recognize it — of Hegelian necessity. The same wind that propelled collectivism now fills the sails of free-market orthodoxy.

Have a Look

¶ “Anyway, if your name is also Ted Wilson, expect a lawsuit.” (The Rumpus)

¶ Joanna Neborsky shares a raft of fantastic unused drawings from her forthcoming illustrated edition of the Fénéon/Sante Three-Line Novels. (The Rumpus)

Morning Snip:
Mysteries Revealed

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Now the truth can be told, apparently. The wise men at the Times have decided to share some juicy inside information.

Partners get investment opportunities not offered to other employees, and are typically the highest paid at the firm. Goldman will even book tables for them at fashionable New York restaurants.

What Susanne Craig’s somewhat breathless account doesn’t tell you is that, having booked that fashionable table, Goldman will eat your dinner for you.

Tomorrow: “Traffic on Fifth Avenue is Southbound.”

Weekend Open Thread:

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

Daily Office:
Friday, 10 September 2010

Friday, September 10th, 2010


¶ Samuel Freedman’s piece on the Muslim Prayer Room on the 17th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower is required reading. The fact that there was such a spiritual center is unlikely to persuade opponents of the Parc51 center to change their minds — we fully expect to hear someone claim that the Twin Towers were doomed by the contaminating presence of an Islamic facility — nor will it make radical extremists stop to think what terrible damage they do to their values by corrupting them with violence. It’s up to the rest of us to bear in mind what’s right, and to speak out for it. (NYT)

“It was so freeing and so calm,” Mr. Sareshwala, 47, said in a phone conversation from Mumbai, where he is now based. “It had the feel of a real mosque. And the best part is that you are in the epicenter of capitalism — New York City, the World Trade Center — and you had this island of spiritualism. I don’t think you could have that combination anywhere in the world.”

How, when and by whom the prayer room was begun remains unclear. Interviews this week with historians and building executives of the trade center came up empty. Many of the Port Authority’s leasing records were destroyed in the towers’ collapse. The imams of several Manhattan mosques whose members sometimes went to the prayer room knew nothing of its origins.

Yet the room’s existence is etched in the memories of participants like Mr. Abdus-Salaam and Mr. Sareshwala. Professor John L. Esposito of Georgetown, an expert in Islamic studies, briefly mentions the prayer room in his recent book “The Future of Islam.”


¶ In what amounts to a letter of admonition, The Economist berates Damien Hirst for enriching himself at the expense of his “investors.” Since, in our view, the focus of Hirst’s art is in its marketing, we don’t see how investors can lose, no matter how much value their purchases lose. Really, the conned investors are part of the picture.

In 2008 and 2009, Mr Hirst repeatedly made statements like “The first time you sell something is when it should cost the most” and “I’ve definitely had the goal to make the primary market more expensive.” The artist was frustrated by the speculators who were buying from his galleries then quickly reselling his work at auction. Moreover, the acquisition of a package of 12 of his own works from Charles Saatchi for £6m in 2003, far more than what Mr Saatchi had originally paid, may have led to an Oedipal determination to overthrow all the high-rolling dealers and collectors who thought they might lord it over the little artist.

The goal of making the primary works more expensive may benefit Mr Hirst’s personal income in the short-term, but it makes no sense from the perspective of his market. Part of the reason that art costs more than wallpaper is the expectation that it might appreciate in value. Flooding the market with new work is like debasing the coinage, a strategy used from Nero to the Weimar Republic with disastrous consequences. If Mr Hirst were managing a quoted company, he would be unable to enrich himself at the expense of his investors in quite the same way. But Mr Hirst is an artist and, in Western countries, artists are valued as rule-breaking rogues.

Two developments could help Mr Hirst’s secondary market. He has started compiling his catalogue raisonné, a complete list of all the works he has made, which will comfort those who suspect he has made hundreds more spot and spin paintings than he admits to. According to Francis Outred, Christie’s European head of contemporary art, “As with Warhol, this could bring reassuring clarity to the question of volume within each series.” Mr Hirst is also discussing with the Tate a retrospective show to coincide with the Olympic games in London in 2012.


¶ Yves Smith is not hopeful that the heightened SEC investigation of accounting fraud at Lehman Brothers will lead to criminal penalties. In part, as Ms Smith points out, this is because the complexities of financial litigation can be counted upon to overpower juries’ judgment. But it also owes, we think, to the hushed respectability of the courtroom environment, in which groomed and suited white-collar types exude blamelessness.

One factor that would seem to improve the odds of success in pursuing former Lehman executives is they were directly involved in the preparation of the dubious financial statements, while at AIG, the dubious behavior occurred at the operational level, and accounting and management controls appear to have been weak (which serves to give corporate level executives plausible deniability). But you have a thicket of other problems. The biggest is if any of these cases were to go to trial, complex financial fraud cases are very hard to win. As Frank Partnoy explains long form in his book Infectious Greed, defense attorneys can win simply by confusing the jury. And given some of the stunning decisions he recounts, that approach seems to work with some judges too.

An a further obstacle is that the SEC is just not practiced at this sort of case. For many years, they limited their focus to insider trading cases. Their botched suit against Ralph Cioffi, the manager of the Bear hedge funds that blew up in July 2007, has no doubt made them more cautious in their choice of targets.

Despite the obstacles to winning in court (which in turn weakens the government’s ability to extract a juicy settlement), Lehman is such a high profile case that the SEC may feel politically that it has not choice other than to file the best suit it can. If so, it will be revealing to see how they frame it and who they decide to pursue. The Goldman Abacus suit suggests that they will focus very narrowly. And that in turn means its potential to have broader impact is likely to be limited.


¶ At Wired Science, Brendan Keim writes up an interesting study: “Early Warning Signs Could Show When Extinction Is Coming.” As populations are challenged, they rebound less robustly from environmental challenges.

In a study published Sept. 9 in Nature, Drake and University of South Carolina biologist Blaine Griffen tracked population changes in 60 laboratory colonies of water fleas. Half were given a steady food supply, while the others received one-quarter less food every month. Lacking the nutrients needed to reproduce more frequently than they died, the latter colonies inevitably went extinct, long before the food ran out.

In any animal population, the number of individuals oscillates naturally. A few extra offspring are born, putting a strain on resources; that leads to a few extra deaths or a drop in births, which frees up resources that allow the population to grow again. These fluctuations converge on an equilibrium somewhere in the middle. Both the control and nutrient-deprived populations followed this pattern.

But when Drake and Griffen looked closely at the data from declining groups, they found that populations took much longer to return to equilibrium. That’s a telltale sign of critical slowing down. Under too much stress, a system loses its balance easily, and takes longer to recover that balance. It was evident up to eight generations before extinction.


¶ You can close down Spy Magazine, but you can’t take the stunt out of former Spy-meisters like Tad Friend, who was determined to make his way from the Empire State Building to Central Park without setting foot on Fifth or Sixth Avenues. There’s a burly doorman on Fifty-fifth Street who owes Mr Friend a cigar. Or something. He didn’t think that our hero would find a mid-block route (through some building or other) to Fifty-sixth street. We wouldn’t have been surprised if Mr Friend had hitched a ride with low-lying window washers.

From Rockefeller Center’s underground concourse, I rose by escalator to glimpse the statue of Atlas, kneeling in welcome. Was it enough? Somehow, no. As I had three blocks of safe passage in the cozy Art Deco warren, I impulsively decided to carry on—all the way to Central Park, if possible.

An office building, a plaza, and two more parking garages got me to Fifty-fifth Street, but Fifty-fifth was pitiless. No plazas or arcades, and all three garages were squatty bolt-holes. The burly doorman at 65 West Fifty-fifth declared, “You’re going to have to hit Fifth or Sixth.” The doorman at the Shoreham Hotel, down the block, shook his head. And the guard at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church had no interest in liberation theology. As I trudged westward, the burly doorman crowed, “I told ya!” It was after 5 P.M., so I ducked in for a drink a few doors down at the Whiskey Trader bar, where the weekend was noisily under way. Downstairs, by the rest rooms, was a door with a sign warning “Siren Will Sound.” But siren didn’t sound. In the adjacent basement were a mop and a bucket, odds and dead ends—and a stairwell, leading up. On the landing I eased open a fire door . . . into a gleaming lobby off Fifty-sixth. Ha!


¶ Gordon Chang tells us what to watch for as the Korean Workers’ Party’s national conference — the first since 1966 — unfolds. Will Kim Jong-Il have his way as regards succession plans? (The New Republic; via Real Clear World)

Almost anything can occur at the party conference. Everyone will be watching what happens to the youngest Kim. More interesting, however, will be events surrounding Jang Sung-Taek, widely seen as the regent for young Jong-Un. Jang, Kim Jong-Il’s brother-in-law, has already accumulated substantial authority in the last two years, especially over the security services. In all probability, Kim Jong-Il is uneasy about handing over so much responsibility to a non-Kim, but he has no choice if he wants his not-too-well-prepared son to eventually take over.

So far, Kim has given his son a post inside the National Defense Commission, the most powerful body in North Korea. The army, the regime’s backstop, is generally on board with Jong-Un because most flag officers realize their favored position in society is dependent on the Kim family. 

But Jong-Un’s future is by no means assured. China probably wants him out of the way so that there can be a collective leadership. Moreover, ambitious generals and even-more-dangerous colonels could be scheming. Finally, Jang Sung-Taek may not want to relinquish power when Kim Jong-Il has passed from the scene, either naturally or otherwise. 

What should we be looking for this week? If Jong-Un is proclaimed successor at the party conference, we know his dad, Kim Jong-Il, is close to death. It’s not his father’s style to cede power quickly. It’s more likely the young son will be given one or more party posts. It’s even possible that the party machinery will be merely reorganized to allow the young Kim to build his power base. The last outcome would indicate continued resistance to Kim’s succession planning.


¶ Venerable Oxford bookseller Blackwell’s, in order to avoid “awful takeovers,” is going to adopt the employee-owned business model developed by John Lewis, the British department store. (Guardian; via Survival of the Book)

Blackwell’s decision comes after several years of losses and at a time when booksellers are facing mounting competition from supermarkets, the internet and e-books. Borders has closed down in the UK and HMV is facing shareholder pressure to sell its underperforming Waterstone’s chain. But Blackwell expects to move back into profit this year and its owner said he was convinced his chain had a bright future: “We must concentrate on being a specialist. We have some of the best specialists in the world. As long as there are people who want to speak to a specialist, we will stay in business.”

He said he was doing much of the work on the new constitution himself because “I don’t want to hire a lot of consultants”.

The Blackwell business traces its roots back to the 19th century, when it was founded as a small bookseller on Broad Street in Oxford. It expanded on to the internet and to London in the 1990s and also had a publishing arm until it was sold to rival John Wiley in 2007. Control has been handed down through the family.


¶ From the look of it, Miles Klee already lives in the dystopian near-future sketched by Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Which makes his dissatisfied review of the novel a kind of pendant to it. Also it will absolve would-not-be readers of the venial sin of procrastination. (Having heard Shteyngart read from Absurdistan, we have no idea why his publisher hasn’t cajoled him into making an audiobook of Super Sad.) (The Awl)

I’d wager that Super Sad has more “the way we live now” commentary per sentence than Jonathan Franzen’s present-set Freedom does, because it needs to plow through as formidable a laundry list of grievances as any manifesto could muster and create redundant prophecy based on those complaints, all while kicking a doomed-romance subplot along like some crumpled beer can that happened to be in its path.


You could claim that I’m just projecting my own generational or writerly neuroses. You could argue that I’m a hypocrite, or that I’m pushing for a more escapist type of fiction, or attacking a genre’s very foundation, the now-future concept being virtually sacrosanct. I’ll accept all that and yet I can’t shake the inkling that we should demand more than a well-polished fun mirror when it comes to social critique. I want some surprising membrane: warped, restless and permeable. I need, more than anything, to be startled.

Have a Look

¶ Virtual restoration of the Abbey of Cluny, founded 910 and one of the great medieval institutions. (Le Monde; via Ionarts)

¶ Reading list recommendations from Jonathan Franzen. (Book Beast)

Morning Snip:
Happening at Once

Friday, September 10th, 2010

David Hare on Mad Men. (Guardian)

It needs courage to withhold, and withholding is what this series is all about. Feature films in the English language seem to obsess more and more on only one thing at a time – they concentrate on their given subject with a kind of furious, exhausting dullness. But in Mad Men, nothing is dwelt on very long and, as in life, lots of things happen at once. It’s entirely typical of Matthew Weiner’s complicating techniques that when at the climax of three series, Don Draper drives home to find that his wife Betty has finally opened his desk drawer and come upon evidence of his previous self, he meanwhile has another woman waiting for him in the car outside. Even when facing the crisis of his life, our hero’s mind can’t help, partly at least, being on something else.

Daily Office:
Thursday, 9 September 2010

Thursday, September 9th, 2010


¶ At Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong tackles a muddle — if we may propose an awkward image to reflect a category mistake that has flooded the intellectual territory once overseen by the mainstream media — “Of Writers and Activists — Are Science Bloggers Being Ambitious Enough?”

My goals are different – they are not to change the way research gets done or they way policies are set. I lack the experience, background, energy and time. I can only hope to do what I do best – talk about science in a way that encourages people to listen. My goals are: to inspire people about science by providing good writing (well, communication, but primarily writing); and to improve the quality of science journalism by providing an example and by engaging with the science writing community, at conferences and on social media.

Is blogging the most productive way I could be doing this? Sarah Kendrew asked me this question at Science Online London 2010 (15:00 in the third video), and I thought it a fair one. I can only answer: it is for me (leaving aside the fact that I also try to be active on social media, speak at events, and so on). It’s the best way I can make use of my abilities. If people had infinite time, skills and opportunities, I’d probably tell them to be science teachers; Alom Shaha makes an able case for why our need for science educators surpasses our need for science communicators.  But I am not a teacher; I’m a writer and I’m a journalist.

As a journalist, being an advocate can be detrimental to my job. Dan Vergano from USA Today says, “Science reporting ain’t advocacy. That takes the field in the wrong direction, back to the 1950’s.” Nobody would benefit from journalists who cheerlead for science without holding it to account when necessary.

All writing is advocatory. Some writers advocate taking political action, while others advocate developing a rigorous understanding of the world. The two groups are often at temperamental odds even when facts are not in dispute; one fact that is always in dispute is the urgency of taking action of one kind or another. We think it sufficient for writers to be clear about which kind of advocacy they’re engaged in.


¶ The Jewish High Holidays prompt Miles Hoffman to discuss the lack of anything like the classical liturgical music that serious Western composers went on composing long after the Age of Faith. (NYT)

It’s certainly strange that their very liberation as Jews led to composers’ leaving the substance of Judaism behind, at least artistically. But is it realistic to expect brilliant Jewish composers, exposed to some of the most magnificent artistic creations of Western civilization and struck by the universal impact and appeal of those creations, to be satisfied setting Hebrew texts for their local congregations?

Yes, it’s possible that if some of these great composers had written monumental works for the synagogue, those works might eventually have found a broad public. And some have: Ernest Bloch’s “Avodath Hakodesh” (“Sacred Service”), for example, is widely performed — in concert halls more than synagogues — and Leonard Bernstein’s settings of Hebrew texts have not lacked for mixed audiences.

More recently, contemporary Jewish composers like Paul Schoenfield, Osvaldo Golijov and Max Raimi have made compelling use of traditional Jewish tunes and styles in music for the concert hall and found a sizeable audience.

But historically speaking, many Jewish composers simply felt compelled to strike out well beyond their parochial origins, and to avoid at all costs the possibility of being pigeon-holed as composers of “Jewish music.”

There is more here than Mr Hoffman seems to realize. The musical tradition of Western Christianity is weighted toward triumphalism; even non-celebratory music (such as Requiem Masses) are grand more often than not. This reflects not only the overwhelming dominance of Christianity in Western history but also the imposing churches that, beginning with Hagia Sophia, have no counterpart in Judaism.  


¶ At Weakonomics, Philip takes issue with the notion that the recession has hurt blue-collar workers the most — or, in educational terms, that workers with the least academic attainments have been hurt the worst. His figures suggest just the opposite, and, indeed, people with some college education have witnessed the highest increase in unemployment rates. (For our part, we believe that the unemployment problem is so structural that it preceded the recession and will outlast it, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Every recession is referred to as a blue collar recession because many blue collar jobs rely on the economy itself. Manufacturing is very much cyclical, in that when the economy is good so is the sector. When the economy suffers, they get laid off. But the truth is white collar workers have it just as bad, and may have it worse.

It all comes down to how you market the data. It’s easy to spin the employment data to fit the blue collar recession headline. One common citation is unemployment divided up into educational attainment. The categories are: less than high school diploma, high school diploma, some college or associates degree, and college degree or higher. The unemployment rates start high and work their way down: 14%, 10.3%, 8.7%, and 4.6%. By this metric it does look like a blue collar recession since blue collar jobs typically require less education. But what if we measured the % increase in unemployed from 2007 to today? Do the numbers tell the same story? Hardly


¶ We’re not sure that we know exactly what bothers Jonah Lehrer about the ease of e-readers, or how the problem that he foresees can be addressed, but we’re going to file away the distinction between ventral and dorsal reading, one of the rich cognitive findings associated with Stanislas Dehaene. 

So here’s my wish for e-readers. I’d love them to include a feature that allows us to undo their ease, to make the act of reading just a little bit more difficult. Perhaps we need to alter the fonts, or reduce the contrast, or invert the monochrome color scheme. Our eyes will need to struggle, and we’ll certainly read slower, but that’s the point: Only then will we process the text a little less unconsciously, with less reliance on the ventral pathway. We won’t just scan the words – we will contemplate their meaning.

My larger anxiety has to do with the sprawling influence of technology. Sooner or later, every medium starts to influence the message. I worry that, before long, we’ll become so used to the mindless clarity of e-ink – to these screens that keep on getting better – that the technology will feedback onto the content, making us less willing to endure harder texts. We’ll forget what it’s like to flex those dorsal muscles, to consciously decipher a literate clause. And that would be a shame, because not every sentence should be easy to read.

Mr Lehrer concludes with an interesting sidenote: in order to proofread his writing, he has to print it out. If our experience is applicable, it isn’t the printing that’s key. Nothing enhances our attention to detail than reading something that we have published something online. OMG!


¶ Bess Levin (Dealbreakder) and Jessica Pressler (Daily Intel) chat LOLlingly about Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. As Bess says in her introduction, “ I’m not going to say it’s so bad you shouldn’t see it, but that’s just because it’s so bad it needs to be seen to be believed and we want more people to be able to share in our collective trauma.” The movie does promise some unintended fun for Wall Streeters.

ohbabyitsbess: We should get into all of the characters who were real but not real. Like the head of Not Bear Stearns, Not Jimmy Cayne.
jessaballs: Yeah, Not Jimmy Cayne was more like Ace Greenberg than Jimmy Cayne.
jessaballs: He dressed like Ace.
jessaballs: in a bowler hat and bow tie
ohbabyitsbess: And he had a dog he loved
jessaballs: And he had not idea what was going on at his own bank.
ohbabyitsbess: But you felt bad for him anyway, especially when Not Jamie Dimon was like, “I will buy Not Bear Stearns for $3 a share, AND NOT A PENNY MORE.”
ohbabyitsbess: Not Jamie Dimon was kind of amazing
ohbabyitsbess: Not Jamie Dimon wears leather and rides bikes
jessaballs: And wears red velvet smoking jackets and hosts opera singers in his Upper East Side mansion.
ohbabyitsbess: and throws Goyas across the room when he’s angry
jessaballs: And after Jake starts spreading rumors that bring down Not JP Morgan’s stock in order to punish him for what he did to Not Bear Stearns, Not Jamie offers him a job at Not JP Morgan.
ohbabyitsbess: Because even though he lost him money, Not Jamie Dimon is the kind of guy who likes moxie
jessaballs: He wanted to hate fuck him, in a business sense
ohbabyitsbess: And then later Jake becomes a star at Not JP Morgan, because he is also the only one who knows about Chinese customs
ohbabyitsbess: And knows to give a gift for the Chinese guy when they come visit to potentially give them capital
jessaballs: That’s what its all about, really, these billion-dollar deals
jessaballs: Toblerones, and being polite


¶ We try not to go out of our way to be gloomy in these pages, but we must admit that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s address to the Council on Foreign Relations — her sixth, personally, and her second as Secretary — is a disappointment, for failing to be specific about much of anything in general, and for discussing the narcotrafficking issues that plague our hemisphere without even a whisper about the decriminialization of drugs. Here is her entire response to a question asked by Carla Hills. (via  Real Clear World)

CLINTON: Well, first, Carla, thank you for asking about this hemisphere, because it is very much on our minds. And we face an increasing threat from a well-organized network, drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency, in Mexico and in Central America.

And we are working very hard to assist the Mexicans in improving their law enforcement and their intelligence, their capacity to detain and prosecute those who they arrest. I give President Calderon very high marks for his courage and his commitment. This is a really tough challenge. And these drug cartels are now showing more and more indices of insurgency — you know, all of a sudden car bombs show up, which weren’t there before.

So it’s becoming — it’s looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago, where the narcotraffickers control, you know, certain parts of the country — not — significant parts; in Colombia, it got to the point where, you know, more than a third of the country — nearly 40 percent of the country at one time or another was controlled by the insurgents, by FARC.

But it’s going to take a combination of improved institutional capacity and better law enforcement and, where appropriate, military support for that law enforcement, you know, married to political will, to be able to prevent this from spreading and to try to beat it back.

Mexico has capacity, and they’re using that capacity, and they’ve been very willing to take advice. You know, they’re wanting to do as much of it on their own as possible, but we stand ready to help them. But the small countries in Central America do not have that capacity, and the newly inaugurated president of Costa Rica, President Chinchilla, you know, said, we need help and we need a much more vigorous U.S. presence.

So we are working to try to enhance what we have in Central America. We hear the same thing from our Caribbean friends, so we have an initiative, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. And our relationship is not all about drugs and violence and crime, but unfortunately that often gets the headlines. We’re also working on more economic programs, we’re working on Millennium Challenge grants, we’re working on a lot of other ways of bolstering economies and governments to improve rule of law. But this is on the top of everyone’s mind when they come to speak with us.

And I know that Plan Colombia was controversial. I was just in Colombia, and there were problems and there were mistakes, but it worked. And it was bipartisan, started, you know, in the Clinton administration, continued in the Bush administration. And I think President Santos will try to do everything he can to remedy the problems of the past while continuing to, you know, make progress against the insurgency.

And we need to figure out what are the equivalents for Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. And that’s not easy, because these — you know, you put your finger on it. I mean, those drugs come up through Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, through Central America, southern Mexico, to the border, and we consume them. And those guns — you know, those guns, legal and illegal, keep flooding, along with all of the mayhem — it’s not only guns; it’s weapons, it’s arsenals of all kinds that come south. So I feel a real sense of responsibility to do everything we can. And again, we’re working hard to come up with approaches that will actually deliver.


¶ A brief profile of reluctant entrepreneur Tim Waterstone. Alex Clark begins: “A man who went on to sell the company to the firm that had made him redundant, and then bought it back; and who, after apparently parting ways with his bookshops for good, made four separate attempts to gain control of them once again? This strikes me as almost a dictionary definition of an entrepreneur. So what’s the beef?” (Guardian)

His quibble, it turns out, has its basis in good manners. “I can’t bear the self-congratulatory thing of applying it to oneself, really,” he says: softly spoken and courteous, he appears, in tone and bearing, far more like a gentleman publisher than a cut-throat boardroom monster. Indeed, our semantic discussion has been prompted by his description of the bankers whom he met during a deal he was working on a few years ago and who make up a major strand in his new novel, In for a Penny, In for a Pound, an everyday tale of high finance, newspaper dynasties and the world of books. They were, he says, “so awful” that he started jotting down their conversations during meetings, and soon began to form an idea for a fictional parody of them. He was particularly struck by what seemed to him “like this endless drive towards the accumulation of personal wealth”, a motivation at odds, he is at pains to point out, with his own impulses.

“You know, as an entrepreneur, and I hate calling myself an entrepreneur” – here our digression begins – “you don’t do it for the money at all, really you don’t; you’re doing it because you get caught up in an idea and you want that idea to work.” The ultimate achievement, according to Waterstone, is to see your vision realised, often against the odds: almost all entrepreneurs, he thinks, are fighting against received wisdom.


¶ President Obama has deplored Rev Terry Jones’s plan to burn copies of the Qur’an on Saturday. We wish that the president had done something this exciting before now, but we’ll take what we can get.

“If he’s listening, I just hope he understands that what he’s proposing to do is completely contrary to our values as Americans,” Mr. Obama said in an interview shown Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” referring to Terry Jones, a pastor from Gainesville, Fla.

“As a practical matter, as commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States, I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan,” the president said.

Mr. Obama said that the Koran burning would be a “recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda” and other terrorist groups looking for people willing to “blow themselves up” in American or European cities.

Have a Look

¶ Eraserhead — in a one-page panel. (HTMLGIANT)

¶ So that’s it! We’re supposed to like and admire Vincent Karthesier! (Well, we do.) (Thanks, Greg X!)

¶ How many points of Helvetica would it take to stretch from the Earth to the Moon? If you have to ask, you can’t apport it. (

Morning Snip:
Legal Fiction

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Khadije Sharife. at the LRB blog, on the bogus headquarters of Hollywood studios (and hundreds of thousands of other American corporations).

Delaware, the first state to ratify the US Constitution, is also the world’s leading tax haven, thanks to its generous provision of such perks as corporate opacity, banking secrecy, company redomiciliation and protected cell companies. Last year, 200,000 companies, including Fox, Universal and Warner Bros, as well as Coca-Cola, Ford, Kentucky Fried Chicken and two-thirds of the Fortune 500, were registered at the same single-storey address: 1209 North Orange Street, Wilmington.

Just as being based in Delaware helps Chevron, for example, minimise the taxes it pays in Algeria, Angola, Brazil, Argentina and Alaska, so it helps Fox avoid sharing the profit from films like Avatar with the state of California. This shouldn’t go down well with California’s state employees who are being forced to take three days unpaid holiday every month. Yet even as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ’state of emergency’ shifts the multi-billion-dollar budget deficit burden to citizens, Hollywood’s reaping the benefits of tax-code changes last year that hand hundreds of millions in tax credits to movie studios. Don’t expect to see ‘Last Exit to Wilmington’ coming to a screen near you any time soon.

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010



¶ Ellen Moody writes,

Over on facebook, someone told of a long day’s struggle to order, throw away, pack, and generally empty out his parents’ home (possible so as to sell it). What exhausting work emotionally and physically. Well his words reminded me of a moving diary entry in the LRB by August Kleinzhaler where he told of his experience of selling his childhood home.

The Kleinzahler piece dates from last winter, but it’s instantly engaging, so do click through.


¶ The prolific director Raoul Walsh (1887-1980) is the subject of an appreciation by Dan Callahan, at The House Next Door. Two films are singled out for the honor of standing aside White Heat, the great Cagney vehicle: Me and My Gal, with Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett; and Band of Angels, starring Clark Gable and Yvonne de Carlo.

Walsh was half-Irish, and fond of introducing rowdy drinking humor into his films; this humor is always bracing and often directed straight at the camera. Me and My Gal ends with a man’s face filling the screen and howling at us, “Have another drink!” Whereas John Ford’s Irish humor is usually based in a beer-drinking kind of cuteness, Walsh’s hard liquor talk is as lusty and disarming as his love of sex. In Gentleman Jim (1942), he could even make boxing look like a clean “why not?” kind of sport, with Flynn in tights as an aesthetic object of real beauty in the ring. Given a story of mature romantic disillusionment, Walsh was capable of making something like The Strawberry Blonde (1941), which in my memory stands as a masterpiece about growing up, beautifully played by Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth and Jack Carson; as Walsh himself must have known by this point, the outwardly demure brunette (de Havilland) is usually the real firecracker in bed, not the high-maintenance redhead sexpot (Hayworth). After World War II, and the Flynn war movies covered in Kehr’s DVD review, Walsh wholeheartedly adopted the noir style for his brooding western Pursued (1947) and remade High Sierra as Colorado Territory (1949) with Joel McCrea, which is just as good as the original and even improves on it for a last shot that stands as the ultimate in male/female romantic solidarity.


¶ “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds,” cautions Michael Lewis, in Vanity Fair. His truly sensational account of Greek peccadilloes makes Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief seem muted and forgiving. The following extract, taken from the first half of the piece, is itself relatively forgiving.

Where waste ends and theft begins almost doesn’t matter; the one masks and thus enables the other. It’s simply assumed, for instance, that anyone who is working for the government is meant to be bribed. People who go to public health clinics assume they will need to bribe doctors to actually take care of them. Government ministers who have spent their lives in public service emerge from office able to afford multi-million-dollar mansions and two or three country homes. Oddly enough, the financiers in Greece remain more or less beyond reproach. They never ceased to be anything but sleepy old commercial bankers. Virtually alone among Europe’s bankers, they did not buy U.S. subprime-backed bonds, or leverage themselves to the hilt, or pay themselves huge sums of money. The biggest problem the banks had was that they had lent roughly 30 billion euros to the Greek government—where it was stolen or squandered. In Greece the banks didn’t sink the country. The country sank the banks.


¶ What’s this? It seems that the leopard can change his spots! And Alan Turing expounded the general principles that make this, and many other pattern shifts, possible.

Turing explained their partnership in terms of a slightly imperialistic analogy involving cannibals and missionaries living on an island. The cannibals (standing in for the activators) can produce more of themselves, but they can also be converted to missionaries (playing the role of inhibitors). The missionaries, being celibate, can only make more missionaries by recruiting cannibals. On a small island, you’d eventually end up with a stable mix of the two. But the people on the island aren’t just standing still. They move about, and the missionaries can do so faster because they have bicycles. This changes things. Cannibals bolster their own numbers through sex, so in the immediate area, their populations grow. Some of these extra cannibals might get converted to missionaries, who would cycle off to further parts of the island. This means that the far reaches of the island become saturated with missionaries, who convert the cannibals there. Close by, cannibals increase their own numbers. Far away, they actually inhibit themselves by producing missionaries. The two molecules on a fish’s skin interact in the same way. The activator reinforces itself at a short distance but further away, it’s blocked by the inhibitor. These simple rules can produce very complicated patterns, and this brilliant Java applet shows you how. Try playing with different speeds and colours to produce cheetah-like spots or fingerprint whorls. You can enter different numbers into the “diffusion constants” boxes to determine how quickly the cannibals and missionaries are moving. Note that you get very different patterns depending on these speeds, and that stable patterns only emerge if the second number is higher (i.e. if the inhibitor spreads faster than the activator).


¶ Michael Williams (A Continuous Lean) gets invited to a publication party for True Prep, the sequel to/update of The Preppy Handbook, that came out yesterday. He has a much better time than he thought he would — and what could be preppier than that?

When I arrived at Michael’s I didn’t know anyone, so I looked around the room for the person that looked as uncomfortable as I felt and went to talk to him. Before I get into that let me back up, the scene in the room was borderline ridiculous. Everyone was so overly prepped out it was an insane assemblage of pink and green. I was getting nervous as to what I had gotten myself into with all of these crazy preppies. The uncomfortable guy actually worked for the publisher and after a bit of chatting I asked if he could introduce me to the PR so I could say thank you for inviting me. I spoke with the very nice PR lady for a few minutes when she asked if I wanted to meet the author Lisa Birnbach. Wow, I thought. For some reason I never expected to meet her and I have no idea what to ask her. I certainly didn’t want to come off as a super-fan. As I spoke to Lisa about the book and preps and everything else it started to make sense why, after all these years, she is coming out with a follow-up. True Prep has a sense of humor and it is fun to see how some things have changed and how some haven’t. I was flattered to know that Lisa was aware of ACL’s existence and at the same time I felt slightly rude for my initial apprehension towards the book. But that is sort of my thing — change is bad! Though there are a few style related things in the book that I cannot endorse (which will go unnamed here), I have to say that after reading it with the mindset that the book is not meant to be a “part II,” (it is designed to complement the original) I really liked it. I also must admit that I was wrong about Lisa and True Prep. It is a worthy read and money well spent.


¶ The least we could do: restoring Iraqi antiquities to the country from which they were looted during our misadventure there. Steven Lee Myers reports, in the Times.

The United States has returned 1,046 antiquities since 2003, when looters ransacked buildings across Iraq, including its museums, according to the American Embassy here. For all the international outrage the looting stirred toward the United States and its allies, many of the items were smuggled out of the country before the invasion, often with the connivance of officials in Saddam Hussein’s government, according to archaeological officials here. They have been tracked and seized by the F.B.I., the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and other law enforcement agencies, often working on tips from experts and officials with the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, which stored many of them at its building on Massachusetts Avenue for safekeeping as Iraq remained engulfed in violence. Only a handful of the items returned on Tuesday once belonged to the National Museum. The most prominent is the statue of King Entemena, the oldest known representation of a monarch from the ancient civilizations that once thrived in Mesopotamia. Carved from black diorite, it is 30 inches tall and headless, and inscribed with cuneiform that says it was placed in a temple in Ur, in what is now southern Iraq, to please the god Enlil. It weighs 330 pounds but disappeared from the museum during the looting, only to be seized in a 2006 sting when someone in Syria tried to sell it to an art dealer in New York. Another Sumerian sculpture, a bronze depicting a king named Shulgi, had been shipped by Federal Express from a London dealer to a collector in Connecticut, but was seized at Newark Liberty International Airport. Many such pieces are items that Iraq never knew it had lost.


¶ Garth Risk Hallberg asks: if the Internet is supposed to be shrinking our attention apans, what are we doing buying all these long novels that are coming out these days?

Publishers’ willingness to take a chance on a long book circa 2010 may be directly connected to chances taken in the past. The fierce bidding, in 2007, for Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (992 pp), a demanding work in translation, surely owes something to the rapt reception of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (600 pp) and subsequent widespread anticipation for 2666 (912 pp). McSweeney’s may be hoping The Instructions repeats the success of Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital (615 pp). And David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1104 pp) continues to have a remarkable second life on the backlist, which is still the publisher’s bread and butter. Biographical books and articles by David Lipsky and D.T. Max, as well as copious online discussion, sustain interest in the book. A clerk at a local bookstore told me last week that, for the last two months, it’s been flying off the shelves. Indeed, après Jest, doubters may catch a whiff of decadence, or at least self-consciousness, around the efforts of Cohen, Levin, and other candidates for wunderkindency.

(We think that the word is Wunderkinderei.)


¶ At The Oil Drum, Ugo Bardi argues cogently that science and technology advance more quickly when sparked by prizes than when fed by research grants.

So, it would be thinkable to organize research on innovation in renewables by offering prizes. Say, the government will award 10 million dollars to the first research lab which succeeds in developing a solar cell with a demonstrable EROEI = 50 (about the EROEI of petroleum in the golden days). Or it will award the same 10 million dollars for the first GWh consistently produced by a high altitude wind power system. Maybe the target is too high, and nobody will succeed in getting the prize, but if that happens, it is at no cost for taxpayers. And think how much money the governments could save dismantling the overblown bureaucracy needed for selecting grant applications and checking that the money is spent according to the promises. Now, why is it not done? Well, I think the reason lies in those lines that I just wrote. The main purpose of all bureaucracies is to perpetuate (and enlarge) themselves, so a reform that would get rid of a large number of government bureaucrats is almost inconceivable. Maybe there are other reasons that make it difficult to stimulate research using prizes, but I do know that there are cases in which public money has been used to reward success: it is the case of feed-in tariffs for renewables.

For the record, we believe that an effective and satisfactory way of getting rid of bureaucrats is buying them off — before they reproduce.

Have a Look

¶ The Future Is In Helvetica. (Joe.My.God)

¶ Joshua Marsh: Ten Things. (ARTCAT)

Morning Snip:
What We Had To Give Up

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

¶ At Jonathan Harris’s site, an uncredited bit of wisdom that we’re going to attribute to the keeper — who is now half our age. Which means that he has had only half our experience at getting back “what we had to give up.” At a certain startling point, life lurches into Reverse, and it takes a while to figure out that Reverse is the new Drive.

There comes a time in your life
when you stop trying to escape
from your childhood

and you try to get back
what you had to give up
to make your escape.

¶ Gotham Diary: Rising.

Daily Office:
Tuesday 7 September 2010

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010


¶ Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich welcomes us the worst Labor Day in the memory of most Americans,” and explains why we can no longer count on consumers to spend the economy out of its rut. Not to mention the inequity of our growing income disparity.

Here’s the point. Policies that generate more widely shared prosperity lead to stronger and more sustainable economic growth — and that’s good for everyone.

The rich are better off with a smaller percentage of a fast-growing economy than a larger share of an economy that’s barely moving. That’s the Labor Day lesson we learned decades ago; until we remember it again, we’ll be stuck in the Great Recession.


¶ One of the things we love about Felix Salmon is his sense — rare for a financial writer — that money isn’t everything. Sometimes, in fact, it’s completely irrelevant, as here: “It’s a bad idea to regulate the art market.”

The last thing we need is some kind of formal ratification — by an agency of the Federal Reserve, no less — that art is a financial asset. The art market is broken, we all know that — but so long as everybody knows that the market is broken, there’s a limit to how aggrieved they can reasonably become if they go in with the idea of art being some kind of investment, and end up losing money.

The problem with any kind of regulatory framework for art dealers or even for art funds is that it gives them a veneer of legitimacy which they would then use to woo a huge new class of art buyers. The art market is minuscule in relation to more legitimate alternative investment classes, and even a small amount of “asset allocation” out of say old-school hedge funds and into art would create a lot of unnecessary disruption in the art market, mainly benefitting today’s dealers.

It’s much easier if we all just accept that the game is rigged against us, and that the only reason to buy art is to enjoy it. You can’t be ripped off if you’re paying for your own subjective enjoyment of an artwork. If by contrast you want to buy something which you’ll be able to sell at a profit in the future, you shouldn’t be in the art market at all.

¶ Meanwhile, Philip Greenspun has a “Good book for discouraging independent filmmakers.”

Martin provides some useful advice for people who cannot be talked out of a career in independent film, e.g., try to use available light since it means that you can work twice as fast and not pay everyone to stand around while lights are moved. Mostly, however, he provides sobering tales of the difficulties of getting a film produced and seen legally. A chapter is devoted to obtaining music rights, e.g., if an actor absent-mindedly hums a tune while the camera is rolling, the segment must be thrown out or the rights to the tune secured, possibly costing more than $100,000. Your kid can forget being an independent screenwriter; the on-staff Hollywood studio folks will simply steal the ideas since they know they’ll need to go through some rewrites anyway.


¶ Joshua Brown’s “outliers,” at The Reformed Broker. “I define an outlier as an event that is unlikely but possible.” We have no idea which is the likeliest (or the unlikeliest), but we can’t help thinking that Item Nº 4 would clear the air.

4.  Ballmer is Audi 5000:  He’ll go out like a lamb before this becomes a shareholder revolt thing.  The truth is, he had everything to lose, inheriting the reins when he did with Microsoft ($MSFT) at the very pinnacle of its power.  But Mayor Michael Bloomberg inherited New York City after Rudy Guiliani had ushered in the Big Apple’s Platinum Age and somehow Bloomberg managed to actually improve things.  Ballmer didn’t.  He’s never been in touch with the kids, doesn’t have a particularly impressive vision, is not possessed of much imagination and he’s not a consumer tech guy.  The anti-Steve Jobs will resign and the board will find a consumer-oriented CEO to replace him.  Bill Gates will not be looking to pull a Michael Dell and return to “save the company”; I think he likes his story exactly the way it reads now.


¶ At The American Prospect, Chris Mooney reviews a book about industrial polution in the bad old days before the Environmental Protection Act. Guess what? The EPA didn’t put an end to the good old “spill, study, and stall.” Beyond that depressing reflection, Mr Mooney has a very good idea about putting a stop to tendentious, bogus “science.”

There’s no doubt from this saga that we still need strong government regulation: 100 years of experience shows that companies cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. But we can go further. We probably also need more explicit sanctions to prevent science from being cynically used to stall public policy — the research equivalent of filing frivolous motions in a courtroom. The prostitution of science is much too easy. It happens far too often. And at this point, the evidence is overwhelming that it’s a systematic strategy that industry will continue to employ unless there are penalties to be paid.


¶ Say that you live in London town, and pay a visit to New York City. How do you compare and contrast these immense and amazing metropolises? Our minds may boggle, but James Ward knows what counts. Which city sells the better souvenir pens? Here is the third wing of his tripartite analysis (which Gotham wins).


The sculptural pen is defined by the inclusion of a local landmark or figure recreated in molded plastic perched on top of the pen. Ideally, it helps if the chosen landmark is quite linear in form so as to continue the line of the pen. For this reason, towers and statues are ideal. Beaches or lakes are not really suitable.

New York, of course, has the perfect sculptural pen icon in the form of the Statue of Liberty. It’s almost as if it had been DESIGNED to appear on the top of a souvenir pen (it wasn’t – the injection molding process used to produce the pens hadn’t been invented in 1886 when the statue was presented to America by the people of France). However, there is one flaw in the design of the Statue of Liberty which impacts on its suitability for this type of pen: the torch. When cheaply produced in plastic, the upraised arm can be fragile. In fact, I bought two Statue of Liberty pens during my trip. The flame of the torch snapped off one. The poor lady’s hand snapped off the other.

London doesn’t really have anything like the Statue of Liberty which sits as well on the top of a pen. There’s Big Ben of course, but that looks a bit odd separated from the Houses of Parliament. Nelson’s Column isn’t iconic enough. The London Eye is too round. Tower Bridge is too wide. The Angus Steakhouse on Shaftesbury Avenue apparently isn’t important enough to justify a pen.

Instead, London is forced to rely on its more mundane features for sculptural pens – red telephone boxes (the sort which don’t really exist anymore) and policeman’s helmets. It is a sad state of affairs when, as a country, the best thing we have to celebrate in pen form is a phone box and a tall hat.


¶ At The Nation, Robert Dreyfuss looks into the labor movement in China — and the help that it’s getting from Andy Stern, former head of the Service Employees International Union. (via  Marginal Revolution)  

That’s why Andy Stern’s efforts in China, despite the criticism, seem so valuable. “I get in trouble on Glenn Beck saying, ‘Workers of the world unite!’ It’s not just a slogan,” Stern says. It’s critical, he adds, for US and Chinese workers to see each other as allies, and he argues that efforts such as his can help shift the ACFTU in a direction that will make it much more representative of its hundreds of millions of members. “There’s a big evolution going on,” says Stern. “And to me, the question is, Where does the union end up, not where it started.” Like Crothall, Stern emphasizes that it isn’t just workers who want the ACFTU to change the way it operates. “The government is pushing them to transform, too.”


In the end, however, there is probably very little that the United States can do to change China’s trajectory. Few, if any, of the economic measures suggested to force China to make changes are likely to work, at least not without backfiring and causing massive dislocation in the United States as well. “Any attempt to get tough with the Chinese would also bite us in the ass,” says Left Business Observer‘s Henwood. If a trade war begins to develop, China can, among other things, wield its vast holdings of dollars and US Treasury bills as a weapon and can look elsewhere for imports that it now buys from the United States. Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch says the United States ought to place democratization and human rights far higher on its agenda, even in meetings on other topics, without fear that China will be insulted: “There are all sorts of ways of saying it in meetings between the two countries without it being a giant Fuck you! in the middle of the meeting.” So far, President Obama seems to have sidetracked human rights.

The United States may have little choice but to get used to the fact that China is coming into its own. If that’s the case, though, we may be able to use the Chinese challenge to make sweeping changes in the way America does business at home. “It isn’t just China’s rise, which is tectonic, but it’s our own financial, political and cultural collapse that is cause for even more consternation,” says Orville Schell. “We need to find ways to accommodate China, and to influence it. And it’s not a foregone conclusion that it will be easy, or even peaceable.”


¶ A much-discussed book of the moment — a sort of indie Freedom, if you will —is Tom McCarthy’s C. Zachary Adam Cohen’s enthusiastic review, at Slant, bears out our conviction that a favorable review is the most informative kind. We can tell from Mr Cohen’s commentary that C is not for us.  

The concluding section of the novel takes place in Egypt as the British deal with the loss of their colony, indeed their whole empire. And yet Serge is sent as a kind of spy to determine the best location for communication masts to be erected so as to ensure the uninterrupted communication of an empire on the wane. It’s the protuberance of communication lines that mirrors the recession of an empire.

Words, letters, symbols, images, motifs. These constitute the essence of McCarthy’s novel, and as he has chosen to set this novel amid the turn of the century, Serge’s life parallels the birth and development of wireless communications. McCarthy must have known this theme would resonate with today’s audience, beset as we are from all angles by instant, real-time communication technology. We must know that many of our messages simply get lost in the ether. One gets the sense reading C that McCarthy wanted to illustrate how even the most scientific and reasonable of pursuits contains elements that defy our understanding. There is, even in the most progressive of technologies, magic at hand. And this magic is buried deep within the novel, often so full and thick of thematic sorcery, that it threatens to overwhelm the reader.

¶ We kid you not: the New York City Department of Sanitation has its own resident sociologist, Robin Nagle. (No, we didn’t know, either.) The Believer’s Alex Carp talks with Ms Nagle about the highs and lows of garbage collection. (The highs involve the cognitive issue of “invisibilization.”)

BLVR: You’ve also written about how sanitation workers commented on how they get to know a block’s trash on their route over time, down to the specific households. I was wondering if this was at all surprising, or useful, for you in regard to your training in anthropology and social science, which aim to coax out subtle information but in very different ways.

RN: It’s just archaeology. But it’s archaeology in the moment, very temporary, nothing formal. It’s a folk archaeology of contemporary household trash on the curb.

It takes time, because you don’t get a steady route, necessarily, until you have some seniority. But senior men and women who’ve been on the job for a while, who’ve had the same route for a long time, they know. I’ve heard stories of a guy who watched a family: watched a couple marry, move into this building where he picked up, and they had a child. The child came to know him. He watched her grow up. He watched her go to college. He watched her have children of her own. And they became buddies over time. And then when he retired, she was heartbroken. It was a nice little vignette.

We assume when we put our garbage in the bag—especially if, you know, it’s a black bag, usually, or a green bag, we can’t see what’s inside. We don’t want people to see what’s inside. How embarrassing! But those bags break. Or it’s just in a bin and then it’s tipped and all the contents spill. And sure, you can read it. Over time, if you’re doing that same set of blocks for ten years, you will be able to give a pretty savvy account of what’s happened there across that decade.

Have a Look

¶ Rough Seas; Major Unseaworthiness.  Have a drink. (Joe.My.God) 

¶ Casa Kike. (BLDGBLOG)

Morning Snip:
Slide Rules

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

From Joe Moran’s Blog, a seasonal evocation of the pleasures of the freshly stocked school kit, and the dreams that it inspired of using esoteric contraptions such as the slide rule.

My affection for stationery even extends to those mathematical instruments, like set squares and protractors, whose purposes remained obscure throughout my school career but whose uniformity and symmetry I enjoyed. So I was puzzled recently when Melvyn Bragg, in the middle of complaining that his former employee, ITV, was obsessed with audience ratings, said that it had been “taken over by slide rules and suits” – in other words, overrun by sharply dressed, number-crunching managers going on about focus groups and audience share. I associate the slide rule, by contrast, with gentle, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking engineers, calculating formulae for jet engines in sheds.

You never see anyone using a slide rule in a film. Matinee idol scientists always work out algorithms unaided in their brilliant minds, or scrawl them manically in chalk on giant blackboards. By the same token that unfairly condemns people with colour-coded ring binders as the owners of overly tidy minds, slide rules are supposed to belong only to the pedantic foot soldiers of science, the plodders who have to show us their workings out. But slide rules are lovely things: pleasingly solid, elegantly mysterious in their markings, the perfect marriage of form and function. Since scientific calculators rendered them obsolete in about 1980, some people (not me) even collect them.

Weekend Open Thread:

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

To post a comment, visit The Daily Blague.

Daily Office:
Friday, 3 September 2010

Friday, September 3rd, 2010


¶ Sarah Idzik’s pieces at The Awl about adoption — Sarah herself was born in Korea prior to adoption by an American family living outside of Pittsburgh — is shaping up to be a must-read report on a fact of life that most Americans would prefer to overlook: assimilation into our society doesn’t just happen all by itself. And adoptees are often left with the uncomfortable recognition that no one is to blame for their sense of displacement.

Maybe it’s the idealism of American society that causes us to harbor the implicit belief that adoptees have been assimilated so thoroughly that they won’t have identity issues twenty years or more down the line. And many adoptees don’t feel that their situation is that complex—and others don’t register any complexity until, say, a fellow adoptee comes around asking a bunch of questions.

The phenomenon of assimilation contributed to Barry choosing the term “domesticated” as the best way to describe the Korean-American adoptee experience, though he recognizes how bad it sounds. “I can’t muster any hostility towards my parents, the adoption system, America, or anyone else,” he said. “Everyone’s intentions were altruistic, and I really can’t complain about the outcome. It’s just so frustrating.” He acknowledged that compared to the struggles of other ethnic and racial groups in the U.S., the less clearly defined problems of adoptees may seem “minor or superficial,” but even this doubt seems to be the consequence of the blueprint-less nature of the adoptee experience. There are no recent historical precedents with which to compare or validate an individual’s feelings.

In many foreign countries, including South Korea, adoption—even domestic adoption—is very rarely discussed because of the shame attributed to the act. In cultures that place high value on family bloodlines, adoption is frequently hidden and kept secret. In the U.S., it’s often the opposite. Currently we try to embrace nontraditional families so fully that adoptees become “invisible” in an entirely different way. The impulse to strenuously treat everyone equally can sometimes leave no room for actual discussion.


¶ The superb Toni Bentley writes about the first great American ballet, set to music by Tchaikovsky that was not intended for the stage: George Balanchine’s Serenade. (Wall Street Journal; via  Arts Journal)

In this single early work, remarkably, Balanchine made a dance that would become the Rosetta Stone for a new kind of dancer, the American classical dancer. He brought a kind of democracy into the hierarchical land of ballet classicism, lifting it from its dusty 19th-century splendor, and created, simultaneously, an aristocracy for American dancers who had none. But he had plenty, having been a subject, as a child in St. Petersburg, of the last Czar in Russian history. And he was willing to impart his Imperial heritage. In “Serenade” all the female dancers are dressed identically. They are all women—one woman, finding her place among others and her place alone. As a young dancer for Balanchine, I was among them.

As the heavy gold curtain rises at the start of “Serenade,” 17 girl dancers in long, pale-blue gowns are arranged in two adjoining diamonds, tethered estrogen. We do not move, grip gravity, feet parallel, pointe shoes suctioned together side by side, head tilted to the right. The right arm is lifted to the side in a soft diagonal, palm facing outward, fingers extending separately, upwardly, shielding as if from some lunar light. This is the first diagonal in “Serenade,” a ballet brimming with that merging line: This is female terrain.


¶  At The Baseline Scenario, Peter Boone and Simon Johnson discuss the Irish debt crisis that is looming rather horribly at the moment. Their account of the bailout of Irish banks reminds us that the United States is not the only developed nation in which powerful people are overseeing the transfer of public wealth into private pockets — or, as here, converting private debts into public liabilities.

Ireland had more prudent choices. It could have cut the budget deficit while also acknowledging insolvency and requiring creditors to share some of the burdens. But a strong lobby of real estate developers, the investors who bought banks’ bonds and politicians with links to the failed developments (and their bankers) prefer that taxpayers rather than creditors pay. The European Central Bank, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund share some responsibility; they advocate these unlikely programs in order that European and global banks, which provided the funds to the Irish banks, do not suffer losses from such bad lending decisions.

The Irish government plan is – with good reason – highly unpopular, but the coalition of interests in its favor seems strong enough to ensure that it will proceed, at least until it either succeeds and growth recovers, or ends in complete failure with default of banks or the nation itself.

Under the current program, we estimate each Irish family of four will be liable for 200,000 euros in public debt by 2015. There are only 73,000 children born into the country each year, and these children will be paying off debts for decades to come – as well as needing to accept much greater austerity than has already been implemented. There is no doubt that social welfare systems, health care and education spending will decline sharply.


¶ Peter Smith reconsiders the “nitrite scare” — and notes, in passing, that many “nitrite-free” foods are still loaded with naturally-occurring nitrites. (Good)

At least, they’re willing to pay for the illusion of “nitrate-free.” So when you pick up a few links of organic hot dogs or a pound of natural, uncured bacon for the Labor Day festivities, chances are the meat label will emphasize “no nitrates or nitrites.” But all that means is that no nitrate salts have been added. The idea that there are no nitrates at all is simply not true.

To replace the pure chemical nitrites of old, many organic meat producers have been substituting celery juice or a powdered extract. Celery is one of many leafy green vegetables with naturally occurring nitrates—about 1,103 parts per million in the fresh plant—so these labeling claims (while technically correct) can seem misleading. It’s just another instance of the organic food industry accidentally replicating what it set out to oppose. Earlier this year, Cook’s Illustrated tested different types of bacon and found that two brands of “nitrate-free” bacon had significantly more nitrites than their conventional counterpart. “If you want to avoid these compounds,”  they wrote, “you’ll have to avoid bacon—and any other processed meats containing celery juice—altogether.”

It’s all part of lasting legacy of the nitrite scare, which came to a head in 1978 when Paul Newberne, an MIT researcher began poring over thousands of slides documenting the effects of nitrite-rich diets in rats. According to The Washington Post (in a excellent piece called “The Day Bacon Was Declared Poison” that isn’t online), Newberne didn’t find much initially, but after carefully reviewing the data, he dropped his bombshell: Nitrites cause cancer. The Food and Drug Administration’s proposed a ban. The ban failed. The Nation said represented a “new era in which science abdicates its primary responsibility to protect the health of the public in favor of deregulation.” And from then on, meat producers went on processing meats in much the same way they have for 3,000 years.


¶ Dustin Kurtz is a very nice guy (we’ve met!), but he has the damnedest time trying to articulate his dislike of that big book that everybody’s talking about. But not to worry: this is only the first part of “Two McNally Jackson Booksellers Argue About Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’.”

Dustin: With Franzen it comes out in a flat omniscient third that just sort of smears everyone and everything with his clunky segue phrasing.

Sam: I was re-reading some last night, and the first line of every chapter (saving the Patty chapters, but probably even those) could be: “Did you hear?”

Dustin: But I don’t even dislike that about him.

Sam: You do dislike something. I still have no idea what it is.

Dustin: He’s very good at the floating narrator who also gives us hints of the attitudes, if not as much the voice, of many characters in quick succession.

Sam: Free indirect discourse! My English degree is worth something. He’s very, very good at that.

Dustin: Easy with that second very. He’s okay.

Sam: I’m still trying to figure what you don’t like!

Dustin: The writing. So, the book.


¶ It’s possible that we like Uwe Buse’s account of Munich Re, the world’s largest re-insurer, because it sparkles with action-movie flash. (Spiegel Online; via Real Clear World)

The databases include information about disasters that have already taken place as well as those that are just beginning or could occur in the future. They include data on every earthquake and every trembling of the earth’s crust, on the height of ocean waves, air and water temperatures, and on the direction and speed of currents. Reports on glacier melting rates in the Himalayas and snowfall in the Arctic and Antarctic are also documented. New knowledge from the fields of nanotechnology, waste incineration, oil production, shipbuilding, reproduction and transplantation medicine is entered into Munich Re’s computers. The databases also contain studies by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Chinese Health Ministry and tumor centers in Bavaria, as well as new information on piracy off the coast of Somalia, fluctuations in the European power grid and the worrisome eating habits of the Arab middle class in the Persian Gulf States.

An endless supply of data, probably unparalleled in its breadth and depth, flows from every continent to a cluster of buildings on the edge of the English Garden in Munich. An encyclopedia of life, its dangers, its injustices, its coincidences, is being assembled there. There is probably no other place on Earth where the risks of the modern world are being studied more intensively and comprehensively than at the headquarters of Munich Re, the world’s risk center.

Munich Re insures insurance companies. It takes on risks that are too big for insurance giants like Germany’s Allianz or Gothaer. Together with its subsidiaries, the company employs about 47,000 people on all continents, and more than a quarter of the world’s population, or about 2 billion people, are indirectly insured through the company. The decisions these people make, the accidents they have, the circumstances of their birth and death, all of this information is transmitted to Munich, where data mining methods are used to examine the information, analyze it and constantly link it to other circumstances. The goal is to find patterns within chaos and probabilities in the improbable.

How great is the risk that a freighter accident in Germany’s Midland Canal will cause a power outage in Italy? What might it cost to insure the entire supply chain of an international automobile manufacturer, a total of 4,000 companies scattered across all continents, against every conceivable delivery problem, from strikes to volcanic eruptions? These are the sorts of questions researchers at Munich Re address. Their task is to assess the risks as accurately as possible, because the level of risk determines how often a loss can occur, and the frequency of losses, or claims, determines the amount of the premium. For instance, if a given house is at risk of being flooded by a river once a year, the insurance premium will correspond to the value of the house.


¶ The Rumpus has been running a series of personal essays in which writers reflect on the porousness of life and art. We’re particularly taken by the latest entry, Nº 19, in which Edward Schwarzschild muses richly, and never quite as creepily as he might (part of the thrill of the piece, really), on the ways in which his early middle age has touched upon that of fellow writer Nick Flynn.

Elisa and I have been together for five years and we have a fourteen-month-old son, and though we want nothing more than to be good partners and good parents, we sometimes fail. Failing, of course, is to be expected. We simply need, as Beckett says, to fail better. But even that can feel elusive.

The other night we fought and I walked alone to this office in the dark. My plan was to sleep on the office couch and hope the morning would bring some clarity.

A copy of Nick Flynn’s The Ticking Is the Bomb is in my backpack. Reading Nick Flynn has helped me through moments like this before. Crossing paths with him hasn’t hurt, either. I suppose this essay is my way of trying to thank him. I like to believe he’ll understand.


¶ Sheril Kirshenbaum’s initially dismaying account of sexual harrassment at Duke University goes on, thank goodness, to remind us that the struggle for gender equality and the dismantling of male patriarchy are top priorities. (The Intersection)

If women have increased social power (both politically and economically) they would be better able to resist male sexual coercion due to stronger networks of social support. At the same time this increased social power would be expected to help create a change in male culture that would influence how young men interact with women when trying to gain sexual access. While specific policies that protect women from coercion and exploitation remain important, what we’re ultimately after is social change. While we work on promoting gender parity both politically and economically we should also follow the example of our baboon cousins and model the way that men should interact with women. This means that more men should take issues of women’s rights seriously so that younger men who look up to them will follow in turn.

This is the moral of the story with Dr. Leda and her own case of sexual coercion. Students, both male and female, were outraged by her story and pelted her department with e-mails and phone calls insisting that she be granted tenure. I’m pleased to say that the department was sufficiently embarrassed by the incident to conduct a review of her mid-tenure application only to find that she was not at fault for the criticisms contained in their report. However, as for the would-be swan who thought that his power in the department offered him impunity to engage in sexual blackmail, he remains a senior member of the Duke faculty. At this point in our history such abuses remain possible, but how much longer depends on each generation’s decision whether or not sexual coercion should be a thing of the past.

Have a Look

¶ Clothes on Film (via MetaFilter)

¶ “Don’t Forget to Smile When You Serve Cold Drinks.” (via The Rumpus)

The next edition of The Daily Office will appear on Tuesday, 7 September 2010.

Morning Snip:
See Him Out

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

HRH Prince Charles recycles.

“Someone has been imaginative enough to make cuff links out of the previous engine from my 40-year-old Aston Martin and to sell them in aid of my trust for young people. “I even have shoes made from leather salvaged from an 18th century wreck. They are totally indestructible and will see me out,” the Prince wrote. The shoes were made in 1987 from leather recovered from a Danish brigantine, which sank off Plymouth in 1786. Its cargo of hides was discovered by divers in 1973. Charles , who as Duke of Cornwall was the owner of the wreck and its contents, allowed the divers to sell the hides to finance the salvage operation. In return, he was given the first pair of leather shoes.

(via Good)

Daily Office:
Thursday, 2 September 2010

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010


¶ Just in case you were taking consciousness for granted: Daniel Dennett has called it “the last surviving mystery,” and a glance at the Quantum Consciousness theory of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hamerhoff may leave you un-demystified. (Big Think; via 3 Quarks Daily)

Twelve years ago, Cal Tech professors Christof Koch and Francis Crick put forward the idea that consciousness resides in the brain’s prefrontal cortex; they described where in the brain we experience things when we experience them—but not why we do. In 2009, physicist Roger Penrose and anesthesiologist Stuart Hamerhoff advanced a “quantum mind theory” that took Koch and Crick’s ideas to a deeper, cellular level, suggesting that consciousness is a result of quantum mechanics, with microtubules inside the brain working as computing elements in a system they call “orchestrated objective reduction.” The theory suggests that human consciousness is a result of the wave functions of quantum particles collapsing once they reach specific energy levels.  Hamerhoff’s blog, Quantum Consciousness, describes this theory in depth, and details how he and Penrose believe the brain’s neural networks and cells process information that results in consciousness. Critics of the quantum mind theory contend that consciousness is hardly demystified by relating the brain to the rarefied realm of subatomic physics.


¶ At the Guardian, Alistair Smith casts a spotlight on the boom in cruise ship theatre productions. (via Marginal Revolution)

And while you’re unlikely to see Chekhov on the high seas, some of the smaller lines do stage a little drama – Crystal Cruises has previously put on one-woman shows by Lynn Redgrave and Susannah York. There is huge scope for employment for people in the theatre industry on cruise lines and because it’s a profit-making industry – the amount these ships take on their bars alone is quite staggering – the number of openings is steadily growing.

Celebrity, for example, is planning to launch two more of its gigantic luxury ships, each with 1,150-seat theatres and jobs for more than 50 entertainers over the next couple of years. People can be a bit sniffy about working on cruise ships and, to be fair, the performers I spoke to on Celebrity admitted the first time they accepted work on a cruise, they thought it would just be filling in between other jobs. But, they came to love it and now see it as a long-term career choice.

One dancer told me: “I always tell my friends, yes, I could be in the West End, but in the West End I’d be doing the same show for six months, just getting enough money together to live, go to auditions and take classes, and I’m not going to save any money from it. Right now, I’m doing amazing shows, getting free training, saving a lot of money [accommodation is free] and seeing the world.”


¶ Although he writes as though that detox tea that he has been drinking has fermented, possibly, what we like about Philip’s gaze into the future of economics is the idea that we’re still missing some very important pieces of the puzzle — that is, we don’t know what we’re doing. (Weakonomics)

For centuries we tried to defy the law of gravity without really understanding it. I’m sure there were hundreds of thousands of different experiments that failed miserably. But each experiment lasted as long as it took gravity to bring you back to earth. You can’t experiment with economics, and each attempt takes decades to analyze before any consensus can be reached. Even then, consensus is a relative term. There still isn’t agreement on the Great Depression.

In this respect economics is harder than physics. We’ve learned how to work around gravity by using other laws such as lift (planes), molecules lighter than air (balloons), and simply blasting through it (rockets). We’re to the point with gravity that the only thing holding us back (yeah, pun intended) are the resources to develop and expand on the existing knowledge. In other words we could probably get flying cars real quick if we put all our research money into it. There’s a threshold you cross that goes from “figuring it out” to “ah ha, now let’s run with it”. That probably happened with gravity around 1900 in Kitty Hawk NC, and you can see how far we’ve come since then.

In economics, we’re still strapping wings to our arms and jumping off cliffs. That’s because we’re simply trying to repeat what we see in nature. We seem to be better off with low unemployment, so let’s try to keep unemployment low.  Bird fly by flapping wings, so let’s make some wings and flap.  To our 16th century brains, there’s no other way to do it. I don’t even think we’re to the Isaac Newton level of understanding with economics, much less the Wright Brothers.

As my Indian tea buzz wore off, I imagined two futures for economics. Not two different futures, just that one comes first and then the other builds upon the first. They’re both best explained again within the concepts of gravity.


¶ Intensive analysis of Sudanese bones dating from (roughly) the late Roman Empire reveals tetracycline saturation, leading scientiest to infer that not only that the local beer was antibiotic but that the brewers knew what they were doing. Jess McNally reports, in Wired Science.

They must have known how to propagate the beer because they were doing it to make wine, Nelson says. There was also so much of it in their bones that it is near impossible that the tetracycline-laced beer was a fluke event.

To make sure that making the antibiotic beer was possible, Armelagos had his graduate students give it a try.

“What they were making wasn’t like a Bud Light but a cereal gruel,” Armelagos said. “My students said that it was ‘not bad,’ but it is like a sour porridge substance. The ancient people would have drained the liquid off and also eaten the gruel.”


¶ It’s that kind of day: we’re in deep sympathy with The Awl‘s Alex Balk, who fell into the WikiHole of his quest for the truth about Ellen Pompeo’s polydactylism. (And Ellen Pompeo would be — ? Oh.)

I dejectedly clicked through the citation to find the ultimate proof that would shatter my belief that we live in a world where Ellen Pompeo has the normal allotment of podial appendages. As it happens, the source for the six-toed assertion turned out to be… wait for it… the very Daily Mail piece that suggested her extravagance of foot fingers in the first place.

Someone out there wanted me to think that Ellen Pompeo had six toes, but they didn’t understand that I wasn’t going to give up that easy. Not with Google on my side.

I’ve been to some dark places in my time, and I’ve learned some things that no man should ever know, but what I found when I started searching for “ellen pompeo barefoot toes” rocked me to my core. I’ve seen images that even the filthiest fetishists would vomit at. If the government ever searches my computer I’m sure there are now pictures in it that will get me sent to prison. For life.

But I also found wikiFeet, “a free collaborative site featuring Celebrity-Feet pictures. It is Probably the largest celebrity feet database EVER!!”

(I’ll give you a moment.)


¶ Dexter Filkins reports on the run on Kabul Bank, brought by cronyism to the brink of collapse. (NYT)

Most Afghans do not keep their money in the banking system, and Kabul Bank is tiny by international standards. But creating a credible and stable banking system is an important goal of the American-led effort in the country, which is seeking to help Afghanistan develop a modern economy.

Kabul Bank, one of the biggest private financial institutions that sprang up after the fall of the Taliban, stands at the very center of Afghanistan’s political and economic elite. A brother of Mr. Karzai, Mahmoud, is a major shareholder, as is Haseen Fahim, the brother of the country’s vice president. The bank lent Mr. Fahim, a prominent businessman, as much as $100 million, officials say.

The bank helped finance President Karzai’s re-election campaign last year, giving him as much as $14 million, according to former senior Afghan officials. Mr. Karzai, in turn, chose the bank to administer much of its payroll, which Mr. Frozi desribed as one of the bank’s most lucrative fields of business.

Afghan and American regulators say that it is these very connections that shielded the bank from official scrutiny for so long.

Felix Salmon all but chortles at the “no worries” announcement by the Afghan president’s brother, an owner of the bank who’s speaking from a bank-owned villa in Dubai.


¶ Scott Esposito applies Clay Shirky’s distinction between writers and authors to The Shallows, and concludes that Nicholas Carr is the first but not the second. It’s ironic, in a sour sort of way, that a book bemoaning the deleterious effects of the Internet should betray infection by them. (Conversational Reading)

If you try searching The Shallows for proof of the claim that scanning is now “our preferred way of gathering and making sense of information of all sorts,” you will do so in vain, other than to find that some Rhodes Scholar is anti-book.

The Shallows is full of unconvincing claims such as that. I am simply not convinced that we’ve exchanged book-style reading for Internet-style reading, and nor am I convinced that such an exchange is as pivotal as Carr wants to argue. Maybe in Carr’s mind that is the case (he includes an epilogue where he writes, without irony, about how he had to move into the woods away from the Internet just to be able to complete writing The Shallows). But, 1) I don’t think the change is near as pivotal as Carr asserts, and 2) certainly there are other major historic trends that must be taken into account in addition to the shift from books to Internet.

After reading The Shallows, I have to say that I think I’d like Nicholas Carr as a person. He certainly means well in writing this book, and he comes across as sincere. I share his fears of a world that may one day skim more than read, and I’d say we’re both fighting for the same side. To the extent that The Shallows will help convince Internet junkies and iPhone tweakers to put down their devices for a while, it is probably a good thing. But it remains a deeply dissatisfying book on a topic that is still awaiting someone who can truly interpret it for us.


¶ Chinese rock — how’s that for an oxymoron? “This is not a society of rebels.” The Telegraph‘s Malcolm More chats with impresario Archie Hamilton.

Meanwhile, the emergence of Chinese bands has been limited by the absence of any real market for music. Chinese fans download music for free, and rarely have the money to pay for gigs, for drinks, or even a taxi home. Splitworks lost “a ton of money” on the Yue Festival, Mr Hamilton admits.

Kevin Fritz, the director of Wasted Orient, a documentary about Chinese rock, says: “It’s not glamorous. It’s filthy. It’s filled with despair. It’s very unwanted in that society and is shown in its citizens’ apathetic response to it.”

Take-away for would be promoters:

The key piece of advice for entrepreneurs, says Mr Hamilton, is to remember that the Chinese begin negotiations only after they have signed a contract. “We booked the Shanghai Theatre for Sonic Youth in 2007, and they seemed happy with a fee of 40,000 renminbi (£4,000) for the rent of the venue. So we started the marketing, and the wheels were turning, and we had a contract with the band, so we couldn’t back out. Then they came to us with a demand for 350 seats ‘for government’ out of our 1,600. We gave it to them. A week later they asked us for 20pc of the total, sold-out, gross, in advance as an extra fee. That was before we had sold any tickets,” he says.

Eventually the gig sold out, bar 120 tickets. Could Splitworks use the box office to sell those on the night? “Certainly, they said, for another 20pc.” He laughs: “So you know we lost a bit of money, but we had a great time and the show was awesome.”

Have a Look

¶ “Fightin’ iRish: Notre Dame Class Switches to iPads.” (Good)

¶ secondome. (Design Sponge)