Archive for October, 2010

Weekend Open Thread:

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

Weekend Update:

Friday, October 29th, 2010

There were three things on today’s to-do list, and, amazingly, I did them all. I went:

  1. To the movies (Wild Target — a delicious romp for anyone who likes Bill Nighy, Emily Blunt, Ruperts Everett & Grint, Eileen Atkins, or Martin Freeman, and something of an orgasmatron for anybody who likes all of them.
  2. To the Cloisters, to take “fall pictures” for the Daily Office. Don’t worry; you’ll be seeing plenty of them in the next quarter.
  3. To the Museum, for a Musicians from Marlboro chamber concert. Truly superb, but my fatigue made listening to Mozart’s clarinet quintet something of a trial, particularly the can-we-go-now final theme and variations. But I’m talking about me, here, not about the music, which was — Sarah Beaty is astonishing.

Any normally healthy man ought to be more than capable of seeing to these three tasks, but that wouldn’t be me; I haven’t got the sense to be healthy.

Morning Snip:
Vive (?) la différence

Friday, October 29th, 2010

Reviewing the new AMC Series, The Walking Dead, Alessandra Stanley nails a cultural distinction of vital importance.

All it really takes to outrun a zombie is a car. Also, a bullet to the head will stop one cold. And that may explain why so many men prefer zombies to vampires: zombie stories pivot on men’s two favorite things: fast cars and guns. Better yet, zombies almost never talk. Vampires, especially of late, are mostly a female obsession. Works like “Twilight” and “True Blood” suggest that the best way to defeat a vampire is to make him fall so in love that he resists the urge to bite. And that’s a powerful, if naïve, female fantasy: a mate so besotted he gives up his most primal cravings for the woman he loves.


Daily Office:
Thursday, 28 October 2010

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

The next edition of the Daily Office will appear on Monday, 1 November.


¶ A bit of concrete poetry from Roxane Gay. We Are All Very Busy Being Busy! (HTMLGiant)

We say I’m busy, I’m busy, I’m busy—an exultation. We say we are busy and feel flushed.  We are busy, therefore we are. To be busy is to be important and to be important is everything. We will Twitter and Facebook and blog our busyness and we will do so with the conviction of martyrs. We will bear our busy burden. The burden of busy must be borne because to be busy is to be important and to be important is to matter. We matter and are made of matter which is meta.


¶ Newsweek has published a list of the top-15 highly-compensated heads of not-for-profit organizaations — museums, orchestras, foundations, and hospitals. At the top (owing more to a blip of deferred compensation — if you can call $1,649,540 a blip) is the New York Philharmonic’s Zarin Mehta. (Add a million in base salary.) At Good, Alex Goldmark asks some good questions.

For the arts groups, have a look at what percentage of the overall budget is going to the top of the pyramid. Sometimes its just 1 percent or less. Others its more than four times that. In this sphere there is certainly an influence from the extremely wealthy donors and culture of the upper crust that bleeds into notions of appropriate pay.

Thanks to Charity Navigator for crunching the numbers and keeping watch on what is certainly sometimes, excessive pay … but not always.

How much should the head of a charity earn? How much is too much? What if they bring in more than their salary in extra donations? Or extra impact? How much should someone forgo to serve a cause?

We don’t believe that anyone ought to “forego” anything to serve a cause; if anything, there ought to be a premium. But executive compensations schemes, profit and non-profit alike, are embarrassingly outsized. Nobody is worth a salary that is hundreds of times greater than rank-and-file pay.

As for not-for-profits specifically, we believe that executive positions ought to be endowed, and therefore non-negotiable.


¶ On page A3 of this morning’s Times, the continuation, from the front page, of Stephanie Clifford’s “Why Wait? This Year, Retailers Push Black  Friday Into October” sits atop “Gulfstream Orders Suggest Recovery in Business Jets,” a story by Christopher Drew. Such juxtapositions, droll to say the least, can be appreciated only in newsprint. (Just for fun, there’s an add for Tiffany’s Lucida rings — “From $3900” — in the corner.) From Ms Clifford we learn that “Customers have been trained to buy merchandise only on sale.” Mr Drew tells us that “Analysts watch the sales of business jets as an indicator of how willing corporations are to spend money as the economy rises and falls.”

Heidi Wood, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, said in a research note on Wednesday that business jet flights had increased since late last year, and that a recovery “appears under way.”

She said earlier this week that there was consistent demand for large planes, while the market for midsize and smaller ones remained “painfully quiet.”

This gives us a better picture of what a jobless recovery looks like, no?


¶ For a different angle on yesterday’s story about epileptic patients, neural implants, and Marilyn Monroe, we turn to Carl Zimmer, at The Loom. We try not to repeat ourselves in this way, but we’re stunned by the factoid toward the end of the second paragraph.

Fried’s collaborators discovered that some of these individual neurons responded faithfully to certain kinds of sights. Some only responded to faces with sad expressions, others only to happy faces. Some only responded to houses. In 2005, however, Christof Koch of Caltech and his colleagues decided to get more fine-grained. They showed pictures of actors and actresses. They found individual neurons that responded almost exclusivey to Jennifer Aniston. Others only responded to Saddam Hussein, others to Pamela Anderson, and so on.

Later, the researchers found that people can develop these so-called “Jennifer Aniston neurons” for anyone they become familiar with in a matter of days. The neurons start out relatively weak, but get stronger with familiarity. The picture of a loved one will trigger a loved-one neuron to fire a lot more strongly than a neuron dedicated to an obscure D-list celebrity. Fortunately, these neurons are not limited to Hollywood celebrities. They seem to be the medium in which we encode any kind of concept. We probably can store ten to thirty thousand concepts in our brains, each of which is encoded in an estimated several thousand Jennifer Anniston neurons. (I talk more about the history of this research in Brain Cuttings, and in this column for Discover.)

In a flash of mad genius, Koch and his colleagues wondered if people could use biofeedback to control the strength of these neurons. They interviewed twelve patients, and in each case they identified four celebrities who triggered particularly strong responses from their individual neurons. Then they superimposed two of those celebrities–in one case, Josh Brolin and Marylyn Monroe–on a computer screen. The patients were told to try to shift the picture to one celebrity or the other. The computer was programmed to alter the balance of the images in response to the firing of the Brolin and Monroe neurons. As the Monroe neurons got stronger and the Brolin neurons weaker, for example, the screen would go all Monroe.

Ten to thirty thousand concepts! What a concept!


¶ Roman Hans, ever the self-improver, struggles with the “language barrier” (“chuse,” “sallad”) posed by Pride and Prejudice. Predictably, he loses. (World Class Stupid)

The book concerns several hundred people, all related, who alternately love and hate each other with the skill of Italians. At the center of the story are the Bennets: Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, and their daughters. Lots of daughters. The number is never specified, and it seems to change by the hour. We start off with Elizabeth and Jane, then page by page discover Lydia, Beth, Kitty, Mary, Lizzy and Eliza, though someone smarter than myself may discern that four of these could refer to the exact same person.

The big romance is between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, a guy who doesn’t even get a first name until page 187. There’s a roadblock flung in their path: we’re supposed to think that Mr. Darcy is unforgiveably rude because he went to a ball and only danced twice. That’s rude? the guys reading will ask. Hell, if he showed up in his underwear, guzzled scotch from a bottle and asked the hostess to pull his finger maybe she’d have a case. Then we learn that a dance lasts fifteen minutes, that you have to book them like appointments with the cable guy, and that dancing with the same woman twice is roughly equivalent to proposing marriage. Under these conditions even Fred Astaire would be hanging around the buffet table stuffing rumaki in his gob. Besides, that’s unforgiveably rude? That’s an obstacle to a relationship? Once I forgave a hubby who had sex with a preoccupied paraplegic.

The characters hook up and break off straight out of daytime drama. Miss Bingley likes Mr. Darcy, Mr. Darcy likes Elizabeth, Mr. Bingley likes Jane but seems destined to marry Countess De Burgh’s daughter (his cousin) to unite their estates. Elizabeth ought to marry Mr. Collins, her cousin, but since she hates him she pawns him off on Charlotte Lucas, the only character who’s not a relative. There are like eight sets of cousins who consider each other for marriage, yet for some reason they’re more concerned with estates and property than bearing children who have bat ears and duckbills.


¶ When George Will sighs that campaign spending’s not so bad — after all, we spend more on potato chips! — Robert Reich is there with a pitchfork. “The number of dollars spent isn’t the issue; it’s the lopsidedness of where the dollars come from.” (By the way, how much do we spend on advertising potato chips?) And we spend a lot more on lobbying that we do on election campaigns.

Why $4.2 billion and not ten times that amount? Because the high-rolling political investors don’t need to spend a dollar more in order to exert overwhelming influence.

This figure, by the way, leaves out the tens of billions of dollars dedicated to lobbying, lawyering, and public relations — all of which deliver specific legislative outcomes the campaign money fuels. The economy of Washington, D.C. depends on this gigantic flow of funds (supporting the polished facades of refurbished hotels, fancy restaurants, trendy bistros, office complexes of glass and polished wood, well-appointed condos, hotels with marble-floored lobbies and thick rugs, restaurants serving $75 steaks and offering $400 magnums of vintage French wine.) Washington’s seven suburban counties are listed by the Census Bureau as among the nation’s twenty with the highest per-capital incomes.

Failing to include this larger apparatus in an estimate for how much money now greases the legislative skids is analogous to estimating the cost of private transportation in America by what’s purchased at the gas pump without mentioning automobiles, roads, and bridges.


¶ Alexander Chee makes a very compelling case for John Dos Passos.

The term “fragmented narrative” comes to mind when I think of him but this has always seemed like a fraught phrase to me.  Many have done it who are just imitating something they saw stylistically without understanding the architecture of it.  They don’t display a sense that the fragmentation is intentional, not random, and moves towards being understood. Fragmented narrative is too often the hiding place of someone who fears being understood.  But this was not Dos Passos.  He greatly wanted to be understood. And the fragments of his narratives move toward creating an unforeseen (by the reader) whole out of their disparate parts.

The phrase I use for this is “articulate complexity”—something that when you take it apart seems intensely complicated, perhaps even chaotic, but that, when fit together, creates something the reader experiences as that direct communication Cheever spoke of in his Paris Review interview.  Dos Passos was my earliest apprehension of why you’d use a fragmented narrative, the way something could be broken apart in order to describe something larger than what it could if it were whole.  Reading Dos Passos, I had the feeling of watching a DJ put together tracks to make a whole—the movement between the pieces in the novel was called a collage, but that has never seemed very interesting to me.


¶ Sandra Day O’Connor, Stanley Prusiner, and Ken Dychtwald team up to issue a powerful Op-Ed exhortation to mount a federal campaign to brake Alzheimer’s Disease.

In the mid-1980s, when our country finally made a commitment to fight AIDS, it took roughly 10 years of sustained investment (and about $10 billion) to create the antiretroviral therapies that made AIDS a manageable disease. These medicines also added $1.4 trillion to the American economy. The National Institutes of Health still spend about $3 billion a year on AIDS research, while Alzheimer’s, with five times as many victims, receives a mere $469 million.

Most of the medical researchers who study Alzheimer’s agree on what they have to understand in order to create effective drugs: They must find out how the aberrant proteins associated with the disease develop in the brain. They need to model the progression of the illness so they can pinpoint drug targets. And ultimately they must learn how to get drugs to move safely from the blood into the brain.

A breakthrough is possible by 2020, leading Alzheimer’s scientists agree, with a well-designed and adequately financed national strategic plan. Congress has before it legislation that would raise the annual federal investment in Alzheimer’s research to $2 billion, and require that the president designate an official whose sole job would be to develop and execute a strategy against Alzheimer’s. If lawmakers could pass this legislation in their coming lame-duck session, they would take a serious first step toward meeting the 2020 goal.

Medical science has the capacity to relegate Alzheimer’s to the list of former diseases like typhoid, polio and many childhood cancers. But unless we get to work now, any breakthrough will come too late to benefit the baby boomers. Whether the aging of America turns out to be a triumph or a tragedy will depend on our ability to fight this horrific disease and beat it before it beats us.

Have a Look

¶ Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews. (via The Awl)

¶ “Let the Children Kodak” (The Online Photographer)

¶ Ration Books. (A Continuous Lean)

¶ John Lennon complains. (Letters of Note)

¶ Non-Official Movie State Map. (via Joe.My.God)

Morning Snip:
Battering Ram

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Guest-posting at Felix Salmon, Justin Fox complains about Times financial columnist Gretchen Morgenson’s slapdash ways (she “gets basic facts wrong, seemingly misunderstands the businesses she covers, offers assertions that she fails to back up with evidence…”), but then he pronounces her indispensable.

How does she accomplish this? I think it’s partly that the same bullheadedness and simplistic approach that drives readers like me and Felix crazy actually enables Morgenson to zero in on targets that those more interested in nuance totally miss. It’s also that Morgenson suffuses her work with a sort of high moral dudgeon—and disgust for the evil ways of Wall Street—that more “sophisticated” journalists won’t allow themselves. The results speak for themselves: Sometimes battering rams work better than X-Acto knives. And I say that as someone who vastly prefers X-Acto knives (stylistically speaking).

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010


¶ In the middle of Seymour Hersh’s “exciting” article about “cyber warfare,” in the cartoon issue of The New Yorker, there’s a lovely tidbit about someone we’d never heard of, an office that we’d never heard of, and a fecklessness that has become all too familiar since January 2009.

In theory, the fight over whether the Pentagon or civilian agencies should be in charge of cyber security should be mediated by President Obama’s coördinator for cyber security, Howard Schmidt—the cyber czar. But Schmidt has done little to assert his authority. He has no independent budget control and in a crisis would be at the mercy of those with more assets, such as General Alexander. He was not the Administration’s first choice for the cyber-czar job—reportedly, several people turned it down. The Pentagon adviser on information warfare, in an e-mail that described the lack of an over-all policy and the “cyber-pillage” of intellectual property, added the sort of dismissive comment that I heard from others: “It’s ironic that all this goes on under the nose of our first cyber President. . . . Maybe he should have picked a cyber czar with more than a mail-order degree.” (Schmidt’s bachelor’s and master’s degrees are from the University of Phoenix.)


¶ What a surprise. Annie Liebovitz, who has never had much time for the fine-arts racket, is finding that her work fails to bring high prices at sale or auction — a matter of no small concern, now that she notoriously needs the money. How could that be? Something inherently lacking about the work? Or something else… John Gapper at FT Magazine.

Yet Leibovitz, who changed galleries several times in recent years, including a spell at Phillips de Pury, has neglected these disciplines. “She is terribly nice but she is her own worst enemy,” says Zelda Cheatle, curator of the Tosca Photography Fund. “If there is a proper collectors’ print, it goes for a lot of money but no-one is sure if others that float around are the real thing or not.”

“We dropped her because it would take six months just to get a print signed,” says Hoppen. “I’ve got one of her prints of Steve Martin sitting here that I hope to get signed soon instead of waiting for months. You have to set aside half a day a month to sign if you are serious about it – that is paid time.”

Cardinale, who has worked with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and other photographers’ estates, denies that there is a problem with past editioning of Leibovitz’s work. “Disorder is not a problem. Her archive is very organised and it is an impressive body of work. It is quite exciting to be in a position to review it and to see the breadth of what she has accomplished.” But, she says, Leibovitz has to buckle down. “The active participation of the artist is of immeasurable importance in the development of a market. She is meeting dealers, discussing possible courses of action and becoming an engaged participant and that in itself is a big step. She is still an artist who loves to take pictures but this will be a priority in her life.”

Although most people in the art world express both admiration and affection for Leibovitz, there is an undercurrent of schadenfreude at the fact that a celebrity who defied the system has been brought low. “She is such a difficult person to work with and it’s always been her way or the highway,” says one photography specialist.


¶ With Inside Job still very much on our mind — what struck us the hardest was the overt but legal corruption (called “consultancy”) of academic economists — we fastened on a comment to Barbaria Kiviat’s entry at Felix Salmon today, an entry that follows up nicely the one that we linked to yesterday. The gist of the entry is that we’ve all become so indoctrinated by the terms of economic analysis that we can’t see beyond fruitless policy debates even though we know that economists don’t know which way is up.

Actually, we liked the first two comments. The first one is a reminder of the importance of leadership, something that we’ve seen very little of in our lifetime. Here’s the second:

Economists are tools for politicians, who use them as cover for the policies they want to implement. The politicians usually do not understand the math behind the economists’ theories, but they don’t care, as they are usually just trying to sell a tax cut or spending program. The economists abuse and misinterpret statistics and history to support their wishful thinking, ignoring the fact that the conditions and factors for past economic events and trends are never the same for the present.

Politicians love their jobs, and want to keep them, so they will use whatever tool is at their disposal to achieve that goal. Economists, for some reason, like their jobs, too, so they are always happy to get endorsement from politicians, as it helps them keep their jobs. I think it’s called a co-dependency.


¶ Brandon Keim’s report on a recent neurological study of focus isn’t his most lucid work, but there may be a bombshell for multitaskers planted not so deep within it. The study involved epileptic patients whos brains had already been invasively wired for pre-surgical study; Moran Cerf and his team made the most of a free ride. The patients were asked to focus on images of famous people (movie stars and sports figures). (Wired Science)

“The most exciting thing is that patients sometimes fail in the task. Someone sees a picture of Marilyn Monroe and Josh Brolin, and his task is to focus on Brolin. But, somehow, the image of Marilyn Monroe catches his attention more. The image moves away from Brolin. It’s 90 percent Marilyn. And then, when he’s about to fail, he manages to summon Josh Brolin in his mind,” Cerf said.

“There’s competition between two senses, between vision and imagery. The eyes bring one image, his mind’s eye brings another, and those fight. We can see how one wins over the other. This is a remarkable moment, because it happens every day in our life, and we never saw it first-hand.”

Cerf expected focus would result from an increase in target-focused activity, so with people asked to focus on Josh Brolin,  the Brolin-linked parts of the brain would fire more. Instead, he found the Marilyn Monroe-linked regions fired less. Brains narrowed focus not by enhancing their targets, but by diminishing distraction.

Wouldn’t this explain, not only the limitations of multitasking (which is really just another word for selective distraction), but also the difficulty of concentrating on anything when distracting inputs (other people’s cell phone conversations) cannot be “diminished”?


¶ The good people at The Awl have created a new Web site just for Mary H K Choi, called the hairpin. Mary is upset by the current craze for men dressing well; it’s throwing off her guydar.

I can’t figure out how old anyone is. I can’t figure out how gay anyone is. On silent subway morning commutes there are no tells. The brogues, desert boots and quickstrike high-tops not only have me manic-fantasy-banging every well-dressed dude on the F BECAUSE IT IS ALL SO GODDAMN GOOD but the fact that so many are suddenly well shod plus the prevalence of hard-bottoms straight CRIPPLES my ability to tell how rich anyone is. And that is fucking my game up major. Aaaaaaaaaand everyone’s watch is now the old timey Timex from J.Crew for $150 so yeah, 360 IDK. Plus, also, seriously, there must have been some clandestine colloquium workshop situation where all the dudes in all the land shucked to skivvies and got sized for their perfect pair of Uniqlo jeans and nobody said “no homo,” not even one time, because, Hi, y’all all look fantastic FUCK YOU.

I recently became transfixed by a pair of jeans on a lean dude who was 6’4”. The break was such that the hem fell atop his shoe in beautiful, chiaroscuro’d, raw indigo stacks and the whole thing white-knuckled me into wanting to SMELL HIM so badly that I skooched over and did what I never do on mass transit — talk to a bedbug stranger. I decided (apropos of nothing since I have ZERO idea what dude is who right now) that he was a graphic designer or maybe a tech writer (om nom) and when I discovered he was an actor it was beyond confuselment and then when the google told me that he was engaged to marry someone SUPER DUPER IMPORTANT I was pissed. Yo, when’s the last time I DIDN’T know I was macking above my station? It’s all crazytown.

We’re surprised that they didn’t call it the hairpoon.


¶ We don’t pay much heed to polls, but the results of a new Times/CBS poll are nonetheless distressing, precisely because ideas and information, nor to mentioin democratic confidence, appear in such short supply. The more we consider the results, the more impatient we become for the Democratic Party to be supplanted.

More than 6 in 10 Republican and independent voters said they did not think that their own representative deserved re-election, while fewer than half of Democrats agreed.

The poll also finds that this year’s elections have grabbed the attention of a similar number of voters as the last midterm elections did, in 2006. More than 8 in 10 say they are paying attention to campaigns, including more than 4 in 10 who say they are paying a lot of attention.

Republicans are following the election more than Democrats or independents are. More than half of Republican voters say they are paying a lot of attention, compared with fewer than 4 in 10 Democrats or independents.

The poll also finds that attention to the campaign increases with age. Just 28 percent of voters under age 45 say they are paying a lot of attention, while nearly twice as many voters age 45 and older are. Older voters are historically more likely than young ones to vote in midterm elections.

Vespers¶ The most intriguing part of Poets & Writers‘s interview with Sarah McNally, the owner of McNally-Jackson Books, is her take on Chinese booksellers — which is also a take on herself. (Ms McNally was recently a member of a delegation of American booksellers that paid an official visit to — or was in any case officially received in — China.)

Other than the influence of the state, how does Chinese bookselling compare to bookselling here in the States?
It was really like bookselling twenty-five years ago. Remember what middle class retail used to be like? Go back to our early teenage years. It wasn’t nice before the Banana Republicization of retail. I remember even when I opened this store people kept coming up to me, saying, “It doesn’t feel like a book store. It feels like a restaurant or a clothing store.” And I thought, “Why can’t bookstores be nice?” It’s ridiculous. [Laughter.] So retail is changing in China. There are more and more Western chains, and there’s a lot of money suddenly. So there are more and more high-end stores that are beautiful. Retail feels very 1982 there.

So if you went back to China ten years from now, do you think their stores will have evolved in the same way that ours have?
I hope so. That’s what I gave my speech about. Online retail is just now starting to impact their businesses. It really is like a snap shot of our own history. So they are going to have to figure out how to make their stores feel necessary. They’re about to come up against the same challenge that we’ve been fighting. And the only way I know how to do that is to create an attractive physical space. My customers tend to also say it’s the staff.


¶ Joshua Brown reports that there are no televisions at his investment management firm, Fusion Analytics. That’s the rule there, and the Reformed Broker can’t believe he managed without it. Which is great for him. When will everyone else in money management realize that television is an obscenely powerful herder?

I still grab clips off the web, still have news scrolling from all the wires, still have my trusty StockTwits stream, still listen to Tom Keene on Bloomberg Radio for my pre-market routine, still tune in to Fast Money or Kudlow occasionally after hours.  But during Game Time, I need to concentrate.  I can’t be impulsed or influenced by the box and the talking heads who appear on it during the trading day.  Of all the things I’ve learned from Barry and Kevin, this tuning out of other peoples sentiment thing has made the most dramatic impact on me by far.

Things are better now, you should try it.

Have a Look

¶ Obituaries for literary magazines. (HTMLGiant)

¶ Plan to fill in the East River — from years ago. (Strange Maps)

Morning Snip:
Oh, sure

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Steps that we’d like to see being taken: the concoction of fruit juice, caffeine, and malt liquor known as Four Loko has been targeted — unfairly, says its manufacturer — by officials concerned about a recent rash of student hospitalizations.

Chris Hunter, a co-founder and managing partner of Phusion Projects, the five-year-old Chicago company that owns Four Loko, said Tuesday that the drink, introduced in August 2008, was being unfairly singled out. The company takes steps to prevent its products from getting into the hands of minors, he said.

“Alcohol misuse and abuse and under-age drinking are issues the industry faces and all of us would like to address,” Mr. Hunter said. “The singling out or banning of one product or category is not going to solve that. Consumer education is what’s going to do it.”

The best part? “[P]arents who were shocked because the can was in their refrigerator and they didn’t realize it was an alcoholic beverage.”

Editor’s Note:
Civil Pleasures
New Pages

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Three new pages at Civil Pleasures: 

¶ This week’s Book Review review, The Ideological Divide.” 

¶ Gotham Diary: “Gravity.” 

¶ Friday Movie: Inside Job.

A word about Inside Job: I did not see the point in reviewing this powerful documentary as a film. I saw it with a film student, a cousin of Kathleen’s, who came away shrugging: Charles Ferguson has captured a horrible mess, but what can we do about it? I thought I’d write about that instead. What we can do right away is to learn how to think about what kind of failure(s) made the derivatives disaster possible.

But there was one thing about the film qua film that bothered me: all those pretty aerial shots of Manhattan! The stately homes of England are no more kempt than the placid bed of towers that we see from every angle. At one point, the East River is captured in sheet-of-glass mode, between tides. New York neverlooks lovelier than when you can’t see any people! 

What was all that about? Was Mr Ferguson suggesting that Manhattan is a garden, sedulously tended by angels in the employ of plutocratic bankers who don’t care how broken the rest of the country is?

Who experiences New York City from the aerial point of view? Not New Yorkers themselves; you can’t get from A to B, even in a Town Car, without a little streetside friction.

Long before the end of Inside Job, the bird’s-eye views were making me wince. New York may well be the capital of the “financial industry” (an oxymoron on steroids), but there is a great deal more to this town than that. If Charles Ferguson wants his viewers to share his animus for Gotham, then he ought to make his request explicit. As it is, Inside Job indulges in urban abuse.

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010


¶ Having concluded that, when it comes to their own economic self-interest, Tea Party Americans are as deluded as the madwoman of Sunset Boulevard, Chris Lehmann is appalled to find a liberatarian professor at George Mason (where else) who argues that income inequality is “good.” (The Awl)

Americans, having seen the fruits of their productive lives waste away over the past decade in a free-market fantasia, have evidently resorted to the most efficient psychic adjustment on offer. They steadfastly refuse to believe that we live in conditions of dire wealth inequality—while also persisting in the belief that the comparatively level social order of their fond imagining needs to be more equal still. The sheer scale of this fancy calls to mind the epitaph that William Holden delivers for Gloria Swanson’s character in Billy Wilder’s classic study in Hollywood delusion, Sunset Boulevard: “Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.”

Of course, Norma Desmond was packed off to the hoosegow, and in all likelihood the sanitarium, once the cameras panned away. Today’s Americans have to continue indulging their socioeconomic delusions amid savage inequalities that make just about every facet of their own lives worse.


Meet George Mason University’s Bryan D. Caplan, who duly delivers his free-market shibboleth: “It’s probably a good thing that the public underestimates how much wealth inequality there is,” Caplan says with a patronizing air rather unbecoming of a doctrinaire libertarian. After all, he explains, “they tend not to understand the ways that wealth inequality is good.” And how does Caplan possess the magisterial authority to proclaim a crushing paucity of material justice “good”? Well, we’re not sure, exactly—though his homepage autobiography helpfully explains that “It began with Ayn Rand, as it proverbially does.” He does go on to explain that he later came to regard his youthful infatuation with Objectivism and hardline Austrian economic theory as “mistakes.” Still, his selfsame homepage offers a “libertarian purity test” as well as an opportunity to “test your knowledge of the Communist holocausts,” just in case you fear your Pol Pot trivia mastery may be atrophying.


¶ When a trouble-making director brings a Handel opera to China, you can be sure that he won’t leave well-enough alone. That’s why there are censors. Andrew Jacobs reports in the Times.

On Sunday, it was the depiction of a sexually aroused, anatomically correct male donkey and references to capital punishment that nearly derailed an ambitious interpretation of the Handel opera “Semele,” the tragic tale of what happens when a lustful god, a vengeful goddess and an impressionable young maiden are ensnared in a love triangle.

In the end, officials allowed the donkey to remain onstage, but they insisted on a number of last-minute changes that significantly altered the production and left the audience perplexed.

Needless to say, there were plenty of non-Handelian interpolations that had to be toned down.


¶ In a recent study, small businessmen in the Dominican Republic were divided into two groups. The first received accounting instruction. The second group was given a collection of rules of thumb (“write everything down,” and the like). The second group’s performance improved, while the first’s remained flat. This oughtn’t to be a surprise. We don’t want the best advice available; we want the best advice that we can actually use, given our lives as they are. As Barbara Kiviat concludes, it wouldn’t be hard to provide Americans with straightforward guidelines of roughly universal utility. (Felix Salmon)

When I caught up with Greg Fischer to ask what the U.S. consumer-class take-away might be, he was appropriately modest about his findings and hesitated to draw any universal conclusions. I lack such compunction, so let me say that I think this result contains a very important piece of wisdom. People live complicated, busy lives and the learning they are most likely to put to use is that which is simple to remember and implement. In Fischer’s study, some microentrepreneurs received follow-up training at their place of business: an educator stopped by to reinforce concepts and to answer questions. Once this happened, the group that received the formal accounting training applied what they had learned. But unless we want to set up a system in which your high school consumer finance teacher pops back up just in time for your first mortgage, rules of thumb might be the way to go.

And, actually, we already have many them. We just need to dig them out of the dustbin we tossed them into during the free-money euphoria. For example, don’t spend more than 2 1/2 times your annual salary on a house. And don’t take out more student loan debt than you expect to earn in your first year on the job (assuming you have the option). As Jack Bogle once said: ”Your bond position should equal your age. I won’t tell you this is the best investment advice you’ll ever get, but the number of pieces of advice that are worse is infinite.” It’s not terribly complicated to figure out what we need to teach. We just need to jump to it.


¶ We’re appalled to find that anyone doubts the dangers of BPA, especially where children are concenred. At the very least, doubts about its safety ought to preclude its use as a container for foodstuffs. David Melzer and Tamara Galloway file a somewhat querulous opinion piece. (New Scientist)

Despite these arguments, doubts remain about BPA’s safety. BPA is a synthetic chemical not found in nature. It doesn’t just bind to the main oestrogen receptor, but also to poorly understood variants of it, and has an anti-androgen effect. Most reports of low-dose effects have come from animal studies. The focus is now beginning to shift to looking for direct evidence of BPA effects in humans. Our own human epidemiological studies have reported associations with cardiovascular disease, liver enzyme abnormalities and, recently, raised testosterone concentrations in men (Environmental Health Perspective, DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1002367).

If these associations turn out to be causal, then BPA may be anything but inert at everyday exposure levels. However, while epidemiological studies are excellent at identifying things worth investigating, hard proof can only come from a controlled experiment. In 2009, the US National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences set out a $30 million research programme to look into the effects of BPA. Most of this effort has been concentrated on lab studies. We believe this will not be enough, and that human studies are also required to settle the argument.


¶ The blogging world came to standstill yesterday, when it was revealed that Alex Balk, one of the founders of The Awl, never gives interviews. (It was not mentioned whether or not he has ever been asked.) The reason, it turns out, is national security.

 It is hard to believe of someone who is so chronically depressed, bent on self-destruction, and quick to dismiss the work of others while nursing staggering insecurities of his own, but it’s true: I think I am super-fucking awesome. And this is NOW, when all I do is write on my own website. Can you IMAGINE how insufferable I’d be if I saw my name attached to a quote as some sort of expert? Do you have any idea how impossible it would be to deal with me if I somehow managed to watch myself OPINING ON TV? There would not be a flatscreen big enough to hold my giant, beautiful head! I am a raving egomaniac, and the only saving grace on that score is that I know exactly how susceptible I am to flattery and my own self-promoting ways. My staying away from the press is much like Bruce Banner trying to remain calm; terrible things will happen if I don’t.


¶ In what amounts to a chapbook primer, Robert Reich explains the character difference between Republicans and Democrats — and why a sense of hopefulness is essential to the latters’ advance.

Why are Democratic presidents so much more easily intimidated by the “move to the center” rhetoric after midterm losses than Republican presidents?

Because Democrats think in terms of programs, policies, and particular pieces of legislation. It’s easy to reverse course by compromising more and giving up on legislative goals. Bill Clinton never mentioned the words “health care reform” after the 1994 midterms.

Republicans think in terms of simple ideas, themes, and movements. It’s far harder to reverse course on these (look what happened to the first George Bush when he raised taxes), and easier to keep them alive: Republican presidents just continue looking for opportunities to implement them.

Republicans are also more disciplined (ask yourself which party attracts authoritarian personalities and which attracts anti-authoritarians). This makes it easier for them to stay the course. Their base continues to organize and fulminate even after midterm defeats. Democrats, on the other hand, are less organized. Electoral defeats tend to fracture and dissipate whatever organization they have.

Republicans are cynical about politics from the jump. Political cynicism fuels them. Democrats are idealistic about politics. When they become cynical they tend to drop out.


¶ At Brainiac, Josh Rothman gives Helen Vendler’s annotation of 150 Emily Dickinson poems top marks, adding that “ the graduate seminars I took with Vendler were among the best intellectual experiences of my life” — something that we’ve heard before. Vendler is truly one of the great teachers, and Dickinson is, at least on some days, our best poet.

What’s the best thing about Dickinson’s writing? For Vendler, it’s the mix of surprise and concision – the way that Dickinson can take an old theme and see it, vividly and instantly, in a new way. Dickinson’s poems are about the usual subjects (death, the soul, the meaning of life), but those subjects are often re-imagined suddenly, sometimes even in the first line of a poem, like “Because I could not stop for Death– / He kindly stopped for me.” Renunciation, Vendler writes, is another of Dickinson’s themes, and “a longstanding religious concept. But on her page, it is ‘the putting out of Eyes / Just Sunrise —’.”


¶ We’re beginning to hope that Nicholas Carr’s book about the anxiety of connectivity will encourage people to use the Internet with greater self-awareness — and less hand-waving about how its cascades of information are dulling our thought processes. Emily St John Mandel has made a first small step. (The Millions)

In search of greater productivity, I downloaded an ingenious application a few months back. (Note: I am not being paid to remark on its ingeniousness.) It’s called Freedom, and it turns off the Internet for however many minutes you specify, up to eight hours. It costs ten dollars. Turning the Internet back on once you’ve launched the program requires restarting your computer, which is both such a colossal hassle (ask me how many Word documents I have open at the moment) and such an admission of weakness (what, you couldn’t go 120 minutes without checking your email?) that I’ve never done it.

At first when I turned off the Internet, I would automatically drift into Twitter or Gmail or CNN anyway. The familiar pattern: I would be working and then I would switch tasks almost without realizing what I was doing and find myself staring at a browser window or at Tweetdeck. It would take a moment to remember that I was actually offline.

I’ve been trying to retrain myself. A few months after downloading Freedom, I’ve noticed a change. I’m much more productive than I was a few months ago. I can write for longer periods now, uninterrupted. Sometimes even when I’m not running the application, when the bright lights of the Internet are available at my fingertips.

But we deploy many tricks and trucs to recreate a deliberative climate suitable for reading and writing. Many of them involve simply assigning different types of tasks to different rooms. On our last computer upgrade, we held on to the old machine, and use it for housework (Quicken, Dymo label-making, recipes and so forth; we’re also still using FrontPage on it.) No matter how obsessive the Internet has been for us, it has never doled out the jittery empty-calorie high that we remember from television.

Have a Look

¶ Very, very salty advice to President Obama and to Democrats. All it needs is a bit of backup rhythm. Gaga! (3 Quarks Daily)

¶ Ezra Klein shares a Britannica page: why it takes two cents to make one. (Washington Post; via The Morning News)

Morning Snip:

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Historians of American foreign policy in the Cold War and after will scratch their heads bald trying to understand this country’s special gift for backing blustery bozos in precarious sovereignties, but trying to figure out the appeal of Hamid Karsai may break the skin on a few scalps. The Afghan wiseguy’s latest stunt is to accuse the Times of defaming him — by reporting what he concedes to be the truth (about Iranian moneybags).

In his news conference, Mr. Karzai also attacked The Times for publishing the report about Iranian payments, even as he confirmed receiving such payments. He urged the Afghan news media to “defame The New York Times as they defame us.”

You have to love the echo of the Lord’s Prayer.

Daily Office:
Monday, 25 October 2010

Monday, October 25th, 2010


¶ We may a practice of reading the Times’s conservative columnists, David Brooks and Ross Douthat, very, very carefully, because while they often have good things to say they are just as often merely plausible, as Mr Douthat is today, comparing TARP and the voters’ reaction against it to Truman’s deployment of the atomic bomb against Japan and the immediate taboo on using such devices again. The upshot:

What’s true in wartime can be true in economic policy as well, even if the stakes aren’t life and death. TARP may have saved the United States from 15 percent unemployment, but it also implicated our government in the kind of crony capitalism you’d expect from a banana republic. If it was necessary, it was also un-American. If it worked, it did so while doing grievous damage to the credibility of Wall Street and Washington alike.

So it’s a healthy and necessary thing that our first post-crisis election has been defined by a groundswell of anti-bailout outrage. This no doubt seems unfair to the politicians who may lose their jobs (or have already lost them) for doing what they felt they had to do. But it would be an infinitely worse sign for America if the present backlash hadn’t materialized at all.

There is much to complain about here, but what’s most egregious is the implicit attribution of TARP to the Democratic Party. If the Republicans gain control of Congress in the coming election, the blessed event (not) will be far more attributable to the White House’s poor-to-nonexistent leadership skills on the economic front (not to mention the retention of Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke) than to some heallthy principle of political isostasy.


¶ We think that Ben Brantley is a bit of a doltish chump for holding Jan Maxwell’s age against her performance — obviously splendid by his own account — in the Second Stage revival of Arthur Kopit’s Wings. (NYT)

Identifying entirely with Ms. Maxwell here is an obvious asset to a play that asks you to see as a stroke victim sees. But while Ms. Maxwell gracefully conveys the frustration and anguish that come with being unable to express what she wants to say — or even to know what she wants to say — her Emily is too vibrant, even in distress, to generate feelings of pathos. She is also — dare I presume? — too young.

In his script for “Wings” (originally conceived as a radio play), Mr. Kopit specifies that Emily is “well into her 70s.” Constance Cummings was in her late 60s when she created the part in New York (and won a Tony for it). Ms. Maxwell could pass for a fair 40 and did when she appeared as the winsome stage diva in “The Royal Family” last season. And while I know that strokes afflict people of all ages, casting Ms. Maxwell means you lose the guaranteed air of valiant fragility that comes with an older woman in the part.

Students of acting will admire the range and gradations of responses that Ms. Maxwell brings to her performance. She handles the impressionistic monologues of colliding memories and elusive meanings with grace and emotional fire. But I was most touched by Emily’s interactions with other characters, including Amy, a calm and saintly therapist played by January LaVoy.

Because even though Amy has the upper hand, it is Emily who seems like the gracious hostess in their shared scenes, operating according to refined social instincts that never quite abandoned her. And when, in her internal monologues, Emily recalls the airborne periods of her life as a pilot and a wing walker in aerial exhibitions, Ms. Maxwell — eyes brimming, with a smile that splits the sky — is a truly transcendent figure.


¶ James Kwak’s brisk comparison of nutritionism and financialization shows how dangerous it can be to get meta about vital mattesr. (The Baseline Scenario)

What does this all have to do with finance? Roughly speaking, read academic finance for nutritionism; the financial sector for the food industry; subprime loans, reverse convertibles, and CDOs for highly processed food claiming to improve your health but actually killing you; current disclosure laws for the FDA-approved health claims on corn oil; thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages and index funds for the neglected, unsubsidized, unadvertised fruits and vegetables in the produce section; the OCC and OTS for the FDA; and the long-term increase in obesity and diabetes for the long-term increase in household debt.

In both cases, you have an industry that earns profits by convincing people to do things that are not in their long-term interests; that, in the process, creates negative externalities for the rest of society; and that has cowed regulators into submission, if not outright cheerleading. In both cases, the industry defends itself from critics by saying that it is simply providing what customers want, and hence any new constraints (even, say, accurate organic labeling laws) constitute a paternalistic intrusion into people’s economic freedom. And in both cases, the industry claims that if it isn’t allowed to continue on its current course, the economy as a whole will suffer. (After all, our corn- and soy-based diet is what enables the industry to provide huge numbers of calories at low cost.)

One big difference is that when it comes to the food system, there is a fair amount you can do to protect yourself and your family from its unhealthy effects (if you have the money). With the financial system, it’s a bit harder.


¶ In homage to Maurice Allais, who died earlier this month, Jonah Lehrer writes about the long-term impact of his 1953 paper on the irrationality of loss, what came to be known as the Allais Paradox, when Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky got hold of it. (Wired Science)

Their breakthrough came by accident. Kahneman had been reading a textbook on economic utility functions, and was puzzled by the way economists explained a particular aspect of our behavior. When evaluating a gamble—like betting on a hand of poker, or investing in a specific stock—economists assumed that we made the decision by taking into account our wealth as a whole. (Being rational requires factoring in all the relevant information.) But Kahneman realized that this isn’t how we think. Gamblers in Las Vegas don’t sit around the card table contemplating their complete financial portfolio. Instead, they make quick decisions that depend entirely upon the immediate terms of the gamble. If there is a $100 wager, and you’re trying to decide whether or not to ante in with a pair of aces, you probably aren’t thinking about the recent performance of your mutual fund, or the value of your home.

But if we don’t make decisions based upon a complete set of information, then what are our decisions based upon? Which factors were actually affecting our choices? Kahneman and Tversky realized that people thought about alternative outcomes in terms of gains or losses, and not in terms of states of wealth. The gambler playing poker is only concerned with the chips right in front of him, and the possibility of winning (or losing) that specific amount of money. (The brain is a bounded machine, and can’t think about everything at once.) This simple insight led Kahneman and Tversky to start revising the format of their experiments. At the time, they regarded this as nothing but a technical adjustment, a way of making their questionnaires more psychologically realistic.

This minor change in notation soon revealed one of the most important discoveries of their careers. When Kahneman and Tversky framed questions in terms of gains and losses, they immediately realized that people hated losses. In fact, our dislike of losses was largely responsible for our dislike of risk in general. Because we felt the disadvantages of risky decisions (losses) more acutely than the advantages (gains), most risks struck us as bad ideas. This also made options that could be forecast with certainty seem especially alluring, since they were risk-free. As Kahneman and Tversky put it, “In human decision making, losses loom larger than gains.” They called this phenomenon “loss aversion”

This simple idea has profound implications. For one thing, it reveals a deep bias built into our brain. From the perspective of economics, there is no good reason to weight gains and losses so differently. Opportunity costs (foregone gains) should be treated just like “out-of-pocket costs” (losses). But they aren’t – losses carry a particular emotional sting.


¶ At The Awl, Eryn Loeb talkes about “My Former Best Friend’s Wedding,” which she didn’t attend, although she gave herself a headache looking at all the photos online. Leaving home isn’t what it used to be; arguably, Facebook has made it impossible. You grow up and apart but not away.

And then we went off to college. The distance between our campuses was hardly insurmountable, but it was just enough to be a reasonable excuse. It wasn’t just about the miles that stretched between us; those just made literal the clichéd divergence of our paths, which seemed to me even then like the plot of some novel I’d read, down to the symbolism of our opposing majors (the sciences for her, the humanities for me). I was invested in being in a different place, and saw her attachment to our hometown as a sort of weakness. Now I think her loyalties were just stronger than mine, that she was less cynical, less restless, maybe more at ease when we were growing up. She wasn’t always plotting her escape.

Of the two of us, she was always easier to like. People were a little wary of me, and for a long time I thought this meant I was doing something right.

The last time Darcey and I had spoken was nearly four years ago, when she called to tell me that an acquaintance of ours—who had been more of a real friend of hers—had died suddenly. We managed to have a nice if surface-y conversation in the wake of the grim update, but the fact of the call stayed unsettling. Half by accident, I’d managed to cut myself off from the people we used to know, assuming we’d reached the point when everyone else would be moving on, too. If Darcey and I couldn’t stick together, I figured, no one else could. But it turned out that I was actually the exception, the outlier who now required special delivery of bad news. She was telling me because she knew no one else would.

Despite this precedent, she didn’t call a year or two later to tell me she was engaged—to a guy we’d gone to high school with, someone she’d loved for years and years. But it was fair to assume I’d just find out. Information like this just trickles out, getting passed along—between friends and parents and the woman who used to cut both of our hair and still cuts both Darcey’s and my mom’s—until everyone knows and you start to feel a little awkward for not acknowledging it to the person at its center, even if she’s someone you can’t say with any conviction you still know.


¶ From Edmund Burke’s The Sublime and the Beautiful to the Pledge to America: Cory Robin traces the vein of hot-air-appreciation that animates conservatives whenever war is under discussion — so long as the actual warfare is far enough away to seem “sublime.” (Chron Higher Ed; via 3 Quarks Daily)

Or perhaps the Pledge is just the incidental propaganda of a party seeking its way back into power—and in the legislature, no less, which is ultimately not responsible for the conduct of foreign policy. But even when Republicans are responsible for fighting an actual war, as the Bush administration was in Iraq, they tend not to pay attention to the details. They like the words—”We will never apologize for advancing the cause of freedom and democracy around the world,” says the Pledge—and the gestures of war, as Bush showed when he piloted his way onto the USS Abraham Lincoln. But its specifics are of little interest. And peace? That’s just how folks in the biz say, “Show’s over.”

Far from challenging the conservative tradition’s infatuation with violence, however, this indifference to the realities of war is merely the flip side of the Burkean coin. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, Burke was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers “press too nearly” or “too close”—should they become real threats, “conversant about the present destruction of the person”—their sublimity would disappear. Burke’s point was not that nobody, in the end, really wants to die, or that nobody enjoys excruciating pain. It was that sublimity depends upon obscurity: Get too close to anything, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. A “great clearness” of the sort that comes from direct experience is “an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses the thrill you got when it was just an idea.

Since 9/11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives—or their sons and daughters—to fight the war on terror themselves. For many, that failure is symptomatic of the inequality of contemporary America, and it is. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea—a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24—it is sublime. As soon as it becomes a reality, it can be as tedious as a discussion of the tax code or as cheerless as a trip to the DMV.


¶ From a Rumpus Poetry Club discussion of Timothy Donnelly’s acclaimed collection, The Cloud Corporation. We applaud the bit about re-reading, and are faintly surprised by the notion that a poet would not have memorized his own verse.

Brian Miles: I think that is one thing that struck me, Timothy, is how much I related to so many of these poems based on feelings I have had when I am in my darker moods.

Timothy Donnelly: That means a lot to me. Because you know, when you look down at what you’ve done and it seems so grim, you sometimes feel—I have felt—like you must be toxic, or a jerk of some kind. Ungrateful, or just messed up. Anyway, one day up on campus, after my thinking all this terrible subway stuff, late March early April, it started snowing. And I saw the back of the cast of Rodin’s “The Thinker” on campus covered in snow and it had a peaceful sorrow to it. And I wished I could write poems that were peaceful and lovely. I started thinking that the snow that never makes it to the ground is somehow sadder snow, for never reaching what must be its destination, and somehow the ides of snow falling on a public statue insisted on precipitating the poem from my mental solution. Once I got the first 3.5 lines down, I knew the length of the line for the poem, I knew the rhythm of it, etc. Once I get about an inch into a poem, it gets easier, I have a little piece of its DNA and I can build from that. I wanted the food court and the mall in the poem. At one point I referenced cinnamon buns specifically, but that turned out to be too tacky.

Stephen Elliott: Your poems are so lyrical and intuitive but also crafted and careful. It’s such a balance.

Timothy Donnelly: Thank you for saying that. It is definitely a pas de deux of intuition and calculation.

Stephen Elliott: Do you reread endlessly?

Timothy Donnelly: I sure do. I probably have the entire book memorized. Honestly. It’s compulsive.


¶ James Somers muses on the contrast between now and then — now a confident and capable alumnus of the University of Michigan who is nonetheless too settled to indulge the impulse to chat up everyone he encountered at a recent football game on campus; then, a freshman during the first two weeks of college, who like all of his classmates did exactly that. The image of annealing is particularly just. (

Which is to say that nothing you can find elsewhere in the workaday world even resembles the two-week college free-for-all, the strange fever in which everyone is basically pleased as hell to meet everyone else.

It almost sounds like a fantasy. But I assure you it happened. I’m not a spectacularly outgoing guy, but for the first two weeks of my freshman year at the University of Michigan, I introduced myself to just about everyone I saw. When I’d go down to the cafeteria, I could sit anywhere. At parties, on the way to class, in the dorms, etc., I—like everyone else—would flit from group to group in a crazy kind of convivial Brownian motion. Our social graph was effectively amorphous—fully connected. We were open to each other in a way that I imagine swingers must be open to sex, or hippies to psychedelics.

Have a Look

¶ Leah Fusco’s Owling. (The Best Part)

¶ Fuck Yeah Meanswear. (via Ivy Style)

Morning Snip:
“They just have to eat.”

Monday, October 25th, 2010

One of our most favorite Web sites, The Awl, is making money. According to the Times, no less. Isn’t that nice? “The owners don’t have to get rich … they just have to eat.”

Because there is no office — staff members work out of their homes — there is no office manager, no toner cartridge to replace, no lease to be negotiated, no pencils to steal. The company exists in a string of e-mails, instant messages and phone calls.

“My friends keep talking to me about how they want to start a Web site, but they need to get some backing, and I look at them and ask them what they are waiting for,” Mr. Sicha said. “All it takes is some WordPress and a lot of typing. Sure, I went broke trying to start it, it trashed my life and I work all the time, but other than that, it wasn’t that hard to figure out.”

Weekend Open Thread:

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

Daily Office:
Friday, 22 October 2010

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Exercising the Friday option, we hope to complete this entry by midnight.


¶ A story that’s really too good to be true: rather than pay “confiscatory taxes,” Boeing plowed its earnings into R&D, becoming the aircraft leader that has been for fifty years. Moral of the story? (Justin Fox at Felix Salmon)

So that’s it! High tax rates—confiscatory tax rates—spur innovation! Well, at least once in a blue moon they do. Which is an indication that there might be some important stuff missing from the classic economists’ view of taxation, as summed up by Greg Mankiw a few weeks ago:

“Economists understand that, absent externalities, the undistorted situation reflects an optimal allocation of resources. It is crucial to know how far we are from that optimum.  To be somewhat nerdy about it, the deadweight loss of a tax rises with the square of the tax rate.”

Somehow I don’t think that formula held true in Boeing’s case.


¶ In what amount to super-duper liner notes, Ian Bostridge writes about the three Eighteenth-Century tenors from whose repertoires he has fashioned a recital program, recorded for EMI. (Guardian; via Arts Journal )

Indeed, one of the issues in choosing music written specifically for three very different singers has been how to reconcile the specificity of this operatic troika with my own vocal and stylistic idiosyncrasies. While trying to bring alive their varied vocal personalities, and pushing at the boundaries, a total escape from my own possibilities and limitations would be impossible.

Choosing music sung by perhaps the greatest of these singers – greatest at least in terms of the music he inspired and the Europe-wide reputation he garnered – Francesco Borosini, brought this home with particular force. Looking in detail at the material we could garner from European libraries, it became clear that I would have to make a careful choice. While the two roles that Handel wrote for Borosini lie within a fairly standard baroque compass for a tenor – with an emphasis on sheer drama of expression that set them apart from the music written for Fabri – some of the music written for him by other composers for European courts and theatres ventured great leaps into the depths of the voice and up again, quite baritonal in their range and thrust. While I longed for the mad scene from Porsile’s Spartaco – mentioned in Grove’s Opera Dictionary but never, finally, located – there was plenty else to chew on, not least a wonderfully nonchalant Don Quixote hanging from a windowsill (written by the Italian lute-player Conti) and the forgotten arias Handel wrote for him in the rewritten role of Sesto (vengeful son of the murdered Pompey) in Giulio Cesare. Like Beard, Borosini ended his career as an impresario, running the newly built Kärtnertor theatre in Vienna (later the scene of great Mozart and Beethoven premieres).


¶ In three paragraphs, George Soros nails it. We are more flabbergasted by President Obama’s economic-adviser choices every day. (NYRB)

Without a bailout, the banking system would have stayed paralyzed and the recession would have been much deeper and longer. It is true that the stimulus was largely wasted in the sense that most of it went to sustain consumption but that was owing to time pressure. What the government had to do in the short run—keep the economy from collapsing—was the exact opposite of what was needed in the long run—correct the underlying imbalances, particularly between consumption and investment. Confining the initial stimulus to government investment would not have worked because it would have been too slow.

Where the Obama administration did go wrong, in my opinion, was in the way it bailed out the banking system. It helped the banks make their way out of a hole by supplying them with cheap money and relieving them of some of their bad assets. This was a purely political decision: on a strictly economic calculation it would have been better to inject new equity into the balance sheets of the banks. But this would have given the government effective control of a large part of the banking system. The Obama administration considered that politically unacceptable because it would have been called nationalization and socialism.

The decision to bail out the banks without exerting government control over their balance sheets backfired and caused a serious political backlash. The public saw the banks earning bumper profits and paying large bonuses while private citizens were badly squeezed by the interest rates on their credit cards jumping, in some cases, from 8 percent to nearly 30 percent. That was a major source of the resentment that the Tea Party movement exploited so successfully. In addition, the administration had invoked the so-called “confidence multiplier”: the idea that by inspiring confidence—for example through stimulus measures—consumers can be encouraged to spend and companies to invest and hire employees. When reality did not live up to the government’s promises and unemployment failed to fall, confidence turned to disappointment.


¶ What sort of myths would human beings develop if confronted with the binary star NN Serpentis, where a dim red dwarf would make its presence known to someone standing on one of its two planets every few hours, when it eclipsed the adjacent and brilliant white dwarf? Phil Plait asks just that at Bad Astronomy — after setting forth all the how-weird-is-thatness lying 1500 light years away.

What an incredible sight that would be! If alien life developed on a moon of one of those worlds, the only way they’d know of the existence of the red star would be due to the eclipses. Every 3 hours and 7 minutes, the primary star would suddenly disappear for a few minutes as the bigger but far less massive and bright star blocked it out. At that time, and pretty much only then, would the faint red star be visible at all.

Cultures all over the Earth worshiped the Sun for obvious reasons: bringer of light and heat, we depended and still depend on it. What sort of myths would have arisen had the Sun’s light been completely cut off a half dozen times a day?

And I have to wonder what other strange things await us as we discover more planets orbiting other stars. We have a pretty good idea of how stars age and die, but there will always be systems on the edge, ones we’ll have a hard time understanding. What new things will we uncover then? And what would the sky look like from those alien worlds?


¶ Abe Sauer waxes feisty on the subject of Juan Williams’s NPR termination. Not only ought the network dump anyone who appears regularly on Fox News, but it ought to dump its public funding as well. (The Awl)

And now come the threats to terminate NPR’s government funding. NPR should respond by telling the blowhards to bring it on. Federal funding makes up about 2 percent of NPR’s budget. Even by the most extreme maximum estimates, including indirect sources, less than 10 percent of NPR’s annual budget is from the kind of federal funding its enemies like to say it depends on. Losing that (still-valuable) 10 percent might be worth finally being rid of the “publicly funded” albatross that has plagued the NPR brand.

It’s also possible that the anti-NPR activists are underestimating the number and devotion of NPR’s fans. Keep in mind, O’Reilly may pull just over 3 million viewers a show, but Prairie Home Companion bests that by a million. Even Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me has as many listeners as Bill has viewers. Recently, O’Reilly’s audience surged to over 4 million following the hissy fit on “The View.” That’s a regular week for Car Talk, listened to and loved by 4.4 million. Even gratingly twee This American Life (1.7 million) pulls just about the same numbers as Fox News superstar Glenn Beck.

One of the leaders of a proposal taking away NPR’s federal allowance is Jim DeMint. DeMint, it seems, has proposed cutting a number of other things during his political tenure. The Republican Senator from South Carolina has proposed that openly gay Americans should be barred from teaching in public schools. DeMint has also proposed cutting teaching jobs for single mothers who live with men out of wedlock. Another proposed cut by DeMint? Access to adoption for gay couples. What a political legacy Mr. DeMint is constructing, opposing teachers, adoptive parents and The News from Lake Wobegon.


¶ The advent of gold bullion ATMs has us wondering when someone will be smart enough to install GOLD BUBBLE gum vending machines. (Guardian; via The Morning News)

Since the first was installed in May, in the lobby of Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace hotel, 20 gold-to-go machines have been installed across Europe. Germany already has eight, with a ninth due to open at a luxury shopping centre in Berlin today. Next month the first machines will open in the United States, in Las Vegas and Boca Raton, Florida.

Geissler is also meeting representatives of Harrods to discuss launching the first UK machine in the next few months. He plans to have launched 45 worldwide by the end of the year.
[Since publication of this article, Harrods has said no meetings with Geissler are scheduled.]

“Our customers are those who are catching on to the idea that gold is a safe haven at a time of financial instability,” he said. Those who say it is just a bubble, he insists, tend to be those who have not invested in it.

“We notice the sales peak whenever there are signs that the markets are wobbling. When the Greek crisis was revealed in its entirety, our sales went up 10-fold. With the current troubles in currency markets, gold becomes even more attractive.”

He said it was no accident that the machines have taken off so well in Germany: “Just look at history,” he said. “Germans are still traumatised by the hyperinflation of the 1930s, when people walked around with wheelbarrows full of notes, while Americans are still traumatised about the depression.”


¶ We thought that we’d heard everything, on the subject of Tao Lin, author of Richard Yates, but a comparison to Jack Kerouac was sort of beyond our wildest dreams. Or maybe way this side of them. “Whatevs.” (LRB Blog)

It was Lin’s poetry, which seems less shaped and more spontaneous than his fiction, that first made me think of Kerouac (Kerouac’s verse is, I think, worse than Lin’s; both are better suited to prose). It occurred to me then that, in his fiction, Lin presents his own life as openly and transparently as Kerouac did, and that Shoplifting from American Apparel, the book of Lin’s I like best, shares with On the Road (which is much more rambling and long-winded) a kind of sense-making shapelessness. Neither writer tells moral tales, not even in the muted post-Chekhovian manner of most contemporary fiction; both simply depict stretches of life. That similarity seems connected with another: Lin, like Kerouac, espouses in interviews a quasi-Buddhist acceptance of all things.


¶ In our ongoing uplift campaign, hoping to demonstrate that the world is not going to hell in a handbasket if only because it is already there, we report on the sad case of our Upper East Side neighbors, Karim and Tina Samii and Daphne Guinness, who have felt obliged to go to law over (or under) an overflowing bathtub at the former Stanhope, where, presumably, they both (so to speak) bought “floor throughs.”

The most recent downpour allegedly occurred less than two weeks ago, when “water again poured heavily” into the bathroom, which had only recently been repaired.

The superintendent this time found Miss Guinness’s “personal assistant and another female attempting to dry the floor with bath towels”. The Samiis accuse Miss Guinness of a “lack of care and reckless disregard for the consequences of her behaviour”. As well as $1 million (£635,000) for repairs, they are seeking an unspecified amount in damages.

They are also attempting to obtain an injunction against Miss Guinness taking a bath until she completes “all remedial measures necessary” to ensure it will not overflow.

A spokesman for Miss Guinness said: “We have no comment on this. It is a personal matter.”

We wish that we could sit in on the chat that Ms Guinness’s great-grandmother and her great-great aunt (Mitford sisters) might have had about this brouhaha. Or, better, the exchange of letters. (“The Stanhope?)

Have a Look

¶ The melting pot that is New York: IRT, BMT, IND. (NYT)

Morning Snip:
You Decide

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Fired by NPR for expressing a personal fear, in the wake of 9/11, of fellow passengers wearing “Muslim attire,” news analyst Juan Williams fulminated thusly. Right or wrong?

“Now that I no longer work for NPR let me give you my opinion. This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one-sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.”

Would having said “Arab” instead of “Muslim” have made a difference?

Daily Office:
Thursday, 21 October 2010

Thursday, October 21st, 2010


¶ A report, backed by the NAACP, shows that a number of low-level Tea Party organizations are allied with racist groups. This doen’st come as much of a surprise, but as the semi-official register of the conservative groups’ associations (disputed, of course, by the Tea Partiers themselves as a “liberal smear”), it puts the reading public on notice. (Washington Post; via The Morning News)

The report focuses primarily on the more diffusely affiliated tea party networks online and in county-level chapters throughout the country. It also singles out five members of various tea party groups, one of whom has been expelled from the movement, as having ties to anti-Semitic, militia or white nationalist groups.

One person highlighted in the report is Roan Garcia-Quintana, a member of ResistNet who served as media spokesman for a 2010 Tax Day Tea Party in South Carolina and is running for state Senate. He has also been active with the Council of Conservative Citizens, which the report says is linked to groups that defended Jim Crow segregation in the 1950s and ’60s.

“I can’t talk about what people were doing in the 1950s because I wasn’t in this country,” said Garcia-Quintana, who was born in Cuba and raised in Savannah. “There’s a difference between being proud of where you come from and racism. We should be able to celebrate price as Europeans and Caucasians. What troubles me is it seems like if you’re not some kind of minority, you’re supposed to be ashamed of that. . . . As a tea party organizer, all I’m trying to do is to be a community organizer.”


¶ Larry Fahey claims to “hate” film critic Roger Ebert, but we’re in accord with the substance of his argument, at least to the extent that serious moviegoers might contemplate buttressing their own opinions with Mr Ebert’s judgments. Movies are not commodities that can be comparison-shopped, and many “bad” movies are worth at least one viewing. (The Rumpus)

Ebert is, at heart, the other kind of critic, the kind that sees movies as products, like cell phones or refrigerators or spatulas. These critics consider it their responsibility not to inspire debate or thought, not to use their cinematic expertise to give the reader insight. Rather, they want to judge a film’s fitness for purchase, recommend that a moviegoer either should or should not spend his or her money on the product. These critics are easy to spot. Every newspaper has at least one. They use a lot of puns when they dislike a film. They usually employ a grading system — a letter grade if they want to seem really nuanced, a ten-star scale if they want to make only a passing nod to intelligence, four stars if they’re especially simple-minded. They’re the Rex Reeds, the Leonard Maltins, the (why, God, why?) Gene Shalits. But this end of the critical spectrum is owned by the man who more or less created it: Roger Ebert.


Back to Hollow Man: I have to agree with all Ebert’s and Roeper’s criticisms of the movie, and of course I’m not suggesting that critics ought not to have opinions; reviews would be pretty dull without a point of view. But what we lose with critics like Ebert is the opportunity to appreciate bad art, or found art, or more importantly, art that actually tries something, but simply fails. To put it another way, by beginning with the basic assumption that there’s a universal standard of quality in films, we lose the opportunity to discover surprising, rewarding, unique and even life-changing films — films that may not pass the thumb test, but hold small pleasures and significant moments of clarity, meaning and insight. We lose, for example, the dark undercurrents in Hollow Man, the question of whether people behave well because they’re moral creatures or simply because they don’t want to face the consequences of indulging their ids (“it’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have to look at yourself in the mirror,” Caine says at one point). We lose its beguiling examination of the male gaze, its idea that what cannot be seen has no meaning. None of these ideas are brought to any conclusion, which is why I would call the film a failure. But there’s value and pleasure to be found in what the film tries to do.


¶ At Naked Capitalism, a rousingly populist guest post from Jim Quinn. What we wouldn’t give to be able to convince him and his listeners that the most powerful enemy of economic equity in this country is the 1886  Supreme Court decision that conferred Fourteenth-Amendment protections (meant for former slaves) upon the American corproation.

The politicians attempting to buy your vote today are promising new good jobs. One side is going to impose 100% tariffs on all Chinese crap coming into the country. This will revive domestic manufacturing. Another side is going to create millions of “green” jobs. Imagine all the solar panel jobs coming our way. Someone else is going to rebuild the infrastructure of the country, generating millions of made in America jobs. Too bad there are only 7 million people in the whole country that have a construction background. The Federal Reserve is going to print our way to millions of new jobs by reducing the value of the dollar, again reviving our dormant manufacturing sector. I can see Bethlehem, PA firing up the steel mills that have been dead for 20 years and closing down their casinos. Maybe if we hire some more government bureaucrats to administer the implementation of Obamacare and the financial regulations that are eliminating free checking accounts, the economy will miraculously revive. Paper pushers don’t morph into construction workers. Criminal Wall Street MBAs don’t become petroleum engineers. Unemployed waitresses in Riverside, California aren’t moving to Washington DC to get a great job at Ruby Tuesdays.

The delusions continue. Unless American union workers are willing to work for $7 per hour with no benefits, the manufacturing jobs are not coming back from China. The corporate oligarchs and their bought off cronies in Congress sold the country down the river over the last 40 years. Mega-Corporation profits are at record levels as goods are produced by slave labor in the Far East at 80% lower costs than they could be produced in the U.S. With 86% of the U.S. workforce in the service industry, introducing tariffs on imported goods and devaluing the dollar will further put the squeeze on the American middle class who already have been systematically screwed by the ruling elite over the last 40 years. Our society took 40 years to dig this hole. It is now so deep, there is no way out. But, look at the bright side. At least we don’t have to watch bread lines stretching down the block when we are watching our 52 inch HDTV, holed up in our 5,000 sq ft McMansions, ignoring the monthly mortgage payment bill, and waiting for our unemployment funds to be direct deposited into our bank accounts. I get all teary thinking about it. This is the iDepression 2.0.

The real people of this country who have worked and saved and done the right things have been beaten down. It is time to stand up to those in power and take this country back. We need the moral backbone of Ma Joad at the end of The Grapes of Wrath:


¶ The big story in today’s Times is about football helmets, and how they’ve been designed to prevent fractures, not concussions. This is an important look at the failure of self-regulatory organizations, NOCSAE in this case, which are funded by the businesses that they’re supposed to be supervising.

One frustrated vice president of Nocsae, Dr. Robert Cantu of the Boston University School of Medicine, said the organization has been “asleep at the switch” for five years. Cantu joined other prominent voices involved in youth sports concussions in calling for stronger standards.

Recent engineering advances made by Riddell, Schutt, Adams and other manufacturers have undoubtedly improved the performance of the football helmet, which from its leather roots has always symbolized football’s duality of valor and violence. But helmets communicate a level of protection that they do not provide, experts said, in part because of lax industry standards and practices.

As she looked again at the helmet of her 11-year-old son, Hunt, Ms. Sparks said: “You just trust. You care so much about your kid, and then you just trust.”


¶ David Shapiro shows up for a literary lions’ gala at the Chip seriously underdressed. No problem! A friend at his table “tells me not to worry about it because people will think i am super rich/powerful if i look like i don’t care about getting dressed for this.” We remember trying that sort of thing on when we were young, but we could never bring ourselves to believe it. (The Awl)

go up to Jann Wenner’s son who has one knee on his chair and one foot on the ground and both hands on the back of the chair, you know, one of those chair-assisted standing positions, i don’t know if there’s a better way to describe it, and i say, “hi i write a blog about music, can i ask you some questions for my blog?” and he looks hesitant but he says “okay”

i say, “do you read pitchfork?” and he says “yes” and i say “how often?” and he looks puzzled for a second, he is trying to discern my motives for asking him this question, and then he goes, “wait! who do you write for?” and i say “it’s a tumblr blog, it’s called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews” and he looks like he is thinking for a second and then he says “oh… i know about that… okay i don’t want to answer any more questions” and then i say “okay i understand”, i guess he thought i was gonna try to make him look dumb or something, but that’s not what i want to do and i should take this opportunity to mention that he was very amiable as he told me he didn’t want to answer my questions and he seemed reserved but not cold. and as i am writing down what he said he goes, “but, like, what questions were you gonna ask me?”

and i say, “beside the questions i already asked i was gonna ask what bands you listened to and if you talk to your dad via Gchat or Gmail”

and then he says, “do you know the band Salem?” and i say “yes” and he says “well i’m going to see them after this”, i guess he was answering my question about what bands he listens to, and then i say “that’s cool, i like their record, it got a 7.5″ and then he says “they deserved higher actually” and i ask why and he says “it’s an amazing album” and then i thank him…


¶ Mark Lilla witness a manif in Lyon, which spurs reflections on the (American) Tea Party. (NYRBlog)

“Président des Riches” was scrawled on a great number of the signs I saw at the Lyon demonstrations, accompanied sometimes by a cartoon of the diminutive Sarkozy, dubbed Nicolas le Premier, in royal garb a few sizes too big. The biggest sensation along at the parade route was a rotund, rosy-cheeked working-class woman who had dressed herself up in a crudely sewn red-white-and-blue costume to look like Marianne, the mythical symbol of the French Revolution, complete with Phrygian cap. The woman had even made a little cap and robe for her black dachshund, who shivered and looked like he wished he could be anywhere else. She climbed up a lamppost to lead chants and show off her signs, one referring to the Bettencourt scandal, smiling for the cameras when asked to.

Watching her I wondered what really distinguished her from an American Tea Party activist in his Colonial Williamsburg faux-revolutionary outfit and three-cornered hat. After his rally at the Washington Mall our musket-bearing friend probably knelt down in prayer with fellow demonstrators, while she, I imagine, bellied up to the bar for a Pernod. But otherwise? They both feel cut out, distrust their leaders, want things to change, and don’t want anything to change. Above all they want to speak, and what comes to their lips is drawn straight from the national Id. Don’t tread on me! and On va gagner! turn out to mean exactly the same thing: we will be heard. Whether they have anything to say is another matter.


¶ We’re knocked out with admiration for Lydia Kiesling, who is working her way through Kar, by Orhan Pamuk. That would be the novel that you may have read as Snow; Ms Kiesling is reading the novel in its original Turkish, one agglutianted clause at a time. Oh, to be young — or old beyond ambition! (The Millions)

When the summer class drew to a close, I returned to Kar, page 16, with my adult dictionary and a sense of purpose.  For a moment, I saw the old chaos before me.  But I forced myself to go one word at a time.  Before long, rather than feeling as though I had  been strapped blind to some infernal machine, I opened my eyes to find that I was actually riding a bicycle very slowly, peddling haltingly but definitively forward down an unfamiliar street.  At first, the effort of keeping my momentum and balance prevented me apprehending the architectural features of this new territory:  

The Kars Police Headquarters was a long three-story building that was an old building that was made from stone that was used for many government buildings that were arranged on Faikbey Street that stayed from the rich Russians and Armenians.

It took me a week of train commutes with the small dictionary to progress four pages, and to perceive what I was reading in a way that seemed distinctly literary.  I am not a translator; I don’t begin to understand the alchemy of translation.  But on page 26, for the first time ever, I felt moved by something I read in a language not my own:

In the empty lot next to the Yusuf Pasha District’s park, with its unhinged swings and broken slide, in the light of the streetlamps which illuminated the adjacent coal warehouse, he watched high school-aged youths playing football.  Listening to their exchanged shouts and curses, which were swiftly muffled by the snow, he felt so strongly the distance and unbelievable loneliness of this corner of the world, under the faded yellow lamplight and the falling snow, that he felt the idea of God inside him.

In my head, this was beautiful.  


¶ At the Guardian, Bettany Hughes writes a nice introduction to the topic of her new book: Socrates, and discusses the political insecurity behind his death sentence. (via 3 Quarks Daily)

Socrates was, I think, a scapegoat for Athens’s disappointment. When the city was feeling strong, the quirky philosopher could be tolerated. But, overrun by its enemies, starving, and with the ideology of democracy itself in question, the Athenians took a more fundamentalist view. A confident society can ask questions of itself; when it is fragile, it fears them. Socrates’s famous aphorism “the unexamined life is not worth living” was, by the time of his trial, clearly beginning to jar.

After his death, Socrates’s ideas had a prodigious impact on both western and eastern civilisation. His influence in Islamic culture is often overlooked – in the Middle East and North Africa, from the 11th century onwards, his ideas were said to refresh and nourish, “like . . . the purest water in the midday heat”. Socrates was nominated one of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his nickname “The Source”. So it seems a shame that, for many, Socrates has become a remote, lofty kind of a figure.

When Socrates finally stood up to face his charges in front of his fellow citizens in a religious court in the Athenian agora, he articulated one of the great pities of human society. “It is not my crimes that will convict me,” he said. “But instead, rumour, gossip; the fact that by whispering together you will persuade yourselves that I am guilty.” As another Greek author, Hesiod, put it, “Keep away from the gossip of people. For rumour [the Greek pheme, via fama in Latin, gives us our word fame] is an evil thing; by nature she’s a light weight to lift up, yes, but heavy to carry and hard to put down again. Rumour never disappears entirely once people have indulged her.”

Have a Look

¶ Art Is Murder. (The Bygone Bureau)

¶ Maira Kalman’s studio. (Design Sponge)

Morning Snip:

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

Times columnist Christine Haughney asked readers about their real-estate regrets. The solicitation was interpreted very widely. Among the choices that responders would reverse, the following stood out for us as a sign of changing times.

Simple: I would never go to law school. What a complete waste of time and money. I’d have been MUCH better off learning an actual skill/trade that is actually in demand. Welding. Solar panel installation. Diesel mechanic. Whatever. Andrew M.

We’d kind of like to know what Andrew is doing these days.

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010


¶ Although the word “honor” is not music in our ears, we read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s reflections on national and familial honor with the greatest interest — not least because of Mr Appiah’s almost fantastic parentage. We’re not persuaded, however, to abandon our preference for decency over honor. (Telegraph; via 3 Quarks Daily)

For my father, a proud Ashanti man, the notion that the colonised were psychically damaged, as Fanon supposed, would have been simply comical. The damage colonialism did wasn’t that it drove you crazy, as Fanon, ever the psychiatrist, thought; it was that it dishonoured you, not so much individually (though there were many moments of individual shame for “natives”) but as a people. To gain independence was to re-establish the honour of Ashanti and the other people of what became Ghana.

And when he had a falling out with his old friend Nkrumah, the country’s increasingly autocratic ruler, and ended up imprisoned without charges, he and his fellow political prisoners were disinclined to mute their criticisms. It was, once again, a matter of honour.

The ways in which honour can drive moral change is one of the great lessons I’ve learnt in thinking about the subject and exploring its history. British working-class abolitionists were urged on in the 19th century by the thought that slavery dishonours labour. Chinese mandarins were mobilised by the conviction that footbinding was a stain on China’s good name.

And today? International feminists are engaged in struggles in dozens of nations because honour-killing and female genital cutting and the veil, they think, show contempt for women: fighting these abhorrent “honour practices” itself becomes a matter of honour.

Why, for that matter, are gay and lesbian activists so intent on “marriage equality” at a time when sophisticates have come to regard marriage as positively démodé? Campaigners mention the practical advantages that marriage confers, which are real enough, but everyone knows there’s more to it. Things get clearer when you recall that matrimony is the ultimate “honourable estate”.


¶ If you’re like us, you’ve already got Alex Ross’s Listen to This on your list, if you don’t already have the book itself. Readers less familiar with the inside of Carnegie Hall (where, too, classical music isn’t the only kind on offer, not by a long shot) may be inspired by Jessica Freeman-Slade’s fresh-faced review, at The Millions.

Every music fan, classical or contemporary, will find something to savor in this collection. Among Ross’s subjects are Mozart’s struggle to find emotional balance in his work and his personal life; attempts to revitalize the Los Angeles Philharmonic audience, and the emergence of Western classical music fans in China. His brief portraits of Cobain and Sinatra are fun, but it’s John Luther Adams and the St. Lawrence Quartet who get the rock-star treatment. (He may also make the New York cabaret act Kiki and Herb the hottest ticket in town.) His essay on Radiohead could sit with the best of Rolling Stone’s think-pieces, except Ross has the ear for the band’s classical roots. “The doubling of the theme, a very Led Zeppelin move, has thunderous logic, as if an equation had been solved. The interplay was as engaging to the mind as anything that had been done in classical music recently, but you could jump and down to it.”

The one previously unpublished essay, and the highlight of the book, will blow the minds of even the best-read music aficionados. “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues” is Ross’s study of the basso lamento, a repeating bass line meant to represent sorrow across multiple styles of music, from the earliest flamenco melodies to modern-day blue riffs. (He points the reader to both Bach’s 1714 cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” and Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman” as viable examples of this weepy progression.). He traces this melodic marker not only as a strand of sonic DNA across different genres, but as a narrative device that marks storytelling from different kinds of musical authors. (The book’s illustrative playlist is available on iTunes for $20.00, or you can go to the book’s website to sample mentioned songs for free.) It would be a shame to read Ross’s criticism without your headphones on: his description of Marian Anderson’s voice is lush and accurate—“caressing little slides from note to note and a delicately trembling tone adding human warmth”—, but one has to listen to the recording to get the full effect. His affection or derision is so perfectly pitched, you want to run to your radio, your iPod, whatever source you prefer, to share in his enthusiasm.


¶ In a chummy little piece at The Reformed Broker, “Blogging on the Shoulders of Giants,” Joshua Brown pulls a coy tent over fellow admirers of the hedge fund superstars — all the while warming up some crocodile tears about the hit that a few of them are taking on Bank of America, and how much it hurts no matter what they say.

A post I wrote yesterday about the reflationista hedge funds with big positions in Bank of America spread like wildfire.  John Paulson, David Tepper and mutual fund manager Bruce Berkowitz all have monstrous stakes in BofA, as a play on the recovery of housing and employment over the intermediate to long-term but my take was that this mortgage fraud issue hit them like a ton of bricks.

Over on CNBC’s NetNet blog, my pal John Carney disagrees with me, saying that the government will sweep this issue under the rug before these hedge fund shareholders even bat an eyelash.  Teri Buhl has her take up at Forbes in which she says I am wrong about these hedge funds fretting because they are looking out to 2012 and beyond for their investment theses to play out.  Further, she asserts, they have such low cost averages in BAC shares that any volatility is unimportant.

While I respect both Buhl’s and Carney’s take, they are both wrong.

They are each missing the fact that regardless of what the government does or what price BAC trades at in 2 years, a lot of damage has already been done in a short period of time.  As someone who has been running money for a decade, I can promise you that when Bank of America trades from 19 to 11 in 6 months, a 40% suicide dive against a market that is flat to up, these guys feel it -  regardless of what their pr flacks say to reporters.  You can’t not feel that and nobody running a multi-billion dollar hedge fund with their name on the door is ever “unconcerned” with an unknown like Foreclosuregate.

Okay, “crocodile tears” is mean. We’re sorry.


¶ The idea that opposition makes people intransigent, advanced by Leon Festinger half a century ago, has only now been tested, and not only demonstrated but proved in a way that supports our intuitive (as yet untested) view that calm and security are essential for civilized life. In conversational terms, this means that doubt and uncertainty must be handled with great tact. Ed Yong reports, at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

In their first experiment, Gal and Rucker asked 88 students to write about their views on animal testing for consumer goods, but only half of them were allowed to use their preferred hand. This may seem random, but previous studies have shown that people have less confidence in what they write with the hand they’re less comfortable with. Indeed, that’s what Gal and Rucker found in their study. When asked later, the volunteers who didn’t use their dominant hand were less confident in their views.

However, they were also more likely to try and persuade others of those same views. When they were asked to write something to persuade someone else about their opinions, those who felt less confident wrote significantly longer missives. With a sliver of doubt in their minds, they spent more effort in their attempts at persuasion.

Gal and Rucker also found that this extra effort vanished if the volunteers had a chance to affirm their own identity beforehand. If they were asked to identify their favourite items (books, cities, songs and so on) before writing about animal testing, the choice of hand had no effect on their advocacy attempts. If they were asked to say what their parents’ favourite things were, the hand effect reappeared.


¶ Something wrong with the world of late: Choire Sicha hasn’t been writing very much. (Or we have been missing it.) We’re reminded of this regrettable deficit by his warm appreciation of that excellent motion picture, Jackass 3D, which we’re going to run out and see on his recommenda — oh. (The Awl)

And the Jackass franchise could have gone either way. In this strange world of theirs, almost always utterly woman-less, packs of boys-swiftly aging into old man-boys-live among the ruins of technology. There are things with motors, things with engines. It is possible, the boys decide, to use the power of these machines in ways unintended, and so they skip through a primer on the laws of inertia and gravity and physics as a test of what comedy is, and what bodies are, putting into practice the kinds of ideas that occur when we are waking up from a nap and have a strange and stupid idea. (You know how it is when you wake up suddenly: Why is all the furniture on the floor, you think-How shortsighted, there are walls and a ceiling too!)

When they are not looking outside, at things that are bouncy or blowy or exploding-ey, they are looking at themselves, in the manner of all boys in their bedrooms. What’s most telling about the Jackass franchise to me is how they move without transition from issues of social embarrassment (dressing up as old people and ruining things) to technology-play (motors and engines) to bodies (specifically, barf and shit).

It’s the barf and shit that does me in-I’m the great Victorian holdout when it comes to this. I am being left behind by our forward-looking times. In the near future, we’ll all crap together. People will throw up in the streets and on the subways, and no one will think anything of it! Men will pee together in little pots in the streets of Berlin and Philadelphia!


¶ What’s surprising about Christopher Hitchens’s essay on Hezbollah in Lebanon is his suprirse that paternalism orders society effectively. He makes it sound like a dark art, instead of the hardy cultural survival that it is. (Slate)

A depressingly excellent book on the contours of that new reality is provided by Thanassis Cambanis. A Privilege To Die lays out the near-brilliant way in which Hezbollah manages to be both the party of the downtrodden and the puppet of two of the area’s most retrograde dictatorships. Visiting Beirut not long after Hezbollah had been exposed as an accomplice to Syria and as the party that had brought Israel’s devastating reprisals upon the innocent, I was impressed, despite myself, by the discipline and enthusiasm of one of Nasrallah’s rallies in the south of the city. Cambanis shows how the trick is pulled. With what you might call its “soft” power, the Party of God rebuilds the shattered slums, provides welfare and education, and recruits the children into its version of a Boy Scout movement, this time dedicated to martyrdom and revenge. With its “hard” power, it provides constant reminders of what can happen to anyone who looks askance at its achievements. Its savvy use of media provides a continual menu of thrilling racial and religious hatred against the Jews. And its front-line status on Israel’s northern frontier allows it to insult all “moderate” regimes as poltroons and castrati unwilling to sacrifice to restore Arab and Muslim honor. Many Sunni Arabs hate and detest Hezbollah, but none fail to fear and thus to respect it, which Nasrallah correctly regards as the main thing.


¶ Raynard Seifert reviews Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood — or does he? (HTMLGiant)

Do you know exactly what is meant by E=Mc2 and do you grasp its significance? Did you know that Albert Einstein was one of the early detractors to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and that he referred to it, sarcastically, as the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics? Does that strike you as haha? If so, and you are an attractive member of the feminine gender with a steady, high-paying job and a general interest in becoming a ‘patron of the arts,’ will you go on a date with me? Were I to say that I was only joking, what degree of truth would you place on that? When Michel Foucault declared that truth was not a constant but an ever-evolving construct related to and reliant upon systems of power to produce and sustain it, do you think he was getting a lot of ass? Isn’t everything, on some level, mutually exclusive?

Excellent questions all.


¶ We were also  interested to read ” No More Arcs,” Rochelle Gurstein’s lament for the days when the nations of the West, especially the democracies, tried to live up to the glories of Antiquity. It’s not a sentiment that we share.

That we were speculating about the history of the West coming to an end amid the fantastic—decadent—luxury of the Right Bank was not lost on us. All that is left, I announced to my husband, at least to those who still have money these days, is consumption and private pleasures, leisure and tourism. This thought was long familiar to me—as a historian, I am fully aware of the historical developments that made the private sphere the locus of individual happiness—but in lovely, perfected Paris, it hit me with greater intensity. I understood better than ever before what Hannah Arendt meant when she wrote about the undermining of the civic humanist idea of politics—the exercise of civic liberty by participating in self-rule among equals—by “the rise of the social”: “We see the body of peoples and political communities in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic nationwide administration of housekeeping.”

We’ll take housekeeping over the celebration of conquest any day!

Have a Look

¶ Alida Valli. (Who knew the bed was green?) (Stirred, Straight Up, With a Twist)

¶ Living in: Rear Window. (Design Sponge)

¶ Economy Candy. (The Awl)

Morning Snip:

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn deplores gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino’s incendiary homophobic rhetoric. (via Joe.My.God)

When there is focused political rhetoric against the LGBT community, anti-LGBT hate crimes go up. It is a fact, documented by decades of data at AVP [the Anti-Violence Project] and the FBI and in the police department. So why would it be any different this time?”

Daily Office:
Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010


¶ The man who gave us those beautiful fractals, Benoît Mandelbrot, died late last week, more or less estranged from the financial world that his researches transformed. In his opinion, quantitative analysts misused his work to convey a false sense of security about dangerous risks. Justin Fox, sitting in for Felix Salmon, suggests why Wall Street didn’t heed Mandelbrot’s warnings. (Also: Brain Pickings)

So why haven’t finance academics and practitioners paid more attention to Mandelbrot’s warnings? I think it’s mainly that he didn’t provide them a handy alternative to Black-Scholes. I can’t pretend to fully understand the practical implications of his fractal view of markets (and yes, I’ve read his book for lay readers on the subject), but it does seem more useful as a critique than as a positive model of market behavior. You can’t haul in big consulting fees or create giant new securitization markets with a critique. So the natural tendency of both scholars and bankers has been to hold on for dear life to the Black-Scholes approach to modeling market risk. They get paid well for doing so, after all.


¶ We agree with David Cho about the finale of Man Men‘s fourth season. (We also think that it befitted a drama that is more about the world of work than any show ever.) Of course, we would have been happy with anything that put an end to the tyranny showtimes. (The Awl)

The expectations that people have of the season finales of serialized television boil down to two things. We want a culmination of everything a season has worked towards, if not a resolution, and we also want something to look forward to for the next season. Some more recent successful executions of this have been: the first season of “Friends” where Ross has to choose Rachel and the Chinese girl, the first season of “Lost,” with the revelation of the hatch, and “Friday Night Lights” and its third season finale—I won’t mention what happens because it’s so good and should be watched by everyone and appreciated in its entirety.

There are the rare occasions when a neatly tied bow is enough of a conclusion to satisfy its audience, like the first three seasons of “The Wire,” for example, but those instances are few and far between. More and more, season finales have become great, grasping reaching things. (See: “True Blood.”) Everything has to blow up, or fall apart, or wildly open a new chapter.

And sure, with “Mad Men,” we had high expectations—particularly given the precedent, with the end of the previous season and the founding of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. That was a very traditional season finale, and a very traditionally satisfying one: there was conflict, there was stress and there was the promise of something to anticipate.

And this season finale—it was unsettling. It promised something for next season, for sure. Just maybe not something you wanted.


¶ At Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith rounds up objections to the proposed QE2, or second “quantitative easing.” This is a somewhat arcane issue, but it’s also quite important, and we hope that the entry, with its snips from commenters as eminent as Joseph Stiglitz, will shed light. Ms Smith’s conclusion:

The distressing thing about the Fed is the fact that is has come to be dominated by monetary economists. That’s a comparatively recent development. Shortly after Bernanke was appointed, I had lunch with a former Fed economist who in his next job could have taken credit for having invented swaps but refused to. He remarked drily, “The record of academic economists as Fed chiefs is poor.” Sadly, his assessment looks better by the day.


¶ Why Harrison Ford is awarding $10,000 prizes annually to writers who can make complex biodiversity issues intelligeible to the general public. (Wired Science)

Wilson: The continuity here is storytelling. Scientists are storytellers. They just don’t know how to tell a story [laughter].

The way they make discoveries and the way they piece them together, particularly when they add the evolutionary part — how it came to be, the impact of the phenomenon on the body or on the ecosystems — is fundamentally historic. The challenge very few scientists choose to undertake is how the story touches not just on the public’s desire to have a story told to them. It also touches on the archetypes.

Hollywood, for example, has mastered them. These are the mythic archetypes. I don’t how Harrison feels about this, he might even disagree, but you know, the scenes that electrify us in a really good movie include ones like the clash between good and evil. The champion who appears and, against all odds, repels the invader. The discovery of new worlds. And the death and rebirth of worlds.

These are grand themes that, in small detail or in grand epics, are what draw our attention. And scientists can tell those kinds of stories if they know how and they try. And this is one of those challenges I think we as scientists need to beat. So you see this as the best way to incentivize good science writing?

Wilson: Yep.

Ford: What we’re about is storytelling and the alliance of storytelling and emotion. And that’s the humanism that I’m referring to. The real language of film — and the evocative language of any discipline — has an emotional component. And I think that’s part of what Ed is referring to as “grand themes.”

But it takes a degree of perception that’s not always available to be a scientist and write emotionally and evocatively about science. That’s the idea of the prize. We’re not talking about textbooks so much as we are popular writing that will reach the general public. The public that should be responsible for how the world is working or not working.


¶ We’ve discovered a new blog (better to say that a new blog discovered us): My Dog Ate My Blog. We’re very heartened by the overlap in our interests, and the fresh writing is brisk and engaging. In a recent entry, Sarah McCarthy writes about the thorny decision in the eminent-domain case, Kelo v City of New London. 

This decision is unusual in that, in some ways, it’s in line with the libertarian view that the federal government should let states determine what’s in their best interests. In this case, that’s precisely what the Supreme Court did: said, “OK, New London, Connecticut, you know what will stimulate economic growth for you better than we do. We’ll let you do what you think is best.” Unsurprisingly, though, the decision is universally despised by liberals, conservatives, communists, libertarians, and anyone else who’s ever either owned a home or wanted to.  Even ardent supporters of states’ rights are less enthusiastic about them when states are using those rights to bulldoze their homes.

On the other hand, particularly in light of the current financial crisis, what are the other options? People rarely voluntarily give up chunks of primo property, and struggling cities do need some means to stimulate their economies. Homeowners ultimately benefit when the cities that their homes are economically healthy. The entire highway U.S highway system wouldn’t have been possible without the government having seized private property. Is this a situation where the end justifies the means?

This issue is difficult to resolve because it takes two things that are critically important to Americans and demands that we choose between the two. The right to own your own home, to be master of your castle, is perhaps the most central part of the American dream–the housing crisis came about because people pursued that dream even when it wasn’t financially viable for them. Since the country’s founding, though, growth and expansion of markets is what Americans do. Keeping small towns from becoming abandoned ghost towns is another worthy goal–when there’s no large city nearby to provide employment, bringing businesses to a town can mean the difference between its life and death.


¶ Parag Khanna never mentions Jane Jacobs in a post at Foreign Policy that might as well entitled “Cities and the Wealth of Nations,” — it’s called “Beyond City Limits” insteaad — but what’s somewhat more troubling is the non-appearance of military considerations. With the exception of Venice (which established a large hinterland on both sides of the Adriatic, city states have rarely mastered the defense problem, and never for very long. Toward the end, the focus shifts somewhat, via a discussion of the gee-whiz Korean urban project at Songdo: cities are indeed our laboratories for the future. (via BLDBLOG)

Indeed, Songdo might well be the most prominent signal that we can — and perhaps must — alter the design of life. Cities are where we are most actively experimenting with efforts to save the planet from ourselves. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has brought together mayors from 40 large cities to build a network of best practices for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Vertical farming, long in vogue in Tokyo, is spreading to New York; the electric mass-transit system of Curitiba in Brazil is being copied in North America; Cisco is embedding sensors in Madrid’s traffic signals to make the city traffic-free. The consulting firm McKinsey recently estimated that if India pursues urbanization in an ecoefficient manner, it will not only make the country a healthier place, but add an estimated 1 to 1.5 percentage points to its GDP growth rate.

In this way, a world of cities can spark a cycle of virtuous competition. As geographer Jared Diamond has explained, Europe’s centuries of fragmentation meant that its many cities competed to gain an edge in innovation — and today they share those advances, making Europe the most technologically developed transnational zone on the planet.

What happens in our cities, simply put, matters more than what happens anywhere else. Cities are the world’s experimental laboratories and thus a metaphor for an uncertain age. They are both the cancer and the foundation of our networked world, both virus and antibody. From climate change to poverty and inequality, cities are the problem — and the solution. Getting cities right might mean the difference between a bright future filled with HafenCitys and Songdos — and a world that looks more like the darkest corners of Karachi and Mumbai.


¶ At HTMLGiant, Roxanne Gay announces something new: a Literary Magazine Club. Every month will feature a different “little magazine,” starting with one that we’ve never heard of, New York Tyrant. (That would be the Editor, surely.) We’ve ordered a copy!

I love literary magazines. I love reading them, in print or online. I love editing. I love having my work published in magazines. Literary magazines feel like a neverending conversation between writers and readers and each day, I wake up excited, knowing I get to participate, in some small way, in that conversation. When I read a magazine like Everyday Genius, which surprises me, well, every day, I start to think that when people say publishing is dying, they don’t understand the meaning of death. I enjoy Annalemma in print or online, and sometimes, the writing simply takes my breath away. I read an issue of Ninth Letter, which is always gorgeously designed and edited, and I think about how I’m living in the right time to be able to read such a fine product. Last week, Blake asked what we thought the top five online magazines were, in terms of content, prestige, and design. I answered, but it was very difficult to stop at just five. So many magazines, both in print and online, are produced and edited so well that it is difficult to think of a magazine I don’t like. Certainly, there are those magazines where there’s no design, or a generic template is used, or I don’t quite understand some of the content choices, but even then, you can find surprisingly good writing, or, if you’ll forgive the cliché, diamonds in the rough. Publishing may be dying, but there are countless writers and editors who have not been notified of this untimely end coming to pass. The plethora of literary magazines actively contributing to the literary conversation are ample evidence, for me, that we have not lost the battle to other forms of entertainment. We’re very much in the fight.


¶ Also sitting in for Felix Salmon, Barbara Kiviat picks up a hot topic that was raised in the Times over the weekend: the renewed willingness of economists to take cultural considerations into account when talking about poverty. Such talk makes her uncomfortable, as indeed it does us. If there’s a connection, it’s mediated by other factors, ranging from education to public transport, all of which can be more or less subsidized without affecting individual income.

I’m all for understanding the nature of poverty, but the culture lens makes me nervous. Maybe that’s because right after I read Identity Economics, I read The Trouble With Diversity, by Walter Benn Michaels, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. One of the main arguments of that book is that there is a lurking danger in turning a conversation about economics (poor people don’t have money) into a conversation about culture (poor people have different values and make different life decisions). The big risk: since Americans are loathe to judge one culture as superior to another, we will come to accept poverty as a valid alternative. You’re not poor because you can’t get a job that pays enough to cover your bills (a failure of education, the free market, etc)—you’re poor because you are part of a different culture, which, in diversity-committed America, we all have to respect.

The other thing that worries me about the culture frame is that so much rests on the categories we use to try to capture “culture.”

Have a Look

¶ Paris en noir et blanc. (via Mnémoglyphes)

¶ Nailing Cockerham. (The Age of Uncertainty)