Archive for February, 2011

Daily Office: Vespers
Feudal
Monday, 14 February 2011

Monday, February 14th, 2011

The sale of Arianna Huffington’s collaborative Web site to AOL has induced a rash of overdue head-scratching. This morning, David Pogue wonders if Twitter is such great idea after all.

It will be interesting to see how the legions of unpaid bloggers at The Huffington Post react to the merger with AOL. Typing away for an upstart blog — founded by the lefty pundit Arianna Huffington and the technology executive Kenneth Lerer — would seem to be a little different from cranking copy for AOL, a large American media company with a market capitalization of $2.2 billion.

(And it’s going to seem very different to some other media companies. The Huffington Post has perfected the art of — how shall we say it? — enthusiastic aggregation. Most of the news on the site is rewritten from other sources, then given a single link to the original. Many media companies, used to seeing their scoops get picked off by HuffPo and others, have decided that legal action isn’t worth the bother. They might feel differently now.)

Perhaps content will remain bifurcated into professional and amateur streams, but as social networks eat away at media mindshare and the advertising base, I’m not so sure. If it happens, I’ll have no one but myself to blame. Last time I checked, I had written or shared over 11,000 items on Twitter. It’s a nice collection of short-form work, and I’ve been rewarded with lot of followers … and exactly no money. If and when the folks at Twitter cash out, some tiny fraction of that value will have been created by me.

There is no good reason for not metering traffic for micropayments. You may heard of an amazing inventrion that keeps track of gazillions of computations: the “digital computer.”

Periodical Note:
In The Atlantic
Christian, Myers, Hitchens

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Brian Christian’s feature article in the current issue of The Atlantic, “Mind vs Machines,” is billed on the cover as “Why Machines Will Never Beat the Human Mind,” which nicely captures the distance between what the magazine’s editors think will sell and Christian’s rather different point, reflected in the title of his forthcoming book, from which the piece was adapted: The Most Human Human: What Talking With Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive. You can win an award for being “the most human human,” as Christian himself has done, if you participate in the Loebner Prize, an annual event that recreates the Turing Test, and snatch victory from the jaws of artificial-intelligence engineers more frequently than the other human  contestants. The crux of Christian’s report is that what makes the Turing Test compelling is the insight that it generates into human complexity. The funhouse aspect of the exercise — trying to fool judges into thinking that they’re talking to people when they’re in fact talking to machines — makes for good headlines, but if Brian Christian is correct, we can expect a jockeying back and forth between man and motherboard in which human beings, regularly losing the title to ever-smarter computers, just as regularly figure out how to win it back. 

Christian reminds us of Alan Turing’s brilliant condensation of the thorny question that emerged after World War II: would the new computing machines ever be capable of thought?

Instead of debating this question on purely theoretical grounds, Turing proposed an experiment. Several judges each pose questions, via computer terminal, to several pairs of unseen correspondents, one a human “confederate,” the other a computer program, and attempt to discover which is which. The dialogue can range from small talk to trivia questions, from celebrity gossip to heavy-duty philosophy — the whole gamut of human conversation. Turing predicted that by the year 2000 computers would be able to fool 30 percent of human judges after five minutes of conversation, and that as a result, one would “be able to speak of machines as thinking without expecting to be contradicted.” 

The millennium turned without smiling on Turing’s forecast, but, in 2008, a computer program came within a hair of winning the Loebner Prize.  This inspired Christian to participate in 2009 — and not only that, but to go for the “most human human” award while he was at it. There was nothing frivolous about his undertaking; it’s quite clear that he didn’t sign up for the test so that he could write a breezy article about it. He was motivated by the fear that human beings were giving up too easily — weren’t, in fact, trying to win. While the AI teams poured boundless time and effort into the design of their simulators, the human confederates were being advised, fatuously, to “just be yourself.” As Christian says, it’s hard to tell whether this pap reflected an exaggerated conception of human intelligence or an attempt to fix the fight in the machines’ favor. 

To the extent that “just be yourself” means anything, it is better expressed in one word: “Relax.” That’s what coaches always seem to be telling their athletes before the big fight, and for highly-trained minds and bodies, it’s probably sound. You can’t show your stuff to true advantage if you’re worrying about what you’ve got. But ordinary people — this is what “ordinary” means — don’t have any stuff to show. What “just be yourself” says to them is “don’t sweat it.” So, on one side, we have ardent engineers, with their brilliant insights and excruciating attention to detail — and probably some serious funding. On the other, “don’t sweat it.” Rocket scientists versus slackers — not much of a contest. 

Christian doesn’t follow this peculiar asymmetry (not in The Atlantic, anyway), but what’s at work here is the same decayed snobbishness with which the Educational Testing Service insists that special preparatory courses and other preliminary efforts are irrelevant to success on its examinations. This is patently untrue, but the cachet of the ETS achievement and aptitude tests remains bound up in the idea that success in life does not require specialized training. This was the lesson taught to us by the great English gentleman of Victorian fact and fiction, men who, by following their whims as far as fortune allowed, acquired skills and insights of almost universal application. Boy Scouts varied this theme by straining to remain semper paratus while carrying the lightest backback. Executive suites are still stuffed with affable generalists who have learned what they know about life from playing golf. In this clubby atmosphere, study and preparation, “boning up” of any kind, looks like a kind of cheating. 

Even Christian is blown sideways by the gale force of this prejudice; he sounds crashingly unsportsmanlike. 

And so another piece of my confederate strategy fell into place. I would treat the Turing Test’s strange and unfamiliar textual medium more like spoken English, and less like the written language. I would attempt to disrupt the turn-taking “wait and parse” pattern that computers understand, and create a single, flowing chart of verbal behavior, emphasizing timing. If computers understand little about verbal “harmony,” they understand even less about rhythm. 

If nothing was happening on my screen, whether or not it was my turn, I’d elaborate a little on my answer, or add a parenthetical, or throw a question back at the judge — just as we offer and/or fill audible silence when we talk out loud. If the judge too too long corresponding to the next question, I’d keep talking. I would be the one (unlike the bot) with something to prove. If I knew what the judge was about to write, I’d spare him the keystrokes and jump in.

It’s almost funny, how shot through this passage is with the air of deception. All these conscious little tricks, all designed to “fool,” you almost think, the judge into regarding Christian as exactly what he is: a real person.  

“Mind vs Machine” shares some invaluable observations about vernacular discourse. In heated exchanges, for example, people respond more and more exclusively to whatever has just been said, and less and less to the overall tenor of the argument. Researcher (and three-time winner of the “most human computer” prize) Richard Wallace has discovered that “most casual conversation is ‘state-less,’ that is, each reply depends only on the current query, without any knowledge of the history of the conversation required to formulate the reply.” This is a windfall for programmers, because a sudden lurch into ill-tempered language is all too convincing evidence of a human-ature tantrum, and very easy for a machine to fake. Christian draws a very practical lesson: 

Aware of the stateless, knee-jerk character of the terse remark I want to blurt out, I recognize that that remark has more to do with a reflex reaction to the very last sentence of the conversation than with either the issue at hand or the person I’m talking to. All of a sudden, the absurdity and ridiculousness of this kind of escalation become quantitatively clear, and, contemptuously unwilling to act like a bot, I steer myself toward a more “stateful” response: better living through science. 

I hope that Christian’s book will make that final point more clearly and happily than his article does. I was deeply put off by a passage that I read before I knew what Christian was up to, when, that is, it seemed that he was doing nothing more interesting than moaning about the possibility that we might some day be overtaken by our mechanical creations. 

The story of the 21st century will be, in part, the story of the drawing and redrawing of those battle lines, the story of Homo spaiens trying to stake a claim on shifting ground, flanked by beast and machine, pinned between meat and math.  

That’s pungent prose, but the metaphor of military conflict could hardly be less welcome — or less apposite to Christian’s far more gracious point, which is that computers, instead of supplanting us, can show us how to be better at what we already are. 

***

If you believe that human beings are the Lords of Creation, then there is nothing to worry about when you sit down to dinner; but if you believe rather that we’re just one species among many, then eating becomes tragic, because it requires us to kill. My own view is that only the only way to draw a line between eating flesh and eating anything at all is to subscribe to a variant of the pathetic fallacy, according to which animals, being more like us than plants, merit kinder treatment — so it’s okay to finish your vegetables. We have to wonder what the editors of The Atlanticwere thinking when they assigned a passel of recent “foodie” books to BR Myers, the Green and vegan professor of North Korean literature. Oh, they were probably hoping for exactly what he delivered, a steaming denunciation of the lot. It’s easy to see why the prim Myers would dislike the louche Anthony Bourdain or the spiritual Kim Severson. But Michael Pollan? 

The moral logic in Pollan’s hugely successful book now informs all food writing: the refined palate rejects the taaste of factory-farmed meat, of the corn-syrupy junk food that sickens the poor, of frozen fruits and vegetables transported wastefully across oceans — from which it follows that to serve one’s palate is to do right by small farmers, factory-abused cows, Earth itself. This affectation of piety does not keep foodies from vaunting their penchant for obscenely priced meals, for gorging themselves, even for dining on endangered animals — but only rarely is public attention drawn to the contradiction. 

If you can find a passage in which Michael Pollan endorses any of the crimes enumerated in the second sentence, please write to Myers to thank him for the tip. Otherwise — and I’m fairly confident that it will have to be “otherwise” — you must still deal with Myers’ attack on everyone else mentioned in his review. I feel none of Myers’s hostility to today’s chic food writers, but I have lost interest in what they have to say, partly because they don’t begin to be honest about the economic elitism that underpins their outlook — those simple, slow-food pleasures are luxury goods, and always will be — and partly because, without getting excited about it, I do agree with Livy (referenced by Myers), that “the glorification of chefs” is probably unhealthy. Writing about food ought to be modest — that’s one of the appeals of Julia Child’s books. Child agreed with the fundamental French precept that there is one (1) right way to do everything, and she sought to convey the rules as clearly as possible to heterodox Americans; but she never raised her voice or succumbed to rapture. Today’s foodies haven’t got Child’s good manners.

The more lives sacrificed for a dinner, the more impressive the eater. Dana Goodyear: “Thirty duck hearts in curry — The ethos of this kind of cooking is undeniably macho.” Amorality as ethos, callousness as bravery, queenly self-absorption as machismo; no small perversion of language is needed to spin heroism out of an evening spent in a chair. 

Well, I couldn’t put it down.  

***

In his favorable review of Sean McMeekin’s The Berlin-Baghdad Expresss: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, Christopher Hitchens identifies the people who ought to read this book (which would include me): 

If asked to discuss some of the events of that period that shaped our world and the world of Osama, many educated people could cite T E Lawrence’s Arab Revolt, the secret Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement portioning out the post-war Middle East, and the Balfour Declaration, which prefigured the coming of the Jewish state. But who can speak with confidence of Max von Oppenheim, the godfather of German “Orientalism” and a sponsor of holy war? An understanding of this conjuncture is essential. It helps supply a key to the collapse of the Islamic caliphate — bin Laden’s most enduring cause of rage — and to the extermination of the Armenians, the swift success of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the relative independence of modern Iran, as well as the continuing divorce between Sunni and Shia Muslims. 

Check!

Daily Office: Matins
Black Hattery
Monday, 14 February 2011

Monday, February 14th, 2011

On a hunch, the Times asked “an expert in online search,” Doug Pierce, to look into “search engine optimization” at JC Penney, which was placing the department store’s links at the top of Google searches for all sorts of things. The upshot was that Google performed a “manual action” to undo Penney’s contractor’s black-hattery. The report, by David Segal, was the weekend’s best long read.

The links do not bear any fingerprints, but nothing else about them was particularly subtle. Using an online tool called Open Site Explorer, Mr. Pierce found 2,015 pages with phrases like “casual dresses,” “evening dresses,” “little black dress” or “cocktail dress.” Click on any of these phrases on any of these 2,015 pages, and you are bounced directly to the main page for dresses on JCPenney.com.

Some of the 2,015 pages are on sites related, at least nominally, to clothing. But most are not. The phrase “black dresses” and a Penney link were tacked to the bottom of a site called nuclear.engineeringaddict.com. “Evening dresses” appeared on a site called casino-focus.com. “Cocktail dresses” showed up on bulgariapropertyportal.com. ”Casual dresses” was on a site called elistofbanks.com. “Semi-formal dresses” was pasted, rather incongruously, on usclettermen.org.

There are links to JCPenney.com’s dresses page on sites about diseases, cameras, cars, dogs, aluminum sheets, travel, snoring, diamond drills, bathroom tiles, hotel furniture, online games, commodities, fishing, Adobe Flash, glass shower doors, jokes and dentists — and the list goes on.

Some of these sites seem all but abandoned, except for the links. The greeting at myflhomebuyer.com sounds like the saddest fortune cookie ever: “Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn’t here.”

Weekend Update:
No Time
Sunday, 13 February 2011

Monday, February 14th, 2011

This brief note will acknowledge the obvious: this week’s Grand Hours never got written. It ought to have been composed during the work week, of course, but the blagueurs and I haven’t begun to figure out to do that. And the weekend turned out to be unavailable for reading, writing, and reflection. When I got back this afternoon from taking Will for our Sunday walk, I sat down at the desk and — hey, presto! woke up ten minutes later when a friend called to thank us for yesterday’s party. I realized then that, while the flesh was willing to sit through the ordeal of putting together a few interesting links, the spirit was entirely AWOL.

As for the party, it was as good as ours ever are (which is pretty good, in my opinion) — but it was also incomparably super. Technically, this was Will’s second party at our house, but let’s be realistic: he was a baby last April, when we celebrated Kathleen’s birthday, and he is not a baby anymore. His parents decided that they would stay as long as Will seemed to be having a good time, and that turned out to be an incredible four hours. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like when Will adds conversation to his bundle of charms. 

I’d better publish this before I fall asleep again. What is it about age that is supposed not to wither? That part’s not working for me.

Daily Office: Vespers
We Happy Few
Friday, 11 February 2011

Friday, February 11th, 2011

A few years ago, we perused a slim tome on the subject of Search Engine Optimization — and decided that there was not much that SEO could honestly do for us. Claire Cain Miller’s look at how cleverly SEO techniques are put to work at The Huffington Post merely confirmed this judgment — possibly because we have never been quite sure just who Christina Aguilera is.

The ultimate prize for most Web publishers is loyal readers who go directly to their site, without passing through a search engine. They are more likely to visit on a regular basis and stick around.

Some Web publishers say that these days, the most effective way to build that following is to find readers on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, an approach known as social media optimization. That could improve the quality of articles, they say, because the best way to get links on Twitter is to write a story people want to share with friends.

Gotham Diary:
Party Planner

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Tomorrow, we are going to have a party. It will begin in the middle of the afternoon, as a tea party, with just that: tea and coffee and lots of sweets. Later, a plate of cheeses will appear, along with carafes of white wine. Later still, I’ll bring out a roast tenderloin of beef, accompanied by oversized dinner rolls (or undersized hamburger rolls, if you prefer) and appropriate condiments. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Now that it’s too late to make any real changes, I’m sorry that I didn’t “make more of an effort.”

For example, I could have made my own cheesecake, and bought two fewer  cakes from William Greenberg. (My own cheesecake is to die for, although strangely it hasn’t killed me yet. It is really a custard composed of quarts of cream, tubs of cream cheese, and — well, not dozens of eggs, but it feels like it. (Somewhere in there is a little sugar and vanilla.) How about a plate of deviled eggs? And those ham rolls, stuffed with (yet more) cream cheese. Why didn’t I go through my records, such as they are, and concoct a sentimental journey through parties past?

You’re reading the reason why I didn’t. The site, I mean. I wasn’t about to turn my back on it for a few days while I fooled around in the kitchen. Since the beginning of the new year, I’ve juggled two priorities: writing as much as I can here, with three entries a day on weekdays and the Grand Hours on the weekend; and spending time with my grandson and his parents. Plus all the everyday stuff (it pains me that women who read this will have such a clear and distinct idea of what this means, while to men it will be a vague business, not to be looked at too closely). Now, in order to have something to write about, I have to do a few more or less interesting things, not to mention a lot of reading. Add a few hours a week for managing the music library, take note of the fact that, at 63, I’ve slowed down a bit, and bear in mind that Kathleen and I talk with one another more every day than the average married couple does in a week (and then double that), and you’ll see why I have no time for party planning. Not yet, anyway.

That I’m sitting down doodling, the night before anywhere up to fifty people fill our apartment, about this and that, instead of panicking — well, it’s partly old age, and the loss of ambition that comes with experience. But it’s also the really extraordinary amount of time that I’ve put into putting the house in order. Well-arranged closets don’t have any direct bearing on the success of a party, but they do conduce to a well-arranged host, one whose mind is not cluttered with half-forgotten details about where things are. Not where things having anything to do with a party are. Just things. Stuff. I’ve been de-Collyerizing the apartment, seriously and methodically, for eighteen months now.

Even so, I can’t find the apple-green cake stand that I’d completely forgotten about until I came across it a week or so ago — but where? It would come in handy with all the cakes that I’ll be serving. But it doesn’t matter, because in the end the party won’t be about the cakes that I bought and the hors d’oeuvres that I didn’t make. It’ll be about the friends who show up, some of whom, in the classic New York manner, we won’t have seen since our last party. I trust that we haven’t mislaid any of them.  

Daily Office: Matins
Services Rendered
Friday, 11 February 2011

Friday, February 11th, 2011

While Egypt simmers, we are happy to see the byline of John Eligon in the newspaper; he’s the reporter whose snappy dispatches made the Astor Trial such fun to read about. Now he has a new case: lowlife criminal Kenneth Minor claims that he was merely assisting in the suicide of motivational speaker Jeffrey Locker when he stabbed him in the front seat of his automobile. Oh, and that his post-mortem visit to an ATM machine with Locker’s bank card was to collect payment for services rendered. Everybody laughed at the time, but subsequent investigation suggests that the deceased was engaging in insurance fraud. Now, two years later, the matter has come to trial. Question is: will Mr Minor be allowed to avail himself of the assisted-suicide defense, which would lower the charge against him from second-degree murder to second-degree manslaughter. And the other question is: does it matter?

The law reserves assisted-suicide charges for cases in which a person takes a passive role in someone’s suicide, prosecutors say. An example would be providing the gun that a man uses to kill himself.

[snip]

But Mr. Gotlin said New York law did not explicitly say that someone’s actions needed to be passive in order to be considered assisting suicide. Either way, he said, it should be up to the jury to determine whether Mr. Minor’s actions were passive.

Over the past four decades, 16 people in New York have been arrested on accusations of assisting suicide, according to the State Department of Criminal Justice Services. And in that time, only 11 have been convicted of it.

Whatever happens, Mr Eligon will makes us want to find out what happens next.

Daily Office: Vespers
Macaulay on Black Swan
Thursday, 10 February 2011

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

We haven’t read anything about Black Swan that’s more acute than Alistair Macaulay’s deconstruction of Darren Aronofsky’s film; it’s a rare writer who can fix ambivalence with such clarity.

To these negatives ballet brings many positives: energy, responsiveness to music, discipline, teamwork, idealism, interpretative fulfillment. Not so “Black Swan.” It’s both irresistible and odious. I was gripped by its melodrama, but its nightmarish view of both ballet and women is not one I’m keen to see again. As a horror movie, it’s not extreme. As a woman’s movie, however, it’s the end of the line.

Most depressingly, Nina is just not a great role. She’s too much a victim — the film makes her helpless, passive — to be seriously involving. Though she enjoys triumph, we never see the willpower that gets her there, just the psychosis and the martyrdom. It’s the latest hit movie for misogynists.

“The Red Shoes” (1948) — to which “Black Swan” owes so much — actually had more psychological depth. Its ballerina heroine found both fame and love, and her torment came from choosing between them. That’s a highly ambiguous attitude toward ballet — she cannot permanently reconcile dance and love — but you can see why it inspired thousands of girls to take up the art. The “Black Swan” idea of ballet is narrower: obsession, torment, inadequacy, paranoia, delusion.

Those things aren’t absent from ballet (or womanhood or life). And so Nina’s interior and exterior lives here spin together into a compelling vortex.

We share Mr Macaulay’s hope that Black Swan will be sending lots of viewers back to Swan Lake.

Reading Jennifer Egan:
Wrong and Bad and Exactly Right
10 February 2011

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

“It was wrong and bad and exactly right.” This sentence appears in “Sacred  Heart,” the second story in Jennifer Egan’s collection, Emerald City — also her first book. The narrator, Sarah, a fourteen year-old schoolgirl, is on the verge of befriending an oddly attractive classmate named Amanda.

She wore silver bracelets embedded with chunks of turquoise, and would cross her legs and stare into space in a way that suggested she lived a dark and troubled life. We were the same, I thought, though Amanda didn’t know it.

Sarah comes upon Amanda in the girls’ lavatory one day. Amanda is trying to cut herself, but she doesn’t have anything sharp enough. Sarah offers a pin that she is wearing. the pin was a gift from her step-father, whom she dislikes, but without real conviction, “as if my not like him had been decided beforehand by somebody else, and I were following orders.” 

The offer of the pin is not enough; Amanda asks Sarah to do the cutting.  Convinced that Amanda will never be her friend otherwise, Sarah overcomes her revulsion and complies. But Amanda does not quite become her friend. If she and Sarah are “the same,” then Amanda still doesn’t know it. When Sarah confesses that, if she had only one wish in the world, it would be to be Amanda, Amanda pulls away with incredulous laughter: she’s not even going to try to understand Sarah. 

Later, Amanda runs off with her brother (to Hawaii, it turns out), leaving Sarah in despair at having been left behind: her school now becomes the place that Amanda has rejected. This is a theme that runs through Egan’s fiction: home is the place that you leave because you have so literally outgrown it, like a shell that must be sloughed off, that it simply ceases to exist. What’s left is a dull but irritating simulacrum that must be escaped. 

One night, Sarah cuts her arm deeply with a razor blade. It is something between an accident and a suicide; it’s as though she’s offering herself as a sacrifice to Jesus (whom she imagines Amanda’s brother to resemble). The ecstasy is too fast and frightening. She summons her stepfather, who rushes her to the hospital. They make peace. Later, she encounters Amanda, who is now selling shoes in a department store. After a brief, almost desultory conversation, Amanda walks Sarah to the door of the store and gives her a kiss. Sarah treasures the scent of Amanda, only gradually realizing that what she smells is herself. 

You feel that Sarah has negotiated a tricky passage in her life, but you can’t be sure.

In Look at Me, the escapes are recursive. The principal character, Charlotte Swenson, leads a life of escapes that, finally, she escapes once and for all. A rough schematic of her career would have her escaping her childhood home, Rockford, Illinois, at the earliest possible moment, for a life of modelling in New York, where she is happily married for a few years only to find, on assignment in Paris, that she must escape that life. She continues to be a successful model, but she escapes New York at last, on an impromptu road trip with a mysterious foreigner whom she hardly knows. Their destination? Rockport! The foreigner wants to see the heartland. But the road trip turns into something that Charlotte has to escape — which she very nearly kills herself doing. After a long  recuperation (and this is where the novel begins), Charlotte returns to New York to try to resurrect her career, but her reconstructed face is not what it was, and she winds up participating in a bizarre docu-drama about her own (failed) life. In the act of playing herself, Charlotte finally finds resolution — by selling her identity to an Internet outfit that has weirdly prefigures the social network. 

The three other important characters, Charlotte Hauser, her uncle, “Moose” Metcalf,  and the mysterious foreigner, are also engaged in escapes. What is omitted is the reason, the cause, the emergency, the whatever-it-is that makes Egan’s characters believe that they must escape. But it would not be wrong to say that their maneuvers often begin with something that feels wrong and bad and exactly right.

Reading A Visit From the Goon Squad last year was a revelation, but it remains one that I don’t quite understand, and in a series of entries here I want to come to terms with that. I have read Look at Me and The Keep twice; I shall re-read Visit as I work on this project. I don’t mean to slight The Invisible Circus, Egan’s first novel; it’s a great read, not least because it contains the most sustained (but not prolonged) incidents of sexual surrender that I’ve encountered between the covers of a novel. But it did not leave me with the unsettling uncertainty with which I came to the end of the two middle novels, both of which are virtuoso performances as well as ripping yarns. 

Daily Office: Matins
TransPonding
Thursday, 10 February 2011

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

We’re glad that we don’t belong to the Century Association, because we should have had a very hard time deciding how to vote on reciprocity with London’s Garrick Club. The Garrick does not admit women — neither did the Century, until state law obliged it to do so in 1988 — and female members of the New York Club cannot enter its premises unattended by a male member. After a great deal of hooing and hahing, a majority of Centurions voted to terminate reciprocity — clearly the correct decision in the long term. But where we actually live and work is in the short term, and we can well understand why Marion Seldes, a Centurion who wouldn’t have any trouble finding escorts, will miss the chance to haunt the Garrick’s “romantic” precincts. However! Our mind might have been made up for us if we had overheard the following intemperate outburst:

Inside the club, tensions grew. Several female members described fraught exchanges with male counterparts. “Who do you think you are,” a male member asked one of them, “telling me what I can do?” It felt, one member said, as if some in the club were relitigating the original decision to admit women, who now constitute a quarter of its ranks.

Further evidence, if it is wanted, that clueless boors continue to walk the corridors of power will be found in Raymond Hernandez’s dismally delicious story about resigning Congressman Christopher Lee — to whom it apparently never occurred that a prospective inamorata might employ Google to spare herself some heartache. Serves him right: the lady asked, and told.

Daily Office: Vespers
Yeah, Right
Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Today’s prize for Rank Disingenuousness goes to Steven Behar, who is in litigation with Silvercup Studios about his appropriation of the name for a nearby hotel and his registration of a domain name.

Mr. Bahar, who is also known as Steven Baharestani, maintained in a telephone interview that he was not thinking of the bakery or the studio when he chose the name for his hotel.

“Somebody had suggested that name,” he said. “I’m a tennis player. I immediately thought of tennis, golf, hockey. When you win, you get a silver cup. That’s what I thought of.”

[snip]

As for why he had sought to register the Web address silvercupstudio.com — which does not lead to a live site — Mr. Bahar said his lawyer had told him not to answer questions about that.

James Barron has another Queens-side story, about an Italianate villa surrounded by hulking body shops in Steinway. (It was, in fact, built by George Steinway.) You can see it for yourself on Google Maps; it’s on 41st Street between 19th Avenue and Berrian Boulevard.

Mad Men Note:
Contra Mendelsohn

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

David Mendelsohn launches his fond disparagement of Mad Men as an odious comparison to such shows as The Wire, The Sopranos, and Friday Night Lights. 

With these standouts (and there are many more), Mad Men shares virtually no significant qualities except its design. The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.

Once you’ve read this, you know that Jon Hamm is going to get hammered; the only question is, how soon. Mendelsohn takes his time: the bomb drops toward the end of his essay’s second section. 

The acting itself is remarkably vacant, for the most part—none more so than the performance of Jon Hamm as Don. There is a long tradition of American actors who excel at suggesting the  unconventional and sometimes unpleasant currents coursing beneath their appealing all-American looks: James Stewart was one, Matt Damon is another now. By contrast, you sometimes have the impression that Hamm was hired because he looks like the guy in the old Arrow Shirt ads: a foursquare, square-jawed fellow whose tormented interior we are constantly told about but never really feel. With rare exceptions (notably Robert Morse in an amusing cameo as the eccentric Japanophile partner Bert Cooper), the actors in this show are “acting the atmosphere,” as directors like to say: they’re playing “Sixties people,” rather than inhabiting this or that character, making him or her specific. A lot of Mad Men is like that.

I haven’t seen either The Wire or Friday Night Lights, and, on the basis of the few episodes that I watched, I found the world of The Sopranos to be distasteful — distasteful for the very reason why I’ve enjoyed Mad Men. Mad Men comes closer than any show that I’ve seen to portraying the world that I grew up in. I like to think that I’ve outgrown that world, but there are things about it that I haven’t put behind me, and one of them is a sniffy disdain for Italian-Americans with dodgy connections who live in New Jersey or on Long Island. I’ll watch a good movie about mobsters — Goodfellas has been a fave since the first time I saw it — but two hours is enough; I can’t take an interest in those people that brings me to the television set week after week. In short, I’m in no position to argue with Mendelsohn about the comparative merits of other TV shows. I have a hard enough time watching Mad Men, because it really is the only television that I watch (aside from not-enough TV5, the French-language channel), and I’m not in the habit of showing up for something on time in my own home. 

I do watch Mad Men, though, but not for the interesting reasons that Mendelsohn proposes. In his view, the popularity of Mad Men reflects the grave curiosity of the children in the show, whose real-world counterparts have grown up to form the bulk of its audience. As one of the oldest baby boomers, I’m a bit older than that; I started working at a summer job on Wall Street in 1964, a period that lay in the future when Mad Men began but that has since been left behind. And I’m here to tell you that Mad Men captures not only what that world looked like, but what it felt like as well. And what it felt like was a zizzing nothing, an anxious emptiness.

I watch Mad Men because it makes me feel lucky: I outlived that barren time! Although I disagree with Daniel Mendelsohn’s conclusions about the quality of Mad Men, I agree with many of his observations, only I apply them the United States of 1960, not to Matthew Weiner’s “soap opera.” “Remarkably vacant” is how I would describe the lives of the adults I saw in our prosperous Westchester suburb. We inhabited an atmosphere of phoney optimism that was sustained by overlooking and forgetting the facts of life. It was a time of deliberate inattentiveness to anything beyond the fetishistic palette of appearances, and oblivion about the past. People make silly exaggerated claims about the impact of the Internet on daily life now, but the late Fifties and early Sixties were ensorcelled by a pious devotion to the idea that baroque automobiles and domestic appliances would regenerate human nature. 

Mendelsohn speaks admiringly of the “darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures” of The Wire and The Sopranos. I can’t imagine anything that would be more out of place in a show about the advertising executives of fifty years ago than tragic necessity. He complains about the inconsequence of many of the narrative threads. I recall a period when just about the only dependable causal relationship was the one between showing up at work and getting paid. Everything else was variable: sometimes interesting but mostly boring — boring and small. You can recreate this world by following a jiffy recipe from one of the period’s many breezy cookbooks: you will wonder why you took the trouble to produce a dish with so little flavor. Insipid edibles were made appealing by exotic serving vessels — fondue pots, clever platters and bowls for dips for Jell-O salads, and outdoor grills. (That these are all still with us doesn’t mean that we need them as we used to do.) The world was painted in saturated pastels that spoke of summer on Mars. Grown men and women talked about nothing: golf and bridge and vacation and novelty. Earnestness of any kind was shunned: the ideal was a “fun” person, someone with a macaroni backbone. The adults of the Western World had annihilated themselves in the final paroxysm of the French Revolution, and seniority devolved upon adolescent postwar Americans who mistook their zealous careerism for maturity. (Even motherhood was a career.) 

I watch Mad Men with the satisfaction that you might feel passing by the marked grave of serial murderer who claimed a victim from your family: I like being sure that it’s really dead. And I mean it literally when I say that Jon Hamm’s impersonation of Don Draper is divine: he not only looks like a god but his eyes crinkle with the pained wisdom of Wotan: alone of his tribe, he knows that not even gods are immortal. He has the grace to avoid the tragic implications of his role; fretting would be bad style. He is a resistance fighter without a cause, a man doing his best to find interest in a wilfully uninteresting world. Jon Hamm is just about perfect as the existentialist hero of an alienated time. I like to think, for his sake, that he’s acting.

Daily Office: Matins
Social Impact Bonds
Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

We’re pleased, this morning, to learn about social impact bonds, which inject “market discipline” into public welfare, by rewarding investors in measurably successful programs. We like the structural indirection, which de-politicizes the business end of making society better, and the idea of harnessing private investment to a limited time-span (the life of the bonds), after which programs that work can be taken over by the government or, even better, spun off as not-for-profit enterprises suits our vision of post-capitalist commerce.

Antony Bugg-Levine of the Rockefeller Foundation told me it had invested in the project for two main reasons. One, it expected to get its money back and then be able to reuse it. Two, if social impact bonds work, they have the potential to attract for-profit investors — and vastly expand the pool of capital that’s available for social programs.

Clearly, social impact bonds have limitations. For starters, it’s hard to see how private money could ever pay for multibillion-dollar programs like Medicaid or education.

Just as important, the execution of any bond program will be complicated. It will depend on coming up with the right performance measures, which is no small matter. Done wrong, the measures will end up rewarding programs lucky (or clever) enough to enroll participants who are more likely to succeed no matter what.

But whatever the caveats about the bonds, the potential for improving the government’s performance is obviously huge. That’s true in education, health care, criminal justice and many other areas.

Daily Office: Vespers
Indispensable
Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

The death of Digital Equipment founder Ken Olson has prompted a bit of sniggering; the late entrepreneur dismissed the personal computer as a toy for playing video games that would never find a place in the business world. But as Bill Gates is the first to point out, there would have been no personal computer without DEC’s generation of minicomputers.

Mr. Olsen and his younger brother Stan lived their passion for electronics in the basement of their Stratford home, inventing gadgets and repairing broken radios. After a stint in the Navy at the end of World War II, Mr. Olsen headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering. He took a job at M.I.T.’s new Lincoln Laboratory in 1950 and worked under Jay Forrester, who was doing pioneering work in the nascent days of interactive computing.

In 1957, itching to leave academia, Mr. Olsen, then 31, recruited a Lincoln Lab colleague, Harlan Anderson, to help him start a company. For financing they turned to Georges F. Doriot, a renowned Harvard Business School professor and venture capitalist. According to Mr. Colony, Digital became the first successful venture-backed company in the computer industry. Mr. Anderson left the company shortly afterward, leaving Mr. Olsen to put his stamp on it for more than three decades.

In Digital’s often confusing management structure, Mr. Olsen was the dominant figure who hired smart people, gave them responsibility and expected them “to perform as adults,” said Edgar Schein, who taught organizational behavior at M.I.T. and consulted with Mr. Olsen for 25 years. “Lo and behold,” he said, “they performed magnificently.”

Reading Note:
Power Play
Damon Galgut’s “The Follower”

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Yesterday at Crawford Doyle, I was moved by an unforeseen whim to pick up Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, one of the many Man Booker 2010 finalists that I did not read last year. From Maria Russo’s review in the Times I got the impression — read in by me, I’m afraid — that the narrator of the book’s three linked novella was a bit of a masochist who couldn’t be comfortable with comfort. Now I can’t remember what made me change my mind. Nor can I remember what made me pick the book up last night, instead of the dozens of others that I’m in the middle of. It seems that the experience of reading In a Strange Room has blotted out the traces that led me to it. Reading the first story, “The Follower,” was certainly a surprising experience, for the last thing I expected was that I’d be laughing out loud, wishing that I could read out some of the more pungent bits to friends.

Two men, a German and a South African, meet on a road in Greece, heading in opposite directions. The next thing you know, the German has changed course, and the two men are visiting a ruin together. Reiner, the German, retails the story of Agamemnon’s bloody welcome-home after the Trojan War. Then, like a boy who has tired of a plaything, he claims not to take much interest in myths, and proposes a climb up the neighboring mountain. Why, asks Damon, the South African.

Because, he says. He is smiling again, there is a peculiar glint in his eye, some kind of challenge has been issued that it would be failure to refuse.

They start to climb. On the lower slope there is a ploughed field they walk carefully around, then the mountain goes up steeply, they pick their way through undergrowth and pull themselves through branches. The higher they go the more jumbled and dangerous the rocks become. After an hour or so they have come out on a lower shoulder of the mountain with its tall peak looming overhead, but he [Damon] doesn’t want to go further than this. Here, he says. Here, Reiner says, looking up, have you had enough. Yes. There is a moment before the answer comes, okay, and when they settle themselves on a rock the German has a strange sardonic look on his face.

Reiner explains to his new friend that he’s taking a trip in order to think through whether he ought to get married. Damon replies that he is simply trying to forget someone, and that this someone is not a woman.

Reiner makes a gesture on the air, as if he is throwing something away. A man or a woman, he says, it makes no difference to me.

And it doesn’t, because it isn’t sex that draws Reiner to Damon. And let it be noted that the follower here is Reiner. It is Reiner who changes his plans at the beginning, and Reiner who flies to South Africa so that he and Damon can go hiking there. Damon’s desire for Reiner does not really seem to be any clearer. In comparison to Damon’s “thin and pale and edible” body, Reiner’s is “brown and hard, perfectly proportioned.

He knows that he is beautiful and somehow this makes him ugly.

Of course it does, because in fact you cannot know that you are beautiful; you can know only that your appearance gives you power over other people. To add the consciousness of this power to your beauty is to turn it into a weapon.

Galgut’s understatement about a man’s desire for another man would be irritating if he did not exploit it to demonstrate how, when two men decide to engage with one another beyond the conventions of friendly mutual cooperation, their relationship, whether eroticized or not, will be clouded by claims of power and priority, both real and imagined. As Reiner and Damon push themselves rather pointlessly through the unwelcoming landscape of Lesotho, the childishness of their power struggle manages, in Galgut’s laconic prose, to seem more inadvertently funny than exasperating.

Over the top of the ridge on the right there is a steep drop, halfway down is a cave larger than the one they slept in last night. Reiner wants to climb to it. But it’s a long way down. So what. So we have to climb back up again. So what. There is another moment of unspoken conflict, the sardonic mockery in the dark eyes of the one man wins over the reluctance of the weaker man, they pick their way down between boulders and aloes, loose pebbles scattering under their feet.

But is Damon the weaker man? It suits him to say so — just as it suits him to strike the note of “sardonic mockery.” In fact, Damon’s one moment of weakness comes when he loses it after a storm, and pours forth a denunciation of his companion, whereupon he abandons their trek. Not following Reiner — that is the weakness. Later, when both men are in Pretoria, still interested in one another but too vain to meet, Damon realizes that Reiner is telling people a version of the story in which he, Damon, is the bad friend. “The two stories push against each other, they will never be reconciled, he wants to argue and explain till the other story disappears.” That’s what I mean by “both real and imagined.” Reiner really indulges in power plays, but that’s not to say that Damon’s understanding of them is not somewhat  imaginary. There is no objective reality here, only a bristling competition of motives, both between the men and within each of them. 

I don’t think that I’ve ever seen the hopeless combination of manly moodiness, caprice, and mortal one-upsmanship presented so starkly and unsentimentally, not even in film. Galgut doesn’t give his characters the chance to kid us with the pretense of grown-up feelings. We’re taught that maturity follows puberty because puberty teaches us that other people feel things as deeply as we do. And maybe it does. But Galgut’s two followers are proof that puberty doesn’t necessarily make us care.

In a Strange Room is not billed as a novel, and that’s just as well, because the “three journeys” of its subtitle are very different trips, and the third story, while highly dramatic in itself, does not serve as any kind of climax to the foregoing two. If anything, it stands for the proposition that climaxes occurring in later life, while more harrowing, carry less significance. What’s very interesting and character-forming for a twentysomething is likely to be blankly catastrophic for someone over fifty, while, from the observer’s standpoint, the amusingly quirky behavior of callow youth is likely or ought to be smoothed out almost to blandness by middle age.  

Daily Office: Matins
Sinking Fund
Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Nothing betrays the adolescent nature of American society — its heedless emphasis on the present moment; its revulsion at the very idea of long-term thinking — than our decaying infrastructure. Not surprisingly, things decay faster in New Jersey, where Hudson waterfront piers and other structures less than twenty years old are crumbling into the river.

Hoboken’s tale is a variation on themes heard around the country — politicians who preferred cutting ribbons on new projects to taking care of old ones, governments that spent their way into debt even when times were relatively good, and new executives taking office and finding that things were much worse than they realized.

There have been similar problems in other towns along the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, conceived as an unbroken strip from the Bayonne Bridge to the George Washington Bridge, but they have been most pronounced in Hoboken.

“It seems almost criminal that it’s come to this,” said Helen S. Manogue, president of the Hudson River Waterfront Conservancy, which promotes the walkway project. “It seems like nobody allowed for what a brutal environment the river is to build in — not the towns, not the developers, not the engineers.”

If you want to know where all this will be taking us, if we don’t decide to grow up and take responsibility for the future, you can always watch Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.

Daily Office: Vespers
Haughty and Wounded
Monday, 7 February 2011

Monday, February 7th, 2011

David Carr laughs out loud at the libel suit brought by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder against the Washington City Paper; he calls the complaint “a kitchen sink of splendors,” which we believe is meant to be taken sarcastically.

Sports team owners, a historically entitled bunch — you don’t buy the biggest toys in town unless you feel you deserve them — are particularly sensitive to the tough coverage that goes with owning a sports franchise. And if Mr. Snyder really wanted to quash the City Paper article, the lawsuit didn’t help.
[snip]
The complaint manages to sound both haughty and wounded, suggesting City Paper “crossed every line of ethics and decency.” What the newspaper seems really guilty of is picking a target with a lot of time and money on his hands. It is the off-season, after all.

Let’s just hope that Mr Carr’s laughter dosn’t turn out to look premature.

Nano Note:
Contracts

Monday, February 7th, 2011

For some reason, I’ve been listening to the Ring cycle. Last week, I was about to embark on a tedious household project when it occurred to me that I’d really like to hear Das Rheingold. I’m sure that I’m not the only Wagner fan who nurses a secret preference for the first opera in the tetralogy; and I’m just as sure that I wouldn’t like it nearly so much if it weren’t so pregnant with everything that follows. Rheingold is more pageant than opera — there are no mortal characters — and its four scenes have a ceremonial sequence. (The only other part of the Ring that’s ceremonial in the same mythic way is the Q&A between Mime and the Wanderer in the first act of Siegfried. There’s lots of ceremony in the Ring, but it is subsumed within the operatic drama.) Rheingold‘s ending is stupendously pretty — “Heda! Hedo!,” followed by the shimmering Rainbow Bridge — and it always makes me think of a deeply-upholstered country-house weekend.

What the Ring has never made me think of is the critique of capitalism that it’s often said to be, and that it was made to look like in the great 1976 “Chéreau” Ring from Bayreuth, which spruced up the décor with references to Victorian clothing and Beaux-Arts design. Even after that, I was unpersuaded. The Ring has always struck me as being a lot bigger than “capitalism” — a term that is usually misunderstood by the people who throw it around. The Ring, it has always seemed to me, is about power, and that’s what makes it different from other operas, which are all about love and family. Power as an overarching, timelessly human problem. Not as an allegory of the Nineteenth Century’s bourgeoisie.

But this time, it’s different. I’m thinking a lot about contract. The problem that engenders the entire plot of the Ring cycle can be described in a short phrase: an unavoidable contract turns out to have unfortunate consequences. In sixteen hours of drama, we watch gods and heroes squirm within the constraints of the deals that they’ve made. Wagner is so good at coaxing tragedy from the Ring‘s contracts that we’re put in mind of the relentlessness of Greek drama. But Greek drama is overshadowed by divine caprice, and the Greek gods are spectacularly unfettered by the promises that they make. Wagner’s Wotan & Co is very much at home in the Industrial Revolution, which took place, after all, because the governments of Western Europe and North America invested business contracts with the same sacred insuperability that renders Wagner’s Valhalla defenseless against the flames of the pyre that Brünnhilde mounts at the end of Götterdämmerung.

The sacredness of contract has become a bit of a headache lately. At one end of the spectrum, we have bondholders, the vast majority of whom have lent their money to borrowers on the understanding that there won’t be any problems about repayment with interest. At the other end, we have the public-sector workers who were promised retirement benefits that states and municipalities can’t afford to pay. It’s important to note that neither bondholders nor pensioners are productive; they don’t do anything but collect payments. Does this make them parasites? To the worldview that Wagner’s Ring portrays, certainly not: nothing is more important than honoring the bond — the oath, the promise; call it what you like — that arises from a legitimate contract. To permit dishonor is to undo the basis of social obligation. But you know me and “honor” — I think it’s unhealthy.

I remember my father’s distress when, in the early Eighties, his 16% bonds were about to mature. Imagine paying sixteen percent in interest! But that’s what a lot of municipalities were reduced to in the late Seventies. It oughtn’t to have been necessary, but the country’s finances were already so shakily run that such inequities erupted like pimples on a teenager’ face, as they’ve been doing ever since. Dad actually expected me to commiserate: no more sixteen percent! The poor guy! Nor, by the same token, have I been able to enter into the glee expressed by government workers whom I’ve known as they’ve retailed their generous retirement benefits — benefits enacted by reckless, I’ll-be-dead-by-then politicians.

The Immolation Scene that concludes the Ring is grand opera at its grandest, and the inexorability of Wotan’s promises has a great deal to do with its power. But I’m not willing to see the world around me go the way of Walhall for that kind of reason.

Daily Office: Matins
Sacrificial
Monday, 7 February 2011

Monday, February 7th, 2011

The United States is much bigger than Europe, with far more moving parts. But that shouldn’t mask the awful resemblances. There are plenty of Ahmed Ezzes in this country; let’s hope that a few of them figure out how not to be scapegoated.

Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt has long functioned as a state where wealth bought political power and political power bought great wealth. While hard facts are difficult to come by, Egyptians watching the rise of a moneyed class widely believe that self-dealing, crony capitalism and corruption are endemic, represented in the public eye by a group of rich businessmen aligned with Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, as well as key government ministers and governing party members.

We’ve already had our Gamal.

Weekend Update:
In Which Will and I Pay a Call

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

This afternoon, Will and I paid our first social call. Until now, our Sunday walks across the East Village have always had the same destination, St Mark’s Bookshop, on Third Avenue at Stuyvesant Street. I’ve longed to go someplace where we might take off our coats, sit down for a minute, and visit. The “visit” part, of course, would consist of my showing off my grandson to admiring friends. But that’s putting it crudely. Will would show himself off, without any plugging from me. And that’s exactly what happened today.

From the moment that I unzipped his snowsuit and sat him on my knee, he behaved like an angel — and angel who dropped a lot of crumbs on the floor, but an angel all the same. He munched on bits of mini-cupcakes from Le pain quotidian — our hostess bought them specially for our visit — and took a few sips of water. But it was obvious that his attention was held by new people and new surroundings, and not once did he attempt to place himself at the center of ours. After half an hour or so, I felt that we had visited for long enough, and I zipped Will up without any making any announcements. I had to be helped a bit with his arms and legs; this was the first time that I had taken him out of the Becco carrier, much less unzipped his coat, without one of his parents’ being in the vicinity. Getting him back into the carrier was awkward, too, but Will didn’t complain.

When we got back to Will’s house, his mother was a little bit anxious; we’d been gone for almost two times longer than ever before. And Will had fallen asleep as we walked thorugh Tomkins Square Park. Was he okay? Watching Megan peer at him with concern just about sank me, but as I lifted him out of the carrier he showed all the desired signs of life. Waking up, he looked just like hisGreat Grand Uncle Fossil after a nap — faintly surprised to find himself on Planet Earth, still, but deeply pleased to have stolen a few Zs.

But I’d forgotten that I’m an old man. Buoyed up by the mildness in the air — it wasn’t warm by any means, but there was no bite to the temperature — I’d walked across the East Village as if I were worried about being late, which is standard whenever I’m doing something for the first time. When we got to the house of our friend (whose delightful contribution to our Valentine’s Tea next weekend gave me the delightful idea of picking it up at her house today) I was a Niagara of perspiration. I was even damper when we got back to Loisaida Avenue (via St Mark’s Bookshop, natch). I didn’t stay long at the O’Neills’; I wanted to be sure of catching a cab before the witching hour of 4 PM. I asked to be dropped off at Agata & Valentina, where I picked up a few supplies (but not the pancetta that was on the list that I’d — left at home; just as well; the charcuterie counter was mobbed). When I walked back outside, my undershirt went chilly, and I knew that I’d better get home and into dry clothes as quickly as possible. What I didn’t expect was that the moment I sat down, showered and dressed, I’d feel totally bushed. Well, duh. (But that’s why Advil was invented.)

When we crossed Second Avenue the first time, I pointed uptown and told Will that Doodad’s place was eighty-two blocks thataway. “That’d be a long walk! But we’ll do it someday.” After today, the sky’s the limit.