Daily Office: Tuesday


¶ Matins: China’s purchase of American debt has slowed down, according to a recent report. As long as it doesn’t simply stop altogether (gulp)….

¶ Lauds: Green Porno, with Isabella Rosselini. These birds-‘n’-bees audio-visuals are almost okay for kids. Except of course for Ms Rosselini’s delicious naughtiness.

¶ Prime: Geoffrey Pullum, a professor of English and linguistics at Edinburgh, doesn’t think much of The Elements of Style, and will not be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. (via Arts Journal)

¶ Tierce: The Ford Foundation, our second largest, has streamlined its operations. This is not a cutback so much as a reconception of “lines of work” — an intellectual advance.

¶ Sext: Culinary professional Peter Hertzmann may convince you that you need an iPod Touch more than a new KitchenAid stand mixer. Wholly Apps!

¶ Nones: Jonathan Head’s BBC report, appraising the latest, and inevitable, wave of unrest in Thailand highlights the core problem for most sovereignties since 1789: nurturing an élite that has the common sense to avoid disenfranchising the lower strata of society.

¶ Vespers: What, exactly, is a novella? A short novel, or a long story? At hitheringandthithering waters, John Madera collects a number of reasonably learned opinions — or, at least (and what is better), reading lists. (via The Second Pass)

¶ Compline: Simon Blackburn argues (at some length, alas) that David Hume is very much the man for our times.

I suspect that many professional philosophers, including ones such as myself who have no religious beliefs at all, are slightly embarrassed, or even annoyed, by the voluble disputes between militant atheists and religious apologists. As Michael Frayn points out in his delightful book The Human Touch, the polite English are embarrassed when the subject of religion crops up at all. But we have more cause to be uncomfortable.

The annoyance comes partly because of the strong sense of deja vu. But it is not just that old tunes are being replayed, but that they are being replayed badly. The classic performance was given by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, written in the middle of the 18th century. Hume himself said that nothing could be more artful than the Dialogues, and it is the failure to appreciate that art that is annoying.


§ Matins. The final paragraph of Keith Bradsher’s story fascinates me, though.

But China’s economy appears to be bouncing back from the global economic downturn faster than its trade partners’ economies. If that proves true, the result could be an increase in imports to China while its exports recover less briskly. This would limit trade surpluses and leave the People’s Bank with less money to plow into foreign reserves.

But what, beside oil and recyclables, does China import in any significant way? The idea of a vast Chinese import market has beguiled — and befuddled — Western merchants ever since the Nineteenth Century, even though the only commodity that sold was opium.

§ Lauds. The Season 2 videos are about 50% credits, but just let ’em roll: the next one will start in a moment. Be sure to see the Whale (Season 2) and the Snail (Season 1).

§ Prime. To tell you the truth, neither do I — not as a practical guide, anyway. As far as I can tell, “Strunk & White” plays into masculine fears of seeming womanish; hence such prudish rules as “Write with nons and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.” Which would be bad enough if the magisters followed their own advice. Professor Pullum is a close reader:

(The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”

That’s actually not just three strikes, it’s four, because in addition to contravening “positive form” and “active voice” and “nouns and verbs,” it has a relative clause (“that can pull”) removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: “Keep related words together.”

§ Tierce. Much as it hurts me to praise the progeny of McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm of the Foundation’s current head, Luis Urbiñas, is an alumnus, the reorganization instituted under his watch appears to be intellectually elegant.

Some 200 hundred areas of focus, or “lines of work,” have been consolidated under 35 headings. This means that, instead of treaing, say “Native american arts and culture” as a distinct line of work, it is now considered as a variation on the theme of “promoting native, indigenous and minority contemporary artists.

We all need to organize our work with cubbyholes, but the distinction without a difference remains bureaucracy’s besetting chronic illness, especially difficult to root out when human managers develop territorial imperatives.

So far, so good.

The reorganization has caused discomfort among foundation staff members whose distinct roles have been eliminated, but so far, Ford has not experienced an exodus and the overhaul has not included a staff reduction.

§ Sext. Mr Hertzmann has been using PDAs in the kitchen since a mid-Nineties Psion, so he came to the iPod Touch with plenty of knowhow. His reconstruction of the thinking and experience that went into the deployment of his “new best friend” is even more interesting than the list of handy applications that he has adapted for it.

I’d been looking at the iPhone as a way to reduce the amount of things I had to bring with me when I travelled, but there didn’t seem to be a way to duplicate all the features of my Palm. Then two events changed my outlook: Apple released Version 2 of the iPhone/iPod Touch software and I had the chance to play with some of the new applications on my son’s iPod Touch. So in November, 2008, I purchased an iPod Touch—my current cell phone is adequate for my needs and pocket book—and started downloading applications. I thought I was just buying a replacement for my Palm, but what I got has become my new best friend in the kitchen. Not that I needed another cooking gadget, but nowadays I don’t walk into the kitchen to cook, teach, or work without my iPod Touch in my pocket.

§ Nones. It’s a very hard lesson to learn. As Anna Russell observed, “It’s very, very funny, when you’ve lots and lots of money, to be horrible to those with none!”

Just as it’s the core problem posed to any government in a democratic age, so it’s the core American achievement to have developed a strain of inbred altruism in its élites. The American problem is a strange variant: it’s hard, in this country, to get anyone to admit to belonging to the élite. This misplaced modesty effectively opens the door to delusional self-pity among the newly-moneyed, who are merely rich and certainly not élite. Ever since Andrew Jackson, socially established Americans have been inclined to shrink from the direct exercise of power. But the charitable impulse is very strong, as is the dedication to public welfare.

§ Vespers. Two classics that come up on nearly everybody’s list — Heart of Darkness and Death in Venice —seem to point to a useful definition of the novella as a reduced novel rather than as an extended story; novellas feel, above, all concentrated. For this reason, I disagree with Carole Maso about Ethan Frome; I see it as a short, but not concentrated, novel.

Michael Martone includes Ordinary Love and Good Will, which is the title of Jane Smiley’s collection of two fictions; the first, Ordinary Love, seems to me to be an extended story, while Good Will is one of the most powerful novels that I’ve ever read. (It packs the intense wallop of a Greek tragedy, and in fact worked very well in a stage adaptation a while back.)

Although somebody mentions Daniel Clowes’s David Boring — a graphic I couldn’t get through because it really was pretty boring (at best!) — the name of Adrian Tomine doesn’t come up. I’ve been catching up on Mr Tomine’s fiction, which I would not hestitate to classify among the novellas.

Gun to my head, I’d blabber something about the short story’s foundations in events, and the novella’s in problems. To put it another way, short stories are about chance, but novellas are about destiny. Anything can happen in a short story; the whole point of a great novella is that only what happens could have happened.

§ Compline.
What did Hume believe?

Hume elegantly sidesteps the common charge that dogmatic atheism is just as much a “matter of faith” as faith itself. You cannot make that claim against someone whose mocking irony is careful to issue no “ism” at all.

He also escapes the debating point that atheism is “parasitic” on religious belief. A contented absence of belief is no more parasitic on what is absent than the absence of crocodiles in England is parasitic on them being there, although it is also true that you could not laugh at faiths without them being there to laugh at.

But it is also wrong to call Hume an agnostic. That would imply a definite question about which we do not know the answer. But since there is no definite question at stake, that too lapses.