Daily Office:
Friday, 2 July 2010



¶ We can’t remember when it was that we first read some politician’s eyewash about old manufacturing jobs being replaced by technologically advanced new ones — with workers taking some time out for “retraining.” We can’t remember reading such a story without raising our eyebrows. Motoko Rich’s front-page story in today’s Times, “Factory Jobs Return, But Employers Find Skills Shortage,” serves as a kind of hangover-update.

For now, the company urgently needs six machinists to run what are known as computer numerical control — or CNC — machines. An outside recruiter has reviewed 50 résumés in the last month and come up empty.

The jobs, which would pay $18 to $23 an hour, require considerable technical skill. On an afternoon last month, Christopher Debruycker, 34, was running such a machine, the size and shape of a camper van parked on the factory floor.

Mr. Debruycker, who has been an operator for 15 years, had programmed the machine to carve an intricate part for a flight simulator out of a block of aluminum, and he monitored its progress on a control pad with an array of buttons.

“We need 10 more people like him,” Mr. Peterson said.


¶ W S Merwin has been named Poet Laureate — about time, you might say. Mr Merwin is 82, and he lives in Hawai’i, so it’s unlikely that he’ll be commuting to Washington with any frequency. Libarian of Congress James Billington, who oversaw the appointment, is considering remote communications hookups that will allow the poet to entertain Americans with, if not his poetry, his important work with endangered species (Mr Merwin has repopulated a “denuded plantation” with plants at risk). But don’t expect the new laureate to take to digital composition. (NYT)

Mr. Billington said he is confident that Mr. Merwin can broaden the audience for poetry through technology, if not in person: “We even discussed the possibility of doing something using remote technology from Hawaii.”

Mr. Merwin moved there in the mid-1970s to study Zen Buddhism, and now lives with his wife, Paula. He said he has cultivated more than 700 endangered species of indigenous plants on the formerly denuded plantation, including the hyophorbe indica, a palm tree he helped save from extinction.

Using his home as a backdrop would illustrate the connection between Mr. Merwin’s work and “his extraordinary interest and devotion to the natural world,” Mr. Billington said, adding that no definite plans have yet been made.

A high-tech solution to the geographical problem is somewhat unexpected for Mr. Merwin, who said he has never composed a poem on any sort of mechanical or electronic device, preferring a small spiral notebook or even a paper napkin. “It’s the nearest thing to not writing,” Mr. Merwin said. “The more self-conscious it gets, the stiffer it gets.”


¶ In the wake of Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings, the government’s handling of AIG’s collateral crisis has attracted attention. We’re in complete accord with Felix Salmon with regard to the very divided loyalties of Dan Jester and Henry Paulson, Goldman alums who appear to have put their old firm’s interests ahead of all others.

Essentially what happened at AIG was that it bought subprime assets high and was forced, by the government, to sell those same assets low. In doing so, it lost so much money that it had to get bailed out by the government.

Now if the government was going to put up all that money anyway, why not simply lend it to AIG and then let AIG post it as collateral? Or better yet, just provide a government guarantee on AIG’s CDS exposures, in return for a fee, which in turn would keep AIG’s counterparty risk at AAA levels, and would mean that AIG didn’t need to post any collateral at all.

¶ Here’s a new one (insofar as there can be anything new under the sun): a handful of British firms have taken to funding their employees’ pension funds with illiquid assets that, in the case of Diageo, maker of Johnnie Walker, are all-too-liquid.

As part of the deal, Diageo agreed to pay the pension partnership £25 million a year as it sells the recently distilled whiskey once it matures after three years and replaces it with new stock. The agreement would expire after 15 years, at which point Diageo would buy back the whiskey, which comes from distilleries such Oban on the west coast of Scotland.


¶ We’re not surprised to learn that national IQ scores correlate with rates of infectious disease, given that “children under five devote much of their energy to brain development.” (Guardian)

The scientists found that the level of infectious disease in a country was closely linked to the average national IQ. The heavier the burden of disease, the lower the nation’s IQ scores. Thornhill believes that nations who have lived with diseases for long periods may have adapted, by developing better immune systems at the expense of brain function.

“The effect of infectious disease on IQ is bigger than any other single factor we looked at,” said Chris Eppig, lead author on the paper. “Disease is a major sap on the body’s energy, and the brain takes a lot of energy to build. If you don’t have enough, you can’t do it properly.”

“The consequence of this, if we’re right, is that the IQ of a nation will be largely unaffected until you can lift the burden of disease,” Eppig added

We hope that this story will come home, as it were. It applies to poor families everywhere.


¶ Who better to capture the anomie of Pride weekend than Eric Patton? (SORE AFRAID)

Asaph had not wanted to go because he felt that the pier dance is never a fun event, and also that he had too much schoolwork to do.  I have had plenty of terrible times at that dance — in fact, I think I only had fun once, and maybe not even that.  But I had felt like I was missing out last year when I didn’t go.

Darius and I headed over to the pier, where we were first forced to wait in an extremely long line to get in.  Then, once we were inside the pier, we had to wait in another long line to buy drink tickets, and then in another long line to obtain the drinks.  It was like the entire thing had been designed by refugees from the Soviet Union.  I suspected the pornographic director and anti-Muslim advocate Michael Lucas, né Andrei Treivas.

The event was fine, although, in addition to waiting in lines, another key feature is getting lost from everyone you know and experiencing profound alienation and loneliness while surrounded by thousands of euphoric and shirtless men.

This reminds us of what Jonah Lehrer was saying about prediction error. Age seems to be the key. One of the great consolations of old-farthood is that anxiety of maybe missing something evaporates entirely.

The last line of Eric’s entry caused guffaws. We’re sure that we’re seen the joke before (what joke?), but on Eric it looks fresh.


¶ The name of Harlan Ullman, a Washington think-tanker, is new to us, and we have no idea what sort of sharp knives might line his sleeves. But we agree with his “9 Reasons US is Losing in Afghanistan.” From what we can tell, each and every one of the reasons is good, but we especially like the first and the last, which are deeply complementary. (Atlantic Council; via  RealClearWorld)

First, the so-called AfPak strategy is backward. It should be called PakAf as Pakistan is the strategic center of gravity, not Afghanistan. Yet, virtually all of our energy and resources are going into Afghanistan.

Finally, the strategy assumes a largely bilateral approach. Yet, only a regional solution that engages Afghanistan’s neighbors is likely to produce a lasting effect.

Mr Ullman’s list reminds us that our engagement in Afghanistan is doomed only to the extent that it’s basis is stupid.


¶ John Self’s enthusiasm for a book that arrived unsolicited, and that he almost cast aside, is invigorating, even if we’re not sure that we would respond to Greg Baxter’s A Preparation for Death (not a novel) quite so positively. (Asylum)

A Preparation for Death is an account of the frustrations and consolations of literature. In struggling to do it justice, or at least explain its seduction (how it had its easy way with me, as I blushed and giggled like a teenager), I am reduced to impersonating Martin Amis on Saul Bellow, and just quoting paragraph after paragraph.

There are too many days in the week. Too many weeks in the year. Too much space to fill. I would like to have lived for an afternoon only, born at the age of twenty, dead eight hours later, experienced life, all by myself, in a corner apartment with a high view of a busy junction, an ambulance route, a metro entrance, the back of a restaurant, warring neighbours in the corridors, a broken television, an empty bookshelf, and learned only sensitivity, because I would have missed nothing, gained the same experience of life, and would not have grown so addicted to existence that the thought of not existing gives me indigestion and bad dreams.

This passionate ambivalence is all through the book, yet we keep getting trills of warning toward the end that it all might be altering forever. Baxter, we learn, is to become a father. That is why, on the penultimate page, “I plan to separate the self that I shall leave here from the self that will return: to cast the author of this book into a condition of permanent aimlessness,” for fear that otherwise “he will forget the perfection of inexistence. He will grow out of the despair that he worships.” This is the only indication we get of the tsunamic changes parenthood painfully brings. This is not a book about redemption or epiphany. There is light at the end, but it is still around a corner. The book is not about a triumph from disaster; the book is the triumph.


¶ The good folks (kids, sorry) at The Bygone Bureau look back into the distant past… sometime in the Nineties, from the look of it, and remember the creative things things that they used to do with their dial-up connections to the Internet. (Note to Editor: there’s a missing “/” tag somewhere.)

My dad spent a long time on the phone with Mindspring tech support (an ISP that would later merge with Earthlink) while we tried to figure out how to upload Isle Net to our family’s five megabytes of webspace. By the time we had gotten everything up, I had become so enchanted by the idea of making websites that I had decided that I wanted a real domain name. Back then, domains cost $50, and I’ll never understand why my dad spent that money and still let me pick cowfarm.com.

Have a Look

¶ Jay Sauceda’s glorious captures of bygone adverts painted on brick walls. That these signs are still as vividly-colored as they are is amazing. (via  The Best Part)

¶ 8 Fitzroy Street. (The Persephone Post)