Daily Office:
Wednesday, 7 July 2010


¶ In the Washington Post, education columnist Jay Matthews shares the experience of an Advanced Placement chemistry teacher who was surprised to find that four serious underachievers (“‘Angry’ threw rubber snappers and tried to burn random things in lab.”) were learning all the same. (via Good)

Angry said he never had to study for Chemistry, unlike his roommates. Sweetie said she learned so much in AP that her Chem class is easy now. All the students reported that they had been unmotivated for one reason or another in my class in 2004. Some had family or medical issues that interfered with their learning, some said they were just lazy.

My main point is that they ALL reported that they learned a ton in AP Chemistry, even though their performance in the class did not indicate such. They told me that their performance in college Chemistry was due to what they learned in AP Chemistry. They shared that their classmates who never had AP Chem in high school were really struggling with the college content and the way it was taught. But for my students, the content had finally “clicked.”

Surely the best thing that our most exclusive colleges and universities could do for the United States would be to favor applicants with International Baccalaureates.


¶ Rome in the Age of Berlusconi… sigh. Michael Kimmelman, deftly treating the Eternal City as a work of art that’s in grave need of a curator, notes that .21 % of the government’s budget is spent on cultural maintenance; perhaps UNESCO ought to take over. (NYT)

This area where the Pigorini is, by contrast, never took off as it was meant to before the war. Most Romans don’t venture to the ethnography museum after grade school, although they’ll wax nostalgic when reminded of it. Mr. Fuksas’s building adds a giant bauble in what’s still the middle of nowhere, albeit it’s too early to say for sure what this stretch of suburb will become when the congress hall opens, and housing arrives. What’s clear is only that the effort to push Rome’s livable, cultural space outward from the center is a step in the right direction. Just a step.

Or, as Mr. Fuksas phrased it, “Architecture is interesting, but by itself it means nothing.”

Especially when some of the best of it is falling down. Exhibit A: the Domus Aurea, the Golden Villa that Nero built near the Colosseum, where a vaulted gallery fell this spring. Nobody was hurt, fortunately. That’s because the place has been closed since 2008, plagued by structural problems and humidity, which threatens the frescoes. To much fanfare, the city opened part of the site for tourists in 1999. Then heavy rain collapsed a section of roof, the site was closed, reopened a while later, then closed again.

A commission assigned to address the problem spent millions but didn’t forestall the latest mishap. Construction workers were fussing with earthmovers, bits and pieces of ancient columns, broken pots and scaffolding one recent morning. Fedora Filippi, a veteran archaeologist lately put in charge, pointed out where the roof gave way in what is actually an adjacent gallery built under Trajan, after Nero. Rain seeped from a park above, she said. Everybody has known about the leaking for ages. But the park is city-owned, and the Domus Aurea is national property, so the problem is no one’s to solve.


¶ Felix Salmon is delightfully unimpressed by Sebastian Mallaby’s claim that the quants at Renaissance Technologies are too, too special to suffer regulation, and he makes short work of that. And, furthermore….

Besides which, I’m not at all convinced that the best way to deal with investment risk is to start paying billionaires 2-and-20 to manage your money for you. For a good example, look at RenTech itself: the funds which are available to the public, RIEF and RIFF, have dropped to $6 billion of late, down from $30 billion in 2007; they might be closed down altogether. Clearly, RenTech’s management are better at enriching themselves than they are at building a long-term franchise for stewarding other people’s money.


¶ What language instinct? At Northumbria University, Ewa Dabrowska makes the shocking discovery that many high-school dropouts really don’t understand English grammar. (via  The Awl)

“Of course some people are more literate, with a larger vocabulary and greater exposure to highly complex literary constructions. Nevertheless, at a fundamental level, everyone in a linguistic community is supposed to share the same core grammar, in the same way that given normal development we can all walk.”

The supposition that everyone in a linguistic community shares the same grammar is a central tenet of Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar. The theory assumes that all children learn language equally well and that there must therefore be an underlying common structure to all languages that is somehow “hard-wired” into the brain.

Dr Dabrowska has examined other explanations for her findings, such as limitations to working memory, and even so-called “test wiseness,” but she concluded that these non-linguistic factors are irrelevant.

She also stressed that the findings have nothing to do with intelligence.

¶ At the Telegraph, a rather sweet interview with Noam Chomsky, in London to give a talk. It’s interviewer’s Nigel Farmdale’s perspective that’s interesting. (via  3 Quarks Daily)

Having said there would be no more linguistics, I find myself back on the subject. What does Chomsky make of stories about undergraduates at British universities having to be taught grammar in their freshman years? To a linguist, one whose own literary style favours phrases such as ‘generative transformational grammar’, that must seem an abomination.

‘Yes, there is that. It is probably down to the texting culture. The use of textonyms and so on. But it is also to do with the way young people read on screen. The digital age cuts back reading and, as a consequence, young people are losing the ability to think seriously. They get distracted more easily, breaking off to check an email. Speed-reading is exactly the wrong thing to do. You have to think about what you are reading.’ He gives me his sideways look. ‘You have to ponder.’


¶ Yesterday, The Bygone Bureau took us to India. Today, it’s New York. Laura Yan writes about growing up to become something like the woman she hoped to become when she arrived as an NYU student — only now she understands that the glamour and excitement are a bit besides the point.

I think of the parties, the concerts, the strange performances in Brooklyn warehouses or costumed affairs in antique mansions. I think of the days wrapped in the covers of my bed, weekend nights spent reading by a soft lamplight. I think of the countless people I’ve met, personalities I never expected. I think of the places I’d worked and the things I encountered, and the adventures I’ve yet to write. I think of how, still, when the city does its worst and failures dance on tense strings in my mind, I can step outside for a walk, and the silky blue green of the water, the orange sunset cast against the rafters of the Williamsburg bridge will remind me of the beauty that is worth all the sacrifice.

And I think, yes, but better. For though I came to New York in part for that elusive inspiration, and that mystical love of the city, I found something far more complex. Bleak in a way, hopeless in a way, but beautiful. And this, as with all love affairs, is endlessly complicated, heavy, wrought with conflicts and dangers at every turn. But as with all affairs worth keeping, when it does go right, it’s the same delirious ecstasy I found on my first day in New York alone. Only this hardly requires elaborate occasions, forced effort. This is a love affair that carries on whether I ask for its attention or want it to slide by. Anyway, when that skyline calls, who am I to resist its summons? I throw on a dress and Ferragamo flats, swing the purse strap over an shoulder, and walk, waiting for New York to answer the prayers I’ve yet to speak.


¶ Barbara Demick’s harrowing piece about the collapse of North Korea’s economy — not much helped by a shotgun devaluation last autumn — is available online only to New Yorker subscribers, but perhaps this passage will convey the sense of a social catastrophe.

Before the devaluation, the Korean won had been trading on the black market at thirty-five hundred to one US dollar. The devaluation would close the gap between the black-market rate of exchange and the official rate, which was about a hundred and sixty won to one dollar, by knocking two zeroes off its value. The economists Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard, who write frequently about North Korea, point out that this is a credible method of shorting up a weak currency; in recent years, Turkey, Romania, and Ghana have executed similar currency devaluations to give their weak currencies respectability. In those cases, though, there was a transition period. In Ghana, the government began a campaign to inform the public seven months before the 2007 changeover took effect, and both the old and the new currency circulated in tandem for six months.

Many North Koreans were given less than twenty-four hours’ notice. Some were informed around noon, and had until 5 PM that day to take their money to cashiers at their workplace. The exchange limit was set at a hundred thousand won, roughly thirty dollars. Panic spread throughout North Korea’s cities. “High-ranking officials with connections changed their money first, and let their relatives know,” Song-hee said. They rushed to get rid of their Korean money, either converting to foreign currency or buying up whatever food or merchandise they could at the market. “But ordinary people — those who live not too well but not too badly, either — they were the ones who were hurt. They all went bust. I don’t know how to explain it. It was as though your head would burst. In one day, all your money was lost. People were taken to the hospital in shock.”

¶ In the Times, Martin Fackler writes about the one remaining link between the two Koreas, the industrial park at Kaesong.

Still, the managers’ biggest difficulty has been a decline in orders from South Korean buyers, who they said had stopped buying from Kaesong factories for fear the complex might suddenly be closed down for political reasons. They also said they were worried that the North would close the complex if the South resumed its political broadcasts.

“We are being used as bargaining chips in a political game,” said Jimmy Bae, director of strategic planning at Cuckoo Electronics, a South Korean electronics company that has a $10 million factory in the complex.

While discerning the North’s intentions is always a challenge, South Korean officials say North Korea has made it clear that it wants to keep the complex open. In late May, North Korean officials told South Korean Ministry of Unification officials that they still wanted to develop the complex, the ministry said. North Korea also announced new rules to restrict the ability of South Korean companies to remove equipment from factories in Kaesong — a move that the South Korean news media interpreted as an attempt to discourage companies from pulling out.


¶ What could be more refreshing than previews of coming literary attractions. From The Millions, the big names: Franzen, Petterson, Shteyngart, Moody, Cunningham, and many others. Anne Yoder’s thumbnail sketch of Antonya Nelson’s new book, Bound, certainly got our attention.

If two women can bond by mutual disdain for a third, then reading Antonya Nelson’s fiction is like being the second woman listening as Nelson dishes tales of family, friends, and small town life with precision, venom, and humor. Typical to Nelson is a swift and biting portrait that’s as honest as it is unsentimental–consider this line from her story “Incognito” for example: “My mother the widow had revealed a boisterous yet needy personality, now that she was alone, and Eddie, least favorite sibling, oily since young, did nothing more superbly than prop her up.” Nelson’s latest novel, Bound, returns to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and depicts the turmoil of a couple on the rocks–the wife haunted by her past and the husband a serial adulterer–while a serial killer, the BTK (Bound Torture, and Kill), reappears after a long silence, taking vicious to a new level.

Meanwhile, at The Second Pass, a quieter list, modestly described as a “Supplement” to the Millions‘. We chuckled:

The Instructions by Adam Levin (November 1)

Levin’s debut novel runs to more than 900 pages, and chronicles four days in the life of Gurion Maccabee, a 10-year-old with a messiah complex. The publisher (McSweeney’s) says the novel combines “the crackling voice of Philip Roth with the encyclopedic mind of David Foster Wallace.” So, no pressure or anything.


¶ At The Infrastructurist, Melissa Lafsky picks up on the story that the Times ran the other day about movie theatres in small Midwestern towns.

Take movie theaters. Towns with a single movie house have long been a symbol for closed-minded intolerance and resistance to change, not to mention the inexorable decline of the small-town lifestyle (think of the dusty, dying Anarene, Texas in The Last Picture Show). But despite the seeming-unstoppable rise of home theaters, cable, and Netflix, the local movie theater is enjoying a revival, maintaining its grasp as a powerful place in rural American communities.

As New York Times reports, these theaters are reclaiming their throwback role as vital community centers — the Saturday night destination for teenagers and couples seeking quality time together, as well as the meeting place where locals can discuss farming practices and watch highlights from the high school football game.

If this is a trend, it will be interesting to watch, because it suggests a profoundly communitarian shift in the heartland of rugged individualism. If you want to live in a small town, you’re going to have to help make it viable.

Have a Look

¶ “10 Crazy-Looking New Deep-Sea Creatures.” (Wired Science)

¶ Project Doodle: Summer in the City. Also: BP’s 1970 board game, Offshore Oil Strike. (Good)

¶ Reports on the relief wells at Zero Hedge, The Oil Drum.