Daily Office:
Thursday, 8 July 2010


¶ No one is excited about it but us: we’ve brought the Web log to the iPad. We’ve simplified the design, enlarged the text pane to dimensions that look imbecilic on a conventional monitor, and even closed comments (because who wants to write on an iPad?) At this moment of novelty, then, it’s more interesting than it might be to read The Economist about the slowdown of the Blogosphere, and about how, on the “personal” front at least, it’s losing ground to other media. (via  kottke.org)

The future for blogs may be special-interest publishing. Mr Kelly’s research shows that blogs tend to be linked within languages and countries, with each language-group in turn containing smaller pockets of densely linked sites. These pockets form around public subjects: politics, law, economics and knowledge professions. Even narrower specialisations emerge around more personal topics that benefit from public advice. Germany has a cluster for children’s crafts; France, for food; Sweden, for painting your house.

Such specialist cybersilos may work for now, but are bound to evolve further. Deutsche Blogcharts says the number of links between German blogs dropped last year, with posts becoming longer. Where will that end? Perhaps in a single, hugely long blog posting about the death of blogs.

Not that “the death of blogs” will mean “no more blogging.” That’s never how it works.


¶ The fund-drive to buy the Eighteenth-Century portrait of a slave/slave trader shows how Britain’s wonderful National Portrait Gallery is different. (BBC; via Arts Journal )

The painting according to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is the first known portrait that honours a named African subject as an individual and an equal, and thereby gives a useful insight into Britain in the 18th Century.

This statement tells you all you need to know about what makes the NPG different from and, from the perspective of social history, more interesting than other art galleries. It makes clear that the sitter is more important than the artist. The NPG doesn’t want this painting because it’s an exquisite example of 18th Century British art, but because the story of the sitter and its significance is so compelling.

We don’t believe that the line between aesthetics (the painting’s formal qualities) and reference (the sitter’s identity) is clear at all. To be sure, the NPG contains works by second-rate artists. In many cases, it’s likely that the sitters would not have found first-rate painting to their taste. What’s clear is that, with the exception of a handful of masterpieces, a portrait gallery is a showcase for history.


¶ We admit that we’ll be going over Tyler Cowen’s mini-treatise, “Why Corporations Matter,” with a gimlet eye. The first installment is certainly full of interesting things. But we’re not surprised by the clever resort to early capitalism, when investors knew where to find the managers to whom they’d given their money, as an explanation for what’s going on now with colossal business organizations that can expand only by resorting to cannibalism. (Zero Hedge)

It was quite normal, before the VOC and corporations, for a business to rise, plateau, then decline, and then ultimately vanish—along with all of the business’s accumulated expertise. That is, presumably, what happened to the makers of the Antikythera clockwork. Ambitious men have been forever trying to get their sons to follow the family business they spent so much time, effort and tears nurturing and growing—only to have their hopes dashed when their sons turned out to be uninterested, or even worse, incompetent.

But starting with the Dutch East India Company’s stock, people could take an active interest in a company for a limited time, before passing on the ownership of the corporation to someone else by way of the sale of stock.

Who would take over the corporate entity? Obvious: Someone who was interested in building it up.

People are not single-minded. People like to talk, hang out, fuck, laugh, play, read a book, etc. But corporations are productivity engines. They are supposed to do one thing: Carry out the business of the corporation.

When people are interested in the business of a corporation, they participate in it via stock ownership. The corporation’s interests and the stock owner’s interests align, and both benefit. When the stock owner’s interest flags for whatever reason, they can sell off their ownership in the corporation to someone else.

Thus the corporation and the owners are meeting each other at the moment when they are of most use to one another. And when the owner leaves the business (ie., sells his stock shares), it’s not just that the owner is “cashing out” when he’s no longer interested in the business: It’s that the corporation is continuing on with a new and interested owner, who will use his best efforts to maximise the business of the corporation.

The benefit of the stock sale is not only to the stockholder, but also to the corporation. Because the corporation is leaving behind an uninterested owner, and continuing on with a new stockholder—a new owner—catching this individual at the peak of his interest in the business of the corporation.

Be sure to ask about our ideas for safe-guarding the relics of bygone technologies.


¶ The Dunning-Kruger Effect has been in the news a lot lately — you know, the “fact” that stupid people are too stupied to know how stupid they are — and, not surprisingly, it’s being misinterpreted pretty freely. Tal Yarkoni, a graduate student at Columbia, has compiled a painstaking corrective that, at a minimum, you ought to bookmark for future reference. (Citation Needed; via  Marginal Revolution)

As you can see, the findings reported by Kruger and Dunning are often interpreted to suggest that the less competent people are, the more competent they think they are. People who perform worst at a task tend to think they’re god’s gift to said task, and the people who can actually do said task often display excessive modesty. I suspect we find this sort of explanation compelling because it appeals to our implicit just-world theories: we’d like to believe that people who obnoxiously proclaim their excellence at X, Y, and Z must really not be so very good at X, Y, and Z at all, and must be (over)compensating for some actual deficiency; it’s much less pleasant to imagine that people who go around shoving their (alleged) superiority in our faces might really be better than us at what they do.


¶ Poor Levi Johnson! You wonder if he can actually read the press releases being issued in his name. Gail Collins is right to wonder if he actually hopes, in so many words, that the Palins will “forgive my youthful indiscretion.”

Last year, when his illegitimate fatherdom fame was at its height, Levi had acquired management and was talking about writing his memoirs or pursuing an acting career. But it appears that he has not actually been able to turn his failure to use a condom into a permanent job.

Funny as this story is, it brings huge relief. We must not be speeding toward Idiocracy quite as fast as we feared.

¶ At the opposite socio-economic pole, there’s Mad Hattery!, “bringing you the very best in ridiculous royal hats.” Recently resurfaced Muscato, whom we thank for the link, writes,

…what I really want to do is call attention to one of my favorite recent blog-finds, Mad Hattery! A lighthearted, possibly borderline-obsessive look at topper trends among the titled classes, MH! is presided over by the almost impossibly knowledgeable hostess Ella, and she and her coterie of fascinator-followers make for very good company indeed.

Among other things, we share a level of despair over the sartorial choices of the Princess Royal, a healthy disdain for Princess Michael of Kent, and an unbridled fondness for the slightly demented charms of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, a lady to whom the MH! generally refers to as “Cake,” for reasons obvious to anyone who studies her very distinctive hatting tendencies. Further afield, MH! takes aim from time to time at the studiedly dull dressing of the Japanese Imperials, looks now and again at such regional favorites as Princess Haya of Jordan (and Dubai) and the colorful Sheikha Moza of Qatar, and is now gearing up for the August nuptials involving the erstwhile Greek royals. It’s all in excellent fun, and I really can’t recommend it enough.


¶ At the Times, Wayne Arnold reports on Vietnamese inflation — fueled by a government that, in classic command-economy mode, wants to hit growth targets in time for a party congress.

Inflation, meanwhile, has been the all too common side effect of Vietnam’s emergence. A recurring feature of the Vietnam War, hyperinflation returned in the late 1980s and early 1990s along with an investment boom that followed doi moi. Now any new sign of it sends the public scurrying for more dollars, creating a vicious circle that puts downward pressure on the dong and pushes prices even higher.

In the past two years, the Vietnamese currency has fallen 15 percent amid such concerns. The local version of the TV game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” offers a top prize of 120 million dong — a potential windfall equivalent to only $6,300. The result is what economists refer to as the dollarization of Vietnam’s economy. Things as varied as hotel rooms and cameras are priced in dollars.

Where do all those greenbacks go? Many go into low-yielding U.S. dollar deposits at banks. But another portion — no one knows how many dollars are circulating in Vietnam — gets stashed at home.


¶ Almost unwittingly, Survival of the Book‘s Brian has hit upon the terrible chain that binds high productivity to high unemployment. He is looking at the world of publishing — specifically, the triumphal superiority of Amazon over Barnes & Noble — but what he says is true for most mature corproations, and the net net is more money for the Jeff Bezoses of the world.

I know I’ve gone on and on about labor before, but it does worry me. And something not addressed here is the massive amount of accumulated wealth in this country – the rich have become much, much richer – and yes, I’m looking at you, Mr. Jeff “$4.3 billion worth” Bezos. It’s time to DISTRIBUTE that WEALTH, billionaires! It’s hard to look at that amount of wealth alongside struggling independent bookstores and important independent presses that are getting by on nothing, with employees making pennies (trust me, I speak from experience) and having to cut corners while fatcats question their bottom lines, telling them they should dry up and die if they can’t find a market. That’s not even to mention public libraries facing horrible cuts, to employees, to hours, to branches. I know this is simplistic but on some level, so is the problem: $4.3 billion here and bookstore or library closing there (or here or there), it doesn’t take a math genius to find imbalance.


¶ Jonah Lehrer campaigns, eloquently, for the rehabilitation of LSD for experimental purposes. (The Frontal Cortex)

This is an elegant experimental paradigm. But it’s also profoundly limited. Even if we can locate the cells that govern binocular rivalry, that’s only a single “neural correlate of consciousness”. It remains entirely unclear if those to-be-determined cells in the visual cortex govern all visual experience, or just the contradictions between our eyeballs.

And this leads me back to LSD. Here’s a compound that can consistently alter our entire sensory experience, so that the brain is made aware of its own machinery. We see ourselves seeing the world. (I wish Kant had tried LSD – he would have loved it.*) From the perspective of neuroscience, the hallucinogen is like a systematic version of binocular rivalry. If we knew how LSD worked, we might also gain insight into how ordinary experience works, and how that chemical soup creates the feeling of this, here, now. In other words, the molecular “joints” tweaked by the illegal compound can tell us something very interesting about the source of our unjointed stream of consciousness. Cary Grant was on to something.

*Kant: “The imagination is a necessary ingredient of perception itself.”

We couldn’t agree more. The Editor dropped acid an untold number of times in his misspent youth, and never found it to be what anybody would call “recreational.” Also the kids turned out okay.