Daily Office:
Monday, 12 July 2010


¶ Frédéric Filloux has a blast with US v Defendants, the DOJ case against the Russian spies. Well, before having a blast he clearly had to do some homework (er, reading the whole thing) — so now, you don’t have to! “Free Spy Novel,” he calls it. We’re not so sure about the “spy” part.  (Monday Note)

For us geeks, the amusing part is the collection of hackerdom gems contained in the DOJ file. From social engineering to ad-hoc WiFi networking, MAC-address filtering, steganography, and unsecured passwords, these supposedly “highly trained” individuals looked more like Keystone Spooks than Hollywood superspies.

A good example of social engineering is described when one of the culprits experiences unspecified software problems with a laptop. (Sound familiar? We’ll refrain from the easy jabs.) Enter an FBI agent passing as a Russian Consulate employee, “I’m here to help”, who borrows the laptop with a promise to fix the problem. The machine is broken into, fully explored, and yields a rich trove of unprotected files.

In another case, the Feds, while “inspecting” a home (legally, of course), find a password left in the open, helpfully written down on a plain piece of paper.


¶ In one of those entries that makes us wonder if the site ought to be called 3 Quirks Daily, Ashley Mears compares supermodels to toxic assets. Behind that somewhat puzzling overstatement, however, lies an elegant insight: in financial bubbles, the players are tempted to forget that assets have intrinsic, objective values by the cascade of interest in a partcular asset, one that comes into such demand that its objective value is swamped. This is harmless in the choice of supermodels (Coco Rocha, in the case of Ms Mears’s essay), but disastrous in financial markets.

In fact, the economist John Maynard Keynes likened finance markets to casinos, in that both are based in speculation. To illustrate, Keynes drew on newspaper beauty contests from the 1930s, where readers were asked to rate the contestants, but with a catch. The prize would go to the reader that could guess the highest ranked winner. So readers would rate not what they themselves thought was personally beautiful, but what they thought other readers would find beautiful. The sociologist would add that beauty is always in the eye of the socially-dominant beholder, but as a metaphor for financial markets, it should worry us, as it worried Keynes: Finance assets accrue profits not according to their actual worth, which, at the height of the housing boom we know now were vastly inflated; rather, their worth is generated in how speculators perceive what other speculators will perceive. A finance market, like a fashion market, consists of speculators chasing each other’s tails in disregard for what things are really worth.

But perhaps most worrisome in the fallout of the economic crisis is our ongoing commitment to an ethos of individualism to make sense of it all. We chalk the crash up to a few bad apples and “greedy” executives gone astray—not far off, by the way, from rhetoric in the fashion press celebrating the genius new beauty of Coco. Without a view of the market as a social body—composed of individuals acting in concert with each other, aided by financial models, and bound together by conventions to help them anticipate one another’s actions—we can’t see how participants act together. Yet their collectively attuned steps can inflate or deflate the value of assets, thus building economic values from cultural ones. Don’t take Fashion Week at face value; the catwalk delivers an important sociological lesson for free market enthusiasts.

This point is well taken. Wall Street is no less susceptible to the allure of fashion than any other high-strung environment.


¶ Much of the material in Sarah Lyall’s Times piece on safety problems at BP (to which several other reporters made contributions) will be familiar to our readers, but we were grabbed by a passage describing the “achievement” of Tony Hawyard’s predecessor, John Browne.

But even as he became the toast of Britain’s business world and was made a knight and member of the House of Lords, Mr. Browne was ruthlessly slashing costs. He outsourced many operations and fired tens of thousands of employees, including many engineers.

Tom Kirchmaier, a lecturer in strategy at the Manchester Business School, said that Mr. Browne tried to run BP like a financial company, rotating managers into new jobs with tough profit targets and then moving them before they had to deal with the consequences. The troubled Texas City refinery, for example, had five managers in six years. [emphasis supplied]

Mr. Browne, now advising Britain’s coalition government on its cost-cutting campaign, declined to comment for this article. In his new autobiography, “Beyond Business,” he said, “I transformed a company, challenged a sector, and prompted political and business leaders to change.”


¶ We’re linking to Joe Keohane’s Boston Globe piece, “How Facts Backfire,” only because we CANNOT BELIEVE that a reporter researching the subject of intellectual obstanacy would overlook Kathryn Schulz’s incredibly important book, Being Wrong.

And if you harbor the notion — popular on both sides of the aisle — that the solution is more education and a higher level of political sophistication in voters overall, well, that’s a start, but not the solution. A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong. Taber and Lodge found this alarming, because engaged, sophisticated thinkers are “the very folks on whom democratic theory relies most heavily.”

In an ideal world, citizens would be able to maintain constant vigilance, monitoring both the information they receive and the way their brains are processing it. But keeping atop the news takes time and effort. And relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting. Our brains are designed to create cognitive shortcuts — inference, intuition, and so forth — to avoid precisely that sort of discomfort while coping with the rush of information we receive on a daily basis. Without those shortcuts, few things would ever get done. Unfortunately, with them, we’re easily suckered by political falsehoods.

If she has not actually invented a cure for wrong-headedness,  Ms Schulz has outlined the psychological and ethical nature of the problem.


¶ Imagine our delight, this morning, reading through the feeds, and coming across a sweet mention of Ms NOLA!  (Slow Love Life)

The editor of my new book, Slow Love, Lauren LeBlanc, is not only talented with words; she is adept with needles as well. She sews and she knits, and she gives her friends (and lucky writers) gifts she has made. Last winter, I got a pair of gloves without the fingertips, for those cold mornings at the computer. (I think she wanted me to finish the book!) She recently wrote to me about one day having a sewing room, and that sent me into a reverie. I would love a sewing room. Not because I sew, but because I would like to be the kind of person who sews. And weaves. And knits (something other than scarves). And throws pots. And bakes bread. (Oh yes, I already have one of those rooms. That would be the kitchen.)


¶ Here’s a grease-trap of a story that Graham Greene would have liked. It has got oil, drugs, two layers of colonialism, and a particularly obnoxious populist dictator. The only things missing is a babe. Simon Romero in the Times: “Curaçao Faces Friction With Chávez Over U.S. Planes.”

In Hato, the hulking Awacs and P-3s share the tarmac with Venezuelan airlines, which have flights daily to and from Caracas, Venezuela’s capital.

Some friction with Mr. Chávez’s government might be inevitable since Venezuela emerged in recent years as a major narcotics transshipment point. The United Nations said last month that Venezuela accounted for over half of all detected maritime shipments of cocaine to Europe.

At the same time, Venezuela and Curaçao are important, if uneasy, partners in trade. The rusting refinery here is one of the largest employers on the island; of the 150,000 residents, about 1,000 work at the refinery.

In March, Rafael Ramírez, Venezuela’s oil minister, threatened to abandon the refinery if Venezuela detected signs of aggression from the American planes, and yet the site provides crucial refining capacity for Venezuela’s national oil company, which leases it from Curaçao.


¶ At The Millions, Edan Lepucki profiles Jennifer Egan, our very favorite author at the moment. Her lead-in paragraphs are particularly Egan-esque in content, although the author of A Visit From the Good Squad would probably render it in darker prose.

On a recent Saturday, back in Los Angeles, I held a writing class, and one of the students looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place him–had I seen him at Skylight?  On my coffee table was an advance copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad.  “Is this out yet?” the student asked, and I explained it wasn’t yet, not until June.  “But I’m interviewing her,” I said–bragged, probably. “I am so excited!” I said.  “Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers.”  The student smiled and just then I realized, Hey, he’s on that TV show.  “Jenny’s my sister’s oldest friend,” he said.  This was Paul, of course, Sally’s little brother. Just like that, Paul, Jenny and I were connected, and it felt like a tiny miracle.

It also felt like a page from A Visit from the Goon Squad, where characters move in and out of one another’s lives, and where a minor character in one chapter becomes the protagonist in the next.  When I met Egan for our aforementioned interview, she told me the story of how she knew Paul, saying that seeing him on TV was “the kind of odd surprise that I was trying to capture here,”–she pointed to her book–”the completely unexpected ways that people encounter and see each other over many years.”  We were sitting at a round picnic table outside Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood, where she would be reading that afternoon.  I was born and raised in L.A., but I’d never been here before.

For Jennifer Egan’s extremely interesting remarks about online connections, The Sopranos, and the importance of a good story, you’ll have to click through.


¶ Following the Carr-Shirky debate about modern media, Elizabeth Drescher found that she “couldn’t help but think about medieval manuscripts. Since the early 1990s, both medievalists and electronic media theorists have pointed to the hypertexted quality of medieval illuminated manuscripts in making complementary claims: medievalists to continuing cultural relevancy and electronic media theorists in continuity to literary tradition.” We immediately donned our anti-cuteness custard-filled armor; only then dared we to read further. (religion Dispataches; via  Marginal Revolution)

But the physical format of medieval books is not the only way in which they seem familiar to many contemporary users of digital media. Medieval reading as a practice was deeply social. Indeed, long after the invention of the printing press, until rather late in the 18th century, reading was a communal affair, with a group of hearers gathering around a reader to engage a book, letter, or other textual production. If the claims of medieval mystic and pilgrim Margery Kempe to have shared wisdom with the priest friend who read “holy bokys” to her or the dramatic relational reading in the novels of Jane Austin are any indication, such bookish encounters were not centered on didactic performances for passive listeners, but were rather fully interactive engagements that enlarged any given book into a much wider social “text.”

That is, as scholars have been reminding us for a very long time by now, private reading and the linear thinking that Carr so values as essential for deep, contemplative thought did not feature much in the lives of the people who pretty much brought us the contemplative tradition. Rather, sorting though the mix of images and ideas, arguing with friends over meanings and interpretations, and mullying it up again with a new bit of this or that seem to have been very much at the center of the thought world of ancient philosophers and medieval mystics.

“So there!” I thought to myself this morning, as I mulled over another pointcounterpoint on the issue. “I am absolutely willing to be no more brain addled than Chaucer and no less reflective than Julian of Norwich!” And for good measure, as I headed online to find links to the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, I reminded myself that I have the advantage of not drinking a gallon of high octane ale each day from a vessel infused with lead!

Have a Look

¶ 3 Quarks Daily‘s Abbas Raza is spending the summer in Karachi, the city where he was born, and, in addition to some interesting thoughts that we’d like to follow up on, he shares a collection of interesting photographs.

¶ Jean Nouvel’s Serpentine Pavilion. (Gabion; via City of Sound)