Daily Office:
Thursday, 15 July 2010


¶ The Asia Society and the Spence School have declined to refund gifts made by Ponzi fraudster Hassan Nemazee. No doubt they’d have done so eagerly if times weren’t so bad, but neither gift was large enough to be worth the bad smell. (NYT)

Both the society and the school argued in letters to the government that they did not know at the time they received the donations that they were the product of Mr. Nemazee’s criminal activities.

“Moreover, the funds were spent long ago, and therefore, are no longer available for forfeiture in any event,” Gary Stein, a lawyer for Spence, wrote in a letter to the government.

The government contends, however, that both institutions have ample resources to pay the money back. The Asia Society had over $8 million in cash, according to its 2009 annual report. And the Spence School had an endowment of $85 million as of January 2009, according to the Manhattan Guide to Private Schools and Selective Public Schools.


¶ A fine appreciation of the late conductor, Sir Charldes Mackerras, by Rupert Christiansen. (Sir Charles died yesterday at the age of 84.) (Telegraph; via  Arts Journal)

The music of two composers preoccupied him for over sixty years. One was Mozart and it was fitting that his career should finish a few weeks ago when he conducted Così fan tutte at Glyndebourne. Mackerras pioneered a more ‘authentic’ approach to eighteenth-century opera, and he had a scholar’s knowledge of Mozart’s manuscripts and contemporary performance practice. Yet there was never anything academic about the way he conducted this music: it always had a spring in its step.

The other composer was Janacek. Mackerras studied in Prague when he first came to Europe after the war, and drew on his experience there to introduce Janacek’s operas to England during the 1950s. His readings of these masterpieces are still considered unsurpassed, even in eastern Europe, and they continued to change and develop: there was a new glow and gentleness to The Cunning Little Vixen when he conducted it at Covent Garden last March.


¶ We read “Economics Behaving Badly,” an Op-Ed piece in today’s Times by George Loewenstein and Peter Ubel, with great interest and no little mystification. The thrust of the piece appeared to be that policy-makers are mis-using the findings of behavioral economics. And perhaps they are. But the examples given all testified to another, more sinister policy drift: blame the consumer. This is right-wing “personal responsibility,” positioned to take the hit for stringent regulations and tax provisions that politicians lack the will to implement.

Or take conflicts of interest in medicine. Despite volumes of research showing that pharmaceutical industry gifts distort decisions by doctors, the medical establishment has not mustered the will to bar such thinly disguised bribes, and the health care reform act fails to outlaw them. Instead, much like food labeling, the act includes “sunshine” provisionsthat will simply make information about these gifts available to the public. We have shifted the burden from industry, which has the power to change the way it does business, to the relatively uninformed and powerless consumer.

The same pattern can be seen in health care reform itself. The act promises to achieve the admirable goal of insuring most Americans, yet it fails to address the more fundamental problem of health care costs. Instead of requiring individuals to pay out of pocket if they choose to receive expensive and unproven interventions, the act tries to lower costs by promoting incentive programs that reward healthy behaviors.

Prevention is certainly a worthy goal; it is much better to prevent a case of lung cancer than to treat it. But efforts to improve public health, even if enhanced by insights from behavioral economics, are unlikely to have a major impact on health care costs. Studies show that preventive medicine, even when it works, rarely saves money.


¶ So much for fooling the Blogosphere with the disguise of a cherished persona: we’re betrayed by our language. This comes as no surprise at all, of course, only now it has been demonstrated in a study conducted by Tal Yarkoni at Columbia. (Research Digest Blog; via Marginal Revolution)

Some commentators have suggested that the internet allows people to present idealised versions of themselves to the world. Contrary to that idea, Yarkoni found that bloggers’ choice of words consistently related to their personality type just as has been found in past offline research.

More neurotic bloggers used more words associated with negative emotions; extravert bloggers used more words pertaining to positive emotions; high scorers on agreeableness avoided swear words and used more words related to communality; and conscientious bloggers mentioned more words with achievement connotations. These were all as expected. More of a surprise was the lack of a link between the Big Five personality factor of ‘openness to experience’ and word categories related to intellectual or sensory experience. Instead openness was associated with more use of prepositions, more formal language and longer words.


¶ Mig brings some sourdough starter home to Austria from the Pacific Northwest. After many digressions, bread is baked. This is not to say that it is eaten.

  • At home, pop the sourdough starter into the fridge and google instructions.
  • Kingarthurflour.com is good.
  • Follow the directions inexactly. Here is a fact about bread making: if it were such an exact science, wheat-based societies would have died out thousands of years ago.
  • Result: two flat loaves no one in the family wants to eat because the crust would stop a .22 and the bread is extra, extra tangy.
  • Sour dough bread baking is a slow process which you can’t hurry. There is something exhilarating about this. Those bacteria there can’t be rushed. It takes the time that it takes.
  • We need more of this sort of thing.
  • Nones

    ¶ Simon Johnson calls for an international treaty on finance, and claims that there is more support for the idea than there has been in the past. (Baseline Scnario)

    All this heads in the right direction but does not yet reach a definite conclusion.  In the last chapter, Peter Boone and I argue that we need an international treaty organization – along the lines of the World Trade Organization, but for finance.  We have to decide, by mutual agreement, what is and is not allowed in the international exchange of financial services – with a view to making the system dramatically safer.

    If that sounds too complicated or not appealing for any reason, consider the implicit liabilities that underpin our current arrangements – and the cases (in our chapter) of countries devastated fiscally by their financial misadventures.

    If we continue to allow the free international flows of capital alongside national (and antiquated) regulatory systems, the world’s banking system will get out of control repeatedly.  Increasingly, influential people in London and other financial hubs outside the United States begin to see the issue in these terms.


    ¶ Jennifer Jefferson is captivated by C K Williams’s new book of verse, Walt, and her enthusiasm is infectious. It reminds us that Williams is himself an enthusiastic poet. (The Rumpus)

    Many of the poems are like short stories or essays, but with the music, language and shapeliness of poetry—there is a narrative arc and unique characters. In “On the Metro” the narrator has to ask a young woman to move her packages to make room for him—

    she’s reading, her foot propped on the seat in from of her,
    and barely looks up as she pulls them to her.
    I sit, take out my own book—Cioran, The Temptations to Exist—and no-
    tice her glancing up from hers
    to take in the title of mine, and then, as Gombrowicz puts it, she “affirms
    herself physically,” that is,
    becomes present in a way she hadn’t been before

    How much we learn in those eight lines! It is easy to picture the scene—the book the glance, his awareness of her presence—that phrase, “becomes present in a way she hadn’t been before” succinctly characterizes something I too have experienced but never captured conceptually. That is perhaps my favorite thing about the poems of C.K. Williams, dating back to Tar—his ability to paint a very particular moment that can blossom into something personal and meaningful. James Joyce described epiphany as when a piece of art reveals “its soul, its whatness leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance.” Williams’s poems have an abundance of soul, of whatness.

    (Mr Williams has just published a book about Walt Whitman as well.)


    ¶ Glen Newey, at the LRBlog, poses that perennial existential chestnut: Why golf?

    Why does the world contain golf? The question is strictly analogous to asking why it contains evil. Like chess or darts, golf is clearly not a real sport, which I define as an activity that you can only be any good at with a BMI of less than 35. At school, golf was offered to us as a ‘games’ option in the sixth form. Then, as now, I had no interest in bashing a dimpled pill towards a tiny and distant hole. But it looked less nasty than waddling through sludge in frozen mist after a leather ball, or getting the club-end of a hockey stick in the nuts. I was beguiled by the golfing scenes, in TV soaps as much as sportscasts, where the players were conveyed between strokes in electric buggies, alighting only to swoosh a lazy approach shot to the green. Reality bit when I found that I had to lug the bag of clubs myself, blasted by wind and rain, for a nominal five miles – a purely theoretical figure, bloated by the constant need to divagate onto the beach or into tussocks of marram to track down my wayward ball. It was with relief that I switched the year after to another non-sport, snooker, where you could at least stay in the warm and get a drink.

    Have a Look

    ¶ Jonathan Callan’s used books, at The Best Part.

    ¶ Three Percent‘s Translation Preview.