Daily Office:
Tuesday, 17 August 2010


¶ At You’re the Boss, Jay Goltz tells the remarkable story of a “social entrepreneur,” Seth Weinberger. Mr Weinberger, partner at a major Chicago law firm by day, developed a handheld teaching device that really works — in his spare time (and with some help from clients).

He has gotten major grants from foundations and companies, including JPMorgan Chase Foundation, which has given him $500,000 thus far and has connected him with the Urban Education Exchange, a New York nonprofit that is focused on reading comprehension; and Teach For America, which will use TeacherMate in kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade classes in Phoenix and Chicago this year.

Is Mr. Weinberger doing social good? Obviously. Is he an entrepreneur? Well, he’s not taking financial risk, and he’s not making any money off of this venture. But he clearly has passion, vision, tenacity, and the ability to solve problems. And he’s capable of manic behavior. Sounds like an entrepreneur to me.

But whatever you call him, I take my hat off to him. It has been a long and difficult journey, and the road ahead looks no easier and no shorter.


¶ So, now it’s called “time shifting.” (How would we know? We have yet to crack a single disc from the past-season sets of Mad Men.) How does Nielsen keep track of this phenomenon, and how long can the current commercial-advertising model support “television”? (Yahoo; via  Arts Journal)

The upward trajectory of DVR ownership has been well chronicled, but fewer people are aware of how quickly on demand viewership is catching on, Kerekes said. Comcast, which has 23.2 million customers, gets some 350 million orders of VOD programming a month, she said. Television shows now surpass movies, music video and children’s programming, she said.

One heartening sign for networks could be that time-shifting will make many customers apt to try something new. Kim Cooper, an online support specialist from Charleston, S.C., said that’s one thing on her mind when she sits down on a Sunday and programs each of her two DVRs for the week.

“If you see something coming up you’ll say, `Do you want to give it a shot?'” Barcroft said. “We decide in the first five or 10 minutes whether we like it or not.”


¶ According to a report by P O’Neill at A Fistful of Euros, a great swathe of Ireland’s private sector is being run directly by banks in possession of foreclosed concerns, and the government does not contemplate any immediate action to curtail this curious way of dealing with “troubled assets.” In other words, wait and see.

And yet it’s not clear that the worst is over.  The banks haven’t yet made a big move on distressed home mortgages and no one is clear what will happen when forebearance is no longer a viable strategy.  Notwithstanding the government’s attempts to compare tax revenue to “profile” (i.e. a very recent projection), the fact is that tax revenue is stagnant at last year’s depression-like levels despite an apparent recovery in economic statistics.  And while there are those desperate hotels, the tourists (or at least those who stray from the cautiously priced package tours) will still find fussy and expensive restaurants (plus VAT).

Are there any tricks left in the bag?  The government is looking at privatization, most likely as a way to realize a large amount of cash at fairly short notice — essentially a portfolio switch of state-owned companies for all the bank liabilities it has taken on.  And there are some bizarre Thatcherite echoes in the possible appearance of a poll tax by the end of the year (dressed up as a “flat rate” water charge or property tax).  The public sector unions are back onside for now with a deal guaranteeing no further pay cuts and postponed pension reform for incumbents, so some semblance of the “social harmony” (i.e. lack of riots) that has so impressed international commentators is still there.

But, if you don’t work for the government directly or indirectly (as with the doctors and lawyers) or for some type of export operation, do you have any firm idea what you’ll be doing 3 years from now? For a country facing such inponderables, the statis in its politics is remarkable.  But that’s for another post.


¶ At Gene Expression, Razib Khan enthusiastically reviews Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Lamguage History of the World — and at truly informative length. Although the “rice/empire” theory of language spread occupies the center of attention, what caught our eye was the “conventional wisdom” (which we didn’t share until we read it) about the prevalence of Greek in the Eastern Roman Empire.

But one point which the author mentions repeatedly is that the rise and fall of languages of great expanse and utility is the norm, not the exception. In particular, Nicholas Ostler takes time out to emphasize that languages which spread via trade often do not have long term staying power. Portuguese, Aramaic, Punic and Sogdian would fall into this category (the later success of Portuguese was a matter of rice and empire in Brazil). It seems that mercantile communities are too ephemeral, that successive historical shocks inevitably result in their decline when there isn’t a peasant demographic reservoir or imperial power which imposes it by fiat. Even those languages which eventually spread beyond traders and gain cultural and political cachet may fall from grace. Greek is the best case of this. It was the dominant language of the Roman East, and spoken as far as modern Pakistan, and studied in Dark Age Ireland. By the early modern period it was a strange and foreign language in the West, and with the rise of Islam in the east it lost its cultural glamor, and even those Christians in Arab lands who were Melkite, Greek Orthodox who adhered to the theological position of Constantinople, became Arab in speech and identity (in greater Syria the Greek Orthodox have been instrumental in the formulation of Arab nationalism).

And yet to some extent one must be cautious about over-reading the recession of Greek in the face of Arabic after the rise of Islam. Ostler repeats the conventional wisdom that the predominant vernacular in the Roman East was never Greek, but rather Semitic dialects descended from Aramaic. This is manifest in the fact that the Oriental Orthodox churches do not use Greek in their liturgy, but forms of Syriac. Their root is in an alternative intellectual tradition from that of the Greek Church. The transition to Arabic was then predominantly from a closely related Semitic language, not from Greek. One of the theses to explain the spread of Arabic across North Africa, but not into Persia, is that Arabic found it easier to replace other members of the Afro-Asiatic language family. I can accept that people can intuitively perceive differences of language family without a deep knowledge of said languages. In Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World it is recounted that an ambassador to the court of the Hapsburg Emperor in Vienna communicated to the Sultan that apparently the locals spoke a dialect of Persian! Persian and German are of course both Indo-European languages, and set next to Turkish they may sound vaguely similar.


¶ Joe Moran gets lost — under the highway. Encouraged by French theorists, Joe explores the world of stilts below a huge highway interchange outside of Birmingham, UK. (via Mnémoglyphes)

I had read that in the mid-1990s the council created a gravel beach here, with brave locals bathing in the network of canals underneath the junction. I now wondered if this was an urban myth, a joke designed to lure unsuspecting tourists into this wasteland. There was some sand and gravel, but no evidence that it had been placed there on purpose. I wandered around the whole 30 acres of the junction, and I saw some strange human remains – a Loohire chemical toilet turned on its side, some ripped hi-vi trousers – but no actual human being.

After a few hours I realised I was lost. My atlas was, naturally, no help, because it only showed the roads looping above me. When I tried to retrace my steps I kept encountering unpassable pylons crackling with electricity. Eventually I scrambled through a gap in a fence and walked across a mudbath of football pitch which led me back on dry land recognised by the Birmingham A-Z.


¶ When the dictator — oops, president — runs the country from home (and nobody’s talking about a “home office”), you can’t be surprised when he proposes doing away with the pesky legislature, if that’s what business leaders want. (Miami Herald: via  Real Clear World)

Ortega wheels around Managua in a Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle, and his offspring are known to enjoy luxury cars.

“His sons have already savored the money. Many of them drive Range Rovers, Mercedes and BMWs in Costa Rica. They like what the oligarchs have. Ortega is starting to enjoy it, too,” said Eduardo Montealegre, a center-right politician who lost the 2006 presidential vote to Ortega and plans to challenge him again in 2011.

Curiously, Ortega doesn’t rule from a government building. He presides from his one-story home in a walled compound along Managua’s Parque el Carmen.

“The presidency, the headquarters of the front and his private home are all there. It is a trio: family, state and party,” said Moisés Hassan, a physicist who belonged to the front’s ruling revolutionary junta in the early 1980s.


¶ Our first response to news that Jonathan Franzen will be appearing on the cover of Time Magazine was a sharp regret that the writer’s father did not live to see the manifestation of his son’s achievement that, we suspect, would have meant more to him than all the glittering prizes. Our second thought was that Earl Franzen would almost certainly have asked Jonathan if he needed a little financial help, say, to buy a razor.

Craig Fehrman’s more productive response, at The Millions,  is a history of literary recognition on the Luce-id covers of Time. The biggest surprise — or at least the most indigestible one — is the discovery that the honor, such as it was, was bestowed upon Virginia Woolf, a writer who killed herself rather than contemplate exile in the New World.

Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.

Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time’s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.


¶ We’re not so crazy that we hate it when Republican Party eminences do the right thing — as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has done, admonishing his confrères against using a “wide brush” to taint all Muslims with anti-American bias. (Politico; via  The Morning News)

Christie said he agrees that some degree of “deference” must be paid to victims’ relatives, but added, “But it would be wrong to so overreact to that, that we paint Islam with a brush of radical Muslim extremists that just want to kill Americans because we are Americans. But beyond that … I am not going to get into it, because I would be guilty of candidly what I think some Republicans are guilty of, and the president is now, the president is guilty of, of playing politics with this issue, and I simply am not going to do it.”

“All people in our country suffer when those kind of things happen,” he said.

It’s a stunning departure from the national party line, delivered best by National Republican Senatorial Committee head Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) who said on “Fox News Sunday” that Obama’s comments defending freedom of religion in the case of the mosque show he is “disconnected” from voters around the country, and that it was the wrong place for a mosque to exist. Others have raised questions about the beliefs and funding of the imam involved in the project, and suggested that he has radical ties.

Have a Look

¶ Humanoid high-tension pylons. (Wired Science)

¶ A Night-Club Map of Harlem — from when there were night-clubs. (Strange Maps)