Daily Office:
Wednesday, 25 August 2010


¶ In an Op-Ed piece in the Times, Christine Stansell reviews the rearguard — some would say shameful — history of Southern opposition to women’s suffrage, noting that Mississippi did not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984. (Why’d they bother?) We have now come to take the view that the American Civil War ended in an armed truce, not a Union Victory.

Female voters would also pose practical difficulties, described bluntly by a Mississippi man: “We are not afraid to maul a black man over the head if he dares to vote, but we can’t treat women, even black women, that way. No, we’ll allow no woman suffrage.”


Today the country is again divided over how far the rights of citizenship extend. In the controversy over same-sex marriage, the prospect of constitutional protection calls up truculence from one part of the country, approval from another. How remarkable, then, that a parallel conflict — one that similarly exposes the fears and anxieties that the expansion of democracy unleashes — is now largely lost to memory


¶ At The House Next Door, Elise Nakhnikian argues concisely that Swing Time is the best of the Astaire-Rogers movies.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of even the best of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies. When those two dance, or when Astaire sings (the rhythm that made him such a great dancer also makes him an excellent singer, although his voice was nothing special), they’re as elegantly expressive as anything ever captured on film, and as perfectly suited to their medium as Shakespeare was to his. But when they’re just acting, their movies go flat, as earthbound as the song and dance numbers are airy and uplifting.

Swing Time may be their best movie (it’s a toss-up for me with Top Hat). That’s mainly because it includes several of their best duets, but it also helps that director George Stevens makes us believe in their love for each other even between those magical numbers. That’s something no other director ever quite managed.

As always, Fred falls for Ginger at their first meet-cute encounter, but it’s hate at first sight for her. And as usual, their feelings are expressed most intensely through the singing and dancing with which he woos and wins her. This time, though, their feelings are also clear in their body language and their close-ups, particularly the gorgeous shots of Rogers’ guardedly softening face and widening eyes. (Yesterday for the first time, her dignity and understated humor reminded me of Jennifer Aniston, while Astaire’s hurt-puppy eyes and bowler hat under the gazebo where they sing A Fine Romance reminded me for the umpteenth time of Stan Laurel.) The nostalgia that Fred’s Lucky and Ginger’s Penny share for their love even as it’s just starting to bloom, since one or both of them always fears that it can never be, give this meringue of a movie a light dusting of melancholy.


¶ Gee whiz, here’s a great idea: let’s turn a major chain of department stores into virtual warehouses and fulfillment centers for online shoppers! That way, they can buy what they want and pick it up at a nearby location, checking it out in the process. It’s certainly working for Nordstrom. Stephanie Clifford reports, in the Times.

In September 2009, the company wove in individual stores’ inventory to the Web site, so that essentially all of the stores were also acting as warehouses for online.

Results were immediate. The percentage of customers who bought merchandise after searching for an item on the site doubled on the first day, and has stayed there (although, Mr. Nordstrom cautioned, that doubling was from a small base).

“Customers that were looking for an item, we had their size,” he said. That meant the company hired a few more shipping employees to wrap and send items from each store. But, he said, increased sales more than offset the cost.

It also means that inventory is moving faster, and often at higher prices. “If we’re out of something on the Web site, it’s probably late in the season and the stores are trying to clear it out,” he said. “By pulling merchandise from the store, you’ve now dramatically lessened the likelihood that you’ll take a markdown.”

You’d think that everyone would be doing this, but no:

“You’re talking about traditional retailers that have traditional ways of doing things, and sometimes those barriers are hard to break down,” said Adrianne Shapira, an analyst at Goldman Sachs.


¶ Finally! An explanation of TED! What “TED” stands for. (“Technology. Entertainment. Design.”) Who started it and who runs it. (Richard Saul Wurman; Chris Anderson). Who pays for what? (Fast Company; via The Morning News)

Think of online video and what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Piano-playing cats? Lady Gaga? Maybe Paris Hilton? The instant popularity of TED talks might say something more promising about both our collective consciousness and our collective attention span. Cohen tells me, “When we launched, the example I used to help size the opportunity was a Malcolm Gladwell podcast that had been downloaded 40,000 times. Actually, the talks were watched 10.5 million times in the first year.” People emailed Cohen from all over the world, saying that they had shared a video with their entire address book, or that they’d watched a video with tears running down their face. That passion reset TED’s mission. “Within three months, we relaunched ted.com and realigned the entire organization around this mission of spreading ideas,” says Cohen.

It was a risk. Would lecturers who typically pull down five-figure fees agree to sign release forms and give their speeches away online? Would attendees grumble about sharing the secret sauce? “Releasing all the content to the world for free had the potential to capsize our business model,” Cohen says. Not so. TED first put the talks online in 2006. “That year,” she says, “we increased the fee for the conference by 50%, and sold out in one week with a 1,000-person waiting list.”


¶ We hereby resolve to become better Netizens by following Slate‘s slayer of “bogus trend stories,” Jack Shafer. We like to think that we can smell an under-researched story, heavy on anecdotes contributed by the writer’s friends of friends, but doubtless Mr Shafer can teach us a thing or two. Here, he goes after a recent story in the Times that attributed a rising number of National Park Service searches and rescues to the misguided use of “technology.”

Heggie and Amundson chart the long-term NPS search-and-rescue trends, while Heggie and Heggie put a microscope to search-and-rescue operations conducted by the NPS from 2003 to 2006. Heggie and Heggie advocate preventive education for the most frequent clients of search-and-rescue services. According to their study, almost half of those requesting search-and-rescue were weekenders; visitors ages 20 to 29 years made up 23 percent of incidents in the study; and males (no surprise!) were the requesters in 66.3 percent of incidents. Day hikers, boaters, and swimmers were the most frequent classes of requesters, and it’s my sense that many of the crises they faced were self-made and could have been averted by securing the right equipment, the right clothing, the right training, and better provisions, and by applying a little common sense.

Similar instructions—minus the ones about clothing and provisions—could have rescued the Times from publishing this bogus story.


¶ It is regrettably difficult to interest Americans in the problems of campaign financing and political contributions (not the same thing), and Jane Mayer’s exposé (in the current issue of The New Yorker) of the activities of Charles and David Koch, oilmen whose businesses have only to lose from enhanced environmental protection, is unlikely to rouse an angry citizenry.

Of course, Democrats give money, too. Their most prominent donor, the financier George Soros, runs a foundation, the Open Society Institute, that has spent as much as a hundred million dollars a year in America. Soros has also made generous private contributions to various Democratic campaigns, including Obama’s. But Michael Vachon, his spokesman, argued that Soros’s giving is transparent, and that “none of his contributions are in the service of his own economic interests.” The Kochs have given millions of dollars to nonprofit groups that criticize environmental regulation and support lower taxes for industry. Gus diZerega, the former friend, suggested that the Kochs’ youthful idealism about libertarianism had largely devolved into a rationale for corporate self-interest. He said of Charles, “Perhaps he has confused making money with freedom.”

Some critics have suggested that the Kochs’ approach has subverted the purpose of tax-exempt giving. By law, charitable foundations must conduct exclusively nonpartisan activities that promote the public welfare. A 2004 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog group, described the Kochs’ foundations as being self-serving, concluding, “These foundations give money to nonprofit organizations that do research and advocacy on issues that impact the profit margin of Koch Industries.”

The Kochs have gone well beyond their immediate self-interest, however, funding organizations that aim to push the country in a libertarian direction. Among the institutions that they have subsidized are the Institute for Justice, which files lawsuits opposing state and federal regulations; the Institute for Humane Studies, which underwrites libertarian academics; and the Bill of Rights Institute, which promotes a conservative slant on the Constitution. Many of the organizations funded by the Kochs employ specialists who write position papers that are subsequently quoted by politicians and pundits. David Koch has acknowledged that the family exerts tight ideological control. “If we’re going to give a lot of money, we’ll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent,” he told Doherty. “And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don’t agree with, we withdraw funding.”

Given the thick enthusiasm of the Tea Party movement, it’s unlikely that David Axelrod’s proposed disclaimer would change any minds.

“What they don’t say is that, in part, this is a grassroots citizens’ movement brought to you by a bunch of oil billionaires.”


¶ Alexander Chee tops off an entry about being a published novelist who keeps a blog, and why he continues to keep a blog, with eight pieces of advice for anyone following a similar path. Especially if keeping a blog is the publicist’s idea. Mr Chee is on his second blog.

I began blogging to get over burnout after the publication of my first novel. I had debut author fatigue and had lost a sense of writing as being fun in any possible way, and this was alienating to me. Also, I had many former students and was tired of answering their questions via email one by one, and the blog seemed like a good place to put the answers to the FAQ.  I shut down that first blog and opened this one a few years ago, and what I have learned is that keeping a blog has helped me more than it has hurt me. It’s helped me get teaching jobs, kept me in touch with people and introduced me to new people I would never have met, people I wanted to meet. Also, it’s helped me drive traffic to online sites posting my work. All the same, there were many times I thought of just shutting it down in exasperation, like when I printed my first blog after closing it and discovered it was 723 pages long (one friend even said it had a narrative arc).


¶ A reader of Marginal Revolution asks Tyler Cowen what he thinks of the profession of diplomacy. Not much, is Mr Cowen’s unsurprising answer.

I see diplomacy as a stressful and unrewarding profession.  A good diplomat has the responsibility of deflecting a lot of the blame onto himself, and continually crediting others, while working hard not to like his contacts too much.  And how does he or she stay so loyal to the home country when so many ill-informed or unwise instructions are coming through the pipeline?  Most of all, a good diplomat requires some kind of clout in the home country and must maintain or manufacture that from abroad.  The entire time on mission the diplomat is eating up his capital and power base, and toward what constructive end?  So someone else can take his place?  And what kind of jobs can you hope to advance into?


Presumably diplomats either enjoy serving their country or they enjoy the ego rents of being a diplomat or both.  It is a false feeling of power, borrowed power from one’s country of origin rather than from one’s personal achievements.  For the spouse the required phoniness is even worse.

We see it very differently: diplomats are men of peace who work almost exclusively with other diplomats, with a professionality loyalty to the preservation of peace that imposes the supra-nationalist allegiance that rightly excites the suspicion of leaders back home.

Have a Look

¶ Tastes like chicken. (Discoblog)

¶ Central Asian majesty. (3 Quarks Daily; from Boston Globe)

¶ Pillar of Fire. (Telegraph; via Bad Astronomy)