Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Booklist Note:
Revolutionary Reading
11 July 2014

Friday, July 11th, 2014

¶ At The Millions, Tom Nissley rounds up a very mixed bag of books that cover, in one way or another, the intersection of summer and revolution — or at least the search for something different. You’ve probably read more than a few of them, and it’s always sweet to see what other people have to say about books you’ve liked — so long as they’ve liked them, too.

Saturday Night by Susan Orlean (1990) Orlean’s first book, a traveling celebration of the ways Americans spend their traditional night of leisure — dancing, cruising, dining out, staying in — follows no particular season, but it’s an ideal match for July, the Saturday night of months, when you are just far enough into summer to enjoy it without a care for the inevitable approach of fall.

“The Saturday night of months” — we’re going to remember that one.

Optimist Report cont’d:
Company B
8 July 2014

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

¶ And now, here’s David Brooks taking up the “B Company.” A fad? A fad that sticks?

This creative process is furthest along, I’d say, in the world of B corporations. There are many people today who are disillusioned both with the world of traditional charity and traditional capitalism. Many charities have been warmheartedly but wastefully throwing money at problems, without good management or market discipline. Capitalists have been obsessed with the short-term maximization of shareholder return without much concern for long-term prosperity or other stakeholders.

B corporations are a way to transcend the contradictions between the ineffective parts of the social sector and myopic capitalism. Kyle Westaway, a lawyer in this field and the author of the forthcoming “Profit & Purpose,” notes that benefit corporation legal structures have been established in 22 states over the last four years. The 300 or so companies that have registered in this way, like Patagonia or Method, can’t be sued if they fail to maximize profits in order to focus on other concerns. They are seeking to reinvent both capitalism and do-gooder-ism, and living in the contradiction between these traditions.

Brokenland Note:
Corporate Sleepwalking
3 July 2014

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

¶ We’ve come across this story before, but it has been a while since the last one, so our capacity for seething is fully refreshed. “Losing Sparta: The Bitter Truth Behind the Gospel of Productivity,” Esther Kaplan’s account of the closing of a productive, profitable plant in Tennessee has us boiling with rage. (We’ll think twice about buying anything bearing the Philips label.) To give the tale a wicked twist, Kaplan surmises that the shuttering and offshoring made no business sense(Virginia Quarterly Review; via The Rumpus)

A 2012 study by Michael E. Porter and Jan W. Rivkin of Harvard Business School, based on interviews with 1,767 executives involved in location decisions over the previous year, confirms Bronfenbrenner’s view. Porter and Rivkin found that “rigorous processes for location choices” are “far from universal” and that such decision-​making processes “have lagged behind those for virtually all other major investment decisions.” They found that companies often underestimate the hidden costs of offshoring, overlook the advantages of a US location and “fall prey to biases that work against the U.S.”

Combined, this research hints at a radical idea: that offshoring has simply become a reflex. And if that’s true, all the lean manufacturing and just-​in-​time production and automation and retraining and two-​tier pay scales in the world won’t be enough to save American production jobs.

Brokenland Note:
Fault Lines
2 July 2014

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

¶ On today’s Op-Ed page, Paul Horwitz looks behind the Hobby Lobby decision to find three fault lines that have opened up in American life, creating chasms that might well be unbridgeable:

  • Traditional consensus on the importance of accommodating religious freedom has collapsed.
  • Same-sex marriage has brought to an end the long-standing cease-fire on disagreements about the role of religion in marriage.
  • The marketplace is no longer the ideologically free zone that it used to be.

We see a fantastic irony in the third point: free markets in everything have reduced religions to values with market currency.

A country that cannot even agree on the idea of religious accommodation, let alone on what terms, is unlikely to agree on what to do next. A country in which many states cannot manage to pass basic anti-discrimination laws covering sexual orientation is one whose culture wars may be beyond the point of compromise. And a nation whose marketplace itself is viewed, for better or worse, as a place to fight both those battles rather than to escape from them is still less likely to find surcease from struggle.

Good Will Note:
On Istiklal
1 July 2014

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

¶ What lovely news: a parade of over a hundred thousand people sweeping down Istanbul’s Istiklal Cadessi in celebration of gay pride. Istiklal runs from a height above the Golden Horn to Taksim Square, which was blocked off by police with water cannons. It is a pedestrian boulevard, lined with the revived relics of the neighborhood’s cosmopolitan past, as the center of European life in the Turkish capital. It is old and a little shabby, and the perfect place for such a manifestation to begin. (Aydınlık Daily; via Joe.My.God)

Community members, as well their families and loved ones participated in the parade, chanting for the freedom for same-sex marriage and against homophobia. They carried banners that said, “Unconditional Love is Possible.”

Most attendees appeared in the parade in glamorous costumes adorned with the colours of the international flag of the community. The crowd shouted slogans against fascism and capitalism, as well, saying ‘Be gone AKP!’ and ‘Legs up Against Fascism!’ and ‘Down with all the shopping centers!’

The United Kingdom Consulate displayed the LGBT flag on its building near Istiklal Avenue. The US consul, Charles Hunter, also expressed his support for the community: “I am also gay and here I am in the pride parade of the LGBT people.”

Misadventure Note:
Death by Contractor
30 June 2014

Monday, June 30th, 2014

¶ James Risen has fired another volley against our shambolic mismanagement national security. It now appears that an official investigation into outside contractor Blackwater’s derelictions in Iraq was put to an end by a death threat.

The next day, the two men met with Daniel Carroll, Blackwater’s project manager in Iraq, to discuss the investigation, including a complaint over food quality and sanitary conditions at a cafeteria in Blackwater’s compound. Mr. Carroll barked that Mr. Richter could not tell him what to do about his cafeteria, Mr. Richter’s report said. The Blackwater official went on to threaten the agent and say he would not face any consequences, according to Mr. Richter’s later account.

Mr. Carroll said “that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” Mr. Richter wrote in a memo to senior State Department officials in Washington. He noted that Mr. Carroll had formerly served with Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite unit.

“Mr. Carroll’s statement was made in a low, even tone of voice, his head was slightly lowered; his eyes were fixed on mine,” Mr. Richter stated in his memo. “I took Mr. Carroll’s threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract.”

He added that he was especially alarmed because Mr. Carroll was Blackwater’s leader in Iraq, and “organizations take on the attitudes and mannerisms of their leader.”

 

Brokenland Note:
Literally
27 June 2014

Friday, June 27th, 2014

¶ Henry Petroski’s Op-Ed piece in today’s Times, “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To,” focuses on perhaps the most worrisome failure of American government, the uselessness of its oversight of housing and road safety.

As we debate how to pay for infrastructure, we should also have a discussion about raising expectations for what we’re buying. Homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike must call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise. A roof or road that does not meet agreed-upon standards needs to be redone, at the irresponsible party’s expense.

Such challenges will naturally lead to delays and legal proceedings, but this is the price for getting things done right. In time, doing it right the first time will once again become wise and standard business practice, and we can look forward to infrastructure that looks good, works well and lasts.

Without such a commitment, the American future is lost.

Institutional Note:
Klinghoffer and the Met
26 June 2014

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

¶ At The New Yorker, Alex Ross deplores Peter Gelb’s handling of the Klinghoffer broadcast, and questions the director’s achievements so far. Ross calls attention to hints of mortality at the Met that we can only pray a complacent board will not fail to see. (via ArtsJournal)

Especially disheartening is the fatalistic tone that Gelb has struck in discussing the Met’s biggest crisis, “Klinghoffer” notwithstanding: the ongoing negotiations with the sixteen unions that represent the Met’s great beehive of performers and workers. Gelb has said that expenses have become ruinous and that employees must accept cuts. The unions have responded by blaming Gelb for rising expenses and diminishing receipts. The underlying financial situation is difficult for an outsider to assess, and Gelb may have valid points to make. But he loses credibility when he blames wider cultural trends for the Met’s particular problems: “There aren’t enough new audience members replacing the older ones who are dying off. It’s no secret that the frequency of operagoing in the U.S. is decreasing.” Such actuarial language is unworthy of the leader of one of the world’s largest arts institutions. Incidentally, Gelb has revealed that seventy-five per cent of the Live in HD audience is sixty-five or older. “Those are people who are so old that they can’t go the Met, to the theatre, anymore,” he has said. This, apparently, is the same audience that would have become bloodthirsty after a viewing of “The Death of Klinghoffer.”

Self-Improvement Note:
Performance Art
25 June 2014

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

¶ At 3 Quarks Daily, Misha Lepetic makes a mildly jaw-dropping proposal: What if we accepted the fact that the world of recorded pop music has come and somehow gone, and learned once again how to read music and play instruments? The idea is embedded in a recent project by Beck.

However, there is another, more generous provocation that was offered by Beck in 2012. Beck, conjunction with McSweeney’s, released a new album, except he didn’t record a single note. Instead, he released 20 songs as sheet music, and invited everyone to create their own interpretation. You can view the results at Song Reader, the site set up to collect all these contributions. This may seem precious and retro, the kind of winking irony that would be at home in a snooty Williamsburg coffee shop. But this gesture is not dissimilar to the kind of “instruction art” that was refined by John Cage and Sol LeWitt, where the fundamental idea is that people can – and should – create the work for themselves.

Owlish Note:
Jirble
24 June 2014

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

¶ Do you jirble? Yes, unfortunately, we do. Here are 65 other oddments of English. (Huff Post; via 3 Quarks Daily)

24. A percontation is a question that requires more than a straightforward “yes” or “no” answer.

25. The shortest -ology is oology, the scientific study of eggs.

26. As a verb rather than a noun, owl means “to act wisely, despite knowing nothing.”

Brokenland Note:
Tough Monday
23 June 2014

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

¶ Mondays aren’t made any easier to get by the synergy of ghastly stories in the Times.

In the last, Carr writes of the late author, Michael Hastings,

To wit, there have been those who suggested Mr. Hastings’s mysterious and tragic death at age 33 showed he was too honest for a world where the truth is overwhelmed by careerism and propaganda. In truth I have no idea why his car ended up smashed into a palm tree in Los Angeles in the early morning hours of June 18 a year ago. I just know he left something remarkable behind.

It’s a damned good thing that we don’t drive.

 

 

 

Brokenland:
Unmarried Mothers
18 June 2014

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

¶ Arguably our most “conservative” belief is that parents ought to remain married until their children graduate from high school, and that divorce prior to that point ought to be stigmatized, at least in the absence of criminal conduct. So, we’re appalled by the figures produced by Olga Khazan in The Atlantic. (via The Morning News.) There’s nothing really new in the numbers or in their likely significance, but when we think of all those youngsters growing up without the attention they need, we grieve. And we all share responsibility for the conditions outlined here:

Finally, let’s say you don’t finish high school. Many of the higher-paying jobs you might have been eligible for 50 years ago have been outsourced or computerized, and the remaining jobs are low-paying and dull.

Meanwhile, babies are great; they’re like a little mini-job that you get to love. Plus, being a mother is being someone.

“Many young women think they will be able to care for the kid—they have a mother who can help, a sister they can rely on,” Cherlin said. Particularly among the very poorest Americans, “this is a way a woman or man can be a successful adult when all other paths are blocked.”

“Anyone who refuses to assume joint responsibility for the world should not have children and must be allowed to take part in educating them.”

Hot Air Note:
In the Best Way Possible
17 June 2014

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

¶ A few years ago, a profile in The New Yorker inspired the Editor to buy a couple of books by Derek Parfit. The books, which were extremely voluminous, just plain fat really, were opened, and perused carefully for several pages. Coma ensued. The books were put away. Reverently — but far away. Now an apostate analytic philosopher has confirmed our sneaking suspicions. At 3 Quarks Daily, Grace Boey interviews her former teacher, NYU professor Peter Unger, author of Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy.

It’s fun, of course, it’s a lot of fun doing it. Logic puzzles, language puzzles, so on and so forth. For some people there’s fun in chess, in far more people there’s a lot of fun in bridge, for others there’s a lot of fun in constructing or solving very difficult crossword puzzles. And then for lots of people there’s fun in doing philosophy.

With a certain proviso, philosophy is an enjoyable form of literature, at least for people of a certain training and temperament. The proviso is that a fair amount of it contains special symbols instead of words, so that it looks like some sort of scientific thing, almost like an equation. Mathematics, symbolic logic, so on and so forth. So philosophers put that in, and give themselves the impression that they’re doing things ‘ohhh, so scientifically’ that they need the math. All this makes it much less enjoyable to me. I don’t like reading that stuff. But insofar as we can get over all of that useless and pretentious writing, it’s an enjoyable sort of literature, if they take the time to make it reader-friendly.

Take Derek Parfit’s book, Reasons and Persons. It’s in four parts. The first part is not enjoyable to read, because he talks about a lot of theories which he labels with letters. You can’t keep it straight, you need a scorecard next to the page. But the other three parts don’t have that, and they’re tremendously enjoyable to read — at least for some people who have some training in philosophy, and have the temperament for it. It’s wonderful stuff, fascinating stuff.

Reasons and Persons is extremely enjoyable. But does Parfit ever discover anything? No, not at all. Does he ever make credible, interesting new statements about concrete reality? No, not even close. But it’s very enjoyable literature for very many people.

It’s not surprising that Boey asks Unger (who is 72), “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, in fact I actually mean it in the best way possible, if that’s possible — I feel like you’ve just taken a big crap on everything you’ve done before.” To which Unger replies, “Certainly on most of what I’ve done. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.”

See, going back to Wittgenstein — he had his two periods. In his early period he wrote the Tractatus, which is supposed to be one of the five classics of twentieth century analytic philosophy. His second period was — it’s all crap on Tractatus. All that stuff I did as a young man is nonsense. This is it — I have to start anew, and what I now say is, you can’t do any of that stuff. You can’t do any of what people have thought of as philosophy. You just can’t do it, it doesn’t amount to anything. When you do it, it’s all puffery, puffery gone awry. So Wittgenstein did that. But then he couldn’t stop doing the puffery!

Whose News?:
“Secret Weapon”
16 June 2014

Monday, June 16th, 2014

¶ Quite aside from its political implications, the “surprise” defeat of Eric Cantor in a Virginia primary provides a measure of the fall-off in journalistic competence. In the Times this morning, David Carr is scathing.

Plenty of reporters are imprisoned in cubes in Washington, but stretched news organizations aren’t eager to spend money on planes, rental cars and hotel rooms so that employees can bring back reports from the hustings. While the Internet has been a boon to modern reporting — All Known Thought One Click Away — it tends to pin journalists at their desks. I was on a panel with Gay Talese some time ago, and he said, “We are outside people,” meaning that we are supposed to leave our offices and hit the streets. But the always-on data stream is hypnotic, giving us the illusion of omniscience.

Data-driven news sites are all the rage, but what happens when newspapers no longer have the money to commission comprehensive, legitimate polls? The quants took a beating on this one, partly because journalists are left to read the same partisan surveys and spotty local reporting as Mr. Cantor’s campaign staff, whose own polling had him up by more than 30 points.

Hordes of blogs and news sites continue to chase the latest incremental scoop that will draw followers on Twitter, but a whole other channel of information is out there, including talk radio. Politico called it “Brat’s secret weapon,” to which, we might ask, secret to whom? About 50 million people in America listen to talk radio, much of it from conservative commentators like Mark Levin, Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham.

Long View Note:
A Tartt Debate
13 June 2014

Friday, June 13th, 2014

¶ At Vanity Fair, Evgenia Peretz considers the critical controversy occasioned by Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinchis it art, or just a good read? Our own view is that the question is radically premature, and that no one alive today will ever know the answer. Such questions take at least a century, or the passage of several sifting generations, to settle. For the time being, the fracas is merely “provocative.” Which is reason enough to read her piece.

In all the commentary that Peretz surveyed, one inanity stands out. We tremble at our disrespect, because it was Loren Stein, editor of The Paris Review, who uttered it.

Similarly, Stein, who struggles to keep strong literary voices alive and robust, sees a book like The Goldfinch standing in the way. “What worries me is that people who read only one or two books a year will plunk down their money for The Goldfinch, and read it, and tell themselves they like it, but deep down will be profoundly bored, because they aren’t children, and will quietly give up on the whole enterprise when, in fact, fiction—realistic fiction, old or new—is as alive and gripping as it’s ever been.”

Who the dickens — or even the Dickens — gives a damn about “people who read only one or two books a year”? They may shore up the publishers’ balances, but they have no place in discussions of literature.

Outage:
God and the World
11 June 2014

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

¶ Feedly is down today (egad!), so we had to make do, and a link by a friend (thanks, Eric!) came in very handy.

We didn’t read Adam Gopnik’s “Bigger Than Phil,” in one of last winter’s New Yorkers, or, if we did, we forgot it. But reading David Hart Bentley’s complaint about the piece left us no happier with him.

The tiny, thwarted blastema of a thought that seems to be lurking in Gopnik’s words is the notion that we have only lately discovered that God cannot be found as a discrete physical object or force within the manifold of nature, and that this is somehow a staggering blow to “that hypothesis”— though, curiously enough, Augustine or Philo or Ramanuja (and so on) could have told him as much: God is not a natural phenomenon. Is it really so difficult to grasp that the classical concept of God has always occupied a logical space that cannot be approached from the necessarily limited perspective of natural science?

Whether or not Bentley is right to attribute such thinking to Gopnik, we have our own two cents to put it. The question of God has been mooted by a rupture in the connection or relation between divinity and the cosmos. No one is interested in a God who is “out there” — not at least along the lines shaped by gods of the past. The God of Adam, certainly, has withdrawn to His proper place in the universe, which is within the hearts and minds of those who believe in Him. While He may be of great importance in the intimate connections of human beings, He no longer has a place in the world. We defy His believers to upstage it.

Think Piece:
Armchair Speculation
10 June 2014

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

¶ At 3 Quarks Daily, Charlie Huenemann offers a spirited defense of “armchair speculation”— and of philosophers generally. We must have missed that they were under attack. Or perhaps we’re right to wonder just why Huenemann puts philosophers in those armchairs.  It has always been our understanding that “armchair speculation” is the lazy pursuit of “just-so” stories that explain matters about which the speculator is at best only partially informed. For Huenemann, the armchair is a great place for “just thinking hard,” and we’re all for that!

The problem is, how do you know when you’re well-enough informed enough to think about something? It’s a problem, because you never really do know. In the end, the test of your competence must be a piece of writing, or remarks that someone else transcribes, so that other people can assess your thought.

¶ In a related key, Frank Bruni sings the praises of solitude, especially for political figures who aren’t likely to enjoy much of it. Just what a politician is supposed to think about in rare quiet moments he doesn’t say; perhaps nothing special, nothing that any intelligent human being doesn’t have to think about. One thing is certain: public figures are going to have to learn, as a group, how to retract from the mindless focus of television.

Academy of Lies:
Ownerism
6 June 2014

Monday, June 9th, 2014

¶ Here’s hoping that the Massachusetts legislature passes a bill that will severely narrow the enforceability of “non-compete” clauses in employment contracts — and, hopefully, restore some of the luster that Route 128 has lost to Silicon Valley. When we read on the front page of this morning’s Times about the difficulties that a nineteen year-old summer camp counselor was having finding another job, we almost went into a socialist fugue state. Here is what her former employer told reporter Steven Greenhouse:

Joe Kahn, Linx’s owner and founder, defended the noncompete that his company uses. “Our intellectual property is the training and fostering of our counselors, which makes for our unique environment,” he said. “It’s much like a tech firm with designers who developed chips: You don’t want those people walking out the door. It’s the same for us.” He called the restriction — no competing camps within 10 miles — very reasonable.

You can imagine how wickedly the editor’s wife, a long-time summer-camp counselor herself, snorted at this nonsense. Chips, indeed. She’d like to give his little canoe a nice paddle.

We recovered from our socialist fever, but not without a sharper sense that there is a difference between business operators and intellectual property, and that we ought not to be too eager to respect ownership claims by the former to the latter. Non-patented business practices (and such patents ought to be granted most grudgingly) are hardly more confidential or deserving of legal protection on behalf of alleged owners than published cookie recipes.

We’re all for capitalism, wherever it works. We’re very much against mere ownerism.

Negotiables:
Getting Deflation Wrong
6 June 2014

Friday, June 6th, 2014

¶ At Naked Capitalism, Bill Black compares economic “austerity” to the quackery of bleeding the sick — a discredited practice that serves only to enrich bankers and the rentiers who hire them.

The NYT’s “Draghi as Physician” Simile

The most embarrassing of the five articles begins with this sentence.

“Mario Draghi might feel like a doctor trying to treat a chronically ill patient with unproven medicines.”

There are three vital things that are totally wrong about that sentence.  First, it was the ECB and its fellow troika members that forced the eurozone – as it was beginning to recover from the Great Recession – back into a gratuitous second recession and in several cases a Second Great Depression by inflicting austerity.  Second, the correct medical metaphor would be that Draghi is continuing to insist on “bleeding” the patient a century after we knew that the practice had no scientific basic and harmed the patient.  His practices were not “unproven” – they were known to be quackery.  Third, to the extent the focus is on low inflation, Draghi has been refusing to “treat” the “chronically ill patient” even though (A) the eurozone has repeatedly failed to meet the ECB’s stated inflation target and (B) there are proven fiscal means of curing the “patient” which Draghi fights to prevent from being used.

Style Note:
Clarity
1 June 2014

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

¶ A story on the front page of this morning’s Times begins badly. Beneath the headline, “In a First, Test of DNA Finds Root of Illness,” the report launches in lurid human-interest mode (a teenager is dying!). It’s hard to say which is worse, the headline or the text. At a minimum, the headline ought to have made it clear that the DNA in the case belonged to the pathogen, not to the patient. The first sentence of the story ought to have gone like this: “In a recent breakthrough, scientists have significantly shortened the time required to make a diagnosis, critical to dealing with life-threatening infections, by identifying pathogens by their DNA.”

¶ What’s your position on the Oxford comma? Ours is flexible, because, frankly, we believe human language is too complicated for human beings to be able to discern rules that will guarantee clear usage. We don’t even believe that clarity itself is always the most important thing: sometimes, a little ambiguity is the only way to make readers think. (See poetry.) But we think that you’ll enjoying weighing the pros and cons of the rule that prescribes placing a comma after every item in a list, even the penultimate one, the one that is followed by “and.” (Mental Floss; via The Millions)

Especially not to be missed is the final example, with Arika Okrent’s comment. Sometimes, you simply have to rewrite the sentence.

“By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

Languagehat dug this gem out of a comment thread on the serial comma. It’s from a TV listing in The Times. It supports the use of the Oxford comma, but only because it keeps Mandela from being a dildo collector. However, even the Oxford comma can’t keep him from being an 800-year-old demigod. There’s only so much a comma can do.