Archive for 2013

Loose Links:
Seven Reasons
5 September 2013

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

¶ Nick Holdstock appraises the “trial” of former Chongqing macher Bo Xilai at the LRB blog, in “Seeking Truth from Facts.”

¶ Could it be true? Bill Morris asks us to take his word for it that Marisha Pessl’s “writing has done a lot of growing up in the seven years since Calamity Physics was published,” and that “Pessl’s cleverness and bloat have given way to assurance.” You go first. (The Millions)

¶ Robert Kaplan broaches a “Byzantine strategy” for dealing with Syria. We ponder the following remark with grave interest, because it appears to overlook the fact that President Obama is an accountable democratic leader:

President Barack Obama’s mistake is not his hesitancy about entering the Syrian mess; but announcing to the Syrians that his military strike, if it occurs, will be “narrow” and “limited.” Never tell your adversary what you’re not going to do! Let your adversary stay awake all night, worrying about the extent of a military strike! Unless Obama is being deliberately deceptive about his war aims, then some of the public statements from the administration have been naïve in the extreme.

One suspects that a Republican president would not have drawn this criticism. (RealClearWorld)

¶ Why is that pig on a leash? Truffle-hunting in Oregon with dogs. (Modern Farmer; via Brainiac)

¶ You can read the whole piece at Naked Capitalism, but just the checklist of Lynn Parramore’s “Seven Reasons to Fight Obama on Picking Out-of-Touch Crony Capitalist Larry Summers as Fed Chair” will do. (To which we would add an eighth: Harvard’s endowment.) But especially:

3. Summers is not terribly interested in unemployment.

Supporters of Larry Summers like to talk about his brilliance, but in reality he is a highly conventional economist who advocates raising interest rates too fast and places too much emphasis on deficits over jobs. Part of the Fed’s mandate is to move the country toward full employment, so Summers’ history of lackluster interest in jobs is yet another red flag.

Janet Yellen, Summers’ main rival for Fed chair, has consistently advocated for expansionary Fed policy focused on reducing unemployment. While out of power, Larry Summers has given lip service to the importance of jobs, but we’ve seen him in power enough times to know that jobs have never really been a major concern for him. Summers, the political protégé of deficit hawk Robert E. Rubin, the Treasury secretary under Clinton, has repeatedly shown — most recently during his years as Director of the National Economic Council under Obama — that if it comes down to a choice between jobs and austerity, he’s usually on the side of austerity. The kind of austerity that kills jobs and undermines programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

Economist Dean Baker reveals that if you want to find the “smoking gun” in the Obama administration that led to a focus on deficit reduction instead of jobs, look no further than a memo drafted by Summers in December 2008, a month before Obama’s inauguration. The memo, which was wrong about the economy on several counts, set the stage for policies that drove an ongoing jobs crisis and led to Obama’s creation of a deficit commission led by former Senator Alan Simpson, a zealot for cutting Social Security and Medicare, and Morgan Stanley director Erskine Bowles. (The duo relied on famously discredited work by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff to push austerity).

Since he left the National Economic Council in 2010, Summers has been talking down austerity and talking up the importance of jobs and the middle class. But how he acts when in power and how he talks when out of it are two vastly different things. His doubtful record on adequately stimulating the economy and his political baggage are so worrisome that many — even some business-minded folks — have warned that his leadership at the Fed would be harmful to the economy. The Economist magazine has cautioned that Summers would likely be a Greenspan style “maestro” at the Fed, less interested in transparency and consensus-building in his decision-making than Yellen. In the NYT, Binyamin Applebaum explained that many financial analysts fear a Summers nomination “could lead to slower economic growth, less job creation and higher interest rates…”

Americans are still suffering from the effects of the Great Recession and years of wrong-headed economic policy. We need a Fed chair focused on unemployment and investing in the economy.

In the Times:
3 September 2013

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

¶ You can’t tell from the online edition, but the Business section of this morning’s Times juxtaposes two stories that transforms one headline into a caution about the other: “In a New Book, McKinsey & Co Isn’t All Roses” and “Summers’s Odds Up, Stimulus Ease Seen.” The world would be a much better place if into its dustbin were dropped both the egregious consulting firm and the former Harvard president. They represent the well-dressed Nothing that rises to the top in today’s establishment. On the subject of McKinsey, Adam Ross Sorkin quotes wisely:

Whatever bad advice it has offered over the years, clients keep coming back for more. “They have follow-on work not just because they’re good at what they do, but because they are trained in how to manage these kinds of client relationships,” Alan Kantrow, former editor of McKinsey Quarterly, told Mr. McDonald. “They understand the core reality is the relationship and conversation.”

Business? What business? It’s “relationship and conversation” — eyewash and hot air! And Benjamin Appelbaum’s report on the wide uneasiness that accompanies rumors of Lawrence Summers’ nomination to head the Fed highlights the resemblance of the West Wing to a frat house of knuckleheads.

But the president’s top economic advisers uniformly support the selection of Mr. Summers. They regard him as a creative thinker and an experienced crisis manager, qualities they value in particular because they expect the Fed may confront difficult choices as it begins to retreat from its six-year-old stimulus campaign.

They also insist that Mr. Summers supports the Fed’s efforts to revive the economy and would continue those efforts.

But Mr. Summers has criticized the Fed’s purchases of Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities, warning that bond-buying on such a scale could distort financial markets. He said it was “less efficacious for the real economy than most people suppose.” As a result, many investors suspect he would seek to end those purchases more quickly than Ms. Yellen.

Those “top economic advisers” support Summers because its the soundest way to further their own careers.

In the Times:
Academic Tradition
22 August 2013

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

¶ Physicist Alan Frank laments the “Age of Denial” on today’s Op-Ed page. Funny, but I was thinking of the disconnect between the academy and society myself, having written a few lines yesterday about what’s missing in college teaching. I was thinking of the humanities, but Frank shows that my concern stretches to the sciences as well. He concludes:

During my undergraduate studies I was shocked at the low opinion some of my professors had of the astronomer Carl Sagan. For me his efforts to popularize science were an inspiration, but for them such “outreach” was a diversion. That view makes no sense today.

The enthusiasm and generous spirit that Mr. Sagan used to advocate for science now must inspire all of us. There are science Twitter feeds and blogs to run, citywide science festivals and high school science fairs that need input. For the civic-minded nonscientists there are school board curriculum meetings and long-term climate response plans that cry out for the participation of informed citizens. And for every parent and grandparent there is the opportunity to make a few more trips to the science museum with your children.

Behind the giant particle accelerators and space observatories, science is a way of behaving in the world. It is, simply put, a tradition. And as we know from history’s darkest moments, even the most enlightened traditions can be broken and lost. Perhaps that is the most important lesson all lifelong students of science must learn now.

There are several interesting points here, and popularization is certainly one of them. We need authoritative populizers like Carl Sagan, writers and filmmakers who can connect young readers and audiences especially with the look and feel of real science. But my eye caught on “the most enlightened traditions.” It is unusual to hear scientists speak of traditions. Carrying on as though the Aristotelian Weltanschauung was still in need of demolition became something of a necessary deformation for modern scientists. But Western science is by now an august tradition, with centuries-old roots, and most of its authority derives from those roots.

It is really time for universities to reclaim the moral authority that they so heedlessly threw off in the Sixties and Seventies. Ordinary schools abandoned the pretense, as it were, while professors in the great universities contented themselves with a kind of mutual authority, among themselves, that disregarded public opinion. They have no one to thank but themselves for the public’s embrace of existential fantasies.

Loose Links:
(Hey, it’s still August)
20 August 2013

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Solow’s Hole — 6.4 acres of waterfront Manhattan controlled by a — by an unpleasant-sounding person who loves to bring lawsuits. Walking proof that “Developer” ought to be a credentialed profession with clear standards of conduct. (NYT)

Since 2009, Mr. Solow’s executive suite has had a revolving door as he fired one general counsel and chief operating officer after another, including Steven Cherniak, a 27-year veteran of the company. His long-running legal battle with Citigroup over a loan for the property ended with an $85.7 million judgment against him.

John Simon, writing about wordplay, quotes a tremendous stunt of de Vigny’s.

Gall, amant de la reine, alla, tour magnanimeGallamant de l’Arène a la tour Magne a Nîmes…

¶ Okay, fun’s over. Michael Ignatieff puts the Syrian disintegration in perspective: perhaps, like Yugoslavia, it will not survive. (We did not intervene to save Tito’s patchwork federation, but on behalf of one of its scraps, the Bosnians.)

Such an analysis helps us to explain why the anti-Assad opposition has been unable to create a believable government in exile linked both to commanders at the front and to the municipal authorities in the liberated zones. Inside and outside, exiles and front-line fighters regard each other with suspicion. There is no effective national command of the insurrection and hence no shared political claim to defend together. In addition there are a number of fighters, the al Nusra Brigade being only one example, for whom the goal is not the defense of a multi-confessional Syria but the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Arab lands. As Western governments have considered their options since the uprising began, they have found it easier to identify those they want to lose than those they want to win.

But the perspective could be longer: wherever we look in the Near East, we see the bungled break-up of the Ottoman Empire. (Boston Review; via 3 Quarks Daily)

In the Times :
Our Very Motto
15 August 2013

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

¶ What a lucky kid Holland Cotter was, growing up in a family devoted to cultural pleasures. (The luck is that it was right for him.) And how sweet of the Times to start one of its art critics’ autobiographical fragment on the front page!

I spent a lot of time there from the age of about 9, mostly on Saturdays, mostly wandering around on my own. (My parents tended to use the museum as a surrogate nanny.) No one was telling me to look at this or at that, so I looked at whatever appealed. I loved the Japanese Buddhist hall because it was set up in the form of a circular temple, with a ring of life-size carved-wood Buddhas sitting in a kind of twilight. It was transporting. When you were there, you were someplace new.

Like any kid, I was interested in art that told stories, as a good amount of pre-modern art, especially painting, does. Some narratives were familiar, or obvious. Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th-century “St. Luke Painting the Virgin” depicted exactly the placid scene its title describes, but was set in an interior that looked airy, just-cleaned.

We had to fight for this kind of pleasure, in the teeth of a surburban philistinism that Cotter’s family escaped.

¶ Stacy Perman’s story about reinvention at Emma, a Web-based marketing and communications company, gave us something that we’ve been looking for.

At Emma, the project took 18 months, six months longer than anticipated. And it cost $4.5 million. Preliminary research and design began in the summer of 2010. The company relied primarily on its own engineers and developers, hiring a small outside team to build one set of e-mail tools.

The principal operating guideline was to design a flexible system that would remove the need to do anything like this again. “We didn’t know what the marketplace would look like in five years,” Mr. Smith said. “Also, we didn’t know how databases would evolve in five years either. We couldn’t design for the future, but we could design something that could adapt to what the future will bring.”

Our very motto: Don’t build to last; build to upgrade!

¶ We don’t go in for bad reviews, but, having read every page of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, including the five hundred unnecessary ones, we couldn’t suppress a burp of gloat when we read Janet Maslin’s review of Night Film, Marisha Pessl’s “long-awaited” second novel.

There is a haunting suspicion running all through “Night Film”: that this book was more exciting to write than to read, and that Ms. Pessl reveled too contentedly in the universe she created. On the rare occasions when she calls attention to double meanings or bits of wordplay, they fall terribly flat. Yes, Cordova used a lighting company called Phil Lumen, and that more or less means “love of light” in Latin if you stop to notice. But “Night Film” is content to deliver small, self-satisfied rewards. Ms. Pessl seems to take it as a given that this book, like its absent genius, warrants fascination. Where’s the evidence? Not on the page.

All’ Erta!
Egregious Sexismo
2 August 2013

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

¶ We somehow let ourselves be lulled into thinking that we had seen the last of Larry Summers in public life. Wishful thinking! We can think of two reason why he’s unfit to lead the Federal Reserve, and his comments about women in the sciences constitute the lesser offense. Have people forgotten the hole that he put in Harvard’s endowment? But Paul Krugman is right to call attention to the deeper sexism inherent in the keyword “gravitas.”

The point is that while the gravitas types like to think of themselves as serious men (and I do mean men) who are willing to do what needs to be done, recent history suggests that they’re actually men who are eager to prove their seriousness by doing what doesn’t need to be done, at the public’s expense.

Also, there was a time not along ago when almost everyone in the gravitas crowd, if asked who possessed that mystical quality in its purest form, would surely have answered “Alan Greenspan.” How well did that turn out?

So is Janet Yellen the only possible candidate to be the next leader of the Fed? Of course not. But the case for someone else should be made on the merits — and, so far, that hasn’t been what’s happening.

Lit Life:
1 August 2013

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

¶ Although their lives were never in probable danger, both Caleb Crain and Choire Sicha sound like survivors, even if they don’t think they are. Books to follow. (Pacific Standard; via Caleb Crain’s blog — which we learned about from Norman Rush’s nice review in the NYRB — Steamboats Are Ruining Everything)

Choire: Yeah, I just think there’s this thing about being in New York when you’re young. And you moved here when?

Caleb: I moved here in ‘91.

Choire: I moved here in ’92—‘92 or ‘93.

You were very young.
We were young! And it was terrible in New York. But there’s that sense of … we moved here at a much better time than it is now to live here. Thoughts?

Caleb: It was a very different time. It certainly felt more authentic in some ways.

No Vacation
26 July 2013

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

Matthew Yglesias argues against closing public schools in the summer, especially in poor districts. (Slate; via MetaFilter)

The entire issue tends to vanish from public debate, because the educated, affluent people who run the debate don’t particularly suffer from it. Summer vacation costs money, but prosperous parents are happy to spend it on their kids. And of course there’s the sentimentality factor. I’ll always treasure tender thoughts of my beloved Camp Winnebago and would one day love to have the experience of picking up my kid from the very same camp I attended when I was young.

But these days, Camp Winnebago is charging $11,550 for a full eight-week session. No doubt more affordable options are out there, but the basic reality is that parents’ ability to provide enriching summer activities for their children is going to be sharply constrained by income. Working-class single moms in urban neighborhoods—exactly the kind of parents whose kids tend to have the most problems in school—are put in a nearly impossible situation by summer vacation.

Summer vacation — which was anything but a vacation in our agricultural past — does seem to be a tradition that makes no sense. Although how teachers would live without it, I can’t imagine.

Cognitive Revolution:
Seven Touches
24 July 2013

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

¶ In the current New Yorker, Atul Gawande tells a handful of very important stories — which, like all good stories, show that there is no substitute for personal presence in human interaction. There’s some interesting Gestalt, too. Both points appear in the following passage, about surgeons, their initial resistance to antiseptics, and how that resistance was overcome.

Surgeons finally did upgrade their antiseptic standards at the end of the nineteenth century. But, as is often the case with new ideas, the effort required deeper changes than anyone had anticipated. In their blood-slick, viscera-encrusted black coats, surgeons had seen themselves as warriors doing hemorrhagic battle with little more than their bare hands. A few pioneering Germans, however, seized on the idea of the surgeon as scientist. They traded in their black coats for pristine laboratory whites, refashioned their operating rooms to achieve the exacting sterility of a bacteriological lab, and embraced anatomic precision over speed.

The key message to teach surgeons, it turned out, was not how to stop germs but how to think like a laboratory scientist. Young physicians from America and elsewhere who went to Germany to study with its surgical luminaries became fervent converts to their thinking and their standards. They returned as apostles not only for the use of antiseptic practice (to kill germs) but also for the much more exacting demands of aseptic practice (to prevent germs), such as wearing sterile gloves, gowns, hats, and masks. Proselytizing through their own students and colleagues, they finally spread the ideas worldwide.

What we’ve left out — you’ll read all about it in the article — is the distinction between innovations that yield startling, immediate results, and innovations whose effects appear only outside the scope of those who need to make them. Anaesthetics instantly made surgery easy for surgeons. Antiseptics meant that patients didn’t die a week later, somewhere else.

You’ll find out what “seven touches” means, too.

Organized Money:
23 July 2013

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

¶ George Packer writes about the payoff side of organized money — speechmaking fees — at The New Yorker‘s Daily Comment.

If it isn’t fair to ask stars to refuse the money, it is fair to ask exactly what they do to earn it. One problem with the star system (aside from its appearance of corruption and conflict of interest, and its demoralizing effect on adjunct professors, journeymen power forwards, mid-level executives, freelance journalists, and career bureaucrats) is the pervasive mediocrity and corner-cutting that it encourages: the utter banality of corporate speeches written by staff, the abuse of researchers and ghostwriters by big-name authors, the ease with which a star athlete transitions into a business franchise or a commentary gig, the lack of face time with the prof that awaits CUNY students who register for “Are We on the Threshold of the North American Decade?,” a course whose instructor needed three Harvard grad students just to help him put together the syllabus. Nothing spells the end of real achievement like becoming a brand.

Memorize that final sentence.

Monday Hard Copy:
Political Economy
22 July 2013

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

¶ In the Times, Paul Krugman argues against likening the mess in Detroit to the mess in Greece.

So was Detroit just uniquely irresponsible? Again, no. Detroit does seem to have had especially bad governance, but for the most part the city was just an innocent victim of market forces.

What? Market forces have victims? Of course they do. After all, free-market enthusiasts love to quote Joseph Schumpeter about the inevitability of “creative destruction” — but they and their audiences invariably picture themselves as being the creative destroyers, not the creatively destroyed. Well, guess what: Someone always ends up being the modern equivalent of a buggy-whip producer, and it might be you.

Sometimes the losers from economic change are individuals whose skills have become redundant; sometimes they’re companies, serving a market niche that no longer exists; and sometimes they’re whole cities that lose their place in the economic ecosystem. Decline happens.

This is Krugman’s latest proxy fight with the austerity hawks, and we’re very much on his side. But there’s more to Detroit than the funding of pensions. Owing to the flight, long ago, of Detroit’s upper-middle class to the suburbs to the north, Detroit’s economics became entirely divorced from its politics. The people who ran the economy did not live in the city, and eventually they sent the economy elsewhere. Imagine New York City without Manhattan! “Decline happens” is a lazy way of overlooking the same piece’s observations about Pittsburgh.

¶ Sadly behind the paywall, “Mountain Views,” Kim Phillips-Fein’s review of a new book about Friedrich Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression, by Angus Burgin, is an engaging essay about what looks to be an important book, for the simple reason that Burgin reconstitutes — recomplexifies — the Austrian economist’s thinking, taking it back from libertarian morons. In passing, Phillips-Fein considers the changes (for the worse) wrought by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago.

Today, “Chicago School” is shorthand for the aggressive advocacy of free markets and opposition to government intervention. But even the economists who taught at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s were skeptical about capitalism and wary of openly advocating on its behalf. Frank Knight, one of the department’s leading lights (best known for his book Risk, Uncertainty and Profit), feared that market societies subordinated all social values to the quest for profit: “Economic man is the selfish, ruthless object of moral condemnation.” Jacob Viner was sharply critical of corporate bombast: “Nothing in the history of American business justifies undue confidence on the part of the American public that it can trust big business to take care of the community without supervision, regulation or eternal vigilance.” And Henry Simons—the most politically engaged of the three—denounced monopoly power as the “great enemy of democracy.”

Small wonder, then, that Hayek began to believe that if a market society was to survive, it would need a new philosophical grounding. Its defense couldn’t be limited to its ability to produce abundant wealth; nor could its workings be so atomized and individualistic.

It is easy to see now that the Hayek’s many ambivalences were, like everyone else’s, crushed by Cold War polarities.

Power Outages
16 July 2013

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

¶ Columbia law professor David Pozen takes a look behind the curtain from which the US is breathing fire upon Edward Snowden. (via The Morning News)

A trial could turn out to be much more than a distraction: It could be a focal point for domestic and international outrage. From the executive branch’s institutional perspective, the greatest danger posed by the Snowden case is not to any particular program. It is to the credibility of the secrecy system, and at one remove the ideal of our government as a force for good.

To do their jobs, the U.S. intelligence agencies must be able to keep secrets. But even more fundamentally, they must be able to sustain a democratic mandate. They need Congress to give them the money and the discretion to engage in clandestine activities. They need the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve their domestic eavesdropping. They need technology companies and allied governments to cooperate with them. They need voters to elect presidents and legislators who support their mission. They need talented young people to want to sign up.

We can only wish that Mr Pozen had taken care to remind readers that Snowden worked for Booz Allen, not the NSA.

¶ At Bloomberg Businessweek, Charles Kenny argues for shutting down the Department of Homeland Security. Boy, would that make sense! (via 3 Quarks Daily)

That’s unfortunate. Beyond the waste of money and the overregulation, the expansion of the homeland security state has created unnecessary fear among a population that should be able to trust its government to send accurate signals about risk. So let’s start sending the right signals. Shut down the DHS, and redistribute the agencies under its umbrella back to other departments, including the justice, transportation, and energy departments. Then start bringing their budgets into some sort of alignment with the benefit they provide.

¶ And, finally, Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the Zimmerman verdict for what it is. (@ The Atlantic)

It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of American justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended. To expect our juries, our schools, our police to single-handedly correct for this, is to look at the final play in the final minute of the final quarter and wonder why we couldn’t come back from twenty-four down.

Weekend Hard Copy:
In the Times
8 July 2013

Monday, July 8th, 2013

Frank Bruni likens Cardinal Dolan to a corporate executive “steering an oil company through a spill.” We agree, but insist that it cuts both ways: large corporations are that bad.

Brian McFadden’s strip this week, “Journalism Summer Camp,” is as overdue as good camping weather; better late than never. (This link may stale quickly, which is why we’ve highlighted the strip’s title.)

¶ Will American’s survive the Cold War? Young people don’t remember it, of course, but that’s not the problem; Cold War thinking wormed its way into our patriotic DNA, worse than an autoimmune-deficiency disease. In any case, everyone else seems to have gotten over it, especially those old frenemies Russia and China.

¶ Ever since The Sportswriter (at least), Richard Ford has struggled to inscribe the decency and honor of the suburban dream. In our view, it is unworthy of his talent, and his affectionate recollection of his father’s imaginary house-hunting betrays this.

But through the car window, his imagination’s private screen, he could see himself most vividly — standing in his yard, trimming his young trees, watering new grass, building certain things, relaxing in a lawn chair on a freshly mowed palette of green, arriving home from his job at dusk, the house lights blazing, my mother and me in attendance, sitting down to dinner in a room with a real picture window that showed an aqua sky, then later drifting to sleep tired, and waking refreshed and eager, backing down a sloped driveway on his journey to work, whistling a tune, a sweet, rare magic in his head. The song of the suburbs.

The life of Reilly, indeed.

Loose Links:
Summer Idle
1 July 2013

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Lady Gaga at Gay Pride, dressed like the nice Sacred Heart alumna she is, singing the National Anthem. Listen to that top! (Joe.My.God)

¶ Don’t miss the last line of Tyler Cowen’s entry, “Who is the most influential public intellectual of the last twenty-five years.” Just so you don’t:

Pre-[Andrew] Sullivan, I would give the honors to Milton Friedman.
Pre-Sullivan, I would give the honors to Milton Friedman. – See more at:

Balthasar or Lafayette? I’m still reading Andrew Carmellini’s Urban Italian. (The Bad Deal; via The Awl)

The Royal Ascot 2013 Dress Code. (via The Hairpin)

Exploding actresses, by Simone Rovellini. A transgressive bagatelle if there ever was one. (via

Loose Links:
The Transporter Problem
25 June 2013

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Felix Salmon captures an article in Foreign Affairs that evaluates the considerable upside of Chinese IP piracy.

China’s huge population is still poor, and few can afford Western products. Copies of Western products, as a result, do not necessarily represent lost sales. Instead, they often serve as effective advertisements for the originals: gateway products that, in the long run, might spur demand for the real thing as China’s burgeoning middle class grows… Although shanzhai products are celebrated, those Chinese who can buy the original products generally do.

¶ How to teach bright, ambitious girls to take risks? Improv! (Telegraph; via The Morning News)

¶ Nicely angry deconstruction of a New Yorker cartoon-caption winner.(The Awl)

Tudor has tapped into and depicted the darkest recesses of the right-wing lawmaker’s mind, where his alarmist rhetoric plays out in his head. This is where he tests the limits of plausibility before going up there, in front of those C-SPAN cameras, in that empty room he once stood in on an 8th grade field trip, so awestruck he was nearly left behind by the rest of the group, and tells outright lies to the public. No amount of hot air could make a man float unless he were totally empty, no heart, no guts, no balls, no soul. He is as empty as the chamber where he foolishly believed laws were debated and made as a boy.

¶ Postcards of the still-strangest structure in London. (iamjamesward)

¶ Some lines on not espying horseshoe crabs in the moonlight. (The Bygone Bureau)

Loose Linksy:
20 June 2013

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

¶ That old book smell: “grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla.” (Smithsonian; via The Rumpus)

¶ Department of Gee Whiz: Carbon fibers developed in Finland may double the lift capacity of elevators. Currently, cables comprise three-quarters of the weight of the highest elevators (500 m). Just don’t ask us to board one. (The Economist; via The Morning News.)

¶ From Scout’s open-question session at Gizmodo: “I have since learned to always notify the police in advance while scouting suburban neighborhoods.”

¶ Wisdom of the ages: From Mimi Sheraton’s 1962 Seducer’s Cookbook, rediscovered @ Brain Pickings:

He has his ego, and nothing deflates it more than the thought that a woman’s sole interest in him is sexual. This may not sound plausible, but it’s one of the best-kept male secrets. Just let a man think any woman he’s at all interested in would have gone to bed with any other presentable male who chanced by, and he is enraged and starts competing. He will immediately begin to turn hand-springs on her lawn (intellectually and even physically), trying to convince her he’s really a pretty special guy — out of bed as well as in. This is where his talents as a seducer will stand him in good deal.

We think that most men would have grave doubts about the sensory apparatus of any woman whose sole interest in them was sexual.

¶ Food for thought: Rachel Kushner, interviewed by The Millions:

If I have to compare, well, the art world is obviously more self-referential, in that you can’t really participate in the conversation of contemporary art unless you’re inside the discourse. Literature is not self-referential in the same way at all. Which makes it more open, less exclusive, but is deriving from the fact that it’s a more conservative and rigid form. They’re almost completely different. The art world has a lively and dynamic social component to it, whereas the publishing world is, er, not that dynamic of a place, and it doesn’t have to be, it’s not motored the same way. There are no biennials, and there isn’t an obscene pile of money at stake. And finally, maybe writers are less open to the culture than artists for some reason. Artists truck in culture. I don’t feel that’s necessarily the case with writers. Some are following the culture, of course, and their work is in response. But there are also these quiet psychological insights that writers pursue, which are different. [Emphasis supplied.]



Hard Copy:
19 June 2013

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

¶ Malcolm Gladwell has given Jeremy Adelman’s biography of Albert Hirschman, Worldly Philosopher, a rave review in The New Yorker. That’s great. If I’m slightly ambivalent about the honor, it’s because I recently decided that I no longer needed to give house room to Gladwell’s books. Also, it’s strange to be excited about praise for a man of whose existence I was unaware three months ago. Readers of the DBR will agree, I hope, that I’ve been making up for lost time.

Here is Gladwell on Hirschman’s best-known book (characteristically, the one that I’ve not yet read, although I have it), Exit, Voice and Loyalty:

Beneath Hirschman’s elegant sentences, you can hear a deeper argument. Exit is passive. It is silent protest. And silent protest, for him, is too easy. “Proving Hamlet wrong” was about the importance of acting in the face of doubt—but also of acting in the face of fear. Voice was courage.

Loose Links:
Quiet resurgence of alpha opportunities
18 June 2013

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

George Cleveland, who will be a senior at the Hill School in the fall, solicits input for his “in-depth analysis of culture and clothing at boarding schools and its influence on society.” We’re thinking of sending him the Editor’s Blair Academy yearbook, the one covered in madras. The Editor’s sartorial sense has not changed much since those long-ago days. (@ Ivy Style) Compare and contrast Beau Brummel. (Nige @ The Dabbler)

¶ Here’s one for the Editor’s Better Half: Investing in a post-Bogle world. If that doesn’t mean anything to do, skip it. But we’re beguiled by Jared Woodard’s contribution to the discussion:

How many 40-something professionals still pick stocks? Bogle has definitely won, in that sense. People hate high fees, complex strategies, and hedge funds so much that they’d rather take cheap beta than reach for any alpha. What comes next is a quiet resurgence of alpha opportunities for smart managers.

“Quiet resurgence of alpha opportunities” — now that’s the spy novel we’ve been looking for. (@ Abnormal Returns)

Why you don’t want to live in Jefferson County, Alabama — at least, until 2053. (@ Naked Capitalism)

Stop-motion car chases. Japan is truly the land of leisure. (via The Morning News)

¶ Something we need a pill for: those “pénibles” five minutes, between getting out of bed and feeling “en forme.” (Mnémoglyphes)

Hard Copy:
Cockburn on Syria
13 June 2013

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

¶ Patrick Cockburn weighs in at the LRB with a fine piece about the cosmic complications of the storm that is gathering around the hot flash of the civil disorder in Syria, and he gives it a title that suggests the full scope of the folly of intervention by the West: “Is it the end of Sykes-Picot?” This refers, of course, to the secret, ultimately embarrassing agreement between two diplomats, one French and one English and neither playing with a full deck of cards, that determined not only the borders of the post-Ottoman Arab world but the hatreds within within and without them. Cockburn identifies five separate fights that are going on simultaneously, something that ought to stay any nation-builder’s hand.

Five distinct conflicts have become tangled together in Syria: a popular uprising against a dictatorship which is also a sectarian battle between Sunnis and the Alawite sect; a regional struggle between Shia and Sunni which is also a decades-old conflict between an Iranian-led grouping and Iran’s traditional enemies, notably the US and Saudi Arabia. Finally, at another level, there is a reborn Cold War confrontation: Russia and China v. the West. The conflict is full of unexpected and absurd contradictions, such as a purportedly democratic and secular Syrian opposition being funded by the absolute monarchies of the Gulf who are also fundamentalist Sunnis.

But the line that caught my attention was simpler.

Assad isn’t going to win a total victory, but the opposition isn’t anywhere close to overthrowing him either. This is worth stressing because Western politicians and journalists so frequently take it for granted that the regime is entering its last days. A justification for the British and French argument that the EU embargo on arms deliveries to the rebels should be lifted – a plan first mooted in March but strongly opposed by other EU members – is that these extra weapons will finally tip the balance decisively against Assad. The evidence from Syria itself is that more weapons will simply mean more dead and wounded.

This raises the very interesting fantaasy: what would happen in Syria if there were no guns? If, as in much of old Britain, a constabulary armed with nothing deadlier than truncheons were charged with maintaining civil order? You would think that the lesson of World War I would have been learned by now: wars cannot be won by arms alone. I’m seeing a new lesson in Syria: as all wars approach the condition of wars of occupation, no wars can be won by arms at all.

Gotham Diary:
11 June 2013

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

¶ If it hadn’t been for the intellectual ferment induced by my reading of George Packer’s The Unwinding, I should never have arrived at the view that I’m taking of the Snowden leaks. Without a sense of organized money — a term that Packer uses but does not define in any detail; I’ve had to work that out for myself — and the absence of what I call a “loyal opposition” to organized money, the intelligence scandal would be a tired and fruitless argument between the ideal of personal privacy and the imperatives of national security — neither of which concepts interests me very much (they’re inherently shambolic). When I place the Prism program and its variants in the frame of organized money, however, the familiar argument gives way to something that at least feels fresh. The organized-money perspective highlights the role of a private contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, in the operation — a role in which the contractor is likely to be a sponsor as well as a beneficiary. And the extent of the surveillance program begins to make sense when we consider the absence of a loyal opposition, of a platform on which to argue against the outsourcing (for example) of national intelligence. Blather about national security dissolves into bubbles in the soda of a much clearer imperative: the determination of “connected” businessmen to make money out of Washington.

Typically, the Times buried Catherine Rampell’s story about Booz Allen (the employer of some 24,000 people. it earned 23% percent of its revenues from national intelligence work, according to Rampell) and other big recipients of federal money in the vicinity of the capital, on the fifth page of the Business Section. I had been thinking that the reach of organized money into academia ought to be looked into, with a view to understanding that our universities are just as corrupt as our legislatures; Rampell presented me with a handy bit of evidence. Actually, Rampell’s story is really about organized money.

Others in the top 10, like the University of Maryland at College Park, receive taxpayer money for a variety of federal projects, and even those that do not are still benefiting from the increasing spending power of local residentsemployed through government money. The same goes for the smaller employers, like restaurants, gyms, shops, and dry cleaners that serve the growing professional-class work force in the area.

The contractors also tend to earn much more than their public payroll counterparts, which helps drive up local household incomes. Today, of the 50 most populous metropolitan areas in the country, the Washington area has one of the highest concentrations of high-income households. The Washington area also dominates the list of counties with the highest median household incomes.

National security contractors are not the only local residents getting rich as a result of government policy: in recent years, the stimulus package and other new laws and regulations (like the Affordable Care Act) and proposed laws (like tax reform) have sustained and improved the careers of lobbyists, lawyers and consultants.

¶ David Brooks probably understands organized money as well as anybody — and, I suspect, is well paid never, ever to discuss it. His Op-Ed piece about Edward Snowden completely overlooks the problematic nature of letting Booz Allen do the nation’s snooping; he goes so far as to call Snowden a public servant — in italics, no less. It will probably take a few months to sound the bottom of Brooks’s disingenuous tirade against Snowden’s alleged lapse of personal responsibility; for the moment, I’m almost paralyzed by the audacity of his echoing the Declaration of Independence’s rhetorical list of grievances against King George.

For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.

He betrayed…

He betrayed…

And so on — a flurry of grandiose piffle. “Respect for institutions and deference to common procedures” is of course another way of voicing — while masking — organized money’s interest in more effective education, so long as it produces more efficient workers. There is no Mom-and-apple-pie value that organized money won’t co-opt to its own purposes, or use to veil them. It seems to me that the Snowden case boils down to something very small: Snowden blew the whistle on his employer (not the government, but Booz Allen, extracting nearly a quarter of its income from this kind of work), and that his employer was probably derelict in assuring itself of Snowden’s soundness for the job with which it entrusted him. Let it never be supposed that organized money, when not on the alert, is brighter than a dim bulb.

He betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods.

As arguments go, the quality of this one is appallingly poor by Brooks’s standards. But notice how the possibility that Booz Allen might have supported lobbying efforts to persuade the government of the vital importance of “vast data sweeps” is completely elided. You almost get the impression that Booz Allen is all that stands between us and tyranny!

It ought to be astonishing that one relatively insignificant analyst can be charged with such monumental betrayal. But in the end it is simply unbelievable. The betrayal occurred long before Edward Snowden was hired.