Daily Office:
Tuesday

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Matins: The nightmare of peak oil is back, at least according to an analysis of global production by Raymond James, reported  at both WSJ Blogs and Infrastructurist. You haven’t forgotten what “peak oil” means, I trust.

Lauds: “A book about beauty naturally must deal with its opposite, kitsch.” Really! I thought that ugliness was the opposite of beauty, not some uneducated person’s idea of beauty. Robert Fulford writes about Roger Scruton’s new book, Beauty.

Prime: Michael Klein, who has certainly put in the hours at the track (and just around the livestock), waxes eloquent about Calvin Borel’s Derby win.

He’s won the race two years in a row (and in the same way, basically, finding an opening to shimmy his charge along the inside rail to the finish line)…

Tierce: Mirth in court — not shared by everyone. As more prosecution witnesses testified to the wit and charm of Brooke Astor — and noted that it faded in the early years of this decade — jurors couldn’t help noticing that her son, Anthony Marshall, wasn’t smiling. Michael Daly reports.

Sext: Does life really imitate art? Donald Trump will find out, if and when his plans for a golf resort ever materialize on the North Sea coast of Scotland. Anyone remember Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero, with Burt Lancaster in the the Donald role?

Nones: Celebrate “Serf Liberation Day.” Okay, don’t. But be sure to read Stephen Asma’s extremely lucid account of recent-ish Tibetan history — and ask yourself how it would have worked out if the Cold War hadn’t been simmering. (via  The Morning News)

Vespers: At Survival of the Book, Brian writes provocatively about Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor and ”the YA trend.”

Compline: Is anyone out there still seriously attempting to “multitask”? If so, John Tierney and Winifred Gallagher can explain why you find it so hard to concentrate.  

Oremus…

§ Matins. But in case you have, it means that oil production has peaked, permanently, irreversibly and, like, forever. We’ve had several brushes with this possibility before; they’re ineluctably hypothetical until plenty of hindsight stretches out behind us.

While cautioning that nobody but historians can be sure, they believe production peaked in 2007 for non-OPEC countries (Russia, Norway, Mexico, etc.) and last year for OPEC (Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran, etc.). “It is entirely intuitive to conclude that if both OPEC and non-OPEC production posted declines against the backdrop of $100/bbl oil–when the obvious economic incentive was to pump at full blast–those declines had to have come for involuntary reasons such as the inherent geological limits of oil fields.” In other words, we had a perfect environment for testing the peak oil hypothesis, and the results are in. We’ve peaked.

The warning is useful and timely. With a president as reasonable as Barack Obama, it’s just possible that peak oil will influence planning, particularly with respect to transportation.

§ Lauds. The whole concept of kitsch seems repellently naive these days, not because there is no such thing or because we’ve all become aesthetic relativists. Rather, it’s the dead hand of “modernism,” that aging dead fish, which, in retrospect, seems to have been an incredibly mean-spirited and aethetically tone-deaf allergic reaction to the presence of the bourgeoisie in art galleries.

Kitsch encourages us to dwell on our own satisfactions and anxieties; it tells us to be pleased with what we have always felt and known. It reaches us at the level where we are easiest to please, a level requiring a minimum of mental effort.

Beauty, on the other hand, demands we consider its meaning. It implies a larger world than the one we deal with every day. Even for those with no religious belief, it suggests the possibility of transcendence. Faith has declined in much of the West, but “art bears enduring witness to the spiritual hunger and immortal longings of our species.” As one reviewer has already pointed out, Scruton’s “perspective is religious without belief.”

Anybody who still professes to find “transcendence” in art really ought to sign up for a course of novenas at the Brompton Oratory.

§ Prime. I’ve never been to a race in my life, but I do love reading about thoroughbreds. Seabiscuit may be an extraordinary movie, but it is not an extraordinary horse story — they’re all like that. That’s why Mr Klein’s conclusion hits home:

But for me, watching his victory, and remembering who the new tenant in the White House is, and how everyone has been looking a long time recently at money and priority, I felt that this horse, the way he got here all the way from New Mexico, the 50-1 and his jockey’s reaction — all of that was symbolic of a new way of living in America: the uncharacteristic becoming what’s true.

§ Tierce. Meanwhile, the worst accusation facing Charlene Marshall is that of being a b-i-t-c-h. Mrs Astor, we’re told, did not spell it out.

In addition to the wit-and-charm testimony, retired Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello also introduced evidence of Mrs Astor’s failing handwriting.

Also introduced into evidence was a thank-you letter Astor sent to de Montebello in January 2001. She signed it, in a very shaky hand, “As always, your very devoted Brooke.”

Below that, Astor scribbled, “My hand is awful – hardly can hold a pen!!”

The note is potentially important evidence against Morrissey, who is charged with forging Astor’s signature on a March 2004 will update that benefited Marshall.

For the record, the Museum was supposed to get the Childe Hassam painting that Anthony Marshall persuaded his mother to sell, pocketing a $2 million commission.

§ Sext. Is it possible to write about Mr Trump without a touch of snark? Or perhaps Sarah Lyall is simply giving us what used to be called the “woman’s viewpoint.”

People here are not sure what to make of Mr. Trump, who has a tendency to fly in to Balmedie on his private jet, issue a string of statements about the superiority of his plans while his unusual hair blows around in the brisk Scottish wind, and then fly out again.

Wait a minute, that sounds more like Stormy Monday.

§ Nones. As a bonus, Mr Asma winds things up with some advice, in the form of a “a modest map”:

The Dalai Lama should realize that he has no real political leverage insulting the Chinese, and he might do well to be quiet for a while. China is a “face culture” and you do not get traction by causing the Chinese to lose face every time you speak. For their part, the Chinese should stop demonizing the Dalai Lama in their press. Even if the Lama is a thorn in their side, the vilifying attacks play badly to the international community, who see only a likable monk of Gandhi-like piety.

It is unlikely that the Dalai Lama will ever come to power again in Tibet, as there is too much acrimonious history between Beijing and the exiles.

But there is something realistic worth pursuing. The two sides could sit down and negotiate an honorable accord, in the spirit of the Seventeen-Point Agreement, ensuring greater representation of ethnic Tibetans in political positions in Lhasa. The real issue worth working toward is the fair distribution of economic, educational and political opportunities for both the Tibetan people and the more recent immigrant Han population.

§ Vespers. Behind this discussion lies the ambiguity of literary ”genre.” We use the term in ways that can conflict. First, of course, it’s a label: if a story has ghosts in it, then it’s a “ghost story.” Second, however, we also use “genre” to signal perceived limitations that cause the story to fail as literature. While it is certainly possible to write “crime” or “science fiction” that meets all imaginable tests of literary quality, most writers don’t attempt to transcend their genres, and most of their fans wouldn’t want them to.

Brian puts his finger on what makes “the YA trend” so thorny: while there’s nothing wrong with a novel’s being easy to read, “I don’t want this trend to hurt more difficult fiction.”

I’m currently reading Chris Albani’s Graceland. Now I earned a Master’s in Comparative Literature focusing on African literature so I was pleased to see this book score such accolades, with a Nigerian author: a Today Show pick, one of the best books of they year according to the L.A. Times. But I gotta be honest and say, it’s simple. It’s YA-ish. And quite frankly, Sag Harbor looks like it may suffer from the same problem, though I greatly respect Whitehead and really enjoyed John Henry Days.

I should look into who has written more about the YA trend, which I first heard about in reference to Yann Martel’s Life of Pi when I worked at a bookstore. Rumor was they were going to rejacket an edition to make it more YA friendly and catalog it with that categorization while maintaining the old jacket in the regular fiction section for adults. That was probably 2003?

And now where are we?

§ Compline. If there was ever an argument against television, it’s buried here. In a nutshell: television makes a critical response to televised content almost unattainable. Turn on the set, turn off your mind.

When something bright or novel flashes, it tends to automatically win the competition for the brain’s attention, but that involuntary bottom-up impulse can be voluntarily overridden through a top-down process that Dr. Desimone calls “biased competition.” He and colleagues have found that neurons in the prefrontal cortex — the brain’s planning center — start oscillating in unison and send signals directing the visual cortex to heed something else.

These oscillations, called gamma waves, are created by neurons’ firing on and off at the same time — a feat of neural coordination a bit like getting strangers in one section of a stadium to start clapping in unison, thereby sending a signal that induces people on the other side of the stadium to clap along. But these signals can have trouble getting through in a noisy environment.

“It takes a lot of your prefrontal brain power to force yourself not to process a strong input like a television commercial,” said Dr. Desimone, the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at M.I.T. “If you’re trying to read a book at the same time, you may not have the resources left to focus on the words.”

Memo to self: buy ear plugs.