Daily Office:


Matins: The nation of which Amsterdam is the capital is rightly considered to be one of the most densely-populated sovereignties in the world. But it’s as empty as Arizona when compared with the former New Amsterdam.

Lauds: On the eve of shooting Wall Street 2, Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas chuckle ruefully over the unintended aura projected by Wall Street, twenty-three years ago.

Prime: Bob Cringely reconsiders the virtual university, and obliges us to do the same. What seems at first to be an unlikely monstrosity may indeed provide the most effective education for most students.

Tierce: Assault By Actuary: the Bruce Schobel Story. Or not, since, perhaps for legal reasons, Mary Williams Walsh never does describe the crime of which the (then teenaged?) in-and-out president-elect of the American Academy of Actuaries was convicted.

Sext: Tom Tomorrow catches up with Goofus and Gallant.

Nones: The latest story on the Fall of Lehman Brothers, from the Guardian‘s Larry Elliott and Jill Treanor, highlights the soverignty problem in global regulation.

Vespers: Ben Dooley offers a short list of books to read about Japan, in case you’re boning up for a trip. Read Murakami if you must, but for a real Japanese novel…

Compline: In a Talk piece from this week’s New Yorker, “Zoo Story,” Lauren Collins registers the general public’s dislike of the seating arrangements in Times Square, as well as its approval of the Thigh Line and the Eyeful Tower.


§ Matins. The maps are the work of Rem Koolhaas. The commentary suggests that Frank Jacobs, whose Strange Maps will be forthcoming next month, is not a New Yorker.

Koolhaas labelled these three thought experiments in urban design “Puntstad” (Point City), “Zuidstad” (South City) and “Grensstad” (Border City) respectively. It would be interesting to see which real-life effects such a whimsical realignment of the Netherlands would have on Dutch society. The LA version of the Netherlands doesn’t seem too bad – a bit congested, but at least there’s still easy access to the uninhabited north, providing great hunting, fishing and trekking opportunities for the completely urbanised Dutch. The mega-Manhattan in Holland’s southern extremity, however, conjures up some of the horrors that occur when too many test rats are packed together in too little space. And wouldn’t Border City be the most improbable, unworkable, unliveable city in the world, suffering from a cross between the challenges posed by Chile’s elongation and the Gaza Strip’s overcrowding?

The last line ought to describe Manhattan as well, but of course it doesn’t.

§ Lauds. Talk about unintended consequences!

Despite his own years of hard living and a peripatetic existence — he would be heading to Venice in a few days — Mr. Stone looked refreshed and, at 62, surprisingly young. His original film was a morality tale about greed and unvarnished ambition, and Mr. Stone’s own views on the excesses of capitalism were obvious. But the film and its famous lines — “Greed is good,” “Money never sleeps” — have had a cultural endurance that he never expected, and perhaps never desired.

“I can’t tell you how many young people have come up to me in these years and said, ‘I went to Wall Street because of that movie,’ ” Mr. Stone said, standing on a street corner between Federal Hall and the New York Stock Exchange.

For Mr Douglas, the surprise is no longer a surprise, but it still doesn’t make sense.

The continued resonance of Gekko, Mr. Douglas said, has “probably been the biggest surprise of my career, that people say that this seductive villain has motivated me to go into this business.”

To this day, Mr. Douglas said, it is a usual occurrence to finish dinner out and have “a well-lubricated Wall Street businessman come up to me and say, ‘You’re the man.’ ”

Mr. Douglas added, “There’s an absurdity to it.”


§ Prime. The virtual university makes sense to the extent that lecture and survey courses make sense. We don’t think that they do, not at all, but our experience is limited.

Say a particularly good professor wants to make $200,000 per year by working no more than 20 hours per week or about 1000 hours per year. That gives them a billing rate of $200 per hour.

Now look back at your university career.  How much one-on-one time did you actually get with the professors who really influenced your life? I did the calculation and came up with about two hours per week, max. Imagine a four-year undergraduate career running 30 weeks per year — 120 total weeks of school — times two hours of insight per week for a total of 240 hours.  At $200 per hour the cost comes to $48,000 or $12,000 per year.

That’s a huge savings compared to the $200,000+ an MIT-level education would cost today (remember the MIT online degree — there is one — costs the same as if you were attending in Cambridge).  And ideally the pool of insightful experts would be far greater than any one university could ever employ. And that’s the point of this exercise; it can’t be an emulation of a traditional university, because that would inevitably disappoint — it has to be in at least one way clearly, obviously, stupendously BETTER than what’s available now.

All we did in college was talk about books and write lengthy papers. We learned about a few subjects, but mostly we learned how to think clearly and critically, as well as to articulate that thinking. We don’t believe that that kind of education can be conducted remotely. It will always be costly — but it really oughtn’t to cost more than the seminar leaders’ salaries.

Math is not our forte, but let’s imagine a three-year program taught by five professors, each earning a salary of $200,000, to three classes (first year, second year, third year) of twenty students each. According to our calculations, the program tuition per student comes to $50,000: pricey, but vastly cheaper than current four-year programs.

§ Tierce. Sordid details aside — “atrocious assault and battery?” he must have actually hit somebody — the case is worth thinking about. How pure and without sin does the head of an organization that strives, in its zeal for candid accuracy, for purity and sinlessness have to be?

The academy’s current troubles began in June, when 19 of its former presidents — nearly all of its former presidents living today — sent a letter to its board, saying that the public expected an “exceptionally high level of integrity” in actuaries, and expressing grave doubts about Mr. Schobel’s suitability as president. The board met in early August, and the majority voted to remove Mr. Schobel.

This was unprecedented — and yet no one broke the news to the membership. Only about three weeks later did the academy post a bland notice on its Web site, saying it would fill “the vacancy in the office of the president-elect,” without mentioning Mr. Schobel or explaining why there was a vacancy.

That started an uproar. Angry and incredulous actuaries have besieged the academy, quoting from the Declaration of Independence, calling the board “drunk with power,” and demanding to know what had happened to Mr. Schobel. Some pointed out the academy’s weak governance structures and proposed a coup of sorts.

This month, Mr. Schobel sued the academy, saying it had defamed him and removed him illegally, after being intimidated by “a cabal of individuals who disagree” with his “vision for the academy, and his personal style.” The lawsuit, filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks Mr. Schobel’s reinstatement, and $2 million in damages for defamation and harm to his client relationships.

§ Sext. We never thought about it before, but just thinking of Highlights For Children (the magazine in which Goofus and Gallant sppeared) makes us see that Tom Tomorrow’s comic aesthetic is rooted in the smiling nightmare that was the Fifties.


§ Nones. Beyond the blame game played by Henry Paulson and Alistair Darling, there’s the specter of a might-have-been “war games” exercise.

No explanation has ever been given for the lack of government funds offered in the final weeks of the Bush administration, which had to step in to prop up the insurance company AIG days after Lehman’s demise.

The UK tripartite authorities were concerned about the financial system in the spring of 2007 and asked their American counterparts to participate in a “war game” to prepare for the collapse of a major US bank and develop a response to a financial crisis. However, the war game, which was to have included the UK, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the US, never took place because of a lack of willingness to participate by the US regulatory bodies.

We’re told that “everybody knows” that Lehman was pushed over the cliff because Henry Paulson is a Goldman Sachs alumn,  and the antipathy between the two firms was more acrimonious than a football rivalry.

§ Vespers. … read Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro. Mr Dooley finds its melancholy “off-putting, but it’s unquestionably one of the most “important” Japanese novels, and a great introduction to the soul of modern Japan.”

On the non-fiction front, I highly recommend Ian Buruma’s Inventing Japan, which provides an excellent, entertaining encapsulation of Japan’s modern history. At a mere 174 pages, you can read it on the plane ride over, and still have time for two terrible movies. For a bleaker take on modern history, you might consider Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons, a dystopic look at Japanese bureaucracy and the country’s appalling environmental legacy. It can be a bit of a downer, but it provides an insightful behind-the-scenes look at what makes the country run.

We have read the Buruma, and recommend it highly.

§ Compline. Toward the end of the piece, Ms Collins drags in health-care reform, and we heard a little click.

The parks are our town-hall meetings. We disrupt them, with shows of contempt, or little displays of impishness, for the same reasons that protesters tote AR-15s instead of talking about PPOs: to wrest a bit of control. The thrill of sullying pristine environments—of planting a handprint in freshly laid concrete—is particularly acute in those precincts in which there aren’t many pristine environments left to sully. Mischief seeks its own level. It won’t be long before someone finds a way to take back the Wickquasgeck.

Whether the matter is pressing (health-care reform) or trivial (wet concrete), there’s a feeling abroad that, if the adults don’t get things absolutely right the first time, then the kids have the right to misbehave. The mischievousness is as child-like as it is childish: kids relish novelty, but fundamental change scares them, and they dislike time-consuming and uncertain alterations. All the same, it’s ridiculous to expect Times Square, so recently freed from vehicular traffic, to develop its next personality — or perhaps its first — in a matter of months. And to expect the grownups to do all the developing.

(We are waiting for a rainy afternoon in November or February to pay a first visit to the High Line.)

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