Daily Office:


Matins: In an important editorial, the Times argues that corporations ought not to have the same set of constitutional rights as human beings.

Lauds: At The Best Part, four terrific photographs that William Eggleston did not take — but clearly inspired John Johnston to take.

Prime: The Netflix Prize — a million dollars to whomever improves the performance of its Cinematch engine by ten percent — is not really about the money.

Tierce: Devin Friedman decides to have more black friends, runs ad in Craiglist… the beginning of quite the project. “Will you be my black friend?“, at GQ.

Sext: Three things that V X Sterne would rather chat about than “So, What Do You Do?

Nones: In what seems like a turn from Il Trovatore, ousted Honduras president Manuel Zelaya steals back into Tegucigalpa, where he takes refuge at the Brazilian Embassy.

Vespers: Alan Gopnik reviews Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol — but not in the back of the book. As the lead Talk piece instead. Ho-ho-ho.

Compline: Nige takes the week off, bumps around Norfolk with an old friend, and visits a famous French cathedral. We are so living on the wrong continent.


§ Matins. Change on this issue is unlikely, so long as the Supreme Court continues to lean toward the right. What’s important now is raising consciousness of this matter.

The law also gives corporations special legal status: limited liability, special rules for the accumulation of assets and the ability to live forever. These rules put corporations in a privileged position in producing profits and aggregating wealth. Their influence would be overwhelming with the full array of rights that people have.

One of the main areas where corporations’ rights have long been limited is politics. Polls suggest that Americans are worried about the influence that corporations already have with elected officials. The drive to give corporations more rights is coming from the court’s conservative bloc — a curious position given their often-proclaimed devotion to the text of the Constitution.

§ Lauds. And a good part of that inspiration is the freshness of Mr Johnston’s gaze.


§ Prime. Although the teams that tackle it do sound more like hedge funds than lab rats.

The prize winner was a team of statisticians, machine-learning experts and computer engineers from the United States, Austria, Canada and Israel, calling itself BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos. The group was actually a merger of teams that came together late in the contest.

In late June, the team finally surpassed the threshold to qualify for the prize by doing at least 10 percent better than Cinematch in accurately predicting the movies customers would like, as measured against actual ratings. Under the contest rules, that set off a 30-day period in which other teams could try to beat them.

That, in turn, prompted a wave of mergers among competing teams, who joined forces at the last minute to try to top the leader. In late July, Netflix declared the contest over, and its online leader board showed two teams had passed the 10 percent threshold: BellKor and the Ensemble, a global alliance with some 30 members.

We like the revival of this kind of prize — an important aspect of Enlightenment culture — although we do recall with some dismay that Jean-Jacques Rousseau won the Dijon academy’s prize in 1750 for an essay that blamed humanity’s woes on the arts and sciences.

§ Tierce. It’s a long read, but we couldn’t stop. (Mr Friedman is an expert essayist.) The part about actually meeting black people is never quite as mortifying as we expected it to be, but the part about American homophily — knowing only people just like you — is a lot scarier. Even more regrettable is our lazy attentiveness to comfort zones.

Amicable racial estrangement is also the story of America at large, circa right now. Demographically, studies show that the country has been quietly resegregating—and this time, self-segregating. It’s the era of racism without the actual racists—8 percent of white people say they would be “uncomfortable” voting for a black man to be president; it’s the other 92 percent who say they’d vote for a black person, but as often as not aren’t actually friends with one, that I’m talking about. Contemporary life can be arranged as a series of homogeneous zones that white folks can glide between—Westchester and Block Island and surfing retreats in Mexico—with only the most glancing, waiterly contact with all but the least foreign-seeming black people, or really with anyone different from you at all. What’s changed is, in the ’70s and ’80s, there was a kind of post-’60s social optimism about how we were going to sit down in a big circle and talk it out and become one great human family and be free to be you and me. That’s when I grew up, and I’ve been waiting for the big coming-together ever since. But something happened. I’m not sure exactly what. Maybe people resented the social engineering. Maybe it just felt too hard and everyone was relieved when they didn’t have to try anymore. But we don’t seem to have the stomach for that kind of change as a culture anymore, personally or politically—if that had been part of Obama’s message, he wouldn’t have made it out of Iowa.

§ Sext. If we were to run into V X at a meet-and-greet, we’d take up his first topic, “superiority complex,” by arguing that we see other people as inattentive, not stupid; and we’d reply to his “grim reaper” call for pessimism by invoking the virtues of critical thinking. As to the second item on his list, however, we’d remind him that he does, after all, keep a blog.

Decelerated learning: I learn more when I feel like everyone else knows more than me. Insecurity is a great motivator. Spend your time dealing with other people’s problems and you quickly lose that insecurity, as, alas, you discover that those around you aren’t supermen and women but all-too human people who make mistakes just like you. This realization might be psychologically healthy, but it’s a little too healthy for me. It makes me feel too secure. A few years ago I noticed that without my insecure edge I wasn’t learning as much as I once did, and ever since I’ve been trying to find people who’ll make me feel more insecure. It isn’t easy, what with all the problems I see, but I keep trying.

Our editor finds that keeping daily company with hordes of younger thinkers who neither share nor esteem his intellectual coordinates is formidably insecuritizing — and very conducive to learning!

§ Nones. Behind the political controversy and ideological disagreement that motivated Mr Zelaya’s banishment — beyond the reach of ideas, that is — stands the challenged president’s grandstanding roguery.

Since the coup, he has tried to return to Honduras at least twice. A week after the coup, he tried to fly into the Tegucigalpa airport, but soldiers massed on the tarmac and blocked his plane from landing.

In July, he set up camp with his supporters just over the border in Nicaragua, and stepped briefly into Honduran territory before returning to Nicaragua. Rumors that Mr. Zelaya was already in the country, or was about to return, have circulated through the capital repeatedly since then.

The curfew was announced just 30 minutes before it took effect at 4 p.m. Monday, sending residents of the capital rushing to get home and tying traffic in knots, residents said.

At the time of his removal, Mr. Zelaya was planning a nonbinding referendum that his opponents said would have been the first step toward allowing him to run for another term in office, which is forbidden under the Honduran Constitution. Mr. Zelaya has denied any attempt to run for re-election.

So far, at least, we think that the United States has done the right thing, by Staying Out of This One.

§ Vespers. Mr Brown can laugh all the way to Brown Brothers Harriman, so we’re not going to feel sorry for him even if Mr Gopnik has decoded the mystery behind his massive (and massively boring) best-sellers.

Brown’s writing resembles less the adult best-sellers of the past, which popularized high literary forms—“Gone with the Wind” was a kind of kitsch Tolstoy—than the adventure stories that were once the staple of adolescent literature. Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys were always in the midst of compelling conspiracies; there was always a code that had to be cracked, and ancient Asian priests and ancient Asian cults invading their cozy American worlds.

And that may be the secret of Brown’s appeal: his books are as sweet-tempered as they are secret-minded. Langdon exposes horrible conspiracies, but it turns out that, with the exception of a few homicidal hotheads, who have maybe let the thing run away with them, decent, well-intended guys run even the weirdest cabals. Brown’s repeated point is not that we are mired in ancient conspiracies but that ancient conspiracies anticipate modern opinions. What is “coded” in “The Da Vinci Code” is that the ancient Christians were modern feminists; Jesus was a loving husband who deferred to the wisdom of his wife, Mary Magdalene, the Hillary Clinton of Galilee. When we come to the end of this new book, we discover that what the Masons were really practicing was a neat kind of cognitive science. The old codes of the pyramid are merely the newest discoveries of psychology, a thought that turns the text once again toward italics: “ ‘The Bible, like many ancient texts, is a detailed exposition of the most sophisticated machine ever created. . . the human mind.’ She sighed.”

§ Compline. Usually, we reserve that sort of editorializing for below the fold, but we couldn’t help ourselves today.

The weekend – which was gloriously sunny – included a degree of eating and excessive drinking, playing 12-inch vinyl loudly and generally rolling back the years (40 of them since we first met, as callow ‘freshers’), but it began and ended in church crawling, in a county thick with fine churches. Sunday included one of the greatest west fronts in the country, Binham Priory, and one of the most perfect in the Decorated style, at Snettisham – and culminated in the vast,luminous, airy interior of St Nicholas, King’s Lynn, a seemingly weightless masterpiece of Perpendicular, more glass than stone. Mellow warm September sun, church crawling with a dear friend from way back – it doesn’t get much better than that. There were even butterflies – in several churches peacocks and toroiseshells, distracted by the sun from their attempts to hibernate, were fluttering darkly high up against the brilliant windows…

And before that there was Chartres.

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