Archive for 2013

Mining Note:
Dream Clients
23 December 2013

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

¶ A funny story: when we picked up the Business Section of the Times early this afternoon, it was pristine, untouched. In spite of this, the lady of the house claimed to have read Nick Bilton’s piece about Bitcoin. Dubious, we recited the Tyler Winklevoss quote. “Yes, yes,” she said, “I read that somewhere.” We were just about to conclude that Mr Winklevoss speaks in stock phrases when his attorney remembered. “He read it to me,” she said. “He wanted to be sure that it was okay.”

“People talk about the volatility with surprise, but it’s exactly what you’d expect from a new global asset class whose regulatory landscape is still developing,” Tyler Winklevoss told me. He and his twin brother, Cameron — famous for their involvement in Facebook — have invested heavily in Bitcoin. By some estimates, they own 1 percent of the market.

“We have never sold a single Bitcoin — we started buying in the high single digits and we’re in it for the long haul,” Mr. Winklevoss said. “We don’t look at it in terms of day-to-day. We look at in terms of years.”

Flowers Gone:
Paul Torday
20 December 2013

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

¶ Paul Torday died, and you could have knocked us over. We  thought we were the only people in America who had read a novel by Paul Torday that wasn’t Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Don’t ask us which one it was. Although I think we did write about it. And we did.

They don’t say what killed him. What a thin, sweet man.

Brokenland Note:
Unfortunate Lack of Notice
10 December 2013

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

¶ The beginning of the end? (The end of Rome was full of such.) An ambulance outfit, operating for profit in six states, shut down without notice. (Thanks, Aaron!)

First Med was the largest EMS service in Ohio, where at least 1,500 paramedics and other medical workers were left jobless in Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Cincinnati, Youngstown and numerous smaller towns.

First Med also provided services in Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News in Virginia, as well as Wilmington, N.C.

We must pray for arrests.

Surowiecki on Health Care Costs
5 December 2013

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

¶ We are thrilled to see that James Surowiecki has alighted on what, in our view, is the most urgent health-care problem in the United States — crazily capricious costs. We didn’t know that California was a bit ahead of the game (no surprise).

For consumers, this means higher deductibles and co-pays, and having to think more about prices. A peculiar feature of the American health-care system is the enormous variation in prices that hospitals charge for a procedure, which often are not correlated with quality. So in 2011 California adopted a system of “reference-based pricing” for state workers and retirees. If you needed hip-replacement surgery, say, the state would cover you for the amount charged (minus a deductible) at forty-one “value” hospitals in the state. If you went for a costlier option, you had to make up the difference. Most people chose one of the value hospitals, and their outcomes were similar to those of people who chose the more expensive hospitals. The state saved money, and the threat of losing customers, in turn, led the more expensive hospitals to cut prices; one study found that the price of joint-replacement surgery fell by about a third.

Talking Turkey:
Brassy and Devout
4 December 2013

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

¶ At the NYRB, Christopher de Bellaigue writes about the problem of majoritarian democracy as it is corroding the civic life of Turkey, under the increasingly “hubristic” rule of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. (“Surreal, Menacing…Pompous“) More Turks seem to be pleased with Mr Erdoğan than not, but the unhappiness of the still-large minority is growing more insistent, and neither side is much inclined to civility. One thing appears to be certain: Mr Erdoğan is the creature of an economic boom, and will be replaced when that comes to an end.

Naturally, the people who benefited most from Erdoğan’s rule were his own supporters, not only because specific measures like the headscarf ban fell into partial disuse—universities now admit women in headscarves, as do many courts—but because the tenor of public life became more pious. Erdoğan and his ministers did not conceal their links to religious orders—such as the Nakshibendis—that the Kemalists had regarded as a major threat to the state. God, rather than Atatürk, was invoked at groundbreaking ceremonies; new mosques rose in the big cities. All the while, the prime minister’s friends in the private sector—often pious businessmen from the interior of the country who bankrolled his election victories—were rewarded with contracts for building, improving infrastructure, and producing energy. Turkey gained a new elite, both brassy and devout.

Dept of Get Over It:
3 December 2013

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

¶ At no point in her new biography of Norman Rockwell does Deborah Solomon say that the popular artist was gay, but we have yet to encounter a review that does not weigh this considerable topic. Post-considerable. Because the reviews are favorable — so favorable that critics have stopped looking down their noses (for the moment) at the creator of The Connoisseur — the homoerotic element in Rockwell’s work, which Solomon does claim to discern, the gay thing is “dangerously becoming fact,” according to granddaughter Abigail Rockwell. Julie Bosman’s story in the Times communicates this anxiety to readers of the Paper of Record.

But the mere insinuations have infuriated members of the Rockwell family intent on protecting his legacy. Two family members, who spoke in an interview on Monday, said that they regarded Ms. Solomon’s book as “shocking.”

<Sigh> Not only is it not shocking — erotic drives are in themselves never shocking, although impermissible ones, if gratified, may lead to shocking consequences — but Solomon’s speculations will probably work to refresh and broaden Rockwell’s appeal to younger generations, who don’t necessarily (as people my age were taught to do) see his art as corny or kitschy. He was guy doing a job that involved intelligent, creative work, and he wasn’t the happiest of men. Does this not sound like a capital-a Artist? Next!

In The Atlantic:
Measuring Up
2 December 2013

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

¶ Don Peck doesn’t mention The Circle, Dave Eggers’s recent novel about measuring up at work, and that’s the creepiest thing about his report on “people metrics,” “They’re Watching You at Work.” That and his conviction that analytic algorithms are going to open up the workplace to all sorts of sideliners. Measuring skills is not intrinsically harmful, but the very human tendency to line up measurements in rankings introduces, as Eggers shows, a corrosive element.

For a sense of what the future of people analytics may bring, I turned to Sandy Pentland, the director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory at MIT. In recent years, Pentland has pioneered the use of specialized electronic “badges” that transmit data about employees’ interactions as they go about their days. The badges capture all sorts of information about formal and informal conversations: their length; the tone of voice and gestures of the people involved; how much those people talk, listen, and interrupt; the degree to which they demonstrate empathy and extroversion; and more. Each badge generates about 100 data points a minute.

Pentland’s initial goal was to shed light on what differentiated successful teams from unsuccessful ones. As he described last year in the Harvard Business Review, he tried the badges out on about 2,500 people, in 21 different organizations, and learned a number of interesting lessons. About a third of team performance, he discovered, can usually be predicted merely by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members. (Too many is as much of a problem as too few.) Using data gathered by the badges, he was able to predict which teams would win a business-plan contest, and which workers would (rightly) say they’d had a “productive” or “creative” day. Not only that, but he claimed that his researchers had discovered the “data signature” of natural leaders, whom he called “charismatic connectors” and all of whom, he reported, circulate actively, give their time democratically to others, engage in brief but energetic conversations, and listen at least as much as they talk. In a development that will surprise few readers, Pentland and his fellow researchers created a company, Sociometric Solutions, in 2010, to commercialize his badge technology.

Yikes! say we. Elsewhere in the December issue, Michael Ignatieff gets to the bottom of a tired old problem in “Machiavelli Was Right” (not online). Machiavelli was right, of course, precisely because he was a humanist in earnest. There is no room in politics for wishing that people would behave better than they do. (Leading them to behave better is an entirely different matter.) Ignatieff winds up beautifully:

What [Machiavelli] refuses to praise is people who value their conscience and their soul more than the interests of the state. What he will not pardon is public displays of indecision. We should not choose leaders who agonize, worrying about the moral hazards of the power they exercise in the people’s name. We should choose leaders who sleep soundly after taking ultimate risks with their own virtue. They are doing what must be done.

Well, when it can be done.

Reading Note:
Great Halls
26 November 2013

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

¶ The first thing we read to day and, re-reading, the last: Miriam Markowitz’s “Here Comes Everybody,” a concise tour d’horizon of writing and publishing at the moment, remarkable not for its argument (which we haven’t quite puzzled out) so much as for its wealth of insights.

The room that Woolf envisioned was not merely metaphorical. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” she remarked, acknowledging at once both the amateur and privileged aspects of the literary endeavor. For the most part, it is the second requirement—the room—that we remember. The money has dropped from the axiom, not because it is crude but because now it seems less true: if writing is a profession, then people get paid for it, just like any other trade.

Markowitz goes on to show that the room has also dropped out of circulation in the age of the Internet:

The insider/outsider problem has become more vexing as aspiring writers come knocking on virtual doors, which is a lot easier than marching into the office of an editor or publisher. These writers don’t want to be confined to rooms, which feel less like oases than echo chambers. They want inside other, bigger rooms—rooms with good acoustics. They want access to the Great Halls of publishing, and a chair at the heart of the feast.

All this from just two adjacent paragraphs! Everyone’s there, from Laura Miller to David Gilmour to Marilynne Robinson. Lisez-le!

Holiday Reading:
The Bezzle
25 November 2013

Monday, November 25th, 2013

¶ It has been a long time since last we looked at Crooked Timber, and never mind why just now. Glancing at the site this morning, we came across a repost from 2011, by Daniel Davies, about “the bezzle.” The bezzle is the net gain in (purely imaginary) psychic wealth that accrues when an embezzler makes use of funds that the proper owner still believes he controls. Davies applies this concept, originated by Galbraith, to explain the “crash” of 2008, in which “the bezzle” — house prices, in Davies’s view (we agree) — was revealed as such. The question remains: who was the embezzler? Or, better, what, since this catastrophe is wonderfully free of personal responsibility. Davies points to grave trade imbalances (we agree again).

And it should be clear what we’re talking about here to anyone who has paid even a bit of attention for the last twenty years; the Great Trans-pacific Imbalance. The “savings glut”, the “China effect”, what have you. Basically, the consequence of a) Chinese (also Asian, also to a limited extent other emerging markets) decision to run a large trade surplus as part of a strategy of industrialisation (or because they wanted to be sure never to end up in the position of 1998 Indonesia, or something else), combined with b) the decision on the part of Europe and the USA to accomodate this policy through substantial real appreciation of their own currencies.

If you are importing capital, then the foreign sector surplus has to show up as a deficit in some other sector, mathematically. In the USA it showed up as a deficit in the personal sector, with the increase in indebtedness financing an asset price inflation. In Euroland, it showed up mainly as a big increase in government sector deficit (which in turn piled up in the peripheral European sovereigns, which also ran structural bilateral deficits with Germany), which financed ten years of the Greek policy of “low tax collection and a generous state”, although Spain also had a real estate bubble.

There is a temptation to say that this, in some way, reflect power structures – that in the USA, the political importance and power of the financial sector made it highly likely that the eventual destination of the trans-Pacific capital flows would end up in an asset bubble, while the different power structures of Greece made it more likely that they would be channeled to the locally more politically powerful clients. That’s tempting, and it might even have been right. But it seems more likely to me that things just followed the path of least local resistance, and that in each country, the natural and easiest borrowing sector ended up picking up the deficit. On this analysis, Germany, Australia and Canada came out OK (so far, and Australia has actually had a big run-up in personal debt) because for one reason or another, they had a large enough surplus on their own export trade to offset the capital account imbalance.

Crooked Timber is aptly named, because it all too often makes for thorny reading. (Davies’s repost still needs editing.) But some topics are inherently daunting, and it’s not easy to see why Greece and the United States are in such similar boats. Daniel Davies offers worthy explanation. We only wish that he had gone on to point out that the Chinese “strategy of industrialisation” depended on the existence of an official United States policy not to prohibit the withdrawal of American capital from American industry, a withdrawal that occurred because Chinese labor was so much cheaper. We cannot avert our gaze from this skull-and-crossbones aspect of Free Trade.

Fiduciary Note:
18 November 2013

Monday, November 18th, 2013

¶ We’re starting a collection of fiduciary failures. What we’re really interested in is the collapse of New York City Opera, which so far as we could make out when we weren’t paying close attention owed not only to an irresponsible — but we’d better not voice our suppositions; they might be libelous. We’ll have to begin with the sad tale of Mark Spangler, who appears to have had every advantage in life, and to have done well with it until he surrendered to an entrepreneurial urge. Which may have damaged only Spangler himself if he had not controlled other people’s investment funds. Paul Sullivan reports at the Times.

As Mr. Spangler’s failures mounted, he began dipping into the privately managed mutual funds — with names like Growth and Income — that he had for his more risk-averse clients. Those funds had been managed by outside advisers until 2003, when he decided to manage them himself. He told clients that this would save them on fees, but it really removed third-party oversight of his dealings. By the end, he had diverted the bulk of his clients’ money — some $43 million — to TeraHop, where he had become the chief executive, and Tamarac.

Happiness Note:
11 November 2013

Monday, November 11th, 2013

¶ In the current issue of The Nation, historian Jackson Lears runs through a stack of get-happy self-help books. Laugh riot — when we weren’t weeping! When Lears dismisses most of the titles as rubbishy adjuncts to the capitalist project of endless consumption, he’s so obviously right that we overlooked the doctrinaire aspect. But the goldenest nugget was his critique of the black-and-white flattening that’s so characteristic of this breezy, brainless literature.

Burkeman’s ringing conclusion—“This, then, is the deep truth about insecurity: it is another word for life”—is a little too open-ended. By identifying all forms of insecurity with “life,” he depoliticizes it. The experience of economic insecurity, from this view, cannot be mitigated (or exacerbated) by particular public policies. Indeed, the equation of insecurity and “life,” while it does contain a “deep truth,” in the end blends all too easily with the neoliberal celebration of risk-taking as an end in itself—a celebration conducted by political and media elites who are themselves well insulated from risk. Burkeman’s notion of happiness, like the positive psychologists’, needs a thicker sense of the ways that social and economic circumstances can promote or undermine possibilities for a satisfying life.

Lears also advocates the elimination of the business-expense deduction for advertising costs. That’s just about the best idea we’ve heard all year.

Beneath Note:
Jofi Joseph
25 October 2013

Friday, October 25th, 2013

¶ It was only this morning that we learned of the existence of Jofi Joseph — from a Times story that, rather unprofessionally, took it for granted that we knew all about him. (As we should have done had we taken notice of a story in yesterday’s paper.) A State Department aide with a specialty in nuclear non-proliferation, Joseph aimed a stream of insulting tweets at various Washington figures on both sides of the aisle, in the Administration and elsewhere. In our view, this pastime was nowhere near as juvenile as the official notice taken of it (which cost Joseph his job and may have damaged his wife’s prospects). According to the Times, the tweeter had about 1500 followers at Twitter, “close to a nonentity in the foreign policy conversation.”

We can only hope that every other intelligent aide in Washington will join in a display of solidarity with Jofi Joseph, by organizing a concerted Rectification of Names. Wouldn’t it be great if Twitter were really made to serve a national, heroic purpose.

Te Deum Note:
Pierce on Yoho &c
17 October 2013

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

¶ This round of secessionist nonsense may be over, but people like Ted Yoho are still in Congress. Charles Pierce @ Esquire (a few days ago):

A guy who should be a minor annoyance at zoning board meetings in Florida is suddenly capable of helping to bring down the financial stability of the world. A guy who should be railing at his local drive-time talk-jock is giving quotes to The New York Times about the essential dismantling of the institutions of self-government.

But what we really like is Pierce’s nutshell history of how we got here. Emphasis supplied!

The power rests with Ted Yoho because the American political system has tolerated carefully cultivated ignorance andcarefully tailored bigotry for far too long. Ted Yoho has been coming for years. Ted Yoho was made inevitable by the NCPAC campaigns of the late 1970’s and by the elevation of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 and, subsequently, to an artificially exalted place in our history after he left office. The Republican party revelled in all the forces that are now tearing it apart. The Democratic party was criminally negligent and abdicated its profound responsibility to fight against those forces; indeed, it spent the better part of the 1980’s and 1990’s trying to surf the wave itself. The Democratic Leadership Council, and Blue Dog Democrats generally, bear a heavy burden of responsibility for failing to demonstrate to the American people in election after election how extreme the Republicans were becoming.

(Thanks, George Snyer!)

The Unfinished War
10 October 2013

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

¶ How agreeable to read this: we’re not the only ones! Stephan Richter at Salon. (Thanks, George Snyder!)

In essence, now the South is once again rebelling against modernizing shifts of American society. Today, in one of the great political realignments of modern politics, that region is the power base of Republicans.

The equivalent of politically and economically freeing the slaves back then is now granting health care access to all Americans. In either case, the old order is about to be toppled and that leads especially Southerners and white conservatives everywhere, to fear for the end of the United States, as they know it.

In the Times:
9 October 2013

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

¶ A writer to attend to, Robert Olmstead.

These days I feel my edges falling away. I am sure this is weakness. What else could it be in this armed and dangerous land of ours? When people learn that I teach they sometimes launch into lengthy condemnations of young people: their music, their laziness, their callowness. This makes my blood boil. Young people do not make war. Young people do not decide to send off the drones. But young people will be there to do the dirty work when the old people tell them to. Young people will be there to shovel the manure.

No, Virginia:
There Is No Role For the US in Syria
24 September 2013

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

¶ At a site called Syria Comment, a concise but comprehensive array of arguments against US military engagement in Syria.

While the U.S. and the American people are no allies of the Syrian regime (and for good reason), pushing hard for a rebel win today is not in US interests and is unlikely to benefit Syria. Punitive measures taken against the regime following the use of chemical weapons should be conducted with the purpose of deterring the future use of chemical weapons—not to change the balance of power in favor of the rebels.

The writer, Joshua Landis, reminds readers that metropolitan life in large Syrian cities has not been seriously affected by rebel activity. (via 3 Quarks Daily)

¶ The awful truth: a compact video tutorial on the distribution of wealth in the United States — which, really, isn’t a distribution at all, but a concentration.

Celebrity Meltdown! @ Towleroad. D’you know, we’ve never seen Julia Louis-Dreyfus before! (Although we’re looking forward to Enough Said.)

Lit Life:
“Immigrant Fiction”
12 September 2013

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

¶ At the Book Review, Jhumpa Lahiri puts a new spin on the idea of immigrant fiction.

What immigrant fiction has been the most important to you, both personally and as an inspiration for your own writing?

I don’t know what to make of the term “immigrant fiction.” Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences. If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction. Hawthorne writes about immigrants. So does Willa Cather. From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.

We agree up to a point. We wouldn’t say this of William Faulkner or Dawn Powell, or almost anybody later than they.

Dress for Disaster
11 September 2013

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

¶ This is the sort of story that can stop my day in its tracks. “Imagining an Attack on the Cybergrid.” Retired North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan has co-written a disaster novel that contemplates an attack on the nation’s power grid. Whoever can bring that about will be wielding a weapon of mass destruction. November is rarely a fun month, but it’s certainly not going to be one this year.

But life is increasingly imitating Mr. Dorgan’s potboiler. More than 200 utilities and government agencies across the country, from Consolidated Edison to the Department of Homeland Security to Verizon, are now expected to sign up for the largest emergency drill to test the electricity sector’s preparation for cyberattack. The drill, scheduled for November, will simulate an attack by an adversary that takes down large sections of the power grid and knocks out vast areas of the continent for weeks.

¶ The timing of this story is palpably ironic: “Sadness, and Bargains, as Mall at South Street Seaport Shuts Down.” The mall and the Seaport Museum together promised something new and shiny for New York, and that’s what they delivered, as long as they were shiny and new.

Dept of Yikes:
Section X
10 September 2013

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

¶ We have wasted half an hour on trying to determine what’s the worst thing about the Section X story. Section X, if it exists, is a club of wealthy grad students at the Harvard Business School who go on expensive ski trips together. There is no part of this story that is not the worst part; the only thing to do is to shut down the school. Here’s why:

As dean, Mr. Nohria has been known for fostering frank conversations about social issues, but it is hard to say if Harvard Business could ever mount a true effort to resolve class issues on campus along the lines of the one on gender.

Many of the school’s top donors and alumni are members of the same ultramoneyed culture that some students criticize. And because many students attend business school in the specific hope of building a network of influential contacts, they tend to fear offending anyone, especially wealthy classmates who might one day provide connections and financing.

In The Nation:
MOOCs for Mooks
9 September 2013

Monday, September 9th, 2013

Three splendid pieces in the current issue of The Nation (9.23.13)

¶ John Connelly writes about Polish intellectual Leszek Kołakowski, a man who, like a number of American thinkers, passed from youthful Marxism to aged anti-liberalism. A standard feature of this sort of development is a bad reaction to late-Sixties students. Having been one of them myself, I certainly sympathize, but the overreaction is extreme.

¶ Joshua Clover’s extremely angry response to Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down reverberates with justified indignation.

This is a truth of the age. Even white people have fallen from their jobs and can’t get up; few are more aggrieved than they to whom the world has always seemed to promise a decent wage and then reneged. The percentage of the population employed dipped below 59 percent in 2009, and for all the nattering on about recovery, there it remains. Cisco earned $2.27 billion dollars last quarter, beating expectations—and celebrated with 4,000 layoffs. Insofar as some sectors have restored profits, the jobs have not come with them. Nor will they. The absence of jobs and the fall of the White House are one.

And so we must hustle for those that remain ever more intensely, affirm the failing mechanism ever more devoutly. It is not enough that we must work for somebody else, produce profit for somebody else, just to keep body affixed to soul. We must yearn for it, take a punch, take a bullet, take any amount of shit, whatever it requires. We must work just for the chance to work: dystopia squared.

¶ Perhaps it is only in a culture where, as Clover puts it, “travail is the point” that anyone would mistake sitting through online lectures for education. It seems that most students don’t,  according to Jon Wiener’s humorlessly hilarious look at Coursera, the next big thing on the venture capital front.

There’s one other problem for Coursera and the other MOOCs trying to make money: 90 percent of the people who enroll in courses do not complete them. Watching video lectures on your laptop at home alone doesn’t seem to work for the overwhelming majority of people who try.