Daily Office:


Matins: Eric Holder has been confirmed by the Senate. It was grand to weigh and consider Republican opposition to his nomination, which seemed to stem from his participation in the pardon of Marc Rich, one of those dead-of-night doings at the fin de Billsiècle. Not really comparable to the shenanigans of Alberto the Goon.

Lauds: What they ought to have done: close the university and keep the museum open. The dollars and sense point in that direction. The Brandeis trustees who approved the liquidation of the Rose Art Museum ought to be tarred and feathered — and then blinded.

Prime: Joanne McNeil writes about Internet 2.0, at Tomorrow Museum, as if she had always lived there.  

If I were to log into Friendster today I would see a perfectly preserved document of my life in 2003. The people I was friends with then (most of them, sadly, I’m no longer in touch with) and the inside jokes we shared, not to mention the photos of me at that age. It makes me really want to not log in or log in and destroy it all. That’s almost too many memories worth keeping and for someone who prefers to think about life in the present rather than relive past experiences in my mind, it’s just baggage.

Tierce: A good idea was proposed at Davos, of all places: pay the regulators! The source of the proposition is not surprising:

Tony Tan Keng Yam, deputy chairman and executive director of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, suggested that one reason American regulators fell down on the job was that they were paid too little.

Adam Ross Sorkin reports.

Sext: I was going to link to John McPhee’s rather priceless account of his dealings with the formidable fact-checkers at The New Yorker, but access is limited to subscribers. (Don’t miss it; if nothing else, it will teach you the meaning of the important caveat, “on author.”) Instead, this year’s alternative Tilleys.

Nones: Edward Wong files a chilling look at how the Chinese government abuses legal processes to silence dissidents: the [latest] Case of Huang Qi.

Vespers: Delinquent as usual, I haven’t yet got round to writing up Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which I found to be a very important re-think. Now comes Isaac Chotiner, with a tendentious and skewed misreading of the book, full of snark and sneering (in The New Republic, natch). Nothing could be more wearying than rebutting the piece, and this is not the place to have any kind of thoroughgoing go at it, but one paragraph is all I need for the moment.

Compline: Harry Markopolos, the investor’s advocate who blew enough whistles about Bernard Madoff to simulate Beethoven’s Ninth (except nobody listened), is no longer out sick. But he claims that he was afraid for his life.

He and his colleagues avoided taking their allegations to the industry self-regulatory agency, now called Finra, he said in the statement, because he believed Mr. Madoff and his brother, Peter B. Madoff, wielded too much power with that organization. Peter Madoff worked in his brother’s firm but has not been implicated in the apparent fraud.

“We were concerned that we would have tipped off the target too directly and exposed ourselves to great harm,” he wrote.


§ Matins. But even the Times is rapping the President’s knuckles about the run of wee slips (Geithner, Daschle) from the high moral ground promised during the campaign. Hopes that the new Administration would put an end to tedious moralizing grow faint. I can live without them, myself.

§ Lauds. Even Roberta Smith, of the Times, can hardly find words.

It is hard to know how anyone could destroy this museum, but that’s what Brandeis announced it would do last Monday. It’s hard to think of a comparably destructive — and self-destructive — move in the art world today.

§ Prime. In the course of my sixty years, humanity has gained utterly unimagined access to its own past. Necessarily, still, a recent past, but what happens when Facebook and its heirs turn 100? Most of the “information” will be devoid of interest, but much of it will provide scholars, such as they may be, with sights and sounds as well as texts that have until now poured into an abyss of oblivion.

§ Tierce. Before you taxpayers out there start fuming and pawing the ground, please bear in mind that the Securities and Exchange Commission could pay its staff Wall Street salaries without asking for a dime from Congress, because it rakes in very handsome fees as a matter of course. Why not regard these fees as bonuses in advance. Mr Sorkin’s piece ends on a very interesting note:

A few said giving bonuses to regulators would be like giving bonuses to the police for issuing speeding tickets. Maybe the regulators, like Wall Streeters, would start thinking about the money, rather than what is right. But maybe that’s exactly what Wall Street needs to slow down.

Perhaps no market is truly free unless those who are in charge of regulating it have a significant stake in its health.

§ Sext. My own favorite is the first in the slideshow, Stephen Price’s Schach Treatment. Also nice: A Walk in the Park (Gary Amaro) and Eustace de Stijl-ley. David Leonard’s Eustace Mobi resembles the work of an actual New Yorker regular, but I can’t place the name. Marcus Thiele’s Eustace Banksy is witty, but I have no use for Banksy.

§ Nones. Here’s how it works:

Illegal possession of state secrets, which carries a sentence of three years in prison, is difficult to defend against because lawyers, family members and witnesses all have limited access to the evidence in the case. If the bureaucracy that oversees state secrets certifies that information or a document in possession of the accused amounts to a secret, a conviction is generally a foregone conclusion unless higher authorities intervene to quash the case.

§ Vespers. Mr Gladwell advances the thesis that (a) it takes about ten thousand hours to acquire any kind of expertise and that (b) society’s bestowal of the luxury of ten thousand hours is capriciously allotted at best. A corollary of the thesis is that (c) young people from bourgeois homes, where a basic mastery of the ways of the world can be taken for granted, have an advantage over equally-gifted kids from less socialized backgrounds (duh).

Mr Chotiner misreads Mr Gladwell to be arguing that influence and connections are everything, and that, since nobody makes it on his own, it’s more effective to curry favor than to hone skills. Then he drags in, as an example of nothing, the very tall (6’10”) Nigerian basketball player, Hakeem Olajuwon, who — guess what — mastered basketball in far fewer than ten thousand hours.

Put aside for a moment Gladwell’s account of the Beatles’ ascent to greatness. Gladwell wants us to believe that when Joy was asked how long he had spent programming, he managed to produce, without prodding, the Mozartean number of ten thousand hours. This anecdote casts Gladwell’s mode of argumentation in rather a harsh light. By any reasonable estimate, Hakeem Olajuwon had spent significantly less than ten thousand hours playing basketball when he became one of the best college players in the country. If Bill Joy qualifies as evidence of The 10,000-Hour Rule, and Olajuwon counts as evidence of the Height Trumps Experience Rule, what are we to conclude from this disparity? About the roots of success, very little. But the conclusion is inescapable that the explanatory power of nifty little stories may be very limited. Unfortunately, Gladwell has chosen to live by them.

I ask only that anyone who thinks that Mr Chotiner has a point here kindly go back and re-read the passages in Outliers about Canadian hockey teams and the birthdates of most top players. The most that Mr Gladwell can be faulted for here is the failure to take into account the very unusually gifted. And it’s not much of a fault, as there are few parallels to the raw advantage of height in basketball among other pursuits. There are no Hakeem Olajuwons studying the violin at Juilliard, for example.

§ Compline. I fear that we are in for some interesting proceedings. Kathleen has heard the most astonishing nonsense at work: that prosecutors will offer Mr Madoff a sweet plea bargain in order to shut him up. Now, there’s  a move that’s not in the Morgenthau playbook. (Not that this is Mr Morgenthau’s case, but you know what I &c &c…)

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