Daily Office:


Matins: As a thoughtful Memorial Day present, tenants of a building at Third Avenue and 92nd Street were evacuated after an unexplained bomblet went off at Starbucks.

Lauds: Philip Mould describes his first moments alone with a Gainsborough that he bought at eBay for less than $200: when the white spirit didn’t work, he applied acetone, and the overpainting “dissolved like lard.” Don’t try this at home — but don’t miss reading it, either.

Prime: A short list of healthy banks, at The Economist. (Names below the jump.)

Tierce: While we wait for the Marshall trial to heat up, Ruth Padel provides a sleazotic aside: she tipped off the press about Derek Walcott’s Harvard problems, but she did nothing wrong. Sez she. Update: She resigns!

Sext: Hey, yesterday was a holiday; why not take it easy this afternoon as well. Wallow in Schadenfreude as the Telegraph telegraphs all those naughty British MP expenses.

Nones: Scientology, a hit with certain Hollywood movie stars (who get rather special treatment), is regarded rather more skeptically in Europe. In France, seven leading members of the organization are on trial for fraud.

Vespers: John Self reviews James Lasdun’s collection, It’s Beginning to Hurt, at Asylum.

Compline: At Olivia Judson’s Times blog, The Wild Side, Steven Strogatz explains why the United States does not contain two cities the size of New York. (via InfrastructuristOremus…

§ Matins. Third and 92nd might seem close to my neck of the woods, but there’s a lot of city between here and there, and, to tell you the truth, I am unfamiliar with the intersection. So I didn’t know a thing about the event until I read it online, yesterday afternoon.

§ Lauds. If you love what you do, the money will follow. Especially if what you love involves unearthing misattributed paintings. Mr Mould got his start in a way so keenly special that it sounds like a racket out of Gilbert & Sullivan.

In his early twenties, Mould started buying cheap portraits of lords and members of parliament that had found their way to America, and selling them back to the House of Commons Advisory Committee on Works of Art at a profit. After 18 months of brisk trade, he was asked to become an art adviser to the House of Commons, a position he has kept to this day — although most now know him as one of the experts on Antiques Roadshow.

§ Prime. Here’s everything you need to know to sound financially sound for the rest of the week.

However the pack is shuffled, a few names keep resurfacing—in America, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase; and in Europe, Credit Suisse, Deutsche, BNP, Barclays and Santander. They can be whittled down further. In Europe, concerns over what lies on the balance-sheets of Deutsche and Barclays are ebbing but are not gone. The British bank’s willingness to consider a sale of BGI, its asset-management arm, suggests worries over capital. Both banks still have lots of legacy assets, many of them tucked in the banking book.

Santander should rightfully take its bow alongside its regulators, who closed off the capital benefits of building up big off-balance-sheet positions and required Spanish banks to put aside provisions during the upswing. BNP has played its hand very well, but its business mix (a stable home market and a focus on equity derivatives) helped massively by keeping it away from the worst blow-ups.

In America, Goldman still has legions of admirers. It has posted losses of less than $8 billion to date, a performance not nearly as bad as those of its direct peers. Its focus on risk management is a template for others to follow. But its renewed swagger should not conceal the fact that it needed to convert into a bank-holding company in order to survive the market storm—nor the questions that hang over its future earnings in a re-regulated industry.

That leaves Credit Suisse and JPMorgan Chase to take the grand prizes.

§ Tierce. When is a tattle-tale a trouble-maker? The fallout on this story — Ms Padel was the first woman in the chair’s three hundred years to win.

In an interesting development, Clive James tells the Guardian that the Oxford professorship of poetry is his “dream job.” I wonder how many Australians have held the post.

§ Sext. My favorite (at the moment) is the rogue’s gallery of shops patronized by the dishonorable members. John Lewis, check; Peter Jones, check; Bang & Olufson, natch; Ikea — Ikea? I suppose that George Mudie and Tom Watson thought it would be all right if they economised. Most stylish shop: Pimlico Plumbers! Why do you suppose their sign screams Entrance in such relatively large letters?

§ Nones. A French judgment would not be controlling in American courts, but it will look good in the briefs when a similar case arises here.

The case centres on a complaint made in 1998 by a woman who said she was enrolled into Scientology after members approached her in the street and persuaded her to do a personality test.

In the following months, she paid more than €21,000 for books, “purification packs” of vitamins, sauna sessions and an “e-meter” to measure her spiritual progress, she said.

Other complaints then surfaced. The five original plaintiffs – three of whom withdrew after reaching a financial settlement with the Church of Scientology – said they spent up to hundreds of thousands of euros on similar tests and cures.

They told investigators that Scientology members harassed them with phone calls and nightly visits to cajole them into paying their bills or taking out bank loans. The plaintiffs were described as “vulnerable” by psychological experts in the case.

Scientology, founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, describes the “e-meter” as a religious artefact that helps the user and supervisor locate spiritual distress.

Investigators have described the machine as useless and said vitamin cures handed out by Church members were medication that should not have been freely sold.

§ Vespers. Mr Lasdun’s name is familiar to me, but I can’t say why. Mr Self’s warm review of his stories kindles my interest.

Often Lasdun seemed to have such an acute insight to my own range of neuroses that I suspected him of some kind of espionage. However, I’m suspicious of liking a book because of identification with the characters, and there’s no doubt that Lasdun has what it takes in pure prose terms too: there is wry spikiness, attitude without swagger, which appeals greatly to me, and best of all he resists the fussy or ponderous language which can mar fiction by poets.

§ Compline. It’s called Zipf’s Law.

The mathematics of cities was launched in 1949 when George Zipf, a linguist working at Harvard, reported a striking regularity in the size distribution of cities. He noticed that if you tabulate the biggest cities in a given country and rank them according to their populations, the largest city is always about twice as big as the second largest, and three times as big as the third largest, and so on. In other words, the population of a city is, to a good approximation, inversely proportional to its rank. Why this should be true, no one knows.

Even more amazingly, Zipf’s law has apparently held for at least 100 years. Given the different social conditions from country to country, the different patterns of migration a century ago and many other variables that you’d think would make a difference, the generality of Zipf’s law is astonishing.

Mr Strogatz (and Jebediah Reed at Infrastructurist) also note that infrastructural needs rise much more slowly than populations. As Mr Reed puts it:

Mouse and elephant cells have similar metabolic rates in a petri dish. But in situ in the animals, the mouse cell burns much more energy than the elephant cell. There is an analogous effect that takes place among urban residents, with someone in a small town tending to have a higher innate resource metabolism than someone in a big city.

One Response to “Daily Office:

  1. Fossil Darling says:

    Sext : The scandal in the House of Commons couldn’t have been made up : several MPs have stood down because of ‘health’ reasons…..heh heh……