Daily Office:


Matins: The two items have little overtly in common, and yet they seem related (if “opposed”): President Obama has settled on Second Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor as the Supreme Court nominee to take David Souter’s place, and Prop 8 was upheld by the California Supreme Court.

Lauds: This week’s New Yorker cover was created on an iPhone. Jorge Colombo (published in the magazine since 1994), drew it with Brushes. (via  Emdashes)

Prime: John Lanchester’s review of three current whahappen? books about the “economic downturn” musn’t be missed.

Tierce: In the Marshall trial, Mrs Astor’s last white-shoe lawyer, Henry Christensen, takes the stand. Meanwhile, defendant Tony Marshall is asking $17 million less for his late mother’s Park Avenue apartment.

Sext: Oh, no! “Texting May Be Taking a Toll on Teenagers.”

Nones: Is the Sri Lankan civil war really over? Whether it is or not, Christopher Hitchens (at Slate) has the piece that you want to read. (via reddit)

Vespers: Very different (but equally fond) appreciations of John Updike, by Julian Barnes and Alex Beam.

Compline: Alan Beattie writes about Argentina’s failure to become a great power, at FT. (via  The Morning News)


§ Matins. I not only could not imagine the California Supreme court deciding against Prop 8, I couldn’t see that doing so would lead to anything but a civil war in California. If I had to blame any one person for Prop 8, it would be the producer of Milk who decided to withhold the release of the film until “Oscar Season,” by which time all the good that the film could have done defeating Proposition 8 was moot. Memo to everybody: most Americans (just barely in some places) are self-righteous bigots about same-sex marriage. They are not in any real way ashamed of that description.

If I weren’t married to a Wall Street securities lawyer myself, I’d wonder if it was really necessary for President Obama to shoot way past finding an elegible woman to settle on one who was both divorced and childless. I know lots of divorced and childless Wall Street lawyers who happen to be women (men, too; but since men don’t give birth, they don’t count). I think it’s great that she was appointed by Bush I.

§ Lauds. In other words: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

I very nearly bought the magazine at a newsstand yesterday, because the holiday blocked regular Monday delivery of the magazine. Right now, I can’t imagine not subscribing to a print edition of The New Yorker. Even more than the Times, the physicial magazine is the product, more than the contents inside.

That’s right now. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine that The New Yorker‘s covers would ever be topical, or that articles would be illustrated with photographs, or that there would be a Table of Contents….

§ Prime. Animal Spirits, by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, is already in my pile. Richard Posner’s A Failure of Capitalism seems pitched to reader who have not attained — I can’t put it any other way — the state of economic enlightenment in which I already find myself to be. The book that neither Kathleen nor I knew about, though, sounds too fantastically engaging to live without for another day.

That would be Fool’s Gold, by Gillian Tett.

The broad outline of the financial crash is becoming well known. The value of Gillian Tett’s book is in the level of detail with which she tells the story, concentrating on the specific sequence of inventions and innovations that made it possible. Tett, a Financial Times reporter who covered the credit markets, was one of the few people to have seen the implosion coming. A critical factor was that she has a Ph.D. in social anthropology—a “hippie” background, as one banker told her, intending no compliment. It helped her focus on what she calls “social silences” in the world of banking. It’s not always what people say that contains the most important information; often, it’s what they take for granted. To Tett, it was obvious that the banking sector was running irresponsibly large risks in the overexpansion of credit and the overingenuity of its financial engineering. So she was perfectly placed to follow the story as it happened, and to pull together the story of how we got here. There are a number of different ways of peeling this particular onion; Tett does so through the J. P. Morgan team that helped create the new credit derivatives. These lie at the heart of the current crisis, and Tett’s account of their invention and dispersal makes “Fool’s Gold” a gripping and indispensable book.

There are a couple of lovely zingers in Mr Lanchester’s piece.

A common mistake of very smart people is to assume that other people’s minds work in the same way that theirs do. This is a particular problem in economics. Its mathematically based models and assumptions of rational conduct can appear, to non-economists, like toys, entertaining but, by definition, of limited utility.


Animal Spirits is addressed to a general reader, but it’s hard not to feel that the book’s real audience is among economists. The general reader needs no persuading about the influence of non-rational, non-economic forces on economic thinking.

At the very end, though, Mr Lanchester lays out what’s needed right now in language of the most succulent tenderloin:

This should be an enduring lesson of the crisis—an understanding that the rules governing the operating of markets were not handed down on stone tablets but are made by men, and are in constant need of revision, supervision, and active, imaginative enforcement.

If we can figure out how to bottle that, we’ve got this downturn thing licked.

§ Tierce. Chalk it up to “a glut of trophy apartments on the market.” Come to think of it, though, what does Tony Marshall have to do with the sale of any of his mother’s assets?

§ Sext. This story is almost hysterically empty. Read it as if it appeared in The Onion, and it’ll crack you up. Take this passage:

Texting may also be taking a toll on teenagers’ thumbs. Annie Wagner, 15, a ninth-grade honor student in Bethesda, Md., used to text on her tiny LG phone as fast as she typed on a regular keyboard. A few months ago, she noticed a painful cramping in her thumbs. (Lately, she has been using the iPhone she got for her 15th birthday, and she says texting is slower and less painful.)

§ Nones. Mr Hitchens, not the most naturally self-effacing writer on earth, manages to tell this story without putting himself at the center, so that you really do believe that he was “in at the birth” of Tamil separatism.

I also became vaguely aware that, behind the general litany of Tamil complaints and grievances, many of them justified, there was another force altogether. It was referred to in rather hushed tones as “the Tigers,” and its sympathizers could often be detected by their habit of referring not to Sri Lanka or even to Ceylon but to “Eelam”: the name of a future Tamils-only state. Unwittingly, I was present during the early stirrings of this organization—which had a good deal of support, as irredentist and ultra-nationalist movements so often do, among the diaspora. There are many high-earning communities of Tamils in other countries of the British Commonwealth as well as in Europe and North America, and their support was a major contributing factor to the duration of Asia’s longest insurgency or (if you prefer) civil war: one that may possibly just have ended.

Even if you add the two recognized Tamil populations of Sri Lanka together, they do not amount to even one-fifth of the overall population. But at the height of their desperado militancy, a decade or so ago, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, controlled perhaps one-third of the country’s territory, including the Batticaloa-Trincomalee coastline in the east and the Jaffna peninsula in the north. There was never any possibility that the Sinhala parties, or indeed many of the urban Tamils, would accept such a fait accompli. Nor was there any chance that China and Pakistan would allow such an obviously strategic island, with its former Royal Navy harbors and ports, to become partitioned in favor of a minority with such strong links to India.

All right, maybe the story is just a teeny-weeny bit about Mr Hitchens’s position on Iraq:

It’s just not true, as some liberals tend to believe, that insurgencies, once under way, have history on their side. As well as by nations like Britain and Russia, they can be beaten by determined Third World states, such as Algeria in the 1990s and even Iraq in the present decade. Insurgent leaderships often make mistakes on the “hearts and minds” front, just as governments do, and governments are not always stupid to ban the press from the front line, tell the human rights agencies to stay the hell out of the way, and rely on the popular yearning for law and order. It can also be important to bear in mind, as in Sri Lanka became crucial, that majorities have rights, too.

§ Vespers. Mr Beam writes heartwarmingly, as a fellow colleague of Updike’s at the Boston Globe. As anyone who followed Updike’s career will know, the writer had “the common touch” in spades.

About 15 years ago, Updike sent a letter to the editor. “I can’t believe that you’re cutting ‘Spiderman,’ ” he wrote, “the only comic strip in the Globe, except for ‘Doonesbury’ half the time, worth reading. Do think again in making way for what sounds like one more jejune set of unfunny panels pitched at the nonexistent (or at least nonreading) X-generation.”

We did think again. If you are reading this on paper, turn back two pages, and you will find Peter, Spidey, Jonah, and Mary Jane, exactly where John Updike wanted them to be.

Mr Barnes puts his finger on one aspect of Updike’s writing that vaguely repelled me — vaguely, because I didn’t have a name for it.

This is, perhaps, the underlying, paradoxical dream of Updike’s characters: to be away, and yet to be safe. The Rabbit Quartet is bookended by Harry Angstrom’s two instinctive southerly fugues: his opening panicked drive from home and family and life in the ’55 Ford in Rabbit, Run (1960); (“The title can be read as a piece of advice,” Updike noted in his preface to the one-volume edition of the Quartet); and the mirror trip in Rabbit at Rest (1990), Harry’s closing, migratory trek in the Toyota Celica down to Florida to find his place to die. Updike’s epitomal marrieds, the Maples, try the easiest escape from marriage, adultery; then the second one, divorce. But what lies beyond? A second marriage, perhaps further dreams of leaving, and so on, until life’s final escape, into death. If Lee, at the end of “The Guardians,” finds temporary consolation in the fact that his DNA at least promises him longevity, Martin Fairchild, in “The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe,” knows that in cosmological terms, “We are riding an aimless explosion to nowhere.”

What can’t be escaped from, and runs all through the collection of stories, is memory. The escapee must always return, mentally or physically, if not both. In “The Road Home,” David Kern (to whom most tropes apply) goes back to his mother’s farmland and his father’s townscape, places from which “only he” among all his family “had escaped.” He has the hesitant nostalgia of the returnee, and also the guilt: if the place has changed unacceptably, then he himself, by his willful absence, is complicit in its decline. The past is somewhere you get lost in, literally and figuratively: your memory is partial, and the place itself has changed. And so have you: Kern, a city slicker worrying that rain-sodden fields might dirty his shoes and pants, makes the discovery that “ancestral soil” for him “was just mud.” And sometimes not even that. The boy who once humiliatingly sold strawberries on the roadside of Route 14 discovers how they are grown today: under season-defying plastic, four feet off the ground, and hydroponically, with nutrients trickled in by hose. If the “ancestral” has lost its meaning, so too has the “soil.”

When I escaped the town that I grew up in, I left no love behind, and no real curiosity to see what happened after I left. In all the important ways, I left Bronxville before I started school. While this made for a painful childhood, it made for an adult life that, whatever its vicissitudes, has been serenely untroubled by “the past.”

And my “carnal circuitry,” to quote Nicholson Baker’s great phrase in U & I, is different from Updike’s as well. I’ve never been sexually interested in anybody. I’ve been interested in sex, and in love with people, but I’ve never become attached to anyone because having sex with that person promised to be remarkable.

§ Compline. Two long-ago divergences seem to be almost dispositive. First, Argentina’s West was settled not by “squatters” — call them “homesteaders” if you’re squeamish — but by feudal-minded landlords. The second bifurcation, not directly inspired by the first but sharing a similar outlook, came during the world-wide economic boom of the third of a century that preceded the Great War.

Economies rarely get rich on agriculture alone and ­Britain had shown the world the next stage, industrialisation. ­America grasped that building a manufacturing industry would allow it to benefit from better technologies, while trying to squeeze a little more grain out of the same fields would not. It was not as if Argentina consciously rejected the same course. It could scarcely avoid growing its own manufacturing industry. But when industrialisation did come, prevailing prejudices ensured it was limited and late. Argentina’s elites saw no ­reason to risk their status and livelihoods in the fickle new sphere and anyway there were not enough new workers to fill the factories. Argentina brought the same tendencies that it had to the ossified agricultural sector, ­preferring cosy, safe monopolies to the brutal riskiness of competition. Its wellbeing rested on farm prices holding their own against the prices of manufactured goods, and on global markets remaining open.

The ways in which the United States differed from Argentina on both points meant that it would grow its own aristocracy in the same way that Europe’s aboriginal aristocracy had flowered a thousand years before: out of hardship, strength, determination, and a lot of divinely-blessed opportunism.

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