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Friday, 13 November 2009


Matins: In an over-and-above beautiful essay, Jonathan Raban recollects that he was taught to read, first, by his mother, and then, by William Empson. But Seven Types of Ambiguity opened his eyes to more than texts. (London Review of Books)

For reading, of the kind that Empson preached and practised, doesn’t stop at books, but makes the larger world legible.

Trying to understand the habitat in which we live requires an ability to read it – and not just in a loose metaphorical sense. Every inhabited landscape is a palimpsest, its original parchment nearly blackened with the cross-hatching of successive generations of authors, claiming the place as their own, and imposing their designs on it, as if their temporary interpretations would stand for ever. Later over-writing has obscured all but a few, incompletely erased fragments of the earliest entries, but one can still pick out a phrase here, a word there, and see how the most recently dried layer of scribble is already being partially effaced by fresh ink. From the embanked, bullet-path road through the valley, relic of Roman occupation, to the new 50-turbine windfarm on the hill, every feature of the landscape belongs to an identifiable phase of sensibility, politics and language.

Also vital: "The first lesson Empson taught was to slow down drastically; to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, question, ponder, think."

Lauds: With trademark lucidity, Anne Midgette finds similarities between the troubles that newspapers are suffering these days and the woes of symphony orchestras. Not only that; she puts her finger on what's wrong wrong with plans to "save" them. (Washington Post; via Arts Journal)

The main problem is that both fields seem to be incapable of coming up with an actual new business model, in part because both fields are so deeply invested in their own traditions that they tend to confuse those traditions with their function. It's possible for a thriving symphony orchestra to try doing things in new ways: look at the New World Symphony, which solves some of the funding issues by being classed as an educational institution (it's a training orchestra for young professionals), and therefore is able to get all kinds of grant money that non-educational institutions aren't eligible for. (It puts that money where its mouth is with a strong investment in training, not only of its own members but with a wide array of outreach and education programs.)

But in general, resistance is strong -- something that was evidenced on this very blog this summer when commenters' vigorous and thoughtful responses to my question about new models for orchestras tended to assume that any such "change" would be largely about the music rather than about the structure of the institution playing it.

Prime: At You're the Boss, Barbara Taylor writes about her entrepreneurial brother-in-law's search for "an Internet business." What kind of business?

He is seeking an existing small business with a strong Internet presence because it lines up with his corporate experience. He’s looking for a business with a solid e-commerce platform, strong repeat business, and good visibility in organic search-engine results. “In some ways, an Internet concept simplifies operations,” Dan told me, “but it can be more complex on the technical and marketing sides.”

That's very nice, but that don't answer our question. Then again, we're not businessmen!

The lesson here concerns making a career out of what you love. Many people make the mistake of thinking that, because they like, say, books, or crafts, or kitchenware, then they might enjoy making a business of that interest. Only rarely does this succeed, because no business is about books or crafts or pots and pans. Businesses are about business.

Tierce: At Brain Pickings, Maria Popova directs our attention to a handsome new book about information design, The Visual Miscellaneum, by David McCandless.

But what makes the book so special is that it goes much deeper than pretty infoporn. Through all the eye-and-brain candy, McCandless implicitly answers the pivotal question of what makes information design good — something relevant to anyone, not just designers. Because, at its bare bones, information is just ideas. And we all want to communicate and share our ideas in compelling, engaging ways — whether they’re on a storyboard for a client, or a paper napkin at a dinner party, or a brainstorming doodle in your garage.

We're fascinated by the Venn diagram that follows this passage, in which Mr McCandless isolates four aspects of information: Integrity, Interestingness, Function and Form. The areas in which any two of these circles overlap bear such halfway positive labels as "experiment" (the cross of "interestingness" and "function"). But areas in which only three of the four circles overlap are all negatively charged: add "form," and, without "integrity," the result is "rubbish."

Sext: Scouting New York, which has just turned one year old, continues its exploration of the city's out-of-the-way cemeteries. Moore-Jackson, in Woodside, looks like a destination park, but Scout tells us that it's all locked up. (How did he get in, we don't wonder?)

The cemetery resides on former farmland once owned by the Moore family, of whom Clement Clarke Moore (author of The Night Before Christmas) is a descendant. The Moore farmland, established by Samuel and Charity Moore, covered 100 acres, including the cemetery and a farmhouse located nearby (torn down in the early 1900’s, according to Forgotten-NY – check out their page for an excellent full history).  The Moore Cemetery added the Jackson name when one John Jackson married into the family.

The Moore family didn’t always find itself on the right side of history: during the Revolutionary War, the family sided with the British and housed soldiers. Later, Clement Clarke Moore, a professor at Columbia, argued against abolition.

Music fans know that Moore was the man who brought Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart's great librettist (and one of the great Italian stylists of the Eighteenth Century) to Columbia University.

Nones: Although Peter Galbraith doesn't appear, at first glance, to have done anything wrong, he doesn't seem to have been much concerned about the appearance of impropriety. While in some sort of complicated, conditional contractual relationship with a Norwegian drilling company, he participated in Iraqi constitutional negotiations (as an adviser, obviously) that resulted in Kurdish control over oil revenues. As a result of both factors, he stands to gain about $100 million.

Some officials say that his financial ties could raise serious questions about the integrity of the constitutional negotiations themselves. “The idea that an oil company was participating in the drafting of the Iraqi Constitution leaves me speechless,” said Feisal Amin al-Istrabadi, a principal drafter of the law that governed Iraq after the United States ceded control to an Iraqi government on June 28, 2004.

This is definitely a "what were they thinking?" classic. Although, as to Mr Amin al-Istrabadi's comment, it's also a classic of "shocked, shocked!"

Vespers: In today's Times, two good-sounding books received generous coverage in the form of news stories. That ought to do it so far as the Grey Lady is concerned. Neither book warrants coverage in the Book Review. (Janet Maslin gave Mr Agassi's book a guarded rave in the daily paper.)

The first is Andre Agassi's memoir, for which T J Moehringer, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Tender Bar served as "midwife." Mr Moehringer insists that he did not ghostwriting, but only coaxed Mr Agassi into writing a good book.

Mr. Moehringer was initially reluctant. He had a number of friends who had worked on book projects with athletes, he said, and they all advised against it. Typically, they warned, the athlete gives you about 30 hours and then never talks to you again until you turn in a manuscript, and then he draws a line through anything you’ve written that’s remotely interesting.

But Mr. Agassi, known for wearing down opponents on the court, was dogged. “I wanted to see my life through the lens of Pulitzer Prize winner,” he said, adding that he and Mr. Moehringer, who at almost 45 is about six years older, sometimes seemed like “brothers from a different mother.”

The other book is high-end furniture restorer Maryalice Huggins's Aesop's Mirror: A Love Story.

Ms. Huggins’s book fits into no recognizable genre: it is partly a memoir about growing up on Block Island, an evocative re-creation of the lives of an illustrious 19th-century American family, a detective story about the provenance of an object, and a rare glimpse behind the curtain of the politely conniving, overwhelmingly male world of high-end antiques. There’s also a history of mirrors slipped in. (Apparently, our deep-seated desire to behold our reflections existed eons before technological advances finally made it as easy as whipping out a compact.)

Although we're looking forward to reading this book, we don't want to read any more about it.

Compline: Gene doping is already prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, but fat lot of good that is going to do the inspectors, given the difficulties of detection. (Short Sharp Science)

The big advantage with gene doping is that it should be harder to detect. That's because it's difficult to test for a protein that the body already produces, especially when its levels naturally vary between individuals - which might explain why some people are inherently better at sports than others.

In other words, you could argue that gene doping levels the playing field.

Bon weekend ŕ tous!

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