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16 December 2009


Matins: John Swansburg, culture editor at Slate, used to follow sports zealously. It seems to have become something of a diet of desserts, because he's feeling much better now that he does other things instead.

I'm not denying the pleasures of spending an afternoon shelling sunflower seeds and watching the Brewers take on the Pirates—on the contrary. My problem is more with the games that promise to be momentous and prove otherwise. Every week, there seems to be a game of the century—a playoff opener, a clash of rivals, a prodigal son returning home. As a sports fan in good standing, I'm obliged to watch. But too frequently, such games fail to deliver on the hype. Even if they are entertaining in the moment, I know that after the passage of a few months, I'll have trouble recalling the action. What happened in the NFC championship game last year? I watched, but I don't remember a single detail. What's the point of devoting all of my free time to something so fleeting?

This reminds us, a little bit, of War Games. (Slate; via Brainiac)

Lauds: Ripley, meet Shipley. Oh! You know one another already! James Cameron talks to Speakeasy about Avatar, which has received four Golden Globe nominations even though it hasn't opened (officially).

Was Sigourney’s character really called Shipley in the original draft?

Yup, that’s how it was in the treatment and first draft, before I talked to Sig, so you can see I wasn’t writing it for her or I certainly wouldn’t have used the name. I actually thought of not casting her, because we had already done such an iconic science-fiction film, but then I thought, Don’t be an idiot, she’s perfect, just change the name. I think I’d already changed the name before I sent her the script, which she loved. Her enthusiasm for it was something that appealed to me, because she’s very smart. She got the film thematically and understood what she needed to show up and do. We’ve been friends since we did “Aliens” together and it was a cool project to reunite on.

Prime: This isn't how it was supposed to work: microfinance, in rural India at least, seems to be giving traditional moneylending (which it was expected to replace) a real boost. (WSJ; via Marginal Revolution)

Peer pressure to pay back microfinance loans is intense, because microlenders almost always require borrowers to join small, tightknit groups. If one member defaults, none can get another loan. Microloans have a stellar repayment rate -- close to 100% -- and some analysts believe a hidden reason is the stopgap provided by moneylenders.

Microlenders see things differently.

They say the boom in traditional moneylending has been fueled by an increase in demand for credit, and that the share of debt owed to moneylenders is up because microfinance has yet to hit maximum penetration. Some doubt that microfinance is spurring moneylender growth. Although "microfinance institutions and moneylenders offer different products, and it would be quite possible for them to work side-by-side," it doesn't imply a causal relationship, says Rachel Glennerster, executive director of the Poverty Action Lab. She suggested some borrowers may not be paying one loan with another, but using additional funds to expand businesses.

As always, life is a lot more complicated than theory predicts. What continues to be interesting about microfinance is its strong bond to groups of women.

Tierce: Evan Maloney finds speed-reading to be a waste of time.

Most speed reading courses teach people to read the words off the page without imagining the corresponding sounds in their minds (called subvocalisation). Skim reading is slightly different; it teaches people to read the keywords in a sentence and ignore all the smaller words, creating some kind of semantic register in shorthand. Anyone who has read that other Tolstoy tome, Anna Karenina, has probably been tempted to skim read certain passages, such as Levin's theories of Russian agrarianism. I know I was tempted, quite recently, but in my efforts to pick up the reading pace I found my attention was divided: part of my mind was thinking about Levin's thoughts and actions, as described on the page, but an equal part of my mind was devoted to the novel process of speed/skim reading. What are the keywords? I wondered. Sometimes my mind was entirely distracted by this question, and while debating which half of a subjunctive conditional I could ignore while retaining the sense of the clause, I would speed read two or three more paragraphs without taking anything in.

We knew that, but we still wish that we could get through books faster. Are books themselves the problem? (Guardian; via Arts Journal)

Sext: The mercury ball stage! If you're enough of a cook to stock All-Clad skillets and sauté pans, you will definitely want to see a hugely useful video from — a site that we had not heard of. Nor had we heard of Houseboat Eats, which ran the clip.  

As Harold McGee will tell you, controlling heat is one of the most basic challenges a cook faces in the kitchen. We’ve all heard that it’s important to preheat your oven, and heat your skillet before adding ingredients. With regards to preheating a skillet however, I’ve always just sort of put the pan over heat for a couple minutes, added some oil, then added the ingredients. While this approach may work for some things, I learned about a year ago that there is actually a small ideal window of heat that you should be aiming for in order to prevent sticking, optimize browning of your meat, and develop a nice fond on the pan.

Don't say we never taught you anything. (via The Morning News)

Nones: As the prospect of Turkish membership in the European Union recedes to the vanishing point, silver linings glimmer ever more promisingly. Closer ties between Turkey and Syria, which Robert Worth writes about in the Times, are good for everybody (except, possibly, for Iran).

“In a region full of unresolved conflicts, Syria has chosen to hedge its bets,” Mr. Harling said. “Aligning with Turkey helps Syria to offset competing pressures from Iran and the West while strengthening its position economically.”

But the relationship is not just about providing Syria with political cover. Mr. Assad, the Syrian president, has made clear that he hopes to foster a regional energy network, building on Turkey’s natural gas pipelines. Trade between the countries doubled between 2007 and 2008, and doubled again in 2009, to an estimated $4 billion, according to the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce.

“I think there is a sort of vision developing between Syria and Turkey where they could serve jointly as a regional trade hub, linking Europe with the Gulf and other parts of the East,” said Nabil Sukkar, a Damascus-based economic analyst.

Vespers: At The Millions — actually, in Tübingen — Daniel Silliman asks Jonathan Franzen to reconcile his dislike of "experimentalism" in fiction and his admiration for (and friendship with) David Foster Wallace. The answer is not theoretical.

His second answer was more of a holding firm to his dislike of experimentalism while also defending Wallace, whom Franzen described as a “once-in-a-generation genius.” His idea seemed to be that Wallace was able to overcome experimentalism and its limitations by virtue of his immense talent – to surpass it en route to real literature. Asked for clarification, though, Franzen gave what might actually have been his most satisfying answer. “You know,” he said, “honesty was a life and death struggle for Dave.”

Franzen too has struggled. He spoke very openly, in Tübingen, about his own struggle to “becom[e] the person you need to be to write the novel you need to write.” And he said that his “conception of the novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct confrontation” – that

the point at which writing becomes easy for a writer is where it becomes unnecessary to read that writer…. What turns out to matter most is that you write as truthfully as possible.

And so Franzen’s fear of being mistaken for an elitist ultimately seems like a distraction, for himself and for his readers.

Compline: Ed Kilgore looks into "The Ungreening of America," and finds that two out of three likely explanations trace back to GOP ranting. (TNR)

Self-identified Republicans who spend a lot of time watching Fox News are obviously influenced by the torrent of “information” about the “hoax” of global climate change; while both conservative opinion leaders and GOP politicians are invested in promoting polarization on a historic scale. But this toxic environment would be largely self-contained if misinformation weren't bleeding over into the broader discourse that includes Americans who don’t think Obama is a committed socialist or that environmentalists want to take the country back to the Stone Age. 

And that’s why Yglesias is right: This is one area of public policy where “respect for contrary views” and “editorial balance” are misplaced.

Good luck with that.

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