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12 January 2010


Matins: The Senate, a contra-democratic institution to begin with, operates according to rules of its own devising that, according to Thomas Geoghegan, are contra-Constitutional. Particularly the rule about filibusters (unlimited debates).  (NYT)

So on the health care bill, as on so many other things, we now have to take what a minority of an inherently unrepresentative body will give us. Forty-one senators from our 21 smallest states — just over 10 percent of our population — can block bills dealing not just with health care but with global warming and hazards that threaten the whole planet. Individual senators now use the filibuster, or the threat of it, as a kind of personal veto, and that power seems to have warped their behavior, encouraging grandstanding and worse.

Mr Geoghegan can think of three things to do about this, without just waiting for the Senate to reform itself.

Lauds: We weren't following The Online Photographer back in 2007, but Mike Johnston's entry for 28 January of that year, "How to Read a Photographic Book," deserves the attention of anyone who owns more than a few books of photographs.

When you get a monograph (a book primarily of plates—i.e., of pictures) that you want to "read"—that you really want to digest—first, page through it as you normally might. On that run-through, note where the bits to read are located. Then read whatever those things are—the essay, a preface, an afterward, whatever.

Then wait.

Wait a few hours until that evening, or wait a day or two. Set aside some time. Make sure you're feeling relaxed, rested, and that you're in a comfortable chair, in a place with decent lighting. Try to see that you won't be disturbed. Put music on if you want to, or not if you don't. And get an egg timer.


Spending three minutes looking at a photograph, even if you don't much like it or your mind wanders, is the only way to see through the clutter of filters and pigeonholes the help us get through everyday life.

Prime: Is there a housing bubble in China? Or just a severe shortage?  Steven Mufson's report, at the Washington Post, considers the alternative views. (via Marginal Revolution)

"One of the legacies of China's prolonged stagnant growth prior to economic liberalization is an overwhelming shortage of residential property that meets its new living standards," Koyo Ozeki said in a report published by Pimco. "It will likely take a considerable period of time for supply to catch up to demand." That wasn't true in the Japanese or U.S. bubbles.

We're not sure that the distinction is important: in China, instability tends to cascade.

Tierce: Jonah Lehrer's WSJ report on will power dates from the end of last month, but we don't want you to miss it, especially if you're looking to build up the muscles in your mind. (via The Frontal Cortex)

The implications of this muscle metaphor are vast. For one thing, it suggests that making lots of New Year's resolutions is the wrong way to go about changing our habits. When we ask the brain to suddenly stop eating its favorite foods and focus more at work and pay off the Visa…we're probably asking for too much.

The willpower-as-muscle metaphor should also change the way we think about dieting. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University who has pioneered the muscle metaphor, has demonstrated in several clever studies that the ability to do the right thing requires a well-fed prefrontal cortex.

Sext: Dave Bry is appalled by the Masons' decision to induct a new Right Worshipful Grand Master not only in public, but at a convention center. (The Awl)

"Some Masons may regret losing the mystique," Brubach writes. "Though surely not as much as the conspiracy theorists…" I'll say. Come on, secret societies, let us have our fantasies. If you really are just a bunch of regular old joe-schmoes that meet every other month to drink beer and talk about sports in Davy Crockett hats, if the coolest secrets you have are about how to do a handshake, or what color collar indicates a higher rank, or that Brad Paisley is a member (Brad Paisley?) please, keep it to yourself.

Nones: This week in the Guardian, a series of articles about powerful international corporations. First up: Gazprom, the world's largest producer of natural gas.

The next cold war may well take place in a room that looks oddly like a scene from the last one. Along one wall of a spartan control centre in Moscow, a large map of Europe is projected on computer screens. Visitors have to pass through five rings of security to reach this spot, but the few outsiders who make it through are proudly shown a display of raw power. From underground facilities deep inside Siberia, a series of trajectories are plotted on the computer screens – aiming west toward Europe's largest conurbations. An engineer explains how easy it would be to turn out the lights in a foreign city with the click of a button on his desk.

Vespers: Two classic books about Higher Learning at Cambridge have been republished by Oleander Press. (LRB)

Much revered by generations of Cambridge students, [The Night Climbers of Cambridge] contains detailed instructions on how to climb the walls of various colleges, as well as advice on tackling the notorious Senate House Leap, from the South face of Caius onto the Senate House roof.

Before Whipplesnaith, though, there was Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, a British mountain climber and former Cambridge student whose Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity was published anonymously in 1900.

It's a wonder that you can't read Cat Burglary.

Compline: Further evidence that the Cold War is much missed: "Eurabian" apocalyptics. Justin Vaïsse looks into the clichés of European Islamicization, at Foreign Policy. (via The Morning News) 

But in the United States, the Eurabia books continue to proliferate even today, close to a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which triggered the genre. Part of the explanation lies in the post-9/11 narrative of America besieged by militant Islam -- a clash of civilizations in which Europe is the front line, threatened by internal subversion. "If Europe is unable to assimilate its immigrants, if Europe is a breeding ground for anti-Americanism and Islamic radicalism -- and it is -- this is our problem," Berlinski warns in Menace in Europe (2006). "The threat of the radical Islamists taking over Europe is every bit as great to the United States as was the threat of the Nazis taking over Europe in the 1940s," Tony Blankley writes in The West's Last Chance (2005). "We cannot afford to lose Europe."

In this sense, many of these books offer a variation on the conservative Cold War vision of Europe as vulnerable to the spread of communism -- only now, Muslims have replaced Soviets and Euro-communists as the enemies. The continuity in clichés with the Europhobic literature of the 1970s and 1980s is striking: In both periods Europe is described with terms like appeasing, impotent, asexual, feminine, post-nationalistic, irreligious, apologetic, self-loathing, naive, decadent, and so forth.

Mr Vaïsse points out that, outside a few cities, the Moslem population of Europe is unlikely to exceed ten percent.

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