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Daily Office:


21 January 2010


Matins: E A Hanks breaks up with The Left. Here are just a few of the passages to which we heartily gasped, "YES!"

This latest event brings me to new levels of apathy, in part because it confirms my suspicion that you cannot accomplish your most reasonable and expected responsibility: empowering the political party that most closely matches your platform. You couldn't ensure that Senator Kennedy’s replacement is a liberal Democrat? Enjoy the tar pits of irrelevancy.


It’s not even that I don’t agree with you, because I do, on all the big ones, at least: Teddy Kennedy’s legacy, gays, abortion, endless wars for the profit of private companies, drowning polar bears, the works. I’m not running off to declare nonsense as truth like, “Health Care Will Kill Us All!” or anything like that.

But, you know what? I don’t think you’re good for me. Or for America, for that matter.


When you should have had the gravitas of, I don’t know, people who have irrefutable facts on their side (no WMDs, actual physical manifestations of climate change, gay people clearly performing as exceptional parents) you had the persuasiveness of a newly converted 15-year-old vegetarian: You guys, like, meat is murder. Thanksgiving is a celebration of murder, like, on so many levels, you don’t even know.

You know what I think it is, The Left? I think you stopped focusing on actually stopping evil from happening, and started focusing on convincing people who would never agree with you that it was evil.

Regular readers know that we have been lamenting the continued existence of the Democratic Party for most of our online career. Mr Hanks, 27, can't be expected to remember the Party's good works (Medicare and Civil Rights) that seem to have precipitated its demise. It's heartening to hear a call for a genuinely new progressivism that's at least more amusing than ours. 

Lauds: According to a recent paper that Jonah Lehrer discusses, listening to music hones our predictive skills, in the short term at least — by flouting them. (The Frontal Cortex)

There are two interesting takeaways from this experiment. The first is that music hijacks some very fundamental neural mechanisms. The brain is designed to learn by association: if this, then that. Music works by subtly toying with our expected associations, enticing us to make predictions about what note will come next, and then confronting us with our prediction errors. In other words, every melody manipulates the same essential mechanisms we use to make sense of reality.

The second takeaway is that music requires surprise, the dissonance of "low-probability notes". While most people think about music in terms of aesthetic beauty - we like pretty consonant pitches arranged in pretty patterns - that's exactly backwards. The point of the prettiness is to set up the surprise, to frame the deviance.

We recall that Charles Rosen says somewhere that Mozart's music is largely a matter of commonplaces. Largely but not exclusively. Mozart connects the commonplaces in highly idiosyncratic ways.

Prime: Felix Salmon responds to news of the proposed paywall at the New York Times with a lot of very good advice. Here is the best:

More generally, the NYT should build the easiest and most user-friendly metering system they can construct, without worrying too much about whether and how their readers are going to be able to game the system. One of the many problems with the FT’s system, in particular, is that it’s overly paranoid, to the point at which it regularly blocks paid subscribers from the site. But the fact is that there will always be people trying to game the system — and they will always be in the minority. If and when that minority becomes very large, the NYT can revisit its paywall design. But in the first instance, it shouldn’t worry too much about them. It’s the same idea as spam filters and comment moderation on blogs: they should be implemented only after comment spam becomes a problem, not before.

Two further updates from Mr Salmon: Here and here.

Tierce: When he isn't thinking about the Times lately, Felix Salmon is rooting for Tyler Cowen's suggestions for Haiti relief.

t’s worth noting that few of the ideas that Cowen talks about are his own: rather, it’s his omnivorous reading habits and aggregation skills which are coming into their own in the wake of this crisis. Governments and aid agencies have a tendency to become set in their ways, treating each problem as a variation on the last, and often feeling threatened by, or dismissive of, outsiders with bright ideas.

I see Cowen as being a kind of anti-Larry Summers in the internal government debate about what to do about Haiti. Rather than being the person who throws cold water on promising ideas, he’s the person who holds them up with enthusiasm, finding people who can navigate and solve any flaws in the initial concept. He’s even in the DC area already. Let’s make full use of him!

Hear, hear!

Sext: Wherever did Brooks Peters get the idea that he would enjoy walking in the countryside more than he did in Manhattan? (An Open Book)

One of the main reasons I moved upstate is that I like the wide-open countryside, the mountain views, the riverscapes. I imagined that I would take long walks amidst the woods, contemplating poetry and art. I had wanted an escape from the hubbub of Manhattan and its endless stream of traffic jams and its ear-piercing horns. But what I discovered when I moved up here is that it is actually harder to take a walk in the country than it is in the city. When I lived in Manhattan (for nigh on 25 years), I would often walk from where I lived on the Upper West Side down to the Village, and back again. I thought nothing of it (unless it was raining). Once when I was broke and couldn’t scare up subway fare, I walked from Canal Street to 86th and Lex. I had holes in my soles, but it felt good to be alive.

Up here, I can barely walk two blocks without risking my life because some truck thinks it owns the road. Why am I not on the sidewalk, you ask? Well, sadly, there aren’t as many sidewalks here as there should be. For instance, when I walk to the post office, which is less than a mile from my house, I can use the sidewalk for about half that distance but then have to walk on the main roadway that passes through the town since there is no sidewalk outside the post office. You would have thought that the people who designed the post office would have considered the plight of people who may actually want to walk to it, rather than drive.

Nones: Interesting news from Chile: according to Times reporter Alexei Barronuevo, "The election of a billionaire from a right-wing party as Chile’s president on Sunday appears to be less a signal of a regional move to the right than that of a pragmatic convergence of left and right agendas." (NYT)

Mr. Piñera has taken pains since Sunday to be respectful to the Concertación, which is credited for maintaining macroeconomic stability while bringing down poverty in Chile, one of the most economically unequal countries in the hemisphere. Last month the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of the world’s most developed democracies with market-based economies, invited Chile to join.

On Monday, Mr. Piñera said, “In Latin America today we are experiencing a true rebirth and boom in democracy,” and he reiterated that he would not “start from zero,” saying he would build his cabinet from “independents” and possibly members of the Concertación, as well as from his own coalition.

Vespers: In a touching, almost coltish confession, Lydia Kiesling admits to being moved, contrary to her expectations, by A House For Mr Biswas. (The Millions)

Recognizing that V. S. Naipaul is a Distinguished Man of Letters I felt sheepish about not enjoying A Way in the World, but I received a boon in the form of an article about him, one which painted him as a terrible bastard.  So I felt that all was well, and turned my defeat into a victory over sin.  It was in this admirable spirit that I approached A House for Mr. Biswas, disdainful and yet cagy, as you would a fraud you suspect is smarter than you.  My prejudice colored the first third of the book, so that when things got grimly fun and picaresque, I reminded myself that V. S. Naipaul is a jerk.  By the end, though, I had become a quiet convert to the novel’s quiet charms.  By which I do not mean to say that I wish to hold hands with V. S. Naipaul or lie down next to him, rather that I found the story very stirring and sad.  It warmed and then unpleasantly squeezed my small heart.

Compline: The Epicurean Dealmaker patiently explains to us not only why we oughtn't to expect much in the way of insight from the lords of Wall Street, but whose job it is oversee the markets. (via Felix Salmon)

People still make fun of Chuck Prince's 2007 pre-crisis assertion that “As long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance.” Chuck Prince was a boob, and in way over his head, but he was not wrong. Had he even contemplated bowing out of the dance, shareholders, employees, and yes, probably even regulators would have strung him up with piano wire so fast even Mr. Krugman's head would have spun. Investment bankers' job is to surf the wave of financial and economic activity and make money from it, not convene a committee to discuss the design of dikes and levees.

That is the job of regulators, politicians, and public intellectuals like you, Mr. Krugman. So get crackin'.

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