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Daily Office:


17 February 2010


Matins: We remind you that it is your civic responsibility to stay abreast of national affairs, even at the risk of being supremely depressed by Elizabeth Drew's brief history of Congressional health care bills since the Massachusetts by-election. There don't seem to be any good guys in this story, only less-bad ones. And it's difficult to avoid holding the electorate itself responsible. (NYRB)

But citizens who were so turned off by the Nelson deal that they were ready to give up on the health care bill weren't adequately informed about the bill itself, and this gets back to the treatment of the health issue in the press and on television and the Internet. The Nelson story was a big story; what was in the health care bill was not. The messiness and the anger on Capitol Hill were the story. The media also had a large part in polarizing the public over the bill. As cable outlets and blogs become more ideological, on both the left and the right, people have become more inclined to seek out the ones they agree with. And the outlets stir up ratings through exaggeration and combat.

Which, in a democracy, means that everything is just fine.

Lauds: Mary Louise Schumacher writes about the artist-in-residence program at Milwaukee's Pfister Hotel. The public is invited to vote for the finalists. (JSOnline; via Arts Journal)

Musolff, who is best known for her realist portraits of regular Milwaukeeans, will be given a studio and gallery space in the hotel’s lobby and a monthly stipend.

Part of the goal of the program is to provide hotel guests and the public with access to an artist at work. The resident artist is also expected to provide docent-like tours of the hotel’s Victorian art collection, which the hotel says is the largest of its kind in a hotel in the world.

The Pfister started the program to expand its “reputation as a destination hotel for art connoisseurs,” said Joe Kurth, the hotel’s general manager in a statement.

Prime: Tara Siegel Bernard reports with a reasonable degree of lucidity (for the Times) on the push to impose fiduciary liability on stockbrokers and insurance agents.

At issue is whether brokers should be required to put their clients’ interest first — what is known as fiduciary duty. The professionals known as investment advisers already hold to that standard. But brokers at firms like Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, or those who sell variable annuities, are often held to a lesser standard, one that requires them only to steer their clients to investments that are considered “suitable.” Those investments may be lucrative for the broker at the clients’ expense.

Over the years, it has become more difficult for consumers to understand where their advisers’ loyalties lie, especially as the traditional stock-peddling brokers have started to look and act more like financial advisers. The fact that some brokers can wear two hats with the same client — that is, provide advice as a fiduciary in one moment, but recommend only “suitable” investments in the next — only adds to the confusion, experts said.

Tierce: On the unlikelihood of attaining warp speed anytime soon: Johns Hopkins researcher William Edelstein describes the obstacles to NewScientist.

For a crew to make the 50,000-light-year journey to the centre of the Milky Way within 10 years, they would have to travel at 99.999998 per cent the speed of light. At these speeds, hydrogen atoms would seem to reach a staggering 7 teraelectron volts – the same energy that protons will eventually reach in the Large Hadron Collider when it runs at full throttle. "For the crew, it would be like standing in front of the LHC beam," says Edelstein.

Sext: Jonathan Harris needs a diagnosis.

This is one of the things I hate about myself, and I cannot understand or control it or say why it happens to me. I know it has to do with heat, and usually involves thinking or talking about bodily harm. There is this thing in biology called the fight or flight response where, when faced with fear, animals either fight or run away.

For me, when a threat is external, like a Costa Rican robber with a gun to my head, my instinct is to fight. Everything is slow and lucid, and the adrenaline feeds me, and lets me shake him off and wriggle free, but only after he hands my bag to a runner and rips open the blisters on my sunburned shoulders. But when a threat is internal — when I feel like my body's been breached and especially when it seems to be my fault, I freak out and faint.

Then it's like a computer crashing, and you lose all your unsaved work, because when you start up again it takes a while to get back to where you were, and you know that every time this happens you're probably shortening the life of your hard drive, because it's not right to shut down like that with no warning, and you think you should probably find a doctor who can tell you why this happens and what you can do to prevent it, because you're getting older and these things start to matter.

Indeed, we were tempted to forward the entry to Dr H—, a friend of ours who is alarmingly good at diagnosis-at-a-distance.

Nones: Reading Edward Hugh's detailed account of the troubled Greek economy, at A Fistful of Euros, we wonder if being better-informed wouldn't intensify popular German opposition to Eurogroup bailouts. (NYT) Mr Hugh:

The latest batch of data changes only serve to further undermine the government’s already badly dented statistical credibility, even if the Greeks are far from being alone in carrying out this type of revision. But it is the scale of the revisions which is so striking in the Greek case - GDP shrank, for example, by a quarter-on-quarter 1 percent in the first quarter of last year: twice the earlier estimate, and the sharpest quarterly contraction since 2005. In the second quarter, GDP fell 0.3 percent, compared with an earlier estimate of a 0.1 percent, while third-quarter GDP shrank 0.5 percent revised from the earlier estimate of 0.4 percent. Rather than leaving the impression that government GDP figures are “doctored” what the revisions suggest is that the government actually has little real idea of what is going on in the economy at any given moment in time, a conclusion I personally find even more disturbing.

Vespers: A long but rich interview at Prospect: Tom Chatfield talks to Martin Amis. Be the first on your block to read what Mr Amis thinks of J M Coetzee!

MA: The comic novel is dying, because comedy is anti-democratic. Comedy is a smear.

TC: Inviting you to laugh at.

MA: Yes. But that may be turning around a bit. People assume that it’s the gloomy buggers that are the serious ones—but in fact, anyone who has ever been anywhere in fiction is funny. Yet there are whole reputations built on not being funny. Who’s that German writer doesn’t even have paragraph breaks?

TC: I don’t know him, I don’t tend to read that kind of German writer.

MA: Coetzee, for instance—his whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure.

TC: Do you admire his books at all?

MA: No. I read one and I thought, he’s got no talent. The denial of the pleasure principle has a lot of followers. But I am completely committed to it, to pleasure.

TC: Why have people felt the need to do this to the novel: is this puritanical?

MA: Dryden said, literature is instruction and delight, and there are people who think that if they’re not getting delight then they are getting a lot of instruction, when in fact they’re not getting that either. But it has a sort of of gloomy constituency. If there is no pleasure transmitted then I’m not interested.

Compline: William Pannapacker, writing as "Thomas H Benton," issues a warning, at Chron Higher Ed, reminiscent of Dante: Abandon all hope, ye who enter graduate school programs in the Humanities!

She was the best student her adviser had ever seen (or so he said); it seemed like a dream when she was admitted to a distinguished doctoral program; she worked so hard for so long; she won almost every prize; she published several essays; she became fully identified with the academic life; even distancing herself from her less educated family. For all of those reasons, she continues as an adjunct who qualifies for food stamps, increasingly isolating herself to avoid feelings of being judged. Her students have no idea that she is a prisoner of the graduate-school poverty trap. The consolations of teaching are fewer than she ever imagined.

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