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5 March 2010


Matins: The American Scholar has reprinted a speech, "Solitude and Leadership," delivered by writer and critic (and former Yale prof) William Deresiewicz to the plebe class at West Point last October. It is an important speech, probably because it follows its own advice. Mr Deresiewicz offers no canned adages about leadership, and in fact he never discusses the skills required in order to command others. What concerns him is the moral self-awareness that can be achieved only after long and serious self-interrogation.

What are you going to do if you’re confronted with a situation like that going on in your unit? Will you have the courage to do what’s right? Will you even know what the right thing is? It’s easy to read a code of conduct, not so easy to put it into practice, especially if you risk losing the loyalty of the people serving under you, or the trust of your peer officers, or the approval of your superiors. What if you’re not the commanding officer, but you see your superiors condoning something you think is wrong?

How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do the first time you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?

These are truly formidable dilemmas, more so than most other people will ever have to face in their lives, let alone when they’re 23. The time to start preparing yourself for them is now. And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues for yourself—morality, mortality, honor—so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise. Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late. You have to be prepared in advance. You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe: not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe (that may be exactly the problem), but what you believe.

The speech also runs a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction with American higher education today.

Lauds: At the Guardian, Tanya Gold describes her visit to the Jewish Museum in north London, and her adventures in Yiddish drama with comedian David Schneider at the museum's "tiny interactive theatre."

We move swiftly on to Mirele Efros. This is the title role in an 1898 play about a Jewish matriarch who leaves her family because she cannot have everything her own way. Schneider, now a Jewish woman in a hat, reads the lines in English: "Now I leave with the clothes I wear, without hope. I came here to live, and I leave here to die." This I can play.

This is me; this is everyone I love. The Gold women have a global monopoly on melodramatic victimhood. I snatch the hat and start shouting in Yiddish: "Itst gey ikh avek mit eyn kleyd, on hofenungen. Aher bin ikh gekumen lebn un fun danen gey ikh shtarbn!" I turn to Schneider for praise; I know I got it right. "I think I'm in love," he says.

Every time we read about Yiddish theatre, we wish that it were still running. (Our German — learned mostly from Wagner — would get us through.)

Prime: At Financial Armageddon, Michael Panzner reminds readers of a new home truth: there are no truly foreign markets. So much for that line of insurance.

The truth is, however, that U.S. and overseas markets have become tightly-linked, at least from the point of view of dollar-based investors. While there was a time when share prices here and elsewhere moved to their own tunes, that no longer seems to be the case.

In fact, based on an analysis of data going back several decades, the correlation between monthly returns for the S&P 500 index and a broad global benchmark, the MSCI World Ex-US index, has never been greater. More surprising to some, perhaps, is the fact that emerging market returns have also become increasingly correlated to those of the U.S.

Why has this happened? The most likely reasons include the effects of increasing globalization, rising cross-border capital flows, the growing influence of large-scale multinational corporations, greater use of offshoring and outsourcing, and the information-spreading power of global media firms and the internet.

Tierce: Felix Salmon quite brilliantly compares the monoculture of genetically-modified crops to CDOs — and it's brilliant because each side of the comparison illuminates the other.

The point here is that a disease-resistant crop is a lot like a triple-A-rated structured bond: they’re both artificially engineered to be as safe as possible. That would be a wonderfully good thing if no one knew that they were so safe. But if you’re aware of a safety improvement, that often just has the effect of increasing the amount of risk you take: people drive faster when they’re wearing seatbelts, and they take on a lot more leverage when they’re buying AAA-rated bonds.


Essentially, you’re trading a large number of small problems for a small probability that at some point you’re going to have an absolutely enormous problem.

And on a long enough time line, even a small probability is bound to happen sooner or later.

Sext: Sam Sifton has quickly established himself as a peerless reviewer of restaurant experiences. Each piece is a memoir, rich in incidental associations. He doesn't think a whole of Choptank, 'way down on Bleecker Street, but we're always on the lookout for awesome fries. (NYT)

Choptank used to be Bar Q, Anita Lo’s misstep into barbecue and gastro-pubbery. The space hasn’t changed much: a flight of stairs at the entrance leads past a bar and into a narrow room that leads through a pass into another narrow room. It has the feng shui of a rabbit warren.

That doesn’t appear to bother the crowd, however, which has been building steadily since the restaurant’s opening. Part of this is good word of mouth (seriously, dude: awesome fries).

And part of it is excellent use by the management of blocking techniques that are designed to pique desire while denying the ability to satisfy it. Want a table for four at 8 in a week? The online option denies you. And we have but 5:30 and 9:30, the nice woman on the phone said. Subsequent walks by the place at the appointed hours revealed plenty of open seats.

New Yorkers probably deserve better. Certainly better is available. But as Snoop once said on “The Wire,” a stone-cold gangster making sense of the Baltimore night, “Deserve got nothin’ to do with it.”

Nones: Back from the dead, as it were, Yukos Oil stakeholders have brought a claim for whopping damages against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights. (NYT)

Though deeply entangled in politics and industrial policy, the Yukos case, the first of several instances in which petroleum assets were seized by the Putin government, also became a touchstone on fundamental issues of rule of law.

“The fact is, Yukos was treated differently, separately and retrospectively,” Claire Davidson, a spokeswoman for former Yukos managers, said during an interview by telephone from London. “We are being treated unfairly and we asked, ‘Where can we go to protect ourselves?’ ”

The Yukos plaintiffs argue that the Putin government selectively applied tax laws for political reasons, leading to the company’s demise, The Times said.

Vespers: Jessica Ferri reviews Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, by Melissa Milgrom, at The Second Pass. Learn, among other things, about the power behind Damien Hirst, a "short-haired, chain-smoking battle-axe who finds beauty in death." Who knew:

It turns out taxidermy isn’t at all what most people think it is: stuffing animals. No, taxidermy consists of maintaining only the skin of the dead animal and building everything else, its skeleton and structure, from scratch. Once the mannequin is made, the skin is stretched and made to fit, and details like fur color, eyes, and facial expression are painstakingly applied. The ultimate goal is not creativity but realism: restoring the animal as close to life as possible.

Compline: James Crabtree and Nicholas Christakis take the social-network-contagion findings apply them to politics. (About time.) But the fascinating passage relates to Brian Uzzi's study of Broadway production teams over more than forty years. (Prospect; via 3 Quarks Daily)

After crunching the statistics, he discovered something remarkable. Teams who had never worked together, perhaps unsurprisingly, fared poorly: their “weak” networks meant a lack of creative vision, and lots of duds. And at the other extreme, teams that had worked together successfully also tended to produce flops. Sometimes, lacking outside creative input, the team just rehashed the same ideas that worked the last time; sometimes, lacking newcomers, they “developed” their vision in daft ways. Either way, lightning rarely struck twice.

But, in between, Uzzi found a point of balance. Groups with exactly the right mix of new and old participants reliably produced hits. This variation in the “density” of the ties allowed easy communication and fostered greater creativity—new ideas from the outsiders meshed with the experience of the insiders. It didn’t matter if a musical was about cats or rollerskating trains, or who starred in it. Its success came down to the structure of the network binding its team together. The same thing has been found to be true of scientific invention or business innovation.

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