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Daily Office:


9 March 2010


Matins: At 3 Quarks Daily, Richard Eskow posts an extremely thoughtful piece about a technogenic disease, mesothelioma, for which a vaccine appears to be in the offing. Should we congratulate ourselves for finding a cure, or scold ourselves for having unleashed the underlying disease?

Technology created the disease.  Science may have found a new way to treat it.  But the worldwide path of the disease and the likely arc of its treatment offer reason for reflection.  125 million people are exposed to asbestos every year, and lower-income people are far more likely to be at risk.  The World Health Organization and others have noted that the best way to eliminate mesothelioma and other asbestos-related disease is to eliminate exposure, but we don't.  And nanotechnology, the latest technological breakthrough, may bring the risk of another mesothelioma outbreak.

Lauds: Here's why our position on artworks more than one hundred years old is firmly socialist: "Michelangelo letters up for grabs as Renaissance archive goes up for sale." (Guardian)

Then, last November, government debt collectors claimed the archive to meet a bill for taxes allegedly unpaid by the noble family that has owned it for generations. The auction is to raise the money that the treasury says it is owed.

The starting bids will be a modest €2.6m. Last week, Sandro Bondi, the heritage minister in Silvio Berlusconi's government, said his department would be sending a representative with instructions to take an active part in the auction.

So, have we got this straight? One branch of the government (heritage) will bid for bits and pieces of the Vasari archive, with proceeds going to another (revenue)? Only in Berlusconia.

Prime: Robert Shiller urges us to reconsider the national preference for home-ownership, taking care to understand the preference as a cultural product, not an economic calculation. (NYT)

What is specifically American here — though it’s increasingly seen in other countries, too — may be the modern sense of equal citizenship, engendered by the illusion that we can sustain conspicuous housing consumption even among a majority of the people.

In short, this all has a great deal to do with culture, and little to do with financial wisdom. After all, financial theory suggests that people should not own their own homes, at least not in the way that many do today. A cardinal tenet is that people should diversify — meaning they shouldn’t put nearly all of their financial eggs in one basket, which is what homeownership now means for so many people.

American mortgage institutions encourage people to take a leveraged position in the real estate market, which is quite risky because home prices can and do decline, as we have learned so painfully. Leverage a risky investment 10 to 1 and you can expect trouble — and we have plenty of it today.

Tierce: Jeremy Dean considers the strategy of playing hard to get. (PsyBlog)

Despite these drawbacks, once you've heard the results it's difficult to imagine how it could have turned out any other way—after all, everyone wants to feel special.

So this experiment suggests that playing hard to get only works in the sense that it signals selectivity. But for the person you are after, you should be easy to get because otherwise they'll assume you're hard work.

Sext: At The Awl, Choire Sicha has a few words about Elinor Burkett. (Nice, linked words!)

She is, also, it is apparent to all, kind of… well, let's call her opinionated! She has a tendency to end up on the outs with collaborators and friends. But to heck with that! Let's look at her work.

Just for starters, she moved to Kyrgyzstan in September of 2001, which, ha. She spent a year in a suburban high school trying to figure out the kids; she wrote a fantastic book about the distorted way we reward parenting in our society (a must-read for those of us who've worked in offices where automatic raises are given whenever anyone "starts a family").

And there's her late-90s, pre-Palin history of American right-wing women; and then the rather blockbuster book, with Frank Bruni, on the Catholic Church's coverup of sexual abuse—and, from 1996, the best history of AIDS yet written. So she's kind of got it all over everyone else in the end.

Nones: Reading Tom Downey's report on the Chinese phenomenon of "human-flesh searching," we can only be grateful that Mao Zedong did not live to exploit the Internet. (Times Magazine)

Rebecca MacKinnon, a visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, argues that China’s central government may actually be happy about searches that focus on localized corruption. “The idea that you manage the local bureaucracy by sicking the masses on them is actually not a democratic tradition but a Maoist tradition,” she told me. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao encouraged citizens to rise up against local officials who were bourgeois or corrupt, and human-flesh searches have been tagged by some as Red Guard 2.0. It’s easy to denounce the tyranny of the online masses when you live in a country that has strong rule of law and institutions that address public corruption, but in China the human-flesh search engine is one of the only ways that ordinary citizens can try to go after corrupt local officials. Cases like the Lin Jiaxiang search, as imperfect as their outcomes may be, are examples of the human-flesh search as a potential mechanism for checking government excess.

Vespers: Silje Bekeng writes drolly about the Jante Law and contemporary Norwegian literature. (n + 1; via Three Percent)

Maybe some young writers live in the countryside and really love their birds, but the fact is eight of ten Norwegians live in what are considered tettbygde strøk—"closely built areas." Oslo has been called the heroin capital of Europe. We have people here who seriously worry that Muslims are taking over the country, we have teenagers who starve themselves to death, we abort almost every fetus with Down's syndrome, and 13 percent of our men have had sex with prostitutes. We're sending soldiers to war.

I hadn't tried skiing for years until this winter. I choose not only to live in a city, but in a foreign city, and in the most severely metropolitan one I could find. I suppose I am rejecting a part of my national heritage by doing so. But I still believe my mother when she assures me that I'll develop more enthusiasm for hiking and skiing in the woods as I get older. That's just how it goes. Two years after I moved to New York, my mother changed her general advice from "Go see the world!" to "Come home!" And I will. I'm Norwegian. We always return home—before our travel insurance expires.

Compline: At Speakeasy (which is, after all, a blog run by the Wall Street Journal), Gerard Baker reflects, in a Tacitan undertone, on the absence of political comment during this year's Academy Awards presentation.

Why the forbearance? It seems possible that the producers actively discouraged the sort of declarations that, whatever their intrinsic worth, have seemed in the past only too often to emphasize the gulf between the values of the entertainment industry and the people it entertains.

But perhaps it’s also true that a year that has been marked by a disillusioning collision with reality for a newly energized Democratic majority in the country might have played a part. It was much easier to find something to say when you could rail against the corrupt and mendacious Republicans. Nobody here wants to dwell too much on the legislative frailties of the last year or skewer the proliferating Democrats now embroiled in scandal.

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