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11 March 2010


Matins: A few days ago, Felix Salmon looked at the Zachary Kouwe plagiarism hoo-haw at the Times and took the opportunity to share an incredibly interesting insight: print media companies still don't understand blogging. We've been chewing it over, and we've decided that we do.

The problem, here, is that the bloggers at places like the NYT and the WSJ are print reporters, and aren’t really bloggers at heart. I discovered this a couple of weeks ago, after I posted a long and detailed blog entry on the court case between JP Morgan and Mexico’s Cablevisión. The WSJ’s Deal Journal blog didn’t link to it, but a couple of days later, the blog’s lead writer, Michael Corkery, had a piece in the print version of the newspaper which added nothing to the story, quoted the same Cablevisión executive that I had spoken to, and didn’t mention my post at all.

The decision not to cite or link to my blog was made by Dennis Berman, the editor of the WSJ story and a former Deal Journal blogger himself. Corkery and Berman read my piece and spent a couple of days re-reporting it, yet despite the fact that both of them have worked as bloggers, neither felt any need to link to me — or even to link to the court ruling in question. It’s a print-newspaper mindset, and it reveals something important: if even the WSJ’s bloggers eschew obvious links, there’s really no hope that the newspaper will genuinely embrace the power of the web at any point in the foreseeable future.

Lauds: Fundamentally silly but still full of goodies: Michael Kimmelman on Caravaggio (stop it with the Michelangelo already!) at the Times.

It happens that a show of Michelangelo’s drawings is at the Courtauld Gallery in London, through May 16. Gifts for a beautiful young Roman nobleman, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, on whom Michelangelo had developed a crush, the drawings were ostensibly supposed to help Cavalieri learn to draw. Imagine Roger Federer handing you a DVD of himself at Wimbledon, saying “Just do this.” These are drawings of the most arcane refinement, unearthly beautiful.

By contrast, Caravaggio, wrestling art back to the ground, distilled scenes into a theatrical instant at which time seems suddenly stopped. That’s why his pictures can bring to mind movie stills. The art historian Michael Fried, who has just written a book about Caravaggio, notes the quality of the figures’ absorption. Life-size images, they share our space and we theirs, face to face, as another art historian, Catherine Puglisi, has pointed out (something that doesn’t happen with Michelangelo’s enormous sculptures or his frescoed ceiling that we only see from far away). The immediacy somehow dovetails with the tabloid tawdriness of his biography, with the whole modern celebrity drama.

Prime: What, exactly, is the "national debt" — besides scary-huge, that is? Bruce Bartlett lays it out, and, frankly, we recommend that you skip this part. (Capital Gains and Games; via Marginal Revolution)

Unfortunately the portion of the national debt held in the form of long-term securities has fallen over time, and the percentage in short-term securities has grown. As of Sept. 30, 2009, three-fourths of the privately held public debt matures in less than five years. This debt can't be inflated away because investors will demand higher interest rates to compensate for inflation when it rolls over, which will raise federal spending on interest payments. Also a growing portion of the debt is now indexed to inflation. Known as Treasury inflation-protected securities, more than $500 billion have been issued. Insofar as the additional spending for interest is borrowed, the real value of the debt won't fall very much.

Even in the absence of higher interest rates, growth in the debt will sharply raise the government's interest payments from 1.3% of GDP this year to 3.5% in 2020, 4.5% in 2030 and 10% in 2050. At that point half of all federal taxes will be going just to pay interest on the debt, which by law stands first in line before all other claims.

Another problem is that almost half of the debt held by the public is now owed to foreigners, up from 31% in 2000 and a historical level of less than 20%.

Tierce: Laura Miller discusses David Shenk's explosive new book, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong, admitting that it left her somewhat shaken. (Salon; via 3 Quarks Daily)

As someone who has always resisted genetic determinism while still subscribing to the secular mystery religion of talent, I confess that "The Genius in All of Us" has quietly blown my mind. But the book's premise has far more profound implications for social policy. What would education, the workplace and government look like if we behaved as if we truly believed that nobody is born to mediocrity? "Human talent and intelligence are not permanently in short supply like fossil fuel," Shenk writes, "but potentially plentiful like wind power." It's an apt comparison in more ways than one; there are huge vested interests relying on the old attitudes. The determination to turn that around will need to be mighty enough to put even the great Ted Williams to shame.

We have always suspected that, in a nation of post-Calvinists, genetic determinism is a naturally compelling misreading of the hard facts.

Sext: Now what? Now that the Oscars have been awarded, what's a Hollywood blogger to do? Speakeasy asks a couple of writers.

It’s like being at the airport and you’re on that people-mover ramp, and you step off and you’re still moving. It’s a strange feeling because it was such a fast-paced few weeks. Of course I notice I’m more attended to by the PR community in the fall. My phone rings a lot less in the spring and summer and that’s fine by me. Every year towards the end of the season, I hit a wall where I just can’t write about the “Hurt Locker” anymore. This year that wall came earlier because the Olympics stretched out awards season.

This is why we're glad that we don't have a specialty.

Nones: The pith of Martin Wolf's provocative Financial Times piece about Germany's "Eurozone nightmare:"

Unfortunately, the domestic German debate assumes, wrongly, that the answer is for every member to become like Germany itself. But Germany can be Germany – an economy with fiscal discipline, feeble domestic demand and a huge export surplus – only because others are not. Its current economic model violates the universalisability principle of Germany’s greatest philosopher, Immanuel Kant.

Tyler Cowen's reservations:

No economist thinks that being wealthy is a zero-sum game.  "Being like Germany" isn't exactly the same as being wealthy, but the German model succeeds (in large part) because of its high absolute level of exports.  "Net exports" is a zero-sum game at any single point in time, but when it comes to secular growth that's also not the variable which matters.

Meanwhile in Greece: public-services strike tomorrow.

Vespers: What with Christopher Hitchens stuck in the limelight, we sought relief — and, hoo boy, found it! — in Christopher Tayler's arch-browed LRB review of the Latest Volume of Clive James's memoirs, The Blaze of Obscurity: The TV Years.

All the same, there’s a feeling that the real story – the story of a writer with a powerful sense of the ridiculous slowly turning into someone with only a vestigial one – is being simultaneously shirked and relived. The things James does now are characteristically wide-ranging, including as they do maintaining his extensive personal website and a reactivated musical career with Pete Atkin, but by 2001 the tendency to project himself as a sage in print had got out of hand. Whatever your take on his political opinions (roughly speaking, those of a Cold War liberal with a monarchist bent and a marked receptivity to right-wing talking points), it’s difficult not to wonder at the casual authority with which – in the 2001 postscript to Reliable Essays (subtitled ‘The Best of Clive James) – he reproves Edmund Wilson for failing to learn Spanish and Orwell for his defective notions of imperialism, while saying of his sprightly takedown of Malcolm Muggeridge: ‘If I can say it without sounding as conceited as Muggeridge, on the day I worked him over I was worth the money.’ Reducing prodigious amounts of reading and experience to a handful of insights and acres of punchily written fluff, The Blaze of Obscurity reinforces the impression that TV fame didn’t help.

Compline: Nick Paumgartner's "The Ski Gods," a riveting look into the sport's dark side, lies on the other side of the firewall at The New Yorker, but Christopher Shea comments on two of its major points at Brainiac. First, the invented tradition thing. Second: why no women jumpers? 

Annette Hofmann, a professor of sports studies at the Ludwigsburg University of Education, in Germany, has her own opinion about why women are banned from the sport: They are lighter and so might actually jump farther than the men (the best of whom are bantamweights; anorexia is a problem in the sport). The prospect of women eclipsing the sport's current stars, Hofman suggests, may simply be too much for the male gatekeepers of ski jumping to handle.

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