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24 March 2010


Matins: In "Waterloo," David Frum assesses what the Republican Party really lost in Congress this week, and he sounds a lot like Frank Rich in the process.

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right: ours.

Lauds: We just wish they'd give it a name: "New York’s Museum of Modern Art said today it is adding the “@” symbol to its permanent art collection." (Speakeasy)

The symbol even has a storied provenance. Latin speakers were using the coiled symbol as shorthand for “at” as early as the 6th century. Venetian merchants in medieval times often drew it as a stand-in for the amphora, a wide-bellied terracotta pot typically used to convey goods. The sign’s modern turn as a commercial condenser —two oranges @40 cents = 80 cents — continued through the age of printing presses and typewriters until 1971. That’s when Ray Tomlinson, a pioneer of e-mail programming, began using it as a way to differentiate between names and places so that computers wouldn’t get mixed up when routing electronic messages.

Yes, but is it art?

Prime: At Abnormal Returns, a note on "the proper time frame to judge the benefits of international diversification" — or of any investing strategy.

In the end there is no contradiction between these two papers.  They simply focus on two different time horizons.  This is a common problem in finance.  Lessons appropriate for one time horizon are misapplied (or misinterpreted) over another time horizon.  Indeed a great deal written about investing is better applied to more active investors as opposed to the majority who have long term investment goals.

Therefore those who argue that an all-domestic portfolio avoids the messy problem of international diversification miss the big picture.  Over some shorter time horizon this decision might very well turn out be a correct one.  Nor is international diversification some sort of panacea.  Investment risks abound both internationally (as well as domestically).  However over the long term ignoring the increasingly dynamic nature of the global economy and the benefits from diversifying across it seems short-sighted at best.

Tierce: Sturgeon endangerment update: no joy. (Short Sharp Science)

That's according to the latest version of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which says that 85 per cent of the existing species are endangered, and 63 per cent of them critically endangered - the Red List's most threatened category. Of 25 species of sturgeon that were assessed, just four are not deemed threatened: the lake sturgeon and the white sturgeon - both classed as "least concern" - and the green sturgeon and Gulf sturgeon ("near threatened"). Among the key findings is the discovery that the Beluga sturgeon, source of much of the world's caviar, is now critically endangered. Unsurprisingly, that's mostly because of over-exploitation: gourmets believe their unfertilised eggs to be the finest caviar in the world.

Sext: Charlie Brooker laments the heartbreak of newspaper abuse. (Guardian)

It's perhaps the biggest threat to the nation's mental wellbeing, yet it's freely available on every street – for pennies. The dealers claim it expands the mind and bolsters the intellect: users experience an initial rush of emotion (often euphoria or rage), followed by what they believe is a state of enhanced awareness. Tragically this "awareness" is a delusion. As they grow increasingly detached from reality, heavy users often exhibit impaired decision-making abilities, becoming paranoid, agitated and quick to anger. In extreme cases they've even been known to form mobs and attack people. Technically it's called "a newspaper", although it's better known by one of its many "street names", such as "The Currant Bun" or "The Mail" or "The Grauniad" (see me – Ed).

In its purest form, a newspaper consists of a collection of facts which, in controlled circumstances, can actively improve knowledge. Unfortunately, facts are expensive, so to save costs and drive up sales, unscrupulous dealers often "cut" the basic contents with cheaper material, such as wild opinion, bullshit, empty hysteria, reheated press releases, advertorial padding and photographs of Lady Gaga with her bum hanging out. The hapless user has little or no concept of the toxicity of the end product: they digest the contents in good faith, only to pay the price later when they find themselves raging incoherently in pubs, or – increasingly – on internet messageboards.

Nones: Psychiatrist Barbara Schildkrout is not annoyed when her patients take cell calls; on the contrary, she's attentive to the depths that these interruptions can reveal. (NYT)

A mother receives a call from her teenage daughter. One theme of our sessions has been how to deal with the daughter’s “demanding behavior.” The volume is up; I hear both sides. The daughter is insistent about something trivial; mother is endlessly patient, even solicitous. Now I see that this child hasn’t been getting consistent feedback that her behavior is problematic. Guilt has driven my patient to conceal her anger. She is surprised to learn from me how successful she has become at this deception and how counterproductive it is.

When another patient’s husband calls to learn the results of her medical tests, I sense his tenderness; this counterbalances my knowledge of their sexual difficulties.

A calliope blares from the coat pocket of another patient, a young man. “I bet a hundred dollars it’s my sister!” he says. Clearly she calls him a lot, and he kind of loves it. Oddly, he rarely mentions her in therapy. Now I learn why. He had been afraid to disrupt the sweetness of his sibling relationship by uncovering its competitive core.

Vespers: A study in refraction: Martin Schneider, of Emdashes, writes up a talk given by James Wood on David Foster Wallace. (In our very neighborhood; we ought to have gone!) All the more interesting, in that Mr Wood took Mr Schneider's post-talk question.

I raised my hand too! Riffing off of the earlier questioner, I asked something like, "Wallace resorts to a lot of 'tricks,' like footnotes and brackets and so on. Do you ever find yourself wishing that there were an ... alternate version of Wallace, who could display his great moral sense and feel for language and precision and character and narrative in a "cleaner" form, without all of the distractions?"

To my great satisfaction, Wood's answer was terribly expansive and in some ways got to the heart of the conundrum of reading Wallace. He started by saying, "Yes.... I often think that Wallace is 'performing,' and sometimes I wish that he would 'perform' a bit less." This was followed by a wonderful impression of a reader encountering a Wallace story, noticing the matchless prose of the opening passages and then flipping ahead to see how far Wallace was going to sustain the performance—and then becoming dismayed at its daunting length and complexity and, perhaps, tricksiness.

Wood then spun out a dichotomy in Wallace's work, between the "performer" and the more straightforwardly "moral" writer, referring to Zadie Smith's recent essay on Wallace (which Wood praised) that defended Wallace as precisely an uncomplicated sort of moral writer at root. Wood dismissed this view, citing some of the darker elements in these purportedly clean, positive, and "moral" resolutions, insisting that this tidy, "moral" version of Wallace misses his essence.

Compline: Jerry Sime's 1937 photograph, now retailed by Getty under the title "Toffs and Toughs," shows five boys, two of them top-hatted Harrovians, standing outside Lord's Cricket Ground; it has become the cliché of class division in England, then and now. Ian Jack deconstructs. (Intelligent Life; thanks to George Snyder.)

As for the Eton-Harrow match, it was cut from two days to one in 1982. Hardly anyone attends apart from the pupils, some very reluctantly, and the dress code is “smart casual”: if a photographer wanted to re-create Sime’s picture now he might be faced with five boys dressed much the same, in jeans and brand names. Giving a superficial impression of equality, the picture would be even more of a lie than before.

Everything changes and nothing changes. At school outfitting shops on Harrow hill, you can still buy tailcoats, waistcoats, top hats and canes, because monitors wear them, and others too for special occasions. A tailcoat costs £155, a top hat £95, a cane £32 – mere trimmings on top of fees of £28,500 a year. And what do you get for your money? A good education, a place at a good university, social connection, confidence, and all the other things largely confined to one small section of society that make Britain among the most unequal countries in the developed world. As I was writing this piece, yet another report confirmed that fact. According to the government’s National Equality Panel, quoted in the Daily Telegraph, the widening divide between the rich and the poor “may imply that it is impossible to create a cohesive society”. Parents of privately educated sons could expect their children to be paid 8% more by their mid-20s than boys from state schools; more than half the children at private schools went on to study at leading universities; in Europe only Italy, Greece and Spain had greater rates of poverty. And so on.

Nearly 70 years have passed since Picture Post protested at exactly this state of affairs. I looked at the picture that accompanied the Daily Telegraph’s report in January 2010, and it was the same one Picture Post had published in January 1941. Sime’s, of course. There they were again: Wagner, Dyson, Salmon, Catlin, Young, doomed for ever to represent a continuing social tragedy.

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