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Daily Office:


1 April 2010


Matins: The religious women who, by swallowing their concern about abortion, did so much to push health-care reform through enactment are not being replaced; new novices tend echo the conservatism of their male counterparts. Is this the twilight of the activist nun? Noreen Malone is afraid so. (Slate; via The Morning News)

Nuns are quite literally a dying breed. Especially in America, where the median age of sisters has been inching up toward the 70s, and the number of nuns plummeted from about 180,000 in 1965 to fewer than 60,000 in 2009. This is a far sharper drop than the number of priests. When I wrote a story a few years ago for my college newspaper about young men who wanted to enter the priesthood, I intended to include aspiring nuns, but couldn't find a single one at a Jesuit school with a student body that was half-Catholic. (My most devout friend once told me she used to pray daily that God wouldn't call her.) The women's movement has played a role in the declining appeal of the habit. Nowadays, a Catholic woman can do the same work as a layperson she would do as a nun (and taking the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience doesn't grant her the privilege of celebrating mass, of course). In a 2002 article in the Atlantic, author Mary Gordon asked a nun who'd taught her in high school what, exactly nuns could do that other women could not. Her reply: "NOTHING. If anything, there are more strictures on nuns than laywomen."

Lauds: It's nice that everyone can take a good-enough picture, but not for professional photographers, who are watching their business model drown in the sea of inexpensive stock images. Reading Stephanie Clifford's report in the Times, it's impossible to tell whether we're in a crazy transitional moment (one that professional photographers will learn to make work for them) or looking at the future.

“When we began, stock photography or licensed images, preshot images being licensed, was perceived as the armpit of the photo industry,” said Jonathan Klein, the chief executive of Getty Images who helped found the agency in 1995. “No self-respecting art director or creative director would use a preshot image, because it wasn’t original, it hadn’t been commissioned by them, it wasn’t their creativity.”

At the same time, the Internet has made it easier for editors to find and license stock photos — they can do it in seconds with a search term and a few clicks, rather than spending seven weeks mailing film transparencies back and forth.

Concurrently, digital photography took off. “It used to be you really needed to know how to use a camera,” said Keith Marlowe, a photographer who has worked for Spin and Rolling Stone. “If you messed up a roll, you couldn’t redo the concert.” Now, though, any photographer can instantly see if a shot is good, or whether the light balances or other technical aspects need to be adjusted.

That meant a flood of pretty decent photographs, and that changed the stock-photography industry.

Prime: A tour d'horizon of the more interesting econoblogs, posing as a solicitation of manuscripts from the likes of Jeff Miller, Bess Levin, and Mark Cuban: "Ten Financial Bloggers Who Should Write Books," by James Altucher. We love the appeal to Tyler Durden. (WSJ; via Abnormal Returns)

Zero hedge. I can’t read your blog. It’s too depressing. Life is short and you are relentless in your efforts to just crush the fun out of it. If I read one more time about how Indonesian bank troubles are the “harbinger of things to come” or the “Fate of Foreign Oil Investors In Limbo Amid Ghana-Côte d’Ivoire Border Dispute” I mght just lie in bed all day weeping. Yes, weeping. But, if anyone is going to write a book describing the exact surgical process by which the world is going to lose all of its guts and insides, it’s probably you.

Tierce: Jonah Lehrer "excites the NAcc," "inhibits the insula," and explains why you can go broke saving money at Costco.

Retail stores manipulate this cortical setup. They are designed to open our wallets: the frivolous details of the shopping experience are really subtle acts of psychological manipulation. The store is tweaking our brain, trying to soothe the insula and stoke the NAcc [nucleus accumbens]. Just look at the interior of a Costco warehouse. It's no accident that the most covetous items are put in the most prominent places. A row of high-definition televisions surrounds the entrance. The fancy jewelry, Rolex watches, iPods and other luxury items are conspicuously placed along the corridors with the heaviest foot traffic. (The fresh food is always located in the back of the store, so that we have to parade past the profitable aisles of temptations.) And then there are the free samples of food, liberally distributed throughout the store. The goal of Costco is to constantly prime the pleasure centers of the brain, to keep us lusting after things we don't need. Even though we probably won't buy the Rolex, just looking at the fancy watch makes us more likely to buy something else, since the coveted item activates the NAcc. We have been conditioned to crave a reward.

But it's not enough to just excite the NAcc: retailers must also inhibit the insula. This is where Costco really excels. When consumers are repeatedly assured that low prices are "guaranteed," or told that a certain item is on sale, the insula stops worrying so much about the price tag. In fact, researchers have found that even when a store puts a promotional sticker next to the price tag⎯something like "Bargain Buy!" or "Hot Deal!"⎯but doesn't actually reduce the price, sales of the item will still dramatically increase. These retail tactics lull our brain into buying more things, since our normal response to price tags is pacified.

Sext: Margaret Atwood, looking for all the world like a close relation of HM the Queen, discusses her Twitter, which she says is rather like "having fairies at the bottom of your garden." (We wonder how many of her followers can hum along on that one.) (NYRBlog)

But despite their sometimes strange appearances, I’m well pleased with my followers—I have a number of techno-geeks and bio-geeks, as well as many book fans. They’re a playful but also a helpful group. If you ask them for advice, it’s immediately forthcoming: thanks to them, I learned how to make a Twitpic photo appear as if by magic, and how to shorten a URL using or tinyurl. They’ve sent me many interesting items pertaining to artificially-grown pig flesh, unusual slugs, and the like. (They deduce my interests.) Some of them have appeared at tour events bearing small packages of organic shade-grown fair-trade coffee. I’ve even had a special badge made by a follower, just for me: “The ‘call me a visionary, because I do a pretty convincing science dystopia’ badge.” It looks like this:

Nones: We spotted two pieces about politically-motivated suicide in yesterday's Times. There was the Op-Ed summary of a study of Chechen terrorist suicides — 42 incidents since 2000. Then there was Lydia Polgreen's report on political suicides in southern India, many of them apparently prompted by the delay in forming Telangana, India's 29th state. Both sets of cases support the Chechen study's principal finding.

As we have discovered in our research on Lebanon, the West Bank, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, suicide terrorist campaigns are almost always a last resort against foreign military occupation.

However appalling suicide and terrorism are, they demonstrate that nations often forget to earn their sovereignty.

Vespers:  Poet August Kleinzahler goes to rehab — as a therapist! At the Tufted Knolls Behavioral Facility, run by the august Dr Horst Himmelfarb, he runs a little workshop.

I met for two consecutive afternoons with the ‘help-seekers’, as they are referred to in the Darkness, Away With You programme, three-hour sessions, that involved my customary ‘bag of tricks’: word games, memory exercises, the imagine-this-or-that routine – basically the sort of thing I’ve developed over the years that works equally well with children, the elderly, hardened criminals, what have you. We met in a large room, magnificently appointed: dark wood paneling, oak and leather-upholstered furniture, plasma TVs, Sony PlayStations, billiard table, Barcaloungers, the works. The only books in evidence were copies of Darkness, Away With You and the Gideon Bible.

Compline: James Lovelock, the 90 year-old developer of the Gaia hypothesis, thinks that we're too dumb to fix the global-warming mess. Without the goad of a catastrophe, at any rate. (Guardian; via MetaFilter)

"I don't think we're yet evolved to the point where we're clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change," said Lovelock in his first in-depth interview since the theft of the UEA emails last November. "The inertia of humans is so huge that you can't really do anything meaningful."

One of the main obstructions to meaningful action is "modern democracy", he added. "Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while."

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