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15 April 2010


Matins: The accidental death of a cyclist in Washington who was knocked down by a military vehicle attached to the nuclear security summit — has raised questions about the appropriateness of such vehicles on city streets. Matthew Yglesias is even more offended by the military's immediate response. (via Felix Salmon)

When I took driver’s ed, I was taught that when you’re moving your car in reverse you’re supposed to take responsibility to make sure you aren’t accidentally running anyone over and killing them. Obviously people not currently encased inside a military vehicle have good reason to try to avoid situating themselves in the path of an oncoming multi-ton vehicle, but ultimate responsibility generally seems to fall on the person piloting the gigantic deadly object. I think there are perhaps some lessons here for the question of the prospects of actually conducting military operations that protect civilian life. The fact that people conducting a security operation on American soil can’t even react to accidentally killing an old lady by saying “we’re sorry we killed that woman” rather than lets “make sure the pedestrian didn’t run into the truck as it was moving” doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence.

Lauds: Leipzig's Bach Museum, far from being a dusty attic of dubious knickknacks, centers its collection upon information, not objects. (WSJ; via Arts Journal)

In one of the museum's most clever installations, visitors can familiarize themselves with Bach's orchestra by customizing the instrumentation of a Bach chorale. One simply walks around the room and presses a button to activate the desired wind, string or brass instrument.

The rest of the museum takes you through Bach's life straightforwardly but engagingly. One learns about the deeply musical Bach family via a wall-mounted genealogy that plays examples of music by Bach's ancestors and descendents. For Ms. Wiese, the family connection is vital to understanding the composer: "Bach researched a family tree and collected the music of his ancestors. Here, you can hear the 17th-century music that Bach heard as a child."

And then, of course, there is the music. Bach's entire oeuvre—all 175 hours of it—can be explored in a comfortable Hörkabinett or Listening Closet. The selected performances are on both period and modern instruments and illustrate the durability of Bach's music and the wide variety of interpretation.

Prime: The great promise of microfinance has attracted for-profit investors, saddling micro-borrowers with gigantic interest rates. In a Times report, Elizabeth Malkin writes of a very interesting wrinkle called "forced savings.

Like Mexico, Nigeria attracts scrutiny for high interest rates. One firm, LAPO, Lift Above Poverty Organization, has raised questions, particularly since it was backed by prominent investors like Deutsche Bank and the Calvert Foundation.

LAPO, considered the leading microfinance institution in Nigeria, engages in a contentious industry practice sometimes referred to as “forced savings.” Under it, the lender keeps a portion of the loan. Proponents argue that it helps the poor learn to save, while critics call it exploitation since borrowers do not get the entire amount up front but pay interest on the full loan.

LAPO collected these so-called savings from its borrowers without a legal permit to do so, according to a Planet Rating report. “It was known to everybody that they did not have the right license,” Ms. Javoy said.

Under outside pressure, LAPO announced in 2009 that it was decreasing its monthly interest rate, Planet Rating noted, but at the same time compulsory savings were quietly raised to 20 percent of the loan from 10 percent. So, the effective interest rate for some clients actually leapt to nearly 126 percent annually from 114 percent, the report said. The average for all LAPO clients was nearly 74 percent in interest and fees, the report found.

Anita Edward says she has borrowed money three times from LAPO for her hair salon, Amazing Collections, in Benin City, Nigeria. The money comes cheaper than other microloans, and commercial banks are virtually impossible, she said, but she resents the fact that LAPO demanded that she keep $100 of her roughly $666 10-month loan in a savings account while she paid interest on the full amount.

“That is not O.K. by me,” she said. “It is not fair. They should give you the full money.”

Tierce: Tired of accumulating a lot of stuff that you lose interest in almost immediately after you've acquired it? A tip from the chipper folks at PsyBlog suggests that you treat your purchases as experiences rather than as things: Think experientially.

Carter and Gilovich wondered if it comes down to how we view our purchases. Take music for example. Buying music can be viewed as both an experiential and a material purchase; it's an object (even if digital), and it's the experience of listening to the music: where you are, how it makes you feel and what you're doing at the time.

Perhaps thinking experientially can help us avoid disappointment?

In their last experiment the researchers encouraged half their participants to think of music as a material purchase and the other half as an experiential purchase. They were then told the price had been reduced. Sure enough participants who were thinking in experiential terms were less bothered by missing out on a bargain and therefore likely to be more satisfied with their purchase.

This experiment suggests that thinking of material purchases in experiential terms helps banish dissatisfaction. Try thinking of jeans in terms of where you wore them or how they feel, the mp3 player in terms of how the music changes your mood or outlook, even your laptop in terms of all the happy hours spent reading your favourite blog.

Sext: A journalism student asked Felix Salmon some questions about business blogging. Naturally, the student wanted to know how it is that some business bloggers — Mr Salmon among them — acquire such a broad readership despite the lack of journalist credentials. The answer makes us wonder if journalism schools are still a good idea.

All too often, I fear, a “formal training in journalism” just means that journalists self-censor the good and funny bits of stories that bloggers naturally latch on to. What’s more, bloggers have a much more natural voice and personality than journalists do. So it’s only natural that bloggers will get more of a “following” than some guy who writes straight-down-the-line stories for the local newspaper.

Then, of course, there’s the very germane fact that many highly successful bloggers didn’t get a formal training in journalism because they were too busy getting a formal training in the thing they’re writing about — business, finance, economics. The likes of Yves Smith or Brad DeLong or Simon Johnson or John Hempton are popular partly because these people know what they’re talking about and actually do it; it’s surely an advantage to be able to use first-hand rather than second-hand knowledge when you’re writing about something.

Nones: Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, speaking at Johns Hopkins University, makes some remarks that might run afoul of his country's severelčse-majesté laws. (NYT)

“I think we have to talk about the institution of the monarchy,” Mr. Kasit said, “how would it have to reform itself to the modern globalized world.” He cited as examples the monarchies of Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Liechtenstein.

In a country where the politically active military has staged 18 coups, where politics is a rough-house sport and where a traditional elite continues to dominate, he asked: “What will be the role of the military, what are the prerequisites of political parties, how do you channel the wishes of the farmers, the workers, the office workers and so on?”

Mr. Kasit was in Washington to attend a summit meeting on nuclear security, a trip Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had to cancel because of the unrest that has gripped Bangkok for the past month. On Saturday, Thailand had its worst political violence in nearly 20 years when soldiers and protesters clashed in a battle that left 21 people dead and nearly 900 wounded.

Vespers: Complaining about the extremely rudimentary classifications in place at the iBook Store prompts Laura Miller to make some interesting observations on the importance of codicological metadata — information about books that helps us to find them. (Salon; via Arts Journal)

It's become much easier and cheaper to publish a book in the past decade, but the explosion of titles on the market has its drawbacks. When faced with an overwhelming number of choices, most book buyers tend to become less adventurous, not more so. They have increasingly gravitated toward known quantities like bestsellers and widely celebrated or publicized books. The ideal guide to getting out of that rut is still a thoughtful bookseller, librarian or friend (or even critic!) whose taste you know and trust, but such people aren't always easy to find, and even when found, they're not omniscient. Good metadata, treated with respect and care, may be your only compass in some of the more exotic provinces of the vast world of books. It's the little, geeky detail that makes sure a voice from the margins still has a chance to get heard.

Compline: Crowdsourcing the National Archives: that's what AOTUS David Ferriero has in mind. But first, let's crowdsource his idea. (Chron Higher Ed; via The Morning News)

That's right—AOTUS wants you, citizen archivist!

At the National Archives and Records Administration, we have no shortage of paper records to digitize or transcribe. The vast quantity and characteristics of our records create many challenges for us to make these accessible online. However, I believe we need to rethink our traditional approach (professional archivists must do everything) to providing access, in favor of a new approach that utilizes the collaborative power of the internet.

Already Mr. Ferriero has started a conversation. His posts caught the attention of Kate Theimer, an archivist who blogs at ArchivesNext. She wrote a post in response about "citizen archivist" and its limits. That set off so much discussion on her site that she did another post arguing we need a better term.

"I appreciate what he's trying to do, and the kind of conversation he's trying to generate with the public," Ms. Theimer wrote of Mr. Ferriero's call for citizen archivists to get involved. "Let's help him out a bit by giving him a better way of making his pitch."

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