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6 May 2010


Matins: At The Economist, a report on the social nature of television watching. The piece shows why "there is little to suggest that television is growing a long tail of niche interests." The implication is that people watch television largely because other people watch television. This is heartening news, in its way — if people didn't believe that they were participating in some sort of group pastime, they wouldn't watch television. But it also contributes to the pile of explanations why really good television programming will always be vaninishingly rare. (via Arts Journal)

Like all social activities, television-watching demands compromise. People may have strong ideas about what they want to watch, but what they really want to do is watch together. So the great majority of them first see “what is on”—that is, what is being broadcast at that moment. Restricted choice makes it easier to agree on what to watch. If nothing appeals, they move on to the programmes stored in a DVR. On the very rare occasions when they find nothing there, they will look for an on-demand video.

This helps explain one of the oddest and most consistent findings of television research: that people seem unaware of their own behaviour. In surveys they almost always underestimate how much television they watch, and greatly overstate the extent to which they watch video in any other form (see chart 4). In particular, they underestimate their consumption of live television. One of Ms Pearson’s subjects, a 27-year-old man, claimed to watch recorded television 90% of the time. In fact he watched live TV 69% of the time. He was probably not so much fibbing as misinterpreting the question. When asked how he watched television, he gave an answer that described his behaviour when he was alone, and thus did not have to compromise. But most of the time he watched with other people.

Efforts to improve the TV-watching experience have often gone wrong because they took people at their word. The past ten years have seen a parade of websites and set-top boxes—Apple TV, Boxee, Joost, Roku—offering a huge range of content and interactive features. All promised to deliver TV the way people (that is, individuals) really want it. Because they failed to take account of the social nature of television, not one has caught on. Efforts to turn TVs into personal e-mail devices and home-shopping outlets have fared no better. “The killer application on television turns out to be television,” says Richard Lindsay-Davies, CEO of the Digital TV Group.

Lauds: Peter Plagens offers a list of "ten things to think about regarding" the record-breaking sale of a 1964 Picasso painting the other day. (ARTicles)

4. The worst art is usually bought for the most noble reason: Somebody wants to have it around to look at. The best art is usually bought for the least noble reasons: trophy-hunting or investment.

7. Money stories in the art world translate something that most people don't understand (e.g., why is Picasso considered all that good?) into something they do understand--a sum of money. The bigger the sum of money, the "sexier" the story in the bargain.

Prime: We were wondering when Felix Salmon would get round to dicing the Buffett/Deal Book piece to which we alluded yesterday in this space.

What’s more, Buffett and Ackman have made their careers, and become extremely wealthy, by analyzing and picking individual securities. That’s what they’re especially good at. Neither of them in a million years would invest in a CDO managed by someone else, like ACA: they compete with the likes of ACA. IKB, by contrast, specifically asked for an independent CDO manager, and said that it would not be happy with Goldman itself selecting the contents of the CDO. That’s not the kind of action that you’d expect from someone who thinks that a simple list of reference securities comprises “all the relevant facts that any investor would need”, in Sorkin’s words.

ACA, here, is a bit like a mutual fund manager, and IKB was an investor in that fund. The argument from Buffett and Ackman is essentially that so long as fund investors know what their fund manager is investing in, they shouldn’t really care who that manager is. It’s silly, especially coming as it does from two men who have made a fortune by setting themselves up as great stewards of other people’s money.

Tierce: Philip Ball suggests that proponents of "Intelligent Design" familiarize themselves with the work of evolutionary geneticist John Avise. "What a shoddy piece of work is man." (Nature; via 3 Quarks Daily)

Why design a genome so poorly that it needs all this surveillance? Why are there so many wasteful repetitions of genes and gene fragments, all of which have to be redundantly replicated in cell division? And why are we plagued by debilitating, chromosome-hopping 'mobile elements' in our DNA?

These design flaws, Avise says, "extend the age-old theodicy challenge, traditionally motivated by obvious imperfections at the levels of human morphology and behavior, into the innermost molecular sanctum of our physical being".

Avise wisely avers that this catalogue of errors should deter attempts to use religion to explain the minutiae of the natural world and return it to its proper sphere as a source of counsel about how to live.

But his paper equally demolishes the secular tendency to reify and idealize nature through the Panglossian view that natural selection creates "perfect" products, which exerts a dangerous tug in the field of biomimetics. We should be surprised that some enzymes seem indeed to show the maximum theoretical catalytic efficiency, rather than imagining that this is nature's default condition.

Sext: At Sparksheet, an intereview with Blake Eskin, the Web editor of The New Yorker. As long-time subscribers, we feel that we're in good hands. (via The Rumpus)

SS: Does all this multimedia content merely expand the New Yorker brand experience for existing readers, or are you engaging people who might not read a 10,000 word article but will happily listen to an 11-minute podcast?

BE: I think we’re doing both. Some of it is a generational question. For a 55-year-old reader, the idea that someone might both be interested in reading a 15,000-word piece about a shooting in Zambia and also be an active user of Foursquare is kind of anathema. But there are a lot of 25-year-olds who don’t see a contradiction between those things.

So in some ways we’re trying to cultivate the next generation of New Yorker readers. Some of it is giving people a taste of what they’re missing, some of it is supplementing the magazine experience, and some of it is about reaching a more international audience.

The New Yorker is not a magazine for everybody, but I think we have to make sure to reach the audience it can reach, and the Web is a great way of doing that.

Our only problem with the magazine's online offerings (and we are well over 55, by the way) is a panic fear, familiar from several decades of staring at piles of under-read issues, of never being able to keep up. "No! There's more?" We do see the iPad coming to our rescue.

Nones: Good grief! In the middle of everything that's going on in the world today, the leaders of nations belonging to the Unasur bloc (a counter-US South American treaty organization) won't play show up at the EU-Latin America summit if Honduran president Porfirio Lobo attends. It's amazing that there's still any life in this story. (BBC News)

The Honduran leader was voted into power last year, following a coup which was denounced across Latin America.

Regional powers expressed their support for ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

Earlier this week the Spanish government, which currently holds the EU presidency, invited the Honduran leader to the EU-Latin America summit, scheduled to begin on 18 May.

"There is unease shared by most of us that will prevent a lot of Unasur countries attending the summit," said Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, according to AFP news agency.

Vespers: The Rumpus at its best: Kevin Evers writes about a drolly meta book, From Old Notebooks, in which Evan Lavender-Smith assembles a miscellany of thoughts about writing his first book. Which of course the miscellany becomes.

The idea for the book is set, but it’s aim is unstable. The writer’s attempt to categorize the project is ongoing: is F.O.N.2 a journal? a memoir? a novel? a “memiovel”? This doubt lends the book its improvisatory feeling, turning the writer-character into a reader, a reader who must examine and interpret his own content, content that continually outpaces his own understanding of it.

The “plot” of the book is the evolution of its own creation.

At different points, the writer-character is concerned about F.O.N.2—Is this too cute or too smart? Will I finish it? Will I publish it? But he’s also a dreamer. He imagines a future book entitled The Illusion of Improvisation in American Literature from Kerouac to Lavender-Smith, wonders to whom he should dedicate the unfinished book, and schemes against his future literary executors. The sudden tonal shifts, from dread to dreams, portray this writer-character in different roles, from chump to champ. The reader’s response to all this is complex and fluid, too—the writer-character, as a personality, is elusive.

Complete with wry author photo.

Compline: Researcher Paul Bloom's sketch of an investigation at Yale into the moral nature of very small children makes for fascinating reading, but it's the conclusions drawn at the end that make this preview from the coming weekend's issue of the Times Magazine a must-read.

We possess abstract moral notions of equality and freedom for all; we see racism and sexism as evil; we reject slavery and genocide; we try to love our enemies. Of course, our actions typically fall short, often far short, of our moral principles, but these principles do shape, in a substantial way, the world that we live in. It makes sense then to marvel at the extent of our moral insight and to reject the notion that it can be explained in the language of natural selection. If this higher morality or higher altruism were found in babies, the case for divine creation would get just a bit stronger.

But it is not present in babies. In fact, our initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind. There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

The notion at the core of any mature morality is that of impartiality.

Almost unconsciously, Mr Bloom's study also batters the notion that, without religion, we'd behave like savages.

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