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13 May 2010


Matins: From the introduction to Ian Buruma's new book, Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, a long view that's a call for calm. (Princeton University Press; via 3 Quarks Daily)

What Tocqueville could never have foreseen was the rise of Islam as a major factor in European politics. Even though, statistically, pious Muslims only constitute a small minority of European citizens, Islam is a close rival to Christianity in some areas as the largest organized religion. Exactly what this means in terms of social or political authority is hard to measure, since unlike Roman Catholicism or established Protestant denominations, there is no Muslim Church, with a comparable hierarchy of priests. It would be difficult for most Muslins to establish a common program; their cultures, backgrounds, interests and beliefs are too diverse, which is one reason why there are, as yet, no Muslim political parties in Europe. But still, practicing Muslims, including the majority of law-abiding believes who have no truck with any violent political ideology, are posing a challenge to the secular certainties gained by Europeans in the last thirty years or so.

Europeans — and perhaps to a lesser extent Americans — are afraid of the consequences. Populist warnings of being "out-bred" or "swamped" by Muslims are finding a receptive audience. Some writers, caught up in (and helping stir up) this mood of anxiety, speak of "Eurabia," as though Europe, too weak or unwilling to defend its own civilization, were in danger of becoming "Islamized" by people who not only are more than willing to fight for their beliefs, but who are producing many more children, at a much faster rate, than "we" are. The assumption here is that even if this were true, which is by no means sure, the grandchildren of the current breeders will be a carbon copy, in terms of culture and religion, of the current generation. An unlikely prospect.

Lauds: Nige writes about a show at the National Gallery (London) that's the very best sort of treat: "compact, illuniating about an artist I barely knew, and full of remarkable paintings." In this case, the painter is Christen Købke of Denmark (1810-1848). (Nigeness)

I'd seen a few of his startlingly original landscapes before, but hadn't realised what a brilliantly effective and psychologically penetrating portraitist he was. The portrait of his young friend and fellow artist Frederik Soedring (it's reproduced in little in Koebke's Wikipedia entry) is wonderfully fresh and energetic, breathing youthful enthusiasm and the excitement of a 'new age'. Koebke's landscapes are bathed in Danish light, full of sky and clouds and water. Perhaps the most extraordinary is a huge canvas titled Roof Ridges of Frederiksborg Castle, three quarters of which is sky, with the dark line of the roof ridges running along the bottom, the only vertical notes supplied by a beautifully rendered brick chimneystack and one of the castle's delicate baroque turrets. It's a breathtakingly bold piece of work, and was, perhaps understandably, never displayed in Koebke's lifetime - he found it difficult enough getting even his more conventional work accepted by the academy.

Prime: In "Small Businesses Get a Little More Optimistic," David Indiviglio checks out "the engine of the US economy" — responsible for 70% of American job creation.

There are two charts because they don't put all eight lines on one graph. The biggest problem continues to be sales, but they've been improving since last year. Taxes also remain a significant problem. But after those two, the next biggest concern is regulation. Eyeing the chart, it looks like most of the businesses that no longer see sales as their biggest problem have shifted their major worry to regulation, as its line has grown the most recently. This continues to stress that Congress must be very careful not to place additional burdens on small business through their financial reform plans, as intensified regulation could further hinder hiring.

Although the charts above don't take credit explicitly into account, it also continues to be a big problem for small business. Although loan availability ticked up slightly last year, it remains quite low on a historically basis.

Tierce: Out of more than 12,000 medical articles on the subject of food allergies, published between 1988 and 2009, only 72 satisfied the rigorous criteria devised by a federally commissioned study. As a result, it's likely that only about 8% of adults (and 5% of children) who are thought to have food allergies actually do. The authors of the study especially want to restore the difference between a food intolerance (which can lead to discomfort but not much more) and a genuine allergy. (NYT)

The paper, to be published Wednesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association, is part of a large project organized by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to try to impose order on the chaos of food allergy testing. An expert panel will provide guidelines defining food allergies and giving criteria to diagnose and manage patients. They hope to have a final draft by the end of June.

“We were approached as in a sense the honest broker who could get parties together to look at this question,” said Dr. Matthew J. Fenton, who oversees the guidelines project for the allergy institute.

Authors of the new report — and experts on the guidelines panel — say even accepted dogma, like the idea that breast-fed babies have fewer allergies or that babies should not eat certain foods like eggs for the first year of life, have little evidence behind them.

Also: the "Mozart Makes You Smarter" Effect has been officially debunked. (Telegraph; via The Morning News)

Sext: At The Bygone Bureau, Alice Stanley reports on Zynga addiction in the heartland, and finds that it's contagious. She caught it from her boss, the manager of a college pub who plays Café World.  

In an embarrassing moment of weakness and procrastination, I started playing Café World. I added Wanda as a “neighbor” to check out her café. It was ridiculous. Millions of café coins, points, a huge decorated space, tons of turkeys cooking away. The next morning after my two co-workers on my real cafe shift had left, she turned to me and solemnly asked under her breath, “You’re doin’ Café now?” like she had just found out I was snorting coke or something. She then proceeded to keep me fifteen minutes after my shift ended to tell me her best tricks, including taking off the door when there wasn’t enough food cooking so no one could leave the restaurant and the “rating” wouldn’t go down. I didn’t understand half of what she said. But, soon enough her words came floating back as I proceeded to time my meals more precisely, interrupt myself in conversation to worriedly exclaim, “My macaroni is going to burn!” before darting away, and, yes, even take the doors off my café.

Nones: Here's a deal to keep your eyes on: Charlapally Central Jail, outside Hyderabad, has  been chosen for a pilot project in which prisoners will do back-office work (data entry and such) for outsourced businesses. (BBC News)

"The idea is to ensure a good future for the educated convicts after they come out of jail," CN Gopinath Reddy, director general of prisons in Andhra Pradesh, told the BBC.

"With their experience of working in the BPO [business process outsourcing] in jail, any company will absorb them in future."

Radiant Info Systems director C Narayana Charyulu said Charlapally jail was chosen for the project because nearly 40% of the inmates there were educated.

"We have identified the area in the jail where the unit will come up. It will have computers as well as connectivity," Mr Reddy said.

It's fun to imagine how seriously bad this idea could be, but we wish the project's proponents the very best of luck.

Vespers: Laura Miller ventures an essay on the uses and pleasures of bad writing. (Salon; via 3 Quarks Daily)

GalleyCat, a website specializing in publishing news, hopes to take the contemplation of bad prose beyond snickering and guffaws. They're asking readers to rewrite a "badly-written, meandering, and oversimplified public domain parable" by Horatio Alger, "Joe's Luck," first published in 1909.

Each participant has been awarded a single page of this typical Alger rags-to-riches saga and instructed to redraft it. A representative passage from the original: "They went up-stairs, until Joe wondered when they were going to stop. Finally the boy paused at the top floor, for the very good reason that he could get no higher, and opened the door of 161."

GalleyCat's Jason Boog, who came up with this idea, explains that it's more than just a goof. "I think my readers can learn a lot from reading Alger," he wrote in an e-mail. "His style and descriptions are so outdated that even a rookie writer can recognize the bad writing." This confirms the secret weapon of many writing workshops. Students often don't get much helpful advice from critiques of their own work, as more than one teacher has confided to me. Instead, they learn the most from identifying the mistakes made by others.

Ms Miller goes on to observe that "Sadly, if bad writers have one thing in common it's that they're all firmly convinced that they're good writers." In our view, this is incomplete. Bad writers think they're such great writers that there's no need to re-read or to edit what they've written.

Compline: The artistic vandal known as Poster Boy (Henry Matyjewics) has been sentenced to eleven months in jail, pretty much for just plain screwing up. Not for defacing subway advertisements! (WSJ; via Felix Salmon)

Gotlib said Poster Boy did the service — mainly mopping hallways in a government building — but was rearrested earlier this year. The district attorney’s office held that the arrest nullified the plea deal. But there was a catch: the judge did not specify that the plea arrangement was contingent on staying out of trouble.

In court last Thursday, the judge said he was bound by the terms of plea and would vacate the felony and issue the three-year probation. All went according to plan, said Gotlib, save for one hitch: Poster Boy failed to show up for the hearing, triggering a warrant for his arrest.

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