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18 April 2010


Matins: We found Paul Girolamo's contribution to this week's Metropolitan Diary hard to believe — are Park Avenue doormen really such material guys? — but Quatorze insisted that it's the way of the world. (NYT)

My girlfriend’s apartment was on the downtown side of Park Avenue, and as we stopped at the uptown light across from her building, I told him I would get out at the light.

He protested, “No, man, let me pull around right in front and open the door for you. Might as well do the whole limo thing.” He seemed tickled at the chance to give a regular guy the “deluxe” treatment. I laughed and said, “Sure,” and settled back as he pulled past her building, spun the car around the lane divider and pulled up to the building’s awning.

He didn’t get the chance to hop out and open the door for me, because the doorman beat him to it. The look of shock on the doorman’s face when he swung that limo door open and saw me was worth all the time I had spent cooling my heels in the lobby.

Lauds: It's a nasty job, but someone's got to do it: the Chicago Trib's John von Rhein finds fault with Wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel's leading of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (his own orchestra), on a visit to the Windy City. (via Arts Journal)

His Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" was a disappointment. At least under their previous music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra sounded like a disciplined, well-drilled instrument; here the playing was looser and not all that distinguished. The strings lacked depth, the brass could be coarse and the woodwinds, while good individually, didn't function as a true chamber-music unit when playing together.

Dudamel looked to be in ecstasy on the podium, slashing the air with his baton, crouching and levitating as he drove the Russian warhorse onward. But that visual show of emotion did not translate into a particularly coherent or deeply felt reading. Pacing was erratic, balances were careless and there were noticeable lapses of tension between melodramatic effusions. Tchaikovsky's final plunge into black despair and death can be a shattering experience; not here. Only the march movement really worked.

Prime: We had a very long day yesterday, helping the Editor out with his new bookcase, and perhaps that's why we can't, no matter how many times we re-read it, understand Felix Salmon's commentary on James Surowiecki's Financial Page.

What’s clear is that governments — and I’m including central banks here — have much less ammunition now than they did pre-crisis, even if they still have the willpower to intervene to save markets from themselves. And the willpower is evaporating rapidly, to boot. The result is that the moral-hazard play is becoming increasingly dangerous, and that volatility is sure to stay high.

The only thing keeping markets from plunging on worries surrounding European finances is faith in the political credibility of the European Union and the ECB. And on that front, there’s a lot more downside than there is upside, since we’re leaving a world of very high European cohesiveness and entering a world of much greater uncertainty. It’s already clear that the UK is going to be absent from the European project for the foreseeable future; the big risk is that the Germans will follow suit.

Our problem seems to be a fixation with the idea that governments not only nurture markets but create (by allowing) their moral hazards. Who else can fix the Greek mess but the German-centric bankers who were keen to bring Greece into the Euro Zone to begin with?

Tierce: At Wired Science, Owen Jones, a law professor at Vanderbilt, recounts his impressions of a hearing of arguments for and against fMRI evidence of credibility — the new lie detection.

Jones: They focused on the fact that this would be the first case in which fMRI brain scan evidence like this would be admitted. Reference was made to the recent Brooklyn case, where it was not admitted. And there was some discussion about the extent to which Cephos stands to gain financially if this technique becomes widely acceptable. One of the things highlighted was the seeming inconsistency between some scans Cephos did of Semrau, some of which suggested that he was lying and some of which suggested that he was telling the truth. There was much discussion on Laken’s basis for discounting the scan session in which the conclusion was that the defendant was lying. Laken discounted the evidence because of the alleged fatigue of the defendant.

There was discussion on cross on general ecological validity, which means the degree to which real-world situations conform to the experiments done in the laboratory. The prosecution pointed out that there was a long duration between the event in question and the scan itself, roughly six to eight years. There was also much discussion about the difference in age between the defendant and the maximum and also median ages of subjects in published research studies. Semrau is 63 or 64, and in prior studies the oldest subjects were 50.

Certainly there was a lot of discussion about the alleged accuracy rates of the technology. And that’s obviously one of the important factors in the Daubert standard. The scientific expert is claiming that they have 100 percent accuracy at finding liars.

There was also discussion about the nature of the questions administered. Some of the questions were short. Some were long. Some were highly detailed. Others were quite general. So, there were questions about the methodology of the test and whether they were sound.

There was also a heavy emphasis on the extent to which the published studies do not have subjects for whom there are real and significant consequences for failing the truth verification tests. That very specifically raises the question about whether the published studies are at all relevant to this particular case.

Sext: In "The Night Visitor," Brooks Peters posts a candid but really rather delightful entry about the trauma that inevitably enfolds certain boys at summer camp. (Not Brooks himself, mind.)

“Peter,” he whispered, his face so close to mine that I could smell a faint trace of lemon meringue pie on his breath (staff members often raided the larder after hours). I thought he said “Peters,” so I answered back, yes. But he put his finger to my lips and said to be quiet. Then, very quietly, he pulled back the red tartan blanket that barely covered the bed and reached under my back with his right arm, scooping me up, and pulling me towards his chest. He reached for the flashlight with his left hand, then bent his head down, gingerly avoiding the edge of the bunk over us, and held me so that my head was resting on his shoulder. He adjusted his arm so that my buttocks rested on his elbow, and he carried me out of the cabin, down the stairs and out into the dark of night.

Nones: Over the weekend, Seth Mydans and Thomas Fuller collaborated on an important story about the long-last failure of royal authority to settle disputes in Thailand.

After taking the throne nearly 64 years ago, King Bhumibol expanded his role as a constitutional monarch without political power into an enormous moral force, earned through his civic work and political astuteness. He has also presided over an expansion of the royal family’s now vast business holdings. With the monarchy at its heart, an elite royalist class grew up including the bureaucracy, the military and entrenched business interests. A palace Privy Council has exerted power during the current crisis.

It is this elite class that the protesters are now challenging.

Those who seek to maintain the status quo have proclaimed themselves loyal to the king and have accused the red shirts of trying to destroy the monarchy as they seek changes in Thai society. For their part, most red shirts say they respect the king but want changes in the system he helped create.

Vespers: One of the deeper mysteries of literary achievement is our loyalty, helplessly divided, to prolific successes on the one hand and to one-off wonders on the other. Robert McCrum considers the latter at the Guardian. (via The Millions)

Original work is, by definition, exceptional. Often, it seems to come out of nowhere in a explosive flurry of excitement. Anglo-American and European literature is notable for its sprinters as well as its long-distance runners. There are so many brilliant one-offs, especially at the more popular end of the business: Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind, or Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, for example. Rosamond Lehmann had a long career, but most readers know her for The Weather in the Streets. Many lesser writers would happily settle to be remembered for just one title. An oeuvre may be too much to ask.

Sometimes, there are writers who seem born to produce just one book. Ralph Ellison published Invisible Man in 1952 and spent the rest of his life trying to follow it. Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano was the fruit of a life-and-death struggle. Jack Kerouac's On the Road towers above all his other books, and he died an alcoholic aged 47. Guiseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard was not fully recognised until after his death.

As a rule, we favor the body-of-work masters. But Lampedusa's Leopard means that we shall never be able to decide one way or the other, not in any firm way.

Compline: Again, it was a long day. We thought long and hard about Ross Douthat's critique of the meritocracy, but couldn't decide if we agreed or disagreed. To the extent that meritocrats are people gifted at taking examinations, we agree. (NYT)

This is the perverse logic of meritocracy. Once a system grows sufficiently complex, it doesn’t matter how badly our best and brightest foul things up. Every crisis increases their authority, because they seem to be the only ones who understand the system well enough to fix it.

But their fixes tend to make the system even more complex and centralized, and more vulnerable to the next national-security surprise, the next natural disaster, the next economic crisis. Which is why, despite all the populist backlash and all the promises from Washington, this isn’t the end of the “too big to fail” era. It’s the beginning.

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