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19 April 2010


Matins: In the current issue of the London Review of Books, Jenny Diski's "Short Cuts" will have you wondering whether to laugh or to cry. Her breezy write-up of crazy wingnut Melanie Phillips's The World Turned Upside Down makes you ask just whose world has  been turned upside down.

Phillips repeatedly insists (repetition dreadfully filling her 400 pages) that the godless, climate-conserving, Islam-loving craven left have reversed reality. Britain actually leads the way in ‘unstitching the fabric of society’: ‘To the bewilderment and dismay of many, freedom is giving way to coercion, order to anarchy, progress to obscurantism, modernity to medievalism, tolerance to bigotry, rationality to dogma, truth to lies.’ The proofs of these ‘true facts’ are the laws against offending racial groups; the acceptance of other cultures within Britain; child-centred education; the post-Darwinian rejection of the argument for intelligent design. ‘From man-made global warming to Israel, from Iraq to the origin of the universe, the West has replaced truth with ideology.’

Being Jenny Diski, the reviewer gets in a good one at the end.

What I find very discouraging is that even though I am one of those progressives of whom she speaks, I seem to have failed, for all my power and totalitarian zeal, to have produced a world that is in almost any way to my liberal, relativist, anti-authoritarian liking.

Lauds: We don't want to sit through Hank the Cinq, no matter how young and fresh the cast, but we can't wait for the Laurent Cantet movie. (; via Arts Journal)

Tonight, 13 actors will take the stage at Shakespeare & Company in “Henry V.’’ Nothing so unusual in that — except that these are teenagers, none older than 17, and they have been sentenced to perform this play.

The show is the culmination of a five-week intensive program called Shakespeare in the Courts, a nationally recognized initiative now celebrating its 10th year. Berkshire Juvenile Court Judge Judith Locke has sent these adjudicated offenders — found guilty of such adolescent crimes as fighting, drinking, stealing, and destroying property — not to lockup or conventional community service, but to four afternoons a week of acting exercises, rehearsal, and Shakespearean study.

More than 100 youths have participated since Kevin Coleman, the Shakespeare troupe’s education director, and Paul Perachi, Locke’s predecessor on the bench, started the program. But Coleman is realistic about what Shakespeare can and cannot do.

“I am going to say this right now, really clearly, on a billboard: This does not fix them,’’ Coleman said Friday, before the group’s four-hour rehearsal began. “Do they get back in trouble? Yes, they do. But maybe less often and maybe not as deep. This extreme experience that they’re having starts to change them.’’

Prime: Curiouser and curiouser: Goldman Sachs seems to have been left standing after a round of musical chairs. Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story in the Times:

WaMu is not the only Goldman client the firm bet against as the mortgage disaster gained steam. Documents released by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations show that Goldman’s mortgage unit also wagered against Bear Stearns and Countrywide Financial, two longstanding clients of the firm. These documents are only related to the mortgage unit and it is unknown what other bets the rest of the firm made.

Felix Salmon is starker.

It seems to me that even if a pretty tough version of the Volcker Rule is implemented, there’s a good chance that Goldman will be able to either get around it by cutting off its access to the Fed discount window, or else will be able to make a windfall profit if forced to sell of its swap desk. So the risk here is reputational: Goldman really has lost its golden aura, and with it the prospect of garnering a lot of fee income going forwards. And if Goldman ends up getting convicted of criminal charges — which is still a possibility — then it could just disappear entirely, just like Arthur Andersen.

Tierce: At Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer discusses the psychology of the "near miss" — and how Las Vegas exploits it.

What's interesting about this system is that it's all about expectation. Our dopamine neurons constantly generate patterns based upon experience: if this, then that. While this neural software normally works great - it's an incredibly efficient form of learning - it gets reliably confused by random systems, from slot machines to Wall Street.

To understand why, it helps to think about the slot machine from the perspective of your dopamine neurons. While you are losing money, your neurons are struggling to decipher the patterns inside the machine. They want to understand the game, to decode the logic of luck, to find the events that predict a payout.

But here's the catch: slot machines can't be solved. They use random number generators to determine their payout. There are no patterns or algorithms to uncover; studying our near-misses won't tell us how to win. There is only a stupid little microchip, churning out arbitrary digits.

Sext: The Editor went to a book event last evening; Slow Love author Dominique Browning was interviewed by a sometime protégée who is still very much an admirer, Grace Bonney of the elegant Design Sponge. Ms Browning, speaking about her new Web site, Slow Love Life, confessed that she felt "born to blog." At the signing part of the evening, the Editor acknowledged that he had made the same discover, and the author was kind enough to ask for a card.

In her latest entry, Ms Browning describes the shock, experienced sooner or later by all bloggers, of the toxic anonymous comment. She captures the nastiness of it as well as anyone has.

In the first case, I opened up a mean-spirited comment from an anonymous poster on this blog. It was particularly upsetting because it was in response to a very honest and open post on depression. As I read, panic fluttered up inside me, my mouth went dry, my heart began to pound, and I felt frozen. (Yes, strangers have that power--and when friends turn mean, it is even worse.) My pulse raced--flight! Get away! Danger! Then anger surged through me--how dare this person defile my house! Fight! I calmed myself down, went outside, walked it off, and felt better. But the rush of adrenaline and cortisol stressed me out. Too much of that, day in and day out (as in, high stress job in merciless company, etc.) must take a toll; I had tuned it out for years, but the corrosion went on nonetheless.

Nones: As of last night, it seems that no major American newspaper was interested in a story carried by BBC News: "Bolivia's Morales urges Pope Benedict to scrap celibacy."

Relations between Bolivia's president and the Church had been strained after Mr Morales accused Bolivian bishops of lying to the people.

The Vatican did not mention Mr Morales' comments on celibacy in the communique it released after the meeting.

The Vatican's decision not to mention President Morales's admonition suggests that the Church is hoping, rather desperately, for a replay of the French Revolution, when sanctions against the priesthood brought Roman Catholicism back from the grave.

Vespers: At Survival of the Book, Brian writes one of those dispirited entries that are so invigorating. If publishers are as demented as Gallery Books's Louise Burke seems to be (if only to associate her name and reputation with Jersey Shore), then who needs 'em? But we do need Brians.

For those who don't know, Gallery Books is not some weird fringey opportunistic publisher, like Beaufort Books who published O.J. Simpson's book If I Did It. Nope. Instead, it's an imprint of Simon & Schuster, formed last fall when things got shaken up over at S&S. (We posted on that here, back in September 2009.) So glad they reorganized and are now able to publish such fine literature as a quote book on the lamest, stupidest, most mindless, misogynistic television program, which revels in class-mocking and ethnic stereotypes. Always pleased when a corporate publisher can shake things up for the better, rather than laying people off so it can more efficiently publish trash.

The people that were laid off deserve better too, S&S.

Compline: Alex Balk lifts The Awl into the pundit zone with a relatively august piece about Richard Blumenthal, the Nixon White House alum and (improbable? but hitherto presumable) Democratic candidate to replace Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodds.

Rough sledding in Connecticut for Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, the presumptive heir to the Senate seat Chris Dodd is being forced to vacate at the end of his term. Last night the Times dropped a major bomb on the Democratic AG, accusing him of misstating his military service during the war in Vietnam. (After several deferments Blumenthal joined the Marine reserves, ensuring that he would not be sent overseas.) Throughout his subsequent career as an elected official, Blumenthal has often referred to his military background, in some cases using language that indicated he had been in the war, in other cases making it deliberately clear that he remained stateside. When media reports of his service made it sound as if he had been to Vietnam, no efforts were made to correct the misinformation.

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