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Daily Office:


20 May 2010


Matins: Yesterday, in this space, we quoted Jenny Diski; last week, we began with Mark Lilla. Today, a piece in New Scientist links "denialism" with the urge — common among Tea Partiers — to push back against the wisdom of the elites.

Similarly, global warming, evolution and the link between tobacco and cancer must be taken on trust, usually on the word of scientists, doctors and other technical experts who many non-scientists see as arrogant and alien.

Many people see this as a threat to important aspects of their lives. In Texas last year, a member of a state committee who was trying to get creationism added to school science standards almost said as much when he proclaimed "somebody's got to stand up to experts".

It is this sense of loss of control that really matters. In such situations, many people prefer to reject expert evidence in favour of alternative explanations that promise to hand control back to them, even if those explanations are not supported by evidence (see "Giving life to a lie").

Lauds: Anthony Lane sweetens his review of the rather dreary-sounding Ridley Scott Robin Hood with a truly unforgettable crack.

Our hero is one Robin Longstride, played by Russell Crowe, who seems a bit short for the name; it suggests someone rangy, whereas the dauntless persona that Crowe has constructed, over many films, owes less to his gait than to his lightly submerged temper and his bearish build. The solution would have been to call him Robin Phonethrow, but Scott has a thing for historical details, so I guess that didn’t wash.

Prime: At Fortune, Daryl Jones sounds an alarm about inflation in China. (via Abnormal Returns)

As of now, the Chinese economy is signaling the need for more aggressive tightening based on the points above. But there is also the reality of negative real interest rates. Currently, the consumer price index is outpacing the one-year interest rate on savings of 2.25%, meaning the Chinese have no incentive to save any money. The two policies needed to offset inflation are an increase in interest rates and an upward revaluation of the Yuan. Both actions would help slow Chinese growth and commodity demand further in the coming months.

What worries Chinese economic planners considering these fixes is that rather than just slow down and control growth, they have the potential of "popping" the bubble, making Jim Chanos a happy man but also causing serious damage to China's export heavy economy. China would like to have it both ways right now: rapid growth and wealth creation, but also the safety of a properly valued, non-inflationary economy. That's a tough task: nearly every time we've seen this movie before, the ending is the same.

Tierce: Two notes on that very gloomy subject, dementia (whether Alzheimer's or not). The failure of the mind strikes us as the worst possible personal tragedy, because it entails the premature death of the self (and not in a nice way, either). It's not surprising to read, at Wired Science, that "Dementia Caregivers [are] More Likely to Also Get the Disease" — not that it's necessarily catching: there might be a "tendency of people who are prone to distress or mental illness to find and marry one another. Second, and even less surprising, Simon Roberts catches mention in the Times of studies showing that, as was the case with Iris Murdoch, the mental decline of Agatha Christie was palpable in her work prior to diagnosis.

The professors digitized 14 Christie novels (and included two more available in the Gutenberg online text archive), and then, with the aid of textual-analysis software, analyzed them for "vocabulary size and richness," an increase in repeated phrases (like "all sorts of") and an uptick in indefinite words ("anything," "something") — linguistic indicators of the cognitive deficits typical of Alzheimer's disease. The results were statistically significant; Christie's lexicon decreased with age, while both the number of vague words she employed and phrases she repeated increased. Her penultimate novel, "Elephants Can Remember," exhibits a "staggering drop in vocabulary" — of 31 percent — when compared with "Destination Unknown," a novel she wrote 18 years earlier. For Agatha Christie fans, the findings may be proof of a truth they have long recognized: the author's final two books, written in her early 80s, do not hold up against her earlier ones.

Sext: The always-entertaining Dave Bry explains the attractions of Red Bank, New Jersey to its newest celebrity resident, Jon Stewart. (The Awl)

5) Brannigans, 14 Wharf Avenue, Red Bank
Kind of diagonally across from the Globe, is another bar, Brannigans. Nice high ceilings. But a warning: If anyone, particularly an older delivery guy from Danny's who told you not to have sex with customers, even though he had, ever offers to buy you a shot in Brannigans called a "cement mixer," DO NOT ACCEPT. This is not a real shot! As it turns out, it is a mix of Bailey's Irish Cream and lime juice. The lime juice curdles the cream, turning it to a consistency not unlike that of wet cement. Drinking it is not at all pleasant and might in fact make you throw up on the bar—which in turn might make the bar tender very angry (even though it would really have been his fault for making such a not-funny "gag" drink in the first place) and he may kick you out. If your friend Mark who is much bigger than you and very loyal and who has always come to your defense then ends up in a shouting match with the bartender that almost turns into a fist-fight, you might be physically removed from the premises by a bouncer, and for what might be the only time this ever happens to you (let's hope!) you could be "banned for life" from an establishment. There's probably a different bartender there now.

Nones: At The Bygone Bureau, Peter Braden recounts his trip to Bosnia last year, and how a visit to Mostar left him feeling "a little bit Bosnian."

The Dayton Agreement, signed in December of 1995, finally ended the fighting, but Bata explains that the tensions are still there, bubbling under the surface.

The majority of Mostar is now owned by ethnic Croats, and so many Croatian tourists visit the city that apparently it is forbidden for tour guides to mention that Croatian forces were the ones who destroyed the old bridge. The skyline of Mostar is dominated by a pair of huge Latin crosses: one that stares down at the city from what used to be a Croat fortification, where Croatian soldiers rolled truck tires filled with dynamite down onto civilian houses, the other atop the most imposing church steeple I have ever seen.

Even the beer tells the story of this silent rift. Sarajevsko beer, the biggest Bosnian beer, is unavailable anywhere on the Croatian side of Mostar, whereas Ožujsko, a Croatian beer, flows freely. Apparently bars serving Sarajevsko are forced out of business.

One might expect that the Bosniaks may bear hatred toward the ethnic groups that still discriminate toward them. But Bata explains that the opposite is true: “They say I hate you, I say I love you back, they don’t sell our beer, I drink theirs.”

Vespers: We had not really registered the existence of The Nervous Breakdown, a site that we are not even going to attempt to categorize just yet, but we agree with J E Fishman that there's something wrong with the way books are handled at The New York Times if 13 of the 29 book-related alerts that Mr Fishman has received from the Times since late April relate to the work of dead writers. (via The Millions)

So, apparently, as a writer you have nearly as good a chance of making The New York Times after you die as you do when you’re alive.  Does that sound like the proper ratio for a cultural arbiter that claims to be in the news business?

The Nervous Breakdown, I think, presents a fair cross section of living writers who are part of the cultural conversation.  By my count, TNB has 262 contributors.  Of these, 112  have written freestanding books published by third parties.  (I’m not counting the self-published, the not yet published, those who have edited books, or those who are one contributor among many to a particular book.)

Of those 112 authors, The New York Times archive lists 27 as having been reviewed or mentioned in one of its print editions.  Do the math: that’s 24 percent.  And I’m including mere mentions here, not necessarily full-out reviews.

The newspaper’s defense, of course, would be to suggest (a) that TNB writers aren’t necessarily a representative sampling of the universe of writers; and (b) that the paper’s decision to cover or review particular authors will always be subjective.

To which all writers should reply: (a) TNB is a more representative sampling of writers than The New York Times will ever be because there’s no “survivorship bias”: all writers who meet certain minimal requirements are in; and (b) how the hell do the editors of The New York Times decide what to review, anyway?

Because, on the latter point, if they’re not reviewing or covering a representative sampling of up-and-coming writers and they’re not reviewing or covering most bestsellers (they’re not — trust me), then exactly how do they choose what to cover?

Compline: At The Second Pass, John Williams shares a snippet from a friend's interview with New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore. Just when you think that our schools might as well be closed, a flash of eccentric brilliance glimmers in the rubble.

In high school, I had an English teacher who was that once-in-a-lifetime teacher who shapes everything that ever happens to you. He had given us an assignment to write a letter to ourselves five years in the future, or four years into the future, whatever it was. And he was not going to read it. We had to give him money for stamps, adjusted, I thought somewhat suspiciously, for inflation. I mean, good for him, but he charged us like fifty cents. Anyway, we addressed the letters to our parents’ houses. I had completely forgotten about that letter because—did I mention?—I have a terrible memory.

Turns out, it was a very scary letter. It said, more or less, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ and it went on like that, scolding, berating: ‘If you’re not actually doing what you’re supposed to be doing, quit everything and figure out your life for God’s sake. Get on with it!’ Apparently, I was a very difficult fourteen-year-old, but not altogether lacking in foresight. It was as if I had known that I would still be the jock who was reading in the dark. So I quit. I quit ROTC. I quit sports. I had been a math major; I switched to English.

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