February 2009

2009 02 27
Follow up: 2017 and 2023 Caton Ave.

I went out to 2017 Caton Ave last night to observe a meeting between the tenants at 2017 and 2023 Caton Ave and two of the five owners of the building, Asher Alcobi and Ami Blashkovsky. The previous day, the tenants had protested outside the real estate office co-owned by Asher Alcobi, and that morning, with the help of Michael Grinthal at South Brooklyn Legal Services, they had filed an HP order against the landlords (an action to enforce the housing code). That morning, a three quarter page story about the building’s problems and the protest, had appeared in the Daily News.

The meeting was well attended, and ran from about 8pm to 9:45pm. About 25 tenants crowded into the lobby of the building, which was noticeably cleaner than I had found it on Wednesday. They were joined by Latrice Walker, a representative from the office of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke’s, and for part of the meeting by New York City Council Member, Mathieu Eugene. Michael Grinthal and tenant organizer Aga Trojniak from the Flatbush Development Corporation were also present.

Considering the level of anger and frustration among tenants, the meeting went surprisingly smoothly, for the most part. Much of the credit for this has to go to Samantha Paige, a tenant in 2017 Caton who led the meeting in an efficient and productive way, and to Alcobi, who struck a conciliatory tone on behalf of the landlords. Paige went through a list of demands that the tenants had presented to Alcobi in his office on Wednesday. These included, among other things, a qualified superintendent for the building (which has not had a super for at least six months), that work be done by qualified, licensed tradesmen, and that problems be dealt with in an efficient, responsive, and timely way. Paige volunteered, with another tenant, to coordinate efforts to ensure that tradesmen would have access to individual apartments. Paige made it clear that the access issue was a practical matter that tenants could deal with effectively later, and kept the meeting focused on the list of demands. As a conciliatory gesture, she also stressed that tenants would need to do their part to assist in keeping the building clean and safe, and emphasized some sympathy with the landlord’s perspective a businessman.

After Paige finished, Alcobi spoke. In a rather quiet and understated way, Alcobi is clearly a gifted public speaker, and he handled the situation about as deftly as I can imagine anyone doing it. After thanking Paige for acknowledging his own perspective, he moved on to his main concerns. These included trash in the hallways, and what he described as illegal washing machines in apartments that he blamed for some of the leaks. At this point, Latrice Walker pointed out that whether the washing machines were illegal or not depended on whether they were permitted by individual leases. No one at the meeting, including Alcobi, actually knew off the top of their respective heads what the leases said, and Alcobi was forced to moderate this point.

There followed a lengthy back and forth as the tenants attempted to tie each of the demands to a date by which Alcobi would commit to fulfill the demand. Some of the deadlines were easier to fix than others. The issue of a qualified super was especially thorny, with Alcobi protesting that it was difficult to find a qualified super in short order, and tenants pointing out that they had already been waiting six months. The tenants insisted that Alcobi find a super by the next meeting with him, which was scheduled for March 18th, but Alcobi wouldn’t commit to the date, though he said he would try to find someone.

After the meeting broke up, I spoke with Alcobi briefly. I recreate the conversation from memory, because Alcobi told me that he wasn’t comfortable being taped. I asked him if he was pleased about the meeting. He said he was, but made clear that he didn’t appreciate having a different, and unrelated, business picketed the other day. (Alcobi is a part owner of the building, and a part owner and founder of Peter Ashe Real Estate.) I said that I could understand that, but that I had spoken to a number of tenants and heard a lot of horror stories. “This is a building with a lot of problems,” he told me. “A lot of problems.”

I asked Alcobi if he was pleased with the management company he had hired to handle the building’s affairs. Even with someone from the management company standing beside us, Alcobi wasn’t willing to go this far.

“I’m putting a lot of pressure on them to do things right,” he said. “Let me just say that.”

“So would you say that they’re on probation now?”

“No. Close watch. Not probation.”

He told me that firing the management company would hardly solve anything, since this would just lead to significant delays as an entirely new team worked to get up to speed. Alcobi stressed to me that he was only now learning about the seriousness of the problems in the building.

Given the general incompetence of his management company and what tenants had told me about their style of communication, I can readily believe that Alcobi hasn’t been receiving candid and regularly updated accounts of the state of his property. Still, I wasn’t convinced by the “shocked, absolutely shocked” pose Alcobi struck in both the meeting and in conversation with me. Alcobi has been contacted directly by tenants and tenant organizers repeatedly over the last few months. He arranged a meeting several months ago between tenants and management in which the management committed to fulfill a number of tenant requests that were subsequently ignored. Even if Alcobi had not conducted any active follow up on the progress of the repairs following that meeting, the steady stream of complaints to his office should have tipped him off that something was amiss. It isn’t as if the tenants suddenly jumped up one day and started to picket the man’s office in a fit of pique. They’ve been working fruitlessly for months to get basic repairs done on their apartments.

In any case, how much Alcobi knew on Wednesday morning about the condition of his property is sort of a moot point now. It is certain that he knows now, and that he’s given a commitment to fix the problems. I’ll revisit this issue in a future post to let you know how all this turns out.

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2009 02 26
Annals of Rabble Rousing: 2017 Caton Ave versus the landlords (bonus celebrity photo edition)

Some days you just feel like everything has come crashing down on your head. Olisa Holder felt that way on Monday, when a good chunk of her ceiling fell down on top of her, sending her briefly to the hospital. It sounded like freak accident to me, but I couldn’t find anyone in Holder’s building at 2017 Caton Ave in Flatbush, Brooklyn, who was willing to express surprise about it. The building and its sister building, 2023 Caton Ave, have a joint 600 violations (“and counting,” residents like to add) and a whole lot of very angry tenants. After years of fruitless attempts to convince the landlords to take the building and its maintenance seriously, they’ve recently launched a higher profile campaign for real change in their building. I went to the property yesterday to speak with some of the tenants, and then tagged along with them to the Upper East Side, where they protested outside Peter Ashe Real Estate, at 63rd and Lexington Ave. (Asher Alcobi, the President of Peter Ashe Real Estate, co-owns the building, along with Ami Blashkovsky, an agent at Peter Ashe Real Estate, and three others. The property itself has nothing to do with Peter Ashe Real Estate.)

Much more below the fold (including bonus celebrity photos!).

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Howls of outrage (7)

2009 02 25
Bobby Jindal and Kenneth from 30 Rock

Posted by in: U.S. politics

I just watched a bit of the Bobby Jindal response to Obama’s pseudo-SOTU speech. Jindal’s voice resembles the voice of the character Kenneth from the show 30 Rock with such creepy precision that I assumed at first that the video was some kind of spoof. Take a look. Apparently I’m not the only one who noticed.

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2009 02 19
Obama in Canada

Obama paid a six hour visit to my home town of Ottawa today. My sources there tell me that the entire city was in a tizzy, with people busing in from hours away on the off chance he would find a moment to wave at them. The CBC sent out nine breathless news alerts (which are usually reserved for when something, you know, happens) in a few hours about now classic moments such as Obama’s plane landing, Obama’s arriving at Parliament, the Prime Minister’s declaring himself “quite confident” that Obama would honour free trade agreements involving the U.S. and Canada, Obama’s meeting the leader of the opposition for 15 minutes at the airport on his way out, and Obama’s plane departing.

It’s difficult to convey to Americans how important U.S.-Canadian relations are to Canadians. We’ve always had a serious love-hate (perhaps more accurately “condescend-envy”) thing going on with the U.S., but it’s a relationship that has been especially tinged with anxiety these last eight years.

We got off to a very rough start with George Bush. Even before he assumed office, Canada’s ambassador at the time said—behind closed doors, I think, but it got out quickly—that we would do better with Gore. Chrétien was apparently disgusted and bewildered when he finally got to meet Bush. Bush reciprocated by making it clear that the U.S. would not longer be our BFF. And the entire relationship entered a deep freeze when Canada announced that it wouldn’t be helping with Iraq. It didn’t help that the U.S. ambassador to Canada for many years, Paul Celluci, was deeply unpopular in a way that struck me as unusual for an ambassador (he may have felt, in turn, that Canadians weren’t very warm).

Obama is so popular in Canada now that there’s really nowhere for him to go but down. There seem to be some pretty significant trade issues between the two countries, which are bound to be exacerbated by the state of the economy, and eventually it’s going to sink in that Obama counts his votes South of the border. Still, it’s wonderful that the U.S. is finally able to send someone who isn’t a fucking moron up North to talk with us. That sound you hear is an entire country exhaling with relief.

Howls of outrage (18)

2009 02 18
Recently read: The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction

Posted by in: Books, Economics, History

Eric Rauchway. The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction

Good stuff. I started the book with a very hazy sense of the Great Depression and the New Deal and emerged less than 150 pages of lucid, compact prose later with a clearer idea of the circumstances, complications, setbacks and triumphs of the New Deal.

(The author blogs at The Edge of the American West, which is also worth checking out.)

Howls of outrage (2)

2009 02 17
Recently read: Lust in Translation

Posted by in: Books, Sex

Pamela Druckerman. Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee

Paul sent me a snarky email when I stuck this book on my Amazon wishlist a while back, and I’m self-conscious enough that I declined to carry it with me as reading material on the subway. So I can only imagine how Pamela Druckerman felt about explaining the subject of her first book to her prospective in-laws (the writing of the book overlapped with her engagement and marriage).

My (extremely high-minded) excuse (let me just say preemptively) is that primate relationships are endlessly fascinating, especially human primate relationships, and especially human relationships in cross-cultural perspective. For Druckerman that sort of fascination was clearly part of it, but her thoughts were first focused on the subject (she says, with clearly preemptive intent) by the experience of being stationed in South America as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and finding herself suddenly, repeatedly, hit on by married men.

After she got over her annoyance (which she makes very clear, lest you get the wrong idea), she got curious. People—or the men, at least—seemed to have very different assumptions about the significance of infidelity. These assumptions struck Druckerman as pretty wrongheaded, but then again her assumptions struck them as wrongheaded. And this led her to attempt to stand back a bit from her own cultural assumptions, in a manner that goes back (at least) to Greek philosophers pondering cultural difference, noticing, for example, that different cultures treat their dead differently (some bury; some cremate; some dine); that different peoples tend to regard the customs of others with disgust; and wondering where in all that is there some norm established by nature that would allow us to assess the propriety of all these customs, and how would we know it if we found it, and are we sure we’re on the right side of it, since disgust by itself seems to have a pretty low epistemic value, and what are we left with if there isn’t any such norm, etc., and etc., and etc?

Anyway, the result for Druckerman of this sort of pondering, interspersed with research and interviews, is Lust in Translation, a cross-cultural survey of infidelity. Druckerman has herself an extraordinarily complex question, one that requires a lot of thinking, not just about culture, but also about race, religious, class, and gender issues that get inevitably tangled up in an attempt to survey differences across nations on any issue, let alone one that is highly private and fraught in all kinds of ways. (Dividing up the world into national cultures can be terribly misleading. It might well turn out, just for example, that working class people in two different countries have much more in common with one another than they do with the middle or upper classes in their respective countries. We can multiply such examples indefinitely. Indeed, it is the indefinite multiplication of such examples that gives some people hives at the mention of this sort of project.)

Druckerman, to her credit, seems more aware than your average journalist of some of the methodological pitfalls in such a study, at one point explaining why it’s so difficult even to get reliable national statistics for infidelity (the figures don’t all measure the same thing, for one thing). She also displays some awareness of race, class, gender issues that makes her subject so complex.

Unfortunately, her attention to these issues seems to me selective, partial, and often inadequate. You can complain about this, but you can’t complain that Druckerman doesn’t warn you. Seven pages into the introduction she admits that although she “spoke to experts and compared [her] observations with statistics, [her] own sample of adulterers isn’t scientific. It’s quirky, personal, and sometimes accidental.” Even with this proviso, I think Druckerman could have thought and written much more deeply about some of the gender and class issues she glances up against in the course of the book. But at least she’s not peddling her book as sociology.

So what does she find?

We all know the American script. One part of it says a cheating husband is supposed to tell his mistress that he’s unhappy with his wife. This means he’s not a lousy two-timer but rather a sensitive soul who is understandably searching for the love and affection he deserves. In China, however, I discover married men routinely praise their wives to their mistresses, to prove they respect women and to set boundaries for the affair.
People everywhere may have the same menu of emotions. But cultural scripts teach us which emotions to invoke on a particular occasion. A married Japanese woman was confused when I asked her if she felt guilty about having a lover. I had to repeat the question several times. Feeling guilty hadn’t occurred to her, since she was meeting her obligations to her family. A Frenchman was taken aback when I asked whether he had gone into therapy to sort out his double life. In fact, he had dropped out of therapy soon after meeting the woman who became his mistress, since he was finally happy.

(Druckerman’s interviews complicate some of these national stereotypes a bit, but probably not enough to satisfy someone whose methodological scruples leads her to find this sort of survey appallingly simplistic.)

When Druckerman looks at American society, she finds that the statistics don’t really bear out the impression that the US is a hedonistic nation of cheaters. In the United States, in 2004, among married or cohabiting couples, only 3.9% of men and 3.1% of women had had more than one sexual partner in the past year. (The impression that the figure is much higher is due partly to older and less reliable surveys.)

When Americans do cheat, however, the fallout is often more severe and prolonged than in other countries. It’s not that anyone, anywhere in a committed monogamous relationship is thrilled to find that their spouse has been with someone else. It’s just that Americans are, according to Druckerman, relatively highly primed for long sagas of guilt, obsessive rehashing of details, and oodles of therapy (much of that therapy being of questionable value).

Druckerman surveys a number of couples who, she thinks, are following the particular American cultural script on infidelity. Frankly, some of these couples seem so extreme that I wonder whether they’re chosen more for the Jerry Springer-like effect they give to these passages in the book than to any insight they shed on the broader culture. At any rate, Druckerman thinks that the script is encouraged by what she calls the Marriage-Industrial Complex, an enormous multi-billion dollar industry of counseling, self-help books, seminars, web sites, etc. that caters to these elaborate rituals of infidelity, guilt, excruciating quantities of disclosure, and (sometimes) redemption. “Marriage-Industrial Complex” is a decent enough label for an interesting notion; failing to follow it up a bit more seemed to me one of the lost opportunities in the book.

When she turns to a country like France, where she lives (or lived while writing the book; I don’t know where she is now), Druckerman doesn’t find quite what she (or I) expected. For one thing, the French don’t seem to cheat all that much either. In France, in 2004, among married couples between the ages of 18 and 54, 3.8% of men and 2% of women had had more than one sexual partner in the past year. In other words,

Most French adults are boringly, staggeringly faithful. They pair up in their late twenties or early thirties and then spend the rest of their lives having trusty marital sex with the same partner, over and over again.

(If you’re wondering about high-profile exceptions like Mitterrand, Druckerman has an interesting discussion of his case.) On top of this, those French prudes allegedly do less sexual juggling than Americans during the dating phase of a relationship. When they do cheat, however, the French seem not only less consumed by guilt, but much less inclined to make the American assumption that cheating is a social offense, that is, an offense in which others have a genuine interest, on the grounds that it gives away a general character flaw which is bound the affect the cheater’s performance of other social roles (professional, for example).

And so it goes. As the book progresses, Druckerman packs her suitcase again and again for Russia, South Africa, Japan, and so on. Once there, she interviews a few people, rehashes some stats, and reflects (briefly and superficially—how could it be otherwise given the massive scope of her inquiry?) on the possible social and cultural determinants of the attitudes she finds there.

I think the main problem I had with this book is that—a bit like a certain type of unsatisfied spouse—I kept wanting it to be something that it wasn’t, and never claimed to be. Cross cultural surveys are fascinating, but “quirky, personal, and sometimes accidental” surveys tend to drive me sort of nuts. I don’t want to imply that it’s rigorous sociology or bust for me. I think a good novel featuring infidelity might be a valuable source of insight into the subject. Perhaps a more thoughtful, less frenetic meditation on the subject might have gone over better. But casual pop surveys of a subject seem to fall in an uncomfortable intermediate zone in between highly particular fictional studies and rigorous sociology. Anyway, all this is just to say that even though Druckerman sets her methodological cards out on the table in a frank and honest way, I have no idea whether anything much she contributes to the subject is actually true. And in the end, though she made me no promises, that makes me feel a little, well, cheated.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 02 11
Recently read: Rembrandt’s Nose

Posted by in: Art, Books

Michael Taylor. Rembrandt’s Nose: Of Flesh and Spirit in the Master’s Portraits

Recently, I had the idea that I would start reading more about visual art. The first thing I did was lug home Jansen’s massive History of Art from the library. But the thing was too daunting, and I have a bunch of other books out now. Anyway, I’m not sure that a broad historical survey is the best way into any subject. (This is why back when I was teaching I always did my best to transform any surveyish class I was responsible for into something a bit more focused, the idea being that you often get a better sense of the whole by learning a part of it in some meaningful detail. The only thing I ever got from a ram-it-down-your-throat-as-fast-as-you-can-buffet style sampler approach to a subject is that there’s a lot of the subject, perhaps even too much.)

And so I decided to begin reading about visual art at the other end of the scale of generality, with a book-length study of noses in Rembrandt. If it strikes you as funny that someone would write a book length study of noses in Rembrandt, then you probably haven’t read Rembrandt’s Nose. It’s author, Michael Taylor, is so keen on the subject, finds it so natural a spur to reflection and study, that he confesses at the outset of the book that when he first got the idea for it he was surprised that no one else had gotten there first. Lucky him. And lucky us too. It’s a delightful book, filled with close observations, insight, and warmth.

Rembrandt’s Nose is not just about noses in Rembrandt’s paintings, etchings and sketches.* It’s just that noses play a starring role in the works that Taylor discusses: the way they catch the light in Rembrandt’s portraits; the way they indicate character and experience. Taylor works more or less chronologically through a number of works of art, describing them closely, commenting on them, and filling in historical details when it matters. It should be obvious that I’m completely ignorant when it comes to this sort of thing, and so I’m not in a position to say anything about the reliability of Taylor’s scholarship. I can say, however, that Taylor’s observations helped me see things I would not otherwise have seen; and that having seen those things, I felt better equipped in general to notice more about other works of visual art. If you’re starting out the way I am, you can’t ask for much more in a book on visual art.

* I think that the title is in part an homage to Simon Schama’s influential book Rembrandt’s Eyes.

Howls of outrage (2)

2009 02 09
Recently read: I Was Told There’d Be Cake

Posted by in: Books

Sloane Crosley. I Was Told There’d Be Cake: Essays

This is a collection of personal essays. On the back, one of the blurbs calls it a “lively reminiscence about growing up strange.” The blurber can’t have read the book. Crosley is a remarkably bland, ordinary person. Indeed, her blandness is sort of a recurring theme in these essays, as she seems perfectly aware that she’s a bland, ordinary person.

Personal essays can charm by the force of an author’s personality; by their subject matter; or by their distinctive use of language. Regarding the first, see the first paragraph. As for the subject matter, it’s also pretty bland. Throughout I Was Told There’d Be Cake there are occasional sentences, one-liners, and similes that made me laugh and keep reading. But I thought they were dragged down by the surrounding prose, which often seems to be either trying too hard to be funny or reads as though it could have used just one more draft. Her writing is well-paced for all that, and if you’re not fussy, or if you’re not in a fussy mood, this book might get you through a few subway rides.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 02 06

Posted by in: Anecdotal

I wonder which group blog this poor bastard writes for.

Howls of outrage (21)

2009 02 06
Recently Read: Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays

Posted by in: Art, Books, Feminism

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing got me interested in feminist art criticism so I looked around a bit, gathered the impression that Linda Nochlin was an important figure in the field, and got a hold of this collection of essays. The volume brings together seven essays, arranged in reverse chronological order, from 1988 to 1971. Now that I’ve read the book, it’s obvious to me why Nochlin matters: the essays are both ambitious and cogent. A few of the essays were studies of particular artists or themes. These were less interesting to me, since I don’t have the background in the subjects to really evaluate or challenge Nochlin’s line of argument. But a few of the essays were really exciting, in particular the title essay, “Women, Art, and Power” (1988) and the final (chronologically, the first) essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971).

“Women, Art, and Power” is about,

the ways in which representations of women in art are founded upon and serve to reproduce indisputably accepted assumptions held by society in general, artists in particular, and some artists more than others about men’s power over, superiority to, difference from, and necessary control of women, assumptions which are manifested in the visual structures as well as the thematic choices of the pictures in question. Ideology manifests itself as much by what is unspoken—unthinkable, unrepresentable—as by what is articulated in a work of art. Insofar as many of the assumptions about women presented themselves as a complex of commonsense views about the world, and were therefore assumed to be self-evident, they were relatively invisible to most contemporary viewers, as well as to the creators of the paintings. Assumptions about women’s weakness and passivity; her sexual availability for men’s needs; her defining domestic and nurturing function; her identity with the realm of nature; her existence as object rather than creator of art; the patent ridiculousness of her attempts to insert herself actively into the realm of history by means of work or engagement in political struggle—all of these notions, themselves premised on an even more general, more all-pervasive certainty about gender difference itself—all of these notions were shared, if not uncontestedly, to a greater or lesser degree by most people of our period, and as such constitute an ongoing subtext underlying almost all individual images involving women.

Yet, as Nochlin is quick to explain, the word “subtext” is potentially misleading:

It is not a deep reading I am after; this is not going to be an attempt to move behind the images into some realm of more profound truth lurking beneath the surface of the various pictorial texts.

Rather, the implications about women that Nochlin finds in visual art are there on the surface, as the plainest elements of a painting, even if we are not used to focusing our attention on them.

Focusing our attention on these implications is easier said than done—at least for this culturally obtuse dude, it is. I’m a feminist, and I’ve spent some time thinking about feminism and feminist issues. Even so, the plain meaning of a painting, the set of obvious implications suggested by different elements in it, is often extremely difficult to take in, whether we’re talking about gender in particular or other kinds of social relations. This is partly because of my own limitations as a viewer. But it’s also because seeing this sort of thing clearly is just an inherently difficult thing to do. Art has all kinds of functions, but it performs its ideological function, as Nochlin points out, by making certain highly contingent assumptions seem highly natural. What makes a book like this so exciting, for me at least, is the promise it holds of teaching how to see things in a fresh way. With a bit of practice, gradually what seems natural and ordinary—say, certain conventional treatments of women in painting—can be re-viewed as contingent and peculiar. Nochlin, of course, gives us more than theory. She walks through a number of examples, setting out and arguing for her interpretation of them.

The standard complaint here is that this approach to art turns it into an occasion for harping on your favourite ideological preoccupations, rather than treating art on its own terms, whatever that means, exactly. Berger faced much the same criticism in response to his own Marxist-influenced approach to art. “We are accused of being obsessed with property,” he wrote.

The truth is the other way round. It is the society and culture in question which is so obsessed. Yet to an obsessive his obsession always seems to be of the nature of things and so is not recognized for what it is. The relation between property and art in European culture appears natural to that culture, and consequently if somebody demonstrates the extent of the property interest in a given cultural field, it is said to be a demonstration of his obsession.

The depiction of women as subordinate in visual art is pervasive, and although the fixation on this subordination often isn’t conscious, it’s nevertheless very deeply ingrained in the Western tradition. So it seems to me that the criticism of a feminist approach to art criticism mentioned above is especially perverse. It’s the tradition that is shot through with sexist assumptions, to the extent that it would be completely unrecognizable without them, and feminist art criticism is only pointing that out.

Nochlin’s essay “Why are there no Great Women Artists?” is also good. Nochlin surveys a few of the standard responses to this question, dismisses them, and then launches into an investigation of the shared characteristics of most of the artists in the last few hundred years who are considered great. Practically none of them, Nochlin notes, came from the aristocracy, in spite of the fact that aristocrats often had encouragement and some amateur instruction at painting. Very few people ask “Why are there no Great Aristocratic Artists?” Once we do ask the question, the answer is reasonably clear: Aristocrats lived according to, and within, a set of social expectations and restrictions that made the sort of intensive, early, full-time training necessary for serious accomplishment extremely difficult, if not impossible, to acquire. (No one worries, of course, that aristocrats might be born with little natural facility for art.)

Women, aristocratic or not, had a whole other set of burdens, social expectations and restrictions to deal with. Nochlin illustrates this by singling out one such factor for scrunity: the availability of nude studies for aspiring woman painters. Extensive work on such studies was considered an absolutely essential precondition for serious accomplishment in the most respected areas of visual art for much of the last few hundred years of Western visual art. Unsurprisingly, the opportunities for such studies for women were highly restricted (at times there were no such opportunities; other times, they were extremely limited). Nochlin’s meditation on this theme circles a number of times around the notion of greatness, teasing apart the assumptions that go into the question, as well as possible responses to her question.

Anyway, this is good stuff. I imagine the general reader would have roughly the same experience that I had with some of the essays in this collection (that is, might find them a little too specialized). But a few of the essays I would certainly recommend for anyone with any interest in visual art.

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2009 02 04
A very rough proxy for anger at the Pope

This morning brought the news that Angela Merkel has decided to add her voice to the chorus of criticism directed at Pope Benedict for his decision, on January 21, 2009, to lift the excommunication of holocaust denying bishop Richard Williamson. Pope Benedict was himself a member of the Hitler Youth as a young man, which obviously complicates matters for him when he starts ex-excommunicating holocaust deniers.

I figure a very rough proxy for anger about the issue has to be the number of Google hits for “Nazi Pope” in a particular period of time. Of course, we should expect a baseline number of hits as a result of the controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII, and there’s bound to be a lot of noise (people angrily objecting to the term “Nazi Pope” for example). Anyway, this chart is rough and crappy, but it gives you an idea.

Graph of google hits for nazi pop over time.

It’s even more remarkable if you assume that the vast bulk of the increase comes from the period after January 21, 2009. I wonder what February will look like.

Description of how I made the chart is below the fold, in case anyone wants to check its accuracy.

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Howls of outrage (13)

2009 02 03
Recently read: Talent is Overrated

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

Geoff Colvin. Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

Some people suck at what they do; others are good; a few are great. What explains the difference? People often answer this question by pointing to talent, the raw natural gift that some people seem to have which gives them the edge over others, whether the field is mathematics or golf. But talent, says Geoff Colvin, Senior Editor at Large for Fortune Magazine, is overrated. According to Colvin, the success of high achievers is more or less the result of many years—typically a minimum of around 10 years, full time—of deliberate practice in a field. Deliberate practice does not consist in simply performing the relevant activity. Rather,

[i]t is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

Playing tennis to improve your game doesn’t count as deliberate practice. Taking your game apart, identifying weaknesses, systematically drilling yourself in the weak areas—that is deliberate practice. It’s difficult to spend more than four hours a day on deliberate practice, and the limit explains why it can be so hard to catch up to high achievers who have started earlier than us in some field. But it’s oodles of deliberate practice that makes people great at what they do, along with all the conditions that make deliberate practice possible (luck, encouragement, financial support, etc., which Colvin mention in passing and then mostly ignores). In an interesting discussion, Colvin surveys a range of possible responses and counterarguments to his position, attempting to rob talent of most of its explanatory value when it comes to success and achievement.

If all this sounds too obvious to bother setting down in a book, just think for a moment about how often raw talent is offered as an explanation for differences in human achievement. If this is misguided, as I suspect, there’s value in pointing it out, and in getting into the details of the debate about the role of raw talent, especially in fields like music or sports where we’re inclined to put a lot of emphasis on it.

If all this sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because you’ve already been exposed, in one way or another, to the work of Anders Ericsson. Ericsson’s seminal paper (with Krampe and Tesch-Römer), “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” (Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (1993), pp. 363-406) for example, sets all this out very clearly in about 40 pages. Colvin graciously acknowledges his deep debt to Ericsson’s work throughout the book, and notes in the acknowledgments that Ericsson even met with him several times while he was writing it. Colvin says that without Ericsson his book could not have been written, and I can only concur. Even so, I was struck reading through Ericsson’s paper how closely Colvin has stuck to him, right down to his use of Francis Galston as a foil, and a great many of the examples. As for which you should spend you time on, Colvin’s summary of Ericsson is certainly easier going; Ericsson’s account is written in dry academic prose and only accessible from a decent library, but gives you all you need and more in far fewer pages than Colvin’s account. Take your pick.

Alas, as soon as Colvin leaves Ericsson behind you start to see why he was so reluctant to do so. The rest of the book consists mainly of not-terribly-adventurous and/or appealing suggestions for designing organizations to allow greater opportunities for deliberate practice and a series of oddly menacing pep talks intended to inspire us to greatness.

Pulling together the threads, the pep talk goes something like this: Greatness is possible, of course, because it’s mainly a matter of deliberate practice, which is in our control, as opposed to talent, which is not. (Set aside as inconvenient for the purpose of pep talks that the conditions which allow for deliberate practice are frequently not within our control. Also set aside that, according to Colvin’s own theory, we’re bound to be way behind people who had a head start on us in racking up hours of deliberate practice.) It’s a good thing greatness is possible, because it’s also increasingly necessary. A dark undercurrent of anxiety courses through this book just beneath the sunny can-do attitude shimmering on the surface: “We can do it! (And we’d fucking better.)” Globalization has unleashed hoards of hungry workers around the world to nip at our heels. The world is picking up speed; everyone is getting better and better. “If you think your job isn’t exportable, you may be right—but think about it hard before you relax.” For the rest of us, “[t]he costs of being less than truly world class are growing.”

And it’s not just globalization that is putting intense competitive pressure on individuals and people to reach new heights. What’s going on is part of a deeper trend in the world economy. To see this, Colvin explains in a passage that really deserves to be quoted at length,

we need to take a step back. How many offers of credit cards do you get in the mail every day? Do your kids get them? how about your pet? . . . It’s happening because the world’s financial institutions are awash in money. They literally have more than they know what to do with, and they’re saying: Take some, please!

Those financial institutions aren’t alone. Companies of all kinds have far more money than they need. The cash held by U.S. companies is hitting all-time records. Companies are using some of this money to buy back their own stock at record rates. When a company does this, it’s saying to its investors: We don’t have any good ideas for what to do with this, so here—maybe you do.

These are all manifestations of a much larger phenomenon. For roughly five hundred years—from the explosion of commerce and wealth that accompanied the Renaissance until the late twentieth century—the scarce resource in business was financial capital. If you had it, you had the means to create more wealth, and if you didn’t, you didn’t. That world is now gone. Today, in a change that is historically quite sudden, financial capital is abundant. The scarce resource is no longer money. It’s human ability.

(Talent is Overrated was published in 2008. I saw it prominently featured on the prime display tables at the front of the Union Square Barnes and Noble in late December. In a nice bit of comic timing, it had to share a table with Michael Lewis’ Panic, which is, in part, about the massive and terrifying global credit crunch we’re now going through.)

But there’s good news here too: because deliberate practice tends not to be very much fun, you’ll be competing with a lot of people who won’t be able to keep it up.

As for our kids, while starting to train the next generation of business leaders for success at an early age might not sound appealing to some of us, “other societies may not hesitate,” to follow the wisdom contained in books like Talent is Overrated, so

[i]f governments or family in some of these countries decide to focus on turning out managers who are whizzes at age twenty-one and will just keep getting better, we will have to confront that reality and perhaps think again about our own views.

Indeed we might.

Colvin has himself an interesting theme here, and when he’s in Ericsson’s hands, he sometimes manages to bring it to life. Unfortunately, the book’s good qualities are often eclipsed by its more annoying ones. Although many of the examples in the book are drawn from sports and music, Talent is Overrated seems to be targeted very much at the managerial class. If managers read the book and come away with a new commitment to developing human talent in their organizations, so much the better. As for the rest of us, ymmv.

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2009 02 02
Recently read: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

Posted by in: Books

David Foster Wallace. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments

This is the first time I’ve read anything by David Foster Wallace, which means that I had to encounter him first by reputation, then by the news of his suicide, and then through (and partly prompted by) all the good-byes and tributes. To get into this book, I had to get past all that, and then get through the first essay in this collection, the weakest of the bunch.* It wasn’t very long, though, before I realized that, yes, he really is pretty awesome, just like everybody says he is.

The essays collected in this volume range over a number of subjects. There are two on tennis—though they’re also about much more than that; an essay on television; a review of a book on deconstructionist literary theory; a meditation on David Lynch. There are also two long and extremely funny and absorbing pieces in which DFW basically walks around and reports impressions from two different settings, the first a state fair, the second a cruise ship.

The informality of his prose is what strikes you first. “Like”s get thrown in the middle of sentences as flavouring particles, neologisms** and shorthands sprout up everywhere, rules get broken, usually in the direction of the colloquial—all of which helps to generate the impression that he’s giving some sort of inspired, impromptu speech over a coffee. This is coupled, in a way that oddly, really works, with a rather large and eccentric vocabulary. I report this only as an observation, without meaning to suggest that this is in any way a suitable proxy for quality, but I was struck several times while reading this book how incredibly difficult it would be to translate into another language.

Beyond the prose style, the richness of which took a while to really dawn on me, DFW emerges vividly in all the essays as unquestionably neurotic and high strung, but also deeply likable, generous, and honest. His review of a book on deconstructionism shows this nicely. He’s not out to hijack a review to make some grand statement. He reads and responds to the book the way he should: by patiently attempting to sift out what is sensible, or at least interesting, from what is not. And then at the end of the review he notes, almost in passing,

For those of us civilians who know in our gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another, the whole question seems sort of arcane.

Which is funny, since it’s the way I sort of feel about deconstructionism, to the extent that I understand it, which is not really. But whereas I’m inclined to fling a book across the room when I get to this point with an author, DFW takes a second look and comes away with interesting things to say. His essay on David Lynch and his movie “Lost Highway” shows a similar charity. It didn’t make me want to watch “Lost Highway” again—nothing could do that—but it did help me to see why some people value Lynch’s films.

The best piece in the collection is “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” the essay which gives the book it’s title. This is the essay in which DFW wanders around a cruise ship, interacting (neurotically, often very awkwardly) with his fellow cruise passengers, reflecting on the experience, retreating to his cabin, and then venturing out again. It’s hilarious and insightful, and the book would be worth its sticker price even if this were the only piece in it.

* It’s marred, I think, by a bit of overreaching in the attempt to work his interest in mathematics into the main theme of tennis. But perhaps that’s just me. I’ve never played tennis, and I know nothing about mathematics.

** A couple disembarking from a cruise ship are “Syrianly tan.” I love that.

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