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GP1Sep04: Book Reports: The Quest for Relevance

Posner Redux.  Our old, very original friend Richard Posner delivers this week’s surprise in The New York Times Book Review (August 29,2004), pp. 1 and 9-11.  There he exhumes the 9/11 Commission Report, which is hot off the presses.  Since his longish piece really is more of a review of the Commission’s biases, methodology, and results than of the Report itself, it really does not belong in the book section.  But then again, the Book Review has become thin, tired, and emaciated, so it needs a lift.  Posner’s dissent to the Report, based on a rather statist view of the world, is the kind of opinion piece you would expect in The New York Review of Books, and perhaps that’s where The New York Times is headed. 

Black Swans.  Basically the Commission holds that there are grave structural flaws in our national intelligence system that led to 9/11.  Cautious Judge Posner thinks that no system, no matter how well wrought, will spot and deal with risks that are unlike any we have seen before.  He sees September 11, 2001 in this light.  He asserts that we should not wildly tinker with our intelligence system (but make incremental changes to it), since such upheaval may in fact lead to something much worse.  This puts him much at odds with the consensus ably delivered by Co-Chairmen Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, who have proven to be a remarkable duo. 

He’s not at all alone in considering 9/11 to be the kind of risk we cannot anticipate or prevent.  A chap named Taleb has labeled such risks Black Swans, events we miss because we always want to fit new facts into our old preconceptions of how the world works. It’s simply hard to guard against the unexpected.  For more on this, see our Global Province letter of June 23, 2004

That said, we find Posner’s analysis masterful, convincing, and dead wrong.  We must say that he reminds us of Great Britain’s Lord of Liverpool, an early 19th-century prime minister who was said to be so conservative that if he had presided over Creation, he would have said, “Let us conserve chaos.”  Our soon to be published Annual Report on Annual Reports 2004 theorizes that all our institutions (not just our intelligence system)—business, government, academia, etc.—have fallen into disarray in the post-Cold War world, not attuned to the global forces with which we must grapple.  They need to be re-invented.  As for 9/11, we find that there were a host of mid-level operatives (middle managers, if you like) both in and out of government who clearly saw a 9/11 coming and tried to warn their superiors.  It’s fair to call this systematic breakdown at many levels: so many top dogs managed to hear so little.  Mere tinkering with the system won’t get at its flaws.  Nonetheless, Posner’s disagreements with some of the Commission’s main recommendations are very well founded, and all the organizational nostrums we have heard from the Commissioners, the Administration, and the legislature sound a bit laughable. 

The Debut of T.  If the Times Book Review has become a very thin rag, its new style magazine T, launched on August 29, is an unbelievably overweight 288 pages, obese and editorially unimportant.  This is all about advertising, since clothiers must show their wares in print.  The Times has always had occasional style magazines, but now it plans to churn them out once a month.  We are also seeing more so-called style sections even in regional papers.  Newspapers, with shrinking circulations and erratic advertisers, are finding more gold than ever in the world of finery.  A very smart publisher will come along who will publish a style insert for all the Sunday papers across the country. 

Ms. Hancock Reports.  Our own bloggette, twenty something and from the Northeast, brings us up to date on what young optimistic misses might be reading or viewing.  To be sure, the what that captures her is not The New York Times in either its anorectic or bulimic formats.  Her ‘here and now’ has nothing to do with what the pundits and fashionmongers chat about.  Her summer notes for late July follow: 

Tween Queens Equal Oscar Winners? Not a Chance  July 19, 2004 4:19 pm
A local newspaper recently heralded Hilary Duff’s performance in “A Cinderella Story” as one that will draw Oscar attention.  Come again?  Tween queens gain attention, move on to lousy teen comedies, try to launch singing careers like their older counterparts, and then fade away.  Oscars aren’t part of the equation. Frankly, tween queens just don’t have the talent to hack it long term.  While many were pleasantly surprised by “Mean Girls” (starring Duff’s nemesis Lindsay Lohan), I attribute its success to the script by Tina Fey, a Saturday Night Live regular, rather than any stellar acting.  Tween queens have a designated role in the entertainment industry: To amuse thirteen year old girls, then to appear on MTV as guest stars on “TRL” and amuse a few boys, then never to be heard of again until VH1 includes them in a segment on “I love the 90s”.  Now, maybe Duff or Lohan actually has what it takes to become mature actors.  But I, for one, won’t believe it until I see their Oscar acceptance speeches. 

A Re-Discovery of Tatler July 26, 2004 8:02 pm
I haven’t read Tatler for something like 10 years but, frustrated with the magazine offerings all geared at the single twenty-something female wanting to know how to get rid of cellulite, I forked over $9 for the July issue of Tatler.  Yes, $9.  But it’s twice as long as all of its trashier, American counterparts and twice as much fun.  With glossy photos of European royalty, articles about going topless on beaches and yoga retreats in Morocco and Tuscany, and mentions of Kate Moss and Stella McCartney, Tatler represents the highbrow life.  Amusingly, it also knows how to mock that same lifestyle—One It girl wails about her need for therapy and runs through a barrage of treatments (including facials, a colonic, acupuncture, and “retail therapy”) totaling £49, 330.  However, apart from this spoof of an article, Tatler doesn’t refer to insecurities.  Nowhere in Tatler are articles telling you how to become a better girlfriend or how to lose 30 pounds by Labor Day.  Why?  Because you’re already fabulous, dahling.  

She Said, He Said, She Won August 1, 2004 7:35 p.m.
If a man is alone in the woods without his girlfriend and says something, is he still wrong?  The very beleaguered Mil Millington weighs in on the eternal battle of the sexes in his recent book (and soon to be screenplay),  Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About.  The ongoing conflicts between the main character, Pel Dalton, and his German girlfriend, Ursula Krotenjager, are based on the pitfalls of Mil’s own dysfunctional relationship, which is chronicled on his website www.milmillington.com. I had previously discovered this website (an excellent way to pass an afternoon) and was delighted to find a bookstore that carried Mil’s novel.  Pel and Ursula’s inane debates (which almost always include threats of bodily harm from Ursula and priceless insults like “monkey child”) serve as a backdrop to Pel’s increasingly bizarre work life.  Mil’s portrayal of the couple is downright funny and true-to-life; while he lets his creativity loose with Pel’s job: A perpetually hung over boss, Asian mobsters, and 80 gallons of nerve gas are all thrown into the mix.  I can’t wait until the movie.  

Quest for Relevance.  It’s hard for arthritic institutions to be globally relevant.  Newspapers are engaged in a bitter battle for eyes (and revenue).  Meanwhile, the young and confident have no use for either, are determined to have a bit of fun, and think about far different things that our bigwigs don’t know about.

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