Monday, July 31, 2006

Oil and the Birth of Iraq

“But what about oil?” my friend M asks. “Wasn’t oil a factor in the settlement at the end of World War I?” The answer must be “yes,” but I wasn’t equipped to specify. Take it away, Peter Mansfield:

“[E]ven before the First World War there was little doubt that northern Mesopotamia was [a] potentially oil-rich area … On the eve of the First World War, the Ottoman government granted a concession to the Turkish Petroleum company (TPC) in which the Anglo-Persian Oil Company had a half interest together with Royal Dutch Shell and the German Deutsche Bank … Hence at the end of the war Britain, with its troops occupying Mosul and having expropriated the German interest in the TPC, was in a commanding position to control Mesopotamian oil. However, Britain had obligations to France under the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which, in its original form, included Mosul in the French zone of influence. In 1919 Britain persuaded France to transfer Mosul to the British zone, in return for a guaranteed role in the development of Mosul oil. France also agreed to the construction of two separate pipelines for the transport of oil from Mesopotamia and Persia through the French spheres of influence to the Mediterranean.

It was at this point that the United States government intervened … [asserting that] an ‘open-door’ policy should be maintained in commercial matters in the mandated territories. This meant equal treatment ‘in law and in fact for the commerce of all nations’, but oil was the chief concern. The British government, on the other hand, felt that the USA already had enough oil of its own in Texas. A prolonged and sometimes acrimonious correspondence between the US State Department and the British Foreign Office monopoy of the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), the successor of the TPC, which was owned jointly in 23.75 percent shares by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later BP); Royal Dutch Shell; an American group which was ultimately reduced to Standard Oil of New Jersey and Socony-Vacuum (later Mobil); and the Compagnie Française des Pétroles (CFP), with [oil zillionaire] Calouste Gulbenkian holding the remaining 5 percent. … A major oilfield was discovered near Kirkuk in 1927, and by 1934 production was contributing substantially to Iraq’s revenues.

So Mansfield’s A History of the Middle East at 214-15. Pretty tight writing, for a guy who has been dead for ten years.

Fn: (Yes, this is a 2003 edition, “revised and updated,” but I’m betting that the quoted text is the original version).

The NYT's own JonBenet Ramsey

That would be Brooke Astor (two days' haul):

Socialite's Son Pays a Visit...

Not Easy to Match Nobeless With Oblige

On a Hardscrablle Road...

Son Not Notified...

Cast as Her Protector...

Stop Spending My Inheritance...

Remember JonBenet?

Our earlier post is here.


Ready for my profile, Mr. Blogosphere

Did He Remember to Floss?

Six hours on prayer,
On law's sweet study, six.
Four hours on sleep,
The rest on nature fix.
--Sir Edward Coke

Afterthought: I almost wrote that there is no good biography biography of Coke, unless you count Catherine Drinker Bowen's Lion and the Throne. Woops, wrong: apparently there is. And Liberty Classics has put its fine set of Coke papers online.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Search for an Arab Pope (and Other Follies)

Prepping for a tourist pleasure trip to the Middle East (yeh, I know), I’ve been rereading David Fromkin’s “A Peace to End All Peace,” subtitled “The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East." I first read it when it was new in 1989, just before my own first trip to Turkey. I’m sorry to say I understand it better this time—my sorrow reflecting the fact that so much more knowledge about the Middle East has been thrust upon us all. Anyway, I thought it a good book then and I think so now, though with reservations. The most important reservation is sources: I didn’t notice him actually specifying, but it looks to me like he is dealing only with sources in English. It may be a long time before we get one writer who can work in English, German, French, Russian, Turkish and Arabic, but until then, there is more to be done. Another difficulty is sheer sprawl: Fromkin has a lot to tell, and he doesn’t always keep his material under control. On the other hand, no one could accuse him of imposing artificial order.

But here is a takeaway point: the criminal/comical ignorance—coupled with brazen arrogant indifference—of the British, about their foes. Those who cared at all—and there don’t seem to have been many—were mostly braised into a great paranoid stew, equal parts Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Lex Luthor, like something out of a John Buchan novel.

Hardly surprising when you consider that one of the chief architects of the British worldview was John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) and Greenmantle (1916), novels chock-full of comic-book conspiracy. Buchan capped his literary success by becoming at wartime Director of Information. The Buchan-like mind-set led the British high command completely to misunderstand the Ottoman Empire, and the Arab’s presence in it. General Wingate, the British de facto proconsul in Egypt, saw the Turkish presence in the war as the work of “a syndicate of Jews, financiers, and low-born intriguers;” Buchan himself called them “a collection of Jews and gipsies"--intriguers maybe, but Jews were almost entirely absent, and heaven knows what he meant by "gipsies." The Brits presupposed a kind of “Arab nationalism” that scarcely existed. They went looking for an “Arab pope” who did not exist at all. And they took it for granted that the Arabs would accept, or perhaps would welcome, British rule.

Time has put paid to at least the last of these misapprehensions.

Ignorance was part of the problem. But arrogance finished it off. Here is information minister Buchan, as quoted by Fromkin, in Buchan’s novel Greenmantle:

The truth is that we are the only race on earth that can produce men capable of getting inside the skin of remote peoples. Perhaps the Scots are better than the English, but we’re all a thousand percent better than anybody else.

These days, we have a name for that sort of thing.

Afterthought: I just noticed, but will not pursue, the irony of telling a story about British ignorance of foreigners, while using only British sources.

Suggestion: last time I looked, there were 93 Amazon reviews. Consider organizing them as “lowest rated first,” and then skimming the negative reviews as far as you feel you need to go, to get a sense of the complaints. Works for me with any Amazon book with a lot of reviews.

Get That Ice or Else No Dice

Michael Gelleland is channeling Thoreau (and blogging at 7:04 am):

It is safest to invest in knowledge, for the probability is that you can carry that with you wherever you go.

Thoreau, Journals (January 3, 1861):

True as far as it goes, but they might want to consider diamonds. I believe it was said of Felix Rohatyn that his family didn't trust any any investment that wouldn't fit in a toothpaste tube.


The always-interesting Economist's View reprints Tom Slater's fine piece about the hosing-out (or just "hosing") of poor people. A commentator points out, rightly, that it harkens back to the Urban Renewal "slum clearance" programs of the 50s and 60s. He's quite right, but I suspect it is much older: poor people are a nuisance, they are expensive, and they smell funny. Likely that the non-poor have been trying to push them off the planet for a long time.

An interesting counter-story is the way in which poor people have a way of not staying hosed, but of popping up again--think of the (now quite lively) "City of the Dead" in Cairo, the overnight barrios that pop up around South American cities, the gecekondu that litter the hillsides in Turkey (ready to tumble down, it would appear, in the next earthquake) or the numberless multitudes just asleep on the street in Mumbai.

Pamela Anderson

on how she copes with stress:

"I have two words for you: champagne."

Obviously recalling the venerable toast:

Real pain to our sham friends,
And champagne to our real friends.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Rebecca Goldstein

Has a great agent. Some 25,800 Google hits. Cool.

Moving to a Higher Plane of Consciousness

Somehow I thought this was about dental plans.

My daughter enlightens me.

Wouldn't You Pay $15 to the Met

To see this?

Life Under the Sloped Demand Curve

Three things you learn in basic econ:

1) It’s no surprise that everybody on the plane is paying a different price.

2) The last thing you want is a job where you get paid what you are worth.

3) We all want a hidy hole under a sloped demand curve.

So this account-- of how Cingular figures out when to hold and when to fold on customer switching-- is a kind of old news. But read it anyway, and then skim down to the comment from the guy at Technical Video Rentals and learn (in a bit more detail) how they do the same thing. And the final shockeroo: “Someone who's given us tons of business gets the kid glove treatment.”

But ABC Has the Story About the Snake and the Electric Blanket

This would be, I believe, the third day that the New York Times has given ink to the possible plight of Brooke Astor, the celebrity zillionaire who may be (but perhaps is not) languishing in squalor due to the malice and cupidity of the son. The original story had at least a core of bona fide journalism: the report that (as the Times put it) “In a lawsuit, one of her grandsons has accused her son of mistreating her and turning her final years into a grim shadow of the glittery decades that went before.”

Fair enough, and we will put aside carping over whether anyone would have cared had she been Mrs. Schmaster. The Times followed up on Friday with the inevitable editorial assuring us that it’s not just salacious voyeurism at stake here. Nononono: “the case should bring home a larger point”—that we should be nice to old people (there are also a couple of letters to the editor, from writers to whom the phrase “rush to judgment seems never to have occurred).

Thanks, Times, we’ll write that down. And better be quick about it, too, before we get distracted by Saturday’s story –no, wait, make that two stories— that just might be seen as drifting from the main event. One tells us that Brooke’s former spread in Maine is now in the hands of her daughter-in-law. The implicit subtext is that the younger woman is some kind of a malefactor but the Times, not wanting to get its scrawny establishment butt sued off, doesn’t go nearly so far as to say so. The other story seems devoted to saying that a lot of people are talking about the Astors.

Enough, already. It’s old news that the Times strives to fill the niche as the poor man’s People Magazine. But the rush of gush over Brooke seems to be striving for vacuity. Fortunately, with all this fluff, the Times has not lost its taste for outright fiction.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Usual Suspects

Greg Mankiw, at his excellent new econ blog, asks readers for suggestions re their favorite blogs. It's the kind of question that will swamp you in commentary, most of which I admit I read with interest. But at the end of the day, you have to admit: if you pay any attention to econ blogs, you will have to admit that you end up with about the most predictable thread you can possibly imagine. Here, for example, is an exemplary list of 20 blogs; I admit I read about 16 of them--and so, I suspect, does almost everyone else responding to Mankiw's inquiry. This in itself can't be a vice; it may be just broad agreement on quality. But you can't escape the suspicion that we're just rounding up the usual suspects. The blogosphere isn't all that old, but it seems to have settled already into patterns of conventionality. Truth is, I considered in listing all these guys in my own links list. But what is the point, I wondered, of one more voice added to the din?

[Readers looking for a theme in my links list should be informed: most of them are either (a) blogs that amused me; or (b) friends of mine, or (c) both. And I deliberately skipped over blogs that seem to have all the action they can use.]

"Anecdotal Evidence" speaks of solipsism and propaganda. "New York Crank" says he is an electronic frotteur. Readers are invited to consider whether either of these concepts has anything to do with this discussion.

What Jobs Cannot be Outsourced?

Have long thought--okay, somebody told me--that if you want to know something about employment security, then take a look at work forces that labor organizers are winning for the Teamsters Union. These guys did not just fall off the turnip truck; they are going to concentrate their efforts on jobs that cannot easily be outsourced. Sure enough. Hint: think "parking lot attendant."

The Cycle of Employment

[I thought I posted this last summer, but I find a copy among my unpublished drafts, so I'll try it again:]

Reflecting on my observations about English majors, I am reminded of the life cycle of employment as propounded by my friend Mary:
The waitresses want to be beauticians.
The beauticians want to be real estate agents.
The real estate agents want to be lawyers.
The lawyers want to own restaurants.

Did I mention that Mary is a lawyer. And a dynamite cook.

Why English Majors?

My friend Joel and I idle away a bit of time wondering what, after we hollow out the economy, will be available as employment for English majors? Plumber, we suppose: I hear they can make $67,000 a year. Dental technicians actually do as bit better (if there is a cross-trained plumber/dental technician, I would like to hear about him/her). Maybe cosmetologist in a mortuary, like Cher as Dolly Pelliker.

Comes now the remarkable Thomas H. Benton addressing the more fundamental question--why (in heaven's name!) become an English major in the first place? Odd that I hadn't thought of that before: I guess I assumed that become an English major was kind like having as train wreck or catching a bad case of the flu--something that just happened while your mind was elsewhere.

But Benton, a confessed English major, has some remarkable thoughts on the whole English endeavor from finish back to (more interestingly, I think) start--including a few cute swipes at Robin Williams. Hint: it doesn't lend itself to easy soundbyte, go read the whole thing.

Solipsistic Propagandists

Anecdodtal Evidence has some worthwhile comments on three great enemies of literature: (a) solipsists; (b) propagandists; and (c) solipsistic propagandists. He doesn't seem to consider, however, the possibility that any of these might be iterature. But what of, say, John Kennedy Toole? Or Curzio Malaparte? Or the greatest of all solipsist/propagandists, Fr. Rolfe?

The Value of Poetry

Cute sayings of smallish children dept. My friend Daniel (aged 10) says:

"My favourite poem is the one that starts 'Thirty days hath September' because it actually tells you something,"

Thursday, July 27, 2006


My friend Margaret points me to another -- what, exactly? Is it a blog? A website? A candy mint or a breath mint? A floor wax or a dessert topping? You decide...

Medical Tourism

In his excellent econ blog, Dean Baker remarks on “medical tourism,” the practice of going overseas for cheaper medical care. “Extremely wasteful,” he calls it. Wasteful in a specific sense: it’s presumably cheaper for the patient, of course, since even including the price of plane ticket and hotel, he still gets treatment cheaper than he would get in the US. Baker’s point is that the price discrepancy exists because of trade barriers that keep other professionals from practicing in the US.

It isn’t clear to me how serious Baker is about this. He doesn’t look like a free-market libertarian. Does he really want to get rid of all trade barriers in professional services? Or is he just trying to cock as snook against the seeming inconsistencies of mainstream free trade advocates? Obviously I suspect the latter—but at least I would like to see him step up to the plate and spell out in detail just how trade liberalization in services might work.

Meanwhile, there is something important going on here. My friend John, who spends his life in a wheelchair, has been saying for months now that Medicare could save a bunch of money if people like himself could haul off for their treatment to Poland, or Cyprus, or wherever.

UPDATE: I should do my homework better. In the very next post Baker addresses some of my concerns.

My Friend Toni Gets a Blog

My friend Toni has got herself a blog. It's everything you would hope a blog to be: thoughtful, original, and imimitable, one person's effort to put her own stamp on the universe. Toni has had more time than one would wish for over the last few years to attend to this sort of thing, and it is a pleasure to see her put her talents to such a good end.


Pidgen for "total eclipse of the sun:"

Hurricane lantern belong Jesus Christ gone bugger-up.

--From BBC

Best Cop Show Ever

On jury duty as few weeks back, I had to fill out a questionnaire. “Do you,” the sovereign asked “watch police shows like Law & Order?” (I quote from memory).

Hm, that is a tough one. I don’t really watch Law & Order, except maybe as wallpaper, but I’ve certainly seen it (how can you avoid it?). But how to account for the fact that just now, in a mood of rapturous enjoyment, I am midway through Season #2 of Hill Street Blues? No doubt at all, this is the best cop show ever, but in what respect is it “like Law & Order?” I suppose I know what they are driving at here. Prosecutors complain that Law & Order skews their work. It makes juries think that there’s lots of cool scientific evidence, and that everything gets wrapped up in an hour (it may persuade them that cops are competent and efficient, also, but that is a more complicated issue). Hill Street Blues is, in so many ways, everything Law & Order is not. On Hill Street Blues, nothing finishes on a schedule, and some things do not finish at all. The evidence is low-tech to a fault. Of course most important, on Law & Order, no cop has a private life. Hill Street Blues cops have more private life than you (or they) can bear. In the end, it is the sheer raggediness that makes Hill Street Blues work: we have a whole station house full of cops, some more honest, or skilled, or diligent than others, up against bad guys of whom you could say the same, all trying to make it through the night.

Hill Street Blues dates: we are in the midst of the crack years here and urban America has a kind of dreadfulness which, I think, in some small way it has lost. But no matter: Middlemarch dates (I mean the novel). Okay, Hill Street Blues is no Middlemarch. But it’s no Law & Order, either. Instead it was and remainswhat I said before: best cop show ever.

Do I watch police shows like Law & Order? In the end, I said “no.” They didn’t choose me for the jury, for which I am most grateful. Would I have been a good juror—an informed and comprehending juror? I wonder.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Terry Teachout, channeling Kate’s Book Blog lists authors of whom he holds five or more works on his shelves. Five? This guy lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We live in Palookaville and we have to throw away books every month; keeping five of anything seems to be an act of heroism.

Okay; here in Palookaville, we occupy a space not much bigger than some UWS apartments. But Teachout lists 41 members in the Five Club. That’s 205 books right there; it’s beginning to sound like Hitler’s boast that he saw Tristan 50 times in one year.

I’m sure we have some fives here at Chez Buce: probably 8-9 Jane Austens (more than she wrote, yes). Probably that many Henry Jameses, though I haven’t read them all. Surely half a dozen George Eliots and more Faulkners than I can shake a sycamore branch at; Waugh, yes; Naipaul, yes I think so; Nabokov, probably; Trollope, for sure; Orwell, for sure if the four-volume journalism counts as four instead of one. I guess I can’t count the books that have flowed through and out again: I suppose I have read 80 Simenons in my life, but except for the odd Livre de Poche, I don’t suppose we have any on board just now. And just what do you count as a “book,” anyway? Teachout seems to count Proust as “more than five,” which seems fair enough. But is it seven? Or 12? I don’t suppose I can count the nine “books” of Herodotus—but wait, the Foundazione Lorenzo Valla publishes a scrumptious Greek/Italian facing-pages version in a nine-volume set. And we must have a dozen translations of the Iliad around here—one author, or many? Come to think of it, what about the King James Bible? Many books, or one? Many authors, or One?

We do have some nice multi-volume sets. They don’t all get used, but I can’t bear to give them away. The newest may be Samuel Finer’s three-volume “History of Government—surely the book of the millennium (although the millennium is young). I’ve got the gorgeous old Herodotus Commentary by George Rawlinson. I hang onto the four-volume Gomme commentary on Thucydides, although I have to admit by Greek isn’t up to it. We’ve got that old Dictionary of Philosophy and the International Encyclopaedia of Social Science, both of which I acquired, I think, as book club premiums back in the 70s: I admit I haven’t really cracked them in years, but they stand solidly on the shelf and I’d hate to let them go. But five John Hasslers, five Laura Lippmans? This guy must be counting the stuff in the chicken coop on the roof.

PS: I just now noticed that call is ““five or more books by or about.” Ah, so that explains the presence of Louis Armstrong.

Idle Fantasy

Senate Republican minority leader in the next Congress: Joe Lieberman

The F Word

My friend The New York Crank says he’s not posting these days because he is busy working for money.

“You are,” I responded with imagined suavity “a feuilletonist.” And then because I couldn’t help myself, I added: to be a blogger, you need to be a flâneur.

I spoke, as is my wont, unencumbered by any real knowledge. It turns out I was at least a little bit right. Indeed it appears that a feuilleton is “A short literary essay or sketch,” which is pretty much what NYC writes. That sort of thing take enough effort that you really can't bring it off in competition with a day job.

But with flâneur, I am in deeper tapioca. Somehow I had thought that a flâneur was “writer of short paragraphs,” a mini-feuilletonist, a blogger. Wrong: a flâneur is “an aimless idler; a loafer”—in short, someone who doesn’t really have the time of the discipline to write anything, big or small. And certainly not my good friend NYC.

This completes our message. Readers may resume idling; or for valuable prizes, they are invited to opine whether this entry qualifies as a feuilleton.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Libertarian Creed

"Oh, I'm not against capital punishment--I just don't think the government should get to decide."
--Freely translated from Overheard in New York.

Renoir, Home at Last

Passing through Washington last month, we had the great good fortune to stumble on the ‘Renoir Returns’ exhibit at the Phillips Collection on 21st St. (NW). Lucky: over a career of tourist rubbernecking, we had seen our share of Renoirs. We had even read “Renoir, My Father,” Jean Renoir’s curiously touching memoir of his father, Claude.

But the Phillips show (which runs through July 30) was something different. Phillips was a great collector of impressionists. Renoir’s “Boating Party” is the centerpiece of his collection. But the Boating Party and indeed, much else from the collection, has been on the road these past few years. Now it was/is time for a homecoming.

The curatorial staff took it all as an occasion for more than just a casual self-celebration. No: they’ve put together a splendid retrospective of Impressionism as a whole—necessarily incomplete, but framed and presented with great care. As an added benefaction, they’ve thrown in some instructive insights on how Phillips did his collecting and, indeed, on collecting in general. Certainly worth a visit or a side trip; maybe even worth a journey.


In “Fontamara,” Ignazio Silone speaks of “the men who make fertile the earth and suffer from hunger—the fellahin, the coolies, the peons, the mouzhiks, the cafoni, alike in all the nations of the earth.” It’s a clever touch: “universalizing and particularizing,” a commentor calls it, which is heavy handed but right enough. “Cafoni,” (new to me) are the hill people of the Abruzzi, the parched moonscape east of Rome. The name of “Fontamara,” Silone’s fictional village, translates as “bitter creek.”

A clever touch: all beasts of burden and all, in some sense, all surplus. But the differences are interesting. “Coolies:” we think “men who pull rickshas.” “Peons” yields “peonage,” compulsory debt service, a hop, skip and a jump from serfdom. “Fellahin,” it turns out, derives from “fellah,” day laborer, not at all to be confused with the Most Happy Fella of in the Whole Napa Valley.

“Mouzhik” seems to me a bit trickier. Wiki says it just means “man,” with resonances of “dude” or “chap.” Neither of these seems right, but “mouzhik” does seem more inclusive than the other items on the list—a bit more like, well, like “peasasnt,” which is, at the end of the day, a pretty ambiguous term. Some peasants support themselves and their families, and some make a bloody nuisance of themselves in politics. Some peasants rise to be kulaks, which may or may not turn out to be a blessing. What Silone seems to have in mind is perhaps something more Biblical, as in “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” as it says (three times!) in the Book of Joshua.

Il Underbelly di Tutti Underbelli

“The soft underbelly of Europe.” This is Winston Churchill, urging the invasion that became the World War II Italian campaign. It’s classic Churchill—pithy, memorable, and largely wrong: wrong at least in part by reason of being pithy and memorable. It’s unclear whether Churchill was here, as on so may other occasions in his life, simply intoxicated by his own captious whim, or whether this was part of what Blackadder's Baldrick might have called “a cunning plan.” That is: Churchill believed (rightly?) that the Brits had a stake in maintaining a position in the Mediterranean—an objective costly to achieve and not shared by the United States. If he was going to bring it off, then rhetoric may presented itself as an indispensable tactical weapon. Either way, Field Marshall Kesselring pretty much discredited to the characterization as he forced the Allies to pay for each acre of Italian real estate all the way up to the Po, even as the Nazi cause was disintegrating across the (presumably more durable?) torso. There’s interesting background on the “underbelly” campaign here. For a pithy and memorable deconstruction of the Churchill myth, go here.