Friday, September 29, 2006

Amazing Amuse

Terry Teachout is right that Amuse is an amazingly good restaurant for Ashland, Oregon, and would do itself proud in any city.

(Even Fresno? Yep, even Fresno).

What Waterboarding Looks Like

I really have nothing to add to this but I think it deserves the widest possible distribution. Link.

Ashland Theatre Note: Winter's Tale

A word now about the Ashland festival performance of of Winter’s Tale, which prompted my little jeu d’esprit about Shakespearean creativity, infra. I said earlier that in its presentation of King John, Ashland did a fine job with an unpromising play. In Winter’s Tale, they did a lot less with a lot more.

I’ve got great affection for this play, and in fact, Ashland did a really satisfying job on it just a few years back. But this year, they fell victim to the Ashland vice: they weren’t willing to trust the text.

You got this almost from the opening note in William Langan’s Leontes. Langan knew he was jealous, alright, and he wanted to tell us about it: he pranced, he waved his arms, he scuttered across the stage, and most of all, he shouted—oh, dear, how he shouted, in a part, that cries out to be played with cold fury and restraint. At first I thought he was trying to play Richard III; by the end I wondered if he was stretching for Groucho Marx.

Leontes pretty much dominates the first half of the play, so the presence of other creditable performances (there were several) wasn’t really enough to distract attention from him. Something harder to anticipate occurred in the second half. Ashland usually does better with the lighter stuff, and at low comedy, they can do really well. And indeed, Christopher DuVal as Autolycos could pull tricks out of the script as fast as his character could pull goodies out of a mark’s pocket.

The trouble is, Autolycos is not supposed to be the main event. He’s a change of pace, a foil, a sly and wry critique of the pastoral world around him. Here, they let him run away with the whole thing. The great sheep-shearing, which should be the centerpiece, ended up being a kind of side show (and as an aside, the odd little “folk ballet” looked for all the world like a Thomas Hart Benton painting of a slave auction).

The giveaway was the performance of the young lover Perdita, played by Nell Geisslinger. She has some of the best lines in the play (not to say the entire Shakespeare canon). She didn’t seem perfect for the part, but she seemed to give it a good shot. Or so it was until what I take to be the high point of her role. She speaks of:


That come before the swallow dares, and take

The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,

But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes

Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses

That die unmarried ere they can behold

Bright Phoebus in his strength.

To my taste, this is breathtaking: the perfect combination of lyricism and black irony that gives Shakespeare his particular tang. Yet for some reason, god knows why, they had her sing them—and not all that well, either, to a not particularly memorable tune. Why in heavens’ name one would want to stamp on one of the grandest of all Shakespearean lyrics is beyond me—unless, as I suggested before, they just don’t get the point.

What It Is About "Winter's Tale"

Shakespeare was the world’s greatest rewrite man. This is no secret. And it is not a put-down. The point is that he had an almost uncanny knack for responding to possibilities: to look at another person’s play, or poem, or whatever and say—hm, I can do something with this.

In this vein, it is fun and instructive to study, say, Shakespeare’s use of North’s Plutarch, or Arthur Golding’s Ovid. But I think there is never more point to the inquiry than with Shakespeare’s sad, spooky, penultimate play, the Winter’s Tale. This is the one about Leontes, King of Sicily, and his paranoid conviction that his wife has been unfaithful with his best friend. His son dies; his wife dies (or so he believes) and he consigns his daughter to the elements. Years pass, and then all is made whole again.

This is a plot, as they might say, sufficient to give absurd plots a bad name. The play also contains some of the best poetry Shakespeare ever wrote. And for all its manifold imperfections, it leaves an aftertaste as memorable as any Shakespeare ever achieved.

How to account for these jangling inconsistencies? Here more than anywhere, I think it is important to look to the source. In particular, that would be a little potboiler called Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, published in 1588, some 23 years before the first recorded production of WT. Evidently it was popular: it seems to have gone through five editions before Shakespeare brought it to the stage.

Pandosto may be hackwork in a way, yet it is oddly compelling. And here is an odd fact: the structural problems that give so much grief in WT—in Pandosto, they really aren’t a problem. Example: the jealosy of Leontes. It’s a problem in the play. It seems to come from nowhere, and near-300 years of critical ink cannot blot out its utter absence of motive. Now compare the story (and ignore the name changes):

…he called to mind the beauty of his wife Bellaria, the comeliness and bravery of his friend Egistus, thinking that love was above all laws, and therefore to be stayed by no law; that it was hard to put fire and flax together without burning; that their open pleasure might breed his secret displeasure. He considered with himself that Egistus was a man, and must needs love; that his wife was a woman and therefore subject to love; and that where fancy forced, friendship was of no force.

Fine, this is enough. We are in a folk tale, and by the stipulations of the game, this is more than sufficient to justify or explain the conduct of the king.

So also with the time gap. Shakespeare has to bring on time personified; the storyteller can ease us through the years so smoothly that we barely them. And so again (I will not labor the point) with the statue. The point is that things that may seem odd or out of place in the play work just fine in the story.

And this, I think, helps us to get a handle on what Shakespeare I up to here. He’s old in his career, if not in life: he has tried tragedy, comedy, history, farce. He reads Pandosto: he knows he has a problem but he says: I think I can turn this into a play.

And either he did or he didn’t. Either way, my point is that this is one play for which knowledge of the source may really enhance our understanding. Not that Pandosto is a better piece of work than WT. Only that our understanding of WT is richer, more nuanced, more three-dimensional, if we take it in context.

Readers may recall that there is yet one more zinger in this history: authorship. Pandosto was the work of Robert Greene—university wit, general mischief-maker and (most important for our purpose) the man who introduced Shakespeare into the arena of history. Recall that it was Greene, washed up and dying, who wrote Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, his testament and parting shot. Recall:

..there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide supposes that he is able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.

Recall, in short, what appears to be the first-ever mention of William Shakespeare in the world of the London theatre.

I think that Shakespeare’s use of Greene’s plot is a kindness to Greene: a recognition, from a great artist at the end of his life, to another who died at the beginning of his. One more reason why such a strange and ill-formed masterpiece can still tug at our attention.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ashland Theatre Note: A Convincing King John

For the second time this year, we’ve had the good fortune to stumble on a really good production of an, ahem, unconvincing Shakespeare play. The first was a stunning presentation of All’s Well that Ends Well, at the Duke on 42nd Street in New York last spring (link). The second was this afternoon’s performance of King John at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland (link).

It’s an imperfect play, but that is hardly dispositive: every Shakespeare play, even the best of them, is imperfect in some way or other. It is full of neat prefigurings—half-mad Constance anticipates half-mad Lady Macbeth; bastard Faulconbridge anticipates bastard Edmund, and so forth—but this is hardly sufficient to carry it. What makes King John really worthy of attention is that it does have a consistent theme: power, and the search for power, and the mean motives of the contenders. The trouble is that this is a pretty cheerless business, and the play offers virtually no relief: no Touchstone, no Autolycos, not even a mad fool akin to the companion of King Lear. It’s so unrelievedly bleak that the stirring peroration, so much quoted in moments of (British) patriotic excess, appears almost as an affront.

In respect of its tone, one is tempted to group it with Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens. Troilus is perhaps more complex and thus more arresting than the other two; Timon comes as near to being unwatchable as anything in the Shakespeare canon (I guess I have to except Titus Andronicus, which I’ve never actually seen). King John isn’t as arresting as Troilus and not nearly so unwatchable as Timon; with good direction and a competent cast, it can carry conviction and hold the viewer’s attention. Kudos to Ashlandfor suggesting its possibilities.

The Dude Abides

As a proud graduate of the University of Louisville, I just naturally take delight in this. Thanks, Cappy, and let's think about organizing a caravan for next year.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

London Radical Watch: The Birth of the Bolsheviks

Discussing Arab radicals in London, I promised myself to retrieve a favorite passage from Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, on Russian radicals in London a century ago. Good, I found the book. No, wait, the passage doesn’t seem to be there – did I make it up, or is it a different book? Hard to say, but in default of what I planned, I do find this account of a pivotal moment in Russian revolutionary history—the point where Lenin’s faction hived off to become the “Bolsheviks:”

The crucial division took place at the Second Congress of the Social Democrats in the summer of 1903. The congress began in Brussels in a flour mill, infested within by rats and surrounded by Russian and Belgian detectives; and continued, after two of the delegates had been arrested by police and deported, in the dirt and August heat of the Tottenham Court Road in London.

The atmosphere was terribly strained: political conflicts were wrecking personal relations. Lenin himself was so keyed up that he could hardly sleep or eat. It is difficult for us, with our parliamentary habits, to understand an assembly like this, in which the chairman, Plekhánov, the father of the movement, was unable to refrain from interrupting those we of the speakers with whom he did not agree, with such gibes as … “Horses don’t talk; only asses do.” One of the younger delegates begged Krupskaya to get Vladímir Ilyich to take the chair before Plekhánov had made everything worse. … When the congress was over, he collapsed.’

But he won: “Of such stuff are Robespierres made,” said Plekhánov to one of the minority. … He carried a majority for his program. His adherents came to be known thereafter as “Bolshevíki, or members of the majority, and his adversaries as “Menshevíki,” or members of the minority … .

Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station 464-6

(Paperback ed.1972)

Wilson also recounts an episode that gives remarkable insight into Lenin’s revolutionary conviction. It occurred in 1902 just after Trotsky arrived in London, having escaped from a Tsarist prison:

Lenin took him for a walk around London. Trotsky tells of an impression he received on this occasion in a passage so remarkable that it must be given direct in his own words: “From a bridge, Lenin pointed out Westminster and some other famous buildings. I don’t remember the exact words he used but what he conveyed was: ‘This is their famous Westminster,’ and ‘their’ referred, of course, not to the English but to the ruling classes [corrected, but see the Crank infra]. This implication, which was not in the least emphasized but, coming as it did from the very innermost depths of the man and expressed more by the tone of his voice than by anything else, was always present, whether Lenin was speaking of the treasures of culture, of new achievements, of the wealth of books in the British Museum, of the information in the larger European newspapers or, years later, of German artillery or French aviation. They know this or they have that, they have made this or achieved that—but what enemies they are! To his eyes, the invisible shadow of the ruling class always overlay the whole of human culture—a shadow that was as real to him as daylight.

Id., 485-6

An odd slip: a page later, Wilson says that Lenin had the habit “in London, of making excursions to Primrose Hill because it was near the grave of Marx.” (Id., 487). In fact, Primrose Hill is nowhere near the grave of Marx, which is in Highgate Cemetery, several miles away. Primrose Hill is, however, a very pretty place to walk, and not all that far from Tottenham Court Road.

Vikings Sweep the Series

A few weeks ago I puzzled over the right’s persistent head case over the Swedes (link). Apparently somebody else who hasn’t been reading the script is the World Economic Forum, which places Sweden third in its Global Competitiveness Index [GCI, trailing Switzerland and Finland, but ahead of Denmark, Singapore and (envelope!) the United States (pdf here). Says the WEF:

The Scandinavian countries … share with Switzerland a broadly similar institutional and structural profile.The Nordic countries have better ranks on the macroeconomy pillar of the GCI, since they are all running budget surpluses and have lower levels of public indebtedness than Switzerland and, indeed, much of the rest of Europe. Finland and Sweden have the best institutions in the world (ranked 1 and 2, respectively) and occupy places in the top ten ranks in health and primary education.

Of the United States, the WEF says:

The United States … remains a world leader in a number of key categories assessed by the GCI, such as market efficiency, innovation, higher education and training, and business sophistication. However, growing imbalances have dented a number of macroeconomic indicators, and the levels of efficiency and transparency underpinning its public institutions do not match those of the most developed industrial countries.

[Emphasis added]

Elaborating, the report continues:

The United States remains in the leading position in competitiveness, ahead of Germany and Finland.The United States’ strength is greatest in the business environment, including domestic rivalry (rank 1 on “intensity of local competition” and “effectiveness of antitrust policy”), financial markets (rank 1 on “venture capital availability,” “local equity market access,” and “financial market sophistication”), and innovative capacity (rank 1 on “university/industry research collaboration,”“company R&D spending,”“local availability of specialized research and training services,” and “quality of scientific research institutions”).

And further:

The United States, the World’s center of technological innovation, with extremely well developed financial markets, produces secure, high-yielding financial assets that attract a reasonable share of global world savings and foreign official investment, equivalent to the current account deficit, which can thus be sustained for many years.What is unsustainable is the present growth of the US deficit as a share of GDP. Maintaining a constant share deficit may require some depreciation of the dollar and a reduction in the trade deficit. It will also require greater effort on the part of the United States to reduce fiscal imbalances. For Rogoff, the US deficit represents government borrowing and no longer supports high real investment. The United States is presently consuming 70 percent of the world’s net savings. Historically, current account deficits have tended to collapse at relatively low levels. A housing slump would slow the US economy, while

other countries are growing, reducing the US deficit. The overvalued dollar could drop up to 40 percent on a trade-weighted basis, reducing global output and precipitating a financial market crisis, soaring interest rates, with a concomitant severe impact on Europe and Japan. Budget deficits are ballooning, with rising costs for the elderly and for security. High government debt to GDP ratios and rising interest rates could precipitate emerging market debt crises and defaults.Accumulating global imbalances are now a substantial risk to the world economy, which only multilateral policy consultations could reduce.There has to be a massive appreciation in emerging Asia, and an immediate effort to balance the US budget.

The report adds that “The United States and Japan are notable as high-wage economies that still provide good value given their competitiveness.”

Let’s hope Sweden’s new center-right government doesn’t screw things up (uncalled-for snark: from what I read, the chances are that they will not).

Fox Takes Its Best Shot

The hills are alive with the sound of laptops clicking, as just about everyone but Julie Andrews tries to spin the Bill Clinton/Chris Wallace faceoff. Who is winning?

Oh, silly question. Fights like this never end; they just get replaced by more fights like this. Still, here is a clue: a Google news search just now turned up 83 hits for “Clinton Wallace Monica.” John Dickerson at Slate explains:

If you are a right-winger, [you are] likely to react to his criticisms about the Bush administration by rushing to the inevitable safe ground: sex jokes. A Fox News anchor helpfully pointed out that he hadn't seen Clinton that angry since he denied having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.

We must be grateful to Fox for putting our news in a larger historical context. For my audition tape, I will offer a few more possibilities along the same vein.

Clinton faced down Wallace with the vigor of a young Jack Kennedy facing down Nikita Krushchev.

Clinton evinced the controlled outrage of Boston Lawyer Joe Welch unmasking Demagogue Joe McCarthy.

Clinton drove the hack interviewer from the arena with the celerity of Jesus driving the moneychangers from the temple.

Meanwhile, if this is Fox's best shot...

Monday, September 25, 2006

Another Crony Gets a Blog

My friend Nancy has join what looks like the most complicated blog team in America (link). On hallowed principles of cronyism, she goes on the link list (it's "Moneylaw"). Collect them all!

There's a Blog For

every taste (link).

This Just In: Torture is Wrong

I've been waiting for this. For weeks we've been discussing the instrumental status of torture: Does it get good information? Does it diminish our prestige? --yadda yadda.

At last comes Ariel Dorfman with the Elephant-in-the-room point: Torture is wrong. It is wrong whether or not is instrumental, and it corrupts us to ignore or elide the point.

Here is Dorfman in a WP op ed yesterday:

I will leave others to claim that torture, in fact, does not work, that confessions obtained under duress ... are useless. Or to contend that the United States had better not do that to anyone in our custody lest someday another nation or entity or group decides to treat our prisoners the same way.

I find these arguments -- and there are many more -- to be irrefutable. But I cannot bring myself to use them, for fear of honoring the debate by participating in it.

Can't the United States see that when we allow someone to be tortured by our agents, it is not only the victim and the perpetrator who are corrupted, not only the "intelligence" that is contaminated, but also everyone who looked away and said they did not know, everyone who consented tacitly to that outrage so they could sleep a little safer at night, all the citizens who did not march in the streets by the millions to demand the resignation of whoever suggested, even whispered, that torture is inevitable in our day and age, that we must embrace its darkness?

Are we so morally sick, so deaf and dumb and blind, that we do not understand this? Are we so fearful, so in love with our own security and steeped in our own pain, that we are really willing to let people be tortured in the name of America? ...

Exactly right. And way overdue. Dan Froomkin showcased his comments in "White House Briefing" today. Dorfman is on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" even now as I type. Would be nice to see him do an hour at Larry King.

Note on the History of Londonistan

This is probably old stuff to cognoscenti, but I’m slow, so I had to read Peter Mansfield, A History of the Middle East. One reason there are so many Muslim radicals in Europe is that the repressive regimes of the Middle East chased them abroad:

Britain’s reputation as a haven of tolerance for foreign opposition groups and its lax asylum laws … made it an attractive destination. … [M]any mujahideen had grave misgivings about resorting to infidels to salvage their Islamic mission. In the summer of 1993, twelve jihadi scholars, including the Jordanian spiritual mentor of radical Islam, Abu Qatada, met in Peshawar to debate the question of whether Islamic law permitted a Muslim to seek asylum in a non-Muslim land. … ‘There’s no difference between British and the Arab governments,’ Abu Qatada is said to have argued. ‘None of them are Islamic governments. As a Muslim, you must go where you feel secure.’

Following their fatwa, or legal opinion, Arab Afghans flocked to Britain … . To the fury of Arab leaders, Britain dismissed Egyptian, Saudi, Yemeni, Tunisian and Algerian requests for extradition as interference in its liberal traditions of asylum.

A curious corollary is the way in which Western exile reshaped Arab radicalism:

[The London exiles] saw individual Arab rules not as towering Pharoahs, but as American puppets, and their rampant repression and corruption as a symptom of a larger evil, namely Western neo-imperialism. Their target audience was not a nation state but the worldwide umma, or nation, of one billion Muslims, and their goal was to spark a global Islamic rebellion. The new ideology sparked a bitter doctrinal rift between the nationalist jihadis and Bin Laden’s ‘cosmopolitans.’ … The ideological conflict raged with all the passion of Stalinists disputing with Trotskyites. Former borthers-in-arms denounced him as a renegade jihadi, and one group tired to assassinate him.

Peter Mansfield, A History of the Middle East 385-6

Revised and Updated by Nicolas Pelham

(Paperback ed. 2004)

Soon as I can rustle up a copy of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, I will see if I can retrieve a wonderful passage about what happened when the Russian revolutionaries washed up in London after the failed Revolution of 1905.

Buffalo Ghosts

I have a lot of garbage in my head. No, not just that, I mean junk, detritus, mental lumber. That last buffalo post triggered a mind virus from, I think, Walt Kelly's "Pogo" comic strip circa 1955 (though Google draws a blank here). As I remember, there was a vaudeville riff:
Hear that whistle puff and blow
As the train pulls out of Kokomo--
Hello, Joe, whaddya know,
I just got back from Buffalo.
Except in the last panel, the last line is transmogrified into
Poltergeists are the principal form of spontaneous manisfestations.
Hilarious. Okay, so maybe you had to have been there.

It Turns Out That

This is a sentence:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

(Note the caps)

So says Pete Bevin, with a hat tip to David, who also offers up the Edge Question of the Year for 2005 here.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Ron Mann on Credit Cards, Moore's Law and the Wal-Mart Bank

Most interesting post I’ve read all week is by Ron Mann, guest blogging at Credit Slips, on the Wal-Mart bank and the possibility of competition with Mastercard and Visa. Money shot:

The market for consumer payment systems in our country is dominated by a pair of national networks, whose market shares have grown rapidly over the past 30 years. During those thirty years, the price of the product -- which is at its core a sophisticated information processing service -- has remained stable even as Moore's Law has halved the cost of information processing time after time after time after time.

For obvious reasons, it is enormously difficult to challenge Visa and MasterCard. … If we were to look for a challenger, and if we look past the possibilities of Google and PayPal (who essentially piggyback on Visa/MC), Wal-Mart certainly would be the most formidable competitor. Wal-Mart has a network of almost 4000 locations in the United States, with tens of millions of devoted customers. Wal-Mart is highly skilled at designing products to meet the desires of mainstream American consumers. A payment system designed by Wal-Mart, accepted at all of its stores, could penetrate the consumer consciousness more effectively than any product since the credit card.

And if the purpose of Sam-Pay was to lower the costs of payments -- cost-cutting being Wal-Mart's core competency -- then it presumably would shift spending from credit cards, which would slow the financial distress associated with credit card use. To be sure, there is always the possibility that Wal-Mart could follow the lead of Target and transform itself into a consumer-credit operation with an in-house retailing arm. Wal-Mart's efforts to open full-service banks in Mexico show that this is at least a possibility. But, my prediction is that Wal-Mart will focus on cost, as it has with the check-cashing services and money orders that are offered in its stores in most states.

More in the blog here, and in his forthcoming book.

From The Bin: The Death of Rozzie

On the road today, visiting grandkids. But just to show that I'm still connected, here is one from the bin:

I could not believe my eyes when I saw my poor Rozzie in the hospital, gone to skin and bones. She was not sixty, and she might have been eighty, with a folded face like an old worn-out shoe.

She had been knocked down by a lorry, and lost her leg at the thigh. “And the same day,” she said, “I heard that all my money was gone in the
Mortimer Hotels crash. I heard at breakfast and the lorry got me at half-past ten, going over to the Three Crowns for my morning drop, and when I woke up in hospital, I had my best laugh in years.”

“Nothing to laugh at,” I said, for I was almost crying. But Rozzie gave a heave and a kind of laugh and said: “You wouldn’t, Sall—it wasn’t your money and your best leg. I’ve still got the bad one.”

The end of Rozzie was very sad. For when they got her well enough to go on crutches, she was still not fit to be about; and she had no money left. There was no place for her but the workhouse infirmary. Her only relation was her brother-in-law and he was in
India and had his own wife and family. Besides Rozzie would never be a burden on anyone. So there she was and there I went to see her three more times, before the leg broke out again and she died of blood poisoning.

“A good thing, too,” she said, when they told her she was going. “I’ve been a fat lot of good, haven’t I? If I wonder why I was ever born—but I expect I was an accident—one at the start and one at the finish.”

Joyce Cary, Herself Surprised (NYRB Paperback ed. 1999)

Friday, September 22, 2006


Sacramento Airport now has free WiFi! It even extends to the lobby of the Host International Hotel across from Terminal A. Why the hotel itself doesn't have it, heaven knows--WSJ reports that it is now standard at all Motel 8s.

Anyway, it's nice not to have to run a 20-mile orange utility cord from my office. . .

How Can They Be So Stupid?

Thirty-seven percent of Americans still think George Bush is doing a good job. How can they be so dumb?

I offer a theory. In fact, they are not that dumb, although it doesn’t mean they are smart (who among us is?). But think of it this way: an awful lot of that 37 percent are people who are fighting just to get by. They’ve got crap jobs that don’t pay very well. They’re juggling creepy bosses, crabby spouses, dodgy day care. From the time the alarm goes off in the morning, they are in a rush: pop tarts and coffee, into the van, off to school, on to the job (still there?) back from the job, back from school, soccer practice, in and out at the fast food, bed time, and do it all over again.

They’re stressed out. They aren’t really at risk of a terrorist attack (in truth, it’s about the last thing they need to worry about). But they are insecure: the job may vanish in a heartbeat, heaven knows what the kids are up to, what’s that lump in the belly, can’t even guess what kind of problem will come up next.

In a world like this, they’re desperate for some security somewhere. The last thing they want to think is that their President might be a doofus. They do not like to be told that he’s got his shoelaces tied together, and that he really thinks torture is kinda cool. In truth, they kinda know: they haven’t seen body bags on TV, but they see more and more prosthetics in the mall. They kinda know the ranch is a pig farm, but precisely because they do know and do not want to know—precisely for this reason, when someone tells them he is a doofus, they get really shrill.

There now, everything clear? And thanks to Margaret for channeling me down this train of thought.

Fn: CBS/NYT says 37 percent. LAT/Bloomberg says 45. Link.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Does it unsettle anyone but me that Israel has a foreign minister named Zippy?

God Bless Google (Lillian Russell Wrestle div.)

God bless Google. I don’t remember my mother ever singing a lullaby—maybe I was too young, or already asleep. But she was topnotch at an inventory of saucy patter songs which she had learned in her free-spirited youth (she didn’t marry until she was 26—positively superannuated for her generation). I suppose I was six when she taught me

A capital ship for an ocean trip
Was the walloping window blind


Father swam under a
U-Need-a Biscuit
Just as the son went down.

Imagine my delight, then, when I stumbled on “The Billboard Song,” long lost to me, but still out there in cyberspace, albeit with no more than 16 Google hits. Angelfire calls it “Trad. and Anon.” Gunther Anderson says it has “long since passed into the folk domain,” but he credits it to Cy Coben and Charles Grean. This doesn’t seem quite right to me. says Coben was born in 1918, and my mother’s singlehood ended in 1929: I doubt that this is the work of an 11-year-old. Answers credits the Coben/Grean version to Homer & Jethro who, per Answers, came together in 1932—so again, the dates don’t seem quite to match—unless, of course, my mother continued to absorb silly songs after she became absorbed with spouse and children.

There seem to be a lot of folky variants on “The Billboard Song,” but here is some stuff that I remember from, oh, say, around 1944:

As I was walking down the street a billboard met my eye
The advertising that was there would make you laugh or cry
The wind and rain had almost washed that old billboard away
But the advertising painted there would have that billboard say

Bay Rum is good for horses, it is the best in town
Castoria cures the measles, if you pay ten dollars down
Have a smoke of Coca-Cola, chew catsup cigarettes
Watch Lillian Russell wrestle with a box of Cascarets

Fuller lyrics are here, here, here, and here.

PS: Sorry, I just can't seem to get the fonts right on this one.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How Many School Buses?

How many illegal immigrants[1] can you pack into a school bus? No, this is not a new-age elephant joke. But how many does a school bus hold, really? Maybe 60? Then if there are 12 million immigrants, deportation would require 200,000 bus trips. Uh, to where, exactly?

Fn: A dinner companion points out that we can use the leftover school buses from New Orleans.

[1] I almost wrote “aliens,” but so far as I know, there is no plan to repatriate to Krypton.

TigerHawk Picks the Wrong Issue

TigerHawk has a remarkable capacity for being clear-eyed and insightful one moment, boneheaded the next. He’s in phase II this morning, wringing his hands over the Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s remarkable WP piece on cronyism and nepotism in the Iraqi Proconsulship of Paul Bremer.

“It’s not nearly enough to smear the ‘neocons,’ clucks TigerHawk (channeling The Corner) in little-dog-Fala mode, “they have to get their children, too.”

The Corner hardly deserves the courtesy of a response, but TigerHawk does. So, friendly advice to TigerHawk: give this one a bye. There is plenty to complain about in the WP, but this one doesn’t pass the giggle test.

The particular bone of contention seems to be the work of Simone Ledeen: apparently she is “trilingual” with a “major MBA.” Allow me to respond by quoting myself, from the TigerHawk comments:

Simone Ledeen apparently was qualified by the standards of the time. But it wasn't why she was hired, and is nothing to do with her assignment, which was to advance her own career and the careers of her neocon cronies. Cronyism is indeed an endemic, indeed a pandemic, problem, but "the other guys do it, too," is not a defense. If TigerHawk really wants to make waves on this issue, he might want to tackle the problem of dynastic politics more generally: Clintons and Bushes and Kennedys--and Sharons and Assads, and heaven knows how many other clans and tribes where political preferment is becoming a family business.

Simone Ledeen's real problem is the problem with affirmative action hires everywhere: she's got to believe she deserved it, yet in her heart of hearts, she know that she just passed a phoney test.

Indeed, if TigerHawk is in a mood to give a second thought here, he might realize that this policiy of we-don't-want-nobody-nobody-sent policy is a longterm disaster for the neocons themselves. How many institutions can stay strong while hiring the sons and daughters of the faithful?

The Lawrence Summers of Popes

The Daily Show suggests that Benedict is the George Lazenby of Popes, if not Roger Moore. It’s a thought, but I have a different suggestion: he is the Lawrence Summers. They’re two guys big brains who spent most of their lives in hothouse environments where you could pretty much say what you wanted to, and where you could win the argument with your smart mouth. As Manuel Paleologos II might say, if you can’t run with the big dogs, stay out of the kitchen.

Nb: linking the Daily Show is the blogger equivalent of brain death, but the bit link up there is really really funny.

Concession fn: a reader points out that the Pope doesn’t have two uncles who are Nobel Prize winners, and he doesn’t get to chum around with Elisa New. So far as we know, heh heh.

Schneier on Herding Cats, etc.

Bruce Schneier has a fascinating post here on the difficulties of managing IT security in a great university, interesting in itself, but also a useful reminder of the difficulties of managing anything in a great university. In a word, decentralization. A university is a lot like a leased-department bordello, where every entrepreneur is trading on his own account ("hello, sailor, going my way?).

Universities are edge-focused; central policies tend to be weak, by design, with maximum autonomy for the edges. This means they have natural tendencies against centralization of services. Departments and individual professors are used to being semiautonomous. Because these institutions were established long before the advent of computers, when networking did begin to infuse universities, it developed within existing administrative divisions. ...

The lack of central authority makes enforcing uniform standards challenging, to say the least. Most university CIOs have much less power than their corporate counterparts; university mandates can be a major obstacle in enforcing any security policy. This leads to an uneven security landscape.

There’s also a cultural tendency for faculty and staff to resist restrictions, especially in the area of research. Because most research is now done online -- or, at least, involves online access -- restricting the use of or deciding on appropriate uses for information technologies can be difficult. This resistance also leads to a lack of centralization and an absence of IT operational procedures such as change control, change management, patch management, and configuration control.

I also liked "students" as "a large number of potentially adversarial transient insiders." No dean would quarrel with that one.

Herding cats, as they say, or (I believe this one is Woodrow Wilson) like trying to move a graveyard. Or like trying to marshal a parade of turkeys, except that if you don't control the turkeys, they pile up in a corner and suffocate each other.

My friend Katy likes to say that antisocial behavior that would be punished anyplace else is rewarded in the university. Quite right, although perhaps the alternative is worse.

Bush Approval

at 44 percent, says Gallup, says Political Arithmetik. At this rate, he ought to be at about 950 percent by election day. Link.

How Dare You Pay Me What You Owe Me?

Here's one for my buddies over at the debtor-creditor blog:

When a Yemeni shopkeeper says that he can tell Americans do not trust him because they always insist on paying immeditely when they buy something, you have to know how important it is to people in that region to believe that debt forges a relationship.

Lawrence Rosen in the London Review of Books, page 28, 7 September 2006
(reviewing Jason Burke, On the Road to Kandahar)

Fn: My all-wise friend Joel says it works for small-time lawyehrs, too. If the lawyer pays you in full, it means he is getting ready to decamp.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Good Word for Ferenc Gyurcsany, Liar

Unless I missed something, the only person to get the Hungary story right is Bronwen Maddox at the (London) Times, here. Ferenc Gyurcsany got himself caught on tape saying that his government lied. Of course: every government lies. But he said so in the context of hectoring his own comrades to straighten up and fly right. Let's all pray for more such self-confessed liars.
The painful truths that everybody refused to hear

Commentary by Bronwen Maddox

OF COURSE Ferenc Gyurcsany should stay as Prime Minister. It will be a disaster for Hungary’s hopes of economic reform if he quits. His stroppy remarks to his party leaders were provocation of limitless resonance. His many enemies, who dislike his flashy style, his marriages, his policies — everything about him — rose with glee to that provocation and urged the rioters into the streets.

But if he lied it was in the sense that George H. W. Bush did in saying: “Read my lips”: promising not to raise taxes, and then doing just that. If Hungarians claim that he kept them ignorant of the terrifying state of national finances, then they are the only ones on the planet not to have known.

Hungary has been living on borrowed time, buoyed up by the cheery view that Western Europe has taken of the fortunes of the former Soviet bloc countries. That has allowed it to borrow money more cheaply than its horrendous national debt would normally dictate.

Those figures are no secret. The financial markets, and Brussels, have been sceptical about the Government’s repeatedly revised plans for getting its finances into good enough shape to join the euro.

“I admit, in the past four months [since the general election], I failed to convey the message about the need for reform,” Gyurcsany said yesterday. To whom? Hungarians? Then they must have had their hands over their ears.

Since his electoral success, he has announced tax rises and budget cuts — the minimum necessary — and his reliance on raising a lot of new revenue has met with scepticism. A report this month by the Economist Intelligence Unit observed: “Tax morality in Hungary is relatively low.” Indeed.

The Prime Minister aimed one part of his self-flagellation accurately: the Government missed good opportunities to push through change in the past four years when it would have been easier. Growth has been strong and exports rose by 17 per cent in euro terms in the year to May.

That is a reminder that in many ways Hungary’s popular image as one of the solidest of the ten countries that joined the EU on May 1, 2004, is well founded. Its manufacturing is broadly based, its governments have been centrist and sensible; its people are educated and outward-looking. It is a sophisticated and confident country.

But the causes of its budget deficit go back a long way. Voters have not wanted to give up state jobs or benefits from the past, while their expectations of their Government have risen with modernisation.

The danger now is that loss of confidence in the reforms would cause the forint to slide. That could push up interest rates and make debt even more costly. “The coalition [Government] has the support of the market and of credit rating agencies as a result of the push for reforms,” says Raffaella Tenconi, emerging markets analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort.

The rioters cannot claim that Hungary’s problems are news. If every leader who had ever put a good spin on bad figures were to quit, this week’s UN General Assembly would be a very small affair.

Back to First Principles

Observing an off-list email exchange, I've had to suffer through a new round of the liberals this, the liberals that, yada yada. Let us return to some fundamental truths:

  • This is not a conservative administration. For dangerous innovation, it bids fair to compete with the French in the Revolution. For fetishizing abstract principle, it runs with the simplificateurs terribles of Marxism.

  • Commitment to capitalists--must it really be said again?-- has nothing to do with a commitment to capitalism: indeed, they are well-nigh antithetical.

  • Adherence to the Constitution is conservatism.

    As Hume so rightly demonstrates, our rights as citizens are the hard-won achievement of a long and much-contested tradition. Habeas Corpus is so important that it is in the Constitution itself--we didn't have to wait for the Bill of Rights. As Cardozo says, not lightly regarded are the decisions of quiescent years.

  • The alliance of Christianity and torture is, I admit, not unexampled, but it has been pretty much out of fashion since Napoleon abolished the Inquisition.

  • The alliance of Christianity and holy war is also, I admit, not unexampled, but it has been pretty much out of fashion since the Venetians invaded Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade.

A corollary principle here involves the place of Democrats in the search for responsible centrism. I suspect that one reason why the wingnuttery works so hard to demonize Clinton and Carter is not their "leftism," but precisely the contrary: their capacity to seek, and even to achieve, a meaningful middle ground. Clinton on welfare, Carter on deregulation, to take just two examples: lefties will never forgive them, but ironically, the wingnuttery is no kinder. Their crime is not that they demonstrated the failure of centrist government: rather, that they exemplified its success. Nothing is more inimical to the purposes of the nihilist right than the experience of seeing something go really well.

There, everything clear now?

Oh, Those New Yorkers, Such Sophistication

The Fat Part's Free, But You Have to Pay for the Protein and the Carbs

Shopper #1: I've never bought yogurt before. I don't know what to get. What does fat free mean?
Shopper #2: You know, its free... of fat.
Shopper #1: Oh, OK.
--Grocery, 40th & 5th

Overheard by: Super Mike

Free Content Find pipes a wonderful free background set: link.

Is This Real?

It has the ring of something that will implode into a paranoid fantasty. But it seems to be well sourced. Stand by for developments (thanks, Crank):

Indian village elders order trial by boiling oil
Sun Sep 17, 2006 7:57 AM BST

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The leaders of a village in the Indian state of Rajasthan ordered 150 men to dip their hands into boiling oil to prove their innocence after food was stolen from a local school, a newspaper reported on Sunday.

In late August the school's principal informed police that rice and wheat had disappeared but no action was taken, the Sunday Express said.

The council, or panchayat, of Ranpur village, 340 km south of state capital Jaipur, then decided to take the law into its own hands.

After 10 days spent trying to identify those responsible, it issued what the paper called the "mediaeval diktat".

The 150 men from Ranpur and two neighbouring hamlets were told to pick a copper ring from a cauldron of boiling oil. The council elders then announced that the 50 who refused the order must be behind the crime. Many are now nursing their burns.

"We would have been ostracised had we refused. Out of fear all of us agreed. This is not the first time this has been done," said one 45-year-old man. He has now testified against the elders, who have been arrested.

Monday, September 18, 2006

How Many Travesties Are There?

Trav-es-ty…An exaggerated or grotesque imitation, such as a parody of a literary work. … A debased or grotesque likeness;

Second thoughts on Stoppard’s Travesties: how many travesties are there? The play itself is, perhaps, a travesty of Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest. Earnest is itself a travesty of—well, just about everything, but perhaps in particular, on Victorian middle class mores. Old Carr’s memory is a travesty on truth and history (the diary, as Wilde would say, of things that never happened). Tristian Tzara’s dada is certainly intended as a travesty of art. I am a bit reluctant to treat James Joyce as a travesty, although Stoppard turns him into as fine a travesty of verse drama as you are likely to hear (exceeding but by a gnat’s crotchet the splendid little bit of Gallagher-and-Sheehan later in the same show). Lenin: now there was a travesty: of the enlightenment, at least, and of Russian culture. Whether Lenin was a travesty of revolution is perhaps a nicer question: perhaps revolution itself is a travesty of itself. That, at any rate, may be the point of the smashing denouement in the second act, where Stoppard puts a line of Wilde into the mouth of Lenin (I won’t repeat it here, but you’ll know it when you hear it)—and it fits, oh boy it fits.

There. Are there any more?

There's a fine piece by Charles Simic in a recent New York Review of Books of the new Dada show at the Met. See it here.


I cooked this up a few weeks back for another purpose, but it still works. Books I wish the next President would read:
Michael Bacevic, New Militarism (glamorizing the military and related topics)
Dean Baker, The Conservative Nanny State (as Milton Friedman says, nobody loves a free market)
Bruce Bartlett, Imposter (Bush bashing from the right, every critical quote from a right winger)
Martin Van Creveld, Rise & Decline of the State (on intl banks, mafias, porous borders, etc.)
William Easterly, Elusive Quest for Growth (or maybe his new one, which sounds suspiciously like his old)
Thomas Hammes, Sling & the Stone (on why winning battles is not winning wars)
Chalmers Johnson, Sorrows of Empire (thinking man's Noam Chomsky)
Anatol Lieven, America Right or Wrong (critique of patriotism)
Pete Peterson, Running on Empty (I expose my flinty New England roots here)
John Scott, Seeing Like a State (on the burden of living out some other guy's fantasy)
When he's done with that, the President can come back for the advanced list (He? Or she? Sure, or she). No, no dates and links. Sorry 'bout that, but you can find them at your, ahem, online retailer of choice.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Further Restaurant Note

We took a bye on Max's House of Bagged Spinach.

The Best Little Wine House in Davis

Continuing to gnaw our way through Central California—in San Francisco, we had a nice meal with friends at Venticello, tucked away (sic) behind Grace Cathedral near the top of Nob Hill (shrimp wrapped in prosciutto); took some young folks to the Great Eastern in Chinatown, where the fish hop out of the pond and onto your plate; then brunch with a friend at Zuni before the opera.

But the best meal of the week was (envelope, please) in Davis, 60 miles inland. There must be 80 restaurants in Davis if you count the Dairy Queen, but our vote goes to Tucos Wine Market & Café, tucked into an odd space just off the railroad station.

Okay, "restaurant" is a bit of a stretch. Wine by the bottle is probably the moneymaker. The on-site dining is 10 tables for two plus a few more on the patio, and a tiny bit of bar space. You can buy a pork chop or a halibut steak but the real action is in the “small plates”—“appetizers” in some parlance. It’s the kind if place here they sell soup by the shot, and where Balsamic vinegar is a menu item (8-year-old Trebbiano at $5). The wine list is deep for such a small shop, and they push the flights—samplers of two-ounce shots. We chose a plate of chicken/corn ravioli, and a sampling of patés, along with a flight of four California reds—top marks to the T.R. Eliot Three Plums 2004 Pinot.

I know next to nothing on the backstory of this place, but my guess it is a cook who has found away to minimize his time managing and leave more time to hang over the stove. Caution: the Davis Wiki suggests it may have gone downhill lately, but it seemed fine to us. For our money, not even Fresno can top it.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Last Leopard, with Pastry and Proust

Over dinner with my friends Michael and Linda, we fell to talking about Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard, the celebrated (novelized) biography of his grandfather, the Sicilian prince. It was a happy reminder of David Gilmour's wonderful biography, The Last Leopard (1991)--this of the grandson, not the grandfather. I did an Amazon review which you can find here. I didn't think to include this sample:

Rising at about seven, he would be walking down the Corso Vittrorio Emmanuele toward the center of the city by eight. Turning west at the Via Roma or a little further on at Quattro Canti, he then walked westward until he reached one of his favorite cafes, the Pasticceria del Massimo in Via Ruggero Settimo. Then he had a long breakfast and read one of the books he had brought with him. He ate cakes and pastry with particular pleasure, recalled Francesco Orlando, if he had before him a volume of sixteenth-century French poetry. Once he sat in the Pasticceria for four hours and read a whole Balzac novel at a sitting. . . . Before leaving the Massimo, he bought some more cakes, which he put in his bag, and then wandered off to Flaccovio’s or one of the other bookshops. He felt guilty, however, about buying so many and used to pretend to Licy that he had found them in a sale.

Lampedusa in the crowded streets in mid-morning, recalled Orlando, was a sight difficult to forget: a large bulky figure, very distinct and shabby, his eyes alert and his leather bag always overloaded with books and confectionery which had to last him the rest of the day. Flaccovio had a similar memory of Lampedusa entering his shop not in the least embarrassed by his bag containing courgettes and several volumes of Proust.

Sorry, I didn't save the page number and I don't have the book any more. Gilmour went on to write an admirable biography of Lord Curzon, a bit of a "last leopard" himself; find it here.

Not Earnest, The Other One

We got a nice twopher this week. Last night in SFO, we saw ACT’s fine production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. But that is only a onepher. Recall that Travesties is a riff on Oscar Wild’s Importance of Being Earnest. The twopher is that last week at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, we saw Earnest.

I don’t know, somebody must have done this before, although I wasn’t informed. But these plays just cry out to be played as we saw them, back to back. Stoppard is dense with allusion anyway, and when he builds a whole play on just one such, then you know you’ve got to do your homework or you’ll wind up like poor Henry Carr, who never gets anything right.

Yes, but maybe no. Another wonderful thing about Stoppard is that he is like one of those children’s books (Gulliver’s Travels, say) where children can enjoy it on one level and adults on another at the same time. Or like The Simpsons: with The Simpsons, I always know I am missing at least half the allusions (especially the music) but there is enough there to keep me happy anyway.

Stopppard works that way but trust me, what is funny unencumbered is even funnier with the overlay of the one playwright in the last hundred years who might be even funnier than he (I exclude Shaw who is admirable but too tendentious). On its own, it is a great parlor trick: in context, it is like juggling 24 plates with a fiery sword.

I see that Travesties runs until October 14, and Earnest, through the end of October. Yes, I know it is a bit over the top to plan for this sort of thing, but some lucky viewers, by luck or by planning, will still wind up seeing them both. I envy them; they’ve got something to look forward to.

What the Pope Got Right, and What Wrong

TigetHawk is Mad and He’s Not Going to Take it Any More. The Pope condemned religious violence. Angry Muslims took to the street. “Never,” says TigerHawk, his temples throbbing – “Never in the history of Christianity has a pope been proven correct so quickly and demonstrably.” He continues:

For my part, I am sick of "Muslim rage." …. [T]here is simply no defense for the behavior of these imams and their followers. It is barbaric, and everybody who is not barbaric or an unreconstructed apologist for barbarians knows it. The Muslims who commit arson and mayhem in response to some Westerner speaking his opinion -- and the pope, as leader of the Roman church, is exactly that -- have chosen to act as enemies of reason, peace, and everything that is good in the world.

The Pope, in short, has nothing to apologize for. I’m mostly with TigerHawk on this one. But I’m not quite ready to let the Pope off the hook. Not that he shouldn’t have said it. And not just “he’s got a right to his opinion.” It is an important issue, and it is refreshing to see an important voice on moral issues willing to take it on. If he feels he can make a contribution, well God (as it were) bless him.

But Jeeze Louise, Papa, you should have seen this one coming. You should have known you were going to create a rumpus and that ten gazillion Muslims (plus the Times and the Guardian) would be on your neck. This does not mean you should have kept quiet. It does mean you should have been ready for the uproar. You should have the second-day story in the can and ready to go. You should have bean ready to use all your formidable powers to try to turn this into a useful dialogue.

Instead, we’re told that the Pope is “extremely upset” at the response and “only meant to say” blah blah blah. This is not constructive. It conveys that he hasn’t thought it out; that he doesn’t understand the implications of his own words; that he doesn’t (in the strict sense) know what he is talking about.

Well, he does and he doesn’t. He was (mostly) right the first day. He’s a little bit right today. But if he is really going to let himself get rolled this easily, then there’s a good case to be made for the notion that he should have kept silent altogether.

In short, the Pope has to do more than just pontificate.

Fn: TigerHawk is also pretty ticked at the New York Times. He's mostly right on that one, too, but it's a separate issue and deserves, if anything, a separate comment.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Wish I'd Said That

Matt Festra, commenting at the Mankiw blog, adds one to my repertoire:

Math has added rigor to economics, but it has also added mortis.

Economics of Restaurants (Second Prize,Two Nights in Fresno Dept.)

We spent two nights in a Radisson in downtown Fresno this week (don’t ask). Downtown Fresno is—well, think downtown St. Louis, Downtown Phoenix, Downtown Baluchistan, where they shoot anything moving at night because nobody would be out there but a drug runner. No, don’t think Baluchistan, but think of any American city where you can fire a cannon after 5 p.m. and wait for the echo.

Bear with me, there’s a point here. I mean: we like to eat, but ten years ago, faced with a challenge of this sort, the chances are we would have hunkered down over the mini-bar or accepted the humiliating ministrations of the drab-looking restaurant in the lobby. If there was a good restaurant in Fresno, how would we know? And if we knew, how would we find it?

Think what we do now. No, there is not a Zagat Fresno, but just five minutes of Googling and we had found—well, maybe not Aureole, but still, half a dozen choices that looked at least passably promising.

Next spot—how to find them? They weren’t downtown, and Fresno seems to sprawl out over about half the San Joaquin Valley. The hassle of charting the course would have been enough, if not to defeat me, then at best to generate an unpleasant half hour of wrong turns, missed exits, and squinting under a flashlight at a wrinkled map.

Today, not a problem. We have a GPS, so we fire up the computer and let the mystery voice tell us where to go. And not to make a long a story of it, things worked just as they should—not once, but twice, or actually three times: one of our choices was closed and we were able to bop on to Plan B without missing a beat.

In short, satisfying, painless, and a thousand times better than the mini bar. For the record: Campagnia is a bit overdone, but passable with a nice wine list. Chef’s Table is way more pretentious than it needs to be: the food was fine, and the wine topnotch (try the Pillar Box Shiraz). Oh, and Echo is closed.

There is a point around here: somehow how things aren’t what they used to be. I’m wondering in particular what this sort of thing does to the lobby restaurant business. Or, come to think of it, to the seemingly fancier places out in the edge of town. Is it truly harder for the one to keep, and easier for the other to get, the customers they want?

[Afterthought-- reservations: in the end, it seems they aren’t a big deal in Fresno. But of course I did have my cell phone—no, strike that, we both had cell phones. Here’s one guy I wouldn’t want to be: the chap in the hotel org whose compensation is a function of those irritating hotel telephone charges.]

Update: I was too hard on Fresno restaurants. Tonight in San Francisco, we dined at a Zagat 23 where the food was no better, and the wine a good deal worse.

Hey, It's aThought (Common Article III Division)

Thoughts while numbed before CNN:

In 1989, American forces played deafening music outside the Papal Nunciaturia in Panama City, purportedly to drive Manual Noriega out of hiding and into captivity. Concede that Nine-Inch Nails might count as torture, in any form. But query, would it be a violation of Common Article III of the Geneva Convention to subject the accused to incessant replays of George Bush Press Conferences? Blah blah stay the course. Blah blah keep America strong. Blah blah a uniter. Blah blah not a divider. Stay the course, hey stay the course. Nu-cu-lar, nu-cu-lar, NU-CU-LAR!

Hey, it’s a thought.

Background: according to this source, the fabled “booming of Noriega” is a bit of an urban myth—evidently at best, a bit of serendipity of which the top brass disapproved and to which it put a stop. Evidently President (the other) Bush thought it “irritating and petty.” Now, as to CNN…

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Three Classes of Pauperdom

Guest-blogger Honoré de Balzac weighs in with an outline of "the three classes of pauperdom" in Paris:

First, there is the poverty of the man who keeps up appearances now but whose future is secure: the poverty of young men, artists and society people who are temporarily embarrassed. The signs of this poverty are only visible to the most practised observer and even then a microscope is required. These people make up the equestrian class of paupers, they will go around in cabs. In the second class of the order are old men who have ceased to care about anything, and who wear the cross of the Legion of Honour over an alpaca coat in June. Theirs is the poverty of old retired people, ageing clerks whose home is at Sainte-Périne, people who are hardly concerned any more about how they dress. Finally, there is the poverty that goes about in rags, the pauperdom of the working class; this is poverty in its most poetical form, admired and painted (especially at carnival time) by Callot, Hogarth, Murillo, Charlet, Raffet, Gavarni, Meissonier and artists generally.

Honoré de Balzac, The Black Sheep 120

(Penguin Paperback ed. 1970)

Comments: we can pass over class one as really not pauperdom at all--the right wing press makes much of this class in arguig that today's poverty problem is exaggerated. Cl,ass two has been greatly reduced by Social Security and Medicare (recall that the old used to be the poorest class in the United States; now they are, by many measures, the richest). Re class three--is there any genre of art that treats them as quaint or diverting, as they seem to have been in Balzac's day?

Note that Balzac is writing in and about the early 19th Century. What other classes of pauperdom do we encounter that Balzac did not (or that he did not notice?)?

From the Best Book I Read Last Year

Rooting around in my hard disk, I found a nice summary extract from Martin Van Creveld's Rise and Decline of the State (1999) (link), surely the best book I read last year. Oddly enough, I seem not to have retained page numbers, but I will add them once I run them down.

“…government and state are emphatically not the same. The former is a person or group which makes peace, wages war, enacts laws, exercises justice, raises revenue, determines the currency, and looks after internal security on behalf of society as a whole, all the while attempting to provide a focus for people’s loyalty and, perhaps, a modicum of welfare as well. The latter is merely one of the forms which, historically speaking, the organization of government has assumed, and which, accordingly, need not be considered eternal and self-evident any more than were previous ones.

The first place to see this particular form of government was Western Europe, where it started developing around 1300 and where the decisive changes took place between the death of Charles V in 1558 and the Treaty of Westphalia ninety years later. Speaking very roughly, and skipping over the many differences that separated various countries, the process worked as follows. Having fought and defeated universalism on the one hand and particularism on the other, a small number of ‘absolute’ monarchs consolidated territorial domains and concentrated political power in their own hands. Simultaneously, in order to wield both the civilian and military aspects of that power, they set out to construct an impersonal bureaucracy as well as the tax and information infrastructure necessary for its support. Once the bureaucracy was in place, its own nature—the fact that the rules of which it consisted could not be arbitrarily violated without risking a breakdown—soon caused it to start taking power out of the ruler’s hands and into its own, thus spawning the state proper.

…the state was originally conceived principally as an instrument for imposing law and order on groups and people. About a century and a half after its birth, however, it met with, and proceeded to appropriate, the thunder of nationalism, thus providing itself with ethical contents. . . .

Unlike any of its predecessors at any other time and place, it is not identical with either rulers nor ruled; it is neither a man nor a community, but an invisible being known as a corporation. As a corporation it has an independent personal. The latter is recognized by law and capable of behaving as if it were a person in making contracts, owning property, defending itself, and the like.

As of the last years of the twentieth century, it is becoming apparent that [this] characteristic of the state—the fact that it has a persona—is [coming to drive the evolution]. In the main, the threat to the state does not come either from individuals or from groups of the kind which exercised the functions of government in various communities at various times and places before 1648. Instead it comes from other corporations: in other words, from such ‘artificial men’ as share its own nature but differ from it both in respect to their control over territory and in regard to the exercise of sovereignty.”

This is still only a summary of what is surely a stimulating piece work, by a scholar with a proven record in military history (his earlier work includes one called The Transformation of War (1991)(link), together with studies of logistic and of command). For a different version, follow this link. A natural companion to Van Creveld's work is Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States, A. D. 990-1992 (link).

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Meet the Guest Blogger

I spent most of the day in a car so I’ve commissioned a guest blogger—put your hands together in a big Underbelly welcome for French novelist Honoré de Balzac:

Alas! The colonel no longer loved anyone in the world except for one person and that person was himself. His misfortunes in Texas, his stay in New York, a place where speculation and individualism are carried to the very highest level, where the brutality of self-interest reaches the point of cynicism and where a man, fundamentally isolated from the rest of mankind, finds himself compelled to rely upon his own strength and at every instant to be the self-appointed judge of his own actions, a city in which politeness does not exist; in other words, the whole voyage, down to its very slightest details, had developed in Philippe the pernicious inclinations of the hardened trooper.

Honoré de Balzac, The Black Sheep 62

(Penguin Paperback ed. 1970)

It goes on like this. And you thought we had a low opinion of the French. So far as I know, Balzac never set foot in New York. Or in Bedford, New Hampshire either, come to think of it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

From the Bin: The Death of Sherborn Dearborn

From the History of Bedford New Hampshire from 1787 (1903), in a section on “Fatal Casualties, Remarkable Cases of Perservation, etc.” at p. 642:

October 22, 1869—Sherborn Dearborn, aged sixty, was killed by the kick of a horse. He was on his way home from Manchester and stopped at Mrs. Lochran’s house on the plains. The house stood as few rods east of the top of the hill on the road from Manchester. It was afterwards burned. His body was found with his back broken. Word was brought to Mr. F.F. French, who sent Damon Jenkins and John D. Rowe to carry him home. He lived a few days after that. He was a man of great natural ability, but with some irregularities of conduct.

Some irregularities of conduct?

We Read Overheard in New York So You Don't Have To

A New Way Around Male Fear of Commitment

Girl #1: He actually told her he was only dating her because she had cancer?
Girl #2: Yup.
Girl #1: That's such a dumb reason to date somebody.

--Alfangi Spa, 39th & Madison

Overheard by: Emily (link)

Dayan on the Problem Confronting Israel (1956)

More from Avi Shlaim in The Iron Wall, this time an extraordinary insight into the mentality of the first post-independence generation of Israeli leadership. This is a quotation from Moshe Dayan, he of the eye patch, perhaps the most adventurous and very likely the smartest of the crew. Dayan is speaking “at the funeral of one Ro’i Rotberg, a young farmer from Kibbutz Nahal-Oz who was murdered by Arab marauders in April 1956:”

Yesterday morning Ro’i was killed. The quiet of spring morning blinded him, and he did not see the murderers lying in wait for him along the furrow. Let us not today fling accusations at the murderers. What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred for us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived.

We should demand his blood not from the Arabs of Gaza but from ourselves. . . . Let us make our reckoning today. We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and the gun barrel, we shall not be able to plant a tree or build a house. . . . Let us not be afraid to see the hatred that accompanies and consumes the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who sit all around us and await the moment when their hand will be able to reach our blood. Let us not avert our gaze, for it will weaken our hand. This is the fate of our generation. The only choice we have is to be prepared and armed, strong, and resolute, or else our sword will slip from our hand and the thread of our lives will be severed.
Shlaim comments:

Dayan was clearly not insensitive to Arab feelings. He recognized the injustice that his country had inflicted on hundreds of thousands of Arabs. But his very empathy bred deep pessimism concerning the possiblityof an accommodation with them. It was not self-righteousness but the conviction that Israel's survival ws at stake that led him to reject any magnanimity. ...

Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall 101-2 (Paperback ed. 2001)