Sunday, September 16, 2007

Away Again

We're off to Merry England, where bulldogs all wear pants.
We're off to Pango Pango, where alligators dance.

Nah not really, I just like to say it. We are off again, but to Eastern Europe, for a bit of opera, and to track down Mrs. B's Bohemian ancestors (and to savor the $1.47 Euro). Back in early October; I may post in the meantime, but unlikely. Meanwhile, revel in some Underbelly golden oldies:

Mini-Review: Under a Cruel Star

An Aesthetics for Bullyboys

In Which I am Chuffed, or Chuffed

You Gotta Read Faulkner

Take This to Heart As Well As to Mind

In Which I Get One Up on Socrates

Street Arab/Arab Street

God’s Schlemiels

“Have Her Stripped and Washed and Brought to my Tent”

Best Cop Show Ever


It's not really the brief of this blog to get into farragos (farraghi?) like the Summers/Chemerinsky mess at the University of California (link, link) But here's an item that I haven't seen reported elsewhere: apparently one reason the women of UCD got all in a twist about a Summers invitation is that they fear he was being sized up as a potential UC President.

Understand, I have no real evidence that he was in fact being so wooed--but I know there was such a rumor. For my money, I've got all kinds of admiration for Larry Summers, but I think his talents don't lend themselves to a University presidency, period. And in any event, I must say I think the University's handling of the whole business is beyond ham-handed. It's as if they listened to the best PR advice and undertook to do the exact opposite.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


For no very obvious reason, I have spent a lot of time lately reading about the politics of the mid-20th century—the nexus being perhaps 1948, when I would have been 12. For even less obvious reasons, I’ve been pursuing a subset of what you might call “Jewish survival” literature, and I take it for granted that the theme of Jewish survival is a central theme of the period.

The keystone was surely Primo Levi’s Auschwitz memoir (link), which is in a class by itself. A companion piece Heda Margolius Kovály’s account of her life in and out of Prague (link)-not so elegant as literature, but an earnest, heartfelt tale by a woman who survived the death camps only to find herself thrust into the maw of the Soviet conquerors. I followed up on Kovaly with a memoir by her son, Ivan Margolius, born in a dark time, but surviving into personal and professional security, not to say recognition (link). I had high hopes for Ivan’s story because I like these “essays in retrieval,” and because Heda had left a lot of questions that I hoped he would answer. Indeed it is an okay book in its way, but it is full of a lot of rookie errors—sidetracks and space-fillers—that substantially impair its potential.

But then I moved on to two more which can be discussed somewhat as a matched set: Five Germanys I Have Known (link),and Amos Oz’ Tale of Love and Darkness (link). Each is the first person account of a boy who became a man amidst the turbulent politics of the time. And although neither experienced much directly in the way of political violence [Hah!--What was I thinking? Seen Afterthought II below], still each one found his life defined by it.

And that is the virtue they share: Stern and Oz both have a remarkable knack for uniting the personal and the political: of telling their own story, the stories of their dear ones, and to an extent the stories of their ancestors known and unknown, as part of the fabric of the times.

For Stern, it comes naturally: he’s an historian by trade. It is therefore not surprising that the best of his “Germanys” is no one of the five but rather a sixth—“it is the Germany of the years before World War I, that I think I understand the best.” He paints a vivid and compelling picture of the life of middle and upper-middle class Jews in the highly assimilated world of Wilhelmian Germany—indeed, I don’t know anyone who does a better job of setting the background for the Hitlerian cataclysm to follow.

Ironically, perhaps the happiest part of Stern’s book comes at its darkest hour. We’re talking about World War II, when the Stern family, emigrants at last, tries to scratch as place for itself in wartime New York City. Stern is not yet an adult—he was born in 1926—yet as the most mobile and the most adaptable of the clan, he finds himself thrust into an adult world. He is the manager, the fixer, even the housekeeper. It sounds like a much of a muchness, but in fact he thrives on it, juggling friends and connections on two continents, in half a dozen languages. He emerges almost like the Robert Mitchum Character in Herman Wouk’s Winds of War, or maybe Woody Allen’s Zelig, always on hand, always in the picture. We find him in a chat with Isaiah Berlin, then getting college advice from Albert Einsten. No wonder he went onto a distinguished career as an academic administrator and a member of the “invisible choir: of post-war German-American relations.

Sadly but perhaps inevitably, Stern’s book loses some of its force as he gains in eminence. It still has its merits, but more and more and more it becomes an essay in “and-so-I-told-the-Pope” (literally: see pp 339-42) which necessarily impels the reader into a snooze.

Oz’s life (and book) is the same only different. He’s about 12 years younger than Stern. He was born in Israel, the only child of two parents, each fighting his or her own disappointments, and in a vast network of relatives and neighbors, all with their own demons and aspirations. He’s a precocious child who seems to assimilate almost everything around him and so he is able from an early age to assemble a mosaic of Israel’s complicated place in a complicated world. Like Stern, Oz too has played a part in the public life of his time but unlike Stern, Oz doesn’t make much of it explicitly in the book. He’s a writer, not an historian. Perhaps by definition, then, his account is more inward and elegiac. Yet of all these, next only to Levi he does the best job of conveying what it is to be a person in these trying times.

Afterthought I: If you like the literature of survivorship, then for a total change of pace, read the biography of Judah P. Benjamin (link), the Confederate Secretary of War, who, after Apomattox, succeeded in reinventing himself as a lawyer and leading law scholar in London.

Afterthought II: Political violence? What was I thinking? I guess I was thinking of the Hitler wars in Europe. They missed that, alright, but Oz as a nine-year-old child underwent the Arab onslaught against Jerusalem after the partition in 1948. No day at the beach, let me tell you.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Not a Convenient Time

Packing for a trip to Europe, I read this (link):
Dollar's retreat raises fear of collapse

FRANKFURT: Finance ministers and central bankers have long fretted that at some point, the rest of the world would lose its willingness to finance the United States' proclivity to consume far more than it produces - and that a potentially disastrous free-fall in the dollar's value would result.

But for longer than most economists would have been willing to predict a decade ago, the world has been a willing partner in American excess - until a new and home-grown financial crisis this summer rattled confidence in the country, the world's largest economy.

On Thursday, the dollar briefly fell to another low against the euro of $1.3927, as a slow decline that has been under way for months picked up steam this past week.

"This is all pointing to a greatly increased risk of a fast unwinding of the U.S. current account deficit and a serious decline of the dollar," said Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and an expert on exchange rates. "We could finally see the big kahuna hit."

Off to the big kahuna...

More Opera: Comparing Rusalka and Jenůfa

One more opera note and I’ll get off it. We completed our recent spasm with a viewing of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka—the famous-all-over-town version from the Paris Bastille in 2002 (link). We pretty much buy into the conventional view on this one—it’s a fine showcase for Renée Fleming, well sung all around. But the staging is—oh, I guess it isn’t quite as outrageous as some of the critics have said, but it didn’t really work. People, this is a water-nymph we’re talking about here. Putting her in a swimming pool is okay, but the chambermaids at the Paris Radisson are going to have some drying issues.

But what interests me at the moment is to braket Rusalka with Jenůfa by Leoš Janáček, which we listened to just last week. Turns out that they were premiered within three years of each other – Rusalka on 31 March 1901, and Jenůfa on 21 January 1904—and next door —Rusalka in Prague and Jenůfa down the road in Brno. Indeed, Jenůfa didn’t get its Prague premier until 1916—apparently Janáček ensnared himself in some kind of contretemps with the Prague musical director.

There are a thousand obvious differences between the two, but I want to dwell for a moment on what, for lack of a better name, I would have to call the style. I’m not enough of a musician to get under the hood here, but I do think I can hear an underlying tone, timbre, rhythm, which the share with each other and which you just don’t find in the west. I am tempted to call it “Eastern,” but that may not be quite right: I don’t hear it in Russian music, although I do, perhaps, hear something similar in the Hungarian music of Béla Bartók (whose own only opera premiered down the road in Budapest in 1918).

Rusalka is gratifying in its way, but I have to say that of the two, I prefer Jenůfa. They say that Dvořák’s fell under the influence of Wagner, and it shows, and for my money, that isn’t necessarily a compliment. You can tell even here that Dvořak’s real first love is not opera but concert work. Jenůfa, meanwhile, even though it may come out of a tradition, has a tang all its own.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Amazing That I Am Not Rich

Via Cory at BoingBoing, we learn that the kilogram is losing weight (link):

Physicist Richard Davis of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sevres, southwest of Paris, says the reference kilo appears to have lost 50 micrograms compared with the average of dozens of copies.

"The mystery is that they were all made of the same material, and many were made at the same time and kept under the same conditions, and yet the masses among them are slowly drifting apart," he said. "We don't really have a good hypothesis for it."

Cory calls it the "weight of a fingerprint," but I wouldn't dismiss it so quickly. "Arbitrage" in finance is the art of identifying and capitalizing on market mispricing. Given the competitive nature of the game, these opportunities are hard to find, and if you are going to make any money at all, you usually have to do it on volume.

But do the numbers here. A microgram is one one-thousandth of a gram. Unless I've dropped a zero somewhere, that means 20 million "fingerprints" in a gram. At a penny a fingerprint, that translates into $200,000 a gram. GE trading volume yesterday was a little under 20 million shares...

Honestly, it just amazing that I am not rich. But don't kid yourself. Somewhere on this planet, there is an 85-pound kid with a brain the size of a suitcase, hunkered down over his computer screen, doing just this same kind of calculation and getting it right.

Did She Fall? Was She Pushed?

Here's a how-de-do. If you've watched more than 30 seconds of cable news, you know about the British couple whose daughter has gone missing in Portugal. But have you noticed an unexampled novelty in this case--the press can't figure out how to spin it (link):

I can't stand it any more. I can't stand the dizzying manipulation of my sympathies.

First I had a pretty clear idea of what had happened to poor little Maddie McCann.

Then all these horrible rumours started to emanate from the Portuguese police, and my emotions lurched off in the opposite direction; and then there would be a pretty compelling counter-rumour, and a learned essay from some expert in forensic science explaining that DNA tests were not all they were cracked up to be, until I have reached the position at 5.30 on Wednesday afternoon - the latest I dare to sit down to write this piece - when I frankly haven't got a clue what to think.

I look in vain for guidance to the tabloid press, with its legions of reporters in Praia da Luz and long expertise in knowing which way to fan the hysteria of their readers. Which is it?

Are the McCann parents a brace of cold-hearted child killers who have managed to concoct a gigantic fraud involving the police forces of western Europe, the Papacy and hundreds of yellow ribbon-wearing British MPs?

Or are they loving and normal parents who have fallen victim to a terrible crime, and who now see their agony compounded by a half-baked stitch-up operation conducted by Portugal's equivalent of Inspector Clouseau?

Either way, it is a sensational tabloid story; and yet the papers cannot go either way. The journalists are stuck in the middle, uncertain, cautious, hedging. ...

That from the London Telegraph. And here is a wrinkle I don't think you'd get on this side of the puddle: the author is Boris Johnson, MP for Henley and a cross-over journalist politician. He's also Conservative Party candidate for Mayor of London.

[Thanks, Joel.]

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Understatement of the Decade

From the Wichita Bureau (link):
Boy Says he Shot Parents Because He "Let Them Down"
Thanks, John.

World's Longest Knock-knock Joke

That would be Hamlet, a play by William Shakespeare.

Look at the first line (link).

This I learn from Slings and Arrows (link), the funniest bit of TV (DVD) I've seen since--well, maybe since Sports Night (link). We've watched only one season so far, which means we have two to go. Lucky us.

For more background on S&A, go here (link).

Global Imbalance

Mark Perry reports on Wal-Mart (link):

Based on August retail sales reported in the WSJ, Wal-Mart ($28.2 billion) is twice as big as the next 13 retailers on the list combined (Target, Costco, J.C. Penny, TJX, Gap, Abercrombie and Fitch, American Eagle, Saks, Aeropostale, Ann Taylor, Chico's, Hot Topic, Zumiez).

I can't put my finger on it at the moment (I've been thumbing through Andrew J. Bacevich's The New American Militarism, but so far without success)--but what's the ratio for the military expenditures of the United States versus the rest of the world? My recollection is that we are as big of some dozen or so of our next competitors, combined. So, only half as big as Wal-Mart.

Weirdest, Saddest

Weirdest, strangest, saddest, news story of the day (link).

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Annals of Political Palaeontology

'Twould be interesting to deconstruct this (link) to see which level comes in with which presidency. "...get Scalia's butt of the Supreme Court" echoes the Goldwater Campaign: "so help me god, You're Under Arrest, Warren!" "Charm and cash" must be from JFK. "Execute whom I please" sounds like a much better fit for, say, a former Texas governor.

It is the U.S. Capitol, outdoors. Chief Justice John Roberts rises from his seat and takes his place. The president-elect then stands and faces the chief justice. The presidential spouse places a Bible between them.

CHIEF JUSTICE: Please raise your right hand and repeat after me. I, Hillary Rodham Clinton...

HILLARY: I, Hillary Rodham, and, when I need it, Clinton...

CHIEF JUSTICE: do solemnly swear...

HILLARY: do vaguely commit...

CHIEF JUSTICE: that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States...

HILLARY: that I will be President of the United States, and execute whom I please...

CHIEF JUSTICE: and will, to the best of my ability...

HILLARY: and will, with my charm and cash...

CHIEF JUSTICE: preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States...

HILLARY: get Scalia's butt off the Supreme Court, followed by yours, pal...

CHIEF JUSTICE: so help me God.

HILLARY: So help me me.

CHIEF JUSTICE: Congratulations.

HILLARY: Now take off the black dress and sit down.

Cannons fire their salute. The Marine band plays "Hail to the Chief." Bill Clinton cabs to the White House to check the fridge.

Don't Be Coy, David

[See Update below]

Here’s a bankruptcy story that deserves a wider audience—also a shout-out for David Yen of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, one of the most careful, serious, reflective lawyers I know. First, a newspaper clip (link):

Spokane Diocese Bankruptcy Lawyers Seek Closed Proceedings on Fees

Bankruptcy lawyers who have billed the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane are asking that proceedings on their fees be closed to the public, the Associated Press reported yesterday. At issue is more than $10 million in fees that the lawyers are seeking. The case stems from a $48 million settlement to resolve claims of sexual abuse by priests decades ago. In 10 days, lawyers for Bishop William Skylstad and for people who filed the abuse claims are scheduled to meet with a federal mediator in Reno, Nev.

Now David, writing at the Bankruptcy Law listserv at the University of Illinois Law School (link):

On what possible basis would this request be proper, other than, “we did a really good job stiffing the victims so we should get these fees but we don’t want them to know how much they got hosed”? I’m sure that there is a good reason that I just don’t have the legal acumen to figure out..

Don’t be coy, David. But nice catch.

Update: Following up on some offline chatter:

  • Yes, I believe that the lawyers for the Diocese may be in a position to argue that they preserved assets for innocent parishioners. Be happy to see that one carried out publicly.

  • You say you don't want your competitors to know how much you charge? Oh, give me a break. Your competitors know exactly what you charge. The public may not know, but I think they perfectly well ought to know.

  • You say there are "trade secrets" to protect? Hm. That may be a more complicated issue, although in an age when we have all gone trade-secret crazy, I'd be skeptical. Anyway, if it really matters, why not supplement your public application with a trade-secrets backgrounder?

Moment of Non-Befuddlement

David Kurtz wonders if this is a "moment of ... befuddlement" (link):

You don't want to put too much emphasis on one response over two days of hearings, but when Sen. John Warner (R-VA) asked Gen. Petraeus a short time ago if victory in Iraq would make America safer, Petraeus hedged before saying, "I don't know." Perhaps it was just a moment of uncharacteristic befuddlement for the general, but if the answer to that question isn't a resounding yes, then, even on the Bush Administration's own terms, it's time to start loading up the troop carriers in Kuwait and bring our people home.

I don't think it was a moment of befuddlement. I don't even think it was an isolated respose. I heard him say something very similar in the house hearings yesterday. Asked yesterday whether the AQI will follow us home he said, in effect, "I don't know." In a similar vein, I heard him asked yesterday whether he thought our military was overstretched worldwide. His answer was, in effect, "above my paygrade."

Of course this might just be prudent marketing: start pontificating on the whole planet and you look like a total gasbag. But I think Petraeus may have been glad of a chance to stay off the hook on issues where his answers would not follow the party line.

Update: Well, maybe not (link).

The End Game Again

What’s our end game in Iraq? How will we know we have won? I’m one of a legion of those who say we have no end game and we won’t know when we’ve won. But having listened (with one ear) to the House Petraeus/Crocker hearings yesterday, I need to revise my views.

Someone—I forget who—asked Crocker a question, which amounted to the same thing I’ve been asking—how will we know when we’ve won. Crocker’s answer was a marvel of diplomatic obfuscation—this guy has not spent nearly 20 years as an ambassador for nothing. But if you listened with care, you could grasp that under the gobbledygook, there was an assertion.

As I understood him, Crocker said little or nothing about “democracy,” and not a whole lot about a unified central government. Well he might not: as Chuck Hagel pointed out this morning, four southern provinces have already hived off on their own, under leadership that would hardly pass the Eleanor Roosevelt test. And it is our money that is supporting our former enemies, the Sunni sheikhs who are fighting AQI. And I take it for granted that the ambassador knows about the Hunt’s direct deal with the Kurds for oil.

So, we’ve given up on democracy and we’ve given up on a unified Iraq. We know there will be decentralization and tribalism. Translated, there is an end game: we're hoping to minimize the bloodshed, to hang onto a government structure will cooperate with us on oil.

It’s politically untenable to make this case out loud, not least because it is such a mean comedown from our grandiose expectations. But under the circumstances, it doesn’t sound to me like a bad outcome—I can’t think of a better, and I can think of a lot worse.

If this is our game plan, Crocker and Petraeus are probably about as well equipped as anybody to achieve it. There are a million ways it can still go wrong. And there are real questions about whether we have the resources, forget about the resolve, to do it. But there is the remotest chance they might get lucky. If so, an irony is that the beneficiary of their good luck might be the next Democratic president.

Presidency as Game Show

Alex Tabarrok's idea of choosing presidents via game show (link) is indeed cool, but there is something irretrievably dorky about economists choosing sex symbols who just happen to share a surname with, well, somebody kind of famous (link).

Update: Mrs. Buce reminds me of the story of Barack Obama's wife--how, in their dating days, she sent him out to play tennis with her brother, to find out whether he was a gentlemen. And that reminds me of what must be the best political book of the last decade -- Don Van Natta's First off the Tee, about presidential golf (link).

This Just In: Abraham Lincoln Was Jewish!

You probably knew, but I just learned, that Abraham Lincoln was obviously Jewish:
  • His name is "Abraham."

  • He freed the slaves.

  • He was shot in the temple.

Opera Notes: Jenůfa, Giulio Cesare, Nabucco

A lot of opera action lately on the big screen at Il Teatro Bruce. A quick summary:

  • The pick of the week is Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa, from Kultur (link), a nasty little story tale peasant lust and infanticide, and what’s not to like? The Czech language (or is it Moldavian dialect?) lends itself to this kind of raw humanity; it carries a lot more conviction than the kind of dilletantism you get from Puccini. And I have to admit I found it a lot more accessible than Cunning Little Vixen, which I have to admit I don't really get.

The pick of Jenůfa is Anja Silja, hitherto unknown to me, who seems to have had a long, busy, interesting career that invites more attention (link). Roberta Alexander in the title role is good also, although she has less to do except to sound baffled and desperate. The men were fine, but their characters are more limited so they didn’t have the scope to dazzle.

  • David McVicar’s Giulo Cesare (link) (also from Glyndebourne) is perhaps more assertively controversial—at first blush it looks like the kind of high-saliency high camp you expect from Peter Sellers. But McVicar offers something often missing from Sellers: music. Maybe the credit goes to the music director, William Christie, but in any event, it is interestingly sung, well played, throughout. Cleopatra and (especially) Cesare are well cast, but this performance really belongs to Patricia Bardon (as Cornelia, widow of Pompey) and Angelika Kirschlager (as Sesto, Pompey's son).

The campy staging (McVicar himself calls it “Bollywood”) is a question. It certainly gives reviewers something to talk about. I’d say that it works, but only because the cast is so strong—with weaker singers, you’d notice, and be offended by, the staging much more quickly.

  • Verdi’s Nabucco (link) is a different matter altogether. If I read the liner notes right, this is was Ricardo Muti’s debut performance as music director at La Scala in 1987—a job he left amid some rancor just a couple of years back. The audience loved it, and it was well sung, but you can’t get away from the notion that this is second-tier Verdi: interesting, certainly worth seeing once, but not something I’d hurry back to (I may be a dissenter here; apparently it has enthusiastic acoloytes). You can almost imagine the young Verdi, like the young Shakespeare at one of his own first plays, watching from the wings and saying “hm, won’t do that again.”

Monday, September 10, 2007

Colonels and Generals

I had a friend--I've lost touch with him--who was a police lieutenant in a small city down state. Every night he'd put out the troops. Sometimes he'd ride himself. I asked him once if he ever applied for a job as chief. He hesitated for a second, but then he said "Nah, I like being a cop. A chief is about politics. I'd rather be a cop."

The other day I noodled around with the question as to why Muammar Khaddafi wanted to be colonel rather than general (link). I suggested that in his day, colonels were the real power in the Army, and generals were exhausted volcanoes.

But it maybe it is more, um, general than that. I've heard people say that in the American Army, there is no real shame in retiring as a colonel, because everybody knows that in order to be as general, you have to be a careerism and you have to get into politics. Colonel is the last rank that allows independent thought.

I first heard about David Petraeus in Thomas Rick's Fiasco (link), a fascinating account of the "major combat operations" phase of the current uproar. I carried away a lot from Rick's book, including a question: what did Petraeus do for Rick to get this kind of wet kiss? But I may I should restrain myself: indeed I am pretty much willing to accept the conventional wisdom that Petraeus is bright and imaginative, one of the few who really tried to learn the lessons of Viet Nam and to apply them in Iraq. On the whole, I suspect he still may be about the best we're likely to get for his difficult and important job.

Right now as I write, General Petraeus is enjoying an hour of kissyface with Brit Hume on Fox.

Welcome to politics, general.

Update: And now I hear General Petraeus being interrogated by every liberal's (and my) favorite conservative, Chuck Hagel. Hagel was a sergeant.

Awwww, You Shouldn't Have...

...but how nice of you to think of me:

Thanks, Katy and Steve, I guess [note improved picture].

Sunday, September 09, 2007

News Flash: War Between Men and Women Not Over

..and probably never will be.

When I meet a pretty girl and beg her: "Be so good as to come home with me," and she walks past without a word, this is what she means to say:

"You are no Duke, with a famous name, no broad American with a Red Indian figure, level, brooding eyes and a skin tempered by the air of prairies and the rivers that flow through them, you have never journeyed to the seven seas and voyaged on them wherever they may be, I don't know where. So why, pray, should a pretty girl like myself go with you?

"You forget that no automobile swings you through the street in long thrusts: I see no gentlemen escorting you in a close half-circle, pressing on your skirts from behind and murmuring blessings on your head: your breasts are well laced into your bodice, but your thighs and hips make up for that restraint; you are wearing a taffeta dress with a pleated skirt such as delighted all of us last autumn and yet you smile--inviting mortal danger--from time to time."

"Yes, we're both in the right, and to keep us from being irrevocably aware of it, hadn't we better go our separate ways home?"

--Franz Kafka, "Rejection," Wedding Preparations and Other Stories 99
(Penguin Paperback 1979)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

It's Not About You

Cooking up some pasta this afternoon, I listened with one ear to Micah Halpern on C-Span flogging his book, "Thugs" (link), aka political leadership. He had some wonderful stories, although I'm not sure it is a must-read. He seemed bemused that when Muammar Khaddafi took power in Lybia he assigned himself the title of "Colonel," rather than "General"--why not go for the top? I think I have an answer for that: the point is that in those days, it was the colonels who were the aggressive, dynamic, enterprising young bloods (hello, Colonel Nasser!)--"generals" were just old coots. He also declared that King Farouk of Egypt had the world's largest collection of pornography (wonder how he knows that?)--and that, when Farouk died, a needy Egyptian government put it up for auction. On second thought, maybe it is worth the read.

But he had one line that stuck in my ear. I didn't get the exact words, but he was talking about leadership in general, and he mentioned, in passing: "It Isn't About You."

Boy, is that ever right. It ought to be the first lesson on the first day of dictator school, or CEO school of any sort: it's not about you, it's about what you can do. You are an instrument. You are a fiduciary. You have a task, and a responsibility. It's not about you.

Trouble is, when you think of the sort of narcissism you need to make it to that level--and the rewards available to naked greed, it's a miracle if any leader catches any part of that lesson at all.

Luciano, RIP

The airwaves are full of Pavoratti today. He was a force of nature and he is something to remember, although I confess I was never quite as entranced with him as the world at large: probably sheer cussedness on my part, determined not to like anybody who was so much of a phenom. I don't suppose I ever listened to the notorious "Three Tenors" disk, start to finish. On the other hand, I must say I am a huge fan of his tenoring companion, Placido Domingo (José Carreras, it seems to me, has the unhappy role of being "the other one"--in the sense that Ringo Starr is "the only living Beatle who isn't Paul McCartney"--but I grant you, Carreras had the defense of illness).

I'm sure there is a lot of clucking about Pavoratti's notorious appetite, or appetites. I wouldn't get carried away with that. He lived to a decent age and God knows he had more meals than most of us. He survived his self-indulgence better than, say Enrico Caruso or Jussi Björling.

And I have to admit, I could still watch--tonight, if I weren't otherwise engaged--the DVDs of his early performances with Joan Sutherland--Daughter of the Regiment, say, or Elixir of Love--both grotesquely implausible bodies for their roles, but each a voice that no sensible person will ever forget. I gather Sutherland, 10 years his senior, is still alive and, for all I know, going strong.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Steve Forbes of Islam

Kudos to Yglesias for pointing out the real stuff about Osama--he's a flat-taxer (link).

Sneering Academic Putdown of the Day

[C]ritical theorists ... cannot be expected to relativize their unique claim to a nonreified consciousness.
--Yurik Slezkine, The Jewish Century 87 (2004)

Tyler Whines About Whiners

Boy, am I ever of two minds about this one. Tyler Cowen says “stop whining.” He’s talking about all those early Iphone adopters, ticked off at the Ifolks for cutting prices (link). “Get this,” snarls Tyler:

“I just felt so used as a consumer,” he said. “They hyped up the iPhone for six months and built up our expectations, and then they grabbed our extra $200 and ran.”

Here is another guy:

“I feel totally screwed,” wrote one iPhone owner on the Unofficial Apple Weblog site. “My love affair with Apple is officially over.”

Tyler responds:

OK, people, it's no more Mr. Nice Guy. I'm fed up! No more moderation, no more namby-pamby conciliations to those I disagree with, at least not today. I am plain, hopping mad. … It is you people, you who resent Coase (1972), you people who induce wage and price stickiness and widen the Okun gap. You people, who don't know what it means to sit back and enjoy your consumer surplus. You beasts!

Well—yes, of course, he’s absolutely right, six ways to the Jack. They are whiners—silly, childish, blind to their own interests and the common good. But have we ever had a more remarkable example of an economist complaining (though perhaps with his tongue just edging close to his cheek) that the rest of us don’t behave like economists? Of course he’s right, but isn’t it even a teensy bit interesting that the rest of the world just doesn’t seem to get it—231 years after Adam Smith, 150-odd years after Ricardo, etc., that people still keep persist in acting like, well like people? Which is to say either (a) just not acting like economists tell them they act; or (b) leading economists to ever-more lurid, convoluted ad hoc explanations to tell them they really were acting like economists all along?

A gold-plated cigar to the first person who points to a blog post showing that the whiners really have been acting “economically” all along. Meanwhile, we can entertain ourselves with a whole spate of books (including this one, this one, this one, this one, this one) devoted to proving that the sun really does rise (as it did in John Wayne’s Viet Nam movie) in the west.

But, as I say, Tyler was right to begin with.

Slow Blog Day

My Unitarian Jihad Name is:

Brother/Sister Flaming Pepper Spray of Joy.

Yeh, that sounds about right to me.

What's yours?

Goethe (and Google) on Old Age

Goethe thought for the day, from Underbelly’s Teutonic bureau:

Hat einer dreißig Jahr vorüber,

So ist er schon so gut wie tot,

Am besten wär's, euch zeitig totzuschlagen.

From Faust II. Or, as Google translates:

Year has thirty past,
Like that it is already so well dead,
Best wär's to dead-slam you shut timely.

“Boy,” harrumphs the TB “that’s awful.” The TB offers:

Once you reach 30,

You are as good as dead,

It would be best if you were timely killed.

Must be a good teaching exercise: TB notes that he uses three different forms of address:

Once one has passed thirty years, (einer is equivalent to “one” as in the type of saying “One needn’t go there.”)

So is he as good as dead, (third person – used in some old forms as a form of address for a social inferior – such as prospective son-in-laws and other invisible people)

Best it would be to timely kill you (second person plural, informal form of address).

The combined ages of Goethe (at death), Underbelly and TB average out to about 75. Shows what we know.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

A Simple Man

I guess I had known that Warren Buffett still lives in the same home that he moved into in 1958. I believe I had heard that he paid $31,500 which, when you stop and think about it, was a fair penny in its time (my first home, in 1965, cost me $13,500). I did not know it was ungated.

And I did not know that that it is 5,830 square feet, which is about the square footage of all the homes I ever owned, cumulative (link). Apparently you get a lot of house for $31,500 in Omaha, if your timing is right.

Reading note: I'd still say that Roger Lowenstein's bio of Buffett is about the best single business book I've ever read (link).

The Value of a Princeton Education

Bet you can guess who this is:

...comtemporaries of mine had begun to disappear into the dark maw of violence. A classmate killed his wife and himself on Long Island, another tumbled "accidentally" from a skyscraper in Philadelphia, another purposely from a skyscraper in New York. One was killed in a speakeasy in Chicago; another was beaten to death in a speakeasy in New York and crawled home to the Princeton Club to die; still another had his skull crushed by a maniac in an insane asylum where he was confined. These are not catastrophes that I went out of my way to look for--they were my friends; moreover, these things happened not during the depression but during the boom.

Thought ya could. It's F. Scott Fitzgerald (Princeton '17 dropout), as quoted by Malcom Cowley in Exile's Return (Penguin Books ed. 1994).

Separated at Birth?

I think not...

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Don't Try This At Home

From Der Spiegel, and I have no idea ... .

Thanks, John, I guess.

Annals of Girly-Men

I swear, that Glenn Greenwald is a national treasure (link).

Afterthought: I have to admit that after all the indecent hilarity over Larry ("Wide Stance") Craig, maybe the wingnuts deserve a free throw.

How To Guess Your Age

My friend Gary liked to remark that we observe the anniversary of our birth every year, but nobody celebrates their death day. Odd, Gary thought, because it comes every year, just like the birthday.
A carper would complain that we can't identify the day of our death but I wouldn't be so sure: what with sophisticated modern actuarial techniques, we are getting closer and closer. Thanks to my friend Margaret, I now have a handy dandy new device to estimate my "real age," which amounts to the same thing (link).

Let's see now: I'm 71, which would give me an average life expectancy of about 11 years, making my ETA the age of 82. But tweak it a bit. Smoke? No, quit 47 years ago. Happy? Yes indeed. Nice wife, some exercise, lots of roughage. Overweight? Well, pleasingly plump. Put it all together and it says here that I have a "real age" of 57.2, and a "real" ETA of 95.8.

Ninety-five? I've got to live to be 95? Oy, that may be the most depressing thing I've learned all day.

A Garrett of Her Own

Ha! About time! Somebody has finally done a book about Virginia Woolf and her servants, or perhaps mainly about Nellie (Woolf persistently misspelled it "Nelly") the cook. I probably won't read it but there is a wonderful review in the London Review of Books (Ag 16 2007--link $$), worth it for this gem alone:

On one occasion she threw Virginia out of her room, demanding to be left in privacy, an irony that seems to have been lost on the author of the recently published A Room of One’s Own.

As is often the case with servants, Nellie apparently gave as good as she got. After years of service, the Woolfs kicked her out. The reviewer says:

Thwarted, grieved, and, at the age of 44, suddenly homeless, Nellie is a heartbreaking figure.

But in fact, it wasn't that way at all. Nellie "went to work almost at once for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, one of the most glamorous show-business couples in London." She began a minor-league celebrity as endorser of a line of porcelain gas cookers and got a good enough payoff from the Laughton/Lanchester household at retirement that she was able to buy her own cottage in Surrey.

I weighed in on Virginia and the domestics a couple of years back in an Amazon review (link). Here's what I said:

My Boeuf with Virginia: Here is a small point with a larger purpose: Virginia Woolf does not know Boeuf en Daube. Or at any rate, Mrs. Ramsay, the heroine of "To the Lighthouse," does not, and there is no suggestion of any irony in her thought on the topic:

"Everything depended upon things being served up to the precise moment they were ready. ... To keep it waiting was out of the question. Yet of course tonight, of all nights, out they went, and they came in late, and things had to be sent out, things had to be kept hot; the Boeuf en Daube would be entirely spoilt."

Well, if you know anything about the kitchen, you know that this is nonsense. Boeuf en Daube is probably the last thing that needs to be "served up to the precise moment ..." As Elizabeth David says in her "French Provincial Cooking:" "there must be scores of different recipes for daubes in Provence alone... essentially a country housewife's dish." And more to the point, per Ms. David:

"The daube is a useful dish for those who have to get a dinner party when they get home from the office. It can be cooked for 1  hours the previous evening and finished on the night itself. Provided they have not been overcooked to start with, these beef and wine stews are all the better for a second or even third heating up."

I wonder how many English majors from the 1950s sold their souls for a good Boeuf en Daube (did Sylvia Plath have the recipe?) - and how much better off they would have been if they'd seen through it: understood that Mrs. Ramsay did not get the point, because Ms. Woolf did not get the point. Indeed, strictly speaking, the creation is not Mrs. Ramsay's at all, but you'd have to be a sharp-eyed reader to catch on: it is the servant who does the work and delivers the finished product and she, I suspect, knows better than her mistress how flexible and compliant it may be. There is an irony here and it is lost, I suspect, on the mistress and on the mistress' creator.

All of which leads to a larger point: Virginia Woolf does not know servants. Instance in particular her observation of Mrs. McNab, the old char who comes to reopen the summer house after long disuse. We get an elaborate set-piece description of Mrs. McNab, and it is not pretty: indeed, it is mean-spirited and dismissive in almost every way. Mrs. McNab "lurches" and "leers" She "was witless and she knew it;" she sings "like the voice of witlessness." Now, if this is true, it is inexcusably rude: one may want, for some artistic purpose, to show her lurching and leering for, but here it serves no purpose, unless you count its actual function in throwing light on the author. Anyway, the chances are it is not true. My guess is that Mrs. McNab has operated under far more constraint in life than either Ms. Woolf or Mrs. Ramsay ever dreamed of. Witless people do not survive under the iron whim of a Mrs. Ramsay; poor chars who do learn to survive will find that it takes all the skill one can muster.

I could go on, but I need to stay within Amazon's 1,000 word limit. The point is not that "To the Lighthouse" is a bad book. It's actually quite a good book; or at least it is a book full of good paragraphs, and Virginia Woolf seemingly cannot write a bad paragraph. It is as bad novel, because Virginia Woolf has little of the capacity for imaginative empathy that makes a really good novelist. They say that Shakespeare stands as a void at the center of his plays because he has poured every part of his being into his characters. Virginia Woolf takes almost all of her characters into herself. It is well done, but often we get to know more than we really want to know.

So here's to Nellie; I hope she enjoyed her gas cooker.

Funny, If it Weren't So Sad

This would be funny if it weren't so sad. No, sorry, it is funny: Zebulon Simentov, 47, is the last Jew in Afghanistan (link). But remember the story about the old Jew who kept two schuls in his back yard--one for worship, and "the other whose doorstep I will not cross, so help me God!" Now this:

The only other Jew in Afghanistan, Yitzhak Levin, died in 2005. The pair had lived together in a shabby synagogue on Flower Street throughout the Soviet invasion, a civil war and the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban government, but grew to hate each other. They held separate services, had vicious shouting matches neighbors could hear a block away, and when valuable Torah scrolls went missing, each blamed the other.

They also denounced each other to the Taliban as spies for Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, prompting Taliban police to beat them with rifle butts and jail them on occasion.

Simentov says the fight broke out nearly a decade ago when Jewish elders told him to take Levin - more than 20 years his senior - to Israel. Levin would not budge, and each man accused the other of wanting to sell the synagogue for profit. Simentov is the legal owner and plans to refurbish the 42-year-old building.

The feud was so intense that Afghan police suspected Simentov of murdering Levin when he died, until a post-mortem examination proved that he had died from diabetes.

Conflict is a kind of initmacy. Must be lonely out there.

The Running of the Bull

Larry reads the NYT obits so we don't have to. Here's a bit from the obit of Nancy Littlefield, who oversaw film producction in NYC (link):

Although Ms. Littlefield happily visited all manner of celluloid disaster on the city, including bank robberies and car crashes (“They’re really easy,” she told The New York Times in 1982), she also took seriously her role as a guardian of public safety. When one client wanted to shoot a commercial featuring 40 bulls stampeding on Wall Street, for instance, she put her foot down. “I don’t care how many wranglers they had — what if the bulls went out of control?” she told The Times in the same interview. “Can you imagine coming up out of the subway and being greeted by a 5,000-pound Brahma bull?

After 39 of the bulls were informed that their services were no longer required, the commercial was made, with the lone remaining bull trotting demurely down the street."

Larry adds: Reminds me of a fellow I knew who was in a Xmas kids' play at Stern's department store in the early 60s. The play was Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and early on he had the line, "All right, you other thirty-seven thieves stay here and guard the horses."

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Hillary the Unbold

When Bill Richardson starts looking good to you, you know the Democratic Party field is weak. In this week’s London Review of Books, Linda Colley helps to explain why:

[Hillary] can still appear confined within some of the radical priorities of the later 20th century, and unable or unwilling to generate a comprehensive and compelling vision of America and of the world’s present and future. But it is Al Gore who has hammered out an informed and powerful position on the environment, energy conservation and global warming. She has only belatedly borrowed some of his language and ideas. And it has been John Edwards who has been steering the Democratic Party firmly back form the direction of economics. He, not Hillary, has been the most eager to address the gulf between America’s rich and poor. A one-time Democratic senator’s critique of Hillary’s initial hard-line support of the Iraq war therefore seems more broadly applicable. She puts herself, he argued “in the position of looking backward, not forward, of caving to conventional wisdom instead of moving in the direction of…new ideas, being bold.”

—Linday Colley, “The Clinton Succession”, LRB 5, 16 Ag 2007

Sleeper on Giuliani on Opera,
And Lampedusa on Italy

This one is a few months old, but new to me. Jim Sleeper explains why Rudi should never be president: he blames it on opera (link). Sleeper may be onto something here, but he may not know that he has a learned and influential predecessor in this vein. First, Sleeper:

Giuliani’s 9/11 performance was sublime for the unnerving reason that he’d been rehearsing for it all his adult life and remained trapped in that stage role. When his oldest friend and deputy mayor Peter Powers told me in 1994 that 16-year-old Rudy had started an opera club at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn, I didn’t have to connect too many of the dots I was seeing to notice that Giuliani at times acted like an opera fanatic who’s living in a libretto as much as in the real world.

In private, Giuliani can contemplate the human comedy with a Machiavellian prince’s supple wit. But when he walks on stage, he tenses up so much that even though he can strike credibly modulated, lawyerly poses, his efforts to lighten up seem labored. What really drove many of his actions as mayor was a zealot’s graceless division of everyone into friend or foe and his snarling, sometimes histrionic, vilifications of the foes. Those are operatic emotions, beneath the civic dignity of a great city and its chief magistrate.

I know a few New Yorkers who deserve the Rudy treatment, but only on 9/11 did the whole city become as operatic as the inside of Rudy’s mind. For once, his New York re-arranged itself into a stage fit for, say, Rossini’s “Le Siege de Corinth” or some dark, nationalist epic by Verdi or Puccini that ends with bodies strewn all over and the tragic but noble hero grieving for his devastated people and, perhaps, foretelling a new dawn.

It's unseemly to call New York's 9/11 agonies "operatic," but it was Giuliani who called the Metropolitan Opera only a few days after 9/11 and insisted its performances resume. At the start of one of them, the orchestra struck up a few familiar chords as the curtain rose on the entire cast and the Met's stage hands, administrators, secretaries, custodians -- and Rudy Giuliani, bringing the capacity audience leapt to its feet to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” with unprecedented ardor. Then all gave the mayor what The New Yorker's Alex Ross called "an ovation worthy of Caruso." A few days later Giuliani proposed that his term be extended on an “emergency” basis beyond its lawful end on January 1, 2002. (It wasn’t, and the city did as well as it could have, anyway.)

Now, his precursor. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard, says makes the same point about Italian politics in general:

[I]t seems to me that the blossoming of opera, the extraordinary favour it hass found in Italy, and the longevity of that favour, form one of the most sinister phenomena to be found in the history of any culture.

The infection began immediately after the Napoleonic wars and spread with giant steps. For more than as hundred years, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Italians went to the opera, in the great cities for eight months a year, in the lesser cities four months a year and in the small towns for two or three weeks every year. And they saw tyrants slain, lovers committing suicide, great-hearted clowns, prolific nuns and every sort of nonsense dished out in front of them in a continual whirling of papier-mâché boots, plaster chickens, leading ladies with blackened faces and devils springing out of the floor making awful grimaces. All this synthesized, without psychological passages, without development, all bare, crude, brutal and irrefutable …

When opera mania diminished after 1910, Italian intellectual life was like a field in which locusts had spent a hundred unbroken years. Italians had become accustomed to citing as gospel truth the lines of Francesco Maria Piave or Cammarano; to thinking that Enrico Caruso or Adelina Patti were the flower of the race; and to believing that war was like the chorus of Norma. …

But there was worse than this. Saturated and swollen-headed by so much noisy foolishness, the Italians sincerely believed that they knew everything. Did they not go almost every evening that God gave them to listen to Shakespeare, Schiller, Vicgtor Hugo and Goethe? …

The whole of the nineteenth century, the period in which the brightest cultural “lights” were shining all over Europe, was spent by Italians in listening frenetically and insatiably to the opera. …

—Giusseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Siren 128-9 (1995)

Bremer to Bush: Oh, No You Don't

In the pile-on rush to parse Paul Bremer’s response to W’s shaky memory (link), may I highlight a meta-issue? I.e., this is the best evidence yet that this administration is over, ended, finito, kaputt, that nobody is afraid of this guy any more.

Return with me for a moment to the halcyon days 2002. Can’t we all remember the almost Soviet-like efficiency with which the administration slapped down on any whisper of discord from anyone Republican within 20 miles of the Oval Office? Of course those days ended a long time ago, but I still think it is a marvel to see the President tell his story in the Sunday paper and then whap, two news cycles away we see one of the most important players on his most important team effectively calling him a liar. And dishing out the goods to prove it.

Watch Bremer as he refuses to be the fall guy:

Mr. Bremer indicated that he had been smoldering for months as other administration officials had steadily distanced themselves from his order. “This didn’t just pop out of my head,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday, adding thwt he had sent as draft of the order to top Pentagon officials and discussed it “several times” with Donald H. Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense. …

On Monday, Mr. Bremer made it clear that he was unhappy about being portrayed as a renegade of sorts by a variety of former administration officials.

Mr. Bremer said he sent a draft of the proposed order on May 9, shortly before he departed for his new post in Baghdad, to Mr. Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon officials.

Among others who received the draft order, he said, were Paul D. Wolfowitz, then the deputy secretary of defense; Douglas J. Feith, then under secretary of defense for policy; Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, then head of the American-led coalition forces in Iraq; and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mr. Bremer said that he had briefed Mr. Rumsfeld on the plan “several times,” and that his top security adviser in Baghdad, Walter B. Slocombe, had discussed it in detail with senior Pentagon officials as well as with senior British military officials. He said he received detailed comments back from the joint chiefs, leaving no doubt in his mind that they understood the plan.

Put a fork in it, this one is done: oh wait, the Ambassador just did.

Afterthought: Nothing herein should be taken as foreclosing the possibility that we will bomb Iran.


Mrs. Buce does not like to be quizzed, but she puts up with it from time to time as the price of a happy marriage.

Flipping through FP Magazine, I asked:

In 1995, the United States' share of global manufacturing was 22.4 percent. In 2005, its share was --- percent.

"I dunno," Mrs. Buce said. "Three?"

Well, fair enough. I too have been inured to believe that our manufacturing output is in catastrophic decline.

But the correct answer, per FP, is 21.1 percent--a drop of less than six percent overall. (see September/October 2007, pps 22 and 94).

But wait, can this be right? Turn the point around--what, if anything, do we manufacture, and who does it? If you read this blog, I suspect that the number of people you know who are "in manufacturing" is about the same as the number who actually fought in Viet Nam.

Automobiles? Sorry. Textiles? Oh, give me a break. Telephone ringtones? Do they count?

After cudgeling our brains, we recalled that we do know two guys in Wisconsin who make false teeth. Seems to me they are carrying a heavy load.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Against Universal Love: A Credo

Amos Oz on his grandfather; I have no quarrel with a single word of this.

He considered all human beings to be reckless children who brought great disappointment and suffering on themselves and each other, all of us trapped in an unending, unsubtle comedy that would generally end badly. All roads lead to suffering. Consequently virtually everyone, in Papa’s view, deserved compassion, and most of their deeds were worthy of forgiveness, including all sorts of machinations, pranks, deceptions, pretensions, manipulations, false claims, and pretenses. From all these he would absolve you with his faint, mischievous smile, as though saying (in Yiddish): Nu, what?

The only thing that tested Papa’s amused tolerance were acts of cruelty. These he abhorred. His merry blue eyes clouded over at the news of wicked deeds. “An evil beast? What does the expression mean?” he would reflect in Yiddish. “No beast is evil. No beast is capable of evil. The beasts have yet to invent evil. That is our monopoly, the lords of creation. So maybe we ate the wrong apple in the Garden of Eden after all?

“But what is hell? What is paradise? Surely it is all inside. In our homes. You can find hell and paradise in every room. Behind every door. Under every double blanket. It’s like this. A little wickedness, and people are hell to each other. A little compassion, a little generosity, and people find paradise in each other.

“I said a little compassion and generosity, but I didn’t say love. I’m not such a believer in universal love. Love of everybody for everybody—we should maybe leave that to Jesus.” …

—Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness 149-50 (2004)

Liberalism and Secularism

What John Holbo said (link).

Traffic Update

This just in, from the Lawrence (KS) Journal-World and News, via Underbelly's Wichita bureau (link). Nobody will ever convince this lady that she's wrong:

Unusual hearing follows traffic stop

September 1, 2007

Laura West claims the Kansas Highway Patrol trooper who stopped her “vessel” on the night of June 11 west of Lawrence had no right to arrest her.

She’s never had a driver’s license and doesn’t need one, West said as she represented herself Friday in Douglas County District Court.

“I was not operating a vehicle; I was exercising my right to travel,” West, 21, told Judge Robert Fairchild. “I was in a private vessel on a religious mission.”

West also said her vessel is her private dwelling.

West is charged with not having a driver’s license, improper vehicle registration, failure to dim headlights and obstructing the legal process, all misdemeanors. West was arrested and taken to the Douglas County Jail after it took 45 minutes to get her to step out of the van she was driving, Trooper Brady Flannigan said.

West was traveling with her partner, J.M. Sovereign: Godsent, and her 2-year-old daughter. West and Godsent, who testified as her only witness, said they were afraid of the trooper and his supervisor, who was called to the scene of the car stop at U.S. Highway 40 and the South Lawrence Trafficway. They made calls to 911 and claimed West was being kidnapped as she was arrested.

The couple, who were on their way to visit a friend in Lawrence when they were stopped, recorded the encounter with the troopers and submitted a CD of the recording to the judge.

According to Godsent and information he presented to reporters outside court, the couple belong to a group that claims the U.S. is not a country but a foreign corporation that has invaded America. They are concerned about implanted identification chips and say sovereign Americans are being forced to choose between God’s law and man’s law.

Godsent said the trooper was presented with a card after he stopped them. The card was labeled “Sovereign Civilian Police Observation Task Force.” By the trooper accepting the card he was accepting a contract to pay a $15,000 gold fee for each question he asked. Godsent said they will take the matter to court to get paid.

Meanwhile, West, who is free on $1,500 bond, will return to court Oct. 1, when Fairchild will announce his verdicts in the case. If found guilty, West could face fines and jail sentences. Fairchild wanted to make a decision on the case next week, but West wasn’t available then.

Early Socialist Realism: Falz-Fein the Sheep King

I’ve long since abandoned the notion that Leon Trotsky was anything other than a nasty piece of business. But—and this is almost certainly part of the problem—he sure could write. As a master of nasty, unfair, hilarious political invective, he has almost no equal. But not all invective: nearly 50 years now and I still remember his nostalgic recollections of his youth on a farm outside Odessa, and in particular, I remember Falz-Fein the sheep king:

The German settlers constituted a group apart. There were some really rich men among them. They stood more firmly on their feet than the others. Their domestic relations were stricter, their sons were seldom sent to be educated in town, their daughters habitually worked in the fields. Their houses were built of brick with iron roofs painted green or red, their horses were well bred, their harness was strong, their spring carts were called “German wagons.” Our nearest neighbor among the Germans was Ivan Ivanovich Dorn, a fat, active man with low shoes on his bare feet, with a tanned and bristling face, and gray hair. He always drove about in a fine, bright-painted wagon drawn by black stallions whose hoofs thundered over the ground. And there were many of these Dorns.

Above them all towered the figure of Falz-Fein the Sheep King, a “Kannitverstan” of the steppes.

In driving through the country, one would pass a huge flock of sheep. “Whom do these belong to?” one would ask. “To Falz-Fein.” You met a hay-wagon on the road. Whom was that hay for? “For Falz-Fein.” A pyramid of fur dashes by in a sleigh. It is Falz-Fein’s manager. A string of camels suddenly startles you with its bellowing. Only Falz-Fein owns camels. Falz-Fein had imported stallions from America and bulls from Switzerland.

The founder of this family, who was called only Falz in those days, without the Fein, had been a shepherd on the estate of the Duke of Oldenburg. Oldenburg had been granted a large sum of money by the government for the breeding of Merino sheep. The duke made about a million of debts and did nothing. Falz bought the property and managed it like a shepherd and not like a duke. His flocks increased as well as his pastures and his business. His daughter married a sheep breeder called Fein, and the two pastoral dynasties were thus united. The name of Falz-Fein rang like the sound of the feet of ten thousand sheep in motion, like the bleating of countless sheep voices, like the sound of the whistle of a shepherd of the steppes with his long crook on his back, like the barking of many sheep-dogs. The very steppe breathed this name both in summer heatand winter cold.

--Leon Trotsky, My Life, Chapter 2, retrieved here (link).

Call it socialist realism avant la lettre.

"Structural Unemployment"
And Russian Jews

For a small number of Jews, the economic upheaval in the Russian Empire int her late 19th Century proved a gold mine: they created banks, railroads and great industries—and grew fabulously rich. Others triumphed in the professions and even in the arts.

But for the vast majority of Jews, the turmoil generated a calamity. By constraint, Jews had been the middlemen, mediating between country and town:

[T]hey were affected by Russia’s late-nineteenth-century modernization in ways that were more direct, profound, and fundamental than most other Russian communities, because their very existence as a specialized caste was at stake. The emancipation of serfs, the demise of the manorial economy, and the expansion of the economic role of the state rendered the role of the traditional [Jewish] mediator between the countryside and the town economically irrelevant, legally precarious, and increasingly dangerous. The state took over tax collection, liquor sales, and some parts of foreign trade; the landlord had less land to lease turned into a favored competitor (by doing much of the selling himself); the Christian industrialist turned into an even more favored—and more competent—competitor; the train ruined the peddler and the wagon driver; the bank bankrupted the moneylender; and all these things taken together forced more and more Jews into artisanal work (near the bottom of the Jewish social prestige hierarchy), and more and more Jewish artisans into cottage-industry production or wage labor (in craft shops and increasingly factories). And the more Jews migrated to new urban areas, the more frequent and massive was violence against them.

Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century--116-17

These facts alone (setting aside the brutality and bloodshed of the pogroms) was enough to drive millions of them out of the shtetl and into the great cities of Europe and America, and beyond.

Cautionary Note: Taken as a whole, Slezkine’s book can be recommended only with great qualification. I’ll try to take some time to say a bit more about it later.

Last Ashland Theatre Note
(At Least for Now)

I suppose I ought to dump this theatre stuff, of which I am so richly unqualified to speak, but I got a bit of education from my car-mates (on the way home from Ashland) that I ought to share.

I was repeating my repeated “insight” that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is best at fast farce, less good at conventional performance.

Of course, wonderbuns, they explained. It’s a rep company. These people work together every day—in fact, some of them have worked together every day (summers, at least) for many years. That’s why they can be good at precisely stuff a more big-league outfit is not good at—intricate teamwork that requires playing off one another. Comedy, they say, is hard, but I bet farce is harder, requiring not just comic timing for the jokes but physical timing sufficient to assure that the bed falls down at the right moment, etc. Indeed, I think maybe the best thing I ever saw at Ashland was a performance of Georges Feydeau’s Flea in Her Ear (1993?) the bedroom farce of all bedroom farces, what with doors banging and people flying in and out in every direction, all the time. The operative word here was “cooperation.”

Works for farce and, more generally, for comedy. That Tartuffe that I enjoyed so much last weekend (link)--they played the script completely straight, but the script itself depended on intricate cooperation, as so often one actor got to finish another's sentence. The downside of all this is that it is a terrible temptation to gimmickry: they've done Two Gentlemen of Verona twice in the last 11 years, each time with a dog. As the manager tells Will in Shakespeare in Love, the audience does love a dog.

Contrast all this with the big star at the big house who seems not to notice that anybody else is on the stage with him—maybe he didn’t exactly fax in his performance, but you do get the sense that he just decamped from his UFO, and that they’ll be whisking him back to Alpha Centauri before the lights go dark. For my money, OSF has had good Hamlets, Prosperos, Falstaffs, etc., but never a really great one, which is said in a way but on the other hand, perhaps just as well.

Afterthought: Still, I can think of nothing that might improve the quality of OSF performance more than simply to cancel the props budget for a season. Some will remember the BBC Shakespeare series that ran through the 80s (and is now, apparently, available on DVD). The sheer cheapness of the productions at times approached the laughable. Often it didn’t work, but sometimes, the utter lack of distraction compelled everyone to focus on the Bard. Best Cleopatra I ever saw is the one by Jane LaPotaire (link, and scroll down for review), which seems to be unfolding in a couple of rented rooms upstairs over a candy store, but where Cleo, left to carry things on her own, got it all just about right.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Who, Sir, They Sir? No Sir, Not They Sir!

My friend Larry laments over the future of the language, or at any rate, the absence of grammarians from the NYT copy desk:

Six years ago, he met Teresa Hillary Clarke at a party on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where both spent summer vacations with the same African-American crowd, many of who, like they, went to Harvard, teach at Harvard or have children studying there.

From the Times'Sunday wedding feature. Who, they?

Annals of Important Works of Fiction
(Post-Kerouac Division)

As we reported here yesterday, Andrew Carroll has a minimum high regard for Jack Kerouac (link).

Denis Johnson is featured on the front page of today's New York Times book review (link), where Jim Lewis says he is "a true American artist." Today's Times also reports that “Jesus’ Son,” by Denis Johnson, “was voted one of the most important works of fiction of the last 25 years in the Book Review’s 2006 poll of writers and critics" (link).

Here’s a sample of "Jesus' Son," culled from Amazon’s “surprise me” feature. Wonder what Andrew Carroll would think of this:

The black man stood up and circled the neck of a beer bottle with his fingers. He was taller than anyone who had ever entered that barroom.

“Step outside,” Wayne said.

And the man said, “This ain’t school.”

“What the goddamn fucking piss-hell,” Wayne said, “is that supposed to mean?”

“I ain’t stepping outside like you do at school. Make your try right here and now.”

“This ain’t a place for our kind of business,” Wayne said, “not inside here with women and children and dogs and cripples.”

“Shit,” the man said, “You’re just drunk.”

“I don’t care,” Wayne said. “To me you don’t make no more noise than a fart in a paper bag.”

The huge, murderous man said nothing.

“I’m going to sit down now,” Wayne said, “and I’m going to lay my game, and fuck you.”

Johnson says "My ear for the diction and thythms of poetry was trained by--in chronological order--Dr. Seuss, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, the guitar solos of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, and T.S. Eliot." As T. S. Eliot liked to say, fuckety fuck.

Who Owns Their Own Home?

Roger Lowenstein's chart on home ownership (link), which kidnap from this morning's NYT, is interesting in itself, and calls to mind some data I saw in the Economist, perhaps back in the 90s.

First, the chart: note how two of the four highest rates of home ownership are in West Virginia and Mississippi--two states by most measures among the poorest. And correspondingly, the lowest: we can forget about DC, the ultimate commuter town. But California, New York, Hawaii. The point, put crudely, is that just because you live in a state richer than Mississippi, it does not follow that you'll be putting down your own roots there.

Now, the remembered data: I recall an Economist chart doing the same sort of analysis for Europe. As I recall, the chart showed a similar pattern: high levels of ownership in
Greece and Ireland (this was before Ireland was rich); mirror-image low numbers in Germany.

I can think of all kinds of inferences you might draw, many mutually cancelling. My friend Taxmom lived and studied in Germany for a while: she remarked on how the Germans just didn't seem to regard home ownership as that big of a deal: it was as as if they felt they lived in a stable society (short memories, not so?) and that they might as well invest their money elsewhere. The Brits seem to have felt this way in a previous generation: as I recall, John Maynard Keynes didn't own his own home. By contrast, one might infer (or then again, one might not) that the Greeks regarded a home as a center of social stability independent of, and more important than, the government itself.

About the same time that I saw the Economist data, I remember hosting a law professor visiting from Athens, a fairly big noise on his home turf. I can remember two offerings from him that may bear on this discussion. One was a question: "Will you tell me, if you don't mind my asking, how many different places you have lived in your time?" Actually the answer is quite a few, but he seemed to find the number downright astonishing--in his country, people put down roots. The other was a remark, muttered sotto voce, as he marvelled at the seeming wealth of our young people: "but our children own their own homes, they own their own homes."

More Overy on Hitler, Stalin

After a break (link), I’ve gone back and finished Richard Overy’s absorbing The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia (2004). Overy certainly has an eye for the telling detail:

  • The October Revolution and the attendant Civil War left the Red Army almost devoid of resources—so devoide that “on May Days in the 1920s Red Army men paraded through Red Square on bicycles.” (446)

  • On their drive to Moscow in 1941, the Nazis moved so fast that “they entered the city of Orel with the streetcars still running.” (493)

  • By 1927, the Soviets had recognized 172 ethnic minorities, and 192 distinct languages. The goal of linguistic modernization drove the campaign to extend Latin script to Arab linguages—sometimes faster than the growth of cultural comprehension. “One Kyrgyz instructor, having successfully instilled the letters of the alphabet into her class by rote, sent off to Moscow for another set.” (554)

  • Prisoners packed off in boxcars en route to the Gulag found they could escape by chopping through the floor and dropping onto the railroad tracks below, “but after a time the guards fitted an improvised steel scythe beneath the last freight car to cut escapees in half as they lay on the tracks.” (563)

  • Guards at Auschwitz carried “a notorious whip nicknamed ‘Interpreter’ because it could speak to the multinational workshop in any language.” (622-3)

I should add that Overy’s book is far more than mere anecdote. It is a rich, dense, detailed comparative study, resisting easy summary—unless to say that “resists easy summary” is itself a kind of summary. I’ll forgive my self for pillaging the cherries out of this cake, but the whole product deserves far more respectful and extensive attention than it is going to get here. It does remind me to go back and take a second look at one of Overy’s earlier efforts, Why the Allies Won, which I skimmed with interest but perhaps insufficient care a few years back—and which, happily, I seem not to have given away.