Friday, December 28, 2007

Here's Another One I Missed

Here's Another one I missed: top story of the year per the NY Times web coverage (link). Hint: It's about Sesame Street.

She Knows When to Hold 'em

Guess I missed this while I was away: the winner of the World Series of Poker was a 19-year-old Norwegian woman who learned her moves on the web (link).

Well That's Okay Then...

As they used to say in the South: suicide, your honor. Wrapped himself in chains and threw himself in the creek:

Benazir Bhutto 'died after hitting head on sunroof -
NOT from bullet or shrapnel wounds'

Benazir Bhutto died after hitting her head on her car sunroof, and was not even injured by bullets or shrapnel, the Pakistan government claimed today.

Despite coming under a ferocious attack from a suicide bomber, the former Prime Minister remained untouched by any missiles.

Instead, her fatal injuries were sustained when she tried to duck back into the vehicle and shockwaves from the blast knocked her head into a lever attached to the sunroof, fracturing her skull. ... (link)

Did He Really Say It?

This is enough like Peter Sellers that all my skeptical instincts tell me to doubt it. Yet this guy says that George Bush said:
We’re on the edge of a cliff. And if we take a step off the cliff, there’s no going back. Perhaps we should only take one step at a time.

Afterthought: By about one more news cycle, this will have been repackaged in more digestible form, so allow me to be the first--when you are on the edge of a cliff, you should take only one step at a time.

As the drunk said when he fell down the elevator shaft--watch out for that first step, it's a lulu.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Strumpet Shall Sound: Another Debunking

One more bit of debunking. This one is a tad recherché, but it is a favorite of mine so I will go on with it.

You remember Dr. Bowdler, who undertook to scrub all the naughty bits out of Shakespeare’s plays (link). Years ago I heard that made a particularly hilarious emendation to a famous bedroom scene. They way I read the account, the line was an accusation against Desdemona; so, Othello. Trouble is, I could never find that line in Othello.

Couple of months back, I saw the admirable new production of Cymbeline at Lincoln Center (link) and—hey! There it is! The infamous line! So, back to Dr. Bowdler—the ten-volume version on line at Google (link).

Uh oh. So far as I can tell, Dr. B let the offensive line stand as written. So much for prudery.

Only one more try—this time with a kind of success, only backhanded, and unsatisfactory. Anyway: do a general Google search for the offensive line, and caramba! There it is! --in an edition (not Bowdler’s) from 1844 (link, page 49).

Trouble is, it seems to be a simple mistake. The edition seems to print the line right. Google picks it up as “emended” by virtue of a simple misprint, or shall we say, of sloppy copying. No fault of Dr. Bowdler's, nor, indeed, of prudish busybody. Just a simple mistake.

So, no such emended line anywhere, except by accident. The phantom debunker rides again.

You were asking—what, exactly, is the line? I print the “Shakespearean” version below. If you can’t guess the “emendation,” you wouldn’t make a very good censor:

“Thy mistress, Pisanio, hath played the strumpet in my bed.”

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

On the Irrelevance of the Bible

Okay, when I first saw the headline “Professor Cites Bible in Faulting Tax Polcies,” (link), I assumed it was one more right-wing rant on the un-Christian-ness of caring about the poor. Imagine to my surprise to find out that this lady is playing for the other team: she's use the Bible as her premise for arguing that tax policy is too regressive as a matter of principle.

And actually on closer scrutiny, there seem to be two stories here. One, the Bible stuff which makes the Times. Two, from the Times story (I haven’t read the book), it appears the professor may have put together some useful data on the thorny and contentious subject of tax incidence—the issue of who pays how much of what, which is (surprise!) contentious enough without the moral dimension because it is so hard to pin down a straight answer. On the question of how well she deals with the facts, I am hardly in a position to say anything intelligent, but it’s certainly a topic that invites the attention of a serious mind.

On the “fairness” stuff, I assume she is being hammered right now by the anti-compassion lobby. Needless to say I have a momentary impulse to pile on in her defense. But actually, I’m not all that eager. Don’t misunderstand, I do think that taxes (and government in general) ream the poor without good justification. But on purely Biblical grounds? I think what we may have here is evidence, not so much of unfairness, but of the melancholy principle that the Bible can be used to prove almost anything. That’s the trouble with a rich religious tradition: precisely what makes it rich is the stuff that disqualifies itself from a role of dispositive relevance in serious debate.

"Nothing Sacred" Redux

I guess I’m in debunking mode this week. Anyway, factoid: topic is the seven hills of Rome. Apparently the Romans themselves did not know which seven they were; there were at least eight contenders.

Source: Susanna Braund, in her Ipod lectures on Virgil’s Aeneid, findable on the Stanford page at Ipod U (I guess I join the general amusement that this stuff pops up on your gadget as a "song").

Back in Louisville, there was a radio station that used to claim to be the third largest in the city. I think there were seven contenders for second.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Afterthought

One afterthought on Christmas, which may fall in with my earlier "debunking" posts. Anyway, I assume you recognize this one:

Whosoever on the night of the nativity of the young Lord Jesus, in the great snows, shall fare forth bearing a succulent bone for the lost and lamenting hound, a wisp of hay for the shivering horse, a cloak of warm raiment for the stranded wayfarer, a bundle of faggots for the twittering crane, a flagon of red wine for him whose marrow withers, a garland of bright berries for one who has worn chains, gay arias of lute and harp for all huddled birds who thought that song was dead, and divers sweetmeats for such babies’ faces as peer from lonely windows -

To him shall be proffered and returned gifts of such an astonishment as will rival the hues of the peacock and the harmonies of heaven, so that though he live to the great age when man goes stooping and querulous because of the nothing that is left in him, yet shall he walk upright and remembering, as one whose heart shines like a great star in his breast.

Or perhaps "ye night of ye nativity." Often billed, as here, as "The Great Astonishment," or "Ye Great Astonishment," as the case may be. I expect I first saw it about 1960, probably on a Christmas card. Somewhat sheepishly I admit I thought it was pretty wonderful at the time and even more sheepishly I acknowledge that I have a certain lingering affection for it even now--fully anticipating the hoots of derision I will sustain from all the cool kids on the playground.

Perhaps the big thing wrong with it is that it could be too easily packed up by the animators at Disney--I can just see that "lost and lamenting hound" as one of the extras from Lady and the Tramp. And the huddled birds and the sweet babes' faces--Stop! Stop! I'll confess! I'll tell you anything you want!

My guess is that it is a bit of faux medaevalism, like that "go placidly" bit that is always billed as having been "found in a Baltimore church dated 1692"--when it turns out that the text goes all the way back to 1927 (although the associated church may, in fact, date from 1692). Or that "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace" prayer, characteristically attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, apparently written during World War I (although frequently stamped on the back of St. Francis prayer cards).

Funny thing, I have not found any "debunking" of the "lost and lamented hound" bit. Maybe it is too trivial to notice. In any event, you can bet if Disney does get their hands on it, they will slap it under copyright.

Whew, That's Over

Ah, survived another Christmas. Never my best day, don't ask, but in any event, I don't have to face it again for another year. Well actually, we are booked disport ourselves with a couple of sets of grandchildren later in the week, but that part is fun and easy.

The really fun part so far was a basket of overnight goodies form Zabar's--too much for just the two of us, so we had to dragoon some friends. Salmon, coffee, rugulah, that sort of stuff. I tell you (and they do not pay me for this)--it's pricy, but good.

Mrs. B and I succeeded in giving each other the same book only once--The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross, on 20th Century music. I think she almost doubled me with James L. Kugel's How to Read the Bible, but she backed off and opted for John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, which she found on my Amazon wish list. Yes, that's a lot of religion for a pagan household, but we try to operate on a broad spectrum.

She also fitted me out with a fistful of cards like the picture at left. Without comment. I guess I have to interpret this for myself.

Well, Somebody Knows my Taste

That would be my sister Sally, but she has had 71 years to figure it out. Anyway, thanks, Sally, and happy holidays.

Update: Re-gifted to a 14-year-old of my acquaintance, who will treat it with the respect it deserves.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Lorenzetti, and Auden on Herod

I still like last year's Christmas text, so I think I'll reprint it, along with a copy of Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Effect of Good Government (supra), which you can see frescoed on the wall of the Sala di Nove in Siena. I first saw it nine years ago, about 45 years after I first read the Auden text, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Auden (who seems to have seen everything, and read everything) had the Lorenzetti picture in mind when he wrote Herod's account. Here is a bit of detail on the Lorenzetti:

He shows us the beams outside the windows for hanging out clothing or providing leverage to haul things up from the street below, and streets with people conversing, entering houses, or cut off form our view as they ride behind buildings. Through the open arches of the large building in the foreground we gain access to the interior of an elegant shop displaying shoes and hosiery, a school where the master teaches attentive pupils form a raised desk, and a tavern with flasks of wine set on an outdoor bar. We can also see a house in the process of construction; the workmen, standing on the scaffolding they had probably put in place only the day before, are carrying building materials in baskets on their heads and laying new courses of masonry. A young woman plays a tambourine and sings while her elegantly dressed companions dance a kind of figure eight in the street. Nearby farmers arrive from the prosperous countryside, leading donkeys, driving herds of sheep, and carrying products in baskets on their heads.

Frederic Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art 129 (4th ed. 1994)

Now, Herod (Auden) reflects on what little he has been able to accomplish before the greast disruption:

Barges are unloading soil fertilizer at the river wharves.
Soft drinks and sandwiches may be had in the inns at reasonable prices.
Allotment gardening has become popular.
The highway to the coast goes straight up over the mountains and the truck drivers no longer carry guns.
Things are beginning to take shape.
It is a long time since anyone stole the park benches or murdered the swans.
There are children in this province who have never seen a louse, shopkeepers who have never handled a counterfeit coin, women of forty who have never hidden in a ditch except for fun.

--WH Auden, "For the Time Being,"
Published in a book of the same name (1944)

For an critique of the poem, stressing the Christian framework, go here.

Improved Jesse Tree Blogging

Brad deLong selects "the Jesse tree" for Christmas eve blogging, though I cannot imagine why he did not affix the King James Version, annexed infra. I once succeeded in wheedling a child into memorizing it as a showpiece for her grandmother, though what any one of must might have been thinking at the time is quite beyong me now. Anyway:

1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
2 and the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD;
3 and shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD.
¶ And he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
4 but with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
5 And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
6 ¶ The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
7 And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den.
9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.

The next part gets into some heavy duty doctrine, on which I will cheerfully defer to DeLong.

The Economist on the Mumbai Slums

I wrote a bit a while back about Mumbai slums. Maybe I was thinking about something like this:

ROUND 6am, the squealing of copulating rats—signalling a night-long verminous orgy on the rooftops of Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai—gives way to the more cheerful sound of chirruping sparrows. Through a small window in Shashikant (“Shashi”) Kawale's rickety shack, daylight seeps. It reveals a curly black head outside. Further inspection shows that this is attached to a man's sleeping body, on a slim metal ledge, 12 feet above the ground.

With maybe a million residents, crammed into a square mile of low-rise wood, concrete and rusted iron, Dharavi is a squeeze. And in Shashi's family hutment—as slum-dwellings are known in Mumbai, where half the city's 14m people live in one—it feels like it. As the sparrows stir, so do the neighbours. Through the plank-thin walls of the tiny loft where Shashi, a jobbing cleric-cum-social-worker, lives above his parents, come the sounds of people bumping and bickering.

On one side is a family of 12 living in a 90-square-foot room—about half the size of an American car-parking space. On the other, eight people share a similar area. Night-sounds suggest they include a man with a painful cough, a colicky baby and an amorous couple. At least they can squeeze inside, unlike the man roosting behind Shashi's hutment—and unlike Parapa Kawale, a 22-year-old friend and neighbour, who had dropped by the previous evening to share a spicy bean curry.

Parapa, a semi-skilled electrician, lived with his parents, two brothers, their wives and two children in a room of 48 square feet. If half the family members slept on their sides, they could just about fit. But as the only single male, Parapa felt a dreadful gooseberry. Like Shashi, he is a member of the local branch of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which tells Dharavi's youths not to marry unless they can support a family. Wretched nonetheless at the nightly coupling around him, Parapa began sleeping in the alley outside—and drinking heavily.

A month ago, explained Parapa, a strapping, beaming, Chaucerian fellow, he chased one of his brothers and a wife from the hutment in a violent, drunken rage. They fled back to the remote village in southern Karnataka that the family emerged from three decades before. Parapa then fixed a man-sized plank to the hutment wall, so that while his father and brother made love to their wives below, he could stay chastely on the shelf. Still, he sometimes sleeps outside, beside an open sewer, in the blissful quietude of the street. ...

That's The Economist mag, in another one of its inimitable year-end issues. In another 50 years, will all our grandchildren be living like this?

You Say You Want Pictures of the Grandkids?

Sweet of you to ask...

The Lawsuit as an Asset

I guess this is news...

The law is now an asset class

The notion of litigation as a separate asset class is a novel one. It's hard to imagine fund managers one day allotting a bit of their portfolio to third-party lawsuits, alongside shares, bonds, property and hedge funds.

But some wealthy investors are starting to dabble in lawsuit investment, bankrolling some or all of the heavy upfront costs in return for a share of the damages in the event of a win. ...

(link)...but from another perspctive, it is the continuation along a path that we've been on for a long time. I was writing about this just the other day: there was a time when it was somehow disreputable to buy a distressed receivable. But now it's a fully developed market--heck, there is a market for unsatisfied judgments. It was close to 20 years ago that I first heard of a company, formed and selling shares--soliciting investors--for the purpose of funding a patent lawsuist. And it was Michael Milken who taught us that anything--anything--is a bargain at the right price.

An earlier generation of lawyers was brought up to believe that this sort of thing is unethical conduct, maintenance and champerty. I'm not entirely clear what happened to the maintenance and champerty, but I'm beginning to suspect that Maintenance went off and married a pipefitter in Toledo, while Champerty is sleeping under a bridge with a bottle in a brown paper bag.

H/T Tyler Cowen

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Next Thing, They'll Be Saying
That There's No Santa Claus

Oh dear, this debunking stuff is getting out of hand.

The correction of misquotations is often a relief. It is good to learn that the Duke of Wellington could not have made the foolish remark that "the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton"; apart from the absence of evidence, the school's fields were not used for organized sports when he was a schoolboy in the 1780s, and in any case he never played on them. But sometimes it is sad to find that well-remembered sayings--pithy, pungent, and redolent of the speraker--were never uttered, that Oliver Cromwell did not dismiss the Rump Pariament with the words "Take away these baubles," that he never told the painter Peter Lely to depict him "warts and all." These are the historical equivalents to learning that Sherlock Holmes never said "elementary, my dear Watson," or that Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca does not say "Play it again, Sam."

Now comes an even greater shock. ...

That's the excellent David Gilmour in the New York Review of Books, setting us up for the proposition that Henry Stanley never said "Dr. Livingston, I presume?" See Gilmour, "The Restless Conqueror," a review of Tim Jeal's biography of Stanley; NYRB Dec. 6, 2007 at 47.

More Debunking (and a Handel Note)

Seems this is a time for debunking. Couple of days ago, I pointed out that Sir Cloudesley Shovel apparently did not hang that impertinent sailor. We turn today to the question of Handel's Messiah--surely you have heard how, at the "Halleluja Chorus," King George was so enraptured that he rose to his feet, impelling the entire audience to follow his example, and inaugurating a tradition that endures to this day?

You've got it: not true. Or so say the program notes from last night's performance at the Mondavi Center in Davis CA. The king in question would be George II, and apparently there no evidence that he ever attended such a performance (he did, apparenlty, sometimes go to the theatre incognito, but that can hardly count). And if he did atttend, and if he did rise, it's anybody's guess what prompted him to rise. Maybe he was startled into wakefulness. Maybe he was just going out to pee.

Oh, last night's performance: that would be the American Bach Soloists and the American Bach Choir, famed (at least in the Bay Area) for accuracy and precision in original-instrument performance. They were indeed impressive but (and I know I am striking a discordant note here) I wouldn't say they were perfection itself. Best we could tell, they seemed to have sacrificed strucural coherence for accuracy in detail: great discipline and precision, but the entire performance was oddly lacking in form. A shout-out,however for Jeremy Galyon, the young bass who seemed to handle anything that Handel could throw at him without seeming to break a sweat. We must have heard him before (though I admit I didn't notice) as an Adler Fellow in San Francisco. Suffice to say I look forward to hearing him again. A puzzled sort of "hmmm" for Jennifer Hines, the mezzo; her voice is flexible and nuanced and shows every sign of first-rate training. But it's one of the oddest tones I ever heard. Mrs. B loved it; I'd say it needs some getting used to.

And no, it wasn't a sing-along; my mistake.

And yes, we did stand up.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

I Wasn't Expecting This

In a hurry to get out of Palookaville and go to a singalong (no singalong, my mistake) Messiah, but this one (from UB's Wichita bureau) is just too extraordinary to ignore (link):
Where Boys Were Kings, a Shift Toward Baby Girls

By Choe Sang-Hun
Published: December 23, 2007

SEOUL, South Korea — When Park He-ran was a young mother, other women would approach her to ask what her secret was. She had given birth to three boys in a row at a time when South Korean women considered it their paramount duty to bear a son.

Ms. Park, a 61-year-old newspaper executive, gets a different reaction today. “When I tell people I have three sons and no daughter, they say they are sorry for my misfortune,” she said. “Within a generation, I have turned from the luckiest woman possible to a pitiful mother.”

In South Korea, once one of Asia’s most rigidly patriarchal societies, a centuries-old preference for baby boys is fast receding. And that has led to what seems to be a decrease in the number of abortions performed after ultrasounds that reveal the sex of a fetus.

According to a study released by the World Bank in October, South Korea is the first of several Asian countries with large sex imbalances at birth to reverse the trend, moving toward greater parity between the sexes. Last year, the ratio was 107.4 boys born for every 100 girls, still above what is considered normal, but down from a peak of 116.5 boys born for every 100 girls in 1990. ...

As one who has prattled on about the social tensions generated by an imbalance of boys, this has got to bse interesting news. Indeed, the entire story is worth your attention.

Reading Reactive Shakespeare in Iran

Someone in Irancheh, Chahar Mahall va Bakhtiari, Iran, just linked to this piece. Go figure.

"Street Lit," and the Market for Black Authors

I sent my friend Ignoto this link on street lit. Ignoto, who is in a position to know, responds with this tidbit:

Interesting thing about street lit---the whole phenomenon has hurt bookstore sales for some black authors. The mystery bookstores found that they couldn't keep Walter Mosley's books on display, because they got stolen with disheartening regularity. Not because Walter's fans are thieves, but because shoplifters had learned to target black-interest books that they could market to curbside booksellers. (The stores came reluctantly to this decision, as the store personnel themselves were all major Mosley fans).

Welcome to Blogger Heaven

The next big thing: frozen smoke. Do not annoy a creature with more teeth than you have. 102-year-old man takes 25-year mortgage. Woman pays man for sex and other tales of the bizarre and unikely at Timesonline top ten most curious news stories from 2007 (link)

Friday, December 21, 2007

That's The Ticket!

Am I the first to notice an eerie similarity between the guy at left and the guy at right? The one on the left is the man who watched his father march with Martin Luther King; the one on the right is Tommy Flanagan, pathological liar.

In Hoc Signo Huckabee Vinces

I keep the TV on a a lot but it is usually behind me, as background noise (it’s a tic). Anyway, my point is that tonight is the first time I actually saw the vaunted Huckabee Christmas commercial (here). I agree with Mark Shields (from PBS) that this thing is a masterpiece, $15 million in free publicity.

But let me throw in just one other note that I don’t recall seeing mentioned elsewhere. That is: how sophisticated this pieced is. That floating cross—it didn’t just happen. And don’t give me that “bookcase” stuff either. Okay, maybe it is a bookcase, but my point is that nobody gets that lucky. Somebody had to see that if you put the candidate just so and the tree just so, you’d have a—a what? You don’t say! How interesting! Why, yes, maybe you could mistake it for a cross! I don’t suppose you have a problem with that?

I say that for a guy with holes in his sox, he has a dynamite media operation.

Bonus Huckabee Extra: As Mark Shields said (or meant to—I think he bobbled the line), the only kind of populism this country buys is William Jennings Bryan populism—economic warfare and social conservatism. So, how about the dream ticket—Mike Huckabee and John Edwards?

Unsettling Afterthought: Is it more than just coincidence that these two guys are about the most likeable in the race--the only ones you might actually want to spend any time with? I think their economics is bollox (and in the case of Huckabee, the religion downright creepy). But they come across as easy going, warm hearted, genuine, sincere. And that is the really spooky part: they may actually believe this stuff.

This Just In: God Has a Sense of Humor

Roofing company billionaire dies after falling through roof


Thanks, anon.

Janet Hobhouse and the "Special Progress" Group

I’ve been meaning to offer up a sample of Janet Hobhouse’s The Furies, but it is proving surprisingly difficult. So much of this is so good that it is hard to pass over anything. And so many parts are so tightly skeined into the story that it is tough to tear out any part as free-standing.

In default of a better, here the narrator remembers her time in junior high school, part of a “Special Progress” group, expected to do three years’ worth of work in two. Her teacher, she said, tried to shock them

... but it was far too late for that. Each morning, we pale, fragile, sticky-boned Special Progress students got to school unscathed only through cunning, avoiding the streets where the demurely blazered, crucifix-bearing girls of St. Ann’s lay waiting in ambush, to rip our clothes and steal our books, break our glasses, noses, teeth. We avoided the big school pens where the enormous boys of ninth grade, on average fifty pounds heavier than we and long gone in puberty, displayed their weaponry, smoked cigarettes and fought over women. We of the Special Progress classes were not men and women yet by any means; to the regulars we were white mice, snake food, and they shoved and jeered at us through the hallways. From time to time whole gangs would disappear from the play yard, having been sent to reformatories out of town, while we, coddled with poetry and offered the delectations of advanced culture, sat indoors and developed our minds.

—Janet Hobhouse, The Furies 101-2 (Anchor Books, Doubleday 1992)

President Mitt (Metaphorically Speaking)

Nearly everybody and his aunt Maude is having fun with Mitt Romney saying he saw his father march with Martin Luther King, Jr.--metaphorically, right?--but I think the best comment is here. I know it is all of a pattern for a guy who calls his paid staff "super volunteers" (someone said that this makes my hooker my "super date."). Still, vanity impels me to recall that I weighed in on Romney's flexibility with the truth just last year (link).

Afterthought: for all that, I have to admit I stick by my view that Romney would be the least bad president of all the major GOP candidates. Mrs. B rolls her eyes when I say this, but I never said he was a good candidate--he still makes me want to take a bath whenever I'm near him, even on TV. Ironically, one reason I'm still on board is that I count him as the candidate most likely to screw his supporters. I.e., he, who has never had his heart in the religious right (he's a communicant at the first church of the MBA), is perfectly capable of throwing them out of the sledge.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

What They Don't Teach You in Law School

From a bankruptcy listserv, trying to figure out how to save the debtor's motorcycle:

I do quite a bit of family law. I love to represent the woman when the man owns a Harley. I know we have him over a barrel on the settlement. He wants to keep his hog. We can get a better financial settlement by turning up the pressure to have him sell it to provide liquidity to the estate. They generally cave and give in on some other point to keep the Harley.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sir Cloudesley and the Impertinent Sailor

A name like “Sir Cloudesley Shovel” is not one you forget easily. Sir Cloudesley was an English admiral who died in 1707. I think I first read about him in The Spectator, by Joseph Addison, but I can’t put my finger on a source just now (I’ve got a fine complete edition from 1880; sadly, it lacks an index).

Anyway, Sir Cloudesley has been haunting my reveries for the past few days ever since I ran across the following anecdote. It popped up in my Google feed; unfortunately, I can’t seem to retrieve my source, so I give a version from The Gentleman’s Magazine from 1823 (Google books here). By way of background: we know that Sir Cloudesley met his death when his ship crashed on the rocks in the Scilly Islands. But now:

The day before the occurrence of the disaster … a seaman … well acquainted with the navigation of the channel, ventured to represent to the Admiral, that, by the course he was steering, he would inevitably run on Scilly rocks. The Admiral, incensed at this interference, charged him with insubordination, and endeavouring to excite a mutiny in the ship; and in a very summary manner condemned him to be hanged. … Now the same Sir Cloudesley Shovel, who murdered this poor fellow, lost his own life, through neglect of the salutary warning, and has a monument in Westminster Abbey!

Sadly for the sake of art, Wiki reports that there is no evidence for the story from contemporary documents, and goes so far as to suggest that it is “not at all unlikely that a sailor might have debated the vessel's location.”

Wiki is silent on another part of the story—that the sailor was accorded the courtesy, before hanging, of being read a Psalm of his choosing. It is said that he chose the 109th. That would be the one that begins:

Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;
for the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me:
they have spoken against me with a lying tongue.
They compassed me about also with words of hatred;
and fought against me without a cause.

Maybe the interesting part of the story is to try to trace the change of sensibility that would have led from “open debate” in the 18th Century, to a memory of mutiny and hanging in the 19th.

Appreciation: The Furies

I really can’t imagine what possessed me to read Janet Hobhouse’s The Furies. It certainly isn’t my kind of book: young woman, in a world of women, copes with the world’s most immature mother, then tackles a string of more or less unsatisfactory relationships with men, then—well, there are some plot points I shouldn’t spoil, but since the novel is named after a Greek tragedy, you can assume it doesn’t end with a song.

But forget all that. I can’t remember how long it has been since I’ve read anything so aware of its self and alert to its surroundings. NYRB Classics (which has lately republished The Furies) calls it “fiercely honest” (link). The tag is a cliché but clichés are founded in truth, and if you have Hobhouse’s kind of honesty, then ferocity may be the only possible stance. For intensity and intelligence, the best comparison I can think of is the actor James Woods (link) whose performances, like Hobhouse’s narrative, seem just narrowly to escape spilling all over themselves.

I complained a few days ago that Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram was a novel pretending to be the truth (link). Hobhouse’s book appears rather to be the truth masquerading as a novel. Her accounts of her husband and her father appear to mesh with the published data, and her specifity about addresses around Manhattan seems almost beyond invention. And the long pre-history with which she begins the book, while worth the effort, is near enough to being a distraction that she probably wouldn’t have included it were it not substantially true.

Perhaps inevitably, the best parts of the book is her lovingly realized account of her childhood with her train wreck of a mother—lovely, warm-hearted, devoted to her daughter, yet unable to fulfill so many of the most elementary responsibilities of parenthood. It’s well observed but just as important, it’s not bitter. Hobhouse’s narrative voice has a lot to complain of from this impossible woman and she doesn’t seem to gloss over the rough spots. Yet clearly she loved her mother almost as much as life itself, and she stood always ready—not so much to forgive as to accept her inadequacy.

Hobhouse has a less sure touch when her young narrator sets off to England to recover her father. I think the problem may be that here, for once, the author is too coy. The author is, after all, a Hobhouse, a member (at least by courtesy of paternal DNA) of an English west-country clan, long visible in politics in the arts. Her true-life father, if I read the evidence right, is an author and politician—and, if the novelistic evidence is anything close to the truth, a full-spectrum prick. Hobhouse doesn’t appear to let him off easy here, but again, she doesn’t really dwell on the dreadful stuff: she just rattles on with the story. Getting the background does, however, help to explain what morphed this Upper East Side ugly duckling into an Oxford-educated swan.

Having dispensed with her childhood, Hobhouse tackles her love life and here, I think she may be on more dangerous ground than she suspects. She tumbles into a passionate romance with a seemingly presentable young swain; she dumps him and leaves him desolate in favor of another, no less suitable and this time rich. After much shilly-shallying, she marries this one, but then cheats on him and, at last, divorces him (just as it emerges that he has lost all his money). I suspect the main point of all this may be to show how we never escape our childhood (else what, exactly, is the point of the title?). But I suspect not every reader will be willing to ignore the fact that she seems to have had a lot of options and to have played them for all they are worth.

I won’t detail the last part of the book because there are some plot-points that deserve to remain under wraps. Suffice to say that whatever patience I may have lost with her as I tracked through her love life, I recovered as she faced what must have been the one—no, two—great crises of her life. I can’t quite say I was sorry for it to end: it was an exhausting read and I had to put it aside a couple of times just to catch my breath. But but but: but Janet Hobhouse died in 1991, having not quite finished this her final product. It’s a rotten shame that we won’t have a chance to hear any more from her, ever again..

A Birthday: The Weblog

No, not mine, which is about a year and a half old. But the word weblog turns ten years old today.

Writing in Wired, Jorn Barger--who coined the term on December 17, 1997-- makes it pretty clear that his notion of a "weblog" is something a bit different from what it has become. He was thinking more on the lines of a log of websites--something like, maybe, a forum for freelance self-delusion. But his main advice surely holds: don't forget to link (link).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Most of All, I Miss the Trumpets in the Morning"

They asked the devil what he missed about heaven. He said, "most of all, I miss the trumpets in the morning."

With a name like Grafton Biddle, you'd think he could stay away from trouble like this.

I hope he thought it was worth the trouble.

H/T: David Lal.

Mortgage Default and the Fraud Fandango

Tyler Cowen has an interesting post up about the scope of mortgage fraud, although I am not sure it says what it may think it says (link):

BasePoint Analytics LLC, a recognized fraud analytics and consulting firm, analyzed over 3 million loans originated between 1997 and 2006 (the majority being 2005-2006 vintage), including 16,000 examples of non-performing loans that had evidence of fraudulent misrepresentation in the original applications. Their research found that as much as 70 of early payment default loans contained fraud misrepresentations on the application.

That is from a Fitch Ratings report (summary here, with an eventual link to buy it), the rest makes for very gory reading as well. ...

Fine as far as it goes, but old time bankruptcy lawyers will remember the “fraud fandango” as it played itself out back before some important law changes around 1970. The consumer debtor would look at the application form where it says “list all your debts;” there were only three blank spaces. “But I have more than three creditors”—“oh, not to worry, we only use that for the credit check.” So the customer would list only three and then when she defaulted, the creditor would profess to be shocked, shocked to learn that there were really 17.

Sometimes, you could persuade the judge to hear these grisly details. So, no fraud because no intent to defraud Even better, sometimes you could show him that the lender would have made the loan even if the debtor had told the whole truth. So, no fraud because no reliance.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that some version of this caper played itself out in the late mortgage uproar. In a good many of these cases it was the brokers, I suspect, who were the initiators of the fraud, rather than the victims. The interesting question is: how far up the line does this go? Wasn’t anybody auditing the brokers? Auditing the auditors? Or was it all just one big clambake where everybody knew there wasn’t enough to go around, but everybody hoped they would get theirs off the table before the bell rang.

Opera: I Have Seen the Future and it Works, Mostly

I had my first shot at HD-theatre opera Sunday. It wasn’t an auspicious beginning, but that’s a detail: this stuff is going to stand the opera business on its head.

We took in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet in the boxy corner room at the multiplex here in Palookaville. This place is, from one point of view, just your typical crappy little armpit of a theatre, with broken seats and where your feet stick to the floor. And the production was, shall we say, not up to Met standards. First, early arrivals were assaulted with the same drumbeat of commercials that they feed to the slack-jawed yahoos in the regular theatres down the hall (and at the same volume—I assume the kids have all lost their hearing by the age of 14?). But then when the main event got going, we found we had no sound at all—not a plus in an opera. Dutiful, we mostly sat there, but a few truculent souls went out to the front of the house to raise a little sand. I was one of them, and I admit I felt a bit sorry for the $8-an-hour kid who got left behind with the machine gun to cover the retreat. She said she was sorry but it was a new (improved?) projector. We weren’t impressed. She said she couldn’t rewind because it was live. But it wasn’t live, it was a rerun of the previous day. She said the whole thing was run from someplace else (New York?). We asked her why that should matter. Despairingly, she said she’d give refunds. But by now, the sound was actually on –though 20 minutes into the show—so we figured we’d go back and make the best of it. And unexpectedly, a couple of minutes later, the same kid showed up again, this time to announce that, well, actually, yes, she had figured out how to start over. And so we got our second shot. So, bully for her, and I won’t dwell on the few brutal interruptions when the screeching of the soprano was superseded by the screeching of a projector (do those things still have sprockets?).

But all this is details; the ship will right itself in a heartbeat. Thing is, the performance as a whole was wonderful—as remarkable as any performance I’ve ever seen. The screen seemed huge as it more or less wrapped itself around me, far more enveloping than any live performance I’ve ever intended. And the staging—well, they probably overdid it with all the jumps and swoops, but the plain fact is you can see so much more with live cameras than you can with your own paltry little eyes: live performance will never be the same again. Yes, yes, it’s not live. That’s a problem: even in the H-est of HD, there is some stuff you will never see. But there is so much more stuff that you do see that no live performance can ever offer.

[The opera itself? Oh, that… actually, it was fine, though I admit I wouldn’t have gone so gaga at a live performance. Juliet is Anna Netrebko (link) and she is certainly the woman of the hour. Roberto Algana Alagna (Damn! Sorry about that!)(link) as her Romeo may not be a world-shaker, but he’s cheerful and warm-hearted and the chemistry (the “shimmy,” as he put it demurely) between them was all that you could hope for. The opera itself has some lovely music, and it is a dutiful representation of a remarkable play (in some ways, perhaps an improvement on the play)—but you can’t really say it is one of the majors. I have to admit I found the orchestra a bit obtrusive. I don’t think the problem was in Domingo’s conducting so much as in the score itself, which seems to me sometimes to get in the way with what the singers are up to (I suppose a more discreet sound mix could have helped).]

But the HD performance: that’s the ticklish part. Mrs. B is already disgusted with the TV screens in the balcony at the San Francisco Opera House (though I am not). Now we have one more reason to wonder whether it is worth all the time and trouble to trek down there for a live performance (we are, be it noted, 170 miles away). Indeed, can any opera house compete? Well, yes, the Met—surely one of the great public spaces on the planet, on a par with the Piazza San Marco in Venice. But even there, it may be the space, not the opera, that is the draw.

I can see that this stuff is only beginning. They’re noodling around with the equipment now in ways that will look amateurish, primitive, five years down the line. On the way out I repeated my crack about how I’d hate to be an opera company manager today because I wouldn’t know what business I am in. My friend Dick waved his arms at the theatre around us. “This,” he said, “is the business they’re in.” I think he may be right.

Footnote: And it's not just HD screening. For a full display of what the Met is up to, go here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Huckabee Panic: A Footnote

Carpetbagger has a typically thorough and astute "literature review" up, summarizing the right's conniption fit over Mike Huckabee (link), but let me add a footnote: I think it shows just how phony this whole "conservative coalition" really is. The GOP establishment is perfectly willing to give away the store on throwaway issues (!) like abortion and school prayer. But when a genuine, true-blue, take-no-prisoners evangelical joins the race, their small intestines turn to water. I don't feel any special sympathy for the evangelical leadership who have played the logrolling game as cynically as anybody. But if I were a mainline working-stuff born-again, I'd be feeling used & abused right now, wondering who my real friends are.

Perhaps Tedious Explanatory Footnote: The establishment has been willing to give away the story on abortion and school prayer because they know neither will ever affect them personally--the pro-life movement is about denying abortions to poor women, not to the daughters of the elite, and you can perfectly well opt out of school prayer by sending your kid to the right kind of private school. Gay marriage is, I admit, a tougher nut to crack: the establishment knows that the establishment couldn't get off its dime without the tweendecks infrastructure of conservative gays. My guess is that they've been gambling on the proposition that the issue will pass; that we are pretty close to realizing that they're here, they're queer, and we might as well deal with it. I remember what my old girlfriend used to say about the Virgin Mary: oy, happens in the best Jewish families.

Is This Anything?

FP Passport thinks this is news (link):

When you heard the words "sex tourism," one image usually comes to mind: a sleazy, older white man with a beer in one hand and an underage Asian girl in the other, strolling along some beach in Thailand. But now a new kind of sex tourism is on the rise. According to a recent Reuters story, older white women are now flocking to Kenya to seek out sex with younger African men. There are no official statistics, but locals in Mombasa tell Reuters they estimate one out of five single foreign female tourists are in search of sex.

My friend Anon wonders whether it really is news. Remember Shirley Valentine (link) (138 Amazon reviews, 123 of them five star)? And remember Mrs. Wentworth Brewster?

Each evening, with some light excuse and beaming with goodwill
She'd just slip into something loose and totter down the hill
To that bar on the Piccola Marina
Where love came to Mrs. Wentworth-Brewster
Hot flushes of delight suffused her ...

Possible differences, if any:
  1. Interracial (Tom Conti only had five o'clock shadow)
  2. Mass marketed.
  3. 6.9 percent AIDS rate.

This Just In: Garden Gnomes

The Wichita bureau reads Der Spiegel so we don't have to and learns that garden gnomes are passé in Germany. At least the old ones (link). Thanks, John, sort of.

We are the World

Sighting, off Wenceslas Square in Prague:

I assume that means "Adjustable Rate Mortgage" in Czech.

Marketing 101

Would love to know what a B school professor would make of this one--my high school classmate Marge Gagnon recalls life at Charlie's Tydol, her father's gas station in Manchester, New Hampshire, in the 1950s (link). "Cigarettes sold for 18 cents a pack," Marge said,

but you had to put two dimes in the machine to get them. The machines didn't give change back then, so I used to help my father make slits in the top of the cigarette packs, then he'd put two pennies inside. That was how he made sure the customers got their change.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Finer on the Mughals

I seem to have read this before; at any rate I underlined it. But it comes on with force only after I’ve seen it on the ground:

To Europeans, Mughal India was by far the most glamorous of the four great Asian powers dealt with in this book,* and remains so today. What so attracts them is its art and literature and architecture, the gorgeous colourfulness of its courts, the exquisite inlay and fretwork and mosaics in the palaces and shrines and mosques, and not least the fascinating characters of its emperors, whose every deed and happening was recorded in their own private diaries or by the court diarists. But rarely has there been such a contrast between a rich and gorgeous artistic culture and a threadbare political culture. It is impossible not to approach it with a depressing sense of déjà vu. Not one single institutional feature in it is original. All the main components—the royal autocracy, the ambiguities of legitimate title, the contestable rules of succession, the service nobility, their payment of land-revenues, the feudalistic mode of raising the army, the combination of legislative judicial and administrative powers in a single officer, and so forth—are features we have met many times before.

Likewise with the shortcomings of this empire: it was riddled with corruption, especially in the courts. The ruling and extracting classes were the tiniest fraction of the total population, but between one-third and one-half of the total GNP of the 100 million population was engrossed by the imperial court and the 8,000 or so mansadbars—61 percent of the take going ot a mere 655 of these. Extraction on such a scale could only be secured by coercion…

That is, of course, Samuel E. Finer in what remains the best book of the millennium so far: The History of Government, at 1256 (Oxford Paperback ed. 1999—but I only read it in this millennium).

*Tokugawa Japan, 1600-1745; China under the Ch’ing, 1680-1780; The Classical Age of the Ottoman Empire, c. 1566; and the Mughals, 1526-1712.

Hooboy, That's a Relief

One of the many pleasures of reading Patrick Kurp's excellent blog is that he relieves you of the obligation to pretend to like stuff that you never much liked in the first place (link).

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Appreciation: The Slaves of Solitude

I read Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square a couple of years back on its reputation as a cult classic. I found it a bit of a disappointment: well crafted and convincing in its way—but so much booze, and such unlikeable characters!--hard to stay on board. Still, it was good enough so it (along with an appreciative introduction from David Lodge) impelled me to have a go at The Slaves of Solitude, newly reminted from NYRB. I’m glad I did; SOS has all of the virtues of its predecessor, plus a few more of its own. And the down-market alcoholism, though still a factor, is less burdensome or oppressive.

Lodge calls it a World War II novel, which is a bit misleading. It’s a home-front novel, so a war novel only in the sense that Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen trilogy counts as a war novel, or Elizabeth Bowen stories like “Mysterious Kor.”

Taken as such it is indeed a remarkable evocation of the bleak stiff-upper-lip near-desperation of the Britain in the early part of the war, before anyone was sure we would win—when a lot of us thought we would lose. But you can broaden the theme: this kind of gritty stoicism more or less defines British life from (say) the collapse of the bond market after World War I, until the explosive birth of Carnaby Street in the early 60s (some people lived out their entire conscious lives under the same grey shadow).

It’s also tightly plotted, around a stagy conceit that works: life in a shabby-genteel boarding house away from whatever glamour might be on offer in the city, not yet into whatever peace and quiet might be available in the country. Here Hamilton places “Miss Roach” (she has a first name, but that’s a detail) and a cast of supporting characters, particularly her demoniac adversary, Mr. Thwaites. Miss Roach and Mr. Thwaites have it out in a manner that is funny only to an outsider; Hamilton tells their story with comic detachment, yet without losing his sympathy.

The plot is enough, but it is the setting that gives it all dignity and texture. In the following excerpt, Miss Roach has just confronted a sign at her local tobacconist saying



And such was Miss Roach’s mood nowadays that she regarded this less as a sorrowful admission than as a sly piece of spite. The “sorry”, she felt certain, had not been thrown in for the sake of politeness or pity. It was a sarcastic, nasty, rude “sorry”. It sneered, as a common woman might, as if to say “Sorry, I’m sure”, or “Sorry, but there you are”, or “Sorry, but what do you expect nowadays?”

There were other instances of this sort of thing on the way to the station, where, on boardings, the lecturing and nagging began in earnest. She was not to waste bread, she was not to use unnecessary fuel, she was not to leave litter about, she was not to telephone otherwise than briefly, she ws not to take the journey she was taking unless it was really necessary, she was not to keep the money she earned through taking such journeys where she could spend it, but to put it into savings, and to keep on putting it into savings. She was not even to talk carelessly, lest she endangered the lives of others.

Depressing, also, to Miss Roach, were the unadvertised enforcements of these prohibitions—the way that the war, while packing the public places tighter and tighter, was slowly, cleverly, month by month, week by week, day by day, emptying the shelves of the shops—sneaking cigarettes from the tobacconists, sweets form the confectioners, paper, pens, and envelopes from the stationers, fittings from the hardware stores, wool from the drapers, glycerine from the chemists, spirits and beer from the public-houses, and so on endlessly—while at the same time gradually removing crockery from the refreshment bars, railings from familiar places, means of transport from the streets, accommodation from the hotels, and sitting or even standing room from the trains. It was, actually, the gradualness and unobtrusiveness of this process which served to make it so hateful. The war, which had begun by making dramatic demands, which had held up the public in style like a highwayman, had now developed into a petty pilferer, incessantly pilfering. You never knew where you were with it, and you could not look round without finding something else gone or going.

—Patrick Hamilton, The Slaves of Solitude 100-101

(NYRB Classics 2007)

Friday, December 14, 2007

'Tis the Season

Forwarded by someone who ought to know better (link), and I hope you are properly ashamed.

Update: Not quite as tacky, but still cute (link).

Will Work for Nothing in Particular

Mark Thoma, once more hunting the "Tax Cuts Pay for Themselves" snark, offers a concise summary (from one "Alex") (link):

1. Mr. Laffer did state the evident and nothing else: (1) if government will collect 100% nobody will show up for work, (2) if government won't collect nothing it will have no revenues and (3) there is a maximum somewhere in between.

I'm in sympathy with the general line of argument here, but I don't think it is quite right. My intuition is that even at 100 percent , some work would get done. I'm not for 100 percent taxes, and I do think taxes can dampen productivity. But the fact is, a lot of work gets done for reasons that have nothing to do with money. The best evidence is before us everywhere--the Richter 9 explosion of free content available on the web. Apparently the world is full of people who will work flat-out, nights and weekends especially, at a labor price of zero. Hard to see how taxes will affect them, one way or another.

An Asssignment for Somebody Else: Might be fun for somebody--perhaps an Econ 10 slut to plot the productivity of, say George Mason Econ professors, against changes in the marginal tax rate, to see if they can identify any effect.

Huckabee Watch

Michael (sic) Froomkin thinks this makes Mike (sic) Huckabee look like an idiot. I don't agree at all. I think this is precisely the kind of thing that can carry Huckabee to--well, whereever. I still can't imagine that we will really elect that guy, but I've saying since the get-go that he has an amazing ability to connect as down-home just folks.

Oh, and congratulations, Canada.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Check One

This just rolled out of my pocket: it's a copy of a form that you have to fill out on leaving India. It asks you to specify your "employment." The choices are:
  • Doctor

  • Business

  • Employed (sic?)

  • Media

  • Lawyer

  • Government

  • Sports Person

  • Other

I guess not many bullock drivers go through emigration control. BTW if you go out through Delhi, steer clear of Mr. Vikram Singh--he's the bald one with the little mustache, and he is in a pussy mood, hovers about four minutes over every passport.

"We Wondered if it Meant War"

Oops, missed it: I learn from the radio that yesterday was the 70th Anniversary of the sinking of the gunboat Panay (link). You remember? No, neither do I (link), but apparently it was a big deal at the time. A Japanese force attacked an American gunboat in the Yangtze River outside Nanjing. Japan was at war with China, but not with the United States. In retrospect, the incident appears to have proven a pivot point, tilting American opinion against Japan, and easing the path to outright war four years later.

I’ve known two people in my life who are tied in my mind to the Panay. One was a guy named Weldon James who, when I met him in the early 60s, was ensconced in a comfortable gig as an editorial writer at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He was a pleasant, clubbable sort of man, but it seemed the first thing you learned about him was that as a young reporter he’d been on the Panay; apparently he had been dining out on it ever since.

In the 60s, when I met him, Weldon was also an officer in the Marine Reserve. In 1966, with the Vietnam War heating up, Weldon did something almost unexampled: he quit his job to volunteer for active service. He left with a flourish: his final editorial was a personal farewell headlined “A Matter of Belief: It’s Past Time to Say to Hell With Ho” (link).

But there is no need to feel compassion for Weldon as he slogs through the paddies with an M-1: he seems to have spent his duty time as a public affairs officer in Hawaii, and then in Washington DC. He ended his career, ignominiously some would say, still in Washington, as a bureaucrat (link).

Years later, one winter night in Wisconsin, I was introduced to an old lady—she was then in her 90s—a birdlike little woman with blue-tint hair. “I am from Killingworth, Connecticut,” she announced with schoolteacher precision. “Do you remember the Longfellow poem, ‘The Birds of Killingworth.’”

Um, no. But someone had told me that she had been in Shanghai in the 30s. I told her I knew a guy who had been on the Panay. Her answer is inscribed on the tablets of my memory:

“Yes, I remember the night. We were dancing on the embassy roof. We wondered if it meant war.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

First Memories

Avram Grumer is playing the first-memories game (link). Happy to join in. I remember Pearl Harbor; Beryl Kilton explained it all to me in the car on the way to kindergarten the next morning. I remember watching my mother knead bread dough and thinking: this year I am three. Last year I was two, and I don't remember anything from last year. So I think I'll remember this.

But I do remember something from when I was two. I remember the hurricane of '38, and how my dad and Wilbur Matchett and I went out to look at the stump of the apple tree that had blown down. And how we ate scrambled eggs.

And I remember a wild night of carousing with Mable Figworthy while her parents were at the annual Louis Kussoth Memorial Ball. And the night Adlai Stevenson was elected president. And the time I shot an elephant in my pyjamas.

Oh, I guess that didn't happen either.

Why We Love New York

Correction of the year:

A HEADLINE in Monday’s Daily News, “He regrets his role in ‘postal’ vid,” implied that Richard Marino, the subject of a YouTube video, was sorry for an incident in December at a Brooklyn post office. Marino, in fact, is not sorry. The News regrets the error.

Source: (link).

And for those keeping score at home--no, I never took a shower with Cheri Blair, either.

True What They Say About...?

Okay, yesterday we had Mike Huckabee asking whether Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers (answer: sort of yes, but it's not like you make it sound). Today we have Laura Vozzella of the Baltimore Sun recalling her close encounter with Mitt Romney's underwear (Pendleton 34 boxers) (link).

Now is as good a time as any to recall my friend Joe, who claims he got thrown out of Jesuit High School for asking the sex education instaructor whether Mormon women make love with their socks on. I don't think he ever did get his answer.


Other People's Stuff much more interesting than my own:
Life (etc.) in the fast lane (link).

"Oh, some dude named Hitler" (link).

The smartest guy in the room (really) on the credit squeeze (link).

As if India didn't have enough already (link).

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mr. and Mrs. B Go to the Opera, More or Less

Mr. and Mrs. B got their first look at the tarted-up San Francisco Opera House Sunday, now complete with TV screens for enhanced balcony viewing. Let’s just say it may take some getting used to.

It was a disorienting experience, for sure. Part of the problem may have been the choice of opera: Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress. I’m a big Stravinsky fan; Mrs. B, not so much.

Anyway, we were seated almost directly under one of the new screens, so we couldn’t possibly ignore them. From our perch, they seemed just about as big as the HDTV in the Buce living room. And that was the weird part: why was the sound so low? Oh yes: the sound wasn’t coming from the TV set; it was coming from the stage, half a mile away and downhill. Oy, I never noticed how hard it is to hear the voices from up there in the cheap seats.

The next thing I (sic) noticed was how different the two parts were—the TV show, from what was on stage. At first I found myself flicking back and forth (as if I were channel surfing?). Then in time, I found myself looking more at the TV screen, as altogether more arresting and diverting than the live performance. I also harkened back to the time, just a few years ago, when we watched a goofy production of Turnadot, from perhaps these very seats--and where the set was so built up that most of the time, the balcony audience couldn't see the singers' heads and shoulders. No problem on that score with the video option. Indeed, I began to wonder: are the folks in the expensive seats going to get paranoid about this? Going to suspect (perhaps correctly?) that they are missing something?

Mrs. B took a different view. Her notion is that now that they’ve got TV up there, they can blow the balcony off altogether. For her money, she says, she just as well stay at home. Well, not home, maybe: Mrs. B has already seen two or three of those new theater simulcasts that the Met is running at movie houses around the country. From what she says about them, I gather that they are so dazzling that it’s not really clear why you go to the opera house anyway. I can’t say: I haven’t seen a simulcast yet (though we are penciled in for Romeo & Juliet next Sunday).

So, all very confusing. But if I am confused, I wonder what it’s like to be an opera business manager these days. Best I can tell, they have no idea (right now) just what kind of business are they in. Are they packing DVDs for all those new HDTVs in living rooms around the world? Simulcasts for your neighborhood metroplex? Or multimedia theatre events that are bound to please or tick off everybody with the price of a ticket? I guess the future (as the editorial writers like to say) lies ahead.

Oh, and the opera: well like I say, I like Stravinsky so I was mostly happy just to kick back and let it roll over me. The soprano was serviceable but she seemed weak. I couldn’t make up my mind whether she was spooked by the ghost of Dawn Upshaw (who owns the role, for my money) –or whether it was just that confusing new technology again, screwing up everything?

Not a Word About the Pig

"Not a word about the pig," meaning "keep mum" about something appears in Douglas William Jerrold's Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures (1873) (which appeared first in Punch). Working backwards: in 1868 it is found in some American theatrical management memoirs. In Percival Leigh's "The Comic Latin Grammar: A New and Facetious Introduction to the Latin Tongue (1840), he includes the phrase in the form "Ubi ad magistri veneris, cave verbum in porco--When you are come to the master's (house), not a word about the pig." This is presumably an invented Latin saying, based on an original in English. But where did that come from? Paddy Corey, a one-act farce by Tyrone Power, has "But mum--Father Dan, not a word about the pig" in 1833. Wine and Walnuts by William Henry Pyne (1824) uses the phrase three times on one page. The context of all these examples have nothing whatever to do with pigs, it should be noted.

What are they all alluding to?

For an answer, see "Quote ... Unquote" newsletter, Vol. 16 No. 4, October 2007, p 2-3.

Rags! Old Bones! Distressed Receivables!

Maybe this is old stuff to the insiders, but news to me--the logical conclusion of the "anything is a bargain at the right price" theory:

December 11, 2007


------------------------------TODAY'S SPONSOR-------------------------

Oak Point will help you close out your cases by purchasing whatever Remnants are left... restitution payments, claims in other cases, class action claim stubs, judgments, old receivables, payment plans, etc, etc, etc. Maximize cash for creditors while providing a complete and final close to your case ...

Works for me. Hey, there are big-box stores that sell no merchandise but remainders. In a world where people buy and sell unsatisfied court judgments, uncollected legacies, stock in bankrupt companies, this seems to be a perfectly logical extension. But I must say, we've come a long way from the world of Dostoevski and Dickens, where traffic in distressed receivables was regarded as itself a form of criminality (usually, and not incidentally, associated with Jews--but that us a whole nuther story.

Afterthought: No, wait, there is one more stuff: take 100 of these deals and package them together as a securitization.

Source: The snippet showed up in my daily email from Bankruptcy Insider (link).

Monday, December 10, 2007


And here I was thinking it was a good idea (link).

Bonus extra: That "four block world" stuff is a stitch.

I Get No Kick from TV

Re: Federal sentencing and crack cocaine: you know, I think I'll urp if I listen to just one more commentator say that Congress imposed stiffer sentences for crack cocaine--by a factor of 100 to one over powdered cocaine because "Congress thought" that crack was more harmful.

Once again, children: we have no idea what Congress thought. We may know what "Congress" said. And for the moment, Ill even set aside the teensie problem of ever sussing a single meaning out of 531 refractory noggins. Rather, I want to recall two points (which ought to be familiar to anybody, but let it pass:
  • One: Congress might have wanted to discriminate against crack cocaine because crack is the black street drug, while powder is the white suburban drug.
  • We're talkin' racial discrimination here, and about racial discrimination, people lie.

I suppose we are permitted to say that "Congress said" blah blah on this topic, though a fair-minded presentation would quickly reminded viewers that there is another, murkier, explanation, set and ready in the wings. But enough with "Congress thought" already! Now and forever!

Afterthought: Actually, I can think of one more, rather different, possible reason for embracing 100-to-one penalties for crack cocaine. And that is that Congress wasn't thinking anything at all. We're talkin' poor black people here who are very unlikely to vote in any event. So why waste any brain cells considering whether there was any discrimination or not.

[Of course, you could always switch off the TV--hmmm.]

Climate Change and "Aha!"

The often-truculent and always-interesting Carpe Diem has a link up re climate change and the tone, I think, is jubilant. "Climate warming is naturally caused and shows no human influence," reports Professor Perry, the proprietor, summarizing a new study (link). "A Very Inconvenient Peer-Reviewed Climate Study," he declares.

I admit I am not a very good a very good team player on climate change. I tend to find Al Gore's emissions exhausting, and I thought Scientific American way out of line when it refused to let Bjørn Lomborg (link) use its copy on his website as a rebuttal to charges against him ; (details here). I suspect that climate change is (the last refuge of a cowardly liberal) "a complicated issue."

Yet on the whole, I think the general proposition that we experience human-caused global warming must surely be right; it beggars all expectation that we could plunk six billion people onto this rock without some external effects. In context, therefore, Professor Perry's "aha!" attititude strikes me as at least surprising, not a little implausible. Which prompts two thoughts.

One, does Professor Perry really believe that we can plunk six billion people onto this rock without some external effect? He says he is an economist; has he no sense of limits, of choice under constraint?

Second, a more general question: has Professor Perry ever carried out a piece of research whose conclusions countered his expectations? The question is not rhetorical; I have no idea what his answer might be. But it might be a good general test for any researcher (particularly in economics). Has s/he ever had occasion to write "the results of this inquiry suprised us..."

The Horrors of a Hillary Presidency

Be afraid, be very afraid (link).

Thanks, Dave.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Smog: It's Goin' Round

TigerHawk has some nice pix up re smog in Shanghai (link).

I'll see him Shanghai and raise him with this:

Got it? That's the Taj Mahal in Agra, as seen from the Taj View Hotel, taken about noontime one day last month (for a more benign view, go here). It's out there, honest. Apptly if you want to see the Taj at sunrise, you have to come in, e.g, June, when the temperature may easily reach 115 degrees.

General Thought: I guess it is some kind of irony that this greatest of all architectural monuments reposes in which has to be one of India's ugliest and most unpleasant cities.

Dalrymple on Mughals

William Dalrymple is surely one of the most astute (and sympathetic) western commentators on India. Here's a good sample of his work--dealing with the Mughal empire and emphasising (a) the tolerance of Akbar (but not Arungzeb); and (b) the relatively advanced status of women (link).

Friday, December 07, 2007

No, Thanks...

...we can sleep on the bus:

[Source: Jaisalmer again. What a town.]


Just what I need for the office door:

[Source: up through the medieval gate into Jaisalmer, Rajastan, India.]

Afterthought: I just remembered the sign that my son slapped on his door when he was, I guess, about six:


My sentiments exactly.

To-Do List

December 7:
Make a sneak attack on Pearl Schwartz.
[No, I don't get it either.]

Arrgh ...

We've been in consumer services hell since we got up this morning and found a phone (and DSL) line dead. Meanwhile I had chosen today to try to straighten out some loose ends with my Fidelity account. Big mistake. I'll spare you the gory details but I suggest this: seems to me that Fidelity took over a huge book of business from the U of California a couple of years back, figuring they would learn how to service it later. Well, later is a long way away and the right hand still doesn't know what the left hand is doing. I must say that for consumer service, I'll take Vanguard six ways to the jack. Hmm, now that I think of it. ...

In a fit of self-flagellation I then decided to untangle some hassles with our Amex accounts. Seems that Amex can't get its mind round the fact that we have two... People! Is it that hard?

Let's see, what next? Maybe a good day to donate a kidney ...