Sunday, August 31, 2008

Whatever it Takes

Dame Helen Mirren on cocaine (link):
Dame Helen revealed that she took cocaine until the early 1980s, when she would have been in her late 30s.

She claimed that she only gave up the drug after the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie was caught, and found to be making money from the Class A drug.

Sisterhood is Powerful: Maureen on Miss Congeniality

Forget about all the nasty things Republicans are saying about their veepinee (link, link, etc.) Count on Maureen Dowd to rally round.

Oh, no, wait, Maureen is only quoting the candidate herself. Facing Putin. At the Bering Strait:
“Back off, Commie dude,” she says. “I’m a much better shot than Cheney.”
Link. Wonder if she is a better shot than Cheney? My guess is probably so.

McCain the Crap Shooter

Nearly everybody who keeps on politics, keeps up on Charlie Cook. And I don't know anybody who thinks he is a partisan. Here's Charlie on you-know-what:
If you put the pictures of every Republican governor in the country on a dartboard and thrown a dart, the chances of a better selection might be higher
But It's Not the Base: Charlie again, on what McCain can hope for from the woman a heartbeat away:
Clearly, concerns about the base drove this decision. But it would appear that Palin's selection was driven more by fear of alienating the base by choosing a Lieberman or Ridge than by the need to put starch in the shorts of party members. McCain has consistently polled stronger among Republicans than Barack Obama has among Democrats. Although many Republicans don't particularly love McCain and might not run full speed to the polls, they'll likely show up out of disdain for Democrats and Obama. Four years ago, Republicans were running roughly even with Democrats in party identification. Today, they are somewhere between 7 (NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll) and 13 (Pew poll) points behind. The question seems to be, "Can Palin help McCain get the lion's share of independents?" and not, "Can she solidify his base?"
Required Homework Assignment: Michael O'Hare on Craps v. Poker.

History Note: Who? Who?


But Is Argentina Really That Big?

Cool map of Africa (link). H/T Tom McMahon.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Can This Be Right? Cash-Flow Statement

Lama at the customarily bang-on Calculated Risk has an odd post up lamenting that people don't pay attention to the cash-flow statement (i.e., vis a vis the balance sheet, or the income statement).

Really? --he asks without intended irony or sarcasm. I pay attention to the cash-flow statement. And although I am not an accountant, I teach a bit of basic accounting to law students, and cash flow is the heart of the course: "accounting" numbers, v. "cash" numbers, the agonizing history of the cash flow statement, the whole (as I thought) magilla--including a hat tip to the guy who sort of invented it, the estimable Thornton O'Glove (link).

With all respect to Lama, my guess is that s/he (?) is listening to the wrong people. Accountants may not like the cash-flow statement--it was kind of forced on them, after all. But investors, in my experience, love it. Who else invented EBIT--earnings before interest and taxes, where you start off with "accounting" earnings and mentally recalculate for cash?

Old acccountant joke: oh yeah, I know the finance types--they think "depreciation" is an asset. Finance response: well, duh. Let's hear it for cash flow, the sincerest thing in the world, the one that will never lie to you, will never let you down.

Science Shows: Facebook is Good For You says in this juried paper (which I acquired from a friend-of-a-friend, via Facebook).

And Speaking of "Qualified to be Commander in Chief"

...what about this one?

I Suppose this is just an Old Guy Moment

But what in Hell is the difference between a Department of Education and a

...and does this imply that we will soon need a "Department of Professional Studies of Professional Studies in Education?"

Afterthought:In the department's mission statement, I see the phrase "dedicated to excellence and equity in education" (emphasis added). Would it better be described as "The Department of the Division of the Spoils?"

Palin (Biden) Overheard

Yah, wal, he's been in the Senate for 32 years and the French haven't attacked Delaware either.
(Actually, isn't it 35?)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ashland: Let Shakespeare be Shakespeare, Redux --Coriolanus

Once again, the subject is Ashland theatre, specifically the question of letting Shakespeare be Shakespeare. When I watched Othello, I thought they had decided to do it; then saw Midsummer Night's Dream and changed my mind. Now I've seen Coriolanus and I've changed my mind again. Takeaway point: this is one of the best, most fully formed, most convincing presentations of Ashland Shakespeare that I've ever seen--if ever a production speaks with its own voice, this is the kind that does it. Which is not to say it was reverential or pedantic: in was plenty innovative, in a conventional sort of way, what with the flashing lights and holes in the floor, all presented on a cozy in-the-roiund stage. But it was clearly put together by people who understood and respected the text, and who were determined to let it have its own way. Indeed, a presentation like this lets slip a remarkable secret about Shakespearean acting: a lot of Shakespearean actors--even those who have some sense of character--simply don't understand a lot of what they are saying, and wind up talking Shakespeare as if they were talking scat. For i\whatever reason, in this prouction of Coriolanus, every actor seemed to be able to convey meaning out of every sentence.

This is surely partly a credit to the actors, particularly Danforth Comins in the lead (and who would have guessed we'd a good Coriolanus from an actor who was also such a fine Cassio?) and Robynn Rodriguez as his mother (she's matured over the years, all for the good). But consistency like this must be the work of the whole cast. Coriolanus here reminded me of nothing so much as the splendid King John we saw here a couple of years back. Robynn Rodriguez turned in a fine performance in that one too. I'm intrigued to discover that John Sipes, who was fights director this time, was the director of King John (Laird Williamson directed Coriolanus). But perhaps most interesting, I see that Alan Armstrong served as dramaturge for both plays. I admit it; I've never been quite clear what a "dramaturge" does, but if Armstrong doesn't deserve some of the credit for the success (and similarity) of this pairing, then I'd say at least that he has astounding luck.

Another surely non-accidental parallel. No matter what T.S. Eliot thought, Coriolanus is not a wonderful way. The text is polished and proficient but the ending is almost perfunctory, and for the plotting--let's just say that in this play, more than any other, you suspect that Shakespeare is pushing an agenda rather than just putting on a show. So also King John: a different play than Coriolanus, but likewise not a great play, however worthy an effort. Anyway, the point here is twofold: one, Shakespeare never wrote a dull play, a play not worth watching. Even when he is off the top of his game, he has a lot to arrest one's attention and engage the mind. And two, cheers to the team that can take him seriously on those terms, and help him to display whatever it is he may have to say.

This Stuff Deserves to be Remembered

Making Light's Katrina coverage.

Re Palin, I Go Out on a Limb

I've been wrong so many times before, I might as well stick my neck out again: Sarah Palin won't be on the ticket on election day. People are talking Geraldine Ferraro but I'm thinking Thomas Eagleton--unvetted, thoughtlessly selected, a decisive source of regret and remorse. Or maybe I am talking about Geraldine Ferraro--a choice who never looked better than during the first 72 hours after her selection. I'm tempted to think about Harriet Miers, but this choice is perhaps least apt: Miers was brought down ultimately by the wingnuts for her tepid record on the hot-button evangelical issues. For Palin, the evangelicals are the one thing that may save her.

I don't want to suggest I am delighted with all this. If the Republicans do have to make a second choice in late September, the chances are they'll do something even more impulsive and reckless. "Get to know this woman and give her a chance," Alex Castellanos is saying. My guess is that is exactly what he is hoping we do not get a chance to do.

Afterthought: If I'm wrong (as I probably will be), then I'll say she's Ronald Reagan, and that some hacker wrote this post.

Update: This guy thinks they planned it that way all along. "Anon" in the comments here seems to think so too.

Update II: Or maybe just a hoax.

Reporting From the Titanic

I knew that Kathleen Parker was a defender of traditional maledom, and an acerb critic of hairless meterosexuals. I didn't know the backstory:
I’m an expert on family in the same way that the captain of the Titanic was an expert on maritime navigation.

Looking back affectionately, I like to think of home as our own little Baghdad. The bunker-buster was my mother’s death when she was 31 and I was three, whereupon my father became a serial husband, launching into the holy state of matrimony four more times throughout my childhood and early adulthood. We were dysfunctional before dysfunctional was cool.

Going against trends of the day, I was mostly an only child raised by a single father through all but one of my teen years, with mother figures in various cameo roles. I got a close-up glimpse of how the sexes trouble and fail each other and in the process developed great em-pathy for both, but especially for men.

Although my father could be difficult – I wasn’t blinded by his considerable charms – I also could see his struggle and the sorrows he suffered, especially after mother No 2 left with his youngest daughter, my little sister.

From this broad, experiential education in the ways of men and women, I reached a helpful conclusion that seems to have escaped notice by some of my fellow sisters: men are human beings, too.

Lest anyone infer that my defence of men is driven by antipathy towards women, let me take a moment to point out that I liked and/or loved all my mothers. In fact, I’m still close to all my father’s wives except the last, who is just a few years older than me and who is apparently afraid that if we make eye contact, I’ll want the silver. (I do.)

My further education in matters male transpired in the course of raising three boys, my own and two stepsons. As a result of my total immersion in male-dom, I’ve been cursed with guy vision – and it’s not looking so good out there.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bring Back the Bean-Counters

Felix Salmon has a good piece up about economists wrong-footed by the data, and by the general decline in the utility of "economic numbers" like, e.g., the Gross Domestic Product. He offers a good menu of possible reasons:

the fragmentation of the economy, with a large rise in the number of small companies and self-employed individuals; the globalization of the economy, with its attendant blurring of the idea of what counts as "domestic production"; the fact that first-rank economists simply don't become statisticians any more; and a general fiscal neglect of the statisticians that the government does have.

All true, and here's another: there are just too damn many of them. We've learned how to measure everything (at least badly) and so it is almost always possible to pull out a plausible counter-datum to defang any particular data point. Makes me pine for the day when the bean counters really counted.

Ashland: Midsummer Night's Rave

Hm. I said yesterday that it looked like Ashland had decided to trust Shakespeare. I guess I spoke too soon. Lat night I saw the Midsummer Night's Dream, which is not a "play" so much as it is finals week at the drama school, where all the aspirants get to pluck something out of a hat and come up with an accent, or a decade, or a color, or a style; each then does his own turn while somebody tries to whip it all into a whole whose main theme is "loud." The result was a noisy melange of disco, Hog-farm Commune, Dick Tracy Sunday color panel, and--well, actually, mostly disco, complete with a strobe globe at the end--fitfully interlaced with words by some old coot. The audience (heavy on college students, here on a class assignment)--the audience mostly loved it: I can't remember that I've ever heard such ecstatic hallway chatter. And the truth is, it worked surprisingly well, though why they bothered drag the name of Shakespeare into this mishmosh is pretty much beyond me.

Okay, I exaggerate. Shakespeare actually did show through in a few spots. Item: I suppose the one real Shakespearean success of the night was Christine Albright as Titania. The queen of the fairies is pretty much of a disco queen herself, when you stop to think of it, with her posse and her toyboy and her assorted freaky entertainments. Dressing up like Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein would ber perfectly in character Kevin Kennerly as her Oberon just back from the gym, was as good as I've ever seen him, if I could see him inside that whacked-out costume.

And to be fair, the young lovers were pretty much on key, too, especially Emily Sophia Knapp as Hermia (who played it as straight as anybody in the company): this lot is after all, when you stop to think of it, a bunch of narcissistic twits, and so to play them that way wasn't at all a violation (they did tend to jog-trot the verse a bit, though, as they tried to hurry through it).

For the play-within-a-play--the "rude mechanicals" in their VW bus--let's just say that everyone in the audience seemed to like it except me. Okay, I grant you--I liked it too as noise, but as a reading of the text, it had about as much to do with Shakespeare as it did with the Internal Revenue Code. In particular Ray Price as Bottom the Weaver--Price did a splendidly comical imitation of Ray Price, but as to Bottom, the only connection seemed to be the way that Price was congratulating Bottom for having had the good sense to let himself be played by Ray Price.

Theseus and Hyppolyta were just another case of "whatever." It's pretty clear that neither the director nor the actors figured that the script had anything to the offer, so they decided to play around with comic-book costumes and comic-book furniture and then get them off the stage as quickly as possible.

On the way home a young friend asked me: well, after having seen this, would you rather see a more traditional performance? It's a good question. This kind of show is a bell you can't unring: once you've seen it so noisy, campy and over-the-top, almost any straight reading is bound to seem insipid. For Ashland itself, I suspect, the message is clear: MSN played to a full house of enthusiasts beside themselves with glee. Othello the night before had empty seats. I just hate to think what the next director of MSN will feel he has to do.

Afterthought: I have heard the great Stanislavski quoted as saying that too many actors think about what they can bring to the part, and not what the part can bring to them. Just sayin'.

Update: Turns out there is not just one "Shakespeare-The Musical" at Ashland this summer; there are two. Comedy of Errors appears in a modern avatar out West of the Pecos. It's an affable and plausible rework of what is, after all, a piece of Shakespearean juvenilia. The added songs are pretty insipid and the cast does run around a bit much (I suspect the whole thing would have been better about 15 minutes shorter). But once again, the management seems to understand its audience (I wonder, have they been watching the CD's of Slings and Arrows?).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ashland: A Good, Straightforward Othello

We're back at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland for some more theater. I've complained before that Ashland seems to get spooked by its eponymous poet, apparently not willing to trust the verse to carry the play and insisting, instead, to clutter things up with irrelevant stage business (see, e.g., link). For this season, I'm happy to report that we are off on the right foot: a no-tricks Othello. This is a particularly welcome success for two extra reasons. One, Othello seems to be a particularly hard play to get right. It probably has something to do with the race background, but you've got to have apprehensions about a play that led to embarrassments like this one by Olivier and this one with Branagh (Ashland itself turned in an equally awkward entry a few years back with an a Moor who seemed to think he was an eye-popping silent movie clown). The other problem is the play itself: not doubt that it is a masterpiece of character, staging and verse, but it can be almost unbearably hard to take, particularly in the second half which turns into a kind of extended bullfight, with Iago as toreador and Othello as the bull.

There are other important characters in this play but I can't think of any one that depends so much on just two, and perhaps in particular Iago the villain who must (I haven't checked) have more lines than the Moor. So a lot of the credit for success here goes to Dan Donohue, who turns in a compulsively watchable performance in the villain's role. Not a surprise, really: a while back, Donohue turned in what might be the best performance we ever saw here, as Price Hal (Henry V) in Henry IV/V. Taking all in all, Donohue seems to be able to get his mouth round a Shakespearean line better than anybody else in the company. His Iago was suitably villainous, but in a way that I found new: I've never seen a Iago before so obviously looney, so much like the kind of guy who would take his dish of liver with a nice Chianti.

As Iago, Donohue was good all round but perhaps at his best in ensemble with Peter Macon as Othello: together they danced, wrestled, jousted and did almost everything a twosome could do on stage without the assistance of main drainage, making the whole thing an exercise in choreography. Macon full partner in the dance, though perhaps not quite Donohue's equal as a solo. Macon seemed to understand his character--brave, passionate, isolated, prickly-proud. In voice he got the tone right, although he didn't seem to handle individual passages so well.

As Desdemona, Sarah Rutan is another one who seems to understand her character, but she seemed just a bit miscast: Rutan was earnest and devoted like Desdemona, but I think of Desdemona as more dutiful, dependent and bewildered than she came across here: Rutan is a bit too tall, too not-young, too instinctively feisty for the role of a doomed ingeniue.

All this talk about "understanding the character" and "ensemble" suggests a powerful driving force--the director. I know next to nothing about directing per se, but everything about this suggets a strong and assured directorial hand. The possessor would be Lisan Peterson who, I see by the program, is new this year: perhaps Ashland is at last on its way to putting that old afraid-of-Shakespeare stuff into the rear view mirror.

Nothing Lasts Forever: Ringtones

Longtime Underbelly loyalists will recall our affection for that great staple of the American industrial behemoth, the telephone ringtone. But apparently nothing lasts forever. Here, the folks at TheDeal.Com consider how Steve Jobs is once again driving and defining the entertainment biz (link):

Take, for example, two of the more important drivers in the industry's brave new world: ringtones and social networks. Apple's iPhone stands poised to upend both models.

In a recent conversation with an entertainment lawyer, I remarked what a surprisingly large source of income ringtones has become: $4 billion, $6 billion, $9 billion each year, depending on whose figures you trust.

The lawyer scoffed. Limited shelf life, he responded, no future. Then he added:

"You have the new iPhone, right?"

I nervously fidgeted my Motorola before admitting I wasn't one of the
cool kids.

With the iPhone, he patiently explained, it's easy to convert any MP3 into a ringtone. "Talk to any 15-year-old," he advised. I did, well, at least, indirectly. It's happening, I was told. Sure enough, the Web's full of advice on free - and perfectly legal - ringtone creation, using iTunes and the iPhone.

Ringtones, we hardly knew ye. The p oint about "social networking," BTW is that the iPhone has broken the barrier between the telephone and the on-line sharing operations. As one who just this month got a Facebook monicker, I suspect this one is way above my paygrade. But it's not about me, anyway.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Ten-Minute Rawls

Here's about as good a brief summary of John Rawls as you're likely to find (link--and H/T Arts & Letters Daily). I have to confess I have never understood all the fuss about Rawls; he seems to me to have been a thoroughly nice man (I met him once or twice) who spent his life reassuring cosseted Harvard kids that their life of privilege was part of the Great Scheme of Things. But the idea that someday he'll be just another Herbert Spencer--ooh, that's cruel.

Not a Succedaneum ...

Larry reads the obits again (link), Today's subject is Laurence Urdang, dictionaryologist, who died Thursday at 81:
In 1972 he compiled The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words. It was a book that was not supposed to be a comprehensive work, just an enjoyable one for word enthusiasts. Or as Mr. Urdang put it himself in the introduction:
“This is not a succedaneum for satisfying the nympholepsy of nullifidians. Rather it is hoped that the haecceity of this enchiridion of arcane and recondite sesquipedalian items will appeal to the oniomania of an eximious Gemeinschaft whose legerity and sophrosyne, whose Sprachgefühl and orexis will find more than fugacious fulfillment among its felicific pages.”
Afterthought: don't recall that I ever saw the NYT dictionary, his work sounds like a mirror of the work of this guy.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sister Miriam's Great Shakespeare Book

Well hey--here's a reprint of a book that probably couldn't be written by any person alive. Which is why it is so good to see that it is back in print: it is also one of the best, most enjoyable, and most instructive pieces of Shakespeare criticism you could want to read.

That would be Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language by a woman with the formidable handle of Sister Miriam Joseph Rauh, C.S.C., first published in 1947 and republished by Paul Dry Books, Inc., in 2005 (I'm slow to get the word). Sister Miriam is perhaps a tiny bit better known as the author of The Trivium (republished by Paul Dry in 2002) which is just what you might guess--an introduction to the Medieval learning impounded in "grammar, rhetoric and logic." Antique or arcane as it may appear, this venerable enterprise enjoys a certain cachet with some home-schoolers and other devotees of "traditional education."

The Shakespeare book is, in a sense, what you might expect from a person so learned in the grand tradition: it is a study of Shakespeare the artist as one who employs rhetorical devices--she counts some 200 of them, recognized in Renaissance studies, and at least one (see p. 62) that the commentators seem to have missed. She offers an introduction and analysis, but most of it is a catalog (with commentary) of examples, disclosing how the forms help to reveal the (as she calls it) "extraordinary power, vitality and richness of Shakespeare's language" (3).

You could be excused for assuming that to read such a catalog would be about as much fun as a root canal: excused, but you'd be wrong. In fact, it is a delight. In fact every page, every example, helps to elucidate the subtlety and flexibility of Shakespeare's art (not to mention the analyticsl invisiveness of the cataloguer). With her help, you get to see not just the range of devices available to the playwright, but the skill and forethought with which he deploys them.

And you get to see something almost as extraordinary when you reflect on Sister Miriam's own approach to her subject. She's a grammarian; yet surprisingly, she is the very oppposite of a pedant. Indeed one of the compelling allures of her book is her conviction that Shakespeare owes his effectiveness as much to his skill at breaking (or at least bending) the rules as at keeping them. "He uses every resource of language and imagination," she says,
to give life, movement and piquancy to his richly laden thought. Since the schemes of grammar owe much of their attractiveness to the very nearness of their approach toi error, he liks to teeter on the brink of solecism and like a tight-rope walker or an acrobatic dancer to display in precariousness of balance such sureness, poise, agililty, and consumate skill as to awaken tense admiration in the prosaic onlooker with two feet squarely on the ground. And all of this he does within the scope of an approved tradition ...

--Sister Miriam Joseph, Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language 97 (2005)
A book like this can prove surprisingly difficult to excerpt, because it is the sheer massiveness of its presentation that partly makes its point. Let me see if I can try by excerpting about half a page (with particular rhetorical terms rendered by me in boldface):

The omission of conjunctions between words, called brachylogia, emphasizes the grief and sense of loss felt by Paris and Capulet on discovering Juliet dead:
Paris. Beguil'd, divorced, wronged, spited, slain! ...
Capulet. Despis'd, distressed, hated, marty'rd, kill'd!
(R&J, 4.5, 55, 59)
It contributes an effect of piled-up derision to Enobarbus' description of Lepidus:
Hoo! hearts, tongues, figures, scribes, bards, poets, cannot
Think, speak, cast, write, sing, number--hoo!--
His love to Antony. (A&C, 3.2. 16)
Ariel's spirit-quality, and his swift and ready obedience to Prospero are enhanced by his use of asyndeton, omitting conjunctions between clauses.
All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail! I come
To answer thy best pleasure; be't to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On curl'd clouds. (Tem. 1.2. 189).
In contrast is the measured deliberateness of polysyndeton, the use of a conjunction between each clause.
'Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves,
Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm,
Or sue to you to do a peculiar profit
To your own person (Oth. 3.3.77).
The figure primarily concerned with rhythm is isocolon or parison ...

--Id., at 59

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Uh, This is a Parody, Right?

You say it's not?




Loose thoughts on Biden:
  • C-Span today recycled a Biden appearance at the National Press Club, from a few months back when he was still a candidate for the Presidency. I gotta say, I really do not see why he never got traction. His own story--and the way he told it--would seem to be a campaign manager's dream: hard-working middle-class parents; Catholic schools; strong family values; plus a hilarious story I hadn't heard before about his mother and the nuts-and-bolts cufflinks (--preview it here--I wouldn't be suprised if we hear it from the Convention?). And while the McCains are busy tut-tutting Obama as having rejected Hillary because she didn't agree with him--seems to me the charge would be just as true (or truer) about Biden. In the Press Club speech, Biden made it clear that he thought Obama's approach to foreign policy leadership was naive, vulnerable to rookie error. He's dead on there, and I'm delighted that Obama will have so seasoned and savvay a player at his elbow.
  • Glen Greenwald has a fascinatingly ambivalent piece up in which he quarrels with Biden's record (mostly a fair cop), yet in the end concedes that Biden was a pretty good pick-- "there were far worse possibilities, and few better ones." Indeed, Greenwald goes so far as to point out that Biden's (pretty tepid) record of opposition to the administration on civil liberties issues is in some ways better than Obama's. But I think what bugs Greenwald most is not Biden's record per se as the warmth with which he is being received by the Washington establishment--David Ignatius (eeuew!), David Brooks (gack!), Fred Hiatt (oh, gag me with a spoon!) --in an update, Andrew Bacevich puts the point even better. It's a worthwhile point, but it confronts us with a conundrum: there is a Washington establishment--a "permanent government," if you will--and no president is going to make it to first base unless he comes to terms with them (a small voice whispers "Jimmy Carter," here, and "Richard Nixon"). Obama is not part of it; Biden (even though he goes home every night) pretty much is. Can Biden help Obama to cope with these guys, without being swallowed up by them? The future, as the editorial writers like to say, lies ahead.
  • Monica Langley's Wall Street Journal piece is wonderful inside baseball, but it highlights (implicitly) an important point: Biden really wanted this. He wasn't just waiting around to be Secretary of State. He worked all the angles and cheerfully tramped on the faces of a couple of competitors to get where he is today. Apparently the vice-presidency is not seen as a dead-end job any more.
  • For a weird and wonderful West Wing angle, go here.
  • Am I more pumped about Biden than I was/am about Obama? Actually, that just might be the case.
Update: Here's another--others have made the point, but Charlie Cook puts it well.

Stan is Just as Right as Tyler

Stan Collander showcases a Tyler Cowen NYT piece which Stan says is "brilliant" and "so right it hurts." It is a good piece, but Stan himself nails the main point at least as well as the source:
[B]uying a home isn't the American dream; making a great deal of money from selling a home is what most people really want. The homeowner anger is not because they will be living on the street; it's because they won't earn the same profits they saw others make.

Couple with this what has become an almost undeniable entitlement mentality, that is, the very clear sentiment that a homeowner somehow is entitled to having their home appreciate by ridiculous amounts and that someone else is to blame when that doesn't happen, and it's not hard to see why the policy choices have all turned to bailouts. No one is suggesting, for example, that the government build more rental housing or provide Katrina-like trailers for homeowners who lose their homes. Instead, it's all about finding ways for them to stay in their home that they can't afford.

Aside from the NY Times, I've been giving some time today to Benjamin Friedman's Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (2005), where the takeaway point can be expressed, roughly, as:growing economies become more constructive and more tolerant; stagnating economies, more cautious and guarded; shrinking economies, downright ugly. Just sayin', that's all.

Fn.: Friedman is also in today's NYT--link.

Brad and the Badass

A link from DeLong carries me to The 9 Most Badass Bible Verses, which is great reading for 11:24 on a Sunday morning but even better is the list of choice Diggs--I'm not tech savvay enough to link it directly, but scroll down and watch for the red Digg header in the right-hand side, incljuding, inter alia, "The 6 Most Depressing Happy Endings in Movie History."

Fn: Looks like Brad's kid picked Reed. Good choice.

So That's Our Problem

We're not poor enough:
[T]his poor young man experienced that desperate poverty which is a kind of melting-pot whence great talents emerge pure and incorruptible, just as diamonds can be subjected to any kind of shock without breaking. In the violence of their unleashed passions, they acquire the most unshakeable honesty, and by dint of the constant labour with which they have contained their balked appetites, they becomde used to the struggles which arre the lot of genius. ... He wore his poverty with that gaiety which is perhaps one of the greatest elements of courage, and like all those who have nothing, he contracted few debs. Sober as a camel, brisk as a stag, he was unwavering both in his principles and in his behaviour.

--Honoré de Balzac, "The Athiest's Mass," in
Selected Short Stories 217-234, 221 (Sylvia Raphael trans., Penguin Books 1977)

"He" is Dr. Horace Bianchon, first encountered by most readers of Balzac as one of the residents of (as B says) "a miserable boarding-housse in the Latin Quarter, known by the name of La Maison Vaquer"--i.e., center-stage for what is perhaps Balzac's best-known novel, Le Père Goriot.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Gravity of the Crime

Half-ton woman indicted in slaying of nephew, 2

EDINBURG, Texas (AP) -- Prosecutors are trying to decide how to jail and bring to court a nearly half-ton, bedridden woman accused of killing her 2-year-old nephew.

A grand jury indicted Mayra Lizbeth Rosales, 27, on Thursday on one count of first-degree murder and on one count of injury to a child in the death of Eliseo Gonzalez Jr. She previously had been charged with capital murder.

Rosales weighs nearly 1,000 pounds and cannot fit through a door to leave her home, leaving prosecutors wondering how to bring her to court. As of Thursday evening, she was not in custody.

Link. "So," muses John Not-Edwards, "she's a flight risk?"

Must-read of the Weekend

Skip the Biden stuff, it'll keep and you can pretty much guess it all anyway. Take the time to savor David Maraniss' fine WP piece on Barack Obama's youth in Hawaii.

Update: There's also a bio of Obama's still-surviving white grandmother here.

Update II: Oh, and here's the half brother back in Kenya.

File This Somewhere Near "Carbon Footprint"

Virtual water.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Okay by Me

Sure, he's a chatterbox, but you listen to him and he's informed; he's balanced and he's on the side of the angels. And yes, I know he voted for the war; that's history. I guess my only regret is that I was kind of hoping he might be secretary of state.

Following the Money on the Santa Fe Plaza

Final note on Santa Fe: the hawkers of Indian tschatschkes jewelry under the arcade along West Palace Avenue at the north side of the plaza--who gets to trade there? It looks like "public" space, so I don't suppose it is a straight rental. Does the city charge rent? Is there a lottery? Do you have to know the mayor's brother-in-law? Or is it just some guy with a 17-inch-neck? The one thing I can say for sure is that there isn't enough to go around, and one way or another, it can't be free. But how, exactly?

Falstaff and Shared Secrets

An insight came home to me with force the other night as I was watching Verdi's Falstaff at Santa Fe. Here I was in a crowd of hundreds--thousands?--of opera lovers, mostly solvent, some pig rich (with a few music lovers to season the mix). Anyway, these are people who know to handwrite their thank-you notes, and when to use the oyster fork.

So here we are all together on a balmy summer evening, watching the machinations of (as I said before) a "vain, greedy, lecherous, old fool." It was, as I wrote in an earlier post, something of a mixed bag, but the main line--Falstaff's character--is clear enough.

And the thing is: everybody got it. Whenever Falstaff did something particularly mean or lewd or otherwise egregious, everybody laughed, or at least "chuckled"--at any rate, everybody gave some hint of recognition.

And that's the point: these are not hicks or yokels or in any absolute sense; by any conventional standard, they are housebroken. Yet every one of them greeted Falstaff with a glow of recognition.

And that brings us to the insight. It's from Amos Oz, more specifically from his grandfather, his mother's mother, who must have been one of the kindest men ever. it was grandpa who said (but I quote from memory) that everybody has the same secrets. I think grandpa meant it as an act of compassion, or at least an identification--I think of Goethe saying he didn't know of any crime he couldn't imagine himself committing. Sure seemed like it in Santa Fe to me. Everybody has the same secrets, and they lay out big stacks of Andrew Jacksons to share the recognition.


" ...PTCRHMHIOD, or Post Traumatic Can't Remember How Many Houses I Own Disorder..."

Update: The ever-dependable Glenn Greenwald explains why McCain is such a good pal of John Kerry's.

How to Judge a Restaurant

Mrs. Buce nailed it: the secret is in the bread. We'd just stepped into the SantaCafe in Santa Fe. Nice environment, actually--very good imitation of a Mediterranean cloister, with all-weather seating. But Mrs. B. muttered: if they pile the bread that high on the sandwich, it means the customer isn't interested in the food.

Sure enough, that was all you needed to know. Enticing menu with a suggestive range of Asian/Latina recipes. Cooking good enough. But they skimped on the ingredients: the chicken "confit" in the taco tasted a bit too much like the stuff we got in the army, where "confit" (if they used the word at all) would mean "overboiled." The ceviche tasted like it had been on the truck a few hours too long. In sum: much better to look at and read about than to eat.

Nice wines, though: we drank a Pinot and Syrah, both Italian Australian (!!) and both worth the price.

Fn: I read one review which describes the space as "zen." Japanese/Italian fusion architecture, to match the Asian/Latina on the menu?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Santa Fe Opera Notes

Back from Santa Fe; we caught three shows in three days: Marriage of Figaro; Falstaff; and (Handel's) Radamisto. We missed Billy Budd which, if you believe the lobby chatter, may be the hit of the season: surprising to me because I have sometimes suspected that I am the only person on the planet who actually likes Billy Budd. Evidently I need to get out more.

It's no disrespect to Santa Fe to say that Figaro is an opera that's hard to screw up: there is so much glorious invention here, and so much affability, and so much cheerful comedy, that something will survive even the limpest efforts. Indeed when you stop and think about it, the plot is pretty shambolic; tighter editing could have wound it all up in the third act. But there is so much to enjoy here that you forget all about that looseness as you kick back. In any event Santa Fe wasn't limp at all; it was buoyant and energetic altogether a delightful way to spend an evening. But who would have thought that you could have a Figaro carried by Count Almaviva? He's the villain of course, but a somewhat austere and off-putting villain, not one possessed of the malign magnetism of a Scarpio or an Iago. Mariusz Kwiecien (who? Oh, that guy.) brings it off: he's aggressive and dynamic and at home with himself--so much so that you forget that his character is mostly a rat.

I guess that Falstaff has long been a kind of favorite of mine, perhaps because it was the first opera I ever saw, back when I was 17, long before I had the least notion what it or any other opera was about. There's just an amazing amount of musical material here, almost as if Verdi, closing in on 80, felt he had to dump everything left in the trunk. In this light, people speak of Falstaff as a kind of valediction: a summing up, replete with mellow wisdom. But there is a problem here: strip off all the filigree, and you have to concede that Falstaff is one long, unkind--read "nasty"-- practical joke. It seems to me this is an issue with any production of Falstaff but for some reason, it seemed to come across more clearly in Santa Fe's setting than I've ever seen it before. It might be Falstaff himself: he is a vain, greedy, lecherous, old fool, of course, but in this production he's also a bit ridiculous: a more constrained putdown would seem a lot more appropriate than an extended and mean-spirited prank. And it might be the production: I remember seeing a Falstaff at the NYC Opera a few years back (I can't remember any names) which somehow sussed bits of darkness and melancholy behind the plot--altogether richer and more convincing.

I'm a big Handel fan, and I had never seen Radamisto before. On the whole, you'd have to say it was time well spent: great performance by David Daniels (the marquee name on this summer's Santa Fe card) with a good supporting cast. But Luca Pisaroni as the villain may have stolen the show. Remarkably: Pisaroni had played Figaro just two nights before: he was a good Figaro and he had a good comic sense, but he has perhaps a bit too much natural dignity for a role that almost requires Phil Silvers. In a posture of villainy, Handel gave him every opportunity to strut his stuff, and he rose to the occasion.

Opera insiders, by the way, seem to be treating this Radamisto as a showcase for the director, David Alden, "known" as Wiki says "for his post-modernist settings" (link). Well, whatever. Handel does present a challenge to the director, and the tendency today seems to be to declare tht all bets are off: nothing is too lurid, too excessive, too campy too--oh, go ahead and say it--to operatic for a Handel production. I guess you'd have to say that it didn't get in the way.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Biographies, Heavy and Otherwise

I see there is a new biography of Raymond Williams, the British critic (link). This is volume I; it stops somewhere short of his 40th birthday. I am an admirer of Raymond Williams (at least what he wrote before the critical wheels fell off) but--another volume? The only defense for this sort of thing is that everybody does it. Blame it on Boswell: since he initiated the genre with his Life of Johnson, any biographer has felt privileged, if he likes to write a life of his subject as long as the life itself.

It need not be so. There are counter-examples, and I wonder in particular if there has ever been a more effective short biography than Felix Markham on Napoleon? In 252 pages (not counting support material), Markham wraps up what may have been the busiest, most eventful career in modern history--and does it in a manner not only briskly readable, but to all appearances well-informed and critically detached. And he doesn't seem to strain: he finds time to tell us where and when Napoleon saw his first performance of Don Giovanni; he tells us how the Russian general Kutusov rebuked an underling for making light of his great adversary, and he records the spare, chilling log entry on the death of Lord Nelson (see infra). Oh, and he includes a final chapter (12 pages) on "The Napoleon Legend."

My copy is a Mentor paperback that dates from 1966 (and it seems to be still in print, with the same cover (link)); the original appears to date to 1963. For a sample of here is Markham discussing Napoleon's relationship with his family:
If they lacked Napoleon's ability, they were liberally endowed with individuality, self-will, and ambition; and they were seldom over-awed by their illustrious brother Their grumblings, their sulks, and their demands so exasperated Napoleon that he complained 'From the way they talk, one would think that I had mismanaged our father's inheritance.' It is true that Joseph, made first King of Naples and then of Spain, Louis, King of Holland, and Jerome, King of Westphalia, were put in an impossible position wjhen they found they were epected to obey orders like Napoleon's Prefects; but it cannot be said that they deserved their positions on their merits.

--Felix Markham, Napoleon 144 (1966)
Markham is distinctive, but probably not unique--not quite as good, but certainly in the same league--would be Duff Cooper's biography of Talleyrand (link). If Napoleon's is the busiest life in modern history, then Talleyrand might well be second. Ironic that Napoleon and Talleyrand together wind up witn not many more pages than Raymond Williams.

And come to think of it, throw in A.J.P. Taylor on Bismark (link) and you still aren't up to the girth of Boswell's Johnson. I don't to get carried away here: I cherish every word of Boswell's Johnson, but I do remember what Johnson himself said of Milton's Paradise Lost: "None ever wished it longer than it is" (link).

Oh, and on the death of Nelson. from the log of his flagship, the Victory, on the Battle of Trafalgar:
Partial firing continued until 4.30, when a victory having been reported to the Rt. Hon. Lord Viscount Nelson, K.B., he died of his wound.
So Markham at 116.

Maybe We Could Get Her to Say She's a Muslim

Cindy McCain's half sister emerges
to put down 'only child' claim

(link). Thanks, Joel.

Not Until You Take Off the Rodeo Clown Suit

Idle thought from a park bench in Santa Fe's central square. A lot of women around here who were haute couture cowboy hats, along with their snap-fastener cowboy shirts. I wonder, do they wear the hats when they are like, you know, riding the range, heh heh? A little hiyo silver along with the whoopee? I rather suspect so. Not that that's a bad thing.

Oh,and speaking of snap fasteners, Joel forwards this.

What You Learn If You Get Your History
From The History Channel

We're in Santa Fe for a bit of opera. More on that anon, but meanwhile, this just in on the death of the British Raj:
You know why the British lost India? Because Churchill hated Gandhi. And the Indians said: "well, if you don't like us, then we don't like you too much either." And so they left.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Non Amo Te

I certainly knew the verse before; did not know it had a clasical antecedent:
I do not love thee, Dr. Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell,
But this I know, I know it well,
I do not love thee, Dr. Fell.
Apparently there is some venerable folklore here. It is said to concern Dr. John Fell (1624-1686), an emphatically non-folkloric Oxford University figure. It is said that Fell summoned an offending undergraduate in order to expel him. Fell offered to set aside the punishment if the student could gtranslate an epigram of Martial. The translation is above. Here is the epigram:
Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare;
hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te.
--Marital, Epigrammata I.32

Of course it is said that the unloved Fell relented and let the student stay. Both of them thereupon retreated to the obscurity from whence they arose. Believe it if you like, but you should know that the student's name is recorded as "Thomas Brown," which is grounds for suspicion as far as I'm concerned.

Sources: I find this in Gavin Betts and Daniel Franklin, Beginning Latin Poetry Reader at 119 (2007)

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Hero for Their Time

I'm not sure you can make much out of it, but has anyone noticed that Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero for Our Time, perhaps the first great Russian novel, takes place on ground zero of the current uproar? "I was travelling post from Tiflis," the novel begins.
The only luggage I had on my cart was one small portmanteau half-filled with travel notes on Georgia. ... The sun was already beginning to hide behind the snowy mountain tops when I entered the valley of Koyshaur. Roaring songs at the top of his voice, the Ossete driver relentlessly urged on his horses so as to reach the top of Koyshaur by nightfall. Wht a glorious place that valley is! Inaccessible mountains on all sides, red-hued cliffs hung with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane-treesm yellow precipices streaked with rivulets; high up above lies the golden fringe of the snow, while below the silver thread of the Aragva--linked with some nameless torrent that roars out of a black mist-filled gorge--stretches glistening like a scaly snake.

We reached the foot of Koyshaur and halted by the inn. A score of Georgians and hillmen swarmed noisily around the place--a camel caravan had halted ner by for the night. I had to hire some bullocks to pull my cart up this confounded mountsin, since it was already autumn and there was ice on the roads, and the climb some two miles long.

There was nothing else for it, so I hired six bullocks and a few Ossetes.
--Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero for Our Time 21
(Paul Foot trans., Penguin 1966)

Comment: I can't seem to pin down "Koyshaur," but we have to be pretty close to ground zero. We know that Lermontov was exiled--twice--to the Caucasus, dying in a duel at Piatigorsk, just north of the Georgian border, in 1841.

Book Fair: Kurp on Thoreau

I’ve never met Patrick Kurp, but I think I’ve gotten to know him over the past couple of years through my regular reading of his weblog, Anecdotal Evidence. You could say that AE is a “literary” blog, but this term is imprecise. Patrick is strong on poetry, particularly modern poetry, but he reads widely; and he is especially strong on the nature and possibility of literature, on what it means to lead a literary life. I am delighted to have Patrick here today as a contributor to the Underbelly summer Book Fair

The Journals of Henry David Thoreau was published in 14 volumes by Houghton Mifflin in 1906, 44 years after the author’s death at age 44. A century later you can still find that first edition in university libraries and discriminating book shops, where its heft and stolidity lend it a misleadingly stuffy, off-putting appearance. Its contents, more than Walden or “On Civil Disobedience,” are the essential Thoreau -- flinty, funny, closely observed, beautifully written. What Whitman said of Leaves of Grass may be said with greater justice of the Journals: "This is no book, / Who touches this touches a man." The first entry, written when Thoreau was 20 and newly graduated from Harvard, is dated Oct. 22, 1837:

“`What are you doing now?’ he asked. `Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry to-day.

“He” is Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor, neighbor, rival and landlord. One of many ways to read the Journals is as Thoreau’s prolonged wrestling match with Emerson, his senior by 14 years. Thoreau starts, like his friend, as a good transcendentalist, an heir of the English Romantics and German idealism. Emerson was merely the catalyst; Thoreau, the unprecedented American compound. Read him with precursors and historical context in mind, but mostly read him as a word-generating wonder of nature. His published Journals total more than 2 million words, a bottomless tonic for readers weary of postmodernism. At the bottom of the year, on Dec. 26, 1854, he writes:

I went to walk in the woods with R. It was wonderfully warm and pleasant, and the cockerels crowed just as in a spring day at home. I felt the winter breaking up in me, and if I had been at home I should have tried to write poetry.

A week and a half later, on Jan. 7, 1855, he notes:

The delicious, soft, spring-suggesting air, -- how it fills my veins with life! Life becomes again credible to me.

Thoreau is read as a naturalist, folksy philosopher, proto-environmentalist, anarchist, cranky Yankee and abolitionist. All are true but incomplete. What unifies them is Thoreau the writer. In the Journals you witness his evolution from callow romantic poseur to a prose artist of the first rank. Readers of the Journals tend either to favor the earlier, self-consciously “philosophical” years, or the later, more densely scientific passages. I’m a partisan of the latter, though the demarcation is never absolute. His best biographer, Robert D. Richardson, has called the Journals “a vast accumulation of fact and observation across which Thoreau could strike a line of purpose at any time.” They are the American volume to take to that bookless desert island, and Thoreau is the master of American prose, his only rivals being Lincoln and Henry James. Here, chosen at random (Sept. 25, 1851), is a sample:

Some men are excited by the smell of burning powder, but I thought in my dream last night how much saner to be excited by the smell of new bread.

Afterthought: For those not ready to tackle the 14-volume Houghton Mifflin edition, there is a crisply-edited one-volume Penguin edition of the journal from 1851 (link). Again, all the Book Fair posts here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Book Fair: Rossetti on Mankell

Sally Rossetti has known me all my life, but I haven’t known her all of hers: she’s my big sister, and was four years old when they brought me home (history does not disclose her response to the event, and it is just as well). Sally reads a lot more mysteries than I do, and I she has put me onto some good stuff I never would have found on my own. Here she joins the Underbelly summer Book Fair, with a good word for one of her favorite mystery collections:

A few years ago one of the Sunday supplements ran a piece recommending recently translated mysteries written by already established foreign authors. The name Henning Mankell caught my eye as he is Swedish, and I have Swedish roots. None of my reader friends had ever heard of Mankell then, but I went ahead and invested in one of his books: no library had them yet!! The hero, detective Kurt Wallander, is a complex, intriguing and brilliant man. Mankell just tantalizes his readers. Tell us more about what makes Wallander tick! I began with The Dogs of Riga , found it the most interesting of all the books, although I would suggest starting with the first in the series, Faceless Killers. Faceless Killers supplies the details about “who and why” that are supposedly known by readers in all the following stories.. (For instance Wallender’s artist Father,is a most memorable character. He paints the same picture over and over again. There are also recurring characters in most of the books)). All of the stories are pretty grim with layered intricate plots. There are wonderful descriptions of the southern Swedish countryside near Ystad mostly of course in bleak cold weather. Firewall is a challenge, unless the reader is computer educated that one might be almost beyond understanding, but all the others in the series are page turners. There are 12 , Wallender is the main character in most of them, but if not he is connected in some way. Start with Faceless Killers, and in the fall of 2008 you can read the final one in the series titled The Pyramid.

Afterthought: Wiki reports that Mankell is married to the daughter of Ingmar Bergman, the movie maker, and that he is a former Maoist. His grandfather, another Henning Mankell, was a composer of piano works. Recall that all the Book Fair posts here.

Japanese Movie Notes

The crowd at Chez Buce has been watching some Japanese classics lately--Mrs. B just got Netflix. Puts us in a kind of a time warp: for whatever reason, neither one of us saw much of this stuff first time around. OTOH, it does come freighted with a lairs of advance billing (retrospective advance billing?) that is tough to get past--but then, so does Shakespeare.
  • Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff just might be the best movie ever made--give me a couple of years and I'll get back to you on that--but it certainly is a very good one, well worth the watching, and almost certainly worth watching again. I gather that the same director's Ugetsu might be even better; haven't seen it yet, but it's in the queue.
  • Films of Yasujiro Ozu take some getting used to, but they're worth it. I didn't really get A Story of Floating Weeds, although I liked it well enough. Tokyo Story proved a lot more accessible, and made Floating Weeds more intelligible in retrospect. I'm still on the fence, though, about all those from-the-ground-up angle shots. Can't Ozu afford a tripod?
  • Of course I "knew about" Kurosawa--I remember piling into a theatre with a bunch of (other) young people to watch Rashomon so many years ago (and not paying much attention). More recentlyI saw Ran in a weirdly inappropriate little concrete-block box that passes in Palookaville as an art house. I guess I hadn't caught up with the fact that the fashionable people stick up their nose at him--all show and glitz, they seem to say, and just maybe, got forbid, packaged for the western audience.
A look at Hidden Fortress gives you some clue as to why he has this rep, and as to why it is undeserved. It's a semi-comic adventure/road/caper movie: Harold and Kumar chase after Japanese gold. Some of the photography is gorgeous (he recreates old black-and-white comic books which, to my mind, is no bad thing). The music keeps reminding you (somewhat obtrusively) that none of this is really serious. It comes packaged with an endorsement by, and a blurb interview with, George Lucas, which may or may not enhance its street cred. But the fact is it's a compulsively watchable, mostly good-natured and entertaining, way to spend an evening. Random note: any film-maker who influenced so many other film-makers must have something going for him, not so?
Surprisisng-to-me Afterthought:If there is a common theme that runs through all this work, it is one of compassion--not necessarily the first stereotype that leaps to mind when you think of the nation that so brutally conquered China. But that may be the point. Especially in Mizoguchi, but also in the other two, you get a consistent message: the world's a nasty place, and precisely for this reason, it small acts of kindness, courtesy, respect, that offer whatever solace we may be able to extract. Not a bad text with which to start the week. Note to self, go check and see what else Netflix has on offer.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Been Wondering About This...

Miochael Bronner is the first guy I've noticed who responds to something I've been wondering about re Georgia and Russia (link). He forecasts
an increase in the longstanding, rampant criminality in the conflict zones that is likely to further destabilize the entire Caucasus region and at worst provide terrorist groups with the nuclear material they have long craved.

While the Russian “peacekeepers” who entrenched themselves in the conflict zones in the 1990s (and who will now likely resume their posts anew) have proved ineffectual and uninterested in maintaining stability, they’ve been highly successful in protecting an array of sophisticated criminal networks stretching from Russia through Georgian territory. South Ossetia, in particular, is a nest of organized crime. It is a marketplace for a variety of contraband, from fuel to cigarettes, wheat flour, hard drugs, weapons, people and, recently, counterfeit United States $100 bills “minted” at a press inside the conflict zone.

Sounds right to me. This has always been a refractory little corner of the world (but aren't they all?). The interesting thing is that the Moscow brass doesn't seem to care, or to notice that they may be in the same world.

Book Fair: Rapoport on Goldman/Morgenstern

My friend Nancy Rapoport, attempting to raise the tone of the Underbelly summer Book Fair, recommends: William Goldman, The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure (25th anniv. ed. 1998). The Amazon blurb says in part:
The Princess Bride is a true fantasy classic. William Goldman describes it as a "good parts version" of "S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure." Morgenstern's original was filled with details of Florinese history, court etiquette, and Mrs. Morgenstern's mostly complimentary views of the text. Much admired by academics, the "Classic Tale" nonetheless obscured what Mr. Goldman feels is a story that has everything: "Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles."
Nancy is a busy blogger in her own right (link). Again, recall that for your convenience, we will be collecting all the Book Fair posts here.

Bitten Off by a Wooden Pit Bull

Nobody beats BoingBoing at finding weird: (link).

Friday, August 15, 2008

Moral Clarity, Please

It's a bit unnerving to see the likes of Matt Yglesias (link, link) and TPM (link) go all squiggly giggly about Russian bullying in Georgia. Yes, the Georgians have bullied their little neighbors too (very likely, although the facts are not in, with our encouragement, and at least with our fatal lack of prudence and foresight). A moment's reflection will show that there are a zillion things the Russians could have done to help their little friends the Ossetians and the Abkhazian, had that been their purpose. But helping little friends is not high on the Russian agenda: showing the Georgians who is boss surely is on the agenda, not to mention making it clear to us who controls Caucasian oil flows. For starters, would it have been such a big deal to say, "look, there's a problem here, and our peacemakers are not the ones to solve it. Help us to put together an international force to secure community integrity of these minority peoples." Charging in with tanks and aircraft certainly makes a point, and I suspect it is almost exactly the point that the Russians wanted to make.

It is good fun, however, to see the uber-hawk Charles Krauthammer reduced to sputtering that we'd better revoke the Russian's library card.

For a fun exercise in just how complicated these things can be--or for a nice abstract wall-hanging, to occupy that bit of dead space in the dining room--check out this ethnic map of the neighborhood. Adygeys, Lezgins and Balkars remain to be heard from.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Report from the Cultural Frontier

The other day, not entirely of my own free will, I went to a matinee of the new Batman movie. Somewhat to my surprise, the theatre was not (a) empty, nor (b) populated by poor old lost souls like myself. No: there was an impressive array of teens-and-twenties, amply stocked with popcorn and soda. I didn't ask, but I sensed that they had been there before. How else to account for that $63 million first day gross?

Anyway, later that same day, quite by accident I found myself watching a few minutes of As the Wrench Turns, the new PBS cartoon about the car guys, Click 'n' Clack (link).

I guess I'm a hard guy to satisfy. I found the Batman movie pretty much of a yawner; as a diversion I found myself counting explosions, and remembering how much I liked the 1940s comic book version (at least I think I did). But the car guys cartoon--my gawd, it is just breathtakingly, jaw-droppingly gobsmackingly, smug-and-self-satisfied, fingernails-on-the-the-blackboard awful.

Like I say, I suppose I am a hard guy to satisfy, but press the analysis a bit further. Of these two shows, which one has the audience as tiny as Thumbelina's thumb? And which one the size of the moon? And in which audience will you find the most McCain voters? And which--ah, you get my point. Forget about the polls; forget about the betting markets: if the explosives fan club has its way, then the Obama campaign is just totally screwed. It's an updated version of the old insight, "give us NASCAR and you can have the 92d Street Y." Except at least the 92d Street Y can be fun. The Click 'n' Clack cartoon is just awful.

Afterthought: Hey, I don't hate everything. I watch Scrubs reruns. I think Reno 911 is a stitch. I think Natalie Dessay is a hottie. And this may be the sexiest babe on TV (cotton underwear division).


I swear that last week I saw a paper advertising an "assistive living faciliity." Just today, getting set to lecture in a strange classroom, I saw a sign saying that if I didn't find what I want, I should call "assistive services."

Assistive? If two swallows make a summer, I think we have a new word.

And as is so often the case, the question is--why do we need it? "Assistive living" sounds like it is the person who lives who does the assisting. But this is exactly backwards: s/he is the one assisted. So "assistive" definitely puts us back behind the line of scrimmage. It is hard to imagine who would have come up with such a formulation: perhaps the same kind of person who thinks that we should use the word "better" for stuff that is less than "good" (as in "merely better"?).

"Assistive services" is not open to the same objection. It is, I suppose, the assister who does the serving. But wouldn't be enough to say call for "assistance"? Or "service"?

Assistive. Hmph. What's the world coming to, anyway?

Book Fair: FOJ on Winchester (on Needham)

My friend FOJ ventures into a too-little remembered episode of modern Chinese history and comes back with a contribution to the Underbelly summer Book Fair. FOJ's recommendtion is The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester. The "man" of the title is Joseph Needham, author of Science and Civilization in China, itself one of the masterworks history-writing in the 20th Century. Here's FOJ on Winchester on Needham:
This book which is categorized as a biography is actually four books in one and perhaps that is both its strength and its weakness. It is a biography of Joseph Needham, a fascinating guy who lived an unconventional life and lived it very well. Theme 1 is that life.

Theme 2 is a look at China from 1940 until the 1970's. Because the hero is a friend of Chou En Lai the insights are fascinating. Much of what we learn emerges through a series of journeys into parts of China that are not occupied by the Japanese to look at science departments in Chinese universities in areas that were more free of Japanese influences .

Theme 3 is the life of a politically progressive Oxford prof who believed in what Mao and Chou were doing and may have been blinded to certain excesses and the effect that has on him. (For example he was banned from lecturing in the U.S. as a result of his participation on a panel that accused the U.S. of bad acts during the Korean War.)

Theme 4 is perhaps the most exciting and dominant one. Needham spent his life investigating the extraordinary inventions, innovations and discoveries made by the Chinese from about 1000 BC to about 1500 A.D. and translating them to the Western World and making sure we could not ignore them. This helps the reader understand Chinese civilization through the ages. This should be a reminder to us that to disrespect Chinese civilization is a big mistake in many ways.The author lists some of these inventions, discoveries and innovations in an appendix and it is staggering to read them.

Theme 5 is related to theme 1 and is the love life of a person whose love and fascination with China began with his love and fascination for Lu Gwei-djen a young beautiful brilliant Chinese student and who continued that relationship both personally (along with others) and professionally for many many years along with his marriage which predated this meeting by a few years. The threesome seems to have worked out well professionally and personally and when Needham’s wife died after 50 plus years of marriage he married his Chinese Sweetheart and when she died he proposed unsuccessfully to others.

The book is relatively short at 265 pages and perhaps that is the reason that none of these themes (except perhaps theme 5) is so fully developed as the reader might like. Still, this is a wonderful story well told and its lessons both about Chinese civilization and about how much there is undiscovered that we need to know are important stories.
Afterthought: Sounds like five, not four, good buddy, but hey, who's counting? As always, for your convenience, there is a collection of all the Book Fair posts here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Set in a Silver Sea

This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself ...
Against the envy of less happier lands,—
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

William Shakespeare, Richard III
Now this:
Naked workers suspended after crowd witnesses sex in office window

The naked pair could not hear the cheering from the group of dozens of passing workers, taxi drivers, and at least two police community support officers, but continued undeterred.

The staff were from a company called Unity Partnership, which is contracted by Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council to improve public services.

Only when one of the PCSOs took the decision to alert the pair's managers did they stop.

The Telegraph (link)

Thanks, David S.

Boy, I've Sure Wanted To...

... but I'll vote with Lou Whitman (and against Roben Farzad) on this one(link):

It is hard to tell if Roben Farzad is speaking on behalf of investors, customers or employees when suggesting that the parent of United Airlines Inc. should be liquidated. It is harder still to say which of these groups, if any, would benefit from his plan to put the troubled carrier out of its misery.

Without doubt UAL Corp., United's parent, is in a tough situation. The company lost $2.7 billion in the second quarter (including $2.3 billion in charges) on high fuel costs and is engaged in an ugly public dispute with its powerful pilots union, the result of years of ill will between management and employee groups.

But is liquidation the answer? Tough to think that the company's shareholders would think so. Though United does hold coveted landing rights on the Pacific Rim and a powerful hub in Chicago, it is unclear that other airlines, themselves in cash-preservation mode as they deal with the same high fuel costs that plague United, are in a position to engage in a bidding war. It seems uncertain that United would do any better than recouping its $8 billion in long-term debt (minus cash) in a liquidation, leaving little for other parties.

Employees, obviously, would not benefit. But Farzad appears to be advocating for consumers with his plan. "Travelers and the beleaguered air-transport system," he writes, "would be better served by United's creative destruction: Liquidate it and let stronger hands manage the pieces." This too, is debatable. With United's planes flying full (83% of United's seats were filled in the second quarter) other airlines would undoubtably backfill most of United's most popular routes, resulting in little relief to the beleaguered air transport system and from the resulting delays. The liquidiation would likely hurt small communities currently served by United that might find it difficult to pick up new service if current fuel prices remain.

While Farzad is correct to note that Pan Am and Eastern were split up and liquidated, moves he says shows that "industry precedent and business logic almost demand" United take similar steps, he fails to recognize how much worse off those airlines were financially compared to United's current state. UAL, with nearly $3 billion in cash on hand, is in no position to be forced to sell assets.

To be sure, customer service in the U.S. airline industry right now is abysmal. And it is easy to understand why anyone forced to endure delays, cancellations and lost baggage might in their frustration wish an airline would simply go away. But United is not unfixable, and a solution other than liquidation -- though difficult -- is almost certainly a better option for all involved. Even the passengers. - Lou Whiteman

Might Cut Down on Foreign Wars

John Not-Edwards flags this from CNN:
Troops pay baggage fees on way to war zones:

(CNN) -- Some airlines are charging U.S. soldiers extra baggage fees to take their military kits with them as they set off for war.

Some U.S. airlines give military personnel a break on baggage fees, but others levy surcharges.

Military personnel carry large, heavy kit bags containing boots, clothing and gear. In the past few months, airlines have instituted fees for all travelers ranging from $15 for one bag to $250 for a third. ...
CNN treats this as a slander on the airlines, but isn't there a bit of command responsibility here?

John mutters "only in America," but I don't know--I can easily imagine the Russians insisting that their soldiers pay their own freight to Georgia.

Book Fair: Thompson/Gagnon on Doyle, et al.

Marge Thompson, whom I knew as Marge Gagnon, once the pride of Manchester (NH) High School West, now an indefatigable organizer of a 53d-anniversary class reunion, addresses an issue on which I know she feels deeply, in this entry at the Underbelly summer Book Fair.
Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000 Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse by Fr. Thomas Doyle, A.W.R. Sipe and Patrick J. Wall. It demonstrates a deep problem that spans the Church's history. So much has been revealed since the Sexual abuse was brought to light by the The Boston Globe articles February 2002. I could also recommend 4 other books about what has been revealed since 2002.
Comment: this item does indeed appear to be available from standard sources; there is also a preview up at Google Books. Recall that for your convenience, we are still collecting all the Book Fair posts here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Go-to Guy for Georgia

For my money, the go-to-guy on Georgia right now is Mark Kleiman at Reality-Based Community. Start here and work back or (if you are reading this tomorrow) work forward. Everybody else seems to be struggling to get on the right foot here; Kleiman seems to have had it figured out for the start.

Afterthought: Well, I did also enjoy Richard Holbrooke with Margaret Warner on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer--not least his willingness to call Dimitri Simes a liar to his face (link). Here's Holbrook:

The Russians spent two years provoking Russia -- provoking Georgia. Maybe they sucker-punched Georgia; we're not sure. But the timing, the action, the unbelievable brutality of it, reminiscent of Prague '68, Budapest '56, is heartbreaking.

And I want to stress, closing this. I'm not a warmonger, and I don'twant a new Cold War any more than Dimitri does. We've worked togetherin the past. We both share a vision of Russia as an important part of the world, seeking solutions to climate change, energy, and stability.

But this is a chilling effect. The Russians wish to re-establish a historic area of hegemony that includes Ukraine. And it is no accident that the other former Soviet republics are watching this andextraordinarily upset, as Putin progresses with an attempt to re-create a kind of a hegemonic space.

What Would the High School Guidance Counselor Say?

I quoted a bit last night from The Travels of Marco Polo on how the Great Khan chose ladies for his harem. I might well have added a word or two about the situation of the ladies, or girls, or, at any rate, of their families:
It may be asked whether the people of the province do not feel themselves aggrieved in having their daughter thus forcibly taken from them by the sovereign? Certainly not; but, on the contrary, they regard it as a favour and an honour done to them; and those who are the fathers of handsome children feel highly gratified by his condescending to make choice of their daughter. "If," say they, "my daughter is born under an auspicious planet and to good fortune, his majesty can best fulfill her destinies, by matching her so nobly; which it would not be in my power to do." If, on the other hand, the daughter misconducts herself, or any mischance befalls her, by which she becomes disqualified, the father attributes the disappointment to the evil influence of the stars.
--Marco Polo, Travels (link)

Georgia in the Shadow of the KGB

I happened to be reading Steve LeVine's The Oil and the Glory this week, just as the Russia/Georgia war flared up. LeVine's subtitle is The Pursuit of Empire and the Fortune on the Caspian Sea. It's mostly about the last quarter of the 20th Century. It's mainly about the resources claimed by Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, but there are passing references to Georgia, including a brief but pointed discussion of the efforts to put an oil pipeline there. LeVine offers some useful context on the long history of relations between Russia and Georgia. Georgia, he says,
occupied a special place in Russian imperial culture. It was the spectacular playland of the czarist and Soviet aristocracies, who cherished its gorgeous Black Sea beaches and sanatoria, its famous Borjomi water, and itds vineyards, the source of the wrold's first cultured grapes. Georgia was a feast, with exceedingly varied and artfully served vegetarian, lamb, and pork dishes; the country's drinking ritusals were weidely copied, reigned over by a toastmaster called a tamada. (219-20)
It was Edward Shevardnadze, a Georgian, who collaborated with Mikhail Gorbachev in the enteprise of unraveling the old Soviet Union. After the collapse, he returned to take up the presidency in his natal state, bringing with him a seemingly illitable amount of street cred with world leaders.

Per LeVine, the Georgians understood that they faced an urgent challenge: how to define themselves as independent against their much larger neighbor. LeVine credidts a Geoergian civil servant, one Gogi Tsomaya, with hitting upon the idea of an oil pipeline. Although Georgia itself has virtually no oil, its location positioned it uniquely well as a transmission ground. Such a project, Tsomaya is quoted as thinking, made "Georgia interesting to the West." And then LeVine offers this telling anecdote:
Shevardnadze sat in silence for a moment and then shouted, "Get out of here! Do you want the Russiasns to blow me up?" The men scurried back to [another] office, where the phone was ringing. It was Shevardnadze.

"You know what? You keep exploring the issue," said he Georgian leader. "Whenever I need it, we will have it."

His advisers were not certian whether Shevardnadze had actually lost his temper for a moment or was trying to confuse an eavesdropping KGB. (221-2)
Afterthought: Taken as a whole, LeVine's book is a first-class piece of reporting, but it suffers the curse of good journalism--timing. In retrospect, LeVine's Caspian oil race was a brief wrinkle in eternity, between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new assertion of Russian power. No matter what the result of this week's fracas, it is unlikely that an ounce of oil (or natural gas) will move an inch in Central without a Russian say-so.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Apprentice: The Early Episodes

Marco Polo gives an account of how Khubilai Khan restocks his harem:
[Khubilai, "the great Khan"] has many concubines provided for his use, from a province of Tartary named Ungut, the inhabitants of which are distinguished for beauty of features and fairness of complexion. Every second year, or oftener, as it may happen to be his pleasure, the Great Khan sends thither his officers, who collect for him, one hundred, or more, of the handsomest of the young women, according to the estimation of beauty communicated to them in their instructions.

The mode of their appreciation is as follows. Upon the arrival of these commissioners, they give orders for assembling all the young women of the province, and appoint qualified persons to examine them, who, upon careful inspection of each of them separately, that is to say, of the hair, the countenance, the eyebrows, the mouth, the lips, and other features, as well as the symmetry of these with each other, estimates their value at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, or twenty, or more carats, according to the greater or less degree of beauty. The number required by the Great Khan, at the rates, perhaps, of twenty or twenty-one carats, to which their commission was limited, is then selected from the rest, and they are conveyed to his court.

Upon their arrival in his presence, he causes a new examination to be made by a different set of inspectors, and from amongst them a further selection takes place, when thirty or forty are retained for his own chamber at a higher valuation. These are committed separately to the care of certain elderly ladies of the palace, whose duty it is to observe them attentively during the course of the night in order to ascertain that they have not any concealed imperfections, that they sleep tranquilly, do not snore, have sweet breath, and tare free from unpleasant scent in any part of the body. Having undergone this rigorous scrutiny, they are divided into parties of five, and each taking turn for three days and three nights, in his majesty's interior apartment, where they are to perform every service that is required of them, and he does with them as he likes. ...
Source: Marco Polo, Travels, in a modern edition based on the 1818 translation by Edward W. Marsden. This is, or was, the translation used by Everyman's Library and is thus perhaps the one most widely dispersed among English readers. I'm using a moderately spruced up 20th Century version edited with an introduction by one Manuel Komroff, first published by Liveright in 1926 The quoted passage is from pp 125-6 of a 1982 paperback version. Here's a genial review of a more recent reprint.

Did Marco Polo ever actually go to China? The skeptical case is set forth here. Smarter and better informed people than I have no doubt that he did, but I join the skeptics. He didn't attempt to publish until years after the event, at a time when he needed the money (inter alia, he was in jail). He seems to pay a lot of attention to some things while simply ignoring seemingly important items just next door. My guess is that he went part way, and assembled a lot of traveler's tales.