Thursday, April 30, 2009


Great summary bullet points from at Bankruptcy Litigation Blog. I look forward to part II.

Update: Here it is, with lots of good stuff on section 363 sale issues.

Weekend Wiki

Mardon me, Padam... (aka Smoot Hoot)

Mardon me, Padam, but you're occupewing the wrong pie. May I sew you to another sheet?

It's a Spoonerism. I learned it from my mother when I was five years old. Or try "for the breast in bed, buy our baguette," which I did not learn from my mother, though she would have loved it. A language tic. Sometimes a joke, and some people just talk that way.

All by way of saying that I enjoy bashing Michele Bachmann as much as the next guy--and I really do believe she is a few lutefisks short of a smorgasbord--but mocking her for "Hoot-Smalley"--i.e., "Smoot Hawley," the tariff--is really laying it on a bit thick. For one thing, it isn't even original with her:
  • A certain Mark Whittington made the blooper in a book review posted July 17, 2007 (link). It's a review of The Forgotten Man by the notorious Amity Shlaes; I don't have a copy handy so I can't check right now to see whether the error originated with her or him.
That's from the first few pages of the Google search, after which I quit looking.

I must say also, however, that Rep. Bachmann might want to look further into the career of Senator Reed Smoot (R-Utah). He (sic, not Franklin Roosevelt) was indeed the (co) author of a punitive, perhaps nation-destroying tariff. And not just of "stuff." Smoot wanted restrictions on indecent books. As Ogden Nash aid:
Smite, Smoot,
Smite for Ute.
They're smuggling smut
From Balt to Butte.
Now, there's a campaign that Michele Bachmann might want to get behind.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Me and Bea

It was bound to happen once: along about 1990, in a law school class, trying to make a point about domestic relations law, I riffed the line "I gave you the best years of my thighs."

And set off a minor firestorm, but it's not quite what you think. You think I'm saying "I got MauMaued by a bunch of humorless bitches," but it really wasn't like that at all. I said "firestorm," but I could better have said "crossfire." Anyway, the point is that for the next several days, the bulletin board (this was before Web 2.0) overflowed with pitch and catch, slash and grab, duck cover about the (in)appropriateness of what I said--men and women (for whatever it may be worth) on both sides. As I told one of my colleagues at the time, had I known I was going to set off such spirited discussion, I might have done it on purpose.

Eventjually somebody else committed some other outrage and life moved on. What brought it to mind just lately was one particular item from the bulletin board array, offered as if the ultimate game-breaker. That item was (I quote in full): "he got it from the Golden Girls!"

Translated, I take the writer was saying: anything so prepackaged, insipid, anodyne, as a line from a mainstream sitcom is certainly not off limits in a law school classroom.

The writer had his facts right: I did get it from the Golden Girls; I think it was Bea Arthur's Dorothy, which would be why it came back to mind in the week of Bea Arthur's death. It's not as if I was a regular watcher of the Golden Girls: I was not part of its prime demographic, after all. But you didn't have to be a regular watcher to get the drift. The setup was straightforward enough: four not-young women cope with each other and life. But what may have been more important was the content. I suspect the Golden Girls did as much as any one show to regularize the style of sitcom insult comedy.

Oh, sure, there had been insult shows before, not least Dorothy's comedic godfather, Archie Bunker. But these were ladies, after all--and apparently the point worth establishing this coming-out party was that ladies could be just as waspish, rude and dismissive as men.

Oddly enough, Troy Patterson at Slate picks on this most unfortunate characteristic as the pivot point for his nostalgic mash note: Golden Girls," he gushes, "boasted characters who were sharp in their humor and secure in their freedoms, which included the freedom to be mean."

Well, they were mean, all right. And I suppose I should be glad that they felt free to be so (just as an aside, I never much enjoyed Archie Bunker, either). But Patterson unintentionally boots the pins out from under his own argument by recalling what else was on TV in those days: Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, The Cosby Show and Cheers. I think almost any one would agree that every one of those shows offered writing (if not plot or character) that was more original, provocative and durable than what you saw in Golden Girls.

I don't suppose I would get all shirty on this point were I not looking back from the standpoint of 2009. The sad fact is that Golden Girls can be seen in retrospect as a harbinger--a show that had little to offer aside from insult, thus setting the path for a TV smorgasbord where the sitcom table is nothing but a mass-production insult machine.

I certainly don't want to savage Bea Arthur: she was an inimitable talent with a long and memorable career. With Maude and Dorothy, she created unforgettable characters, and changed the way we see ourselves. Too bad she (and, ahem, I guess "I") didn't have better material.

Hitler's Profits

The Slate Explainer undertakes to tell us who gets the swag from the artwork produced by the late A. Hitler, which raises an issue I've been speculating on for quite a while. That is: Hitler before he was Hitler made his living (inter alia) as an extremely marginal smalltime Vienna watercolorist. What did he paint? I assume anything that would pay--which means for a moral certainty that at some point, Hitler must have painted some porn.

Gimme a call when you hear about the discovery of watercolors of some apple-cheeked buffs with "Hitler" inscribed in the corner. No, don't bother to call; I'll hear about it anyway, it will be bigger than Susan Boyle.

What Is It With Tim Geithner?

Fascinating piece up at Baseline Scenario (which has whizzed to the top of my must-read list, but let that be) about Tim Geithner and how with all good faith and good intentions he has climbed into the lap of the moneymen. I suppose it is impudent to suggest that there is another and more pointed name for the phenomenon--"Stockholm Syndrome," where (as Wiki recaptulates) "the tendency might well be the result of employing the strategy evolved by newborn babies to form an emotional attachment to the nearest powerful adult in order to maximize the probability that this adult will enable — at the very least — the survival of the child, if not also prove to be a good parental figure."

I wouldn't for a moment want to suggest that Geithner is playing Patty Hearst to to the bankers' Symbionese Liberation Army. Well-- I'm thinking, I'm thinking...


When people think of Kurt Vonnegut, I suppose they are most likely to think of bombed-out Dresden. Joel thinks of slurpers:
"The Money River, where the wealth of the nation flows. We were born on the banks of it--and so were most of the mediocre people we grew up with, went to private schools with, sailed and played tennis with. We can slurp from that mighty river to our hearts' content. And we even take slurping lessons, so we can slurp more efficiently."

"Slurping lessons?"

"From lawyers! From tax consultants! From customers' men! We're born close enough to the river to drown ourselves and the next ten generations in wealth, simply using dippers and buckets. But we still hire the experts to teach us the use of aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, siphons, bucket brigades, and the Archimedes' screw. And our teachers in turn become rich, and their children become buyers of lessons in slurping."

"I wasn't aware that I slurped."

Eliot was fleetingly heartless, for he was thinking angrily in the abstract. "Born slurpers never are. And they can't imagine what the poor people are talking about when they say hey hear somebody slurping. They don't even know what it means when somebody mentions the Money River. When one of us claims that there is no such thing as the Money River! I think to myself, 'My gosh, but that's a dishonest and tasteless thing to say.'"

--Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Invasion of the Feathered Quackers

Ever since I came here, we've had ducks on and around the creek just south of the Law School. They're mostly a good entertainment, but they are fearless: they will chase you and scold you and peck at you if they don't think you are maintaining standards of propriety.

Lately, they seem to have strayed up at least as far as Second Street (maybe further; Second Street is about as far as I go). They perch on the lawn; the waddle along the sidewalk. I haven't seen them yet with hand cameras or measuring tape, but I wonder if something is up? Do we need a fence?

Manès Sperber: A First Look

Manès Sperber appears to have been a figure of some consequence in his time. Born in the shtetl to face for the horrors of his century, he was variously a Zionist, a communist, a former communist, a psychotherapist, a medium-productive author, and an editor at a prestigious publishing house. But he died in 1984. I know a little about Eastern European historyand I had never heard of him until a couple of years back when I ran into an appreciation by Clive James. I've had a chance now to read the first volume (there are three) of his memoirs, and I think I'll be going back for more. He isn't perhaps as elegant as Gregor von Rezzori, about whom I wrote a while ago, nor Elias Canetti, of whom I have to admit I have read precious little. And while I don't know for certain, I suspect the Sperber novels don't measure up to Joseph Roth or even Stephan Zweig.

But each of us does things in his own way, and Sperber's way seems worth taking seriously. On the current evidence, his prose is mostly straightforward and unadorned; but he seems to have a remarkably clear eye for the workings of the human mind, and he seems to care about getting things right. And aside from elegance, he differs from von Rezzori (still fresh in my mind) in at least one other way: almost alone of the Eastern European literary pantheon, von Rezzori was not Jewish. Sperber is Jewish and thus perhaps inevitably was impelled to engage more closely with the action and passion of his time.

This first volume takes the reader just to the end of World War I, but he spent those years in Vienna enjoying, if that is the right word, one of those childhoods that must have been interesting to look back on, even if not much fun at the time. He was not separated from his family, but his parents were desperately poor and not able to give him much by way of framework or direction. Thus he finds himself footloose, as it were, a semi-streetkid at large in a dying empire. There's a priceless passage in which he faces down a Teutonic bully of a schoolteacher, not so much by malice as just by the accident of being so much more mature and self-sufficient than the poor sap ever suspected.

About the same time that I was reading Sperber, Mr. and Mrs. Buce were enjoying a readaloud of the first volume of Parade's End, the World War I tetralogy by Ford Madox Ford. More about that later. Ford's English soldiers were, of course, embroiled in the awfulness of the Western Front. But the English Home front was just about as isolated from the War as it was possible to be--suspended in time, or in some kind of bubble. A long way from the trenches, and a long way from dying Vienna.

Ref: God's Water Carrier, vol. 1 of All Our Yesterdays

Oh Now Cut That Out

From my Google Reader:
Specter Defects to Democrats

Large Tortoise Turns Up in the Bronx

Two Swallows Make a Summer: Foreign Investment Dept.

I sent my buddy Joel a link to an Economist piece about how the Italian/Canadian superhero is going to save Chrysler (or maybe not). Joel responded by pointing out that the Wall Street Journal has structurally the same story up today about what the auslanders are doing to Anheuser Busch.

Whether this is a trend, or just slack, uncritical journalism--is left as an exercise for the reader.
There once was a lass from Anheueser
Who thought that no man could supreuser,

Till Old Overholt
Gave her virtue a jolt.

And now she is sadder budweuser.
Afterthought: And I bet Old Overholt is still repeating that story to the boys down at the Elks Lodge...

China Patent Factoid

Number of patent applications in China last year: 800,000.

Number in 1985: zero; under Mao, they weren't allowed.


But Who's Counting...

FP Passport is reporting that one fifth of all candidates in India's national election are facing criminal charges.

Wonder how this compares with Illionis where, it is said, 1,000 businessmen and officials, including three governors, have been convicted of corruption since 1970 (link).

Makes me remember my late friend Pete Elliott who used to say that he and Aaron Phelps got the bankruptcy judgeships in Orange County because they were the only two trustees not then under indictment.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

More on Doctors

Guess you can't expect too much from Slate's answer person, but their answer to the question "where have all the doctors gone?" seems pretty thin to me (link). Okay, baby boom doctors are burning out (or rich enough that they can go play golf). And okay we imported a raft of foreign doctors a few years ago. But this is only scratches the surface. Are we still importing doctors? if not, why not? How much "doctor" work are we shifting to nurse practitioners and physician's assistants? Enough? Too much?

And here's a thought: with the collapse of banking, will some of our bright young things begin to rediscover their inner Marcus Welby (or at least J.D. Dorian)? A lot more to be said on this topic, and I'm waiting with watchful eye, or ear.


Greenspun on Doctors

A Second Thought on the Supply of Doctors

Can This Be Right?

Overheard one of my students today saying that with the departure of Arlen Specter, there are no more Jewish Republican Senators (apparently he is not counting Joe Lieberman). And that Eric Cantor is the only Republican Jewish Congressperson. Can this be right?

He also asked a classmate: then why is it that Republicans are much more pro-Israel than Democrats? Are they?

Fn.: I see that Wiki also lists Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, but this looks like a more complicated case.

Update: Yglesias posted a similar item under the headline "The Democrat's Jewish Problem," and set off a thread of Talmudic exegesis.

Afterthought: Along with Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback, Arlen Specter would bring to three the number of Senators born in Kansas. Are there more?

Why Does Katy Couric Hate Me?

Note the previous post--the one that says something about Katy Couric. Can you see a video link? No? How interesting. How odd. I can see it, but one of my faithfulest readers says he can't see it. Following my links, he can't find it at the source, nor at the source's source. I sent him a YouTube link and he says that seems to be blocked.

But not blocked for me. I wonder why? Is this some sort of Mac issue (I'm PC, he's Mac)? Or is Katy just trying to make his life miserable?

Update: Ah, puzzle solved! Turns out that my buddy rents space from a cheapo landlord who figures he saves bandwidth by blocking YouTube. So Katy doesn't hate me after all, cool!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Boy, That Katy Couric

sure is hot:

H/T: Yglesias.

Take That, Brad DeLong

Herbert Spencer (whose birthday we celebrate today) was once featured on a trading card.

H/T: the ubiquitous David Lull.

"I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes..."

I'm wondering-- of the auto workers will be part of the 89 percent government-takeover stake in General Motors--how many of them went tea-bagging in an tee-shirt blasting Obama as a socialist? And of the 48 percent of Americans who think that torture may sometimes be necessary--how many of them ever picketed an abortion clinic?

Ferris Bueller, Felon

Steinwald wants "a comprehensive list of each offense Ferris and his friends commit during the movie 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'. Fifty comments (albeit not 50 crimes) at Metafiler so far but it raises an interesting issue. I've always said that no male reaches the age of 21 without committing at least one Class IV Felony (and violating at least seven of the Ten Commandments?). I still think this is pretty much true, and one reason we don't see more evidence on the point is that we don't prosecute when the felon is a loveable upper-middle-class white guy.

Strike that, did not prosecute. These days, of course, we are far less likely to tolerate that kind of invidious class discrimination (white kid gets a ride home in the cruiser; black kid gets to go to the stony lonesome). And what with a security guard and a metal detector on every corner, just about everybody has, shall we say, pretty much lost his sense of humor.

I admit there are some tough issues here, and I'm not certain that I would know how to sort them out. One thing, re race discrimination, I suspect the answer is not to arrest a lot more white kids but a lot fewer black and browns. Re the other stuff, I suppose we have a lethal combination of (a) punitive assistant principals (who else would take that job?) and (b) near-obsessive fear (justified?) on the part of the authorities that they will face third-party liability if they let anything slip.

Selection Bias (Bankruptcy Division)

A friend passes on the news that a broadcast network wants to talk to debtors who were driven into bankruptcy via health care claims. No, don't apply here, that's not my point. I'm intrigued that the request says they want "lively, open individuals." Now, my experience is that a good many former bankruptcy debtors are driven by some combination of depression, guilt and shame. So by limiting themselves who sound good in a mike, I take it we have a built-in case of selection bias--not so?

Or, as Groucho would say: I don't want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.


Okay, I can understand banning naked German hikers, but is it really illegal in Switzerland to flush the toilet after 10 pm?

"Invasion of the Naked German Hikers"-- sounds like a 50s horror film. Thanks to someone who should not want it known that he forwards this stuff.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Accountancy Reform

Well, that's nice. I had been assuming that the prospective revolution in financial statement presentation would be the one last innovation in my syllabus that would drive me into retirement. Looks like it may not be coming as fast as I thought (link). It's beginning to remind me a little of the dustup back towards the other end of my career over what finally became the "Cash Flow Statement"--but only after an inglorious and time-consuming false start.

Appreciation: Gondoliers

We caught a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's Gondoliers at UC-Davis this afternoon. It was my first Gondoliers since, um, about April 1947, when I (aged 11) was hauled along, more or less unwillingly, to admire the annual class musical at Manchester (NH) High School Central. I certainly liked it better this time, although I think I can see why it is (on this side of the puddle, at least) one of the less popular G&S offerings. Granted that it offers a lot of the signature devices that make G&S so enduringly popular, still on the whole I'd say it's a bit more S than G, a reminder that Sullivan in his other life burdened us with stuff like Onward, Christian Soldiers! and The Lost Chord. Especially at the start: at least in this avatar, you lead off with about 20 minutes of uninterrupted singing--no banter--that leaves you pining for surtitles.

Two things I wouldn't have noticed in 1947:

One, how much it taps into, not only Commedia dell'Arte, but the whole grand tradition of comic schtick, straight back to Plautus and Terence. This isn't a criticism. Every text is a context, and something like G&S can be more fun if you recognize the element of parody and homage.

And two, how much it owes to "real"opera. I said at the break that it certainly offered echoes of Donizetti. Mrs. B said: you mean Rossini. Well, no actually, I meant Donizetti, but I can see her point. From Donizetti, there's the cheerful absurdity of Daughter of the Regiment or Elixir of Love. But reflecting Rossini, there are those marvellous tandem contraptions where the soprano is climbing Mount Everest while the orchestra swims the Mediterranean (or sometimes, the other way around). And the glorious ensembles--but the ensembles go all the way back to Mozart.

Fun fact: Gondoliers opened in 1889, the 12th G&S and their last big success. For comparison, Verdi premiered Otello in 1887 and Falstaff in 1893. For strength and staying power at the end of a long career, I'd say Verdi gets the prize.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

If You Can't Stand the Water...

The defense offered by "friends" of Jay Bybee for his role in the waterboarding debacle is so weird that you have to wonder if it is a piece of subtle sabotage:
"I've heard him express regret at the contents of the memo," said a fellow legal scholar and longtime friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity while offering remarks that might appear as "piling on." "I've heard him express regret that the memo was misused. I've heard him express regret at the lack of context -- of the enormous pressure and the enormous time pressure that he was under. And anyone would have regrets simply because of the notoriety." ...

"On the primary memo, that legitimated and defined torture, he just felt it got away from him," said the fellow scholar. "What I understand that to mean is, any lawyer, when he or she is writing about something very complicated, very layered, sometimes you can get it all out there and if you're not careful, you end up in a place you never intended to go. I think for someone like Jay, who's a formalist and a textualist, that's a particular danger."

Tuan Samahon, a former clerk who recalled Bybee's remarks at the reunion dinner, said in an e-mail that the judge defended the legal reasoning behind the memos but not the policy decision. Bybee was disappointed by what was done to prisoners, saying that "the spirit of liberty has left the republic," Samahon said.

"Jay would be the sort of lawyer who would say, 'Look, I'll give you the legal advice, but it's up to someone else to make the policy decision whether you implement it,' " said Randall Guynn, who roomed with Bybee at Brigham Young University and remains close. ...

"I got the impression that he was not pleased with that bit of scholarship," said an associate who asked not be identified sharing private conversations. "I don't know that he 'owned it.' . . . The way he put it was: He was head of the OLC, and it was written, and he was not pleased with it."

May I ask whether Judge Bybee ever has similar "regrets" in his present job? Does he ever find, for example, when he writes an opinion endorsing the death penalty that events "just get away from him" so that some poor fool is hanged? Or does he see himself as making "just a policy decision," and it's up to the hangman to decide whether to implement it?--even if the judge believes, say, that it is contrary to "the spirit of liberty?"

Again: Ninth Circuit judges do, I assume, deal with matters that are sometimes "very complicated, very layered." Does Judge Bybee ever find himself being "not careful," such that he ends "up in a place [he] did not intend to go?"

Elsewhere in the Post piece, we are told that Bybee didn't even want the job at Justice; he only took it as a way-station to his judgeship. Would it be proper to judge anything he does on the Ninth Circuit on the supposition that he's only trying to wangle his way onto the Supreme Court?

In Bybee's defense, we would have to admit that there are certain pressures in high government office. Occupants are often subjected to extreme stress, sometimes even sleep deprivation. Many have reported that the experience can be disorienting, impelling you to do or say things you wouldn't ordinarily say or do. Only the toughest survive. But that comes with the territory. As they say in Guantanamo, if you can't stand the water, stay off the board.

Afterthought: I'm still not sure, is Bybee (for I assume he endorses every word) being sincere here, or is this just a ham-handed and misguided effort to explain himself away? Either way, it makes you nostalgic for this guy whose, shall we say, moral clarity, is a marvel to behold.

Liebling's Earl

Having just finished Michael Gorra's commendable appreciation of the new(ish) Library of America sete of the works of A.J. Liebling,* I'm moved to remark on an unfortunate tendency among Lieblingophiles--the tendency to overlook one of his very best pieces, his account** of Earl Long, the madcap younger brother of Huey Long, and his place in southern politics. I share the general enthusiasm for Liebling--especially the World War II stuff; the boxing stuff never quite got to me (the press criticism is in a class by itself). But I read his little book about Earl Long just after it came out in 1961, while I was desperately trying to get the hang of Southern politics in my then-work as a Kentucky newspaper reporter. For dead-on insight, on the South, I'd say Liebling is at least fit to keep company with Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor; surely in the same class as W. J.Cash the more sobersided insightfulness of V. O. Key.

The miracle here is that Liebling is the outsider--fat, Jewish, the Parisian boulevardaire and sometimes New York underbelly rat, it is hard to think of anybody more unsuited to the task of understanding the South than Liebling. But it is the outsider's touch that gave us de Tocqueville, Gunnar Myrdal, D. W. Brogan. Here's Liebling's opener:
“Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly. They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch. By the time they reach New York, they are like Golden Bantam that has been trucked up from Texas—stale and unprofitable.
He moves back from here to take a panoramic location shot, starting in a Manhattan hotel room with huey long in the 1930s, and moving on down to Baton Rouge in 1959. He next recounts a more-or-less-first-person narrative of Huey's assassination in 1936 and arrives, finally, at Huey's surviving runt of a younger brother, by 1959 ensconced in the governor's chair. Then at last, Liebling undertakes to tell us how his trip changed his view of Huey and Earl and the whole Louisiana/southern political scene.

The fulcrum is race, together with populism: Liebling's point is that the raffish country boys like Earl and Huey were to the Bourbon aristocrats like lance corporals in the Army to the officer corps—they can get underneath the blankets and shoot crap with the enlisted men. This familiarity gives them a freedom of motion that their betters can't achieve. Earl, in short, was an integrationist. He did it in his own way, of course, which sometimes makes you catch your breath, but he did it, and he didn't really give a rat's patootie whether the Yankees understood out not.

The Earl book is as funny as anything Liebling ever wrote (actually, I think it was repeating a joke I picked up from the Long book was what got me my University job, but that's another story). But the fun was also vitality: it gave dimension and sinew to a patch of the human landscape that could often seem dreary and gray. I carried at least a shred of his insight back to Kentucky with me, and it helped me get at least a shred of an insight into the political landscape around me.

Vitality is perhaps the point of connection, an untroubled lust for life. It's probably no action that Liebling begins with a food metaphor (“like sweet corn”). Two or three pages later, he remembers a boxing story. I don't remember any specific reference to Paris or New York, but you can tell that the Liebling we see in Baton Rouge is the Liebling we remember from the the boulevards and from ringside. It's a wonderful book and an important bit of history and it would be a shame to let it be overlooked.

Footnote: The book is not to be confused with the movie, with Paul Newman (again, as so often) wrertchedly miscast.


*A.J. Liebling: The Sweet Science and Other Writings (2008). But note the pointed review by James H. Mann.

**The Earl of Louisiana, (1961), reprinted in the Library of America collection.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Here (Oomph) Is My Handle!
Here (Ahh!) Is My Spout!

Peter, off for the weekend, leaves behind a headline from the Yellow Springs (Ohio) News:

Baptist tea hits 50 with thanks


Proof that God is Male:
He Won't Ask for Directions

Benya Krik, the gangster king of Odessa, explains that geography is destiny:
Aunt Pesya! ... If you want my life, you can have it, but everyone makes mistakes, even God! This weas a great mistake, Aunt Pesya! But didn't God Himself make a mistake when he settled the Jews in Russia so they could be tormented as if they were in hell? Wouldn't it have been better to have the Jews living in Switzerland, where they would've been surrounded by first-class lakes, mouintian air, and Frenchmen galore!

--Isaac Babel, "How Things Were Done in Odessa," 146-154, 152,
The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel (trans. Peter Constantine 2002)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

We Have Ways of Making You Talk

I was driving and I may have misheard, but I think NPR rather sat on the real story in its interview this afternoon with Col. Steven Kleinman, the Air Force Reserve Officer who says he protested harsh treatment in Iraq.

If I understood him right, what he observed was not waterboarding and such but rather particular techniques developed, as they say, by the Russians and used by the Chinese.

But the point that got buried, I think, is that these were techniques designed not to extract the truth, but to get the subject to lie--Commie show-trial style, to get him to confess to everything. Here's Kleinman:
Even before the Korean War, during the Soviet show trials that occurred shortly after World War II, we as the U.S. government observed very odd and inexplicable behavior — people claiming to be CIA agents who weren't on the CIA payroll. More intelligence came in to describe these … interrogation methods that were being used to compel people to produce what can be described as propaganda — a mixture of truth with a heavy overlay of falsehoods.
The interviewer (Robert Siegel) appeared to ignore the point, but I think it is huge. Compelling people to lie? Why could we possibly want a subject to lie? Certainly not for show trials (or at least not yet). The only reason I can think of is bureaucratic: somebody was demanding information and the interrogators (or their handlers) wanted to provide it.

So, aside from torture we've got the problem of a bureaucracy gone mad.

Plus ça Change on Steroids

I can remember back in the 70s in Britain when the Leicester Choristers reduced me (and my preteen kids) to helpless hilarity by rendering the Inland Revenue Code in the style of a Gregorian chant. Now, that was funny. I wonder if this is funny:

H/T: BoingBoing.

Plus ça Change, Plus ça Pfui

For those of you who went to bed early:

HT, Crooked Timber, with complimentary bonus Hegel quote.

Happy 445, Will!

If Shakespeare were alive today he'd be turning 445 and probably not at all happy about it. But he'd probably be the perfect person to serve as culture cop on Chicago's official "Talk Like Shakespeare Day," at the behest of the Chicago Shakespeare Society, proprietors of this cool new website.

I am as willing to say "Zounds" and "Forsooth" as the next guy, but yielding to my impulse to go all boring and nerdy over anything, may I suggest that Shakespeare (at his best, at any rate) is really not all that abstruse. Well, actually, I guess he could be abstruse (although I'm not sure that he eveer used the word)--but it was a bug, not a design feature. He even turns it to advantage: the impulse to over-the-top linguistic exuberance among young lovers in Romeo & Juliet is a sly reminder that they know more about language than about life. Meanwhile, how much trouble do you have with

To be or not to be...


What a piece of work is a man!

or (if you prefer a woman's voice)

Give me my robe. Put on my crown.

That's 22 words, 22 syllables. For something a tad more complex, try

For God's sake let us sit upon the ground /And tell sad stories of the death of kings.

That's 18 words, 20 syllables, Winston Churchill quoted it; no friend of obscurity he. And there is always

Never, never, never, never never!

Sometimes parodied as "Never, never, never, never, never, NEVER!" But that would be overdoing things.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Citizenship Buyouts

Freakonomics is freakenout about a Japanese solution to the downturn-- citizenship buyouts:
The program applies only to unemployed people of Japanese descent who were born abroad but now live in Japan (they’re known as nikkei). The plan pays out-of-work nikkei $3,000 to return to their country of origin, not to return until economic conditions improve in Japan.
Okay, set aside the fact that it isn't really a "citizenship buyout:"--just a jerry-built whangdoodle to get get some folks off the unemployment rolls. And set aside cheesiness: $3,000 wouldn't be much more than the price of a plane ticket back to, oh, say, Brazil (where, I surmise, most of these most of these nikkei come from). Still they're going to have to explain to us why they call the idea "weird." In a world economics is supposed to explain everything, is it (a) "uneconomic" or simply (b) inexplicable?--and if (b), isn't it time to concede that maybe economics does not explain everything. The Canadians and others have been doing buy-ins for years. Why not just do the same thing only multiplied by minus one?

Fn.: Doesn't help that they dress the piece up with a cross ref to an earlier piece in which they evidently fell for a subtle cross-cultural prank.

Hu/Gross on the "Empty Creditor"

Daniel Gross showcases some interesting work by Harold Hu on what Hu calls "the empty creditor": the creditor who has no incentive to settle because he is all hedged up--indeed, who might prefer that the debtor go broke, so that he will then have the right to call on the insurer.

As Gross shows, this is not your mother's distressed-debt market:
One key economic assumption is that people act to preserve their economic interests. Those who have lent money to troubled companies, for example, generally prefer the company remain solvent; otherwise, they can't get paid back. Similarly, lenders to troubled firms frequently favor swift, out-of-court restructuring deals, in which they swap debt for stock, instead of pushing companies into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
He's right up to a point, although I think he glosses over the fact that the old-fashioned model of creditor-as-stakeholder is long gone. Years ago, you might have struggled to save the business. Lately, who knows? Some roll-up artist might have taken out the equity. And meanwhile most of the debt might have spilled into the hands of arbitrageurs who bought it for pennies on the dollar, and who operate on an entirely different set of motivations from those of the original creditors. I mean, if you buy the debt for 20 cents on the dollar and get a payout at 25, you're ahead of the game right?

So the emergency of credit insurance may be just one more chapter in a longer story. Which makes me wonder about the next step. Gross doesn't mention it and I haven't read Hu's stuff on this issue--but what about the insurers? Where are they? If they are going to bear the loss, don't they have a stake to step in and play the kind of role that old fashioned creditors used to pay?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lifestyles of the Rich and Self-Pitying

I'd agree with Felix Salmon that the couple in Tennessee whining about an income of a mere $260,000 deserve all out sneering contempt (for the whine, not for the income). And the commentators are quite right to point out that "nothing left over" in this case is just an accounting equality. Of course they have "nothing left over" once you count what they spent and what they saved (= did not spend)--that's called "arithmetic." But what gets me is the line about the "car payment." Say, what? On the one hand, I thought they were driving a 10-year old Infiniti. How could they owe any car payment on so old a car?

But supposing it were a new car--my guess that any car payment at all is a sign that they are bad managers. I know that anything is a bargain at the right price, but my guess is that the cost of self-financing is almost always going to be lower than anything they can get in the car market. Along with their 401ks, their college savings plans and their mortgage principal payments, I would think it would think they might want to set up at least a little bolthole against the eventuality that they might want to buy a new one someday.

"Oh, Sure," He said, "But You'd Be Surprised..."

The headline, from a law recruiting newsletter, makes perfect sense:

You Need to Stop Competing and Seeing Differences Between You and Others

Couldn't be righter, thought I. The first rule of monopolistic competition: product differentiation to create economic rents. But read on: I can't decide whether this guy is:
  • A hell of a salesman; or
  • A manipulative creep; or
  • A sociopath.
LIke I say, read on:
When you are in the recruiting business, what typically happens is that law firms will call you in a very formal way to tell you they have no interest in a candidate of yours. The conversations will typically last no more than 30 to 45 seconds.

“We are calling to let you know that we have no interest in John Smith,” they might say.

“Thank you,” would be the standard response.

After several weeks of this I began to feel that the entire situation was somewhat absurd. This is what recruiters do all over the country. I decided that the best thing I could do was mix it up.

“We’re calling to let you know we have no interest in John Smith,” a caller might say. The callers were typically women in their mid-20’s to early 30’s who were called “recruiting coordinators” inside law firms.

“You know, I was just outside having my third Diet Coke in the past hour and I realized that I have not heard your voice in some time. I really like your voice, how are you?”

“Fine,” they might say, still a little stiff.

“I am not sure how much longer I am going to be doing this recruiting thing. It is really exhausting. Law firms are really uptight. Do you enjoy making all these calls? It must be a real buzz kill just calling a bunch of recruiters all day. I cannot believe you and I are doing the jobs we are doing.”

This is what I would do with every caller. Eventually, I would get into my personal life and they would start to talk about themselves as well. A few months into this I was astonished when some of these women called me on the way home from work on their cell phones just to chat about random stuff, unrelated to work. One woman’s husband was going to be building a deck on the back of her house that weekend; one man who was a recruiting coordinator was going sailing; another girl was leaving her job because she wanted to ride a motorcycle across the United States.

I did the same thing with my candidates. (I actually ended up marrying one of them a few years later.) My candidates and I would talk about the most random stuff. Only about 1-2% of my time on the phone with my candidates and law firms was ever about anything having to do with actual business. I enjoyed what I was doing and made numerous friends. I looked at the entire process as something that was meant to be fun, establishing connections and nothing more.

Prior to becoming an attorney, I had been an asphalt sealing contractor around Michigan for over 7 years. Much of my job involved going door-to-door and selling my service. Someone I had never seen before would answer the door and I might say something like:

“Hi. I’m here to sell you the service of putting some asphalt sealer on your driveway but I am not in a very good mood right now. My girlfriend from school is working in Washington, DC and she just broke up with me so she can see other people this summer. I’m not too happy about it.” This is the last thing people expect from a salesman.

I would show up at the home of the person, well dressed and looking professional, and invariably the person would start talking to me about my personal situation and offering me advice. I would never have to sell the person anything. I would slip in how much the service was going to cost and the person would always agree. The next year I would show up at the person’s front door and they might ask me about my personal life and I would tell them what was going on, and they would do the same thing. Using this particular method of selling asphalt sealing, I was able to become probably the largest residential asphalt sealing contractor in Michigan in less than a couple of years. It is all about treating people as your friend.

I never talked about the service. I just disarmed myself, exposed a vulnerability of some sort and let the person start consoling me and offering advice. I liked getting the advice.
"Oh sure," as the old punchline has it, "but you'd be surprised how many go to bed with me..."

Monday, April 20, 2009

J. G. Ballard

I'm with James Fallows on this one: I was never drawn to J. G. Ballard's futurist stuff, but Empire of the Sun, his memoir of his youth in and around Shanghai in World War II--that was a gripping read. But I'm so clueless that when I read it (about 10 years ago) I didn't even realize that it was also a movie, which, as it happens, I still haven't seen (I just noticed that a script credit goes to Tom Stoppard, which might itself be a reason to see it). Still, the novel is good enough that it almost matches this, which is high praise indeed.

Von Rezzori Again

Only one more post--for now--on Gregor von Rezzori, and those distinctive, affecting memoirs*(one a novel, but that's a detail) of his life in the heart of Europe through the tumultuous middle of the 20th Century. He remarks somewhere--I let the page ref slip away from me--on a happy time in his later life, and adds, parenthetically, that he didn't have very many of them. And you recognize with a start that he is right: indeed, has written one (or two) of the rarest of all books--books about an unhappy life that are not themelves unhappy. For consider: he was born in Bukovina, the child of two parents utterly self-absorbed and each isolated in his (her) narcissism--born, I say, just in time to be uprooted by World War I. At the end of the war his "native country" was reorganized out from under him. He knocked around as a desultory student in the turbulent years between the wars and found himself in Vienna just in time for the Anschluss in 1938. And then...

Of "then" he doesn't write much in these books. He evidently lived out World War II in Germany, but, being then a "Romanian," he was not drafted into World War II. He makes glancing reference to some hard times in the chaos that followed the war. Wiki says he was at one time a stateless person, though he ended his life a citizen of Austria.

Things seem to have gone better after the war. He became a writer and broadcaster, and found his way into the movie business, both as a writer and an actor. By his old age, he evidently evolved into something of a personage, a living monument amid the wreckage of his time. At some point he made it back to his ancestral Italy, where he married a woman who bears formidable handle of "Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori"— New York magazine calls her "impatient, charismatic, preternaturally controlling." Together they created a Tuscan retreat for writers, which survived him (and over which she presides).

Of all this he writes with an unobtrusive grace, just safely downwindf rom suavity. One other thing you notice (and if you don't he'll call your attention to it)--an almost paralyizing detachment, one could say chilliness, as if he early learned that the appropriate facade for gazing into the abyss was a mask of civility. He's tried so many other crafts with success, it's a wonder he didn't wind up a diplomat. Or maybe that's just it: he was a diplomat, devoting his whole career to the raison d'État of a sovereignty of one.
*Memoirs of an Anti-Semite; The Snows of Yesteryear.

Warren /Stewart

The Comedy Central encounter between Elizabeth Warren and Jon Stewart is getting an impressive amount of blog buzz. From what I hear, her fans are settling on the view that she disappointed in the first half (shy and diffident) and recovered later (her old self).

I'd agree that she seemed (almost unheard of for Elizabeth) a bit like a deer in the headlights at the beginning, and also that she hit her stride in the home stretch. But in terms of audience appeal, I'd rank it the other way around. Elizabeth in full flower can sound cocky and contentious--I think it was her good fortune that she ran out of time before she got into high gear. But in her opening colloquy with her host, she came across as the mistress of the pregnant silence. Mrs. Buce (who had never seen her in action before) thought her Jack-Benny-like pauses were so funny as to have been scripted. I doubt that they were scripted; I'm pretty sure they were accidental, but I would agree that they worked just fine.

And an aside to Jon Stewart: Jon, Baby, the job of a comedy host is not to go all Cocker Spaniel on your guest. A few more outbursts of gush and you'll be as dull as Rush Limbaugh was back with he was sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Richard Posner, Statist

Robert Solow (in this week's New York Review of Books) offers up a critique of Richard Posner's new book on the meltdown, in which Solow outs the champ libertarian as a new-minted dirigiste. Solow quotes Posner: "we need a more active and intelligent government to keep our model of a capitalist economy from running off the rails." And Solow adds, drily "If I had written that, it would not be news."

Lesser lights among the law will snigger with renewed ardor when they learn from Nobelist Solow that "in some respects, [Posner's] grasp of economic ideas is precarious." But while combing the review for chapter and verse on "precarious," they might do well to notice what may be most noteworthy bout the review: as a whole, it's about the best essay-length non-technical summary of the current uproar as it is posssible to imagine. Read it, and I dare you to find that he has missed anything important.

HT: Mark Thoma.

I Must Write That Down...

Larry procrastinates perendinates by learning a new word:


verb tr. : To put off until the day after tomorrow.
verb intr.: To stay at a college for an extended time.
From Latin perendinare (to defer until the day after tomorrow), from perendie (on the day after tomorrow), from die (day).
The word procrastinate is from Latin cras (tomorrow). So when you procrastinate, literally speaking, you are putting something off till tomorrow. Mark Twain once said, "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow." In other words, why procrastinate when you can perendinate?
"In Peterhouse the Master and Fellows might now allow a stranger to perendinate for more than a fortnight unless they were certified of his moral character and of his ability and willingness to do the College some notable service."
Thomas Alfred Walker; Peterhouse; Hutchinson & Co.; 1906.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Obama Google Smackdown

Search "Obama Hitler" at Google Images and you get* 556,000 hits. "Obama Stalin" yields only 224,000, and "Obama AntiChrist" a piddling 127,000 (cool horns, though).

But "Obama Jesus" is a cumulative winner with 3,810,000.

*More precisely, I got, a couple of minutes ago.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sven Birkerts Explains to Me
What I Like about European Novels

He says:
On our shores whole generations have chased after the fata morgana of the Great American Novel ... The European writer is driven to put a frame around a catastrophe, to explain the complete collapse of a refined and confident civilization. If no one ever rhapsodizes about the Great European Novel, it may be because the adjective "great" does not stick easily to a subject matter sop emphatically somber. ... [T]he interrogation goes on. Indeed, after forty years the rise of fascism and the war are still the dominant subjets of Europen fiction. Perhaps an epithet would just trivialize things.

--Sven Birkerts, An Artificial Wilderness:
Essays on 20th Century Literature
63-4 (1987)
From a review of Gregor von Rezzori, The Death of my Brother Abel (1985). Okay, so that's 22, 24 years ago, but look at his selection: Musil, Walser, (Joseph) Roth, Frisch--also Yourcenar, (Primo) Levi, Benjamin, Montale--to stick to my own favorites. Can America match this list?

[In passing, a critic whose taste covers a lot of the same turf is Joan Acocella, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, but I'll leave that for another day.]

Egad,He's Right

A dangerous time of year (link).

Tea Time in Palookaville

Just got robo-called for a tea party; did not hang around for details, but it certainly smells of astroturf to me.

Well, So Much for Their Judgment...

I see that the Wall Street Journal has outed Justice John Paul Stevens as among the tribe of unbelievers who think that Shakesepeare did not write Shakespeare--not only that, but that Stevens has marshalling three other Justices (one deceased) on his side.

Well, no point in arguing with him--I know of no instance where an unbeliever was ever convinced back to the true faith. They certainly do enjoy the squabble though, which always struck me as tedious and distracting.

At the risk of transgressing my own first principle, I will offer a few thoughts by way of trying to situate it. That is: it seems to me that the notion that "Shakespeare could not have been Shakespeare" is based largely on a misconception: a misunderstanding of who Shakespeare was and what he did. He was, in particular no "universal genius." He was first of all, a working entertainer (and, by the by, a pretty good businessman-entrepreneur) with an extraordinary knack for engaging with--and responding to--the great, crackling fireworks display that was 16th-Century London. He was also a master pillager of other people's works and ideas. I mean no disrepect here: Shakespeare was a career marauder, but he never once stole an idea that he didn't improve. If you doubt it, lay your hands on a copy of Shakespeare's Plutarch; read North's translation of the relevant Plutarch lives, and then compare with the Shakespearean rendition's helpfully footnooted at the bottom of the page. Or do something similar with Holinshed's Chronicles As Used in Shakespeare's Plays (I grant that neither of these is easy to find--both appear to be out of print--but they are worth the effort)(but cf. Chris' comment below--ed).

I want to add, perhaps pompously "or just see the plays." That's the right advice as far as it goes: Shakespeare wrote first and last for the working theatre and he never else carries conviction better. The trouble is that there is a fair amount of awful Shakespeare around not least in the movies, mostly because producers too often fall into the marmoreal error: treating him as a statute to be admired, rather than letting his own energy shine through. Fact is I have a suspicion that this is often exactly the problem with the "somebody else" cult (though in fairness, I don't know whether this is true of Justice Stevens himself)--most of them seem far more interested in combing and sifting the "evidence" than in letting the plays stand on their own terms.

Fn.: I see that Roberts and Alito and Roberts won't tell which side they are on here. What is that all about? Is there some sort of Federalist Society memo here?

Fn.: I see that I have written my annual Shakespeare birthday piece, only five days early.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Annals of Journalism: WSJ on Torture

Number of column inches in my (paper) Wall Street Journal this morning on the release of the torture memos: 18 (on page A5, under a headline reading "Obama Grants Immunity...").

Number of column inches in an op-ed by a former CIA Director and a former Attorney General on why we must keep torturing: 42.

Number of column inches to a front-page (plus jump) story on a comic-book typeface: 34.

Watch Out for the Aura

I suppose I'm quoting this guy too much but I thought this funny:
It had become known that he was a neo-Platonist--the term obviously drew a blank with most people, but nevertheless prevented one from raising one's voice, slamming a door or, unimaginably worse, engaging in guttersnipe whistling.

--Gregor von Rezzori, The Snows of Yesteryear 108 (1989)
Guttersnipe whistling: is there any other kind?

Afterthought: A pretty dumb title for such an arresting book. I see the original German was Blumen in Schnee--"Flowers in Snow," which strikes me as an improvement.

Brooks on the Israelis

Surely the funniest thing in today's NYT comes form an unlikely source--it's David Brooks on Israel. And I'm not being snide here and neither, so far as I can tell, is he. It is just a crisp, affectionate, and insightful account of a country he obviously cares about a great deal.

But if he thinks Israel is really a Middle Eastern country, he needs to ask himself in how many other Middle Eastern countries he'd be willing to drink the tap water.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Lucia Again: Did I Say That?

A while back, surveying this seasons's Met HD performance of Lucia, I said (or sniffed):
Lucia has never been at the top of my list of favorite opera war horses. It certainly has one of the great coloratura show pieces, and as a whole, there really isn't anything wrong with it. For my money, there isn't quite as much right with it as one might wish, but it's a perfectly pleasant way to while away an afternoon (or midday, in HD), and this presentation, even given its improvisational touches, is nothing to be ashamed of.
Well, bully for me, and my snotty little hick-town dismissiveness. At least you'd think I could get it halfway right. But Wednesday night, stuck in a hotel room and fiddling with the remote, I stumbled on a PBS replay of the same performance and--yes, you anticipate me, it was wonderful. Okay, maybe not perfect: Anna Netrebko really is a bit to plump and rosy for the role of hag-ridden victim. But as a total effect--music, staging, integration of cast and crew--it was gripping. I had to make an early start the next morning, but I couldn't resist hanging on until the last chord.

Or maybe some mischief-maker just hacked his way into the blog...

Bliss Was it in that Dawn to Be Alive..

Stacy Finz has a genial nostalgia piece up at SFGate on how much she loved, loved, loved, working for a newspaper, including this:
For me, it started in college. I somehow stumbled onto the campus newspaper and found myself. It was the one place where my seemingly negative traits - a disregard for all things authoritarian and an insatiable inquisitiveness that others considered coarse and nosey - were seen as assets. I started skipping class just so I could hang out in the newsroom and pitch in on whatever big story was breaking. One of my professors asked, "Where have you been, Ms. Finz? You're failing my class." I considered lying: "My apartment burned to the ground and I've been living on the street."

Instead, I told her the truth.

She wrapped me in her arms and said, "Good for you. Some people go a lifetime and never find what makes them truly happy." She gave me a "C."
I can relate, but fortunately for me I didn't get the C; in fact I washed out altogether so I could start over again later when I was willing to pay attention.

H/T: Michael, whom I met when he joined the copy desk at The Louisville Times.

Afterthought: both my formative college (Antioch) and my formative newspaper (the Times) are now defunct. Is somebody trying to tell me something?

Clarification: Yes, I am reading this on my laptop. For free (on free Wi-Fi in an airport, for whatever that may be worth). Anyway--so yes, I am one of the reasons Ms. Finz is taking the buyout.

Department of "Can They Do That?"

Scariest story I've read all day (link).

Great Danes

The vastly well-informed network of Underbelly readers will be all over this one, but I'll try it anyway: give the surnames of the current, and the two preceding, prime ministers of Denmark. Hint: shouldn't be hard to remember. For an answer, go here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Who Said There Are No Second Acts?

So I flipped open my Google Aggregator this morning and here's Eliot Spitzer getting all pitchforks and tar buckets about executive pay; indeed he seems to be everywhere these days: see, e.g., link, link. You remember Eliot, right? Who resigned the governorship of New York, just 13 months shy of two days ago, with his fingerprints all over a high-priced hooker?

And then click over to Greg Mankiw, who showcases a speech by (and indeed, an award to) Robert Merton (link). You remember Robert, who helped to engineer the most spectacular financial market disaster prior to the current uproar?

In Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Antony's beloved sidekick, Enobarbus, betrays his master. When he comes to understand the enormity of his deed, does he go on Larry King? No; Enobarbus says:
I am alone the villain of the earth,
And feel I am so most.
... I will go seek
Some ditch wherein to die; the foul'st best fits
My latter part of life.
Next up: Hannibal Lector on the Cooking Channel, to show us what goes with a nice Chianti.

PS: Pretty good lecture, actually.

Update: It has been urged upon me that Spitzer was framed by those who wanted to prevent him from pursuing fraud and abuse in the financial industry. That is: I don't think anybody denies that Spitzer did what he did; the assertion is that he fell into some kind of honey trap. If so, the more shame on him. If he threw away an opportunity for a huge public good in exchange for a bit of nookie, he's got nothing to brag about.

How to Solve the Piracy Problem

News: the Wichita Bureau has a bright idea. Okay, let me rephrase that--another bright idea. Anyway, here's how he would solve the piracy problem:
I think I see a relatively simple solution to the piracy problem. The ship owners are unwilling to pay for armed guards on their ships as the marginal cost of ransom is still smaller than hiring protection. It’s even cheaper when they can get insurance that will pay the ransom and spread it across the whole shipping industry.
We have a fair number of folks in this country who are quite good with weapons and are quite vocal about what to do about the pirates. It seems to me that the solution is to offer the gun owners free two week cruises in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean if they will bring their guns and mount watch on ships transiting the area. Many freighters have a couple of staterooms for passengers – it’s not first class but it would suffice.

Even if the ship-owners had to provide the weapons (getting an AK 47 on an international flight is almost impossible) and ammo, it would be fairly cheap.
Even better, offer free cruises (including airfare) to some of the organized militias in Idaho and Michigan if they will provide protection on ships transiting the danger zone.
Actually, I gather some of those staterooms are rather nice.

Why I Got Out of Journalism

The New York Crank offers a bracing reminder:
WANTED: Broadcast News Producer for Illinois—Home Office—PT/Afternoons

This is a well-paid, part-time contract position for an experienced Broadcast News Reporter who is passionate about social/environmental/economic and community issues and understands both commercial and non-commercial broadcasters. Must be a results-oriented self-starter who can also follow established protocols and work well with different personalities in a rapidly changing environment. More work is available for the right person. (Sense of humor and comfort with paradox required; “post-green-meme” sensibility preferred.)

Required: a starting average of 10 radio spot news stories per month on the public interest non-profit beat statewide. The successful contractor will have years of daily broadcast editorial newsroom/reporting experience (commercial stations and wire service work preferred) with excellent editorial, technical skills and interpersonal skills. Phone sound only, duration approx. 1:30. Pay is $150 per story plus $300 monthly research stipend and hard costs covered.
Or as they used to say back in the 50s, do you take pictures? Well, good, because we don't use them, and you can sell them on your own. Source

Why Buddhism is so Popular in California

My friend Ignota has a long-term illness. Trying to make lemonade out of a lemon, she has written a book on "How to Be Sick." She says:

It's part Buddhist-inspired practices
(a phrase that really means: "stuff I made up")

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

From the Annals of 20th Century Piracy

Once again, Ivan is dousing himself in the warm bath of memory :
In 1948 I was an able seaman on a freighter that carried cargo to pacific ocean ports starting with Pusan (called Fusan by the Koreans). we went to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Penang, and several ports in the Philippines. going south along the china coast from shanghai, we had been warned to be especially wary of pirates. at that time on American merchant ships there were three men to a deck watch -- two able seamen and on ordinary seaman.The able seamen had passed a test and been certified, after sailing 18 months as an unrated ordinary seaman. I was an able seaman and after finishing my turn at the wheel I went to the bow and the seaman there went to what we called standby. one guy at the wheel, one guy on bow lookout -- you rotated, and that completed a four hour watch. Did that twice a day.

Dark, moonless night, kind of cold, and i started to hear a clanging ahead. I picked up the bow phone, called the bridge, they had already heard it. It was a bunch of Chinese in small boats, sampans, anchored and tied together off shore beating pots and pans together to warn us that they were anchored out there in front of the way we were headed. Fishing boats? Pirates setting a trap? We didn't know. I sensed the ship was picking up speed. In a few minutes we were plowing right through them. I could hear them right under the bow as we moved through them but it was so dark I couldn't see anything -- couldn't see or tell if we were plowing the boats in half or they were out of the way. Sounded like we crunched a few. We didn't swerve an inch -- held our course and they beat the hell out of their pots and pans. in a few minutes they were astern of us and the clanging cut out. we didn't slow down.

Maybe the reason that we havent hear much about piracy until recently is that so few ships fly American flags. Maersk is an ancient steamship company from one of the Scandinavian countries -- they arranged to lease or somehow get the Maersk Alabama registered under the American flag. i think a ship has to be flagged American to carry govt paid for relief help -- mostly food -- to foreign countries.

I wonder if Ivan has seen this:That's the number of pirates killed, per US president, going back to McKinley. Source: here.

Elizabeth Warren in Newsweek

I see that Newsweek has an amiably puffy profile up of my friend Elizabeth Warren, Harvard professor known to the larger world as scourge of the mighty in her role as chair of the bailout oversight board. If I were Elizabeth, I'd take this piece as evidence that she is bound for greater things: it bears all the earmarks of a reporter who wants to make sure that he polishes the apple before it goes golden.

Which is may be a complaint about the piece, but not about the subject. I like Elizabeth. We've had our differences here and there but as far as I'm concerned, she's mostly on the side of the angels. She is also, not incidentally, an enthusiastic (some would say "savage") street-fighter with boundless energy and a full complement of elbows and knees. I wouldn't want to be around her while going all pompous and prissy about the rights and privileges of big banks: she'd waste little time in having me trussed and stuffed and cuffed to the doorknob. For which, God bless her.

But ranked just as journalism, I'd say the Newsweek piece is remarkably slack. Mr. Reporter says she has spent "three decades ... churning out treatises that are rarely read outside of law libraries," which is just reportorial laziness--the kind of sentence you write because it fits a script, before you ever leave the office. To check my instincts, I just helped myself to a quick look at her CV over at her Harvard Law School faculty page and there isn't a treatise in sight. Granted, for most of her career she's written primarily for law audiences. But her primary achievement is that she (with her co-authors) has been to serve as co-proprietor of the first- or second-best bankruptcy data set in the country. And she has always done her best to present her findings in a manner that is straightforward, dynamic, and gratifyingly non-technical.

It's equally formulaic to suggest that her interest in public issues is a new-come thing. I'd say she has seen her work in a larger context since at least the first time I ran across it (about 1980). More: Elizabeth was an energetic and active combatant in all the conflicts that led up to the bankruptcy amendments in 2005. On balance, I think you'd have to say that she lost far more rounds in that fight than she won in that campaign, but she left some blood on the table--not all her own--and I'd also have to concede that the odds were pretty much stacked against her from the start. She may have broadened her audience somewhat in recent years, but looking over her whole career, I'd say it is pretty much all of a piece.

Bottom line: it's fun to read, and I am pleased to forecast that it will do her more good than harm. But as is so often the case with journalism, a truer story would have been subtler and more complex. Also, for my money, a lot more interesting, but I guess those guys make up their own minds about what will sell.

[H/T: John, who still reads Newsweek]

Language Hash

Gregor von Rezzori again--and what kind of name is von Rezzori, anyway? Remarkably, there is an answer to that: Evidently his father was a Sicilian aristo who washed up in the Austrian Empire, and the name was originally d'Arrezo [though, come to think of it, Arrezo is nowhere near Sicily, so maybe there is even more to be said].

Now this marvel of linguistic hash on the nanny at the family home in Bukovina:
We were never able to determine her nationality with any degree of certainty. Most probably she was a Huzule--that is, a daughter of the Ruthenian-speaking tribe of mountain Gorals, who, it is said, are the purest-bred descendants of the Davians who fled before the Roman invaders into the impenetrable fastness of the forests. Yet Cassandra just as wlel could have been a Romannian--that is, a product of all those innumerable populations who coursed through my country during the dark centuries of the decaying Roman dominion. She spoke both Romanian and Ruthenian, both equally badly--which is not at all unusual in the Bukovina--intermixing the two languages and larding both the with bits from a dozen other idioms. The result was that absurd lingua franca, understood only by myself and scantily by those who, like her, had to express themselves in a similarly motley verbal hodgepodge. ... [T]here can be no doubt that linguistically I was nourished by her speech. The main component was a German, never learned correctly or completely, the gaps in which were filled with words and phrases from all the other tongues spoken in Bukovina--so that each second or third word was either Ruthenian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Armenian or Yiddish, not to forget Hungarian.

--Gregor von Rezzori, The Snows of Yesteryear 43-4 (1989).

Von Rezzori's Wiki says that he himself was fluent in German, Romanian, Italian, Polish, Russian, Yiddish, French and English, and that he lived some of his life as a "stateless person"--so the habit of deracination apparently stuck with him.

Cassandra? Cassandra? Indeed. von Rezzori says he has no idea where that came from.
Update: A Google search for "Huzule" turns up about as near to nothing as a Google search will ever yield: web pages in German and Dutch, mostly about a horse.

Department of Wha--? Redux

A couple of days ago I complained that Felix Salmon had rocks in his head on the matter of debtors buying back their own homes at distressed prices from mortgagees. From the trenches, my friend Mary weighs in to tell me that I'm the rocky one:
I disagree with your take on Thornburg Borrowers' Unit ("TBU"), and here's why. ... [W]ouldn't that have the effect of causing sophisticated [borrowers] to go into default on their loans with the purpose of purchasing them at a steep discount?

My understanding is that after the real estate bubble began to collapse, but before the home mortgage lending market collapsed, borrowers with underwater homes were buying new homes at 60% or so of the price of the existing home, while they still had good credit, then walking away from underwater home. Now that home mortgage lending begins to revive, we may see more of that. So TBU doesn't want to make that easier. Borrowers] could buy the note at a discount and end up owning the residence at 40 - 60% of prior debt without the hassle of moving, etc.
Comment: Ooh, cool. I hadn't heard it, but I'll bet she is right that some borrowers succeeded in buying the new home while their credit was still good, and then dumping the old overpriced one back on the lender. I wonder how many. Still, I go bollywackers when I hear a banker (of all people) saying that somebody "should" do something that is not in the contract. But people dump out-of-the-money options all the time. Banks have been telling us for years (without, I grant, a shred of evidence) that (California) purchase-money home loans are made more expensive by the presence of the (statute-mandated) anti-deficiency rule; if I take them at their word, I must assume they have already priced some such risk. I can't believe for a moment that the bank wouldn't take advantage of this kind of opportunity if offered. Why should they be surprised if their cusotmers behave as they do?

Anyway, I never meant to argue that Thornburg was "misbehaving" by not offering the option--only that I thought they were acting against their own interest. Still, I learn something from Mary every time I have the good sense to keep my ears open--so, thanks again.

"Honey, I'm Home!"

Larry showcases this marvel from the detritus of the Phil Spector trial:
Following yesterday's conviction of Phil Spector on second-degree murder in the death of actor Lana Clarkson, agent Sharlene Martin of Martin Literary Management reports she is shopping a proposal for a "tell-all memoir from adopted son Louis Spector," The Gingerbread House on La Collina Drive: My Life Caged Behind Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. Louis and his twin brother "were adopted at the age of five by Spector and presented to Spector's then unsuspecting wife as a surprise Christmas gift."
Say hey, but isn't this more or less what Cindy McCain did for (to) John when she showed up unannounced with the adoptive child from Bangla Desh ("say hello to your new daughter!"). Is this the new trend among the glitterati? Will it survive the downturn?

That's The Guy!

A condescending Underbelly shoutout to Anonymous, who correctly fingered* the author our new tagline as this guy, acting as sock puppet for this guy, back in the days when you could have a jolly time condescending to the poor, the unwashed, the unlettered, or (come to think about it) just about anybody except the little knot of shared DNA around the Home Place.

Near-miss guesses included "Gilbert & Sullivan" and "Oscar Wilde," which seems to suggest that there really is a period style.
*Actually, it never crossed my mind that the answer was just a Google away. Quizzes are no fun any more...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Another Wonky Kindle Note

Researching stuff to load onto my Kindle for a trip to Tunisia, I find The Regency of Tunis and the Ottoman Porte, 1777-1814, with a Kindle (!) price of$152 (20 percent saving over the $190 "digital list price." Or, there's Fountains in the Sand; Rambles Among the Oases of Tunisia at, um let me see here--yes, zero.

I'm thinking, I'm thinking. I'm thinking that these prices need to rationalize.

DeLong Gets It Mostly Right

Brad DeLong moves the ball a long way downfield with the following post, which I reprint in full before improving upon it:
Three Possible Financial Narratives for the Obama Administration

"So we are settled," said the convenor of the meeting. "Our story is: the truth!"

"At least it is easy to remember," someone muttered under their breath as we gathered up our papers.

It seems to me that the Obama administration can go with any of three different truths as it tries to explain its banking programs to the world:
  • The banks have us by the plums: Keeping the economy near full employment requires pushing asset prices back up to values at which businesses selling stocks and bonds can obtain financing that makes it profitable for them to expand. But pushing asset prices back up enriches the bankers whose overleverage got us into this mess, and prevents them from suffering their just punishment. There is no way out of this dilemma, but the Obama administration is trying as hard as it can given the limited authority congress has granted it to maximize the gain to employment and minimize the support provided to financial princes.
  • The government has a chance to make a fortune: Just as in 1999 and 2005 financial markets were ruled by irrational exuberance, now they are ruled by irrational pessimism. Because of this irrational pessimism, businesses selling stocks and bonds cannot obtain financing that makes it profitable for them to expand--and so unemployment is high. But the government is not irrationally pessimistic, and is "patient capital": the government can buy up financial assets and so raise their price, boost employment, and then hold the assets until maturity and very likely make a fortune. It can do good for the economy and the country and do well by its own finances at the same time. It is true that financiers who ride-alongside, front-run, and manage the government's portfolio are very likely to make fortunes too, but much smaller fortunes than the government.
  • We have to play out the hand before we ask for a New Deal: Perhaps the situation can be cured with relatively minor support for the banks. Perhaps the situation will require full-fledged bank nationalization. Bank nationalization could not pass the Senate now. Come this fall, it may be needed--but it will only be clear that it is needed if the Obama administration has done its best to rescue the banking situation with the powers it has at its current disposal. You cannot ask for a New Deal until you have played out your hand.
If the Obama administration were selling any of these three lines of narrative--or were selling all of them--it seems likely to me that it would be having more success is building support for its strategy. But I do not think that it is selling any of these narrative lines to make sense of its policies. Indeed, I do not know what the narrative story it wants to tell about the current situation is.
Three good, provocative, thought-provoking choices, but it may be the reason he can't tell which is the right one is that ther is a fourth choice: we think that throwing taxpayer money at investors. Granted that the administration has done a shockingly perfunctory job of trying to explain itself to voters, still I think we'd have to accept this fourth alternative as the "official story" and even perhaps accept (although this is a different point) that they believe it.

Still, a solid B-plus for Brad, who is definitely holding his own in the league tables. And wouldn't it be nice if Brad's second reason were actually true?

Not-so-Good Novels for Hard Times

The SF Chron has a remarkably wrong-headed post up offering "good novels for hard times." But it's nothing of the sort; upward of 80 percent of the list could be characterized as "good novels about hard times," which is an entirely different thing. Here's Russell Banks' Continental Drift, for example: clueless New Hampshire oil burner repairman meets his doom among Haitian immigrants in Florida. Or Charles Backer, Shadow Play--by the Chron's own account, "the city manager of a depressed town in Michigan sees a tragedy unfold when the chemical plant he lured to town turns out to be an environmental disaster." Or Ernest Hebert, The Dogs of March--again the Chron, "it's the American dream gone belly-up."

Ooh, we'll be hummin' the tunes of this stuff all the way home from the theatre. Got the pattern? But, yo, Chron hello (slap, slap)! People don't want to read about hard times in hard times. Remember the movie business: in the Great Depression, they got rich off screwball comedy and soft romance! This is surely a great time to recharge the batteries with a good book. But make it silly, wacky, or at least slurpy, maybe with a dog. We're spikin' this one, come back next week with a better try.

Update: A questioner asks--so what would I read? Fair question. to my great good fortune, I'm not quite on the edge at the moment: I am not unemployed, and my pension looks solvent (at least for now, heh heh). Were I on the edge, I'm tempted to say I'd start with stuff I have read (and loved) before. Which is to say, for example, Proust. But only because Proust is something I know at least moderately well--I can go back and dip in to find passages that will take me a million miles away in a hurry (come to think of it, Proust is still on my Ipod). Probably not a good occasion on which to tackle Proust for the first time. And I guess that excludes Finnegans Wake--which I never have read, but probably couldn't/shouldn/t tackle under great strain.

Maybe that's too hifalutin. If so, how about Jane Austen? Sunny and warm-hearted and happy-ending--but astringent and funny and just tricky enough you have to keep your eyes peeled for the zingers that she lobs past you. Or the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint Simon, the last word in escape literature. Or Herodotus, the feyest and funniest of all the ancients. Why, it's almost enough to make a, strike that, it is not enough to make a man want to lose his job. But it could be fun anyway.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Condescending Invitation

Underbelly groupies will recognize that I've changed the tagline by the picture. The new tagline reads:
"Besides, a really manly man may condescend at times! He rather owes it to himself..."
Condescending congratulations will be extended to the person to identify the source.

Not Sure I Should be Proud of This

I got 80% on the "Do You Know the Real Rahm" quiz (link).

Again: Trim Taxpayers or Trim Investors?

Why do investors have a special claim on the public fisc? This time, I'll outsource the job of answering to an expert:
The unsatisfactory answer to that question that we often hear is some version of preventing damage to the broader economy.

It is worth unpacking that answer. When Institution X fails, the damage falls first on Institution X's equity holders and secondly on Institution X's creditors in reverse order of their seniority. I don't think any reasonable definition of the "broader economy" can include parties that have transacted with Institution X, whether in labor, capital, or product markets. They are in what I would call the "narrow economy of Institution X."

A distant third in the damage lineup to the failure of Institution X is the "broader economy," in which we might reasonably include taxpayers who no longer get to tax the profits of Institution X and potential customers of Institution X who no longer get the consumer surplus associated with transacting with Institution X. But of course it would be crazy for taxpayers to give Institution X money so that some fraction of that money could be paid back as taxes. And the notion that the potential customers of Institution X cannot be served nearly as well by Institution Y -- or the Federal government temporarily standing in for Institution Y -- is just as crazy.

There are some entities in the "narrow economy of Institution X" that have federal insurance protections: bank depositors via the FDIC and workers via the unemployment insurance system. Speaking on behalf of "the broader economy," I have no problems with paying on those insurance claims as needed when Institution X fails. But that's where I draw the line. Small damage to the broader economy is being used as an excuse to transfer large sums to various narrow economies. This practice should stop.


Michael Quinion has an observant note up about a language phenom I hadn't noticed before --"Afpak," as shorthand for "Afghanistan/Pakistan," so as to highlight the fact that "they" are a single theatre of operations (but don't call it an "acronym").

He might have added that, by one account, "Pakistan" is itself an acronym: so here, though I believe this is disputed.