Tuesday, May 12, 2009


We're off to Tunisia to look at Roman ruins (we want to say "Carthage," but I guess we are a couple of thousand years late). Little or no posting until about June 8. Here's a Google map:

I'm going to turn off comments for the duration--no disrespect to my small but sturdy band of commentators, but only to guarantee against spam.

Obscure Parting Shot: My friend Taxmom weighs in to report,""We've decided that if our cul-de-sac is the Mediterranean, we are Carthage, and the mailboxes represent the Pillars of Hercules."

No, I have no idea...

Monday, May 11, 2009

Wups, I Missed It...

I forgot to memorialize the anniversary of what may have been the most momentous single day in the momentous 20th Century--May 20, 1940, the day Winston Churchill came to Downing Street. John Lukacs has made something like a full time occupation lately of documnting the date.

Something I Learned Today

I knew about Latin, Ladin and Ladino, but I had never before heard of Llanito.

Opera: Cenerentola

I don't suspect many people would count Cenerentola as their favorite Rossini opera, but after repeated viewings of Il barbiere di Siviglia , what's a poor Rossini fan to do? Not that there is anything at all wrong with Cenerentola: it has some lovely music and an abundance of that comic ensemble-patter that Rossini does so well. But you don't exactly remember a lot of it--except perhaps for the item recycled from Siviglia itself. You just back and enjoy it while you've got it.

They say that comedy is hard, and farce is harder. I suspect the patter-songs fall in a class with farce in that you've got to achieve the most delicate collaboration between the entire team, and you've got to make the audience believe that you are just making it up as you go along. The Met's current HD version, which we caught on the big screen here in Palookaville Saturday morning, makes that point. They've got Alessandro Corbelli as the wicked stepfather and Simone Alberghini as the crafty servant, and they're both delighted to demonstrate that they've got it nailed (apparently Corbelli did the servant in his youth, so he can play it in three dimensions). John Relyea, who cut his teeth out here in the "young opera star" programs at San Francisco, has a small but decisive role as the fairy godfather (sic?) and gets to play with a sit of silly wings (tech note: this is the second set of silly wings in the just-completed Met season, not so?--they used them for Cupid in Orfeo also--?).

As the handsome prince, Lawrence Brownlee displays an impressive array of technical skills. He seems to have only one facial expression., but romantic tenors aren't supposed to have any more personality than a Labrador Retriever anyway. There is a cute bit of intertextuality at the end when they pose Brownlee on the wedding cake looking for all the world like The Man on the Wedding Cake.

In the title role. Elīna Garanča is lovely to listen to and gorgeous to admire, but as she herself seems to say, Rossini is not quite her dish--she's too relaxed and smooth and never quite gets her heart into the nervous chatter. She said in an intermission interview that she figures she'll be moving on, but if she doesn't do Rossini, how much is there for a mezzo to do?

Bonus Extra: as filler, the Met gave the audience an instant replay of the past season. Mrs.B and I each took the occasion to select out own favorite performance for the year and independently, we reached the same conclusion: Stephanie Blythe in Gluck's Orfeo.


Galumphing around the house at loose ends on my own last night, I flipped on the Kenneth Branagh rendition of the Swedish detective in the PBS Wallander. He does a perfectly creditable piece of work, but it is amazing how formulaic these PBS mysteries have become. Middle-aged guy; prickly on the outside (here, five o'clock shadow), soft on the inside just waiting for a good woman's love. Crimes heavy on outrages against women and children: nothing wrong with any of this but it is clear that these guys believe they have figured out their demographic niche and are determined to show their loyalty to it. It's as predictable as Law & Order.

And You Save on Postage, Too...

My friend Larry writes for money. So from time to time, he gets hits from readers who want him to write for free. Here's one from Dave that popped up in the weekend email:
hello mr. block, I'm a sophomore at xxx. My class is doing a project on the books they picked to read. My book was Hitman, by you of course. I have to answer seven questions about you so here they are;
1. How long have you been writing?
2. How did you sell your first book?
3. Do you ever write with other people?
4. Do you work at home?
5. Do your friends help you write?
6. Have you made any friends by being a writer?
7. Rate your job honestly from 1 to 10.
Thank you for your time and if you don't write back I can understand.

Thank you again.
Always happy to lend a hand to budding talent, Larry responds:
Dave, here's a suggestion which will simplify your life and mine, and at the
same time help prepare you to write fiction:

Make up the answers yourself.


Lawrence Block

Opera Casting

Mrs. Buce offers a constrained maximization problem: you have a limited budget and you have to present both Gotterdamerung and Traviata. How do you allocate your money?

Her point: for Verdi, you've got to have singers, so in Traviata, you can skimp on the orchestra. But for Götterdämmerung, people don't expect to enjoy the singing anyway, as long (I would rephrase) as the orchestra is loud enough.

I see her point. On the other hand, there may also be a substitution problem. If your Violetta catches a cold, there probably a couple of dozen other Verdian sopranos who can make a plausible claim on the role. But for any Wagner role, is there ever any more than one person--anywhere in the world--who is right for the part?

You can surmise my preference here. I'm one of those who believe that a Wagner opera is one where you go at six o'clock and sit for three hours and check your watch and it's 6:20.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Is There an Obama Strategy?

And if so, what is it? Or perhaps more precisely, whose? The question comes to mind on a reading of Leslie Gelb's Power Rules, modestly presented as his memo to the next (i.e., current) President. It's an uneven book--a fair amount of pious gasbaggery (you can skip the first chapter), and more than a hint of "and-so-I-told-the-Pope." (although in fairness, his personal anecdotes are mostly on point). But for all its superficial flatulence, there is a fair amount of hard-headed, specific advice.

A key point: a President neeeds a strategy; otherwise he winds up chasing his own tail. It must set goals; and they must be achievable. Truman had strategy: resist the Soviets by pouring money into Western Europe. He kept at it, and it worked. Bush senior had a strategy: ease the transition form Communism. It worked--thanks not least to Bush's skill at coordinating a talented team. Indeed it worked so well that we can hardly understand it in retrospect--hardly imagine how bad things could have gone wrong if it did not work. Bush junior had a strategy: use Iraq to show the world we can promote democracy. But it didn't work, and we wound up back at (or behind) the line of scrimmage.

Gelb credits Nixon and Kissinger with a strategy, but is more than elaborate flaming-plate throw: use China (and the Yom Kippur War, and arms control) to distract attention from the fact that we'd just lost war. Carter may have had a strategy, but nobody has any idea what it was. Clinton probably didn't (and here is an aside: reading Gelb, it occurs to the reader that one problem with Clinton is that he really didn't like to decide anything--much happier in the seminar room, where the discussion can go on foreve)..

Does Obama have a strategy? It is hard to tell. He has a protean vision, which is not quite the same thing. One doubts that his Secretary of State has a strategy--whatever her virtues, grand vision is just her style. If there is a strategy, then, it may emerge from the other visibile player in the foreign policy arena--Joe Biden, who counts perhaps as a natural ally of Gelb's and a natural conduit from the adviser to the advised.

"And They Fought and They Fit
And They Scratched and They Bit..."

Circular firing quad watch--first, Dick Cheney:

CHENEY: Well, if I had to choose — in terms of being a Republican — I’d go with Rush Limbaugh, I think. My take on it was that Colin had already left the party. I disdn’t know he was still a Republican. [...]

SCHIEFFER: And you said you’d take Rush Limbaugh over Colin Powell?

CHENEY: I would. Politically.

Then Gary Becker:
I believe that the best way to restore the consistency and attractiveness of the conservative movement is for modern conservatism to return to its roots of skepticism toward governmental actions. This involves confidence in the capacity of individuals to make decisions not only in their own interests, but also usually in the interests of society at large. Such a shift in attitudes would require more flexible approaches toward hot button issues like gays in the military, gay marriage, abortions, cell stem research, and toward many other issues of this type. It will not be easy for the Republican Party to emerge from the doldrums if it cannot embrace such a consistently skeptical view of government.

Next, Mike Huckabee:

"Throw the social conservatives the pro-life, pro-family people overboard and the Republican party will be as irrelevant as the Whigs," he said in reference to the American political party that largely disbanded in the mid 1800s.

"They'll basically be a party of gray-haired old men sitting around the country club puffing cigars, sipping brandy and wondering whatever happened to the country. That will be the end of the party," he said in the interview published Thursday.
And finally, something everybody can rally 'round, from Fred Barnes:
Improving the party's image is a worthy cause, but it isn't what Republicans ought to be emphasizing right now. They have a more important mission: to be the party of no.

Another Swipe Hit at the Culture of Radicalism

Was it Winston Churchill who said that the absence of a domestic American radical tradition could be ascribed to the low quality of the toilet paper--nothing to write your manifestos on in prison--? If so, here's more bad news (link):
Belt-Tightening’s Latest Victim: Four-Ply Toilet Tissue

Published: May 7, 2009

LOS ANGELES — The boom times brought many things to Riverside County government — revenues, jobs and enhanced comfort of a private sort. But like most places in America, times are tough, and four-ply toilet tissue must go.
Source: LA Times. H/T: John (which figures).

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Obama at the Correspondent's Dinner

He's no funnier than most other Presidents. Too much cringe-inducing, too much laughing at his own stuff. Axelrod and Iowa was cute, though.

That stuff about "all of you voted for me"--far too close to true for comfort. I voted for him, but I'm not doing their job every day. They ought to have stayed home, or at least put on a false mustache.

For much better political comedy from last night, watch this:

Appreciation: Joan Acocella

I learned more about the dance in the last week than I ever learned in my life before. The occasion would be a thorough reading of Joan Acocella's 28 Artists and Two Saints (2007). It's a collection of New Yorker journalism; it's been lying around the house for a few months because we overlap in our tastes among modern writers: she offers shrewd appraisals of Italo Svevo, Joseph Roth, Primo Levi, Sybille Bedford, Penelope Fitzgerald and othrers, any of whom I would put on an A-list. Apparently it is dance, not writing, that is Acocella's specialty, and on dance I pretty much draw a blank; Mrs. B. told me I went to a Balanchine performance in New York a couple of years ago and I have no memory of it.

Still, Acocella was so shrewd and insightful on the writers that I figured I ought to give her a hearing on her home turf. I'm glad I did: here are nine essays which, taken together, must offer as good an introduction to the dance as you could possibly want--saving only, of course, the dance itelf.

I'm not sure what, precisely, it is that drew her to the dance, but I can see what it is about dance that so suits her talents. Dance is (I think even I understood this) about the most personal of art forms. We've got great paintings by Ignoto and some pretty good prose by Anon. But the dancer is the dance, so much so that they are only imperfectly taken apart. From Acocella I infer that almost any choreographer worthy of the name started off as, and remains, a dancer--they create dances so they will have something to do. Necessarily also, this requires a "company"--an instrument of sorts, through which the dancer/choreography comes to realize her (his?) vision.

Mainting a relationship with a company sounds at least as tricky as managing a polygamous marriage, yet with no promise of heavenly reward. Which brings us to the great tragedy of the dancer's life: it seems that virtually all of them outlive their physical prime, and have to find some way to continue to instrumentalize when the instrument is in liniment.

Which brings us to the point of why all this is so well suited to Acocella's talent. The thing is that--with dancers and writers and others--she is interested no so much in the work per se but in the interaction between work and life. In a superb essay on the life and novels of Hilary Mantel, she says:
[T]he books are extremely funny. This doesn't cancel out the horror. What we are left with is a picture of people--not necessarily good people--muddlingly trying to explain to themselves the pain and unknowability of their lives.
"The unknowability of our lives:" that is good. It is probably true for all of us, and if she concentrates on dancers and other artists, it would be only because their attempts to solve the puzzle are more vivid and on the whole better documented.

She is, thus, perhaps at her best with the "old ladies." That would include women like Suzanne Farrell or Twyla Tharp for whom (as dancers), "old" comes on earlier than it does for writers like Sybille Bedford or M.F.K. Fisher or Penelope Fitzgerald. Perhaps one of the most entertaining bits is an item on the sculptor Louise Bourgeois at 90, posed here with a two-foot crafted penis and a mischievous smile. By corollary, perhaps the one subject who seems to garner any disapproval is Dorothy Parker who did almost everything we remember before she was 35, then lumbered on in an alcoholic haze to past 70.

[Fun Fact: Fisher made it to 83, Fitzgerald to 84, Bedford to 95. Bourgeois, if Wiki is up to date, is still chugging at 97. Every one of them did some or all of their best work past retirement age. Tharp is 67 and Farrell is 63; by any measure their fame has to rest on the past.]

Necessarily perhaps, not everything here works. I never have got the point of Susan Sontag, and Acocella's gushy effusion (they went to the movies together) adds nothing to my understanding. And I'm still unsold on Frank O'Hara who remains, for me, still nothing more than a nostalgia trip for people who like to remember New York before David Dinkins. Fair enough; everyone has their blind spots [the two "saints" of the title are Mary Magdelene and Joan of Arc; each offers the occasion for a bit of cultural history, each interesting in its own way but suficiently distinctive to elude glib comment here]. I suppose my only regret is that I'm now curious to know more about Acocella herself. How did a nice girl from the Oakland hills become such a perceptive and appreciative an observer of the lives of others--and, bye the bye, such a great introduction to the dance?

Not in My Back Yard: The Guantanamo 240

The topic is "prisoners," and particularly prisoners from, in, or related to "war." We learned this week that some Congressmen are getting all squirmy about the prospect having any of those 240 Guantanamo detainees anywhere near their back yard (link). Other commentators have pointed out that we didn't to seem to have a problem bringing 425 thousand POWs--mostly German-- onto our own soil in World War II. At least one commentators says 425 thousand "Nazis," although this is surely inexact. There were probably a true believers--there is a story about some U-Boat captains in Arizona. But mostly, they must have been just German Willies and Joes who counted themselves lucky to be out of the action (it is said they had a lower escape record than ordinary prisoners--quel surprise).

So far, then, the comparison mzay not appear apt. But look at this, folks:at the same time that we were wiling, with scarcely a heartbet, to bring something like 425 thousand foreign POWs to our soil, we were also incarcerating 120 thousand of our own--that would be the Japanese-Americans whom we slapped into camps because they were, well, Japanese. Did somebody say "fear of the other"? Oh, now...

[Is "incarcerate" too strong? Well, where could they go? And what would happen if they tried?]

Friday, May 08, 2009

McGinnis on "A Good Writer"

That's an all-round weird piece in this morning's NYT on Justice Souter's supposed "lack of influence" (except, of course, as the piece itself makes clear, when he had a lot of influence). But the weirdest point of all may be from John O. McGinnis, saying that Obama should look for "a very good writer."

For the life of me, I cannot uinderstand where McGinnis finds the linkage between quality of workmanship and quality of "writing" on the court. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was perhaps, by common measure, the best writer in the history of the court, was in retrospect a hugely unfortunate judge, famous for dismissing or eliding or oversimplifying dificult issues with a quip ("Three generations of idiots is enough" being, perhaps, the most quoted). Benjamin Nathan Cardozo counts as a good writer in some circles (I join the minority which finds him jjust weirdly baroque). But he certainly wasn't a very influential or important presence on the Supreme Court. William O. Douglas could be slippery and evasive. Hugo Blazck could be oversimplistic. Antonin Scalia always sounds to me like a Fox Network talking head.

I suppose it might depend on what you count as good writing. For my money, both Earl Warren and John Marshall were opaque and pedesterian writers. But they had a way of making their points without letting their personal eccentricities gete in the way. William J. Brennan, who might be the most influential judge of our lifetime, turned bad (or at least abstruse) writing into a form of high judicial art: he could slice and dice the language around almost any issue until he got the much-sought-after fifth vote.

For my money, the best of all Supreme Court writers was Robert Jackson. I'd say he was a good enough judge in his way, but hardly a great one. Indeed, his effectiveness as a writer probably goes a long way to obscuring the fact that there were a lot of other less luminescent stylists who were in general as got or better than he at the job.

Steil and Hinds on the Gold Standard

I wish I knew enough about the theory of money to offer a decent of appraisal of Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds, Money, Markets and Sovereignty (2009). It's got an irreproachable publisher (Yale); an honorable sponsor (Council on Foreign Relations) and an array of high-end endorsers. And yet it addresses a topic which I thought of as somewhere new the cold fusion of economic policy—the gold standard, its general virtues and its supposed superiority over mere “fiat money.”

Let's grant that “theory of money” is at least a potentially toxic subject—one that has generated about as much crackb-rained nonsense as, say, phlogiston. Let's grant also—thanks,I knew you would—that I am way above my pay-grade here: my general competence on this one is at the level of the barely informed amateur.

I may have been unintentionally hyped for Steill and Hinds by reading Barry Eichengreen, Globalizing Capital (1998 ), and in particular his history of the modern era, from Bretton Woods through Nixon's “closing the gold window” and beyond. Eichengreen is a superb narrator and (so far a I can tell) no fan of the gold standard. I found his history of the modern period maddening in its apparent complexity. But on sober reflection, I may not be the problem: it may be that the modern system is, in fact, a great adagio dance among smoke an mirrors which only keeps going because it can't quite figure out how to fall over.

Steil and Hinds strongest point is, I think, their argument about the place of “fiat money” (do I detect a sneer here?) in the panoply of monetary policy. Specifically: it's the last bastion of mercantilism. We believe in free trade in raw materials, in value-added resources, in ideas (properly hedged up by IP rights, of course). But in money, we are each sovereign (or supposed to be).

They couch their argument against an admirable (if brief) prehistory of the market idea. They trace at back to the pre-Christian Hellenistic era, when the night was long and the government far away; one had to learn how to define one's life on one's own. They conclude with another brief but equally penetrating account of the idea of sovereignty itself.

In between, they offer a lot of absorbing historical detail that I'd like to hear critically vetted. Did the gold standard in fact function effectively between 1870 and 1914 (reading Eichengreen creates some skepticism)? Is it true that there has never been a country that has not debased its fiat money (I can't think of one)?

If there is problem here, however, it is the one so often urged about leftist critiques: lefties, we say, are always comparing actual capitalism to hypothetical socialism. Here, I think we may a similar problem. Even granted the absorbing history, it seems to me that Steill and Hinds may be comparing actual fiat-money with a hypothetical system of non-state money (they themselves seem to concede that we aren't going back to 1870). The one thing we have (or should have) learned from the collapse of communism is that just getting the state out of the way is not the end of our problem. Even if we do get the state out of the way, what we want to find afterwards is a complex and subtle network of social relationships—property rights, rule of law, transparent accounting. None of these just happen. I suspect that reliable money doesn't just happen either, gold or otherwise. But this is a highly stimulating account on a topic about which I wish I knew more.

Afterthought: Benn? Does anyone pronounce the second "n?"

Ought to Make a Great Tee-Shirt

"Empathize right on your behind!"

[Vote Republican in 2012.]
Quoted: Republican National Chairman Michael Steele, guest-hosting on the talk show of Bill Bennett, moralist and card sharp.

At least he didn't use fleeting explitive.

Twist Endings and Children

Filmjabber has a cute list up of twist endings in movies. I admit I haven't seen most of these, but those I have seen (Pyscho!) certainly qualify. But the list seems to have been assembled by children maybe by oldsters who have lost their long-term memory. Where is Captain's Paradise, for example? Or Kind Hearts and Coronets? I should think you would want to count Some Like it Hot, also; and the (original?) Producers. Or maybe these are just "zinger" endings; maybe comedy is a different item.

Raymond J. Saulnier, RIP

Read the obituary of Raymond Saulnier, in today's NYT--less than a week after Jack Kemp's--and you get a sense how radical the new "conservatism" is compared to the, well, conservative canons of the old.

Saulnier was Ike's inside money man. He played an important role in professionalizing and systematizing the flow of economic/financial information to the Oval Office. But he was as policy man as well, and in this role, he didn't seem to mind being thought something of a sorehead --one suspects he rather reveled in it: if so many people disliked him, he must be doing something right.

We can associate him with two Grand Old (and long since abandoned) Republican first principles: one, balanced budgets. And two, people--especially Republicans--should pay their bills. Which meant taxes, even (perhaps especially) if they hurt. For if they didn't hurt, we probably weren't paying what what we should. Anyway (one couldn't help but suspect) he thought that a little hurt was good for the moral fiber.

Saulnier, who remained intellectually involved until the end of his life, lamented loose financing policies that led us into the current mess. He also said he wished he had spoken out more sharply against loosening financial regulation, years ago when his voice might have helped.

I've always thought that the balanced-budget mantra can get pretty simplistic, not least in the hands of some of its more excitable defenders--don't they understand the concept of asset-for-asset accounting? But I think it's fair to say that Saulnier was always a good deal more sophisticated in his advocacy than some of the lesser lights. On taxes--it would be fun to know whether Saulnier and Kemp ever met, and if so, what they said to each other.

Give Away the Pipes, Sell the Bubbles: Amazon Div.

I see that Amazon has introduced its second new Kindle this year--this one at $489. For so many reasons, this is a business that makes less and less sense. As many people have pointed out, this is a product for which the marginal cost is essentially zero: once you've digitalized the book, you don't have to pay for anything except a throb on the ethernet--no ink, no paper, no warehouse, no shipping, zip. Someone has conned Yglesias into reporting "that the post-cleanup conversion process is sufficiently expensive that, at this point, publishers are generally losing money on their Kindle sales." Unless they are digitalizing by carving with obsidian chips on sandstone, this seems vastly unlikely to me. But if true, it raises the larger question--why charge so much for the support system. My friend in the book biz points out--the Kindle is basically a razor, where you want to give away the support system so's you can make it on extra sales. At zero fixed cost (to the customer), you'd sell enough copies of almost anything to justify the digitalizing.

Free Kindles for all! What a program! Of course I never understood Amazon's business model in the first place.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Diplomacy Watch: Bolton Goes All Pinko

Steve Benen mocks John Bolton for thinking that the "Waterboard Six" are being subject to a "Spanish Inquistion." Benen is quite right to mock, but I am even more astounded by another line in the Bolton screed--the one where he says:
Behind-the-scenes diplomacy is often the best, and sometimes the only, way to accomplish important policy objectives
Hu-lo, is this John Bolton talking here? The John Bolton, going all pinko pansy pussyfooting State Department on us? Where's the macho bluster, big guy? Haven't we been told for eight years now that bluster is the only way to show 'em who's boss?

John Bolton coming out for quiet diplomacy is about like this lady coming out in favor of the search warrant.

There Are No Libertarians: Viagra Ads Dept.

I something snide the other day about the regulation of Viagra ads. My friend Desconhecido weighs in with an observation on the nature of freedom:
I've always enjoyed the fact that people get angry over the use of sex to sell Viagra or condoms, but they are fine with ads that use sex to sell cars, computers, all sorts of chazzerai. I guess you can use sex to promote anything except sex.

I told a neighbor years ago that the way we keep our kid from seeing all the objectionable stuff she was complaining about was not to have cable or internet at home. ... [M]y neighbor was just fine with having the government censor what's on tv, but she was horrified at the suggestion that she would have to take responsibility for what came into her home or telling her kids no. Love it.
A while back a fella told me about Rep. Mary Bono, Sonny's widow, endorsing a censorship bill because parents on their own can't resist the peer pressure. Hu-lo, isn't that what we signed up for?

Meanwhile Ignoto says that "no Viagra before 10 pm" is a loser because all the guys who need it are asleep by 930.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Wondered When This Was Going to Happen

AP reports that wireless-only homes now outnumber landline-only homes, 20 percent to 17 percent (link).


for the new tagline to this guy, truly a scholasticus inter scholasticos or even, as he might prefer, doctus inter doctos.

My Problem with Ford Madox Ford

is pretty much the same as my problem with Herodotus: I can't figure out to what extent he is in on the joke. Granted that Herodotus is a long way away; but it may be that Edwardian England, truly understood, is nearly as far. That's the thought foremost in my mind as a heave on midway through Parade's End, Ford's tetralogy of World War I.

Case in point: Ford, whom Hemingway with characteristic unkind accuracy described as a "golden walrus," apparently had an unaccountable Way with the Ladies. One can only gaze, and admire. But would Ford follow the pattern of his novelistic hero and proposition a potential new conquest with the phrase: "Will you become my mistress tonight?"--adding, with romantic suavity, "I am going out to-morrow at 8.30 from Waterloo,"

I know; it beggars all expectation to suppose that the Heir of Groby in 1917 would have offered anything on the order of "how 'bout droppin' your knickers, chickie babie?" But Ford's actual offering is so unfamiliar that Mrs. B thought it must be a misreading or a baroque form of parody. It was no misreading; Ford repeats it more than once.

Which leaves a question: is Ford's line: (1) straight reporting of what an Edwardian gent would (a) have said; or (b) be thought by Ford to have said--or (2) some sort of rich, subtle and complicated irony?

Despite a long career of watching PBS Sunday night soapers, I am sufficiently unfamiliar with Edwardian manners absolutely to reject (1)(a); I would like to believe it is (2), but I'm not so sure. Ford's irony, if that is what it is, is subtle to the point of evanescence.

A more general example. This protagonist, the Heir of Groby--Christopher Tietjens--is presented repeatadly as a paragon both of virtue and of competence. Again, the question is how we take this. For comparison: no question that novelistic ur-hero, Don Quixote is (a) the last of the gentlemen; and (b) bathed in irony. That is why he is so enduring. With Tietjens, the evidence is harder to evaluate. As to competence, we really don't have much evidence, except the suggestion that he is good at arithmetic. As to virtue, he seems to hew to a standard known only to himself.

Do we catch a twinkle in Ford's eye? It's hard to catch it--harder still when you realize as described, appears to look a lot like Ford himself.

I mock, I vulgarize. I suppose the nearest can offer as defense is the ploy of impatience: Ford's presentation is complex, leisured, loaded with ellipses and exclamation points. For these and other reasons, it can be maddening. And yet, and yet... and yet at the same time, it is oddly hypnotic. Ford seems to have put thought into every line; his presentation, if leisured, is also loving. One wants to throw it across the room--and yet one does not want to let go. I'm pretty sure I will stick with it. At least I will be to savor passages like this:
Obviously he was not immune from the seven deadly sins, in the way of a man. One might lie, yet not bear false witness against a neighbor; one might kill, yet not without fitting provocation or for self-interest; one might conceive of theft as reiving cattle from the false Scots which was the Yorkshireman's duty; one might fornicate, obviously, as long as you did not fuss about it unhealthily. That was the right of the Seigneur ina world of Other Ranks. He hadn't personally committed any of these sins to any great extent. One reserved the right so to do and to take the consequences.
I'm not at all sure I know what to make of all that, but I love it, and I know I want more.

There, That About Covers It

Last week, we learned that the Swiss can't flush their toilets after 10. Now: no Viagra before 10.

H/T, John, who keeps checking his watch.

Subway Tails Tales

When my kids were 12/14, we sojourned for a while in London, up near Regents Park. They learned how to pop a 25p underground ticket into the fare box at Camden Town and ride all day long, being careful only to exit at the same station.

Now Joel points to this.

Fn.: 25 p fare. Yes, a long time ago.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Nothing to See Here, Folks, Move Along

Not one word of this post is new but it might be useful to keep repeating it until we have it drummed into our memory, so we know who we are:
(1) attention grasp,

(2) walling,

(3) facial hold,

(4) facial slap (insult slap),

(5) cramped confinement,

(6) wall standing,

(7) stress positions,

(8) sleep deprivation,

(9) insects placed in a confinement box, and

(10) the waterboard.
Source: Memorandum of Jay S. Bybee, August 1, 2002.

Kinda Sorta New Afterthought: Why "the waterboard?" Why not just "waterboarding?" Could it be that the blunt nominative is supposed to inspire more awe and teror than the more supple gerund? Or does the blunt nominative do a better job of uncoupling the affront from human agency (can these both be true together?)? The knout, the noose, the rack, the iron maiden? The Spanish Inquisition?

When I was in grammar school, we used to talk about "the hosepipe." "You better be careful or you gonna get the hosepipe"--the unimaginable, the ultimate, the punishment most feared. From my eight years there, I know of no confirmed case of anyone ever receiving "the hosepipe." The threats always came, be it noted, not from adults but from children. My guess it was a fiction, a figment of our dark imagination. Too bad you can't say the same about the waterboard.

The Big Tent

Let's see, how can we expand the Republican platform beyond the mere support of torture? Oh, I've got it--let's come out against empathy.

The Mini-MacArthurs

I'm as impressed as the next guy with the trend among mega law firms to offer prospective (or junior) associates hard cash to just go away for a while. Sure, it sounds like subsidized fun and games--"Just remember $65,000 goes a long ways in Mexico." But you could think of it also as sort of a Mini-MacArthur Grant. Go solve the Collatz Problem, for example. Or bind the feet of a leper. My recollection is that some pretty impressive scholarly careers were founded in the 30s by people who stayed in school because there wasn't any point in leaving.

Go ahead, do some good. And it might even look good on the resume.

("MacArthur Grant," says Patrick--"two of my favorite generals.")

Monday, May 04, 2009

Why Is Souter Leaving the Court?

You know, on sober second thought, all this stuff about David Souter wanting to get back to his beloved New Hampshire--I'm just not buyin' it. Two reasons, overlapping.

One, how quickly we forget: recall it was Souter who (in the words of Jeffrey Toobin) "was shattered" by Bush v. Gore:
His whole life was being a judge. He came from a tradition where the independence of the judiciary was the foundation of the rule of law. And Souter believed Bush v. Gore mocked that tradition. His colleagues' actions were so transparently, so crudely partisan that Souter thought he might not be able to serve with them any more.
And it wasn't just his adversaries; as Toobin makes clear, Souter found himself estranged even from his friends:
He was, fundamentally, a very different person from his colleagues. It wasn't just that they had immediate families; their lives off the bench were entirely unlike his. They went to parties and conferences; they gave speeches; they mingled in Washington, where cynicism about everything, including the work of the Supreme Court, was universal. Toughened, or coarsened, by their worldly lives, the other dissenters could shrug and move on, but Souter couldn't.

--Jeffrey Toobin, The Nine 207-8 (2007)
So, Bush v. Gore. That's one reason. The second reason is that Souter doesn't need to leave the Court to go back to New Hampshire. Justice John Paul Stevens has been living in Florida for years. True, his physical absence may have something to do with the fact that Stevens has never been much of an intellectual influence on any of his colleagues--contrast Souter who made his biggest impact in alliance with Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy. (Apparently) true also that Souter doesn't like the internet. But that's why God created law clerks. If aversion to Washington was his problem, there was any easy way out, and he didn't take it. I'd say he is embittered with the Court.

My Cousin Dodie and Mr. Snitznoodle

My cousin Dodie died a couple of days ago. He was 91; the oldest of his familial cohort, though not the first to go. That leaves four of us: my cousins Carl and David, and my sister Sally, and me. We could have a tontine, but it might not be fair: I'm the youngest.

I have one vivid memory of Dodie from the beginning of World War II. I was a six-year-old; he was a young military officer. He came to our house one day all resplendent in his uniform; I was (and I think others were) n awe.

But here's a part I didn't put together until much later. Evidently I dragooned Dodie into singing "Happy Birthday" to my imaginary playmate, Mr. Snitznoodle. As I learned later, apparently my mother was mortified. But Dodie, by all the evidence, executed the assignment with grace and charm.

Recounting this story earlier today, I said that I hadn't heard of Mr. Snitznoodle since 1942. But then I set my mind to work. Surely so vivid and specific a figure--surely Mr. Snitznoodle could not have been original with me.

And--well, God bless Google. Straight from the files of the Oswego (NY?) Palladium, Dec. 11, 1923--the Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy:
Just then Raggedy Andy and Mr. Wooky walked in. "Here's a new friend! Raggedy Andy said. "This is Mister Snitznoodle! he said.

The Snitznoodle ws very gentlemanly. He took off his hat and shook hands with everyone. "What sweet children you have, Mrs. Cook-it!" he said.
Let's stipulate that I wasn't around in 1923, but this is pretty much as I remember him. So, problem solved, at least in part. As I say, I lost track of him after that; I hope he had a good war.

Dodie, for his part, had a good war. So far as I know: in fact we never knew each other all tht well. At least he survived it, and a lot more besides: he married and raised a family and enjoyed a distinguished academic career, and died full of years and honor, quietly in his sleep.

OnThis Day...

Joel calls our attention to the fact that on this day in 1891, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moriarty fell to their deaths in the gorge at the Reichenbach Falls:
...we had not gone to the end of the path, and the Alpine-stock marked the place where we had stood. The blackish soil is kept forever soft by the incessant drift of spray, and a bird would leave its tread upon it. Two lines of footmarks were clearly marked along the farther end of the path, both leading away from me. There were none returning. A few yards from the end the soil was all ploughed up into a patch of mud, and the branches and ferns which fringed the chasm were torn and bedraggled. I lay upon my face and peered over with the spray spouting up all around me. It had darkened since I left, and now I could only see here and there the glistening of moisture upon the black walls, and far away down at the end of the shaft the gleam of the broken water. I shouted; but only the same half-human cry of the fall was borne back to my ears.
--Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Final Problem," in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes,
Gutenberg ed. at 183

Or maybe not: we know that Doyle later "revived" Holmes and set him on to further adventures. Conventional wisdom says that Doyle "intended" "The Final Problem" to be the final Holmes story, but this strikes me as disingenuous. The story on its face appears to be so crafted as to allow for a miraculous resurrection. The directors and staff here at Underbelly Central hope the good folk at Mierengen -- in Bern, Switzerland, the real-life scene of the fictional adventure--are enjoying (or did enjoy) a profitable day, with the support of the Swiss Tourist Board.

Kaufmann's Carmen

Prompted by a favorable Opera News review, Chez Buce took a flyer on the new(ish) Carmen from Covent Garden in 2006-7. We'd rank as, if possibly not the best, then still the most remarkable Carmen we've ever seen. There are a lot of good things about this production. You've got sprightly and energetic conducting by Antonio Pappano, who (is it he?) also manages to extract a full measure of spooky otherness from Bizet's distinctive harmonies. You've got a fine chorus, with a well-developed sense of the dramatic, and some wonderful costuming--I can't remember ever seeing a chorus where so many choristers looked like individuals with their own stories to tell. You've got creditable performances from Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (as Escamillo) and Norah Amsellem (as Micaëla)--neither role easy to make convincing or interesting. Recognizing that so much quality does not happen by accident, this must all count as a triumph for Francesca Zambello as the director.

Or I suppose you could say "directress." Much has been made of the fact that this is a woman's Carmen, but if so, it is all the more ironic that the runaway success of the performance is Jonas Kaufmann as Don José who just owns this show from curtain to curtain: I've never seen anyone come close to squeezing so much juice out of this clueless, benighted and hormone-driven young nee'er-do-well. Maybe the remorseless combination of blind lust and masculine dopiness is something only a woman (director) could undertand. Whatever: Kaufmann has it nailed, with all the qualities of emotion and character that you are just never going to find in, say, that prince of all operatic tenors, Placido Domingo.

Which leaves Anna Caterina Antonacci in the title role and this is a more complicated case. You've got to like her, and want to root for her: she's got a lovely voice, and she's obviously worked hard to pay her dues here, with impeccable attention to detail (others have commented on her careful French). The trouble is, she just isn't Carmen: for all her effort, she can't seem to bring up the hunger and the ferality of this ultimate opertic bad girl. It's a bloody shame, and you might not even notice if her Don José wasn't so remarkable.

It might be that "two" would be "too much" here. It strikes me that I've never seen a performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth in which both the title character and his lady are well played. This may not be an accident: maybe a fully cast Carmen, like a fully cast Macbeth would be just more than the audience could stand.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

A Judge with "The Quality of Empathy"

Critics have heaped a good deal of derision on the President for saying he is looking for a judge empathy, a judge who understands life as the people know it. It's a legitimate line of attack. Thurgood Marshall was probably as streetwise a judge as we've seen in my lifetime (and a hero to me). And he certainly was a Man of the People--a boozing, skirt-chasing old hound who would have made a wonderful companion for a night out. He was also, and not incidentally, a fearless fighter for justice who succeeded by his courage and pluck; we were lucky to have him and we are forever in his debt. But as a judge, he was pretty mediocre. By contrast David Souter--bookish, private to the point of eccentricity, the last guy in the world you'd expect to see out on a carouse with Justice Marshall, turned out to be pretty good at the job.

But I think there is another way of looking at the empathy issue. Consider the notorious Jay Bybee, and in particular, that weird "defense" mounted by his "friends"--if that is what they are. The fulcrum of the Bybee defense seems to be that he was just a man of the law, and if somebody happened to get hurt in the process, why he can only be shocked and surprised. Some may call this principle; to others this will sound like a schizoid division of hand and heart. A somewhat different (but equally telling) example is the still-new chief Justice, John Roberts. I wouldn't say Roberts is a Bybee: quite the contrary, he seems to carry himself with an almost irreproachable deportment, marrying a formidable technical apparatus with an unbroken record of civility and good manners (Bullyboy Scalia, please copy). It's not that he really wants to hurt anybody; I wouldn't even call him "ruthless." It's just that he doesn't give a damn. Is it W.H.Auden who said that there is no more dangerous combination and a hard heart.

If the choice is between a Marshall (whom I love, but can't quite admire) and Roberts (who commands respect, but neither seeks nor invites affection), then I'd say we've got a pretty poor set of choices, indeed. Seems to me that we might want to look for something else: a decent mix of a complex of qualities--decency and civility, a capacity to listen, a trace of compassion. And, oh yes, technical skill beyond the ordinary in the working materials of the court. I don't know whether this is what Obama has in mind when he talks of empathy, but I certainly hope so.

Time to Go, Arlen

One of the things I've always liked about Arlen Spector is that he--as distinct from almost everybody else in politics--doesn't really care whether you like him or not. He knows that he has to find allies, to identify common interests, to make details. And he certainly enjoys power: he doesn't have much doubt that life would be better for everybody if he were in charge. He certainly feels (and not without reason) that he is, if not smarter than most people, then at least better informed and harder working (and maybe smarter, too). But he's refreshingly lacking in that narcissism that can be the defining feaature --and the bane--of lesser and even greater men.

No surise, then, that he had the chutzpah to jump ship on the Republican party when he figured he couldn't deal there any long, full well understanding (as he must have understood) that he would outrage his old allies and not win a lot of applause from his new. Consistent with this view, a large part of me wants to say: go for it, ol' buddy. Make the deals you can, recognizing (as you surely recognize) that you face a new set of demands which require a different calculus.

But there is anothere issue that isn't necessarily captured in the old loyalty-betrayal stuff. Put it this way: Arlen Spector is not the indispensable man. Pennsylvania does not need to have him as senaator: they've survived worse and they've enjoyed better. Or even if not better, at least different. "Different" meaning able to respond to new challenges in new ways. Arlen, you've been in the Senate since 1960. Per Wiki, you are the 12th in Senate seniority, and fifth oldest. Aaron Schock, the Republican Congressman from Peoria, wasn't even born when you took your seat. Life will go on when you are pushing up daisies--even when you are just out to pasture, and watching the daisies grow.

They say that Joe Sestak is flirting with the idea of a primary run against you. It's a remarkable race where a retired rear admiral will qualify as "young:" Sestak was born in 1951, the year you got your Phi Beta Kappa from Penn. Is Joe Sestak the right man for Pennsylvania? Hell, who knows? Certainly not I, who have never paid attention to him until just now. And is there ever a right man, except in the eyes of the man himself? But it's time to go, Arlen--not for your skills at betrayal, in an institution where (as you rightly understand) loyalty never counted for much. And not because you weren't good at what you do. But nobody is indispensable. Arlen, it's time to go.

Napoo Finny

Napoo Finny: it's a new one on me; you can find it Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not..., Chapter IV:
But over the doorsill of that place the foot of Tietjens was never going to go! Never! It would mean a good deal of unpleasantness; or rather it would mean one sharp: "C-r-r-unch!" And then: Napoo finny!
That's page 244 of my Vintage Edition of Parade's End, the tetralogy of which Some Do Not ... forms the first part. Or better in Chapter V (p. 266) here's Christopher's great love, Valentine Wannop:
She surrendered. She waited for him to speak the word, or look the look that should unite them. She was finished. Chastity: napoo finny!
To my utter astonishment (but why should I be astonished?) I find a perfectly plausible etymology and definition at Wordie:
Bastardization of the French "n'y a plus; fini" meaning "no more".
H/T "Madmouth," who is said to have added ",171 words, 22 lists, 590 comments, and 358 tags" to Wordie, so maybe s/he knows what s/he is talking about.

Jack Kemp RIP

Someone once said that the only two American (white) politicians comfortable among blacks were Bill Bradley and Jack Kemp. The common thread is obvious enough: both were former pro athletes. But it's more than that. Bradley, after all, could seem reserved and off-putting among whites. With Kemp, it was a reminder that here was a generally open guy, optimistic, positive, so comfortable in his own skin that he didn't have to care about its color.

These are refreshing qualities in any politician, perhaps most remarkably so in a party with a hallowed tradition of not overvaluing the human product. I've always thought that Jack Kemp's signature issue of "supply side economics" was megabollocks, but I never doubted that he believed it, and believed it for the best possible of reasons: he wanted a world in which everybody had a chance to flourish free of artificial restraint. It's a quality forgivable at worst, admirable at best, and it left you with the sense of Kemp as one of those rare politicians who might actually be likable outside the arena--whether athletic or political. We could use a few more like that; it's a shame to lose even one.

Afterthought: That quip about Kemp and Bradley I suppose predates the advent of the nation's first black president, Bill Clinton. An exercise left for the reader is how it applies to the incumbent who (though I like him) strikes me as one of the most emotionally remote occupants of high office in living memory.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Who's The Lucky Fellow?

From a report on the Berkshire shareholder's meeting:
To illustrate the challenges the nation faced last year, Buffett showed a sales receipt for $5 million in U.S. Treasury bonds that Berkshire sold in December for $90.07 more than face value, ensuring a negative return for the buyer. Buffett said he doesn't think most investors will see negative returns on U.S. bonds again in their lifetimes.
Link. Have heard it said that a lot of Japanese lendindg in the 90s was de facto negative, as banks struggled to blind themselves to the parlous reality. But may we know the name of the lucky fellow who has enough money to buy a bond but can't afford a Posturepedic?

H/T: Aaron.

Welcome Home,David!

Readers bemused by the spectacle of Supreme Court Justice David Souter trudging home to his simple farmhouse in Weare, New Hampshire, may wish to recall that it was Weare that gave a thought to confiscating this simple farmhouse in retaliation for Souter's vote in Kelo v.New London, the Supreme Court's notorious eminent domain case. Admittedly in the end,the confiscation game turned out to be more media event than reality: a ballot measure for the projecct went down two-one, and a couple of candidates who had talked it up failed to win office (cf. link). As it happens, I think Kelo was wrongly decided, but this confiscation silliness is what gives conservatives a bad name.

Readers eager to retain their image of Weare as a quaint country town will be gratified to know that voters of Weare have rejected a recommendation from the Selectmen to spend $7,000 on fireworks for a community celebration. The vote was 747-746.

[Oh, and if you are bringing your brush to the Transfer Station, please call ahead to make sure they'll accept it.]

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Planets are in Convergence.

"I always said that if a black man was elected president, pigs would fly."

"Obama day 100: swine flu."

[Second hand from what must be the rarest of all creatures: a John Bircher with a sense of humor.]

Swine Flu: The Porn Star Protection

"Let me shake the hand that wrote Ulysses!" an admirer is said to have demanded of James Joyce. "Argh, you wouldn't want to do that," responded the Irish imp, "Ye've no idea what else it's done."

Shift the spotlight to Ron Jeremy, "legendary porn star," who explains "the porn handshake:"
Apparently ... when two porn stars meet on set instead of shaking hands, for who knows where those hands have been, they touch right elbow to right elbow. So I started doing this, because of my damaged hand, and for a while this became known as the "quant handshake." It only really caught on within a very small circle and then died out.
So Paul Wilmott, suggesting that it might make a pretty good protection against swine flu (though what this is doing in a blog on quant finance is an exercise left to the reader). I say it might also explain this:

Wonder If She Ever Strangled a Chicken

Well, God Save Her! The Wichita bureau calls our attention to the fact that some €500,000 in farm subsidy payments last year went to (hats off) the Queen--Her Majesty, Elizabeth II, which ought to explain the gracious smirk smile on her face in the link from Bild.de.

It's nice to be able to put a face on this sort of thing. American farm subsidies, which almost certainly deserve their name as our most generous corporate welfare program, are far too often opaque, hidden behind the mind-numbing brand names of corporations or (ha!) cooperatives. Here, for example is EWG's list of top porkers for 2006; not a sentient human being among them. You can do a little better if you punch down to the local level. Here, for example is the list for San Francisco. It includes a few of what you might call "real people," but I wouldn't check for calluses.