Tuesday, June 30, 2009

This Guy is Something Else

News Item:
[Governor Mark Sanford last week] said he had seen his mistress three times in the past year. But he told The Associated Press on Tuesday he had met with Maria Belen Chapur seven times, including five visits in the past 12 months.
Link. Did I say five visits in 12 months, your honor? How silly of me, I meant 12 visits in five months.


88 years old, granny! Ever been bedridden?

Oh yes, and once in a sleigh. ...

Statistician Joke

New to me, at least:

The average American has one testicle and one ovary.

Recalls to mind a piece in the Economist a few years back noting that at the end of World War II, the average Briton had only one pair of pants. Prompting a letter writer to inquire: does this mean that half of them had none?

Norm!!! Al!!!

So the people have spoken and Minnesota has its Senator at last (I gather Coleman will not press on for an injunction in the Federal courts?). This is as it should be, and long overdue. Still, we might as well remind ourselves that Minnesota, once near-universally regarded as among the best governed polities in the nation (if not the planet) has now followed up its choice of an underemployed ex-wrestler for the governorship with the choice of an only-mildly-funny comic for the Senate.

On the other hand, I suppose you might say that Minnesota's other Senator is one of the best-equipped, conscientious and perhaps even talented members of that sometimes-august body. One for two ain't bad.

Effficient Markets:A Eulogy for the Undead

Seems that everybody and his Aunt Maude are declaring the Efficient Capital Market Hypothesis to be dead, at least for the time being--another one of many casualties of the late meltdown. I think the conventional wisdom is probably right on this one (wisdom of crowds, again!) although I'm not sure I've seen anybody do a satisfactory job of explaining just exactly what it is that is dead, and/or what it is dead about it.

Let me offer this chicken-scratch first draft.

First, as to what is ECMH: there is a lot of loose talk out there about how "we" used to believe that "markets" were "right" (i.e., and guess what--markets are not always right).

I think this is a vast, crude, even a grotesque, oversimplification. Say rather: the market "impounds" at any given time any information that may influence a market price. This is a much narrower claim, armored up with any number of potential qualifications that may limit its falsifiability. In particular, as cast here it makes no important claim to "rightness" at all(contrast, e.g., the trivial claim that the claim itself is "right"). Rather, it is entirely consistent with the claim that the market is vastly, crudely, grotesquely wrong about the future--adding that it will change its mind when it knows better.

Taken at least as a counsel of prudence, I think this take on ECMH is a vastly important insight. It is a reminder, first, that all the charlatanism of the ragtag army of seers, hucksters and assorted conmen who tell you that you can out think the market--all these are worth nothing more than the gas they exhale.

Some will say this is axiomatically self-evident, but it is amazing how often the point is lost on my students. Quite a goodly number--indeed, of those who have given any thought to the matter, almost all--show up serene in their assurance that they are able to beat the market or (what comes close to the same thing) that they will be after undertaking the relatively modest effort necessary to compete my course. I'm not at all clear from whence this cheery optimism arises; my best guess is that it has something to do withe their past in what Dierdre McCloskey calls the benign Christian socialism of the American family: the conviction that the world is a well-governed place calibrated to confer bounties upon them, and that it will continue to do so.

I have always regarded as my post important public function to knock the stuffing out of this belief and to convince them that there is nothing, absolutely nothing,that can guarantee them wealth except a large inheritance, unexampled good luck and, oh yes, perhaps diligent and relentless hard work. I should add that in this, as in most other endeavors, I am rarely successful.

But there is another way of looking at ECMH in which it appears as not so anodyne. That is: even if ECMH makes no claim that the market is "always right"--still the question remains: how could it be so spectacularly crashingly catastrophically wrong? It's one thing to tell us we are all sheep chewing on the same stubble. Why couldn't it have warned us that we are all lemmings charging off the same cliff?

I suppose the proponents of ECMH would say--well, never said you weren't lemmings. We only said you couldn't find it in the data. True enough, perhaps, but lame and evasive, in the manner of "no controlling legal authority." Somebody--Paul Kedrosky?--has remarked that ECMH seems to be interesting only when it is of no use. More or less on the order of Kafka's Messiah, who will come only when he is no longer necessary.

It's talk like this, of course, which brings us to the next round--the attempt to identify and anticipate lemming-like behavior. It's sending the theorists back to their (uncut) copies of Hyman Minsky. It's pushing this book up to #296 on the Amazon chart. It's motivating a large body of literature whose main theme seems to be--oh, we forgot to tell you, folks.... Whether anyone will succeed in locking this particular barn now that this particular horse is stolen is a quesetion that remains to be answered. Meanwhile ECMH is down there at the end of the bar, looking lonely and a little shopworn and frazzled, but alive and just as true as it was all along. Which is to say, sadly, not true enough.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Greenwald on Ricci

I may be in a minority of one on Ricci. I think the Supreme Court's decision demonstrates that Judge Sotomayor was not "out of the mainstream" (yuk) in ruling as she did. I also think the Surpeme Court got Ricci right. Glenn Greenwald canvasses the arguments--the good and the bad. But I invite particular attention to Greenwald on the E word:
The irony of using Ricci against Sotomayor has always been that the reason this case resonates for so many people is due to empathy for the white firefighters. That irony is underscored by today's ruling, as Justice Kennedy devotes multiple paragraphs at the beginning of his opinion to highlighting all of the facts (as opposed to legal arguments) which make people sympathetic to Ricci. Conversely, Justice Ginsburg, writing for the dissenters, noted upfront that the white firefighters "understandably attract this Court's sympathy," but it must be the law -- i.e., long-standing legal precedent and the purpose of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act -- which determines the outcome.

From the start, those protesting Sotomayor's decision in Ricci did so by appealing not to law, but to emotion, non-legal precepts of "fairness" and empathy -- at the very same time that those very same people mocked the notion that those considerations should play any role in judicial decision-making.

Shorter Glenn Greenwald: empathy is okay for supporters of white firefighters, not okay for Judge Sotomayor. Got it.

The Big Builder Problem

Mark Zandi in Financial Shock, his whodunit about the current mess, showcases one issue I hadn't given much thought to before: the role of the builders. Zandi points out that home building traditionally has been low-rent, marginal and undercapitalized: typically one guy with a bunch of addresses in his shirt pocket, overdrawn on his credit line at the bank. That's why God created bonding requirements, mechanics' lien statutes, and criminal penalties for failure to pay subs and suppliers.

Over the last generation, that has changed. There still are plenty of shirt-tail home builders, of coufrse. But Yahoo Finance reports that the four top companies have an aggregate market cap moving on $8 billion.

As Zandi points out, this was supposed to be a Good Thing--bringing in a strong capital base and sophisticated management was supposed to stabilize the industry.

Of course nothing of the sort happened. No doubt there are exceptions, but as a whole, home builders acted just as stupidly and suicidally as bankers. all continuing to rattle the tools without seeming to recognize that the thing they were sawing off was the branch that they sat on.

I suspect you can add this to the lenghtening list of episodes in which a plausible and even compelling "economic" story turned out to be a lot less science than PR hype. I'm not nearly well enough informed myself even to guess what might have happened, but it must have been some combination of (a) suicidal optimism (this time, it's different!) and (b) settled knavery (we'll get our money off the table before the anybody notices that the party is over). Anyway, one more time: welcome to the new world.

Restaurant Marketing Note: Oyster Bar

My friend Ignoto is lately back from DC where he stopped at an oyster bar. As they were blissfully composting their lunch, a server showed up with a try of little chocolate bits and said, "we don't do dessert, but these are on the house."

Say, what? It's an article of faith that dessert (next to booze) is where you make the money in the restaurant trade. What gives with giving it away?

Best guess? There's so little work in preparing an oyster that the oysters are a profit item all in themselves. The chocolates are to get you out of there. Like the waitress in bobby sox who noisily refilled your coffee cup to get you to say "no thanks, I've had enough."

At Least It Wasn't a Boy...

...says John:

Attorney: Doctor found Jackson in bed with pulse


Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Little Daylight Music

My friend Toni just stopped by my coffee shop table to remark on how nice it is to hang out in a spot that pipes in a Beethoven trio. She's right. of course, but it triggered the memory of a more complex venue. I was sojourning in central London; you could get great bread from an Italian bake shop down in Soho. Walking home with a fresh score, you'd pass the coffee shops that were juicing up the morning lineup with--through the open windows--a strong dose of Mozart.

You'd also pass the hookers who, apparently having failed to make their nut for the night before, were still out there in their black net stockings trying to cadge their own trade.

Fresh bread, stale hookers and Mozart: my, that takes me back.

Besides, 99+3=102.

Today's quote:
[Economists] wish that 99 percent of economic behavior could be captured by three simple laws of nature. In fact, economists have 99 laws that capturethree percent of behavior. Economics is a uniquely human endeavor ..."
That's MIT Finance Prof Andrew Loh, quoted here.

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble....

Tom Weber puzzles over the mysteries of making money:
Remember when charging $2 for a cup of coffee sounded wacky? When Starbucks arrived in cities across the U.S., it didn’t just bring a better (to some) cup of joe. It also created an environment intended to increase coffee enjoyment—bringing comfy chairs and room to sit. In most of my local Starbucks, those chairs have been replaced by less comfortable, more efficient versions—but the price point of coffee has been moved higher forever.
Well, he's right about the $2 part--high priced coffee was a major inflection point (and let's not even talk about putting on a bit of whipped cream and cinnamon and charging $5.95). But I'm not sure it has anything to do with providing a nice environment, or, indeed, providing anything at all. There had been coffee shops with comfy chairs for years that simply didn't have the balls brass to stick you for half an hours' pay for a cuppa joe. The real genius was the one who realized you could get more money just by asking for it.

There are limits here, of course. If tomatoes are going for a buck a pound at the Farmer's Market, I won't get to go home happy just by charging a buck ten. But there seem (in retrospect!) to be an amazing number of products where, if you say: "how about paying twice, five times, twenty times, what the product is really worth?"--the customer will say "oh--okay."

There's probably an impressive range of stuff for which this turns out to be true. My own pet example is still greeting cards. Children: those things used to sell for pennies--i.e., just about what, on a liberal definition, they are actually worth. Maybe the iconic genius of modern capitalism was former Nixon Treasury Secretary William E. Simon, when turned $330,000 into $66 million in 18 months when he flipped Gibson, an obscure second-tier provider of cardboard and crayoning into a first-class money machine.

The other great example, of course, is executive compensation. How else to explain, e.g., Stan O'Neal walking away from the charred wreckage of Merrill Lynch with a $160 million severance check? I love it: Stan O'Neal as the decaf soy macchiato of the corporate world.

Weber, by the way, doesn't seem to believe his own analysis. A nanosecond after that stuff about chairs, he concedes:
In most of my local Starbucks, those chairs have been replaced by less comfortable, more efficient versions—but the price point of coffee has been moved higher forever.
And in any event, his real topic is not coffee, but the Kindle, Amazon's overpriced and underpowered laptop computer--the question of how, and if, it will succeed. Weber's analysis: the secret is that it is overpriced and underpowered. Go read him for yourelf.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Evangelical Elks Club

This one is all over the blogosphere today, but Joel gets the price for cute headline (supra):
The Political Enclave That Dare Not Speak Its Name

The Sanford and Ensign Scandals Open a Door On Previously Secretive 'C Street' Spiritual Haven

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009

No sign explains the prim and proper red brick house on C Street SE.

Nothing hints at its secrets.

It blends into the streetscape, tucked behind the Library of Congress, a few steps from the Cannon House Office Building, a few more steps to the Capitol. This is just the way its residents want it to be. Almost invisible.

But through one week's events, this stately old pad -- a pile of sturdy brick that once housed a convent -- has become the very nexus of American scandal, a curious marker in the gallery of capital shame. Mark Sanford, South Carolina's disgraced Republican governor and a former congressman, looked here for answers -- for support, for the word of God -- as his marriage crumbled over his affair with an Argentine woman. John Ensign, the senator from Nevada who just seven days earlier also was forced to admit a career-shattering affair, lives there.

"C Street," Sanford said Wednesday during his diffuse, cryptic, utterly arresting confessional news conference, is where congressmen faced "hard questions."

On any given day, the rowhouse at 133 C St. SE -- well appointed, with American flag flying, white-and-green-trimmed windows and a pleasant garden -- fills with talk of power and the Lord. At least five congressmen live there, quietly renting upstairs rooms from an organization affiliated with "the Fellowship," the obsessively secretive Arlington spiritual group that organizes the National Day of Prayer breakfast, an event routinely attended by legions of top government officials. Other politicians come to the house for group spirituality sessions, prayer meetings or to simply share their troubles. ...
Update: Looks like US News actually had this a couple of days ago but who knew?

Froomkin's Done

Dan Froomkin ended his 12-year (sic) stay at the Washingon Post today with a helpful review of the 5 1/2 years since he began his online column--spotlighting how much the policy of the last administration was one of "kicking the can down the road"--putting off the painful or the embarrassing or the intractable, so as to make them all a problem for another (= this) day. Froomkin says he will be announcing his plans soon.

Piracy: He Was Ahead of the Game

A few weeks back, Wichita proposed in this venue that we fight the piracy problem by letting people pay for the privilege of making war on them. Turns out somebody was reading Underbelly:
Luxury yachts offer pirate hunting cruises

Luxury ocean liners in Russia are offering pirate hunting cruises aboard armed private yachts off the Somali coast.

Wealthy punters pay £3,500 per day to patrol the most dangerous waters in the world hoping to be attacked by raiders.

When attacked, they retaliate with grenade launchers, machine guns and rocket launchers, reports Austrian business paper Wirtschaftsblatt.
Link. That's all well and good but I still think we can go a step further. Years ago, it occurred to me that someone could make money with a "Mafia Tour"--they'd fly you to Palmermo and meet you with a black bulletproof liimo. Then they'd whisk you back to the boonies where you would share ricotta salata and plump Sicilian olives in the company of plump Sicilian dancers.

Don't know why you couldn't transport the whole concept to the Indian Ocean. Avast, ye mateys! Management secrets of Captain Kidd!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Good News, Honey!

My friend Linda says that Mark Sanford is really lucky that Michael Jackson died. And Mrs. B adds that Farah Fawctt Major must be stamping her foot.

I read somewhere that one reason why Kissinger and Nixon wanted the opening to China was to distract attention from the fact that they'd just lost a war.

Update: My friend Joel John (oops, pardon!) says we are wrong about Farah. In fact, he says, she was lucky two ways--she was released from dreadful suffering, and she doesn't have to put up with all the Jackson hype.

The Twelve What?

The Mr. and Mrs. Buce Film Appreciation Society recently enjoyed a screening of Mel Brooks' Twelve Chairs. I first saw it about 25 years ago, the same week (I think) that I saw a Russian version of the same (by Leonid Gaidai), which does not seem to be available on Netflix (nor anyplace else that I can find). Indeed it seems there are half a dozen versions, including one from Cuba, and one in which Fred Allen plays the proprietor of a traveling flea circus.

No surprise, when you stop to think of it; the plot is classic, or inevitable: competing teams of malefactors chase after the same loot and hilarity ensues (think It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, among many others). What gives Twelve Chairs its particular durability is the opportunity it provides for extended commentary on the dashed hopes and deflated pretensions of the Soviet Union. Which brings me to a particular question: would Twelve Chairs say anything about Russia today? Or do we need a wholly new vehicle? Twelve Kalashnikovs, anybody?

Let's Get Biblical, Baby

A commentator at DeLong asks,

Would anyone but a Republican politician quote 1 Corinthians in an email to his Argentinian mistress?

Well, maybe so. Example, perhaps James Mason. He uses St. Paul for his boffo finale in Odd Man Out, possibly the best movie Carrol Reed ever made. Paul was, after all, a well-schooled rhetorician and even if he doesn't always make a lot of sense, the structure and the rhythm could have stirred the blood (oth Mason and Sanford would have been better off with the King James Version, though). Still, I've always found I get better results with this:
O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.

--Song of Songs 2:14.
Update: Ignota advises me that the St. Paul riff figured in the Obama inaugural and the Princess Di Funeral, but I'm not able (on a quick search) to pin either one down.

News Flash: Norquist Says Something Funny

Or at least halfway cute, about Mark Sanford:

It does indicate that men who oppose federal spending at the local level are irresistible to women.

Link. Thanks, John.

Update: Michelle Malkin finds Norquist unfunny.

French Food in Decline?

Mike Steinberger at Slate is busy hyping his book on how the vaunted French cuisine is all shot to hell.

Maybe; he's a lot better informed than I. But we spent a week in Paris last month and I'd have to say that the food at the street market in the Rue Mouffetard was just as breathtaking as I remember it from my first taste of it 33 years ago. We also scored several bottles of perfectly acceptable French wine from the little wine shop just across the street (on the uphill side)--$20 range stuff, not necessarily breathtakingly better than what we've drunk elsewhere, but awfully good, and enough to make us happy to be where we were.

We also tossed down one highly agreeable lunch at Itineraires, which seems to have survived a gushy review by the late Johnny Apple persist in the production of convincing bistro food.

All of which brings me back here to Palookaville and a familiar whine. That is: California's fresh fruit and veggies--those comestibles for which we are supposed to be famous--simply are not as good as they should be. I guess Alice Waters can continue to get her famous designer arugula (although I haven't actually set foot in the place for years). But the everyday stuff--forget about Safeway, I'm talkin' farmers' market--always leaves me dreaming of life and meals on the Other Side. Not universal, of course: there is one seller of greens right here in Palookaville whose stuff is in a classs by itself. He gets all feral when you try to interrogate him about his secret, so maybe there is a secret (nightsoil?). Meanwhile, I suspect that too many guys are dug into the American tradition of big, fat, juicy and waterlogged.

This is not quite Europe snobbery, even though it may come close. The best sweet pepper I ever had in my life came from an Amish market outside Columbia, Maryland. You could get wonderful beef, back when I ate beef, in anonymous county-seat steak houses in the farm belt of Southern Ohio. Come to think of it, the best wheat bread I ever tasted came from the kitchen of Mrs. B's friend Carol back in Peoria, Illinois; I think she cracked her own wheat. But if I had to settle on just one provider, I think I'd have it airlifted in from the Rue Mouffetard.

More on the End of Men

My friend David points out that Reiham Salam is another recruit to the growing-irrelevance-of-men society. Oh, and then there's this.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

He'll Be Back, And That's Okay

I spent a good bit of the day cooking, but I admit that every moment I wasn't up to my elbows in food, I was feasting on the salacious tidbits about the Trailblazer. I therefore regard myself as fully qualified to pontficate on a couple of points.

One, he'll be back. In a world that gave us Bill Clinton, Dave Vitter, Gavin Newsom and Newt Gingrich (again and again and again)-and where even Eliot Spitzer seems positioning himself for a comeback--I'd say that Sanford's purely pneumatic vices are not much more than routine. And in the unvarnished hypocrisy sweepstakes, I suspect Sanford pretty small potatoes compared to last week's 90-minute wonder. There do seem to be some real issues here--e.g., who was in charge while the governor was off on a frolic? But this particular bit of wonkiness--like Bill Clinton's lying under oath--is not the reason we are all un an uproar.

And two, tht's okay with me that he come back. Not that I'm that crazy about his politics (though I concede that he is more interesting than most products of the Republican cookie cutter). But forget the pure politics andremember, for once, what we tell ourselves every time we plunge into a new sleazefest: this stuff really isn't any of our business to begin with, and the mere fact that Mark Sanford (eg) happened to be a public official does not make it so. Maybe someday we will get so jaded with this stuff that we will come to greet it with a theraputic yawn. Meanwhile, I have to concede this morning I hung on every saucy detail.

Update: Yes, and John Edwards, but we haven't seen his comeback attempt yet.

Tyler on Politicians on Politics

Tyler Cowen asks:

Are politicians so drunk with self-deception that they cannot write insightful books?

Link. Maybe, but there is a more benign explanation. That is: people who are good at what they do are often not good explaining why/how they do what they do. No surprise when you stop to think about it: if they are good at it, they have no need for self-reflection. By corollary, recall that some of the best political/historical writing comes from people who have been kicked out of power, and thus necessarily have the impetus to try to figure out the license number of the truck that just hit them. Think Thucydides, Machiavelli, Trotsky.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On the Trail of the Governor

As usual I speak unencumbered by knowledge but I suspect this whole Mark Sanford hike-the-Appalachian trail business might be a bit more anodyne than it is made out to be. I mean, there are people who freak out this way every so often and the only person who, as a member of Congress, was nutty enough to stand foresquare with Ron Paul might just be one of them. For comparison, as I recall the father of Paul Laxalt--Senator Paul Laxalt, Ronald Reagan's buddy from Nevada--the father had been, literally, a shepherd, and every so often would freak out and go back to his sepherdic roots (I waive all obligatory sheep jokes).

Of course, this is no excuse for ducking his responsibilities--he could have left a note on the door, frevvins sakes--or to leaving his weapons unattented. But might be that "hiking the Appalachian trail" in this case really does mean "hiking the Appalachian trial."

Watch For It: I will post an abject apology in this space once I learn that his disappearance really was as sinister as the worst suspicions.

...and here it is! Well, so much for my theory.

Prison Rape Again

It's a pleasure to see the final report of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, and to utter a wish that it will not disappear into a vale of forgetfulness. One point that I don't see at first blush (though I have only skimmed it): the insight that prison in too many cases is not just the consequence of inadequate management, but rather the product of wink-and-a-nod collusion between corrupt jailers and the inmates who (inevitably) manage the inside (and anyway, the little buggers--heh!--deserved it, eh?). I don't have any doubt that eliminating prison rape is a damn tough job in what is already a damn tough job. But unless systematic violation is part of our national punishment policy, we owe it to everybody to do something about it.

Footnote: I'm delighted to see Eli Lehrer take this cause to The Corner, but I'd cavil with his afterthought. He says we need to solve the problem "even though most people in prison have done awful things." He's right as far as he goes but it might be worthwhile to reflect that the victims of prison rape are very often not the most awful of the awful. The report itself appears to recognize that among the most vulnerable are kids who have done extremely dumb things but things nothing like the horrors that are visited upon them. And a fair number of our prisoners are the cohort caught up in an insanely over-aggressive drug policy.

What He Said:Dierkes on Maher

Bill Maher, as endorsed by Chris Dierkes:

...we have a center-right party and a crazy party

Elaborating, Dierkes says that "Democrats are still beholden to the New Deal synthesis: corporations, unions, and government," but that they are, sadly "the only party approaching some level of sanity."

No quarrel so far. But Dierkes also says that "the GOP is I suppose the party of corporate executive power." This seems to me not quite right. The GOP certainly endorses a developed brand of crony rapacity. But the corporate elites have begun to discover that their long-standing alliance with the populist yahoos is a devil's bargain (not to say that they've discovered how easy it is to extract taxpayer money from the Obama administration). Recall what Wellington said when they asked him if he thought his troops would scare the enemy. ""I don't know if they frighten the enemy," the Duke is said to have responded, "but they scare the hell out of me."

Whoo, He's Not Happy ...

The "animal spirit" of the day is "choleric:"
For a developed nation, America is a barbaric place.

Demand will not recover. The Stimulus, piling upon preexisting terrifying trillions in deficits courtesy of Bush, will not work. Spending will be cut to satisfy our external creditors. The sheer weight of the debt will slow the economy. The narrow U3 unemployment rate will rise into the double digits and stay there through the president’s term. The “real” under- and unemployment rate U6 will hit twenty percent, and stay in the high teens.

The poor and disenfranchised may even take to the streets at some point. Americans are pretty timid now, worried that they’ll be called terrorists and disappear in the night or be put on the no-fly list. Habeas corpus is gone. Last September Hank Paulson said we may need martial law. The government has been preparing for it. There are empty prison camps standing ready, according to reliable reports. (Many were built by Halliburton, allegedly.) The Katrina experience showed us what to expect: mercenaries will disarm the public; impose martial law; tell you to stay in your house or get shot. FEMA’s National Level Exercise scheduled for late July is supposedly a counter-terrorism drill, but I would bet it involves practicing how to impose martial law. Some believe the true purpose of the exercise itself will be to disarm the public. Lots of luck with that. That might provoke the first shots of a revolution. But perhaps that is the intent, to show force and discourage any further dissent. Like Iran now. Like China twenty years ago.

Will President Obama be able to prevent this? I don’t think so. ...
Go ahead, read it all.

Let Me See If I Can Get This Straight...

You'd think I'd know these dates by now; I've certainly seen them often enough. But Chris Gosden provides a helpful aide-memoire:
Although a small part of the story in terms of overall time, we are most interested in people like us--Homo sapiens sapiens. We arose in Africa about 120,000 yers ago, moving out to the Middle East by 90,000 years ago and the Indian sub-continent and beyond by 70,000. Europe and Australia were both colonized aobut 50,000 years ago, the latter for the first time, and the last large landmass to receive people was the Americans 20-15,000 years ago. After that the last big movements were to islands--the Caribbean and Mediterranean islands were permanently settled around 6,000 BC, the remote Pacific islands after 1500 BC, with places like Iceland in the northern hemisphere and New Zealand in the southern being the last sizeable pieces of land people reached,about 1000 years ago.

--Chris Gosden, Prehistory Introduction (Oxford UP nd)

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion:
Napoleon Masses His Troops

On this day in 1812: Napoleon masses his troops for the invasion of Russia:
Meanwhile the army was advancing from the Vistula to the Niemen and was now not far from the Russian frontier. From the right, to left, or from south to north, the army was drawn up along the Niemen. At the extreme right, coming from Galicia, Prince Schwartzenberg with thirty-four thousand Austrians; on their left, coming from Warsaw and moving toward Bialystock and Grodno, the King of Westphalia at the head of seventy-nine thousand two hundred Westphalians, Saxons and Poles; farther to the left, the Viceroy of Italy who had effected the junction of his seventy-nine thousand five hundred Bavarians, Italians, and French near Marienpol; next, the Emperor with two hundred thousand men commanded by Murat, the Prince of Eckmuel, and the Dukes of Danzig, Istria, Reggio, and Elchingen. These troops had marched from Thorn, Marienwerder, and Ebling; and on June 23 were gathered in one compact body near Nogarisky, about a league above Kovno.

Everything was ready. From the Guadalquiver and the shores of Calabria to the banks of the Vistula, six hundred and seventeen thousand men (of whom four hundred and eighty thousand were already present), six companies of engineers, one siege train, several thousand wagons of provisions, innumerable droves of cattle, one thousand three hundred and seventy-two pieces of cannon, and thousands of artillery and hospital wagons, had been mustered and were now stationed a short distance from the Russian river.
--Philippe Paul, comte de Ségur, Defeat: Napoleon's s Russian Campaign 4-5
(NYRB Classics 2008)

Ooh, Wouldn't We All...

"I'd love to be a tenant leaseholder on some village estate..." continued Diamant, signaling the footman for another bottle of complimentary bubbly. "I'd keep young maidservants who'd give me a hand adulterating the wine. Ah, my wife would have moley to stuff her straw mattress with. As for the outlaws, I'd either be pals with them, or else take potshots at them from behind barred windows. I'd have my horses, cattle, children and freedom. Wear a blue housecoat and marry a young girl when I'm a hundred. Yes, I'd grow a beard like my father's and be lord and master of my house like an oriental potentate.

--Gyula Krúdy, Sunflower 51 (John Bátki Trans. 1997)
Mmm, complimentary bubbly.

Monday, June 22, 2009

So Now It's "All In This Together..."

There's a remarkable irony deficit hovering low over the American Prospect this morning, where it is cloudidng the vision of Courtney Martin as she confronts evidence that the current downturn has hurt women less than men.

Martin's remedy: shush! More precisely: she concedes that lately more men have lost jobs than women. But we shouldn't talk about it. "[T]his sort of polarized punditry." she pundicizes,
is exactly what keeps both men and women from making true progress. The truth is our fates are inextricably tied together, not running on two parallel tracks. When men lose their jobs -- and, indeed, they have at a higher rate than women recently -- American families all suffer ... Newsflash: Men aren't from Mars and women aren't from Venus; we're all struggling to make healthy, meaningful lives on the same damn planet -- and it's time we started acting like it.
Coming from a quarter that has spent the last 40 years or so telling us that men and women really are different--and that specifically women's experience has been suppressed, buried, hidden, minimized, devalorized, whatever--this is pretty rich. Calling for a new ethic of cooperation between men and women will require, at the least, a good deal of reprogramming, and a good deal of forgetting what we have been told for a long time.

I should be careful not to let myself be misundestood here--I think her lot were mostly right the first time. Men and women are different ("deal with it!" the bumper sticker says), and through most of human history those differences have been at best misunderstood, often rendered invisible, and at worst demonized. To free ourselves--however incompletely--from these barriers of misapprehension has been a major achievement; the protagonists of this change (mostly women) can be justly proud.

But there is no obscuring the fact that men in our time are falling apart. Once again, let there be no misunderstanding here: there is no just basis for special pleading on this one, and certainly no grounds for pity. It is, of course, a social problem of considerable magnitude, insofar as a loose agglomoration of underutilized, testosterone-poisoned males is always a social problem, and is bound to be moreso as the horde gets bigger. But it's just one of those things that happen in life, and if there is a way to right the vessel of manhood, then somebody--which is to say, mostly menb--will have to figure out how to do it.

I haven't the slightest notion how this will all sort out. My own best guess is that we--society, the world--will end up just breeding them out, although that is likely to take another couple of generations and I won't be around to see it. But we gain little or nothing from glib or facile preachments about how we shoud all just get along.

Footnote: if Martin thinks I'm cranky, should take a look this update from Christine Hoff Summers, who think that the he-session was all part of the plan.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Appreciation (Sort of): Jude the Obscure

The Mr. and Mrs. Buce Readaloud Sodality has completed its perusal of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. I read it first a bit more thsan 50 years ago and it knocked me flat. I hadn't been back since. Mrs. B (who had not read it before) said it didn't sound much like what I had described and she is right: major events I had distorted and large parts I had simply forgotten.

I am nonetheless glad I read it the second time, and I still understand why I liked it so much at first, though I (and it?) seem to have changed some in the interim. Some of my understanding represents nothing more than an expanded sophistication. I don't think I grasped at first blush now much of a scandal this book must have been aat the time of its (last Victorian) publication. And I don't think I understood (or could have understood) Sue Bridehead as a new woman. I suppose instead that I concentrated almost all my attention on the title character, Jude, so full of aspirations, so ill equipoped to cope with the challenges of the world. That was certainly how I felt about myself at that point and I suppose there was some relief, along with shock and chagrin, to find myself as a literary type.

Apparently I also failed to notice--or had entirely forgotten how Jude, a compelling enough character at the beginning of the book, rather fades into carboard about midway as he becomes little more than a foil and sounding-board for two other characters who seemingly come to interest the author (and therefore the reader?) so much more. That would be the aforementioned Sue and her antagonist-competitor, Arabella Donn, the two captors of Jude's lust and the two conenders for his soul. I'm not at all sure Hardy intended as much, about the two of them rather run away with matters as the book goes on and present themselves as far more complex and plausible (which is not to say, entirely likeable) than the protagonist himself.

The effort doesn't work entirely. Hardy does seem to get his hands on more thematic material than he can handle. Not just lust and cluelessness here, but also the rigidity and authoritarianism of church and college; also celibacy; also the intolerance of small-minded neighbors. These themes can bump into each other sometimes, and in general, it isn't always clear when Hardy is treating them with irony, when not. One clue; the dialogue is more polemical than I remmber, more like a tract and less like a--well, less like a novel. This is particularly evident as the book draws to a close; indeed I think it "ends" a good eight or ten times before Hardy is finally done with it.

There are still a lot of reasons to love this book. For all its limitations, he does paint a convincing and comprehensive world view. Indeed I suspect that one of the main reasons for his enduring popularity, especially in England, is that there are still so many people in the country who really want to remember that there once was a world like the one he presents here, and that for all their present difficulties, they can still get in touch with it. But I suspect it works best on the young. As I said, I'm not sorry we read it now, and I'm glad I read it first when I did. And,; probably, glad that I didn't wait until later.

I Must Lead a Sheltered Life

At least I never saw anything like this before:

I don't suppose there is any chance it is a spoof?

(Via Hilzoy, via Andrew Sullivan)

What Is It About the Fourth Century?

Here's one I can't make head or tail of. It's from the concluding chapter of the memoir of Napoleon's (disastrous) Russian campaign, by the Philipe-Paul de Ségur where the narrator undertakes to wax philosophical over the meaning of big history:
After fifteen hundred years of victories, the Revolution of the fourth century (that of the kings and nobles against the people) had been overthrown by the Revolution of the nineteenth century (that of the people against the kings and nobles).

--Philipe-Paul de Ségur, Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign 288
(NYRB ed. 2008)
WTF? I mean, I understand that "Revolution of the nineteenth century" stuff--certainly understand it in a abook about Napoleon. But what is this "revolution of the fourth century" stuff? I mean the only thing I can think of from the fourth century (in the Western world, at least) is the conversion of Constantine. But how to get from that to a "Revolution...of kings and nobles against the people" is quite beyond me. Any takers?

Lhud Sing Cucu

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;

Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!
For a full translation, plus a learned exegesis on "bucke uerteþ," see Wiki.

Reusable Cover Art

This is kind of fascinating: a gallery of reusable (or at least reused) cover art--the same picture popping up on book after book (or, sometimes, after book after book after book). I suppose the quick thought is that the publisher is just cheap or lazy, but I'm willing to explore a different option--the idea that the publisher wants to deliver an affirmative message: don't worry, this book really is like those other books that you knew and so loved. You know exactly which niche you are in, just like the colored of the plates in Paris wine bars used to tell you much you were paying for your tipple.

Or, I suppose, like Sequels. Don't think of it as Wuthering Heights; just catalog it as Difficult but Fascinating Guy #13.

Tis interesting to find out, though, that that most reusable of all reusable cover arts is Lord Nelson's mistress.

H/T: Tom McMahon.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Go Ahead, Try It



E-chatting with my friend Larry tonight, I brought to mind a poem I first learned about 55 years ago, back when I remembered poems, if they impressed me, by inadvertence. I have no notion of the exact provenance, although I think I may have seen it in a volume called New World Writing, recommended to me by Nolan Miller at Antioch College:
So, go, and say no answer came
To the best question you could name;--
Some die, always, and some go lame,
And some go begging; what a shame!
But most go on at the old game,
Some good, some lucky, and who's to blame
If many things stay just the same?
Now, take that to heart as well as to mind...

So That's The Secret

You comb her hair.

Edmund White on The Flâneur

Edmund White's The Flâneur is a genial appreciation of the charms of strolling, lounging, sauntering around Paris, framed in a surprisingly somber obbligato:
Imagine dying and being grateful you'd gone to heaven, until one day (or one century) it dawned on you that your main mood was melancholy, although you were constantly convinced that happiness lay just around the next corner. That's something like living in Paris for years, even decades. It's a mild hell so comfortable that it resembles heaven. The French have such an attractive civilization, dedicated to calm pleasures and general tolerance, and their taste in every domain is so sharp, so sure, that the foreigner (especially someone from chaotic, confused America) is quickly seduced into believing that if he can only become a Parisian he will at last master the art of living. Paris intimidates its visitors when it doesn't infuriate them, but behind both sentiments dwells a sneaking suspicion that maybe the French have got it right, that they have located the juste milieu, and that their particular blend of artistic modishness and cultural conservatism, of welfare-statism and intense individualism, of clear-eyed realism and sappy romanticism--tht these proportions are wise, time-tested and as indisputable as they are subtle.

If so, then why is the flâneur so lonely? So sad? Why is there such an elegiac feeling hanging over this city with the gilded cupola gleaming a bove the Emperor's Tomb and the foaming, wild horses prancing out of a sea of verdigris on the roof of the Grand Palais? This city with the geometric tidiness of its glass pyramid, Arch of Triuumph and the chilly port imprinted by the Grande Arche on a cloudy sky? Why is he unhappy, this foreign flâneur even when he strolls past the barnacled towers of Nôtre-Dame soaring above the Seine and a steep wall so dense with ivy it looks like the side of a galleon sinking under moss-laden chains.
I've never actually lived in Paris (unless you count a six-week teachiang assignment). And much as I love to visit there, I don't think I've ever really wanted to live there--figuring I would never get beyond the famously impenetrable public face (I've read a lot of Simenon mysteries, so I know about the French and their secrets). Better to drink some good wine, eat some great cheese, and, yes, stroll and then go back to Palookaville.

Language wonk note: Yes, White spells "Nôtre-Dame" with a circumflex. This seems to me technically right, although I suspect that almost nobody does it.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Whither Froomkin?

I haven't anything interesting to add to the general cluck-clucking about the Washington Post's dumping of Dan Froomkin (for all you need to know, read Glenn Greenwald or Paul Krugman). But the next question would be: what happens next? Froomkin is certainly a marketable property and, considering that the Post didn't pay him all that much anyway, compensation shouldn't be a barrier.

There are any number of plausible answers to this question. For myself, I'll take a flutter on Josh Marshall, who could readily deploy Froomkin in his ongoing campaign to supplant the New York Times.

Optimal Lawbreaking

The Austrian Economist has kicked off a provocative discussion of "the optimal number of speeding tickets," aka how much more fun you could have if you only broke a few silly laws. Cf., link. I can relate: for many years, the cost of a parking ticket here in Palookaville was $2 (it has since risen to $15). At $2, there were any number of days when I did what any self-respecting economist would want me to do: I weighed the utiles of satisfaction from my then-current endeavor (often enough, drinking coffee at the world's best coffee shop) against the utiles of harm that I would suffer from getting the ticket--multiplied by the appropriate probability factor--and said screw it, I'll take another sip.

Was I wrong to do so? I must report that I get funny looks from students when I recount this story. Some of them seem to believe I was not wrong. But some seem to feel that it is a matter beyond mere cost-benefit analysis. They want me to obey the law. They also want me to want to obey the law, and to pop an extra quarter into the meter, even at the cost of a momentary personal inconvenience.

They must be onto something. If my roommate says: I have balanced the (probability-weighted) costs I would suffer from murdering my mother against the benefits I would accrue thereby and I have decided not to murder my mother--well, if he says that, I am glad for his mother, but I really don't want to have that guy as a roommate.

The trouble is, I do not know which rules fall into which category. Murder, maybe so. Parking tickets, maybe not. But what about tax evasion? There are probably some social niches where, when you return from prison on a tax rap, they throw you a welcome-home party. Evidently speeding falls in that category.

In Germany, they say, the law is a command to be followed. In Italy, it is a problem to be solved. I was in a taxi once in Budapest with a driver who saw the light ahead of him turn red. He sped up, as if to make sure he would barrel through it before it had time to turn green again. In some circles, the law is a challenge to be accepted.

"Oh, Look, Honey!"

One day when I was young and broke and (inter alia) attending Army Reserve meetings, I stumbled on a happy surprise: my quarterly paycheck for my Reserve service, uncashed and unremembered among the socks and tieclips (sic) in my dresser drawer.

My first thought was--well hey, I can't be that bad off, if money can slip through my fingers like this. The amount in question was, I think $18.

So I can feel for Capricia Penavic Marshall, designated chief of protocol in the Obama administration, whose Federal income tax returns apparently wound up in the dead-letter office. The reason you can assume that she is not (despite appearances?) a tax cheat is that when matters got sorted out, it appeared that she was owed a refund of $37,259--pretty big compared to my Army pay but still a shade under the per capita annual income of the average American ($38,615). Apparently she hadn't noticed. Who knows what she might find if she checks he dresser drawer?

Afterthought: Maybe Capricia and I can get together for drinks and chuckles with banker Ron Peller, the investment banker who realized an employee might be stealing from him when he noticed that his bank account was "one or two million light." But we should let Peller to pay.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Jobs and Illegals: The Motivation Factor

C. W. Nevius has a clever piece up at SFGate about the travails of an Oakland retailer trying to find good help. I particularly like the bit about the guy who can't show up for a job interview on Saturday before 2 p.m. because "I go out on Friday nights." The point point of the piece is, of course, that there is one source of potential employees ready, eager and unavailable: illegal aliens. "They come in here with great personalities; they're on time, ready to go," Nevius' source reports.

No reason to doubt him, but I'm not sure the inquiry goes far enough. There is one very good reason why the illegals are so eager: they've got no options. The guy who likes to sleep so long figures he does have options--maybe another job, or maybe public assistance programs for which he may be eligible while the illegals are not.

The catch is that if you snapped your fingers and legalized all the illegals, it wouldn't be long before they found they that they, too, could take a capacious view of their alternatives. Granted there maybe a "character" factor here with a certain inertial force, but it's unlikely to be long before they find themselves thinking like the natives (and complaining about all the new upstarts who succeed them).

But it doesn't mean that all the job-hunger will instantly vanish. The number of jobs will stay constant; the number of employees will (depending on how you count the illegals) increase or at worst remains the same. So while the newly legalized might experience a decline in motivation, the formerly protected might discover an unfamiliar twinge of motivation. Who knows, they might even decide they have to get up at noon.

Obama on Financial Reg, Etc.

I'd love to say something interesting and original about financial regulation but I don't suppose I can improve on The Big Picture and The Epicurean Dealmaker. Neither of these guys has been a knee-jerk Obama supporter, but both are smart and independent, and the kind of people who wouldn't be reticent to say so if they thought he was doing something right.

Mountain Greenery

My attention was diverted last week by the story of two "Japanese" who were arrested on the Swiss-Italian border with a false-bottomed suitcase containing (as it was said) $134 million billion (#$@!) in US Treasury bills.

Now Joel calls my attention to a couple of qualifiers: One, they weren't Treasury Bills. And two, the carriers may not be Japanese (the clue was that they looked like Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor).

I suppose an alert law student would have seen through this one from the get-go: the US doesn't deal in paper securities like this, any more than the Spanish government deals in gold doubloons. Oh, and did I mention that the "culprits," if you can call them that, now seem to have been released--to the tender mercies, perhaps, of the prospective buyers on whom they intended to inflict all this junk.

I smell a Donna Leon novel in the works here. And my, it is much more fun than trying to make sense out of the Obama bank-regulatory scheme.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

15 Books in 15 Minute

Okay, I'll bite:
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Bertram Wolfe, Three Who Made a Revolution
James Boswell, Life of Johnson
Leon Tolstoi, War and Peace
Bertram de Jouvenal, On Power
Stendahl, Charterhouse of Parma
Homer, Iliad
Gilmore, Security Interests in Personal Property
Philip Reiff, Freud:Mind of the Moralist
Balzac, Lost Illusions
Viking Portable Faulkner
Primo Levi, If This is a Man
Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
Leon Trotsky, My Autobiography
Some afterthoughts: Wolfe was the first "adult" history book I ever read (I was about 23, a late starter). Thucydides was actually the second. Trotsky came in soon after--an evil man but still a seductive writer. Tolstoi, Stendahl and Eliot were "favorite novels" at various times in my life (these days I'd say Proust, not on the list).

Update: I keep thinking of others that should have been on the list. How could I have forgotten Arthur Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, the prehistory of the New Deal? Or Bruce Catton's three-volume history of the Civil War, long before Shelby Foote? Or de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, in the two-volume Viking paperback edition? Or Ed Banfield's Moral Basis of a Backward Society?

I'm really not sure what Phillip Reiff is doing there, except that I read it once with avidity when I should have been studying law.

Update II: I should have reported that I was inspired to this exercise by Jim Chen, and reminded to post it by Terry Teachout. For DG Myers' list, go here. For Patrick Kurp's, here. Another good one is here.

We Are All Iranians Now

Not entirely clear where this started, but it was just forwarded to me by Joel:
Do you twitter? Change your twitter setting to GMT +3:30 (Tehran time) and your location to any city in Iran. If all of us are Iranians then it is a little harder for government censors to track down Iranian tweeters. (See list of Iranian cities at http://is.gd/13UCt.)
Sadly, I don't Twitter, but this might be a good reason to start.

Promise Keepers

I'm enjoying the hypocrisy hoedown over the blowdried prince of Vegas, Senator John Ensign, as much as anybody, but I do want to use the occasion for say a good word for an institution too much derided: Promise Keepers.

Remember Promise Keepers? That's the outfit, founded by a former football coach under the motive power of evangelical Christianity, devoted to helping men learn to straighten up and fly right. If you remember anything about them at all, chances are it is the mass rally they put together on the Washington Mall on October 4, 1997, under the weirdly unintelligible slogan, "Stand in the Gap" (obviously, whoever put it together had never ridden on the London Underground).

Senator Ensign is said to be a Promise Keeper--one who has difficulties, it would appear, with items 3 and 4 on the list of "Seven Promises." Given Ensign's own pious meanness about Bill Clinton and Larry Craig (and his deafening silence about, say, David Vitter), I wish him all the humiliation he can bear, and then some (though granted, these guys are almost impossible to humiliate).

But as to Promise Keepers itself--I have to confess to a certain soft spot. Oh, nonononono, I'm not my bag for the great Folsom Field rally rally on July 31-August 1--I'd rather donate a kidney. I can think of so many reasons why this would be so, but without going into details, let's just settle on the idea that the whole thing is just so appallingly tacky.

Yet the core idea--trying to help men makes sense out of their lives--is not an unworthy goal. Let's face it, men are clueless idiots most of the time; generally, the best you can say about them is that they are well-intentioned clueless idiots, but still. Anything--(well, maybe almost anything) that tries to push back the frontiers of cluefulness is due at least passing respect.

I know that PK in its heydey (more on that infra) ran into a whole spitstorm of hostility from the likes of the National Organization for Women, who see PK as just one more damn fandango--and a crude one at that--to put men back into the (figurative?) saddle. Well, I can hardly blame the ladies on this one: a thousand times burned, a thousand and one times shy. And I wouldn't be surprised to find that PK does embrace a doctrine of male superiority (I'm not well enough informed to say for sure). But still, but still.

But still one truth is that PK apparently never really amounted to much. I really hadn't noticed, but in "researching" (ahem) this piece, I glommed onto the insight that the '97 march was really their finest hour. Granted that they still have a website and they are planning a conference. As I say, I won't be there. But I wish them well. And if John Ensign shows up, he'd better be looking very sheepish indeed.

Long Island: Oh Yes There Is

The Daily Show has some amiable good fun with the idea of turning Long Island into the 51st State. AboveTheLaw says there is no good argument against it.
Oh yes there is, and the funny lady from the Daily Show puts her finger on it: more jobs for the boys. Once some tinhorn zoning commissioner from Lower Fuddlestead gets it into his noggin that he might actually have a shot at being a senator someday (and get to wear a toga?) then it's off to the races.

The Europeans have seen this phenomenon a lot over the last generation, at both ends of the telescope. One the one hand we have the vast bloatware of the European Union, aka "Brussels"--that great nameless, faceless nobody that seems to do so little besides providing makework employment for the otherwise unemployeable. At the other, we have "devolution," which seems to me that (say) a Scot now has to cope with both Edinburgh and London instead of taking on just one alone.

We have this horseplay in the United States at recurrent intervals: the Long Island spasm seems to be just an aftershock from some loose talk in Texas. Here in California, ever few years somebody resurrects the chestnut about splitting LA from San Francisco (though these days they would do better to split east and west--the jewelled coast from Californie Profonde). Me, I think we'd do fasr better to start joining some states together. I mean, Senator Dorgan, what earthly purpose is there for North Dakota anyway?

Debriefing Memo: Tunisia #3 (Carthage)

I'm a little late posting on this, but then I'm a little late in finding out. That is--all this stuff about how the Romans destroyed Carthage and then salted the earth so nothing would never grow there again. Turns out it is in urban legend, in the classical-Latin sense of the term. Well, okay, so they "destroyed" it, more or less, but that was in 146 BC, and within a couple of generations it was back--refounded, to become a major metropolis in the Roman empire. The ones who finally did it in were the Muslims, in 698 AD, as part of their epoch-making conquest of North Africa. But by that time, Carthage had pretty much collapsed of its own senescence, and administering the quietus was almost an afterthought.

And that stuff about salt: never happened. apparently. A false conclusion to "a series of misunderstandings," as Wiki says (with a learned citation). Or, as I heard elsewhere, a fantasy cooked up by an early modern German scholar who wanted to fit it into a pattern of Biblical correctness (the Wiki, by the way, is remarkably thorough: somebody put a lot of love into it).

One way or another, it survives today as a first-class archaeological site. Well: not so elegant or ambitious as Pergamom or the Parthenon, but with lots of stones to kick from the Romans and also from their Carthaginian predecessors.

Afterthought: seeing Phoenician Carthage made me reflect again on the "irony" (as I thought it was) that the Phoenicians who, after all, gave us the alphabet, shoud have left no literary culture behind. But I had it wrong again, or so it seems. Evidently the Phoenicians did have a literary culture (evidently there are references in surviving texts). But this part the Romans did destroy. So I was wrong about the Phoenicians. But we are still left with the fact that the progenitor of all writing comes into the modern age mute.

How Jimmy Cayne Got Hired at Bear, Stearns

One theme that dominated the culture of Bear, Stearns (the failed banking house) was bridge--i.e., the card game. Which perhaps explains why, true or not, they would repeat a story like this:
['Ace'] Greenberg [the commanding presence at Bear Stearns] happened to interview Jimmy Cayne, then a thirty-five year-old municipal bond salesman. ... [T]here seemed to be no connection between the two men, but in an effort to make a little small talk, Greenberg asked Cayne if he had any hobbies.

When Cayne told Greenberg he played bridge, 'you could see the electric light bulb,' Cayne recalled. 'He says, "How well do you play? I said, "I play quite well." He says, "You don't understand." I said, "Yeah, I do. I understand. Mr. Greenberg, if you study bridge the rest of your life, if you play with the best partners and you achieve your potential, you will never play bridge like I play bridge."'

William D. Cohan, House of Cards (2009
If you knew anything about Bear, Stearns, you would not be surprised to learn tht Greenberg hired him on the spot. Cayne, of course, rose to the top of the firm, presided over its legenday growth and the beginnings of its percipitous collapse. Perhaps also not surprisingly, he spent the last calamitous days of Bear Stearns Detroit, playing bridge.

Afterthought: House of Cards. Oh, now I get it.

Going Commando with the Ancient Romans

Celebrating with the graduate Sunday, somebody came up with the cute idea of stuffing little fortune cookies of advice into a jar, and letting him glean wisdom. One such offering was:

semper ubi sub ubi

...translated for the multitude of yokels as "always wear underwear." It apparently qualifies as part of the culture--there is an Urban Dictionary entry; there is a blog. And evidently it figured in an episode of Frasier. But it appears that machine-driven translators are slow to get the joke. Ask InterTran to English "semper ubi sub ubi" and you get

always when up to, under when

Which is not a hell of a lot of help. Ask it to Latinize "always wear underwear," and you get:

usquequaque gero underwear

Which ought to settle things once and for all.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Cohan on Bear Stearns

If you were to put together a syllabus on the current financial uproar, I suppose House of Cards by William D. Cohan would have to be on the list. But it won't necessarily make you happy.

I mean no disrespect to Cohen, whose account of the collapse of Bear, Stearns is crisp, informed, and plausible. The trouble is that I can't remember a book where there were so many characters who were so hard to love. Perhaps I shouldn't be too surprise: these are, after all, bankers, and their primary purpose on the planet is making money. But they are also bullies, blowhards, egomanics, paranoid narcissists and a whole lot of other things that you wouldn't want your daughter to bring home from the fair.

They are also, I suppose, people of some talent. At least it seems they must be: banking is, after all, a fiercely competitive business, demanding (it seems) critical acuity, informed good judgment, and a limitless appetite for information. But the matter is something of a mystery. I don't mean to suggest that skilled and talented people must also be nice people, but it is hard to imagine who such a parcel of puffed-up toads could really be good at what they do. And yet they did run the value of Bear Stearns up into the $170s (per share) before it aw faw down.

Cohan sets it all forth in two parallel stories. One is an exhaustively detailed ticktock of the last few days as Bear gurgled hideously down the drain. It's masterfully done, although you do have to remind yourself every so often just why you should care about all these people. The other story is a full account of the 60-70 year back-story. I liked both parts,but I must say I found this back-story more absorbing in that it offers the best account I've ever read of just what it is people do in a big bank (and note to self, go back and read Cohan's earlier book about Lazard Frères, the investment bank.

If there is a central villain in the piece, I suppose it is Ralph Cioffi, who structured the hedge funds that loaded up on subprime--the collapse of which funds led to the ultimate collapse of the firm. Cioffi (who, I suspect, did not cooperate with Cohan) appears to bear all the earmarks of a good salesman: insane optimism, poor impulse control, and a knack for manipulation. Fine: any institution that is going to make any money has to put up with at least a few of these guys. The point is that you keep them cabined in; surround them with a net of bean-counters, auditors, and execution clerks who save them from the full consequences of their own megalomania. The real flaw in Bear Stearns seems to be that nobody knew how to do it and so Cioffi drove the bus off the cliff.

[Or so it seems from Cohan's telling: I gather that Cioffi is still under indictment and heaven knows what evidence may emerge at trial. But if it is anything like the story that is told here, then we can only hope that he'll be pounding rocks for a long time].

Try to explain this kind of thing to the intelligent nonspecialist and you don't get very far before the listener says--hey, wait a minute who let this happen? Aren't there any grownups in this playpen? I suspect the best answer is that this sort of thing happens when everybody is making too much money. People must have known that Cioffi was out of control. Yet my guess is that as you surf from bonus to bonus, you just enjoy the good times and hope that the large, gloppy mass of brown stuff will simply wind up in the face of somebody else. Probably a good general insight into the whole misfortunate chronicle of these last few years.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What Is It With Swine?

Here's the list of the 50 words found most puzzling by readers of the New York Times. I take no particular pride in declaring that I am (perhaps too) comfortable with all 50--I worked to expand my vocabulary when I was young and the curse of pretentiousness has hung over me ever since. I don't really use louche, #3, very often, except perhaps when talking about Winston Churchill's friends. I know #46, phlogiston only because I had the great good fortune to take a course in the history of physics from Al Stewart at Antioch College back in the early 50s (I met him a few years later; he didn't remember me). I get far too much enjoyment out of #11 schadenfreude. I don't think I use #29 risible much at all, which is surely just as well.

But #31 swine? Well, they do say that New York is a parochial town.

Like Anna Magnani?

Zeno in Italo Svevo's great novel, thought Latin is a language unsuited to women; so much so that he "thought that even among the ancient Romans the women had talked Italian." This is not as crazy an idea as it sounds at first blush, non è vero? I mean, set aside all the sociobabble about how men and women talk differently. There are cultures, are there not, where men and women really do have different languages? So maybe ancient Roman women really did talk Latin.

Source: Italo Svevo, The Confessions of Zeno 68 (Alfred A. Knopf ed 1930, 1958).

Getting Iran Wrong

George Friedman argues that Western misunderstanding of Iran was more or less of a train wreck waiting to happen:
Limited to information on Iran from English-speaking opponents of the regime, both groups of Iran experts got a very misleading vision of where the revolution was heading — because the Iranian revolution was not brought about by the people who spoke English. It was made by merchants in city bazaars, by rural peasants, by the clergy — people Americans didn’t speak to because they couldn’t. This demographic was unsure of the virtues of modernization and not at all clear on the virtues of liberalism. From the time they were born, its members knew the virtue of Islam, and that the Iranian state must be an Islamic state.

Americans and Europeans have been misreading Iran for 30 years. Even after the shah fell, the myth has survived that a mass movement of people exists demanding liberalization — a movement that if encouraged by the West eventually would form a majority and rule the country. We call this outlook “iPod liberalism,” the idea that anyone who listens to rock ‘n’ roll on an iPod, writes blogs and knows what it means to Twitter must be an enthusiastic supporter of Western liberalism. Even more significantly, this outlook fails to recognize that iPod owners represent a small minority in Iran — a country that is poor, pious and content on the whole with the revolution forged 30 years ago.
I can believe it. Not that I know anything about Iran--I know zilch--but because it fits a pattern that seems to be well-night universal when the chattering classes try to understand mass politics. Friedman's description of Iran sounds like a hundred other such misunderstandings--not least the way urban "liberal" "modernist" "outreach" politicians in the (big cities of the) American south used to understand the (predominantly rural) masses. Heck, it probably has something to do with the way Kerensky misunderstood the Bolsheviks, or the Parisian liberals of 1848 misunderstood Napoleon III.

One corollary: if it's bubba that got us into this mess, it will have to be bubba (if anybody) who gets us out of it. John Kerry, Bill Bradley, Adlai Stevenson,where never able to provide effective leadership for American "progressives;" Happy Chandler and Earl Long (and Bill Clinton?) sometimes did so. Like I say, my knowledge of Iran is zero, perhaps negative. But taking off our secularist urban blinders--putting away our chardonnay-tinted blinders--is almost certainly a necessary first step.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Wealth of Kings

Well, hey--for years I've been looking for a source for the (?) story about the king whose wealth lay in decency, civility and good order of his people. I thought it might be in Herodotus, but better Greek minds than mine say they don't recognize it. I had more or less come to assume that I made it up myself. But then the other night I was fingering through an old Signet Paperback selection of Samuel Johnson and came upon this:
When in the diet of the German empire, as Camerarius relates, the princes were once displaying their felicity, and each boasting of the advantages of his own dominions, one who possessed a country not remarkable for the grandeur of its cities, or the fertility of its soil, rose to speak, and the rest listened between pity and contempt, till he declared, in honour of his territories, that he could travel through them without a guard, and if he was weary, sleep in safety upon the lap of the first man whom he should meet; a commendation which would have been ill exchanged for the boast of palaces, pastures or streams.
--Samuel Johnson, Rambler No. 79 [Suspicion]

Yep, search over. But now, what is the deal with "Camerarius"? I suppose a fully annotated Rambler might tell me, but I don't have one at hand. Google offers several possible candidates, but I suspect that this is the guy.

Update: Thanks to Chrismealy, infra, for making the perfectly obvious (but missed by me)suggestion of Google books. Sure enough, here's the Yale edition, with this footnote:
We have not found the story in Camerarius. But Johnson refers to the fifteenth-century Graf Eberhard im Bart--also the subject of the well-known German poem by Justinus Kerner. The Diet in question was probably that of Worms (1495), a year before Eberhard's death.
Sounds like game, set and match, Chrismealy. But what is this "we have not found" stuff? Were they looking in the wrong Camerarius?

Commencement Rehash

Back from the college commencement. Grounds for a successful and richly deserved celebration for the grad his family, and we feel privileged to have shared in the occasion. The ceremony itself was good-natured fun, although I must say it was about the worst commencement speech I've ever heard in long career of commencement-going. Or, not a speech--the putative speaker apparently emptied his chapbook of quotations into a hat and then read out a dozen so in random order with all their gaps and inconsistencies in place. Then again, I suppose any speech that begins with a quote from Gary Snyder is bound to disappoint. Student speaker turned in a creditable performance--remarkably so, considering he majored in "legal studies."

Which prompts a more general thought. Remember how Calvin Trillin used to say that you eat Italian in the U.S. only in a city that had major league baseball before expansion--where the waiters are named "Sal" and "Vinney" (if the waiter is named "Darrell," you know you are in trouble).

I wonder if the same ought to apply to college majors: nobody should be permitted to graduate in any major that was not recognized before Dwight D. Eisenhower left the White House. Might be a good marketing ploy for the back-to-basics niche.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Off to a college commencement, the first in this new generation. And you can skip the remarks about Time's Wingèd Chariot.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

But What If the Drink Really Wants
To Be Taken Back to the Seat?

I'm still trying to figure this one out:
Drinks are not permitted to be taken back to seats.
--Broadhurst Theatre, West 44th Street, New York

And Speaking of Facebook ...

Douglas Rushkoff explains why it all goes bollywackers at midnight tomorrow night--as in "rips of the mask and reveals itself as AOL." Or, as Rushkoff calls it, a wading pool.

So, do I wait up to midnight to claim my identity?

Well, My Center of Gravity is Getting A Little Low ...

Facebook just called me a roast Manningtree ox with a pudding in my belly, i.e., Falstaffian.

Turns out (per Brewer) it is a town in Essex, where they used to roast the beast whole.

Mmm, ox...

Ibn Khaldûn, Alexander the Great, and the Sea Monster

I offered an intro yesterday to Ibn Khaldûn, that most extraordinary of Muslim polymaths. I mentioned his Muqaddimah, available in a readable translation (by Franz Rosenthal) at $29.95 as part of the Bollingen Series.

ButI oversimplify. Apparently "Muqaddimah" means "Introduction"--in this case an introduction to The Book of Lessons and Archive of Early and Subsequent History, Dealing with Political Events Concerning Arabs, non-Arabs, and Berbers, and with their Contemporary Supreme Rulers (that from Bruce Lawrence's helpful introduction to the "Introduction"). The whole work is available in a three-volume Bollingen set at $325 (I haven't long version).

No amount of summary can do justice to the richness of this work, but it is possible to identify some themes that give some hint as to the originality and scope. As Lawrence says in his introduction, Ibn Khaldûn believes "that civilization is always and everywhere marked by the fundamental difference between urban and primitive, producing a tension that is also an interplay between nomad and merchant, desert and city, orality and literacy" (intro x). Perhaps even more extraordinary, he has a sense of process, of change--something we didn't think entered history until the age of Vico and Hegel.

He also exhibits a tireless willingness to pursue critical analysis: almost nothing passes under his gaze without some effort at informed judgment. He is a creature of his time, of course, and his judgments are not always ours. But it is always refreshing to observe his independence and vigor. Here, for example, he recalls a story he has heard about Alexander the Great:
Sea monsters prevented Alexander from building Alexandria. He took a wooden container in which a glass box was inserted, and dived in it to the bottom of the sea. There he drew pictures of the devilish monsters he saw. He then had metal effigies of these animals made and set them up opposite the place where building was going on. When the monsters came out and saw the effigies, they fled. Alexander was thus able to complete the building of Alexandria.
It's a story that would do credit to Herodotus. But Herodotus would cease with the telling, or perhaps add a coy aside that he didn't know himself whether it was true. Ibn Khaldûn is not so restrained. "It is a long story," he remarks, "made up of nonsensical elements which are absurd for various reasons." Of these he offers three. One is the argument of sheer technical implausibility:
Were one to go deep into the water, even in a box, one would have too little air for natural breathing. Because of thaat, one's spirit would quickly become hot. Such a man would lack the cold air necessary to maintain a we3ll-balanced humouir of the lung and the vital spirits. He would perish on the spot.
He also offers an argument from practical implausibility:
[R]ulers would not take such a risk. Any ruler who would attempt such a thing would work his own undoing and provoke the outbreak of revolt against himself, and be replaced by the people with someone else.
If these two aren't enough, Ibn Khaldûn offers a third argument which we might regard as a clincher:
Furthermore, the jinn are not known to have specific forms and effigies. They are able to take on various forms. The story of the many heads they have intended to indicate ugliness and frightfulness. It is not intended to be taken literally.
This stuff never stops. Go and read it for yourself.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Elbow Cousins

My friend Marge has discovered that she and I may be (as she puts it) "elbow cousins." The details aren't important: what intrigues me is the phrase, which I don't think I had heard before. But it turns out to have an ancient and distinguished lineage. Here is a discussion from perhaps the greatest of all English historians:
Now here again is a curious likeness to old English law. The payment of the bulk of the wergild was preceded in England by the payment of a sum to the nearest relatives of the slain. This was the heals-fang; in the Latin versions “apprehensio colli,” the taking of the neck. “Heals-fang belongs to the children, brothers, and paternal uncles; that money belongs to no kinsman, except to those within the joint (binnan cneowe).” Our older commentators supposed that heals-fang had something to do with the pillory. But Dr Schmid has ingeniously suggested that it is connected with a mode of representing the degrees of relationship by reference to the various limbs of the human body which was well known among the Germans . It is the portion taken by those who “stand in the neck,” those who are within the joint (binnan cneowe); more distant relations “elbow cousins,” “nail cousins,” and the like have no share. However, there are many differences between the heals-fang and the saraad, and we by no means intend to suggest that the resemblance between Welsh and English law is due to any survival of British customs in England, or to any influence of English upon Welsh law.
--Frederic William Maitland, The Laws of Wales--The Kindred and the Blood Feud,
The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, vol. 1 [1911]
(reprinted here)

Renault Dauphine

My buds and I were discussing old cars this morning--as old guys are wont to do, but my buds think about bankruptcy, and the old cars we had in mind were things like the Topolino, Mickey Mouse, the Fiat 500. One thing led naturally to another and I found myself remembering the Renault Dauphine--the first new car I ever owned (and the last, until I latched onto a Toyota Corolla ten years later). I bought it in about January of 1959. Fresh out of the Army with a new wife and a new job, I figured I needed an adult set of wheels, and the waiting list for VW Beetles was just too long. I think I paid about $300 down and financed $1,500 at $89 a month for 18 months; this pencils out to an annual rate of about 9 percent, which seems about right.

As I remember, we both liked the car, my then-wife and I. At least I did:it was a fey robin's-egg blue and there was something vaguely French about it that struck me as a good deal cooler than the sensible, responsible, Teutonic competitor. It had its quirks: the fuel pump kept giving out. But a mechanic explained to me that the problem was a set of gaskets that cost about 39 cents, and that could be changed with a screwdriver: I took to packing a few sets in the glove compartment and it made me feel like a swell fellow to be able to pop out and reconfigure in mid-voyage, just like at the Indy 500 (I think my father rather rolled his eyes).

In retrospect, it was a hell of a lot more than quirky. It weighed about as much as a canned ham and was prone to glissading on an icy highway--and this was in Mentor, Ohio, on the Lake Erie shore (hey, it probably made me a better driver). A bit later--this one really horrifies me now that I think of it--I can remember my baby daughter--she would have been two--standing on the back seat for an entire 134-mile road trip from Louisville to Dayton, gleefully waving at the cars behind us: these days I assume they would have me busted for felony child endangerment (in fact she survived to adulthood without obvious impairment, although she is a tax accountant).

But it gets worse. Wiki informs me that the Dauphine ranks high on the Post Office "wanted" board of all-time bad cars: per Wiki, Car Talk named it ninth worst of the millennium, and Time Magazine called it (I love this) "the most ineffective bit of French engineering since the Maginot Line," noting that it could actually be heard rusting.

At the time, I knew none of this. I suppose you could write my ignorance off to general infantile dopiness. But in self-defense, I'd observe that, compared with the $50 beaters I had owned before, the 1959 Renault looked pretty good.