Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Best?

Skimming this morning's Wall Street Journal, I happened on the story where India's Manmohan Singh is predicting 10 percent growth rates for India in coming years.

Yes, yes, I know, a prediction is not a fact, and any clown can forecast 10 percent growth and lots do. Still I wondered: is it possible that Manmohan Singh is the most competent all-round leader of a major country at work today?

Singh, who got his start as an almost accidental prime minister, has a record after all, and on the whole I'd say a pretty good one. Nobody's perfect and every politician is a captive of his time and place, but can you think of anyone else who has stayed successfully focused on getting it right as long as Singh?

I mean, nobody--except maybe a bunch of Norwegians--would give Obama the competence prize just yet, not even if he wins health care: just too soon to say. Japan's Yukio Hatoyama is a total newby and probably shouldn't even count as a ontender. I suppose you could make a case that China's Hu Jintao is awfully good at what he does, but there are surely are major questions as to whether he should be doing it ("effective liquidation of minority populations" is not exactly a recommendation). Angela Merkel might win some sort of popularity contest, but as many have noted, she seems to being it off by not standing for much. Nikolas Sarkozy probably qualifies for the "not nearly as bad as we would have expected" award?

Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva--now, there's a thought. Like Sarkozy, he might be a candidate in the "not as bad as we expected" tables. And again, there will be a lot of disputes over whether he is doing what he should be doing. But he's an interesting proposition.

Other than that, I can't think of anyone ini the running. Sylvo Berlusco-gimme-a-break. Benjamin Neteny-oi-vey-iz-mir. So, Singh it has to be.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Uighur Watch: Like They've Been Telling Us, I Guess

From a friend just back from Western (Uighur) China:
Your email came in just before we went down the rabbit hole in Xinjiang where now there is no email or international phone service in view of the recent disturbances. Never in 30 years have I seen so much military on view (the point of course), esp. in Urumqi and Kashgar where patrols of three large lorries filled with troops in riot gear circle endlessly.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Appreciation: History: A Novel

I first heard of Elsa Morante's History: a Novel about thirty years ago when I saw it on someone's list of indispensable books for the 20th Century,* along with works like Hope Against Hope Nadezhda Mandelstam or Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West and the like. I finally got around to it just now (we did it as a readaloud). I'd say it is a remarkable piece of work with may virtues, but as to best of the Century--I wonder if the recommender had actually read the last couple of hundred pages. Say at least that in the grand tradition of novels, it has some important limitations. Although come to think of it, I suppose it may be in this case that the limitations are at least as thought-provoking as the novel itself.

The core story is simplicity itself. Ida is a(n Italian) widow living in Rome with her son, NIno. She is raped by a German soldier. She has a second son, Useppe. Ida and the child of rape live through War II together with the discontinuous participation of Nino.

It's a stark framework. Writing about innocence is one of thee toughest tricks in the literary armory--perhaps only Dostoesvskii and Cervantes have ever fully succeeded. At least in the first part of the book, Morante does pretty much succeed: she tells the story of Useppe with empathy and and a keen observational eye, without moralizing and without judgment.

But on a closer look, we can see that the real theme of these early chapters is not innocence but (is there such a word) "ferality." Useppe is feral (as are all infants?). But so is his Nino, and so, in her own way, is Ida. So also indeed are any number of others in the story, including a whole menagerie of sympathetically rendered animals (she includes, although it isn't relevant to much, about the most sympathetic portrait I ever expect to read of a murderous pimp). Each has a core of vitality with they deploy, with greater or lesser success, to help them cope with a world they aren't remotely equipped to understand.

It's customary to characterize History as a "war novel," and in a large sense, this is not wrong. Indeed, Morante leave no doubt that she intends it to be a war novel: she intersperses her account of the lives of her characters with a sort of newsreel account of events in the larger the world--after the manner of Dos Passos, I suppose, though not nearly so artfully done. Yet the presence of war is oddly abstract, registered more in indirect impact than in direct encounter. Ida's apartment is bombed out, but she is not at home. They to a refugee shelter; then they bunk in a small apartment with another family; then they find a place of their own, and the war ends. In a sense, this is right: in fact Rome suffered far less direct harm in the war than so many other cities (indeed about the only significant bombing on rome was thee attack that took her apartment).

But the war does affect both Useppe and Ida in one important way: hunger. The details are unclear to the reader (as to Ida herself?). but it does seem they both suffered permanent damage from wartime malnutrition. And Ida (although not Useppe) suffers in a second, perhaps more important way: fear--stark, nameless, pervasive, disabling fear. Ida seems to be fearful almost by nature--shy, cautious, easily overawed and wracked by guilt, so fearful. But the war adds an extra reason: she is Jewish, or at any rate part Jewish and thus, perhaps, liable to be rounded up and sent away by the occupying Germans. I say "perhaps" because Ida herself never actually learns whether her blood taint is sufficient to bring her within the condemned circle.

All this is the canvas on which the early part of the book is worked out. But along about two thirds of the way through the book, two things happen to trigger a radical shift in focus. One, the war ends. And to, Useppe grows up--or at any rate, grows beyond the innocent infancy that has characterized him so far, so we would expect him to grow up. With regard to Useppe at least, Morante responds to the change in a not entirely predictable manner: she keeps him young. Useppe, that is, is defined as remaining outside ordinary human society--notwithstanding his age--for the rest of the book. It isn't clear exactly what afflicts Useppe. That is--it becomes clear he suffers from epilepsy but this alone can hardly account for his absolute inability to relate to anybody outside his family.

Inside the family, there is his mother, of course. There is his brother, but his brother comes to a bad end. And there is a dog. Animals proliferate throughout the book, but none more important than Bella, the big, cheerful, friendly beast who becomes Useppe's boon (and almost "only") companion. And here I feel Morante takes a wrong turn. That is, here for the first time she chooses not merely to allow Useppe to languish in his innocence. Rather she begins that enterprise of imputing--to Useppe, but also to Bella--the kinds of qualities we are tempted to impute to the innocent, so as to make them better than ourselves. It's a terrible temptation to an artist and one that never leads to convincing results.

Something else unexpected happens after the war ends: Morante more or less abandons Ida. She focuses on Useppe and Bella. But she also shifts to spotlight to an entirely different character--Davide, a young, intense, warm-hearted, bewildered young man who is trying to puzzle his own way through the dreadfulness of his recent experience. Like Ida, Davide has Jewish blood, but in his case, it matters: he has lost his entire familiy to the Camps. Morante sketches Davide with great tact and understanding--indeed, most of her character portraits are first rate. But he is, at least a character from a different novel. And however insightful she is at sketching, the portrait remains static: he remains a "character" not a protagonist--neither in his own life, nor in anyone's else.

I won't spoil the ending here though you would hardly expect so somber a story to end well. But I will note one gaping hole in the structure that becomes apparent on a broad overview. That is the character of Ida herself, and in particular, her utter helplessness, her almost complete passivity in the face of everything the world has to offer. I need to tread delicately here because I risk being seen as blaming the victim and I wouldn't remotely want to do that: fate treated Ida with great cruelty, in so many ways for which she is not remotely responsible. Yet there is almost never a time when she seems able to lift so much as a finger to make her own lot better. She won't tell anyone--anyone--that she is pregnant, much less raped (except the midwife who finally succors her through her delivery). She won't tell her own son that he has a new brother: she lets him find it out. Even then, she won't correct his inference that she must be a slattern.

And so it goes. She hears that Germans are out to get Jews; she can't bring herself to find out just who and how they will be coming. She won't ask for information. She won't ask for help. She won't offer to help. She won't seek to cooperate with anybody who might help her.

And it is not just Ida at issue here, of course: for good or ill, she does have the two sons. The older one bullies her shamelessly, but that becomes almost a side issue. It is Useppe who needs her. Obviously she loves him desperately. Yet she can scarcely being himself to care even for him. One can feel for Ida--one would have to have a heart of stone not to feel for Ida. Yet the only two times when one feels fully on her side are when she bestirs herself to commit acts of petty theft to find food for her baby.

It's a sad world we are in, then--a world where the innocent (and the feral) may suffer. It's a book about the rottenness of war, but it is in a way a book about the rottenness of life itself. I am not sure that Morante herself has sorted out all the possible implications. An admirable book, then, in its way, with much to offer. But if we are putting together a list of the books that really define the last century, I'm not persuaded that this one belongs on it.
*A bit of searching reveals that what I had in mind was a piece from the New York Times book review dated June 3, 1979, headed "Immortal Nominations," with the lede: The Book Review asked a number of writers the following: Which post-World War II boos have already established themselves or may eventually establish themselves in a group of a hundred or so of the most important books of Western literature; also, which prewar books that were not considered in this category might now be, in light of the history of the last three decades.

I'm not at all sure I understand that stuff after the semicolon, but there it is.

Here it Comes! Whups, There it Goes!

Fascinating--to me, at least--thread over at League of Ordinary Gentlemen on celebrities who blow all their money. Will thinks they need better financial advice. I've been arguing that they get precisely the financial advice they want--i.e., they hire the smooth-talking scoundrels who play to their narcissism and gullibility. I have heard, though I can hardly prove, that the suits in the big entertainment cos like it when the kids get elbow deep in broads and drugs because it keeps them dependent on getting the next hit. Contrast, e.g., Irene Dunne, Catholic, Republican, married to a dentist, who gave her time in later life to charity work (the list of such counter examples is long).

As the thread develops, it becomes clear that this is a class (not a race) issue. I found myself thinking of lottery winners--most lotteries try to force people to take their winnings in annuities rather than lump sums--but people wheedle their way into lump sums anyway, and frequently wind up quickly broke. One thing I didn't know: apparently the standard lottery annuity stops at death--no survivor payout. At least this reduces the incentive on your beneficiaries to kill you.

Trumping Nothing with Something

People have said--I think I have said, though I can't find it--that the Efficient Capital Markets Hypothesis will survive because there is no good counter theory and you can't trump something with nothing.

I've just started Wall Street Revalued: Imperfect Markets and Inept Central Banks, by the estimable Andrew Smithers where he claims to do just that--no, to have done just that back in 2000. Smithers graciously credits Robert Shiller with achieving the same goal by a parallel route. I'll keep you posted.

I guess the main reason I still hew to ECMH is the counsel-of-prudence aspect. When I teach basic finance to law students, I take it that at least half my job is to convince them that they aren't smart enough to outthink the market--okay, that they may be smart enough, but they are unlikely to be well enough trained, and very unlikely to be willing to give it the sitzfleisch that the job requires. So I think I'll stick to that part of ECMH, even if Smithers shows me how he can knock it in the head.

Lien Priority Story of the Day

Someone in Florida had made a second-mortgage loan to O.J. Simpson, and I just about blew my top, because there was this huge judgment against him from his wife’s parents,” she recalled. Simpson had been acquitted of killing his wife Nicole and her friend but was later found liable for their deaths in a civil lawsuit; that judgment took precedence over other debts, such as if Simpson defaulted on his WaMu loan.

When I asked how we could possibly foreclose on it, they said there was a letter in the file from O.J. Simpson saying “the judgment is no good, because I didn’t do it.”

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, via Popehat, via League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

[Proof, as others have said, that dead trees still have a pulse.]

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Comparative Politics of Heroin, etc.

I'm late catching up with Peter Moskos' Washington Post story in which he offers up some gee-whiz numbers on the use of drugs in the US v. The Netherlands:
In America, 37 percent of adults have tried marijuana; in the Netherlands the figure is 17 percent. Heroin usage rates are three times higher in the United States than in the Netherlands. Crystal meth, so destructive here, is almost nonexistent there. By any standard -- drug usage rates, addiction, homicides, incarceration and dollars spent -- America has lost the war on drugs.
Link. The sensitive reader will say "Ha! Just legalize the stuff!" and I don't disagree: basically (and after long resistance) I have come around on the issue of legalization, at least as far as marijuana is concerned (might as well; I'm in California). But I wouldn't oversimplify. For example, not even the Netherlands legalizes heroin use. The lower level of heroin use probably depends on a whole lot of factors, some of which we understand and some not. In a way, this is a parallel to the arguments we have about comparative gun control: Switzerland has guns everywhere and a low gun murder rate. Well, yes and no. Switzerland does have a lot of guns, but heavily integrated with the military (and military training)--also a highly homogeneous culture. Marijuana legalization is probably a good thing, but it won't make us into the Netherlands, any more than our gun-happy Second Amendment culture turns us into Switzerland.

Little Buddy is Watching You

Schneier on Security, the go-to security tech blog, points out that Best Buy is now selling a "surveillance tracker" for $99.99, to help you (harrumph) protect your kids. For valuable prizes, estimate the day on which we will all be required to carry a chip in our glutes from birth.

DidI mention that the device bears the Monicker "Little Buddy"?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Conservatives and Conservatives

Count on Cato to spotlight an issue too often obscured: the difference between "conservatives" and small-government "libertarians." Quotation marks are appropriate because (a) it's so hard to come up with anything like a workable definition of conservatism; and (b) in a strict sense, there really aren't any libertarians anywhere. Oddly, defining the distinction between the two groups may be easier than defining either on its own. Still, it is remarkable how consistently people--not only the media, but interested citizens and often enough even the subjects themselves--elide the distinction. One person who does get it and does speak out about it--check his new memoir--is Mike Huckabee, who thought he could be a contender last year until he found himself ground into sausage stuffing by a bunch of party heavyweights who made it clear that they had really no use for the Huckabee base except when it cames to their votes and their money and their enthusiasm. It's the same kind of wall that I suspect Sarah Palin will run into soon enough, unless some other wall jumps up to hit her first.

Opera Note: A Much Pleasanter Evening Than it Sounds Like

We spent the last evening of our New York holiday in a basement on Bleecker Street. It wasn't a speakeasy--I don't think they have them any more--and we weren't being held hostage, though some readers will think we would have been better off if we were. It was an opera --specifically, L'Amore di Tre by Italo Montemezzi, once a staple of the repertoire, now rarely heard, here performed as the inaugural presentation of the new Bleecker Street Opera. It is easy to think of so many reasons why this might have been a terrible evening.

The heater, for one thing. It made a racket, so much so that you thought it was part of the orchestra. And the plug-in electric harp: the conductor had to beg leave while he went back and stuck the plug in the wall. And the cast list: they'd mixed Saturday's list with Sunday's so you weren't sure whether the suprano was married to the basso or not. And they started late. And no subtitles. And the whole realization: the orchestra outnumbered the cast by about the same ratio as that by which the audience outnumbered the orchestra. And crowded together in a small house, you sometimes wished they'd (the orchestra) had phoned in from New Jersey.

Hell with enhancements, you say. Well, tastes differ, and in fact I have to say I enjoyed it a lot. One, I don't suppose I'll ever have a better chance to see this remarkable work, and to consider why it once held such a proud place, and why it has fallen out of favor. Two, I really like the idea of a shirt-tail opera company with barebones cast and instrumentation, playing on the edge of nowhere. And three--well, how to say it: the musicians, specifically the singers here. Okay, I grant it, they're not five-star presenters--if they were would they be belting it out in a basement? But they all sing better than I do, and I can't help but marvel over the life of someone so devoted to the music, knowing they're almost certain to make the big time, still belting it out night after night in a basement for audiences about the size of their extended family. I suppose they'd tell you that it beats selling shoes, except maybe in daytime they do sell shoes, or staff call centers, or scrape the gum off the bottom of bus seats, or do whatever else you do when you are determined to hang onto your craft in places where the heater squeaks and the plug keeps falling out of the socket. There's a certain heroism here that you have to admire and can it times even enjoy.

Gay Talese Tries and Fails to Show that He's Cool

Gay Talese has a curious blog post up at the NYT calculated to show that
(a) He recognizes Chief Justice Roberts; and
(b) He is too cool to make a big deal out of it; and
(c) He is clever enough to come up with a creative response when challenged; AND
(d) Eat your heart out, yokel.
But the whole episode occurred at Lumi's. Whoa, there, big guy, Lumi's? Lumi's is a good candidate for the most boring restaurant in New York. As such it is an ideal venue for Chief Justice Roberts, who almost makes an aesthetic out of boring. But if Gay Talese is going to show himself as the epitmome of cool, he is going to have to find better digs.

Overheard in Palookaville:
Kid, You're Going to be a Lawyer Someday

Daughter: I saw a tornado at my school. It was picking up leaves.
Papa: I don't think you saw a tornado. Tornadoes are really, really big. What you saw is a dust devil.
Daughter: Dust devils are made of dust. This was a tornado.
Papa: Do you remember The Wizard of Oz? The tornado picked up a house. Your thing couldn't pick up a house. So it is a dust devil.
Daughter (after a thoughtful pause, with lower lip extended). Well, that was made by the Wicked Witch of the West, so it wasn't a real tornado.

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov

Without him, we wouldn't be here.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Gramercy Tavern, 245pm:
--You'll be back Friday, right?
--Yes, with my wife. It's her 67th anniversary.
--Hers? Not yours?
--No, it's my 31st, I travel a lot.
Homage: these guys.

Who're You Gonna Call?

Who do FedEx and UPS call when they need mail service? You guessed it. Details here.

Why Pilots Fall Asleep

William Saletan offers a contrarian defense of pilots who sleep on the job: they can't help it. Nobody can resist sleep for very long. And apparently the airline-employers count "commute time" as "rest time" (evidently the employers are hoping the pilots will sleep in their cars). This makes sense, but I can offer another reason why pilots doze off on the job: there isn't enough to do. It's all so computerized the pilot is supposed not to interfere. Joel has a pilot friend who tells us that the modern day cockpit should contain two creatures: the pilot and his dog. The dog's job is to bite the pilot when he reaches for the controls. Maybe we could train the dog to nip the pilot when he falls asleep. But the dog would need rest time.

I'll Take "The Dependent Young" for $200, Alex

I seem to be on the theme of youth and money this morning, but here's another. We're back on the subway: Lexington Avenue local north out of 14th Street--"Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention for just 10 minutes please." O Lord, what now? It emerges that yes, indeed she is a beggar but (I paraphrase) I never expected to find myself like this, I am a college graduate, I am three months pregnant.

The puzzler part is that indeed she sounded more like a young yuppie wiith a $5.95 latte than any kid on the street. Sure, It Can Happen to Anybody. But kids like her--if I am getting the full story--usually have networks: if not parents, then cousins, or former roomies who will cut them some slack. Is she really as bereft and disconnected as she says? If so, how come she doesn't sound it? Is this just a brazen con? Certainly there are better cons than this? Is it a sociology class assignment?

In the end, she got off at 23d Street, well shy of her ten-minute quota. One clue that she was a true amateur: the young woman across the aisle from me, with a visage of horrified empathy, took a dollar out of her purse, on the ready to contribute. But the beggar, walking the other way down the car, never noticed it.

Yglesias on the Undeserving Rich (and their Enablers)

If you need a morning jolt, pop over here and watch Mt. Yglesias pour hot lava on the Congressional hypocrites whose highest budget priority seems to be to put more money into the pockets of the brat pack. Call it "The Trust Fund Babies' Protection Act." Maybe we could all wear bracelets for trust fund babies left behind. Or ribbons. In green. Yes, green would be nice, more green.

Update: Of course The Onion was way ahead of me.

Runaway? Or Castaway?

Ian Urbina's NYT story on "runaways" is gripping stuff, but down about midway you run aground on a complication apparently beyond the capacities of a headline writer. That is: some uncountable portion of these kids-on-the-street are not "runaways" at all, but kids who have left home on orders from, or with the active collusion of, their parents, who cannot afford them any more--call them "castaways," a new innovation in outsourcing. Like taking your pet to the pound.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Lucien Bebchuk gets it Right

For your "socialism for the rich" scrapbook:

Governments must not bail out bondholders, by Lucian Bebchuk, Commentary, Project Syndicate: A year after the United States government allowed ... Lehman Brothers to fail but then bailed out AIG,... a key question remains: when and how should authorities rescue financial institutions?
It is now widely expected that, when a financial institution is deemed “too big to fail”, governments will intervene if it gets into trouble. But how far should such interventions go? In contrast to the recent rash of bailouts,... the government’s safety net should never be extended to include the bondholders of such institutions.
In the past, government bailouts have typically protected all contributors of capital of a rescued bank other than shareholders. Shareholders were often required to suffer losses or were even wiped out, but bondholders were generally saved by the government’s infusion of cash. ... Bondholders were saved because governments generally chose to infuse cash in exchange for common or preferred shares – which are subordinate to bondholders’ claims – or to improve balance sheets by buying or guaranteeing the value of assets.
A government may wish to bail out a financial institution and provide protection to its creditors for two reasons. First,... a protective government umbrella might be necessary to prevent inefficient “runs” on the institution’s assets that could trigger similar runs at other institutions.
Second, most small creditors are ... unable to monitor and study the financial institution’s situation when agreeing to do business with it. To enable small creditors to use the financial system, it might be efficient for the government to guarantee (explicitly or implicitly) their claims.
But, while these considerations provide a basis for providing full protection to depositors and other depositor-like creditors..., they do not justify extending such protection to bondholders.
Unlike depositors, bondholders generally are not free to withdraw their capital on short notice. They are paid at a contractually specified time, which may be years away. Thus, if a financial firm appears to have difficulties, its bondholders cannot stage a run on its assets and how these bondholders fare cannot be expected to trigger runs by bondholders in other companies.
Moreover, when providing their capital to a financial firm, bondholders can generally be expected to obtain contractual terms that reflect the risks they face. Indeed, the need to compensate bondholders for risks could provide market discipline: when financial firms operate in ways that can be expected to produce increased risks down the road, they should expect to “pay” with, say, higher interest rates or tighter conditions.
But this source of market discipline would cease to work if the government’s protective umbrella were perceived to extend to bondholders... Thus, when a large financial firm runs into problems that require a government bailout, the government should be prepared to provide a safety net to depositors and depositor-like creditors, but ... the government should not provide funds (directly or indirectly) to increase the cushion available to bondholders.
Rather, bonds should be at least partly converted into equity capital, and any infusion of new capital by the government should be in exchange for securities that are senior to those of existing bondholders.
Governments should ... make their commitment to this approach clear in advance. ... This would not only eliminate some of the unnecessary costs of government bailouts, but would also reduce their incidence.
H/T Mark Thoma.

On This Day...

On this day in history:

4004 BC: World created, per the Chronology established by Archbishop James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, 1625-56. Stephen Jay Gould, no creationist, said:

I shall be defending Ussher's chronology as an honourable effort for its time and arguing that our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past

Ussher represented the best of scholarship in his time. He was part of a substantial research tradition, a large community of intellectuals working toward a common goal under an accepted methodology…


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jude Law's Hamlet

We caught Jude Law's Broadway Hamlet this afternoon, on $25 tickets which offered a perfectly adequate view of the stage, albeit a long way from the bathrooms. I think a telling moment is in the "To be or not to be" soliloquy where he says
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought...
Law says "thought" with something between a sneer and a snarl. But Hamlet doesn't disparage thought. He is the most thoughtful character ever. The "sicklied o'er part" may give him trouble but even here, he doesn't snarl: he is perplexed and respectful of the mystery.

It's a defining moment because Law maintains the same tone throughout the play. His is an adolescent Hamlet, a 1968 Hamlet, a never-trust-anybody-over 30 Hamlet. Also an 8,000-calorie Hamlet as Law leaps, prances, wriggles and elbows his way around the stage. In a narrow sense, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact everything that Law does on stage can find justification in the script. The trouble is that there is so much more. Hamlet is an adolescent, with a full repertoire of adolescent angularity. But he is also, as John Gielgud used to say, he is "a great Renaissance prince" (Gielgud said "ruh-NAY-sance," which turned the rhythm out nicely). Law's Hamlet is a catalog of missed opportunities.

By way of example, consider this non-exhaustive list: When Hamlet says "what a piece of work is a man," he speaks with awe and reverence; with the gravediggers, he is bantering and ironic; with his male friends, he is (at least some of the time) a model of masculine friendship; with his Ophelia and Gertrude he is jealous and obsessive; with Yorick, he gives us bittersweet nostalgia; with Horatio before the final conflict, he offers stoic acceptance. And so forth. It's why people who play Hamlet get to go into heaven by a separate door. Law doesn't have any of these except the adolescent part.

I don't suppose anybody gets them all (why Hamlet may work better in thee library than onstage. Branagh went a long way; he was old enough so he got the maturity, and artful enough to fake the youth (even Branagh had his limits (but then, Law is 36). I was never so nuts about Olivier but he did do some things right.

All this is a rotten shame, because so many things in this production work so well. Nearly everybody can mouth a classical line, which is no mean trick. The pace is right, the charcoal-brown setting is right. Polonius is a study in oily manipulation, and goes a long way to drive home the point that Denmark really is a prison: a nest of intrigue and betrayal. Gwilym Lee did an impressive job in what is thankless role as Laertes.

Geraldine James as Gertrude Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ophelia brought a lot to the table, but each of them depends on what she can get out of Hamlet, and in any number of cases, it looked like they just didn't now how to respond to this young man living on emotional capital he hasn't earned. (Okay, gimme irony, Jude! Okay, now effusive! Okay....) When Ophelia says:
O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mold of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down! do a quick systems check and tell yourself: no, not tonight.

Afterthought: I admit I set a high standard here. Fact is, the one character I'd really like to see play Hamlet just doesn't seem to be on offer. That would be Michelangelo's David in the Accadamia in Florence. Now, there is a Ruh-nay-sance prince.

Afterthought II: My friend Lily reminds me of the classic Dorothy Parker review: he ran the gamut of emotion from A to B.

Words I Didn't Know

Two words I didn't know:
Urban Dictionary also has good stuff on mook and mooky, which I guess I did know, but not well.

Also, in his splendid history of Mussolini's Italy, R.J.B. Bosworth gives "Mussolinianly," as in "Italians had been 'living Mussolinianly.'" Google doesn't recognize it (until now!) but Bosworth links to an Italian source--could there be a legit Italian version? Anyway, brings to mind the English-language device of turning a noun into an adverb by adding the suffix -wise, as in "rabbiwise, he is not a good student of Torah."

Update, Half an Hour Later: Yep, here it is.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Opera Note: Der Rosenkavalier

The most obvious thing you could say about last night's production of Der Rosenkavalier is that it's a shame we didn't see Susan Graham when she first performed in it here in 1995. This remark is not quite as mean-spirited as it sounds. Graham is one of the most polished singers of her generation, and also among the most talented and she gave it everything she had in her. But the part of the young Octavian (it's a trouser rôle) is boiling with youthful ardor, and no amount of pyrotechnics will obscure the fact that she is 49.

In an ironic way, this is only fittting. For the theme of Strauss's opera is the bitter certainty of lost youth and the consequence of loss--specifically, lost love. Whatever edge may have been lacking in Graham, then, only added to the poignancy of the performance of Renée Fleming as the aging Marschallin, who rejoices in the arms of her young swain, and then facilitates his departure to a more age-appropriate amour. In life, Fleming is just 17 months older than Graham. In the theatre, it was wonderful to see two such talents work together but you couldn't forget the stern limitations of age.

Indeed, time defined the evening in at least one other sense as well. Recall, this is a season that opened with a brand new Tosca met by a fusillade of boos. The production of Rosenkavalier is 40 years old. The staging won (at least a smatttering of) applause at the beginning of each of the first two acts.

Fleming and Graham were both fine in their somewhat implausible relationship but probably the real stars of the evening where two: one, Kristinn Sigmundsson, as the (basso) lecherous baron. Some reviews have said that he wasn't strong enough, though I didn't notice. What he did was to play with a consistent darkness throughout, eschewing the kind of buffoonery that can turn the Baron into a minor-league Falstaff.

The other was Edo de Waart as the director (substituting for James Levine). He directed with loving attention to detail and limitless patience--or enough, at any rate, so as to string the evening out to four and a half hours. But it seems to work: Strauss wrote every one of these notes, and it is reasonable to assume that he expected them to be played.

People talk about Rosenkavalier as Strauss' "conventional" opera. In a way, I suppose this is fair comment: after Salome and stuff, a step back, to boy/girl, thwarted by unsympathetic father. But the addition of the Marchallin as the older woman ditched and acquiescent--that is enough to pull it out of the conventional mold. And the music: recall this is 1911, just a year before Puccini hasn't even done La Fanciulla del West. Strauss took as a long way and maybe we are still catching up with him.

Subway Readers

Lots of people read on the subway, but styles differ. Washingtonians read computer printouts: bureaucratic directives, or foundation position papers. New Yorkers are more eclectic: they read for information or knowledge or epiphany. On a number one train going north from Times Square last night, I could identify: A guy immersed in the New York Times reporters' account of his life as a prisoner of the Taliban; a woman paging through The New Yorker; another woman, this one perusing a hardcover novel; a guy with a Penguin paperback, but also with earbuds, so it is anybody's guess what was the primary focus of his attention. But the most interesting was a young woman in white pullover and Levis with a red ponytail and Coke-bottle glasses. She was immersed in a paperback copy of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, specifically Chapter XXXII. That is:
The division of the Roman world between the sons of Theodosius marks the final establishment of the empire of the East, which, from the reign of Arcadius to the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, subsisted one thousand and fifty-eight years in a state of premature and perpetual decay.
Suppose she know something we don't know?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is This a Great Public Space?

It's the foyer at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York City. I was going to write "this is one of the world's great public spaces," but then it occurred to me--nobody gets more than 10 feet inside the door unless they disencumber themselves of a portfolio of George Washingtons. Is it then a "non-public space?" Compare the Piazza Navona in Rome or the Piazza San Marco in Venice--it may cost you 15 Euros to sit down, but at least you can walk through for free.

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Hey, I'd Like one of these for Myself!

Custom-made NY Subway map. Hat tip (and headsup) Kottke.

Toiti-toid and Toid

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Ayn Rand and Noam Chomsky would Applaud

New York Times read of the day:

Goods Flood Gaza’s Tunnels,
Turning Border Area Into a Shopping Mecca


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Warm Appreciation: Proust in Painting

I don't buy a lot of art books; I tend not to look at them a second time, and they are inconvenient to store. But here's a gem: Eric Karpeles' Proust in Painting, a collection of 206 paintings, each linked to the passage in Remembrance of Things Past in which it is mentioned.

The book is more than just a laborious exercise in archival research (altough it is that). Karpeles also offers crisp and pointed introductions to each pairing. And he throws in some shrewd addditional commentary in extensive footnotes (unfortunately, in tiny type). In a jacket blurb, the historian and critic Richard Howard expresses surprise in the discovery that Proust's ventures into art were not just window dressing, but "bearers of allusive meaning, which makes [Proust's work] the most powerfully inclusive experience in modern reading." One can only wish that somebody would do the same thing with Proust's music.

I was tempted to put up samples here, but Karpeles has his own website where he presents his own material graciously and with aplomb, so I am pleased just to let him speak for himself.

New York Subway Note

Just in from the New York City Subway: I climbed onto the Southbound Lexington Avenue local at 86th Street yesterday. My feet were hurting and I would have been glad of a seat but no; the train was packed to the rafters and I had to settle for a handhold. Boarding just before me were two junior high schoolers in a puppy flirtation. He was Asian, maybe Chinese, with rimless glasses and a crew cut. She was plain vanilla. He was all giggly with adolescent lust and geeky confusion and she wasn't minding the attention. She got the last seat; in the crowd he had to struggle to stay in flirtation range.

At 59th Street somebody vacated the seat next to her and I made a lunge at it. But no; the swain was quicker (and smaller) and wiggled in first. You could tell he was embarrassed to have done what he just did; he hunched up and looked at his shoes, so as not to risk eye contact. But young romance trumped propriety, and isn't that always the way? Anyway, I think this an entirely appropriate result: there was nothing about my feet so sore as to require the thwarting of a romance. And as I say, at least he was embarrassed.

Tell Us How You Really Feel, Michael


Declining Empire, Banana Republic, or Failed State?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Appreciation: Bosworth on Mussolini

Mussolini's Italy by R.J.B. Bosworth is at least three books in one. It is the book of the title--straight narrative of Italy under the Duce. But it is also a trenchant inquiry into the nature of Italian fascism, in contrast to (or in the context of) its Nazi neighbor. And it is at times also a meditation on decency and civility and the possibility of a tolerable public life. Here, for example is one of the more remarkable inflection points in M's sorry career. The time is 1944; Musolinni is no longer the leader of all Italy, but the pathetic puppet leader of a puppet state dominated by the real Nazis. Count Galaezzo Ciano has been executed by a firing squad. Ciano was the husband of Mussolini's favorite daughter (and father of her children) and sometimes Mussolini's sidekick and henchman. His death was effected on the order, or at least with the silent acquiescence, of the dictator himself. Bosworth observes:
Ciano's execution carried a heavy implicit message. It signified the boasted liquidation of the bourgeois version of Fascism, with its weak acceptance that, in this wicked world, the family and raccomandazioni, corruption and high living, ideological equivocation and practical realism, are necessary parts of life. ... The Duce, a coward of the most profound sort, willing to sacrifice his best-loved daughter's husband in order to conceal his own manifold failures and contradictions, with some nervousness and much after-the-event self-exculpation, knowingly let Ciano go to his doom in his stead.
--RJB Bosworth, Mussolini's Italy 515 (2005).

Yves Smith on Lehman

If you haven't yet read the NYT excerpt from Andrew Ross Sorkin's new Lehman book, skip straight to Yves Smith's parse. Yves recalls the old Japanese principle: hear one thing and understand ten. Yves must be Japanese.

Monday, October 19, 2009

New York Geography Lesson

Riding a cab from Kennedy Airport to Manhattan this morning, I got an insight into New York geography. On the back of the front seat, there's a Manhattan map, showing all the neighborhoods--Greenwich Village, Times Square, Morningside Heights, but Even Spanish Harlem and Yorkville, the works.

Except for that area right below Murray Hill, starting at (I'm working from memory now) about 34th Street, and going down five-six blocks until you get to Gramercy--there's nothing: zero, nada, zip. It's a super-gravity zone that sucks everything in behind it.

We regard this as unfair because it is the home, inter alia, of one really fine neighborhood-style sushi restaurant: that would be Mishima on Lexington just below 31st. As to a neighborhood name, though, I supose the best you can do is Curry Hill, authorized by the New York Times, after Curry in a Hurry, where, come to think of it, the cabbies hang out. But I guess you wouldn't want to share this kind of profesional information inside the cab.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Off Again

I'm off again, this time for a few days in New York. DK whether I will be posting. Meanwhile, consider some Buce or Underbelly oldies as selected by our guest host:



Crumb's Bible

Joel calls our attention to the fact tht some Bible cops re definitely not okay with R. Crumb's Illustrated Book of Genesis. Apparently the graphics for the story of Lot and his daughter come across as, well, graphic. I assume they are still okay with crucifixion?

I have to admit, I don't remember any of that Lot stuff from the Bible stories I grew up with.

Nobody Asked Me But: eViL pOp TaRt

Nobody asked me, but I think eViL pOp TaRt , otherwise a total stranger to me, writes some of the best definitions in the Urban Dictionary. Sample, e.g., Decolletage Ministry, or Granny Bikini, Cincinnati Chili and the Duke of Marlborough Effect.

[Takes me back: when I lived in Washington Court House, I used to dream about getting to Cincinnati.]

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bonneville's Diary

I happened to catch a half an hour of Hugh Bonneville's BBC rendition of Diary of a Nobody, the never-out-of-print British comic (but cf. infra) novel about the life of a rising clerk in the London suburbs the end of the 19th Century.

I don't suppose Diary is much known in the United States; at least I had never heard of it until I went to London and found a few copies in almost every bookstore. They seem to treat it as kind of a national ornament, the same way the Czechs treat The Good Soldier Schweick.

I'd say that Bonneville does a fine job of capturing the spirit of the piece in this "performance" which is, in fact, not a lot more than an extended dramatic reading. Diary, as I understand it, qualifies at least as a period piece: an account of the new consciousness of a new class (lower middle, clerical) prosperous enough to move to new suburbs (Upper Holloway--Archway, North Islington, N19), made accessible by the greatly expanded network of public transport. As Wiki says:
The humour derives from Pooter's unconscious gaffes and self-importance, as well as the snubs he receives from those he considers socially inferior, such as tradesmen. The book has spawned the word "Pooterish" to describe a tendency to take oneself excessively seriously.
Turned round, this is one of the most mean-spirited items in the history of British comedy since the death of Tobias Smollett. I grant that Pooter does observe himself with a measure of reverence but he is also hard-working, steady, kind, and loyal to his loved ones. It takes a fully developed impulse for snobbery to look down one's nose at someone who actually thinks he ought to nick off a few middle class comforts as his own (Bonneville gives him a Cockney accent; a bullseye tipoff that he is living beyond his class). It says something about Britain that it has proven so durable and so (can I say this?) much loved.

Queenan and Me

My sister Sally wants me to read about the new memoir by Joe Queenan, which seems to remind her of me. Which part,I wonder? Not the drunken abusive father (our father was the kindest and steadiest of men--and I never saw him worse than giggly, and that only once in a while). Must be the (adolescent?) desire (as it would have been then) "to make a living by ridiculing people"--? Or perhaps my dismay at all those Irish Catholic schoolgirls who wouldn't sleep with me?

Oh, that. Right.

Shakespearean Backtalk

"Who's there?" says Bernardo. Francisco answers: "Nay, answer me."

It's the beginning of Shakespeare's Hamlet--as someone called it, the world's longest knock-knock joke. But has anybody noticed how typical this line is of Shakespeare--how it counts, almost, as a signature piece?

Here's Bernardo, taking up his duty as the midnight watch. It's Denmark. Maybe fog, maybe a bit of rain. He's afraid of--what, Fortinbras? A ghost! Who's there? But no, it is only Francisco, his companion in arms, the departing watch, his mirror. Nay, answer me. The response, is deflationary, ironic; in a less urgent setting, it would be comic.

It is the way people talk to each other--chiefly (though not exclusively) the way men talk to each other, bantering and slanging in wry competition, somewhere between friendly and hostile. "Gotta match?" we used to say. "Yeh, my ass and your face." That one is hostile; but it's the sinew of social relations, the stuff of drama.

And it is the stuff of drama; it is the way Shakespearean characters talk to each other all the time. Sometimes it is standard guy mockery: "What's that word "ducdame?" asks the oily and somewhat pompous Amiens. The clever Jacques responds: "'Tis a Greek invocation, to call fools into a circle." Sometimes it is casuistic: the simple shepherd Corin says "...the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck." The too-clever Touchstone responds: "That is another simple sin in you, offer to get your living by the copulation of cattle."

Sometimes, it aims to deflate someone who richly deserves deflating. Owen Glendower boasts: "I can call spirits from the vasty deep!" Hotspur (not much given to suavity) suavely agrees: "Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?"

More than once, they speak truth to power. Bates (though he does not know he is addressing the king) gives his view of kingly courage: "He may show what outward courage he will, but I believe, as cold a night as `tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck, and so I would be were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here."

At other times, characters adopt this tone in mocking themselves. Viola, told that she is in Illyria, reflects "And what should I do in Illyria? My brother he is in Elysium" (of course he is not, but we save that for later). Falstaff observes: " There live not three good men unhanged in England; and one of them is fat and grows old."

You could find a hundred more. This is good drama, of course: most of these lines get a laugh, or at least a frisson of recognition. But they are also living proof, if any is needed, that Shakespeare is a poet of the streets, the pubs, the playing fields and not the library--the kind of talk that makes him so recognizable and so enduring. It's the reason why we can fit him in with Lear'sesponse to Gloucester when Gloucester says "The trick of that voice I do well remember. Is't not the King?"

And Lear replies:

"Ay, every inch a king!"

Update: A commentator asks--is there a bit of sexual innuendo in that "every inch" stuff. Sure, why not? Sexual innuendo has a prominent place in backtalk all its own.

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion (Not)

I seem to have abandoned my Liveblog of Napoleon's Moscow campaign, and just at the time of crisis, as Napoleon sees his victory disappear in flames. I hadn't intended this; I had thought I would follow him all the way. Maybe I got distracted by all my foreign travels, or maybe it is just that this is the point where it stops being fun: from now on, it is just a long slog of suffering and disarray (except for the Great Man himself, of course, who succeeds in weaseling out of all the harm he has created, to make a nuisance of himself for another two and a half years). The first part was rather more like a Sophoclean tragedy where the audience knows how it will all end (even though the characters do not) but you can't take your eyes off the stage for all of it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Top Five?

I was telling Mrs. Buce--she had heard it before--that my favorite painting in the whole world was Caravaggio's  Calling of St. Matthew.

She: But that doesn't make any sense. You can't have just one favorite painting. There are too many.

I: Well, how about five. Can I have five?

She: Five is okay. You can't have one, but you can have five. So, what are they?

I: Well, you have to tell, too.

She: Sure. But you start.

I: Well, Calling of St. Matthew of course and--and Piero della Francesca's Resurrection.

She: Resurrection is good. I might even grant you Calling of Saint Matthew.  But first I would put Velasquez' Las Meninas.

I: I thought you would. But first? I thought you couldn't have a firsts.

She: Well, one of the firsts. So, what's next?

I: Picasso. (Long pause). Dora Maar. The weepy one.

She, shaking her head): No, not  Dora Maar (another pause).  Anyway, what you like about Picasso is not any one painting but the fact that he kept at it so long, always trying something new. Now, I will name a Rembrandt. I choose (long pause) ...

I: Flight into Egypt?

She, pensive, shaking her head: Not Flight into Egypt. Hendrickje.

I: Bathing?

She: Bathing is good. But I was thinking of Bathsheba. There are a lot of them. They are all good.

I: So, Rembrandt in general, like Picasso in general?

She: Yes. In general.

...and there it petered out. Turned out we couldn't name top five any more than we could name top one. I wonder what would have happened had we tried to name top five artists.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

By Their Golf Buddies You Shall Know Them: Kennedy on Ike

It's probably no accident that the shrewdest observations about the character of politicians come from other politicians. Myself, I've pretty much come round to the view that Eisenhower was on the whole a better-than-average president (though I certainly didn't think so at the time). But I suspect that John F. Kennedy was onto something when he said:
No man is less loyal to his friends than Eisenhower. He is a terribly cold man. All his golfing pals are rich men he has met since 1945.
That's quoted by Andrew Roberts in Masters and Commanders (2009), though I can't identify the exact source because I'm reading on the Kindle and the footnotes are virtually impossible to access. Roberts is remembering Ike's shabby treatment of his old mentor, George C. Marshall:
After the war, Eisenhower signally failed to repay the support that Marshall had shown him ... generally in having promoted him from lieutenant-colonel to four-star general in less than two years between March 1941 and February 1943, and to five-star General of the Army on 20 December 1944 (only two days after Marshall himself). When in October 1952 Marshall came under violent criticism from the Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy for having let China 'fall' to the Communists while secretary of state, Eisenhower excised a paragraph of one of his election speeches in Milwaukee that described Marshall as 'dedicated with singular selflessness and the profoundest patriotism to thes service of America.'
There's a fuller discussion of the 1952 incident, see David M. Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy 235-8 (2005).

US Charges 41 with Mortgage Fraud

Per Calculated Risk.

[Brrrring!] What's that you say? Oh. Sorry.

I Think What They Meant is that The Other Guys are Passing Gas

Several of my cronies are scandalized at this prank (sic?) story in the Reed College newspaper alleging that the good folks over at Lewis and Clark are gassing Jews.

I'm not going to waste any cortical tissue trying to defend the Reedies but I will offer a bit of perspective. Seems to me that the educative function journalism was and always will be its providing the opportunity to make just this kind of mistake. I.e., you are 19, you are full of yourself, you've got a big organ to play with (oh tee hee)--and you publish something appallingly tasteless.

And guess what? The world lands on you with hobnail boots. All of sudden you are in the bunker fending off incoming and for a while, you really do not know what hit you. You get to meet the President who perhaps does not pitch you out but does, if he knows his job, give you holy hell. And you go away wiser and perhaps think twice before you make that sme mistske again.

Then They Came for the Racist Gasbags....

This is a parody, is it not?


You say it's not?


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Minoans: A Testosterone-Poisoning Theory

The subject for the moment is the Minoans--those mysterious people who occupied so much of Crete until their civilization was destroyed by a great earthquake (and, later, was ousted by the Mycenaeans). The Minoans left some extraordinary archaeological remnants behind (including this graceful and elegant prince at right, seen--appropriately enough--as through a glass, darkly). But we really know very little about them. Even the name is a later invention, designed to tie them into the the legend (that we know from the Greeks) about Theseus and the Minotaur.

But we know that Minoan communities did not have walls.

Savor tht sentence again, and repeat it. The Minoan communities did not have walls. Can we even begin to contemplate how extraordinary this is? Can we think of any other society where the communities did not have walls? I mean, as soon as the first primitive scratches up a bit of water with a stick, somebody else is trying to push him aside. Indeed, you can probably make it the first rule of civilized society: whenver a person produces more than he can eat on the spot, somebody else is trying to take it away (I wanted to say "somebody is trying to tax it," but this may be too simplistic).

But the Minoans did not have walls. How could this extraordinary fact possibly be true?

One theory that apparently gained currency while I wasn't paying attention is the sugar-and-spice version: Minos must have been a female-run society, and women are nicer than men.

Now, I happen to believe (with some important qualifications) that women probably are nicer than men. But I've never found theories of feminine-run societies as plausible for a fairly straightforward reason: I don't find it persuasive that women could ever run anything in any sustained way until they got control of their own fertility. Which is to say, until about 1963. Too late for the Minoans.

But the issue here may not be men per se; the issue may be testosterone-poisoned men. I.e., men young enough to make a nuisance of themselves; in the words of Mr. Dooley, young men who go around sticking their flagpole just anywhere (indeed it is possible to speculate that the job of older men is to keep young men in line).

What if, then, it turned out that Minoan society was simply unburdened by young men? We might have a much different world than one ones we are used to.

Wait, wait, hear me out on this. We saw just lately that the absence of young men may well have contributed to the relative good order of Swiss society. Much has been written about Kerala in south India--a remarkably well-ordered (albeit poor) little corner of the world, dominated by women because the men (after impregnating somebody or other) tend to leave home for long spells at sea. Indeed, the name Junker in German society traces back to junker herren, "young men," as in "what do we do with these guys to keep them occupied?" Robert Clive, who wrested India for Great Britain, was chase out of his peaceful Shropshire home town for sitting on a gargoyle and for running a protection racket (link).

If this line of reasoning is plausiible, the next line of questioning would be--what did the Minoans do with all those young men? And of course, I haven't a clue. Send them someplace else, I guess. But until we find evidence of young Minoan men--empty cans of Minoan beer, for example, or torn Minoan underwear--I don't really have anything to support. But hey, it's a thought. Young archaeologists looking for a dissertation topic, please copy.

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He, Claudius

Translated: Boundary Mark Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (The Emperor Claudius) son of Drusus; high priest, acclaimed emperor in the 9th tribune for the 16th time consul, for the fourth time censor, father of the people of Rome, he extended their city's confines, here marked by the 55th boundary stone. A.D. 49.

No, the translation is not mine; there is a trilingual cribsheet just above. It's all at the corner of Via dei Cartari and Via Del Pellegrino. There's a five-corner intersection there that must hve a name, but I have no idea what it is. And what's this stuff about 49 years after Christ?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Something I didn't Know about Sully
(And a Mild Rant about the Evils of Publicity)

You remember Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the captain of the Hudson River Dinner Cruise--aka, the pilot who made himself a hero by safely ditching his commercial airliner in the Hudson River. He's back, doing a book tour, and here's something I didn't know: he's a union man:

In keeping with his willingness to question authority, he's also been an outspoken union advocate. "One of the benefits of a union is that it levels the playing field. No one person can stand up to management. It's only through the union that collectively we can have a voice and express grievances that will reach management."

I express surprise at the strength of this assertion, in a time when unions are regularly dissed. Sully's ideal is "a culture at work where employees are valued as partners. There is a cost to every company when you don't have these cooperative relationships."

That's Leah Garchick in the San Francisco Chronicle, and it sounds like he wouldn't have said so if nobody asked. Specifically, as far as I know, you do not see him making speeches, doing soundbytes, or otherwise capitalizing on his celebrity status to inject himself into the political affray. All of which points to one of more remarkable non-events of the current celebrity season, and that is: can you remember anyone who did less to capitalize on his notoriety than Sully? Put another way: can you just imagine the armies of lawyers, press agent, spin doctors, Fox New producers and whatnot ready to turn him into the next Joe the Plumber?

It might even be possible to generalize the point: we all owe a debt to the to those who don't let their head get turned by that kind of instant notoriety, and who, instead, just go on about their business. Another good, albeit not quite so dramatic, example would be the cop who busted Henry Louis Gates in his in own home. His name was--ah, got you there, didn't I? you had forgotten that his name was James Crowley. You may think the arrest was a terrible idea, although Crowley refused to apologize. But stop and consider the possibilities. With just the least little of media-whoring, Crowley could have had his own talk show by now, and have set himself up as a permanent fixture in our public life.

Another, although I admit this is a closer case, would be Gen. David Petraeus, the guy W hid behind during W's entire last year in office. Petraeus too surely saw the blandishments of riches, fame, power and the love of beautiful women. Of course as a general, Petraeus was supposed to shut up, which puts him in a somewhat different category from Sully, who had no such obligation. The interesting thing about Petraeus is that he never seemed to chafe under the constraints (a dustup with appears ratheer more to have enhanced his reputation than otherwise). You got the sense he could live with a system that kept him in his job and mostly out of the public eye.

Who knows, it isn't over yet, and we met see Sully or Petraeus or whats-his-name in the political stew someday (though heaven knows why any one of them would want to). But even if they do take the plunge, I think we'll have to give them points for behaving, even if just for a little while. Hey, in the current environment, you take what you can get.

Footnote: two more things about Sully--he was president of the high school Latin club, and he played the flute.

Appreciation: Roberts on the War Leaders

I've been reading Andrew Roberts' Masters and Commanders--about World War II leadership--with interest and profit but not always with pleasure. The story revolves around the Roosevelt and Churchill and their war partnership, and even more the roles played by their military right hands--George C. Marshall in the case of Roosevelt, and in the case of Churchill, the somewhat confusingly named Alan Brooke, First Viscount Alanbrooke. The four worked intimately together from before Pearl Harbor until after V-E day, and you have to give them this: they won the war. The distressing part is the sheer humanity of it all: here we have four fully socialized adults, rich in experience of the world, under the highest degree of motivation to cooperate. Cooperate they did in a way, but with what wrangling! On so many occasions, it sounds like nothing more edifying than a four-way divorce.

Some of the issues were clearly substantive: from early on, the Americans were pressing for a cross-channel invasion, such as t last came to pass in 1944. Early on, the Brits thought the cross-channel idea was premature, and on this they were surely right: on all the evidence it appears likely that a percipitous invasion, before the troops and equipment were massed, could have been pushed back into the sea.

But the Brits also favored what Roberts characterizes (with perhaps too much charity) a Sun Tzu strategy of hitting the enemy indirectly in, e.g., Norway or Italy or elsewhere. It's easy enough to see the virtues of the Sun Tzu strategy as a provisional or improvisational mesure, before the time was right for the channel invasion. But the Brits seem to have held on to (in particular) the Italy campaign long after the time when the channel invasion was possible: if there are good reasons for this view, Roberts does not make them obvious.

Beyond mere substance, the dragon at the picnic was the matter of sheer power. Going into the war the Brits clearly saw themselves as, first of all, the more aggrieved, and, further, the more exprienced, the more civilized--the natural leader in every way. As time passed, the balance of forces changed and at some point--perhaps early 1944--the Brits woke up to the fact that they were the junior partner and there wasn't much they could do about it.

And finally, there is the matter of sheer personality. Churchill we can reccognize as the man we know from his public face, although many readers will be impressed to read just how petulant, fitful and impulsive he could be. Marshall comes across ass Americans remember him--a rock of steadiness and good manners. But he may have been (as Alanbrooke at least once observed) a bit full of himself. And it may also be true (again Alanbrooke) that he had no real feel for military strategy. Alanbrooke himself is familiar from his diaries, published some years ago. He's ambitious (he desperately wanted the D-day command); he is irascible (though how anybody could work for Churchill over so many months and not be irascible is surely a puzzle). He betrays a streak of British insularity. He made some poor judgments, misled by his ambition, his iraascibility and his insularity; still he comes across as probably the most all-around competent at military leadership of the four. The human shortcomings, such as they were, of all these three, are in no way assuaged by the petulant vanities of some of the lesser players--particularly Field Marshal Bernard Montogmery --"Monty" on the British side, and the titanically ill-tempered Admiral Ernest King on the American.

The leaves Roosevelt who,remarkably, in this account, comes across as least visible of the four. That may be because he died just as the war ended and so never got a chance to tell his own story. Yet it remains unclear exactly what Roosevelt wants at critical juncturs in this book. Clearly he wanted to win; yet on so many of the issues that divided the other participants, he seems a shadowy presence. Roberts treats him as if he were the big winner of the four; maybe, but it may be that he simply had a good knack for figuring out which way the tide was running and stepping out in front to lead it on.

Indeed, one overall lesson from Roberts' account is the relatively secondary role of Churchill and Roosevelt (about whom we remember so much) compared to those of Marshall and Alanbrooke (who are, whatever their virtues, less memorable in the public mind). Churchill and Roosevelt were the public face of the war. Yet day in and day out, it was Marshall and Alanbrooke who struggled and contended with the enemy--and at times with each other. But from the readers' standpoint, the apparent imbalance is a side issue. The fact remaains that it was the four of them who, yoked together as not always easy or willing cooperators conceived and executed the strategy that won the war.

Monday, October 12, 2009

And Then it Hit me Like a Ton of Bricks

Thanks, Jared.

Ostrom's Prize, and Ellickson on Cattle

I know next to nothing about the work of the new Economics Nobelist, Elinor Ostrom, but I must not be alone, seeing as how the oddsmakers booked her at fifty to one (in fairness, the same ranking they gave to her co-winner, Oliver Williamson, about whom I can claim to know a bit more). Her work on showing that the common pool problem is richer and more nuanced than the theorists supposed--that work sounds like wonderful stuff, just the sort of thing to which you would want to give a prize.

But it does remind me of a parallel epidode in the very loosely related field of law and economics. I grew up in the generation schooled on the work of Ronald Coase, taught that adjacent landowners could solve nuisance problems by bargaining to a Pareto-superior result. If I heard it once, I heard it 100 times -- well then, the parties will bargain. It was like saying King's X to call time out in a schooyard rumpus (why does do much of modern economics sound like a schoolyard rumpus).

But then along came Robert Ellickson with what is, to my mind, one of the true classics of modern econ scholarship--his little book, Order Without Law, about how they settle disputes over straying cattle in just up the road from Palookaville in Shasta County. Ellickson had pulled what should have been the simplest and most obvious of stunts--he took the canonical Coase hypothetical and went out to learn how it actually played out on the ground. You can see where this is going: Ellickson found, of course, that life on the ground was not remotely like life in the library--that it was far more nuanced, rich and generally unexpected than, well, than anything we expected.

Ellickson published in 1991. I suppose if I were an ordinary story-teller, I would say that his book "went unnoticed" in the economics profession, but of course that would be entirely wrong: the book was warmly received in all relevant quarters.

But still, here's the important point. So far as I can tell, nobody was embarrassed. That is: Ellickson demonstrated that a generation of Coasean theorizing was pretty much of an empty shell. No apologies were uttered, no recall notices were dispatched; so far as I can tell, not one single person among the culpable ever said "oops."

In fairness, the profession did do something just as good, perhaps even better. That is: it assimilated Ellickson and made him part of the mainstream. You could say that he was in some sense an initiator of the "new behaviorial economics" whose whole premise is that economic life on the ground is far richer and more nuanced then we thought it to be before. But just once, it would have been nice to hear somebody say "oops."

Just bye the bye, I think there is a rough parallel here in the work of Professor Ostrom. She, too, can be seen as taking a simplistic old story and showing that it was more complicated than reigning theory asserted. Meanwhile, even as Professor Ostrom was languishing at 50-1, I note that the odds-on favorite for the prize (at 2-1) had been Eugene Fama, he of the "efficient capital market" hypothesis. Fama is another whose work is often travestied and vulgarized (maybe this is true of everybody's work)--I don't think it is fair to characterize him as anywhere near as simplistic as he is often characterized. Still at the end of the day, Fama has to stand with the older, more naive, largely discredited conventional wisdom. If had won the prize 10-20 years ago, he might have deserved it. To give to Professor Ostrom now seems pretty good proof that life moves on.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rome Note: Ambiance

I don't want to let go of Rome without a word of appreciation for the general ambiance, at least as we got to enjoy it during a warm week in September. We settled into an apartment in what may be my most favorite location in the whole world--inside the elbow of the Tiber, in this case tucked between the St. Philip Neri church and the Anti-Mafia squad. The flat was a deconsecrated former bachelor pad, offered by the tallest Italian I have ever met (yes, it can be a problem sometimes, he said), fastidiously if somewhat quaintly appointed to personal taste. It offered, among other things, the tallest toilet I've ever, um, experienced though I guess I understand why. Also a charming little putto Cupid over the fourposter bed, and I wonder whether at appropriate moments he toots his horn?

I'm not precisely sure just what it is I like so much about his neighborhood, though the flavor is distinctive. Rome can be a jumble at first glance, and it certainly has more--and more diverse--visual history than any place else I've ever encountered. But as James McGregor points out in his admirable guidebook, it is not so much of a jumble at second glance, because the competing attractions more or less sort themselves out. There's the "ancient Rome: stuff right there in the center of things, just behind the gawdawful Victor Emmanuel monument. The Vatican is more or less off by itself on the west side of the river. The baroque is a bit more scattered around but you can usually identify it--or at least the Bernini statues--by the dynamism and drama (there is also a fair amount of Mussolini modern here and there, not without interest, although the most interesting is off the tourist track).

The bend-of-the-River neighborhood isn't any of these: it is Renaissance, which may be hard to distinguish in the blur of first arrival but comes into focus in time. The Pope came back here from exile in 1377 to find a city--rather more a network of semi-related villages--in a parlous state. He set off a building boom that left this part of town littered with private residences that are the very definition of understated elegance. Perhaps the most visible is the Palazzo Farnese, with its own piazza--Michaelangelo topped it off with a massive cornice which tends to draw together an otherwise somewhat unfocused melange. But aside from the Farnese, there are any number of other identifiable, datable and formidable early examples. A good many of the most dramatic are on the Via Giulia, the restored papacy's first great urban renewal project. But any number of other Renaissance examples persist in the sidestreets and alleways (not always distinguishable, one from another) beyond.

I suppose the neighborhood is going (has gone) yuppified, like the Trastevere just over the river. On the one hand I say why not? On the other hand, I'm not quite so sure that it has; the cabby who took us in from the airport said he was born right here, and lives now just around the block. You see plenty of boutiques and tourists; you see a whole world of adolescents in the Camp de' Fiori at night. But you also see school kids, and old folks who look like they have indeed lived here all their life.

I called it a favorite: I like its elegance and atmosphere. It's also convenient--just off the #64 busline, the pickpocket special that connects the Vatican and the Termini station. And the food--the back streets are awash with restaurants, and I haven't found a bad one yet. On the other hand, I know I'm kidding myself: I've only ever been here on vacation, and I can already begin to identify the things that would drive me crazy if I lived here. Better to go home, and write about it, and pine for a chance to go back.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Sonnet Niche

I went looking for Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 on Google yesterday and stumbled onto something new to me--sonnets on YouTube. Make sense when you stop to think of it: the sonnet form fits nicely with the YouTube form, so no wonder that there seem to be swarms, flocks, gaggles, of sonnets, and specifically Shakespeare sonnets, there for the listening. I got 111 hits on Sonnet 29; not all of them are the thing itself, of course, but I should say that maybe 50 of them are. This being YouTube, a lot of them are awful, mama's basement stuff, but not all. One carries the agonizing label "Do I have a good voice or not?" (I couldn't bear to listen). One is read by a guy who seems it his duty to channel James Earl Jones. One is a tribute to Heath Ledger, go figure. Quite a number are school projects; I thought this quite fine. One is done in American Sign Language. A few are more professional: a number of people who sing for a living seem drawn to the sonnets (no royalties?); Rufus Wainwright seems to have produced/presented quite a few.

In any event--"and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries"--is surely one of the most haunting lines in the English language, not so?

Friday, October 09, 2009

I'm In the Clear!

Per a BBC story on the criminal charges against Silvio Berlusconi, I gather that if your over 70 in Italy, then even if convicted of a crime, you can't be sent to jail.

Looks like I'm in the clear. But as BBC says, Berlusconi's hair will be prosecuted as a juvenile.

Update: but the United States is not so fastidious.

Ha! Figures!

Catharine MacKinnon drives a stick shift (h/t: ATL).

You Know What--He Probably Should Have Won It

Jerome Doolittle has a handy compendium of predictable conservative responses to the new Nobelist (h/t, James Fallows), including:

7. No thinking person has taken the Nobel Peace Prize seriously
since Reagan didn’t win one for ending the Cold War.

Cute, but you know what? Reagan probably should have won the prize for ending the Cold War--in company, of course, with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Pope, the price of West Texas Intermediate Crude, all the other forces (human and otherwise) that converged to generate such a happy result.

Not, perhaps, for the reasons usually set forth in the conservative folklore, and specifically not for running an obscene defense budget--a threat which, by all the evidence, Gorbachev never took seriously anyway, because he knew the Americans had no intention of a first strike. Rather, Reagan deserves the prize for something more ambitious and radical--for making it all conceivable, and in particular, for doing a 180 on all his conservative allies who thought he had gone all Alpha Centauri on them and had to scramble (and grind their teeth) for years as they tried to adjust to the new reality.

Recall Will Bunch's Tear Down this Myth: How the Reagan Legacy has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future, where he demonstrates how how both his friends and his enemies misremember Reagan and deploy him for lesson she had/has nothing to do with. And stipulate that nothing in this version requires you to concede that Reagan was anything other than a bumbling old fool; specifically not that Reagan really understood what he was doing; you are permitted to continue recalling that this is the president who thought World War II was a movie. But wouldn't you enjoy savoring how crazy it would make Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perl, whoever, to have their nose rubbed in the fact their hero achieved immortality by his openness to the new world and his willingness to abjure war?