Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Superterranean Lakes?

Frank Buckley wrote something about a "subterranean lake." I asked him is he had ever seen a "superterranean lake." He answered:

Only in Classics Comics. And Lake Ontario, of course.

No kidding? The lake is above ground? What holds it in place?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

This Just In

Isaac Newton invented the cat flap.


Update: Apparently it's not true after all. Mreanwhile, my friend Carlton, confronted with the original assertion said: I don't believe it because Newton was not the kind of guy who would own a pet. Which turns out to be exactly right, and how cool is that?

Opera Note: The Nose

I suppose you could say I've saved the best for last, but I do have to put in a good word for the best opera performance I saw last week: the The Nose, by Shostakovich with staging by William Kentridge. It is everything everybody says it is and I don't have a lot to add.

With, I guess, one exception: people keep talking about The Nose as if it were some kind of response to Stalinism. But not really. The Nose premiered (in Leningrad) in 1928, which is to say, long before Stalin had locked the place down. Granted the Bolsheviks had enjoyed a 10-year run, and granted that Shostakovich took some flac from "the Russian Association of Prolertartian Musicians," still Russia remained a pretty loose-jointed venue at that point, and Russian continued to enjoy something of a bright sunny afternoon. The liquidation of the kulaks, the great purge, the Moscow trials, the dectator's menace against Shostakovich himself--these were still all years away. Recall that The Nose is rooted (and pretty firmly, at that) in a story that Gogol published in 1836. If there is criticism of Bolshevism here, it is that nothing has changed very much.

The Nose is a young man's work, with a young man's excess (Mrs. B found it a bit long at three hours). But as better critics than I have asserted, Shostakovich seems to have thought every note, and to have poured himself into it with a young man's passion. Critics have also been saying that the Kentridge is excessive, too busy. I suppose I can see their point; still busy-ness sis the theme of the evening, and it may be Kentridge (though not himself a young man) is doing his best to keep with the spirit of the occasion.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Appreciation: Fleming on the Building of a Career

In the midst of her absorbing and instructive (Absorbing! Instructive!) memoir* of her life as an artist, Renée Fleming tells a story about Natalie Dessay. As is so often is the case with this kind of story, it may tell more about the teller than the tellee. Fleming is recounting how she prepared for her role in Handel's Alcina, particularly the "memorizing, practicing, and reworking of [the] embellishments." She contrasts herself with Dessay, who sang another role in the same production. Dessay, says Fleming (and do we detect a note of wry envy?) improvised her solo parts throughout the rehearsals. "When I mentioned to her"
that I was simply astounded by her singing and musical imagination, she laughed and demurred: 'Oh, I sing them differently every day because I can't remember what I did yesterday.'
Now, I wouldn't be too quick to take this at face value; Dessay harbors a palpable streak of self-mocking irony and I bet she works a lot harder than she lets on. But there's a point here. Some may make it on talent and charm. Fleming makes it on sheer grit. At least on her own account (and it is plausible), she's a creature of iron discipline who has struggled for everything she has achieved.

There may be a general point here about opera singers. That is: we say--oh, she has such a wonderful voice. Well, she does have a wonderful voice, and wonderful voices are in short supply. On the other hand,short supply or no, there are more wonderful voices than there are places on the opera stage. In order to make it in opera, you need not just a wonderful voice but a particular kind of stamina. Recall that every opera audience is a gaggle of (say) 2,000 people, some of who worship and adore you; but some of whom are there only because their spouse (wife?) dragged them; and some of them would be more amused than anything to see you fall flat on your self-important face. It takes a peculiar combination of talent, character and streely nerve to put up with it all. And, not least, you've got to want it real bad.

By all the evidence, Fleming wanted it real bad. And clearly she had some advantages. Natural talent was not least among them, but it's not the only one. She also showed great foresight in picking her parents--talented themselves, but also determined to raise children with a capacity for discipline and hard work. She had the luck to find good teachers--or perhaps she had capacity to make her own luck in the finding of good teachers, and perhaps also in other aspects of the development of her career.

Even then, it didn't come easy. She's been so big a star for so many years now that it's hard to recall that she didn't make her Met debut until she was past 30 (she's 51 now). Up until then, it was always in the baking, never quite done.

For such a short book, this memoir is tightly packed. There's a lot in here about the sheer technical aspects of making music with your voice, and some shrewd--and funny--comments about coping with the practical aspects of managers, travel hassles, juggling life and career and so forth. But mainly it's a book about character-building--so good on this topic that you'd want your kid to read it no matter what their career plans, whether they intended to be an opera singer or a garbage tipper. Well, maybe not garbage tipper, but you get the idea (at least be a good garbage tipper!--I can hear the hortatory parent, perhaps myself, exhort).

And yet, one finds oneself remembering Dessay--the (to all appearances) not-quite-so-good girl, the one who, if she has not "had it easy," at least has the knack for making it seem easy, and thereby to add a note of electricity to a performance that sheer discipline cannot achieve.** By way of example, I think Dessay is at her best when playing opposite Juan Diego Flórez, who doesn't seem quite as free-floating and improvisational as she, but seems to know how to roll with her punches, to form a frame for her kinetic energy.

And I shouldn't make this about Dessay only. There are others: Fleming herself tells a story, new and astonishing to me, about Thomas Allen, surely one of the most intelligent-seeming singers on the opera stage. Per Fleming, Allen will actually change his characterization from performance to performance, so as to keep himself fresh and engaged (and, one suspects, so as to keep his co-stars on the knife-edge of anxiety).

Fleming, for her part, turns in some wonderful performances. But you can't imagine her challenging, or teasing, or unnerving her co-stars like either Dessay or Allen seems to do. It's perhaps no surprise that one of Fleming's signature roles is the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier,the bittersweet "comic" opera about the older woman who loses her love to a younger and more ardent competitor. The Marschallin begins Der Rosenkavalier in erotic horseplay with her career-long pal Susan Graham. and ends on a note of autumnal wisdom, knowing that it is time for her to leave the stage. "Der Zeit," says the Marschallin, "die ist ein sonderbar Ding." Time has been good to Renée Fleming, but time is a strange thing, and we can all learn from what she has learned from it.

*Fleming calls it "a book of advice;" she disparages "stories of intrigue at Champagne receptions." Indeed there are no stories of intrigue, but her "book of advice" ends up as a highly personal account, perhaps moreso than she understood. OH, the title: The Inner Voice.

**Dessay, of course, is out on sick leave. I haven't a clue what the problem is, but for my sake well as for hers, I can only hope it is not career-threatening.

Who'd Have Guessed?

I've said enough unkind things about United Airlines over the years (and thought enough more) that an instinct for fairness impels me to report this customer-satisfaction story from Michael O'Hare. Dare we to think this might just be something other than a one-off?

Update: okay, so maybe not, but it does have its own Wiki page.

Update II: and so does Isaac Newton.

Wish I'd Thought of That

Daniel Gross has the best idea of the day.

Subway Safety: Prudence on the Platform

The NYT blog reports another death in the New York subway this morning, apparently a suicide. The Times (at least at the moment) doesn't mention the comparison, but one is impelled to remember the sad story of the woman killed on another subway line just a couple of weeks ago.

The last thing I would want to do is to seem to trivialize the particulars of these particular cases, but I don't think it is improper to point to another aspect of the story. That is: how rarely people find themselves in the path of oncoming subway trains.

Forget about the intentional cases (although strictly speaking, I don't know for a fact that either of the cases noted here was intentional). Forget about intentional and concentrate on the thousands of people who rush, push, jostle, their way up and down the subway platforms every hour of every day. And access to the tracks is virtually unlimited. Only in the rarest cases (e.g., Times Square shuttle) is there any barrier to stand between the passenger and the yawning chasm below.

One can imagine a thousand things that might go wrong. A sudden conflict; an accidental shove; an idle misstep. Yet it almost never happens.

I'm sure others (particularly the liability lawyers) have studied this, written about this, before, although I haven't noticed. But notice or not, it is surely a miracle--and pretty good evidence fot the proposition that people are pretty careful about watching out for their own interests (and even those of others) when they know it really matters. Cf,
They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.
--Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, the last sentence.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Look Out, He's Packin' Heat!"

Daily Kos reports on a bunch of rabid Kansas legislators who think we need more guns in school.

Just askin', would they extend the same rule to the chambers of the state legislature? I'm too lazy to Google it, but as I recall, the aisle in the legislative chamber is by tradition set wide enough so that swords cannot reach across it. Is this too tame for the Kansans, I wonder? Or would they settle for a regime under which the recompense for an offense to one's honor is simply to administer a savage beating?

H/T the Wichita bureau.

David Runciman on Campaign Obama (With an Update)

David Runciman, reviewing books about the 2008 campaign, plays the game of might-have-been:
...Obama unquestionably comes across as the nicest, most reassuring boss, sensible, easy-going and relatively forgiving. The question is why this should matter. .... Obama is the one whose ambition [did] the least to corrode his decency as a human being. But there are glimpses of another Obama here too: the one who, lest we forget, floundered in debate after debate with Hillary Clinton, her 'mastery of the issues' making him come across as 'vague and weak and windy'. Obama's confidence in the face of his inadequate grip on policy often looks a lot like arrogance, and his great gifts only really flower in situations when he can remove himself from the fray. .... Obama is good at taking a detached view of other people's failings. It is not clear how good he is at taking a detached view of his own.

Obama unquestionably ran a better campaign than Hillary Clinton, but ... she would have made a better president. Indeed, despite the fact that he was obviously unelectable, I'm not sure that [John] Edwards wouldn't have been an improvement on Obama in some respects. Edwards had come to know a lot about healthcare reform, and he had thought seriously about the practical issues involved. He was clear about what he wanted to achieve, and he had some sense of the enemies he would have to make in order to achieve it. ... We spend too much time worrying about what politicians are like and how they behave, and not enough about what they might be able to achieve in the offices to which we elect them.

--David Runciman, "Enabler's Revenge,"
London Review of Books 3-10, 25 March 2010
Set aside for the moment the question whether "mastery of the issues" is necessary or even helpful for a successful presidency--I'll have to say that Obama certainly did appear more on top of things in he great health care summit a few weeks back than he did on the campaign trail (but this might have more to do with presentation style or delivery than actual content). Still, the larger point is telling: Obama has, indeed, shown an unsettling detachment in office--enough so that insiders like Nancy Pelosi evidently have been entreating him to be more assertive, to get more involved.

Or so it seemed until a couple of weeks ago. Lately we've had (a) his asserting himself (at last!) into the health care debate; (b) stories of how he got shirty with Dmitr Medvedev; (c) dramatic public evidence of his impatience with Benjamin Netanyahu; and (b) this weekend's in-your-face announcement of 15 (15!) "recess appointments" to the consternation of the Republican old bulls. Can it be that we are at long last seeing signs of a President who has finally grown a pair?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

On rhe DeFrumming of the AEI

I'm not as worked up as some people over the deFrumming of the American Enterprise Institute. I tend to think he's been right on a number of issues lately--particularly his point that the Repubs made a huge tactical error in letting the Dems pass health care without any GOP sanitizing--but I've never thought he was anywhere near as interesting an apostate as Bruce Bartlett, who got canned from another think thank a few years back for writing the best book so far about George W's economic policy.

But I do offer one insight which I guess applies to both: it's one reason why we want professors to have tenure.

Don't misunderstand me here: I know that tenure can lead to sluggishness, lack of accountability, bunions, flat feet, the whole works. And I don't mean to say AEI (or any other think tank, for tht matter) needs to have tenure: it is their ball and bat and they can make whatever rules they want.

But the whole point of not having tenure is that when the guy with the deep pockets doesn't like what you say, you get canned. Which is, I suppose, no fun for Frum (or Bartlett). But it is also, not incidentally, why think tanks will never be taken as seriously as universities. Say what you like about Paul Krugman, you know perfectly well he is not under the thumb of the big donors at Princeton, or he'd be bussing tables down at the Tiger Inn. No matter how good the work of the think tank (and some of it, even from AEI, can be very good) you know that at the end of the day, he minions are at the behest of the moneybags, and they aren't going to say anything that will get them fired. Or, if they do, they'll get fired.

Yves Smith on the Truck that Hit Us

The best thing about Yves Smith's formidable new account* of the late meltdown is her gritty and granular narrative of how banking went from being a somewhat pampered and overpaid service industry into being a gang of pirates. By all appearances, Yves was there for much or most of it; she saw investment bankers get sucked away from partnership into corporate form; she saw the market-driven pressures that drove them into sussing up the M&A market; she witnessed the silent but ineluctable shift from investing to proprietary trading, and the rise to dominance of the risk-taking animals, to the point where the animals ran the zoo, and where they lost all contact with any exterior reality as they came to play the game for the game itself as a contact port where nothing counted for so much as winning for its own sake.

Almost as good is her detailed insider of account of the rise of the non-bank transactions: securitization, repos and (particularly) "insurance contracts" aka "swaps"--including the fullest account that I have seen of Magnetar, the arsonist who learned how to build structures of dfry sticks so they could burn them down and collect on the underpriced insurance. Smith is particularly good at picking up on insights that would have been obvious to alert insiders, though not so visible from without--as for example, how much the debt market was driven by the near-insatiable appetite for triple-A paper which inevitably led more and more suppliers to try to produce product for the market.

She leads off with an extended narrative o n the rise of "mathematicization" in finance. It's well done and mercifully accessible, although the typical reader of this book is likely to have encountered a version of the story (perhaps in more abstruse form) elsewhere. I think she is less successful in tying the "excess of math" meme into her "corruption of the market" mantra. That is, having shown how mathematicized economics tended to sand down all the rough spots, she goes on to describe a pattern of market behavior in which economics, mathematicized or otherwise, is little more than a bit player. It's a world where institutional incentives drive greed and competitive bravado, and where the economic models are at best an excuse, not a real driver of behavior.

In the same vein, she doesn't seem to have fully worked out her own notion on the place of "the market" in the economy. Apparently she's lived all her life in a world of banks and transactions and in so many ways, she seems to be comfortable there. She thinks we've overdone it on free trade, and she has some kind words to say about unions. Well enough, but does she really want to go back to the days when protected car companies and protected unions colluded to sell us crap cars while they split the profits? To printers who sat up all night setting bogus?: To railroad crews who drew a days' pay for taking a nap? To a steel industry who deferred the inevitable for two or more generations with evasions and excuses for which the rest of us had to pay?

I think these questions are merely rhetorical. And the corollary is that this book is not a grand design for a new economy. Probably a good thing, that; we've had more than our share of grief from grand designs. It is a splendid insider account of our recent financial past, from an alert insider with a developed sense of decency and a fine sense of balance. Highly recommended, put it on the short list.
*ECONned (2009). The silliest thing is the title, but maybe we can blame that on the publisher. And FWIW, the book is not just a rehash of her must-read blog, Naked Capitalism, although nothing in the book will come as a great surprise to faithful readers of the blog.

Opera Note: Save your Viaticus Latin Folks,
Rome's Gonna Rise Again

--Okay, okay, I'm tired of your begging. So I'll do the Met, but only on one condition.
--Sure, name it.
--That you let me do Attila.
--That we let you do--um, say again?
Well, I suppose it didn't actually happen quite like that, but I do know two things: (1) after years of trying, the Met finally did snag Ricardo Muti for a conducting gig; and (2) they presented him in one of Verdi's lesser known and (let's be frank about it) weaker operas.

The Met's presentation is saved by two facts: one, like Shakespeare, Verdi may sometimes create an inferior product, but never a really bad one, nor a product that lacks in interest. And two: Muti himself, who seems unfailingly able to work his magic with Verdi-- so much so that if I'm right, and that if he did negotiate for Attila, then the chances are he was onto something, and understood that he could nurture something on this unpromising soil that would be worth the effort.

Attila's biggest drawback may be the source of its considerable success in its own time: it is, perhaps, Verdi's most "political" opera, with a theme--beleaguered Romans fight back against uncouth Huns```--fit almost too neatly into the aspirations of Italians in his day.

What saves it--I assume, what Muti saw in it, is that it begins to sound like (although it has not yet fully become) the mature Verdi. Julian Budden says:
"[O]f all Verdi's essays in the grand manner composed to date [1846] none shows so great a consistency of language. Even Nabucco contains reminiscences of Donizetti and Rossini. In Attila every phrase is characteristic, each aria is an archetype of the composer's e`arly manner.
Muti's conducting, as interpreted by the Met orchestra and its splendid chorus, affirm the intuition that Budden is right here, and they make it all worth the price of admission. Which is a good thing, because nothing else was spectacularly impressive. Singing was not bad but fairly routine (did they blow their casting budget on the conductor?). The set seemed to be some kind of Italian jungle with holes in it, so you felt like you were watching most of the performance through a porthole or a well-trimmed Dunkin' Donut. But forget that: Muti's conducting alone was enough to justify the Met's decision (if it was a decision) to let him have his way.

Opera Note: the Thomas Hamlet

Watching the Met's presentation of the Ambroise Thomas Hamlet the other night, I remembered the little Shakespeare Company that found itself stuck with the task of introducing the Bard to the locals down at Waycross, GA. The actors weren't at all sure they sell the poet to the yokels but as the curtain went down the audience went wild with cries of "Author! Author!" The company didn't know what to do but the audience kept shouting for the author, so at last the manager collared a bit player, slapped a wig on him and pushed him out onto the stage. And the audience shot him.

Translated: everything is right about this Met Hamlet, with one exception: the music, the score. Grant that Thomas is a well-schooled technician, comfortable with the operatic conventions. The trouble is that he just doesn't have an original musical idea in his head--or if he did, he kept them well concealed from the audience in Paris, where Hamlet opened in 1868. Apparently it was a huge hit in its own time, but if this is what the Paris audience wanted, then it's no wonder that the German Army walked all over them at Sedan in 1870 (for a more charitable view, go here).

I said "one exception." Well, one and a half. Aside from the score,l Hamlet is crippled by the grotesquely limited 19th-Century conception of Hamlet himself as a poor put-upon innocent, capturing almost none of the richness and variety of the characterization. Thomas is hardly alone in this, of course; indeed one of the marvels of Shakespearean history is that Hamlet has endured and even survived so many rotten interpretations. Contrast, say, Handel's Messiah which, even when terrible is still pretty good.

At any rate these two constraints conspire together to provide what could have been a tooth-grindingly boring evening were it not for (in particular) Simon Keenlyside in the title role. He's at once a superb singer and a superb actor and indeed I'd have to concede that it says something for the role that Keenlyside has come back and back to it since 1996 (there's a DVD version from Barcelona). In a Met interview Keenlyside did mention a good technical reason why a baritone might enjoy it (high tessatura), together, also acknowledging that he enjoys the chance for a bit of melodrama.

As Ophelia, Marlis Petersen did well enough that you've got to hope she will soon escape the sobriquet of "replacing Natalie Dessay who is ill." A lot of critics treat the Ophelia role as one of the worst things about the opera--too hammy and insufficiently motivated. Actually, for all my whining I rather liked it. You've got to grant the conventions of 19th-Century mad scenes and it does run a bit long. But the characterization was not quite as fingernails-on-chalkboard as the Prince himself and so easier to enjoy.

BTW this was a big week for overblown Frenchiness. A couple of nights before, we took in the production of Charbrier's l'Etoile next door at the New York City opera. It's got the same problem: Charbrier, though also well schooled in his craft, is an even less inventive musician than Thomas. But the staging was fun and the singers knew how to play it for yucks, so everybody had a pretty good time. I found myself diverting my mind by putting him in the context of his times:

I should add that while I think both these performances had holes in the center, still I'm not sorry I went, and I don't think it was a mistake for the Met (or the NYCO) to stage them. You've got to try different stuff, you've got to explore. I mean, how many Carmens can you watch in a lifetime? Okay, quite a few, but still...

Friday, March 26, 2010

And Don't Steal Them, Either

The sign at St. Mark's bookstore in the East Village warns us not to copy from books, and not to photograph them. Actually, I guess I have done that--photographed the cover so I would know what to order later on Amazon. I suppose I could have photoed text also, and then OCR'ed it right into my dissertation, if I had a dissertation.

Come to think of it, I guess there is a kernel of a business plan here. Maybe it is what Brnes & Noble is trying to do, making it easy for you to read your Nook books in the store. Kind of like an Apple store, where they don't really care whether they turn a profit if they let you feel and touch so you make an online purchase?

Good ol' Avery

tThe memorial plaque for Avery Fisher at Avery Fisher hall says he was

Wise, elegant, gentle, caring

I wonder, did each of those substantives cost him, say, an extra million? Certainly should have. Makes me remember Hans Delbruck.

Fn; Earlier I said "general" for gentle." Nope, just an error. Thanks, Joel.

Mmm, Medicare!

--You know what's a good business? Home health care. My in-laws needed home nursing three shifts a day, we couldn't hardly find anybody...
--And dialysis! My brother does dialysis. In, out...
--And physical therapy! Home visits! $65 a visit, that's a thousand dollars a day for just one person!
--Mmmm, Medicare!'
Japanese restaurant in Murray Hill, Thursday lunchtime. Okay, the mmm is my own, but they were thinking it.

Afterthought: At $65 a visit, $1,000 a day pencils out to 15.38 visits a day. How long is a visit? How do they handle travel time? Are these licensed physical therapists?

Subway Sighting: Life Plan

On the Lexington Avenue Line, above 34th Street, Wednesday morning: mother and two children, a boy in a stroller and a girl on her own. On second look, you could see that the girl was younger and smaller, and that the boy was somehow impaired: his mother kept urging him to keep his lingua in his boca, but he didn't seem to be listening.

It occurred to me that the little girl has an occupation and a responsibility for as long as they both shall live.

Whatever it Is, We Deal

Russia survived Stalin!
Germany survived Hitler!
We can survive ObamaCare!
--Guy sitting on the sidewalk, Park Avenue South and 34th St.,
NYC, Tuesday afternoon.

A Rave Review (and and a Suggestion for Peter Brook)

Urgent exhortation: if you're going to be anywhere near New York City between now and April 17, bop on over to the Duke on 42d Street and catch Peter Brook's Love is My Sin. That's the Peter Brook who did so much to define the London theatre scene for the post-World-War-II generation. He's 85 now and still working; the item showcased here is his one-hour evocation of the Shakespearean Sonnets, as presented by Natasha Perry (whom Brook married in 1951) and Michael Pennington, who is no slouch at redefining the theatre scene, especially Shakespearean theatre scene, himself.

One hour; two actors (plus one muscian); 35 sonnets--all this for $75 a head. You'd think it was some kind of ripoff, but consider: between them, these three (Brook, Pennington, Perry) must have 175 years' worth of Shakespearean stage experience. You can't imagine anybody else who could present the material so convincingly, and so captivate an audience.

By general assent (which I'd endorse, if anyone asked), the Sonnets are not what make Shakespeare Shakespeare: they're a bit too formal, stylized, overwritten. He needed the discipline of the box office to establish him as an enduring cultural icon. But by the miracle of careful selection and dazzling presentation, Brook & Co have defined them into Shakespeare's natural venue. Somehow Brook (or his cast of two) found a way of articulating the selection into two separate characters and to establish a kind of dramatic dialogue.

Apparently Perry herself is 80 this year, but you'd hardly notice: on stage, she came across as younger than Pennington (who is 66). They both have a bit of a lisp, but no matter: from the moment they open their mouths, you know you're in the hands of a total pro, in complete control of the material. At $75 a head, that's a little north of $2 per sonnet, but as the experience of a lifetime, it's worth every penny.

Now the suggestion: the whole show took a bit under an hour. Mr. B remarked on how much fun it would have been if they had dragooned in two different actors of a different age (50, perhaps?) and let them do it all a second time.

Context Note: This is the third performance we've seen at the Duke in recent years, all winners. Well, two winners and a strong honorable mention. A fit match for Brook's sonnets was Darko Tresnjak's superb rendition of All's Well that Ends Well back in 2006, Tresnjak in 2008 presented an Antony and Cleopatra that was carefully thought out and convincing, if perhaps a bit light in the passion department--still, about the best overall Antony I've ever seen.

Celebrity Sighting: the waiting space outside the Duke is a line of chairs that look a lot like the waiting room at the Alzheimer's clinic. About 7:30 the stage door opened; a compact little man emerged and strolled past the expectant customers. "Excuse me," a woman said, "aren't you Mr. Brook?" Why yes, he said--they chatted for two or three minutes. "Oh yes," she said, "I'm here. I bought a ticket for tonight." "Oh," he said, "if I had known, I would have...." "Oh yes, I know, she said," and they nodded a greeting and he continued on his way.

Now Cut That Out

H/T John, who is old enough to know better.

Back Again

We're back again, this time from NYC, where we spent the last week hoovering up high culture. It was pretty intense: if I remember right, four operas, a play, half a dozen museum outings, a couple of meals with old friends and lunch for two at the Gramercy Tavern to celebrate our 20th anniversary (or 30th, depending on how you count).

Two long plane rides and a touch of insomnia also gave me a chance to polish off two admirable (but rather different, one from the other) books--Yves Smith, ECONned, much better than its silly title and Renée Fleming, The Inner Voice. Details anon, once I get the laundry sorted and stuff.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Away Again

We're decamping to Manhattan to see some opera--including the Shostakovich Nose and Thomas' Hamlet. I suppose I'll have blog access but I'm a bit blogged out at the moment so I may just let it slide. Look for new stuff here around March 27.

Meanwhile, wallow in some oldies:
What Bruce Bartlett Really Meant to Say

The Best Finance Book I've Read So Far This Year

LolCat Bible

Barton on Shakespeare

If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Poor?

Bernie and the Birth Certificate

So Now It's "All In This Together"

My Cousin Dodie and Mr. Snitz Noodle

Economics: Who's Using Whom?

The Lenin/Jesus/Baby-Dictator Axis

Just the other day for no reason that I can fathom, I ran a picture of the young Lenin, looking all sweet and Boticelli-like in his blond curls.

Comes now the question of whether Lenin looks like Jesus (search the page for "Lenin." Or "Jesus"). I have no opinion on that one, though I suppose my own prior example invites the question whether the baby Lenin looks like the baby Jesus.

In any event, I'd say that at least he belongs in Nina Klevian's series of baby dictators.

H/T: For Lenin/Jesus, League of Ordinary Gentlemen; for baby dictators, BoingBoing.

Report from the Fructose Quadrant

Underbelly's friend John, who spends his life in a wheelchair, reports on the puzzle of hospital nutrition:
Went to the local hospital for the rehab gym - (it's more accessible than a real gym and they have PTs to scrape you up off the floor if you fall; besides, when they call code blue, the crash cart gets there earlier than the ambulance). ...

At any rate, we ended up in the cafeteria; they were selling a pail sized "LMH" mug for $2 with free refills - apparently forever. Since I will be spending a week there after surgery at the end of the month, seemed like a good deal. Still, the 'mug' is literally the size of a lunch bucket - must hold a quart (or a liter). The self serve soda is tasteless - but probably sugar loaded.

They are pushing weight loss on one floor and insuring the survival of the weight loss program in the cafeteria with a pail. ...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Enough with the Victimhood

About one of the defining crimes in modern Britain, Andrew O'Hagan speaks the unspeakable:
Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger, is being paraded as the proper arbiter of justice: as if the mother of a murdered child should call the shots, should be the one to decide what ought to be done with the killers. She is not to be challenged: who in their right mind would seek to challenge a grieving parent?

Yet we need to challenge her, because that also means challenging the moral stupidity the media’s use of her represents, the urge towards counter-violence that always seems to make sense to the mind of the average working-class Briton. Of course she wants the boys behind bars for ever. She wants their rights taken away. Which of us, given the horror, would never be tempted down that road? No matter what the law says, a sense of entitlement nowadays devolves to the families of murder victims. The tabloids and not just the tabloids like it that way. Among the tabloids I include the Today programme.

This case has, from the beginning, involved the need to say that grief is not an achievement, doesn’t confer power, and Denise Fergus should have no say at all in the fate of the boys who killed her son.
For a powerful exercise in the theatre of "there but for the grace of God," go here.

WW II on Facebook

Here. H/T Ed Lucas.

Buffettology Update

I knew that Warren Buffett still lives in the home that he bought in Omaha in 1958 for $31,500. I guess I didn't realize that it has five bedrooms and measures 6,000 square feet. And, yes, by the standards of the obscenely rich, that's still pretty small potatoes.

This is Just Too Cool for Words

No other comment:

Thanks, David, I guess.


Joel flags me to the news that my natal state, cold, rocky, infertile New Hampshire, now lies eighth on the list of states with the most millionaires, just ahead of California and behind Alaska. "Millionaire" in this case means a million in liquid assets (i.e., not counting real estate), so tax returns aren't the point. Re New Hampshire, let's just say it wasn't that way when I was a kid, but things have changed now that southern New Hampshire has caught all the spill from the Massachusetts tech boom (and with famously low taxes to boot). I'll bet places like Berlin and Colebrook till look pretty much like they did when I was a kid, though.

Cynics will glom onto the fact that Maryland, Virginia and DC all make the list, as evidence of civil-service/government bloat. There's probably some truth to that--I suspect that civil servants, aside from being comparatively well paid, are more prudent than the common ruck, more likely to lay up treasure for a rainy day. Or maybe it is just all those lobbyists.

It's interesting that New York does not make the list (though Connecticut and New Jersey both do). Brings me back to a point I think I've made before: DC may be prosperous, but it is not the home of obscene riches. Can't argue with the number on millionaires, but for zillionaires, I bet you still have to go to Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Career Opportunity?

If that coconut-tree-climbing thing doesn't work out, here's a job title on Linkedin:

head shred master at shredlor inc.

Apparently a pharmaceuticals company. Maybe they can form a strategic alliance with these guys.

Afterthought, just how do you offload $75 million worth of hot antidepressants? Dump 'em into the water supply at Salt Lake City?

House of the Setting Sun

When I was a teenager, we used to make prurient giggles about the institute for destitute prostitutes. Now Carlton flags us to a CNN piece about a home for elderly prostitutes. The minimum age is 60. "The majority of them continue working, because there are still people who want to pay to have sex with them," the report says. The reporter joined them for a Mothers' Day party.

St. Who's Day?

I was chatting with St. Patrick just this morning and he can't understand what the fuss is all about. He was hoping to call in sick, to take a hot bubble bath and then slip into his snuggies and spend the rest of the day organizing his collection of green gummy bears. He's thinking he should take the phone off the hook.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ian Macneil

Joel calls my attention to the death of Ian Macneil, professor emeritus at Northwestern University Law School and (surprise) The MacNeil of Barra, Chief of Clan MacNeil also known as Clan Niall and 26th of Barra, also Baron of Barra. Although we certainly weren't friends, I had the great good fortune to spend some time in the company of the Baron of Barra over a couple of weeks many years ago: we were both participants in one of Henry Manne's "economics summer camps," which meant we had time to do the things you do at camp: loll around and hang out in the long summer evenings (we maintained a nodding acquaintance for many years after). He was everything you would hope (but, realistically, might not expect) from the Baron of Barra: he was pleasant and congenial, a bit formal, too tactful to be courtly, but altogether the best of company. He also had one defining quality that you might not expect in a Baron: an almost insatiable curiosity about the world and how it worked. He seemed to be interested in just about everything in the human condition, but in particular the matter of how people got along--or perhaps you might say "rubbed along"--in a fractious and imperfect world.

Ian's nominal field was the law of "contracts," but "contracts" doesn't really catch the flavor of Ian's work. "Contracts" smacks of deals, bargains, handshakes, slapping the ground to ratify an agreement. Ian was far more interested in what he was pleased to call "relational" contracts--human encounters that extend over time, with all the attendant stratagems and devices that we bring to our human interchanges. In a number of articles and books, Ian tossed out a thousand conjectures and insights about how these relationships might be understood. It's no accident that his "other" field was the law of"arbitration"--the settlement of the same sorts of disputes.

For a time it seemed that Ian (with others, notably Stewart Macaulay at the University of Wisconsin) was going to revolutionize law teaching, perhaps law itself. Yet it doesn't seem to have happened. It may be that the law world is wiser for what Ian said and did, but I suspect there is a whole gaggle of younger academics who wouldn't even recognize his name.

It is an interesting but I suspect unanswerable question why such a fertile mind could vanish so completely. I suspect that part of it was that Ian didn't slot very well into the continuing intellectual narrative. Granted, he certainly engaged with "contract law" as commonly understood in the academy. But his imagination was so fertile and his ideas came so thick and fast that it was hard to pin him down as part of any particular doctrine or genre. I see he had an undergraduate degree in "sociology;" it probably didn't help to have cut his teeth in a discipline which itself seemed to be disintegrating around him.

A corollary is that while there is an abundance of Macneil material--categories, lists, charts, taxonomies--you really can't really turn him into to much of a soundbite (unless the cry of "relational contracts" will bring the troops to the parade ground). In this respect, I wonder if perhaps he is a bit like the late Myres McDougal, another one who flashed across the night sky and seems to have left not a trace behind (one difference: a few decades ago there were scores of McDougal acolytes; I don't think there was ever really a "school of Macneil," but in the end, it may have come to the same thing).

Another problem may be that in the end Macneil was too much of a gentleman to make it as a scholar. Clearly he loved to absorb ideas, and he refashioned them with non-neurotic ease. But he lacked the intensity, the savage ambition, the taste for internecine warfare that you probably need to make yourself king of this particular mountain.

In the end, it didn't do a bit of good to his American academic reputation that he retired to Scotland, to his lairdship and to (it says in the obits) the annual rent payment of one bottle of fine malt whisky, said to be his right as proprietor of a 1,000-year-castle. And although I write as if he were "forgotten," there's a lengthy, thoughtful and informed Wiki; clearly somebody remembers the 26th of Barra.

Here's a good obit.

Editor's query: caps or lc? MacNeil or Macneil? The sources are inconsistent, but the Northwestern Emeritus page goes with lc so I will too. One l or two? Again I go with the emeritus page which lists only one.

Afterthought: Macaulay, McDougal, Macneil--a gaggle of Scots?

Update: Joel also points us to a superb meditation on what it means to be the laird of the manor.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Kaufman Rip the Hide off the Banks:
The Power of Lameduckery

I'm has invigorated by a lot of people at the verve and polish of the woodshedding administered to the finance industry by Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman--not less bracing as inflicted by the former AA to then-Senator (now VP) Joe Biden--that is to say, somebody who has been around Washington long enough to know whereof he speaks.

I also liked Simon Johnson's appreciative commentary, but I think Simon misses the point. He says:

And yes, DE stands for Delaware – corporate America has finally decided that its largest financial offspring are way out of line and must be reined in.

The point Simon misses is that Kaufman is a lame duck and so does not have to give a ducktail about what anyone else thinks--in particular his corporate non-overlords. This is pretty clearly a guy who decided he was going to take the interim appointment for all the fun it offered, and not have to worry about pleasing anybody but himself.

And yes, it is too bad that we can't get that performance out of the other great lame duck, whose own reform package looks pretty insipid by comparison.

The Burdens of Ownership

I said in an earlier repo piece that "The person with who bears the risk of decline in value--that person is the owner."

A commentator over at deLong responds with acerbity "Gee, we own the big banks. Very illuminating." (link).

Good point. And a convenient reminder that ownership can be a burden as much as a benefit. I guess Thoreau understood that; also the Buddhist monks. But I also recall how I read a few years back in one of the law & econ books how it was a "puzzle" that New England farmers practice "ultimogeniture"--i.e., the farm goes not to the first kid but to the last one still at home.

I fired off a brisk explanation--I grew up there and I know those damn farms are a burden and the one who gets it is the kid who is still around when papa becomes too enfeebled to do the work.

And as I think of it, am I not correct to recall that in the Roman Empire, you might disclaim an inheritance so as to avoid the liabilities that came with it? So we are all a bunch of poor overburdened younger sons?

Tips from an Old Master

Tom Selling at The Accounting Onion surfaces some old notes on how to run an audit committee, as offered by an accounting luminary:

  1. Audit committee member should limit themselves to two or three boards.
  2. The committee should strive to maintain the appropriate 'tone at the top.'
  3. A culture of compliance should continually be taught.
  4. Continually evaluate how best to meet one's duties.
  5. The corporation should have a compliance committee.
  6. Stay current with legal and financial reporting requirements affecting the company.
  7. Strive for collegiality and 'play nice' together.
  8. Develop a formal policy for financial statement disclosure.
  9. Access to both internal and external experts should be easy.
  10. Develop effective relationships with management
  11. Keep communications paths open and objective. The audit committee should have separate meetings with the internal and external auditors.
  12. Keep in mind that the IFRS looks at public company disclosures.
  13. Consult an outside expert for tax issues
  14. Ask tough questions – make sure all of the questions raised are answered by the auditor to your satisfaction.
  15. Be able to prove what you did; make sure that the minutes of your meetings reflect your actual diligence.

Who's the author? Why, this guy, of course.

Selling offers a 16th tip of his own:
audit the auditor. Yes, the PCAOB inspect audit firms and may select audits to review; and there are new PCAOB standards for supervisory review of the work of the audit team, but this is clearly not enough.

Tip 16 is, 'The auditor should be concerned that the audit committee might, at any moment directly examine some of its work.' Just as management's assertions should be subject to verification by the auditors, the assertions made to the audit committee by the auditors should be subject to verification. If the audit committee tells the auditor to do something, verify it was done. If the auditor stakes out a position on a sensitive issue, and if you are not an expert yourself on that issue, hire an expert to verify that the auditor's conclusion is the correct one.


Annals of Academic Excellece

I guess I have no objection in principle to the idea of an Arab-themed public school in New York City, but does it really have to be named after Khalil Gibran? Isn't this the cross-cultural equivalent of naming a school after Frankie Avalon?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Who's This Charmer?

He's four years old. You've heard of him.

Hint: think less hair. Or go here.

Short Amazon Now

Okay, I admit it, I never did believe that anyone could make a zillion dollars moving heavy boxes. So sue me, but how to account for my latest personalized Amazon sales pitch:
Based on your previous purchase at Amazon, you might like to know that you can save $100 on select $300 orders on Tumi bags, wallets, and accessories.
Based on my previus purches at Amazon, I am about as likely to carry a Tumi wallet as a hog is to wear a morning coat. Short Amazon now.

Oy, You Think You Got Problems?

Yiddish has for so long been just part of a comedy routine that we forget that it is, or was, a living language with its own virtues and its own limitations:
Paradoxically, the Yiddish language was very old and very young at the same time, rich in emotive expressions and poor in denotations of "realia," specific objects in everyday life. ... The same holds for Yiddish literature: it was perhaps seven hundred years old and still seemed to lack beauty in comparison with the literatures of Europe, and sublimity in comparison with biblical Hebrew. Yiddish writers of the last hundred years experienced the frustrations--as well as the elation--of having to create and enrich both their language and their literature as if they were just beginning. ... [A]n enormous effort had to be invested--by writers, teachers, essayists, journalists, and political activists--to enrich its vocabulary and expand it to cover new domains of politics, knowledge, nature, industrial cities, poetry, and human experience. Yiddish literature had to discover and work out for itself the very genres in which it was writing... And at the same time there loomed the constant double menace that Yiddish culture might be trivialized and the language disappear altogether. Indeed, the beginning and the end of his language often ominously crossed the horizon of a single Yiddish writer in the course of one lifetime.
Benjamin Harshav, The Meaning of Yiddish, 4 (1990). I see that my copy, bought second hand, was purchased by the El Paso Public Library on Mar 5, 1991, and (big red stamp) DISCARDED. Afterthought, I wonder if the cutsey headline above is itself part of the problem Harshav seeks to identify.

Mmm, Pi

Pi Day.

[Why "Pi"? The first letter of the Greek word for "periphery." Just lately learned that.]

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Plot Against the Pope?

I never much cottoned to the "good Nazi" slander against Pope Benedict XVI. But doesn't this get perilously close to the defense of "we never knew"--?

[Not to mention highly implausible. All the evidence tells us that Benedict is energetic, tireless, a control freak and a detail freak. My guess is that it will be a long time before he has a better day than today.]

Must-Read: Remembering RMN

If you've forgotten why hated Richard Nixon, go here.

[Oh hell, just go there for the fun of it.]

Walter Russell Mead Advises the Young

Hint to the youth: Anytime a young intellectual is trapped in a nasty spot like this, squatting in a foxhole with anti-Semites and assorted tinfoil hatters, your first thought should be, “Where did I go wrong?
Walter Russell Mead. He's exploring the issue of whether/why Israel is "special:"
The simplest, most elegant answer to this problem to say that the Israel lobby is different from all other lobbies. It is the one and only exception to the rule that domestic politics don’t matter: The Jews are so rich, so focused and so good at what they do that they have built a lobby that is unique in the world.

There are only two problems with this approach. The first is that the idea of a uniquely powerful Jewish lobby is catnip for anti-Semites. As I’ve repeatedly said, you don’t need to be an anti-Semite to hold this view, but this idea (that the Jews have a wealthy, well connected and ruthless power lobby that is like no other and that this cabal manipulates the political system the way that a puppeteer dangles marionettes) draws angry loners and anti-Semites like ants to a jelly jar.
For a fuller account of Mead's views, go here.

More on Private Armies

I remarked on Gazprom's having a private army. Joel responds:
...I've 'always' held that multinationals have armies (or more accurately police forces).
Copy that, but the closer you look at the issue, the more complicated it gets. No doubt a Henry Ford had a crowd of heavies ready to help with "labor relations," heh heh. And we've all seen a hundred movies where Big Evil has a bunch of suave and tactful minions (or the occasional Churck Norris clone) ready to put away the bad guys. Joel remembers how Ross Perot sent in his own team to rescue a couple of employees from a throng of angry Iranians (and provided the plot for Ken Follett's Wings of Eagles).

But there must be a lot of subtleties in degree. I suspect that the more rudimentary the local police force, the more naturally you wind with your own. Or you simply take over the local police force and run it as if it is your own. Or you do as we seem to be doing now--let the taxpayers pay for the training, and then cherry-pick the good ones for your private force.

Then there is the flip-side issue of the sovereign enforcer who gets too big for the sovereign. Don't even think about parkng in a free spot on West 10th Street in Manhattan--those spots belong to the Sixth Precinct. Meanwhile, whom did American pols fear more --Harry Truman or J. Edgar Hoover? Rewrite that previous sentence with "Russian" and "Joseph Stalin" or "Lavrenti Beria"--well, I suppose that one might be a push. Inside Hitler's Germany, Heinrich Himmler ran a full-bore state within a state. The Turkish military has long felt free to tell the Turkish government what to do.

Wheels within wheels: compare Japan, where the Yakuza operates as a semi-authorized private adjunct to the police, doing the jobs that are politically untenable for the police to do.

So, what's special about Gazprom? Maybe nothing, except possibly the fact that Gazprom is the only case I can think of where the private entity gets its private army by explicit government authorization.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Private Rent-seeking

Reading William Paltry's Moral Panic and the Copyright Wars, we get a bracing reminder of an overlooked first priciple: rent-seeking is not just about governments. We often treat it as if it is another government monopoly (cf. link), but that is because people who write about rent-seeking tend to be those who hate government and idealize the private realm. But the private realm can be just as bloated and inefficient as the government ever was, and ignore the blather about how market discipline will keep them in line: maybe in the long run, but revolution will keep bad government disciplined in the long run also and nobody these days has much taste for that.

Paltry is at pains to show that there are two ways to make money: you make something that somebody wants, or you find someway to extract money from people for something they don't want, or from something you never made. The response of the entertainment biz to the new-music revolution is a dandy example of the latter strategy. Faced with a (relative) decline in the popularity of CDs, the suits have spent the last few years running around trying to lock up their mediocre product, rather than come up with a better. A corollary point, although Paltry doesn't dwell on it: the guy who broke this particular stalemate was the guy who has shown such an uncanny knack for figuring out what the customer wants before he knows he wants it (I still wonder about the Ipad, though).

Paltry also offers a devastating account of how in "copyrightable" creative work, nothing is ever really new: the best of it is just a riff on what went before. Hre reminds me that I really ought to go back and read (as I never did before) Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence. Bloom, says Ratner "took the position that transformative influence occurs
only with strong poets, major figures, with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death. Weaker talents idealize: figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves. ...
That's Ratner at 73, quoting Bloom. He did not but might have Herman Melville:
For genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.
Link, and Footnote: I see I previously attributed this to Thoreau. Apologies, Herm.

Youtube, Glorious Youtube

Best song ever:

"The Bride Will Keep Her Professional Name"
(And Add it to the Marquee)

I have an impulse to be puzzled about the addition of Kathleen Sullivan's name to logo at Quinn Emanuel, which now beomes Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. I mean--I don' t begrudge any eminence to the distinguished former Stanford Dean but I thought the natural progress of maturity was to shorten, not lengthen, firm names? More precisely, isn't a long firm name the sign of an unstable partnership, more of an office sharing?

I suppose the general pattern occurs as the partners die off and the firm name morphs into a corporate logo. My friend Margaret points out that Atlanta now his Alston & Bird (A&B) and Bryan Cave (BC)--one can only await the merger of Yaroslavl & Zillow. Ethical rules prohibit the abandonment ofhuman names altogether, but go to the website of Morrison Foerster and you'd never guess that its name wasn't simply MoFo (at the website, you can even create a MoFolder). I have long thought of O'Melveny & Myers as OMM, but a look at their website informs me that they are striving for just the big O. I guess there are exceptions: the firm everyone knows as Skadden remains stubbornly "Skadden Arps Slate Meager & Flom" (Skadden stubborn? Oh bite your tongue).

In the popular mind, of course it can go another way: Weil, Gotschal & Manges has long been known in the trade as We'll Getcha & Manglya (pardon, I see from the web page that it is just Weil Gotschal, so the old joke doesn't work any more).

Margaret points out that there is another reason why old names drop off: old egos die. But the egos at Quinn Emanuel are still very much alive, so why add a name? The obvious answer: they figure the name adds money and power. They may well be right: Nate Raymond at the New York Law Journal is already touting the fact that she first woman on the marquee of a top 100 law firm (can that really be true?--guess so).

On the marquee, but still in the back of the bus. There is one other possibility. If you are a former vice-president (Richard M. Nixon) or a former candidate for president (Thomas E. Dewey) they put you out in front (Nixon Mudge, etc.; Dewey Ballantine, etc.). And then the firm name just gets shortened around you.

Was it a Suit Coat?

Houston PI Lawyer Threatens Suit
Over Coat He Left Behind at Airport

Link. I guess he's been talking to this guy. Thanks, Margaret.

Afterthought: I see it was an overcoat. Or a suit overcoat, whatever that is.

Gail the Actuary Brings Depressing News

Gail the Actuary at The Oil Drum offers a tour d'horizon of our energy situation and it ain't pretty link: 'If a person were to listen to Energy Secretary Steven Chu or National Geographic's Aftermath: World Without Oil," she says, "one might think that our energy problems are fairly minor and distant. We can easily add sufficiently renewable energy to substitute for fossil fuels in a fairly short time frame. All we need to do is put our minds (and pocketbooks) to it." Sadly, no. The whole thing bears reading, but here are some excerpts:
4. Scaling up renewables to replace fossil fuels in current quantities does not look like it has much of a chance of succeeding, even in the long term.

One issue is the point made previously--it takes fossil fuels to produce renewables like wind and solar PV. Also, Figure 1 shows our success in scaling up so far has been quite limited. Scaling up ethanol further would require taking a huge share of our corn crop. Cellulosic ethanol isn't working out to date, and may never work out. Wood and other biomass is limited in supply, limiting production if it could be perfected.

There may be some particular applications of renewables which may turn out to work out well--for example, natural gas from waste, or biofuel from waste grease. But these tend to be limited in quantity.

Even if we were to, say, discover a way of producing biofuel from algae economically, it would years to work out the details of scaling production up, and a huge amount of investment (and fossil fuels to make tanks and other apparatus) to actually produce the biofuel in quantity. One would probably be looking at more than 30 years before the process could be scaled up sufficiently to start replacing a significant share of our our production....

6. If increased drilling is done in the US and offshore, is likely to have modest beneficial impact on oil supply, but it is highly unlikely that it will solve our problems.

Gary Luquette, President of Chevron North America Exploration and Production recently wrote:

The good news: the OCS [Outer Continental Shelf] has significant potential. Over time, it could add 1 million more barrels of oil and natural gas equivalent a day--potentially representing a fifth of the current total U.S. oil production. Advances in technology could increase that amount dramatically.

One million barrels of oil and natural gas equivalent is great--certainly more than what we are getting from biofuels or from wind or solar. If one adds additional onshore production, it could be more than this, perhaps another 1 or even 2 million barrels of oil and natural gas equivalent a day.

... Compared to world oil supply, an additional one million barrels of oil a day about 1% of world oil production. Compared to US oil usage, and additional one million barrels of oil a day is about 5% of US oil usage. So the additional oil supply would be helpful, (as would the additional jobs, and reduction in needed imports), but it wouldn't solve all of our problems. ...

7. Renewables tend to be high priced. If our big problem with oil is high price, renewables will not solve our problems.

Subsidies only hide high price--the cost to the economy is high, with or without a subsidy.

If we can find cheap renewables, it would be in our interested to expand them as much as possible. But expanding expensive renewables should be done with great caution, in my opinion. We have no guarantee regarding how long the renewables will last--wind is likely only to last as long as fossil fuels supplies are available. Just because an analysis is done assuming that wind (or another energy source) will have a 40 year lifetime doesn't mean it will actually last that long.


What John D. Rockefeller said

On this day in 1913, J.P. Morgan died. When his estate was valued at $80 million, John D. Rockefeller (net worth: about a billion) said:

And to think that he wasn't even a rich man.

--Quoted by Liaquat Ahamad in Lords of Finance (and countless other places)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"A Repo Man Spends his life Getting Into Tense Situations"

Repos and off-balance sheet financing: you don't want to know the details but I spent a good part of my academic life trying to understant this sort of thing. And here they are, the showcase item in the Examiner's Report re Lehman brothers.

So far I've read only blog and fragmentary news accounts (the best account I've seen is here)--and no, I don't intend to read all nine volumes of the report: hey, what is retirement for, anyway? But so far as I can tell, we are looking at the crudest kind of accounting fiddle--far simpler to understand or explain than the Byzantine machinations of Enron. That is, I bet when the dust settles it will look like this:

Lehman transfers securities to theta, a third party. Theta pays cash. In a standard repo, Lehman has the obligation to buy back (repo) the security at a defined price. The repo price will amount to the original price plus interest.

Why do the deal? Say it slow and say it loud: this is nothing but a secured loan. The transferor borrower gets some cash and posts some collateral. Later, he repays the money and gets the collateral back. If the collateral isn't worth as much as the repayment, he eats it.

Bank and finance types, who of all deals ought to recognize this deal for what it is, will go through all kinds of caterwauling to try to persuade you this is something other than it is. Maybe they thing they need to so as to gin up the fees. Or maybe just because obscurantism is their stock in trade.

So far so good. So what was the Lehman deal? So far as I can tell, Lehman tried to pretend it was really selling the stuff. Once they could take them off the books. But Lehman retained the risk of decline in value. The person with who bears the risk of decline in value--that person is the owner. It's not an "incident" of ownership, it is the very definition of ownership. If Lehman had admitted that it was a loan, it would have had to keep the assets on its balance sheet and book a liability. Treat it as a sale and both asset and liability disappear.

Children, this isn't rocket science. It isn't even popsicle science. Like I say, it is not nearly as febrile or convoluted as Enron. It's a lot more like WorldComm, where what took your breath away was the sheer crudity and simplicity of it all.

Oh, and did I mention: the word is that everybody's doinng it. Lehman got caught only because there was an examiner's report.

Afterthought: Yes, it's recourse again.

Bibliography: I suppose am the ten millionth guy to use that quotation in the title. For the full-dress original with Harry Dean Stanton, go here (at 1:49/1:54).

$5 million: the new $1 Million?

So says Joel after reading this level-headed discussion of retirement financial advice. Underbelly commentator Chris Mealey* made a useful point a couple of weeks back, discussing "libertarians:"
Unless you have $3 million in the bank (and everybody you care about does too) then social insurance is really important. Taking the safety net away is hardly being left alone.
So: $5 million if you are a mensch; if you just take care of yourself, maybe $3 will do.

Or is it Chris M. Ealey?

Today, Nadym-Pur-Taz, Tomorrow the World

Here's one that passed me by: Gazprom, the great bloated Russian tumor on the energy market, has a private army (so also Transneft, the pipeline monopoly). Or at least I think it does; there were a bunch of stories in the foreign press back in 2007 saying that the Duma was authorizing it; later references are more sketchy. Indeeed the only reason I have to doubt it is that it so obviously should be true--which is basis enough, I suspect, to be taken by surprise.

In a narrow sense, there may be less here than meets the eye. Gazprom's primary area of operation is around the Gulf of Ob in the frozen wasteland on Russia's northern border. It's a space peopled by a thin scattering of indigenous peoples and perhaps a larger cohort of Gazprom employees and you can be sure that Gazprom would run all the policing in that area even if it were nominally public. The more interesting question is how far Gazprom's military force engages in foreign adventures, as Gazprom continues to insinuate itself into energy enterprises around the world.

Private armies anywhere are enough to scare any thoughtful observer, and Gazprom in particular has a growing rep for being a corporate bad boy. The flip side is that to all appearances Gazprom is so corrupt and inefficient that it is hard to imagine getting an army right. Of course, as in corrupt and inefficient nations, it may be the army that finally steps into management as if to set things right.

H/T Edward Lucas.

A Flicker of Insight into the Movie Biz

3D projector bottleneck may leave cinemas reeling

Link. Thanks, John, I guess.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

First Premier and Interest Rate Bloat

Somehow I missed the news that First Premier Bank has decided that what the world needs now is a credit card charging interest at an Annual Percentage Rate of 79.9 percent.

But so far as I can tell, nobody pointed out that this stated rate is almost certainly an understatement. I assume we are talking "Annual Percentage Rate" (APR) here, as mandated by the Consumer Credit Protection Act. The catch is that APR systematically understates the real rate. Under APR, you quote your rate as if you were collecting interest only once a year. But APR allows you to compound more frequently--monthly, weekly, maybe even daily. If you get your money back early, you are getting an effective higher rate of return.

Lots of credit cards charge "daily" interest, often on the assumption of a 360-day year. If that isw what First Premier is doing, then the true effective rate is 122 percent. That is:

((1 + (.799 / 360))^360) - 1 = 1.22134894

As the guy said when he was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail -- "if it wasn't for the honor of the thing, I would just as well have walked."

Uh, When Did Michael Jacskson Brush her Teeth?

Woman imitates Michael Jackson after brushing her teeth


Markets in Everything: Recourse

This journal seems to have a thing about non-recourse finance--i.e., loans where the lender may look to the collateral to satisfy his claim, but with no recourse against the borrower for any shortfall. See link. My friend Scott likes to tell his days as a young lawyer and the lecture he got from the senior partner:
Scott, there's two kinds of debt.
There's recourse debt.
And there's nonrecourse debt.
Scott, you can never have too much nonrecourse debt.
Comes now a website--I won't link it because I don't like to give free advertising-- that specializes in nonrecourse debt. As in: come to us, we'll help find you a nonrecourse loan.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Something New I Learned Today: Business Plans

Something new I learned today from my friend Joel: if you are going to make (law) partner, or even senior associate, and certainly if you are going to lateral into a new firm you have to come armed with a business plan: how will you leverage your assets, burnish your brand blah blah for the greater good of the hiring entity? One reason he knows (he says) is that people are offering courses on how to develop the business plan (that you will inevitably be required to furnish).

I didn't know it, but boy I believe it. And in a way, it's just a return to the old days. Our friend Pete used to tell us about how in his law school days (right after WWII) when you interviewed with a big firm--even the fanciest--they would ask you what sort of clients you could bring with you. One reason why the children of the wealthy and powerful always had a line in, even if they were dumb as a box of nails.

Hasn't been like that for a long time. Since about 1963--i.e., since the day when I started law school--we've been on the up cycle at the roller coaster: if you were a reasonably bright and reasonably personable college graduate with a reasonably good test score you could find a law school somewhere to take you in, and you would be pretty much guaranteed some kind of job security for life. Knack for, or even interest in, law was pretty much optional.l

I say "since about 1963." Of course all that came to a halt about 18 months ago. We're in a new world of scratch and claw and few of them--of us--know how to operate in it.

I'm talking about law schools. But I bet this attitude is metastasizing. I assume it is standard in say, banking or commerce. But beyond that, I don't suppose you can get a job as (say) principal of even a half-way decent private high school these days without a power point display of your cash flow projections. Or head of the math department: how many students can you bring us, how many donors, how much endowment? Churches? Well so many of them are really independent small businesses anyway (where "small" can encompass revenues of several million dollars). And any reader of J.F. Powers novels knows, in order to be a parish priest, you have to be what Tony Soprano calls "a good earner."

All I can say is that I'm glad I'm not in it: as long as I still have the police to collect my pension I can watch with a kind of horrific detachment. For the rest, maybe the best advice is to read Balzac or Stendahl. Yes, that would be the ticket: learn about the generation who came after the revolution, the one who had seen the velvet cord pulled up in front of them, who find themselves on the outside looking. We (by which I mean "they") are going to have to learn to do something we haven't had to do for a long time--i.e., "live by our wits." What a frightening prospect that is.

I can't imagine any reason at all why


Helen, fine, but NOT THE TATTOO:

Helen Mirren Explains Regretful Tattoo

Monday, March 08, 2010

Language Soup

Let me get this straight...
For most Jews, Hebrew remained [in the 19th Century] the second language, and Yiddish the language of normal intercourse, while Polish or German was needed for commerce. After the Constitution of 1867, Galician Jews enjoyed equal rights, and could consider themselves Austrians par excellence, regardless of whether or not they mastered Polish or German. Moreover, languages learned in youth need not correspond to the work of maturity. Jewish supporters of assimilation to German culture of the 1820s made their point in Yiddish; Jewish advocates of integration to Polish life of the 1870s argued in German; then the Zionists of the 1890s wrote and spoke Polish. The second generation of Zionists, in the early twentieth century, gritted their teeth and used the vernacular Yiddish as a language of politics. Themselves fluent in some combination of Polish, German and Yiddish, Zionists imagined a future in which all Jews would use Hebrew in daily life.
That's Timothy Snyder again, in The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus. To which I add only that if Jewish in Galicia in the early 20th Century were "imagining their future," one can only hope they weren't imagining too well.

Makropolos II

Bogged down in grading today but I do want to do a followup on Harry Makropolos' fine book about his pursuit of Bernie Madoff. Here are some not-very-well-connected loose ends:

One: I said it was two stories--one, Harry v. Madoff and two, Harry v. the SEC. There's also a third story: specifically, the book offers a fascinating-to-an-outsider view of life inside the securities industry. Note for starters that Harry's quest (at least in the early years) was not strictly an abstract pursuit of justice: rather, he was trying to back-engineer Madoff because his bosses told him to. They wanted him to come up with a competing product so they could horn in on Madoff's business. Makropolos came round to the view that it couldn't be done; his bosses weren't happy, but at least now he had a powerful with the inducement to go forward with the chase.

And indeed I would infer that this has been the story of the securities industry, if not forever then at least for the last 20-30 years. Bernie Black (UT Law) used to say there were two ways to make partner at biglaw: one was to invent a new security and the other --well, nobody ever made partner any other way so nobody could remember the other. I did and do wonder whether that was true at biglaw: but I assume at least it was true of bigfinance.

Another point: reading Makropolos, I find myself oscillating between "nobody knew" and "everybody knew," with a tendency towards "everybody knew." Indeed it reminds me of one of the first great frauds I ever knew anything about: the "great salad oil swindel," where a small-time hustler named Tony DeAngelis made himself (for a while) a lot of money by peddling tanks of salt water (note to file, oil floats just because your dipstick comes up viscous doesn't mean that it's viscous all the way down). In salad oil, one has the sense that lots of people figured that the fix must be in but that maybe they could scrape some money off the table before the cops came.

Harry seems to think along those lines regarding Bernie: a lot of people seem to have smelt a rat. He's particularly arch with the old European aristos who (he says) appear pretty clearly to have believed that Bernie made his money dishonestly, but were perfectly comfortable with a scheme that filled their pockets, as long as it didn't require their fingerprints.

A final thought: I don't want to seem ungenerous about Harry who comes across (at least in his own account) as a hell of a fellow, but I can't help but wondering--okay, granted the terminal dopiness of the SEC, could it have been any other way? Could Harry have broken through their wall of invincible ignorance if he'd been a little smoother, a bit more manipulative? Could he have worked a bit harder at taking it to the press? And mopst tantalizing of all (though I can't find the ref at the moment)--at one point, an FBI man says something lie "you should have come to us." And what if he had? Oh my, what if he had?

Phrase of the Day: Butterfly Polka

That is: Polka-Babochka, butterfly-polka. Edward Luce says it is "straight from the Stalinist propaganda lexicon, where it was used to indicate something alien." Here's Vladimir Putin on what he doesn't like about Russian school textbooks:
Many school books are written by people who work to get foreign grants. They dance to a butterfly-polka that others have paid for.
--Edward Luce, The New Cold War 107 (2009).

Sunday, March 07, 2010


I've spent most of the day absorbed in Harry Makropolos' No One Would Listen, his story about how he did not take down Bernie Madoff and I must say it is enough fun that it almost counts as a guilty pleasure. I don't know how much ghosting help he had (if any) but I must say it doesn't show: his account is breezy, salty, angry, and just enough seasoned with rookie narrative mistakes that you can believe it is the real man you are hearing.

I have to admit, I don't think Harry (we are on a first-name basis now) is the sort of guy you'd want to get stuck in an elevator with. He's got a high-salience sense of right and wrong--he says he's the kind of guy who stops at "wait" signs even when there are no cars coming, and I believe it. An unkind critic would say he's the classic case of a guy who can't change his mind and won't change the subject. The difficulty is, of course, that he happened to be right and, as the title suggests, he spent a lot of time talking to his echo.

No, that's not quite right: the title says that No one would listen; a more precise (if less euphonious) title would have been that the SEC wouldn't listen. For there are two narrative arcs here; one about Harry and Bernie; the other, about the gobsmacking, jawdropping, fingernails-on-chalkboard-scratching incompetence (or worse) of the jewel in our regulatory crown. There seem to have been a lot of people who knew or suspected that Bernie must have been doing it with mirrors. It was Harry who kept carpet-bombing the SEC staff with evidence which they didn't seem to want and didn't seem able to understand. He gets maddest at the end--and who can blame him?--when they disappear into a cloud of bureaucratic smarm, without so much as a word of apology to the victims.

Harry ends the book with a longish list of particular suggestions for reform. A lot of these are interesting and worth considering, particularly those that look to the nuts-and-bolts operational agenda: put in some Bloomberg terminals, move he headquarters to New York, send the staff to more trade conferences. But he never gets his mind around the deeper issue--namely, that this is the kind of fish that rots from the top--the SEC doesn't work because for most of the last decade, nobody wanted it to work. The Bush years began with Chairman Harvey Pitt who seemed to regard it as his first obligation to protect the industry from the public. It ended with Chris Cox bright and sincere but so ideologically blindered that he believed his own free-market propoganda.

With leadership like that, it's no wonder that no serious public servant wanted to stay on board. It wasn't just the lure of private-sector money (though surely that was an issue); it's rather that there was nothing about the job that was going to make a man or woman proud.

I guess it's fair to say that the votes are still out on the present incumbent chair, Mary Schapiro. Harry takes no solace from the fact that she came from a job protecting the industry against regulation. But he ticks off a few promising reforms. And as we wait for the future to unfold, here is one possibility: among many markets that stink right now, one is surely the market for private-sector employment in finance. This might be just the time when a strong-willed chair with a sense of mission could tank up on skilled staffers who would stick with her because they wanted to be there and because they didn't have any place else to go.

Remember Me?

Oh, lookie--here's a new candidate (not Harold Ford), determined to unseat New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand:
The problems go across the board – astronomical debt, out-of-control spending and taxes, federal decisions that undermine our security, health care legislation that would appall the drafters of the Constitution, and more. ...

In the past month, my motivation to run has intensified ... because I believe the Obama administration has defiantly and wrongly continued to move our country down a perilous path for New York and the nation.

Well, it's a free country. But I'll venture that sometime before the campaign is over, someone might let slip that the candidate is former Chief Economist of Bear Stearns--yes, that Bear Stearns, first off the cliff in the great meltdown, and first to have its hard landing softened by a great slug of taxpayer money (in this case, a $30 billion "loan" [heh!] to grease a forced marriage with JP Morgan Chase). To have a constant reminider of the greed, rapacity and mismanagement that led us all into so sorry a pickle--why a paranoid might think this candidacy was sponsored by the Obama administration itself.

My Phrase of the Day:
Margi Marti Pedi Party

It's from my guilty pleasure, line 00:10:46. That's margi as in "marguerita" and marti as in "martini." Don't know if this is real or just cooked up in the writer's bullpen but hey, I'm a guy so I wouldn't know anyway, would I?

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Parsley, and an Egg

My sister Sally is one of those people with a happy knack for enjoying things:
There is parsley in my flower pot outside on the deck so last night had a local boiled egg with chopped parsley was delicious...
[A sentiment apparently not shared by Ogden Nash who wrote:
Is Gharsley.
Maybe he needed a boiled egg.]

Cool New Google Toy: Herodotus Maps

This has got to be the coolest new Google plaything I've seen in quite a while--Herodotus maps. I suspect Herodotus would have loved it. I'll bookmark it right next to Google Maps War & Peace.

H/T Rufus.

A Note on Gendercide, and
The Prospective Rise of New Military Orders

The Economist has a splendid snippet up this week on (its own coinage?) Gendercide--the systematic war against infant females, from before conception to after birth. The E focuses on the crime against all those real or hypothetical girl babies which is right and just, but I want to focus for a moment on the other side of the equation: what will the world look like with all those surplus men?

It's rhetorical; you know the answer: not pretty. Young men are mostly of a damn nuisance anyway unless they are tightly supervised or extraordinarily well led (in both cases, this usually implies a cadre of powerful and talented older men, of which more below). The young ones fight the wars; they disrupt the communities; they make all kinds of trouble and they are a whole hell of a lot crabbier than normal if they aren't getting laid. It is not an inspiring picture.

Case in point: I gave some attention last week to Timothy Snyder's admirable The Reconstruction of Nationalism, about the turbulent history of East/Central Europe, specifically the dark and bloody ground that includes Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine. It's a story with a lot of hurt but perhaps nothing worse than the account of the young Ukranians during World War II. As I read it, The Nazis and the Soviets together killed off most of the Ukranian elites (there goes the stabilizing leadership). Meanwhile Hitler dragooned the hot-blooded youngsters into killing squads for the dirty work of systematically murdering Jews. And once they'd done Hitler's work on the Jews, the young folks continued to practice their craft on the surviving Poles. This is a great tragedy all round, but understand I am not saying anything special about Ukranian DNA here: it's a tragedy of social structure, what you get when you turn young men on the loose (to hammer home the point--the Poles for their part weren't a whole lot more polite: they just didn't have quite the same institutional opportunity).

And it's no consolation to point out that these young men are often just being mean to each other. It's certainly true, though: I've been spending some time lately with the strangely hypnotic LA Times Murder Blog. I don't find a count although I'm pretty sure the vast majority of these murders are committed by young men. On the other hand, look at the count of victims: I didn't run all numbers but I can see at a glance that there is a huge modal plurality of men between 17 and 23. So a surplus of young males a hazard even if you are part of it.

There are any number of ways a society can respond to this imbalance. A not-very inspiring device is just to keep them all drunk or stoned until they are too old to care. A sure-fire (sic!) ticket is to fight a war, preferably on foreign soil, perhaps best in a "less developed" country (send along a few institutional brothels to keep them healthy. Sometimes you can get lucky and gin up William James "Moral Equivalent of War," although that takes luck and planning. If the young men were young bulls, you would just castrate them, there's plenty of evidence of that in human history too--the Ottoman Empire, African slaves in Arabia, etc. Meanwhile lately I have made only partly flippant cracks about breeding them out. This is technologically possible, but of course the whole point of the present inquiry is that it isn't happening--rather, quite the opposite is true.

We have, then, a rich menu of possibilities and I really can't guess just which way we are likely to go, but here's one possibility: military orders--trained and organized bands of young men devoting their lives to doing what young men do. I'm thinking in one sense of things like the Teutonic Knights or the original Cossacks, but it is possible to come up with plausible examples closer to home. Russia's vory v zakone--"thieves in law"--probably count as a band of "criminals" (but mostly young men) bound to each other by bands of ritual solidarity and committed to living off the land. You see hints of this in urban street gangs that exist partly as drug delivery networks but partly just for their own sake as foci of bonding and adventure.

Then there is the whole matter of quasi-legal private armies--the near-notorious "military contractors" (heh!) who seek and are bound to find employment fighting other people's wars. There's no shortage of talented young people (but again, mostly male) well trained (largely, be it noted, at taxpayer expense) more interested in the practice of their craft than in subtle casuistry about for whom and why. I wish I could imagine a prettier world than this.