Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Frlom the Annals of Abstract Agency

Further proof that nobody actually does anything any more:
We've had "mistakes were made."

We've had "the dude come up dead."

No we have "there was a spoilage."

Sleepers Wake!

It must be that somebody else has made this point but I haven't seen it, so let me undertake to resuscitate a good-natured if not earth-moving BBC comedy offering from the 80s. The name is Sleepers and the subject is (ta da) Russian moles. An IMDB commentator explains:
[Nigel] Havers and [Warren] Clarke (who was also a dialogue coach on the project) play Soviet agents sent underground as sleepers to the UK in the Mod '60s by enigmatic KGB guru Gough. Now it's the 1980s, glasnost has begun the Soviet thaw, Gough is shut up in a mental hospital, and Havers and Clarke have become very British indeed--the former a successful investment banker, and the latter a union boss in northern England (married and with children, no less). The sleeper project is discovered in Moscow, and the two agents are contacted, much to their dismay (as Havers observes, why should he give up his posh and comfortable life "for a bowl of red cabbage and a bed-sit in Vladivostok?"). Hilarity ensues ...
The commentator calls it "endlessly entertaining" which seems to me a bit strong but it's certainly worth a run. And I must say that if the BBC hasn't gotten round releasing a DVD before, they should certainly want to so now.


I seem to be having spam problems again. I thought I knew what to do about this sort of thing; evidently they have got past me. I'm doing whatever I can think of (and I welcome any reasonable suggestion). Meantime, be assured that I am not pushing casino gambling, viagra, or any other product or nostrum.

The Decline of Gentlemanly Banking: An Aide-Memoire

Ignoto invites me to assemble a catalog of reasons why banking has degenerated from croquet to rollerball:
  • Old-fashioned "character lenders" found that their business was boring and unprofitable, and harder work than "originate and distribute."
  • The new logic of diversification/securitization made O&D look respectable.
  • Without intending or planning for it, proprietary traders to their stunned surprise found themselves driving the banking bus.
  • Michael Milken showed us that you don't have to restrict your corporate loans to Episcopalians.
  • Old-fashioned investment bankers, with too much money on their hands, figured out how to go shopping for deals, rather than waiting for deals to shop them.
Have I left out anything important?

[Update: You bet. I forgot about incorporation, i.e., limited liability, i.e., heads I win, tails you lose.]


Searching the web for composting advice, I come across two items I am not sure I want to think about this morning. One:

I don't compost anything that swells when it meets up with moisture.

[Copy that, but what does she do with her ex husbands?]


I chuck my dog's old bones into my pile ...

[Sic, and I assume this is not the same as "my old dog's bones"--?]


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Liveblogging the Gospel of Mark II: The God Story

The late Herb Gardner used to have a riff about "The God Story"--the story of a small boy, born in a Pennsylvania mining town, who grew up to be God ("mama, I think I'm God!") I thought of "the God story," as I was reading the first few chapters of the Gospel of Mark. I was thinking: had I been doing the scouting report, I would not have identified this kid as the one who would grow up to be King of Everything. Granted, he seems to have a knack for driving out demons and healing the sick (one, by spitting), but hey, who among us does not?

Aside from that, Jesus seems to spend most of his time engaged in what Burton Mack would recognize as "pronouncement stories--anecdotes common in the tradition of the Cynics, pithy exchanges with a hostile or skeptical interlocutor in which the favored subject always gets the last word (but then, we aren't told what the other guy said after the last word). So, when someone asked Antisthenes why he kept low company, he replied "Well, physicians attend their patients without catching the fever" (Mack, 95). So, when his antagonists asked Jesus why his people ate with unclean hands, Jesus said "it is not what goes into a person, but what comes out that makes him unclean." Passable material in its own right, I suppose, but it mainly presents a man who has some cleanliness issues with the Pharisees. As to the bigger stuff, we'll have to wait and see.

I mentioned yesterday that I did find the Salome story. I might have added that until a couple of years ago, I just assumed something so saucy could not possibly be part of Holy Writ. I had a fairly decent bout of religious instruction in Presbyterian Sunday School in the 1940s, but I guess they skipped that part. But here it is: Mark 6:17-29; cf Matthew 14:3-11. [Update: But whups--it turns out she isn't named in either version. It was so obvious to me what story I was reading that I missed that point. Evidently for her name, you have to go to Josephus and his Jewish Antiquities.]

I said we wouldn't guess that he was bound for greater things. Let me revise that. In Mark 1:7, John the Baptist says "There cometh one mightier thn I after me, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose." And in verse 11, "a voice form heaven"says "Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." You can't buy publicity like that.

Who Needs Us?

Mike Konczal at Rortybomb beats up on economics education this morning. It's all wholesome fun though I would say it might help if he could disentangle the three or four separate issues that his commentary seems to present. But let me focus on one sentence:
Never, and I mean never, during the financial crisis, where we’d leave work on Friday and wonder whether or not the world would collapse during that weekend or what kind of market we’d walk into on Monday, did I think “man I wish there were more academic economists around.”
That's true and telling, but I wonder if it isn't true of almost every profession. Somebody passes out at the ball game. Does anyone shout: "is there a licensed professional aroma therapist in the house?"

You get my point. I suspect that part of the problem here is the mismatch between the skill required and the professional certification scheme. Were I a manager of, say, a world wide retailing chain, I might like to have folks around who could tell me stuff about how the economy really works. I might find some of them in the econ department; might not. At best, I suspect I'd look to the academic credential as (a) a rule-of-thumb, first-iteration sorting mechanism; or (b) a kind of cover-your-backside defense against future criticism (well, I hired a professional!). That latter may explain the particular popularity of licensing schemes in, e.g., education, where it is so hard to come up with agreed measures of good performance (and, perhaps, even harder to predict who will make them).

But there is another issue: I suspect most of us vastly overrate the importance of our own occupation. I suppose we have to, just to keep sane. Bur how many times has someone told uou how much better the world would be if only more people understood the need for the services of ( insert profession of speaker here)? The point is made with great sincerity and sometimes it may even be right but there's a kind of poignance about the earnestness with which it is advanced.

I suppose the one class of cases where the need for the specialist is self-evident are those where there is an immediate threat to physical well-being, as in "is there a doctor in the house?" or, one step down the ladder, "somebody call a cop" (0r simply "security!"). An interesting borderline case is the dentist. Most dentists I know are (a) entrepreneurs who (b) have to persuade people to give them money in exchange for (c) inflicting pain on the giver. In any event, I can believe that the banksters are not pining for the services of an academic economist. But from time to time, I bet they'd be glad to have the phone number of a bail bondsman.

Is This Today's Quote?

Or does the kid just have the services of a good publicist?
Jessie Gugig, 15, said she could not believe the charges, especially against Mrs. Murphy. “They couldn’t have been spies,” she said jokingly. “Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”
"Charges" being, of course, the notorious new Russian spy case.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The English Thucydides

I was fussing a while ago about how I couldn't read Thucydides in the original. I could have added: lacking the original I have what surely count as the next best thing: the great translation by Thomas Hobbes, a philosopher in his own right and one of the great prose stylists in the language:
For oppressed with the violence of the calamity, and not knowing what to do, men grew careless both of holy and profane things alike. And the laws which they formerly used touching funerals, were all now broken; every one burying where he could find room. And many for want of things necessary, after so many deaths before, were forced to become impudent in the funerals of their friends. For when one had made a funeral pile, another getting before him would throw on his dead, and give it fire. And when one was in burning, another would come, and having cast thereon him whom he carried, go his way again.

And the great licentiousness, which also in other kinds was used in the city, began at first from this disease. For that which a man before would dissemble, and not acknowledge to be done for voluptuousness, he durst now do freely; seeing before his eyes such quick revolution, of the rich dying, and men worth nothing inheriting their estates. Insomuch as they justified a speedy fruition of their goods, even for their pleasure; as men that thought they held their lives but by the day. As for pains, no man was forward in any action of honour to take any; because they thought it uncertain whether they should die or not before they achieved it. But what any man knew to be delightful, and to be profitable to pleasure, that was made both profitable and honourable. Neither the fear of the gods, nor laws of men, awed any man: not the former, because they concluded it was alike to worship or not worship, from seeing that alike they all perished: nor the latter, because no man expected that lives would last till he received punishment of his crimes by judgment. But they thought, there was now over their heads some far greater judgment decreed against them; before which fell, they thought to enjoy some little part of their lives.
Copied from the admirable Online Library of Liberty here (footnotes omitted). Hobbes' Thucydides strikes me as one of those works which, if not exactly better than the original (how would I know) still is in any event a work of art important in its own right. Elizabethan/Renaissance England seems to have been rich in that sort of thing: consider, not least, the King James Bible. I'm sure the following is not original with me but I'll say it anyway: seems to me that Hobbes' generally black view of human life as a "warre of all against all" must have been at least in part inspired by his experience of the plague in Athens, as rendered so vividly in the excerpt above.

Oh and by the way: while I am still not up to tackling Thouk in Greek, I'm hanging on to my copy of Blaise Nagy's, Thucydides Reader. Apologies, Blaise and maybe I will get to you yet.

Liveblogging the Gospel of Mark I

When I set out to learn Greek, my goal was to read Thucydides. Hah, fat chance. No one told me that Thucydides was hard even by Greek standards, and that given my resources and abilities I had best (as my high school guidance counselor might have said) select some more suitable employment.

By contrast I did my best to stay away from the Bible, which I thought "just not classical enough." But a while ago, cooling my heels in the jury-pool waiting room, I wrapped my mind around a copy of New Testament Greek: A Reader from the Joint Association of Classical Teachers in Britain. I should have foreseen: like all JACT's stuff, this one is a masterpiece of pedagogy: impeccably edited with just the right amount of help to keep you going. Given a lot of hours in a windowless room, it was a perfect companion and I may even have learned a bit.

I didn't follow up on JACT at the time, but just lately, reorganizing a bookshelf, I stumbled on something I didn't know I owned. It's called A Reader's Greek New Testament.* It's not as elegant as JACT, and there are none of those little prodding footnotes that you get in so many student editions. What it does have is a ton of vocabulary: it footnotes virtually every word except the most common. In an introduction, the editors explain that to master this much vocabulary on your own, you'd have to knock off about ten words a day for two years. As the editors do not add, not bloody likely. The (pious) hope is that by reading along with the vocabulary crutches, you will pick up at least a good deal of the vocab on your own.

Oh, goody, I thought. I can read the New Testament. Wait, the whole thing? Again, not bloody likely. For one thing, do I really need to read, say, all those minor letters that are in there only because the editors made mistakes about their authorship? Do I really need to read all of the (admit it, now) sometimes mad ravings of St. Paul?

Well, so maybe some Paul. And Revelations ought to be fun. And the Gospels, oh yes the Gospels. Well, one Gospel.

I actually started with the Gospel of Matthew; I read a few chapters and it was going okay but then it occurred to me: by almost universal assent, the Gospel of Mark is said to be the earliest composed. Might as well approach this task in an intellectually disciplined manner. So I abandoned Matthew (for the moment?) and tackled Mark.

So far, to my pleasant surprise, it is going okay. I'm most of the way through Chapter 6 (of 15) which means, inter alia, that I already got the story of Salome (although I can't seem to find the line that goes "the hell we won't Salome said, and kicked the chandelier!"). I do indeed need the vocabulary notes, though the grammar is pretty straightforward--and though it may be simple, I'd say it is also pretty good review-practice of some basic forms.

As a pony, I also keep around the copy of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, which Mrs. Buce picked up in graduate school. I've also taken a flyer at Burton L. Mack's Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of Christian Myth (1995). Mack is a big fan of the Gospel of Mark--he calls it "a literary achievement of incomparable historical significance," (181). The book as a whole is absorbing and instructive, but I mustn't let myself get distracted.

Of course I still don't know if I have the stones to keep going at this. I'm posting this now as a kind of hostage, to commit myself through a form of public shaming. I'll keep you posted. Or maybe I won't. But who knows, if this works, then someday I might even get back to Thucydides.
*Richard J. Goodrich and Albert L. Lukaszewski (Zondervan 2003).

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Kagan's "Experience"

I hear that the Republicans, having no other cards in their hand, are going back to complaining that Elena Kagan doesn't have the "experience" necessary to be a judge. What a crock. At least for this job at this time, the fact is that Kagan has exactly the kind of experience she needs. Translated: for this job at this time, eing a professor is the best possible preparation.

I speak from a tiny bit of experience (!) myself: some years ago, I was a judge for a short time. I was at the opposite end of the food chain: I sat in bankruptcy court. I admit I worried before I took the bench whether I would have the chops for it. I found to my (pleasant) surprise that my responsibilities as a judge played right into my background as a teacher.

Consider: one thing a teacher does is to observe performance and to give grades. Which is exactly what a judge does. One thing a judge does is to read through piles of documents and render decisions. Which is exactly what teachers do. Indeed, students (if they don't like their grades) often complain that law school isn't like "the real world" (whatever that is). I used to think they had a point; having served as a judge, I am less persuaded than I used to be. To the contrary, I tell them, law practice is a lot more like law school then you might think: you'll be getting graded all the time.

I'd go further and say that ironically, a certain kind of courtroom "experience" was probably a lot more relevant down at my end of the food chain than it is up where Kagan will be, in the empyrean heights. Lower court judges preside over trials. Good trial lawyers do have a special skill set. A lot of lawyers aren't especially good at it, and a lot of what the good ones know is not what they leaned in law school. If the judge doesn't know how to stay ahead of a good trial lawyer, the trial lawyer will eat the judge for breakfast (think Lance Ito up against Johnnie Cochran in the OJ case-but then, Ito had experience). I had very little trial experience when I took the bankruptcy bench. Fortunately for me, not a lot of heavy-duty litigation goes on in bankruptcy court (we spent a lot more time reading papers). On the other hand I do remember making a few rookie mistakes precisely because I didn't have the experience (e.g., one day I took testimony from a witness who spoke no English; counsel provided a translator, and counsel had to remind me that I needed to put the translator under oath),

Appellate judges do none of that; so my (and Judge Ito's) "experience" is not really relevant to the case. In fairness , I will grant a small point, though I don't think it is dispositive. Specifically: one thing an appellate judge does is to review the work of trial judges. I suppose you could say that the appellate judge does need enough experience of litigation to get a feel for what the trial judge is up against, so he can understand the constraints when he reviews the record. But this kind of sensitivity probably counts in direct proportion to your closeness to the trial court. By the time you get to the Supreme Court, you're pretty far removed.

I'll grant also that there are a lot of qualities on which I'd like to judge a judicial candidate for which "experience" may be relevant--but now I'm talking about experience in life, not litigation. More generally,exactly what qualities should we look for in a judge? Brain power is, of course, on the list--though for my own taste, pure brain power, while on the list, is not at the top of the list (though brain power may be more important in the Supreme Court, where the appointee will have to go toe to toe with the likes of Roberts and Alito than it would be in a trial court). Beyond that, all he human qualities that we might group together as "character"--an ability to listen, for example; balance; steadiness, predictability; kindness (indeed just in general the older I get, the less impressed I am by brain power and the more by kindness). Oh, and a capacity for hard work: whatever else you can say about being a judge, it's a job, and they can't start without you (here think Micky Mouse in the Sorcerer's Apprentice).

There is at least one other quality essential to good judging which you might not always be able to identify the prior record. That would be an affinity for deciding things. This may sound almost trivial: judges decide, of course you need to be willing to decide. But not all judges have that affinity, and a judge who doesn't like to decide stuff is like a duck with an allergy to feathers: her life is a constant misery, with the enhancement that it is a misery she will impose on others. There are some who don't have it: my impression is that it was a temperamental aversion to decision that drove Charles Evans Whitaker from the high court in 1962. So I that is a legitimate topic for inquiry, but I don't mean to suggest that there is anything in Kagan's record to suggest that she lacks an affinity for decision (and ironically again, when ascended to the Supreme Court, he came with experience as both a trial and an appellate judge).

[As a final aside, that may be one place where a judge's life does differ from a professors. Professors do have to "decide," insofar as they give grades. But on the whole, a professor's life seems so much more remote from decision than a judge's. The great Grant Gilmore used to say that professors are like spies in enemy territory who are never sure that what they are doing is right--or, indeed, whether the guy who hired them is dead. A judge decides stuff every day. Do this, do that. What did you do today, dear? Oh (the old saying goes) we hanged six people and at least four of them deserved it].

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Cheney Syndrome

Learning of Dick Cheney's latest hospitalization somehow recalls to mind the response: "Hope it's nothing trivial." But who said it first? I had thought Ben Hecht (1894-1964). but John stumbles onto it in the Wiki on The Rev. Sir John Pentland Mahaffy (1839-1919). Since the Wiki apparently comes from the storied 11th ed of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910-11), the dates make it unlikely (though I grant, possible) that Hecht said it first: maybe he got it from Brit 11. Apparently Mahaffy also said:
James Joyce is a living argument in favour of my contention that it was a mistake to establish a separate university for the aborigines of this island – for the corner boys who spit into the Liffey.
Hecht might have wished he said that one, too.

The Mountain Straineth...

I don't have enough independent knowledge to evaluate Barry Ritholtz' harsh appraisal of the financial (non?)reform bill. But this morning's account in the New York Times does not raise any hopes.
[A]fter weeks of intense lobbying and months of debate, Congress in the end stopped short of prohibiting some of the practices that led to the crisis two years ago, betting instead that a newly empowered regulatory regime can rein in the big financial players without shackling the markets and drying up the flow of credit to businesses. ...

The financial industry won some important victories, even if they face significantly heightened regulation. They fought off some of the toughest restrictions on their ability to invest their own funds. Most significantly, they thwarted an attempt to make them give up their highly profitable derivatives trading desks. And big lobbying fights remain in the future, when regulators begin the nitty-gritty task of turning complex, sometimes vague laws into real-world rules for these businesses to follow.

Industry analysts predicted that banks would most likely adapt easily to the new regulatory framework and thrive. As a result, bank stocks were mostly higher Friday, prompting some skeptics to question if the legislation, in fact, would be tough enough to rein in the industry and prevent future shocks to the economy as a result of bad gambling.
Link. I wonder if the authors realize how much damning-with-faint-praise they have set forth here.

How Many Kaldarsi for a Seer?

The bane of historians are those local accounts that excitingly proclaim "the famine was so severe that a seer of wheat cost fifty kaldarsi!" But never report the ordinary price of wheat. These accounts simply assume that everyone already knows this, along with how much s seer weighs and a kaldar is worth.
--Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (2010)

Barfield is about as well qualified to write a history of Afghanistan as anybody in the planet. He first worked in Afghanistan a generation ago, and he has spent most of his career studying the interplay between what Ibn Khaldun* called "desert" and "sedentary" civilizations: Barfield's Perilous Frontier is the best thing I've read on the interplay between China and its northern neighbors.

In contrast to the seer/kadarsi problem, Barfield cites appreciatively works that "retain their value centuries after they were written precisely because they cogently analyzed what other interlocutors took as boringly self-evident." He offers the inevitable example of de Tocqueville, and also Mountstuart Elphinstone's Kingdom of Caubul.
*That man again.

Friday, June 25, 2010

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood...

...but Felix Salmon is not impressed:
Meanwhile, a horrible little turd somewhere is gleefully if quietly celebrating his coup (I'm sure it's a guy) in leaking [David] Weigel's private correspondence to Fishbowl DC and the Daily Caller. Maybe he's genuinely disturbed in some way. But, to coin a phrase, this would be a vastly better world to live in if he decided to handle his emotional problems more responsibly, and set himself on fire.
...nor Barry Ritholtz:

What does [Financial Reform] mean for us?

It means that the same people who brought you these horrible changes — rising wealth discrepancy, massive unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure – have now further institutionalized the policies that will keep the causes of these problems firmly in place.

Meanwhile, all involved in the facade try to pretend that this should be considered a success because, gosh, real financial reform is just too hard and those crafty banksters will just outsmart us anyhow. Many in the media are either too complicit, too confused or too lazy to contradict this spin, but the rest of us shouldn’t buy that BS. Real and lasting financial reform is actually quite easy to implement — and the last time we had a crisis of this magnitude, we kept the banksters in check for 70 years.

Just Sayin'

Wouldn't it make sense to appoint General McChrystal as a blogger on conservative politics at the Washington Post and put David Weigel in charge of the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan?

People, Puh-leez! BP Bankruptcy

Puh-leez, people! If I've made the point once, I' ve made it a hundred times and it looks like I will have to make it again: bankruptcy would not be a "horror" and a "disaster" for BP. The horror and disaster happened 65 days ago, Bankruptcy is just something that happens. The worst you can say for it is that it might be a way for making folks (finally) face up to what has already happened.

So let's review the bidding. The key issue here is: will BP be worth more going forward as a going concern? Or should we dissipate the assets and break it up? I think the answer is almost certainly that it is worth more than as a going concern.

That's point one. So, next issue: is this going concern value high enough to pay off creditors, with a surplus to the shareholders (or is it not?)? If the answer is "yes," then fine, we all go to the seashore. If the answer is no then the company belongs to the creditors. The point is that creditors get paid before shareholders. Creditors may take some kind of a haircut. Shareholders can go climb on the bus. End of story.

Bankruptcy doesn't interfere with this logic at all. Quite the contrary, if there is any doubt whether the company can satisfy its creditors, bankruptcy may be the perfect place for sorting this issue out. Everybody comes together before one judge and figures out how to share the pain.

Could I be wrong? I don't think so, but to be fair, let's consider the options.
  • Bankruptcy takes too long and costs too much; the patient dies on the gurney. Okay, granted, could be, but doesn't have to. Chrysler and GM went through bankruptcy like a bullet through butter. Indeed generally speaking, there has been a tendency for " business reorganization" bankruptcies to go faster and (correspondingly) cheaper.

  • Bankruptcy lawyers get paid too much. This is a subset of the previous point, but it's a contentious issue and deserves special attention. My own take is that on the whole it is not true (particularly considering "faster") above--but even at the most extreme, the numbers are not big enough to torpedo the process. So at worst, it is an issue of fairness that has nothing to do with the overall effectiveness of he process.

  • Creditors get squeezed in bankruptcy. The simple answer to this one is that of course creditors get squeezed: that is what bankruptcy is all about. A more subtle answer is: actually, yes, sometimes particular kinds of creditors get flim-flammed out of their rights in bankruptcy--either because their claims are too ephemeral or obscure, or because they aren't effectively represented (old-time observers will remember how aggressively Judge Robert R. Mehrig massaged the rules in the Dalkon Shield case because (as it was widely alleged) he liked his goodbuddies the shareholders and didn't like those crude and rude PI lawyers. But that's an artifact of the particular case, not a general rule.
Anyway, to repeat: a well-run (!) bankruptcy case can be an ideal mechanism for preserving going[-concern values and adjudicating just claims. If anybody has anything to fear there, I cannot imagine who, and why.

Statement of Interest:
someone will say "you are a bankruptcy lawyer, you're biased." Narrowly speaking, not true at all: I've taken senior status in the bar and am no longer authorized to represent clients or give advice. I used to be a lawyer and I did practice bankruptcy law. But I was mostly a professor, never quite focused or disciplined enough to go after those big bucks that everybody talks about.

For Perspective...

Michael Jackson made $1.37 million yesterday.

Line of the Morning:

David Brooks, on trash talk in high places:

Washington floats on a river of aspersion.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

My Word for the Day

Science meet finance on the frontier of genomics:
Not all gene products are, in the argot, “drugable”. And this is where the economics comes in.

Todd Golub of the Broad Institute, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reckons drug firms have got rather lazy about pursuing leads. For example, many oncogenes, as those whose breakage causes cancer are known, encode proteins called kinases. These are enzymes which are involved in intracellular signalling pathways. A lucky break some years ago revealed a systematic way of attacking kinases with small molecules that block their activation. Researchers with putative anti-kinase drugs are thus welcomed by venture-capital firms. The odds of success are understood and the time to market is tolerable. That is in marked contrast to, say, drugs that might control transcription factors. A failed transcription-factor gene is as common a cause of cancer as a failed kinase gene. Transcription factors, though, are not regarded as drugable. No systematic way of dealing with them has yet been discovered.

The Economist, "Biology 2.0," Link.

Two Things I Learned Today: Russia

From disparate sources:
  • One (from the notes to my edition of Dostoesvsky's The Idiot): Russians legalized dueling for the first time in 1894.
  • Two (from Elif Batuman, The Possessed): Among items confiscated by Stalin's thugs when they arrested the writer Isaac Babel in 1938: "Duck for bath"--a rubber ducky?

McChrystal and the Bootlickers: Reprise

A bit more on that topic on which I have no competence whatever--McChrystal and the bootlickers. This from a friend of a friend,
I would angle that slightly: This was a career spec ops warrior who cut against the grain of the military bureaucracy and was not known for condoning weakness, in any form. I’m guessing that his mistake was allowing too many rough around the edges type on his staff who don’t give a damn who hears what they say, rather than attracting weak boot lickers. Generals are politicians and he forgot to make sure that his staff had some of those skills.
Interesting, but sounds a bit starry eyed to me. Just in general, guys who enjoy their rep as professional bad boys are more trouble than they're worth (my favorite example is here).

Meanwhile, my friend Ignoto points out that an awful lotta special ops types retire out at colonel, i.e., before they have to learn the ways of generalship (or because they can't). And I'm remembering my friend Rob who was a police lieutenant, shift commander. I asked him if he wanted to be a chief. Nah, he said. It's an entirely different job. Oh, and I remember Fletcher P. Daniels.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Don't Tell the Children

Following up on The Economist's special section on the new biology this week, I stumbled on a factoid I hadn't known before: Craig Venter--co-sequencer of the genome, first man to create (and seek to patent) a wholly synthetic cell--was an indifferent student.

So we learn from his Wiki:.
In his youth, Venter did not take his education seriously, preferring to spend his time on the water in boats or surfing. According to his biography, A Life Decoded, he was said to be never a terribly engaged student, having Cs and Ds on his eighth grade report cards.
I can't say I guessed or suspected as much, but I must say it doesn't surprise me: while there is surely some correlation between academic achievement and achievement in later life, still the world is littered with the resumes of successful people who took their time getting their life in gear.

I learned about this phenomenon some years ago in the work of the late Liam Hudson who (inter alia) studied the careers of prominent scientists and found that a lot of them were not the swots in school. Per Hudson, it was rare to find a big name who rose from the lower depths, but that in a more-than-random number of cases, they weren't the A students either. Often, what they seemed to have (if I remember right), was a taste for engaging with what interested them; a patient curiosity, and perhaps also (especially valuable in academic science) a knack for formulating doable problems: workable devices for exploring interesting questions.

Per Hudson, one field where there did seem to be some correlation between academic success and success in later life was the law. The inevitable suggestion was that this may be a field where it really doesn't matter what kind of skill you have as long as your resume looks right. We may prayerfully hope that this is an insight that applies to the old (and now defunct) closed shop of the British Bar, with no relevance to the more Wild-West ethos of their American brethren.

There's an interesting obituary of Hudson here although it mentions nothing about his work on predicting creativity. I do love the line about his professorship at Edinburgh where, it says here, "he was probably more esteemed for his writing, his illuminating conversation and his energetic promotion of the educational sciences than for his dedication to professorial chores." A guy who worked on what engaged him, I surmise.

There's a more extensive review of his work here,

An Afterthought on McChrystal

Let's agree that I am pretty much the last guy on the planet to have useful insights into l'affaire McChrystal, but I do have one thought that I haven't seen on offer anyplace else.

That is; whatever his virtues, McChrystal strikes me as precisely the kind of guy who is going to attract yes-men and bootlickers eager to warm themselves in his alpha glow. This is one place where the MacArthur example may be relevant: the MacArthur apparatus was teeming with these bleating yea-sayers happy to do whatever they felt necessary to enjoy what they perceived (correctly?) to be their best protection in life.

The mere fact that he attracts these pipsqueaks is not McChrystal's fault (nor MacArthur's). The question is what he does with them: does he flic them off like a fragment of lint from his lapel? Or does he let them hang around and tell him (and everyone else) what a great man he is?

Never having enjoyed the luxury of a flock of toadies, I can't say how I would respond to the warm bath of constant approbation--I imagine it is pretty seductive. But it may that McChrystal's chief deficiency is that he didn't have the strength of character to tell them to buzz off; that instead he sat by and sniggered while they talked him into a career-ending punji trap.

Headline Yuk of the Day

So, what's your topper for a story detailing reader suggestions on the uses of seaweed? Think first; then link.

Yuk yuk. And somewhat yuk. Thanks, John.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Curriculum for Dictators

Nicopolis the wise courtesan advises the young Sulla on his path to top in republican Rome:
You have the years in which to prepare yourself for the responsibilities of a public career. You will need them: every day should teach you something new. Do not be impatient; do not worry because you have too little money. Money can always be found for the right person: but the right person is harder to find. ...

If you realize you know nothing, this is a beginning. Remember when you move in this odd society of ours that the consul's wife can often help you more than the consul. Remember that it is with men of your own generation, not those in power today, with whom you must finally come to terms. Remember above all that in the life you have chosen there is little room for sentiment. .... 'Let them hate me as long as they fear me.' If you succeed, my dear, you will be hated. Never forget that. You will break men as you break laws, and with as little compunction. Do you still want to go on?

--Peter Green, The Sword of Pleasure 44-5 (1961)
The title alone is enough to tell you that this historical novel has a bit of the air of potboiler about it. It is saved, but barely, not by its structure or its dialog but by Green's superb imaginative feel for the near-chaos and raw energy of the republican world--a world in which Sulla ordered proscriptions that led to the death of more than 9,000 of his fellow Romans.
..Sylla immediately without making any of the magistrates privy, caused four score men's names to be set up upon posts, whom he would put to death. Every man being offended withal, the next day following he set up two hundred and twenty men's names more, and likewise the third day as many more Hereupon making an oration to the people, he told them openly that he had appointed all them to die that he could call to remembrance, howebeit that hereafter he would appoint them that should die by days as he did call to mind.

Whosoever saved an outlaw in his own house, for reward of his kindness he himself was condemned to die, not excepting them that had received their brothers, their sons, their fathers, nopr mothers. And the reward of every homicide and murder that killed one of the outlaws was two talents, though it were a slave that had killed his master, or the son that had slain his father. But the most wicked and unjust act of all was that he deprived the sons, and sons' sons of them whom he had killed, of all credit and good name, and besides that, had taken all their goods as confiscate. And this was not only done in Rome, but also in all the cities of Italy throughout, and there was no temple of any god whatsoever, no altar in anybody's house, no liberty of hospital, nor father's house, that was not imbrued with blood and horrible murder.

--Plutarch, "Life of Sylla"
in The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans 732-809, 792-3
(Sir Thomas North trans.,The Heritage Press 1941)

The Non-passing of Dr. Demento

NPR has an interesting (non)story up this morning on the passing of Dr. Demento, except that it isn't, really: apparently he is leaving old-fashioned steam-powered radio, but remains a presence online, which is his natural habitat anyway. The tone of the interview made it pretty clear that the doctor doesn't see this as a departure, and that he retains his trademark tone of cheerful arrested development. All I can say is I'm glad he wasn't around when I was nine; I might not have gotten any education at all. Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned from the story is that when the broadcast biz says "top 40" it means "women aged 18 to 30."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Wha--? (Annals of Statistical Analysis)

They said it once years ago, and now (in the admirable obituary of Norman Macrae) they say it again:

In 1945 the average Englishman had only one pair of trousers

Same as last time: does this mean that half of all Englishmen had none?

Regulatory Overreach

Remember "dragon sausage?" Now, "canned unicorn." And it ends up like dragon sausage.

[I'm beginning to think this sort of thing is a clever publicity device on the part of the makers.]


عصبية, Asabiyyah:
`Asabiyya or asabiyah (Arabic: عصبية, ʕaṣabīya) refers to social solidarity with an emphasis on unity, group consciousness, and social cohesion, originally in a context of "tribalism" and "clanism", but sometimes used for modern nationalism as well, resembling also communitarism. It was a familiar term in the pre-Islamic era, but became popularized in Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah where it is described as the fundamental bond of human society and the basic motive force of history. `Asabiyya is neither necessarily nomadic nor based on blood relations rather it resembles philosophy of classical republicanism. In the modern period, the term is generally analogous to solidarity. However, the term is often negatively associated because it can sometimes suggest loyalty to one's group regardless of circumstances, or partisanship.
Link, The Muqaddimah, more accessibly, "An Introduction to History," and mislabelled "The Classic Islamic History of the World," (Bollingen Series, 1967) is one of the best books I've read in several years, but it is not a a history: it is better understood as a philosophy of history, perhaps the first ever, or an ethnography, if not the first then certainly the best since Herodotus.* The Bollingen edition declares itself to be "translated and introduced by Franz Rosenthal, abridged and edited by N.J. Dawood." A 2005 reprint includes a useful introduction by Bruce B. Lawrence. On Asabiyyah, Lawrence quotes one Mohammed Talbi" one and the same time the cohesive force of the group, the conscience that it has of its own specificity and collective aspirations, and the tension that animates it and impels it ineluctably to seek power through conquest.
--Id., xv.
And one Jon Anderson:
[A]sabiyah seems to be a concept of relation by sameness, opposed both to the state (dawlah) based on relations of difference or complementarity, and to religion (din), which alone supercedes (sic) it.
Oddly enough, the term does not appear in the index to the Bollingen edition.
*The edition in question is a one-volume abridgment of a three-volume work; the longer version may contain more straight history, I cannot say.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Churches as Projections of Power:
Bergamo and St. Petersburg

I like to visit European cathedrals, basilicas and such-like for the art and architecture but they are also great studies in social order and in particular, the projection of power. Here are some recent notes:

One, Bergamo, in the foothills of the Italian Alps, near Milan. There's a cathedral here, the Duomo di Bergamo, a presentable if not electrifying pile, with a somewhat forgettable Tiepolo in he apse. But what makes it interesting is that right cheek by jowl is another church--Santa Maria Maggiore, which you could easily mistake for the Cathedral, were it not that the Cathedral is right next door. I really didn't get the story straight. One remembers the old joke about "that's the church whose doorstep I will not cross, so help me God!" But I get the impression that the explanation here may be even simpler than that: some sort of town-down dustup, in permanent truce, never quite resolved. The fun part is that the "other" church, though not a Cathedral, does seem to have some sort of "bishop's door" in the (east?) wall. The catch is that it appears to be 16 feet off the ground, with no stairway. One can only wonder how many bishops they lost before they figured that one out.

[Bergamo, by the way, is the birthplace and last resting place of Gaetano Donizetti. But if the Verdi industry is all over Verdi's natal turf, the Donizetti industry is almost nonexistent. On the other hand, I suppose going home to die crazed with syphilis at the age of 50 is not exactly what the guys down in publicity were hoping for.]

But more about churches: St Petersburg, i.e., Russia, where I note three. There is first of all St. Isaac's Cathedral, right there in tourist central, just down the street from the Hermitage. It's not exactly awful but it is a grey, gloomy lowering 19th-Century hulk that seems capable of sucking the fun out of any party (back in the 70s, I climbed the steps to the observation deck and greeted the 16-stone babushka whose job was to stand up there all day--in any weather, I assume--to warn you not to take pictures of the navy yard across the river).

Second, Kazan Cathedral, not that many blocks down Nevsky Prospect (and why does one city get two cathedrals?). It is even larger than St Isaac's and, if anything, even more grey and menacing--these Russian autocrats didn't want you to think of churches as having anything to do with fun.

But third and most interesting, just a short way from the Kazan Cathedral, is the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, and this one is the one that looks most like what a tourist would expect: onion domes and bright colors. You could easily take it for an ancient foundation but no: work was begun in 1883 and completed only in 19o7. Another oddity: it seems to have been built in the middle of the street, or canal or both.

What's going on here? The answer is that it was built on the very spot (so they say) where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. So: it was commissioned almost immediately after the assassination, under an injunction that the architects stick to a traditional Russian design. The dynasty, of course, stayed in power until 1917, and if that isn't church isn't a projection of power, why I don't know.

[It languished, of course, in Soviet times, but later went through a massive overhaul; it was reopenened again in 1997. The walls are covered with mosaics that are, granted, marvels of craftsmanship, although the pictures end up looking a lot like the ones in my Classics Comics when I was a kid.]

Smokers' Compound

We passed a smokers' compound at the Frankfort airport the other day and I had to marvel at how small those retreats have become. This one is all glass but it is not much bigger than a large tabletop; you can see the three or four denizens huddled together in the purple haze. They remind me a bit of the cages that the used to haul the defendants to court in for criminal trials. It isn't air-tight: there's a wreath of tobacco-smell that extends 10 or 15 feet around it.

I suppose the lairs do make life a bit easier for the rest of us, but I do have to wonder:
  • How many romances have been born here?
  • I wonder if the real purpose is not so much to isolate the smokers, nor to protect us from second-hand smoke, as it is to give us all a moment of pharisaical self-satisfaction. Oh look at those fools and how they are killing themselves. How glad I am that I know better, and that I can blithely walk by.

The Keenlyside Giovanni

Il Teatro Buce enjoyed a viewing last night of the Zurich Don Giovanni with Simon Keenlyside. It's a so-so offering--one of those weirdly unmotivated settings (here, 50s nightclub) that the Germans seem to love so much; passable singing; a highly skilled orchestra with perhaps unsubtle direction. Keenlyside himself enters shirtless and I would have loved to have seen the auditions for that one ("All right, Simon, now show us your tits!").

Keenlyside strikes me on the whole a pretty good singer but perhaps a better actor than singer and in any event, not to the kind of guy who is going to dominate the stage with his sexual magnetism. The corollary is that this is a Don Giovanni with a minimum of Don.

Which leads to a surprising insight. That is: not compelled to focus on the ol' predator himself, you pay more attention to those around him: the three women whom he seduces and the two cuckoded lovers as well as (of course) his servant Leporello and Mr. D-minor-and-its-dominant, the Commendatore. You come to see, in due course, that there's a reason for three different women; you see how the Don disrupts their lives in three different ways. And the men, too: in particular Piotr Beczala as Don Ottavio, who finally had a chance to get some attention, as the disappointed competitor--earnest, loyal, affectionate in his way, but a guy whom you just know is going to be home alone by 10 o'clock, refiling his collection of National Geographics.

Which prompted Mrs. Buce to say: you know, this isn't even about the Don. He's just there to disrupt the lives of other people. He's there at the beginning as the unapologetic seducer, still not apologizing at the end as he goes straight off to hell. We see how other people are shattered and the end changed by his misbehavior. The Don himself remains the Maguffin. I haven't the slightest idea how much this might have been Mozart's intention, or Da Ponte's. It certainly can't be the only correct reading of the Don's story, but it certainly is a good one.

On another topic: Socrates raised the question whether the same playwright can do comedy and tragedy. I heard somebody remark lately that Shakespeare's Hamlet may not be a comedy but that it surely is the funniest of the tragedies. So perhaps also Don Giovanni. It's sometimes a puzzle how to get laughs out of such a serious business. And maybe that is exactly the point.

Turchin on Sallust on Luxuria

The Roman historian Sallust blamed the decline of the republic on luxuria and licentia--luxury and licentiousness. Peter Turchin thinks he had it only half right:
[L]uxury has two components, one physical--creature comforts--and the other social--conspicuous consumption. It is clear that the first aspect of luxury, personal comfort, should have no effect on collective solidarity. For example, the wealthy Romans spent even more money on beautifying their dwellings than on the banquets. They constructed private baths, complete with warm, hot, and cold pools, and lavished money on formal gardens. Why should baths and gardens be "enervating"? One could actually argue the opposite, by pointing to the health benefits of such "luxuries." Why should cultivating asparagus--a monstrous piece of gluttony, according to Pliny--soften the moral fiber of the Roman aristocracy?

If we define "luxury" as conspicuous consumption, however, the argument begins to make more sense. The main point of conspicuous consumption is to signal to others high status, power, or wealth. ... Conspicuous consumption is inherently divisive because it draws boundaries between the haves and the have-nots. It elicits envy and weakens solidarity. But it is even more important as a symptom of deeper processes--growing inequality and within-group competition for resources and power that gradually undermine group solidarity.

--Peter Turchin, War and Peace and War 293 (2006)
There's an interesting argument around here somewhere, although I'd say Turchin has rather muddled it up. He is, for starters, quite right to draw the distinction between wealth and ease per se on the one hand, as against inequality and invidious display on the other. He is probably right that invidious display--conspicuous consumption--reduces a sense of social solidarity.

But in talking about baths and gardens, he seems to have picked a poor example. For one thing, if these baths and gardens are in private homes, they are not at all the best index of "display," insofar as their very privacy is going to keep them out of the face of the have-nots. More damaging, he seems not to realize that a Roman bath was in large measure a public institution, available to a broad swath of the populace--a leveller, not an excluder.

But set aside the matter of conspicuous consumption. Social solidarity, or the decay thereof, is not the only factor in determining the success or failure of a population. For even if everyone in Rome had access to baths and gardens, stuffed dormice and pickled oysters, still there was a whole uncountable multitude on the outside looking in who weren't part of the solidarity equation at all. They just wanted the swag. The insiders, even if they are well fed and well equipped for battle, will nonetheless be reluctant to leave their life of ease.

For a Jurisprudence of Frog Underwear

Okay, so the fella's in a fancy hotel and he decides he wants to go for a swim, right? But he doesn't have swimming stuff so he calls the bell station and they say, sure, we can send you the swimming set. So a few minutes later a bellhop shows up with a neatly wrapped parcel, like a birthday present, and a chit for $49. Fella opens the parcel and checks it out and there's this little tiny,tiny tee-shirt, I mean really tiny.
--So, what's with the tee-shirt?
--Oh, it's frog underwear. The boss was Special Forces in Baluchistan during the First Gulf War and they used frogs with radio transmitters for gathering intelligence. But it gets really cold at night in Baluchistan so they fit them out with underwear.
--And now it's part of the package?
--Part of the package, yes.
--But I don't want frog underwear.
--Oh,there's no extra charge.
--Right. How much will you take off if I don't take the frog underwear?
--I'm not authorized to adjust the bill.
So the fella signs the $49 chit and goes for his swim. Later he pays his bill and checks out. End of story.

Frog underwear?

I bet every five star hotel charges for frog underwear. Come to think of it, I bet you can find it on your hospital bill. And in the master agreement for your credit card. And, and, and.

We need a jurisprudence of frog underwear. The world runs on it.

Update: This might be an example of shatara. Hat tip, Froomkin.

Something I Learned Today:
Baubles, Bangles and Banned

"Baubles, Bangles and Beads" was once banned by the BBC. But not by Underbelly:

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Something I Learned Today: Madagascar

The first human settlers of Madagascar came from Borneo. Cf. Michael Cook, A Brief History of the Human Race 298 (2003) and link.

Three of a Kind: Smith, James and Dostoevsky

Without the burden of careful research, I think I'm right on this: what do Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James and Adam Smith have in common? Answer (I think): they dictated. And I could have answered: it shows. All three, whatever their virtues, have a certain tendency to windbaggism which can be off-putting to at least some potential readers.

The point occurred to me yesterday during a Chez Buce readaloud of D's The Idiot. It's my second time through and I chose it willingly: it's a fascinating, if flawed masterpiece that gives you a taste of the full Dostoevskian agenda. But my, these people can talk. And talk, and talk, and talk. And even if the book ends, you suspect that the conversation never ends:I read somebody somewhere saying that D is the one author of whom you can imagine that the characters were talking before you came into the room, and will keep on talking after you leave. You can easily imagine all this stuff just buzzing out of D's brain--as if he had to get it out before it blew the top of his head clean off.

I'll forgive D because they payoff is so great. My admiration for Henry James has always been somewhat more, ahem, nuanced. I admire Portrait of a Lady and some of the shorter works, but I think that may be the key. I've slogged my way through the late-period heavyweights--Ambassadors, Golden Bowl, Wings of the Dove. I'll concede that they have their merits, but they are all just a bit too much wrapped in an arabesque of self-congratulation, as James suavely undertakes to show you how much more he understands than you do. This, from a man who does not know how babies are made, strikes me as presumptuous. Part of Henry seems to have understood that he needed the constraints of the novella form to keep from going off the deep end.

Adam Smith is perhaps a bit more difficult a case because he is earlier and by any conventional measure less sophisticated--the utterance of a learned, likeable but garrulous old country schoolmaster. I got through every page, but with a crutch: I read it on paper at the same time that I was enjoying (sic, actually) the audio version. But let's admit it: Wealth of Nations is one of those books that would not lose anything by a judicious cut down to 150 pages.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Spam Attack

Looks like I have another infestation of spam. I think I have it under control, but bear with me. Meanwhile, please believe that I am not selling Viagra.

Newspapers: Michael Gags on his Coffee

My friend Michael has been reading that Economist piece on the non-collapse of the newspaper biz. He came to the stuff about how the world does need LA Times foreign correspondents, because others are better. After recovering from the gag on his coffee, he said
The thing about getting all your foreign reporting from the NYT is that it isn't always right. It was quite wrong about the run-up to the Iraq war, as the editors shamefacedly admitted later. The other papers were no better, with the exception of Knight Ridder, whose reporters kept saying, "WMDs? Wha...? What are these people talking about?" But no one listened, probably because Knight Ridder did not publish a newspaper located in the Washington-New York area. And now Knight Ridder is one with Nineveh and Tyre.
Actually, I had a former KR foreign correspondent in a law school class a few years ago. Bright kid; indeed, perhaps bright enough that he saw the handwriting on the wall.

Michael also has a kind word for Carol Lochhead, reporting from Washington for the SF Chronicle. "Her stuff is superb," he says. "If she were to move to the New York Times, the editors would kill her spirit in a week."

What I Learned Today: Mongol Horses

Here's a datapoint: evidently every Mongol warrior in the 13th Century traveled with 20 remounts--Mongol armies mobilized something like half of all the horses in the world, So one reason they weren't able to make it in Europe: not enough pasturage. Per SAM Adshead, as recounted in Ronald Findlay and Kevin O'Rourke, Power and Plenty 105 (2007).

But How Will We Train Our Puppies?

Something I learned today newspapers are getting so thin that it is getting hard to fling them onto a doorstep (link).

Blood Antonement

This has been around for a while, but I missed it and so I report belatedly now a possible reason why Ronnie Lee Gardner chose the firing squad for his execution in Utah last night: it's his Mormon heritage.

Why Won't The Economist Take My Money
(Oh, I Think I Know)

I've spent a godawful portion of the last 24 hours trying (a) to configure my S300 ScanSnap for Evernote; and (b) trying to pay The Economist to freshen up my digital subscription.
Economist remains unsolved (update, 24 hrs later--finally solved). I'll spare you the gory details, but I think there is a general takeaway point, namely: contracting-out. Economist outsources the management of it audio downloads to one contractor, its billing to another, i.e., neither stays in house. Suffice it to say that neither is fully integrated, friction free, so (for example) it always takes me longer than it should to get my weekly audio edition all the way from the cloud to my Ipod. And billing: when I ran into a problem with the E's billing site, the best they could do for me was "well, here is their customer service link." Well, yes, but if that would have solved the problem I could have found that on my own.

Reminds me of some problems Mrs. B has been having with our flight plans as she bounces back and forth between United and Lufthansa. Reminds me of some 403b issues I've had as I bounce back and forth between the pension obligor and Fidelity, the fund manager. Reminds me a bit of the gobbledygook we were getting from the bosses at BP a month ago when they were saying, well yes we are responsible, but we're really not responsible because we contracted out. "Contracting out" thus emerges as the best "not my problem" in the new golden age.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hey, I Was There!

I heard the folks at NPR talking about a bit of my own history yesterday--the Nashua Dodgers in the New England League of 1946-7, where they played my home team, the Manchester Giants.

Why are they talking about the Dodgers now? Because the Dodgers fielded Don Newcombe, the black pitcher who went up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, where he was Rookie of the Year, MVP and the Cy Young Award, all in the same year --and became the first black pitcher to start in the World Series.

Newcombe certainly qualified as a novelty or a curiosity in Nashua/Manchester in his time and no wonder: he was one of the first black ballplayers anyplace close to a major league team. At that point, of course, I had not the slightest notion of the back story: how Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers sent Newcombe to Nashua because it looked to be the only farm club that would take him (pr NPR, some guy in Iowa said he'd close the league down).

But it's worth pausing for a moment, I think, to reflect on the racial attitudes of Southern New Hampshire in those days. There was a core of principle here: I was taught in a mainline Presbyterian Church summer camp that the Negro (sic) was God's image in ebony, just as the white man was God's image in ivory. But principle didn't have to do with it. The fact was that in general, they just didn't care that much. They had other fish to fry and race for them was simply not that big of a deal.

Indifference coupled well, of course, with ignorance: to my recollection, there was one "Negro" in my 1953 high school graduating class (come to think of it, there was one woman in my law school graduating class--I have lived long, I have seen much). In 1948-9 our eighth grade teacher read us a book about a black man who had passed for white in New England. The whole point of the story was that it worked because nobody in that part of the world much knew what a black man looked like.

And so Rickey took his chance with Newcombe. Jackie Robinson broke the major league color bar under Rickey's tutelage the next year and in general, I guess you'd have to say that it worked all around--one of the unambiguous success stories in modern sports history.

[Fn.: Inconsistently, I think I can also claim to be the descendant of a slaveholder. I don't have the documents at my fingertips, but I've seen records indicating that a lineal ancestor in Massachusetts "became very prosperous and owned a Negro, Lot." I've seen other paper to indicate that maybe "Lot" also fought in the American Revolution as a freeman. I bet hever played major league ball though.

Fn2: Oddly enough, I have absolutely memory of Newcombe's breakthrough teammate, Roy Campanella. Maybe it was because Campanella (a catcher) had his back to me (I still carry a vividvisual image of Newcombe on the mound). Or maybe I just thought he was Italian.


No spoof?

You decide.

Is This a Great Country or What?

A Kuwaiti from Minnesota is pitching his line of flavored hummus to Costco in Los Angeles. His firm is called "Holy Land." Link.

Russian Internal Passports

Here's one that I hadn't focused on before: Russia still has internal passports. That is: you can't move from Palookaville to, say, St. Petersburg, unless you have the approval of some bureaucrat. I learn this because I read in the Moscow Times that President Prime Minister Putin wants to abolish liberalize these requirements.

A spasm of liberalism on the part of the famously authoritarian elected leader? Not quite. It turns out that some places in Russia have labor shortages. Putin has ordered bureaucrats to find some way to cut through the paperwork so Russians can go where the work is.

One person who would have been glad of such an opportunity is the 19th-Century social thinker Alexander Herzen. He writes about his own experience with the passport system (apparently in 1847):
The second day after my arrival in Petersburg the house porter came to ask me from the local police: "With what papers had I come to Petersburg?" The only paper I had, the decree concerning my retirement from the service, I had sent to the Governor-General with my request for a passport. I gave the house-porter my permit, but he came back to say that it was valid for leaving Moscow but not for entering Petersurg. A police-officer came too,with an invitation to the oberpolitsmeyster's office. I went to Kokoshkin's office, which was lit by lamps although it was daytime, and after an hour he arrived. Kokoshkin more than other persons of the same selection was the picture of a servant of the Tsar with no ulterior designs, a man in favour, ready to do any dirty job, a favourite with no conscience and no bent for reflection. He served and made his pile as naturally as birds sing. ...

--Alexander Herzen, Ends and Beginnings 207
(Oxford UP World's Classic ed. 1985)
What a shame he wasn't a citizen of a free country. Oh wait.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Mikado: Culture Gap Question

Mrs. Buce is in the other room watching a Netflix production of The Mikado. It sounds lovely, and it prompts me to ask a question that crossed my mind a couple of years back while traveling in Japan. That is: do the Japanese watch The Mikado? What do they make of it?

Binnie's Missed Opportunity

In and out of the car on errands today, I picked up this exchange between NPR's Neal Conan and New Hampshire Senate candidate Bill Binnie:

CONAN: One last question - and I don't mean to be too flip, but you'd think the two things would be unpopular in this particular place and in this particular time in this country's history would be New York and stock exchange?

Mr. BINNIE: Well, I think that there's nothing wrong. I'm very proud of the fact that I built a business. ...

And so forth, blah blah in the same vein. Look,nobody ever paid (or would want to pay) me a nickel for political insight but would I be wrong to infer that Binnie blew a splendid opportunity here? Of course he's proud of his work as a businessman--and in New Hampshire, my guess is that it's saleable politics.But business is not finance. Shouldn't Binnie have said that yes indeed he was a businessman and that that is exactly why he knew how corrupt and predatory Wall Street finance can be? Shouldn't he be telling us that he is uniquely qualified to tell the voters just how anti-business finance has become, how suffocating is the weight of Wall Street as it sits on the heads of businessmen like him?

Sure, it is demagogy. But it has the virtue of being a very likely correct. Of course we need an effective banking system, and a functioning capital market. But lots of people who understand these things better than either Binnie or I do--lots of these people strongly suspect that the banking/finance system over the last, say, decade or so, has done more harm than good, has sucked more money out of the system than it has put back.

Binnie is hardly alone in missing this opportunity. I admit I haven't been paying careful attention but so far I haven't heard anybody trying to fashion the narrative into a pro-business, anti-finance kind of story. We've certainly done it before: depression rhetoric was built on exactly this distinction. Maybe Binnie has been so busy with his business that he never played a game of Monopoly.

Hoopsa, boyaboy, hoopsa!

Send us, bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. Send us, bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. Send us, bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit.

--James Joyce, Ulysses Chapter 14, "The Oxen of the Sun."

Happy Bloomsday.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Screwups as a National Mythology

I know: stuff happens anywhere. But is any nation more defined than Russia by mistakes, screwups, instances of vain foolishness?

Take for example St. Isaac's Cathedral, the showcase of Orthdoxy just a grenade's throw from the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. There was a competition for the design. There was a competition for the design. Apparently everyone agreed that the winner was not remotely competent to the job. But he pleased Tsar Alexander I and that was the end of it. The Cathedral was 40 years in the building, not least because the architect had to keep hollering for help.

More serious, perhaps, is the doom of the impulse to political liberalism in the failed Dekabrist Revolution of 1825. The rebels--actually a clique of well-connected young army officers--hoped to force the Senate to mandate constitutional republic. The uprising degenerated into a Ruritanian farce, comical except that the leaders were hanged and many others exiled to Siberia (common soldiers, who probably had no idea why they were called to duty, were forced to run the gauntlet).

Perhaps the most grotesquely comic of all is the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. The first bomb fizzled; Alexander's protectors attempted to vacate the area but the Tsar insisted to stop to berate the failed assassin; a second bomb blew him to kingdom come.

There is also story about the killing of Rasputin, the evil genius of the tsarist court, in 1916. According to the assassins, Rasputin was an unconscionable time a-dying; first they poisoned him, then they shot him, then they shoved him under the ice. Apparently more careful research has discredited the standard version; I wonder how many ordinary Russians cling to the old view.

Oh, and did I mention that they buried Gogol alive, i.e., by mistake? Or maybe they didn't; either way, there is a mistake in the story and my point holds.

Das Beer

Responding to my little foray into Wagner criticism, Swifty asks:

Didn't there used to be a local beer in NYC called Rheingold?

Sure did. And apparently it gets a footnote in the long (and cluttered) history of marketing hype; Rod Taylor has the story at a marketing website. I remember my boss on the sports desk saying that a certain creature was "as ugly as last year's Miss Rheingold;" never knew ffor sure whether that was a slur on the beauty queen or the girl.

I was mostly too young to drink the stuff; what I mostly remember about Rheingold beer is one of those jingles that become a mind virus and stick with you --in this case, something like 60 years and counting:
:My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer,
Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer.
It's not bitter, not sweet; it's a dry flavor treat,
Won't you buy extra dry Rheingold beer?
Oddly enough, I can't find a full-dress representation on the web. We'll have to settle for this:

Be Careful What You Wish For: Afghan Dept.

Blake Hounshell offers a generally shrewd summary of the "news" (if it is that) that Afghanistan is sitting on a trillion jillion kazillion dollars worth of natural resources (and cf. link). But then Hounshell drops an ingot of radioactive cadmium on his foot:
This could be a great thing for Afghanistan, which certainly deserves a lucky break after the hell it's been through over the last three decades.
If you replace "great thing" with "disaster and tragedy," then I would agree. Otherwise, I'd say Hounshell must have slept through his class on the Congo, Angola, Iraq, the Russian Federation, Harlan County (Ky.) and all those other places where the discovery of great mineral wealth has ripped the fabric out of whatever society that preceded it while enriching nobody but a bunch of foreigners with guns. And their bankers (Norway, yes, I know, but so what?).

If Hounshell is being grotesque, I'd say that James Risen himself isn't doing a lot better with his tirade against bloggers who responded to his story. "The thing that amazes me," he is quoted as saying, " is that the blogosphere thinks they can deconstruct other people's stories." Slow down and listen, big guy: that is exactly what they can do with your story; indeed, that is exactly what anyone can do. It's called the exercise of an independent critical judgment. It hurts sometimes, but without readers who care very deeply as to whether you get it right, you wouldn't have a job at all.

Looking for the Universal Language Again

I don't speak any Russian but I can decode the alphabet and so I have been able to entertain myself these past few days in Russia (as I did in Poland) looking for cognates. One point that caught my mind: if you look back to the 19th Century, you pick up a lot of words that spread from French into a universal tourist language. Granted, the Tsarist elite spoke French as a first language. But I bet you'll find a lot of these examples in other places as well. That is, every old hotel has a sal de this and that—perhaps serving as meeting rooms on the premier etage. At the theater, you may leave your coat in a garderobe and occupy a box in a parter. And I guess words like salon and concierge aren't even borrowings any more: they are simply English (was it Wallace Stevens who said that all French words are English—some we put in italics, others not—?).

Meanwhile, as I continue my transcontinental quest for for easy cognates, I see that the Flemings and the Walloons are ripping themselves to shreds over just this issue. Indeed it looks to me like the Flemings arre turning just as lingo-cranky as the Parisian French were under DeGaulle (sic, but are not, in my experience, today).

And another related note: Mrs. B reports that per Michael Pollen, any food that has the same name in every country (Cheetos, Big Mac)--is not food.

On This Day in History,...

...a bunch of immigrants kicked out the lawful government of California (link).

Gergiev and the Mariinsky

We saw a couple of operas at the Mariinsky theater in St. Petersburg last week. Both had their excellences, but I think the real story is not so much the operas themselves as the director, Valery Gergiev, who seems to be trying to put—and succeeding in putting—this venerable venue back on the map

For my taste, the more successful of the two was Duke Bluebeard's Castle—it would have been better titled Don't Go There—that Béla Bartók presented (if you can believe it) as a wedding present to his bride. I'd never seen it it live before, although I had seen a splendid (I suppose definitional) presentation by Solti with Hungarian singers on DVD.

You know the story: the bride wants Bluebeard to show her what is behind the doors: he tells her she'll regret it; she insists, and sure enough she regrets it. Willard White's Bluebeard was austere and remote, which worked. Elena Zhidkova as his bride was kittenish, which didn't seem to work so well. The the staging was a bit occult; Mrs. B. said she read it as a history of Russia which didn't sound like a bad guess.

But what made it was the orchestra: so far as I could discern there was simply no nuance of the score left unexplored. This has got to mean first-class conducting, which is to say Gergiev himself, who is also General Director and Artistic Director of the whole Mariinsky operation.

The other Mariinsky offering was Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten, The Woman without a Shadow, another that I had seen before only on DVD. This one was a bit less satisfactory, It's two parallel stories—one supernatural, one earthbound. And it was almost as if two different directors did the two different segments. The earthbound story was alive and full of energy, with so much emotional nuance you could almost follow the plot without a scorecard. The supernatural was vaporous—and the costumes appeared so heavy that you had to wonder how the singers dragged them around. The overall effect was Wagnerian and I do not mean that in a nice way. With only one prior viewing, I really don't know the opera well enough to venture whether the culprit is the current production or Strauss himself.

But once again, the sound from the pit was just superb. Strauss for me has taken some getting used to; not long ago I found him a chore (and indeed, I suspect he would not be a good place for a beginner to start his operatic inquiries). Still, sound like this makes you understand how wonderful the possibilities are. Gergiev's the man, and while you can see him a lot of places, the Mariinsky is the first place.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Men: A Footnote

I've said before that if a guy reaches my age, he spends more and more time among women who have forgotten what it was they ever saw in men. Here's an instance: coming home from the opera the other night, a woman in our crowd said “let's have one more drink!” We settled in at the hotel bar: without blink the initiator popped for a $245 bottle of champagne which, you will have to agree, is a fine way to make friends.

But I fairly quickly realized that I was alone among three women. And almost as quickly, that I was playing out the script for a lost episode of Sex and the City. Not being able to decide whether I was Carrie or Miranda, I wordlessly slipped away from the table; I went for a lovely walk in the St. Petersburg White Nights, and thence to bed. The party, I am told, went on for another couple of hours. I don't think anyone missed me.

I Always Did Like Joe Biden

I'd give Maureen Dowd about a 75 for her account of the Joe Biden picnic and related matters. Sad but true, I think she is correct when she says that our President is “an elitist … as well as thin-skinned and controlling” (though I voted for him, and almost certainly would again). I think she's laughably wrong when she says that “good reporters can't be co-opted by some cold French fries.” My guess is that cold French fries is exactly what they can be co-opted by, as they enjoy the thrill of intimacy with the transitorily powerful.

And I'm not quite sure what to make of her perception of Biden as the garrulous, easy-going flesh-presser who knows there is no percentage in bearing a grudge. She is aware—yes?—that this is exactly what we get from Biden, and have gotten at least since he got elected to the Senate at the age of 29.

It is, not incidentally, exactly what I have always liked about him and why I think all the cluck-clucking about Biden's supposed “gaffes” is just vastly overblown. Sure, he's a chatterbox and he gets ahead of himself . But has he ever said anything beyond what you knew he was thinking anyway? Ha, I thought not. He's just extremely comfortable with himself. Also vastly experienced with the subtleties of power, and it is these conjoined facts that explain why I would have preferred him as a Presidential candidate himself (although I suppose I always understood that his campaign was going nowhere). The skill and the experience count for a lot. The loose tongue is, at the end of the day (as Biden himself would say) simply no big f*cking deal.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Mikhailovsky

My friend Grethe found herself with a couple of spare tickets to unload the other night for a performance of Eugene Onegin at the Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg. So she took her place on the hawker's platform to try to cut her losses, A few minutes later, she joined the party inside; she was all wreathed in smiles. She said she'd spotted a young couple to all appearances too poor for this sort of high life. She decided—what the heck, and let the kids buy the tickets for just $5 each. Grethe is a kind-hearted sort and it was clear that she was pleased to have had the chance to brighten a couple of lives.

Midway through the first act (as she recounted later), Grethe had second thoughts: she decided she didn't need the $5 bills and she resolved to seek the couple out and to give back their money. At the interval, she went looking for them and—surprise! In the seats were two perfect strangers. Evidently the objects of Grethe's bounty had decided that the utility-maximizing deployment of the benefaction was to sell the tickets up market and to pocket the swag.

Welcome to the sometimes unfamiliar world of Russian opera. The performance was, as I say, Tchaikovski's Eugene Onegin—the work of a Russian composer, based on the poem by the Russian poet, performed in Russian before a mostly Russian audience. I want to say “and you can hardly get any more Russian than that. In fact, I gather that there is room for debate among Russians themselves as exactly how well the composer captures the “true Russian-ness” of his poetic precursor. As it happens, I did read the poem once, but in a translation so enjoyable I suspect it was probably unfaithful to the original, so a question of this sort is best understood as above my pay grade.

But whatever the verdict on ethnic purity, the matter of ethnic purity, still it was an opportunity not to be missed and in the end, well requited. Actually, T has never quite floated my boat but the music is nothing if not listenable and the story flows along with an effortless ease. Mrs B. points out shrewdly that he is at his best at the dance scenes, suggesting that his real metier is not opera but ballet, And as to ethnic flavor: I can swear I could hear some unfamiliar, i.e., non-Western, sounds, not just in the peasant choruses (where you hear them even in non-Russian performances) but in some of the arias themselves.

And I'd say the theatre is a bit of a story itself. In the Soviet days they used to use it as a venue for cheap and second-rate productions of war horses like Swan Lake for consumption by gullible tourists. Nothing about EO deserved the characterization of “second rate,” and in any event, the audience was mostly something other than tourists.

As we left, we got a last look the unknown and unknowing beneficiaries of Grethe's bounty. “I better check the $5 bills,” Grethe said. “They might be counterfeit.”