Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Chris Mullins Entertains

If you'd like to fantasize life with a legislative rep who is informed, modest, balanced and witty (but also passionately committed), go to BBC and hear excerpts from the diaries of Chris Mullins.   For example:
Awoke before six, still worrying about the Sri Lankan family.  Still unable to sleep, I went downstairs and for light relief read Nikita Khruschev's account of the Great Terror. ... I am becoming short-tempered.
Never heard of Chris Mullins?  Go here

What Martin Wolf Thinks

If you want to know what Martin Wolf thinks (and well you might), DeLong has graciously liberated him from the paywall.  Link.  But skip the last paragraph, it's depressing (hah, made you look!).


Never saw this one before: link.  Thanks, Dave.

Josh Marshall Surveys the Landscape...

...and comes up with a dead-on summary of the political turf:
Dems and Obama's poll numbers are so bad because ...
Republicans: Terrible policies and he's probably a Muslim.
Right Democrats: No CEOs in the administration. And why does he keep getting into the black thing?
Down-the-Line Obamaites: Economy's bad. Nothing he could do. Give it a rest.
Left Democrats: He wasn't liberal or tough enough and me and my eight friends are deeply disillusioned.
Politico: Chronic failure to win the morning.
I know where that leaves me: right up front harrumphing with Baron Hill, Heath Shuler  and the rest fresh-haircut, necktie-wearing Rotarians.  I'm not quite sure what I'm doing here: they certainly aren't nearly as interesting or (I suspect) fun as it would be to hang out with as the likes of Glenn Greenwald or Paul Krugman.  And strictly speaking, I'm not particularly exercised over "the black thing"--the fact that so many of his opponents on the right are raving loonies is really not his fault (though I do wish he could find better ways to defuse it).    And actually, while "No CEO" is tempting, I'd put it a little differently: what we seem to be experiencing is a gobsmacking failure of political leadership, at a time when we so desperately need it.  He's becoming the un-Roosevelt, the un-Reagan, veering desperately close to (may the tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth) the ghost of Jimmy Carter.

That Guy on the Other Guy

I think this to be a  correct political judgment but it always reminds me of so much of what I dislike about the judger.  I mean, compare--if you can find Winston Churchill saying anything like this about Anthony Eden, I'll walk up the steps of Westminster Abbey on my knees.*
*Doesn't have any steps?  Oh, sure it does.

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

The headline of this morning's Krugman is "Brother, Can you Paradigm?"   Thus we have a measure of the rhythm of political life.  The last time that phrase occupied high saliency in our national political space was when it was used, dismissively if somewhat obscurely,   by Richard Darman, budget director to George Bush--the other  George Bush, the one who was President back before the currrent generation of college freshmen was born.

Markets in Everything: Fakes

Well, have you had this one yet?--an email sales solicitation from a source that tells me its business is producing fakes.  I won't do them the courtesy of giving you the address, nor quote their slogan, except to say it sounds a lot like "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."

Had to happen.  Soon, I suppose, they will have a national association with an executory and a staff of registered lobbyists.  Defending, I suppose, the legitimate concerns of the makers of authentic fakes against, well, I suppose against fake fakes.

Monday, August 30, 2010

My Chances of Getting Elected President Just Improved

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn says that Newt Gingrich is "the last person" he'd vote for.for President of the United States.  Link.

This One's For You, Dave

If projections of population growth come true, Ethiopia may need 20 new cities of 5m people each by 2050.
--Make it Prettier and Cheapter, The Economist, August 26, 2010

In Case You'd Been Thinking About Forgiving the Catholic Church...

[O]n Easter Sunday this year when Cardinal Sodano dismissed criticism of the child sex abuse scandal in the Church as ‘idle gossip’. Or on Palm Sunday in New York when Archbishop Timothy Dolan compared the pope to Jesus, saying he was ‘now suffering some of the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob, and scourging at the pillar’, and ‘being daily crowned with thorns by groundless innuendo’. Or on Good Friday in the Vatican when Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, told those at St Peter’s Basilica, including the pope himself, that he was thinking about the Jews in this season of Passover and Easter because ‘they know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence and also because of this they are quick to recognise the recurring symptoms.’ He was referring to the ‘collective violence’ of those who have been critical of the Church. He went on to quote from a letter written by an unnamed Jewish friend: ‘I am following with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the Church, the pope and all the faithful by the whole world.

--Colm Tóibín, "Among the Flutterers,"
London Review of Books  19 August 2010

Notes from Internet Marketing Purgatory

You'll laugh at me but on a lark I signed up for Mint.com, the "free" (heh!) finance aggregator from Quicken.  It was seductively easy to add accounts and I can be mesmerized by gazing at all those transactions on one page.

Only one trouble--it seems not to work with all banks--in my case, one bank, my main bank.  I say "seems" because Mint.Com is terminally coy about all this.  Last time I looked, there were 500 complaint messages about this bank in a single thread--and a few other threads making the same point.  And what's the problem?  That's the trouble, I haven't a clue. Are Mint and the bank at war?  Is the bank having a snit?  Is there a mysterious software issue that the best geek minds are so far unable to solve?  You 'd really thing it would be worthwhile for somebody to come forward and say, "okay folks, now here's the deal...."

My own best guess: this problem is in the hands of low-level support staff who, whatever their geek skills, have not been schooled in the basics of customer relations..  Their solution to the problem of mass attack is to hunker down in the trench.  Specifically, my guess is that they haven't had the nerve to to tell the boss that they've got an out-of-control brush fire.  I can feel their pain: if and when the boss finds out, he's likely to be pretty ticked.  But what they don't seem to understand is that the thing a boss likes least is an unhappy surprise.  At some point, he will say--you mean this has been going on for weeks and nobody told me?   And then there really will be  hell to pay.

I know, maybe I'm wrong.  Someone else on the thread seems to believe that this is some kind of deliberate scheme to destroy the business.  I don't follow that, although I admit that for all my pretensions, my mind is really not very Byzantine.  Still...

BTW Mrs. B has run into a seemingly similar problem trying to port stuff from ITunes U to her IPod (sic, not Pad or Phone).  Evidently, she learns, they aren't supporting that function for the IPod any more--they're concentrating their efforts on the Pad and the Phone and letting this Pod function go.  Not sure quite what might be the strategy here--could it be that the IPod is on its way out?  She concedes that maybe they told her and she just didn't listen--or maybe she was supposed not to listen.  But it's another one of those cases where you can accomplish a lot if you value the customer's time at zero.

Liveblogging Twelfth Night: Location Shots

In Act I, scenes i and ii, we have a couple of location shots. First, Duke Orsino--full of confused romanticism and self-pity. Then Viola on the shore, having (miraculously?) survived a shipwreck that seems to have claimed her brother. Viola seems deeply bereft by the apparent lost, but Viola, unlike Olivia in this play (rather rather more like Imogene in Pericles?)is not one to let grief overcome her; she makes a plan...

Curious fact: Shakespeare lost a son; his name was "Hamnet," and students of Hamlet have raised their eyebrows at the seeming coincidence. One might also observe that Hamnet left behind a surviving twin sister--who, as it happens, lived on to the age of 77,

Pennington remains a goldmine of commentary, but he says one thing that I want to question:
It is a truism in theatre that we believe someone is a king, and what kind of a king, not from his own behaviour but from the attitude of those around him...
I don't think this is entirely right. Perhaps we need to be told that the great man is a great man; but we must also see it. If our experience contradicts the observation, then we may question the observational powers of the observer. I've unburdened myself before on "Oh what a noble mind is here o'erthrown."  Just lately in Ashland's Henry IV-people treated young Prince Hal as if they knew he would be king, but we, the audience, wondered if he could do it.   So also when Lear says "Aye, every inch a king"-do we believe him? By contrast, Richard II works if and insofar as we see that the stage Richard is woefully unsuited to wear a crown.

Liveblogging Twelfth Night

...in that "liveblogging" can be a synonym for "slow reading."  Among Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night is a favorite of Mrs. Buce's.  I've never quite got my mind round it, all the more reason to try to consider it in depth.  Our main guide (aside from the text itself, of course) is Michael Pennington's Twelfth Night: A User's Guide.  Pennington is proving to be a bottomless well of good insights, but there is other stuff around the house also. 

For example, here's an insight that helps me get a handle on matters, derived from Harold Bloom:  give Twelfth Night its rightful place in the chronology.   Shakespeare finished Hamlet in (perhaps) 1601, summing up his first decade-plus in the playwrighting game.   Shortly thereafter, the wheels come off his creative engine and he produces three unpleasant plays--Measure for Measure, All's Well that Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida--not bad plays by any means, but not plays that anybody warms to.  Twelfth Night  falls between Hamlet and the unpleasant plays.  Indeed if you keep your eyes open, you can see the beginning of the unpleasantness in Hamlet itself ("To a nunnery go, and quickly, too!").  Twelfth Night contains some of the same (manic?) energy, with more than a  hint that it is beginning to veer out of control.

Corollary point: Shakespeare is never a servile respecter of genre categories. Hamlet, though a tragedy, is the funniest tragedy.  Romeo and Juliet is not so much a tragedy as a comedy that ends badly.  So also Twelfth Night: a comedy of sorts, but a comedy sauced with the unsettling notion that at any moment, things could go badly wrong. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

302,522 People....

Like this: link. Thanks, Nancy.

Hell of a Way to Build a Railroad

As a young(er) lawyer in my first brush with corporate law, I complained about the (as it seemed to me) mindless constraints of silly rules.  My mentor consoled me: you ought, he said, to have seen what life was like before there were any rules..

Had he wanted to drive home the point, he might have compelled me to read David Haward Bain's Empire Express, about (as the subtitle says) the "building of the first transcontinental railroad."  Although he wouldn't have wanted me doing it on company time: at 711 pages, not counting footnotes, it's nothing if not roomy and relaxed.  But as an account of raw, unconstrained capital formation, it's hard to imagine a better.  One can pick and choose so many different themes that run through the whole of the capital(ist) market place.

For example, engineers versus money men.  Just about the firsts person to work seriously at the idea of building a transcontinental railroad was one Theodore D. Judah, a self-taught engineer who believed he could build a rail roadway from the Sacramento Valley over the Sierra.  He held meetings where he tried to get investors to stump up small sums of cash for a building fund.  At one such meeting, he was taken aside by a hardware storekeeper who told him he was going about it the wrong way: that instead of trying to democratize the project, he should look for a small number of serious men who could part with some serious cash.

The hardware man was--perhaps you knew--Collis P. Huntington, first of what came to be known as the "big four" California merchants who formed the core of what became the Central Pacific Railroad.  Judah listened to Huntington, and worked with the quartet and undertook his project--and quickly came to perceive that the money men were trying to squeeze him out of his own idea.

Was he correct?  In truth, we'll never know.  Judah died early-of yellow fever in 1863, back east on a business errand.  But his relationship with the investors was already clouded with distrust.

There is a more general issue here of who gets the credit.  We speak of "the big four;" actually, there were five: Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford and two Crocker brothers--Charles and E.B.  The Crockers were the hands-on operations managers.  Huntington spent almost all his time back east, beguiling, wheedling, lying--whatever it took to raise the money and provide the supplies.    Hopkins was the bookkeeper.  Stanford--actually, just what Stanford did is far from clear from Bain's account, and perhaps not so clear to his partners.  They seem to have taken him in because of his political connections--he became governor shortly after the inception of the project--but he seems to have spent a good deal of the rest of his career offering unsolicited and unwelcome advice as to how his colleagues might behave.

And in fact, so far we are dealing with only half the story.  The "transcontinental railroad" was in fact two roads: the Central Pacific from Sacramento, and the Union Pacific from Omaha.  As any fan of .Joel McCrea knows, they raced across the landscape to their final connection (in 1869) at Promontory Point near Ogden, Utah.  Bain finds the story of the UP harder to tell, perhaps because the records are less adequate (for the CP, Huntington left a  mountain of correspondence).  But more generally, the story of the UP is dominated by some more impenetrable characters--chiefly the mysterious loner, Thomas C. ("Doctor") Durant, who seems at times not to have cared whether the railroad got built at all, so long as he was able to siphon off a lot of money.

Which brings us to a more general theme: so damn much money.  Not at the start, of course, when Judah was hustling smalltime shopkeepers for nickels and dimes.  But in 1862, Congress got into the game and started to authorize the infusion of money.  Meanwhile the promoters--notably Huntington--were scratching every corner of the chicken patch to try to find enough to keep the project going.  My friend Dave says that it is a general rule of commercial law that if one person has money in his pocket, then someone else is trying to get it out: by the late 1860s, the railway project had become such a battle for position over the money pot that the actual railroad seems at times to be almost forgotten.

All of which introduces a more narrow legal issue: limited liability --specifically, the rule providing that the person who invests in a corporation stands to lose only his investment, not all his wealth.  Limited liability is pretty much a creature of the 1830s--it came into being alongside bankruptcy law, and for more or less the same reasons.

But it seems to have been only in the 1860s--specifically, as a part of the rail building project--that people grasped the full implications of the  limited liability idea.  It was Durant and his cronies who (in 1864) created something called "Crédit Mobilier of America," a limited liability company.  The name itself was something of a fraud: there was a French" Crédit Mobilier," with visibility and some prestige.  Durant's outfit had nothing to do with the French lot: they just ripped off the name.

 They nominal business of the Crédit Mobilier of America was railway construction.  As such, it was a grand mechanism for siphoning money out of the coffers of the railroad and into the pockets of Durant and his crew.  Crédit Mobilie also developed a brisk trade in the bribery of Congressmen--a fact that permanently sullied the reputation of Ulysses S. Grant as President of the U.S. (perhaps unfairly, but that is another story).  So much money again.

Oddly enough, one figure entirely missing from this story: J. P. Morgan, probably the greatest single figure in American railroad finance.  Morgan was an  important player by the 1860s, though not nearly as important as he would become later.  But his principal role seems in retrospect to have involved not so much in organizing railroads, but in reorganizing them: cracking together the heads of competing investors to make them share the pain when there wasn't enough to go around.  That phase comes later: the original transcontinental project subsists as a creature of the industry's rough, raw and raucous infancy.

Up anf Out in the Silicon Valley

Great piece in Tech Crunch tells you what you perhaps already suspected about the Silicon Valley--this is no country for old men:
Talk to those working at any Silicon Valley company, and they will tell you how hard it is to find qualified talent. But listen to the heart-wrenching stories of unemployed engineers, and you will realize that there are tens of thousands who can’t get jobs. What gives?

The harsh reality is that in the tech world, companies prefer to hire young, inexperienced, engineers.
And engineering is an “up or out” profession: you either move up the ladder or face unemployment. This is not something that tech executives publicly admit, because they fear being sued for age discrimination, but everyone knows that this is the way things are. Why would any company hire a computer programmer with the wrong skills for a salary of $150,000, when it can hire a fresh graduate—with no skills—for around $60,000?  Even if it spends a month training the younger worker, the company is still far ahead. The young understand new technologies better than the old do, and are like a clean slate: they will rapidly learn the latest coding methods and techniques, and they don’t carry any “technology baggage”.  As well, the older worker likely has a family and needs to leave by 6 pm, whereas the young can pull all-nighters.
Link, and I see that as of this writing, there are 256 comments, so it seems to have struck a nerve.  But I think you can perhaps broaden and deepen here.  Just in general, if I hire an old guy, I hire a guy with his mind fully formed and perhaps also with a web of distractions.  If I hire a kid, he is more gullible and malleable, more willing to pull all nighters not merely because he has the stamina but because he doesn't really have anything else in particular to do.   An older guy is just instinctively going to say "I'll be the judge of that," and as the boss, who wants all that judging?

Yiddish for You, Too

In The Meaning of Yiddish (1990) Benjamin Harshav undertakes to describe the  relationship between Yiddish and other languages.  It wasn't just a "folk language," he argues: it was deeply rooted into the complex of languages (Yiddish, plus Hebrew of course, but also Aramaic) in the religious life of the community. But even though deeply rooted, Yiddish was a sort of "retail language;" the one used when explaining religious matters to the unschooled.  And since religious life was largely reserved for men, Yiddish became, in a sense, feminized.   Harshaw says:
Yiddish was the language of home, family events, intimacy.   It was the "mama-language," with all possible connotations, negative and positive, which the division implied.
In a footnote, he adds:
Title pages of Yiddish texts would make this humble point.  Often, however, the dedication in the book itself was expanded to read: "for women and men" or "for women and men and men who are like women, that is, uneducated."
Id., aat 13.

W/o Comment

The late Tony Judt, recalling the political mood of the 1940s:
It was widely assumed in most countries in postwar Europe that the major threat to Europe after 1945 was not communism … it was the return of fascism. And the return of fascism, given the way that fascism was understood both by academics and politicians in those years—the return of fascism could best be prevented by insuring that there would never again be a return to the conditions of fascism. And that what are the conditions of fascism?  The alienation of the lower middle class (in this understanding) Massive unemployment; a sense of total insecurity, the collapse of the liberal state and people turning in desperation to extreme parties for salvation
Link, at about 27:00.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Unforgiving Years: A Disappointment

I'm a big fan of Victor Serge's Case of Comrade Tulayev:  I don't know of any book that better captures the corrosive mix of paranoia and betrayal that crippled even the best intentions among Stalinists in the 1930s.  So I was a natural candidate for first-ever (2008) translation into English of Serge's Unforgiving Years.  Serge wrote the book (in French) in hr months before his death in 1947; the apocalyptic moment just after the detonation of the first atomic bombs, the moment of transition between one war and the next.  It is his attempt at a summing-up, a starting-over, of so much that he wanted to see and understand.

I got around to it this week, in a couple of long waits in a couple of airport lounges.  It was good company, absorbing and stimulating in its way, but in the end, I'd have to rate it a disappointment.  It's an honorable effort, but in the end, I'd say that Serge just  bit off more than he could chew.  He's a piercingly honest chronicler of the events he knows well at first hand, but I don't think he's got the technical skills for a Panavision epic.

We have three major scenes here; the first is Paris in the dark days around Munich--Alan Furst country.  It's a scene Serge understands well and his account of the Paris episode carries conviction although even here, uncharacteristically, there is a touch of Bulwer-Lytton in the prose.  The second is Leningrad during the siege; the third, Berlin just before and after the moment of collapse.  Each of these last two is earnestly narrated and there are flashes of first-rate story telling.  But a lot of it sounds artificial, as if he is recounting at second hand.

A short coda in Mexico is a train wreck: an attempt at summing-up in Mexico is just a train wreck.  In atmosphere, it's a pale reflection of Malcolm Lowry or B. Traven; in content, it comes close to mawkish.    The best you can possibly say is--who could blame?  Who could possibly have made sense of our predicament at that particularly uncertain wrinkle in time?   You've got to admire him for trying and the admiration alone is enough to keep you going, but in the end you can do him a kindness by putting this one aside and remembering his better work elsewhere.

Note:  I haven't read Memoirs of a Revolutionary, non-fiction, though I suspect it's worth the effort.  I did enjoy Conquered City--one of the two best on-the-ground accounts I know of the Russian revolution.  The other is, ironically, the very different We the Living by the very different Ayn Rand.

I Dreamt

That Hubert H. Humphrey told me I was really an okay guy.

Afterthought #1:  Two reasons to suspect it wasn't Humphrey:
  • He was wearing a hat (cf. link).
  • He was leaving the office in daylight.
Afterthought #2:  I wonder how many UB readers have no idea who the hell Hubert Humphrey was.

Shakespeare on the Prowl

Actor/Director Michael Pennington makes the case for school presentations of Shakespeare plays:
Aguecheek is the only part in Twelfth Night I have ever fancied taking myself.  I haven't done so, but my son has, in an entranced account of the play on a summer evening... in the walled Ashburnham Garden at Westminster School.  Amidst the straw wigs, the garish make-up and the under-rehearsed young blunderings, Shakespeare was somehow at large, taking new prisoners.  Such unexpected beauty is quite common when actors on the edge of adulthood (and not believing themselves actors) share unselfconsciously in an effort as great as football or choir singing.  Their burgeoning testosterone and adolescent melancholy served the play's painful lyricism as touchingly as I have ever seen.
That's from Twelfth Night: A User's Guide 18 (2000).  Earlier(17) he speaks of  "everything you know to be true about Shakesepeare--the emotional chiaroscuro, the humanity, the sense of travel."   Which just about gets it, not so?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Wasn't This a Letterman Bit?

And on Letterman, wasn't he grousing about the garters on his socks?


Opera Note: Santa Fe Albert Herring

I had never seen Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring until this week at Santa Fe, but now I can understand why people speak of it as the cheerful, good-natured pendant to Britten's darker (and much better known) Peter Grimes.  And a worthy companion it is.   Light-weight, perhaps, in the sense that Elixir of Love is lightweight; but if you like Britten there is plenty enough here just to kick back and enjoy.
The Santa Fe presentation was well presented and well sung throughout, mostly in the ensemble vein, although when Christine Brewer is in the house, ensemble is out the window--especially when she is cast in a role where she is supposed to be dominating everybody else in town.  She's Mapp & Lucia; she's Hyacinth Bucket; she's the "stop! I'll tell!" lady from Music Man, all rolled (I use the word advisedly) into one (dear heaven, is Brewer really that,  um, full-figured? Mrs. Buce votes emphatically yes).  Anyway, there aren't many other singers who can belt it out against the night sky and expect to get an echo; Brewer, I assume, would be surprised and disappointed if she did not.  The thought of Brewer as Isolde is enough to make me go back to Wagner--well, not really, but you get the idea.

I do concur with others that there was something a little crack-brained about staging it in 1947, when it was first presented, rather than back in the 19th Century, as was Britten's original intent.   For director Paul Curran, born in 1964, I suppose 1947 is the stone age.   But for an opera that depends so much on the theme of sexual innocence, to set it in the turbulent aftermath of World War II as Britain recovered, inter alia, from all those horny GIs, suggested a historical, of not a musical, tin ear: indeed, look around you and you could surmise that some of those ex-horny GIs were with you in the audience here at the show.  And the idea of a bountiful public picnic amidst the reality of cruel austerity must have added a note of ironic urgency to the original performance.

I surmise that original Britten fans had the satisfaction of listening to his companion and muse, Peter Pears, do both of these pendant roles, Herring and Grimes.  I suppose it's a bit much to expect one singer to do them on adjacent nights, but it would be good fun for a theater to schedule them as a matched set in  succeeding seasons (or maybe this is done and I just don't know of it).

Anyway, it's good fun.   Probably doesn't bear thinking on too hard, but Britten fans can get satisfaction by just letting it roll.

Opera Note: Santa Fe Hoffman

Well, there's no doubt where he stands:

Last night (August 24) here in Santa Fe was just one of those nights that only happens “every now and then”.  It was the penultimate performance of The Tales of Hoffmann, ... an almost perfect performance where EVERY singer on stage had a great night vocally, thereby leaving no one out of the excitement.  The orchestra was fabulous, our conductor (Stephen Lord) was all smiles in the pit, the chorus was relaxed and relieved (now that their opera scene showcases were over), and there was not one technical glitch.  In other words, every “i” was dotted, and every “t” was crossed.
Well, he's in a position to know, the writer is David  Cangelosi, and the performance of which he speaks so highly is one in which he was part of the cast: he played Pittichinaccio/Andres/Cochenille/Frantz.   And setting aside any fastidiousness about self-congratulation, I'd have to say I agree with him.  I don't  suppose my data base is as broad as his, but I'd say it was the best Hoffman I've ever seen: fully realized and tightly integrated throughout.

The kicker for me is that I've never seen a Hoffman more faithful to its roots.  I liked last year's Met rendition
(a lot of people didn't) but I have to admit it strayed pretty far from its origins, more Bart Sher than Offenbach or Hoffman.  ("a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it 'Homer;"),  So also the classic movie version: a good show, but you might as well call it Tales of Michael Powell. 

Perhaps one reason why directors make so free with Hoffman is that Offenbach left it unfinished at his death and so there is no definitive "score."  Still, the Santa Fe rendition, seemed to elucidate the particular charms of the Offenbach score--and to show you, appreciatively, how such an odd piece of romanticism could have come from the pen of one who spent most of his career in something closer to musical comedy.  And the underlying text: I've never seen a performance that came even close to capturing the particular weirdness of the Hoffman original.

The cast at Santa Fe was so tightly integrated that it's hard to single out star turns, though it does seem proper to give a special salute to Wayne Tigges who stepped into his role just a short time ago as a cover.  Hoffman himself does come  across as a bit obscure in this Hoffman, although Joseph Calleja in the Met performance may have nailed the role with such conviction that anybody else is going to look pale by comparison.  And I do feel a bit sorry for Kate Lindsey in the (expnded) role as the Muse--she has to listen to all of Hoffman's nattering about love, and then at last go home alone.

Here's a contrary view.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Blog Mystery

Why am I getting a rash of hits on my post observing the anniversary of the death of Caravaggio?

Lemme Tell Ya, Mama, They're Ain't No Justice

Mother, to daughter in the security line at Albuquerque Airport:
Is it fair that little girls get to wear sparkly shoes and grownups don't?

O'Hare on the Public Good--The Case of the University

I'm still chewing on Michael O'Hare's dazzling threnody for the lost of golden age of good public order in California.  It's a powerful piece of persuasive exposition and I suspect it is around 51 percent true.  But it lacks nuance, and it may be helpful to try to fill out the picture.   I can think of half a dozen qualifications I'd like to propose, but let me stick to the matter of the University of California.  Couple of points.

First: O'Hare says it is "probably still the best public university  in the world."  That may be right, but it does not follow that it offers, or ever offered, the best education in the world.  It is possible to get a first-class education at UC.  But it takes a fair amount of initiative, enterprise and luck--qualities with which even relatively bright young people are not necessarily endowed.  For the masses, UC offers a mass education, much closer to McDonald's than cordon bleu--but with the added difficulty that they may think they are getting the best education in the world, whereas what they take for filet is a supersized doubleburger.

Second and more important: the UC of the golden age--say, the UC of the Pat Brown years, or the early years--had long since lost any claim to recognition as a democratizing institution.  It was overwhelmingly populated (then as now) by children of the middle and upper middle class; in short, it was a way for high-income taxpayers to claw back some of their tax dollars.

University education in the golden age was indeed virtually free.  These days it costs a lot of money.  So, the kids who got that free education in the 60s-70s are not paying the cost of the education to the university today.  At any rate, they are not paying the cost as taxpayers.  Whether they are paying the cost as private citizens--whether they are stumping up to pay the kids' college bills--is a rather different matter.  I know some do; I gather quite a few do not.  This may be a legitimate subject of  contention between parents and children. But it is one in which the "public" role is more or less incidental, or accidental.

The focus here is on "the University"--the nine (now ten) campus system that is supposed to be the flagship.  I'd tell a different story if I were talking about the community colleges, which have often seemed to me to be one of the great social levellers--the one place where the democratization ideal really comes into play.  I gather the community colleges are suffering dreadfully in the current climate.  This may well be part of O'Hare's concern, and bully for him if it is.  But I suspect it is not his primary focus when he speaks as a UC professor to UC students in a UC.

Drezner on Political "Science"

Take a moment to read Dan Drezner's superb National Interest piece on how we got into the finance mess.it's a useful review of four new books, but it is also a good, crisp, if brief, outline of the big picture.  Top marks for all this, but listen carefully as he tell us that
All intellectual movements start with trenchant ways of understanding the world. As these ideas gain currency, they are used to explain more and more disparate phenomena, until the explanation starts to lose its predictive power.
Emphasis added.  The first sentence is just fine, but when anyone uses the phrase "predictive power" in the same paragraph with a discussion of political or social theory, I put my hand on my wallet.  I risk nihilism here; I readily coincide that we look for "ways of understanding the world," and find ways that appear more or less  satisfying.  But "predictive power" suggests hard science and the attendant doomed efforts to turn political or social theory into a hard science.  We've always failed in that effort up to now, and the very attempt makes us less likely to accomplish any more modest and realistic goal.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Another Kid Story

I'm distracted with stuff today (and perhaps tomorrow) so faithful readers will have to settle for another kid story.  This one involves the 12-year-old, as he embarks on eighth grade.  Anyway--so, I'm told, the  "English teacher tasked them with decorating their binder cover with 1) at least 4 colors; 2) at least two images; 3) filling most of the space on the cover"   (the question whether coloring has any place in the eighth grade English curriculum is left as an exercise to the reader).  The young man 
decided to go with the English language theme.  So he carefully drew a manuscript page, a feather pen and an ink bottle, and a broken sword.  Then he added a quotation: 
True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself a nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!
 --Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Then he added his own quote:
But the pencil is even better.
...and duly subscribed his own name.  "He was very amused," UB's correspondent reports,  "when I told him he had picked a quotation from an author famed for his bombast and purple prose... ."

Toto, Looks Like we Are In Kansas....

John introduces a new oxymoron:

Upscale hot dog restaurant coming to the Crossroads

 Link.   They feature something called "Thai dog."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Just Wow

A letter to my students, by Michael O'Hare: Welcome to Berkeley, probably still the best public university in the world. Meet your classmates, the best group of partners you can find anywhere. The percentages for grades on exams, papers, etc. in my courses always add up to 110% because that’s what I’ve learned to expect from you, over twenty years in the best job in the world.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that you have been the victims of a terrible swindle, denied an inheritance you deserve by contract and by your merits. And you aren’t the only ones; victims of this ripoff include the students who were on your left and on your right in high school but didn’t get into Cal, a whole generation stiffed by mine. This letter is an apology, and more usefully, perhaps a signal to start demanding what’s been taken from you so you can pass it on with interest.
Swindle–what happened? Well, before you were born, Californians now dead or in nursing homes made a remarkable deal with the future. (Not from California? Keep reading, lots of this applies to you, with variations.) They agreed to invest money they could have spent on bigger houses, vacations, clothes, and cars into the world’s greatest educational system, and into building and operating water systems, roads, parks, and other public facilities, an infrastructure that was the envy of the world. They didn’t get everything right: too much highway and not enough public transportation. But they did a pretty good job.
Young people who enjoyed these ‘loans’ grew up smarter, healthier, and richer than they otherwise would have, and understood that they were supposed to “pay it forward” to future generations, for example by keeping the educational system staffed with lots of dedicated, well-trained teachers, in good buildings and in small classes, with college counselors and up-to-date books. California schools had physical education, art for everyone, music and theater, buildings that looked as though people cared about them, modern languages and ancient languages, advanced science courses with labs where the equipment worked, and more. They were the envy of the world, and they paid off better than Microsoft stock. Same with our parks, coastal zone protection, and social services.
This deal held until about thirty years ago, when for a variety of reasons, California voters realized that while they had done very well from the existing contract, they could do even better by walking away from their obligations and spending what they had inherited on themselves. “My kids are finished with school; why should I pay taxes for someone else’s? Posterity never did anything for me!” An army of fake ‘leaders’ sprang up to pull the moral and fiscal wool over their eyes, and again and again, your parents and their parents lashed out at government (as though there were something else that could replace it) with tax limits, term limits, safe districts, throw-away-the-key imprisonment no matter the cost, smoke-and-mirrors budgeting, and a rule never to use the words taxes and services in the same paragraph.
Now, your infrastructure is falling to pieces under your feet, and as citizens you are responsible for crudities like closing parks, and inhumanities like closing battered women’s shelters. It’s outrageous, inexcusable, that you can’t get into the courses you need, but much worse that Oakland police have stopped taking 911 calls for burglaries and runaway children. If you read what your elected officials say about the state today, you’ll see things like “California can’t afford” this or that basic government function, and that “we need to make hard choices” to shut down one or another public service, or starve it even more (like your university). Can’t afford? The budget deficit that’s paralyzing Sacramento is about $500 per person; add another $500 to get back to a public sector we don’t have to be ashamed of, and our average income is almost forty times that. Of course we can afford a government that actually works: the fact is that your parents have simply chosen not to have it.
I’m writing this to you because you are the victims of this enormous cheat (though your children will be even worse off if you don’t take charge of this ship and steer it). Your education was trashed as California fell to the bottom of US states in school spending, and the art classes, AP courses, physical education, working toilets, and teaching generally went by the board. Every year I come upon more and more of you who have obviously never had the chance to learn to write plain, clear, English. Every year, fewer and fewer of you read newspapers, speak a foreign language, understand the basics of how government and business actually work, or have the energy to push back intellectually against me or against each other. Or know enough about history, literature, and science to do it effectively! You spent your school years with teachers paid less and less, trained worse and worse, loaded up with more and more mindless administrative duties, and given less and less real support from administrators and staff.
Many of your parents took a hike as well, somehow getting the idea that the schools had taken over their duties to keep you learning, or so beat-up working two jobs each and commuting two hours a day to put food on the table that they couldn’t be there for you. A quarter of your classmates didn’t finish high school, discouraged and defeated; but they didn’t leave the planet, even if you don’t run into them in the gated community you will be tempted to hide out in. They have to eat just like you, and they aren’t equipped to do their share of the work, so you will have to support them.
You need to have a very tough talk with your parents, who are still voting; you can’t save your children by yourselves. Equally important, you need to start talking to each other. It’s not fair, and you have every reason (except a good one) to keep what you can for yourselves with another couple of decades of mean-spirited tax-cutting and public sector decline. You’re my heroes just for surviving what we put you through and making it into my classroom, but I’m asking for more: you can be better than my generation. Take back your state for your kids and start the contract again. There are lots of places you can start, for example, building a transportation system that won’t enslave you for two decades as their chauffeur, instead of raising fares and cutting routes in a deadly helix of mediocrity. Lots. Get to work. See you in class!
 HT Mark Thoma.

Opera Note: Santa Fe Magic Flute

We took in a performance of Magic Flute in Santa Fe last night.  We had a lightening show courtesy of Zeus through the first act and I'm tempted, somewhat uncharitably, to mark that down as the most exciting part of the show.

It wasn't bad, really, the performance.  It was actually pretty good: well-schooled singers with a sense of what they were about; a coherent (if spare) staging (of which see more infra).  But I can't say it was especially memorable--not the sort of thing you would want to fly 800 miles for.

It was also, not trivially, essentially the same staging they'd used four years ago.  The set, although it worked well enough, must be one of the cheapest to mount and remount I've ever seen in a major house.  Also, perhaps more of a problem, four years ago as Pamina they had Natalie Dessay.   This year they offered Ekaterina Siurina in a Santa Fe debut, and while she did a creditable job, you kept remembering that she wasn't Natalie Dessay (Mrs.Buce said she thought that Siurina and her Tamino, Charles Castronovo, were more interested in making love to the audience than to each other which is not a good thing).  As if to rub it in, Joshua Hopkins, reprising the Pagageno he played four years ago, came costumed in a tee-shirt from the 2006 production--the audience got the joke.

Oh, and empty seats.  Not a lot, but noticeable.  So you have to wonder: the weather?  The lack of a marquee star?  The repeat of the same staging?  The competition of HDTV?   And economizing on set and star--is this part of the solution, or part of the problem?  Whatever: if you're a destination venue, you have to have enough to make people want to scrub their calendars and stump up for plane fare and hotels.  Just ordinary isn't going to do it for long.

Taxmom Faces High School

Taxmon gets her first taste of life with a high schooler. The subject is the old favorite, "French class."
The teacher told them to write a paragraph (in English) about why they signed up for French. The young man wrote, and I paraphrase:
I really wanted to take German but it was cancelled, so I decided to sign up for a language that had no practical use whatsoever (don't ask me about my reasoning for that) and that's why I'm taking French.
OK, I said, how about not displaying your total disinterest and lack of rational thought during the first week of class?  Can you try another approach?

So he came back with a revised essay; again I paraphrase:
My first choices for a foreign language were either Klingon or binary, but the  Klingon teacher and the binary teacher got into a fight and the Klingon eacher was fired and all the records of the binary teacher were mysteriously deleted from the school files, so I couldn't do either one of those. Then I wanted to take German because my mom is fluent in German but it was cancelled, so that is why I am taking French.
Which I thought was a more memorable way of saying exactly what he said in the first place.
Afterthought: Are there high schools that teach Klingon?  I'm bettin' yes.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Olson on Winant

Lynne Olson has built herself an impressive franchise writing about the people who lived through World War II as "a good war"--diplomats, foreign correspondents, and some politicians who could enjoy the thrill and satisfaction of being on the right side of a good cause without really putting themselves seriously in harm's way. Her latest, Citizens of London, concentrates on the careers of three Americans who played important roles in the Anglo-American relations-- Edward R. Murrow, Averell Harriman and John Gilbert Winant.

Ah--John Gilbert who? A lot of people, I suspect have heard of Murrow, who did so much to define broadcast news, and perhaps also Harriman, a wealthy amateur in politics who had a way of showing up at every important juncture of his time.

Winant, I suspect, is pretty much forgotten. But he's worth remembering even if no more than a footnote for his place in the events not merely of the War but of the turbulent time just after War, when we found ourselves rearranging all the pieces on the international chess board.

Or at least, for a short time after the war. Winant came to public notice as a liberal Republican governor of New Hampshire, then as an ally of Franklin Roosevelt's and specifically as Roosevelt's ambassador to the Court of St. James during the critical war years.  On November 3, 1947,  Winant put a bullet through his brain.

Off and on over the years, I've heard from right-wing fanatics who will assure you that Winant's suicide was an act of remorseful atonement for his role in creating the New World Order.  So it is said, once he understood what he had helped to create--a new Communist Empire, dominated by Joseph Stalin--he recognized his tragic error and paid with his life.

Olson does a fine job of giving that theory the decent burial it so richly deserves.  As she makes clear,  Winant was always a lonely and  troubled man, and one who found life increasingly more untenable as the world refashioned itself.  He was hopelessly in debt; his love life wasn't going well, and the people in Washington seemed to have no interest in finding a place for him in the emerging peace settlement.

Winant was human with human failings.  But to politicize his suicide because he can't talk back has always seemed to me to be an act of the grossest uncharity.  Kudos to Olson for helping to set the record straight.

Fajita Update

Joel and Kevin undertake to educate me on the concept of fajita.  Turns out that "fajitas," though descending from traditional habits and patterns, are not themselves really a traditional dish and are "Mexican" only if you ignore the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo--which is to say, more Tex than Mex, and in a sense created for its American audience.  Kevin routes me to the Wiki:

The first serious study of the history of fajitas was done in 1984 by Homero Recio as part of his graduate work in animal science at Texas A&M. Recio was intrigued by a spike in the retail price of skirt steak, and that sparked his research into the dish that took the once humble skirt steak from throwaway cut to menu star. Recio found anecdotal evidence describing the cut of meat, the cooking style (directly on a campfire or on a grill), and the Spanish nickname going back as far as the 1930s in the ranch lands of South and West Texas. During cattle roundups, beef were butchered regularly to feed the hands. Throwaway items such as the hide, the head, the entrails, and meat trimmings such as skirt were given to the Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) as part of their pay. Hearty border dishes like barbacoa de cabeza (head barbecue), menudo (tripe stew), and fajitas/arracheras (grilled skirt steak) have their roots in this practice. Considering the limited number of skirts per carcass and the fact the meat wasn't available commercially, the fajita tradition remained regional and relatively obscure for many years, probably only familiar to vaqueros, butchers, and their families.

Sonny Falcon is believed to have operated the first commercial fajita taco stand at a weeklong outdoor event in Kyle, Texas, in 1969.  ... The food became popular in ... Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston and San Antonio, Texas. ...In southern Arizona, the term was unknown except as a cut of meat until the 1990s, when Mexican fast food restaurants started using the word in their marketing. For a good period of time, McDonalds served chicken fajitas on their menu. In many restaurants, the fajita meat is brought to the table sizzling loudly on a metal platter or skillet, with the tortillas and condiments served on the side.
Link.  "Fajitas," then seem to me to fall into a class of lately-evolved cultural achievements, somewhat akin to Chicago deep dish pizza or bluegrass music or, going further back, the blues or chop suey. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

North and South, and the Geography of Fajitas

Scarfing down a plate of fajitas in a Mexican restaurant this evening, I got to thinking about north and south.

Consider China.  I never grasped the point until I saw the place, but there is all the difference in the world between North China and South China. North is spare and austere, in some places virtually a steppe culture.  South is damp and sticky, with swine flu.

It carries over into food.  In America, we look for noodles and rice on the same menu.  A moment's reflection in China will tell you that rice is south and noodles are north.

Or consider Russia the former Soviet Union. I don't know if there is a food issue here but anyone who knows the first thing about the Eurasian landmass knows the difference between the forest and the steppe. Specifically, Genghis Kahn and the boys can ride roughshod over the steppe. Anyone so foolish as to try to farm out there is always vulnerable to a stranger on horseback.  In the forest, you may freeze your patootie, and there is a pretty good chance your long house will burn down.  But you are far less vulnerable to the depradations of strangers.

Or India.  Here the fault line is linguistic: northerners speak mostly Sanskrit-based languages.  The southern languages are Dravidian, which is about as different from Sanskrit as Hungarian is from Latin..

A particularly striking case (considering that it is so tiny) is Israel.  "Biblical Israel"--in particular, Galilee, i.e., the north, can look verdant and fertile.  Up in the corner at Dan, you find babbling brooks.  The south--Judah--is spare and austere, plus the Dead Sea.

Which brings me back to the fajitas.  I'm really inexcusably ignorant of Mexico, including its geography.  Many years ago I did read Jack Womack's superbly readable biography of Zapata  I got the sense Zapata's southern Mexico as a culture of small-holding farmers, in contrast to the cowboy culture of Pancho Villa's north.

Which brings me back to the fajitas: carcass singed on a piece of hot iron.  Sure sounds like cowboy food to me.   Good, though.  But it makes me wonder: are fajitas specifically northern?  And are there other parts of Mexican cuisine that are specifically southern.  And is it part of our cultural chauvinism that we mash them all together on the same plate?

Update:  A nanosecond after I posted this, I got this link from Joel, which probably answers my question.  Also this,which also appears to be on topic.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Sergeant Pluck on the Tragedy of Atoms

Sergreant Pluck embraces the view that our atoms bounce around and get all mixed up, changing, for example, a man into a bicycle.  Or a man into a horse.  And vice versa:
'My great-grandfather was eighty-three when he died.  For a year before his death he was a horse!'
'A horse?'
'A horse in everything but extraneous externalities.  He would spend the day grazing into a field or eating hay in a stall.  Usually he was lazy and quiet but now and again he would go for a smart gallop, clearing the  hedges in great style.  Did you ever see a man on two legs galloping?'
'I did not.'
'Well, I am given to understand that it is a great sight.  He always said he won the Grand national when he was a lot younger and used to annoy his family with stories about the intricate jumps and the great heights of them.'
'I suppose your great-grandfather got himself into this condition by too much horse riding?'
'Tht was the size of it.  His old horse Dan was in the contrary way and gave so much trouble, coming into the house at night and interfering with young girls during the day and committing indictable offences, that they had to shoot him.  The police were unsympathetic...'
 --Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman 91 (Granada ed. 1985)

Afterthought:  It strikes me that  O'Brien's comedy is somewhat like Chekhov's in that I can see his homeboy audience falling apart in rueful hilarity, saying "Oh God, he's got us to the life" (I remember reading the same thing somewhere about Kafka and the Czechs, though this one seems harder to get the mind around).    With O'Brien, it's the petty vanity, the dreamy arrogance, the self-delusion.  With Chekhov is, well, okay, the same.  Ah, humanity...

"Is That a Copy of Malkiel in your Pocket or..."

My guess is that this is a strong candidate for "most blogged," but what they hey.  The topic is dating advice:

The trick, it seems, is to use such subtle codes, the same way people slip in mentions of their jogging habit rather than coming right out and saying that they’re not overweight. So rather than projecting frugality outright, try dropping a classic investing book like “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” by Burton G. Malkiel, into the list of things you’ve read recently, suggested Deborah H. Levenson, a financial planner with Braver Wealth Management in Newton, Mass. ,who recently became engaged to a man she met online.
“That might give someone a sense that you were a Vanguard investor,” she said. “I think Vanguard is sexy.”
Link.  Recalls to mind the spoof TV add--Mad TV, perhaps?--along the lines of "You could blow six months' salary on a tacky diamond.  Or you could buy her an IRA..."

BTW the search for this link brought me to a web forum called Bogleheads.  No endorsement, haven't read it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Buce on DeLong on Daniels

Ha!  When I audioread The Economist's puff-piece on Mitch Daniels this morning, I figured it would give DeLong a heart attack.  Strictly speaking, I was wrong; the correct phrase is "hyperglycemic collapse."  Particularly the line about "wonks have long revered Mr Daniels..."  Wrong, says DeLong, and insofar as DeLong is a wonk, then we would have to agree that the reverence (if any) has not been universal.

DeLong goes on to describe just how completely Daniels fell down on the job as W's Budget Director.  No quarrel so far, but DeLong might want to keep in mind two points:
  • Of all possible Republican nominees (or Presidents), Daniels is the one least likely to give DeLong a heart attack; and
  • Daniels' actual chance of getting nominated (or elected) as a Republican to the presidency is about the same as, well, about the same as DeLong's

Reflections While Making Chicken Salad:
Three Attitudes to the Bible

Diverting my mind from kitchen work last night with one of Dale Martin's enlightening lectures on the New Testament, it occurred to me that there are, broadly speaking, three different attitudes toward the understanding of the Bible.*

One, perhaps the most pervasive even in Christian cultures, is total indifference.   There are quite a few people, many of whom would identify themselves as Christians, who really don't know anything about the Bible and don't care much except insofar as they may like to invoke it in political debate.

There is a second group, smaller but more consequential, who self-identify as Christians (or Jews) who take the Bible very seriously indeed.   They read it and study it, often in groups.  The defining characteristic of this group is that they regard the Bible as a unity, internally consistent; they feel that apparent internal contradictions can be planed away with better instruction or more intense analysis.  The group also includes those who believe the Bible--or particularly the "Revalation of John" at the end of the New Testament, harbors coded messages for our time, with identifiable (if esoteric) references to particular people and events.

There is a third group, probably smaller still, who regard the Bible as a cultural artifact like the Sutton Hoo ship burial or an Etruscan tomb.  They'll read it (sometimes in the original Greek or Hebrew) not to demonstrate its instructive power or internal consistency so much as to situate it in its culture.  Indeed, their primary message is not so much the consistency of the text but of the diversity that it reflects in historical religious culture.  They see the Bible not so much as "Scripture" but as an anthology, written by particular people at particular times, and assembled by others at other times.

One is tempted to think of this third group as "nonbelievers" (if not heathens, pagans, apostates, sinners, whatever).  A good many of them are heathens.  The perhaps surprising point is--how many of the people in this third group still count themselves as active or at least engaged in some religious community or other, Christin or Jewish.

I suspect this tranche of "nonbelieving believers," though small, is perhaps not as small as we think it is. For example, I suspect, though I cannot prove, that it probably includes many, possibly most, of the people who get paid to teach theology in schools or colleges--who, at the least I think, are far more likely to be skeptics on matters of Biblical authority than their students.

One of the reasons we don't appraise their numbers accurately is, I suspect, that they are loth to call attention to themselves.  A cynic would say they are just trying to stay out of trouble, or to keep a job (remember the stir a couple of years ago when a state-paid Lutheran minister in Denmark declared that, why no, he did not believe, and, why no, he did not see any reason to give up his government paycheck (whatever became of that guy, anyway?).

I'll bet there is some truth in this cynical explanation.  But I can offer a more benign analysis: I think a lot of believing nonbelievers really aren't clear themselves exactly how to define their paradoxical state of being (recall the jibe about the Unitarian missionary who knocks on your front door for no particular reason).  Many (not all) are people who value skepticism and caution and wouldn't want to engage in an conversation likely to turn into a row.

I wonder also if perhaps this cultural discontinuity helps to explain some (not all) of the rancor and resentment so evident among true believers against (caution, irony ahead) their betters.  The true believers perceive that the skeptics aren't levelling with them, and that the skeptics' reticence amounts to cowardice, or hypocrisy, or outright mischief.
A slippery term.  For a Christian, it would include both Old and New Testaments (though the exact content will vary from sect to sect).  Christian scholars who talk about "the Bible," usually mean "the New Testament," and indeed, usually denote it as "the New Testament."  For Jews, of course, "the Bible" is what Christians call "the Old Testament."

The Auld Sod

I've been to Samarkand, but I've never actually set foot in Ireland.  I've long suspected it looks something like this:
I looked carefully around me.  Brown bags and block bogs were arranged neatly on each side of the road with rectangular boxes carved out of them here and there, each wiwth  filling of yellow-brown brown-yellow water.  Far away near the sky tiny people were stooped at their turf-work, cutting out precisely-shaped sods with their patent spades and building them into a tall memorial twice the height of a horse and cart.  Sounds came from them to the Sergeant and myself, delivered to our ears without charge by the west wind, sounds of laughing and whistling and bits of verse from the old bog-songs.  Nearer, a house stood attended by three trees and surrounded by the happiness of a coterie of fowls, all of them picking and rooting and disputating loudly in the unrelenting manufacture of their eggs.   The house was quiet in itself and silent but a canopy of lazy smoke had been erected over the chimney to indicate that people were within engaged on tasks.  Ahead of us went the road, running swiftly across the flat land and pausing slightly to climb slowly up a hill that was waiting for it in a place where there was tall grass, grey boulders and rank stunted trees.  The whole overhead was occupied by the sky, serene, impenetrable, ineffable and incomparable, with a fine island of clouds anchored in the calm two yards to the right of Mr Jarvis's outhouse.
 --Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman 86 (Granada ed. 1985)

Well, That's Reassuring

Due to the strict rules set by the bankers for this event, all vehicles will be sold to the first buyer whose purchase offer is accepted.
From an auto sale flyer with the Palookaville Evening Afflatus.  And in the same vein, I see that the real estate ads in Ashland still use "newer" as a synonym for "not new," as in "newer appliances and carpeting."  I suppose it would be tacky to say "newish."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Stanley Among the Savages

You ever wonder where all those Western  movies got their plots?  Here's an on-the-spot journalist reporting on what he saw in Julesburg, on the Nebraska-Colorado border in the late 1860s:
It was unmistakable go-ahead-it-ative-ness, illustrated by substantial warehouses, stores, saloons, piled with goods of all sorts, and of the newest fashion.  As might be expected, gambling was carried on extensively, and the saloons were full.  I walked on till I came to a dance-house, bearing the euphonious title of "King of the Hills," gorgeously decorated and brilliantly lighted.  Coming suddenly from the dimly lighted street to the kerosene-lighted restaurant, I was almost blinded by the glare and stunned by the clatter.  The ground floor was as crowded as it could well be, and all were talking loud and fast, and mostly every one seemed bent on debauchery, and dissipation.  The women appeared to be the most reckless, and the men seemed nothing loth to enter a whirlpool of sin. . .. These women are expensive articles, and come in for a large share of the money wasted. In broad daylight they may be seen gliding through the sandy streets in Black Crook dresses, carrying fancy derringers slung to their waits, with which tools they are dangerously expert.  Should they get into a fuss, western chivalry will not allow them to be abused by any man whom they may have robbed.

At night new aspects are presented in this city of premature growth.  Watch-fires glean over the sea-like expanses of ground outside the city, while inside soldiers, herdsmen, teamsters, women, railroad men, are dancing,singing, or gambling.  I verily believe that there are men here who would murder a fellow-creature for five dollars.  Nay, there are men who have already done it, and who stalk abroad in daylight unwhipped of justice.  Not a day passes but a dead body is found somewhere in the vicinity with pockets rifled of their contents. But the people generally are strangely indifferent to what is going on.
The writer is Henry Morton Stanley, later to achieve fame for saying "Doctor Livingston,I presume?"  It's quoted in Empire Express at 380-381 (1999).   Really bears some thinking that whenever you get a bunch of single men together, you get a saloon, a gambling den and a whorehouse, not necessarily in that order.   Of course it may be that Stanley made it all up, but whatever impairs his prestige as a reporter can only increase our admiration for his fiction.

Student Evaluations? Aargh!

Tyler Cowen reports that students prefer professors with tattoos.  But wait--punch through the link and you find that it's female [professors who need the tattoos.  For men, I suspect the preferred garb is a head scarf, an eyepatch and a hook.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Two Lives Well Lived

I wonder how many academics, literary and otherwise, go to sleep every night imagining that they might be Bernard Knox or Frank Kermode.  Forget fat little guys with scruffy beards and a tone of aggrieved rancor: at least from a distance (I never met either one of them), Knox and Kermode were a very model of civilty, affability, and bottomless cultural attainment, lightly worn.

Knox, who died last  month at 95, was a Classicist, specifically a student of Greek; he held what must be one of the most prestigious jobs in American academic life, as founding director of Harvard's Center for Hellenic studies (the current director, Gregory Nagy, is another classicist whose name is uttered in hushed tones).   His list of more-or-less academic publications it formidable.  But I suspect that most people who know of him encountered him first in the pages of The Atlantic or The New York Review of Books, where he was a frequent presence as an essayist/reviewer.  Indeed if there is any general criticism of his work, it would have to be that he was too soft; it seems he rarely disliked anything--although the alert reader might note that from time to time in appearing to review a particular book, he would simply change the subject.   On the other hand, it was Knox who first surfaced a noteworthy literary scandal: it was Knox in a review who noted the similarities between While England Sleeps by David Leavitt and the earlier World Within World by Stephen Spender, which Knox had also reviewed some 26 years before.

Aside from his narrowly literary/academic career, Knox was also one of the last of those with an imperishable conversation-opener--a rip-roaring World War II story.  Starting with his natural ability at languages, he found himself harnessed into a parachute from the OSS, and I wouldn't be surprised if he found listeners willing to let his stories work their  way into the conversation for the rest of his life.

Outside of wartime espionage, perhaps the most confrontational presentation he ever made in his life was his Jefferson Lecture in 1992, titled "The Oldest Dead White European Males."  It was, inevitably, a defense of classical culture.  But beyond the title, it was vintage Knox; fluent, measured,  firm in its views without appearing insistent or sounding shrill.

Reading the record, I get the impression that Knox has been inactive in recent years.  He certainly had the right, but in this he would differ from Kermode, who died this week at 90, kept working virtually until the end.  As an academic he began modestly, first a student at Liverpool, then with academic posts at Durham and Reading.  The Guardian reports that he was happiest at reading, and well he might be: it was there he wrote Romantic Images, the book with which he made his bones among professors.  He made it to University College London in 1967 and from there went on to hold (as a friend tells the Guardian) "virtually every endowed chair worth having in the British Isles."

Kermode was even more fertile as a reviewer than Knox.  Kermode was also an appreciator, but he was the kind of reviewer/critic who could be counted on to bring something new to the table--to add an insight or a spin which, though rooted in the work at hand, would take you off in a direction you wouldn't have expected to go before.  He was also the longtime editor of the Fontana Modern Masters series of introductions to great academics. They say a generation of British schoolboys cut their teeth on them and although I was never a British schoolboy, I think I have a few tucked away around here even now.

I suppose there were people who thought both Knox and Kermode to be too polite, too (seemingly) civilized.  Maybe.  But it certainly wasn't the case that they lacked firm views, nor (certainly!) were they shy in sharing them.  They just found away to make their efforts seem effortless, and to convey in everything the did, a quiet confidence.  Lives well lived, and lives to envy.


Here's an item that unites two of my enthusiasms--good-quality on-demand audio content, and "manufactured nationalism."    It's a BBC Book of the Week reading of "Book of the Week - Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation."  You can find it here, but you have to move quickly: BBC leaves this stuff up only a week at a time, and it will start to vanish next Monday.

It's a good listen, although it is no more than an informal and conversational introduction to the topic.  The defining presentation is in György Lukács, The Historical Novel 33-63 (U Nebraska Press ed. 1983).  Remarkably,Lukács undertakes to establish Scott as the anti-romantic--a :bourgeois philistine, as the good Marxist Lukács declares, but our bourgeois philistine, the spiritual progenitor of Marx's favorite novelist, Balzac.   Hugh Trevor-Roper has produced an often-hilarious account of the invention of Scottish cultural parphenalia; that would be "The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland," in The Invention of Tradition 15-41 (Eriic Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger eds. 1983).

Rich on Obama

Frank Rich sets  forth the non-crazy (that would be me) critique of Obama, remarkably fair-minded in that, as he undertakes to explain, he doesn't really buy it:
To many, he is not and never really was a progressive, only a cautious pragmatist who pandered to primary voters in 2008 .... . Many see him as far too wedded to a naive and platonic ideal of bipartisanship that amounts to unilateral political disarmament when confronting an opposition party as nihilistic and cynical as the current GOP.  He lacks a fierceness in battle ... . 
--Frank Rich, "Why Has He Fallen Short?" New York Review of Books 10 (August 19, 2010)

Rich thereupon attempts to identify a rather different shortcoming: Obama's "elitism," in the sense that he figured a system that churned him to the top must be able to generate the best and the brightest.  Rich also sketches a case that the Rasputin of the piece is Larry Summers, the comforter of the comfortable and (if you credit Rich) the sharp-elbowed political infighter who can keep the noisome clangor of competing voices from penetrating the office.

Rich's account of Obama's elitism sounds like a shrewd call.  As to Summers, I don't suppose I (or you) know enough to judge, although it would be a good joke if we found unsuspected Richelieu qualities in a guy hitherto notorious for his legendary inability to tie his political shoelaces together.  In any event, you know who it is who works for the tsar.

Rich actually adds one more item to the catalog of conventional complaints outlined above.  I omitted it until now because it requires special attention.  Rich:
Obama is also faulted by disappointed fans for his surprisingly subpar political skills.  The master orator who left millions of Americans fired up and ready to go during election season has often come off as aloof once in office, and has proven a surprisingly prolix and lackluster salesman for his own policies.
 That's probably a pretty accurate account  of the conventional wisdom but I'm going to count myself as one who was not surprised.  I liked and like a lot of things about Obama, and I don't for a moment regret voting for him.  But the kumbaya campaign speeches made my skin crawl.  I recognized that they might be necessary to get him elected.  But for the long slog of office, I didn't see how they could do him anything but harm--building expectations he couldn't satisfy, seeming to make promises that he couldn't or wouldn't keep.  And they certainly showed none of the skill at the kind of rhetorical blood sports he was bound to need to sell is program.

I once called Obama an empty suit.  Except in a highly attenuated sense, this was wrong; he's certainly a person of substance, and he has more poise and staying power than I saw.    But reading Rich, I think I can hew to another earlier judgment of mine: I'm not that disappointed in him because I never really expected that much of him in the first place.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Three Things I Didn't Know about the Confederate Constitution
(And One Thing about the Confederacy That I Had Forgotten)

From a lecture I was listening to while roasting a chicken:
  • That there was a line item veto.
  • That it prohibited secession (sic, you read that right).
  • That it copied much of the U.S. Constitution, but struck out the "general welfare clause."
That last is intriguing.  Couldn't they have counted on the president to protect them against general welfare by the  use of his line item veto?

Was also reminded of the fact that Sam Houston opposed secession, and lost his office in consequence.  I read one bio of Sam Houston in my Army-reserve training days a thousand years ago (probably this one).  Don't think I really grasped what an interesting chap he was, might go try it again.

In America, We Don't Do That: Patel on the "Mosque"

The last thing I intended to do when I got up this morning was a pair of posts on the "Ground Zero Mosque."* But Eboo Patel (via Glenn Greenwald) wraps it up with such pristine clarity that he gets 10 points for craftsmanship, whatever he gets for content.  "Lemon" is CNN Anchor Don of that ilk:
Lemon:  Don't you think it's a bit different considering what happened on 9/11?  And the people have said there's a need for it in Lower Manhattan, so that's why it's being built there.   What about 10, 20 blocks . . . Midtown Manhattan, considering the circumstances behind this?  That's not understandable?
Patel:  In America, we don't tell people based on their race or religion or ethnicity that they are free in this place, but not in that place --
Lemon:  [interrupting] I understand that, but there's always context, Mr. Patel . . . this is an extraordinary circumstance.  You understand that this is very heated.  Many people lost their loved ones on 9/11 --
Patel: Including Muslim Americans who lost their loved ones. . .
Lemon:  Consider the context here.  That's what I'm talking about.
Patel:  I have to tell you that this seems a little like telling black people 50 years ago:  you can sit anywhere on the bus you like - just not in the front.
Lemon:  I think that's apples and oranges - I don't think that black people were behind a Terrorist plot to kill people and drive planes into a building.  That's a completely different circumstance.
Patel:  And American Muslims were not behind the terrorist plot either.
 Boldface is Greewnwald's, but it's alright by me.   BTW, how many Muslims did die as a result of the twin towers crash on 9/11?  There's an estimate and a discussion here.  Of course, Patel's point would be right even if the correct answer were zero.
*Not a mosque, and not at ground zero.  I know.

Catholics and Schools

Everybody (saving only the odd archbishop here and there) is having good fun with John Oliver's suggestion that putting a mosque next to Ground Zero is a bit like putting a Catholic church next to a school.

He's closer to the truth than he may have noticed.  Recall the history of public education in this country: in the post-Civil-War period, it can be pretty much summarized under the subhead Keeping the Catholics Out.  In gross oversimplification, the Protestants ran the public schools in the early Republic, one way or another--as,e.g., by direct subventions to the church.  The Catholics showed up and said hey, how about us, and all of s sudden we get all shirty over the separation of church and state.  I'd say you could probably trace a good deal of the development of the parochial school system to exclusion from the "public" schools.   Those who opposed the party of Rum, Romanism and Rebellion were not going to have their quiet lives cluttered up by that lot.

Indeed, "nice" people were permitted to say alarmist things about the risks of letting Catholics into public life as late as the Kennedy-Nixon race.  For one fascinating thread of the story, go here.

Monday, August 16, 2010

James Who?

Trying to explain James J. Kilpatrick to a generation (i.e., anyone under 50) who couldn't tell him from a hot rock, I have an instinct that we may tend to remember him with more solemnity than he deserves.  My guess is that  he  was never as big a deal as he thought he was, never the sagacious defender of  forgotten glory.  For my money he was a historical accident--a quaint sort of caricature of conservatism who happened to stumble out of the cave at a time when we thought they were all dead, a downmarket imitation Russell Kirk* who thought he was uttering wisdom when he said things like "Eheu! It gives one pause!"  My guess is that he's the kind of guy who stocked his library from the Liberty Fund (perhaps the only person ever to buy the hardbacks), which he arranged elegantly behind his easy chair, the pages still uncut.**  The giveaway is that when they nailed him on Saturday Night Live ("Jane, you ignorant #$%@!" has to be one of the definitional one-liners of its time), I don't even think  he knew that he had been nailed.

I'm pretty sure Kilpatrick's picture of heaven involves harps and robes and golden stairs (and I am pretty sure, darkies with trays of juleps), but I think I will be wrong-footed when he hears St. Peter say "I don't see anything interesting on your resume..."  They may have mixed his file in with Jean Kirkpatrick, which would be a shame for Jean.
*Apologies to the shade of Kirk who was many things but not down-market.

**Guilty, your honor, I have some Liberty Fund.  But mine have underlining.

Back to the Future with Monroe Price

One of the bits of law scholarship that I enjoyed reading most back in the 90s was the work of Monroe Price on (as he called it) "the market for loyalties."  The idea was accessible, straightforward and--like a lot of other important ideas--in some ways a crystallization of stuff that had been in the air, but that nobody else had succeeded in realizing.

Price's core idea (and I'm working for memory now) was that "loyalty" in the sense of "citizenship or "national identity" could be understood as a commodity just like a can of peaches.  Nation-states flogged it and consumers "chose" it, or were battered into it, as the evidence might indicate.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Price viewed his topic through the template of his prior work in broadcasting and the regulation thereof.  He was quick to understand the anomalies in enterprises like the BBC, and phenomena like the competition over the communal persona.  I can't remember whether he wrote about sports clubs, but I certainly think he could have understood the curious irony of kids in Palookaville busting their bottlecaps over a victory for Man United.

Now here is The Economist with a great account of just how fully Price's vision has been realized:
... Western governments are losing their voices in the places where they most want to be heard.
The cold war was the state-backed broadcasters’ heyday, with big budgets for propaganda wars about the virtues and vices of capitalism and communism. Powerful short-wave transmissions required costly kit; getting hold of the frequencies required international arm-twisting. It was a game for big and rich countries only. Peter Horrocks, head of BBC Global News, recalls “a comfortable world”.
New technology has cut costs and demolished most barriers to entry. Wavebands matter less than bandwidth. Even for those unable to watch or listen on the internet, satellite dishes and fibre-optic cable are hugely expanding the choice of programmes.
Incumbents are struggling. In the past year the BBC World Service lost 8m viewers and listeners. Of the six American taxpayer-financed broadcasters that measure their reach, five see a decline. That poor performance came when budgets were generous. Now they will be flat or falling.
Since 2006 China, France, Iran, Japan and Qatar have launched English-language TV news channels. China has committed $7 billion to international news. That is more than 15 times the annual budget of the BBC World Service. Last month it introduced a second English-language news channel, CNC World. China’s international broadcasters have programming in more tongues than any other state-backed rival.
The new arrivals are conquering territory (and sometimes hiring staff) shed by established Western organisations.

Short-wave radio is a signal example. Since 2000 Voice of America has cut the number of short-wave frequencies on which it broadcasts by 24%, to 200. The BBC has abandoned short-wave broadcasts to Latin America, North America and most of Europe, to the chagrin and despair of some loyal listeners. In the same period China Radio International has almost doubled its short-wave output (see chart). It even broadcasts from Texas. Meanwhile the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America, proposes to abolish the last of its short-wave transmitters in the United States.Since 2006 China, France, Iran, Japan and Qatar have launched English-language TV news channels. China has committed $7 billion to international news. That is more than 15 times the annual budget of the BBC World Service. Last month it introduced a second English-language news channel, CNC World. China’s international broadcasters have programming in more tongues than any other state-backed rival.

The new arrivals are conquering territory (and sometimes hiring staff) shed by established Western organisations. Short-wave radio is a signal example. Since 2000 Voice of America has cut the number of short-wave frequencies on which it broadcasts by 24%, to 200. The BBC has abandoned short-wave broadcasts to Latin America, North America and most of Europe, to the chagrin and despair of some loyal listeners. In the same period China Radio International has almost doubled its short-wave output (see chart). It even broadcasts from Texas. Meanwhile the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America, proposes to abolish the last of its short-wave transmitters in the United States.