Friday, September 30, 2011

Khruschchev's Water Wings

Still enjoying Henry Kissinger's On China; a lot of good stories but one of the best is lifted from William Taubman's superb biography of Nikita Khrushchev from a few years back. Both Kissinger and Taubman offer insight into the never-smooth relationship between Khrushchev and Mao.  It is hard to imagine two Marxist insurgents less well endowed by chemistry to understand each other: Khrushchev who never got over his beginnings as a bumptious peasant and Mao who came to see himself as a kind of scholar-emperor (with a knack for hurt feelings).  Here is Taubman on a pivotal encounter during a visit by Khrushchev to China:
Mao set the tone ... by receiving Khrushchev not in a ceremonial room but in his swimming pool.  Khrushchev, who could not swim, was obliged to wear water  wings. The two statesmen conversed while swimming, with the itnerpreters following them up and down the side of the pool.  Khrushchev would later complain:  "It was Mao's way of putting himself inh an advantageous position.  Well, I got sick of it....I crawled out, sat on the edge of the pool, and dangled my legs in the pool.  Now I was on top and he was swimming below."
I wonder, did anybody ever not look silly in water wings?   Here's an especially good review of the Kissinger book by Jonathan D. Spence.   Spence does offer one highly specific point of correction to the Kissinger narrative.  The topic is the brutal repression of demonstraters in Tiananmen Square in 1989:
As to the “harsh suppression of the protest,” writes Kissinger, that was “all seen on television.” In fact, I believe it is still accepted by most analysts in the West that the television lights were turned out on the square, and much of the killing took place in darkness—hence the great disparity in reports of what happened where, and when, and of how many fatalities there really were.

On the Ground

I'm not here any more, did  I say?  I'm in Amsterdam, although my clean underwear is in Heathrow.   And here's a puzzle for you, or several.

One, I never did understand airport shopping. Who (in the blue blazes) would spend airport prices to buy the kind of high end merchandise that you probably wouldn't bother buying at home?  And don't start telling me about duty free--the duty free Grey Goose vodka is twice the price it would be home in Palookaville (um, so I am  told).    But then, I never did understand duty free either.

And not just stuff.  Turns out there's a caviar restaurant in Heathrow Terminal 5.   I stood on the upper deck gazing down with admiration about 9 am today.  There were five  customers, all solo guys.  I couldn't see well enough--maybe they were just knocking back scrambled chicken eggs, not the fishy kind. But I like to fancy they were digging into platters of Beluga.  How does it go with cornflakes?

Travel footnote:  Heathrow, for what it is worth, has become a trifle less awful than it was the last time I was here, a couple of years back.   It  takes you just about 90 minutes top get from your landing dock at Terminal 1 to inside-security at Terminal 5, and the walk is about like crossing Minnesota but traffic flows pretty smoothly.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Term Limits (Not)

The governor of North Carolina suggests we suspend Congressional elections so Congress won't have to worry about,  um, elections.  TPM rolls its eyes.   I suppose democracy purists might get their knickers in a twist over this one but my friend Marc, who does municipal bankruptcy work, has for some time been suggesting that city council members take office for life.  Most of our municipal misfortune, reasons Marc, occurs because city councils become adept at Kicking the Can Down the Road. Sorry, we can't give you a pay raise.  Top of your pension?  Hm.  Won't come due until Hell Freezes Over? Ah, got it, no problem.  How much better to devise a system in which each team has to clean up its own poo-poo.

Comparisons to George W budget planning are as easy as dynamiting whales in a barrel  left as an exercise to the reader.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Second Thought

Among people who care, I may be the only one who has what they used to call "a minimum high regard" for Patrick Leigh Fermor.  I had thought of writing a few unkind words around the time of his death earlier this year and decided there was just no percentage, but reading Colin Thubron's appreciation in the current New York Review of Books convinces me that I was right the first time.   On sober second thought, I'm still convinced that Leigh Fermor is just an awful avatar of the culture of his time and generation, and I'm surprised more people don't notice.

I'll give Thubron this.  He says: "When Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June at the age of ninety-six, it seemed as if an era had come to an end. He was the last of a generation of warrior–travel writers ... "  Somewhat grudgingly, I'd even have to admit that "[a]mong these, Leigh Fermor shines with the élan and the effortlessly cultured glow of an apparent golden age. A war hero of polymathic exuberance, brilliant linguistic skills, and an elephantine memory."

So far, okay, if not exactly "so good."  As it happens I've read a few (hardly all) of the people Thubron must have in mind when he writes like this, with degrees of acceptance one would have to count as "varying."  I'm a great admirer of Norman Lewis' Naples '44 (thanks, Michael)  which I've long thought one of the best pieces of nonfiction to come out of World War II.  I treasure my hard-come-by copy of Rose Macaulay's Pleasures of Ruins (thanks, Taxmom).     If Thubron will relax his definition of "travel writer" to include some novelists, then I'd like to make room for Paul Scott of the Jewel in the Crown tetralogy and Olivia Manning of the Levant Trilogy (I haven't read its companion Balkan Trilogy).  On the other hand, I've more and more come to see T. H. T.E. Lawrence as largely a fraud, perhaps an emanation of the febrile brain of Lowell Thomas.

But all of these--the good and the awful--like it or not, know it or not, they all start from the same point of departure: they are all children of privilege, who gallivant around the planet secure in warm glow of the British Empire which provides them at worst with passports, with favorable exchange rates, with friendly embassies, with all that emoluments that bathe their travel experience in the effulgence of solace, even sweetness.

That might be why the novelists come across best.  The novelists more than the travel writers seem able to achieve a degree of detachment and self-awareness that makes them stand more solidly on the shelf (I suppose if you extend your catch to the likes of V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux, you can see this detachment as it turns rancid, but that is rather far afield for the moment).

In any event, I can't think of anyone in this genre whose work seems more swaddled in innocence than Leigh Fermor, and I don't mean innocence in the nicest way.  Leigh Fermor reminds me of nobody so much as Peter Pan with his cheerful nonchalance, leading his admiring band in search of mermaids and pirates and all the time refusing to grow up.

I don't think this is anywhere more obvious than in what I suspect are his most popular books--A Time of Gifts and Between Woods and the Water--his "accounts" (if that is the right word) of his ramble through Europe at the bottom of the depression.  Fans love to tell you how entranced they are by his youthful exuberance and good cheer-as Thubron calls it, "the dream journey of every enterprising and footloose adolescent."

But what nobody seems to want to come to terms with is that this is not the record of a youthful ramble.  Leigh Fermor didn't publish the first of his memoirs until nearly 45 years after the actual trip.  It is far from clear exactly when he wrote what, but there are powerful reasons to believe that virtually every word is a reconstruction, the product of his ripened late-middle age, in which his youth is only a shadow.

"His urge to desccribe his epic journey more than forty years after its end was a deeply natural one," says Thubron.  Quite true.  but: 

He was revisiting the youthful persona with  the judgment and knowledge of maturity; yet in a sense he had remained unchanged (my italics).  Despite his sophisticated learning, he retained an almost boyish innocence, as if the troubles of the modern age had bypassed him.
It is hard to know what to make of this assessment, although Thubron seems to offer his insights with no independent evaluation.  But of course the difficulty is that Leighh Fermor is not unchanged because he cannot be unchanged.  Even if he still bears a "boyish innocence" he is no longer a boy and, like it or not no longer innocent.  The best he can hope for (by his own lights, at least) is to be a 60-plus who struggles to present a persona of boyish innocence  in spite of all that life may or may not have tried to teach him.

Thubron doesn't seem to grasp that point. More important, Leigh Fermor himself doesn't seem to grasp the point.  I scarcely understand how he can be so blind to himself but this may be a mere failure of imagination on my part. Perhaps he is that blind; if so, then all the more reason why he just gives me the creeps.

I could go on at length, but let me limit myself here to just one more episode in Leigh Fermor's life: the famous (I would rather say "notorious") episode when he and some comrades kidnapped a German general on Cyprus.  Leigh Fermor and his enthusiasts have always treated it as the high point of his career--daring, exciting, romantic, and above all "literary"--Leigh Fermor and the general shared a taste for Horace in the original Latin.

Even the slightest scrutiny makes it clear that the whole adventure was a fantastic cock-up: an escapade of absolutely no military merit that impelled the Germans into savage reprisals against an innocent native population.  Some have noted the fact of the reprisals; one who should  know better says "But the brutality of the combat doesn't negate that moment of civilized gallantry at Mount Ida."  Codswollop.  Given the utter absence of any worthwhile military purpose, the reprisals entirely negate Leigh Fermor's little prank.  And that, I guess, is what gets me: not the prank itself (hey, a lot of bad things happen in war) but that Leigh Fermor and, what is perhaps worse, his enthusiasts, never saw it that way.

Greenwald Keeps Me Honest, Again

Having said a kind word for Sally Kohn, I must not fail to showcase Glenn Greenwald's typically forceful and well argued polemic against those who belittle protesters.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Kissinger Gazes into the Chinese Mirror

I feel a warm personal relationship with Henry Kissinger and China because he once got me kicked out of a hotel in Kashgar.  Nothing personal, really: apparently the rule is that when the Chinese elite want to move in a distinguished visitor, everybody gets bumped, including the paying customers in the tourist trade.  Still, it puts me in a position to accept Kissinger's street cred as I read his new book on China.  And to appreciate its particular virtues which her perhaps not quite what he might have hoped.

So: if you take time to read Kissinger on China, the chances are that you already know something about China, and are hoping to learn something more about Kissinger's views on China.   At 88, he remains (persists as?) one of the most interesting foreign-policy thinkers of our time (pity about those Cambodians).  And on this, the subject to which perhaps he gave most thought, he doesn't disappoint.

But more than that, what I suspect you get here is a lot of Kissinger on Kissinger.   He's done this thing before of course--three  volumes explicitly billed as memoirs, of course, and half a dozen or so others of foreign policy thinking--including Diplomacy a far more wide-ranging work.  But here he is nearing the end of  his career, meditating on what was surely his most important engagement, perhaps his most important achievement, he cannot possibly help but meditate upon himself as well.

The point struck me early on when I read Kissinger's sketch of Li Hongzhang, who dominated what passed for foreign policy under the decrepit Ming Qing (!!) Dynasty late in the 19th Century.  Here's Henry on Li:

Ambitious, impassive in the face of humiliation, supremely well versed in China’s classical tradition but uncommonly attuned to its peril, Li served for nearly four decades as China’s face to the outside world. He cast himself as the intermediary between the foreign powers’ insistent demands for territorial and economic concessions and the Chinese court’s expansive claims of political superiority. By definition his policies could never meet with either side’s complete approbation. Within China in particular Li left a controversial legacy, especially among those urging a more confrontational course. Yet his efforts—rendered infinitely more complex by the belligerence of the traditionalist faction of the Chinese court ... 
Kissinger, Henry (2011-05-17). On China (Kindle Locations 1159-1164). 
The Penguin Press. Kindle Edition

Okay, I should  not get carried away here--the late 20th Century United States did not face "foreign powers' insistent demands for territorial and economic concessions."    But when Henry says "[a]mbitious, impassive in the face of humiliation, supremely well versed," surely he is thinking of himself?    So also "his policies could never meet with either side's complete approbation"--?  And perhaps most: "controversial...especially among those urging a more confrontational course."    The soundbyte on Kissinger today (fair or not) probably includes the phrase "war crimes."  It's perhaps difficult to recall the shock and impotent rage Kissnger and his boss the Emperor President withstood from their old allies on the right when they so shattered Cold War orthodoxies by establishing as relationship with our great enemy.   The only other betrayal of equal magnitude would be when Ronald Reagan yanked the pins out from under the Neocons by sitting down to chat with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Kissinger never had to play from weakness the way Li dd. He did have (or felt he had) to make deals, and to bear the acrimony.   "But appeasement is also politically risky," Kissinger writes, "and [threatens?] social cohesion.  For it requires the public to retain confidence in its leaders even as they appear to yield to the victors' demands."

Oh, perhaps I overdo here.  Perhaps Kissinger did not understand  he reflection when he wrote about Li; perhaps he merely saw it.  Either way, I suspect we are getting some of Kissinger's self-appraisal here, the taste of a summing-up.  And I'm actually only in the early chapters of the book; I look forward to much more of the same.


I want to know what democracy looks like, not what it smells like.

Sally Kohn on the new anarchism. Interesting piece, worth a read.

Oh Thank God, I Thought You Said You were Marrying a Protestant

I read this first as Scientologists 

 Italian Seismologists Charged with Manslaughter
For Not Predicting Earthquake 

 But it's pretty weird either way.  Link.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Great Cities--Not that Old?

Idle thought: it just struck me that a lot of world-class cities--the kind we think of as having been there forever--are not that old.  Athens, Jerusalem and Rome are old enough, I guess (though Rome may count as a relative latecomer).  Also London.   "New world" cities like New York and Los Angeles--by definition, "new" (so also Sidney, Perth, etc).

But consider Bombay Mumbai. I suppose there were "always" people on those islands, but it didn't really get any traction until 1661, when Charles II got it as a wedding gift: the English/Brits liked it as a trading port. Which explains also Shanghai and Hong Kong, albeit much later. And if the British use tradidng ports to force their way in, recall how Peter the Great created St. Petersburg Leningrad Petrograd St. Petersburg to force his way out.  I suppose there are a hundred more examples that haven't come to mind just yet.

What Church?

I cheerfully join the blue-state sniggering about the Alabama judge who confronts his convicts with a dreadful choice: jail or church.    I have not the slightest doubt that this ploy flunks even the Scalia/Volokh standard for constitutionality, although I also suspect it wouldn't be hard to churn up data that regular churchgoers are indeed less likely to wind up in the stony lonesome (whether they find  God on the long path to the parole hearing is another issue).

But there is a backcground issue: which church?  Wiki reports that there are nine mosques in Alabama.  Will Alabama count on them to instill good citizenship?  And more: an LDS website counts one Mormon temple in Alabama and six stakes   I assume there are plenty of Jews; I find two Lubavitcher congregations.  There seem to be more Buddhists than you can shake a stick at (though I would not recommend it).  Apparently there is a Gurdwara.

But beyond that.  Back twenty years or so ago, I presided over a couple of weddings in my capacity as a former bankruptcy judge--evidently I was specifically authorized in this role by California statute (although I admit I just took their word for it--hey, their wedding, not mine).  But more or less the same time, I stumbled on friends/acquaintances who were presiding over weddings and filling in the certificate with just any old church name: evidently the State does not come by to check your accreditation papers.  At least California does not; maybe Alabama is different.  Does Alabama recognize the church of the Sit-up Cycling?  Of What's Happenin' Now?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Today's Number: Seven

Number of dialysis machines in Uganda (pop. 32.7 million) (link).

Isabel Archer Confronts Her Destiny

If the 19th Century novel has a dominant theme, it  must be "disappointment."  Over the last couple of days I published excerpts that show us how, variously, Nikolai Rostov and Tertius Lydgate find that the world is a more complicated place than they thought it to be.

Perhaps a more dramatic example is Isabel Archer in Henry James' Portrait of a Lady.  Young, warm-hearted, breathtakingingly beautiful but no more beautiful than rich, Isabel has absolute discretion to choose her life and she chooses (she believes) well. She marries Gilbert Osmonde and comes to know that she has made a dreadful blunder. Here in Chapter 42 (out of 55), Isabel gazes unblinkingly at her chosen fate: 

It had come gradually--it was not till the first year of their life together, so admirably intimate at first, had closed that she had taken the alarm. Then the shadows had begun to gather; it was as if Osmond deliberately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one. The dusk at first was vague and thin, and she could still see her way in it. But it steadily deepened, and if now and again it had occasionally lifted there were certain corners of her prospect that were impenetrably black. These shadows were not an emanation from her own mind: she was very sure of that; she had done her best to be just and temperate, to see only the truth. They were a part, they were a kind of creation and consequence, of her husband's very presence. They were not his misdeeds, his turpitudes; she accused him of nothing --that is but of one thing, which was NOT a crime. She knew of no wrong he had done; he was not violent, he was not cruel: she simply believed he hated her. That was all she accused him of, and the miserable part of it was precisely that it was not a crime, for against a crime she might have found redress. He had discovered that she was so different, that she was not what he had believed she would prove to be. He had thought at first he could change her, and she had done her best to be what he would like. But she was, after all, herself--she couldn't help that; and now there was no use pretending, wearing a mask or a dress, for he knew her and had made up his mind. She was not afraid of him; she had no apprehension he would hurt her; for the ill-will he bore her was not of that sort. He would if possible never give her a pretext, never put himself in the wrong. Isabel, scanning the future with dry, fixed eyes, saw that he would have the better of her there. She would give him many pretexts, she would often put herself in the wrong. There were times when she almost pitied him; for if she had not deceived him in intention she understood how completely she must have done so in fact. She had effaced herself when he first knew her; she had made herself small, pretending there was less of her than there really was. It was because she had been under the extraordinary charm that he, on his side, had taken pains to put forth. He was not changed; he had not disguised himself, during the year of his courtship, any more than she. But she had seen only half his nature then, as one saw the disk of the moon when it was partly masked by the shadow of the earth. She saw the full moon now--she saw the whole man. She had kept still, as it were, so that he should have a free field, and yet in spite of this she had mistaken a part for the whole.
I haven' read them all, but I'm one of those who thinks Portrait of a Lady must be the best Henry James novel.  It's hard for us to believe in Isabel's apparently exalted view of what a marriage might be, but we knew that she believes it: her own conviction and her devotion to her own sense of herself are enough to carry all before her.  The best novel, and this perhaps the best moment in it.

Yglesias is Right and Frum is Wrong

Yglesias is right and Frum is wrong: not everyone will move to Santa Fe.  But I don't think Yglesias the reasons quite right.    I think there are at least two good reasons why worker still want to go to the office--and why employers want them there.

  • One is the wisdom-of-crowds stuff.  Most of what we learn, we learn from each other.  And you can't get it online or at TGIF parties.  You've got to be there; to watch, to listen, to hang out.
  • And two: people just get energized by crowds.  It is why Trafalgar Square and the Spanish Steps and the Île de la Cité are just choked with people come from miles--no, continents--away just to be where the action is. Say what we like, the truth is we want to be in there where we can hear (and feel, yum) the crack of bodies.
More: bank in my bankruptcy days, I remember thinking about how ease of travel and communication might decentralize the deal-making that goes to make a Chapter 11 reorganization.  You could FAX everything (remember FAX?).  And one Ramada Inn conference room looked just like another.  Zap, wrong, of course.  Chapter 11 deal-making has tended to centralize ever more in New York and Delaware.  You can email, you can teleconference, but when it comes to doing the deals, it's the same guys (unisex) around the same tables.

BTW, I've been to Santa Fe often enough to know it can be a pretty boring place.


Pine nuts, with Brian's basil
I savor the story about the community so safe that the only reason to lock your door is to keep  your neighbors from smuggling in their spare zucchini.  Palookaville is not quite that safe but Brian across the street is a compulsive farmer (not here in town; he has a chunk of family land out in the country).  Anyway, they are a household of two (as are we), so at this time of year there is always plenty  good produce on offer.  Two weeks ago it was beets; last week it was beets again and I roasted up a bunch of them garlic and sage.  I offered a batch of the roastings to Brian's companion: she said okay  but not too much, she was already up to her ears in tomatoes and okra.

Today it was basil: a plastic garbage bag full.  Mrs. B, who likes cooking best when it comes in regimental proportions, spread out a counter full of work stations for leaves, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan and oil.  We have now survived a morning of sorting, grinding, chopping and spinning.  We freeze it in muffin tins; should last us about a year.  Come to think of it, the last of the 2010 crop is still in the freezer.  

Anna and Who?

Here's a curiosity:  Mrs. B. indulged herself this morning with the entire dead-tree Sunday Times puffpiece showpiece on Anna ("don't call me a Diva") Netrebko, opening tomorrow night in Anna Bolena at the Met.  It's a can't-miss feelgood for a leisurely breakfast, with a dutiful reference to Netrebko's newish  husband and baby.

But here's the odd part: husband and baby are never named. in  the story.  The baby (his name is Tiago, just turned three) may not have an opinion on the matter but what of the hubby, Erwin Schrott?  Schrott is an opera singer himself; perhaps not quite as big a deal as Netrebko, but still a player in his own right.  Ill Teatro Buce offered up a DVD of Schrott in Figaro a few weeks back: he's an agreeable singer and a wonderful actor--one of the most engagingly funny Figaros I've ever seen (Mrs. B. was dazzled at how different his Figaro was from his Don Giovanni, which she had seen--I did not--a while before).

There is a picture with the Times story of the three of them--Anna, Erwin, Tiago--together, but no cutline: it's pretty obvious this is the boy and this the man in her life, but no suggestion of who exactly.

An oversight?  Mrs. B. thinks not: she's betting it was Erwin's decision--that he doesn't wan't to be identified merely as Anna's husband. Plausible, but wait--same story, same picture, in the online version; this time Schrott and Tiago do get named, albeit only in tiny print in a cutline (same picture).  So, am I making a lot out of nothing?  Leaving off the cutline was just an editorial error?  Or was the error the other way round--was it putting in the cutline that was the mistake?

More Opera:  Walter Russell Mead offers a partly ridiculous, partly charming, salute to the Met season here.  Ridiculous in the degree to which it goes all harrumphy on us, as if he were the headmaster lecturing a troop of not-fully-civilized sixth formers.  As to substance, I think he goes a bit overboard in his enthusiasm for Milan and Vienna but in general, I agree with just about every word he says (for added amusement, don't overlook the comment by WigWag who tweaks the nose of his Meadocity for some previous unkind remarks about Queens).

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Bartender: We don't get many neutrinos around here.

A neutrino walks into a bar.

Link. Seems like people have been trying to figure out all day the right way to tell that joke.  At this rate, it will be old before it is funny.  Which probably figures.

I met a neutrino named Flyte.
Which traveled much faster than light.

It departed one day
In the usual way
And arrived on the previous night.

Welcome, Strangers

Odd, I've been getting swamped with hits from a website I had never heard of until yesterday--all thanks to a single link over in the "other reading" column. Welcome strangers.  Feel free to set a  bit.

Some Footnotes to Tim Wu

I spent a good chunk of the day with Tim Wu's Master Switch, and I can testify that it was time well spent: highly entertaining and enlightening history of what you might call "the communications industry," and in particular on, industry structure. Wu is big on "the cycle" --periods of free-flowing creativity and experimentation followed by he agonizing (and inevitable?) period of consolidation, when somebody gets control of the toll gate and, well, charges as toll.

I won't bother attempting a fullscale review at this late date, though I will indulge myself by noting a couple of points that intrigued me. One, if you like free competition in media, one of your natural allies is (ready for it, folks?)--Richard Nixon.  The combination of a free-competition ideology, a strong-minded and determined communications wonk and (who knows? Very likely) Nixon's own deep-seated resentment of what he saw as "the establishment: obliged to give us the cable revolution and the open-skies satellite policy, without which our world would have been much different.  And two, I'm impressed at how long it takes some changes to ripple through the system.  The Supreme Court put an end to the movie supply chain monopoly, and then to Ma Bell: in both cases, it was years before the full impact of the change filitered down to the masses (and in the case of telephone, it was over almost by the time it--finally--started).

Anyway: the cycle of free-flow and tollgate: with the internet, it seems we are still in something like free-flow but seen through Wu's eyes. it doesn't seem likely that we will stay there long.  Ma Bell seems to have pretty well clawed her way back to centrality (after a brief haitus during which none of us could make head or tail out of our phone bills anyway).  She doesn't have full control of the internet pipes just yet, although she has plenty of enablers standing ready to help her finish the job, not least Steve Jobs, who emerges as the dark energy at the end of the book (I read my Amazon download with my Iphone reader app).

If my search command is working right, there are just three mentions of Facebook, but given that the book was closed--what?  A couple of years ago?--I'm a little surprised there are that many..  But assuming Wu is still on the beat, I'd love to know what he thinks of this.

Everything that Bugs You about Macro

Straight steal from MR:

Larry Summers speaking at IMF/World Bank meeting:
The challenge is “finding the language that generates [the] alarm that drives action, but not the despair that proves self-fulfilling.” 
The WSJ continues: 
Attempting to sound reassuring, he said, “These are solvable problems.” His audience didn’t look reassured.
Great catch, but it tells you exactly what bugs you makes you so uncomfortable about macro, not so?  After a textbook (or a library) full of charts and graphs, we are left with the uncertain whims of the rude multitude, yes?  And as if to drive home the point, isn't this what bugged Keynes about Hicks? 

Lovebirds and Handel

My friend Michael advises that his home is experiencing an infestation of lovebirds. I mean, like, love birds,, not hormone-soaked teenagers. He says they respond with great enthusiasm to Handel arias.

This sounds exactly right to me. I can think of no better accompaniment to some Handel arias than the cooing of a lovebird:

Friday, September 23, 2011


Biking in he park this morning, this line got stuck in my head for 45 minutes: 

The setting sun, and music at the close. 

 That's from Shakespeare's Richard II.  Nothing to add, just sayin'.

Tertius Learns some Unfortunate Truths about Himself

Yesterday I copied the excerpt from War and Peace in which young Rostov finds that the world is a more complicated place than he had thought. Here is another whom we first meet bathed i his own self-regard, and who learns that the world is a more complicated place than he had supposed: Tertius Lydgate, the young doctor of Middlemarch in George Eliot's novel of that name. Tertius (the name means "third," which is a good joke) comes to Middlemarch full of high expectations and grand plans. Never mind that it is a village on the edge of nowhere, he will do great things; he will be admired.

And where did it all go wrong?  Tertius himself hardly knows; perhaps he wasn't paying attention.  He makes an unpromising marriage; the fees do not come, he runs into debt.  Pressed by expenses, he takes a loan from Bulstrode.  And when Bulstrode  is exposed as a scoundrel, his neighbors believe that Tertius has taken a bribe.  Perhaps he thinks so himself:.

[Lydgate]  went directly home, got on his horse, and rode three miles out of the town for the sake of being out of reach.

He felt himself becoming violent and unreasonable as if raging under the pain of stings: he was ready to curse the day on which he had come to Middlemarch. Everything that bad happened to him there seemed a mere preparation for this hateful fatality, which had come as a blight on his honorable ambition, and must make even people who had only vulgar standards regard his reputation as irrevocably damaged. In such moments a man can hardly escape being unloving. Lydgate thought of himself as the sufferer, and of others as the agents who had injured his lot. He had meant everything to turn out differently; and others had thrust themselves into his life and thwarted his purposes. His marriage seemed an unmitigated calamity; and he was afraid of going to Rosamond before he had vented himself in this solitary rage, lest the mere sight of her should exasperate him and make him behave unwarrantably. There are episodes in most men's lives in which their highest qualities can only cast a deterring shadow over the objects that fill their inward vision: Lydgate's tenderheartedness was present just then only as a dread lest he should offend against it, not as an emotion that swayed him to tenderness. For he was very miserable. Only those who know the supremacy of the intellectual life-the life which has a seed of ennobling thought and purpose within it-can understand the grief of one who falls from that serene activity into the absorbing soul-wasting struggle with worldly annoyances.

How was he to live on without vindicating himself among people who suspected him of baseness? How could he go silently away from Middlemarch as if he were retreating before a just condemnation? And yet how was he to set about vindicating himself?

For that scene at the meeting, which he had just witnessed, although it had told him no particulars, had been enough to make his own situation thoroughly clear to him. Bulstrode had been in dread of scandalous disclosures on the part of Raffles. Lydgate could now construct all the probabilities of the case. "He was afraid of some betrayal in my hearing: all he wanted was to bind me to him by a strong obligation: that was why he passed on a sudden from hardness to liberality. And he may have tampered with the patient - he may have disobeyed my orders. I fear he did. But whether he did or not, the world believes that he somehow or other poisoned the man and that I winked at the crime, if I didn't help in it. And yet - and yet he may not be guilty of the last offence; and it is just possible that the change towards me may have been a genuine relenting - the effect of second thoughts such as he alleged. What we call the `just possible' is sometimes true and the thing we find it easier to believe is grossly false. In his last dealings with this man Bulstrode may have kept his hands pure, in spite of my suspicion to the contrary."

There was a benumbing cruelty in his position. Even if he renounced every other consideration than that of justifying himself-if he met shrugs, cold glances, and avoidance as an accusation, and made a public statement of all the facts as he knew them, who would be convinced? It would be playing the part of a fool to offer his own testimony on behalf of himself, and say, "I did not take the money as a bribe." ... 
So Middlemarch, Chapter 73.

Calling Dr. SupplyandDemand!

I'm looking at the cover of a catalog from the teaching company--you know, those guys who have more sales than a furniture showroom.  It says:

Save 70%
on courses by some of our
Most Popular Professors!

But isn't that backwards?  Didn't I learn in Econ 1A that if demand increases, the price will rise?  Shouldn't it say:

Save 70%
on courses by some of our
Least Popular Professors!

[And actually, they do have a kind of "remainder shelf," where they shovel out some courses at $10 each--not, I suspect, their "most popular professors.]  Or, failing that

Most Popular Professors
70 Percent Surcharge!

It's Not a Bug, It's a (Ka-boom!)

Tim Wu recounts the checkered past of John Logie Baird, one of the pre-inventors of  television:
[Prior to TV] his greatest invention had been a type of  hosiery designed to absorb dampness, known as the "Baird undersoc."  Less successful was his follow-up effort, pneumatic footwear (a crude  precursor to Nike's "Air" shoes) that had an unfortunate tendency to explode underfoot.
Link. My friend Harold used to talk about the thrill of playing golf in a thunderstorm: you never know which stroke will be your last.

DG Myers on Male Friendship

I think maybe DG Myers is onto something in his meditation on patterns of male friendship:
....Is it a male thing? Or a middle-aged thing? Or both at once? My buddies are scattered around the country—Iowa, Houston, New York, Boston, D.C.—and I am apparently in no hurry to add to their number. On Sunday afternoons I watch the Texans on satellite TV with chile con queso and a beer as my only company. I’m not lonely, but I worry that maybe I should be. ...

I think men, as they age, come to value the history that they share with their friends—their friendships are repositories of memory—more than they value “shared interests” or whatever else it is that draws younger persons together. Not that men don’t look for excitement. Just not in new friendships. And many men, even when tempted by the excitement of new sexual experience, withdraw into familiarity. The prospect of developing a new history with a new wife, and uprooting and plowing under the old history, is horribly unattractive—no matter how good-looking the new woman might be.

Men aren’t lazy about friendship. They are committed to habit. Come to think of it, this also explains why male friends can go months without talking to each other, and yet neither one will feel as if the friendship has lapsed or even diminished.

I tried this on a bunch of my "middle-aged" (i.e.: 65 to near 90) buddies; so far no one has disagreed (I do have one "interesting.")   I'd add  only that in the age of the internet, this pattern may be easier to maintain.  I have very few contacts here at home in Palookaville (and those, really through my wife). My last really close friend here died just around Christmas, 2005. Were it not for the constant flow of electrons, I might be motivated to get off my backside and, you know, make some friends.  Or maybe not.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Elizabeth Warren meets Politics

I've known Elizabeth Warren (the newly minted Massachusetts senate candidate) on a slightly-more-than-casual basis for 30-odd years now.  We've had our differences--still do, strictly speaking--but basically, I like her: I think she is smart, funny, well informed and mostly on the side of the angels.  If I were registered in Massachusetts, I'm sure I'd vote for her in a heartbeat, even against the not-nearly-awful-as-some-of-them Scott Brown.  The moreso as I see the kind of silliness (though highly predictable) that she is encountering in her campaign.  Start with the assertion that she is (as the Fiscal Times puts it, perhaps reporting) "a liberal academic from Cambridge whose Harvard ties put her out of touch with working families..."    Ha!  I suspect you can't find anybody on the Harvard faculty whose middle-class, even populist, bona fides are better than Elizabeth's.  Indeed ironically, that's the real beef with her: she idealizes, romanticizes this hypothetical "middle class" of honest, hard-working Americans, in no way the authors of their own misfortune: there's a streak in Elizabeth (sometimes well-obscured) that is positively Teapartian.

You can see all this in her personal story as well. Elizabeth wasn't born with a big "H" tattooed on her forehead: she has scratched her way up the whole distance (Wiki has particulars).  She went to law school at (gasp!) Rutgers (from whence the great Alan Axelrod, now deceased, spoke proudly of her as one of his best students).   The path from Newark to Cambridge was a long slog.

If being a Friend of the People is suspect, Fiscal Times lobs another one past her: "she isn't anti-bank."  Or worse, that she has allies in the banking cabal: the quote comes in an E-mail from Rich Levin, who heads the restructuring practice at Cravath, Swain & Moore.  She's going to have to live with the curse of a Levin endorsement, I suppose--but the irony here is that I can't think of any big-firm bankruptcy bigfoot (and I know a few) who is more detached, more you-should-pardon-the-expression professorial than Rich.  Back when he was a tad, he was one of the scrivener-drafters of our present Bankruptcy Code and he's always approached the subject with a spirit of detached inquiry that approaches the unseemly in a practicing lawyer.  If Rich thinks that she "isn't anti-bank," it's not just that he's ring-fencing his clients,  Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised to find that Rich's clients would wish that he'd ring-fence them a little more.

The final item worth noting at the moment is  a  video "ricocheting around the Internet," (so says the FT ) in which Elizabeth declares that   “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.”  Boyoboy.  Like I've said too often, I have my differences with Elizabeth but I can't think of any sentence (two sentences) that I'd sign on to so unreservedly.  Short tall, rich poor, freckled plain, we are the sum of a gazillion choices and accidents, the tip of a pyramid over which we have almost no control.  One of the great human vices is to forget where you came from.  One of the great virtues is to dance with the one who brung you.  If this were an exam, then on both these issues, Elizabeth would get an A plus.

What Would his Mother Say?

Fascinating.  If you've read Peter L. Bernstein's Capital Ideas, subtitled The Improbable Origins of Modern Wall Street, you'll remember Barr Rosenberg as one of the heroes of the piece--one of the first of the quants, those guys who treat the market as a kind of N-dimensional chess game, churning out mathematical models that barely exceed their own vision and imagination.   But also, by Bernstein's account, a thoroughly nice man. We're told that mama was a poet and papa, a Shakespeare scholar; that "even as a young boy, he came to appreciate the 'interplay of diverse interests enacted so eloquently by Shakespeare's characters.'"

Well, grant that Bernstein seemed to get along with everybody.  Anyway,  now Joel calls my attention to this:

The Securities and Exchange Commission has charged Barr Rosenberg, a leading academic and quant fund manager, with fraud. Without admitting or denying guilt, Rosenberg has agreed to a consent decree that requires him to pay a $2.5 million fine and bars him from the securities and investment advisor industries.

The 68-year-old Rosenberg owned 21 percent of AXA Rosenberg (ARG) during what the SEC describes as the relevant time when the alleged fraud was committed. He was also the owner of the Barr Rosenberg Research Center (BRRC).

The agency alleges that in late June 2009 a BRRC employee discovered an error in the code of a complex automated optimization model that caused $217 million in losses in about 600 client portfolios. After the employee discussed his finding with Rosenberg and other employees, the SEC claims Rosenberg directed them to keep quiet about the error and not to inform anyone else about it.  ... Clients reportedly were not informed of the error until 2010. In mid-to-late 2009 ... [w]hen a director inquired about its underperformance, the SEC claims Rosenberg responded that he was "not aware of siginificant" mistakes and added that "if there are any [they] will not be made in the future." ARG's CEO remained in the dark until November 2009 when a BRRC employee felt required to inform him.
Leapin' lizards.   And as is so often the case. part of what takes your breath away is the apparent crudity and vulgarity of the offense. Not "the Napoleon of crime," but a simple case of "let's not talk about that."

Back in my bankruptcy days, when I had more first-hand exposure to grand theft bookkeeping than I had before or since, I often wondered--were these guys monsters, or just people who did things they forgot to tell their Sunday school teacher about?  I suppose the tedious answer is "a little of both,"  But in general, my guess is that there aren't that-all many monsters down in the financial fraud circle--not so many as des hommes moyen incorruptibles folk who find themselves standing unobserved in front of Scrooge McDuck's open vault and say--wait, what?

I suppose some might say that $217 million is a lot of money (heh!).  But what if he'd just yelled "mistake!" as they are supposed to do on the trading floor when things go bollywackers?  At the end of the day, I'll bet the actual loss to be absorbed would have turned out to be a lot less.   It might have put dent in his charitable foundation, his grandchildren's spending money, but I'll bet it wouldn't have changed his own style of life by a dime.  And he wouldn't have had to worry about what his mother the poet--or his father's bud, Shakespeare--might say.

Afterthought:  And the whistleblower?  I'd like to think he got a nice little cash reward and a big hug from the CEO.  But a little voice is telling me to speculate that he got fired and stripped of all benefits.  I suppose I'll never know.

Followup:  More on motherhood here.

An Underbelly Music Link

Matt Yglesias frets that at 30, he is too old to offer music links.  Ha.  I can only say that now that I'm pushing 75 (albeit from the wrong direction) I feel more empowered than ever.  Except I don't feel the need to do indie rock.  Here's a recent discovery of Mrs. B's--Joyce Di Donato doing a bit from Handel's Ariodante, an opera hitherto unknown to me:

Last time I saw the girl, she was enjoying three-way with Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez.  Channeling Justice Holmes--ah, to be 74 again.

Complicated World

Getting ready for a trip to Europe, I picked up some Euros at the bank (yes, the bank is still here), all the time wondering if the Euros will enjoy anything beyond souvenir value once I get there. And Mrs. B. is making out the mail-hold card for the Pos-- wait a minute, what if there is no Post Office when we get back? Will they leave a forwarding address? Or, since it is all third class and catalogues, will it matter?

Pardon, gotta go stuff a couple of diamonds into a toothpaste tube.

Nikolái Ilyích Rostóv Meets the French

Irony, says Norman D. Knox,* “may be defined as the conflict of two meanings which has a dramatic structure peculiar to itself: initially, one meaning, the appearance, presents itself as the obvious truth, but when the context of this meaning unfolds, in depth or in time, it surprisingly discloses a conflicting meaning, the reality, measured against which the first meaning now seems false or limited and, in its self-assurance, blind to its own situation.”

One of my favorite teachers used to say that a good novel is one in which the protagonist learns something, is changed at the end from what he was at the beginning. I wasn't sure just what he meant by that, but perhaps he was thinking about Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, and in particular, Chapter 19 of Part Two of Volume I, where we explore the case of young Nikolái Ilyích Rostóv. Nikólushka, Nikólenka (he bears a variety of endearing pet names) is the polished diamond, set off against the velvet of his dazzling family: we have seen him at home with his adoring sister and his sweetheart. Now he is on the battlefield outside Schöngraben in Austria, where a detachment of Russian forces under Bagration are attempting (successfully, as it will turn out) to cover the retreat of the larger Russian army under Kutuzov from the onrush of the forces of Napoleon. Young Kólya (as the home folks sometimes address him) is beside himself with vivacity as he gets his first chance to charge the enemy. “Oh, how I'm going to slash at him,” he thinks to himself (“gripping the hilt of his sabre,” Tolstoy tells us) “Hur-r-a-a-ah!”

Of course as Napoleon said, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Moments later he finds himself stunned and bewildered: “What is it? I'm not moving ahead? I've fallen, I've been killed...” No, not killed (this is only page 189 of a 1215-page novel, and we know he is a major character). But his horse has been killed, shot out from under him. From the thrill of battle, suddenly he finds himself entirely alone. “Has something happened to me? There are such cases, and what must be done in such cases?” Just then he notices his arm hanging limp at his side: clearly he has been injured, perhaps grievously, though he seems not to understand it yet. Moments more, a group of soldiers coming running towards him. “Well, here are some people,” he thinks to himself. “They'll help me!” But no, they aren't Russian; they seem to be holding a Russian officer as if a prisoner—French?

He looked at the approaching Frenchmen and, though a moment before he had been galloping only in order to meet these Frenchmen and cut them to pieces, their closeness now seemed so terrible to him that he could not believe his eyes. “Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they're running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?”
Strictly speaking, no. Rostov so brave before, now runs to the bushes. Some fires a couple of shots in his direction; they miss, and he recovers his own Russian companions.
*In the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Volume II (1973).

Bryan Burrough's Passion

I'm a big fan of Bryan Burrough.  He pretty much set the bar for how to write booklength financial journalism, with his account of the RJR-Nabiso melee (the only competitor in its category would be David McClintock's narrative of David Begelman's grand malfeasance at Columbia Pictures).  Burrough also wrote a promising-looking account of the Texas big rich, which I've been meaning to get back to.   Now he's back, discussing body cavity searches over chardonnay with the inimitable Conrad Black--is there another book in the offing?

Anyway, just now I'm getting round to savoring the irony that Burrough also wrote--perhaps his best book--the best history I've ever encountered of the small-time hoods, bank robbers and killers who bestrode the stage in the 1930s.  All in a day's work, eh Bryan?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Never Go Into a Business that Other People Do for Fun

Somehow I'm thinking of Max Bialystock and  his little checkie weckie:
No fewer than 3,812 full-length movies were submitted to the 2011 Sundance film festival. Yet only 550 films open in American cinemas each year, and most lose money. The business runs on hope.

Metaphysics: Don't Try This at Home

It's junk mail, but kinda cute--from my cousin Dave:

I won't believe corporations are people until Texas executes one 

Cute, except the sovereign already has executed at least one corporation for high crimes, and that in a Texas-based episode, too.  Of course I'm thinking of Arthur Andersen, sent to old sparky in 2002 for its role  in the Enron meltdown.  The decision to abolish one of the minuscule number of public auditing firms always struck me asthe dumbest one of the many dumb public policy decisions of the last decade--traceable in part, I have always suspected, to a confused notion of just what a corporate being might be (same reason I've got no use for the corporate income tax.

Meanwhile, UB's ever-watchful Wichita bureau notes that Pat Robertson's advice that you can ditch your Alzheimer's-afflicted spouse is based on some kind of notion that s/he's no longer a sentient being. Would Robertson use the same reasoning to excuse like, oh, say abortion?  No, no need to answer that.


Is there a reason why all my fonts have gone wacko?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ron Suskind on the Meaning of "Direct Quote"

Here's an excerpt from Terry Gross' interview with Ron Suskind, lifted from the NPR website:
GROSS: Just a question about the technique you use in telling the story, there's a lot of dialogue in the book. When something is in quotes, does that mean that it actually came from a transcript, a recording, or that's something that somebody directly told you?

SUSKIND: Yes, it's something someone directly told me, and the fact is almost all the quotes in the book are things that were directly told to me, and others in the room affirm. Yeah, that's pretty much exactly it. That's pretty much what I remember, too. And that's the way this reporting goes.
Boldface added, But read it again slowly.  What Terry is asking is "when you use quotation remarks, are you repeating the exact words that the quoted person said?" (as in, for example, the text I lifted above).   Suskind answers an entirely different question.  He's saying somebody directly told me that the quoted person said it (and I, Suskind, have independent confirmation).  In other words, when she asks: is the stuff in quotation marks an actual quotation, his answer is "no."

I'll give Suskind this much.  The ship has probably left the harbor on this one.  We're probably a dozen years--maybe more--away from the point where a "direct quote" was a "direct quote."  We've got to the point where "direct quote" means "at least two pieces of hearsay."  I suppose this is not the end of the world.  Maybe need,  maybe we are well served by, a word meaning "at  least two pieces of hearsay."  But we also need a word for "direct quote" in the old fashioned sense, and at the moment, we don't seem to have one.

Suskind goes on to say:

I have more than 200 sources here, more than 700 hours of interviews. I've been doing this, Terry, for 25 years. What's in the book is solid as a brick, and ultimately the White House will have to deal with it, whether internally or externally, in some way because this is really the history of this period.
Translated: I'm a player.  They're going to have to take me seriously.  And the fact that I put quotation marks around things that are not quotations--hey, as the fella in the blog said, "that train has left the station." 

Well, That's a Relief

Can we all agree that we no longer have to pay the slightest attention to this fathead, whose common decency has so clearly decamped for parts unknown?

What is it with Mad Men

Mr. and Mrs. Buce have been catching up on Mad Men, thanks to Netflix Qwikster, although for the life of me, I'm not sure why. I read all this stuff about how it's a nostalgia trip, about the great days when men were men and we all sat on top of the world. Actually I was alive and sentient in those days; my life certainly was not what I see on screen, although I'm willing to assume that some people probably be that way

The trouble is, all those people--they are all worthless pieces of crap not particularly evil, not particularly reflective people who keep getting themselves along with friends and strangers in whole boatloads of unspeakable trouble.

I started to write that they were "monsters" but that's the thing, they're not monsters; they're just people who do appalling things in unappalling ways.   They're like nothing so much as the Germans I read about in Claudia Koonz' The Nazi Conscience--all those good people who just drifted along in a fog of self-approval, never for a moment thinking what a mess they might be making of things.

My friend Dave says he doesn't like to watch movies about people doing stupid things because he always wants to yell out "don't do that or the bunny winds up in the pot!" Wonder if David is enjoying Mad Men. Can't say I am, yet oddly, I keep coming back for more.

Afterthought: I guess I'll make one exception--Joanie.   Joanie's a hustler and she's hard as nails, but she's way low on the self-deception meter, and she gives good advice

Dead Letter Office?

I came biking up to my front door a while ago, just as the postman was turning away from the mailbox, having dropped off the daily ration of catalogues and third-class envelopes.  "How're you doin', m'friend?"  I asked.  "Just fine," he replied, with a cheerful smile as he resumed his rounds.

It was ever thus.  I don't know about the rest of the world, but here in Palookaville, mail service is pure Sesame Street.  Mailpersons are unfailingly friendly, easygoing, cooperative.  For a while we had one who hummed hymns.  Which is not to say they're lazy.  Granted they don't sprint along at a trot, like UPS men do (or used to--they've slowed down, haven't they)?  But I never see one who isn't busy, taking stuff out of his truck, putting stuff into his truck, walking his beat, whatever.

And why not be happy?   He's out in the open air. He gets plenty of exercise.  For all our fussing, the weather is actually pretty good here.  And the customers are always glad to see him.

A good, steady job with benefits.  Just like his mother told him.  "Go to work for the Post Office," she said, "and you'll be set for life."

Wonder what she is saying now.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Steve Coll on the Virtues of the Newspaper Life

Steve Coll, explaining how he defines his role at The New America Foundation, recalls what is perhaps a surprising inspiration: the newsroom room.
As I considered the possibility [of becoming President of the Foundation], I reflected on my two years of semi-self-employment and worried that I might be getting dumber. I thought about all the ways being around other people’s talent and work in a newsroom had been part of my own way of working. New America has always been influenced by journalism--Fareed Zakaria and Jim Fallows were on the board, and Jim was the chairman when I was appointed. That gave me some comfort. The idea of sliding into an environment that might combine journalism and scholarship also appealed. But it was a bit of a leap of faith. It’s worked out wonderfully--the place has many of the benefits of a newsroom, in terms of all the smart and eclectic people working on interesting projects...
[H/T Ezra Klein]  That's particularly rich when you realize that his "two years of semi-self-employment" were spent with The New Yorker magazine.  But I can relate: I've had the unutterable privilege to spend (much of) the past 40 years on the faculty of one of the world's great universities (with working visits at several others).  I've had collegues with have been challenging, engaging and kind--people with whom I've been proud to share my working life.

Yet I'd have to say that the most stimulating crowd I ever kept company with are not the academics but the gang of ruffians in the city room at The Louisville Times, 1961-68.  They might not have been any brighter than the academics but they certainly weren't stupider and they had an ease, an openness about them that made life sweet beyond compare.  Of course, I was only 32 when I left and if you can't be happy in your 20s, you're in deep tapioca.

And I'd have to say that second place goes to another non-academic environment: the big round table in the back room at Wong's Chinese Restaurant at Sixth and Wilshire in LA.  This is where we repaired for lunch from the law firm where I spent a bit of time int he 70s and 80s.  Here, I suppose the theme was a common purpose and a common subject-matter.  We were a specialized bunch--bankruptcy--and the lunch-time give-and-take was the most stimulating seminar I've ever had the good luck to enjoy.

I suppose I'm putting my foot in it with my academic colleagues and I don't really want to: as I suggest they are extraordianry people and they've treated me with illimitable gnerosity and civility. But there is, ironically, something about the academy that can put you in  bit of a hole: everybody's work is a bit too specialized, too arcane: everybody has too many of his own deadlines, not enough time or disposition just to relax or explore.  And ah, to be 28 again...

Afterthought:  I just now remembered a familiar canard of my newspaper days: "It must be wonderful to be a newspaperman: you meet such interesting people."--"Yes, and they're all other newspapermen."

Not Enough Teachers?

I quoted a news account the other day that mentioned "a shortage of instructors" in a nursing program. Ken is skeptical. "[T]he idea," he harrumphs,"that a Community College less than 15 miles outside of Providence cannot find qualified teaching staff for a nursing program seems ludicrous."

Interesting point, hadn't thought of that, but here is a possible reason: credentialing. Might be that the program can't field a full time because it can't (or won't bother) to dot all the i's and cross all the t's you need to teach in the program. Call it trade unionism if you like--go ahead, call it that,, you are probably right. Of course, one reason this kind of trade unionism persists is precisely that we don't want the dean going out goodies at random to his brother in law. So we tie him up with a bunch of rules that keep him "honest," but keep good teachers and good students both waiting in the green room.

Anecdote: my friend Harry, sadly now dead, did a bit of sideline teaching at the "University" the "state college" and the "community college." He marveled over the irony that the further he moved down the pecking order, the more he had to do to prove his qualifications.

Graeber's Debt

I've just now put down (“finished” might be a bit strong) David Graeber's Debt: the First 5,000 Years . I find myself remembering what Harold Demsetz used to (maybe still does) say of John Kenneth Galbraith: he said "I can't find a testable hypothesis."  Same thing here. This is a highly entertaining read, brimming with ideas—or at least anecdotes that suggest ideas. It's easy enough to get a general notion of what he is up to but you'll play the very devil trying to figure out exactly what it is he is trying to say.

Graeber does have one worthwhile core point that he believes underlies much what he says. In a nutshell, we were born with a sense of obligation; debt emerges from the primordial ooze. All our sense what we owe to others begins there; it may ramify and permutate in a thousand ways but we all emerge from under the same. This is a fascinating and provocative idea, surely wrong in particular but no matter, still worth trying to clarify and understand.

A second fundamental idea is trickier. That is: Graeber seems to be trying to distinguish an older, more humane (?) form of obligation from a harder, more impersonal variety that we might call, for lack of a better name “economic.” This too is an interesting and provocative idea though at this point it is hardly a new one. Indeed, Graeber here seems to be flirting with a modern anthropology that is perhaps as old as Hesiod or Rousseau, if not Marx, saying nothing of so much of 19th and 20th Century anthropology—postulating a “primitive” past which can clarify our understanding and also provide a stage for criticism of the present.

The fact that this sort of thing has been tried before without success is no reason to try it again, but here is where Graeber gets maddeningly slippery. He makes much turn, for example on occasion of creation of coinage—an event that seems to occur simultaneously in various places around the world at, give or take, around 600 BC. Here we encounter, it seems, a new device for imposing state power: impose coins, use coins to collect taxes, uses taxes to build military might, all at the expense—the impoverishment—of “the poor,” particularly the peasants.

This is surely a plausible account of some events in some places at some times but it is far from clear how it fits into the larger story. For example, is he saying that state power creates coinage, or that coinage creates state power? If the former, of course we would like to know what does create state power. If the latter, it might be useful to spell out just how the new “coining empires”differ from other occurrences of human oppression—going back to, say, the rise of an agricultural surplus around, perhaps, 3000 BC. The very fact of an agricultural surplus yields priests, clerks, warriors and slaves, not so? Are we to believe that there is something about these earlier forms that are necessarily more humane than we get in the “coinage empires?”

I'd grant that Graeber's story seems most plausible—and he himself seems most energized—when he is talking about polities that impose themselves on weaker and less sophisticated neighbors—what he seems to have observed in brutally clear form in Madagascar under the French. But this isn''' the only form of debtor-commerce. Yet curiously, Graeber says little or nothing about “ordinary” or “every day” commerce. Indeed at one point he tries to show how a particular kind of exchange-counter is used not in the m market-place, but precisely for non-market transactions—marriage alliances, for example, or compensation for injury. He dismisses the market place, with seeming irony, as women's work. Yes, well, fine, but what is going on the market place? What is this woman's work, and how has it been carried out for all these thousands of years? It's an odd exclusion for a book with so vast a claim to coverage. Yet it's the kind of thing you come to expect from this stimulating, suggestive, yet ultimately exasperating, book.

And by the way, no, I do not repent of what I said the other day.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Miller and Kaufmann and Tito

Il Teatro Buce featured a weekend screening of Mozart's Clemenza di Tito, the Jonathan Miller production from Zurich in 2005.  Three things:
  • Jonathan Miller can be irritating, over the top, but he's always trying something.  A Mozart staging that looks like a cross between Tea with Mussolini and a lesbian wedding--actually, not nearly as crazy as it might sound.
  • Jonas Kaufmann is a great actor, in the sense that his Tito isn't remotely like his Werther or his Don Juan.
  • For once in his life, Mozart seems to have faxed it in.  But give him a break, he did it in twelve days to pay the maternity bills.  And he was thinking about Die Zauberflöte,  And the Requiem.  Oh, and dying.

War and Peace Again

I can remember the first time I decided that I was in good hands with Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. No, not the first page—W&P begins with what must surely be the most off-putting first sentence in classic literature (and in French, yet*). But here I am in Section VI of Part One (page 31 of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation). Pierre, the great bewildered protagonist of the piece (breaking his vow to Prince Andrei) decides to stop for a carouse at the home of the Kuragin clan. This is the night, we learn later, when Dolokhov ties the policeman to the bear and gets broken to the ranks for his cheek—but we don't know that yet. Instead:

Driving up to the porch of a large house near the horse guards' barracks—[Pierre] went up the lighted porch, the stairs, and entered an open door. There was no one in the front hall; empty bottles, capes, galoshes were lying about; there was a smell of wine, the noise of distant talking and shouting.

Cards and supper were over, but the guests had not dispersed yet. Pierre threw off his cape and went into the first room, where the remains of supper lay and one lackey, thinking no one could see him, was finishing on the sly what was left of the wine glasses.
My Italics.  That did it for me; we've been in two fashionable houses already before Kuragin's; we'll be in two more before this first part ends. But for all the gossip, the bravado, the intrigue, the pathos, the sly comedy, etc., etc.., Tolstoy saves time for the lackey nicking the dregs. For portraits of the high life (and its accompaniment), the only person who can match it would be Proust among the Guermantes. But Proust, for all his appeal, is more detached and austere, more ironic, often funnier but often less kind. It is Tolstoy who is open to anybody. It's right here that I knew I was in good hands and that I had never, ever, read any novel so good (I had not yet read Proust; I had read Shakespeare, but he's not a novelist).

That was about 45 years ago. Mr. and Mrs. Buce have now embarked on their second readaloud of War and Peace. The first was about ten years ago; this, then, would be my third time through, and I must say it has lost none of its allure. Given our various distractions, planned and otherwise, we ar probably set for the winter. No matter; I'll say again as I said the first time: for my money, War and Peace is too short. 

 -- *Eh bien, mon prince, Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des помѣстья, de la famille Buonaparte. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Tesco Goon Squad

I don't recall that I have ever in my life  copied down a supermarket price, but this one really frosts my underwear.

Why Your Trip Need Never Be a Failure

 There's a story common among newsmen about the cub reporter sent out to cover a launching.  He came back with an apology: there was no launching:--the ship sank. Hand the mike to Michael Gilleland, channeling Laurence Sterne in Sterne's Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768): 

I pity the man who can travel from Dan to Beersheba, and cry, 'Tis all barren;—And so it is; and so is all the world to him who will not cultivate the fruits it offers. I declare, said I, clapping my hands chearily together, that were I in a desert, I would find out wherewith in it to call forth my affections—if I could not do better, I would fasten them upon some sweet myrtle, or seek some melancholy cypress to connect myself to;—I would court their shade, and greet them kindly for their protection—I would cut my name upon them, and swear they were the loveliest trees throughout the desert: if their leaves wither'd, I would teach myself to mourn; and, when they rejoiced, I would rejoice along with them.

So it all depends on what you are looking for.   I'd be just as glad if my tour operator didn't try to fob me off with that excuse but I agree, bar one important qualification: Dan and Beersheba are not all barren, not even to the jaundiced eye.  In fact it's one of the most important things when I first visited Israel just a few years ago.  I mean, I  think of myself as a person of some imagination and I had certainly done my Sunday School homework, but I had to see for myself to grasp the first principle of Biblical geography:  Beersheba is a desert but Dan is green.  Indeed, that is the whole point: Galilee is a garden, Israel is a rock garden.  Two different things. Other than that, yes, and as Yogi Berra perhaps did not say, you can see by observing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

How the Mighty have Fallen

Guys' gotta do what a guy's gotta do: I'm holding in my hand a brochure for a package tour of the Baltic featuring (wait for it, folks) Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Wałęsa.  Wonder if they get along?  Next up: a Mafia tour of Sicily with Vito Corleone.

Oops, Would Have Missed It

Marilyn advises that today's Google Doodle honors Albert Szent-Györgyi de Nagyrápolt. But you knew. Happy 118th, Albert.

Bruce Schneier tells us What Happened

Fine biblio of stuff you may want to read to bring yourself up to date on 9/11, from Bruce Schneier's Crypto-Gram:  link.

Thought for the Day: Research

From my friend Ignoto, down at the hedge fund investment desk:

Fact is, people relying on the sell-side [research] 
for anything other than data aggregation 
are in for a world of hurt.

There, that about gets it.

David Graeber Spins some Threads out of His Own Gizzard

I'm enjoying David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  Honest I am,  no matter what they tell you.  It is energetic and fluent: I bet he is a slashing debater.  And he's telling me all kinds of stuff I didn't know about what "anthropologists know" about debt.  I use quotations because in my own right I haven't the slightest notion what "anthropologists know" and he might just be a guy with a briefcase 20 miles from home.  No matter--I especially like the stuff about the provenance of our money system.  He notes that all economists say the sequence was money-barter, with debt working its way in sideways, while all anthropologists know it was debt-money-barter.  I'd say he's right enough about economist; whether he is right about anthropologists is an issue on which I have to be agnostic but it certainly makes a good story.

But when you come to a paragraph like this, you really have to reach for the smelling salts:

 Since colonial days, Americans have been the population least sympathetic to debtors. In a way this is odd, since America was settled largely by absconding debtors, but it’s a country where the idea that morality is a matter of paying one’s debts runs deeper than almost any other. In colonial days, an insolvent debtor’s ear was often nailed to a post. The United States was one of the last countries in the world to adopt a law of bankruptcy: despite the fact that in 1787, the Constitution specifically charged the new government with creating one, all attempts were rejected on “moral grounds” until 1898.  
--Graeber, David (2011-07-12). Debt: The First 5,000 Years (p. 16).
 Melville House. Kindle Edition. 

Oh, where to begin. In   the first, the Constitution never "specifically charged" anyone to make bankruptcy law; all it did was provide that no one but Congress had the power.  Second, it is not true that "all attempts were rejected" until 1898; we had Federal bankruptcy laws from 1801 to 1803; from 1841 to 1843 and again from 1867 to 1878.   Meanwhile virtually every state abolished debtors' prisons in the early 19th Century.  Many states adopted "stay laws" to fend off collection (in the teeth of the Constitutional prohibition against state bankruptcy).  Almost every new state admitted in the mid-19th Century adopted a "homestead law" to protect some or all of the debtor's real estate.   Moreover the late 19th Century was also the golden age of the "railroad receivership" which, while it did not bear the B-name, certainly seemed to have functioned as a device to thwart the efforts of many creditors to vindicate their claims.  The 19th Century also saw the rise of the limited liability company which  from the beginning functioned like a bankruptcy discharge insofar as it capped the liability of the investor .   Just in general, as  David Moss documents, "Americans had long displayed a penchant for forgiving or otherwise relieving distressed debtors..." Indeed it appears that the very fertility and ingenuity of 18th-Century states in devising debtor-protection policies is the reason why the drafters assigned the bankruptcy power to the Constitution in the first place.

A deeper problem is that Graeber doesn't seem to grasp what bankruptcy law is about.  He's really discussing the bankruptcy discharge, whereby a debtor may be excused from liability on his debts. But bankruptcy has a history as a collection device--often punitive--that long precedes its function of an organ of debtor relief (last time I checked, the French still punished banqueroute as a crime, and the Italians used banca rotta as a means to collect debts).   In a footnote, Graeber says that "England already had a national bankruptcy law in 1571." I think most bankruptcy scholars would agree that England did not have anything like the modern discharge until 1705.  Bankruptcy was typically "involuntary"--adverse to the debtor--and why not?  One wouldn't think of volunteering for bankruptcy in those days anymore than one would volunteer for a root canal.  If Graeber understand this, he isn't letting on.

Beyond that, it is difficult to evaluate the "argument," because it is difficult to figure out exactly what he is saying. Examples:  "Least sympathetic to debtors..."  "Morality is a matter of paying one's debts..."  How the hell does he know that--in the teeth, for example, of the examples set forth above?  Is he aware that through much of the 20th Century we were the virtually the only country in the world to have a self-executing off-the-rack bankruptcy discharge available to virtually any debtor for the price of a failing fee (we've tightened the screws a bit lately--and other countries have loosened theirs--but the situation is not a lot different)?  Still more: "Settled largely by absconding debtors..."  Is he thinking of the "what-was-your-name-in-the-stats" fandango, whereby settlers were said to move to new states, fleeing obligations in the old?   Does he know whether this really happened, or whether it subsists only as a folk song?   Anyway, if it did happen, isn't it evidence that the United States was in fact compassionate to debtors, not the other way around?    As to nailing ears to the wall, I'd love to know what kind of evidence he has for that.  It's a favorite bit of bankruptcy folklore; I suspect it always existed far more in legend than in fact.

Starting from a record like this, you come up with two choices: don't know, or don't care.  I vote for "don't care," and for one very specific reason.  That is: Graeber after all this free-floating hubba hubba offers up a footnote in which he actually mentions the 1867-78 bankruptcy act ("briefly," he says), and  the 1801 act ("foundered").  This would seem flatly to contradict his statement that " all attempts were rejected" until 1898.  Apparently these troublesome details would have destroyed the linearity of the presentation.  So the book remains, as I say, a highly entertaining book and perhaps even instructive, but for the moment I think I'll file it under "fiction."