Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Supreme Moments

As the epigraph to a highly readable biography of Daniel Defoe, the biographer, Richard West, lifts a passage from one John R. Moore, otherwise unknown to me:*

It is striking that when Robert Louis Stevenson wished to describe the supreme moments in imaginative literature, he instanced only two examples from modern writers, and those two writers were Defoe and Bunyan. Crusoe recoiling from the footprint ... Christian running with his fingers ears; each has been printed on the mind's eye for ever.
Here's the beginning of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress:

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and, behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein, and as he read he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, "What shall I do?

In this plight, therefore, he went home, and refrained himself as long as he could, that his wife and children should not perceive his distress; but he could not be silent long, because that his trouble increased; wherefore, at length, he brake his mind to his wife and children, and thus he began to talk to them: "O! my dear wife, (said he,) and you the children of my bowels, I, your dear friend, am in myself undone, by reason of a burden that lieth hard upon me. Moreover, I am for certain informed, that this our city will be burnt with fire from heaven; in which fearful overthrow both myself, with thee my wife, and you my sweet babes, shall miserably come to ruin, except (the which yet I see not) some way of escape may be found, whereby we may be delivered." At this his relations were sore amazed; not for that they believed that what he had said to them was true, but because they thought that some frenzy distemper had got into his head; therefore, it drawing towards night, and they hoping that sleep might settle his brains, with all haste they got him to bed: but the night was as troublesome to him as the day; wherefore, instead of sleeping, he spent it in sighs and tears. So, when the morning was come, they would know how he did; he told them, Worse and worse. He also set to talking to them again; but they began to be hardened. ...

So I saw in my dream, that the man began to run: now he had not run far from his own door, when his wife and children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life, life, eternal life! So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.
Here's Crusoe finding the footprint:
But now I come to a new scene of my life. It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition. I listened, I looked round me, but I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one; I could see no other impression but that one. I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my fancy; but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the print of a foot - toes, heel, and every part of a foot. How it came thither I knew not, nor could I in the least imagine; but after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man. Nor is it possible to describe how many various shapes my affrighted imagination represented things to me in, how many wild ideas were found every moment in my fancy, and what strange, unaccountable whimsies came into my thoughts by the way.

When I came to my castle (for so I think I called it ever after this), I fled into it like one pursued.
Moore, as quoted by Bass, also mentions two ancients: "Achilles shouting over against the Trojans; Ulysses bending the great bow.  In his great anthology, The Limits of Art, Huntington Cairns does not quote Defoe at all; of Bunyan, he quotes the beginning and the end, but does  not include the fingers in the ears.  From the ancients, he is silent on Odysseus' bow. He does quote the shout of Achilles, and appends a comment from Thomas de Quincy:
Simply by his voice he changes the face of the battle.  He shouts, and nations fly from the sound.  Never but once again is such a shout recorded by a poet--
He called so loud, that all the hollow Deep
Of Hell resounded.
Who called?  That shout was the shout of an archangel.
De Quincy is quoting Milton, Paradise Lost, i, 314.

Query would anybody accept Moore's judgment today?  Would anyone care about the judgment of Stevenson?  How would one rewrite the passage?
*But Moore has a Facebook page


My Iphone went missing for about 12 hours yesterday which is to say, it stayed out all night without telling me where it was going or when it would be back.  It finally showed up around breakfast time, nestled behind the sliding mirror door in the bedroom.  That's as if it would expect me to believe it had been there all along, having landed there, perhaps on the second hop, after having scuttered away from the bedside table.

Like most people in unwholesome dependency, in my deprivation I was beside myself with panic and anger, somewhere between the second and third stages of grief when it finally stopped fooling around and revealed its demure presence. Whereupon it occurred to me to marvel as to how much cell phones resemble cats.  And it's not just the occasional jarring squack in the middle of the night.  No, far more general: cell phones like cats live with us only at sufferance, because (and for so long as) we attend to their needs: they only pretend to show us affection in little spasms of Turing-test mimicry that delude us into the cruelly erroneous believing that they really care.  And somehow we can never  begin to foresee and plan for the ungodly expense.

Now you'll excuse me while I go empty the litt--er, untangle the charging cords.   


Related Question:  Why is it that all the things women love in cats are the same thing that drive them so nutso about men?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Crib Notes on Cohan

I read William Cohan's Goldman Sachs book with pleasure and profit, but if you haven't that kind of time, you might want to take a look at the piece on it by James Macdonald in the London Review of Books.  Coyly I don't call it a "review," because it is really more of a précis.  But a good précis it is and might save you  some time.

Aftertought: I haven't read Macdonald's own Free Nation Deep  in Debt; not on the Kindle.  Palgrave, are you listening?

Carlos, and a New Movie Sensibility

Mr. and Mrs. Buce (enjoyed) (patiently endured) (choose one) Carlos, Olivier Assayas' three-night miniseries about the free-lance troublemaker who became a sort of public face of international terrorism in the 1980s.  It's a mixed bag.  I wouldn't give it anywhere near the 94% score that Carlos enjoys right now over at Rotten Tomatoes (but apparently that is the shorter, theatre, version, so maybe they are beyond compare).  But it certainly has its virtues.  It's ambitious in scope--the budget for location shots must have come across as humongous enough to snap your suspenders.  There is lots of patient attention to detail.  Perhaps surprisingly for a film featuring so much killing and mayhem, it succeeds in presenting itself as restrained without seeming prim--there is a lot more violence porn in almost any episode of The Sopranos.  

So I'd go so far as to say that Assayas really has tried to let the story tell itself, bur this kind of restraint becomes a problem in its own right.  That is: even after five-plus hours, you really don't feel you know much about Carlos except that he is a clumsy risk-taker with a more than ordinary appetite for violence.  We're told almost nothing about his pre-movement past.  That's a blessing, in that we are spared the sight of (say) a youthful innocent Carlos suffering injustice at the hands of a sadistic ninth-grade geometry teacher in an encounter that vaults the child straight off to a campaign for world domination.  But we also get none but the sketchiest mention of the fact that his nonfiction father was (is?) a more-than-prosperous lawyer and self-styled Marxist who deliberately named his children after revolutionary icons (By the way, would this movement past explain why the young Carlos can take his date to a five-star restaurant?  Or was that bit just  a concession to the market for entertainment?).  When--abruptly, at the beginning of the series--the young Carlos shows up and confers himself on some Palestinian insurgents,you get the sense that they are just as puzzled as we are.

I suppose you might say that this was Assayas' grand plan: precisely to let us wonder what the Hell Carlos was up to and to come to see--slowly and over time, just as his sponsors did--that he was just a thrill-seeker and not a very effective on at that.  In the end, just lucky.  Or at least until he wasn't lucky any more at which point his handlers sold him to the French (he has languished in a French jail on one conviction since 1994, and is on trial for another outrage right now, today).

My God, as Peggy Lee would say "is that all there is?"  Unless Assayas is a far less accomplished film-maker than I surmise, the answer is "yes." No grand subtext, no manifesto, just a boy and his AK-47, an AK-47 and his boy.  If that leaves the viewer feeling perplexed and bewildered, imagine how it must have felt to some of his co-conspirators, not least his number one girl, the mother of his child--she who thought she was joining the campaign to redress injustice and wound up getting screwed on a countertop.   Carlos, then, was never the Nicolae Carpathia.  He's just a lunkhead  who liked to flash his equipment around.

Shifting gears a bit--we broke out our long evengs of Carlos with a viewing of Zen, the detective series out of the Michael Dibden novels, launched and then throttled by the BBC.  It's an amiable entertainment with the usual cop-mystery gimmicks plus a lot of Rome location shots, and who cannot love Rome location shots?   So, what does it all have to do with Carlos?  In a word, deracination.  Both shows, though in different ways, develop a certain aesthetic of rootlessness that reminds the viewer that he is living in a new and different world.

 Grant that Carlos comes by its rootlessness honestly.  Carlos himself is Venezuelan by birth.  Assayas of course is French, but we hear also plenty of Arabic, German, Hungarian, heaven knows what else.  Which is exactly how Carlos lived his life, at least until they locked him up.  In Zen, it's rootlessness of a different sort. You could call  this an "Italian" mystery but in so many ways it is about as Italian as Marmite pizza.  Almost everything about the structure is exported from a thousand BBC ancestors: Aurelio Zen clearly shares DNA with Inspector Morse and Miss Marple.  But more obviously, it's the cast: they're almost all British and they're isn't the slightest suggestion that they are anything else.  Hey, this is not a docudrama: this is Roman holiday.

I gather this is at least the second time the BBC has done this kind of thing.  Mrs. B watched (I did not) a bit of Kennth Branagh strutting his stuff s Henning Mankell's Inspector Wallander.  Now, that one really does sound like Marmite pizza.   With herring. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Civil Service Libertarians

James Fuller is bemused:

Apparently federal employees have donated more money to Ron Paul than any other GOP candidate. This leads me to believe that either 1) They don’t realize he wants to fire them or 2) Everyone in government is actually like Ron Swanson.
[Do you feel the need to Google "Ron Swanson"? Go here.] I vote for a modified version of the Ron Swanson gambit, and I also think the donors know perfectly well what Ron Paul wants to do with public jobs; I'll explain in a moment. But before I get to that latter point, let me testify from a long and only moderately corrupt life that civil service employees are, taking pound for pound, among the most conservative people I've met. Recall, our search set includes not just Head Start teachers and legal aid lawyers (although some of them might surprise you); it also includes all those cops and prison guards and soldiers and spooks and security people and--and much more than that, it also includes the nameless, faceless multitudes who have done so much to keep eyeshades and sleeve garterrs and the good people at Steelcase in business. These people love good order and predictability; they're awed by authority and they think the hordes in the street really ought to show 'em some respect.

People keep rolling their eyes at the idea that Michele Bachmann worked as a tax enforcer. Doesn't surprise me. I bet she felt right at home. Wouldn't be surprised if that was where she learned it. My old friend Bob, an ink-stained-wretch variety newspaperman, in loved to tell about the right-of-Ivanhoe state-supported barracudas he used to meet on his home turf in Maryland, just over the border from Satan central. "Has that guy ever met a payroll?" the bureaucrat would snarl, with no visible betrayal of irony (Bob would answer: "have you ever carried a precinct?")

Which brings me back to point one--do they know what Ron Paul intends to do to the civil service. Answer: sure they know. And they're just pretty sure it won't apply to them. They're secure in their own minds that once the cleansing battalion sweeps through the stable, their jobs will be just as indispensable as--probably moreso than-- before.

And you know what? They are probably right. Okay, I grant, almost every libertarian has at least a wisp of principle: Ron Paul does think we could get along with a less bloaated military budget, and the occasional nutcake like Bob Barr can sometimes be discerned saying that individual due-process rights might actually have some content. But for the most part, I think you can guarantee that on the morning after the libertarian revolution, most that repressive or constraining--the most authoritarian parts--will be sittin' on top of the furnace eatin' chocolates.

Which raises my only (mild, tentative) reservation about Ron Swanson. Apparently the writers just couldn't figure out how to stage their character without at least a glimmer of cognitive dissonance. My guess is that in real life, that kind of uncertainty is a lot harder to find.   

Nobody is a Self-Creation

I know I'm late getting to the party but I want to recall for a moment the faux kerfuffle over Elizabeth Warren and her assertion that no one--no one--is a creation of him (her) self alone.  To my mind this insight is so self-evidently right I can't imagine how anybody can begin to see the world otherwise (but it takes all kinds, doesn't it?).  Anyway, my immediate (belated) point is that ever since I first saw her viral video, I've been recalling my favorite Christmas poem--W.H. Auden's For the Time Being, previously quoted in this forum.  Readers will remember it as a solilloquy of Herod the great and why he just had to slaughter that infant to save the world from perdition. Herod begins by counting his blessings -- "let me honor," he says, "those through whom my naure is by necessity what it is." And:

To Fortune that I have become Tetrarch, that I have escaped assassination, that at sixty my head is clear and my digestion sound.

To my Father for the means to gratify my love of travel and study.

To my Mother for a straight nose.

To Eva, my coloured nurse for regular habits.

To my brother, Sandy, who married a trapeze-artist and died of drink for so refuting the position of the Hedonists.

To Mr. Stewart, nicknamed: The Carp, who instructed me in the elements of geometry through which I came to perceive the errors of the tragic poets.

To Professor Lighthouse for his lectures on The Peloponnesian War.

To the stranger on the boat to Sicily for recommending to me Brown on Resolution.

To my secretary, Miss Button for admitting that my speeches were inaudible.
Readers may also recognize that Auden is here making an homage to Marcus Aurelius who begins his Meditations with the same kind of catalog. But the Emperor appears to be far more grateful; his list extends over several pages. I excerpt:

I. Of my grandfather Verus I have learned to be gentle and meek, and to refrain from all anger and passion. From the fame and memory of him that begot me I have learned both shamefastness and manlike behaviour. Of my mother I have learned to be religious, and bountiful; and to forbear, not only to do, but to intend any evil; to content myself with a spare diet, and to fly all such excess as is incidental to great wealth. Of my great-grandfather, both to frequent public schools and auditories, and to get me good and able teachers at home; and that I ought not to think much, if upon such occasions, I were at excessive charges.
And so forth and so forth. But perhaps in particular:

VIII. Of Fronto, to how much envy and fraud and hypocrisy the state of a tyrannous king is subject unto, and how they who are commonly called Εὐπατρίδα, i.e. nobly born, are in some sort incapable, or void of natural affection.
Εὐπατρίδα= "Eupatrida," the well-born though oddly, the translator leaves it in the original Greek.  Now, I wonder where I can find a copy of Brown on Resolution...

Who's In Charge Here?--Management Secrets from the Kansas Governor

Nice to see that Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has been successfully bullied out of his attempt to bully an improvident teenager into silence.   I guess it is nice also that he took the occasion to remind us what a cheap, cheeseparing whiner he really is.  Sorry about that says the governor.  "My staff overreacted."

OH GIVE ME A BREAK.  Governor,  my guess is that your staff did  just exactly what you wanted them to do, under the principle of deniability--whereby it is their first job to try whatever might work,  and their second job (if the first goes off the rails), to fall on the grenade.    I can only hope they understood that they were signing up for CIA-type loyalty, and that they are amply compensated for the honor.  Remember, governor, hard to get good help these days.

Okay, suppose I am wrong.  Suppose this is not a forethought strategy.  Still, remember Peter Drucker's insight: if you assign a staffer to do something and the staffer screws it up, you are at fault.  Either you gave the job to the wrong guy, or you didn't train him right, or you left him without adequate supervision.  The job of a manager is to manage--not just to collect paychecks and blame the screwups on somebody else.   

I Never Did Understand How to Play Politics (But I'm Not Alone)

Oy, it's a confusing day over at the Google Reader.  I down my first espresso with Tom Carlson's "Snobs Like Us," where he reminds all of us* bicoastal flyovers that we do a piss-poor job of showing any respect for the great  unwashed.   It's hard, I know; some people aren't even tryin', but it's just not easy to say "cling to their guns" without sounding disdainful.  On the other hand, I think Carlson misreads the quip from Adlai Stevenson to the woman who said that "every thinking person will be voting for you--"“Madam, that’s not enough," he is said to have quipped in response and I don't read that as hauteur quite so much as the words of a man who really didn't want to be President all that much anyway (and would indeed have come across in the job as mediocre at best, IMHO).

Hard not to sound disdainful when you just want to help.  Which is precisely why the forces of darkness find it so easy to pound the stuffing out of the chatterers with stuff like the phoney, tarted-up, made-for-cable "war against Christmas."  And so I resonate with Tod Kelly in his asperity as he declares that "no, we are not making War on Christmas, or anything else for that matter, not even Justin Beiber (well: exception for Justin Beiber)."   But as Kelly must realize (or he wouldn't get so irritaed), apopleptic rage won't get you anywhere, except insofar as it gives your transient readers (me) a momentary feelgood.  You know the ones that are hurling all that fecal matter are precisely the guys who are causing the problem, but you don't seem to be able to do anything about it.

Which makes you ready to go completely around the bend when you read Bob Moser's splendid narrative of the Texas-style Caesaropapism on offer through Rick Perry.  Perry's adversaries are having a field day ending every sentence with "and, um, I forget the third thing."  But the laughter is giddy because in the back of their minds they know that zombies rise to walk among us all the time.

Hey, bub, who you callin' a zombie? Oh, no, no, that's not what I meant, just listen to me, please understand...
*I keep trying to insist that I am not, dammit, a snobby bicoastal flyover but if you read my resume I guess the charge is going to stick.    

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"That One, Out!"

This just in, folks--Newt Gingrich has an idea:
...a “citizen review” process that would put ordinary citizens on juries to decide whether individual illegal immigrants should be granted legal status or deported.
Well for once, ol' Newtie is singing music to my ears.  For years I've thought we ought to have a scheme at the law school where every professor got three peremptory challenges, such that, as a student pranced down the commencement gangway, you could holler "that one, out!"--and a trap door would open and the offender would tumble to oblivion, or more narrowly, just never to be seen or heard again.  It;'s a bit like the British Navy or interestate concealed carry: just letting folks know you have the power will win a lot of arguments, and you won't have to use the device all that much.

My only limitation is that (as is so often the case) Newt is being to cautious.  I'd to have the rule apply to the entire neighborhood: every year, we'd get together and vote folks off the island.   Or maybe we could just have a lottery,and the loser gets stoned to death.  Oh, you say it's been tried

In Short, I Blame Ron Paul

The Wichita Bureau is enjoying some good clean hilarity this morning over a septic tank fraud--two guys who are facing up to twenty years' hard time for hornswoggling gullible customers into buying up to 70 years' supply of "special toilet paper."   Their angle: the government is making you do it.  New rules require a special product.

I suppose I am making too much of this, but may we not read this as another instance of the prevailing paranoia?  I mean, in the sense that there is no idea too weird or far-fetched or downright silly to be believed,  so long as you can get the mark to accept that it is the fault of some pin-head in Washington?  Once we've got the bureaucrats in the cross-hairs, then all, ahem, crap detectors go into sleep mode?

Reminds me of my long-ago-friend Rick who blamed the absence of a domestic revolutionary tradition on the low quality of prison toilet paper: thin, insipid tissue no good for memorializing your manifesto.  Stow these guys with some of their own product and maybe they can start a whole new, you know, movement.  Heh.   

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Return with me Now...

Katie Benner's account of the inglorious misfire of  Robert Kelly (i.e., when he tried and failed to become CEO of Bank of America) is interesting enough although I think it is perhaps another instance of lede-blowing.  What fascinates me most is the stuff about his former home at Bank of New York Mellon.

I mean: lamentably we've all come to understand is that a large part of our problem is that a bank ain't a bank any more.  Bankers used to be your friend: guys who helped you build businesses, and put you into deals.  These days a bank is--well, remember my friend Ignoto, a money placer for a big pension fund who says he won't put any money into a deal managed by a major bank because he figures one way or another, the bank will be his enemy.

Not so, it appears, at Bank of New York Mellon.  As Benner summarizes:

[I]t's a highly conservative, old-line institution that specializes in mundane, grind-it-out businesses and prizes tradition, self-effacement, and loyalty. It is a major player in asset management. But its signature franchise, where it ranks No. 1 globally, is asset servicing -- the business of performing record keeping, securities lending, and back-office tasks for investment funds and financial institutions. 
More: on the bank's board, per Benner,  "for the most part, the directors were CEOs or retired CEOs of medium-sized to fairly big companies, often from the Midwest, and they shared a 'you work for us' attitude toward management."  A former board member is quoted as saying that "It didn't have high-profile people, but it was a smart, capable group."

This is almost comical, not so?  Comical in the sense that a go-go zillionaire trader, confronted with such a picture, could barely restrain himself from giggling?   News, folks: there is an old-fashioned bank, and it is right here in New York, and actually on Wall Street.  How could we not have noticed?

How, indeed.  But there is at least one gaping hole in my story.  That is: if they are such a bunch of (in the best sense) old fogeys, how did the board members snooker themselves into buying Kelly in the first place?  It's hard to say.  He may be a talented banker (and for a story about career mismanagement, Benner's is a  remarkably softball piece).  But a careful reader might well speculate that, aside from a bit of computer programming, Kelly's primary skill was and is self-promotion.  Apparently he loves to give speeches, and to draw--literally--caricatures.

But then, maybe we are both wrong.  Maybe the real story is the one that didn't happen.  Think of it: Bank of America?  Tanking stock price.  Debit card fees.  Toxic mortgages.  Power outage--you never ever have power outage at a bank.  Is there any corporate executive in America with more snakes on his breakfast plate than Brian Moynihan,  the man who did get the job that Kelly lusted after?  Perhaps the unpublished first draft is the one headed 'the luckiest man alive."  

I'm Still Big; It's the Chop Suey that got Small

Forget about Chun King Chow Mein:  what Jeno Paulucci did that really deserves our gratitude was to invent the "Divider Pak," which keeps the food separate from the sauce.  But if Paulucci (who died yesterday at 93) was so rich, why was he still living in Duluth?

Sadly, one thing I cannot find on line is a YouTube link to Stan Freberg's "Chun Kingston Trio."  But there's this:

Afterthought:  The Wichita bureau and I are engaged in an amiable inquiry over whether the stuff was actually any good or not.  My guess is that it probably tasted okay by the standards of the 50s, but that our palates have changed enough that these days if we fed it to the dog, he'd call PETA.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tom Wicker

Tom Wicker, who reported the Kennedy Assassination for The New York Times from Dallas, died yesterday at 85. Wicker enjoyed a distinguished career as a correspondent, bureau chief and writer of novels and nonfiction.  The Times obit under the byline of Robert McFadden is a gripping piece of work from a reporter who has previously made his bones at this sort of thing. But consider:

Mr. Wicker was a hefty man, 6 feet 2 inches tall, with a ruddy face, jowls, petulant lips and a lock of unruly hair that dangled boyishly on a high forehead. He toiled in tweeds in pinstriped Washington, but seemed more suited to a hammock and straw hat on a lazy summer day. The casual gait, the easygoing manner, the down-home drawl set a tone for audiences, but masked a fiery temperament, a ferocious work ethic, a tigerish competitiveness and a stubborn idealism, qualities that made him a perceptive observer of the American scene for more than a half century.
What would you say are the odds that Wicker wrote this himself?  


I admit it, I'm a guy; I like silly toys.  So I put the (free) app on my Iphone that tracks my bike mileage.  First day, I saw my bike ride yielded me a crummy 255 calories--depressing but probably true.  Second day, I took just about the same route, but this time, by accident, I punched run instead of ride and came up with (gulp) 950 calories.  My stars and garters, is running that much harder than riding?

Oh no, wait--the device assumed that I was running at the same speed at which I was actually biking--a nice lazy, leisurely bike speed, but one which, had I been on foot, would have made me a respectable marathoner.   And no, I am not going to spell out the details.  And no, I am absolutely not going to post it on Facebook.

Funniest Commercial Ever

I think this one is way ahead of all those people waist-deep in almonds, even ahead of the little Japanese kid farting in the bathtub--how will the world's worst dictators spend Christmas:

H/T Boingboing.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Immune to Parody

I think I've found the one song utterly immune to parody, unless you count unconscious self-parody.  That would be the traditional Thanksgiving favorite, "We Gather Together...."  YouTube provides no Muppet version, no Klezmer, no Tom Waite, none illustrated by Munch's Scream.  Just straight-up old-fashioned American kitsch.

Except not quite American.  Wiki explains that it's originally Dutch, apparently first a folk tune, refashioned into a hymn in 1597 to celebrate a military victory over the Spanish.  The author is one Adrianus Valerius, poet and toll collector and author of an anthology, Nederlandtsche gedenck-clanck.  The familiar American text dates only to 1894.  The English internal rhymes ("chastens and hastens") mirror the original Dutch ("boven am loven").  There are other English renderings; one begins "We gather to worship Jehovah, the righteous,/Who verily sitteth in Jugdment severe."

Wiki reports that the hymn evidently gained popularity during World War II, when its talk of "the wicked oppressing" was taken to refer to thr Germans and the Japanese.  The original circumstances were less triumphal.   The Netherlandish commander whom Wiki describes as "the ever prudent [Prince] Maurice" proved imprudent on the occasion of the original battle and the war extended for another 51 years.

Lacking a parody rendition, here's the least parodic rendition I can find: link.   

Meanwhile, if you need some real genre-bending, go listen to what Uri Caine does with Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Actually, I Think there are Way Too Many Places

There aren’t too many places a 400-pound guy with an attitude can go and beat the crap out of somebody and not get locked up for it.

Mrs. Buce Asks: Turkeys

"Why do we pardon Turkeys at Thanksgiving?  Shouldn't we be thankful for turkeys?"

She necessarily raises the question of what holiday is appropriate for pardoning.  Yom Kippur I suppose, although Yom Kippur has nothing to do with turkeys.  Unless, of course, the turkey is oneself. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Teutonic Humor

Just tumbled out of a bin of not-thrown-away stuff:

Seems to say: "He just hopped off the next you know! And no more questions about your papa!"   Really gets 'em slapping the thighs under their lederhosen.

Another Outsider

Here's something else I never knew before: Deng Xiaoping, the great privatizer of modern China, was a Hakka; that is to say, member of an ethnically distinct subgroup in China, with its own language and a kinda sorta outsider status.  Am told that "Hakka" means "visitor" or "traveller" (Traveller?  Gypsies are "Travellers," not so?).   It appears the Hakka have punched way above their weight in producing leaders for the government and the military--evidently Lee Kwan Yew, long the leader of Singapore, is a Hakka at least on one side.

Comparisons between Chinese Hakka and western Jews are tempting but I suppose inexact.  But would it be too much to add Deng to the list of outsider-leaders, along with the Corsican Napoleon Bonapart, the Georgian Joseph Stalin, the Ukranian Nikita Khrushchev, the Hungarian Nicolas Sarkozy and of course the Kryptonian Barack Obama?  

Follow the Money

Seems like everything in my Reader this morning is about who gains/loses from the inglorious  of the super committee. Here's a GOP Congressman on how the Super Committee failed because the Dems refused to privatize Medicare.   Here's   Jia Lynn Yang on how failure jeopardizes payroll tax cut, and Rebecca Leber on how the  collapse leaves Big Oil subsidies untouched.  A zillion people are telling you that the "failure" wasn't a failure at all--that it was bound to happen, that it's good for the President, whatever. Meanwhile, you get the sense that defense cuts and an end to  unemployment benefits just ain't gonna happen.

Oh, and this just in: pepper is a vegetable.  Apparently so is ketchup, but opinions are divided on pizza.    

Monday, November 21, 2011

Kahneman's Friend

A day's cooling my heels in the juror waiting room was a fine place to catch up on what must be the hottest new academic book--Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow.  As so many have said, it's a delight.  That's not so much  because it is revolutionary--almost anyone who follows public policy blogs will recognize the important ideas and many of the examples--but because of the unforced ease with which Kahneman lays out the narrative of his own intellectual progress and, inevitably, his account of his collaboration with the late Amos Tversky, whom Kahneman has always been at pains to identify as a full collaborator in this his most important project.

Indeed one of the many charms of the book is his detailed chronicle of his extraordiary collaboration.  It's not a eulogy exactly: Tversky died in 1996 and Kahneman is clear-headed to understand that life goes on, even after with whom you have shared so much.  And although Kahneman clearly admires Tversky, it's not excessively worshipful.  Kahneman leaves the reader in no doubt that he sees himself and Tversky as having been a team, by lucky accident able to enjoy the kind of cooperative endeavor for which most academics would cheerfully push their grandmother in front of a trolley car.
... Amos and I discovered that we enjoyed working together. Amos was always very funny, and in his presence I became funny as well, so we spent hours of solid work in continuous amusement. The pleasure we found in working together made us exceptionally patient; it is much easier to strive for perfection when you are never bored. Perhaps most important, we checked our critical weapons at the door. Both Amos and I were critical and argumentative, he even more than I, but during the years of our collaboration neither of us ever rejected out of hand anything the other said. Indeed, one of the great joys I found in the collaboration was that Amos frequently saw the point of my vague ideas much more clearly than I did. Amos was the more logical thinker, with an orientation to theory and an unfailing sense of direction. I was more intuitive and rooted in the psychology of perception, from which we borrowed many ideas. We were sufficiently similar to understand each other easily, and sufficiently different to surprise each other. We developed a routine in which we spent much of our working days together, often on long walks. For the next fourteen years our collaboration was the focus of our lives, and the work we did together during those years was the best either of us ever did. We quickly adopted a practice that we maintained for many
Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 5-6). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

I know I will raise the emotional temperature by doing what I'm about to do but I can't help but remember that most famous of all testimonials to friendship:
For the rest, what we commonly call friends and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls. But in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined. If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I. There is, beyond all that I am able to say, I know not what inexplicable and fated power that brought on this union. We sought one another long before we met, and by the characters we heard of one another, which wrought upon our affections more than, in reason, mere reports should do; I think 'twas by some secret appointment of heaven. We embraced in our names; and at our first meeting, which was accidentally at a great city entertainment, we found ourselves so mutually taken with one another, so acquainted, and so endeared betwixt ourselves, that from thenceforward nothing was so near to us as one another. He wrote an excellent Latin satire, since printed, wherein he excuses the precipitation of our intelligence, so suddenly come to perfection, saying, that destined to have so short a continuance, as begun so late (for we were both full-grown men, and he some years the older), there was no time to lose, nor were we tied to conform to the example of those slow and regular friendships, that require so many precautions of long preliminary conversation: This has no other idea than that of itself, and can only refer to itself: this is no one special consideration, nor two, nor three, nor four, nor a thousand; 'tis I know not what quintessence of all this mixture, which, seizing my whole will, carried it to plunge and lose itself in his, and that having seized his whole will, brought it back with equal concurrence and appetite to plunge and lose itself in mine. I may truly say lose, reserving nothing to ourselves that was either his or mine.
 So Montaigne in his essay on friendship, remembering his own beloved Étienne de La Boétie.  Charles Cotton translation.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bluegrass and the Bagpipes of Old England

A letter-writer outs an Economist  staffer who betrays the truth that he doesn't know much about the United States:
It was odd of you to claim that Mississippi is “famous for bluegrass” (“Painting by numbers”, November 5th). That is rather like saying England is famous for bagpipes. Bluegrass comes from Kentucky, home of Bill Monroe, the creator of that particular musical style. Mississippi is famous for the blues, spawning musicians such as Muddy Waters (pictured) and Robert Johnson.
Bluegrass is a form of country music, inspired by the traditional music of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish immigrants living in the Appalachians. Blues is rooted in African-American traditions of the Deep South, especially the Mississippi Delta.
 "Famous for bagpipes" is right on, but I'd differ on the detail. In the first place, while Bill Monroe is from Kentucky, he is not from "the Bluegrass."  He was born in Rosine over in the coal belt of this complex little state. The heart of the Bluegrass is Lexington, near 150 miles away.   The Appalachians, provenance of Bluegrass music's "traditional roots" are even further away--the epicenter is perhaps Big Stone Gap, VA, where there is a justly well-placed museum.  Monroe undoubtedly chose the name more for its marketing appeal than for any direct connection.

More: the letter-writer undertakes to contrast the traditional music of the Appalachians from the African-American music of the  Deep South.  But the whole point of Bluegrass is precisely that it marries the English/Scots-Irish folk tradition together with African-American music, particularly Dixieland.  Indeed, Monroe's contribution lies precisely in his development of vocabulary whereby mountain folk musicians could present thir material in the style of a Dixieland band.  

Worse than a Crime, a Mistake

Re the great pepper spray at UCD, an anonymous* commentator at a blog of historians takes the long view:

What is remarkable here is less the error of zeal than the sin of ignorance. Violence is an ineffective response to nonviolent protest, a fan to the flames of community unrest. Those of us who teach the history of the US in the 1960s know this; Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders in the nonviolent Civil Rights movement understood how to capitalize on the pigheaded stupidity of the policemen they faced. Eugene “Bull” Connor, police chief of Birmingham, used fire hoses and Alsatians against nonviolent protesters, including schoolchildren and college students; Jim Clark, the sheriff at Selma, used tear-gas and billy clubs. Their names we know, for these characters are inextricable from major Civil Rights victories: they helped create the indelible images that shocked the world and fostered lasting change in America.
I'd agree with most of that, but with one  big qualification.  Specifically, violence is not always an ineffective response to  nonviolent protest.  It's half-hearted, diffident violence that creates the problem.  We don't get too upset about the Hama massacre (remember?) because its destruction and savagery were effectively complete, killing 10-40,000 citizens,  mostly civilians, and driving the few rebellious survivors into hiding.  The British never had the courage of their convictions against Gandhi, nor even Deng Zhaoping at Tiananmen Square.  I'm tempted to say that not even Bull Connor or Jim Clark had their heart in it; but maybe they did have their heart in it, while finding themselves constrained by those around them.

The most important thing about the Davis pepper spray is that it has given a whole new lease on life to the "occupy" protest movement.  Others have noted that the structure and strategy of the movement has been extremely shaky.   Of course everyone is--well, 99 percent are--steaming mad at the big banks, but nobody knows quite what to do about it, and the occupiers have never figured out a real answer (for a fuller account, read Michael O'Hare's superb "The Dog that Caught the Car"). A friend who shall remain nameless was saying as late as Thursday night that the New York cops probably did the occupiers a favor by removing them from Zuccotti Park: the cops gave the occupiers a way out, a moment of closure to a  movement that had no obvious endgame.  Ten seconds of UCD pepper spray certainly put paid to that scenario; we'll be watching that video until--well, at least until the next outrage, maybe longer if the next is no worse.

Read Yves Smith's running commentary on the video and you come away agreeing that the demonstrators "displayed remarkable ingenuity" and that they "won."   As to larger question of the University's response, Yves asks: stupid or evil?  Yves votes for evil but I vote for stupid.  I can't imagine that any Chancellor, foreseeing what so inevitably came to pass, would have said, "sure, go ahead and rough 'em up a bit."  Far more likely:  "oh, Jesusmaryandjoseph, use pepper spray and we'll never hear the end of it.   DO NOT USE PEPPER SPRAY.  REPEAT, DO  NOT USE PEPPER SPRAY"  One may be tempted to forgive the Chancellor, saying, well, this was an off-the-chart unusual situation and you can't expect her to anticipate everything.  But anticipating the  unexpectable is just exactly what you want of a Chancellor (or, indeed, any CEO).   Any of a thousand people can shuffle the paper on a day to day basis.   The reason you pay a CEO the bucks is precisely to make sure that you never become the focus of a viral video.  

*Apologies; I see now that it is is Ari Kelman and Eric Rauchway.

Wish I'd Written That: Rebecca Traister on Elizabeth Warren

In "Heaven is a Place Called Elizabeth Warren," Rebecca Traister achieves a perfect mix of sympathy and detachment.   Reading a bit beyond the bare text, I carry off three takeaways:

One: Traister wonders if perhaps Warren would rather have a fight than win a fight:

While fighting for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Warren told The Huffington Post that if she didn’t wind up with a strong consumer agency, her second choice would be “no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor,” a phrase that has already been overlaid on images of Wall Street protesters in a Republican attack ad. Questioned at the time on CNBC about words that sounded “unnecessarily aggressive,” Warren replied: “Gee, I don’t know. That doesn’t seem aggressive at all to me.”
Is she enjoying the thought of all those blood and teeth on the floor?--asks the reader, and perhaps Traister as well.

Two: maybe middle class voters will not enjoy being cast as victims:

Some critics also argue that Warren will need to recalibrate her message so that it is less about the terrible things that have befallen the middle class and more about how voters can empower themselves. “The danger of her campaign is that it is predicated on the notion that people are victims,” says Jim Kessler, a senior vice president for policy at Third Way and former policy director for Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York. “If her entire campaign is about how people need to be rescued from powerful forces around them, I think it will be more limited in its appeal than what it could be.”
The third point is more difficult to put your finger on, but it has something to do with the disconnect between voter expectations and the realities of politics anytime, anywhere.  Let's stipulate that politics is in any case, as Weber said,, the slow boring of hard boards.  Let's concede also that the electorate isn't interested in that insight any more (if ever it was).  The electorate sees any talk of slow-boring as a cop-out; the electorate thinks it is time for takin' names and kickin' ass.  Reading Traister, it remains from clear--I think Traister is unclear, and perhaps Warren herself is unclear--just what Warren makes of this point. Traister winds up with a wonderful anecdote about Barney Frank:

Warren described her motivation to enter politics by recalling the time Barney Frank called her to the Capitol during the first days of writing the latest financial-regulation bill. Warren didn’t understand much about the process but observed as representatives argued about individual issues until Frank asked, “Can everybody live with that?” When he was met with nods, he said, “Done!” and aides wrote down the agreed-upon language. Warren watched the process several times before Frank asked if anyone had anything else to add.
“I said, ‘What about credit-reporting agencies?’ ” Warren said, noting that the bill should include monitoring to make sure those companies engaged in fair practices. “Barney looks around the room and says, ‘Anybody got a problem with that?’ And they say, ‘No,’ and he says ‘Done!’ and everybody writes it down. I thought, Whooaah.” Credit-reporting jurisdiction was added to the bill. “That was the first time,” she said, “that I understood — and real well — what it means to be in the room.”
The reflective reader will mutter--ah, how true, how true.  But then: you're just learning that now? Didn't understand much about the process?  This, from a career-long crusader for consumer rights?  Is Warren just now discovering that politics is the slow boring of hard boards?  Or is she merely fashioning her heard-earned experience into a parable for the voters?  Either way, what to you do with it?  How do you integrate the slow-boring Warren with the Warren who enjoys the sight of blood and teeth on the floor?  I don't think Traister knows, and I certainly don't know.  But the way things seem to be going in Massachusetts, we might just get a chance to find out.  

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Yep, I've got a Twitter account.   Not to worry, I have not the slightest intention of pursuing you with my intestinal ructions and suchlike; indeed I may not post anything at all. But I figured I did need to start following some other people.  On the off chance you want to add me to your thread, I am Buce3; I have no idea who the other two are. There's a link at the side of this page.

Update  I see that among many other users, I now join in fellowship with Pope Benedict XV; he has done 13 tweets.  I also see that the only person he follows is one Vanessa in the Philippines.  Good luck to him; so far she hasn't accepted my request.

Report from Out There

The Wichita Bureau reports on the mood of the people:
Obama is becoming Jimmy Carter.
Romney is becoming Bob Dole.

The Nautical Graveyard

I don't suppose there is any journalist now working who knows quite as much as William Langewiesche about life red in tooth and claw.  Here he introduces us to the ship's graveyard at Alang in Gujarat:

Today [2004-5] roughly 90 percent of the world's annual crop of seven hundred condemned ships end their lives on the beaches of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh--and fully have of them die at Alang.  With few exceptions, the breakers are not highborn or educated men. They are shrewd traders who have fought their way up; even those who have grown rich have never lost the poor man's feeling of vulnerability.  They have good reason to feel insecure. With the most modest  of labor costs, shipbreaking is still a marginal business that uses borrowed  money and generates slim profits. The risk of failure for even the most experienced breakers is real. Some go under every year. For their workers the risks are worse: falls, fires, explosions, and exposure to a variety of poisons from fuel oil, lubricants, paints, wiring, insulation, and cargo slop.  Many workers are killed every year.  Nonetheless, by local standards, the industry has been a success. Even the lowliest laborers are proud of what they do at Alang.

So Langewiesche in The Outlaw Sea 204-5 (2004).  Here's a longer account.  For comparison, the reader may wish to match Langewiesche's story with Jon Ronson's superb Guardian account of people who go missing from cruise ships.  And we aren't talking about those who debark at strange ports.

Hamlet as a Summing-Up

A few days ago I quoted Harold C. Goddard explaining how Hamlet precipitates out among so many characters in Troilus and Cressida.  But Hamlet is not just a beginning.  Others have pointed out that Shakespeare wrote the play at just about the midpoint of his career, and can be seen as using the character as on occasion to tell us everything he had learned about the theatre.  Here Goddard itemizes how Hamlet encapsulates what has gone before:

He has the passion of Romeo ("Romeo is Hamlet in love," says Hazlitt), the dash and audacity of Hotspur, the tenderness and genius for friendship of Antonio, the wit, wisdom, resourcefulness, and histrionic gift of Falstaff, the bravery of Faulconbridge, the boyish charm of the earlier Hal at his best, the poetic fancy of Richard II, the analogic power and meditative melancholy of Jaques, the idealism of Brutus, the simplicity and human sympathy of Henry VI, and, after the assumption of his antic disposition, the wiliness and talent for disguise of Henry IV and the cynicism and irony of Richard III--not to mention gifts and graces that stem more from certain of Shakespeare's heroines than from his heroes--for, like Rosalind, the inimitable boy-girl, Hamlet is an early draft of a new creature on the Platonic order. ... Hamlet has been pronounced both a hero and a dreamer, hard and soft, cruel and gentle, brutal and angelic, like a lion and like a dove.  One by one, these judgments are all wrong.  Together they are all right--
These contraries such unity do hold ...
So Goddard  in The Meaning of Shakespeare vol. 1, 332 (1951).  I  may seem that I'm at risk of quoting the whole book.  Not really.  I could be tempted but the fact is that anything I leave behind is as rich as what I quote.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Calling and the Calling

Just noticed something intriguing about my favorite painting.  We call it "The Calling of Saint Matthew."  I only now realized that the name in the original Italian is "La Vocazione di San Matteo."  So it's pretty clear that what we have here is "calling:" in two senses:  Jesus calls Matthew ("Yo Matteo!")--with his extended hand--"vocation" in the vocative, a form of address. But Matthew receives the call  ("You talkina me?"):   He receives the call, and while we can't quite say that he accepts the call--not just yet--he seems to know that he will accept it, and that his life will be forever changed.

It's an ambiguity that runs through (at least) the English language. When the form instructs us to list our "vocation," we write down what it is that we do for a living: hop picker, or bus driver, whatever. We may not feel "called" to either of these jobs (although I wonder about bus driver: of all occupations, surely not the worst--the bus driver is, after all, in some sense the captain of the ship). We go to "vocational school" in lieu of studying "the liberal arts." "Professional school" is ambiguous: "just barber college," the English professors will say of the law school, annoyed no doubt in part that those lawyers get paid so much.

But a "calling" is clearly something more than a "vocation." Preachers may be "called," and the preacher on the street corner will assure you that it is no mere metaphor. Yo, Matteo. Yes, I'm talkina you.

Herb Gintis Offers an Heroically Short History of Inequality

He gets it down to a page:
[H] uman technology ... is a seriously two-edged sword, in some eras liberating, and others enslaving, the human passions. Let me explain. Hominids developed lethal weapons at least 400,000 years ago, in the Middle Pleistocene ... .  Most important were sharpened wooden thrusting and throwing spears developed for hunting, but quite effective in killing or maiming the strongest male while asleep or otherwise inattentive. Because of these lethal weapons, there was no possibility of maintaining a political hierarchy based on physical prowess alone. By contrast, non-human primates never developed weapons capable of controlling a dominant male. Even when sound asleep, an accosted male reacts to hostile onslaughts by awakening and engaging in a physical battle, basically unharmed by surprise attack.

The reaction of hominid political structure to the emergence of lethal weapons was, logically, either to sustain leaderless social coalitions, or to find some other basis for leadership. The superior survival value of groups with leadership doubtless led to the demise of leaderless hominid social formations, and the consolidation of new hominid social relations based on novel forms of leadership. What might these may be? Clearly, if on cannot lead by force, one must lead by persuasion. Thus successful hominid social bands came to value individuals who could command prestige by virtue of their persuasive capacities. Persuasion depends on clear logic, analytical abilities, a high degree of social cognition (knowing how to form coalitions and curry the favor of others), and linguistic facility. For this reason, the social structure of hunter-gatherer life favored progressive encephalization and the evolution of the physical and mental prerequisites of effective linguistic and facial communication. In short, 400,000 years of evolution in the presence of lethal weapons gave rise to Homo sapiens.

If this argument is correct, it explains the huge cognitive and linguistic advantage of humans over other species not as some quirk of sexual selection (the favorite theory through the ages of Charles Darwin, Ronald Fisher, Geoffrey Miller and many others), but rather as directly fitness enhancing, despite the extreme energy costs of the brain: increased cognitive and linguistic ability entailed heightened leadership capacities, which fellow group members were very willing to trade for enhanced mating and provisioning privileges.

With the development of settled trade, agriculture, and private property some 10,000 years ago, it became possible for a Big Man to gather around him a relatively small group of subordinates and consorts that would protect him from the lethal revenge of a dominated populace, whence the slow and virtually inexorable rise of the state both as a instrument for exploiting direct produces and for protecting them against the exploitation of external states and bands of private and semi-state-sanctioned marauders. The hegemonic aspirations of states peaked in the thirteenth century, only be driven back by the serious of European population-decimating plagues of the fourteenth century. The period of state consolidation resumed in the fifteenth century, based on a new technology: the heavily armed cavalry. In this case, as in some other prominent cases, technology becomes the handmaiden to oppression rather than emancipation.
 That's Gintis reviewing Fukuyama's End of History. Jump cut to the 20C:
It is clear today that the material basis for liberal democracy is no longer the armed infantry but rather a combination of the willingness of ordinary people to rise up, fight, and die for freedom, together with modern communications and transport technologies that are virtually impossible to suppress, especially if authoritarian states have an interest in promoting economic development. ...  For the most part, modern technology is highly emancipatory. Where [Fukuyama] is wrong, however, is in not contemplating the possibility of new technologies capable of controlling masses of people by a powerful few...
Gintis gives Fukuyama four stars.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The SFMOMA Serra Show and the Past/Present of Modern (?) Art

Mr. and Mrs. Buce took in the Richard Serra show at the San Francisco MOMA today and it stimulated some thought on the past and present of modern (if they still call it that) art.

Specifically, start with audio. SFMOMA provided helpful and instructive audio (and some video) to provide guidance for the viewer, much of it in the voice of Serra himself, as undertook to explain what he was trying to do and why.

Does this surprise?  Should it?  Perhaps not "surprise" exactly, but it may be worth reflecting on how much has changed in the table stakes for this kind of game.  Fifty years ago, if you went to a "modern" art show, you were pretty much on your own--left to guess what and why. For the cognoscenti, this was no problem but the common ruck was left more or less bewildered, without so much as a point of reference to know where to begin.    This bewilderment yielded a lot of belligerent backchatter of the "I don't know art but I know what I like" variety--and truth be told, I think the insiders rather liked it: part of the fun of doing art in those days was the way you got to look down your nose at the yokels.

But the flat truth is that a lot of what passes for modernism simply does not explain itself; it needs interpretation if you are going to engage with it.  Take a simple example: there's a Serra piece called "heir."  Unless you are previously plugged in--or an extraordinarily good guesser--you are bound to find yourself muttering "un hunh" and wondering (sotto voce), "so who's the heir?  And to whom? And of what?"

Serra does a perfectly adequate job of explaining: he called it that because he felt he was working in heirship to a certain influential forebear.  Well, fine. And interesting and helpful. And like I said, you just wouldn't have guessed.  Indeed, so it went through the whole show: Serra (and others) talking about how he did what he did, and why.  It was all "engaging" in the strict sense that it allowed you to engage with the material in ways that the artist might well have wanted you to engage.

But next point.  The corollary is that a show like this winds up being almost entirely about process: why I chose this kind of material, where I got my stuff, what I was trying to accomplish with it.  There's nothing intrinsically wrong with process but I must say this is at least a radical departure from what art used to be. How would our museum trip be different if Michelangelo (for instance) whispered into our ear, telling us where he found the marble, why he chose this piece rather than that, why lavished so much attention on the torsos of young males and suchlike.  I'm not trying to mock this approach; maybe our experience would have been worse, maybe better.  But it certainly would have been different.

And a corollary.  It seems that one of the perks of being stipulated an "artist":in our world is that you get to talk about yourself in almost infinite duration while others stand by in respectful awe.   Really, does life get any better than that?  Wouldn't every one of us just love to have an attentive auditor, willing to absorb any amount of detail about our internal ructions (or whatever?).  Indeed that in itself might be reason enough to be an artist: the sheer thrill of being listened to, all the time and on demand.

A final point, which I will try not to develop at too much length.  At one point, Serra remarks, of a particular installation, that "the viewer becomes the subject"--or at least that such is his hope.  When you stop to think about it, wouldn't you say this is always the way with these artist-fellers--they are always messin' with your head?  I don't suppose there is anything really new here: I suppose Michelangelo again wanted to thrill, to awe (etc.)--messin' with your head is a venerable craft.  And as I think if it, I suppose that most occupations, at least most social occupations involve messin' with your head to some extent (think: teachers, priests, used car salesmen, lawyers, politicians, whatever).  I just can't remember hearing it stated with quite as much directness and sophistication before.

I note that I haven't really talked about the show itself here, so much as the meta-show.  Suffice to say it's worthwhile on its own terms, as an exploration of work by an artist with his own tastes and concerns. Perhaps the most interesting thing you can say by way of substance is to note that Serra, by his own account, worked as steel worker in San Francisco in his youth--that must have been the early 50s.  How many people could make statement today?   I know...

So, worthwhile, although I have to admit  that at the end of the day I still feel a bit of the old insecurity; a bit of the sense that if I take it with undue solemnity, then all of a sudden Peter Sellers will rip off the mask and I'll find myself standing in the middle of a circle of my friends as they sing "Happy Birthday."

San Francisco Xerxes

We scheduled only one visit to the San Francisco opera this season and it looks like we picked the right one: The SFO production of Handel's Xerxes is a winner--a good-natured  evening of easy listening.  It's not hard to figure out why X is (as they say) Handel's second most popular opera, after (the far more ambitious and complex) Julius Caesar.

"Tunes?" Our goodbuddy Michael channels the composer--"You think I'm out of tunes?   I'll show ya tunes."  And that was just the second intermission, with an hour left to go.  It's almost is if Handel, jaded after some forty of these opera thingies, decided it was time just to be silly. Apparently it didn't work all that well for him. Evidently the audience was put off by the prevalence of short, punchy one-liner-type arias, in lieu of the standard more ponderous da capo,   Sir Charles Burney, the music historian, said it lacked decorum and he's certainly right about that.  All of which may explain why it stayed off for nearly 200 years; also why it has bounced back in an era where decorum is perhaps not so highly valued.

Aside from sensibility, there is also a problem with casting. X is not just a start turn. You need six, maybe seven strong voices to carry it off, and you don't want any one trampling the others.  The SFO staging offers Susan Graham and David Daniels as marquee talent and happily they do not dominate. Michael (again) said "boy, the soubrettes almost painted the star into a corner here," which I think a bit extreme. But it is true that you got flashier and more assertive performances from (at least) Lisette Oropesa and Sonia Prina than you do from Graham.  Graham certainly has all the subtlety and complexity you could want but you have to pay attention; she doesn't really command.  Daniels--funny thing about Daniels, he's a good actor and a technically unobjectionable singer but you can never quite remember him 20 minutes after you left the theatre (all of which convinces Mrs. Buce that Michael and I were at some other theatre).

The production: evidently it has been around for a while, but it was a good choice. Whoever deserves the credit made it just hokey enough: they didn't pay any more respect to the text than it deserves, and they didn't (except once or twice) reach out for silliness beyond what was needed.  

The orchestra was uncharacteristically muted for a baroque performance. I suppose this was somebody's choice and I grant you can get too much of that wire-brush-in-a-bald-head obtrusiveness you find in so many baroque performances. Still, I guess I am just used to a bit more scratch and squeak. In the end though, no matter: this is a performance with absolutely no redeeming social value and in context, what's not to like?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Whitney Gets it Right

Princeton Undergraduate (WaPo)
Ari is taking up shunning, as in "shun Joe Paterno."  An early designee is one Whitney Blodgett III, identified as a Princeton undergraduate, the chap who greeted protestors last night by shouting "we're the one percent!"   Ari quotes a friend:
You really need to click the article to get a picture of this kid. He’s a freshman, by the way. Nothing like an 18-year-old Ivy League kid, who with a name like “Whitney Blodgett III” is almost certainly a legacy admit, lecturing people on the meritocracy.
Legacy admit?  Ooh, that's harsh.  And surely not deserved.  I wouldn't stake  my life on it but I'm pretty sure our Whitney is this guy, from which I surmise (a) that he's 6'5"' (b) that he is a champ at rowing; and (c) an alum of Lawrenceville School.

Golden Retriever (Wiki)
You know Lawrenceville?  The school that gave us Malcom Forbes,  John Gutfreund and Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud?  In short, nothing so paltry as ""legacy;" much better to think of Lawrenceville as the premier  finishing school, perhaps better obedience training academy for the seriously plugged-in.

No: it seems improper  to dismiss Blodgett III as a mere legacy, Much more tempting to identify as a golden retriever.  You know the type: loyal to friends and family; enjoys water sports; easily housebroken.  Some would say "dumb as pig iron" although here I suspect the comparison breaks down.  Clearly Blodgett III  is not too dumb to understand that he's been bred to a life of entitlement and ease.  And hey, he can compute percentages.  Of what golden retriever could you say that?


Norman Davies created a moment of diversion last week when he called attention to what might be Europe's greatest flash in the pan--the Republic of Subcarpathian Ruthenia. Davies explains:
March 15, 1939. ... It was the day that Hitler marched into Prague. The Germans swallowed Bohemia and Moravia, formed a protectorate and Slovakia became a client statelet of the Reich. And the third part of Czechoslovakia, this Subcarpathian Ruthenia, was left with nobody to tell it what to do. So it declared its independence at around 10 o’clock in the morning. And by the evening the Hungarian army arrived and swallowed it up. Fortunately there was a British travel writer – or someone posing as such – there at the time who described all this.
I'll concede that Subcarpathian Ruthenia might be the champ, but there are some interesting runners-up. Example: the "State of Franklin," perhaps most-conspicuous of the not-quite states of the American union: Franklin fought and lost its battle for statehood in the 1780s. There's the Oklahoma Panhandle, a more or less neglected orphan of the slavery conflict in the pre-Civil War period (also, apparently, one of the most Republican realms in the nation, going 82 percent for John McCain in 2008). Closer to (my natal) home, there's the Republic of the Indian Stream which straddled the US/Canadian border along the top of New Hampshire from 1832 to 1835. There are countless others but I suppose my very favorite is the Republic of Poyais, a child of the turmoil generated by the Latin American revolutions of the early 19th Century. Its most visible public face was one Gregor MacGregor, by his own account the Cacique of Poyais, the sponsor of development schemes and the peddler of grants to land in Poyais. Sadly for the settlers, it was a tissue of falsehood from start to finish. It happens I am the proud owner of one of the land grants, and if you happen to see MacGregor, tell him I'm still counting on him.

What You're Missing

Is it my imagination or have the great and the good in the blogosphere pretty much kissed off on The Economist, in favor of The Financial Times and interminable eye-rolling about the crimes and follies of Fred Hyatt at The Washington  Post?

Well, tastes differ and I admit that Economist editorials do kind of write themselves after a while.   But that is a vice of almost any publication.  And whatever its general predictsbility, The Economist still does some extraordinarily sophisticated reporting of which we here offer two examples--one surprising, given the source, the other perhaps less so.

First, the kind of piece you might expect The Economist to do well: an extraordinarily shrewd and unblindered account of European populism.  In particular, The E shows how the populists have succeeded in disengaging from anti-Semitism, and embracing the cause of gay (and women's) rights.  There's also a sympathetic rendering of the populists' relationship with the European Union--including, in particular, a reminder that the Union has distinctly anti-populist roots having been created in large part to supplant the poisonous populism of the fascist years.

Second, perhaps more unexpected,  a bit of gutsy first-hand reporting (with an assist from anonymous whistle-blowers) of the mucked-up cleanup effort at Fukushima.  It's a style of reporting you might expect more from Mother Jones but nonetheless likeable for all that.

Personal aside: whatever its particular virtues or defects, The Economist offers one inducement that is a dealmaker for me: cool audio.  I download the new issue on Thursday nights and it gets me through a week of morning bike rides.

She's Bragging, Right?

Ms Merkel has said she thinks she is “the most boring person Mr Sarkozy has ever met”.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Rubber Ducks

There are now more than 10 rubber-duck manufacturers worldwide...

Link. This leaves so many questions unanswered.  Is there a trade association?  A cartel?  A K street lobbyist (look, there's the guy  who brought in the duck account!)?  An organization of duck exporting countries (ODEC?)?   Has any Congressman gone to the slammer for accepting a ducky bribe? Are the Chinese dominating the market through an undervalued Yuan? 

And kudos to the Times for proper placement of the hyphen.  Otherwise we'd be puzzling over duck manufacturers made of rubber.

The Greens and the Subsidy Game

Some of the usual suspects are enjoying an interval of (perhaps premature?) grave-dancing this weekend over the (alleged) corpse of green energy policy.  Here's Greg Mankiw (of course) and here's Mark Perry (of course) and here's Walter Mead who lets loose:
There may be a dumber mass movement in the country than the fuzzy minded sentimentalists of the great green herd,but it isn’t easy to figure out which mass movement that would be.
...which strikes me as a bit rich for one who seems to fancy himself a gentleman of the old school (and one who betrays a weakness for opera and fish).   Still, I confess to a bit of ambivalence here because narrowly, I'm in sympathy: green subsidies probably were (or "are") a misguided and overhyped idea--unlikely at best to achieve their objective and inevitably vulnerable to corruption or outright perversion by insiders ready to scoop dollars off the table wherever they find them.

So far, fine, but wouldn't this be a grand opportunity to morph these complaints into a more general assault on market perversion?   Grant that each of my chosen commentators may offer some perfunctory feints in that direction (and Perry is first-rate on the farce of farm subsidies).  But no one of them so far seems willing or able to face up to the broader issue: that the primary purpose of government seems more to be the lining of pockets of thee oligarchs.  Mead says "isn’t easy to figure out" who is dumber or more fuzzy minded than the greens.  Well, how about all of us who let ourselves get victimized by the public-private cartels who do such a splendid collective job of impairing the general welfare?

They could start, for example with this Citizens for Tax Justice chart of who squeezes what out of our tax system.  Wthout looking, can you guess who is at the top?  If you said "big energy" and "finance," you wouldn't be far wrong.  I'm especially impressed that "industrial machinery" weighs in with a tax rate of negative 13.5 percent (ironically, "health care" --one of our supposed "successes" --weigh in with tax rates among the highest).

The idea that government is a plaything of the well-connected is hardly new, although it seems to be gaining a kind of traction lately that I haven't noticed for a long time.
Still, or all the useful particular examples, we still tend to talk in terms of "public" v "private" as if we understood the category boundaries.   But if the connectors and the connected are part of a unified ecosystem, the old-fashioned category lines don't seem to offer much help.

Addendum:  Here, by the way, may be one more field in which my goodbuddy Michele Bachmann may be closer to the truth than her adversaries want to credit.  She's catching hoots of derision this morning for saying that America should be more like "free market" China, where people do their own saving for their own retirement.  But where, exactly, is she wrong?  If she had added "plus a ring-fenced ruling-class that drains national wealth for its own private gain," her picture might have been more complete--and might be said to describe large chunks of the rest of the world, as well.

In a Word, Bleah

Best short not-very-technical intro to the Euromess I've seen anywhere: link.

Toot Toot La Strega è Morta

Ha! Just last week I was making snide remarks about Italian military music, but here's a keeper: a chorus accompanied by (as it sounds to me) the same boop-boop brass. The mood is jubilant and perhaps no wonder: these are Italians celebrating the departure of their Prime Minister for whom, despite his 14 years in office, no Italian has ever admitting voting. More than the same brass: I'm not good enough at Italian street scenes to be sure, but wouldn't that be the same Palazzo Quirinale in the background?  

Just as a guess, I'd speculate that these are not generic "Italians" celebrating the departure but perhaps more likely musicians who have felt the sting of Berlusconi-era budget cuts. I admit I'm of more than one mind about State subsidy for opera. I recognize that big opera wouldn't survive without it, but if I'm so death on subsidies for farmers, oil companies, etc., why make an exceptiion for artists? I suppose the best that can be said that it's a crime to cut the opera money if you're going to replace it with pots of Euros for Disneyfied corporate consumer art, which ought to be able to carry its on load aat least as well as, say, ethanol. But I admit I don't think I have that one straightened out yet.   H/T Alex Ross. And if you care about this sort of thing, go back and pick up his terrific survey of the Italian opera scene. A year old but still catches the flavor, I think.

For up-to-the-minute news on the aftermath of Berlusconi, from at Italian economist whose name does not end with a vowel, go here.  For the best non-technical account I've seen lately as to why Italy (and Greece, and the rest of us) are in such a mess, go here.