Saturday, June 30, 2012


What Did We Know and When Did We Know It?
An Anniversary Footnote

As the Holocaust fades into history, one persistent cloud is the question of who knew what, when.  People of a certain age probably remember stories of the shock and horror that overcame the first Western soldiers when they opened the death camps at the end of the War in 1945.  In the fifties for a time, the chant of "we never knew!  We never knew!" became a kind of bleakly comic tag line.  My guess is that as time passes, the conviction grows that well, yes, Hitler did awful things but if we had known about it we would have done something.  

For perspective, here's text from the New York Times for 70 years ago today, June 30, 1942.

A Vast Slaughterhouse”

1,000,000 Jews Slain by Nazis, Report Says

London,June 29 (U.P.)--The Germans have massacred more than 1,000,000 Jews since he war began in carrying out Adolf Hitler's proclaimed policy of exterminating the people, spokesmen for the World Jewish Congress charged today.

They said the Nazis had established a “vast slaughterhouse for Jews” in Eastern Europe and that reliable reports showed that 700,000 Jews already had been murdered in Lithuania and Poland, 125,000 in Rumania, 200,000 in Nazi-occupied parts of Russia and 100,000 in the rest of Europe. Thus about one-sixth of the pre-war Jewish population in Europe, estimated at 6,000,000 to 7,000.000 persons, had been wiped out in less than three years.

A report to the congress said that Jews, deported en masse to Central Poland from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands, were being shot by firing squads at the rate of 1,000 daily.

Information received by the Polish Government in London confirmed that the Nazis had executed “several hundred thousand” Jews in Poland and that almost another million were imprisoned in ghettos.

A spokesman said 10,232 persons died in the Warsaw ghetto from hunger, disease, and other causes between April and June last year and that 4,000 children between the ages of 12 and 15 recently were removed from there by the gestapo to work on slave-labor farms.

The pre-Nazi Jewish population of Germany, totaling about 600,000 persons, was said to have been reduced to a little more than 100,000.
The New York Times, June 30, 1942, as reprinted in the Library of America,  Reporting World War II: Volume I (1995). 

Friday, June 29, 2012

A Meta Comment on Health Care

I've been traveling and so not in the thick of the health care aftershocks (though they certainly seem strong enough to register on the seismograph at Caltech), but I want to add a meta-comment or two, chiefly about pattern of the followup.  Specifically, I'm fascinated to see how quickly and completely the blogosphere back-engineered the Scalia "dissent" to show that he thought he was writing (perhaps better, "taking a victory lap") for the majority: for a good selection of evidentiary exhibits, search here.  I'm also intrigued by the suggestion that it was intentional--that Scalia dropped those Easter eggs precisely so the world would know utterly he had been betrayed.  Could be, but his seems a bit of a stretch to me, more than a little like suggesting you look for the acrostic to show that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. 

I'm more intrigued--but would still count it as speculation--that the victor/villain in the case is Justice Ginsberg, who seems to have trolled "tax" past Justice Robert's nose in a way that induced him to take the bait.  That is: could be, but we would need a bit more compelling evidence (which, God wot, we will never get, or perhaps not for another 50 years).

I confess I have spent a few minutes with the shrieking hyperbole of the right-wing noise machine and I have to ask--isn't there some point, somewhere, at which all this becomes self-defeating?    At the very least, you would think folks would catch on that what these guys are really fighting is each other as they scratch claw for dominance before the (admittedly very profitable) public megaphone.

I'd also give the last word to Orin Kerr,  pointing out that the case was decided on the barest of technicalities and that there are any number of other legislative routes under which health care (aka,  the end of western civilization as we know it) might have emerged without any doubts as to its constitutionality.

Mmmm, Girth!

Blurb for a wine in a Paso Robles tasting room:

...adds girth to Blue Cheese Burgers

Um, don't they add enough girth on their own?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Alito's Judicial Temperment

Having read Garrett Epps' bleakly hilarious deconstruction of Justice Alito's dissent-from-the-bench in the juvenile justice case, I've been idly speculating on what drives a powerful and cosseted grownup to such a spasm of mean vituperation. And here's a guess: fear. Alito makes me think of nothing so much as the skinny kid (okay, might have been the fat kid) who grew up in a neighborhood full of guys with 17-inch necks. He early on learned that the only way to survive was to get close to the source of greatest firepower, and to ease his own sense of panic by hiding behind his protector while executing a program of relentless yipping. My guess is that we are dealing with an unhappy man, still having nightmares over the prospect that some untamed adolescent somewhere might still be walking free, a threat to the community, not least Justice Alito. It's also, not incidentally, a reason for suspecting that his hostility to abortion is principled, not just prudential: here is a guy who really feels for the isolated and vulnerable, kept alone in the dark with every moment a portent of disaster. Being governed by Sam Alito is not fun but I suspect that being Sam Alito is not much fun either.

Is Health Care Iwo Jima?

Geopolitics boffins like to draw the distinction between strategy and tactics (maybe strategy, operations and tactics, but it's a detail).  They point out that tactical victories can lead to strategic defeats.  Exhibit A: Pearl Harbor, perhaps the greatest tactical victory of the 20th Century.  It brought America into the war and led to the destruction of the home islands.  Had Japan simply tended to its Pacific knitting and ignored the United States, it might (we can imagine) have built itself a secure Pacific Empire.   Indeed, Japan was still enjoying something close to tactical victory until almost the last days of the war (think Okinawa, Iwo Jima).  And without these tactical achievements, it might not have suffered the atomic attacks, maybe not even the firebombing of the great cities.

So, is the Romney Obamacare decision Iwo Jima? Will it so energize the insulted and injured that they will come roaring to victory in November, and repeal after that?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Haven't Thought of This One in Years

Makes me feel young again, or at least middle aged.  Not sure I ever noticed that banjo, tactful back there behind the 11 long-haired friends o' Jesus in the chartreuse microbus.

There are any number of covers but I haven't found one that comes close to the original.

Classic Virginia Classics

As for me--the story of the last eighteen yeears has been evenetful as such a lapse of time must be eventful to every man who thinks--My path is thickly strewn with abandoned projjects, with hopeless failures; here and there a trivial success, all alaaong, I may say, with the traces of honest effort. ... Impatient in most things, I hace not been impatient of my obscurity. If I live long enough, I hope to do something for my proper sphere of work. If I do not--I am content.
So Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, in a letter of May 20th, 1873,  nearing the end of his 18-year career as Professor of Greek (really, "classics") at thee University of Virginia, reprinted in  The Letters of Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (Ward Briggs, ed., 1987).  It's a career that makes a fit foil for the to the current uproar at the University of Virginia. where, it appears the "classics" still play an important, if obscure, role    Briggs fleshes out his account of the career in an essay, “Basil L. Gildersleeve at the University of Virginia,"  in a collection edited by Briggs and Herbert W. Bernario. I wouldn't be surprised if somebody hunkered down behind the defense line at the Virginia classics department today harbors copies of these close to his heart, to ward off incoming, and to remember an age almost incomprehensibly different from the present. 
Gildersleeve (and indeed, with him Virginia classics) appears by all accounts to be the very central-casting model of 19th-Century higher education: the son of a minister, he recalled as an adult that he had read the Gospel of John in Greek at the age of five, “and I have,” he said, “virtually thought in Greek ever since” (Letters 1). He got his classical education in Germany—then surely the best available. He came home, so it seems, in his early 20s already stern and austere—also, not least, a devoted Southerner who a few years later took a bullet for the Confederacy in the (ahem) War of Northern Aggression (Briggs said the wound “identified [Gildersleeve] for years to come as a symbol of broken Southern nobility”).

Gildersleeve came in time to play a pivotal, perhaps the pivotal, role in establishing classics as an academic discipline in the United States.  But much of his conspicuous work in the field cameto psass after he left Virginia for Johns Hopkins. His Virginia years evidently comprise largely the grubby and anonymous task of everyday teaching. “He was forced,” Briggs says, 
to prepare nearly 70 lectures semester with scant library facilities; he was forced to do his own primary reading, to do his own work without secondary literature or scholarly support; he was forced to cover all of Greek literature, language (at three levels), and Greek history each term, and for six years he had to do the same with Latin.

In short, he appears to have lived his life in in an intellectual milieu which probably does not exist anywhere on the planet today. By way of backhanded summary and encomium, here is a comment from a review of his work on Gildersleeve's work in Greek syntax:

The acute observation, that the use of ἄν and κε in final constructions depends on the force of ὥς ὅπως, and ὄφρα as conditional relative or temporal adverbs explains much which before seemed inexplicable.”

--Quoted in John Vaio, “Gildersleeve the Syntactician,” in Briggs and Bernario, ed., at 37

Well, that's all right then. Basil Gildersleeve, the soul of Virginia classics.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It's Still a Mystery

You want the real story?  Okay, here goes: Helen Dragas and her sidekick the ingenious Passepartout were hunkered down over a beer in the smoky back room of a Charlottesville pleasure palace one night when Helen said "you know what would be cool?  Let's fire her sorry Texas ass, and the donors will go ballistic and we'll back down and then they give us lots more money than they ever planned on."

You find it far-fetched?  Well yes, but have you got a better story?  Has anybody yet come up with any even remotely plausible account of why a bunch of supposedly worldly adults (came up with, conspired in, signed  off on) such a crack-brained, ham-handed, wrong-footed, bowlegged, knock-kneed scheme in the first place?   Fire the President? Sure, let's do it. Oh wait, sorry, let's not.

The firing of Terry Sullivan at UVA remains, in short, entirely incomprehensible.   I guess you'd have to grant that she "didn't communicate with the board" in the sense that she apparently didn't see it coming (where's Judas when you need him?).  Maybe it is also true that she was having trouble with fund-rising, but I'd be interested  to know how she stacks up on the standard measure we are supposed to use for money managers--not how well she did intrinsically, but how well she did as measured against the market as a whole. These have not been, after all, great years for fund-raising anywhere.  

The fact that she didn't please the board as a is, of course, just about entirely irrelevant to the question of her intrinsic skills as a manager--from the look of things, you'd get better management advice from a gang of Charlottesville kindergarteners.  If the core issue was the taint of "consultative management"--that in running a great University, you've got to play the roll of border collie, with a growl here and a nip there to cajole all the sheep (ahem) in the right direction--then I'd say she is onto something.  Woodrow Wilson, who had his own presidential disappointments, said that trying to run Princeton was like trying to move a cemetery.  You go too fast and--well, look what happens.  Whether she can actually wind up transforming the University--well, now that she is back in the job, maybe we will get an answer to that one.

Exactly what caused the board to back down so abjectly and so fast--ah, on that one I suspect we can look forward to some leakage over the next few days.  But in trying to identify causes, I wouldn't put too much emphasis on the visible public uproar.  I don't think the uproar is the kind of thing that would drive the governor into his shrill threat to fire the whole board (which, as it happens, it appears he can't do anyway).  I'd look rather to some deep pockets, maybe former board members who let him know with  a full soundtrack that his school would never see another penny of their money, not one penny until the deed was undone. 

 Ironically, this probably does mean that she'll find fund-raising actually a bit easier, rather than harder, at least for the moment (as Joel points out for the duration of her 15 minutes, she'll probably also be a welcome guest in foundation board rooms).  Which brings back to square one, supra.  No, of course I don't believe it, but do you have a better?

Scalia Hears Footsteps

Professor/polemicist Paul Campos (what kind of name is Campos, anyway?) thinks immigrant-child Antonin Scalia has turned into a ranting old man--"an increasingly intolerant and intolerable blowhard: a pompous celebrant of his own virtue and rectitude, a purveyor of intemperate jeremiads against the degeneracy of the age, and now an author of hysterical diatribes against foreign invaders, who threaten all that is holy."  Campos says Scalia in his "immense arrogance and creeping decrepitude" brings to mind  nobody so much as William O. Douglas.   One thing they share, I suppose: they grow older and face the horror of their growing irrelevance.  They hear footsteps.

Well, comparisons like this are never perfect and this one is okay (although Douglas' vices did not include so much visible bluster).  But I offer  better: Scalia's connazionale Fiorello La Guardia--another short, energetic, explosive headline-grabber, in his time the delight of his fan club, who grew increasingly rancid and inflexible as he drifted into irrelevance and old age.   If only we'd quit admitting these people who don't share our values...

Great Moments in Quasi-hyperbolic Approximation
(Oh, Khalilah, Khalilah)

The thing I wonder about this is

Fake Parking Pass Costs City Planner $6,500 and Her Job

Did she ever think for one minute that she would get away with it? Or that she would keep her  job if she got caught?  And how did she get through the day not paralyzed with fear that sooner or later the boom was going to drop?

Monday, June 25, 2012

You Pays Your Money....

My friend John has been tracking headlines on the Supreme's immigration coverage.   Here's the best pairing:   

So the Wall Street Journal.  Compare HuffPost:

 There are others.  Via Politico, I see that Governor Brewer calls it a 'victory,' i.e., for the Arizona statute, but I can't for the life of me see how she gets to that.  Apparently AZ can ask you for proof of status, as part of an otherwise lawful stop. But they can't put you in jail if you don't have it on you, so where's the fun?  Way I see it, they left the Governor with nothing but a thong.

Followup: I see Dellinger agrees

Followup II:  But Frum thinks it "Solomonic."  I'm a Frum fan, but this time he's smokin' dope.


There Are No Unskilled Jobs: The Bike Shop

I pushed my old beater-bike into the bikeshop he other day and asked the guy with the wrench if he had any rubber handlebar grips.
--Oh sure, they're right over there.
I found a wall of grips.  Flailing wildly, I picked something that looked plausible and took it back to the counter.
--Okay, you want me to install that, or will you?

 --Way above my paygrade.  You do it.

--It'll be five bucks extra.  I'm sure you could do it yourself.

--No, that's all right, you do it.
The techie rolled the bike into the backshop and deftly removed the old handles.
--You know, these new ones you picked, they're actually a bit long for your frame. I could cut them off, but I can just sell you the smaller size.  It'll be five bucks cheaper.
--Uh, sure, I'll take the smaller size.
 He switched products.  Then I watched him spray the bars with glass cleaner.  Then he pulled out a different spray can and administered a dose of something I didn't recognize.
--Special formula?

--Secret formula!
 He showed me the can.  Hairspray.  He told me it nicely seals the grips to the bars.

So he (a) corrected my mistake in product choice; (b) cleaned the bars (I wouldn't have thought to do that; and (c) sealed the grips to the bar (I didn't even know  you could do that).

And charged me five bucks.  And saved me five bucks.

There are no unskilled jobs.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Rich, the Poor and Sovereign Real Estate

[Editor to Buce: an interesting first draft, but needs work.  I think one difficulty is that you can't make up your mind whether you are (a) annoyed at petty sovereignties that carve themselves off from the multitude; or (b) wryly amused that they can only survive as part of the larger organism.]
Which nations are rich and which poor? It was in reading Kenneth Pomerantz (in The Great Divergence that I saw how this is a rigged question. Compare (say) the English midlands around 1800 with all of Imperial China, you compare a society that is vibrant, thriving, on the move. But what if you compare the midlands with, just the richest parts of coastal China? You'd come up with much different picture.

Flip it around and you see the same distortion through a different lens. We often talk about the wealth of Hong Kong or Singapore or Switzerland as if they were independent loci of wealth and power, as distinct from what they really are--namely, organs (vital, perhaps, but still organs) in a larger system. So goes the discussion of how we ought to create new cities in, say, Belize, or on a repurposed oil rig off the Pacific Coast of California. It's not merely that these "entities" are (as they so often are) mere tactics for the exportation of poor people. The real point is that they aren't really "entities" at all. None of these off-shore nirvanas will make the slightest sense unless they are plugged into the trade and cultural emoluments of a larger social network.

But now, a point which must be old stuff to some, though new to me. That is: can't we treat segments of our present world in exactly the same way. E.g., we often talk about how disturbingly low appear United States (e.g.) mortality, health, education tables compared to (e.g.) Denmark, Finland, maybe Japan.

Can't quarrel with the numbers but what if we just carved out (say) Manhattan together with Stamford CN, maybe Cobble Hill in Brooklyn. Or the Silicon Valley. Or Washington NW plus Alexandria and Fairfax County? Or "Massachusetts" from Cambridge up to Bedford, New Hampshire? We'd have socio-economic indicators that would be the envy of the world. And Michael Bloomberg would end up looking as good as Lee Kuan Yew.

I can't really say that all of this, if any, is a new idea. The nuclear strategists back in the 60s used to divide the country into (if memory serves) "Country A," "Country B," and "Country C," the first having the least real estate and the most wealth--the designated survivors in triage (you can guess where all the nuclear strategists lived). Starting s generation ago, Michael Barone and his co-authors have habituated wonks everywhere to think about who gives and who takes in Congressional politics. Lately any number of commentators have savored the irony the most reactionary, most (allegedly) anti-government segments are the country are the ones with their snouts deepest in the trough. Barry Goldwater famously remarked that it would be better for everybody if you just sawed off the Eastern Seaboard and let the lest of the country go its way. Plenty on the Eastern Seaboard may be thinking the same thing.

I've heard it said that Hitler--whose career crashed in Russia--was the last political leader who thought it a good thing to control a lot of real estate. Lee Kuan Yew, or Michael Bloomberg, or whoever it is that wants to anchor an old oil rig off the California coast, could be quick to explain to him why he was wrong.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


Finishing up the Chez Buce presentation of Il Barbiere di Seviglia (the "broken leg" version) we got to chatting about the peculiar challenges of ensemble work.  Think about it:  Barbiere is quintessentially an ensemble work--five (you could say six) fat parts that depend from start to finish on the performers' capacity to work with each other.

Yet think on this also: it's almost impossible for a stage personality not to be a narcissist. You go into the business in the first place because you are a self-absorbed showoff.  If you are any good--especially if you are any good--you spend more and more of your time in a warm bath of cheering and applause.    Not many can keep their head in that kind of glow.

Yet the really shrewd ones are those who figure out that their success is actually greater if other people also succeed.  In this light, the best performances are those in which everybody makes everybody else look good.  I think everybody hit that standard in the broken-leg Barbiere, though perhaps not all to the same degree.  Joyce DiDonato you can forgive.  The crowd was ready to treat her as special because of the misbehaving bone, and there she was all alone out by the footlights in her wheelchair.  So, give her a bye.  But contrast Juan Diego Flórez. I'm a big Flórez fan, and I like just about everything he does. But he's never better than when he is engaging with somebody else--bantering, tearing his heart out or just indulging in a spot of innocent lust.

An even more interesting case is Francisco Furlanetto, who played Don Basilio. Per Wiki, he's 63 this year. He's always labored under the constraint (if it is a constraint) that he's a bass, and so he's limited to a comparatively small range of roles. My impression is that he spent a lot of years playing first-tier parts in second-tier houses. Again as with Flórez, I think he's great in just about anything. But I suspect maybe he isbest precisely when it is not his job to hog the spotlight; rather to play the critic or the
I assume these guys are both smart enough to know when they are well off. 

Not everybody gets, it, I gather. Apparently there is a whole Hollywood tradition about the place of the straight man in comedy and whether they get the recognition they deserve.

We followed up Barbiere with a viewing of Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus.   Fiennes starred, of course; he also directed.  And somebody (I can only surmise it was he) understood that he'd look better with a strong, discerning, challenging cast who would be able to carry  their own parts, and also to get the best out of him.  Shrewd fellow, and I must say it paid off.

Afterthought: A while back I wrote about seeing a performance of Romeo and Juliet with real teens. It occurs to me now that you could see the same principle at work there. Some of those kids knew exactly what they were there for: they talked to each other. Some recited their lines as if they were in a vacuum, all alone on the stage. A rare kind of maturity, this interaction stuff. Some people never get it.

I Learned Somthing, Maybe

The Bourbons, so Talleyrand is said to have said, have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.  I've heard that one most of my adult life.  But just now for the first time I saw it in print in French:
Rien appris,
Rien oublié

Hey!--my thought was--it rhymes!  Ah, but wait--note the acute accent over that final e, almost invisible to Anglophones.  It seems to change the pronunciation.  

Or does it?  Would a Francophone slur this into a rhyme, so as to enhance the joke, or leave it subtly unrhymed as it seems to be?

There'll Always be an England

"Garden sheds, sloe gin and pickled walnuts," itemizes one Richard Bos, otherwise unknown to me, writing to Michael Quinon and quoted in Quinon's weekly words newsletter.  "The English do love their traditionality," Bos continues; "perhaps they love their traditionality even more than their traditions.”

Friday, June 22, 2012

Guide to a Guide

A well-wisher has favored Chez Buce with a copy of The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, by one Richard Paul Roe, otherwise unknown to me.  Note the sequence here: this is not (or at least not primarily) a book about the influence of Italian (Renaissance) culture on Shakespeare.  Rather, it is a laboriously constructed tour guide, designed to show that Shakespeare's plays display an exact knowledge of Italy, such that he must have spent time there.
I'll begin by confessing that I haven't read it and am not likely to.  I'll grand that the proposition  is interesting and might even be right.  That is, even the most conventional Shakespearean would have to concede that there is a gap of six-eight years in the Shakespearean time line and the possibility of a trip (or trips) to Italy can't be ruled out.  He does seem to show a lot of interest in Italiana and it may be, as Roe argues, that his references have exact analogs.  Exact knowledge alone isn't enough, of course to prove he was there; else we might speculate on whether he was at Agincourt or Bosworth Field as well.

No; the real question is "why does it" (or does it not) "matter?"   I survey two  possibilities:
  • One, proving Shakespeare "knew" Italy would make us think better of the plays.  I'd put this one down as a flat-out mistake.  Consider this statement: "It used to be that I didn't like Shakespeare, but now that I find his knowledge of Italy is accurate," I like him better."  In what wold would that proposition make any sense?   I can't think of one.  Similarly, imagine correcting one of Shakespeare's indisputable errors ("seacoast of Bohemia"--maybe make it read "mountains of Bohemia," keeping the rhythm. Would anybody say the play is improved thereby?  I can't imagine who.
  • In short, knowledge or non-knowledge about Italy has exactly nothing to do with Shakespeare's qualities as a playwright.  But we could, of course, turn the point around.  That is, it might turn out that Roe is right about Shakespeare's geography--that he does, in fact, get every Italian detail exactly right.  Would that enhance our respect for Shakespeare as a geographer?  Well, sure.  Maybe it turns out that instead of (or in addition to) being the new Sophocles, he is also the new Strabo?   Would  I then admire him for his feats of geography?  Sure, I might.  But once again, his feats of geography are unrelated top his achivements as a playwright.

So once again, it is not without interest that Shakespeare the man may have journeyed to Italy in 1586.  But the answer to that question has exactly nothing to do with the Shakespeare we know and love.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Market's a Cruel Place

Founding Narrative

Such things should be said beside the fire in winter-time when a man reclines full-fed on a soft couch, drinking the sweet wine and munching chick-peas - such things as: "Who and whence are you? and how old are you, good man? how old were you when the Mede came?'
Arnaldo Momigliano. Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization 
(Kindle Locations 1431-1433). Kindle Edition.

Momigliano clarifies: 

The arrival of the Mede in Ionia - that is, Harpagus the Mede's conquest on behalf of Cyrus the Persian about 545 B.C. - was the beginning of a new age for Xenophanes of Colophon. He himself had left his native city as a young man in consequence of that event. At the age of 92 he was still alive, about 472 B.C. The Persian conquest of the kingdom of Lydia involved in one form or another all the Greeks of Asia Minor. The Greeks had crossed swords with the Assyrians and had had their troubles with the Egyptians, but had never lived inside a great empire - at least not after the Hittite Empire of which they remembered nothing. The Lydian rule had been easy to accept, as Lydia was soon dominated by Greek culture - open to Greek traders, artists, soldiers and oracles. Cyrus was as epoch-making for the Greeks as he was for the Jews - though the reasons were different.

Id., 1433.

I'm Thinking, I'm Thinking...

Decoding recent poll results, The Atlantic flags one reporting that  "57 percent would prefer of Obama over Romney as a seat mate on a long flight."    It's a spectacle to ponder:  I suspect that Obama would mutter a pleasantly and then stick his nose in a book.    My guess is that Romney would make an artless attempt at small talk and then go rigid  with his eyes forward.  Each thus exemplifies the cardinal virtue in a long-flight seatmate--i.e., he minds his own beeswax.  Contrast Bill Clinton who would talk your ear off and then probably nick your brownie.

But it's a promising line of inquiry and I'd love to see it go further.  With which, for example, would you rather flee cross-country in handcuffs, trying to elude the mob?  With which would you rather share 60 hours on the saddle of a camel, crossing the Arabian desert?  Or the tourist compartment on Das Boot?  Or the penthouse suite at the Alamo? With which would you rather disport yourself at Sea World in the dolphin tank?

For all this, I'd rather fall back on the universal Underbelly politician palatability test: would you rather spend ten minutes locked in an elevator with this guy or commit suicide?   I'm sure there is not a single answer for examples, but for some, the alternative of a tour on Das Boot might look pretty good.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

VA Again: Hey Gang, Let's Do a Show!

Once again, what were they thinking at UVA, when they called up the President and said "oh by the way, you're fired"?  So far,  I think the most plausible account comes from  David Karpf over at Huffpost, who makes it all sound like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland shouting, "hey gang, let's do a show!" Somebody told them that on-line education is the new, new thing. They slapped together a few news clips and a large dose of self-reassurance. Recall the syllogism--major, something must be done; minor, this is something; conclusion, let's do it.  Teresa Sullivan is left as the fuddy-duddy typing teacher who asks where they are going to get a cast, a hall, a band, a roll of tickets, and by the way has anybody given any thought to their homework yet.  In a word, nothing: they were thinking nothing, and firing a president was pretty much part of the adrenaline rush.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How Indeed?

This one has been haunting me all day:
From 2000–2010 (the “Fail Decade”), every major societal institution failed. Big businesses collapsed with Enron and Worldcom, their auditors failed to catch it, the Supreme Court got partisan in Bush v. Gore, our intelligence apparatus failed to catch 9/11, the media lied us into wars, the military failed to win them, professional sports was all on steroids, the church engaged in and covered up sex abuse, the government compounded disaster upon disaster in Katrina, and the banks crashed our economy. How did it all go so wrong?


The Geriatric Market at the Multiplex

On heartfelt recommendation of Mrs. Buce, I spent a couple of hours in the dark yesterday watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which seems to be getting a not-entirely-comprehensible bit of buzz among our circle.  It's a harmless piece of fluff with a few good one-liners; a riff on the Enchanted April plot, where wide-eyed Brits dip their toe into an alien pond, find charming and eccentric natives, flashes of self-insight, and the odd bit of nookie.  Not the worst way to spend a summer Monday afternoon; hey, it was air conditioned.  

But what  intrigued me was not the picture per se but the context.  It's billed as a movie about "outsourcing eldercare," so you have some hint they aren't shooting for the preteen market.  It's also  billed as having a strong cast and yes, that's right, with the qualification that you have to be of a certain age to remember who the hell Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are.

And beyond the movie itself: there were three previews, all romances, which seems like good cross-marketing.  One of them seemed to involve actors who probably weren't  even born the last time I went to an afternoon movie.   But the  other two--they seemed to involve actors at least as superannuated as anything in the Marigold Hotel.  Oh look, here's Woody Allen, who was making $1,500 a week writing scripts for Sid Caesar (who?) back around 1954.  And here's Tommy Lee Jones, a veritable stripling who didn't make his Broadway debut until 1969.  "Children!" I wanted to shout, "do you have any idea who these people are?  And by the way, did you know that you can make popcorn without a microwave?"

What we have here, then, is something I didn't know existed: a wrinklies-and-crumblies demographic, an audience so old they can't quite remember which members of the "main" movie audience are really their grandchildren and which are not.  An audience, in short, perhaps no more than 15 years younger than myself.  What a curiosity to find that the entertainment machine has generated at least three movies with us in the crosshairs.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Maybe He Never Really Wanted the Job?

Read of the day for me so far is this superb piece from Der Spiegel on (sorry, I can't help myself) der Pope, Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, Papa Ratzi.   Surprising to me--but perhaps I haven't been paying attention--in that it describes a guy seems never to have really wanted the job in the first place, and seems to be wishing every moment he could figure a way out of it now. That's the trouble with being Pope, they say, you can't retire.

Surprising to me, I say. I had the impression of the incumbent as a focused hard-liner who would pull down the columns in support of his agenda. Maybe he once had some such fantasy, but if der Spiegel is right, he seems never to have had stomach for the kind of slash-and-gab organizational intrigue that such an agenda would require.  Bonus points for this anecdote:
For a long time, Ratzinger himself could hardly believe he was suddenly the leader of all Catholics. More than a month after his election, on May 24, 2005, he paid another visit to the place in the Vatican where so many things had begun for him: the seminary in the Campo Santo Teutonico, a green island in the cramped papal state, directly adjacent to the sacristy of St. Peter's Basilica.

He had lived here during the Church's sweeping modernization effort known as Vatican II and, in 1982, he returned to Rome from Munich, staying "in a room with only the bare necessities around me so that I could make a fresh start."

Ratzinger remained loyal to the seminary community until he was elected pope.  . . . He hasn't been to the seminary since his last visit, in late May 2005, which lasted over an hour. In parting, Ratzinger signed the guestbook. He wrote "Benedict XVI" and then, leaving a small space, scribbled "pope." At first he wrote it with a lower-case p, but then he changed it to an upper-case one.

None of his predecessors had ever signed anything like that -- and Benedict himself would never do it again. It was almost as if he had to tell himself: My God, I'm the pope.
It happens I was in Firenze the night the bells rang out to announce his election ("habemas papam!").  I was walking back to my apartment from an internet cafe.  I remember wondering what the new guy might be thinking (at that point, I didn't know his identity).  Maybe he was wondering, too. Recall the ancient Buddhist prayer (which, I think, I made up): I hope you get what you wish for, and I hope you still want it once you get it.

UVA: What the Hell were they Thinking?

One of my bankruptcy buds ventures that maybe he knows the motive behind the firing of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan: she's a co-author with the notorious Elizabeth Warren, bankruptcy scholar, scourge of the mighty and Massachusetts Senate candidate.

Okay, true about the co-author part, but otherwise, the theory seems to me to border on the tinfoil hat, a bit like saying that the culprits were mad because they found out Thomas Jefferson fathered slave child. I hesitate for one reason only. That is: up to now, I haven't been able to think of any better explanation for for such a clunky, ham-handed (yet by all appearances, not remotely accidental) mishandling of the public's business.

Now my friend Michael points me to another, scarcely less conspiratorial but apparently better documented, from a blogger (one Anne-Marie Angelo) I'd not hitherto heard of:

The theory I have is that Goldman Sachs’s Education Management Corporation, a for-profit education provider, wanted to make or made a bid to offer online education through UVA. From this endeavor, EMC would invest profits back into the University, helping to heal some of the University’s fiscal woes. When Sullivan was reluctant or refused to agree to the venture, key members of the Board threatened litigation related to her performance as a fundraiser for the University.
There's a lot of detail here, some fascinating, some not so plausibly relevant. EMC (it says here, quoting) “recently took a major ownership position in a group of online universities.” A commenter at Angelo's blog point observes:
It's also worth noting that one thing that ECM lacks is a prestigious, high-profile University partner--its current partner schools are smaller and far less well known than UVa. A deal with UVa would immediately boost the company's credibility and public profile.

Angelo connects other dots, maybe interesting, maybe off the mark. I particularly liked the stuff about Peter Kiernan, the chair of the Trustees at the Darden Foundation, the Board of UVA’s Graduate Business School (since resigned)--especially the suggestion that Kiernan knew about the "project" to oust Sullivan weeks ago, while Sullivan got the word only last Friday.

Afterthought: I can see as I write that there are two intertwined issues here--one, why did they do it, and to why (in the Sam Hill) did they try to carry it off in such a bush-league manner?  This is one of the world's flagship universities we are talking about here, and somebody is trying to trade it off like they're selling a flat of marijuana seedlings behind the billboard at the Durham Road expressway ramp. 

Followup:  I'm still reading stuff about how this fight is about "cutting Classics and German"--whereas it turns out that German is doing nicely, thank you, at UVA. amd classics (or at least, Latin) is by some measures flourishing.  Observed in context, I'd say this dustup was never about German and Classics to begin with.  My guess is that the person who first leveled the charge never bothered check the numbers; s/he figured it was an argument that would sell, and would distract attention from something more urgent.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Known Unknowns, and our Enduring Malaise

Had an interesting, if inconclusive, discussion this morning with my friend about Ignota about what we (know) (do not know) about the enduring malaise, and how that affects our impulse to deal with it.  I think Ignota's analysis (crudely oversimplified) goes something like this: we live in a world increasingly dominated by financial elites who have no incentive to tell us "the truth."   And this pervasive lack of motivation is aggravated by an overriding irony: in fact, they don't have any idea themselves what went wrong, or how to set it right.

This is interesting, and I don't want to reject it out of hand, though it seems to me more complicated than my primitive summary.  I'd certainly agree, at least in broad outline, that we live in a world more and more dominated by financial elites who really don't give a rat's patootie about the ordinary functioning of good government (saying nothing of more contentious issues like succoring the dispossessed and whatnot).

But as to "know":  I think a difficulty here is that this matter of known/unknown breaks out into a number of  independendent (albeit overlapping and interrelated) issues.

One: algorithmic trading.  Ignota has just lately focused her attention on the remarkable fact that so much market activity is being carried on by robots acting on galactic volume at galactic velocity..  She's certainly right about the novelty of the trading.  I'd concede that there is so much difference of degree here we must have a difference of kind.  Yet I guess I'd rank this one rather low on the ladder of issues that rattle me.  The whole point of markets has always been that we never know exactly what is going on out there and that, indeed, our ignorance of the inner workings more feature than bug.

Two: "macro," by which I mean the stuff conventionally taught in Econ1B and  its ilk: Keyesianism, monetarism, money supply, pump priming,booms and busts and suchlike.  Now here, I think she really is onto something.  Face it, the failure of the good and great in macro is simply appalling--so much so that I can't understand why the entire sodality didn't just resign its tenured positions, put on false mustaches and retire to a monastery (assuming one would take them).  Remarkably, I think a good many macro types did understand the flaw in their enterprise: it is the utter impossibility, systematic and in principle, to forecast future behavior.  I've been there, done that, in a small way.  In the law school, I've sketched out those "models" (fables) where we identify possible future states (windy/rainy/cloudy/sunny), attached probability weights to them and sum to a value.  Like most, I've usually forgotten to say--you know this is all hokum. The truth is, we haven't the foggiest notion what will impel people to act one way or another, and how they will act when so impelled.  We know that  but we continue to build models that assume people behave like robots (for a tantalizing possible exception, go here).  I don't know if "the elites" understand how vacuous this modeling has proven to be; at any rate, if they did have the impulse to tell "the truth," on this issue, it is hard to imagine just what they would say.

Three, the nature and structure of banking.  Now here, I think we do know quite a bit.  We understand that the structure of banking has undergone a sea change over the past generation, almost entirely to the profit of bankers and the expense of everyone else.  There are some disagreements over remedy (do we, or do we not, need to go back to Glass-Steagall?).  But there is fairly general agreement (even among the elites) that a smaller, tamer, banking sector would be better for society as a whole, even if worse for bankers.

But again, there is a separate issue with regard to execution.  If you wanted to explain the banking system to the multitudes, how would you go about it?  The history of (say) 100 years of public policy in banking does not offer a hopeful augury.  Indeed, it is hard to think  of any area of public life more liable to misunderstanding and confusion--not to say outright hokum--than the workings of the banking system.  The are very few grounds for optimism on the prospect that we might ever have a useful broad-based discussion of this issue.

In short (thanks Bill Greider) who will tell the people?   Not "the elites," whom I suspect I should really be calling "the oligarchs."  And even if (counter factual) they did undertake to tell, how could they possibly explain it, particularly considering little they actually know?

John Locke, Proto-Montessorian

§ 152. I have seen little girls exercise whole hours together and take abundance of pains to be expert at dibstones as they call it. Whilst I have been looking on, I have thought it wanted only some good contrivance to make them employ all that industry about something that might be more useful to them; and methinks ’tis only the fault and negligence of elder people that it is not so. Children are much less apt to be idle than men; and men are to be blamed if some part of that busy humour be not turned to useful things; which might be made usually as delightful to them as those they are employed in, if men would be but half so forward to lead the way, as these little apes would be to follow. I imagine some wise Portuguese heretofore began this fashion amongst the children of his country, where I have been told, as I said, it is impossible to hinder the children from learning to read and write: and in some parts of France they teach one another to sing and dance from the cradle.

The Mountains Looked on Marathon....

Two days after the Greek elections might not be the ideal time for this.  Unfortunately, there is no convenient time for this.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Deshil Hollis Eamus

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

Hoopsa, boyaboy, hooopsa! Hoopsa, boyaboy, hooopsa! Hoopsa, boyaboy, hooopsa.
Yes, Bloomsday, James Joyce, Germ's Choice, Ulysses. Thanks to the able Cicerone, Frank Ficcara, I really do believe this all makes sense and at places, rises to great heights--i.e., not just a parlor trick. But I also think it is uneven, and probably never excels over the best parts of Dubliners or Portrait of the Artist.

Now, why do you suppose he omitted the exclamation point after the last "hoopsa"? Must be a dozen dissertations on that one...

Troubled Bridge over Waters

David Frum has a nice piece up this morning about the sclerotic and overcrowded "Ambassador" (heh!) bridge between the US and Canada, held in durance vile by a Forbes 400 bazillionaire who just can't grasp the virtues of competition when it comes to his own little hidey hole.  Frum may not have noticed that he is a tapping into a classic episode in United States Constitutional history.  Tht would be the case of Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge,  regarded by those who remember as an inflection point in the history of creative market capitalism.  Oyez supplies the crib  notes:
In 1785, the Massachusetts legislature incorporated the Charles River Bridge Company to construct a bridge and collect tolls. In 1828, the legislature established the Warren Bridge Company to build a free bridge nearby. Unsurprisingly, the new bridge deprived the old one of traffic and tolls. The Charles River Bridge Company filed suit, claiming the legislature had defaulted on its initial contract.
 Answer: by a vote of 5-2,  sorry.  The legislature did not give an exclusive privilege when it granted the charter, and did not take away anything requiring compensation when it granted another one.  Oez again:
In balancing the rights of private property against the need for economic development, the Court found that the community interest in creating new channels of travel and trade had priority.
The case may be read as a pendant to Dartmouth College v Woodward, decided just  18 years before, in which the court barred the State of New Hampshire from rewriting the charter it had granted to Dartmouth College. A skeptic might examine both cases and say that there is less here than meets the eye: if it's all a matter of contract interpretations, let the state enter into any contract it wishes, or can get away with.  This seems too narrow a view:A number of historians have shown how the 1820s-30s can be understood as the time when Adam Smith entered the popular consciousness, and we began to understand the sovereign as not merely a grace-and-favor grantor of valuable privileges, but as a traffic cop with the job of building in infrastructure in which enterprise might flourish.

It didn't last, of course.  Another generation, elites had learned how to grasp the levers of power and turn them to their own advantage (indeed, is not the very definition of "elite" "one who grasps the levers of power and turns them to its own advantage?").   Then we get "the trusts," and then the heyday of America as the world's dominant economic power.  Then 1973 and the beginning of 39 years of trying to figure out what the hell was the license number of the truck that just hit us.  Any questions, class?

Oh yes, the final irony: the majority opinion in Charles River Bridge bears the name of Roger B.Taney, much more famous for this.

Followup:  A cursory Google shows that the bridge story is old news to folks along the riverside.  I didn't take much time, but I'll offer a special Underbelly Bright Shiny Object to the first person who can point me to a source in which the bridge-owner identifies himself as a "libertarin."

Friday, June 15, 2012

Anderson on the Market

Arresting defense of market liberalism, here, with sophisticated commenary.

Can They Do That II? Michigan Legislators

Can Michigan legislators force one of their colleagues to shut up?  I posed that question yesterday to my friend Ignoto, the distinguished constitutionalist, and even as my finger tripped over the keyboard, I suspected I knew the answer: who's going to stop them?  Legislators (cf. the Wilkes episode) fought hard to secure their immunity from higher authority; they aren't like to yield it to anyone, no matter how badly they abuse it themselves.    And in some sense, they've got to have the power to control member behavior.  What if legislators start beating each other up in the chamber (there's a fascinating Wiki)?

Ignoto responds this morning with an email suggesting I am on the right track. I did not know about the Congressional jail.  But here's Ignoto, on "can they do that?"
It's a hard question.  At the federal level, the Constitution gives each house the power to discipline members, including imprisoning them (there used to be a jail in the Capitol for this purpose).  They could probably punish a member for telling another to f--- off on the floor of the house.  I suspect most courts would view this as a political question and wouldn't touch it. I'm not aware of any decisions on point.   I don't think you could limit a member's right to vote, but speaking is arguably different; I not sure what the full dimensions of a right to speak would be, given that debate is regularly limited in all kinds of ways and you generally can't speak without recognition from the chair.
No doubt a stupid use of this power, but it may be permissible.
 All sounds believable to me. 

Afterthought: just on a lark, I went back and checked an online version of the infamous Starr Report into the misbehavior of President Clinton.  Sure enough, the offending Latinism appears there twice.  Oddly enough, the word "cigar" appears 19 times.

Pedagogy as Theatre

Pick of the day for me is the piece I find at The Atlantic's website on what the folks at the University of Phoenix do when they wants to film a roomful of attractive and engaged students--they hire models.  Wouldn't want to distract the viewers with the likes of, say, Walden College, and don't even think of  Animal House (told you...).   Though personally, I'm always saddened that I didn't enjoy the ministrations of Quincy Adams Wagstaff, as in "Now then, baboons, what is a corpuscle?"

But I'm not at all sure Phoenix has gone far enough.  My friend John says his students have dinged him on his evaluations for imperfect use of PowerPoints.  Couldn't we raise the general level of beatitude if we hired an apprentice Vanna White to highlight the bullet paragraphs as John proceeds through what he calls his "Socratic monologue?"  And why stop at one?  How about twins?  And in spray-on bikinis?

He could even position one outside the classroom door during open enrollment.  As in, "hello, student, going my way?"  Who knows, a few of his aspirants might wake up in a rustbucket en route to Macao.  Now, that is education.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Who? Ha!

Legislators in Michigan have voted to ban one of their own  from speaking  in the House because in a speech yesterday she used the Latin word for hoo ha.

Quaint, considering that theere was a time when all serious government business was carried on in Latin (though possibly not in Michigan).  But what really bothers me is--can they do that?  Can a legislature gang up on one of their own and tell him to shut his/her pie hole?  A spokesman for the majority said something about how her remarks "violated the decorum of the House," but isn't that, ahem, a fairly flexible standard?

Meantime, the Michigan miscreant might want to take solace from her kinship with John Wilkes, the great hero of free speech and Parliamentary privilege--also the author of a crashingly obscene poem [I actually read it in my randy college days; to the best of my recall, the scandalous Latinism does not appear].  In what surely must have been a monstrous breach of decorum, one of Wilkes' adversaries read the entire product in the House of Lords.  Wilkes was sentenced to outlawry and driven into exile.

Booklist: Public Policy

Man, I am a sucker for booklists--my own, or anyone else's.  Maybe the digital substitute for browsing in bookstores.  I'm a paid-up subscriber to The Browser, mainly for my daily fix of Fivebooks.  So when Mark Kleiman put up this bleg this morning, it was like dancicng a woolly bugger past a trout:
The current graduating class of UCLA Master of Public Policy students – a spectacular bunch, in case any reader is looking to hire smart, serious people – has asked the faculty for a “third-year curriculum”: a reading list of books, articles, and (I would add) blogs that will allow them to continue to learn and grow professionally as they hit the workplace.
Hoo boy.  It was easy to run through whole catalogs of stuff you'd want young wonks to read, from Thucydides through to James Q. Wilson.  But wait, it's a trick question.  This is the graduating class we are talking about--so isn't it reasonable to assume they have already read everything about everything?  

Uh oh.  My first thought thereafter was to try to come up with recherché classics that might have eluded even massively learned young people such as themselves. Burkhardt on Constantine, for example, or Clarendon on the English Civil War. Or the Adams-Jefferson letters. Or Erasmus' Education of a Christian Prince.

Yeh, right. That is the kind of stuff you read in school, not while you are at the bottom of the employment ladder, under the Sysiphian mountain of student debt.  So I tried a different tack: new stuff, directly addressed to the kind of problems they might face in the world, sufficiently instructive to be worth their while and sufficiently current to be accessible.  I decided to narrow in particularly in "execution,"--and in particular, the point of how difficult or elusive may be the goal of actually getting something done, no  matter how worthy the project.  Recall the Hollywood canard that it is just as hard to produce a bad movie as a good one.  Anyway, in this frame, here is my list:

One, Michael Hiltzik, Colossus, on the building of the Hoover Dam.

Two, Earl Swift, the Big Roads on the highway system.

Three, Steve Coll, Private Empire, on Exxon, worth it for the Valdez Chapter alone, but lots more good stuff on the desperate and unending search for energy. Link.

Four, John Gertner, The Idea Factory, about Bell Labs. The feel-good book of the year. Never quite delivers on its promise to explain why it all worked, but still fascinating and thought provoking. Link.   

Five, Arthur Herman, Freedom’s Forge, on industrial mobilization for WWII. Not as good as it should be, too much AEI claptrap about the evils of commies and unions and commie/unions. But some good stuff under the slime. Link.

And maybe the best, although the chances are [the students] have already read it:

Siddartha Muckerjee, The Emperor of All Maladies, on the History of the (War Against) Cancer. A bit sprawling, almost too many stories to tell. Modern part starts about 1983, when scientists get serious about monkeying around with genes. Link.
 That  for starters.  There are thousand others.  What are the obvious omissions?

How to Solve the Doctor Problem

I spent a consoling hour this morning on the receiving end of the ministrations of a Palookaville physical therapist.  Unlike your dentist or the anesthesiologist, these masseuse-types can actually carry on a conversation while they work you over.  And when she found out I (used to be) a bankruptcy lawyer, the conversation just naturally turned into a discussion of doctors and other med pros who go broke.  Interesting part is, we didn't discuss malpractice--does it just not happen any more?  Or is it all farmed out to the carrier.  Anyway, no, the discussion today was of straight economic failure.  Which could mean young doctors who feel they've deprived themselves for too long and begin their post-student lives by tanking up on fancy toys.

More often, though, so I learn, it's the guy who gets nailed by an embezzler: apparently there is a non-zero quantum of cases where Palookaville practitioners have furnished the penitentiaries with once- (seemingly) loyal bookkeepers, office managers and such like who helped themselves to the swirling river of cash that floats through a medical office.

Reimbursements.  Co-pays, especially cash co-pays  And taxes.  Oh lordy, taxes. The kind that don't go in bankruptcy not (hardly) ever.   Income taxes.  Payroll taxes.  The list does go on and on, eh?  Why you need a good bookkeeper.  And honest.

Bear with me, we are getting to the kicker here.  But for background: forget all my snide cracks about Palookaville, it's actually a pretty nice place.  Yet I hear tell of one Palookaville practioner who has pulled up stakes and moved his wife and three daughters to--well, I suppose I ought to be a little coy here.  Let's just say it is not Western Kansas and it is not Owsley County, Kentucky, but it might as well be.  Indeed I suspect maybe people in destination X sometimes dream of getting to Western Kansas or Owsley County.

Why, you ask?  Why leave the delights of Palookaville for internal exile to our own homegrown Moldava?  The answer is they bailed him out.  I'm foggy on the details, but apparently they needed a doctor so bad that they agreed to stump up the money to get this particular fiscal monkey off his therapeutic back.  "I wonder," said my interlocutor, "how his wife is going to take it when she figures out where he has moved their daughters."

Granularity: School Teaching in the Midwest

A friend of a friend weighs in from the Heartland with an on the ground report update re public education.  Passing thought: we spend a lot of time talking about how we want a skilled workforce.  But it depends on the job.  If the only jobs are going to be low-paid and low-skilled, then it is probably more prudent to keep 'em stupid.  Anyway, here's the latest:
I recently heard that Portage, WI was contemplating a base salary of around $22,000/year and Oconomowoc is moving ahead with the lay-off of 25% of their HS faculty in favor of large raises (along with increased work loads) for those remaining.  On a daily basis I am reassured by our various educational and political leaders that education is absolutely critical to the survival of the "good ole USA," as we know it.

Back in the day, around 1976, our 200th birthday and the time of the great Hortonville strike, and when inflation was running about twelve percent a year, I was involved in trying to negotiate a new, local teachers' contract (The Board had offered us fifty bucks a year for each of two years).  "Jeez Wally," I said to the superintendent, "the garbagemen in Milwaukee are making $25,000/year."  He replied, "Well (he kind of stuttered when he got excited) - go to Milwaukee and drive a GD garbage truck."   Eventually I did, but the garbage truck was an administrator's desk.

Minot, Williston, and other North Dakota towns located in the Northwestern corner of the state, in the center of the Brakken Oil fields, are paying their teachers around $24,000 per year to start (I don't know about benefits, but I can guess).  Since they are in the midst of an oil boom, using Wisconsin sand for the drilling, housing is at a premium.  A two-bedroom apartment is renting for $1,500 to $1,600/  month, and you pay all utilities.  This means that it ain't really possible for a teacher who makes two grand a month, before taxes, etc., to be able to live within a couple hundred miles of the school.  So, the school districts, rather than raising teacher pay (this decision is obviously based on modern economics of course), has decided to build apartment/dormitory complexes which will be made available to the teachers, at a reduced rate, of course.  In the meantime, any eighteen year-old female or male who has graduated from high school and is in possession of a CDL (Commercial Drivers' License) is in a position to be hired immediately as a truck driver.  These jobs start at eighty thousand dollars ($80,000)/year (I don't know about benefits).  After one year of successful employment, their salary increases to $100,000/year.
Afterthought:  When we are in a brackish mood, we sometimes refer to the local academy of jurisprudence as "the West Valley School of Law and Trucking."  Considering the shape of the markete, maybe we better drop the law part.

I Don't Understand the Information Age (Browsers Dept.)

Why does anybody use Opera?

Why doesn't everybody use Opera?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The History of the World
In One Unfinished Chapter

My friend Gordon thinks that this (from the Thessaloniki Archaeological  Museum) pretty much sums up the human condition:

He: Oh look, my dear!  Shiny objects!

She: Well, I don't know...

DiDonato Bound

For our viewing pleasure last weekend, Mrs. Buce served up a DVD of Il Barbiere di Siviglia--the 2009 Covent Garden production.  It's a grand show; Mrs. Buce always gets short of breath at the sound of Juan Diego Flórez, here as Count Almaviva. We'd seen him do the role before in a DVD rom the Teatro Real de Madrid and he was dependably wonderful both times.

But the thing about the Covent Garden version is that I can't remember any before that succeeded quite so well as an ensemble piece, demonstrating that you really want five strong singers to make it all come together.

Covent Garden had its quintet, but I'd still have to concede that the hit of the evening was not Flórez nor Pietro Spagnoli in the title role. No, the palm goes to Joyce DiDonato as Rosina and never have I seen it played with such caged sexual energy. You see her for the first time through wrought-iron bars, as if in a cage, and she seems to be shaking the cage through the whole performance.

Not surprise, really. DiDonato has kind of a trade-mark on good-natured lust (watch her go three-in-a-bed with Flórez and Diana Damrau at the end of Le Comte Ory).

But perhaps you are ahead of me here. The clincher was that she'd broken her leg on the first night and had to do the rest of the run in a wheelchair. She spends the whole show whizzing back and forth across in front of the footlights like Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner. All of which worked resoundingly to her advantage. As they say in the theatre--girl, break a leg. Sometimes it can be a good career move.

Here's a snippet from a promo for the fractured video:

Something that Actually Works

Okay, at the beginning of my annual eight-month vacation, I'm thinking it is time to go back and bone up on my never-very-functional classical Greek.  Right now for calisthenics, I'm working my way through a battered copy of Martin Hiner's Greek Comprehensions for Schools (1992) which I seem to have spilled coffee on already at some unknown time in the past.

I decided I really needed to put a bit in writing, and then recalled that I didn't possess an adequate Greek font.  How dreary: I've tried to configure Greek fonts before and never got them quite right.

But I popped on over to the Greek study group web page and copped myself a freebie of something called Unicorn.  I downloaded; I unzipped; I fired up; I found myself looking at a blank page.

But hey wait a minute--it's all there.  Just press escape twice, and you're good to go.

Are you surprised?  Maybe I should not have been.  Countless apps these days come on board the Iphone friction free.  But I  go back to the Pleistocene.  The very idea of a program that you did not have to configure, start over, reonfigure--and finally abandon as worthless.  Something that actually works: how refreshing, And free, BTW.  I have no idea who this Kirk Lougheed guy is  (I don't suppose it is this guy?), but he has my gratitude.  Now, as I was saying,ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα ...

John Who?

Bruce Bartlett is bewildered by the story of John E. Bryson, our commerce secretary and his weird auto accident (is it really a hit-and-run?).  "In other news," Bartlett reports on his Facebook page "a man named John Bryson apparently is secretary of commerce."  Fair comment, I suppose; I don't think anyone would give Bryson a celebrity score in the same order of magnitude as say, his distinguished colleague the secretary of state.

But there is an intriguing backstory  to Bryson, even forgetting the odd accident.  That is: in the hierarchy of the American environmental movement, Bryson surely counts as a paid-up member of the College of Cardinals.  Specifically he is one the nucleus who get credit for creating the Natural Resources Defense Council, surely the most plugged-in of all environmental interest groups.

There are four: Bryson, James G. ("Gus") Speth, Richard E. Ayres and Edward L. Strohbehn, Jr.  They were together in the Yale Law School class of '69.   Yale gave all four "Awards of Merit" in 2010 for their environmental work.    You know those charts that draw lines to show how people are connected? I've never seen one for this crowd, but I suspect it would show a pattern of plugged-inness that would be hard for anyone to match.

Of the four, I suppose Speth has remained the most visible.  He was dean of the Yale School of Forestry from 1999 to 2009; he is now a professor at Vermont Law School, though I'm betting he spends a lot of time on his extracurricular agenda.  His Vermont faculty webpage recounts:
One day, riding the train to New York City, he came across a newspaper article about the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, followed a few pages later by an article about an environmental problem. "It occurred to me, 'Gee, we need a legal defense fund for the environment.'"
Ayres, who now runs an environmental litigation boutique, tells a similar story:
There was a group of about 6 or 7 of us who, in our third year of law school, sat down one day and began to talk about what we were going to do when we left law school. We ended the discussion by deciding we were going to create an environmental law firm. We then went to a foundation -- the largest one in the country at that time -- and proposed this preposterous idea. Much to our amazement, they agreed it was a good idea and even agreed that we were the people that should try to do something about it. So, NRDC was founded basically based on a discussion by a bunch of law school students in their last year of law school.
The rest, as they say, is history.        But Bryson took a distinctive career path.  He moved into California state government, heading first the Water Resources Control Board and then the Public Utilities Commission.  He moved thence to the dark side, becoming chairman of the parent of Southern California's mammoth private electric utility.  From such a comfortable perch, Bryson seems to have accumulated the trophies of establishment status: corporate directorships, public-policy board seats, and chubby pay packets.   He seems to have worked hard at the same time to maintain his environmental credentials.

 With all this establishment bling, you'd think there'd be some insurgent blowback.  A cursory Google search reveals a bit, but not as much as you might expect.  What's most prominent, rather, is a gaggle of references to the high-visibility lawsuits that NRDC won in the early and golden days of environmental regulation.  Indeed if there is anything shameful about the record, it is an almost gag-inducing torrent of mutual self-congratulation.  As in:

What makes Bryson exceptional is his character. He is a gentleman who puts people at ease with his warmth and thoughtful attention. He radiates calm, even in the thorniest negotiations. And he is a devoted family man. Even after a brief conversation with Bryson, you soon realize that he is terribly proud of his four daughters and delights in their triumphs and joys.
Yet as personally charming as Bryson is, he is also a man of substance. His keen intelligence and sense of duty draw him to engage in meaningful work. As an earlier generation might have put it, Bryson wants to make a contribution.
That is from (surprise!) the staff blog at the NRDC.  You know, strictly speaking, every word of this might be true.  But you still want to cry out, "oh, give me a break," or more simply, "gak!"   Never mind: in his current inglorious moment, I suppose a good character reference is just the ticket.

Fun fact: a classmate of the fab four in the YLS class of 1969 is John F. Daum, who has spent most of his career at O'Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles, where he, it is said, earned the name of "Dr. Doom," for represnting Exxon in oil-spill litigation.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Richard Posner is Shrill

I wrote a wry, snide, sorta kinds  farewell to the career of Richard Posner 23 years ago (no, I won't link to it now).  Anyway, he's still here:
The institutional structure of the United States is under stress. We might be in dangerous economic straits if the dollar were not the principal international reserve currency and the eurozone in deep fiscal trouble. We have a huge public debt, dangerously neglected infrastructure, a greatly overextended system of criminal punishment, a seeming inability to come to grips with grave environmental problems such as global warming, a very costly but inadequate educational system, unsound immigration policies, an embarrassing obesity epidemic, an excessively costly health care system, a possible rise in structural unemployment, fiscal crises in state and local governments, a screwed-up tax system, a dysfunctional patent system, and growing economic inequality that may soon create serious social tensions. Our capitalist system needs a lot of work to achieve proper capitalist goals.