Sunday, September 30, 2012

Banker's Togs

One more on clothes that don't fit: Joel thinks it's the fabric. He says:
Color me wrong but I see a decent quality summer suit made of part or all cotton so it always looked rumpled plus a bad pose for portrait purposes

Custom tailors often refuse to make cotton suits.

And he links to a master tailor disclosing secrets of his craft at the website Ivy Style:

Also, I find I’m uncomfortable when someone asks me to make something for them where I feel they have to pay me more than they should. Case in point, when people ask me to make poplin trousers. I say, “These are your clothing Miranda Rights: You shouldn’t be buying poplin trousers from me, because the cloth we’re using is a better make than the cloth deserves, but it still costs me the same to make trousers out of poplin as the world’s finest flannel.” As a result, while my price on the flannels is better than everyone else’s, my price on the poplin is more than you should be paying for poplin. I say that, and many tell me, “But I can’t find the colors I want, and I want a higher or shorter rise, and I can afford it.” So I do it and sleep well because I told them they shouldn’t be paying me for poplin or seersucker.

UB's Wichita bureau chimes in:
Well, it could be linen – which is making a comeback. I think Huey Long in a white linen suit with a white panama hat hit all of your buttons about ill-fitting (he must have had them tailored that way), wrinkled and perhaps with the fly open.

Wichita adds:
I suspect that the bit about politicians wearing cheap suits so as not to overshadow their constituents is just that – a myth. Yeah, I’ve heard all the stories about the southerners who glue a bit of toilet paper to a shoe or let their shirt hang out thru their fly – but don’t believe them. Maybe 60 years ago. As far as I can tell, they buy and wear the best suits they can afford – as long as the French label doesn’t hang ou.

All of which brings to mind Joan Rivers saying how embarrassing it is when you come out of the ladies' room with that little piece of toilet paper in your teeth. She did not add, especially if you are a guy.

Lucca and the Swiss Bankers

Another post about bankers, this time the Swiss variety.  Years ago I heard that Swiss banking got its start when Protestant bankers, crosswise with the Counter-reformation, fled to Protestant Switzerland.  

This has always sounded plausible to me.  After all we know there was a lot of people-moving in those days and in particular, that French Hugenots took their Protestantism almost everywhere (and enriched virtually every society with which they came in contact).  

Yet oddly enough, this is one "fact" --perhaps the only one--that the intertubes appear unwilling to confirm.  Miscellaneous searches invoking "Lucca" together with (in some form or other) Swiss banking.

Can anyone help here?  Am I totally spinning threads out of my own gizzard?  Or is there some hitherto overlooked confirmation of this (alleged) phenomenon?

Oh, and while you are doing my research for me--I wouldn't mind laying my hands on  good history of the Antwerp diamond trade as well.

On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Clown

Things happen in threes, right?



And now, I think I have my third:

I suppose one inference you could draw here is that the  Romney campaign is as foreign to the American chatterati as the Onion is to the Ahmadinejad regime.  Another spin: I confess that with each of the three, a part of me is asking, "but what if it is really true?"

Update:  Whether this is a joke is left as an exercise to the reader:

Saturday, September 29, 2012

And Speaking of Wardrobe

You may not enjoy my company, but if you keep your eye on me you are likely to get your hands on a nice raincoat, the likes of which I have a habit of leaving behind in distant cities.

The Banker's Wardrobe

I have a question arising from two topics on which I am massively unqualified to comment, i.e., (s) men's fashion and (b) Belgian central banking

Anyway, you remember that museum of money of which I wrote the other day?  At the  main gate there is a welcome video by the Governor of the National Bank of Belgium.  Evidently he does it in three different languages, although I only listened to one.

But here's the thing: his suit doesn't fit. It is properly banker-grey and I am not schooled enough to tell the quality of the fabric, but it is a little uneven and hangs a little wrong.

Question, does this prove
a)  He is a lousy central banker; or
b)  Belgium is a third-world backwater; or
c)  He is a shrewd guy who knows you do  not want your banker to look too slick.
I hear that most congressmen wear bad suits because they do not want to appear better dressed than their constituents.

I wonder if the Belgian bank governor rides a bike to work.  Lots of people do here.

Is there a Rail Passenger Subsidy in Belgium?

I'll put my money on yes:
Round trip (senior) Brussels-Antwerp:  €5.30.

Double Espresso at the Royal  Art Museum €5.50.
 Either that, or there is a punitive tax on coffee.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The True History of the Waffle (Belgian)

Most people think the waffle was invented by some guy trying to figure out a new use for his waffle iron  but the Belgians know the true story is more interesting, full of happy accident and romance.

So return with us now to Sir Giles and Lady Gwendolyn,  in the ancestral love nest outside Namur until the great mischief maker Pope Urban II preached the First  Crusade.  Sir Giles, a faithful son of the church, on hearing the news understood instantly that he had no alternative but to go to the Holy Land in the spirit of the Galilean, to beat up a few Saracens.

Sir Giles went off on Crusade.  Lady Gwendolyn stayed home knitting sweaters and warding off suitors and doing whatever else was needful to preserve her dignity.  For years she heard nothing of  Sir Giles, not a murmur.  But one autumn Sunday afternoon, seventeen years after Sir Giles' departure, Lady Gwendolyn was at the stove stirring pancake batter when KA-VOOM, the door flew open and a warrior stood before her, resplendent in his chain mail.  Can you guess who it was?  Of course: it was Sir Giles, home from the wars.

"Kiss me, my fool!" he cried lustily, as he reached to wrap her in his arms.  Lady Gwendolyn's heart beat with ardor but she knew that propriety her to maintain a ladylike decorum.  "Nothing would please me more," she said, "but wouldn't you like a bite to eat first?"  Indeed, Sir Giles in his enthusiasm had spent the preceding 60 hours uninterrupted in the saddle.

"Dinner can wait!" Sir Giles declared, hurling his great clanking body down beside the stove and drawing his Lady into his lap.  

We might withdraw from the scene here  in tactful reserve, except that after an uncounted interval, the lovely nose of Lady Gwendolyn began to twitch.   She understood in a flash: it was the unmistakable odor of baking library paste.  "Sir Giles!' she gasped hoarsely.  "I think you sat in the bucket of pancake batter!"

A moment's inquiry showed that Lady Gwendolyn was right.  Except that what they gazed on was not pancake batter, nor even pancakes.  No: recall that Sir Giles had spent 60 hours in the saddle, and in his chain mail.  Sir Giles' heart brimmed over with compassion as he saw the dismay and disappointment in the eyes of his beloved.  Her dinner, it seemed, was  disaster.  But not so:  "No matter, my dear!" Sir Giles declared.  "Bring us butter and one of those spray cans of ersatz whipped cream!  I think we have invented the waffle!"

The rest, of course, is history.  Sir Giles and Lady Gwendolyn lived out a long and happy life together in the Castle.  Every Sunday morning, they ate waffles with butter and a spritz of cream.  Every year on the anniversary of Sir Giles' return, they added a coulis of strawberry jam.

 Source note: I wish I could say I had invented this story, or at least that I could tell you who did.  But I did add some of the edifying detail, for verisimilitude.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

With 270 Days of Rain Every Year...

I can see why Belgians love chocolate.  Stuff is yummy, though.

Belgian Money

I had a couple of hours to kill this morning in the neighborhood of the  National Bank of Belgium so I popped into their money museum and I must say it was time well spent.  It has  lot of stuff you would expect for a money museum: a gold sestère from the time of  Croesus, a miscellany of other exemplars.  But there was a lot more  For one, some interesting/amusing stuff about the culture of money: the French say  blé, flouze, fric, galette, pèze, pognon.  The Anglophones say dough, dolly, dosh, ready (but do they really?).  Benjamin Franklin said if you want to know the value of money, try borrowing some.  Oscar Wilde said when he was young, he thought money was everything, and when he got old, he knew it was.

But there are also some pretty good, albeit basic, exhibits on the nature and function of money, and the place of a central bank.  Here's a long bench with loaves of bread (I hope ceramic) and buckets of coal, indexing the purchasing power of the local  dosh from the middle of the 19th century until today.  Also a superbly done comic explaining inflation to kids (the Belgians do love their comics).  Oh, and also a couple of rooms preserving the atmosphere of the original 19th-Century bank, hilarious in ways that only a central banker can be  hilarious.

This being a museum with a heavy emphasis on schoolchildren, they smooth over a lot of rough spots.  They do talk about inflation but there isn't anything that I notice about panics, bankruptcy, grand theft, whatever.  If you're looking for a general discussion of, e.g., David Graeber/s new account of debt, you'd better look elsewhere.

And from the look of things, the cutoff date here is about 2007--which is to say just before the wheels came off, and the long majestic narrative of triumph turns into--whatever it is it turned into.  One prominent, well-established Belgian bank--Fortis--unraveled in the meltdown; several others went into intensive care. Might be interesting to see how you would put together a museum to tell this story, or to tell the more general stories of  Greece, or Ireland, or Spain, or Portugal or whatever.  But maybe that is the point of a museum: you can't tell a good museum story until all the participants are safely dead.

Afterthought: for a more elegant riff on a parallel theme, go here.

Another afterthought:  I said the Belgians love their comics.  Turns out that just up the road from the money museum, there is a museum of comics.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Three Creepy Belgians

That would be: Georges Simenon, Hergé,  René Magritte.

Simenon, he of a gazillion policiers and a double gazillion sexual conquests, all the time puffing affably on his pipe. Hergé --Georges Prosper Remi--creator of the beloved TinTin, with the stench of old-fashioned imperialist racism about him, no less unsettling because it seems to have been carried out in a cloud of guileless innocence. And Magritte--oh, I suppose "creepy" is too strong a word here, but there is something decidedly unnerving about the otherworldly surrealism of his art, packaged in the garb of bourgeois respectable civility; the man who insisted quite emphatically that "ceci" was not pipe.

I supposse I read a hundred-odd Simenons in my youth, fewer lately. I'm a huge Tin Tin fan and lucky for me I seem to have missed (more by good luck than good planning) the earlier, more offensive, numbers.

And Magritte--truth is, I never gave all that much thought to Magritte until I spent an afternoon at the Magritte Museum here in Brussels. It's an instructive and rewarding experience though as I've suggested already, I can't quite get my mind round the non-linearity of his imagination, swaddled in the apparent merry innocence of his private life.

But thst's the thing, isn't it? It's hard to think of any detached, uncoupled artist who has succeed in plugging himself more tightly into popular culture than Magritte.  Nearly everyone recognizes the clouds that are  not clouds, the Sabena airlines logo, and (perhaps most of all) the inevitable bowler hat.

I certainly claim no immunity on that score.  But at the end of the day (literally) I come to a couple of tentative conclusions.  One: that's kind of the story of surrealism: it starts with great fanfare, it makes its way into the popular imagination--and that's it, bam, finito, it goes nowhere.  Maybe Magritte can sustain merry innocence because in the end, there's nothing else to offer any real competition.

I don't know about you, but I think I find that unsettling.  Meanwhile, if you are looking for a truly creepy Belgian, go here.

Romney's Surrogate Son Embarks on
A Stormy Adolescence

"I thought you were a staunch Democrat," they used to say.

"I was," they used to say, "but these days the staunch is worse than ever."

Now this (but read the last paragraph).  H/T Joel.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

La Porte de Félicité

Here's another you won't find in Palookaville: two small ensembles, one "Renaissance," one "Ottoman," playing together, but not just interwoven and not just fusion: rather an honest effort to create a dialog that allows the musicians to engage with each other while maintaining their own cultural identity.,

The two groups were/are Doulce Mémoire, the Renaissance outfit, and  Ensemble Kudsi Erguner, their Ottoman companions. A bit of Googling suggests that both groups have made their bones in Europe while the participants would be virtually unknown in the US. Just in general--remember Noah Greenburg and the Pro Musica Antiqua (if you are old enough) or any other reedy, wheezy outfit you ever heard at a Ren Faire (only a whole lot higher quality than Ren Faire). About the only composer I recognized was Guillaume Dufay whose lifespan (1400-1474) encompasses the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, but it didn't matter; the programmers clearly made an effort to put together compositions that would respond to each other.

Only one "disappointment," though I can't say I shouldn't have been prepared. That is: this was another of the "church concerts," so popular in Europe, where the various proprietors surrender their sacred space to music, so as not to yield entirely to ghosts. They can be fun to be in, but the trouble is that the acoustics are awful and here, sadly, matters hit the usual standard. We sat next to the Ottomans and they came through loud and clear, but the Ren team, though performing so far as I could tell, at an alpine standard, more or less lost itself in echoes and reverberations.

The particular venue, by the way, was Brussels' Église Sainte-Marie, bleakly suitable in the respect that it is about the most syncretic piece of church architecture I've ever seen. But no, the music was precisely not syncretic--like I said, conversation. And I shouldn't make too much of the acoustics. It was a fascinating evening, well conceived and well executed, the likes of which I am not likely to enjoy soon again.

Oh, and that title, above: apparently it's one of the many names for "The Sublime Port," the GHQ of the Ottoman Empire.  The Turkish rendering here was Bâb-ı Âlî.

Update:  Oh, there's a DVD.   So I can get it in Palookaville after all.  Cool.

Cathedrals: Who Paid?

Here's a find, in a Brussels bookstore: L'argent des cathédrals, "The Money of Cathedrals," previously unknown to me, by one Henry Kraus, also new to me. It's apparently a translation of something called Gold was the Mortar: the Economics of Cathedral Building, published in 1979.   From the Amazon page, I gather the American version is out of print.  From frontal notes I infer that a French translation was first published in 1991.  My copy seems to be the same translation but in a newly minuted paperback edition from Les Edition du Cerf, published just this year.  Kraus (Amazon again) "was a labor historian, and European art historian. ... He was an organizer of the Flint Sit-Down Strike ...  He moved to Paris, and worked as a European correspondent for World Wide Medical News Service."  It's a topic about which I've long had a desultory curiosity; up to now my learning has been pretty much limited to what I can draw from Wiki.  I see from Amazon that I could have acquired a used copy (and in English) if I had just waited until I got home.  But this way, I have something to keep me company during takeoff and landing.

 Now if I could just find someone to explain the finances of the pyramids, or the Parthenon.  Or the ark.
Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima's houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? ...
--Bertholt Brecht, "A Worker Reads History" 

Afterthought: I do not cease to marvel at these bookstores you find in Paris--and now, here in Brussels--just jam packed, floor to ceiling, with really good stuff.  Evidently the Bezos revolution has not got traction here yet.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Oh, I Don't Think Think They Allowed
Lesbian Marriage in Those Days

Never Mind Jesus--Did God Have a Wife?

Link (to Robin Wright, who answers "yes.")

Best Coquille St. Jacques Ever

[aka scallops on a stick]:

The Tavel rosé was pretty wonderful, too. I modify my earlier remarks about Belgian cooking.  Does the name mean "blink of an eye?"

The Best Thing about Brussels So Far...

Has got to be the Concertgebouw (part of a complex with the appealingly multilingual name of "Bozar").    The building is nothing in particular to look at with an interior just as charmless any other charmless modern concert hall.   But we heard Gerald Finley as soloist in a Brahms Requiem with a massed orchestra and chorus; every sound was right and in particular, you could hear every word of his text.   Finley and, yes, Genia Kühmeier, perhaps less well known in the US but entirely up to the task.

Brussels in general is turning out to be a lot more interesting than I might have expected so long as you steer of all those massive projections of European power, out east of the old City.  Food not quite so wonderful as represented, though quite good enough.  And I've been mostly dining French; oddly (to me) enough, the really good stuff is said to be Flemish.

And no, I haven't yet seen the Mannekin Pis. He's short, easy to miss.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Retirement Havens

On a superficial view, they all look pretty nice to me:


But I couldn't use my Medicare.  And I don't speak the language.  And they're expensive.  And oh, right, they don't want me anyway.

Ah well, back to Palookaville.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Romney Video

Stuck in the rain and can't go play so I have been reading more stuff about  the Romney kerfuffle than any decent person ought to.  For those who have lives, I recommend David Shaviro on the incoherence of the tax analysis; Kevin Drum on what it says about Romney's people skills; Brad Plumer with tax chart porn.

But let me throw in one more issue.  Start by stipulating that the video convicts Romney of being far more stupid and evil than many thought him to be.  Grant that a serious society helps those who need help and grant also that the Friedman/Reagan earned income tax credit is a legitimate piece of public policy.  Still, go back to the David Brooks datum (lifted from AEI) that in 1960, 30 percent of Americans got some sort of government support; now we are up to 49 percent.

I'm sure one could quarrel with the content of this number.  And I'd concede that one reason for the increase very likely is the fact that we've expanded our definition of what matters should concern us.  Still it must be that one reason for the increase is that we simply have far greater needs today than we did so often in the past, even as measured by narrow and conventional definitions.  

Or perhaps restate it this way: we have simply lost the knack for providing decently-paying employment at a level that we took for granted back before the first Arab oil shock in the 1970s.  And a society that cannot find decent work for the multitude is a society in trouble.  Setting aside the aged and the genuinely infirm (and perhaps a few moochers like Mitt Romney), I suspect that when push comes to shove, most people want the chance to make a life for themselves.  A society that cannot formulate that framework is a society in trouble.  Forget about whether we can provide present levels of support--we can--the question remains whether we are happy with a society that impels us to do so.  

Not a War Memorial

I've always thought the French take second place to no one when it comes to the prickly bellicosity of their war memorials. But here's an exception: the Monument aux Morts at Strasbourg. That's Strasbourg yes, not Salzbourg not Stuttgart, but Strasbourg, on the Franco-German border in Alsace, long the political football of Franco-German political contention.

Start with the text: you probably can't read it in the picture but the it does not say "Pour La Patrie"--for the fatherland; rather "Pour Nos Morts"--for our dead. The Alsatians lost plenty on both sides of the Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II. I haven't any idea what their attitudes may have been at the beginning but by 1945 it seems they had lost all taste for the lies and pretensions of the conflict between nation states. The pietà-like figures are a woman (a mother?) and two young men (her sons?). The young men are dead, or dying; they have grasped hands. Carved in below the inscription of dates for the two world wars, there are additional dates memorializing the French colonial wars in Algiers and Vietnam. Helpfully, the sculptor has left additional space for several more wars as they may occur.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Zurich Notes

/We idled away a few happy hours Sunday afternoon at the Zurich Art Museum. I had been reluctant: the building certainly didn't look impressive and how much good art could there be in s city of a million or so?

Hoo boy, did I get that one wrong. Grsnt that they are a bit heavy on Giacometti (the whole family) and Maillot--still the Museum has dazzling strength in the moderns and a respectab;le presence in almost every period from the early Renaissance forward (no ancient: a command decision or is the ancient tucked away some place else?). The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist stuff seems to be the happy result of the Museum's having bet on moderns early (and whose good idea was that huh?). A lot of the other stuff is named donations, bearing the heady reek of sleekly elegant modern money.

It's still a kick that the exterior is so unprepossessing, though. I can't think of another major museum so well stocked behind so modest an exterior.

Now, for extra credit:
  • The trains running east downhill out of Switzerland down into Germany--they're loaded up with tankers. Containing what? Italian olive oil? Pasta sauce? Cocoa? Afterthought, I remember the old New Yorker cartoon showing the highway truck bearing the inscription "cheap Italian wine." But that was 40 years ago, back before we realized that Italian wine is actually pretty good, eh?
  • And while we are on the subject: why are so many trucks idling on the uphill route just east of the Swiss border? Surely not paying bribes? But taxes? Paperwork? And who is picking up the tab for all that wasted fuel, and wasted time. You feel like you could be going into Goa.
And finally, something I learned yesterday, don't know how.    You don't stuff money into the underwear of the pole dancer.  No; you buy house chips, and stuff the chips.  That way, I assume, the house is empowered to extract its cut.  Life planning note: do not choose a career where you paid by getting money stuffed into your underwear, whatever the form.  Of the money.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Lucerne Opera

We'd come to Zurich partly hoping for some music but it seems we are a week ahead of the season so we wound up last night half an hour away at Lucerne for a performance of Mozaart's La Climenza di Tito.

Well, folks--as they say--it was an experience, though I don't mean that quite as bad as it sounds. Lucerne offered an array of young singers, with strong voices and good instincts for drama, if a bit light on technique--beaujolais nouveau on stage. Or at least "nouveau:" this is the first Tito I've ever seen where Tito winds up in a wedding dress and seems more eager to jump his best buddy than his intended bride (fact is, that wedding dress may need to be retired from overwork--it seemed to wind up on almost everybody in the cast at some point before the evening was over). I can think of at three ressons why you might do this sort of thing. One, the internal logic of the drama, although if thst was the case here it eluded me. Two, there seems to be a priciple among German impersarii that anything tht can be tried, must be tried (I remmeber a Così fan tutte done on what seemed to be on an old LP turntable, with trap doors). Three--maybe the most plausible and acceptable--this is, after all, opera seria and in opera seria, directors feel more or less obliged to do whatever they can think of to fill up the langourous repeats.

Anyway, the net effect, giving credit for good singing and good drama was something close to farce--successful farce, turning a ponderous piece of high neoclassicism into a rollicking good romp. This gives rise to two questions. One, did it work? I'd say the answer is yes, it did work, if you were careful to take it on its own terms. And two, did the presenters intend it to be farce? Here I really have no clue; I suspect maybe they did not intend it, but that they have a farcical hit on their hands anyway.

Zurich Prices

Ah, yes, that explains the big sucking sound.  Data copped from UBS shows   that Zurich is indeed the most expensive city for foreigners (of 72 cities in the survey--and "foreigners" means "us").    But in terms of local-wage purchasing power it is one of the cheapest.   Tyler Durden got his knickers all in a twist last year when he figured out that a Big Mac at Zurich prices would cost $17.19 dollars.   Exchange rates have moderated a bit since then, so maybe something like $14 (confession: I haven't bought a Big Mac here--nor, I think, in the US).    Anyway, forget that: the UBS data shows that in local wage purchasing power terms, the the Zurich Big Mac is just about 1:1 with New York..

Fun Fact:  Forget about what I said before--this is still a city where a person over 30 can commute by trolley car without counting his life a failure.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Off Again

We're in Zurich, for the Decennial Mountain Yodel-Off. If we see any of Mitt Romney's money, we'll holler.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Are You Really Superman
Or Just a Kid Who Wears His Underwear Outside His Pants?

Romney thinks he’s Clint Eastwood playing The Man With No Name, when he’s really only Glenn Campbell playing Ranger LaBoeuf.

Taxmom Nails It!

Old Man Yells at Kids
To Get Them the Hell Out of His Yard

And who could do it better than Joseph Epstein?
When asked what he thought about the cultural wars, Irving Kristol is said to have replied, “They’re over,” adding, “We lost.” If Kristol was correct, one of the decisive battles in that war may have been over the liberal arts in education, which we also lost. ... 
For many years, the liberal arts were my second religion. I worshipped their content, I believed in their significance, I fought for them against the philistines of our age as Samson fought against the Philistines of his—though in my case, I kept my hair and brought down no pillars. 
As currently practiced, however, it is becoming more and more difficult to defend the liberal arts. Their content has been drastically changed, their significance is in doubt, and defending them in the condition in which they linger on scarcely seems worth the struggle. ... At the University of Chicago I read many books, none of them trivial, for the school in those years did not allow the work of second- or third-rate writers into its curriculum. Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Jack Kerouac, Adrienne Rich, or their equivalents of that day, did not come close to making the cut. No textbooks were used. You didn’t read “Karl Marx postulated .  .  .”; you read Karl-bloody-Marx. The working assumption was that one’s time in college is limited, and mustn’t be spent on anything other than the first-rate, or on learning acquired (as with textbooks) at a second remove. 
Nor did Chicago offer any “soft” majors or “lite” courses. I remember, in my final year, looking for such a course to fill out a crowded schedule, and choosing one called History of Greek Philosophy. How difficult, I thought, could this be? Learn a few concepts of the pre-Socratics (Thales believed this, Heraclitus that), acquire a few dates, and that would be that. On the first day of class, the teacher, a trim little man named Warner Arms Wick, announced that there was no substantial history of Greek philosophy, so we shall instead be spending the quarter reading Aristotle and Plato exclusively. ... 
Had I not gone to the University of Chicago, I have often wondered, what might my life be like? I suspect I would be wealthier. But reading the books I did, and have continued to throughout my life, has made it all but impossible to concentrate on moneymaking in the way that is required to acquire significant wealth. Without the experience of the University of Chicago, perhaps I would have been less critical of the world’s institutions and the people who run them; I might even have been among those who do run them. I might, who knows, have been happier, if only because less introspective—nobody said the examined life is a lot of laughs—without the changes wrought in me by my years at the University of Chicago. Yet I would not trade in those three strange years for anything.
Go read it all here.  On that nature and practice of reading (and much else), Epstein would surely find shared sympathy with Patrick Kurp.

Thomas Szasz

"That dreadful Hungarian, was he there?"  says Mrs. Pierce in My Fair Lady.  Higgins answers:  "Yes he was there allright and up to his old tricks."

Just for the record, I never thought Thomas Szasz a "blaggard" in the same category as the infamous Zoltan Karpathy of Broadway musical fame.   But look at that impish wisp of a grin in his New York Times obituary this morning and you can't help but suspect that he wouldn't have minded the "dreadful" part.  In any event, he certainly put his stamp on the world, as one of the leading critics of the psychiatric establishment. 

He built his career on his book, The Myth of Mental Illness (1961),    As the Times suggests, his timing was exquisite.  The cornices where just beginning to crumble on the Freudian edifice and Szasz found himself in the front line of a broad-based attack against the conventional psychiatric wisdom.  But he had his own spin.  Careless observers would bracket him with "left critics" like R. D. Laing whose view, in crude caricature, was that we're all crazy and that crazy people need to be taken more seriously.    Szasz' point was that nobody is crazy, so suck it  up.

Szasz' enthusiasm seems never to have flagged,  and he seems to have thrived on adversity.  He lost his principal teaching forum in the 60s, but continued to speak, write, see private patients--and argue--until the end of his life.  His zest for confrontation led him into some, ahem, memorable company.  At times he consorted with Scientologists, Misean libertarians and assorted nutcakes.    But you got the sense he didn't care: he was sure enough of his own rightness that he seemed to figure that he would enrich their world more than they would sully his.

It's an interesting question what, if anything, Szasz accomplished with all his muck-stirring. The Times quotes an historian of psychiatry saying that a Szaszian attack "had some merit in the 1950s ... but not later on, when the field began developing more scientific approaches."  Really? For the moment, let's just note that "more scientific" has done nothing to prevent psychiatric "mission creep," as the scope of psychiatry seems to get ever larger.

 I haven't kept up, but I suspect that Szasz took it all in stride. Self-pity was never part of his tool kit.  Much more fun to have a good scrap than to worry too much about winning.   For the momenet, here are some temperate insights into the Szaszian career:  go here and here.

Unions? Who Needs 'em?

The strategic vision behind the calculations of these Democratic officials foresees a Democratic Party that consists chiefly of upper-middle-class professionals and enough very rich guys to fund its campaigns, and minority voters who are sufficiently disenchanted with public schools that they won’t mind, and may well support, efforts to bust up the teacher unions.
Link. But no, he doesn't approve.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Muslim Roots

I mentioned a while back that I was curious about the roots of Islam and in particular, how the new learning, ahem, nuances the old.  Brad warned me that the topic would drive me crazy but he needn't have worried: in my case, ADD trumps OCD , and my mind will wander away long before any serious damage has done.   Still, I did stick around long enough to finish the Tom Holland book on the subject and to follow up on some attendant threads.  I'll say more about Holland in a moment but first some context.

Try this: it seems to me that there are two different rhetorical strategies by which one might undertake to exhume the history of a religion.  You can go big picture and try to show how the received version just isn't plausible in terms of what we know about the surrounding historical context.  For example, if you are exploring Judaism you might point out that it is unlikely Solomon married 700 daughters of kings because there probably weren't that many kings in the catchment area.   Similarly if you are considering Christianity, you will likely try to situate it in the tectonic shift of cultures that generated so much religious activity around the time of the birth of the Roman Empire.  This approach is beguiling and can be productive: it  makes for good copy.  But pretty soon it falls victim to the curse of cross-examination: just who did what when and how do the pieces fit together?

Or you can approach the task in micro, trying to dope out the meaning and context of individual relics or shards of vocabulary. Heaven knows we have whole heaps of Judaic and Christian rubble. With both Christianity (Greek, but also Hebrew and Latin)  and Judaism (Hebrew, but also Greek and a bit of Latin) we have reams of linguistic analysis.  This approach of promise of being more challenging and more persuasive but it also may leave you sleeping in the doorway with a brown paper bag.

The inquirer after Islam faces a similar range of choices, in a context even more stark.  We have the "received account" of a religion that appears more or less ex nihilo--from God's mouth to Muhammad's ear, as it were, with essentially nothing by way of preparation or intermediation.  

For a secularist inquirer, such a stance is inherently implausible.  We live in a mind-set where nothing comes out of nothing, and the suggestion that it does an amounts to an invitation to find out why it does not.

I think this framework might help the reader to understand what it is that Holland is up to in his book, and why he seems to take so long in getting to the point.    The remarkable fact that the "Islamic" part of the book comes only in the last couple of chapters. Prior to that, he is romping all over the Mediterranean  and Middle , tracking "original" Romans, Byzantines, Sassanids and heaven knows else in the centuries that precede the rise of Islam.  The point, although Holland doesn't make it s explicit as he might, is that this is the cultural apparatus into which the Muslims obtrude.  On the hypothesis that they must have got their material from somewhere, this is what they got and this is where they got it.

 Put the point another way: there was  a lot of contact in the centuries preceding Muhammad between the Arabs and their neighbors, the desert and the sown.  The Arabs had countless occasions to stand by as astonished observers, or to join as participants in the affairs of the sown. For their part the sown didn't take the Arabs particularly seriously as full human; still, they did recognize their desert neighbors as the baddest dudes in the neighborhood, to be deployed in conflict as appropriate, to be treated with caution.

Holland's telling of this story is somewhat uneven.  He seems most at home with the Rome/Byzantine parts of his story, less so with the Sassanids.  He is most convincing when he is sketching the outlines of the bloody and interminable religious wars. But even here, there is an odd sort of diffidence about him, together with some plain bloviating.  I  can't quite tell why this might be true.  My guess is that he doesn't feel sufficiently at home with the Sassanid parts of the story.

Or perhaps, here and in the later (Islamic) parts of the book, he is simply cagy, wanting to tell his tale, but aware of the fact that this  is a field where a scholar of even modest secularist sympathies may find himself pitched out of a window.   Understandable perhaps, but perhaps also more cautious than is entirely necessary. For the fact is that there is a large and apparently growing body of secularist scholarship that treats Islam the way one might treat Christianity or Judaism.  Holland cites some of work in his bibliography, though his coverage seems a bit patchy.  Perhaps he should have taken more heart.  There was a time, and not too long ago, when students of Christianity and Judaism horrified themselves by the seemingly necessary implications of their inquiries.  These days, that kind of study is mainstream.  Sooner or later there will come a time when we can study Islam with the same mix of curiosity and detachment.    As a way station on the road to that eventuality, good popularizations are one thing we very much need.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Batman Update

Somebody is going to have to explain this to me, but meanwhile it just totally cracks me up: link.  

 H/T Tim Harford.

Obama, Geithner and "No Banker Left Behind"

I've just now caught up with Noam Scheiber's The Escape Artists and it is just as good as the reviewers say it was (for one of the best, go here).  For crisp and coherent accounts of difficult economic concepts, this guy really is way above the common ruck.  But he brings me back to a favorite theme of mine: that Obama and his ilk are way too deferential to Wall Street.

I've taken some heat for that one  before from some of my friends who say no no, one of Obama's great virtues is that he is not part of the Wall Street cabal.  Wall of course, he is not.  But is that a virtue?  The more I see of him, the more I sense that Obama, whatever his virtues (many) and his intentions (good) simply does not have a feel for the way markets work.  It's precisely the reason why he is far too much  at risk of being mesmerized by those who (sound like they) know better.

But next, direct the spotlight to Tim Geithner.  Per Scheiber, Obama and Geithner are genuinely sympatico. But the terrible truth is that Geithner suffers from another strand of Obama's own hypnotizing virus. Recall that Geithner's great claim to fame is that he has never worked for "a bank" ("Federal Reserve Bank of New York," ironically, does not count).  Well yes, but one corollary of never having worked for a bank is that Geithner feels himself totally dependent on banks for his street credit.  Read a few pages of Scheiber and you get the feeling that this guy doesn't blow his nose unless he decides it will play well on Wall Street.

Plug in Larry Summers as chairman of the National Economic Council and you have somebody whose role is more complicated and perhaps easier to misunderstand. The vulgar (that would be me) would think--oh, Summers, he's sold out for the big consulting fees, he is just another shill for his corporate masters.  Per Scheiber, there is a large kernel of truth in that,  but the back story is more complicated.  It's not solely that he's a corporate tool (heh). The thing is, in a more general way he just wants to make sure he has a place at the power table--you get the sense he might have behaved much as he did were he buttering up to Joseph Stigliz, rather than Robert Rubin.  It's Summers who get to pass on economic advise to the inner circle. In Scheiber's telling, "pass on" means that Summers gets to listen to the great advocate of "more help for Main Street" Christina Romer, in her role as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.  At the start, Summers agrees with her (Are you surprised?  One surmises that Romer may have been surprised).  But then Summers, no slouch at bureaucratic intrigue, puts Romer on ice (or more crudely, "shoves her out onto the ice floe").  Had he changed his views?  Evidently not on substance; but it appears he had made a judgment as to what would win, and he was afraid that if he stuck with (what he perceived to be) the loser, he would lose his street cred.

It seems that Summers' decision set the stage for a tragic misunderstanding.  Evidently Rahm Emanuel, still the chief of staff, figured the political decision was his, subject to input on the economics from Summers. But by the time it got to Rahm's desk, a political decision had already been made: Rahm just didn't know it.

So the winners here turn out to be Geithner, though he may not have known how or why, and Summers, for reasons of his own.  Romer it seems,  no matter how competent an economist, was not Summers' match at intrigue.  And Obama--and, ironically, Mr. Steeetwise himself, Emanuel--apparently didn't even know that they had been rolled.

There is an added irony here, way beyond the scope of Scheiber's book.  That is: I have no idea how good Romney is at bureaucratic intrigue (not very good, I suspect)--still when it comes to not being mesmerized by  big money, he is probably far better equipped than Obama.   He's been dealing with these guys all  his life and he seems to have taken them to the cleaners more than once.  Is this reason enough to dump Obama for Romney?  IMO, not by a long shot. Far better a serious but mediocre president, than a slapdash moneygrubber in thrall to a zoo full of knuckle dusters.  But it does make the point that politics, as well as being a dirty business, is also complicated.


For teaching purposes, to illustrate the paradigm of a lo-IP industry, I always use "carpets"--"the fuzzy side is always up," I once heard someone say, "and 97 percent of the product is beige."

Now this.  H/T, MR.

Afterthought: "the elderly who insist on living independently."  Hey kid, you want a piece of me?

Not Cool with This

Just got a Facebook "people you may know" teaser about a guy who died two years ago.

East Stroudsburg?


Do I Contradict Myself?

Very well then, I contradict myself:

Vote Romney! He'll repeal Obamacare, the whole thing, but he'll keep some parts, like preexisting conditions, but actually he won't, he'll keep it but not in the law. 
He likes Roe v Wade, but is pro-life, but he won't pass a law against abortion, but he supports laws against abortion, but not if it's rape, but only if it's not secretly not rape. And he'll nominate pro-life judges, but he won't ask judges if they're pro-life before nominating them. 
Also he'll cut taxes on rich people (sorry, "job creators") and raise taxes by eliminating loopholes, but not loopholes on "job creators", but also not loopholes on poor people or the middle class, and not loopholes on corporations (who are people (actually let me clarify, they're not people (except for purposes of campaign contributions))). He's not going to get into details because if he did his opponents would just use them to attack him. 
He's in favor of a strong dollar, so he'll stop China from manipulating the currency to maintain a strong dollar, which is causing a big debt, which he'll make smaller by cutting taxes and cutting spending, except on military, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare which he'll spend more on. He's against cutting Medicaire, because that's what Obama is doing and he'll repeal Obama cutting Medicare, but he'll cut Medicare (sorry, "entitlement reform"), but not Obama's cutting Medicare different cutting Medicare. And the older generation is running up the deficit at the expense of younger people, which he'll fix by cutting benefits for younger people (it's not cutting Medicare, it's just having Medicare give out less money than before). And he's in favor of the individual mandate, which is why he'll repeal it once in office. And he didn't want to bail out GM, because he secretly did want to bail out GM. But three things he'll NEVER DO are "apologize for America", let cancer patients smoke weed, and release his tax returns. 
I am large, I contain multitudes.

[Credit: Romney spinmeister Walt Whitman, together with a Reddit commentator on Kevin Drum.]

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Great Idea, Great Concept

Here's a rhetorical problem: how to write this post without making it sound like I'm reporting on a topless mud wrestling cage match.  I.e., to make it important without making it just lurid.

The core point: Austin Frakt, health care economist and blogger, is setting up a "conversation"--I will not call it a debate--with health care economist and book-author John Goodman.   I should say this is a wonderful idea.  Love him or hate him,  you have to concede Goodman is a grownup on issues of health policy.   And if anybody can reeducate him while remaining temperate and respectful, it would have to be Frakt.  It may not work--Frakt has already reserved the right to video a public immolation (of the book, not Goodman) if it goes off the rails.  But these guys have at least half a chance.

And is it just remotely possible that this is an idea we could generalize?  The web has unambiguously proven its power to obliterate the landscape with shitstorms. But through it all there are still people who perversely insist on using it to generate useful content.

They'd have to find each other, of course.  I'm not suggesting an internet commissioner of rhetoric.  And I suppose you can say we already find pockets of this sort of thing in stuff like  blogginheads talks.  I'm just looking for a path to generalize.

A final note:  be it recorded that I'm not necessarily looking for a "path to a center," built on the hypothesis that "civilized people can come to agreement."  Properly done, I'd say the forecast is very likely not.  But even without syncretism, I'd like to believe that there is still some room for low-voltage disagreement, where people with heft can agree to disagree, perhaps even while clarifying each others' thinking.  So, go John and Austin. But I admit I probably will check in to watch the incineration, if and when. 

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Hey, Scratch My Back, Will You?

My friend Toni points to a prize: a website devoted to documenting fake Buddha quotes.  The site offers elegant examples, along with some interesting insights into the whole fake-quotes enterprise: how this stuff gets manufactured, and why.  It seems that some people just lend themselves to this kind of treatment--Yogi Berra and Will Rogers no doubt heading the list.  But the manufacturing of undocumented or undocumentable quotations surely tells you something about the sensibilities of the quoter and the anxieties of the time.  My own first encounter with this sort of thing came back during the 1964 Presidential campaign (Johnson-Goldwater).  I was working the Kentucky state capitol for The Louisville Tiimes, and I noticed that some well-wisher was festooning the men's rooms with little paste-ups of one-liners, mostly devoted to showing either how (a) Khrushchev was rooting for Lyndon Johnson or (b) Lincoln was plumping for Barry Goldwater.

Khrushchev seems to have faded from view but my guess is that Lincoln still stands high in the fake-quote league tables, particularly for his (supposed) habit of telling the rest of us we ought to get off our Fat Butts and quit taking government money.  Here's  a whole catalog of Lincolnisms here, together with some remarkable documentation and history; see also link,  ("other misnomer," mid-page).  Churchill, of course, gets similar treatment.  We tried to deal with one tiny corner of the Churchill cathedral here just the other day; for a more extended selection, go here.    Mark Twain is almost too easy, but here are a few offerings.  link.

Yogi Berra is, of course, such a cosmic sink of fake quotations that he almost beggars any effort at collection; Snopes even offers up a fake Yogi Berra commencement address ("Do not covet thy neighbor's wife unless she has nothing else to wear"--who knew that the Yogi was also a zen master?).  Ironically, it appears that Yogi probably did say "I never said most of the things I said" (or something very close).  Quotesleuth Fred Shapiro documents it here, with some bonus comments on the peculiar Yogi style.

With the Buddha (though not with the Yogi), I should think part of the problem is sheer remoteness:  who can we accurately transmit anything across almost unimaginable chasms of time and space.    Anecdote, I remember when young reading two different translations of Lao Tzu.   I couldn't make head or tail out of the first so I moved on to the second.  I couldn't make sense of that either--and I got the unsettling sense that the two translations bore little or no resemblance to each other.  As Lao Tzu himself would surely say, bummer.  Thanks again, Toni, and meanwhile, my own favorite Buddha quote is the headline to this post.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Michelangelo, Fast Learner

I've been watching/listening to some lectures on the life of Michelangelo by a guy named William Wallace, otherwise unknown to me, from Wash U. They're wonderful, in the sense that I thought I knew a bit about Michelangelo but he is telling me a lot of things I never thought about before. He also has an engaging stage presence: not at all academic in style, you get the feeling he could be running an art-restoration boutique on the south side of the Arno; maybe even a sculptor himself except that his hands aren't big enough and his name doesn't end with a vowel (well okay, yes it does end with a vowel but you know what I mean). Come to think of it, I'll bet he did try his hand at sculpture somewhere along the line; how else to explain his alert understanding of the problems that a sculptor must be up against?

But set that aside.  My immediate point is an insight, startling to me at least, about how an artist develops.  Right or wrong, I like to think of art as a craft.   How do you get to Carnegie Hall, the muppets aslk?  Prrr-actice.    Charlie Parker played setup routines over and over again, faster and faster, in every different key,all day and all night.  Verdi staged something like a dozen operas (depending on exactly how you count) before he did the major leagues.

Yet here's the thing: on Wallace's account, Michelangelo's best work comes almost out of nowhere. He didn't have a standard apprenticeship.  There isn't much by way of Michelangelo juvenilia.   He did come "of good family," though exactly what that can mean seems difficult to calibrate at this remove. Whatever: he did the Bacchus when he was 21-23.  Before he turns 25, he has finished the Pietà--destination #1 for so many tourist-visitors to St. Peter's.

And finally--tastes will differ, but if I had to put together a list of five works of art from any medium that have to be preserved, I'd have to include the Michelangelo's David, now in the Accademia in Florence.  I remarked to Mrs. Buce that it must be the best statue ever.  She said I must be wrong but I haven't heard her suggest to better.  Anyway, Michelangelo started work on the David when he was 25 (and finished before he was 30).  As Wallace rightly observes, the one fit companion for the David is Shakespeare's Hamlet--he who says:
What a piece of work is a man!  How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension  how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Perhaps the only place where Wallace disappoints in all this is the question of how Michelangelo kept getting all these commissions. Amazing that he, as a young nobody, got the commission to do the Bacchus in the first place.  As Wallace explains, the Cardinal who commissioned the Bacchus didn't like it, and rejected it. Wallace shows convincingly how we must accept it as a great work; but he also shows how unsettling it is, how easy would be for a donor not to like it. Yet virtually as soon as he had suffered rejection fot hhe Bacchus, he is able to lay his hands on the commsion for what became the Pietà.

Michelangelo finished both the Bacchus and the Pietà in Rome. From thence he proceeded back home to Florence where nobody knew him as an artist, nor anything about his early achievement. Yet here he was able to get still more commissions, including the one for what seems to me to be the greatest sculpture ever.  Well connected and well protected but still, an amazing career.  And there's this:

How We Live Now

By almost any measure, Palookaville and its surrounding county are pretty small potatoes.  We're only 220,000; about 15 percent Hispanic, with more Native Americans than African-Americans, more Asians than either.  There are some pockets of social stress: the relatively large Hmong cohort is about the same size as the minuscule African-American population.   If you count the non-profit hospital as "public," then this is a "public sector" town: the top six private employers in aggregate have fewer employees than the hospital, or the university, or the pubic school system.   So, a pretty stable, solvent, well-manicured environment.

All by way of background for this morning's sighting:  from a bin in a food store, something called the county "Medical Directory"--an advertising promo, that is: one-line listings plus a scattering of display ads for medical services.  Altogether, something like 50  pages.   This is not all MDs.  The alphabetic index includes, I don't know, maybe 30--maybe 50?--medical specialties, but also dentists and chiropractors, midwives, hearing aid dealers, nutritionists, opticians, optometrists, opthalmologists, all tucked in between oncologists and orthopedists.  You get the idea.

And I certainly do not mean to sneer; I am the happy consumer of a variety of these services.  And like (I suspect) many of the consumers, my capacity to consume is a function of Medicare in conjunction with a generous public employment package benefit.   And I'd turn that point around: suppose we abolished all Medicare and public employee benefit plans from this county: how many pages of this directory would just vanish like the leaves?   I expect quite a lot.  

I gave some numbers above on public versus private employment: actually the largest non-public employer in Palookaville is Walmart (number five on the top-ten-employer list).   The largest old fashioned "make-something" employer is the brewery. It weighs in at number six, with a work force about 14 percent the size of the workforce at the hospital.   I once heard the economist Lester Thurow, explaining the concept of a gross national product, remark that "I mean we can't get rich just by all taking out each other's appendix."  He hadn't seen Palookaville.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Whoda Thunk It?

Who would have thought we'd live to see Bill Clinton act as a character reference for a President?

French Stereotypes and Ours

I don't think I had ever heard of the movie Quai des Orfèvres, nor its director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, except insofar as I had him mixed up with his homonymous counterpart. Never, that is, until last night when it popped up out of Mrs. Buce's well-manicured Netflix queue--an easy match for, in some ways better than, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity which we took in just a few days ago. Like DI, it's a piece of unadorned story-telling: no tricks, no gimmicks, just a linear power drive from start to finish. Film buffs apparently give it high marks for the camera work; I'm not hip enough to take that in on first viewing, but it sure was a pleasure to watch.

For an American viewer, at least, it's a triumph of  ambience: you get the sense that you're tucked into a fully slice of Parisian life, so vivid that you make it part of your (necessarily stereotypical?) picture of what France must have been like, at least in its time.  On a quick look, you are tempted to bracket it with the Maigret mysteries of George Simenon.  There are some huge gaps in the comparison but it is not entirely wrong.  They both give you a world that is sordid and mean at first look, yet peopled with an array of memorable characters who seem driven by an unspoken compact to maintain a certain kind of an order, and mostly endowed with an impressive knack for muddling through.  These people have been here, as Proust might say, since Geneviève de Brabant; minor nuisances in the way of murder and betrayal are not going to derail them now.

So for an American viewer, a consoling confirmation of all preconceptions. Yet here is the odd part: forget about its international cachet, evidently the film is a favorite in France, as well.   This strikes me as odd: whatever the French view of themselves, you'd hardly expect it to comport with the view of the untutored foreigners: especially those who are so misguided as to suppose that they actually know something about France.   Or, I guess, the possibility is that the French have foisted it all on a credulous international multitude while they stay home giggling into their fromage?

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

I Think the Word he Used was "Pitcher"

Weirdest New York Times bowdlerization of the day prize goes to Frank Bruni:
F.D.R.’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, famously characterized the job as not being worth “a warm bucket” of urine, which was euphemized in the retelling as “spit.”
Old-timers will recall that the late, great J. Anthony Lukas made this sort of thing into a literary genre.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Temperament Trumps Doctrine

“Here, people are more religious, even if they’re not Muslim, and I am comfortable with that,” said Ms. Alhamad, an undergraduate in civil engineering, as several other Muslim women gathered in the student center nodded in agreement. “I’m more comfortable talking to a Christian than an atheist.”
 So the New York Times, quoting one Mai Alhamad, a Kuwaiti woman who likes to wear a head scarf and is enjoying life at the (Catholic) University of Dayton.  Per the Times, she's part of a trend.

Now I've got no beef with the Times for running the story but we shouldn't be too surprised, should we?  Isn't it a good generalization about politics that temperamental affinities like those on display here outweigh mere doctrinal differences.  Doesn't that (help to) explain why American evangelical Christians get along so famously with right-wing Orthodox Jews?   And, perhaps, why Mitt Romney sees Paul Ryan as a kind of surrogate son?

Still, remember, you heard it here first: if Sharia law ever comes to the United States, it will be part of the Tea Party platform.

Fn.:  What the hell did Mitt's five sons do to him to make him feel like he needs a sixth one?

Not the Man in the Empty Cab

Did somebody just reprint it?    This morning I've run across a couple of different people recalling the chestnut about how " 'An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened [Clement] Attlee got out.'
For those of you with no memory of World War II, that would be Clement Attlee, British post-war prime minister and the architect of "socialist Britain"--and perhaps equally important the man who, as deputy prime minister, ran the country while Winston Churchill ran the war.
I don't doubt that somebody said it--hey, I just said it. But the near-universal attribution of this jibe is to Churchill himself.  I'll give a chocolate cigar to anyone who can show that Churchill actually did say it.  Grant that Churchill had a scabrous tongue.  Grant also he had plenty of reason to blow his top at Attlee: they worked cheek  by jowl through the war years, and it must have seared Churchill's soul when he lost to Attlee in the 1945 election.

Yet there is abundant evidence that Churchill had the greatest respect for Attlee's abilities, and seriousness of purpose (however much they may have disagreed on substance).  Start with the wartime coalition where, by any decent appraisal, Attlee did a spectacular job--"spectacular" in the sense of "almost totally invisible, at a time when the last thing the war leadership needed was the distraction of domestic politics."  Churchill clearly understood; after all, at least after the turning of the tide, he probably could have had Attlee removed with the snap of a finger if he chose.

But don't take it from me; listen to Attlee's biographer:
After the war one quip which went the rounds of Westminster was attributed to Churchill himself. 'An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened [Clement] Attlee got out.' When [John] Colville repeated this, and its attribution, to Churchill he obviously did not like it. His face set hard, and 'after an awful pause' he said: 'Mr. Attlee is an honourable and gallant gentleman, and a faithful colleague who served his country well at the time of her greatest need. I should be obliged if you would make it clear whenever an occasion arises that I would never make such a remark about him, and that I strongly disapprove of anyone who does.'
--Harris, Kenneth. Attlee (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1982)

It's reprinted here, with a cross-cite to  Augarde, Tony, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations (Oxford University Press, 1991).  I believe I read essentially the same story in Roy Jenkins;' biography of Churchill, though I can't put my finger on it just now (might be from the same source). 

Grant that Attlee the man was the very picture of modesty and humility, particularly compared to Churchill's drama and flamboyance.    Still he ran what was almost certainly the best single British government since the war.  And he was not entirely bland; Wiki has a selection here. Including this just self-appraisal:
There were few who thought him a starter,
Many who thought themselves smarter.
But he ended PM,
CH and OM,
an Earl and a Knight of the Garter.
 For non-British readers, that would be "prime minister,"  "companion of honor" and "order of merit."   Fun Fact:  Attlee's grandson John, inheritor of his earldom, is a hereditary member of the House of Lords and a conservative.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Coincidence? Um--

Yesterday I bought a Kindle link to In the Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland's new account of the origins of Islam--the unauthorized version, which retails a body of not-well-known modern scholarship, casting doubt on the standard account.  I'm about a quarter of the way in; it's a worthwhile read, with some defects and some virtues, about both of which I hope to say more later.  For the moment, though, a meta-issue.

Specifically: this morning when I fired up my email, I was greeted by (inter alia) a piece of toxic sludge offering a far more mischief-making of the same, promising to tell me the truth about  Mohammed as "a drunken, child molesting, cowardly pimp."    "The Ayatollahs and Terrorists do not want you to know," my well-wisher informs me.  Supposed to be a barrel of laughs, too.  Anyway, just buy our book, it says here, and you'll learn the whole truth. Well thanks, just what I needed for a measured and scholarly inquiry into a difficult and explosive topic.

My well-wisher provides a link to an Amazon purchase page.  There's also an "unsubscribe" link which I wouldn't touch with a dung fork (my mail provider tagged the offending message as possible spam, which is not a big surprise). But wait:  in my long and not overly corrupt career as an email-and-Amazon user, this is the first time ever--ever--that I have got an email seemingly so well calibrated to match my supposed literary tastes.  Coincidence?   Maybe so.  But my order mail is time-stamped 11:07 am Saturday; the little piece of marketing shit came rolling in at 1:40 am Sunday.  Has Amazon been hacked?

Update:   By way of clarification--I don't see the slightest evidence that Amazon itself had any conscious role in producing this pestiferous intrusion.

Update II:  But they sure don't seem very interested.  I sent them an email saying I thought they might have been hacked. They responded with helpful suggestions on protecting my email account.  I wrote back and said no, no,you dingdong, I am trying to do you a favor.   No response so far.