Monday, December 31, 2012

Knights Landing CA, December 26

I almost never do this sort of thing, but I stopped the car to catch these clouds over the Sacramento Valley.  I'm heading south just above Knights Landing, i.e., maybe 20 miles northwest of Sacramento.    I've been doing this run off and on for something close to 35 years.  We often get storms (often rather nasty, with sleet) out of the south, but I don't think I've ever seen a front here so clearly defined.

"Look at Me!" The Trope that Chooses Not to Speak its Name

My friend David  identifies a cinematic trope that seems to have eluded formal identification.  We resort to ostensive definition.  Three examples:
--Max Bialystock (aka Zero Mostel)  the producer in The Producers, surveying his hopes, dreams, lusts, aspirations and concluding "Look at me!  I'm wearing a cardboard belt!"

--Lefty Ruggiero (aka Al Pacino) in Donnie Brasco making his mob nut by smashing parking meters with a sledgehammer.

--Satan (aka Peter Cook) in (the original) Bedazzled annoying perfect strangers by scratching LP records and tearing the last page out of Agatha Christie novels.
And the common thread would be?  Well, there's black humor, of course, but there is plenty of that everywhere.  The more precise point has something to do with the dignity of big dreams and honest labor, and the stark reality that the  most exalted employment boils down to a lot of grunge.  Broadway producer?  Mr. Mafia toughguy?  Satan himself?  Don't you guys have minions?  Or minions with minions?  Hah, no: in the end you have to deal with all the crap on your own. 

There must be a name for this stuff somewhere (for lack of a better, we could call it the "Look at me!" maneuver).   And a dissertation, or a wall full of dissertations.  If not, I suppose there will be soon (although not by me).

Footnote:  David points to another common thread: these are three of my favorite movies.

Video Extra:  I haven't been able to track down footage of any of my three examples. The following is not quite on point but it might be the best "dignity of work" story since Mark Twain (in Life on the Mississippi) told how Mr. Bixby took the riverboat over the sandbar.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

And a Bloggy Home Again, More or Less

Ah, good.  After a couple of months' inconvenience, I am home to something close to my original format, plus I seem to have recovered my sidebars.  Not sure how much has changed: my problem was that I couldn't figure out how to post or edit, and that can be a problem for a blogger.  I think I've come up with a workaround (you just go to the main Google page and select "Blog).  Now maybe I should also work on the typeface--somebody taught me once that sans serif is too much of an eyestrain for text.

End Radio Silence (also: the Jacobs/Norquist Conundrum)

I'm back.   That is, I've been gone.  You noticed?  No?  Nonetheless, I've been squirreled away for three nights at a business traveler hotel in Portland, where they charge a cheapo off-season rate, with  the same old everyday risible Internet charge.  Which prompted a command decision that the multitudes would just have to do without me for a few day; but it's over.  Now, where was I?

Actually, I have not the slightest notion where I was, but I can report one fascinating puzzle I picked up from my friend David as we searched for a parking place in and around Portland's Hawthorne Boulevard.   David explained that existing zoning laws make way for a fair amount of multi-storey, multi-use construction along the Boulevard, but with no provision for parking?

Say what?  This in one of America's most planning-conscious cities?  Well, yes, but remember the Jane Jacobs principle: if you build it they will come. No, not baseball diamonds, silly, but parking facilities: apparently the good and great decided that if they made it impossible to park, people would ditch their cars.

Yeh, well good luck with that.  Or more precisely: very likely the denizens of this quintessentially Portland  neighborhood do go light on cars and do invest themselves in bikes and Portland's super-convenient (but not cheap) mass transit.  On the other hand, it is likely that all but the most committed have at least one car, even if a Prius. And where do they go?  Hah, you guessed it: into the back streets, where you can so often see people creeping along like predators, only in this case just looking for a place to dump the wheels.

So, not as simple as that.  But then I thought of the foil for honest Jane: Grover ("starve the  beast") Norquist, who famously held that if you cut off the government's allowance.  Conscientious liberals have always thought that Grover's principle doesn't pass the giggle test--but aren't Jane and Grover saying the same thing?   If she is so manifestly right,  can he be obviously wrong?  Or (the horror) could it be that there is some merit in what Grover said after all?

Afterthought:  one corollary of Portland's high bike-to-people ratio--superb, febrile, baroque bike lighting.  You see stuff that glares, glows and blinks from virtually every part of the pedaler's vehicle and even his costume.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


I suppose the kewl kids knew all about this all along, but I am just catching up with the concept of "original equipment manufacturer" --OEM.    Parsing out a tantalizing but somewhat disjointed Wiki, I gather it can designate at least two (mutually contradictory?) concepts.  One, as perhaps you might guess, is the "manufacturer" makes the "equipment," you know, "originally."  So far okay. But apparently another and more common usage is to designate the one guy who is not the "original equipment manufacturer," but rather the guy who assembles the components produced by others.  So Wiki: "Under this definition, if Apple purchases optical drives from Toshiba to put in its computers, Apple is the OEM."

Fascinating how this confusion may have come about.  Wiki (with a citation) says "It may derive from a Dutch phrase, 'onder eigen merk', which means 'under own brand.'"--which sounds like the latter use, rather than the former, and really doesn't sound at all like the English "translation."   My own guess: what we are seeing here are more of the confusion I was adverting to yesterday when I talked about the ambivalence about the  brand.  So you can picture Saralee explaining: well, yes, this particular piece of fluffed cardboard was manufactured in another country by people operating in a language that none of us speak and we just buy-for-resale from them.  But it's not real until we slap the Saralee label on it.  So we are the, like, um, "original."  Get it?

Well, maybe.  If it works here, I can see how it might also work for Hewlett-Packard, Nike, whatever.  And in a world where Bolivia maintains an international ship registry--even though it has not had a seacoast for 150 years--I suppose stranger things are possible.

Utterly vagrant afterthought: Saralee is a brander.  Hostess went bankrupt a while back in part because it could not cope with its own in-house labor force.   Is there a connection here?

Biblio: Gerald Davis again.  Wiki has a footnote to Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine, which I read  (and much admired) some years ago, but if OEM is there, it flushed right out of my brain.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

I've Had the Same Axe for 10 Years...

Nice piece on the NYT  "Itineraries" page about the branding and rebranding and re-re-branding of hotels.  I suppose something that the cognoscenti have known about for a long time but the Times does flesh it out with plausible detail for the entertainment of us yokels.  The point is that the brand (or "flag," in the trade) may come and go but the hotel may go on forever.  So, the Essex House on Central Park South--you've seen the sign--is now a JW Marriott; last year it was a Jumeirah; a while back it was a Westin.    

And there is an interesting tension here.  One, through all the caterwauling, the name remains the same--who would want to change the sign?  People will remember the old name, just like they remember the old phone number.  Still, they do want you to know that there is a new sheriff in town with all the good things this canard is supposed to imply--the Marriott medallion is just as important is the Essex House label, and in the same way: they give an image of stability and constancy in a turbulent market.   [Ownership/management of the real estate--the dirt--is a different topic altogether.] Will things really change?  Ah, who knows!   Sometimes, the new flag means a new manager with a whole nuther attitude (which may nor may not be a good thing).   Sometimes it is new bells and whistles with the same old gent frantically pulling the levers behind the scenes.  Interestingly, a Times source suggests that  if you are an event booker, you want an escape clause that lets you out if there is a change of brand.

Great so far, and no need to blame the Times for failing to generalize the point. But we can generalize, can't we?    We know that the "corporation"--these days, almost any large corporation--is more likely than not to be just (as my friend Anupam likes to say) the locus of the intellectual property.  So, Saralee doesn't make cakes; it contracts with people who make cakes.  Likewise Nike in footwear, HP in computers, likely almost any product whose name is vivid enough that you are likely to remember it.  They are selling the sizzle; someone else is cooking the steak.  Or as they say, "I've had the same axe for 10 years; it has had three new heads and two new handles."

[There's a nice discussion of all this, with references to the literature, in Gerald Davis' Managed by the Market--a book which is in general a first-class nontechnical discussion of the changing nature of business and finance.]

Afterthought:  A Google search suggests that Jumeriah had been doing some savage discounting.  Does this mean they were having trouble figuring out how to manage one of the world's best hotel locations?  Maybe the fuller story is here.

She Gives Pretty Good Gifts, Too

From Taxmom, a little touch of Isaiah Berlin for the kitchen: matching hedgehog and fox tea towels.

Many are Called and Few are Chosen

Stendhal enjoys an outing on Christmas, 1827:
Nous revenons de Saint-Pierre. La cérémonie a été magnifique. Il y avait peut-être cent dames anglaises, dont plusiers de la plus rare beauté. On a construit derrière le grand autel une enciente tendue en damas rouge. Sa Sainteté nomme un cardinal pour dire la messe à sa place. On porte le sang du Sauveur au pape assis sur son trône derrière l'autel, et il l'aspire avec un chalumeau d'or.
 Je n'ai jamais rien vu d'aussi imposant que cette cérémonie; Saint-Pierre était sublime de magnificence et de beauté; l'effet de la coupole surtout m'a semblé étonnant; j'étais presque aussi croyant qu'un Romain.
Nos compagnes de voyage ne peuvent se lasser de se récrier sur un spectacle si grand et si simple.   Elles n'ont trouvé que deux dames romaines de leur connaissance dans le bel amphithêatre préparé pour les dames et encore ces Romaines conduisaient-elles à Saint-Pierre des parentes de province, venues à Rome pour la gran fuinzione.
Elles a été favorisée par le plus beau soleil et un temps fort doux.  En vérité, en voyant Saint-Pierre paré de ses plus beaux autours, se gai et si noble, on ne pouvait se figurer que la religion, dont on brait la fête annonce un enfer éternel et qui doit engloutir à jamais la majeure partie des hommes. multi sunt vocati; pauci vero electi.
 --Stendhal, Promenades dans Rome (Diane de Selliers, 2011)
We just returned from Saint Peter's.  The ceremony was magnificent.  There were perhaps a hundred English, many of great beauty.   Someone had constructed behind the high altar a retreat all damasked in red.  His Holiness designated a cardinal to say mass in his place. 

I have never seen anything so imposing as this ceremony; Saint Peter's was sublime in its magnificence and beauty; the effect of the cupola in particular  struck me as astonishing; I almost believed that I was a Roman. Our traveling companions couldn't tear themselves away from a spectacle so grand and so astonishing.   They found no more than two Roman women of their acqaintance in the beautiful amphitheater prepared for the women and later these Romans brought to Saint Peter their country cousins, come to Rome for the great event.
They were favored by sunshine and sweet air.   In truth, seeing Saint Peter decked out in its beautiful environs, so gay and so noble, one can almost forget that the religion of which we celebrate the feast day proclaims eternal hell-fire which will engulf forever the greater part of humankind.  Many are called, few are chosen.
 The de Selliers edition is, by the way, a gorgeous coffee-table book, "illustré," as it says, "par les peintres du  Romantisme."  In fact, it is not just romantics; there are some lovely Renaissance reproductions as well.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Mass and Class (aka Conservatives All at Sea)

Much harmless merriment today over Joe Hagan's New York mag piece about the "blue cruise" of the Caribbean under the auspices of the National Review.  Fair enough, but the best part seems to me to be this throwaway sbout "a phenomenon that was common on the cruise."  That is: "the conservative pundits and columnists from the National Review attempting to gently disinter their followers from unhelpful conservative propaganda."

Link.  Let' try to resist the coffee-snort possibilities immanent here and consider the bigger picture.  I mean--isn't this usually the case in politics?  Isn't it customary (albeit not universal) for the insiders to be more detached, more deflated, than he rank of file?   

I'm not entirely sure why this might be true (if true it is) and my guess is there may be several overlapping reasons.  I suppose they might be "more sophisticated" to begin with.  Or brute reality may have taught them just how damn hard it is to govern (or, what is not the same thing, to win an election).  Or maybe they are just worrying about their perks and the pensions.  Anyway, I'd say it is entirely familiar--and transcends political boundaries--to imagine the sharps trying to cool the mark out while they go on to finish the game.   If there is any surprise here, perhaps it is only the surprise in discovering that such insight has invaded the purlieus of the National Review.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Counting My Blessings

Moonsoon-like rains in Palookaville this morning.  Out in front of the shopping center, guy on one of those cherry-picker extension ladders, changing lightbulbs.  So-o-o glad that is not my job.

Is This Anything? Romney Strategist Div.

Should I be impressed that both Romney's chief strategist and the man who rejected the job have the occupation of "screenwriter"?

The Rumble of a Distant Drum

Taxmom  gets the coolest Christmas gifts  (cf. link).     Coincidence, we at Chez Buce were just now getting round to a Battle of Actium in three-D hologram on the living room floor.

Update:  I earlier wrote "rimble."  Some may think this a typo; I wonder if perhaps it is a creative opportunity. Bada BING.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Pricing Puzzle

Why does Seth Klarman's  Margin of Safety list at $1,597.95?    Okay, maybe it's good, but is it that good?

Update:  Unconfirmed report that it is available free on line

Update II: Oh, and you can sell yours to Amazon for a $3 gift card.

Liveblogging Caro on Moses: the Long Slog

I'm still trudging through Robert A. Caro's biography of Robert Moses and I'm willing to sign on to the view that it is a monument--though like so many monuments, sometimes stunning and soporific.  It gets particularly heavy as we move through the early Post-World-War-II years though this is more the fault of the subject than the author.  Reading about the 20s and 30s, we could admire Moses' energy and his determination and for the most part we can see him on the side of the angels --who could not love Jones Beach?

But Moses comes out of the war years armed and invulnerable, with the means empowered and disposed to mow down anyone who stands in his way--sometimes because it serves his purposes to do so, sometimes for the sheer hell of it,    In the implementation of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, he destroys a functioning lower-middle-class neighborhood for no visible reason except personal pique.  In the fight over Title One housing, he disrupts whole swaths of the most vulnerable because it just wasn't all that hard.

'One thing that becomes clear over time is that, whatever may have been the case earlier, by the 50s Moses has come to harbor a settled contempt for The Little People--the great unwashed and even the moderately well-washed, so long as they weren't scrubbing down with imported designer soap.  Many times it is indifference or pique but eventually you come to realize that he positively wants to make life difficult for what he sees as the underclass, so as to make life more attractive for what he sees as the Better Sort.  Indeed, the very concept of "better sort" gets more and more evanescent as the book nears its end, to the point where sometimes you suspect it is a class that it includes no one but the New York Times grandee, Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger.

Moses died in 1981 although I suppose it is natural to say that he will be with us through next ice age via has (over time, increasingly private) vision of what a great city should look like. He did suffer some highly public defeats in his late years and  I admit my own memory is faulty here: the way I remembered it, his comeuppance came in his highly public faceoff with Jane Jacobs over his plan to run an expressway through Washington Square (gasp!).  Caro shows me that the story is far more complicated: before Jacobs, there was a another public confrontation (over a plan to put a parking lot in Central Park) and a lot of high-quality critical journalism.  But I suspect the only real defeat he suffered his death at the age of 92.

Caro doesn't spell it out but I think it is possible to see the Moses story as part of a larger tectonic shift in American politics.  I still haven't sorted it out in my own mind, partly because I haven't finished the book and partly because I'm just confused.  Maybe later, or maybe not st all.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Rock on, La Pierre!

I spent a good chunk of the morning cooling my hebilels at Best Buy while a pleasant and seemingly intelligent techie failed to solve my problem (they didn't charge me).  What with all the distractions, I found I couldn't do much except thumb through my Twitter feed.  Which meant that I experienced the full force of the Twitterstorm against the notorious Wayne LaPierre and his almost comically ill-timed speech blaming gun death on, well on everybody except Wayne LaPierre.

Honestly, it was a bit like watching a swarm of live bees.  For example  (some are RTs):

BillmonL, The NRA bans guns at its National Meeting....crazy, but not suicidal.  Robert Reich, NRA will soon recommend we arm every child.  Bruce Bartlett, Columbine had an armed guard at school.   John Fugelsang (who?),There's only one reason you'll need 30 rounds for hunting and it's Zombie Deer (sic--30 rounds stops a zombie?).   Jamison Foser (who?),  Every teacher should keep a bag of cobras under their desk.  Daniel Drezner (quoting), "Once you start shooting in a classroom, somebody's gonna get hurt."Ana Marie Cox, LaPierre's finger-pops of insanity: my new thing.  Harry Shearer, Skip the guards.  Just arm the kids.   A certain Wayne LaPierreanoid (possibly a psuedonym?), If you see anyone who u suspect is mentally ill, please report their location to the #NRAhotline.  If they start moving away, u know what to do. Barry Ritholtz; JACKASS CONTEST OF THE YEAR ENDS IN A BLOWOUT VICTORY.

Finally, @jackshafer counsels us to "check out the last 48 minutes of @DavidFrum's twitter feed."  I think he means "we need a federal agent at every marriage & western concert...Hallowe'en party...cancer hospital... teen birthday party.... gun range...high school prom...muffler shop ... library ... zoo ... Dunkin' Donuts ... hospital ... Christian college ... dog groomer ... dental clinic .,. yacht club ... swimming pool ... in every taxicab ... we need a federal agent to protect every little girl with a stupid relative."    There are more, but perhaps you get the drift.

All Sfudent Loans Cancelled!

It's May meltdown day!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Richard Baum

Richard Baum's career as a China-watcher had more than a whiff of Indiana Jones about it.  He made his first major breakthrough by, ahem, stealing a file of documents out of the Taiwan National Library.  Not for keeps: he just wanted to copy the stuff for his own research use.  But in later years he liked to tell how it made his hair stand on end to think of the risk he had run and (perhaps better not to think about) what might have happened had he been found out.

Career-making, maybe, but also very much in character.  Baum spent a lot of time in China; he liked to work in close where he could hear the crack of bodies.  And for a country so noted for formality and face, he was cheerful, direct, unpompous--all qualities which, one comes to suspect, helped to keep his Chinese subjects wrong-footed just enough to ease his path in his scholarly work.  Thanks to his escapade in the Taiwan library (he did return the papers), he was virtually the first western scholar to get a careful look inside the famously secretive word of Chinese Communism.  A later book is said to be the definitive work on the transition after the death of Mao.

Richard Baum died December 14. He was 72. Here's the obituary from his home base, together with a talk by Baum. Here's a friendly appreciation, together with another entertaining video.  Here's a Fivebooks interview on China in transition.  Here's a chatty, funny, hair-raising set of lectures in which he summarizess his lifework.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mozart's La Clememza de Tito ...

... is much better than I had realized before.  That's a considered judgment, based on the HD of the Met presentation conducted by Harry Bicket.  Granted it's a perfunctory assemblage on a borrowed libretto (did I read somewhere that it had been set 40 times before?).  And everybody knows that opera seria is a pain.

But here's the thing--well, bear with me for a moment, this is going to be a stretch.  Consider Hamlet.  Yes, I know, Hamlet is a much bigger deal than CT. But recall how Hamlet comes about.  It's about midway through Shakespeare's career.  He's tried everything at least once. Now he gives you a kind of summing-up of everything he knows about the theatre.  So Mozart here: he is in the last year of his life. Apparently he was scratching to put food on the table but you also get the sense that he was desperate to show us what he knew while he still had the chance.  They say that old artists paint with fewer and fewer strokes.  Bicket in an intermission issue said something to the effect that Mozart when young would have spent ten minutes telling you something that he gets off in ten bars here.  Concentrated, almost frantically direct and to the point.

Which brings me to a second comparison, even more of a stretch: Verdi, Falstaff.  A last chance to tell you everything he knows.  You have to stay alert and catch your breath, it is all going by so fast.  With the qualification, of course, that Mozart in his testament is just 35 years old, while Verdi in his was over 80.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Remembering Rebecca

We're tucked in by the fire in Mendocino today, waiting for the sunset over the Pacific and trying to pretend we do not have easy electronic access to the Cliff, to Newtown, to Syria and to all the other anvils we all carry these days.  But you'll know I've been peeking when I direct you to Katie Roiphe's appreciation of Rebecca West--though I would add a couple of fillips of my own. One, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon really is a wonderful book, and though it is a loose, baggy monster, the beauty part is that it doesn't need to be swallowed whole.   I'd recommend the early pages on her trip south, especially the hilarious bits about being holed up in a railway compartment with a bunch of poorly housebroken Germans--helps you to understand why the Greeks are so crabby.

And two, a "novel," (loosely autobiographical), The Fountain Overflows, now happily available in an NYRB Classics reprint.  The title is unusually apt: the book itself overflows with raw energy and harrowing black comedy.  It's the kind of book which on every page seems to leave you exhausted and gasping as the author says "but wait, there's more...."  Almost to the end, there always is more and you are sorry to see it go.

Roiphe does seem to focus a lot of her attention on one of the odder aspects of West's character: her near-obsession, out of place for a professed feminist, with H. G. Wells.  Surprisingly she does neglect to mention the story (which I am too lazy to track down) of West addressing another of Wells' castoffs at the funeral of Wells' (wife? number one mistress?--I forget).  Anyway, West is said to have asked whether they as runners-up now got to move up a notch in the rankings (I believe the response is not recorded).

I now turn my attention to Bach's Actus Tragicus on Mrs. B's Ipod, conveniently speakered up beside the window.   Good ocean-watching music if ever there was any.

Aftethought:  Face it, Katie, Virginia Woolf really was an insufferable snob.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Artist and His Public: I Think I Had Too Much Caffein

 A couple of weeks back I got all kvetchy with some guy who seemed to be ordering me to pay attention to a work of art.

Maybe I overdid it.  Here's a more persuasive rendition of the original point.

[T]orpor, rather than fire, was what she had to dread. In those gloomy days that had befallen her, it was a great additional calamity that she felt conscious of the present dimness of an insight which she once possessed in more than ordinary measure. She had lost—and she trembled lest it should have departed forever—the faculty of appreciating those great works of art, which heretofore had made so large a portion of her happiness. It was no wonder. 

A picture, however admirable the painter’s art, and wonderful his power, requires of the spectator a surrender of himself, in due proportion with the miracle which has been wrought. Let the canvas glow as it may, you must look with the eye of faith, or its highest excellence escapes you. There is always the necessity of helping out the painter’s art with your own resources of sensibility and imagination. Not that these qualities shall really add anything to what the master has effected; but they must be put so entirely under his control, and work along with him to such an extent, that, in a different mood, when you are cold and critical, instead of sympathetic, you will be apt to fancy that the loftier merits of the picture were of your own dreaming, not of his creating.
Italics mine.   So Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Marble Faun.  Odd novel, that.  It's a slender story,  a kind of Gothic fairy tale all merchandised with a kind of  Victorian archness that can be almost unreadable.  Still, after you've  had enough of Henry James' characters disporting themselves among the ruins, it can be interesting to pick up Hawthorne and understand him as the great precursor, or at least  precursor.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Shakespeare and the Demands of Kingship

Idling through Harold Goddard's admirable essays on Shakespeare, I happened on one I don't think I had read before: his discussion of King John, Grant that KJ might be a lesser Shakespearean effort; still, even the least of Shakespeare is better than the best of almost anybody else. And Goddard, as always, has something interesting to contribute.  The play, Goddard asserts, "is built around a theme that Shakespeare never thereafter lost sight of.  The theme is close to the heart of nearly all the other History Plays, both English and Roman; it is essential to Hamlet; it culminates in King Lear; it echoes through  The Tempest."

What  theme?  For the moment, Goddard ducks the issue: "this is not the place to back up these assertions in detail."  But I think he get his point. The theme, I suspect he might say, is the nature of kingship, and in particular the implications of placing the crown into the hands of a man who is Not Up to the Job.  John himself, of course--"like a bewildered  child in the night," as Goddard says. But also Henry VI, central to (if hardly the protagonist of) the three plays that may mark the beginning of Shakespeare's career.  And also a more interesting man in a better play: Richard II, per Goddard, "the most subtle psychological analysis that Shakespeare had made up to this point."  The remarkable fact is that Richard, unlike Henry or John, is not a cipher as a human being.  Richard is a poet, a man of arresting imagination, but  he never learns how to escape his own imagination to grasp the realities of power.

It's almost a commonplace to see Richard as a prefiguring of Hamlet, and I think Goddard insight offers the key:   Gielgud called Hamlet "a great ruh-nay-sance prince," and he is all of that.  But he shies away from kingship and brings unspeakable misfortune down on the heads of himself and so many others.

Here I want to press beyond Goddard. In some superb lectures, Peter Saccio argues that the Henry IV plays are studies in the nature of kingship.  Young  Prince Hal finds himself presented with various models of kingship: young Harry Percy, impulsive and a man of action but unable to control his own passions; Falstaff, the the great cosmic sink of pleasure and irresponsibility--and Hal's own father, Henry IV, effective enough to grasp a crown but still querulous and insecure.  Hal rejects them all;  indeed it is not much of a stretch to say that both Harry and Falstaff die at Hal's hand.  He fashions a model of kingship all his own--perhaps the only fully convincing kingship in all of Shakespeare.

We can go further: in Antony and Cleopatra, we see Antony bathed in lust and luxury; we may forget that he came within a hair's breadth of the throne; we may forget it, but the man who bested him did not.  It is Octavian, soon to be unchallenged emperor in his own right, who remembers Antony in his moment of steadfastness and resilience:
Thou didst drink
The stale of horses and the gilded puddle
Which beasts would cough at. ...
Yea, like the stag, when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou browsèd.
And everybody who did Shakespeare in high school will remember that Antony could beguile a crowd in a style of which his peer Brutus was utterly incapable.

And I think Goddard is right to include Lear: vulnerable, petulant, bewildered Lear who doesn't seem to understand the relationship between the realities of power and the trappings. Which may be enough to bring us back to Richard II and, also to his gardener, the man charged with keeping order in his kingly estate:
O, what pity is it,
That he who had not so trimm'd and dress'd his land
As we this garden!   ...
Had he done so, himself  had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.
[Almost alone among common folk kn Shakespeare, this yokel speaks in blank verse.]  Shakespeare cares about kingship, and the responsibilities of rule, and the terrible consequences of men who are not up to to the job.  Comparisons with current events are left as an exercise to the student.

Grey Day

I am glad I did not have to wake up this morning to the stark realization that my beloved was dead.

And, worse, to the gnawing sense that I had not been able to protect hi/her.

My consolers would tell me it wasn't my fault, I couldn't have done anything to prevent it.

They would be right, but I would not be consoled.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Well, What Day Would Be Good for You, Mr. President?

Really movin' up in the disappointment league tables:

White House On Newtown School Shooting: Today Not The Day For Gun Control Debate

Flashback: White House conversation overheard from six months ago.
--Smithers, I want you to prepare me a package for a full frontal assault on gun violence.  Major address.  Substantive proposals.  Plan for a national conversation.   Lists of supporters ready to deploy.

--Mr. President?  Now?  In the midst of an election?

--No, of course not, Smithers. Not now, out of the blue.  The gun nuts would catch me wrong-footed and the whole program would go nowhere and I'd lose the election to boot.  But believe it, Smithers, there is bound to be another mass school shooting--

--[Aghast]  You wouldn't want to try to take advantage of a moment of national tragedy--

--And why not?  When better moment  to get everybody's attention--when even the wildest gun nuts will be feeling at least a trace of shame or remorse.

--But you might say something out of line--

--You really don't get it, do you Smithers?  That is precisely why I want you to work on it now.  I want something that puts these guys in corner.  Humiliates  them.  Leaves them without a shred of support.You need help?  We'll get you help.  You need money?  We'll find it.   For once in my life, I want to do something other than "lead from behind."  Now make it happen.
 No, of course not.  Or if he did, I guess he gave the job to the wrong guy.

Update:  I wrote this before  I knew the President was himself speaking out (indeed, I think while he was speaking out).  Having read reports of his remarks, I see no need to revise mine. 

Update II:  For a worthwhile conversation, some places to start: here  (H/T Epicurian Dealmaker); here; here; herehere

Thursday, December 13, 2012

But If That's The Purpose, then Maybe Government Really Works

It's always seemed to me that the first requisite of a design for small government is that you want a small government that works:  you want to make sure you can hire the best people to put the money in the most cost-effective places.  Sometimes we get that: agencies, cadres, programs that do the job and come in on time and under budget.

Of course at least in our time, that has been just the opposite of the standard strategy.  In the Age of Reagan Norquist, the trick has been to make government so ugly and disgusting that people will beg to get rid of it.  You can recognize the strategy in a hundred guises.  Make civil service employment so shameful that anybody who accepts it will have to bear the mark of the beast.    Encourage private school so as to reduce political support for a public school system. Limit access to retirement benefits so as to reduce support for the scheme as a whole.

Here's a particular variant that you'll probably recognize in substance, but I never before saw it so clearly expressed:
Sir Alan Budd, chief economic adviser to British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, wrote: “The Thatcher government never believed for a moment that [monetarism] was the correct way to bring down inflation. They did, however, see that this would be a very good way to raise unemployment. And raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes. . .  . What was engineered— in Marxist terms— was a crisis of capitalism which re-created the reserve army of labour, and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.”

Lind, Michael (2012-04-17). Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (Kindle Locations 6289-6294). Harper. Kindle Edition. Lind's footnote reads: Quoted in Nick Cohen, “Gambling with Our Future,” New Statesman, January 13, 2003; Robert Wade, “The Economy Has Not Solved Its Problems,” Challenge (March/ April 2011): 34.

Yes, and I Read the Stuff, Don't I?

This morning's e-mail from the London Review of Books offers three teasers from the forthcoming issue:
  • The Strange Career of Robert Oppenheimer

  • Nancy Astor

  • Larkin v. Amis

I mean c'mon now. Is it possible to think of any topics more overdone and squeezed dry. [Why, yes it is--how about something nice about the Bloomsbury Group, or Henry James?--ed.]

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Most Perfect Ever?

In an Opera News interview with Susan Graham, interviewer William R. Braun flatly declares Mozart's "Ch'io mi scordi di te?" to be "the single most perfect piece of music ever written."

Is it?  Youtube offers  number of exemplars.   Here's one from my sentimental favorite, Elizabeth Schwartzkopf:

another, this from Leontyne Price:

Braun also says that the piece is also "merciless in exposing the slightest flaw in vocal technique."   Wiki offers a helpful introduction.

Source: Braun, "Life, Continued," Opera News vol. 37, no. 6, December 2012 24-29, 29.

Schadenfreude: Porsche

Palookaville sighting: flatbed tow truck hauling a blood-red Porsche.

[Thanks to Joel and Bruce for restoring the vagrant "e"s.   Oh gorsche.]

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hirschman and Rosen

Maybe it's just me but I find a certain unhappy congruence in the deaths of Albert O. Hirschman and Charles Rosen.   "Titans in their field" is tempting but too easy.  For one thing, each had a way of reconceptualizing the subject of his inquiry, so the "field" was never again what it looked like before his inquiries began.  Of each,  admirers speak in hushed tones that seem to say "I never saw X the same way again after I  read Y."

Here's a good obituary of Rosen.  I first heard of Hirschman's death in a tweet from Dani Rodrik. See also link, link. A quick Google turns up the death of his wife, Sara, just last winter.   Apparently they were married some 70 years.

Your Supermarket Tab Moment of the Morning

In death, on her bathroom floor, Dr. Chang’s face looked as if she were napping before her morning-court appearance. She wore a silky floral blouse paired with a black jacket. Her hair was neatly coifed. Her lipstick and rouge looked freshly applied, not at all smudged. There was barely a hint of anything askew, save for the shiny wire coiled around her throat like a necklace.
No, wait...

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Virtues of the Cartel

Did you happen to catch Adam Davidson's NYT piece a few years ago on the implications of monopoly in cable TV?   Shorter Adam: (1) it's greedy, predatory and generally evil; and (2) lucky us.

Oh I exaggerate, But not by a lot. Davidson's  point was that we are living in a golden age of high-quality TV which comes to pass because viewers demand good shows and because the greedy bastards down at the cable company have enough (of our) money to pay for them.

Look, is it just me?  Maybe, but anyway--seems like lately, every place I turn, I'm running across somebody who is saying good things about monopoly power.  Recall a while back I commented on Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory, exploring the argument that only a monopoly can afford to splash out on a huge research agenda?  This is akin to the point that Davidson is making here, yes?  A commentator in Davidson's thread makes essentially that same point.

And all that stuff about the 50s--how they were a golden age of strong unions, steady wages and CEOs not yet insulated from the rest of us.   There seems to be no consensus on how these good times came to pass, but one thing is clear: it was an age of cartels.  Tracking Michael Lind, I review the bidding: three car companies; three steel companies; three networks; two makers of jet engines; restricted-entry trucking and airlines; a regulated telephone monopoly, lots of regulated utilities, not to mention oil under the thumb of the Texas Railroad Commission?

We're glad to be rid of all that right?  Right?   Do I hear an echo?  Do I hear a bit of nostalgia for the old days?   I mean--okay, maybe we have more choice on the tube, but was it an improvement to trade Walter Cronkite for Rush Limbaugh?   Sure, plane ticket are cheaper but has service ever been more awful?  And trucking--well, if ever there was an industry that you'd think did not need cartelized regulation this is it, but could it be that if we had a bit less savage competition in trucking, we might have fewer driver pitching plastic bottles of pee out the window?

And the real clincher: every one of these cartelized industries had a union labor force.   I don't think this point should come as a surprise, but perhaps it does: in casual conversation I get the intuition that people aren't comfortable thinking of unions as just another part of the cartel.

I don't want to be read a making the strong case for cartels here.   The topic is rife with (at least) ambiguities and cross currents; the Davidson comment thread is an okay place to start.    And maybe I'm just dealing with a constant in human nature here: doesn't there always come a point in the new romance where you wonder for just a moment if maybe you'd been too quick to dump the old?

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Met's Ballo: A Discovery

Mr. and Mrs. Buce caught the Met HD performance of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera yesterday and I must say it came across as a better opera than I had realize, or remembered.  I'm pretty sure I have seen it before, at least on disc, but as must be evident, it didn't make a dent on me. 

I herewith revise my opinion.  Grant that this isn't top-of-the-line Verdi.  But accept also that with Verdi (as with, e.g Shakespeare) even second rate is likely to be better than first-rate anybody else.  And recognize also that under conditions like these, the problem for the second-tier may not be its inferiority but just the fact that may get lost in the shuffle.  If Ballo is "mediocre"--in the strict sense of "middling,"--it's "mediocre only in that it stands below, Falstaff or Otello or--well, you get the idea.

Another problem:  shaky provenance.   If you know only one thing about Ballo,  you know know that this is the one that met with censorial disapproval because it feature(d) the assassination of a King in Sweden and the authorities thought that hit a bit too close to home.  Whereupon Verdi responded, "va bene, Boston," and whisked them all off to a locale where he had never set foot and about which he knew nothing.  The modern observer is likely to suspect that if Verdi didn't take his own intentions more seriously than that, then there was no reason for us to do so either.

This was probably never a fair inference, but whatever; at any rate, in recent years, Ballo has moved back to Sweden and the American stuff is history. Seen in its  native habitat, there's nothing particularly weird about it: just a good, straightforward Verdi plot, with an insolent  authority figure, a troubled friendship and a ong, slow, loud, death scene.   I suppose this might be a problem: Mrs. B says it all reminds her too much of her favorite Rigoletto, from just half a dozen years before. I can see her point, but I think there is a difference here: I think you see Verdi really trying hard not to repeat himself; to stretch out, to explore some different musical forms,  In his exhaustive appraisal of the operas of Verdi, Julian Budder quotes a 19th-Century review, saying that Verdi here "having rejected convention and formula, having assigned to each character his own particular language and having rendered the dramatic situation with evident effectiveness, in fact [has] moulded the drama."  This strikes me as good enough for government work.

One could add the fact that it's a marvelously singable piece of work, and that the Met fitted it out with a world of talent.  For my money, Stephanie Blythe might be the most accomplished singer now working and my only complaint is that in her role as the fortune teller, she gets to go home so early (I'm intrigued to note that the cast for Verdi's original "Boston" version specifies that she be "of the negroid race," or so it is translated in Budder).  I'll even give grudging points to  Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the aggrieved and betrayed best friend.  But I do have to wonder--how did a tough kid from Siberia get such impeccable teeth?

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Inside Job: Outside Opinion

Chez Buce finally caught up with Charles H. Ferguson's Inside Job last night.  I see that  Rotten Tomatoes rates it  at 98 percent positive--critics; viewer is a mere 90.  I guess you can count me as (to coin a phrase) one of the two percent.  That is: it's not really awful, and it makes a lot of noncontroversial assertions.  Also a few really funny moment, particularly when a couple of guileless professors go all tongue-tied in trying to explain or justify their cushy consulting gigs.

But at the end of the evening, you find yourself asking: so, what did I learn?  The answer is exactly nothing.  You really aren't a bit wiser as to what, exactly, triggered the great uproar of '08--unless you count it as an answer to utter an expletive like "greed."  Aside from that--which, admit it, you could have done before you saw the movie--you are not a bit wiser than you were before,  perhaps less wise insofar as you think yourself moreso.  Put differently--I can't think of a single worthwhile question about the whole affair that was answered or even asked during the entire near-two hours.

By "worthwhile question," I mean things like: why did this crisis metastasize so much further and faster than any other in the postwar period?  What role (if any) can we assign to the government's "expand-homeownership" policies?   Was repeal of Glass Steagall really a factor (and if so, what factor?).  If the Feds had let Bear Stearns would the whole mess have ended more quickly and cheaply?  If the Feds had not let Lehman fail, would we have avoided the financial near-death experience?  What concatenation of factors led so many CEOs to blow up their own companies?  Why Iceland?  And while we are at it, why did Iceland recover so fast?

I could go on for pages, and I am sure there are a lot of questions  I wouldn't have thought of then.  I'm not so foolish as to expect ready answers--as the wise men say, we can't agree on the cause of the great depression yet, hard to expect we would have a handle on this its kid brother. But these are the sorts of questions that are worth our time and effort.

It may be that the topic is just too vast for a single film. Fine, then why not cut it down to size?  It may be the topic just doesn't lend itself to audio visual presentation.  But on this point, I'm not persuaded: I recall that PBS did a one-hour special back in '09 on the tussle over derivatives deregulation that was organized, crisp, to the point, and instructive.   Meanwhile, perhaps the final question about Inside Job is why anybody would watch it at all.

An Assignment for Somebody: Wal-Mart Wages

Here's a job for which I am too old and sick and stupid and tired and lazy to do myself.  But it  society shouldn't be too hard.

Background: I've been boning up a bit on a particular notion of economics, once in fairly wide currency, now mostly unfashionable (excepting possibly Joseph Stiglitz).  That is: the idea that "spreading the wealth"--union wages, just better wages--might make the whole society richer in that you provide money to the people who will spend it.  Yes, it is akin to the current kerfuffle over Keynesian pump-priming: whether you can ever make the world richer by taking the money out of the hands of one and put it into another.  But I'm thinking of a a slightly different spin: the idea that the boss might  make make himself richer by raising the worker's pay insofar as it churns more money through the whole community.

It is a view exemplified, I think, by Henry Ford when he undertook to pay workers $5 a day so as to raise the general wage level and sell more Model Ts.  Reading Michael Lind,  I infer that it was, if not widely popular, still part of the common parlance in the 20s. Surprising how completely it has vanished from public discourse lately.

But here's my assignment for somebody.  Estimate Wal-Mart's payroll.  Multiply it by 1.5--i.e., give everybody a 50 percent raise.  Go to the P&L and adjust  bottom-line net income accordingly.  I.e., in terms of that holy of holies, "shareholder value," how much would it cost?  My guess is "not a lot," but if so, try it with 1.2--a 20 percent increase. Or just for fun, try 2--double the wages.  

For extra credit, identify a representative member of the class of Wal-Mart trust fund babies--i.e., the ones on the Forbes billionaire list.  Identifying (or estimating) their current shareholdings, estimate how many Mercedes they would be deprived of if the proposed innovation were put into effect.  My guess is: not a lot.  But if you come up with an answer, tell me and I'll blog it.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Rule for Living: Big and Little

I could be persuaded that Brad Pitt is the bravest man in the world.  But then I remember one of the principal rules for healthy living: if you're going to mess around with someone else's wife, pick on a woman who is married to a big guy because a big guy will just beat the crap out of you while a little guy might kill you.

Liveblogging Caro on Moses: The Bully Pulpit

Still galumphing away on Robert A. Caro's big biography of Robert Moses, here's something new to me, though not, I suppose, to many others.  That is: I'm just noticing the obvious parallels between Moses and Caro's other great subject, Lyndon Johnson.  This is easy, isn't it: lust for power, check; titanic energy, check; endless capacity for controlling even the smallest detail.

And each,  in so many ways, the boss from hell.  A self-absorbed bully and slave-driver, relentless in squeezing the last drop of effort out of the best of men (and women).  

But--you will say of either--his charges loved him.  He brought out the best in them and he moved them to heights they wouldn't have achieved without him.  To some extent, yes (perhaps especially Moses).  But there is a flip side here, a trait held in common by all the underlings, perhaps indispensable for such a life.  And that is a knack for subservience.  Plenty of people, whatever the potential rewards, simply wouldn't let themselves be sucked into the vortex of such egomania.

Which set me to wondering: how many others are there of this same style; how many more potential subjects for Caro biographies?  Oddly enough, I can't think of that many.   Others political leaders have their vices--power corrupts, and all that.  There are surely other instances of petulant bullying.  But the laser-like focus on driving the underlings until they drop: oddly, it doesn't seem all that common.  Kennedy? Clinton?   Carter?   HW? Not really.  Young W may have called his most indispensable fixer "turd blossom," but that's more in the nature of locker-room swagger.  Roosevelt and Reagan both seem to have ruled through a kind of steely indifference glossed over as charm.  

I know what you're thinking: Nixon, or perhaps Kissinger/Nixon.   Again, I don't think the model fits.  Nixon may have been an awful human being but his modus vivendi seems to have been to hunker down in the pillbox with a small circle of yes-men.  And Kissinger--I don't know, perhaps he was a stern taskmaster, but ironically, his principal vice appears to have been courtiership, i.e., a kind of bullying in reverse.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Heller on Rushdie

Scanning the literary horizon for the "hatchet job of the year," Stephen Moss has pre-awarded the prize to  Zoë Heller for her savaging of Salman Rushdie's palace of self-regard, Joseph Anton--her review, that is, published in The New York Review of Books.

I wouldn't be so sure she'll win.  The savaging is good fun, certainly, and rarely has there been a target so richly deserving.  But the tone is austere and severe, not nearly so rollicking as  Pete Wells takedown of Guy Fieri's new restaurant.  Here, for example, is Wells on Fieri:
How did nachos, one of the hardest dishes in the American canon to mess up, turn out so deeply unlovable? Why augment tortilla chips with fried lasagna noodles that taste like nothing except oil? Why not bury those chips under a properly hot and filling layer of melted cheese and jalapeños instead of dribbling them with thin needles of pepperoni and cold gray clots of ground turkey? 
And Heller on Rushdie:
A man living under threat of death for nine years is not to be blamed for occasionally characterizing his plight in grandiloquent terms. But one would hope that when recollecting his emotions in freedom and safety, he might bring some ironic detachment to bear on his own bombast. Hindsight, alas, has had no sobering effect on Rushdie’s magisterial amour propre. An unembarrassed sense of what he is owed as an embattled, literary immortal-in-waiting pervades his book.
 I mean face it, the latter has a kind of   majesty about it but it's not the kind of punishment that is going to score the victim a moment on Leno (question for eager UB intern--has Rushdie ever been on Leno?  I suppose so, but a desultory search does not confirm it).

Meanwhile, say what you like about Heller's handiwork, the NYRB cannot have been surprised.  Best I can tell, Heller has written only one other review for the journal; it was the piece last fall   dismssing Naomi Wolf's Vagina as " a shoddy piece of work, full of childlike generalizations and dreary, feminist auto-think." Heller is also the lady who said of her own work   “I don’t write books for people to be friends with the characters."  She adds:  “if you want to find friends, go to a cocktail party.” Fine, but if she and Salman Rushdie are there at the same time, I dearly hope I can be on hand to observe.