Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"What Passes For"--?

My friend Michael the Italianist throws new light on the pecking order in  American literature:

Calvino's reputation with the general reading public rose only after his experimental works in translation -- Cosmicomics and t zero -- were stocked in American bookstores under science fiction rather than general fiction in the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike Eco, Calvino's novels never reached the best-seller lists in the Anglo-Saxon world even though his fiction received numerous accolades from major British and American writers in the pages of the New York Review of Books, the periodical that represents the thinking of what passes for highbrow literary taste in America."
From (it is said) the Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel.  I guess I can decode: sounds like SciFi, whatever its élan with the cognoscenti, has never made it into the mainstream.  I have to confess that I enjoy Calvino more as a critic or commentator than as a novelist, though I did enjoy Invisible Cities--which is not so much a novel as a series of marvelous tsbleaux.  He's also on as editor/introducer of a nifty little edition of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, still on display in Italian bookstores.

Execution Day

O All-seeing Light, and Eternal Life of all things, look upon my misery with Thine eye of mercy, and let Thine infinite power vouchsafe to limit out some portion of deliverance unto me, as unto Thee shall seem most convenient.  But yet, O my God, I yield unto Thy will, and joyfully embrace what sorrow Thou wilt have me suffer.  Only thus much let me crave of Thee (let my craving, O Lord, be accepted of Thee, since even that proceeds from Thee)—let me crave even by the noblest title, which in my greatest affliction I may give myself, that I am Thy creature, and by Thy goodness (which is Thyself), that Thou wilt suffer some beam of Thy Majesty so to shine into my mind, that it may still depend confidently on Thee—Amen.
King Charles I of England is said to have uttered this prayer from The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney as he mounted the scaffold on the day of his execution, January 30, 1649.  See, e.g., The Booklover's Almanac, (Robert Brittain, comp. and ed. 1991).

Holy Sh*t

An X with a Y

A while back I puzzled over the "the Holland principle"--the idea that the US “insurance company with an army,” or is it the other way round. Somebody pointed out that it may be a modern riff on Frederick the Great's Prussia—not a state with an army but an army with a state.

Today we have Matt Yglesias describing Amazon as “a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers.” and I'm beginning to wonder if we have here the beginning of a meme, on the theme of “an X that is really Y.” I'm remembering, for example, Samuel Butler saying that a chicken is just an egg's way of getting to another egg. Or my friend Nancy who declares that cake is just a delivery system for frosting.

I'm trying to play around with it myself but I don't think I have the chops. Barnes and Noble is a Starbucks that sells books (or offers them for sale, which is not quite the same thing).  A few years ago I might have said that the State Department is a high school band with a large dry cleaning bill. This morning I'm tempted to say that the CIA is an intelligence service with an army. Or that Homeland Security is a a police state with an Army. Or maybe—yes, that's the problem: these days, everything is an X with an army.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


If  you had listened to  me 18 years ago, you would have known that Amazon was going to crash and burn.  Only a matter of time.

Update:  Nah, it was a lame joke.  Anyway--Justin Fox puts it all in context.

The New Doors and
The Changing Structure of the Workplace

I'm back in the classroom again for something like the 45th year (portal to portal) and just for the record I'm having a grand time--pleasant students, interesting stuff to teach or learn.  A bit of my happy face derives from the fact that this year (unlike some) the Good and Great actually assigned me an office weeks in advance, and put a nice little metal nameplate on the door.  As a recalled retiree I do get a little squirmy about my identity here, though I really shouldn't take it personally: we (!) have been convulsed in a major expansion-remodeling for longer than anyone wants to remember and even some of the mainstays have found themselves at times living in trees.

The new office is okay and in truth I don't spend a lot of time here, but I notice one intriguing wrinkle: automatic-closing doors.   Yes: unless you direct otherwise, the door suavely swings shut behind you, whether you are in or out.  And "direct otherwise" pretty much means scaring up a wedge and kicking it into place.   And unless you remember to set the latch, the unwedged door will lock behind you, meaning you have to go down the hall to the library desk to borrow a key, or (if you are inside) to get up and cross the room whenever (rarely) anybody knocks.

Perhaps you can see where this is going.  I do notice that most of my (!) colleagues work with their doors closed.  And it wasn't always this way.  In the old days, most people worked with their doors open.  And yes, people popped in and out all the time.  My goodbuddies were (a) next door (b) across the hall and (b) two doors down.  If you learn by gossip, we must have been some of the best learners around.

These days as I say, most of the doors are closed.  But  it's not just the doors: back when dinosaurs strode the earth, there was a regular morning coffee klatsch and a group that assembled regularly for lunch.  I sometimes found them boring or tiresome, but I was pretty much as a regular at the former, if not the latter.  I seem to remember there was even a ladies' auxiliary although I think that faded fairly early.

This is probably beginning to sound like a whine but I don't really mean it that way. Times change, people change, big deal.  But they do change--and really, doors are probably just an incident: there are all kinds of forces that impel us (them?)  to more atomization. Example, in the digital age it is so much easier to work at home (or the coffee shop: I, a serious coffee shop maven, see two of my colleagues down there much more often than I do in the building).   Perhaps more important, our (their?) career advancement, even their job security, probably depends more on people on the other end of the Skype hookup than it does with anybody in the building.

As I write, I can see that whatever I'm saying has to do with much more than the law school, or even the university.  It's certainly true of (what I hear about) law firms, and progressively more true of corporate life in general.  Corporations used to make stuff; these days, as one of my colleagues likes to say, they are just loci of the intellectual property rights.  Or networks of hustlers entrepreneurs.

And?  And?  DamifIknow.  I must go talk this over with somebody.  Unfortunately, his door is closed.  Or, if he was hired in the last ten years, he'd probably have me shot for a burglar.

But it Would Make for a Different Kind of Superbowl

In one ear I'm picking up one of those commercials where they try to tell you that you may qualify for a free scooter chair.  One of the questions is:

Have you fallen in the last twelve months? 

Well, um, actually yes. Maybe the last week.  But at least if you lead an active and vigorous life (if, e.g., you are not in a scooter chair) hasn't everybody?    Do I really want to be snared in a net that would catch Colin Kaepernick?

Seems to me it's a little like the doctor asking you if you have a cough.  Of course  I have a cough.  Everybody has a cough, all of the time.  It's a component of breathing.

Just to be clear, I have no beef with people who need chairs.  But I do think we are seeing a bit of entrepreneurial overstretch.  Pardon while I go change the channel.  Or pull the plug.  Just be careful to keep my balance.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Whatever Splits Your Atom

Otto Hahn and Leise Meitner were one of the legendary partnerships in the history of science.
She whistled Brahms and Schumann to him to pass the long hours taking timed readings of radioactivity to establish identifying half-lives...
Rhodes, Richard (2012-09-18). Making of the Atomic Bomb (Kindle Locations 1767-1769). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

No More Mountains to Climb

  • First gay president: James Buchanan
  • First female president: Edith Bolling Galt.
  • First black president: Bill Clinton.
  • First Jewish president: Barry Gold--oh right.  Harry Golden said the first Jewish president would be an Episcopalian.

You say Po-tay-to, I say Po-tah-to

Here's an intriguing thread at the excellent Bruce Bartlett on  the subject of fee-yat (or is it fye-yat) money.  Bruce, who is not always given to nuance, declares that "anyone who uses the term 'fiat currency' has been reading too much Ron Paul-type monetary nonsense."  I feel his pain, though I stick stubbornly to the notion that one can give intelligible content to the term without committing to the whole Paulie magilla.  Specifically I wonder if this is the case: isn't the problem that in some sense all money is fiat money--i.e., in the sense that money is what we agree to treat as money, and lives only on confidence and expectation.  I guess I can recognize one distinction: you can't print gold the same way you can print paper (or drop electrons into the intertubs).  But here's one thing you can do re gold: you can break the promise.  That is, any sovereign that commits to the gold standard can change his mind and choose not to honor its promise--dim voices remind me that this just might have happened once or twice in the past, not so?  The cry of "fiat money" seems to rise from the supposition that there is something inviolate about gold, and there isn't, is there?

Afterthought: probably another one of those days when I'm just as glad that nobody reads this blog.  I hate to think of the comment thread if they did.

The Thought of Alan Greenspan in a Bathtub
Is a Bit Unsettling, Though

MacroMan (via Ritholtz) thinks Greenspan cribbed it from ShillerShiller returns the serve.

Look Out, He's Got a Drone!

Here’s a quick tour of the contemporary surveillance landscape. A father accidentally spies on his daughter with a smart meter; the iPhone’s location database accidentally tracks everywhere you’ve been; Facebook users’ public info turns out to be great for stalker applications; more and more companies are coming out with life cams; and everyone’s getting a drone.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Say What? Assets v Equity Again

Can this be right?
[Morgan Stanley]  managed to produce a return on shareholder equity of only 5 percent for the year, compared to 10.7 percent at its rival Goldman Sachs. Simply to cover its debt expenses and other capital costs, Morgan Stanley needs to achieve a return on equity closer to 10 percent. 
Link  Seems to me she must mean return on assets, not so?  Debt expense determines return on equity, yes, not the other way around?   You might count as a slip of the pen, except she says "return on shareholder equity" in the previous sentence as well.  You might write it off as a rookie error but her personal blurb suggests she has been in and around finance for 15 years.   As it stands, it's the kind of mistake my students make all the time but they are, you know, beginners.

Makers and Takers: an Afterthought

Makers and takers: you'd this was last year's meme, but I saw somebody take a jab at it as I watched the wall TV out of the corner of my eye at the gym this afternoon.  So maybe I will be permitted an afterthought.

So. You remember The Apartment, right?--Billy Wilder's "comedy" (ahem) about Shirley MacLaine as the comely young working girl at large in the great city?  Except that it wasn't a comedy, was it?  Look a little closer and you recognize that it is a bleak and unsettling appraisal of the slash-and-grab of modern commercial life.   There's Jack Lemmon as the warm-hearted schlub, of course.  But the centerpiece is Fred McMurray, playing against type as Jeff Sheldrake, the monster of arrogance and insolence who treats people they way he treats a paper hanky and will (it seems) keep on getting away with it until the end of time,.

But I wonder if you caught this little bit of give-and-take about the hateful Shelddrake, as between Bud (Lemmon) and Fran (MacLaine):

            It's just that I'm the kind of guy
            who can't say no -- I don't mean to
            girls -- I mean --

            You mean to someone like Mr.

            I guess so.

            I know so. He's a taker.

            A what?

            Some people take, some people get
            took -- and they know they're
            getting took -- and there's nothing
            they can do about it.

            I wouldn't say that -- 

Say what, Taker? Sheldrake? He's the boss. He uses people and throws them away. Not exactly the Übermensch, but at least the Übermensch's cheesy running dog.  Can we stipulate that this is just exactly the opposite of what the Republican's late presidential candidate had in mind? Or rather: can we assume (yes?) that the candidate, it was Lemmon and MacLaine who would have counted as the takers while Sheldrake might enter the spotlight as the essence of John Galt.

[This might be read as just an ironic trick of nomenclature.  The candidate and Sheldrake (and John Galt) would agree with Pareto's 80-20 principle: that it is the vital few who make the world turn while the rest of us poor sods just go along for the ride.  If the vital few are takers, why it is because they really deserve it as Sarpedon explains to Glaucus.]
Yet for most of the past 150 years, the prevailing conviction is that  it is the masses, poor devils--"the workers" in Marxist lore--who do the work of the world while their masters rip off the gain: the whole nine yards about surplus value, the means of production, the full panoply of devices by means of which the workers get took.

So Sheldrake is no doubt a taker in the classic Marxist sense.   And so far as I'm aware, not a living soul noticed the (shall we say) dialectical reversal in the hands of the candidate.  When did it happen, exactly?  And how?  And how come nobody noticed?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Ms.K Endorses Goddard on Shakespeare

You remember H. C. Goddard?  I wrote an appreciative squib about his Shakespeare commentaries a year ago September.  Comes now one Sue K (unknown to me) with a far more interesting bit of background about Goddard and his work.  It will profit you to go read it even if it is a bit belated.

Of course Ms. K's generally positive view though I will add an afterthought, meant to reflect ill on neither Goddard nor me.  Specifically: although I've had the book(s) for something like 16 months so far, I haven't finished it yet.  I don't think this is nearly as shameful as it may sound.  The point is that this is a book to be imbibed slowly and savored, not scarfed down with a gulp.  It's a bedside book: I read a few pages every few days.  I think about them for a few days and then sometimes, I read the same pages again.  I'm jumping around from play to play almost at random though I guess I have done about half the book so far.  I'm delighted that I have so much to look forward to and I will only be sorry when it ends (the last book that made me feel this way was War and Peace).

Truman-Acheson Letters?

Has anyone bothered to publish the correspondence of President Harry S. Truman and his Secretary of State (and beloved friend) Dean Acheson?   From the snippets I've seen, I'd guess it would be at least as riveting as the correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and for the same reason--two old men who had stood at the center of the cataclysm of their time, now free of ambition or any need for pretense, delighted to share their mature wisdom with each other.

You'd think--but wait a minute, turns out there is such a volume, published in 2010 and co-edited by Acheson's son, David.  There are effusive endorsements from the Great and Good, and five-star Amazon reviews--but only three of them, half as many Peter Hochstein gets for Heiress Strangled in Molten Chocolate.  No accounting for tastes, I guess.  And I don't  suppose anybody under 60 40 has any idea who Dean Acheson was.  Or for that matter, Harry Truman.   Still for old times' sake, I'll have to give it a try.

Wait a Minute, What? (National Identity Dept.)

Kenneth Rogoff, discussing our fiscal challenges, says "The US remains an incredible franchise..." (Financial Times, paywalled).

Wait a minute, what? Now we are a brand, like American Express or Saralee or the Green Bay Packers--one more locus for a network of IP contracts?  Let me think about that..

[And while thinking, I suppose I should go back and reread Monroe Price's prescient paper, The Market for Loyalties: Electronic Media and the Global Competition for Allegiances link.]

Demand-led Employment Growth in the Mills

My friend Marie (name change) and I were chatting about our youth around (but not in) the millyards, textile and otherwise, of Manchester NH in the 40s or thereabouts.  Marie threw in one great story I had not heard before:
Why there were so many three decker homes on both sides of the [Merrimac] River, owned by Amoskeag Corporation?  These homes were purchased at a very reasonable price if   the owner met the agreement to bring down two  more families from Canada to work in the mills....
 Makes sense to me--demand-led employment growth in the textile industry.  I do remember that the mill population in our day was (or so I thought)_ heavily French Canadian: they used to say that the Friday night traffic on the road back towards Trois Riviers (Quebec) was so thick you could hardly move.  

I told Marie about my own grandmother who was left a widow with seven kids.  I never her knew her; she died the year I was born, perhaps of exhaustion. Of her seven children, the oldest three had to quit school and go to  work early.  Of the seven, all who survived through adulthood (two died early) went on to useful and productive lives.   "At least my children never worked in the mills" their mother is said to have said.  Not that mill work was beneath their dignity--just that it was grinding, implacable and unremunerative.  Marie, resisting the impulse to deliver a bitch slap, responds with a story about  Roland (name change), her husband of 50-plus years:

Roland worked in the mills right after high school in order to pay for his schooling, and help support his parents, as his mom had a brain tumor, and couldn't work at Leavitt's dept store, and had a little sister.  He'd go to school at NH School of Accounting located up over a fruit store on Hanover St. (eight in his graduating class)  owned my Mr & Mrs. Shapiro.     Well anyhow he'd attend class from 8  - 1 PM...then head to a beef company to work on their accounting books.  At 3 PM he'd leave for the dye mill  until 11PM..that job was easy, so he could study.  He just had to keep an eye on the pressure gauge or some machine.  Then at home of course  at 11 PM he had to call me right away every night--then fold laundry and off to bed.
"So he quickly learned," says Marie, "mill work wasn't for him"  Copy that, but it sounds to me like that Marie got a keeper.

For optional reading:  Marie recommends Hareven and Langenbach, Amoskeag: Life and Work in an American Factory-City.

There's a wonderful summary of the early history of labor in the mills, in Atack and Pasell, A New Economic View of American History (a favorite; why doesn't somebody do a new edition?)--at 175-190.  I just now notice that they include a reference (at 182) to my old college roommate. Robert B. Zevn--this guy.  Yo, Bob!

More Schmatta

Following up on that last post: exactly what is the relationship between the rag trade and the pajama game?

Thursday, January 24, 2013


I just chatted with a guy who has been running a clothing store for the past ten years; he had never heard the word "schmatta" before.  Oh, look it up.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Am I Reading this Right?

That Denmark, with the world's lowest Gini index measured by income, also has the  third highest measured by wealth?  Different years. but still.  For income use the World Bank number.  And kudos to plucky little Namibia, first in wealth inequality, third for income.

I see Wiki provides data on pre-tax income Ginis, but also pre- and post-tax for selected (first-world) countries (OECD data, a bit different from the World Bank stuff above).  Anyway, this one shows Denmark  Ginis of 0.416 pre- and 0.248 post; for the United States, the numbers are 0.486 pre- and 0.378 post.  These pencil out to a ratio of 1.66 for Denmark, 1.28 for the US.   Can we take this as a quick-and-dirty  index of the relative component of wealth transfer in the two tax regimes (i.e., much higher for Denmark than for US)?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Truman, Obama and Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat, prompted by the inauguration of Barack Obama, recall the ghost of Harry S  Truman.  Specificlly...
...   the Truman of 1948 rather than the Truman of 1952 — the pre-Korean War Truman, that is, whose early Cold War strategy enjoyed strong bipartisan support, to the frustration of more left-wing figures like Henry Wallace and the bafflement of his Republican opponents. The parallels are imperfect, but there are interesting echoes of the divergent Republican responses to Truman’s foreign policy positioning...  [F]or a time, Truman did occupy the foreign policy center in a way that that few Democrats have managed since. 
This doesn't sound quite wrong to me, but it ignores that 800-pound gorilla: the near-hysterical paranoia which motivated Republicans into a strategy more focused on destroying a President than accomplishing anything of substance for the country.   It's a deep-seated notion--the idea that any Democratic occupant of the White House must be illegitimate and needs to be not just thwarted but extirpated.  In Truman's case, the focus would have been his breathtaking upset victory after the whistle stop campaign of 1948. Before that, in the eyes of his adversaries, he was a perverse accident; after, he became a monstrosity.   The most memorable focus was the great mischief-make Joe McCarthy, who probably did more to damage the cause of responsible anti-Communism than anyone else in American history. But not just McCarthy: also his clean-fingernailed enablers like Styles Bridges, Owen Brewster and Robert Taft and most of the rest of the party happily going along for the ride.

Douthat also says that Truman's "credibility crumbled in his second term, when our push to reunify Korea turned into a war with Mao’s China."  Right enough although he might have mentioned that the Korean war police action was off-the-chart popular in its inception; that it lost popularity only after it turned out to be something less than a cakewalk. And would Douthat like to speculate on what the Republicans would have tried to do to him had he not played the military card in 1950?

Update:  And I should have said: sending American forces north was MacArthur's doing, against Truman's express orders.  A major Truman mistake was not firing his insubordinate ass months earlier than he did.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Met HD Maria Stuarda

Deborah Voigt, doing the intermission interviews at the Met's HD Maria Stuarda yesterday, asked the stars if they had done any research into the history behind the great conflict between the two queens, Mary Stuart of Scotland and England's Elizabeth I.  Joyce DiDonato, who sang a glorious Mary, said someone had given her a picture book.  Joshua Hopkins, (Cecil), said he'd looked at Glenda Jackson's performance in the old PBS Series.

One could snigger at the definition of history.  But then Matthew Rose (Talbot) harrumphed that history really didn't figure: that this was a reworking of a play by Schiller and as everybody knows, the central event--the personal confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth in the forest at Fotheringay,  simply did not occur.   So, an Italian operatic rendition of a German dramatic presentation of what never happened to begin with.

All fair comment, but there's another sense in which both DiDonato and Hopkins had it right.  This is, to labor the point, a drama, and it is perfectly respectable to wonder what others had done with it.  DiDonato made essentially this point: she said she had watched others, and learned from them, and then felt the freedom to make it her own.

Peter Gelb, the Met's major domo, likes to promote the fact that  this is a first-ever Maria Stuarda for the Met--odd, which you recognize that it is a wonderful showcase for the female lead (or maybe two), and at the same time gratifyingly cheap to produce--no need for overproduced sets, or overdone crowd scenes.  And while strictly accurate, Gelb's remark may miss a larger point: the two queens have really never faded into obscurity.  Beverly Sills turned in a career-defining performance of the opera next door to the Met at the NYC Opera back in 1972.  And there have been at least two remarkable productions of the Schiller play in the last decade (more by lucky accident than plan, I got to see both, and they were wonderful). That plus any number of old TV and movie renditions should give the aspirant enough to work with.

People speak of this as a two-character opera--Elizabeth and Mary.  I'd say a bit more like one and a half.  Elizabeth galumphs (sic) on stage first at the Met and the two share the big scene in the middle, but in terms of sheer number of notes sung, Mary clearly runs the table.  DiDonato's Mary was everything you, or at least I, could want (I gather she took the register down a bit from the original but my ear isn't well enough attuned to notice). Elza van den Heever's Elizabeth was --interesting, and I don't mean that to be quite as snide as it sounds.  Hers is a crudely masculine queen who waddles in a Pythonesque sort of a costume.  Either it works or it doesn't: I thought it interesting but I can see how others might think this display of chromosomal excess comes at the expense of feminine delicacy.  Either way, she seems to have thought through every line, and to mean exactly what she says.  A larger issue is that her voice doesn't seem very big.  This wasn't really a problem in the boxy little movie theatre; I wonder how it worked in the yawning excesses of the Met.

A final point: everyone will talk about the confrontation between the two queens, but for  my money one of the most arresting scenes was the dialog between Talbot and Mary after she learns that Elizabeth has sealed her doom.    It's at once understated--so  much so that you can overlook it--and deeply engaged.    Ross is a big guy with a capacious voicebox and he is afflicted with a blessing that can be a curse to any performing artist trying to build a career: he makes it look easy.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

More on the Holland Principle

You'll Remember the Holland Principle--the one about the govt as an insurance company with the army, or perhaps the other way round.  I had traced it back to a (ref to) an article by a certain Michael Holland, along about 2003.  Paul Krugman, most often cited as the source (but who disavows original authorship) weighed in with customary celerity:
Someone should have asked me. Peter Fisher, undersecretary of the Treasury, in 2002. 
But follow the comments after Krugman's remark and you'll find that he seems to have repeated in 2001 something he didn't hear until a year later--a chronology which seems to invite further inquiry.  Down at comment #22 in the same thread, Holland weighs in:
This is Holland. The quip is one I used in a talk explaining the federal budgeting process to academics on the six federal advisory committees for the Department of Energy's Office of Science.
Since science policy and domestic finance policy circles don't overlap, I wouldn't have heard it from Peter Fisher. He wouldn't have heard it from me. 
So, simultaneous discovery, like Leibniz/Newton or Jevons/Walras/Menger.   In a separate email, Holland elaborates:
I started off as a program examiner at OMB in 1999.  I used to get invited to give talks to the Department of Energy Office of Science advisory committees (e.g., High Energy Physics Advisory Panel, Nuclear Science Advisory Panel, etc.) explaining how the R and D budgets were formulated.  You’ve got to do something to make budget talks amusing, thus the quip.  ...

I do remember seeing the quote attributed to a Bush Administration Treasury official several years after I had been using it, so I don’t doubt Krugman’s attribution to Peter Fisher.  I can’t imagine the quote is original to either of us.  Just stare at a pie chart of the federal budget long enough.I did get called on the carpet by OSTP’s Chief of Staff when my quote appeared in Science. Non-political staff in Executive Office agencies are not supposed get themselves quoted in the press – even inadvertently. 
And in another, Holland adds:
Some quips must have their own motive force and regenerate themselves with some frequency.
And finally:
A 40 min talk on physics and the budget process demands a joke. I only had one. I still only have one.
 Okay, but I'd say he has two.


Chez Buce and the Krabappel Syndrome

Mrs., Buce absolutely refuses to listen to the slightest shred about the Manti Te'o Fake Girlfriend story--(for reasons that Armin Rosen explains in The Atlantic, you might almost call it the Krabappel syndrom).  If necessary to avoid it, I suspectMrs. B would stick her fingers in her ears and shout la-la-la-la-la.

I  think I know why.  Thing is, we met in the want ads--not on Facebook, silly, this was long before Facebook (come to think of it, before Mark Zuckerberg was born).  But we corresponded for about six months before we ever laid eyes on each other.  We still have the letters somewhere, I think.

And so all these years she has been reflecting--just think, I get with this guy, whereas with the least bit of luck I could wound up with somebody wholly fictitious. 

Afterthought:  I wonder how many people think his name is "Manti Te'o Fake."

Friday, January 18, 2013

Pity It's not True

I would have said that one less asshole in the world is a cause for celebration: but link.

Defoe Wishes for a More Civil Discourse

Swearing, that lewdness of the tongue, that scum and excrement of the mouth, is of all vices the most foolish and senseless. It makes a man's conversation unpleasant, his discourse fruitless, and his language nonsense.

It makes conversation unpleasant, at least to those who do not use the same foolish way of discourse, and, indeed, is an affront to all the company who swear not as he does; for if I swear and curse in company I either presume all the company likes it or affront them who do not.

Then it is fruitless; for no man is believed a jot the more for all the asseverations, damnings, and swearings he makes. Those who are used to it themselves do not believe a man the more because they know they are so customary that they signify little to bind a man's intention, and they who practise them not have so mean an opinion of those that do as makes them think they deserve no belief.

Then, they are the spoilers and destroyers of a man's discourse, and turn it into perfect nonsense; and to make it out I must descend a little to particulars, and desire the reader a little to foul his mouth with the brutish, sordid, senseless expressions which some gentlemen call polite English, and speaking with a grace.

Some part of them indeed, though they are foolish enough, as effects of a mad, inconsiderate rage, are yet English; as when a man swears he will do this or, that, and it may be adds, "God damn him he will;" that is, "God damn him if he don't." This, though it be horrid in another sense, yet may be read in writing, and is English: but what language is this?

"Jack, God damn me, Jack, how dost do? How hast thou done this long time, by God?"--And then they kiss; and the other, as lewd as himself, goes on:-

"Dear Tom, I am glad to see thee with all my heart, let me die. Come, let us go take a bottle, we must not part so; pr'ythee let's go and be drunk by God."--

This is some of our new florid language, and the graces and delicacies of style, which if it were put into Latin, I would fain know which is the principal verb. ... [H]ow little it becomes a gentleman to debauch hjis mouth with foul language...
 Daniel Defoe, An Essay Upon Projects (Of Academies) (1697)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Holland Principle

Who first said that the US government is "an insurance company with an army"?  Paul Krugman often gets the credit, but he says it is  not original with him: "this isn't original" he wrote, invoking the principle on April 27, 2011.   Ezra Klein also gets credit; he  presented it alongside a lovely pie chart  on Feb. 14, 2011, but I find a (second-hand) reference back in 2007 crediting Krugman, so Krugman at least trumps Klein.   A polisci textbook (Jan. 1, 2010) credits it to "a Bush administration staff member."  

And   here's a ref dated April 5, 2004 crediting it to "OSTP's Mike Holland" as from Science in for 4/11/2003.   I haven't taken the time to track it all the way to JSTOR.   OSTP=Office of Science and Technology Policy?   "Mike Holland" would appear to be this guy,  whose Linkedin profile shows that he was at OSTP at the relevant point in time.

Recognizing that no quote is original, and that we can probably count on finding an earlier avatar on a clay pot in Sumer, I'd say that for a moment we ought to call it "The Holland Principle."  Yo Mike, okay with you?

Update:  Hoo ha, that didn't take long.   On the evidence, I would say we are so far back to Frederick von Schrötter, so I assume Hammurabi is in the crosshairs.  A more specific version of the Fisher quote (although unsourced) is here; although I'd have to say that "a gigantic insurance company with a sideline business in defense and homeland security"--is not nearly so euphonious as the revised form. But following the Stigler's Law, I still think we should call it "the Holland Principle."

Tedious Afterthought:  The comment thread at Thoma  includes some interesting backchatter on whether the Holland Principle, even if true, is A Good Thing or not.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Long View: Raising Money

One of the few consolations of getting older is that you can take the long view. Was listening to the excellent Bill Rochelle this week predicting that there won't be many corporate bankruptcies this year, and why?--hah, glad you asked. Easy money.  Interest rates are so low and capital so plentiful that almost anybody can (re)finance at a sustainable rate.

Makes sense to me but I find my mind rolling back to the 80s when my friends would tell me about how the CFO would ring up and say I can't make my interest payments, we'll just have to talk Chapter 11. But then a few days later: forget it, no need for 11, the investment bankers tell us we can raise the money we need by issuing equity. I.e., unsustainable with senior debt (too expensive) but doable with junior equity (comparatively cheap).

What goes around comes around. And goes around again.

Have You Ever Seen...

I Think I Understand This..

--You should come listen.   You might find it interesting.

--It might be boring, but it might be interesting that it is boring.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Alain de Blotton Shows Excellent Taste

...which is to say, he agrees with me.  He says that Virginia Woolf is a better essayist than novelist.  The novels, he says, he "never got along with."  I wouldn't go quite that far: there are parts of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse  that are superb.  As to the whole--well, I've been willing to assume that there is something going on there that the chromosomally challenged among us just destined never to figure out (actually I do like Orlando, but that is the one Virginia Woolf novel that the true believers treat as a kind of embarrassment). 

Some of Woolf's most enduring work is in her appreciations of other writers: her treatment of Defoe in The Common Reader is as generous and understanding as you are likely to find.  More is in her Diaries, so rich and capacious that it is hard to do them justice by excerpt.  And remarkably, some her best discursive writing is in the novels themselves, like the inimitable account of London in spring, which she offers up as she presents Mrs. Dalloway on a morning walk:
For having lived in  Westminster — how many years now? over twenty — one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
With pages like tht, I don't think it matters whether the whole holds together or not.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Hips and Haws

Back at the end of the year, Michael Gilleland did a diverting post about hips and haws.   Turns out he has done several on the same topic, although it appears there is at least one more he had not picked up on.
And this blessed gift of venerating love has been given to too many humble craftsmen since the world began for us to feel any surprise that it should have existed in the soul of a Methodist carpenter half a century ago, while there was yet a lingering after-glow from the time when Wesley and his fellow-labourer fed on the hips and haws of the Cornwall hedges, after exhausting limbs and lungs in carrying a divine message to the poor.
--George Eliot, Adam Bede Book I, Chapter 3.

What I Learned Today: Christmas Tree Farms

Both Franklin D. Roosevelt and his secretary of treasury, Henry Morgenthau, operated Christmas tree farms.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Mr. Truman, Mr. Pendergast and Mr. Bridge

Still reading the massive McCullough biography of Harry Truman.  Not the least of its merits is the leisurely and richly-textured account of the soil that he sprang from--the Scots-Irish small farmers (and slaveowners) who in a sense may embody better than any Jeffersonian dream that we build our network on a panoply of self-sufficient proprietors.  Also its quaintly ironic foil: the Pendergast machine that dominated Kansas City for much of Truman's life, recognized in its time as perhaps the most successful and effective of all the big-city political machines.  Ironic in the sense that though the Pendergasts launched Harry, and though he remained loyal friends with the Pendergasts till the end, still he was always more "of" than "in"--specifically, never even remotely on the take for the graft that drove the engine and finally brought it down.   For god knows we'd know about it if he had been, considering the number of challengers who had the incentive to destroy him if they could find any way to do it.

And here in my Saturday NYT is one more layer of nuance: the death (at 88) of Evan S.Connell--indefatigable writer whose best work may be his paired novels, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, about the sheltered and stifling life in KC's (but it could have been any city's) upper-middle-class suburbia (you may remember it from the only really convincing movie Paul Newman ever made).   It's been a long time since I read the book (or saw the movie) but here's the thing: I can't remember a single snippet of either that would put you in mind of either the hardscrabble farmers in the countryside or the gambling and boozing ward bosses down in the river bottoms.  No moral here, except: complicated world.  Like I say, richly textured.

Afterthought: But if there is a connection, maybe it is here.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

W/o Comment

Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world's one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.
Not that they starve; but starve so dreamlessly,
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap,
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve,
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.
--Vachel Lindsay

Aaron Swartz, and Suicide Among the Young

Aaron Swartz was little more than a name to me until this morning, when it seemed that everyone in my aggregator was responding to the news that he had committed suicide yesterday, at the age of 26.

I've already conceded that I know exactly nothing (aside from this morning's news) about Aaron's case, but let's generalize for a moment here. First, let's stipulate that not every suicide is a "tragedy" or even a calamaty. Some are the sad and sadly comprehensible response to the burden of living.

But the suicide of one so young and (seemingly) so talented is almost by definition just wretchedly wrong--not "wrong" in the sense of the actor's "fault" but wrong in the sense of "something dreadfully out of kilter in the universe." For more, you must link over and read Cory Doctorow's breathtaking memorial (apparently composed on the instant), and in particular this:
I don't know for sure whether Aaron understood that any of us, any of his friends, would have taken a call from him at any hour of the day or night. I don't know if he understood that wherever he was, there were people who cared about him, who admired him, who would get on a plane or a bus or on a video-call and talk to him.

Because whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn't solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it.
Link. I have nothing to add.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Old Roads

Seems like everywhere I turn these days, I see roads.  Not in character for me: I ride on 'em, of course, but the bump of automotive transport in my skull is almost   a depression, and the quantum of prior knowledge on the topic would not be enough to fill a modest storm drain.

But I did just lately get around to reading Robert Caro's biography Robert Moses.  I was looking for the power, the politics, the intrigue and lord knows I got plenty of that.  But Moses' story begins with the Long Island parks and parkways; it finally runs aground on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, with lots of twists and turns and straightaways in between.

Having finished Caro, I was provoked to inquire what and how much influence Moses had on the building of the Interstate Highway system.  So I moved on to The Big Roads by Earl Swift.  It's a worthwhile read though not nearly as rich in detail as Caro.  Perhaps the best thing about it is an undocumented extra: his account of the prehistory of the Interstates, in the first great spasm of road building in the 20s.  I learned inter alia of what you might also call a proto-social-media phenom: the network of auto enthusiasts who self-organized to promote early avatars of what ultimately emerged as the interstate system. I even got introduced to something called the "National Old Trails Road Association," whose name pretty well defines its identity.

From Swift I  moved on to David McCullough's biography of Harry S Truman, and dam if I'm not embroiled in the road story all over again.  By McCullough's telling, Truman gained his first round of notoriety as that rarest of phenoms, an honest  man in politics--all the more astonishing, the instrument of a big-city machine who nonetheless undertook to spend the public's dollar in the public interest.

And his passion was roads.  He loved to drive himself, and engaged in long "research" trips whose nominal purpose was to study construction methods and finance, but whose real intent, I suspect, may have been to give Harry time behind the wheel.   And--wait, here's Harry, still a county judge in Missouri, as president of that selfsame National Old Trails Association, unknown to me until just a couple of days ago.    Does it still exist, I wonder?  Wiki is unavailing, but my experience is that outfits like this almost never disappear altogether.

There's more to this story that I'd like to know--in particular, more about the role of the Interstates in destroying great cities (I don't think Harry can be blamed for that).  For the moment though--I was driving up the Sacramento Valley last night, on the back roads that lead through what is still mostly farm country.  Every inch of it paved and graded and drained, in a way we have just come to take for granted.  It amused me to reflect that exactly none of these amenities would have existed 100 years ago.


Wednesday, January 09, 2013

As the Twig is Bent (Leader of the Free World Div.)

Doug Henwood points out that today is the centennial of the birth of Richard M. Nixon.  Meanwhile it happens that I am spending my off hours with David McCullough's doorstop biography of Harry S. Truman and the news prompts me to meditate on the early live of great men.

Do some comparisons: Nixon, Truman--also Eisenhower and Johnson, for what it was worth--grew up not quite dirt poor but on the raw downside edge of respectability, never more than one wrong guess away from squalor (the unknown young Truman evidently met the unknown Ike's brother while both were youngsters at work in Kansas City banks).  They all had their breaks: alive in the right country and the right century.  Each is in his own way showed a kind of determination, but not all the  same kind.   Nixon and Johnson lusted after power; it's not clear that  either Ike or Truman had the same goal--observe how easily at the end Truman and Ike said goodbye to power, in contrast with the other two.  

For present purposes, what catches my fancy is the matter of chemistry.  It's a commonplace how Nixon, rising from his hardscrabble youth, ever nourished a sense of grievance and unmollified hurt.  It might be worth noticing how Truman, with much the same background, appears to have grown to maturity the happiest of men.    He seems to be one of those babies who knew he was loved. He enjoyed pleasing people; he was a willing worker in all ways, a world to whom the world made sense.  Superficial observers may question appraisal; they may remember the 1948 give 'em hell campaign, or the man who wrote a rude letter to a critic of his daughter's music.    But even in conflict, he seems to be a man who is enjoying himself.  Contrast Nixon who never seems really to enjoy himself at all.  Afterthought: this may be the temperament that is equipped to order, not once but twice, the destruction of a Japanese city--and then go home to an untroubled night's sleep.

For extra credit: note that both Truman and Ike, seeking a ticket out of their constrained youth, sought an appointment to West Point.  We know what became of Ike; McCullough says it was his poor eyesight that caused the Academy to turn down Truman.  So, which one saw more combat service in World War I?

Afterthought:  H/T to David for pointing out that this is also the 150th anniversary of the London Underground.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Big Dreams

The narrator of Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno, meditates on youth and aspiration:

Nella mente di un giovine di famiglia borghese il concetto di vita umana s’associa a quello della carriera e nella prima gioventù la carriera è quella di Napoleone I.
In the minds of middle-class young men life is associated with a career, and in early youth that career is usually Napoleon's.
 Cf. George Eliot on young Tertius Lydgate:
He was but seven-and-twenty, an age at which many men are not quite common - at which they are hopeful of achievement, resolute in avoidance, thinking that Mammon shall never put a bit in their mouths and get astride their backs, but rather that Mammon, if they have anything to do with him, shall draw their chariot.
So Middlemarch, Chapter 15.  Note that "tertius"="third."

Lydgate has perhaps not yet learned the identity of George Bernard Shaw's seven deadly sins:" food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability and children."  Shaw (=Andrew Undershaft, in Major Barbara) cautions: "Nothing can lift those seven millstones from Man's neck but money; and the spirit can not soar until the millstones are lifted."

Sound as a ...

Krugman thinks we should pay our bills with moral obligation chits.   On the premise that money is anyone thing people think is money, then file this one under "not as crazy as it sounds" (and not as serious as this guy seems to think it is).   For added dignity, we could have them incised on giant pieces of stone, like they do on the Isle of Yap (copper, like they used to use in Sweden, is probably too expensive).    Or we could just dragoon all the lower-level treasury minions and send them to Safeway.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Spielberg's Lincoln

Well, we steeled our nerves and popped out to take in Spielberg's Lincoln today--the oldies' matinee, populated by folks (like us) who could have actually met a Civil War veteran.   "Steeled ourselves" in the sense that there are so many ways it could have gone wrong, and I suppose the bluntest thing to say is that it avoided many of them: in a phrase, not nearly as bad a movie as I feared.

But I can do better than that.  I was on guard against cheap sentimentalism and schoolmarm preaching, and there was a bit of both.  But not nearly as much as there might have been, and you'd have to set it off against quite a few good things.  Daniel Day-Lewis inevitably and yes indeed, he did seem to look the part and get the character right,  mostly.  Not perfect: I don't think he mastered a plausible Illinois twang, and after a half an hour I did get tired of  him, as he slid into the kind of history-movie poortentiousness that nothing in the genre can do with out.    But for catching the character, I'd say Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln did even better: she brought across everything you might have hoped or feared about this poor, driven, bewildered and deeply unhappy woman.  As Thad Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones was himself which is just as it could be, and my guess is that his surprised last scene is as true to life as anything in the movie.   It was a bit unnerving to see Hal Holbrook (is he really 87?) looking less like Mark Twain than like Teddy Kennedy.

But the real charm of the picture is the secondary stuff. Like: the array of hustlers and time-servers in Congress and around the White House like swarms of live bees.  Like: the tobacco smoke, the overdone furniture, the underdone lighting, the general air of squalor and sleaze.

Spielberg's presentation, taken as a whole, you'd have to call "Shakespearean,"  in a narrow and particular sense.   That is: he has mastered the Shakespearean device (from the Henry plays, if not elsewhere) of telling a private story  woven into a larger public tapestry.  The comparison does identify a puzzle, though. Namely, granting that Spielberg veers into tendentious kitsch, you'd have to acknowledge does so way more.  Yet somehow I can bear Shakespearean kitsch with so much more equanimity than any contemporary exemplar.   Not sure I know why the distinction: my best guess is that with Shakespeare, I know can keep my distance; I am not so fearful of getting sucked in.  Another Shakespearean parallel: here as there, I suppose one is tempted to search for contemporary echoes.  Can we think of any other rail-thin, loner, Illinois politician (for example) who just might be under appreciated by the lesser lights of his own time.  No, I think the answer is "no," as in "don't go there," but it's hard to resist.

Mrs. B does add a provocative afterthought: she says it's a shame there wasn't some way of telling the story of how Lincoln's world-view evolved over his lifetime and in particular, of course, his attitude to slavery.  There's something inevitably bogus about presenting our heroes as carved in stone--as if, just hypothetically for example, you wanted to stick them into a temple on the Washington Mall.  I suspect she is thinking of the kind of Lincoln you find in Eric Foner's Fiery Trial, or in what is still my own favorite Lincoln book, Honor's Voice.  I take her point although I suppose the best you can say is that that would be a whole nuther movie and one even harder, I suspect, to get right.

And Here's to Good Old (Uh, Let Me Check My Notes ...)

I see that the good folks at  Coursera as their breakthrough in online education offering, a couple of courses from Antioch University in LA.  Is it worth remembering that Antioch LA is itself the product of an earlier experiment in educational brand management--the initiative of Antioch College in Ohio to franchise itself, on the order of "Colonel Sanders, Muncie branch"--?  There may or may not be a moral to be drawn from the fact that in the earlier case, it was the mother ship that foundered while some of the satellites (including LA?) seem to have done okay.

Ah, an I see that the Antioch courses will be offered by professors from Penn--further proof, if any there need be that the entity isn't the entity any more: it's just a locus in a network of IP rights.  I note also that Coursera is a subsidiary of Amazon.  If you'd rather skip the education and go straight to the brand, go here.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Be Funny if it was Funny

Interesting, most people just step behind a bush.  Also, Nicholas Kristof discussing Xi Jinping, predicts that "Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch."  Evidently they can't find a gurney.

But did you read that CIA Prison story?  No joke at all.  Looks like the only guy to go to prison for torture waterboarding will be a guy who did not approve.  H/T John, who should have been a copyreader.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Paparazzi Note: the Ickes Wedding

Quick now, who is secretary of interior?  Ah, got you there now, didn't I?  In the Roosevelt administration, you would have known: he  was Harold L. Ickes and he was one of the most powerful and visible members of the Roosevelt inner circle, responsible, inter alia, for a large chunk of the public works program that  played so central a role on the Roosevelt New Deal.

This post is nominally about Ickes but it's really about paparazzi.  Here's the deal: Ickes' wife was killed in an auto accident in 1935.  Three years later, he remarried. He was 64; his bride, 25. Certainly in a sheltered age, the disparity was more than enough to attract attention but Ickes did all he knew how to keep the matter private.  Jane went to Ireland to stay with an uncle.  Harold followed her separately, traveling under an assumed name.  They reunited and married in a Presbyterian church in Dublin before just three witnesses.  The officiating clergyman, Ickes recounts, "did not know whom he was marrying and continued in ignorance until the newspaper correspondents descended on him later that afternoon."   Ickes cabled a press officer back at Interior to announce the wedding. The press began a chase.  "When we got to Waterloo Station in London," Ickes recalls, "we were met by a small army of newspaper photographers and reporters."  But here is the fun part:
When they got through with us at Waterloo, we got into our cab an I told the driver to take us to Grosvenor House.  After going a few blocks our driver leaned back top tell us that we were being followed.  Shortly thereafter we drove into a quiet street, just off Hyde Park, and I told the driver to stop.  Getting out of the cab at the curb i found that six cars were following filled with photographers and reporters.  I signaled them to stop and alight.  Then I told them that we had tried to be as considerate as possible. We had permitted them to interview us and take all the pictures that they waned, but now we were entitled to our privacy.  I informed them that, if necessary, we would sit in the taxicab, at that particular spot, all night long.  Then they wanted to take one or two more shots and I told them I would permit this if they would make a gentleman's agreement that they would not follow us or bother us any further. This agreement they carried out so that we had no more trouble in London.
From The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes, vol. 2, page 404, entry of June 26, 1938.  Ickes died in 1952.  Jane lived on and supervised the publication of the diaries thereafter; vol. 2 appeared in 1952.  Ickes bore--and seemed to enjoy--the reputation of being a curmudgeon, but the marriage seems to have been happy.  As to the press, does anyone--can anyone--make any such agreement today?  The thought of the secretary and his new bride sitting all night in a cab off Hyde Park is enough to make the mind reel. 

Oh, and the current secretary:  Ken Salazar, formerly a Democratic senator from Colorado, a job in which he was probably a lot  more visible.  Okay, maybe you did know,  but in his time, a lot more people would have been able to identify Ickes.

Sketchy Notes on Les Troyens

An opera generalization: if I'm going to spend five daylight hours in an opera theatre, I'd rather be in the company of Hector Berlioz than Richard Wagner.  Lots of campy over-the-top self-indulgence in Berlioz but the same is true of Wagner and it is not nearly so hit-you-over-the-head irritating.    In any event, Les Troyens (in HD today) is not really one opera, it's two: one about Troy, one about Carthage one about love and one about war, one with lots an lots and lots of dance.  With so much of the day gone, I take time for only a few brief  notes:
  • Susan Graham looks her age (she's 51) but for vocal performance, she is absolutely at the top of her game.

  • Last-minute-replacement tenor Bryan Himel makes it look easy.  Which is not remotely to say that it is easy, except in the narrow sense that the role seems almost perfectly suited to his natural talents.

  • When people talk about Met conductor Fabio Luisi, they still seem to wind up talking about his predecessor, James Levine. Still needs work on the branding, I'd say.


Something I learned just now: a guy got a patent on the design for the highway cloverleaf.  So I learn in Earl Swift's Big Roads (Kindle  page 101), a history of the Interstate highway system.  Per Swift, the patent-holder was "a Maryland engineer named 'Arthur Hale" and so far I've been unable to learn anything else about him; seems like after his moment of notoriety he retired behind his Steelcase desk with his slide rule and never troubled history again.

What I'd like to know is whether Hale ever got any return on his investment.  Apparently Hale had his lightbulb moment in 1916; the first actual cloverleaf wasn't actually completed in the U.S. until 1928, i.e., a year after Mort Dixon and Harry M. Wood inflicted on us published "I'm Looking Over a Four-leafed Clover," that most pestiferous of all musical mind viruses.  Swift says the designer (of the interchange, not the song) got his idea from a magazine cover showing such a novelty in Argentina.  Did the builders learn about  Hale?  Did he learn about them?   Was he still alive?

Apparently there is general agreement that the cloverleaf is outmoded today--an assertion that would surely win assent from anyone who held his heart in  his throat while trying to squeeze into the right-hand exit lane as some hotrod came shooting out of his turn behind you.   Must have been a simpler time, 1928.

The other thing I'd like to know is more about the cloverleaf as it relates to the roundabout, so far as I can tell, the dominant mode of traffic intersection control in Britain; rare in the US though we have a few in Palookaville.  Wiki has an instructive discussion, though it is a bit shy on precise dates; no patent-holder is mentioned.

And here's what must be the weirdest piece of cloverhood in human history:


Friday, January 04, 2013

The Last of the Netbookers

Farhad Manjoo says the netbook is dead, and Farhad Manjoo says good riddance.  He didn't ask me.  I'm typing this right now on my Acer Mini which is, at least for the moment, my only working computer.  I say "computer" in a sense that excludes my Iphone which is really my ebook reader and audiobook listener; also my paleo-Ipad which spends most of its quiet life in the kitchen as a cookbook and a source for the New York Times at the breakfast table (not eager to spill coffee on the phone).  I had a desktop--actually a very large laptop--until it went kerplunk a couple of weeks ago.  Mrs. Buce hopes I will replace it with a Mac so I will better understand Macs and thereby equip myself to better help with her Mac. I may do precisely that and for precisely that reason but for the most part, I feel no (other) strong inducement in that direction.

Thing is that I, apparently unlike Farhad, can actually type on this thing.  And since this is about the only thing for which I need any mini/laptop/desktop, I'm actually doing fine. 

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Clip-Ons Again

Way back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, I expatiated on the evils of neckties, and how they cut off the blood flow to the brain.   I will slip one on with reluctance for solemn occasions like weddings, Greco-Roman wrestling exhibitions, or public hangings (why they  call them "necktie parties," not so?).  I wore neckties during my first year as a professor until one day I forgot and, like, you know. For the young fry still seeking jobs, I have long suggested that we take a tip from Knott's Berry Farm and paint a few suited and tied bodies onto a piece of wallboard, with holes cut so the student could stick his head through and show the prospective employer what he would look like if he actually got the job.

When I was a judge, I did make a concession: I kept a necktie hanging on the inside of the door between my chamber and my courtroom, so I could slip it on and off in a timely manner--meaning I think, that I was only stupid at those times when I was actually doing my job.   That was what prompted my friend Scott to offer what I back then called "a constructive suggestion."  As I wrote:
He noted that United Airlines supplied its counter clerks with clip-on ties. It was a safety measure, so that when the clerk said “We’re sorry, we seem to have sent your baggage to Warsaw,” then at least the clerk would not get strangled. Scott said he thought the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts ought to show the same courtesy to the judges.
Ah. Don't know that the AO has changed his policy, but I see the NYPD is thinking along the same lines.  Not always, though:

Modern Memoirs

I've been consoling myself these past few nights with what may seem like a recherché taste:The Secret Diary of Harold F. Ickes, all three volumes of which I am now the proud owner, thanks to the  glories of the new intergalactic market in second-hand books (hey, have to do something to fill up all the space left by all those books I've been giving away).  But perhaps not so recherché: Ickes (FDR's Secretary of Interior, children) writes with an artless clarity that would do Samuel Pepys proud. And what may be more important at bedtime: he's another reminder of the years around my birth, soothing because it is my past however tumultuous it must have been for the adults who had to cope with it.

So far, fine. But just this morning in Palookaville's find second-hand bookstore, i stumbled on a copy of Turmoil and Triumph--the memoir of George P. Shultz, mainly about his time as Reagan's Secretary of State. Forget the silly name, it's another wonderful book: shrewd observation and measured civility of a sort we haven't seen for a long time.

Civil but not insipid: Shultz's account of the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages debacle is one of the best I've read anywhere and Shultz's fury at Admiral John Poindexter, who nearly destroyed the Reagan presidency without seeming to notice what he was about, is a joy to behold. And not just Poindexter: index entry for William P. Clark, Jr., includes the icy annotation "failure to comprehend issues." It may not have helped Clark had tried to get Shultz fired.

Dipping into Shultz after reading a fair amount of Ickes made me wonder: how many good political memoirs/diaries are there, after all? I can't say in the sense that I haven't read that many. General/President Grant's memoir may stand as a classic, but it is about his military service, not his presidency. Eisenhower's White House memoirs are clotted and opaque--a bit of a surprise, in that his war memoir, Crusade in Europe, is actually a pretty good book.  I haven't read Clinton's: the size daunted me.  I've never bothered with much of what Nixon wrote--so far as I can tell, just too much special pleading in a field where special pleading is never in short supply.  I'm actually hoping to make time someday soon for some of the mountain of paper that Herbert Hoover generated after leaving the White House, even though I gather it is an embittered screed.

There I think two other modern American political figures who deserve consideration here. One is Henry Kissinger. I haven't read his memoirs but I did read his Diplomacy and his more recent On China, both of which have a sort of coded memoir undertone (I suspect that for many years now, everything that Kissinger has done counts as positioning for posterity).  And I did read Walter Isaacson's admirable biography, which is perhaps a better memoir than Henry wrote himself.

And the other is Dean Acheson. I did read these, and they are a joy, although oddly, what he offers are two radically different books.  One, Present at the Creation is a masterly piece of  advocacy by one of the finest lawyers of his time.  Acheson's other is an entirely different work: a slim volume entitled Morning and Noon, called a memoir but better understood as a lovely evocation of his childhood.  How the mighty have fallen: I see that Amazon is offering a "collectible" for $25.

Update/afterthought:  In limiting myself to US politics, I excluded some treasures--perhaps most notably Abba Eban, whose Autobiogrssphy may well be the best oin the genre, ever.