Friday, May 31, 2013


"It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764,as I sat musing amid the ruins of the capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.... But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the City, rather than of the Empire"

That's  Edward Gibbon, of course.  Her is talking about the basilica (Greek word, Roman temple) of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven, once the Temple of Jupiter Moneta, the site (so it is said) where the Tibertine Sybil foresaw the coming of Christ.

I'm a sucker for these cross-cultural references.  I suppose in a sense you could say that any European cathedral in Europe is a shadow of its classical ancestor, but a particular favorite is the cathedral at Syracuse in Sicily, fleshed out in the Seventh Century around the Doric columns of its Greek ancestor, then refitted at the beginning of the 18th (after an earthquake) with an assertive Baroque facade.  I remember lounging on a bench outside the north wall one night, watching the Sicilians make their passeggiata while a band played "New York, New York."

Now here is another, new to me: the "Cathedral" (still in business) tucked into the middle of the Great Mosque at Córdoba in Spain.  Evidently it began life around 600 AD as a Christian church under the Visigoths, then refashioned in its Islamic role in 784, and re-Chrisitanized when Ferdinand III chased the Moors off  to Grenada in1236.  And its history may not have ended: in 2010 a couple security guards were injured, reputedly when they tried to stop a couple of young Muslims from praying in the contended site.  That picture above is just a cellphone snap and the lower part is in shadows but what you are looking at is (a) a recycled Roman column (with Corinthian capital) topped in turn by (b) a Visigothic arch; (c) a Romanesque Arch; (d) a Baroque spandrel; and (e) a dome.  The inevitable reference is to Yeats'  "Lapis Lazuli:"
On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camelback, horseback, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilizations put to the sword. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Mr. Irving Engages a Guide

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, for the health of the tourist business, like getting a good writer or performer on your side.,  What Hemingway did for the bullfight, what Melina Mercouri did for Sunday--the locals ought to put up statues to them and send royalty checks.

I wonder if one of the first of these is Washington Irving, whose Tales of the Alhambra are--well, actually they can be almost unreadably coy, pompous and fussy unless you take them in the right spirit and try to detach yourself from their excesses.   So constrained, he can still make serve as entertaining company for a visit of the old Moorish palace in Granada whose coffers he did so much to replenish.  Here the celebrated literary guide acquires the services of a guide for himself:
At the gate were two or three ragged superannuated soldiers, dozing on a stone bench, the successors of the Zegris and the Abencerrages; while a tall, meagre varlet, whose rusty-brown cloak was evidently intended to conceal the ragged state of his nether garments, was lounging in the sunshine and gossiping with an ancient sentinel on duty. He joined us as we entered the gate, and offered his services to show us the fortress.
I have a traveller’s dislike to officious ciceroni, and did not altogether like the garb of the applicant.
“You are well acquainted with the place, I presume?”
“Ninguno mas; pues senor, soy hijo de la Alhambra.”—(”Nobody better; in fact, sir, I am a son of the Alhambra!”)
The common Spaniards have certainly a most poetical way of expressing themselves. “A son of the Alhambra!”— the appellation caught me at once; the very tattered garb of my new acquaintance assumed a dignity in my eyes. It was emblematic of the fortunes of the place, and befitted the progeny of a ruin.
I put some farther questions to him, and found that his title was legitimate. His family had lived in the fortress from generation to generation ever since the time of the conquest. His name was Mateo Ximenes. “Then, perhaps,” said I, “you may be a descendant from the great Cardinal Ximenes?”—“Dios sabe! God knows, senor! It may be so. We are the oldest family in the Alhambra — Cristianos viejos, old Christians, without any taint of Moor or Jew. I know we belong to some great family or other, but I forget whom. My father knows all about it: he has the coat-of-arms hanging up in his cottage, up in the fortress.”— There is not any Spaniard, however poor, but has some claim to high pedigree. The first title of this ragged worthy, however, had completely captivated me, so I gladly accepted the services of the “son of the Alhambra.”
 --So Washington Irving, Tales of the Alhambra, "Palace of the Alhambra," available here.

The El Greco Burial: Who Knew?

We beguiled the time yesterday puzzling over El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz in the San We beguiled the time yesterday puzzling over El Greco's Burial of Count Orgoz in the San Tomé Church in Toledo.  It's impressive enough to the untutored eye (i.e., mine) although it invites some explication.  Diving into some readily available sources, we find that it is remarkable, inter alia, in its challenging mix of the heavens above and the earth below--the heavens almost transparent in their otherworliness, the earth startling in its particularity (no matter that Saints Stephen and Augustine have descended to earth to help with the putting away).

It got us to considering: do the earthly dignitaries (evidently critics love to try to attach the faces to real people)--do these dignitaries understand just what sort of heavenly universe it is of which they are a part?  Mrs. Buce  says they must: she finds it inconceivable that a commission painter in the veriest black hole of Catholic faith would paint his betters as anything other than fully cognizant of their theological surroundings.

Could be that, as the fellow says, could be something else.  Me, always ready with a Shakespeare reference, I find myself thinking of the end of Midsummer Night's Dream, where the yokels present their play, observed by Duke Theseus and his bride, observed in their turn by the fairies, observed at last by us, the audience of the audience of the audience.  I like to think that maybe the painter was telling us more about the sacred space than even the truest of true believers might believe on their own.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

We'll Huff and We'll Puff...

My cousin Dave, away from New England near 70 years now, takes delight in his latest discovery:
“Never forget that it is we New Yorkers and New Englanders who have the monopoly of whatever oxygen there is in the American continent.”
Van Wyck Brooks.  My  mother had ol' Brooksie on display in the living room, as a mark of intellectual distinction.  I wonder how many people have any idea today who he was.

Spain Notes: "I Came to Shoot Crap,
So Let's Shoot Crap!"

So I'm sitting here in Segovia listening to the thunder and to the wind whipping the canvas awning and what have we learned today, children?  We've learned that the rain in Spain falls  mainly on the old Roman aqueduct, lowering over the city like those ostrich-legged invaders from the old Star Wars movie.  Between thunderclaps, wee got to chatting about aqueducts and ticking off all the places Romans built them: Bulgaria, Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia and so forth all the way up to Wales.  My friend Ignota asks: I wonder why there are so many?

I think I know the answer to that: the Roman's did it because they could do it, that's why.  Fish swim, birds fly, men drink and squirrels have been squirrels for thousands of years. The boys were whiling away an hour down at the vomitorium when young Jupiter Pluvius piped up and said, I got it guys, let's build a coliseum!  a bath!  A highway network!  An aque, aque--one of those long skinny things that brings water down from the mountains!  Who knows, maybe of our descendants in France two thousand years from now can use it as a highway bridge!  Anyway, it's what we do!

All of which just naturally set me to thinking about the guys at Washington Mutual Savings Bank (i.e., now defunct) and their ilk.  Reading Kirsten Grind's admirable history of a once-great bank, you can't help get the sense that what got these folks into trouble was that buying banks was about the only thing they knew how to do, and so they kept on doing it.  Which kept on being fun until it wasn't fun any more and until it became clear that nobody knew how to make the damn thing work.  Which for the Romans led to a long dark age.  We may prayerfully hope for better fortune.  Meanwhile, travel weather note: stuck in the rain in Spain, I heartily recommend hot chocolate.  One thing those Spaniards do really well.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Spain: Madrid Street Notes

Random street notes from Madrid:

Bookstores.  Others go to pub crawls and bullfights. I wind up in bookstores and I still don't get it with the bookstores of major European cities.  They have stacks of stuff, tightly packed, floor to ceiling.  I haven't fouind anything yet as overpowering as Paris or London, but the general flavor is the same.  Which makes me wonder: is this culture lag, or something in the tax/subsidy structure, or some combination thereof?    One distinction about Spain as against other places I've seen: I'm  not finding as much in foreign languages.  I find foreign authors: here's a collection of John Cheever stories on display up by the front door, near to couple of George Orwells and a Dashiell Hamett.  Odd choices, what?  And all in Spanish.  In Paris (or Rome) you might well find French (or Italian)--but there'd be some English versions tucked away in the corner.  Maybe I just haven't found the corner.

Street politics: passed one small demonstration yesterday outside some fort of government building just off the Puerta del Sol.  Mostly elderly, which is to say close to my age.  Placards suggested something about health care and pensions.  Also something about "bancos ladrones," which ought to get broad assent.  Lung power still good in this crowd, though: lots of old-fashioned police whistles.  Evidently in a country so encumbered with economic problems, the beleagured masses are finding some other way to make their wants known.

Oh, and on a slightly more direct note.  I stood at the coffee bar this morning beside a strapping (easily taller than I) 125-pounder who ordered up a latte and a gooey goody.  She spent the whole of  breakfast break trying to brush off the accompanying powdered sugar.  Then with a plastic knife, she carefully sawed the goody in two, as if to restrict her intake to just one half.  I didn't linger to see her give in and scarf down the other half.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Early Goyas

I checked in at the Prado in Madrid today for the first time in 17 years and found myself spending more time than I might have expected in a corner where (it seems) not many people linger.  I could say "among the Goyas," but it's not what you're thinking.  I'm talking not so much about the famous ones on the ground and first floors, but the stuff tucked away on the top floor--specifically the cartoons, as they are presented, for the tapestries of some defunct prince.

They're early work and they are "country scenes," which might set you to thinking Boucher, maybe Fragonard, maybe Murillo, possibly even Poussin.  Granted there is some of each of these in reflection here, but no more than some.  It seems that even when Goya is trying to be conventional or derivative, he can't help himself: these figures are alive, with juice and sinews that leap out across nearly 250 years.

You can see it in the subjects.  There's plenty of conventional-seeming stuff: a kite, a balloon, a boy climbing  tree.  But on second look,  not so much.   The boy climbing a tree evidently intends to steal some fruit and you sense there is more than merry mischief here: he looks like he might be hungry, and might be in trouble if he is caught.  And as to playing--here are some more boys, these tormenting a young bull.  

 The figures are not all children: there's a washerwoman,  a guitarist (blind), a water drinker (blind).  Even more striking (and probably the best known) is "La Nevada," a representation of s poor family (yes?) crossing a mountain in the snow.  Why the prince would want it in his bedroom is beyond imagining but it might make a fit companion to what I'd rank is the most extraordinary in the whole set.  It's called "the injured mason" and there he is being carted away by his fellow workers after (yes?) a fall.  The scaffolding for the job is in the background and I can't imagine how anybody could look at it without seeing a Christian deposition.

The only comparison that comes readily to  mind is that scene in Shakespeare's Henry IV part 2  where carriers and the ostler banter in the morning chill outside the in at Rochester.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Traveling Again

In Spain, where the bottled blood orange juice from the Corte Inglese tastes like it just hopped off the tree.  Must be it doesn't ship well, like the sherry.  And speaking of which, I must see if I can find the to-die-for sherry-and-anchovy that I whiled away many a happy hour in when I was last here 18 years ago.

Meanwhile jet lag, and radio silence.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Senatorial Party

I must have read this before, it's my underlining.  But it comes as a revelation:
The most significant thing about Herodotus is that he is the literary expression of a whole people, as cunning in their ability to deal with facts as their prototype, Odysseus, was cunning to deal with monsters.  Herodotus traveled widely and judged rationally of all he saw, but in the vast scope of his story he perforce relied mostly on hundreds of other Greeks who had gone to all the limits of the world with which he dealt, or who had lived before him and handed down to him information on the past, and who were as questioning and as sane as he. 

The epic subject of Herodotus will haunt the philosophy of history from his day to ours. The conflict of molar, obliterative mass civilization emanating from a single power center versus the dynamism of the manifold-centered city-state--eighteenth century America versus 1968 U.S.A.--Herodotus' History is the first large-scale anti-imperialist indictment.  But what is wrong with imperialism?  Did not Persian ecumenical egalitarianism, so like the empire of the Incas, ensure a greater good to a greater number than did the anarchic communalism of Greece?  Eventually the city-state failed so completely that there was no other solution than the takeover of the Persian Empire itself by Alexander.

This would certainly be the utilitarian judgement; but the "Senatorial party"--Herodotus, Tacitus, Cicero, de Tocqueville, Lord Acton--have always disagreed. ...
--So Kenneth Rexroth, Classics Revisited  42-45, at 44-45 (1968).  I really don't remember the phrase "senatorial party," though I underlined it (I believe in the 80s).  It's a beguiling notion until you reflect that it is the party of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.  I assume Rexroth was looking for something more austere and patrician but public-spirited.  The last one I can think of who might meet that model is Lloyd Bentsen.  Am I forgetting anybody important?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Tesla Ban: Markets for Thee, not for Me

Much good fun this week over the efforts by the North Carolina legislature to make life difficult for Tesla --thereby, as everybody except the participants appears to agree, insulating a favored constituency from the depredations of the free market.  I do not dissent but would this be as good a time as any to keep in mind that there has never, ever, been a truly principled devotee of free markets in any position of power in any sovereignty anywhere?  Folks like Luis Zingales and William Baumol may sketch entrancing models of free market paradise but Albert O. Hirschman (discussing economic growth) long ago articulated the paradox of perfect competition:
[S]ociety a a whole produces  comfortable and perhaps steadily increasing surplus, but every individual firm considered in isolating is barely getting by, so that a single false step will be its undoing.  As a result, everyone is constantly made to perform at the top of his form and society as a whole operates on its--forever expanding-- "production frontier," with economically useful resources fully occupied.
...the image, as Hirschman drily puts it, "of a relentlessly taut economy."  As someone somewhere put it, simply, the last thing you want in the world is a job where you get paid what you're worth--a job, that is, where marginal revenue=marginal cost, and where marginal cost=average cost.  Granted that there are visionaries who may be able to conjure up the image of such a society (usually from a cosseted hidey hole like a university professorship).    But these are few enough to begin with and if by accident they get a transitory grip on the levers of power they pretty quickly learn to unlearn their principled purity and to identify--often with total sincerity--their favorites who deserve protection.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Business/Finance Books: Embarrassment of Riches

Wading into Jean Strouse's Morgan: American Financier, may I take a moment to marvel at how much more and better business/economic history of the United States we have today than we had back when I was a tad,  the best I can remember finding were Matthew Josephson The Robber Barons,  John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash, and John Chamberlain, Enterprising America, A Business History of the United States, none entirely worthless but each unsatisfactory in its own way.  I suppose I could add Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday,  although I didn't recognize this as "financial history" until much later.

I won't begin to catalog what is available these days except to note that we've got at least two fullscale presentations of Morgan (I'm counting this) and, FWIW, two of Warren Buffet (link, link).  I keep trying to put together some sort of Amazon top-ten list but I can't narrow it down enough.

Afterthought:  Lacking good history, I suspect the best way to get a feel for American business/financial history was to read Dreiser or Dos Passos.  Might still be a pretty good way.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Louisville Redux

I spent a good (sic) part of my 20s in Louisville, which I remember as an old Midwestern (sic-not southern) metal-bashing town.  My law school commute buddy was the first guy I knew to carry a portable phone.   Or maybe it was just a beeper.  Anyway, the point was that he was some sort of a production expediter at the Ford plant; nobody knew he existed unless the line went down, in which case he had to earn his keep.   Aside from him, I remember the flac for the General Electric heavy appliance plant ("appliance park," they called it), whose job was to chill out the reporters--just one of many strategies his bosses had put into place to try to out-hustle the unions by going over the unions' heads with direct appeals to the populace.

I left in 1969, and haven't been back since for more than three days at a time.  I assumed (though I hadn't  actually checked) that both Ford and GE have long since vanished from the Louisville scene, or at least withered on the vine to mere shadows of their former self, all part of the general hollowing-out of the rust belt (but cf.* infra).

I had learned that Louisville's subsequent fortunes were not all bad.  Two guys playing golf together and riffing on ideas to get rich--they hit upon the idea of what became Humana, the health services giant.  John Y. Brown, Jr., flamboyant son of a flamboyant father, bought Kentucky Fried Chicken from the original Colonel Sanders and kicked it into the big league (Brown in his youth liked to tool up and down Fourth Street in a red convertible with a couple of babes.  "Either the boy will wind up a millionaire or ion the penitentiary," they liked to say.  He did worse: he became a governor).

Recent inquiry shows that Humana is still a major presence in Louisville, and KFC also retains a large footprint. But I somehow failed to grasp the rise of the new driver of the Louisville economy until I stumbled across this in the National Journal: a major employer in its own right and a force multiplier for its surroundings (hint they come to your door). Louisville as the best location in the nation, heh.  I lived in Cleveland in 1954 when they made the same claim, and we know how that turned out.  Anyway, God bless 'em although I do not CafePress CEO Bob Marino when he says that "Louisville  the place where I want to live until I die."

I fired the piece off to the friends from my Louisville days (there aren't may left).  The dependable Swifty took the conversation to a whole new plane:
Hi jack – to me, Louisville was a city of meat packing plants, whisky distilling, beer brewing,  cigarette rolling. Remember when the neighborhood breweries were shutting down? One of the worst tasting beers I ever tried was the Irsh beer, don’t remember it’s name. it held on longer than the others.
 He is right, and I had utterly forgotten: standing outside the cigarette plant with Thelma Stovall, an old union rep running for one state office or another, I forget which but there were so many.  I remember the beer, too.  I tried to write that one of the breweries had "gurgled hideously down the drain," but a narrow-minded copy reader toned it down.  I knew I needed fo find another line of work.

*But maybe I was wrong.  I just now did some Googling.  Evidently there is still an Appliance Park; in 2012 they spread the word that they were hiring 230 workers, starting at $13.03 an hour;  they got 10,000  applicants.  The announcement said they wanted people with "competencies."  Meanwhile here is a 2010 press release on  Ford retooling for new production in Louisville.

UpdateI just now thought to check the Louisville unemployment rate.  Seems to be running in excess of eight percent, which would appear high for a city with so much sunny hype.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Thavis on the Vatican

I'm finishing up John Thavis' Vatican Diaries and I think I'll file it under "modified rapture."  Thavis is an accomplished story teller with years of Vatican-watching to draw on and he is able to show how much, here as perhaps everywhere else, grand policy is shaped by less-grand personality, the enthusiasms and aversions of ordinary people.  But he's also a beat reporter who will never burn a source even from his retirement perch in Minnesota, he's put together book which is unlikely to offend any but the most monstrous bitter-enders on any church issue.  Even those cast in a bad light will read in and cluck that he could have been a lot worse (well--possibly excepting the archbishop caught on a wire trying to make his moves on a young priest).  Indeed he largely gives the game away in the first chapter,--a wryly cheerful account of life in the press gaggle on a Papal outing--making the point, perhaps inadvertently, that the most seasoned reporter on the Vatican beat really doesn't get much more by way of inside dope than those of us half a world away at the business end of a TV connection.

One thing he does well is to bring together the fragments of narrative on a bunch of issues that the yokels hear about but don't follow closely day to day--stuff you probably know if you already if you are a faithful reader of Vatican-watcher's blog posts (I'm not--it really hadn't occurred to me that they exist until I read Thavis' book).

Another virtue is that it reminds you how much the Vatican is like the old joke that ends "from then on, it was a hell of a lot like Cincinnati."    Or perhaps Queens: people say the Vatican is like the Mafia and I think there is some truth there, but perhaps not in the sense ordinarily intended.  I don't think the Vatican has a regular modus vivendi of assassination (at least not lately;  cf here and here).  No: the real point is (I'm pretty sure I have written this before)--the real point is that the Mafia is an old,  sluggish, sclerotic behemoth, lurching from limited success to near failure.  So also the Vatican: the real wonder, sometimes, is that they find their way at all.

Which offers a framework for one topic on which Vithers is pretty good: his sketch of the troublesome outliers like the late Marcel Lefebvre, creator of the Order of Saint Pius X and perhaps the church's most visible dissident against Vatican II; or Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, father of illegitimate children  by at least two women, abusers of countless children, including his own.

Both these worthies are dead now.  But the real question is why they exercised such power for so long--how come nobody gave them the bum's rush long before they became a public embarrassment.

The answer--a moment's reflection ought to give you the hint--is that they were just way too good at what they did.  They created enthusiasm, they prompted vocations, they filled the pews and most of all, they raked in the money.  And even though the founders are dead, one has to assume that some of the old momentum persists.

And so the question has to be:  what happens now, with a new Pope bearing a whole new set of enthusiasms and, yes, new alliances.  I don't know, but I think I may sign up for Vithers' blog just to stay on the cusp.

Afterthought:  I wonder how many people, retiring from Rome, move to Minnesota?

But You Knew That: Passion (and Jewelry)

Mrs. Buce hied me off to Best Buy this morning with a refractory Ipad.  I there acquired the services of an intelligent youngster who spent about half an hour fiddling with the device (no charge) before explaining what she thought I needed to do and making it clear that I should do it myself because I wouldn't want to pay her as much as she would charge.  

"Do you want me to write it out?" she asked.

"Nah, I understand," said.

She grabbed a Post-it and pen.  "I'll write it out,"  she said.

While she wrote, I noticed that she was wearing the largest ring I had ever seen outside the Vatican. Turquoise and silver, as in "Indian."

Finally she passed over a couple of Post-its and turned as if to move away to her next, one may hope more profitable, encounter.  Idly I said:

"Do you make your own rings?"

She stopped in her tracks. "No," she said, but then she turned and launched into what gave promise of being a long narrative about the jewelry game and its intricacies. After a minute or two she caught on to herself, put a cork in it, thanked me and turned away.

What have we learned today children?  We learned that everybody has a passion.  But you knew that.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Did I Destroy Cleveland? Not Entirely (An Update)

A few years back I regaled the faithful with my account of how I destroyed Cleveland.  When the news  broke last week about the house of horrors I naturally hightailed it to Google to see if I was responsible.  Answer: not really.  Target zero for the current gruesome story is about three miles away from the unspeakable Area B.  

But I'm not quite sure that's the end of it.  Like, I am sure, almost everybody else, I found myself wondering: what kind of a neighborhood is this, anyway?  Best I can tell, there are some longterm residents.  Isn't there anything by way of community surveillance that might have picked this up?  Slate picks up on the issue, with a different spin, reacting to a commenter in the Plain Dealer:
“At the moment, the hum of criticism on Seymour Avenue is about the subtle signs, such as the lowered shades or odd behavior of Castro and how he never entertained guests,” he writes. “These are the kinds of signs that police officers who patrol a specific beat over time might notice or hear about from neighbors. But that kind of patrol disappeared when community policing ended.”

That kind of patrol disappeared when community policing ended—that’s the line you should remember if you’re looking to criticize the cops here. Intuition is one of a police officer’s foremost assets. But missing persons and odd behavior become suspicious only when you are intimately familiar with a neighborhood, with what normalcy means and when normalcy is breached.
In Cleveland and elsewhere, that sort of hyperlocal knowledge is on the wane.
 Well yes, that's easy to latch onto.  Good morning, Mr. Policeman Brownbear.  Good morning, Johnny--shouldn't you be in school?   We all have that picture in our mind, and it is unfailingly filed under "ancient history."  As it happens, I live in a neighborhood that has all the old prelapsarian good order that you could possibly imagine--and I haven't seen a beat cop here in 30 years (cruiser did stop in my front yard the other evening and rousted an apparent drug suspect; they let him go).

The inference might be that community policing works if and only if there is a community.  So, wasn't there something by way of community on Seymour Avenue to pick up the slack?  In his justly admired backgrounder, Robert L. Smith sketches a response:
This stretch of Seymour Avenue is near the historic heart of Cleveland's Puerto Rican community but it's no bustling barrio. Yards tend to be fenced with rusty chain-link  on a block of long, narrow lots running between West 25th Street and Scranton Road, just south of Interstate 90 and Scranton Cemetery. Several houses, like the one next door to Castro's, are boarded up and abandoned.
Residents say the neighborhood feels safer since police chased away drug dealers a few years ago, but they learned to keep to themselves and to avoid asking too many questions. "Beware of Dog" and "Keep Out" signs are prevalent.

The block is anchored at its eastern end by a stately, red-brick church, Immanuel Lutheran. At the west end, across West 25th street, is the venerable neighborhood bodega, Caribe Grocery, which has been owned for decades by Ariel Castro's uncle, Julio "Cesi" Castro, and which closed after the media descended.
The industrious Castro family has a long history in Cleveland...
 Well--no, not a response, for with all his best efforts,he doesn't seem to be able to put his finger on the question of why the neighborhood is not a barrio, why it is a ghostly cardboard cutout of what you would want it to be.

Boy I wish I had the answer to that one.  I don't, and I'm sure it is above my pay grade.  But I am willing to shake down at least one possible culprit: It's those %$#@! expressways.  Way I read Google, ground zero is tucked into an armpit (I choose my words with care) formed by I-90 and I-71.  Now just about anybody with any on-the-ground knowledge agrees these days that urban freeways are, in retrospect, a dreadful mistake: that they provided no really adequate solution to urban traffic problems and far worse, they tended to suck the lifeblood out of any community that suffered their depredations.

Yes I know, I know, there are a thousand objections.  Some neighborhoods suffered without any expressway in earshot (actually, that would be my in-laws'),.  Some survived the expressway (Really?  Where?).  I can think of any number of other possible causal factors that would have to be plugged into the equation.  

Still, you imagine yourself at 2207 Seymour and you breath in the exhaust fumes and you listen to the hum-thrum of the traffic every hour, every day, every year, and you have to wonder.

The Issa Rule: With all that Shit,
There Must be a Pony!

“I want seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks," he said in 2010. I suspect he hasn't achieved quite those numbers.  But I'd say that Darrell ("our gremlins are different") Issa,  has done a spectacular job of establishing himself not merely as the richest member of the House but the one who gets the most, then perhaps the most visible and memorable, TV time.  Poor John Boehner, orange-faced and weepy, surely racks up more hours in his role as the most ineffectual House leader since Frederick Muhlenberg.  But Issa--a Google search for "Darrell Issa threatens" yields up some 1,410,000 hits;  "Darrell Issa warns," another 78,000; for comparison, "Darrell Issa promises" garners only a measly 43,000.   Here's a guy who, in his role as chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has surely kept the faith with all those whose primary goal is to assure that the executive branch accomplishes nothing, zero, bupkas, nada, zilch--or at least not until it  is wrested away from the foreign-born interloper and returned to the good, grey reactionaries to whom it properly belongs.

All this is a a shame but in more ways than one.  That is: aside from mere partisanship, the government needs oversight, and needs a proper  oversight.   We've had spectacular instances of Congress in its oversight role.  Perhaps  none is more famous than the teamwork of Sam Ervin, Howard ("What did he know and when did he know it?") Baker and others who carried us through the Watergate crisis without losing their dignity and without destroying the national fabric.    We've had legislators who used the investigative power to build honorable careers--perhaps none more  notable than Senator Harry S Truman, the man from Pendergast,  whose work investigating war contractors did so much to overcome his (undeserved) reputation as a machine hack. We've even had investigations that turned on themselves, as when Joe McCarthy set out to destroy the Army and wound up destroying himself ("Have you no sense of decency, sir?").

And to keep matters in focus, we badly need some good investigation now.  The notorious Benghazi debacle, for example: whatever you think of the politics, it was an unambiguous operational failure and we absolutely need the best possible job of reassessment, as in "what went wrong and why?"  But it seems that all we've had so far is grandstanding, name-calling, and the unceasing search for an easy hit.

That is: aside from one what we sometimes get and badly need, we've also had far too many clown shows that end up discrediting not only themselves but the entire legislative process (I know--as if it could be any more discredited than it already is).  And I admit, I don't know, perhaps it is too early to tell.  Maybe Issa's hounding of the ATF, of Obamacare, of Benghazi, of  the CIA, of the SEC, of the Army, of the Attorney General, and now the IRS--maybe somewhere out there somebody will come up with some insights for sensible reform.  

Yeh, and maybe pigs will fly,   But in the interim, here's one more investigation that I'd love to see.  Can we have an inspector general, please, to give us a look at the record of the Issa committee?  How much has that guy cost us since he got his hands on the gavel?   And what, exactly, has he accomplished?  If we're looking for government fraud, waste, and abuse, would it make sense to start right here?

Exam Time

Professors like to complain about grading.  I can sympathize: it is a hard part of the job.  The scandalous secret is that it is the only hard part  of the job.  Other than grading, you can spend your life in following your bliss, and if your trifling classroom obligations aren't what you want them to be, why then you just haven't engineered them right, so you have no one to blame but yourself.  

The trouble with grading is that it is a constant and unforgiving reminder of how little you've accomplished: I blow it in so straight and it comes out so crooked   I told them and I told them.   You really know how to hurt a guy, don't you? Which isn't to say the papers are awful.  Often, by any independent standard, they are pretty good, okay, good enough (once in a while they slip in a ringer but that doesn't change the generalization). The thing is, you want them to be brilliant, just like y--  

Oh wait a minute, maybe they are just as brilliant as you are, and maybe that is precisely the problem. As I think I've said before, my two great nightmares are, one, that I haven't lived to my potential; and two, maybe I have.  As Nietzsche said, you gaze too long into the bluebook and you will find the bluebook looking back. Welcome, professor, this is your life!

But grading time is a good time to put your mind on something, anything, rather than the task at hand.  I wouldn't be surprised that this (grading) week is the week when a whole lot of first drafts get done on the syllabus for next semester, when, of course this time at last I will finally get it right. As for me, I haven't actually retooled the syllabus (though maybe I should)--but have you any idea how many really great full-length operas there are available for free on Youtube?

This might also be a good time to reformulate your entire research agenda.  And for this I can offer a suggestion from the late C. Wright Mills.  It's stated in pre-digital terms, but you can recodify:
[T]he rearranging of the file ... is one way to invite imagination.  You simply dump out heretofore disconnected folders, mixing up their contents, and then re-sort them.  You try to do it in a more or less relaxed way  ... Of course, you will have in mind the several problems on which you are actively working, but you will also try to be passively receptive to unforeseen and unplanned linkages.
 --So Mills in "On Intellectual Craftsmanship," reprinted as an appendix to The Sociological Imagintion (OUP 1959).  And now back to the blueb--oh look, there's a kitty!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

That Day Again

My mother died about 30 years ago. Our relationship was, ahem, nuanced, but I can testify that she was a woman of formidable abilities and impressive achievements.  And, to be fair, wanted nothing but the best for her children.

But along with all else, she had a scabrous sense of humor and I bet she would have enjoyed:
All right lady, I'll buy those lousy poppies;
All right lady, I'll buy those pencils too.
All right lady, take off those old dark glasses:
Hello, mother, I knew it was you.
Oddly enough, I can't track down a YouTube version.

Hoisted from the Comments:
Eb on What they Teach in School

The other day I wrote a bit about what they do and do not teach in econ 1A. The Sapient Eb* offers an insight which itself invites a comment.  Eb:
It's amusing to compare Econ 101 to Physics 101. Both are largely false, based on simple ideas that have been discredited. Both are pedagogically sound beginnings. But the difference, I think, is that a person who takes Physics 101 and stops there has learned something useful. A person who does the same with Economics 101 has a lot to unlearn before s/he reattains their previous level of sophistication.

I think that law school is comparable to Econ 101.
  Further thoughts: one, I had a law student a while ago with a pretty good engineering background.  He explained the  teaching of the second law of thermodynamics.  First year, they tell you, you write it down and spit it back on the exam.  Second year, they teach it, you say this can't possibly work.  Third year, they teach it, you say, unh hnh, with the right assumptions and the right luck, this just might be true.

Now, as to law school.  Eb, you touch a nerve.  For years my job in the canonical curriculum was the course in "contracts."  And boy to I mean canonical.  So far as I know, every beginning law student at every Anglo-American law school in the known universe takes "contracts."  

But here's the catch: no one practices contract law.  Don't misunderstand; people practice adjectival contract law:  labor contracts, or entertainment contracts, or construction contracts, whatever.  But the law school course in contracts--it was invented in the 19th and early 20th Century by a madman and a pious fool who believed that there was a single unifying set of principles that underlay all contracts and that they could be usefully stated and taught; more, that they were the right place to begin a legal education.

Next point: nobody believes this any more.  Haven't for a long time, if ever.  It was dying, if not dead when I began teaching 45 years ago.  And as they say about Elvis, it's getting deader.  [Side issue: people will object that there is a realm of contract theory that remains alive and well, articulated by, e.g., Randy Barnett and Charles Fried.  True enough, but the relation between contract theory and a unified contract law is at best haphazard or incidental.]

Yet we keep doing it.  Why?   Well I suppose, we can make some plausible  retrospective justifications: it is at least somewhat possible to teach contracts as a course in "legal method" (if we know what that means).  And it's useful, even worthwhile, to explain what you might call a meta-theory of contract: explaining why it came to be some important, why it isn;t really important, what is important in its stead.  But all this is post hoc.  The real reason, I lies somewhere in the realm of inertia or existential angst: if we didn't have a course in contracts, how would we know we are a law school.

Re the rest of the law school curriculum I suspect the story is more complicated, but I note two points. One, my law students spend more and more of their time in "clinicals," or "externships," which may mean "paying us $50k a year so they can work for someone else for free."  Students tend to love clinicals--often better than their regular courses, as they will be quick to tell you.  And they may be right.  But there lingers the embarrassing question: if we are just an apprenticeship mill, why not rip off the mask and show our true identity?

And two, as to classroom work.  Beyond the "required" or "semi-required" core ("the bar courses"), an awful lot of "advanced" legal education tends to look more and more like polisci.  Translated: stuff the professor thinks will be career-advancing for her, and which s/he can persuade students to think of as fun.

And?  And I don't know. I'm painfully aware that I am sounding like the old geezer.  I remember the geezers from my own youth who complained that "the boys" didn't take code pleading or equity any more --"and where will they learn how to replevy a dog?"    I find myself feeling the same way when I see a student taking a course in tenant's rights when he doesn't know how to record a mortgage.

But I recognize that there's an underlying issue here far deeper than I (or, let's be fair, anyone else) can fathom: exactly what does go on inside a University and in particular, is it worth those insanely high prices when so much of the pure content seems to be online for pennies (or even for free)?  We have only the dimmest shadow of an answer though the word "socialization" appears visible through the void.  More crudely, maybe "contracts" and "polisci" and yes, "externships"  are all just artifacts of a system barriers designed to maintain a hierarchy and, specifically, a core of elites whose main role in life is to be In while others are Out.  Oh dear, vulgar Marxism.  Sorry 'bout that.  Really, I am.
*He goes by the name of Ebenezer Scrooge although I suspect he does not run a London counting house.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Flash Music

So my cousin Dave shipped me this lovely bit of flash music from the Plaça de Sant Roc in Barcelona.  It's wonderful in its own right and it brought back happy memories of the day just a couple of years ago when Mrs. B and I trooped through the same square with a couple of adolescents: we elders had to yield up assorted articles of clothing so the nubile 18-year-old could pass the modesty and decency test for entry into the old church.

Mrs. B shipped Dave's clip off to the other adolescent who was with us in Barcelona; he graciously responded with a favorite of his own.  I  guess I have said before, I am totally in the tank for flash music, particularly flash opera.  Duly prompted I went looking for more exemplars to share back.

I did find some, but I also picked up a bit of unintended education.  Some takeaways: one, there are a lot of flash-whatevers: the number is growing, rapidly if perhaps not quite exponentially.  Two, they vary: some really wonderful, a few kind of bad and most--well, most pretty much you would expect "most" to be. And three, sad to say I think I can descry the viper of commercialism.  There seems to be an ad agency somewhere that can produce you a flash performance that looks just like Disney, or  maybe it is Disney (I choose not to link).

Another point, really a new-to-me insight: some  items lend themselves to flash better than others.  The "Ode to Joy," supra, works nicely.  It seems a particular favorite is Orff's Carmina Burana and I guess I can see why: big chorus, lots of noise and drama. Here's an  an appealing rendition, from the Westbahnhof in Vienna. Here's another, this from Indianapolis (seems de rigeur for the location shot to show the crowds going about their business all innocent before the music pops).

The opera standards are popular.  There's plenty of Mozart, including this from Aix.  Also Verdi; here's a bit from SFO under the name of "pop-up opera," which seems right for the occasion.  Carmen, of course; here's a gratifyingly underproduced version from the grand old Spanish city of, um, Edinburgh.  Here's another, this from Grenoble, mostly a one-person performance but I'd say the girl is good.

Indeed all good stuff, although for a real flash mob, I'd have to admit it is best to have something more, like, flash.  So it just may be the grand prize ought to go to this one from the Cape Cod Stop 'n Shop (and a tip o' the cornet mute to  my sister Sally, who sent it to me from next door in South Harwich).

Update:  And here is a more general introduction to flashmob culture.

Friday, May 10, 2013

I'm Not an Economist But ... [IS-LM and What they Teach in 1A]

This may be old stuff to everybody but me but this morning I was reading Krugman on IS-LM and a light dawned about econ is taught to beginners, and later to others (it's a wonderful piece, by the way, whether my inferences are correct or not).

Here's the deal: in 1A (and again in 100A) we all learn boot camp supply and demand: price goes down, demand goes up.  But it turns out that macroville, it doesn't quite work that way.  As K says: 
 [W]e are at minimum talking about two variables, not one – GDP as well as the interest rate. ... That means that loanable funds doesn’t determine the interest rate per se; it determines a set of possible combinations of the interest rate and GDP, with lower rates corresponding to higher GDP. And that’s the IS curve.
So far so good.  But what struck me is that this is only one place where the 1A relationship doesn't hold.  Here's another: call it "Soros reflexivity" or if you want to be less hifalutin, just "herd behavior."  Anyway, suppose everybody starts to dump BigCo stock.  From 1A,  you would think that the drop would draw new buyers into the market and firm up the price.  But no: a big drop may lead to an even bigger drop--ask former British Prime Minister John Major what George Soros did to the pound, and watch him sputter.  Which, again, is not what they taught us.

I can think of another: portfolio insurance.  You can sketch a fairly simple model (ninth grade algebra only) where you buy some stock and protect against losses by buying some bonds.  You here the stock is going into the dumper, you want to stay insured so you sell even more stock, driving the price down further (use the same model--this may look like a special case of the previous example but I think the motivation is different.)  It's what (a) did (b) did not cause the flash crash of '87.

There's also the little matter of Giffen goods--price of potatoes go down, people buy fewer potatoes.  Actually I gather this one they sometimes do teach in 1A but I don't think anybody believes there are (m)any Giffen  goods to begin with.

That's it.  Maybe there are more. But my point is that the world is a lot more complicated than it looks in 1A.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Dynamic Whatever

Readers of this blog are most likely the sort of folks who already know about "Dynamic Scoring," described by Wiki as forecasting "the impact of fiscal policy changes by forecasting the effects of economic agents' reactions to incentives created by policy."  It's a great idea in principle--e.g., if you raise taxes high enough, you may tamp down some taxpayers'  willingness to work.   Wiki also says that it " difficult to apply in practice due to the complexity of modeling economic agents' behavior.," which I think translates into "economists have a model tailor-made to any set of assumptions about human behavior that you can imagine."  Or more simply: we spin these threads out of our own gizzard.  Kissin' to postmodern renditions of EBITDA, recast as "net income plus anything else we want to count as earnings."  Cf., generally, "working the ref."

I just stumbled on a companion piece lately in an unlikely source: reading about the development of the English Bible, aka English versions of the Greek/Hebrew Bible.  The catchphrase here is :"dynamic equivalence."  Once again, Wiki to the rescue: the " original definition of dynamic equivalence was rhetorical: the idea was that the translator should translate so that the effect of the translation on the target reader is roughly the same as the effect of the source text once was on the source reader."

If this begins to sound like  "means what we want it to mean,;' then you are catching the flavor of the whole operation: the affray continues between the "literalists" (or perhaps better "formalists") and those who think we need new tools for a new age.   I probably have already let my biases show here but I don't want to get carried away: I recognize that translation is a fiendishly tricky business, just as vulnerable to judgment and discretion as, well as accounting: in either field you're going to come up with some difficult tradeoffs for which there is no satisfactory resolution.  But in either case, as it seems to me inescapable, the more "dynamic" you get, the less willing you are to let the source data speak for itself, the more willing to embrace the view that you know better than the original   It's an ineluctable temptation: evidently that was exactly how Cicero felt when he undertook to translate (render?) Demosthenes into Latin.    Me, I am just more and more distracted by the version that transfixed me when I was young (and I am stunned to find he is still around--must be as old as Cicero).  For a fuller account, once again it's back to Wiki.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Anniversary: Jack Cade--No Wait, Listen...

The 463d anniversary of Jack Cade's rebellion, the prompt for the most famous lawyer jape of all time, infra.  And as good a time as any to record that it's really a compliment.

I thank you, good people—there shall be no money; all shall eat
and drink on my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery,
that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.
The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
Bada boom.  So Shakespeare, Henry VI Part 2, Act 4, scene 2, 71–77, and lawyers have been to catch up with it ever since.  I do think they could use a more effective publicist, though.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Il Divo

I'll bet we see them both in Arts and Letters Daily: two densely detailed obituaries of Giulio Andreotti, who apparently did not mind being recognized as Il Divo, the mastermind of Italian politics for most of the time since World War II, even if it  brought him perilously close to disgrace. The obit in The Telegraph is thicker with anecdote, but I'll cast my vote for Jon Tagliabue's rendering in the New York Times because he more sharply poses the central puzzle of Andreotti's long  career: how did so (seemingly) evil a man preside over the rise of Italy from near-third-world poverty to its current position is one of the  richest nations in the world?

The question is not rhetorical by which I mean I do not have a foreordained answer for it.  Could be that Andreotti was not as bad as he was cracked up to be? Or that Italy is not doing as well as I like to think?  Or--yes, I am tempted here--that the Italians have mastered the art of not letting bad government get in the way of the good life?

This is, after all, the most perfunctory of nations--the "geographic expression" in Bismark's famously dismissive one liner; the one where they didn't even pretend they spoke a common language until after World War II; the one where the Pope himself told the folks they didn't need to pay taxes (I know the Pope changed his mind on that one; it is equally conventional to remark that the change of mind seems to have got lost in the famously slow Italian mails).

Eppure si muove; and yet it moves, Galileo's folkloric recantation of his recantation. It was the title of a pretty, although perhaps a bit too cheery, account of Italian politics I read back in the 80s, round about the first time I ever went there.  On the whole, my guess that things are a tad worse  now than they were then: the postwar miracle is over, real earnings seem to have declined and that damn song-and-dance man just keeps going and going and going (we keep him because with him, we know we'll never have to pay taxes).  Which might, in the end, by Berlusconi's best defense: hey, Italians have survived and thrived under dreadful government before.

Afterthought:  I had totally forgotten that somebody actually made a movie about Andreotti (L'uomo Magro?) a few years back. I know I watched it,stuck around all the way to the end. But in retrospect, it is apparently just about as colorless and forgettable as Il Divo so often attempted to be.  For my Italy-sleaze fix, I'd rather go back and take another look at Habemus Papam, about a Pope who seemed about as gentle as the new incumbent, but didn't seem to enjoy it as much.

File this one for Columbus Day

I suppose I should have saved this for October and the celebration of the depradation of the native peoples,  but I just found it now and I'm afraid I will forget it then.  So:
Hail!  oh King of Aragon!
Reign!  oh princely paragon!
Down upon your marrowbone,
Long live the King!
Monarch mightier is he, sir,
Than Joe Smith or Julius Caesar,
Brigham Young or Nebuchadnezzar,
Long live the King
And hail to Isabella, too,
For she's a right good fellow too,
And a right good tune to bellow to
Is long live the Queen!
 So Constance Rourke in her classic American Humor: A Study of the National Character (NYRB 2004; original 1931).  This from a certain Columbus el Filibustro, the product of one John Brougham, working in the 1840s.  Roarke says he "produced a lusty, gay, and savage humor,"  which is within the bounds of acceptable exaggeration, and says his best work "will bear comparison with Gilbert and Sullivan," which is not (unless the purpose of the comparison is to remind how vastly superior G and S are).

But what gets me is the echo of T.H. White, memorable for, inter alia,
God save king Pendragon
Long may his reign drag on.
 ...which sounds to me lot like outright pilferage.  And also
Confound their politics
Frustrate their knavish tricks;
On him our hopes we fix--
He is our king.
 Which is, of course, not comedy at  all, or at least not intentionally so. I haven't troubled to determine whether this proper second verse precedes Brougham or follows him.

For rhyming, I suppose it is also proper to measure Brougham against
But oh ye lords of ladies intellectual, 
Inform us truly - have they not henpecked you all?
And if Lord Byron can get away with it, I see no reason to stick up our nose at Brougham.

Afterthought:  For perspective, note that five of the seven counties with the lowest incomes in the United States are in South Dakota.  Bet you can guess what is going on there.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Jayson and his Enablers

Others can probably say better than I why I read every word of last week's three-part series in the University of Maryland's student newspaper on their notorious grad, Jayson Blair (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3,). You remember Jayson, fired ten years ago last week from the New York Times after it became clear that his whole career was just a boatload of lies.  About his Times years it didn't tell me much that was new--I had followed the story when it was new, fascinated by Blair himself, even more fascinated by his handlers at the Times: one would have thought them the least gullible people people in the world, but here they were, sucked into the Blair fantasy as tightly as if it was a Nigerian 419 scam (or did I just put my own gullibility on display?).

The part that I didn't know was the prequel (see especially Part 2 of the series), about his years as a student at UM, where the same MV seems to have been on display from the beginning.  You've got to admire the professionalism of the student editors and their sources for seeking to manage the mix of schadenfreude and and sheepish embarrassment over the evidence that Blair could have gotten away with so much and for so long.

The paper also touches on, but doesn't really embrace, what is perhaps the most interesting lesson of the whole episode: i.e., new evidence for the ancient insight that you can't cheat an honest man.  We've had years to meditate on why the bigfeet at the Times--notably editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd, who lost their jobs in the riptide--were so eager to let themselves be hypnotized by Blair's poppycock.  What was new and even more interesting to me was the student paper's dissection of the role played by the various enablers at the J-school.

There's a fair amount of oh-what-a-shame  gee-we-just-wanted-to-help on display here.  But near the end of the third installment, somebody let slip what strikes me as a more promising theme.  "maybe they simply didn’t want to see the signs [a UM professor] said. Maybe they allowed the allure of Blair’s promising future — and the ways it could boost the college’s national profile — to obscure their judgment."

Unh hunh.  Read the whole thing and you can't escape the inference that a whole lot of people wanted Blair to succeed because they had skin in the game: that they hang onto his coattails and go along for the ride.  Please God let him burnish the reputation of the school where I work; and while we are at it, God, would it kill you to let him help me get a better job?

Aside from clothes-ripping self-mortifying confession, I suppose you can never really nail anybody on this kind of a charge.  I suppose there were some people who were, despite the warnings, genuinely taken in by Blair's schtick (but if so, for cryin' out loud why were they teaching in a journalism school)?   Easier to surmise that there were some who believed because they wanted to believe--which certainly puts them in good company, alongside Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd.  And I think it is fair to wonder how many knew perfectly well that the wheels would come off the Blairite bus, but just hoped that they could enjoy the ride and get off safely at their own stop.  If I'm right on that last, the cynicism on display would be something appalling.   But maybe that is the lesson the kiddies are supposed to learn?

Sunday, May 05, 2013

"...not like a Christian at all."

Alexander Herzen cherished warm memories of "old Filvmonov," his jailer at the Krutinsky  Monastery, converted into a police barracks--"a simple creature," Herzen recalls, "kind-hearted himself and grateful for any kindness that was shown him, and it is likely that not much had been shown him in the course of his life."  Old Filmonov liked to tell stories of his past.
He served in Moldovia, in the Turkish campaign of 1805; and the commander of his company was the kindest of men, caring like a father for each soldier and always foremost in battle.  'Our captain was in love with a Moldavian woman, and we saw he was in bad spirits; the reason was that she was often visiting another officer.  One day he sent for me and a friend of mine--a fine soldier he was and lost both legs in battle afterwards--and said to us that the woman had jilted him; and he asked if we were willing to help him and teach her a lesson.  "Surely, Your Honor," said we; "we are at your service at any time."  He thanked us and pointed out the house where the officer lived.  Then he said, "Take your stand tonight on the bridge which she must cross to get to his house; catch hold of her quietly, and into the river with her!" "Very good, Your Honor," said we.   So I and my chum got hold of a sack and went to the bridge; there we sat, and near midnight, the girl came running past.  "What are you hurrying for?" we asked.  Then we gave her one over the head and; not a sound did she make, bless her; we put her in the sack and threw it into the river.  Next day our captain went to the other officer and said: "You must not be angry with the girl: we detained her; in fact, she is  now at the bottom of the river.  But I am quite prepared to take a little walk with you, with swords or pistols, as you prefer."  Well, they fought, and our captain was badly wounded in the chest; he wasted away, poor fellow, and after three months gave back his soul to God.
'But was the woman really drowned?'  I asked.
'Oh yes, Sir,'  said the soldier.
I was horrified by the childlike indifference with which the old man told me this story.  He appeared to guess my feelings or to give a thought for the first time to his victim; for he added, to reassure me and make it up with his own conscience:
'You know, Sir, she was only a benighted heathen, not like a Christian at all.'
--So Alexander Herzen, Childhood, Youth and Exile (OUP Paperback 1980).   Russians have long experienced a, shall we say challenging, relationship with the Muslim people on their southern border.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

If Its "Darby," Why do they Spell it with an "E"?

"Oh, you lived in Kentucky.!  Did you ever go to the Derby?"

People actually do ask me that from time to time.  Or did, until they figured out I had nothing interesting ready by way of reply.  They'd make a deal out of pronouncing it "Darby," I never knew exactly why.

But this was only one among many lacunae in my knowledge of Darbyhood,  for the fact is  I never did attend a Darby, not even though I was, after all, a newspaper reporter, and I pulled the Saturday shift on Darby for several years.  

I do recall that in my very first year they sent me out to cover the "early morning revellers," so we could have something for the first edition which closed  before the race was run.  They were  big on early morning revellers, my guys.  

Anyway they sent me out in the company of another newbie, one John Macaulay Smith, a truly lovely human being with a kind of fey, behind-the-fan manner that made you never quite sure whether or not he was joking.  Which was a good posture to maintain when one discovered, as we quickly did, that neither of us had ever been to a Darby  before, nor even a horse race; that indeed, either one of us would have a had a tough time telling which end was which on the horse.

Perplexed by our own ignorance we somehow got the idea of ringing up city desk for advice--where, happily, we fell under the tutelage of one Frank Hartley, a model of dour worldliness right out of central casting.

"Okay," I responded to Frank and recradled the phone.  "He says first we find the paddock.  Now, what's a paddock?"

John offered what I suppose was his version of a shrug.  Neither of us had the slightest idea.

And that's really the end of my Darby raconteurship  I except I remember spending the rest of I don't know wandering about aimless while John uttered phrases like "Paddocks will please curry past the cantor" and such like, and I wondered what I would do if somebody actually chose to follow his instructions.
So any way you tell it, we were less purposeful than our colleague Barbara Carlson.  Barbara drew the gig to go find those early morning revellers who had strayed into the downtown streets.  Apparently our editors had led a sheltered life, or any rate, perhaps remembered an earlier generation.  For to hear Barbara tell it, by her time on the street, there was nary a reveller to be found.  Indeed, you could have fired a cannon clean down Fourth Street to the river and done no more than perhaps startle the reporter who had been sent out to find them.

But this did not dismay Barbara who rose to the occasion by phoning in some of the finest examples of winsome homespun I had ever heard.   Something about Charlie Rainwater, the Indian who was afraid he had wandered too far from home and so brought a supply of his own jerky.  These days, that kind of thing would get you fired and publicly denounced in a front-page apology from the the Ombudsman ("diligent inquiry has failed to uncover a Charlie Rainwater nor indeed any other Rainwater of any race or ethnic provenance, nor even so much as a slice of homemade beef jerky.")  Ah, those were the days.

Friday, May 03, 2013

The Clothes' New Emperor

Yesterday I wrote a squib about how Franco and Gorbachev, fecklessly and at last with futility, sought to loosen the reins on their too-dynamic societies while retaining control.  Reading this week's Economist, I'm reminded that my vision was all too blinkered.  I could just as well have expanded my vision to include Xi Jinping, the new leader of China as he tries to mount his tiger the same way one might stuff rattlesnakes into a Vokswagen--i.e,., very carefully. Xi seems to encounter his new (Subjects?  Children?  Brethren) with an attitude common among Chinese leaders down through the ages: deep-seated belief in the entity, coupled with a conviction that by herculean effort it can  be made to work--and stark terror at the spectacle of a billion (plus) individuals, each with his own hopes, fears and convictions.

My guess is that Xi Jinping never heard of John Keats and would have dismissed him with contempt if he had.  But he might want to pause over the oft-quoted excerpt from Keats' letter 280 (to his brother, George):
"I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a stoat or a field-mouse peeping out of the withered grass – the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it – I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along – to what? The creature hath a purpose and his eyes are bright with it."
 It is tempting to patronize anyone so presumptuous as to try to exercise leadership over so many creatures with so many purposes, but it's probably fair to reserve a bit of compassion for Xi. That is--it's easy from far away to dismiss China as a monolith but even a bit of reflection we can see that it is nothing of the sort.    Just a few moments' thought should remind us that it is a monolith with a nasty habit of exploding, perhaps unexpectedly but still often, into  a chaos of private purposes.  Chinese themselves, when they consider the problem, are tempted to dismiss their afflictions as a curse imposed by insolent outsiders and their is just enough truth in that view to distract them from the fact that it is not only outsiders who create so much trouble.  Or if outsiders, at least outsiders with a lot of local help.

I'd say the Economist has at least a crude handle on an inevitably complex problem: Xi has to choose whether to nurture "the people" or "the state."  And given his (and China's) long history, it wouldn't be surprising to find that he thinks he can tilt to the state--for which read "the party," the supposed benign parent, guiding and protecting is charges to a fuller maturity.

But as any number of examples prove, there's only so much guiding and protecting that you can do--perhaps especially (but not merely) when all that blather about guide and protect is just a self-justifying hoax to guide and protect the activity of lining your own (or your children's) pockets.  I'd say Xi needs just a dash of humility here or he might be in for a world of disappointment.

Forget Bitcoins

Here comes the Choco Pie:
The Choco Pie is a mouth-drying, individually wrapped slab of cake, marshmallow and chocolate, and in South Korea it is as important a part of childhood as Britain’s Mars bar or the American Twinkie. It is manufactured by the Orion company of Seoul, exported across Asia, and consumed in an arc of countries from Japan to Uzbekistan. In 2004, South Korean manufacturers began to set up factories in the North Korean city of Kaesong, an unprecedented experiment in co-operation between the fraternal enemies, and the core of what the South Korean government called its Sunshine Policy. Along with South Korean managers, manufacturing technology, telephone lines and a motorway, they brought the Choco Pie.
Within a few months, the bosses from Seoul began slipping their North Korean workers a Choco Pie or two as a perk. In part, this was a response to the Kaesong wage regime: rather than being paid directly, salaries were processed by the North Korean authorities, which then handed over the money minus hefty deductions. The Choco Pies were a small piece of South Korean largesse, but it was difficult at first to know how enthusiastically they were being received. The fact that Orion wrappers were nowhere to be found in the rubbish bins of Kaesong might have suggested indifference, but the opposite was true: the local workers, most of them women, had quickly realised that the Choco Pies were too delicious and valuable to eat. Kaesong employees, the best paid in North Korea and among the worst paid in Asia, were hoarding their pies, and selling them on at remarkably inflated prices: as high as the equivalent of $10 a piece, a large proportion of their monthly take home pay. The cakes found their way onto the black market in Pyongyang; corrupt soldiers in Kaesong, who routinely exacted ‘fines’ from the South Korean managers, began to accept, and sometimes require, payment in chocolate and marshmallow. By some estimates, 150,000 Choco Pies were being dispensed in Kaesong every day.
 Translated: once again, money is anything the people think is money: decorated paper, stone wheels, digital blips, even shiny pieces of metal.  And not even the most repressive of governments is any better than so so at controlling it.  It's all adumbrated in a famous econ paper which had the air of novelty when it was published, though it is pretty much conventional wisdom today.

The excerpt is from  Richard Lloyd Parry, "Advantage Pyongyang," reviewing Victor Cha, The Impossible State in the London Review of Books for May 9.  The whole thing appears to be ungated; it's worth a read.

And BTW, what is it with the LRB?  The showcased items for the week, along with Parry, are James Meek on the Cyprus haircut and Donald MacKenzie on the Whitehall heist bank restructuring of aught eight. Oh, and something about a former prime minister.  For a literary rag isn't this all getting a tad financial?