Ben A. Ben H. Doug Later
Dark Places Indeed

Dao is still in Mallhalla, so here I am flipping through the channels, alone. World Wrestling Smackdown is on the W.B. tonight from Grand Rapids, Michigan. I like to watch professional wrestling as a kind of advanced exercise in goodwill, trying to find some shred of cherishable commonality between myself and its fans, straining to feel something other than contempt. Alas, I can't pull it off now, given the mood I've been in today (see Africa post below).

There is, however, something especially cool on Smackdown tonight. Remember the Iron Sheik and the one Russian wrestler (whose name escapes me) and the other representatives of "bad guy" ethnicities? Guess who's the present-day ethnic bad guy. That's right,
René Dupree, the (let's say) "fabulous" Frenchman in pink tights. I only caught the pre-match taunting, which consisted of an enormous pillar of steroids draped in a Michigan State jersey (1) accusing M. Dupree of being anxious to start the match just so he might feel him (the steroid pillar) up and then (2) tossing what appeared to be an airline pack of peanuts at M. Dupree's feet and saying "Choke on these nuts." This did not prevent M. Dupree from prancing around the ring waving the drapeau tricolore, to the consternation of many Grand Rapids youngsters, whose shouts were indistinct on the television, but presumably much less elliptical than the MSU guy's. (I assume "Nancy boy!" was not among them; that would have been funnier than the actual shouts, I'm sure.)
[3/25/04 23:30]
Excuse For My Gratuitous Negativity

My no-hope-for-Africa comment was gratuitous, sure, but it was triggered by pent-up annoyance at decades of gratuitous positivity about the continent. For my entire life I've had to suffer, at roughly monthly intervals, media pieces of the "Africa may finally be turning the corner!" variety. Meanwhile, over these same 31 years, the place has just gone from bad to worse to unimaginably worse -- genocides, cannibalism, Muslims outlawing vaccination. Sometimes I tell myself that Africans are used to the poverty and hence don't really suffer so much. Then I read things like last year's New Yorker article on Abidjan, Ivory Coast, which used to be the sole decent city in West Africa. At the end the author talks to an average kid on the street. "This is hell," the kid says. "Please, get me out of here."
[3/25/04 17:43]
Last Conrad-Related Post of the Day

How annoying was it to hear Clarke describe his response to 9/11 as “the horror, the horror” and then attribute this to Apocalypse Now? Cheney should go on Limbaugh and attack him about that – “he was out of the loop, is pretentious, and denies Joseph Conrad appropriate credit.” Red meat for the base!
[3/25/04 16:29]
Conrad: Righter than He Knew
We’re one of the dark places of the Earth
right this minute.
[3/25/04 13:30]
"And This Also Has Been One of the Dark Places of the Earth.”

So says Conrad's Marlow prior to recalling his experience with African catastrophe and depredation; but he's looking out on the Thames.

There's always hope.

[3/25/04 12:51]
Saving Kristof Some Time


[Incidentally I am going to post more about our trip to Mallhalla, but have a ton of work at the moment.]
[3/25/04 10:04]
Lego Bible, Meet Bunny Exorcism

What a
golden age.

[3/24/04 13:07]

What the hell does Dick Clarke know about terrorism? He should stick to American Bandstand and New Year's Rockin' Eve!
[3/24/04 11:30]

I try to avoid writing on current politics. First, what the hell do I know? Second, you will hear it better elsewhere. In the case of the Richard Clarke affair, however, I am trying to work out my thoughts, and so will inflict them on you.

Of course, all the facts are not yet out, after Clarke’s testimony more will be known. Caveat, caveat, caveat. But why not speculate? Stipulate Clarke’s basic account as accurate, and what follows? I think it looks something like this:

Weak Claims (Less Damaging)

1. The Bush administration, or at least substantial portions of it, came into office focused on the threat posed by Iraq; so much so that other threats took second place. This view predominated prior to 9/11, to the detriment of focus on Al Queda
2. The invasion of Iraq has drawn focus away from the effort to root out Al Queda
3. Immediately after 9/11 the administration focused on finding an Iraqi connection to the attack

Strong Claims (More Damaging)

1. The current administration was derelict in dealing with Al Queda before 9/11, perhaps so much so that the attacks could have been prevented
2. By focusing on Iraq, the administration has bungled the pursuit of Al Queda
3. The administration has bungled the “War on Terror” post 9/11 quite independently of the focus on Iraq
4. Elements of the administration are irresponsible, as evinced by Rumsfeld advocating the bombing of Iraq on 9/12

Can anyone really doubt that the weak claims are true? The administration’s early concern with, or more pejoratively “obsession with,” Iraq requires little additional comment. In any event, it has immense independent confirmation. The second weak claim seems to me common sense: no organization can have two #1 priorities, particularly when one priority is organizing an invasion half way round the globe. Claim 3 seems immensely probable, especially given that many people (like
James Woolsey, e.g.) suspected an Iraqi connection to the first WTC bombing in 1993.

So let those go. What of the Clarke’s more damaging implications? The claim I’ve put fourth seems most difficult to dispute. Either Clarke is lying about Rumsfeld’s cloud cuckoo comments, or he isn’t. And why would he lie? Also, it fits the picture of the shoot-from-the-hip secretary that has been advanced from other sources.

What we have left are the strong claims 1-3. These form the meat of the indictment, and I find them much more difficult to assess. Claim one is the big one – the possibility that Bush and company frittered away a chance to stop 9/11. If pressed, what would I say now? I don’t believe that anyone was going to stop the attacks. Nor do I think a blame-fixing expedition through the executive branch will definitively tar Bush, Clinton, or anyone. We already know that clues were missed. No one could connect the dots on middle-eastern guys in flight school who didn’t want to learn how to land the plane. With this as background, dropping the blame on the President’s lap seems an error.

Likewise the “bungling the war on terror” claims seem to me inconclusive. Claim two is less an accusation than a policy difference, in any event. Many old line Republican foreign policy intellectuals thought going after Saddam was bats. A coalition of Idealists and aggressive Realists defeated the cautious realist faction (guys like Scowcroft), and that’s all there is to it. Post 9/11 was Al Queda a bigger threat, or was it an aggressive, WMD-seeking despot who combined pan-Arabist ambitions with immense oil wealth? Tough call, I grant. But neither side counts as “bungling.”

Bungling would be, well, actually screwing up the ongoing anti-Al Queda campaign. No real evidence of this has been advanced, but it’s a possibility. Certainly the emerging non-partisan (or non-partisan as possible) consensus on the occupation planning suggests a group capable of dropping the ball. It will be interesting to see if Clarke’s testimony leads in this direction.

Addendum: See, this is why I shouldn't write on politics. Four hours later, the Post says the same thing, and better. [3/23/04 23:08]
The World Turned Upside-Down

An early morning meeting last week required me to leave home before sun-up. I shouldered my bag, stepped out of the apartment, and promptly went head-over-heels on a patch of ice at the top of the stairs. My right hand held a briefcase, my left was too far from a railing, and so thump I went. Fortunately, my butt hit first, not my skull; so despite impressive air-time, the tumble did no lasting damage. The experience of helplessness, by contrast, stuck with me for days. It was a reminder, if I needed one, that our models of the world betray us. Assume the wrong coefficient of friction and down you go.

It recalled a Lampoon article giving the following definition of existentialism: “you know when you aren’t looking and reach for the glass of milk but end up drinking orange juice, you know that feeling? Imagine life was like that!” And so it is.
[3/23/04 18:48]
Gym Revue

I recently joined a gym, the New York Sports Club, which, as Big Apple readers know, is ubiquitous but otherwise undistinguished. At every location I've visited the club has featured a large section of
these "elliptical machines." They seem a little oversized for much of the female clientele. As a result, many of these women look like they are training to be Rockettes, bouncing up and down as they execute a deformed version of the high-kick. But on further reflection, the little dance did not conform exactly to the ROckettes' routine. Rather, the tableau made sense when I mentally added this soundtrack. Maybe I've got the germ of an idea here. Jazzercise once was all the rage. Now, there's hip-hop workout and aerobic striptease. How about cardio-can-can? [3/22/04 14:11]
When Capital Is Cheap..

... capital goods
replace labor. Chairman Greenspan: you can't always rate-cut your way to employment growth! Area for future research: does the "paradoxical effect" of extreme monetary easing on job creation extend to immigration? And, as a corollary, should we cut back on the immigration of the unskilled in spite of the protests of people like the orange growers, and see how innovation deals with the diminished supply of cheap (and negative-externality-spawning) labor? The above-references article suggests the answer the experiment might prove (forgive the pun) fruitful. So often, the response to calls for immigration reform has been that it will kill this or that industry, usually politically connected, dependent on cheap labor. Bullshit. It will mean that industry will have to innovate or to invest. But in an age of free capital, investment is not too much to ask. [3/22/04 09:41]
Credit Where Credit's Due

John Kerry put out what I found to be a somewhat surprising
statement on the situation in Venezuela. He forthrightly breaks with the Democrat orthodoxy on Chavez, as promulgated by the likes of Senator Dodd, namely that he is a popular leader deserving of support. I take this as a good sign, both about Kerry and about the future of Venezuela. The Kerry nuance is in evidence, though. "Too often in the past, this Administration has sent mixed signals by supporting undemocratic processes in our own hemisphere," writes Kerry, including "acquiescing in a coup" against Chavez in 2002. Hello? Didn't you just write that Chavez is a threat to U.S. interests and a menace to his own people? If you want to criticize Bush over Venezuela, shouldn't you be pointing out that he failed to give sufficient support to the coup? [3/22/04 07:57]
<>B>The (In)Human Stain

gets Hamas founder Yassin. 'Tis a pretty picture, in fact my favorite native Arab costume:

Talk about your precision strikes -- scumbag's wheelchair looks salvageable! [3/22/04 07:10]
What's the emoticon for "paroxysms of jealousy"?

Doug, I am indeed jealous, for my trip to Peru turns out to be next week, not this week. Luckily I gleaned this key bit of information before I headed to the airport. The weather has amazed many, but not me. It started snowing the evening I moved into my new place, assuring me of a continuous week of shoveling, since I did not have time to arrange for a service to take care of it for me. And by application of Murphy's Law, you've probably already deduced that this week's snow was no mere cottony fluff, but a "wintry mix" (to use the WeatherChannel term of art) that froze solid to any surface and could only be removed by chopping.
[3/20/04 10:38]
Sorry to hear about Dao's grandmother. My condolences to you both. [3/20/04 10:34]
Quick Update From California

I'm in Orange County visiting Dao's family (and hopefully some members of my own).

It's already been a pretty emotional trip. We met our new nephew Nicholas (a few weeks old), and saw Dao's grandmother just before she passed away this morning. Funeral arrangements are being made and many many members of the extended family are here or on the way. I hadn't ever spoken more than a couple formalities to her, but she was clearly a remarkable woman, as you could judge just from her many remarkable kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. It's sad: I'll post more later of course.

Also on the subject of passings, I just learned that Dave Blood, the Dead Milkmen bassist we were just lamenting, was living with, and took his own life at the home of, some friends of ours. I'll probably post more about this too when I have time.

Also -- a detail that would risk causing Ben H. paroxysms of jealousy if he were now in snowy New York now rather than in Peru -- we're staying at Tom and Vien's new house which is literally across the street from the Fashion Island mall in Newport Beach. I hope to do some photoblogging. California still blows my mind.

[3/19/04 23:45]
Be On the Lookout for a Man in a Beret

Taiwan's President and Vice-President were both shot overnight as they campaigned in front of the upcoming election. Apparently neither suffered life-threatening wounds. Mainland Chinese media has not reported the assassination attempt. Think they have something to hide? Or maybe the Frence are making an extra-special effort (within the limits imposed by a 35-hour workweek for their Rainbow-Warrior-sinking elite spy team) to toady up to the Chinese?
[3/19/04 11:05]
Ben A. asked recently about my 1997 paper "My View of Ethics." As a matter of fact I was just unpacking the old laptop and managed to get this paper off it. You can read it here; if you have experienced academic philosophy, you will probably be amused. (Note: I removed one sentence on a friend's recommendation; it reads better now but is a slightly less accurate reflection of my state of mind when I wrote it, a few months after fleeing grad school.) [3/18/04 16:26]
Anti-Christ Watch

"My faith in the system of justice has never wavered"
--R. Kelley
[3/18/04 16:24]
Speaking of the anti-christ

Zawahiri apparently just surrendered to Pakistani troops, who had surrounded him. The camel jockeys are all the same. Martyrdom for all the igorant madrassa scum they gather in to their movement; but when they themselves face the decisive moment, their hands fly up in the air, kind of like their ass at prayer hour.
[3/18/04 14:29]
Good News! It’s the Anti-Christ!

Pondering Doug’s discussion of magical realism, I realized that one specific sub-genre frustrates me similarly: the Christian-themed horror movie.

Whether you find yourself
fighting the Devil, accidentally adopting his son, or even impregnated by the Prince of Lies, this is just excellent, excellent news. Pat yourself on the back, friend, because the existence of the Devil reliably indicates that you live in a universe governed by an all-powerful, benevolent Creator.

And we know how this story goes: Satan’s schemes? Frustrated. Revolt of the Angels? Quelled. Redemption of the righteous? Assured.

So some pin-bedecked homonculus starts a killing spree. What’s the damage? Third world despots create suffering on an impressive scale, but the depredations of Foday Sankoh don’t directly imply the ultimate triumph of the Lord of Hosts. So bring it on, you bat-winged wussies!

Why do screenwriters keep making this mistake? I think the problem stems from a difficulty in assimilating the true radicalism of monotheism. As Dorothy Sayers wrote:

“Short of damnation, it seems, there can be no Christian tragedy. Indeed, if a man is going to write a tragedy of the classic type, he must be careful to keep Christianity out of it...”

She’s right. The real tragedy doesn't consist in being diced by some demon, but in one day waking up from your comfortable life with the realization that you're on the demon’s side. Now that’s scary. Not so much opportunity for cool effects, alas.

Addendum: What’s to blame for this theological confusion, you ask? Why the implicit Manchaeism that underpins our art, our politics, and our culture as unifying theology. And, no surprise, as dualism is really, really plausible. I’ll note, as per usual, the irony of misuse in our political discourse that sees a “Manichaen” world view ascribed almost exclusively to Protestants.

Addendum #2: This, by the way, is a great album.
[3/17/04 20:53]
Sure, it makes sense to track guys in order to roll up the whole terrorist network rather than just to paste them to satisfy a (legitimate) lust for revenge. But if those doing the monitoring reveal themselves as powerless to stop their target from carrying out a bombing, then little is to be gained from refraining from pre-emptive martyrdom. [3/17/04 12:22]
Ben, I had the same reaction to news that a Madrid bombing suspect had been watched by several intelligence agencies. When I asked a few posts ago why the CIA doesn't just off that Indonesian Al Qaeda representative, I thought I knew the answer: such people are more valuable alive than dead, because by watching them we can find our way to even more terrorists. Take that famous sheik in London who loudly applauds every murder committed in Allah's name. We could eliminate him, but I'm sure the spooks are double-parked outside his home and mosque, tracking every Muslim with a grudge who comes in seeking the most obvious source of weapons and training. Without this sheik, such Muslims might turn to harder-to-track internet-based terror groups.

But again, reading this story today, I think, eh, just kill 'em.
[3/17/04 10:57]
A Big Mistake and a Huge Mistake

Big Mistake: Right after the Madrid bombing, Aznar
"called up the major Spanish dailies and pressured them to parrot the government's line that ETA had committed the atrocity. Perhaps there is something to interpretation that SPanish voters are not quailing before the Islamofascists, but punishing Aznar for a cynical maneuvre. Of course, what the voters got is a leader who will quail before the Islamofascists.

Huge Mistake: The main suspect in the bombings had been flagged as a dangerous character long ago. Why did the Spanish authorities not deport him? Or better yet, give him a "pre-emptive martyrdom."

The crazy thing about Muslim immigration to Spain is that there are hordes of hispanophone, Christian, culturally compatible Latin Americans desperately trying to claw their way into the country. The Spanish government's crackdown on these Latin American aliens has become a major sticking point in bilateral relations with Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia, and Ecuador. If Spain needs immigrants, why not take these guys, instead of North African bilgewater. [3/17/04 08:17]

As a matter of fact, there is a nationwide move afoot in France to suck up to China.
Here is the homepage of "L'année de la Chine en France" (in French). It seems to be Chirac's mandate to several ministries, and as this military exercise points out, it's not just talk. Three goals, I think, are behind it: closer economic ties, multipolarity (i.e. obstructing U.S. agendas), and that frisson d'exotisme so dear to the French.

The website itself says: "This project of cultural exchanges (in a broad sense, since it also concerns science and education, sports and the art of living) represents a major event in the history of the two countries' relations, with considerable stakes."

It's not clear which category the joint military exercises fall into. Maybe "the art of living." Likewise, the Ministry of Defense isn't listed among the participating ministries, but it may well be that cost-cutting has led that ministry to be subsumed under the Ministry of Culture, since the French military seems to serve principally to add a splash of color to parades and ceremonies.

[3/16/04 18:13]
If It Were Any Other Democracy, I'd Have Trouble Believing It

Every time Taiwan's voters head to the polls, the PRC government mounts some sort of effort at intimidating them, usually to dissuade them from voting for pro-independence candidates. Most often, the admonition takes the form of missile tests, military manuevers, and vigorous anti-Taiwan rodomontade in Communist press. This election has proven particularly sensitive. Chen Shui-ban, the first non-KMT president of Taiwan, faces a tough contest against Lien Chan. Chen has tried to rally the electorate by making rather bold statements in favor of independence, as well as pushing to hold a simultaneous referendum on the future status of the cross-straits relationship. For obvious reasons, this is driving the Reds bonkers. The U.S. has brought pressure on Chen to pull back and has discouraged the Reds from over-reacting, the result of which has been, remarkably, a less belligerent display from the PRC than was seen even during the previous election.

But now, guess who shows up to stir the pot. The French navy will engage in
joint exercises with the PRC on the eve of the Taiwanese election. FOr the PRC, such exercises serve the sole purpose of menacing the Taiwanese. The French have decided that they should legitimize and encourage this behavior with their participation. I just don't get it. Is France out looking for ways to harm democracies and aid totalitarian regimes? I knew they were enthusiastic collaborators to whatever jack-booted thugs wander into the neighborhood, but in this case they've travelled 10,000 miles to toady up to the villain. As Paul Johnson has put it: France should not be trusted at any time on any matter. We have met the enemy... and he eats brie. [3/16/04 16:09]
So I'm Petty

But I found
this funny. (maybe more in concept than execution) [3/16/04 15:59]
Source Criticism at its Finest

"It sounded like something a half-educated movie star might have found on a Web site, so I looked for it on Google, and immediately hit the jackpot."
--Terry Teachout on Tim Robbins

It only gets
better. [3/16/04 13:12]

This is where my inner Eurocentric oppressor and inner curmudgeon really comes out. We have a perfectly good Greco-roman thing going on with the planets, and now they go name #10 after an obscure Inuit deity. Did we need to mix mythologies here? “Minerva” was free, as was“Diana,” “Proserpine,” and a host of others. Also, this has a real Sacajawea-on-the-dollar feel to it: were NASA scientists looking for the goddess worshipped by the smallest number of people?

I hereby dub Sedna’s moon (to be discovered)
[3/16/04 12:30]
Welcome to the Hood

Community spirit lives in Cobble Hill. As I sat on my stoop today, waiting for the movers to arrive, about half a dozen people stopped to ask if I was the new owner of the place. And each proceeded to tell how and when he had come to live in the neighborhood, to offer recommendations on renovators, restaurants, etc. The neighborliness extends even unto cyberspace. I post this note courtesy of a certain Justin on Baltic (street, that is) who has left his wireless LAN unprotected by any password.
[3/15/04 22:09]
Resisting Evil

Well, that worked. Yesterday my friend TS noted that while we heard incessant self-serving statements post 9/11 to the effect that "if X happens, the terrorists will have won,” where X ranged over the speaker’s own interests (airlines don’t get bailed out, Susan Sontag gets treated harshly by talk radio, whatever), in this case it’s really true. If a terrorist strike leads to a landslide win by the dove party, which then immediately capitulates, then the terrorists, have, in fact, won. Like the man says, once you pay the Danegeld, you’re never free of the Dane.

Now, there’s something unseemly about my saying all this. My friends, family, or colleagues weren’t blown to pieces in Madrid; but I confess myself depressed by response of the Spanish electorate. Some Anglo-American ethicist (Tim Scanlon?) writes that he can’t imagine a reason to prevent a murder instead of an accidental death. My intuitions run exactly opposite to this: thwarting malevolent designs has value in itself. Of course, frustrating the malicious also has good results, but I don’t see those good results as the only value, or even the primary value, of resisting evil. Here, the results promise to be dreadful, as well.
[3/15/04 13:23]
Send 'em back to Camel-stan

this story is true, if the Spanish authorities had been quicker to deport suspicious carpet-lickers, maybe the bombings could have been averted. Just like in the U.S., had police who stopped 9-11 plotters for moving violations been permitted to check and act on their immigration status, Sept 11 would have been nothing more than an extraordinary late summer day in New York. Wake up, people. Not everyone has the same probability of turning out a terrorist. Non-citizens should not enjoy unqualified rights in their host country. Non-citizen Arabs and Muslims should be treated with heightened scrutiny and suspicion (at least); or their numbers should be radically reduced by aggressive deportation of illegals and restriction on newcomers (at most -- and this is my preference). [3/15/04 07:53]
Spanish Bombs

Now it hardly matters whether ETA or Al-Qaeda planted the Madrid bombs. The Spanish electorate has sent a message that the latter will find unmistakeable. Your bombs can set the course of our elections. The PP hovered at the cusp of victory, but the mere possibility that the atrocity represented some sort of revenge for Spain's participation in the Iraq War cowed enough Spanish voters to delivery victory to the Socialists. That party has promptly waved the
white flag of surrender, pledging to pull out of Iraq. Alas, to Al Qaeda it will look more like torrero's red cape. One bloody attack in Madrid drove the Spanish Army out of Iraq. Al-Qaeda will waste little time in seeing what two or three bombs can accomplish against two or three other allies.

I hope that the PP will remain steadfast in its new role in opposition. The victims of the bombing deserve better vindication than this, to be turned into an excuse for European capitulationists and aspiring dhimmis. Mr. Rajoy ought to keep the scandal of illegal Muslim immigration alive. Spain saved Europe from the Islamic menace once (which Al Qaeda never ceases to remind us of); I only hope she retains the strength to do it again. Alas, today's evidence suggests my hope is vain... [3/15/04 07:35]
Memories, or "it's simply a pullback of the 1-form"

Doug, how can I sufficiently thank you for
convincing me to quit physics?

Via Kieran Healy [3/14/04 17:54]
Choke on this you dance-a-teria types!

My first exposure to the Dead Milkmen came via Tiger’s infielder
Jim Walewander. Then “Instant Club Hit” hooked me forever. For what it’s worth, he was never going to start in front of Lou Whittaker...

[3/14/04 17:36]
Go Giants

You got my orientation right, though it may only have come about out of ignorance of the Milkmen oevre. I regret I have to prove a counterexample to your theory: I prefer Giants and Beavis and Butthead.

Like you, Magical Realism does not enchant me. On the recommendation of a colleague, I got a copy of Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo. Little known among English-speaking readers, it turns out to be the ur-text of the Latin American branch of the school. It confirmed my suspicion that Garcia-Marquez is a hack: now I know exactly who he cribbed from. Great novels reveal things about our world and our fellow men. Maybe sometimes a departure from the ordinary laws of nature can help accomplish this; but often, the Magic is just atmospherics, too often to distract from the banality of the writer's ideas, the poverty of his understanding of the human condition. It's kind of like a deoderant. Rememebr that old commercial: ewww, it smells like fish. (Deoderant is sprayed). Ewww, now it smells like fish and roses!. The banality is not disguised; the book smells like banality and roses.
[3/13/04 18:12]
More Neighborhood Pics

Pro-Martha Protesters, Astor Place (we're way ahead of you here, Ben A.)

Socialist Scholars Conference At Cooper Union (whose pamphlet-peddling supporters were outnumbered by Martha's)

Saint's Alp Teahouse, 3rd Ave.

Universally known as Saint Alp's (by the hagiographically challenged anyway) this is the Chinese (HK? Taiwanese?) place that serves the "tea" with tapioca balls that you have to suck through the giant straws. Like the octopus-ball place, it's more of a conversation piece than a place you'd actually want to eat at. I have a theory about the name but it's too random and uninteresting even for a blog.
[3/13/04 16:39]
Aimless Observation

... it's what blogs were invented for. Let's open up the newspaper here. What's going on? Beyond the usual mass carnage I mean. Well there's some interesting individual carnage. The bassist for the Dead Milkmen took his own life. Sad. And more unnecessary than the average suicide because he had so many fans ready to give moral support. (It's like a few months ago when I read that Rowan Atkinson checked himself into a hospital for depression, reportedly due to critics' and the public's reaction to Johnny English. Which I loved, incidentally, except for the gratuitous poop scene, which I suspect is responsible for the film's crapping out.) The Milkmen were one of the two bands I listened to in high school. (If you discount rap.) (The other was the Talking Heads.) I find a sharp cleavage in nerds of our age cohort, between Milkmen fans and They Might Be Giants fans. (But then rock fandom is all about cleavage.) I know Ben H. is on the Giants side. For me their humor rarely works. I liked "Youth Culture Killed My Dog", I guess, but when I try to think of other Giants songs I like they usually turn out, upon further reflection, to be B-52's songs. As for the Milkmen: If I had to list my favorite songs I'd say the obvious "Bitchin' Camaro", then "Rocketship", and "They Call Me The Walrus" ... with the caveat that this is all high school music. Final note on the topic. I've often thought that one's Milkmen/Giants orientation was an indicator of a deeper psychological orientation, but I've never been able to discover what this correlate might be. Maybe it's nothing deeper than one's Beavis-And-Butthead-vs.-South-Park orientation (Milkmen correlated w/ Beavis). Someone should collect data.

Murakami, Pynchon, Lynch

Having loved Murakami's Norwegian Wood, I borrowed a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, his reputed masterpiece. It doesn't suit me and at the two-thirds mark I've started skimming.

Complaint #1: The book spins out of control. It started with two compelling mysteries (beyond the cat's disappearance): the narrator's wife left him for no apparent reason and to no discoverable destination, and a mystery woman calls him, claiming to know him and initiating phone sex. The first problem is more important, obviously, but it's the second whose magical mystery mood takes over. Other phantasmagorical characters show up. At least one of them can enter his dreams, between which and reality the barriers generally fall away. All this was tolerable so long as it connected to the narrator's search for his wife, but the phantasms start coming and going in such numbers and with such apparent randomness that the underlying suspense dies. The Spooky Guitar Masochist. The Haute Couture Aura Healer. The Man Who Refuses To Talk. A serial freakshow, not a novel.

Complaint #2: The novel just feels like it was plotted out on graph paper, rather than felt.

Complaint #3: All this supernatural stuff starts happening to the narrator, who is portrayed as a regular guy, but he isn't fazed at all. Hopefully Ben A. won't mind if I quote his memorable line about natural laws: "There may be worlds not governed by law-like regularities –- but the only response to that seems to be: 'Dude, that would be fucked-up!'" Right on. If some woman demonstrates an ability to invade your dreams, you're going to go Holy shit this is FUCKED UP!!!!!. If the teenage girl next door tries to kill you by trapping you in a well, you're going to slap the bitch silly. But Bird Chronicle's narrator shrugs these things off, no big deal. Another example: one woman's son decides to stop talking -- completely, forever -- at age six, but is otherwise normal. He will happily communicate in sign language or in writing. Odd, then, that no one (including the mother) seems ever to have asked him why he won't talk. It just becomes part of the book's magical mystery mood that this guy remains silent. Every normal person -- and I stress that Murakami intends his narrator as an everyman -- would grab him by the collar and be like, What the fuck, dude???

Here's what I think about magic in fiction. There are two ways to make it work. Either your world has completely different rules from the real world (e.g. Narnia, Middle Earth, academia) in which case the trick is to render it with such detail and conviction that the reader accepts it as real. Or you portray the real world under a scenario where magic intrudes, in which case the trick is to show how people deal with the intrusion (e.g. Stephen King books). The Wind up Bird Chronicle does not really take either path, and that's a big part of why it doesn't work. (Of course some will say "he's blurring the boundaries!" but that's just the usual mush-mouth apology of the cacophile.)

It would be instructive to compare the Bird Chronicle with similar but more successful projects ... and since I'm in didactic mode already, let's do it. Take David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. It too starts with a mystery, spins out of control, and leaves you with an overall impression of nightmares-invading-reality. But it's great. And the best scenes are precisely those where the characters are freaked out by the supernatural things happening to them. The scene in the diner that had been pre-played in a dream may be the scariest in the history of cinema (and there's not a drop of blood in it). The scenes of the director fighting against (and refusing to believe) the bizarre conspiracy against him are likewise amazing. The Bird Chronicle would be much more affecting if the narrator's reactions were as lifelike as Lynch's director's.

The Crying of Lot 49 is another good foil for Bird Chronicle, what with the mysterious conspiracy and the creepy dream-invading-reality feel. I'm less gaga over Lot 49 than a lot of people (I'm more of a V. man) but at least it stays focused, and it's not unnecessarily long. Bird Chronicle could easily shed 400 of its 600 pages and wind up the better for it. Also, I have to say that Lot 49 is just better written, page for page. Pynchon's voice is witty and enthralling and nine times out of ten, when a contemporary novelist says "I'm trying to craft a distinctive voice," he means he's trying to imitate Pynchon's. Murakami has some nice pages but a lot of these 600 are yadda. The translator shares the blame but not most of it.

Also, part of what is piquant about Lynch's and Pynchon's projects is that the dark supernatural conspiracies are set against the bleached banality of Southern California. Without this spice, Murakami's project turns into what Anthony Lane (I think) called "deep-dish mysticism".

In the end, magical realism is probably like the Dead Milkmen: either you like it or you don't.
[3/13/04 16:20]
Home, Sweet Home

I am now officially a home owner. One hour into this experience, and I already have had to deal with a painter, cleaner, and a locksmith. I think it was Leavitt (of Leavittown fame) who said something like: No man who owns his house and lot can be a Communist; he's too busy."

Dealing with the transfer of real property in New York City is a nightmare. Even without the involvement of a bank or mortgage lender, the closing took nearly two hours. In my professional capacity, I've closed loans of multiple hundreds of millions of dollars in less time...
[3/12/04 18:18]
Take Two Irving Kristols, and Call Me in the Morning

I want to develop a drug like
this. [3/12/04 12:50]
Probably typical Islamofascist lies...

... and if not that, possibly the product of the over-active imagination of scandalmongering Fleet Streeters, but I for one wish
it were true. [3/12/04 07:02]
Brookline? Brookline?

Would you believe --
prostitution in Brookline? Knock me over with a feather. [3/11/04 17:52]

I am not so sure AQ miscalculated. THe SPanish public did not in the main support Aznar's decision to participate in the US-led coalition. Encouraged by the leftist press, the voters may blame PP for embroiling the country in a bloody war with the Islamofascists that most Spaniards didn't want. The result would be the return to power of the capitulationist Socialist Party. The only way PP will deflect this line of attack will be to play upon Spain's disgust with illegal Muslim immigrants. So I say, out in the open, without any hint of shame, let the deportations begin. When any country ships out the last dirtbag carpet-kisser, I'll be there on the dock to wave him goodbye.
[3/11/04 17:36]
From the Horrendous and Tragic to the Less Tragic, but Nonetheless Horrendous

It looks like pedophile and low-life R. Kelly
will beat the rap (or at least part of it). What sprung him? A technicality, of course, and one that wouldn’t seem out of place on an episode of “Hunter.” Expect R. Kelly’s appointment at the Curguyan consolate within the month.
[3/11/04 17:32]

How horrific. Whenever these things happen, I feel a tremendous impulse to
mindless diversion. Weakness, I suppose.

If I can decently make any comment with bodies still warm, it’s this: if Al Queda claims responsibility, they’re not just murderers, they’re stupid. The only policy with any potential for them is to isolate the Anglophone nations from the rest of the West – depict the ‘the war on terror’ as a dispute generated by cowboy Americans, and their ‘lackeys.’ Attacking continental Europe does not do this.

Addendum: Ben H, always with the deportations! Conceal your enthusiasm for this prospect, at least.

[3/11/04 17:12]
Al-Qaeda claims responsibility for Madrid bombing, according to AFP

Perhaps it is crass to talk about political implications so soon after the fact, but this goes from a boost to Mariano Rajoy and the PP to a blow. No doubt Aznar's party will be blamed by the euroleft for inviting this attack by supporting the U.S.. Allow me the hope, though, that fear will win out over political point-scoring, and the Spanish will round up and deport their Arab illegals.
[3/11/04 16:34]
Busca la cabeza de trapo, Part II

Bloomberg reporting Spanish Interior Minister has announced that police in Madrid have found a van with detonators and a Arabic-language tape. Whole desk here was making fun of me for doubting the ETA story...
[3/11/04 15:31]
Madrid Massacre

Terrible attack this morning in
Madrid. One reflexively blames ETA for any terrorism in Spain, but this seems out of line with the usual scale and style of ETA attacks. Could it be Islamofascist payback for Spain's staunch support of the forces of civilization? I recommend the Spanish be on the lookout for cabezas de trapo. [3/11/04 07:18]
Tim Robbins on Leo Strauss

kid you not.

Really looking forward to Richard Dreyfuss' denunciation of the counter-enlightenment "Mr. Herder's Opus." [3/10/04 16:04]
Progress, Saudi-style

Saudi women are not explictly barred from voting in the new elections that the monarchy is organizing. Of course, if they have to drive to the polls...
[3/10/04 12:29]
The Death of Klinghoffer

John Adams will have to write a postscript to his Achille Lauro opera. Abu Abbas, erstwhile head of the Palestine Liberation Front, mastermind of the cruise-ship hijacking and murderer of Leon Klinghoffer (and also, indirectly, godfather of the awful Speed 2) has died in US custody. HE was picked up in Iraq, which every Blue-State schoolchild knows had no involvement with terrorists. He must have snuck in. His death was reportedly due to natural causes. I'm sure that will satisfy the anti-war left...
[3/9/04 18:37]
The Magic of Wireless and the Art of the Free Lunch

I am heading out of Mexico, spending a last few minutes hanging in the Aeromexico Bidness Lounge. Upon booting up my laptop, I was happy to find that Aeromexico has a wireless network in its lounge. Unfortunately, it required a password. The lady at the front desk told me that I needed to buy some prepaid card to get a password. $3000 for a ticket isn't enough? Geez. I went back to my seat and started up my Aeronet utility. To my malicious glee, I picked up the wireless network from the American Airlines lounge across the way. On American, airline of the land of the free, you get free wireless access in the lounge. As I type this, I am smirking at the Aeromexico lounge lady...
[3/9/04 18:03]
Why CIA? Subcontract the job

In Indonesia, I'm told, you can have somebody killed for like $250. We can put a tip-jar on this site and probably collect enough to ice that dirtbag.

Lionize the Lion, Overlooking the Lamb

Like you, Ben, I found the left's fixation with clearly guilty criminals puzzling. But I've come to realize that the protests have nothing to do with vindicating the innocent. THey are all about expressing in as strong terms as possible contempt for America, its institutions, and its establishment. What stronger way to show that then to champion the cause of an obviously guilty criminal. He should not go free, the protesters imply, because he is innocent; he should go free because American is so awful, corrupt, etc that it has no right to judge or punish even the guilty.
[3/9/04 17:54]
Indonesian Al-Qaeda Leader To Be Freed

Abu Bakar Bashir, who was convicted last September on relatively minor immigration charges and sentenced to three years, is likely to be free within a few weeks.

Can't a CIA agent just kill this guy?


What if he promised to write poetry about it afterwards?

Let us go then, you and I,
When our drones spread out against the sky,
leaving their target pulverized upon a table ...

[3/9/04 14:32]
Oh! Why! I Oughta!

Close inspection of the criminal justice system reveals it to be unpredicatble, fallible, corrupt, and often monstrously unjust. A man whose sleeve gets caught in the gears of government - the INS, for example -- often ends mashed into bone-flecked paste regardless of his merits. So, I am quite sure that a review of prisons are just filled with innocent men. Why then does the celebrity criminal rackert seem to focus so repdominently on those clearly guilty? Sure there's the occassional Hurricane Carter, but most of the adulation focuses on cases like Mumia, this joker, and that nutjob Mailer was so infatuated with. It boggles and nauseates me.
[3/9/04 12:54]
You Guys Will Love This

Adulatory Times piece about death row poet. The murder he committed isn't mentioned until the sixth or seventh paragraph. As with the Cornel West rap affair, the real story is how bad the poetry is. I'm sure a petition is circulating to make him an honorary citizen of Paris. [3/9/04 11:44]
Grocery Detective

Actually, Ben H, they give you the coupon right at the register -- it gets printed out with your receipt. So I was flagged Hebrew in real time. What's more, this has *never* happened before. My usual coupons run to Morningstar Farms and Barilla pasta. This led me to wonder what aspect of my (admittedly ecelctic) purchase tipped them off:

Red Grapes
Dried Papaya
Bottled Herring
Steelhead Trout (fresh)
Poland Spring Seltzer (lime)
Morningstar Farms (Fake) Chickwiches.

I felt like the subject of a Sherlock Holmes deduction: "I perceive, sir, that you are of Eastern-European and Irish descent, have an amateur interest in medicine, and have recently married; this I deduce from the papaya alone."

Of course, perhaps I bought matza there last year...

[3/9/04 10:15]
Relationship Marketing Gone Wrong

If it is true that most kosher products also qualify as halal, and the Stop-N-Shop Cray Supercomputer picked you out for your coupon on the basis of purchases of other kosher products, would it not be probable that several angry Boston-area Muslims today are seeting at how Stop-N-Shop has humiliated and insulted them by sending them a coupon for Zionist Wine that saves lives in Israel?
[3/9/04 08:32]
Was it the Herring?

Bandarlog readers, hermits and expats aside, know that supermarkets record customer speending patterns and generate personalized coupons from the results. Single women get 30% off single serve Yoplait; single men get 2-for-1s on T.V. dinners and quiet desperation. What do I get? A coupon reading “Manischewitz is committed to saving lives in the State of Israel” and a dollar off grape-flavored matzo.
[3/9/04 08:04]
South of The Border

Heading to Mexico City this afternoon for a 24-hr meeting whirlwind. Note to self: brush teeth with bottled water!
[3/8/04 11:17]
Burning Down My Guilty White Benefactor's House

Doug and I saw the new, gallingly-titled Jayson Blair book on display at the Barnes & Noble in Park Slope this weekend. Doug wondered if the New York Times would consent to review it, given the obvious bitterness and conflicts of interest. Well, apparently they will, and they aren't
pulling any punches.

Of course, a straightforward pan will, no matter how justified, carry with it the whiff of sour grapes. I think the Times should out-Blair Blair. It should write a review that makes up stuff about Blair, fabricates quotes from the book, basically uses all the tools Blair availed himself of in his illustrious, affirmative-action-fueled career.

It is disappointing, but certainly no surprise given his talent for painting himself as the victim, that Blair does not address his string of violent pederastic assaults on young boys near his Chelsea apartment. Nor does he deign to explain how he, the half-brother of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, could come to consider himself "underprivileged" and due special treatment under the Times' aggressive affirmative action program.

Stuff like that... it would be a laugh... [3/8/04 07:08]
Grab Bag

Consulting is the River Lethe. One enters these little universes, acquires expertise, and then abandons them three months later, never to return. A few years back I uncovered a presentation pitching business to GE’s rail car renting division, for heavens’ sake. Perhaps I’d remember something about box car occupancy rates (lower than wished, I bet) had we sold the case.

Lazily picking up our last topic, by listing Martha among “obviously guilty” criminal celebrities, Ben H, I didn’t mean at all to downplay the Bonfire of the Vanities aspects of the case. Certainly Martha Stewart is the great white perp to end all great white perps. No wonder whathisface (Spitzer?) was salivating.
[3/8/04 01:02]
Treasures of the Closet

I will move to my new place in a little over a week, so I have devoted much of today throwing away stuff I don't want to take along. I spent a chunk of time going through papers in my long-untouched filing cabinet, one that made the journey with me from Cambridge to Irvine and back. Looking at my old papers leaves me a little disoriented. A have several feet of old Vertex research and presentations, most of which I have no recollection of writing, much of which I do recall upon seeing it, though I feel quite certain I have not thought of it for several years. Ben A. may recall the long days and evening passed in search of the consultants' Holy Grail, the gimmick chart, the most famous example of which is probably the BCG "Dogs / Stars / Cash Cows" 2x2 matrix. 4 boxes, $4bio of business, I'd wager. My cabinet contained about a dozen successive attempts to come up with something similar. We failed, I'd like to think, out of a dogged fidelity to the complexities of reality, which would not allow us to foist a woefully incomplete distillation upon hapless clients. Instead, we tried to cram everything in. Several slides, with their three-dimensional matrices and multiple-sized bubbles of multiple hues plotted along the axes (the size representing something, the color something else), suggest an outbreak of pox among our supply of transparencies. The series of presentations also charts my increasing misery with the project. The name of the project was "Customer Portfolio Management." The last folder, the one that sat in the cabinet (not coicidentally) just in front of the folder with all my California-to-New York moving documents, is labelled "Customer Porfolio Hell."

Where the Deflation Is

Shortly before I left California (about 7yrs ago), I decided that I needed a mobile phone. The phone would allow me to take full advantage of telecommuting: i could disappear to the basketball court while still remaining reachable by my office-bound colleagues. The results of my meticulous research I found preserved in another folder in my filing cabinet. The prices shocked me. I'll cite the example of L.A. Cellular, one member of the then-regnant duopoly (which has since been taken over or merged several times, such that the brand has long since winked out of existence). The Standard package ran $99.99 per month before taxes. This bargain entitled its lucky purchaser to a whopping 170 minutes per month, with a 39 cent per minute overage fee. For that mover-and-shaker who might require the astronomical sum of 900 minutes, L.A. Cellular offered the Executive plan for a mere $329 per month with 36 cent per minute overage fee. I don't know exactly how many minutes Sprint PCS gives me per month -- it is certainly in excess of 1000-- but I do know that I have never incurred an overage fee, and, by the way, I have unlimited free data. For $69 per month.

I look upon this state of affairs with satisfaction as far as its demonstration of technical progress goes. However, I think it may also reveal how the specter of deflation overshadowing US price statistics may be just a phantom. Think about the magnitude of deflation the drop in mobile telephony prices represents. You can get something like 10-times the minutes for 2/3 the cost, not to mention the quality enhancements that have taken place since 1996. The fully-adjusted cost of mobile phone service today might come out to something like 5-10% of its 1996 cost. That has a huge impact on the headline inflation number. Yet, one can not just go out and buy 1996 service for $9.99 per month. One can only choose from what's offered, and what's offered is almost a totally different product from what L.A. Cellular was peddling in 1996. A better measure might be: what is the cost of a "standard" mobile phone package in 2004 vs 1996. By that measure, 2004 might cost 60-70% of 1996. The Fed will not be able to maintain a positive CPI change if the CPI is calculated on the former basis. On that basis, there ought to be inflation. I'm sure the same distortion obtains for computers and other information technology. No wonder the Fed, in its zeal to avoid "deflation" has wound up creating asset bubbles all over the place...
[3/6/04 18:38]
Free Martha!

I love Stewart's aesthetic (except her mistreatment of the help), and hope to agitate for her release. Perhaps a "Free Martha" movement can be formed on lines analagous to those centering on other obviously guilty cause celebres like Mumia Abu-Jamal. Evergreen college isn't an exact match, but perhaps Martha can give the Sweetbriar commencement via audiotape.
[3/6/04 05:50]
Hi, Honey

One fun sideshow to the Martha madness was the variety of attempts by the news organizations to get the verdict as quickly as possible. As you may know, Judge Cedarbaum banned mobile phones from the courtroom. CNBC locked a camera on the door of the courthouse as soon as the news looked imminent. As we watched on the trading floor we knew the game was over as soon as we saw the revolving door regurgitate a series of frantic men and women making strange gestures. One woman came flying out waving a red sweater over her head. Another fellow dashed out and held an envelope aloft in his left hand for several seconds. One outlet had a whole platoon of newsbearers. After each count, one person would emerge with a big red or green sign with a letter and a number (letter for the defendent, number for the count, color for the verdict). Quite a show. ALl afternoon, I kept calling Bernie to ask her to come downstairs and wave to me. She kept claiming she was too busy, but in the end she played the good sport: she came out and marched up and down the stairs several times. (I couldn't persuade her to wave, alas).
[3/5/04 17:27]
Martha Guilty

I loathe Martha Stewart, but I cannot look past the injustice of the prosecution. The threat to liberty in the U.S. is not the vilified Attorney General, but the grasping ambition of a thousand myrmidon district (and US)attorneys, on the lookout for quarry that can advance their political career. My hope, today, which would suit my sense of legal and cosmic justice, was that Martha would be acquitted, and in her joy she would run down the courthouse steps, trip, and break her head open.
[3/5/04 16:25]
The Genius of the Market

Some entrepreneurial brain has come up up with an
interesting counterbalance to the explosion of medical malpractice litigation. Doubtless many malpractice claims have ample justification. However, just as a patient should have (and does have) access to records of whether doctors have been repeatedly disciplined or sued, so too should doctors have ways to discover if a prospective patient has a long history of litigation. Consensual exchange flourishes in the presence of symmetrical information. [3/5/04 08:53]
Save Lives, Catch Flak

Not even the assent of
France has managed to immunize the U.S. from captious criticism over its justifiable, even charitable, intevention in Haiti. We whisk Aristide to safety just ahead of a tide of furious rebels bent on taking his head and the loony priest has the temerity to say we kidnapped him. Really, he and his cheering section flatter themselves if they believe that Haiti is important enough to conspire over. A rabble of filthy ragpickers have cozened and killed their fellow immiserated islanders for a couple of hundred years with civilization no worse off for it. We could leave them to their poverty and butchery, but out of a sense of altruism we move to help. You can see the thanks that we get here. Particularly galling is the posturing of Caricom, a group of pathetic little islands that the U.S. has favored with a generous free-trade agreement, mostly out of mangaminity. Bananas and trinkets can be sources more easily and cheaply in China, I'm sure, if Caricom feels the U.S. is too ethically tainted to deal with.

Since this blog has spilled a lot of electronic ink on Kipling, I think it is not inappropriate for me to note that Aristide and Caricom's carping brought to mind The White Man's Burden:

Take up the White Man's burden,
And reap his old reward--
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard--

[3/5/04 08:28]
Unknown Simpsons Character

Our equity team trades a lot of gold mining stocks. Many of these shares trade on Canadian exchanges, which means we execute with otherwise relatively obscure Canadian brokers. One of the strongest in the mining sector is the intriguingly named Nesbitt Burns. After hearing this name bandied about the desk a few times, my colleague and I decided that the firm must have an eponymous founder. This fellow is undoubtedly Montgomery Burns' estranged half-brother. Whenever we hear the name Nesbitt Burns now we slip into our best Monty Burns voice and heap abuse on poor Nesbitt. Nesbitt Burns raises its rating on Barrick Gold. "My daft half-brother Nesbitt's is drunk with lust after glittering metals. Smithers, have our broker sell all our shares in that worthless fraud of a mine to that fool Nesbitt!" Our trader facetiously asked his coverage whether Nesbitt Burns' founder bore any relationship to Montgomery Burns. The salesman took the inquiry with the utmost seriousness and replied patiently that Nesbitt Burns is not a person, but rather the last names of the firm's two founders; and that he didn't know much about the founding Mr. Burns so he couldn't say if he was a relation of Montgomery Burns. So much for the Canadian sense of humor.
[3/4/04 16:45]
-- More Anything?

-- More Everything!

This talk of first-class flights reminds me of the classic Seinfeld episode where Jerry is up front while Elaine is in coach. Surprisingly, Seinfeld is one of the things I enjoy most about being back in New York. Simpsons too, but the syndication list is polluted with so many bad latter-day episodes (somebody really needs to identify a common thread among the good episodes and use it to rationalize a Simpsons "canon", so that the bad ones can be dismissed as apocryphal) and I've seen the good ones so many times that their effect has worn off.

Last night I discovered that, even without paying for cable, I could watch nothing but Simpsons and Seinfeld episodes from 6 pm to 9 pm straight, and then from 11 to 12. Although I didn't take full advantage of this.

Last night was the one where George converts to Latvian orthodoxy. Every word spoken is brilliant. And my favorite line is wordless: after Jerry or Elaine has said "funguses" in a sentence, and Kramer has said "fungi" reprovingly, Kramer wins his point with an emphatic clicking noise and facial tic. I guess you had to be there.
[3/4/04 13:50]
Brunch in First Class?

Interesting question. In a sense, the transatlantic flight is the ideal brunch setting, because brunch is tied in with a jet-set euro-trash ethos, and because you've already invalidated normal mealtime rules by zipping through timezones. As evidence of my first point, note that Americans associate brunch with euro-trash (e.g. Jacques on the Simpsons) while Europeans associate it with New York. From what I could tell from my downscale Villejuif vantage point, brunch was considered chic/cosmopolitan in Paris; that French people would make an exception for it in their age-old rules of the table says something about its status already. There was a restaurant near Dao's office called "Brunchez-vous?". And I remember our friend Zoe in Turin decrying the back of an Italian cornflakes box that attempted to explain the word "brunch" by showing a bunch of dynamic young Americans sitting around a restaurant table as (loose translation) "they plotted to take over the world." (I think Zoe's beef was that one would never eat cornflakes at brunch, which is, of course, true.)

Nonetheless I'd argue that you can't have brunch on a plane because (1) you're eating by yourself, or (2) even if you have convives, your assembling with them for brunch was insufficiently impromptu, and anyway (3) you're missing the sense of possibilities that I think is important to the brunch mystique: you cannot get up and go to a museum or a movie on a whim. Ben, your insight about having the possibility of sweet or savory entrees is an important one, and I would add: there must always be the possibility of alcoholic or caffeinated drinks at any stage of a brunch. If I opened a brunch joint, I would allow patrons to linger as long as they want before ordering: I love the sense of possibility of getting syrup or bernaise sauce, of getting inebriated or wired, and when I'm finally served my choice it's kind of a letdown, no matter how good the food.
[3/4/04 13:26]
Flyin' & Stylin'

The question I have is: did they serve brunch on board?

Seriously, though, you hit on an interesting point when you express doubt about whether your would pay $6K for a first class seat. I think most people share your view. I have observed that the ratio of economy-class ticket price to first-class ticket price is inversely proportional to the fraction of people on the route who are not paying their own way. THe all-time largest differential I've seen is the New York-to-London route, which is basically a commute for bankers and their lawyers.
[3/4/04 10:30]
The Winner Take All Society

Through what I can only assume was adminstrative oversight, I find myself booked on first class to Heathrow. Instead of a seat, I possess a 5'x5' kiosk in the nose of a 777. It's an odd sort of opulence. I would need to be very, very rich before I paid 6k for this ambiguous luxury. On the upside Celebrated Living, "the luxury magazine for premium class passengers" has a feature on buying your own golf cart. The beetles are in the bread, big time.

[3/3/04 19:42]
"Boys Are Stupid. Throw Rocks At Them

T-shirts. A friend at the
American Enterprise Insitute has bought for all his nieces. Men's rights groups are predicatably outraged and weepy. [3/3/04 11:40]

Compare and Contrast

Paul Krugman, today in the Times, writes
the following:

You see, although the rest of the government is running huge deficits — and never did run much of a surplus — the Social Security system is currently taking in much more money than it spends. Thanks to those surpluses, the program is fully financed at least through 2042. The cost of securing the program's future for many decades after that would be modest — a small fraction of the revenue that will be lost if the Bush tax cuts are made permanent.

In April of 2002, Robert Greenstein and Richard Kogan, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (a center-left think tank ) wrote this:

Another way to compare the relative sizes of the Social Security shortfall and the tax cut is to examine how much each amounts to in dollars and cents. From data in the Social Security Trustees' report, one can readily compute that the "present value" of the projected Social Security shortfall is $3.7 trillion. (The present value is the amount today that, with interest, would cover exactly the Social Security shortfall over the next 75 years. In other words, if Social Security currently held $4.9 trillion in assets instead of the $1.2 trillion it currently holds, then the combination of projected Social Security revenues and these expanded trust fund reserves, along with the interest the reserves would earn, would fully cover projected Social Security costs for the next 75 years.)

By contrast, the present value of the tax cut is $8.7 trillion. In other words, the revenue losses from the tax cut over the next 75 years would equal $8.7 trillion in today's dollars, plus the interest that would accrue on that amount over the 75-year period. Here, too, the revenue loss from the tax cut is seen to be more than twice as large as the projected Social Security shortfall.

If you want to understand why Krugman so frosts his opponents, compare these accounts. Both score a legitimate point: the Bush tax cuts impose substantial costs, and if made permanent over 75 years, imply lost revenue exceeding the expected social security shortfall. Krugman, however, spins like a dervish. While “half” is, of course, a fraction, the uniformed would come away from his article imagining that social security throws off cash, and that the Bush tax cuts represent some vast multiple of any possible pension shortfall.

In fact, both are budget-cracking problems. Krugman has picked his side, and deploys the smoke and mirrors like any good partisan. Which is what he is – exactly the semi-scrupulous ‘policy entrepreneur’ he once derided.

The Real Cloning Scandal

I thought they were cloning deans
[3/2/04 18:12]
I thought the stem-cell center was part of an effort to clone Cornel West... [3/2/04 08:52]
I didn't read the news too carefully, but it sounds like Harvard's newly announced policies could be controversial. Letting poor students attend for free if they let their stem cells be harvested? [3/1/04 14:52]

I would add one criteria to your set, Doug: As a main dish there must be available choices from both the "salty" and "sweet" domains.
[3/1/04 09:55]
You Know You're On Air France When...

The pilot apologizes for the delay, "which is due to a labor action at the airport this morning."

The business-class lounge has a capacious smoking section but no facility to hook your laptop up to the Internet.

Of only three English-language movies available on the in-flight entertainment system, one is Woody Allen's
Anything Else, a film that opened on about 3 screens, did about $50 in business, and got uniformly dreadful reviews. Mais, c'est Woody!! [3/1/04 08:50]
Swiss Missing

I spent the weekend in Verbier, Switzerland on a skiing junket. The town consists of hundreds of stereotypically Swiss-looking chalets clinging to steep Alpine slopes. Take one look out the window and your brain provides an internal yodel to complete the scene. Yet, for all its swissiness, the place has been taken over by foreigners, principally the English, though more your English banker types than your loutish football hooligan that has become the face of much overseas British tourism. Now, that a picturesque spot, one which concentrates the traditional image of a particular country or region, should be taken over by foreigners is not particularly unusual. However, this state of affairs typically means that foreign tourists predominate, leaving a stark divide between the overseas holiday-makers and local service-providers. Not so in Verbier. There, the foreigners have also taken over most of the employment. The staff at the rented chalets we stayed at: English. Ski instructor: Australian. Restaurant waiters: English. I turned on the radio in the morning to discover a station broadcasting in English! I finally had to ask: are there any actual Swiss people in this town? I was not able to track one down myself. The closest I came was when the driver came to bring me back to Geneva. He spoke French. The elusive Swiss worker? Nah, turns out he was a Frenchman...
[3/1/04 07:35]
Pictures, As Promised

Here are five scenes from our new neighborhood that I find funny.

Holistic Pet Care, 9th St.

Otafuku, 9th St.

Otafuku [correct spelling thanks to John G.] is part of a small outcropping of Japan that's erupted around 9th Street and 3rd Avenue. It's a hole in the wall without seats (unless you count that bench out front) that serves one thing, fried octopus balls [takoyaki -- again thanks to John G]. Apparently expat Japanese crave these things nostalgically like expat Americans crave hotdogs. Recently I saw idling here a luxury sedan full of Japanese leaning over a bucketfull of the little blobs. Another time Dao bought some and we ate them. I didn't particularly like them [John G. wasn't very impressed with their rendition], but still, any octopus-ball stand deserves to be photographed.

Angelica Kitchen, 12th St.

This is the reflection of a pig mural, possibly an old BBQ or butcher logo (anybody know?), in the window of Angelica Kitchen, a vegetarian restaurant across the street. Haven't eaten here. I mean, I'll try octopus balls, which are made by people trying to achieve a standard, however subjective, of yumminess, but vegetarian restaurants too often seem to view food as penitence or punishment. I swear the last one we visited flavored half the dishes with sandalwood. (They were out of wormwood I guess.) That was in France, though, where dour anti-fun ideologies never go out of style. Here the last one was abandoned under Clinton. So maybe Angelica's is good, what do I know.

The Deli of Life, 2nd Ave.

Not to be confused with The Deli of Death.

Brunch sign, some restaurant on 2nd Ave.

It's funny because it's true. Brunch is something I cannot explain, although I bet Adam Gopnik could, and likely will. It's a key part of life in Manhattan. There is something cheerfully civilized about getting pancakes with friends at 9th St. Market that is missing from pancakes with friends at the IHOP in (say) Kalamazoo.

What, though? Even Marge Simpson's dashing Eurotrash suitor Jacques couldn't put his finger on it: "It's not quite breakfast, it's not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end." My photo shows that the Bloody Mary has overtaken cantaloupe as a main indicator that you're at brunch, but neither is necessary. I contend that everyone at the table can order typical lunch dishes and drinks, and still believe himself to be brunching.

Non-New-Yorkers might guess that time of day is the main brunch determinant, falling somewhere in the mid-to-late morning, but if you've lived here you know that brunch usually occurs closer to 12:00, and sometimes doesn't start until early afternoon.

The right answer, of course, is that brunchness resolves into no analytic criteria but rather consists of Wittgensteinian "family resemblences" among its instances. A slightly less right but more useful answer is that brunch (1) takes place on a weekend or holiday, (2) starts between 10:00 am and 2:30 pm, (3) has no fixed duration but only an expected duration, exceeding 45 minutes, (4) cannot be taken alone.

My shot of the line in front of 9th St. Market didn't come out. Just as well; it wouldn't be as revealing as the line last weekend, when it was still very cold. A long line of people waiting to buy bread in the freezing cold is either a sign of a nation's poverty, or of its staggering wealth.
[3/1/04 00:33]
A Sentence to Savor

"This [hypothesis] is dismissed by Maenchen-Helfen, the most meticulous collater of Hunnish data"

--John Keegan, A History of War
[2/28/04 22:48]

Took some pictures from the new neighborhood with our digital camera today. I'll put them up once I find a utility that will lower their resolution so they weigh less than 1 MB each. It's a sunny warm day for early spring in NYC, and this always gives a bracing, fresh, spring-cleaning feel to the city. Even the homeless guy today asked for "some change, or a bar of soap to wash my nasty ass."

[2/28/04 14:18]

Maugham wrote a hodgepodge about his late-1920s Southeast Asia trip called "The Gentleman In The Parlour" that reads like a tremendously well-written blog. I wouldn't say it demands to be read; it doesn't build up a cumulative power. But there's something interesting on just about every page, and if you find it lying on a coffee table like I did, pick it up. There are a many good epigrams. "Pornography, rather than brevity, is the soul of wit," for example. And I really enjoyed having a novelist talk directly to me, explicitly putting aside the whole novelistic apparatus. The following is typical:

A swarm of saffron butterflies upon the droppings of an ass reminded me of pretty girls in evening frocks hovering round an obese financier. At the roadside grew a flower that was like the Sweet William that I remember in the cottage gardens of my childhood and another had the look of a more leggy white heather. I wish, as many writers do, I could give distinction to these pages by the enumeration of the birds and flowers that I saw as I ambled along on my litle Shan pony. It has a scientific air and though the reader skips the passage it gives him a slight thrill of self-esteem to know that he is reading a book with solid fact in it. It puts you on a strangely familiar terms with your reader when you tell him you came across P. Johnsonii.

If only more novelists felt this way. Not that the accretion of detail is bad; Kim has it in profusion and it feels completely right, and for the reason Ben A. said -- the details all have some emotional and even moral significance for Kipling. But a lot of novels arouse the idea that Adam Gopnik had when he compared the fact-filled New York Times to the abstact Le Monde: you want to pin a blue ribbon for best research project on them.
[2/28/04 12:03]
Not that I expected anyone to check up on this, but in the interest of accuracy, Chinese Mirch is at 28th and Lex, not 27th. There is however another interesting place at 27th and Lex whose sign says "Indian Non-Vegetarian Food". Again, only in New York, and really only in Curry Hill, where the trend over the last 5 years has been to south-indian kosher restaurants. (Pongal still being the best, in my book.) On a slightly related topic, I managed to use the word "Dravidian" at a party last week. My favorite Dravidian language is Malayalam, for obvious reasons, although I'm now told that it's not palindromic in its native script, since it has two different characters that get mapped to "L" in English. [2/26/04 18:24]
This May Explain My Anglophilia

Yankess as the
American Way [2/26/04 17:36]
Today Dao and I got taken to lunch by our old boss from Concrete Media -- to Bar 89, which virtually invented the destination bathroom. Sadly, I didn't have to go. [2/26/04 16:22]
Red Lamp(tm) By Halliburton

DOug, Doug, Doug... didn't you listen to the speakers at our six Harvard orientation sessions about sexual violence? Rape is about power and control, not about sex! Oh, wait, I recall that perhaps you weren't listening, and in fact may have skipped out on these crucial bits of education entirely! Geez, next thing you are going to tell me is that anorexia is about food!

To be honest, I am surprised to hear 116 rapes in 18 months referred to as a "crisis." Isn't it true -- i mean, they told us at orientation -- that 1 out of 2 (or was it 2 out of 1) women becomes a victim of rape. Only 116 rapes out of an active service population of hundreds of thousands, why that sounds like practically model behavior!

Seriously, either the NYT needs to start questioning activists' bogus rape statistics or it should print a correction and commend the Army for an admiral job of keeping rape at much lower levels than prevail in society at large. I am inclined to believe that accomodation to reality demands the former rather than the latter...

If it comes to encouraging brothels in zones of U.S. military presence, I say don't leave it to the government. Nor leave it to Halliburton. Give space for local entrepreneurship and initiative to thrive! Brothels are an excellent small business opportunity in the sorts of places that are not conducive to other kinds of economic activity. Capital requirements are low, a must in areas where financial intermediation is likely to be rudimentary and savings scarce. Brothels encourage women to enter the workforce -- and Arab societies, like many primitive societies in which the U.S. military is likely to find itself, suffer from low female labor force participation. The sex trade fosters a deepening and broadening of relationships between the local population and our military. Now, if the U.S. government ran the brothels, the only relationships the soldiers would build would be with unionized, federalized sex workers shipped in from stateside. And if Halliburton took charge, the company would probably scour the globe for the lowest-cost, most efficient workers (India? China?). Small business is the basic building block of civil society. We shall do a grave disservice to the locals and retard the development of the very society we aim to help if we crowd locals out of the brothel business.
[2/26/04 15:02]
Incomprehensible Business Models

The continuous sale model has also found an enthusiatic adoption among purveyors of pianos. Can you remember a continuous 14-day period during which WQXR did not advertise for a huge, once-in-a-lifetime closeout sale at "Piano, Piano."? I remember a similar relationship between the West Coast equivalent store and KKGO. What's the commonality? Simple: these purchases a person may make only once or twice in a lifetime. The rest of the time, he ignores the rug and piano trade. When one decides to buy a piano, one focuses and discovers to one's glee that they just so happen to be on sale right now!
[2/26/04 11:50]
Your comment, Doug, recalls to mind a great Ben extrapolating from the number of carpet stores claiming "liquidation of a 50 year carpet stock, going out of business sales" in the New York Times to a pre-war Manhattan sustained entirely by the rug trade.

Also, do you still have your great moral philosophy-mocking paper?
[2/26/04 11:23]
More Home Economics If you want another home-related economic conundrum to chew on, try the New York home carpeting trade. We looked for a few weeks for a rug for our apartment before realizing that every store marks down every rug between 50 and 70 percent every day. I think only my aesthetic fastidiousness and/or stinginess let me in on this dishonesty. If I had just paid $2K for a rug after a day or two of searching (instead of waiting to find one on E-bay for about an order of magnitude less) I wouldn't have seen the succession of themed sales at, for example, Safavieh. Keep an eye out if you get the NY Times -- there's almost always a full-page ad for Safavieh's "Holiday Sale", "End-of-fiscal year sale", "President's Day sale", and now the "2004 winter sale event" or something. Stay tuned for the "Lent sale", "Purim sale", and "National Poison Prevention Week sale".

Probably it's a case of inflation via competition. Company A offers 20% off every day (by raising its nominal prices). Company B hits back with 30% off every day (the same way). This goes on until the nominal prices are ludicrous and the standard "discount" is 60%. Similar phenomena: grade inflation ("I'll get good evaluations and avoid angry kids' parents and lawyers if I just hand out A's"), women's wear size deflation ("I'll shop at Boutique Y because I'm flattered to think I'm a size negative-four"), cruise ship ratings (I recently saw an ad for one that billed itself as "the world's only six-star cruise ship"), pinball scores. In the case of pinball scores, which seem routinely to reach the billions and trillions (unless I'm playing), I've often wondered why the industry, afraid of an imminent need to widen its consoles to allow more digits, doesn't move to logarithmic scoring. You renormalize to an earlier era's scores (5 points for this bumper, 10 points for that) but paint a little "2" at the lower left of the score display. That way you can say "Cool -- I got 2 to the 50 points -- more than a quadrillion!"

Yet More Intimate Economics. The NY Times leads with the widespread rape charges in the US military: a horrible situation that has to be stopped. How, though? It makes you reconsider the now frowned-upon but previously ubiquitous practice of armies providing their soldiers with brothels. This raises a serious moral question: should the government set these up directly, or give Halliburton a contract?
[2/26/04 11:06]



Ben A. Ben H. Doug Earlier